Today in Tedium: Humor and writing often go hand-in-hand with one another. Comedy, novelty, satire, and writing have all played significant roles in my life throughout the years. But they’ve also been a source of failure, success, learning, and challenge. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Today’s Tedium is a tale of two failures. The first a personal account of my own failed comedy writing career and how those failures ultimately led to success elsewhere. We’re not expecting belly laughs, but we hope you’ll at least crack a smile. — David @ Tedium
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The number of words in a type of flash fiction called a drabble. While flash fiction is usually between 100 and 1500 words, a drabble clocks out at a mere 100. They are fun, but quite challenging, to write. I became interested in writing them a few years ago, but have yet to publish any.
How writing helps me cope with depression
I began writing short stories from a very young age. Most of it was what you’d expect from an avid science fiction reader. I even won a library writing contest at age 16 for a story I wrote about vampires. The original story is lost to time, but the general idea was these vampires had a band and wanted me to join. I refused to perform with them because they sucked … (ha ha ha)
I’ve always dealt with depression, so writing stories and songs without any audience in mind helped me get through a lot in my younger years. I love the writing process, from research to final draft. Creating something tangible from nothing at all and expressing it through the written word is nothing short of a phenomenon. Then sharing that creation with others—even if you only reach a handful of readers—is a great feeling. I may not be very good at it sometimes, but it’s something we all need in our lives.
Anyone who reads my feature-length work here knows I focus heavily on music. There’s a reason for that. As the late, great Frank Zappa wrote: music is the best. But it’s far from my only writing interest. I also love writing scripts, advertising copy, how-to guides, and short stories. I tried my hand at a novel a few years ago. It is absolutely terrible, but it was still therapeutic and a blast to write … even if it sucks (it does).
The year I came up with a ridiculous cartoon character called The Salty Asparagus. Like many things in my career, it began with trying to write a story. I tried my hand at writing a funny children’s story about five years ago about a character named the Salty Asparagus. He had his own theme song and everything. But like many other projects, The Salty Asparagus was composted and now resides as mulch in the corn field. Occasionally, someone will see my Twitter handle (saltyasparagus1) and ask why I chose the name “Salty Asparagus.” This is the reason. The “one” is there as a garnish.
How to be a failed comedy songwriter in one easy step
I am not a funny guy. Despite my penchant for doing silly cartoon voices and avant-garde art projects, I inevitably realized that I’m not that funny. And I’m honestly fine with that.
My youth coincided with a time when comics like Stephen Wright were inspiring an entirely new generation of comedians. I paid attention, applied what I learned, and forgot to be funny.
But the reality is that aside from my goofy appearance (I’ve been likened to Sam Gamgee from the Lord of the Rings films more times than I care to count), there’s nothing comical about me.
I grew up with a strong desire to write funny songs in the vein of Weird Al, Tom Lehrer, Stan Freberg, and Allan Sherman. Some of the material I wrote and performed early on got some laughs from audiences, but looking at it from a more mature perspective makes them seem a lot less humorous than I thought they were. I still had a blast making them, but let me give you some examples.
I wrote a song called “Bob Dylan Has A Cold” which was more surreal than funny. Before anyone asks: there’s only one remaining recording, and Dr. Demento has it in storage somewhere; no, I will not be doing a re-recording. Ok, maybe I will:
A few older folks loved it, but it was written hastily during a very boring meeting I was taping for my broadcasting job at the time. The droning speaker and their boring content were drowned out by the thought that Bob Dylan singing extremely poetic, nonsense lyrics while dealing with a cold would be hilarious. So I wrote it as the meeting went on and incorporated it into my live set for a long time.
I had another song in the early 2000s about online dating that we called “Personals.” Like everyone else with an email account, I received so many emails for e-Harmony or whatever it was at the time that it seemed like it’d be fun to make it all into a big musical joke. So I did. The song is … very much a product of its time. I’m sure I could rewrite it with more modern references, but I wouldn’t know where to start. A few recordings exist, but I’ll never reveal their location.
Then there were a few other attempts at being funny: a parody of The Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care,” but about lunch meat. Just to give you an idea of the Pulitzer-level stuff I was putting to music at the time, it contained the phrase, “I’m so tired of eatin’ baloney …” in place of “I’m so tired of being lonely” in the song’s chorus. Then I had a song about bill collectors and a sully “Hawaiian Love Song” that, in retrospect I’m pretty sure I ripped off from an old Spike Jones song. Another tune, about the tendency for people to drive like there’s no one else around never made it past the planning stages.
Perhaps the funniest piece of music I ever wrote contained no lyrics at all. After an extensive course learning how to arrange chord melodies on the guitar, I began constructing some of my own and every time I played a particular section, listeners would crack up. I’m using it for a new piece called “Attack of the Hideous Subatomic Super Mutant.” We’ll let you know how that goes.
I love dry and deadpan humor. And dad jokes. Sometimes people have trouble knowing whether I’m serious or not because unless I’m laughing as I say something, I can come off as quite serious. It’s weird.
The failure of my comedy songwriting turned out to be a good thing. I learned from those experiences, became more interested in other aspects of songwriting and one—completely by accident—I wrote a genuinely funny song about my favorite kind of pizza. And you know something? I’m pretty happy with that. Now if you’ll excuse me, that Allan Holdsworth chord exercises book isn’t going to play itself.
“Humor is just another defense against the universe.”
— Mel Brooks, with one of his many inspirational quotes from throughout his storied career. Just about any Mel Brooks film is loaded with comedy and his work remains an inspiration that aspires writers, performers, and audiences everywhere.
That time I was invited to write for a major comedy website
Writing comedy isn’t easy. And as it turns out, much of what I thought was funny really isn’t, outside of a small group of peers. Before I transitioned to being a full-time writer, I spent a lot of time freelancing. One day, I responded to a call for writers at a major comedy website … and I got an email back!
The editor invited me to pitch stories and seemed pretty excited about my previous work. So, I pitched about half a dozen stories, all of which were summarily shot down.
The editor eventually left that site, but I owe him a debt of gratitude for steering me in the right direction. He was right about my pitches. They weren’t awful, they just weren’t the type of stories that publication wanted to tell. And I can respect that.
Ultimately it didn’t work out and I have no hard feelings toward that site whatsoever. I still read their articles and realize my style isn’t a good fit for them. Failing to secure a place with them led me to another gig that I truly love, so it all worked out in the end.
The original word count for the final draft of our piece about “Surfin’ Bird”, which ended up the subject of the first novelty song deep we published at Tedium. The Trashmen’s fast and furious garage rock tune inspired countless initiates and an almost 2,000 word history that would eventually turn into a whole series here on Tedium. Why that particular song? Blame The Radioactive Chicken Heads. They performed it on the new version of The Gong Show, only to be gonged by Jack Black within 30 seconds. As a huge fan of RCH, I respectfully disagree with Mr. Black, but the short rendition of the tune ignited an interest in learning more about the song and a new feature series was born.
How I research Tedium’s novelty song deep dives
Earlier this year, we did a “clip show” style piece to celebrate 500 issues. We offered some insight into how we come up with ideas, research, and why we wrote an article about Bubsy the Bobcat as Bubsy the Bobcat.
Last week, Ernie shared his invaluable piece on his own research methods, so I figured I would shed some light on how I research some things, particularly my famous Tedium novelty song deep dives. Here goes:
I start by listening to the song multiple times, even going as far as learning how to play it on the guitar. Once I understand it musically, it’s time to analyze the trivia. Then, I’ll see if the song is available on various compilations or a remastered album. Why? Because liner notes are a goldmine of trivia about a song, especially if they were written by the artist.
Take the case of the issue we did on “Fish Heads.” I obtained some amazing history from the liner notes of the group’s Voobaha album that were penned by Bill Mumy (one half of the duo). I also got plenty of information from the various Dr. Demento compilations on which the song appeared. Since we’re largely dealing with obscure, unreleased, or largely forgotten songs, I’ll start researching online. I use many of Ernie’s “extreme Googling” techniques along with my own.
The Internet Archive, Demented Music Database, Internet Wayback Machine, and both current and archived versions of artist websites turn up plenty of great information. Occasionally, I’ll search through library databases, old music magazines, and academic journals (you’d be shocked how often you’ll find things about this in academia).
If there’s a book on the subject, I try to read it or at least read the relevant section. Early in my time with Tedium, Irwin Chusid’s Songs in the Key of Z never left my desk. Then there are the documentaries. Some artists like Wildman Fischer, Weird Paul Petroskey, and Wesley Willis had full-fledged documentaries about them. In the case of Weird Paul, I got to know him and forged a friendship. Sometimes, I get in touch with a manager or Dr. Demento, whom I consider an expert on the subject.
The most valuable resource, however, is always the artists themselves or people who knew them. For the Wesley Willis story a few years back, I got in touch with and interviewed people who actually spent time with Wesley during his life, collecting a few genuinely amazing stories. There’s plenty more to learn in this area and it’ll be an exciting journey attempting to tell those stories.
The day my piece about the Klingon language was published on Vice’s Motherboard. It was a pleasant and humbling surprise to see my work featured on one of my favorite daily reads. A month later, I was invited to be a guest on Sirius XM radio to talk about They Might Be Giants for a segment called Rookie Resume. It was a blast. When the band itself praised my work on “They Might be Trailblazers,” it was one of the greatest highlights of my career so far.
Failure can be an amazing teacher sometimes. I wouldn’t have accomplished anything as a writer if I hadn’t failed at comedy, radio, TV, and even selling pro audio equipment. Each subsequent failure created impetus for positive change and a way to make sense of this crazy, depressing world.
Writing is challenging and it isn’t always easy to figure out or develop a piece. A few times, I’ve had a pitch accepted, signed contracts, and written an entire piece only to be ghosted by an editor. But that only makes me want to keep going. There’s a story to tell and sometimes it doesn’t matter how niche the subject is. Anything can be interesting with the right angle and framing.
To see the world through the lens of another and understand them and their art is a wonderful thing. And that’s one of many reasons why I’ll continue to write about this stuff for a long time to come.
Thanks again to David for sharing his failures. Maybe it might inspire you, too.