This is how you do it

Back in February, I gave an in-progress review of “meh” to Laugh Lines: Conversations with Comedians by Corey Andrew. Nothing in the remainder of the book improved my opinion of it any.

And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on their Craft by Mike Sacks is better. Much, much, much better. Sacks is a far better interviewer, showcasing the comedy talent to whom he’s speaking rather than showing off and injecting himself into subject matter.

Sacks’s interview subjects run the gamut from Marshall Brickman, Larry Gelbart and Dick Cavett to Bob Odenkirk, David Sedaris and Robert Smigel. He has a great interview with Dave Barry – which leaves me jealous, because the one time I got to interview Dave, for the late and lamented Wittenburg Door, I was starstruck, and too timid to push a couple of topics essential to the point of the interview. I embarrassed myself and produced a pretty pathetic interview, one of the great regrets of my writing career.

In between the formal interviews, Sacks puts in quotes, anecdotes or lists of writing tips.

Sacks’s book makes me want to start writing something – and I’m trying to figure out a good place to start.

Write More Good

In the newspaper business, we use a reference called the The Associated Press Stylebook for a wide variety of questions about newspaper style – what to capitalize (and what not to), whether you have to say Federal Bureau of Investigation or can get by with saying FBI, and so on.

A few years ago, some very funny writers got together, calling themselves the Bureau Chiefs, and created a very funny twitter feed called FakeAPStylebook, giving hilariously bad answers to questions of style and usage.

The Twitter feed became popular even with people who’d never seen or picked up an actual AP Stylebook. It led to a book deal – but rather than just collate their Tweets, as some have done, the Bureau Chiefs wrote new material (although I think they worked a few of the original jokes in from time to time), crafting a faux reference book that parodies everything from the AP Stylebook to Strunk and White.

That book is Write More Good: An Absolutely Phony Guide. Now, parodies of advice for writers are not new; the late Michael O’Donoghue, one of the original “Saturday Night Live” writers (he appeared opposite Belushi in the show’s very first cold open) crafted this little gem, which I have in an anthology somewhere. But “Write More Good” is just terrific. I do need to alert some of my readers that there’s Strong Language.

By the way, I’ve had my Kindle about six weeks and this is actually the first book for which I’ve paid full price – sort of. Tuesday’s Kindle “special offer” was a $10 Amazon gift card for $5. I bought the gift card and ended up using it on “Write More Good.” So as far as the publisher is concerned, I paid full price.

I’ve been in the middle of a book on the history of Irish Americans. It’s a good book, but one day when I had only a few minutes to read I thought I’d dip into “Write More Good.” I ended up reading all of “Write More Good,” and it’s only tonight that I can go back to the history book.

One out of three ain’t bad

My Kindle consumption so far has been bargain-priced – I’m signed up with a couple of web sites that publicize Amazon’s daily deals (free or reduced-price), and there are quite a few of them. A lot tend to be fiction, however; I wish there were more non-fiction books in the bargain bin. But beggars can’t be choosers!

Anyway, this weekend I finished a great non-fiction book that I picked up for a fraction of its normal price: The Siege of Washington : The Untold Story of the Twelve Days That Shook the Union by brothers John and Charles Lockwood. This is detailed and well-written history but as colorful and readable as the best fiction. It’s the story of the days immediately following the fall of Fort Sumter. Both the North and the South were still marshaling their forces, but Washington, D.C. — completely surrounded by the slave states of Virginia and Maryland — was at grave risk of attack, and its population still included many Confederate sympathizers who would have welcomed such an action.

President Lincoln and General Winfield Scott, then the respected elder statesman of the U.S. military, made plans to protect the city while waiting for reinforcements to arrive from the north. If the Confederacy had taken the opportunity to attack, it could likely have taken Washington with relative ease, captured Lincoln and changed the outcome of history.

A fascinating story, well-told.

I wish I could praise the other books I’ve dipped into this weekend. I picked up First World Problems: 101 Reasons Why The Terrorists Hate Us fairly early on, and I’ve been  looking at it from time to time in between other books. (One of the nice things about an e-reader is that you can easily switch back and forth – heavy reading when you have the time, short essays when you have a little time to kill.) I got the book for free, and in retrospect I’m glad I didn’t pay for it.

It’s a series of curmudgeonly complaints about modern life, with the winking acknowledgement of the title that they’re not really all that big a deal in the larger scheme of things. Individually, they’re sort of clever, but they’re basically all the same thing, delivered in the same tone, and they get monotonous pretty quickly. They’re divided into thematic sections, such as “food,” which is a mistake because it only emphasized the repetition. I finally gave up today and moved the book, unfinished, into a folder and off my home screen. I may give it a second chance one of these days.

I had higher hopes for Laugh Lines: Conversations with Comedians, by Corey Andrew, and while I haven’t  yet given up on it I’ve already started skipping around.

The book is a collection of interviews, in Q&A format, with a variety of comics and comic actors, from Dane Cook to Tim Conway, Lily Tomlin to Lisa Lampinelli. It got off on a bad foot with the log-rolling foreword by comic Kathleen Madigan, who grouses about what lousy questions she gets from reporters while promoting her stand-up appearances – and she went to journalism school, so she knows a bad interview when she’s part of one. By contrast, she raves about how great an interviewer Andrew is. Well, her main complaint about the other interviewers is that they aren’t familiar with her oeuvre and therefore ask stupid, uninformed questions. Now, as a reporter, I hate being unprepared for an interview, and there are times when, as a generalist who has to cover a wide variety of topics, I’m self-conscious about doing something for which I feel unprepared. But Madigan comes off more as if she’s offended from an egotistical standpoint, hurt that the reporters aren’t immediately familiar with her and her friends.

Anyway, she sets Corey Andrew up as a keen, prepared and insightful interviewer.


He’s not bad, I suppose, but there’s nothing particularly keen or insightful about his questions, and he sometimes tries too hard his own cleverness into the proceedings. Fortunately, he’s chosen some good subjects – which is why I haven’t given up on the book yet. But “Laugh Lines” is another book I’m kind of glad I didn’t pay for.


This recipe is a weiner

One of the great things about Food Network and Cooking Channel is that they’re very good about putting the recipes from all their shows online, where they’re immediately searchable. The only exceptions are a few shows produced by outside companies that place some sort of restrictions on how many recipes can be published online, or on how long they can be left online.

This thoroughness, however, has sometimes been carried to the extreme. For example, a TV chef might talk about all of the elements of a meal, or about a day’s worth of food and snacks, and in the course of that discussion the chef might mention something which is not so much a recipe as a way of serving an already-prepared product. In some cases, somewhat absurdly, Food Network has posted such non-recipes online alongside all of the real recipes from the episode in question.

For several weeks now, the web site Food Network Humor — dedicated to mocking all things Food Network — has been calling attention to “Ridiculous Food Network Recipes” for things such as dark chocolate. The readers of the humor site, alerted to the absurd non-recipe, head on over to the official recipe page and leave snarky comments about it.

Someone at Food Network is apparently a little thin-skinned about this, apparently, because whenever it happens the non-recipe and the snarky comments get taken down and that URL is redirected to some other page on the site — another recipe by the same chef, or what have you.

The latest such fiasco: Michael Chiarello’s hot dog recipe. As I write this, it’s still up at the Food Network site, but who knows how long it will last.

No, naughty moose!

Viewers of “Mad Men” have often noted that the preview of next week’s episode is intentionally vague, often even misleading, and edited in a very unique pace and rhythm.

“On The Next Mad Men” is a blog where episodes of many other TV series are given this treatment, just for laughs and to see what it would look like. “Fawlty Towers,” f’rinstance:


Big, big hat tip to the Mental_Floss magazine blog.

Folk snacks

Yesterday, I bought the Kroger store-brand equivalent of Triscuit crackers, and the brand name is “Weavers.”

Having just watched a documentary on Pete Seeger a few weeks back, several slogans for this product immediately came to mind:

  • “Weavers: Wasn’t that a cracker?”
  • “This cracker surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
  • “Are you now, or have you ever been, a cholesterol-free food?”
  • “Here’s one snack food too tasty to blacklist.”