My guest today is John Warner, editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, a man who once took a chance on a young nobody with a glint in his eye who strode into John’s office one summer afternoon wearing only a jaunty cap plumed with cock’s feathers. That young nobody was…Jonathan Ames. Later, Warner also let me write for the Tendency.
John Warner writes fiction, humor, and non-fiction and is the author of Fondling Your Muse: A Book of Advice from a Published Author to a Writerly Aspirant, a Hands-On Guide to Writing Your Very Own New York Times Bestseller, and he co-authored My First Presidentiary: A Scrapbook of George W. Bush, a Washington Post #1 Paperback Bestseller. John also has his own humor imprint at Writer’s Digest Books and teaches at Clemson University.
What’s so funny, Dude?
The look on my dog’s face when he farts. He’s only about six months old, and every time he does it, it’s totally confusing to him. For a while he was distressed, but now he’s mostly curious. We might need to try a different food.
When you were growing up, were you that kid snickering in the back of the classroom? I imagine you as a good student, for some reason.
If I was snickering, it was to myself. I was no class clown, was fairly shy and was indeed a good student, mostly well-behaved, certainly to most adults. (Not always with my parents.) I’ve always had a contrary streak, but I’ve also always been a battle-picker. While I’ve found a lot of stuff worthy of ridicule, I usually know when it is or isn’t worthwhile or productive to make waves. Also, I had a fondness for paste.
And isn’t it true you had way too idyllic a childhood to be filled with the savage rage of a humorist?
If uneventful equals “idyllic,” then bingo. I grew up where the great films of the John Hughes oeuvre were filmed. ( Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was shot partially at my high school during my freshman year.) Just like the people in Hughes’ movies, my upbringing was upper-middle class, white, and included a series of innocent capers with my hot girlfriend and my frustrated best friend in his father’s Ferrari.
I’m not sure I’m constitutionally capable of “savage rage.” The closest I ever came was with a representative from American Home Shield (a home warranty company) who was denying our claim for a busted heat pump on the grounds of improper maintenance, when we’d had possession of the house for six hours. I might have threatened to drive to Iowa and exact some sort of revenge involving several pounds of flesh. Other than that, rage, no.
Where did you go to college? What did you intend to do with your life?
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I tried six different majors (political science, history, pre-journalism, communication, art history, English literature) before settling on rhetoric, without ever having taken an actual rhetoric class or even being sure what the word meant. My dad picked it out of the undergraduate handbook during a visit, possibly envisioning it as good training for a future lawyer (the family business, if you will). Instead, I focused on creative writing classes, where you get to make up stuff with only passing resemblance to reality. (Come to think of it, that was better training for a legal career than I ever realized….)
I had no idea what I should do with my life, other than figure out a way to support myself. I suppose I really was thinking about law school, though I’m pretty sure I had no specific interest. I was playing it one phase at a time.
I believe after graduation you became a market researcher. Tell us about that?
Actually, after undergrad I was a paralegal at a large law firm in Chicago, Kirkland & Ellis, where a pre-Starr Report Kenneth Starr was a partner. This was a temporizing move, a chance to see if being a lawyer was really a viable option. Turned out it wasn’t. My first choice to get out of there was to land a spot on the then-hip (new) reality show The Real World. (I applied for the San Francisco cast). When that didn’t work out, I went to graduate school for creative writing.
Marketing research came after grad school. I was incredibly lucky to get the job, essentially starting in the typing pool and moving up quickly to supervise and conduct pretty large projects. The work was quite interesting from an intellectual standpoint—they were basically massive critical-thinking exercises—and the company was a collection of smart and creative people supportive of outside interests like writing and publishing. If I hadn’t had the chance to teach, I’m sure I’d still be there.
How’d you come to teaching?
My wife was and is a veterinarian and wanted to return to school for additional training to become a specialist, which meant an internship and residency, which meant leaving Chicago. Her internship year was at our old alma mater (U of I) and through the graces of an old professor of mine (the great Philip Graham) I landed a job teaching composition there. Her residency was at Virginia Tech, where I also managed to hook on with teaching work, and after my first year there I basically knew that I wouldn’t ever be as happy doing anything else, unless the position of Heidi Klum’s manservant comes open.
Would you get tenure with that? Never mind. Dave Eggers thanks you in the acknowledgments inHeartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. What was your role?
I didn’t do much, and any thanks he gives me is just him being kind. I read the manuscript, just before he turned it in to the publisher, during a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles, and told him it was great that it reflected the world in a way I thought a lot of people would respond to and that it deserved to be successful. Turns out I was a genius (get it?) with that insight.
How did you meet Dave?
My wife and Dave are friends from high school. The three of us went to Illinois at the same time, but I have no memory of meeting him there. The first time we did meet was a couple years afterward, at an apartment party in Chicago on New Years Eve. I walked in just after midnight and found him dancing with my future wife. I may have threatened him (or at least looked at him threateningly). We met again later at the wedding of a mutual friend and got along better that time.
How didMcSweeney’s Internet Tendencyget going, and you become editor?
Dave started it the same time he started the quarterly, just as a way to get interesting stuff in front of readers. In 2003 Dave asked if I could help out and take over the editorship, which I was glad to do and have enjoyed tremendously.
How would you describe the cult of the McSweeney’s empire?
I know the Churm tongue is firmly in cheek with the words “cult” and “empire.” I’m not a huge believer that either exists in regards to McSweeney’s. Among other things, I’m not aware of any empire with only five employees. I think there’s a perception that there’s some kind of in-crowd of hipsters, all hanging out, doing hipster things, but if this is happening, I’ve never been invited.
Dammit! I thought my invitation was just delayed.
I’m sure there’s a certain shared sensibility among the people who write for the publications and the people who read them, but this is true of fans of anything.
How much do you identify with that sensibility?
I’m a reflexive non-joiner, so I get uncomfortable with any kind of cult talk. I certainly don’t want the pressure of being beholden. In my experience, our audience is much wider and deeper than young hipsters, from high school through, dare I say it, the middle-aged and beyond.
Can you describe yourongoing collaborationwith writer Kevin Guilfoile?
My meeting Kevin was fueled by professional jealousy. We were both writing for the McSweeney’s website in its early days, and he’d published something that betrayed he was from Chicago. I’d been under the impression that Chicago was my territory, so I arranged a meet in a public bathroom, where I could rub him out.
I had retrieved the revolver hidden behind the toilet by one of my compatriots, when I discovered Kevin and I liked the same books, bands, and burger joints, and we had a simpatico sense of humor, so I let him live. We were both working office jobs, and it became easy and fun to collaborate via email during lunch or downtime. Around the same time, Modern Humorist came into being, which was a great outlet for the sort of humor we were both drawn to. The combination of time, inclination, and a place to publish (for a little bit of money) fueled our desire to keep doing it.
The association with Modern Humorist led to the book we collaborated on, My First Presidentiary: A Scrapbook by George W. Bush, which was published just after GWB’s first inauguration. Since then we still like to get the band together when we both have time. We’re color commentators for The Morning News Tournament of Books, and we’ll be doing another series of Guilfoile-Warner letters for TMN, where we engage in snarky political punditry.
How long does political humor last after the target of its satire is out of office?
To some degree, forever, since our politicians are entered in our history. The satire has a lot less bite when it’s not current, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still funny.
How did you parlay your work as editor and writer into an imprint at Writer’s Digest?
I’d established a relationship with Writer’s Digest via the publication of my writing advice parody, Fondling Your Muse: Infallible Advice from a Published Author to the Writerly Aspirant. As we edged deeper into our relationship we realized that we had a lot of things in common, most notably our loathing of Sudoku and its encroachment on more and more of the bricks-and-mortar bookstore shelf space. (As a matter of fact, up to 70% of all books published last year were Sudoku. New York Times puzzlemaster Will Shortz made 68 million dollars in royalties on various titles alone.)
In order to strike at the Sudoku metastasis close to its source, we agreed that we should take a shot at humor titles, since they’re often housed near the Games and Puzzles section. Thus, TOW Books was born. Our first two titles, Really, You’ve Done Enough: A Parents’ Guide to Stop Parenting Their Adult Child Who Still Needs Their Money but Not Their Advice (by Sarah Walker) and Oh, the Humanity!: A Gentle Guide to Social Interaction for the Feeble Young Introvert (by Jason Roeder) were recently released. We have five more planned for 2008. After that, who knows, but I hope as long as there is Sudoku, there will be TOW.
So why’s a high-roller like you want to teach?
I’m a Lecturer—full-time adjunct faculty—at Clemson University, a status you, dear Churm, are well familiar with. I teach technical writing, creative writing (fiction), and, this year, a very special class in humor writing, part of the Clemson Creative Inquiry Project. That class has only seven students, hand-selected, and—no bullshit, Churm—someday you will know their names, because they’ll be famous and successful and do all the things that we’re too old and bitter to pursue.
Why teach? I should ask you such things. Teaching, for all my complaints about life as an adjunct, is the best job I’ve ever had. It is consistently challenging and rewarding in ways that are sometimes hard to articulate but are often apparent. I hope I’m able to do it for a long long time, though I wouldn’t mind moving past adjunct status at some point.
How does one teach humor?
Like any form of creative expression, it’s a combination of art and craft, and the teaching part relies heavily on craft. We read a little humor theory (very little), a lot of actual humor, and then we try to see if we can understand what makes something funny, essentially asking, Why do some things make us merely titter while others cause soda to be ejected through our noses?
Then we write and show our work to the rest of the group and see if it “works.” In this way, the course is a lot like a fiction workshop, with the key difference being that the piece of humor almost always benefits from group feedback and collaboration, which is (and you can probably back me up on this) very different from a typical fiction workshop, where the workshopped story, instead of being vivified, is often embalmed.
I prefer to think of our friend Flannery O’Connor: “Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
At some point in just about every meeting of our humor class, we’re all laughing, and that’s really hard to beat. On a typical day we’ll find three or four fresh ideas for humorous pieces. Just today we were discussing the Food Network and one of their star’s liberal use of butter in every recipe. This begat a premise of “The American Heart Association Sends Paula Deen a Cease and Desist Letter.” As you can see, that shit’s going to practically write itself.
If colleges really want to teach critical thinking, they should add humor writing to the core curriculum. Writing something funny requires deep knowledge and engagement, not to mention an understanding of audience and occasion. That rhetorical-occasion triangle we composition teachers draw on the board on the first day of class is constantly in effect when writing humor.
You and I have talked a little about humor in the context of William Keough’sPunchlines: The Violence of American Humor. Is this idea of humor as inherently violent something you believe? And how does that go over with your students?
I’m inclined to say yes, in that humor, as I understand it, almost invariably involves some destruction. Something is being targeted and therefore wounded and sometimes destroyed. For the most part, I try to take aim at targets that deserve wounding or even destroying, like liars or political pundits or objectivists. I think my students in general are probably even gentler in their choice of subject matter than I am, but that’s likely because they’re kinder and better people.
Many of the pieces at the Tendency take different cultural artifacts from pop culture and push them to illogical ends, such as Dan Kennedy’sLinkedIn invitationtoday. Would you call that a violence?
It’s a violence of some sort, but I think there are degrees. A popped balloon and a bomb both make a loud noise, but only one of them is going to cause harm. Humor’s first priority should be to make the audience laugh, so I don’t necessarily view it simply as a vehicle to take the piss out of these worthy targets. Kevin Guilfoile was asked in an interview how he could write both thrillers and humor, and he explained (correctly, I think) that each relies on inducing an involuntary reflex in the audience.
Watch The Daily Show and you’ll see the audience laugh at some jokes and cheer at others. I believe when they laugh they’re experiencing a jolt of recognition, an involuntary twitch that says, “I believe that to be a truth, but I didn’t realize it until this very moment when some part of my lizard brain responded with surprise and delight.” When they cheer, they’re having a pre-conceived notion confirmed. Nothing new is being illuminated, and it’s more likely some bias is simply being reinforced.
And you’ve been booed at a reading for joking against pre-conceived notions?
I once had some anti-Bush material prepared for an audience that had not yet fallen off the president’s bandwagon. I would call the result a disgruntled rustling as opposed to an out-and-out booing.
And is it true you were to be a player on the dream-team panel I proposed for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in a few months?
Our rejection by the AWP Conference is a deep and lasting blow. I’ve often made pronouncements about the pointless and silly nature of such things, the circle-jerk, mutual backslapping of academic conferences (remember that I said I’m a reflexive non-joiner), and even have declared that I never anticipated going to any academic conference of any kind.
That was until I decided I really wanted to go to New York and talk about writing humor. I can’t remember what I was going to say, but I’m sure it would’ve been brilliant.
Indubitably. What are John Warner’s ambitions in life? And why am I writing in third-person?
Mostly, I’d like to see the Cubs win the World Series in my lifetime. After that, I have a dream of playing drums in a band in front of a crowd of at least 500 people that want to hear us play. Since those two things are so unlikely as to be impossible, I’d settle for the ability to teach interesting classes with interesting students and write interesting books of the humorous and fictional kind.
I’d also like to be able to move objects with my mind.
Funny, a student in office hours just told me she could do that. (Really.) The other day, Susan Henderson over atLitParkasked you to name your top five funny novels of all time. How about five sad or angry novels you love?
I could list a lot more than five, but here’s a few: Cruddy, Lynda Barry; A Fan’s Notes, Frederick Exley; Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee; Falling in Place, Ann Beattie; The Road, Cormac McCarthy; Postcards, E. Annie Proulx.
What is the line between sad and funny, and how might a writer roam back and forth over it?
Let’s use Richard Russo as an example, a writer who is widely and justifiably praised for his humor, but also can do sad (or maybe melancholy) with the best of them. To some extent they are inextricable, since to be effective, the emotional temperature has to be raised and lowered. You can’t just make someone laugh and laugh harder and harder with each page. They’d be worn out.
It’s like the opening to Saving Private Ryan, which feels oppressive (intentionally so) the first time you watch it, because of the intensity of the action. At some point, Spielberg had to let us off the hook. Or, as applied to humor, I just re-watched Borat and noticed that after the extended naked-wrestling-69-and-chase scene between Borat and Azmat, the movie goes pretty quiet for a bit. Few laughs, a slack period for literal breath-catching. A period of non-funny paves the way for the funny. In fact, of the top five sad or angry novels listed above, quite a few of them also contain moments of humor, leavening the sadness or anger.
What are you, a closet intellectual? You are, aren’t you? That’s not very funny.
Lest one think I’m an intellectual, closeted or otherwise, here’s what’s currently saved on my TiVo: The Hills, Iron Chef America, Project Runway, Meet the Kardashians. I may be wrong, but I don’t think any of them aired on my local PBS station.
Thanks so much for being with us, John. I really appreciate it. One last question: Who’s your favorite McSweeney’s Internet Tendency writer? I already told Dan Kennedy, Lawrence Weschler, and Brian Beatty that you said it was me. I also might have mentioned it to Philip Graham, Dan Liebert, Jonathan Ames, Roland Thompson, Kevin Dolgin, Ben Cohen, John Moe, and a couple of other people.
As much as I’m loath to admit it, you are indeed my favorite, Churm, because I feel like I had a direct hand in inventing you. Those other guys came to me fully formed, whereas I found you working as a short-order cook in an out-of-the way Waffle House. Where others saw a grease-stained wretch, I saw a man capable of distilling the adjunct lifestyle in pithy but surprisingly weighty prose.
We always lovethe monsterswe create, don’t we?
Write to John Warner firstname.lastname@example.org.