It Was Funny When it Left Here

by Mel Gilden

The title of my speech, "It was funny when it left here" sprang full-blown from a period in my life when I did some freelance writing for Hanna-Barbera, one of the biggest producers of TV animation in Los Angeles. I took my title from a notice on the door of one of Hanna-Barbera's story editors. The notice was a scream of anguish, pain and frustration. It was also a warning: "Leave my work alone or don't complain about the consequences"—the worst consequence being, of course, that the writing would no longer be funny. Therefore, "It was funny when it left here" has come to be my personal shorthand commentary on humor writing's joys and difficulties.

Perhaps you've heard the comment, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." Means basically the same thing. Everybody cries at pain, suffering, hunger, cold, and loneliness. Writing a tragic tale about a starving child is fairly simple. The subject does most of the work for you. Some people will call it manipulative and melodramatic, but they will cry just the same. Most people cry at the same things, but not everybody laughs at the same things. You can't count on getting a laugh from slipping on a banana peel or getting a pie in the face or even by singing a Noel Coward song. Some people who never miss Seinfeld can't stand the Three Stooges, and visa versa. Believe it or not, there are people who think Groucho Marx isn't funny. Everybody has an opinion. Your opinion may be no funnier than mine, but if you are the editor or the guy who pays the bills, you will have an important say in what people see or read.

Years ago, one of the popular comedy shows was called MY FAVORITE MARTIAN. It was about a clean-cut guy who had a Martian living in the guest room over his garage. The Martian looked like Ray Walston. The story goes that a writer for MY FAVORITE MARTIAN once got a script back for revisions and one piece of dialog received this scribbled note, "A Martian wouldn't say that." The point is not whether a Martian would or would not say the line in question, but that there was a difference of opinion. And few opinions vary more widely-outside the field of economics-than on what is funny.

The only thing I know for sure about humor is that the Wicked Witch of the West was right when she said in another connection, "These things must be done delicately, or you harm the spell." And, if you are writing for children, the situation is even more difficult. Tragedy is perceived by the critical establishment as manly-man stuff and really important grown-up stuff. Look at any list of arts awards. Look at Pulitzers, Newberrys, Nebulas, Edgars, any list you like. You'll see that most of the award winners are serious dramatic tours-de-force about the human spirit in conflict with great adversity. Humor, on the other hand, is thought to be trivial. If it's funny, it can't be important. I don't know why this should be so. Maybe it has something to do with our belief that anything we enjoy can't be good for us. Woody Allen said, "If you write comedy, you're sitting at the children's table." I add, if you write comedy for children, you're sitting with your knees up around your chin.

    In an old Preston Sturges movie called SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, the hero is a director who makes comedies and musicals. He leaves Hollywood to learn about LIFE so he can make more meaningful films. Through a chain of bad accidents, he finds himself on the business end of a chain gang. His misery is relieved one evening when he sees a program of Mickey Mouse cartoons. The director vows that if he ever manages to get back to Hollywood, he will make only funny movies that will lighten the load of the world. Even without benefit of chain gang, I have come to the same conclusion. Laughter may not solve problems, but it allows us to take a step back and look at the problem from another angle. (And in the unlikely event that a kid doesn't have a problem, well, a chuckle couldn't hurt.)

Furthermore, everybody needs a little laugh now and then not merely so they can see their way clear to solving their problems, but because everybody needs a rest. The more horrifying your problem, the more you need that rest. There was humor in the death camps not because anybody was glad to be there, but because it was the only way to deal with a grotesquely terrible and seemingly hopeless situation, and remain sane. Humor is good for us because it gives us an escape valve. It loosens our muscles, lowers our blood pressure, and disipates our stress.

In his introduction to THE ACTS OF KING ARTHUR AND HIS NOBLE KNIGHTS, John Steinbeck said, "(Learning to read) is perhaps the greatest single effort that the human undertakes . . . " In describing the sudden blooming of his own interest in the printed word at the age of nine, he says, "And then, one day, an aunt gave me a book and fatuously ignored my resentment. I stared at the black print with hatred, and then, gradually, the pages opened and let me in." Steinbeck's portal to the world of books was the MORTE D'ARTHUR. For some other kid it may be HUCKLEBERRY FINN or THE SNARK OUT BOYS AND THE AVACADO OF DEATH or even a Star Trek novel. Nobody knows what book will set a kid off. but my feeling is that a funny book is more likely to get a kid's attention than a serious one.

Having said that, I want to spout one of the cockamamie theories I have about my own work. In every children's book I've written, my subject seems to be that adults are incomprehensible to kids. The statement, "You'll understand when you're older," burns like fire. Certainly, one could do a serious treatment of this theme. But I see it as ridiculous. Exaggeration is called for. Let us show adult arrogance for what it is by running it naked through the fun house and embarrassing it with its own distorted reflections. Kids understand a lot more than adults give them credit for. I always did. I think. I always enjoyed the work of a writer who I thought was on my side.

    The truth of the matter is that I had a wonderful childhood. No latchkey kids here. My mother was and continues to be a home maker in the best sense of the word. My father had a steady job and could be counted on to read the funnies to his kids and help them with their homework. And while neither one of them was perfect, also neither of them was a drinker or a doper or a child beater. I was the oldest of three sons, and while none of us was perfect either, we also never stole hubcaps or threatened each other with knives. I lived in the same house from the time I was five till the time I left home at the ripe old age of twenty-three. One of the first rules any hopeful writer hears is to write what you know. What I knew did not seem to be very interesting. My childhood was a pleasant thing to live through, but I always felt it was a little short on drama. I've since had some discussions with a psychotherapist who pointed out to me that my childhood was less wonderful than I recalled on my own. But the fact remains that when I started writing I was sure I had no subject.

    One day I explained my problem to famous author and noted futurist Harlan Ellison. Harlan himself has never had my problem; he had a really terrible childhood. He was not only the only Jew in his elementary school, but he was the shortest kid in his grade and a pugnatious smart mouth son-of-a-gun even then. When he got older he took a variety of dangerous jobs, and ran with a gang so that he could write about his experiences. Not a pleasant life, necessarily, but as literary source material, it was terrific. So I said to him, "Harlan, with my halcyon childhood, what can I write about?" In that subtle endearing way he has, Harlan told me I was an idiot, that I had plenty to write about. He told me to look at George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Kurt Vonnegut, each successful in a creative pursuit, each the product of a childhood no less placid than my own. "Write what you know," he said. "Stories are everywhere." I knew he was right. I just didn't know what to do about it.
Wisdom came slowly.

Of course, every story ever written by anybody, even the worst hack job, is biographical in some small way. But the first story I wrote that I consciously made biographical was a little gem called "The Bridge is Out, You'll Have to Spend the Night." It concerned a mad scientist, who, at the urging of his mother, used chicken soup to turn his brother into a monster. The chicken soup and my brother being a monster is what made this story biographical. I believe I knew it was not a good story even as I finished it. Not till years later, however, did I have my epiphany. An article in Luis Borges' BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS concerned a creature called a Lahmed Wufnick. Lahmed Wuv is Hebrew for thirty-six. In Jewish folklore a Lahmed Wufnick is one of the thirty-six virtuous men who justifies the continued existance of our planet to God. They all live in worldy poverty, and if one of them discovers his true place in the universal scheme he dies, to be replace by another virtuous man. Without Lahmed Wufnicks, our planet would be just so much cosmic dust. Something about the Lahmed Wufnicks moved me. Burning with inspiration, I wrote a story about them in just a day or two. It contained people I knew and situations I'd experienced. I had broken the Write-What-You-Know barrier. One of the science fiction magazines bought it and I can read it even today without embarrassment. Big deal. I was still selling a story or two a year, and no novels.

    I did manage to land a day job. And I was lucky. My day job was with the Los Angeles Times. I was just a copy messenger but the editors let me write book reviews and the occasional article for the Sunday arts magazine. More importantly, as it turned out, the book review department was constantly inundated with books-many more than they had space to review. Therefore, every few weeks, they put out all the books they had no interest in and allowed people to take them away for free. A few that nobody wanted, even for free, were always left behind. Sometimes I took a chance on one of these. LOVING MOLLY, a fine novel by Larry McMurtry was one of the leftovers. Another of them was ALAN MENDELSON, THE BOY FROM MARS by Daniel Pinkwater. But I didn't know anything about Pinkwater then so I put away ALAN MENDELSON, and continued to work for the Times. After the novelty of having a steady paycheck wore off I became increasingly frustrated with my job. After three and a half years, I quit and became the entire editorial staff of a magazine for people who collect antique slot machines.

After six months of slot machines, I went to work for a publisher of automobile manuals. After a year and a half there, I was laid off. I now faced a crisis. I could either look for another day job or I could do what a lot of my friends were doing and write cartoons for TV. In writers' magazines, the figure usually quoted as the average yearly income of a freelance writer is around $5,000. But my friends-actual people I knew-were making big bucks in the entertainment biz, so I ignored the dire predictions of the writers' magazines and decided to put my typewriter where my mouth was. And for a couple of years my gamble payed off. I wrote for HeMan and Heathcliff and Defenders of the Earth and Smurfs and Fraggle Rock. During that period, I was introduced to the acronym, KWG. This means Kids Won't Get. Story editors write this in the margins of your script when they think you have broached a concept that is too difficult for young minds. KWG.

This brings me to a parenthetical question. When I say that I write for kids, who am I actually writing for? For kids? I don't think so. First, if we are any good at all, we write for ourselves. If the story doesn't interest us, if the funny stuff doesn't make us laugh, then the story is doomed from the outset. If a writer is really good he or she may get by on technique, but readers will notice something missing from the story, some heat, some passion, even if they don't know why it's missing. Second, we write for the market. On TV, they call this the disease of the week syndrome. Third, we write for the editor. Editors are people, I assure you, and as such, they are individuals. No matter what you may read in market reports, no matter what you may hear at writer's conferences, an editor doesn't know what she wants till she sees it. So, the bottom line here is that when you think you're writing for kids, you're really not. You're writing for yourself, and for the market, and for the editor, and for the marketing department. When I wrote TV cartoons, sometimes I was writing to satisfy the most ignominious audience of all, the toy company. Generally, they didn't care if the story was good as long as each character carried the correct weapon and drove the proper vehicle. It is a truism among writers in the cartoon biz that when somebody writes Kids Won't Get on your script, it's because the adult reading your script didn't get it. The fact that any kid enjoys what is published is almost an amazing coincidence.

I wrote cartoons for a while. During that time, I met Byron Preiss, a book packager. A book packager is kind of like a movie producer. He puts together the deal. He comes up with a project, sells it to a publisher, and then finds somebody who can write or draw it. As money travels slowly through the bowels of the publishing business to the writer or artist, the packager lifts a hefty percentage off the top. Byron asked me to write an outline for the first book in a children's science fiction series he wanted to pitch. It would be an over-the-top gonzo kind of thing, right up my alley. The series never happened, but writing the outline was important to my career. Around that time I was co-host of a radio program called Hour-25. We interviewed the great, the near great, and the not-so-great of science fiction. Sometimes the listeners sent us stuff: clippings, angry letters, little gifts. Once, for whatever crazed reason, a listener sent me a copy of THE SNARKOUT BOYS AND THE AVACADO OF DEATH by Daniel Pinkwater, the same Daniel Pinkwater whose book I'd picked up on a whim at the Times book give-away a few years before. THE SNARKOUT BOYS AND THE AVACADO OF DEATH is a wonderful funny book. I devoured it in an evening and then remembered that I had ALAN MENDELSON, THE BOY FROM MARS on my shelf. I read that too. I read all the Pinkwater I could find. And in the fat gutsy outsider kids and in the bizarre adventures given to me as a gift by Daniel Pinkwater, I found my inspiration.

Having written the outline for Byron Preiss's project I knew I could write my own kids' book. Reading Pinkwater's work gave me the courage to try. Of course, one does not just sit down and write a novel. Ideas come from some place. And this is where the Ouroboros snake bends around and bites its own tail. Because in writing my first successful novel, THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN CONQUER, I was able to build ideas from my placid childhood into the dramatic structure of a novel-length work. Shortly before I began CAPTAIN CONQUER, I was pitching to a TV cartoon show called THE GET-ALONG GANG, one more in a series of shows about kids in animal suits. In the story I pitched, the youngest member of the Get-Along Gang-a sheep, I think it was-gets a chance to help her favorite TV hero retrieve his decoder ring from the bad guys. (Decoder rings, cardboard space helmets, and tin ray guns were very important to me as a child.) The Get-Along Gang people rejected my premise, believing the sophisticated modern child has no interest in decoder rings, but I still thought it was a good idea. The more I thought about it, the more it looked like a novel. Eventually, after banging away at it for a few weeks, the rejected premise became the outline for THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN CONQUER. The creation of the captain himself was inspired by CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT, a show I watched when I was a kid. Conquer's arch-nemesis, the evil Destructowitz, Master of Time and Space, was based on a not very clear memory of movie serial bad guys. Fred Achziger, the mentor of the book's hero, Watson Congruent, will tell anybody who listens that he has forty pounds of brains in his nose. The original man with forty pounds of brains in his nose is my father. He claims that he is the smartest man in the world, and that his brains are in his nose. Who am I to argue?

In my second novel, which came to be called HARRY NEWBERRY AND THE RAIDERS OF THE RED DRINK, the red drink comes directly from the dinner table of my childhood. Almost every night, my mother would put a jar of a Hi-C, Kool-aide-type fruit drink on the table. It was generally a shade of red and tasted like what modern merchandising chooses to call "cherry." When we got near the bottom of the bottle Mom would add more drink, a liquid that was not necessarily the same flavor as what was already in the bottle. We figured that with all the adding and drinking, we were still drinking a little of the original red drink from years before. Red drink became a family joke. It was a natural choice for the substance that turned Harry's mom and his aunt into superheroes. These are just a few examples of how I'm able to spin the straw of my quiet childhood into salable prose. There are other examples, probably hundreds of them, many that I am not even aware of.

We all write from a part of our minds that Dr. Robin Scott Wilson calls our deep well. Each of us has one. As we go through life, we throw things down it-places, feelings, characters, events. Most people just let the junk accumulate down there. But an artist drops a bucket into this morass and pulls up a collection of gum wrappers, string and, bits of bright glass. In sorting this stuff, we make art. The people who are best at sorting we call geniuses. I don't know what talent is, or where in the body it lies. But it uses the muck down in the deep well as raw material. Even the organizing part of the process is probably more visceral than intellectual, more art than craft. Without the talent, the natural ability to make art, the craft part of writing, the part you can learn, will not do you much good. But that's only my theory. As I said before, each writer has his own theories, his own methods that work for him.

Robert Heinlein, perhaps the most influential science-fiction writer of the twentieth century set out the following rules for the craft of writing:

    First, you must write.
    Second, you must finish what you write.
    Third, you must submit what you write and keep submitting 
         it until it either sells or you run out of markets.

The rules can be even more simple. A friend of mine told me that the first and only rule of writing is to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. You must do the work. Another friend said, "If someone can convince you not to be a writer, let 'em." The work is rarely easy, and it is unlikely, even if you are successful, that you will become as rich as you might have if you'd gone into accounting or dentistry. Still, I must scratch the itch called writing. In his book, CHUCK AMUCK, animator Chuck Jones, the man who brought you Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, and Michigan J. Frog, reminds us that only human beings, of all creatures, can blush, or need to; that only human beings can laugh, or need to. They need to because there's a lot of pain in this world. And if I can lessen it, even a little, I feel it is my obligation to brighten a corner whenever I can. Remember SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS. I probably won't win as many awards as I might have otherwise, and people still don't take me very seriously. But there is a certain satisfaction in knowing that I'm giving even the most troubled reader a vacation from what may be a terrible life. The really neat part about writing humorous books is that if a story is funny when it leaves your hands, it sometimes magically becomes even funnier when read by somebody else.