A Q&A with humorist Rachel Klein
Rachel Klein is a humor writer for McSweeney's and an improv actress based in Boston. I tracked her down on Twitter, and she was kind enough to share her thoughts on humor writing, improv, and Selena Gomez. My questions are in bold.
Let's start with your most recent McSweeney's piece, "Discarded Descriptions of Women from my Contemporary Hard-Boiled Detective Novel." Where were you, and what were you doing, when the idea for this piece hit you? Watching a film noir movie? Reading a Dashiell Hammett novel?
The idea sorta marinated through several stages. I'd read an Elmore Leonard novel a few months back, and then my brilliant friend Josh Gondelman tweeted this:
And I told him I was gonna play with the idea of a whole monologue from the point of view of an owl detective, which I did. But I ran out of bird puns pretty quickly, so I set the piece aside. And then I realized in the shower one day (where most of my ideas come to me) that the fun is in the turns of phrases themselves, and coming up with as many different (and ridiculous) ones as I could would be more satisfying than trying to stick with one genre of them. Luckily I had time that very day to sit down and work out a list of descriptions. I started with the "she was hot like..." construction and then just worked my way out from there.
I love the juxtapositions. For example, the word "dame" in the same sentence as CVS Pharmacy. Automatically funny. And then there's the pun "She was the kind of dolphin who didn't give a flip." I notice that that's also your Twitter tagline. I have a feeling you're going to get a lot of mileage out of that one.
Right, the juxtaposition of different genres or "brows" of language is immediately surprising and fun. But then — as with all comedy — it's the specificity that heightens the humor as well. "CVS" rather than just "pharmacy," "Hummel figurine" rather than "porcelain figurine."
That "dolphin that didn't give a flip" one employs the "rule of three," where a list of three things is given where the third is the most ridiculous or surprising. You see it employed a lot in humor writing. You can see "rules of three" all over this piece.
You also do improv. What kinds of comedic techniques work in writing, but not improv? And vice versa?
The general principles of comedy remain the same between written and improv — for example, specificity and the "rule of three" are things that work in real time, as well. What doesn't work in improv is planning out your ideas too much (especially "punchlines") because in the case of improvisation, the humor comes from the collaboration between the two people, and that other person is always going to add to the scene in ways that are fun but also ones that you can't control. So they might add specificity to the scene, but it would be a detail that you would never think of. In improv part of the pleasure is in the performers themselves being surprised by each other and then making everything work as a coherent whole.
That said, I do use a lot of improvisational techniques in my writing. In other words, I sort of improvise with myself — writing a bunch of things down quickly before I have time to think and process and judge myself. I always have the luxury of editing later.
You don't just write and do improv; you also spend a lot of time reflecting on these activities. In one of your blog posts, you tell the story of the time your daughter, then 2 years old, made you stop in a bad section of town because she was having a bathroom emergency. Then she said it was just a joke. So you had to explain the difference between a lie and a joke. That's pretty high concept. When does a joke become a lie, or a lie become a joke?
Well, after writing that piece I think what I came to was the realization that both lies and jokes have this similar structure of a core of truth wrapped in a delivery system of imagination. Just as with a good joke, a good lie is one that in some really essential ways rings true — it could be true, or we want it to be true, etc.
With my daughter I decided to explain the line between funny and deceitful as the one where one crosses from amusing the other person to hurting them. I think that applies with jokes, too, and might be a pretty easy rule of thumb for dealing with some of the hot button issues around controversial jokes, too. In the end, is the joke lifting us up or knocking us down? In my mind comedy should always be a force for good, which doesn't have to mean it's always pretty or palatable, but it shouldn't be downright exploitative or mean.
In a movie based on that concept of "what's the difference between a joke and a lie," who should star, and who should direct?
Let's get a young comedic actress on this. Selena Gomez or something. You might scoff, but she was great on The Wizards of Waverly Place, which was a preposterous show that she made work somewhat with her charm and comedic timing. It could be her breakthrough role. Young girl living in the big city. Maybe it starts with her lying on her resume and then HIJINX ENSUES. Put the Coen Brothers on it. They haven't done a comedy in a while.