John Swartzwelder: How to Write to Make People Smile and Laugh

From a New Yorker interview by Mike Sacks headlined “John Swartzwelder, Sage of ‘The Simpsons'”:

It’s been nearly twenty years since the reclusive, mysterious, almost mythical comedy writer John Swartzwelder left “The Simpsons,” and yet, to this day, one of the biggest compliments a “Simpsons” writer (or any comedy writer) can receive is to have a joke referred to as “Swartzweldian.” Meaning: A joke that comes out of nowhere. A joke that no one else could have written. A joke that sounds almost as if it were never written, as if it’s always existed….

Swartzwelder has been deemed “one of the greatest comedy minds of all time.” He is famously private and never grants interviews. Few photos of him exist, although he did make some animated cameos as background “Simpsons” characters—once as a patient in a psychiatric hospital….

A few facts seem certain. Swartzwelder was born in 1949 in Seattle. He worked a few years as an advertising copywriter in Chicago. He applied for, but never got, a job at “Late Night,” and had an uncomfortable interview with its host, David Letterman. He worked at “Saturday Night Live,” in 1985, for one particularly rocky season, before being hired four years later at “The Simpsons”….He went on to write fifty-nine episodes, more than any other writer in the show’s history.

Swartzwelder’s specialty on “The Simpsons” was conjuring dark characters from a strange, old America: banjo-playing hobos, cigarette-smoking ventriloquist dummies, nineteenth-century baseball players, rat-tailed carnival children, and pantsless, singing old-timers. After leaving the show, in 2003, Swartzwelder wrote and self-published the first of his thirteen novels, all but two of which feature one of the most wonderful creations in printed comedy: Frank Burly, incompetent private eye and occasional time traveller. None of the books run more than a hundred and sixty pages; all are packed, like a dense star, with more material than seems physically possible.

Recently, I corresponded with Swartzwelder via e-mail. He patiently answered most of the questions I asked him about writing the best jokes in the best episodes of arguably the best comedy of the last century….

When I asked if you would participate, you said that you typically wouldn’t, but that The New Yorker name has always held a certain magic for you. Did you grow up reading the magazine?

The New Yorker was the home of a lot of writers I liked when I was growing up, including my favorite: Robert Benchley. Benchley was wonderfully funny when he felt like it, and he didn’t seem to work at all. All he and his Algonquin Round Table friends seemed to do was play silly games and try to make one another laugh, leaving the party occasionally to type out a Pulitzer Prize-winning story. After ten years of wasting their talent like this, they had all become rich and famous, won every award you can think of, and created The New Yorker. The lesson to me was clear: comedy writing was the way to go. Easiest job on the planet….

Beyond Benchley and the Algonquin crowd, who were some of your comedic influences?

Steve Allen was my first comedy hero. He was effortlessly funny. And while the adults around me were dragging themselves home from work every night, looking like it was the end of the world, Allen could apparently just sleep all week, roll out of bed on Sunday afternoon, wander over to the studio, and kid around with his friends and the audience and maybe Elvis Presley for an hour. Then it was “Good night, everybody,” and back to bed. This made quite an impression on me.

You talk as if you sought out a lazy career, and yet your reputation is of being one of the most productive comedy writers in television history. Was it not so much about an easy career as being in charge of your own destiny?

You’ve put your finger on it. The biggest appeal of writing is that, theoretically, you can do it anywhere. I pictured myself surfing in Australia while working out the plot of my next blockbuster comedy novel, or mailing in my latest joke from the top of a mountain. That’s how it looked to me when I started. In real life, however, most of the time you have to drag yourself into an office and chain yourself to a desk.

What was it about Benchley’s writing that appealed to you? When I read your books, I’m reminded mostly of S. J. Perelman—in both cases there’s a wildness and absurdity, the possibility that a joke can be taken anywhere, even at the expense of plot or realism. And Perelman was so adept at mocking the style of pulp detective writing, something we see in your Frank Burly books.

Perelman was great. Benchley actually wrote the same kind of crazy stuff that Perelman did, and he did it just as well, if not better, but he was much more casual about it. Perelman crammed every joke he could think of into every sentence and polished his pieces relentlessly until they couldn’t get any crazier. There’s a story that a friend called him up while he was writing something, and Perelman said, “I’ll call you back when I finish this sentence.” He called back the next day and said, “O.K., what do you want?”…

Early on, you did ad work for Van Brunt & Co., in Chicago. Was that your first professional writing job?

My first writing job was with Hurvis, Binzer & Churchill, which at the time was the hottest boutique advertising agency in Chicago. I got the job by sending them a parody I had written of one of their campaigns, Screaming Yellow Zonkers. After I got there, I asked the writers next to me what we were supposed to be doing, and they said it had something to do with selling things. “Sounds good,” I said. I managed to pick up enough to get by, but it took a lot of patience on everybody’s part.

A few years later, I went to work at Van Brunt & Co., another award-winning boutique agency. A few years after that, the two agencies merged and promptly went out of business. Not my fault—I was halfway across town when it happened….

What made you want to make the leap to television?

I’d been sending out letters to TV shows, off and on, ever since I got into advertising. I liked the ad business well enough—it beat working—but the TV business sounded like more fun to me. And, of course, it is. Finally, one of the letters I’d sent out paid off. The Letterman show contacted me.

You applied to write for “Late Night with David Letterman,” but not exactly in the traditional way. Jim Downey, a longtime “S.N.L.” writer and an early head writer at “Late Night,” told me that your 1983 submission consisted of just one joke on a three-by-five card, with your name and no other information.

I’m surprised Jim remembers that….I’m surprised even more that he remembers it wrong. I submitted two or three pages of jokes to him, with a cover letter, complete with name, address, and phone number. All this was stuffed into a regular letter-sized envelope, which had the words “Free Jokes Inside!” on the outside. Jim told me later that it was the surprising unprofessionalism of this submission that intrigued him enough to open the letter. And he called me right up….

How did you ultimately get the writing job at “S.N.L.”?

Jim found me in Houston, had me submit some more examples of my work, then brought me to New York and sat me down on a small chair in the middle of Franken and Davis’s office, surrounded by the staff, who asked me trick comedy questions like “How was your flight?” “Fine.” “What do you think of this comedian?” “He’s rotten. Unless you guys like him.”

Then I was taken to meet Lorne Michaels for his seal of approval. The first words Lorne said to me were “How old are you?” I answered, truthfully, “Thirty-six.” Lorne looked stunned, and the other two people in the office, Robert Downey, Jr., and Anthony Michael Hall, who were frisking around playing tag or something, stopped and stared at me. I quickly added, “But I feel younger.” And Lorne said, “No, no, that’s all right. You can be thirty-six.” He looked worried, but apparently not enough to overrule Franken and Davis. So I was hired….

A lot of writers have expressed frustration with “S.N.L.,” whether about the all-night writing sessions, the office politics, or the limited airtime for their ideas. What was your particular experience at the show like?

I liked everything about “S.N.L.” It was a lot of fun for me. The all-night writing sessions were a fun challenge, and the office politics were the best. And I only had to work eighteen weeks that year. Top that…

Did you leave or were you fired after the ’85-’86 “S.N.L.” season?

Technically, neither. My deal was up and, like a lot of other people on the show that year, I simply wasn’t asked back. It’s the same as being fired, but without all the yelling. They did ask me back a couple of years later, though, and I accepted, but the day before I was supposed to fly to New York the Writers Guild went on the longest strike in its history. By the time it finally ended, I had decided to stay in L.A….

It seems that writers for “The Simpsons” were left alone to do what they wanted. There was much more freedom than on other shows. Did you find this to be true?

Yes. Thanks to the deal [executive producer] Jim Brooks had, Fox executives couldn’t meddle in “The Simpsons” in any way, though we did get censor notes. The executives weren’t sent advance copies of the scripts, and they couldn’t attend read-throughs, even though they very much wanted to. All we had to do was please ourselves.

This is a very dangerous way to run a television show, leaving the artists in charge of the art, but it worked out all right in the end. It rained money on the Fox lot for thirty years. There’s a lesson in there somewhere….

How did the writing process work? A writer was assigned an idea, they went off to write the script, and then it was collectively rewritten?

This is the way we did it when I was there. A writer is assigned a story, often a story he originally came up with himself, though not always. Two days are spent in the writers’ room, with everyone helping flesh out the story, adding jokes, and so on. Then the writer writes an outline. Then everybody gets back in the room and pitches more changes, additions, and jokes. The writer writes the first draft, and then it’s back to the room for more rewriting. The script is rewritten again after the read-through and after the screening of the animatic, with additional possible rewrites at the recording session itself and after the finished animation comes back from Korea. There might be other rewrites I’ve forgotten. If a joke survives all that, it’s probably pretty good….

The longtime “Simpsons” showrunner Mike Reiss once told NPR that you wrote Homer Simpson as if he were a big dog. True?

Yes, he is a big talking dog. One moment he’s the saddest man in the world, because he’s just lost his job, or dropped his sandwich, or accidentally killed his family. Then, the next moment, he’s the happiest man in the world, because he’s just found a penny—maybe under one of his dead family members. He’s not actually a dog, of course—he’s smarter than that—but if you write him as a dog you’ll never go wrong….

You began publishing your own comic novels in 2004, with “The Time Machine Did It.” Tell me about the creation of the private eye Frank Burly, the lead character in all but two of your novels.

Hardboiled detectives are great characters. They never know what’s going on, they try to solve mysteries with their fists, they blunder into all the wrong places, mouth off to people with guns, and get knocked all over the lot by everybody. In the end, the only way to get them to find the answer to a mystery is to practically rub their hardboiled faces in it. I wondered if there was a way for me to create a hardboiled detective who knew even less about what was going on, and who got knocked around even more. And I think I have….

Mike Sacks is the author of several books, including “And Here’s the Kicker” and “Poking a Dead Frog.” His books “Stinker Lets Loose!” and “Randy” will be published in June.

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