The Comic Toolbox, by John Vorhaus

The Comic Toolbox

I am seriously unfunny. I mean, I enjoy a good joke or comedy routine as much as the next person, but fail when it comes to producing one. It’s embarrassing. I only know one joke, well, actually two but the second one is so silly it doesn’t really count: What’s yellow and not a banana? Oh, wait, it is a banana. Silly.

The only person I’ve met who was more humor-impaired than I is my friend, John. He and I were both technical trainers and decided to spice up our dry material with some jokes. I tried to memorise a few with lukewarm results. But John wrote out jokes on index cards and kept a handful in his shirt pocket. When things seemed slow in the classroom, he’d say, “Must be time for a joke.” He’d pull out his cards and leaf through them. Brilliant! The joke itself wasn’t half as funny as the whole performance of selecting it.

I don’t have any ambitions to write for a sitcom or do standup, but I would like to add more humor to my fiction and poetry. I wanted to improve my comic-relief characters. Plus, I’ve been so impressed by Shirley J. Brewer’s use of humor in her poetry that I want to experiment in that vein. But how?

What a joy and relief, then, to stumble on John Vorhaus’s book! It is just what I needed.

He takes a two-pronged approach. The first prong is to create a safe zone. He uses several techniques to ratchet down the fear of failure. One that is most helpful for me is that he breaks each exercise down into progressively more specific questions. Instead of wracking your brain trying to think of something funny to say, you are given a discreet task or question to answer, with plenty of examples. And Vorhaus himself is seriously funny; it’s hard to feel intimidated when you’re snorting with laughter.

The second prong consists of the tools implied by the title. I love tools. I was surprised to discover that what makes a joke work is essentially what makes a story work. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because of course a joke is a story. Vorhaus isolates the factors that make it funny. Using movies and television shows as case studies, he demonstrates each tool in action.

There must be a hundred tools here. The one I liked best was how to create a comic character. Amid discussion and illustrations, he boils the technique down to five elements. Boom! One minute and I had the bare bones of a comic character. Thirty seconds and I had another. Even better, I could see the gaping holes I’d left in the comic characters in my work-in-progress.

There are sections on parody and satire, situation comedy and sketches, but always tools and more tools. This book delivers on its promise: the subtitle is How to Be Funny Even If You’re Not. Finally there is hope for me! I can see that this is a book I will refer to again and again.

Have you ever wanted to write comedy? What are your favorite comic movies or shows? Who is your favorite comedian?

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore


I was so happy to receive this book as a present. I enjoyed Wonder Woman comics as a girl, but it wasn’t until I was a frantic single mother, working two and sometimes three jobs, trying to keep up the house and be a good parent to two sensitive and feisty boys and shuttle them to Little League and Scouts and choir, that she began to haunt my imagination.

It started with a cartoon. I don’t still have it, so I don’t know who drew it and may be getting the details wrong, but it showed an overweight, middle-aged woman, fag hanging from a corner of her mouth, stirring (I think) one of a number of pots on the stove while sorting some rambunctious children. And she was dressed in a Wonder Woman costume, tiara and all. It captured my frustration but also my resolve. I was going to make this insane life work.

This was around the time that I was trying to find someone to take over my responsibilities at home while I went on a business trip for three weeks. Drawing up the necessary schedule, I realised with a shock that no one would want to live my life, not even for a few weeks.

Wonder Woman to the rescue, indeed.

So I was excited to learn the backstory of the comic, so to speak. I was not prepared for the strip’s ties to feminism in the decades before I was born. Nor was I prepared for the weirdness of its author.

William Moulton Marston, Harvard graduate and psychologist, grew up as a pampered prince in a family full of women and encountered feminism and suffragette movement as a young man. His wife, Sadie Holloway, a graduate of Mount Holyoke, was also apparently committed to women’s rights. However, she did—under protest—allow Marston to change her name to Betty because he didn’t like the name Sadie.

And that is the thin part of the wedge that gradually pries the family away from a traditional American family life, this seemingly irrational acquiescence to Marston’s whims. Marston, who believed a matriarchy was the ideal structure for society, actually lived like a storybook pasha. Even more surprising was that he didn’t hesitate to feature his kinks in the comic strips he wrote.

The delight of the book for me is the way Lepore juxtaposes panels from the strips with photographs and anecdotes, binding the real lives she is describing to the stories that made their way into comic books and newspapers. There is much here as well about American culture: the rise of comics, the emergence of psychological testing, the beginnings of censorship. It is all delivered in pleasing prose and backed by extensive endnotes.

As with so many of the achievements of the early twentieth-century attributed solely to men, one can’t help wondering how much of a role the women in his life actually played in the creation of this popular comic. These women included not just his wife, but also Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, whom Marston met in 1918 while in the Army, and Olive Byrne, niece of Margaret Sanger and one of his students. Lepore finds evidence of collaboration in both his psychological works and the comics, though the extent of the women’s input in the latter is unclear.

Lepore also describes Wonder Woman as a link between the first and second waves of the feminist movement in the U.S., between the suffragettes of the early twentieth-century and the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s, who concentrated on the connection between cultural and political inequalities. “Link” seems overstated to me, but the comic certainly kept alive the idea that a woman could take an active role in what was then still a man’s world. The factual stories about Wonder Women of History inserted into the comic books in the 1940s prefigured women’s history.

After reading this book, I find myself even more committed to my invisible friend. I know a superhero will not swoop in and save me. But even my distaste for her creator cannot make me give up Wonder Woman, my first role model. She helped me believe in my capacity for physical strength in the face of everything in my world telling me I was weak. She helped give me the confidence to work in what was then a male-dominated industry. Wonder Woman never modeled a domestic life, but for that I had that cartoon of a sloppy, disorganised Wonder Woman powering through in spite of everything.

What role model did you encounter in your youth who still influences you today?

On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-Rae Lee

full sea

I cannot imagine a more appropriate time to read Lee’s latest novel. Set in a future version of Baltimore, called B-Mor, it represents a logical outcome of the tensions currently tearing the city apart. We have the story of the B-Mor community and we have the story of one young woman, Fan, who leaves B-Mor in search of her boyfriend, Reg, who has disappeared, apparently removed by the powers that be for their own purposes.

A hundred years before the story begins an entire village was brought from New China to populate the desolate city, abandoned by all except a few “pockets of residents on the outskirts of what is now the heart of B-Mor, these descendants of nineteenth-century African slaves and twentieth-century laborers from Central America and even bands of twenty-first-century urban-nostalgics. . .”

B-Mor is now one of a string of settlements privately owned and run for profit. The B-Mor population grows vegetables and fish under strict controls, as their lives are lived under strict controls, where spitting in public is a major crime. The food they produce goes to the people who live in Charter villages. As in today’s Charter schools, residents are protected from the sordid reality of the common herd, insulated by their extreme wealth. Outside of the settlements and the Charter villages lie the Counties, a wild and dangerous place with no law or government protection.

I had to ask myself how different this was from today’s society, where first-world people like me often live off products produced under dire conditions in third-world countries, when much of government seems to abdicate its responsibility to, er, govern instead of just lining their own pockets.

The complacency of the people in B-Mor amused me, because Baltimore today is known for neighborhoods where people have lived their whole lives.

Stability is all here in B-Mor; it’s what we ultimately produce, day by night by day, both what we grow for consumption and how we are organized in neighborhood teams, the bonds of blood or sexual love relied upon equally to support out constitution. In this difficult era the most valuable commodity is the unfailing turn of the hours and how they retrieve for us the known harbor of yesterday . . .

Much of the novel is written in this first person plural point of view (we, us). For much of the book, chapters alternate between this collective voice and a more traditional telling of Fan’s adventures. Later the two become more intertwined. The collective voice holds the reader at a distance, giving us no assurance that the story told us about Fan is anything more than rumor and urban myth.

Both Fan and Reg are described as innocent. But what they really are is independent, especially Fan. She is able to walk away from the stable collective of family and work and neighborhood, able even to set off into the wild Counties, without a backward look. As one person in my book club noted, Fan’s individualism is set against her hometown’s collective uniformity, just as the U.S. culture is set against China’s. Some of us fear that just such a culture war is brewing.

How likely is the future described in Lee’s book? Very, I would say, if we continue down our current path. Cities like Baltimore and Detroit will become even more hollowed out as those who can afford it leave to get away from the crime caused by illegal drugs, in turn caused by the poverty and lack of opportunity for a huge chunk of the population: today’s ever-growing inequality carried to a logical conclusion. This country has been declining since 2000, with jobs lost overseas, financial crises caused by overweening greed on the part of bankers, and revenue-sapping wars fought solely to benefit the wealthy few.

The recent peaceful protests in Baltimore grew out of the inequities and injustices. Yes, there was a little violence initially caused by drunken white baseball fans and blown out of proportion by the media, followed the next day by a scandalous overreaction by the city that dumped hordes of scared teens, unsure of how they would get home, into the waiting arms of equally scared police.

The violent minority has been overwhelmed by the majority of citizens who immediately turned out to clean up and help affected residents and store owners. Citizens marched and congregated in flashpoint areas to maintain calm. Even my local district police captain told us, “A valuable lesson was learned for me – the deterrent from the community appeared to be greater than the deterrent of law enforcement.” Now if he can just make the rest of the police force and the city government understand that, we might see some progress.

Fan’s self-assertion causes a wave of resistance and rebellion among the people she left behind. Does it last or does everyone sink back into complacency? What will happen in Baltimore and other struggling communities? Will complacency win out or will the demand for change continue?

The Tender Bar, by J. R. Moehringer

tender bar

A few years ago, I reviewed Townie, a memoir by Andre Dubus III, in which I speculated that the larger theme justifying the memoir’s publication might be issue of disappearing fathers and abandoned boys. As I mentioned there and discuss in any memoir class I teach, there are plenty of reasons to write a memoir, but only a few that justify publishing one. Unless you are a celebrity, who outside of your circle of friends and family would actually care about your experiences? One reason they might care is if the quality of the writing is excellent, such as in Angela’s Ashes or The Glass Castle. A second is if your memoir addresses some larger theme of interest to society.

Moehringer’s memoir is certainly well written. As a journalist, Moehringer knows how to keep his prose compact while creating the most impact. He has an interesting story to tell and doesn’t need any fancy flourishes to dress it up. Here’s a description of the house where he and his mother—deserted by his father and unable to afford their own place—take refuge:

The worst thing about life at Grandpa’s house was the noise, a round-the-clock din of cursing and crying and fighting, and Uncle Charlie bellowing that he was trying to sleep and Aunt Ruth screaming at her six kids in the nerve-shredding key of a seagull. Just beneath this cacophony was a steady percussion, faint at first, louder as you became aware of it, like the heartbeat deep inside the House of Usher. In the House of Grandpa the heartbeat was supplied by the screen door opening and closing all day long as people came and went . . .

Obviously, there’s a lot of humor here, too, to temper the sadness. Much of it is directed at himself, his mistakes, his awkwardness, but also the humorous approach to life that he learns from the men at Dickens, the local bar, where his Uncle Charlie is a bartender. When he first sees them en masse, they are playing softball as the sun sets. At first he sees the lumbering, overweight men as cartoon characters: “they looked like Blutos and Popeyes and steroidal Elmer Fudds,” but then he realises that they are all laughing, “they couldn’t stop laughing”. When he asks his mother why they are so happy, she tells him: “‘Beer.’”

Yet as we get to know them, each one stands out in brilliant eccentricity coupled with a deep, if flawed, humanity. Moehringer treats them with the tender dignity that Anne Tyler so reliably employs with her misfits and oddballs.

There is sadness, of course, especially related to his larger theme of the plight of a fatherless boy in U.S. society. There are the lonely dreams of a boy listening to his DJ father, a man he doesn’t recall ever seeing so he calls him The Voice. There is the desire to help his struggling mother, forced time after time to return to the house of her father, a house that is falling down filled with furniture held together with duct tape, because he refuses to allow anything to be fixed. Having given up working as soon as he accumulated enough money to provide a subsistence income, Grandpa is a curmudgeon and a bully and possibly insane. There is the self-loathing when Moehringer is unable to provide for his mother after all. However, there is no taint of self-pity here, just as there is no sentimentality in his description of the men at the bar.

And there is the comfort and safety of the bar and the men in it, a haven that we who know better fear will become a trap for the boy who hangs out there, jotting down the funny stories and witticisms on bar napkins. There is the bookstore where Moehringer gets a job at 13 when he discovers the two managers hiding in the back room reading, avoiding customers.

As a single mother, I am well aware of the pitfalls facing fatherless boys, as well as of the resiliency of the boys themselves and their ability to find surrogate fathers. It never occurred to me to look for male role models for my sons in a bar, but I would have been honored to have this collection of men help my boys learn how to be men. Moehringer’s great achievement is making these men with their beer bellies and balding heads, their drinking and gambling, their apparent aimlessness (beyond getting drunk and having a good time) into heroes.

What book have you read recently with an unexpected hero?