Katie Brinkworth On Finding the Funny In the Mundane

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Katie Brinkworth is a humor writer and creative director whose work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, and many other great places. Her piece, “A Day in the Life of a Target Market Female,” appeared in The Best of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency book.

Katie Brinkworth is one of my favorite humor writers writing today, so I was thrilled to have a deep conversation with her about her writing, her creative process, and her humor loves and hates.

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I love your McSweeney’s piece Welcome to Hoodwink. It’s such a sharp satire of “cool” ad agencies, and the details are delightfully weird. Also, I dig the word “hoodwink.” What inspired this one?

I work in advertising, so I’m constantly seeing new agencies pop up that are trying to be something they’re not. It sort of became trendy to say “We are NOT an advertising agency” even though…mostly they really are.

There was also an annoying trend of making up ridiculous titles like “digital ninja” “idea savant” “flash wizard” “production gunman” things like that, but once you’d really talk to these sorts of people or watch them in meetings you start to realize they are full of nonsense. Essentially like dressing up an old pile of gross hair and pretending like it’s some sort of inspirational nest. That’s also where the name came from.

When you see the word “hoodwink” it looks like a cute, quirky, fun word, but the dictionary definition is that you’ve been tricked. I got the idea for the nest itself from Wieden. They’re actually a fantastic agency that is nothing like what I describe in the article, but I feel like the nest is the perfect example of something a bad agency might trot out as proof that they are creative, when in actuality the thing is very itchy and prone to infestation.

Ah, interesting. It’s fascinating to get a window into how that piece came to be. How do you come up with premises for your humor pieces generally, and how do you know when you have a winner?

I usually start with something very familiar. Things people are writing about already, albeit in a more serious way, so there is a frame of reference for the reader. I look a lot at fluff pieces and clickbait you see all the time on Facebook. Meaningless content that you read and think “I’ve learned nothing” after you read it. The premise is usually something everyone has read about a million times that are typically just obvious statements, then I apply the ridiculous twist to make it funny. 

What’s a piece of writing, or who’s a writer, that you find underrated?

I don’t know if they are underrated, but I’m kind of obsessed with TV writers. Specifically people like Wendy and Lizzie Molyneux, Seth Reiss, and Donald Glover. I can’t imagine writing as much awesome stuff as they do in such a short timeframe. 

What’s something that you’ve learned while promoting yourself as a writer?

Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but I don’t feel like promoting yourself actually works in the writing world. I get a lot of emails from people asking if there are any tricks in getting into certain publications like McSweeney’s, New Yorker, etc, but honestly, there aren’t any “tricks” besides writing well.

McSweeney’s, in particular, is great at not looking at anything besides the work, which I really respect about them. I still get articles rejected from them, so it isn’t like previous work necessarily makes a difference, I don’t get a free pass or anything just because I’ve been published before. I’d say if anyone wants to promote themselves, the best way is to keep writing and submitting to sites that have a big reach. 

I like that about them too. Maybe it’s hindsight bias, but my first McSweeney’s acceptance felt (in retrospect!) like the first one that deserved it. I’ve had a feeling that the overriding acceptance criterion there is, “Is this funny? Will our readers laugh?” 

Has where you’ve submitted your writing shaped it in any way? (In length or topic, or in a larger sense.)

I’m not sure. On one hand, I think it has, mainly because one of the ways I “learned” how to write is by obsessively reading articles I think are funny, many of which live on this site and others that are similar.

A lot of times before I start writing I re-read some of my favorites to get into the mindset. On the other hand, my favorite thing about writing for these sites is the fact that I can write down whatever is in my weird brain and it doesn’t necessarily have to follow any particular rules, which I can’t do in my day job in advertising.

So I guess writing for these sites has influenced my style and cadence to some extent, but I’m not really able to write anything that doesn’t make sense to me and my personal humor…I’ve tried to write like that at times, but those pieces never resonate and are rejected. I think that’s what really makes a great editor actually, the ability to sniff out humor that’s authentic and unique to a writer vs. something that’s too derivative. So, shout out to Chris Monks. 

I have, however, recently run into the mental block that I can only write in this short format. I’m currently attempting to write something much longer and so far it’s been a weird mental hurdle to get over. Or maybe I just have a short attention span…

It makes sense that when you’re used to writing in a particular medium, you get comfortable there, and the alternatives feel more challenging. 

Is there anything that current humor writers do that annoys you?

I’m getting tired of articles that make fun of the current political climate. I know it’s probably writers trying to work out their frustrations with all the garbage that’s going on right now, and there is a great deal of material to make fun of, but personally, I just find it depressing. And, like Facebook, it’s mostly just shouting into an echo chamber.

Everything that’s being written now seems to be about it, comedically or otherwise, and I think many of us would just like a break from the onslaught of negativity.

Yeah, I hear that. I think my own brain is more oriented towards weird, absurd pieces that, even if they’re satirical, make me happier in some way. 

Have you had any beliefs that held you back? How did you let them go?

I was held back by myself mostly, that my work wasn’t good enough. I think a fear of rejection is a pretty common thing for writers, and I think a lot of them give up after one rejection. But there’s something liberating about rejection I’ve found, and also helpful in that it pushes you to write better. So I’d advise writers to just keep going and to diversify where they send their work. Many times a rejection doesn’t mean your work is terrible (sometimes it does) but that your style isn’t quite right for the publication.

What’s liberating about rejection, to me, is that you’re still alive, nobody really cares that you got rejected, and you can keep writing.

Do you have any writing habits or beliefs that other writers might consider “weird” or “unusual”? 

If anyone ever watched me write something they’d think I’m a psychopath.

This is what I like to hear about. Do tell.

When I’m really in the zone I’m constantly pacing around, scrawling on random pieces of paper, talking to my dog and doing other odd things. I can’t write in public for that reason. Writing in a coffee shop, for example, seems insane to me.

One other weird thing I did early on was to re-type word for word articles I found funny. Not to copy them, but it helped me understand how good writers write, and sort of started to train my brain on how to write jokes.

I’ve typed out pretty much everything that Jack Handey has ever written…I think he has the most awesome and succinct joke style. I also write down all the dialogue from shows like 30 Rock and Veep. 

Interesting. Let’s come back to Handey in a minute, but I’ve heard of this re-typing method before. What happened when you did this? Did it lead to you go write something right that minute, in a new headspace? Or was it more a long-term, training yourself to think like a great humor writer exercise?

I think it’s just practice, like anything else, somewhat like working out a mental muscle of sorts. For work, I write headlines fairly often, and it’s the same thing. At first, when you’re just starting out, you write a hundred headlines to get one funny one. Then when you’ve been doing it for years you can write them more efficiently, maybe like 10 or 20 because you start to understand cadence. So it’s more a long-term exercise. 

Back to Jack Handey. I love him too. Most humor writers that know love him. I interviewed Wendi Aarons recently, and she loves Jack Handey.

It’s interesting to bring him up after pointing out that a lot of recent humor has become focused on topical political negativity. Handey’s stuff is almost never pop-cultural or political. He might reference baseball or an alien or something historical, but his writing is just kind of… timeless. There’s something beautiful about that. It’s like the Platonic forms of comedy. It’s pure.

I like that about Handey too and I’d guess that’s probably something he does intentionally. To me, his style is taking something commonplace or mundane, then almost immediately applying a twist that comes out of nowhere that makes it hysterical. His jokes don’t require a ton of set-up or context and have this amazing efficiency that I love. And the timelessness thing is definitely true.

I can still watch Landshark, or Toonses the Driving Cat from SNL and still totally get it and think it’s hysterical even though he wrote these jokes before I was even born and I have no political/social context for that time period. It doesn’t matter what year it is, stupid driving cats are always funny.

Find Katie Brinkworth’s writing at her website and at McSweeney’s. And follow her on Twitter.

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Alex Baia is a humor writer and contributor to McSweeney’s and Slackjaw. He lives in Austin, TX.