Some day, I like to think, I will write Important Books¹. My Important Books probably won’t spark revolutions, or shine the light of justice on the unseen foundational weaknesses of the free market, or inspire a united industrial front against global warming, but they will capture, completely and for all time, the frailties and follies of the human condition. Yes, people will say after reading them, yes, this is exactly what this means. My God! How could one Australian of above average height have grasped – and so easily – the deeper meaning of the subtle movements of life?
Also, the books will sell well, and I will be very rich.
At this point the apologetic emails from women will start to trickle in, becoming a flood when I take my band on the road (somehow, in this avalanche of success, I have learned how to play guitar. And write music. And gotten myself a band. Probably in the space of one weekend).
For me, the critical response will be the most enjoyable element of my literary triumph, as academics from around the world and keen observers of the zeitgeist alike write intelligent and considered columns about the subtextual meanings of my work². They will marvel at its intricacy, they will point to the synergies that run between my novels, my short stories, and my variety show, and they will be jealous of my bank balance and A-list parties.
No matter how collegiate or New York-abiding they may be, they will repeat the same refrain: ‘Amazing! Why, not long ago, this author, this well-dressed stallion of a man, this flying king of us all, was writing pieces about how Hollywood actress Clea DuVall had super-powers and continually refused to sleep with him!’
And in response I will say ‘Fuck you, publishing industry. Give humour writers a bigger shelf in bookstores, and then maybe I’ll let you into my stylish bar.’³ (I also own a bar. While I’m going for broke here, in the future, I’ve also found true love, or, as is more likely going to be the case, it has found me. Jesus. I make such a terrible boyfriend.)
Because I like to write humour (whether the end result is funny or not is something that’s up to the taste of the audience, and by realising that, I can neatly get myself out of trying very hard, or, really, at all). I enjoy making up fictitious animals with vaguely threatening-sounding names (the Himalayan strangler tuna was one of mine). I delight in coming up with names for new illicit substances (the formula I use here is to just pick an existing country and a colour and combine them. Bolivian Red, Peruvian Gold, Yugoslavian Blue… the only time I have deviated from this approach is with the substance ‘Russian whomping sauce’, mainly because I liked the sound of it). Sometimes I invent new and terrifying countries, and, let me tell you, if you ever wake up to find yourself under a signpost that says West Namaliba, make escape your number one priority.
I got into writing humour when a friend, years ago, loaned me a copy of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I turned to the table of contents and saw pieces like I Have Slept With Five Hundred Women, I Am Friends With A Working-Class Black Woman, and Why Am I So Handsome? I knew I was onto a winner.
‘I felt vaguely ill, like the time my ex-girlfriend’s brother was brutally murdered by a sadistic graduate student at Yale. But as then, the feeling quickly passed, and I began to think about my own unhappiness.’
–Introduction to the New Slavery, Neal Pollack
From there I found my way to Pollack’s website, which in turn led to my discovery of the sadly gone and much-lamented Haypenny, the humour site which in turn introduced me to the likes of Matt Tobey, Kittenpants (whose line about the correlation between the rising crime rate in her underpants and the recent influx of illegal immigrants to the same place is, hands down, one of the funniest things I’ve ever read), Gladstone, Ian Carey, G. Xavier Robillard, Christopher Monks, and Jason Roeder.
And Christ, how I hate them all, those talented sons of bitches.
‘How about a cheque for some sex that I can cash at the First National Bank of Your Underpants?’
–Superpowers and How I’ve Used them to Get Sex, Matt Tobey
How can I not be envious of that?
From Haypenny I graduated to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Cracked.com, Yankee Pot Roast… really, this could have kept going forever. But I found some inspiration in these guys. I started writing some of my own humour fiction, and, to my surprise, found myself enjoying it.
Admittedly, the early attempts weren’t very good. Still. It was fun.
Somewhere along the line I stumbled across Dave Barry and David Sedaris. Briefly, I contemplated changing my name to Dave.
‘The most precious gift that a parent can give to a child – more precious than material things such as diamonds, or gold, or a big mansion – is a big mansion filled with diamonds and gold.’
-Dave Barry’s Money Secrets, Dave Barry
For the record, if you ever write to Dave Barry and ask to become his apprentice, his secretary will respond firmly, but politely, in the negative. By contrast, you won’t get an answer from Chris Carter’s representation at all, even if you include a wad of Monopoly money and a pack of Tim-Tams along with a note stating ‘There’s plenty more where that came from.’
Bookstores were a big help. Not only in widening my reading material, but also in making me think that my dreams of fabulous riches⁴ and humour-publishing success weren’t mutually exclusive. That idea got a big boost when I, out of nowhere, found Fierce Pajamas, an anthology from The New Yorker, in a second-hand bookstore. Enter James Thurber, E.B. White, Steve Martin.
‘Lying here in these fierce pajamas, I dream of the Harper’s Bazaar world, the vogue life; dream of being a part of it. In fancy I am in Mrs. Cecil Baker’s pine-panelled drawing room. It is dusk. (It is almost always dusk in the fashion magazines.)’
–Fierce Pajamas, E.B. White
Don’t get me wrong. I, like many other people, enjoy laughter. And I like the written form of humour (I’m not going to go into the science of it too much, as, to quote White again, from Some Remarks on Humor, ‘Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.’ Although I will deviate from my self-proclaimed opacity to say that a very-well-placed profanity can be just about the funniest thing in the world). I even like the guys who are writing this stuff; I’m in contact with some of them. Luke Rhinehart, who wrote The Dice Man, has become an internet friend. Pollack helped me with a university assignment a few years back, Robillard offered fantastic critique on a manuscript I’m working on (and didn’t even ask for money!), and Gladstone… well, Gladstone just makes fun of me for being Australian.
The only problem is that they’re so damn good at what they do. I mean, I could probably take their skill as some kind of inspiration, but I’m just too in love with my own gnawing and petty small-mindedness. And I’d have to rewrite my revenge list.
Pitching humour writing to agencies and publishing houses, as I’ve found out, is hard work. It’s not impossible, but it’s not the kind of thing they leap at, either. However, as long as I’ve got the deep fires of envy burning in the pit of my stomach, I’ll keep trying.
‘Let me just say this-that with a shovel and a packed lunch, determination, and an up-to-date map of the sewer system, a man can get his hands on a surprisingly large amount of his de facto wife’s car’s gasoline.’
–A Second Letter to Cecilia, Simon Smithson
¹ I’ll write the dick out of them.
² While simultaneously noting I have also single-handedly created a new genre: sub-sub-textuality.
³ But not you, Wyatt Mason. Never you.
⁴ First you get the money. Then you get the power. Then you get Chelsea Handler.