Wendi Aarons on Satire Writing, Being Concise, and Waiting for Flights
Today I’m thrilled to be talking with humorist Wendi Aarons.
Wendi is an award-winning writer and blogger who lives in Austin, Texas. In the past few years, she has written for a number of publications including McSweeney’s, and for Esther’s Follies, Austin’s famous comedy revue. She has also been a commentator on Austin’s NPR station, KUT.
Wendi Aarons is also one of the creators of Mouthy Housewives and the much-lauded twitter feed @paulryangosling. She is also a writer for US Weekly magazine’s Fashion Police.
You’ve written conceptual humor pieces about parenting, airline travel, hygiene products, street gangs, yacht rock, the movie Scarface… the list goes on. Do you have a process for coming up with humor piece ideas? Or do you just write things as they occur to you, or as they come up in your life?
Most of what I write about literally just pops into my head as a funny thought spurred on by something I’ve recently seen or heard. I’m not someone who has an idea notebook or who writes things down in the middle of the night.
But my topic ideas seem to come to me when I’m in a quiet or observant situation, like driving or waiting for a flight. I used to tell myself that I got my best ideas when I was getting an expensive massage, to justify getting more expensive massages, but that’s probably not true.
You wrote a piece for McSweeney’s, “Airline Passengers As Explained By Their Pants,” which was one of their most read pieces of all time. To me, the piece is so funny partly because each observation feels true. Yet you could probably ask a lot of people, “hey write some funny observations about airline travel,” and it would be tough. Any idea why this kind of observational piece feels effortless on paper yet is hard to do well?
I got the idea for this piece when I was waiting for a flight at the Austin airport. I was sitting down, so everyone passing by me was at crotch level (ewww). But after watching a few people go by, and noticing their choice of wardrobe for air travel, I kind of saw a pattern and the idea formed.
As far as my observations being true, I worked hard on this to get the pants styles and personalities that aren’t super obvious until you read them and then you nod your head. Like the guy in the Dallas Mavericks sweatpants that will probably do something gross to the beverage cart. Anyone who has flown in the past 20 years has seen this lunkhead in the sweatpants, and they no doubt have an opinion as to the type of person who would wear them out in public. Therefore it’s believable and funny that this person would pee on the peanuts.
All of that said, my advice on observational humor is to go with something that many people will recognize, but then pull something unexpected, but still believable, out of it. One of my favorite tweets I’ve written went something like, “My neighbor Karen just peeled out of her driveway. Must be a big sale at the cat sweatshirt store.” The words “Karen” “cat” “sweatshirt” in that all make it relatable and give you a picture of who this neighbor is, and then you laugh because we all know someone like her.
That’s an ingenious tweet. I feel like I know a lot about Karen already.
What’s something that you’ve changed your mind about recently regarding your creative process?
I’ve always been economical with my words, but I’ve become even more so lately. Humor needs air and shouldn’t be overwritten, which I have always subscribed to, but now I’m taking care to lose all of the “verys” and “reallys” and extraneous words that just slow down the pacing.
I’ve also found that a great time to bang out a humor piece is when I’m busy with other work. Last week I wrote two humor pieces that were published soon after, and I think they were successful because I didn’t agonize or overthink on them. That’s not always the case with pieces, but sometimes being busy with work that’s not as fun or rewarding helps the fun stuff pour out.
“Be concise” is something writers hear frequently, but it feels even more important in humor writing. Perhaps because pacing and timing are essential to written humor, and fluff mangles pacing? Do you typically edit out fluff after the fact, or do you feel like your comedic ideas kind of become leaner and more to the point over time?
I read pieces out loud and trim from there. It really helps with my pacing. Plus I’m economical because I want to get done writing so I can go watch TV.
I’ve written a couple of pieces that were quick and effortless. But humor writing often feels like a battle with the devil. Multiple revisions, lots of pain and effort. Do you think the difficulty of the process depends on one’s experience as a writer, or does it tie more to the complexity of the piece itself? Has writing become easier for you?
I think you’re a much more complex writer than I am. For example, your Panopticon piece in McSweeney’s (which was so great) was really involved so clearly took a lot of time. I do have an ease with the craft now for the most part. The important thing is to not force something that’s not happening. Put it away for a while and come back to it. Basic advice, but that usually works for most people.
Thanks for the Panopticon props! What’s a piece of writing, or a writer, that you find underrated? Why?
I don’t know if it’s underrated, but I absolutely love the book “The Stench of Honolulu” by Jack Handey. (Yes, the Jack Handey from the old SNL “Deep Thoughts.”) He has such an inventive, wacky way of writing that is unique and brilliant. The characters are not likable, but you still love them. I’ve sent this book to a couple of friends when they’ve been in the hospital and I’m pretty sure it helped them recover so I’ll probably get a Nobel next year.
I love, “Stench of Honolulu.” There’s an epically quotable line on every page. A favorites line in that book (quoting from memory) is, “I always wanted to build the world’s longest suspension bridge, but then I learned that someone already had.”
Have you read Handey’s, “What I’d Say to the Martians?” There’s a piece in there, “Stunned” about a guy who thinks he discovers an earth-like planet. It’s one of my favorite humor pieces.
Yes! I have read that! Brilliant.
What’s something that you’ve learned while marketing or selling yourself as a writer?
I’ve learned that it helps to be a nice person. I know that’s boring and dull and who cares, blah blah, but a little kindness and not being a jerk goes a long way in helping your writing career. When I read something I like by someone else, I always try to share it to help the other writer amplify their work. Not because I expect a favor in return, but it oftentimes works out that way or we build a relationship that leads to other things.
As for promoting your work or yourself on Twitter, I’ve learned to always stick with the cocktail party thought where you’re there to socialize and get to know others, not just run into the room and talk only about yourself for an hour. Who wants to be around that person? Not me. Plus, it’s more fun to go back and forth with other funny people.
What question do you ask yourself as a writer that you still haven’t answered yet?
Why didn’t I think of “Shit My Dad Says”?
Do you have any rules that you abide by as a writer? i.e. A personal code you follow.
My personal code is the old adage that you punch up, not down, with humor. Meaning, go after those in power with your pointed jabs, satire, and parody. It’s never funny to make fun of a child who can’t spell the word “heal” correctly in three tries, but it’s very funny to make fun of the President of the United States when he can’t seem to master that word on Twitter after three attempts.
The reason for this belief of mine is that while these jokes are easy and sometimes warranted, it just feels shitty to go after those who probably don’t deserve it or can’t defend themselves. Don’t punch below your weight.