Inside Humor Writing with ‘McSweeney’s Internet Tendency’ Editor Chris Monks

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Many have come to view McSweeney’s Internet Tendency as one of the preeminent places to view humor writing on a daily basis. Covering everything from smug babies to bids for pope, the site cultivates eclectic pieces that manage to be both funny and culturally relevant. The pieces are reviewed by editor Chris Monks, who works tirelessly to review the hundreds of weekly submissions that arrive in his mailbox. With about a two week response period, Monks often sends polite explanations as to why a piece does or doesn’t work, giving writers closure, advice, and encouragement. He was kind enough to answer some questions about McSweeney’s, humor writing and the value of reviewing the submission guidelines of a publication.

I wanted to start by asking how you select what pieces run on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. The site has a certain humor aesthetic, but humor is also subjective. As an editor, do you favor concept over comedy, or does it have to make you laugh personally?

Yeah, it is very subjective; if a submission makes me laugh, it gets in. I think about whether our audience will like it or not too, of course. But by and large, the site is a reflection of what I find funny. There are caveats, as we don’t run all kinds of humor. We don’t run funny nonfiction or fake news or short stories. Plus, we’ve been around for nearly 17 years and have covered a lot of territory, so it helps if the piece is about something new and fresh to us. But, in general, if a submission is a good fit style-wise, makes me laugh, and I think it will make our readers laugh, it’ll get through.

The site has a certain reputation in regard to what it publishes, despite being surprisingly eclectic, topically speaking. Do you think the prestige of the site ever hurts it, or discourages someone from submitting, say, a great piece on defecating in one’s pants or something equally basic, out of fear that it doesn’t line up with the site’s output?

I don’t know if that many people who submit view the site as prestigious. Some do for sure – I certainly did back when I submitted – but while there’s a community of humor writers who’ve followed the site for years and have made it their goal to be published by us, I think it’s relatively small. Many submitters are new to McSweeney’s and don’t really know much about us, be it our humor site, our books, our magazines, or even Dave Eggers. To them we’re just another website with good traffic that might post their work.

I will say that the strongest submissions are from writers who are familiar with the site and have a firm grasp of our tone and style. You really should read thoroughly whatever magazine or journal you plan on submitting to. A fair share of our submitters neglect to do this, especially the ones who submit their “great” pieces about a time they defecated in their pants.

I think sometimes people like to make a distinction between comedy and humor. This is to say, some want to argue that standup or sketch are more visceral or “funny” than a George Saunders or David Sedaris piece. Do you think that’s fair, or does it come down to the piece?

If it’s funny, it’s funny. I think George Saunders is funny. I love David Sederis. Amy Schumer is hilarious. So is Aziz Anzari. They’re all funny. I respond to each in different ways, but they all make me laugh. Comedy can be more ha-ha funny and humor more clever funny, but whatever; I actually sort of hate talking about what’s “funny.” There’s nothing unfunnier than trying to break down the nuances of comedy and what does or doesn’t make you laugh. Maybe some recoil from “humor” because it can come from a more abstract or conceptual angle. I mean, I tend to recoil from stuff I don’t get, and as I plod on through my 40s I find this happening more and more actually. But, yeah, if it’s funny, it’s funny. It’s not that deep. One thing I will say is that just because you’re adept at standup comedy doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a great humor writer, and vice versa. There are different skills you need have to be good at each.

Do you think the perception of humor writing being lesser than performed comedy might have something to do with isolation? In performed comedy, you’re either with an audience or being led by performers to understand that something is funny. You have signifiers. In reading, there’s nothing to indicate when to laugh except the tone, which doesn’t necessarily have to scream “this is funny” to work. 

Is there really a perception that humor writing is a “lesser” form? Are there like gang wars between comedians and humorists? Is Amy Schumer bullying Calvin Trillin in some backstreet alleyway? Sure, reading is a more internal experience, so you don’t often react to the written word as you would to a sketch or standup act. But it’s just as hard, if not harder, to make someone laugh out loud off the printed page than it is from the stage.

Humor writing is certainly a less popular form, if that’s what you’re getting at, but that’s more a product of economics; there aren’t a lot of million-dollar humorists out there. There aren’t many high-profile outlets for short humor either, whereas anyone can make a silly video and post it on YouTube and get millions of views. Most people like watching funny things instead of reading funny things. I don’t blame them; it’s much easier.

In general writing, we know that strong sentence structure and specificity of language help it to transcend the page. What sort of mechanics help humor writing to really rise above? If it pertains to jokes, what sort of jokes do you think it might need to have?

Sentence structure and language are important in humor as well. You need to be nimble at those things to build a joke. Having a strong hook/premise right out of the gate is key too. With general fiction, like short stories, you can take time setting the scene, establishing characters, etc. Sure, go ahead, write a couple paragraphs about how that ottoman symbolizes your dad’s lack of empathy—here’s your Pushcart Prize. Short humor writing can’t get away with that. You need to establish what the gag is early on and then expand on it in clever and surprising ways that heighten the absurdity throughout the piece. And if along the way you expose some sort of hidden truth about the subject matter, all the better. Some of our more successful pieces are self-reflexive in nature, the writers poke fun at a certain trend or demographic while at same time poking fun at themselves, which makes the humor feel authentic and less manufactured.

With this being said, does textual humor have limitations?

There are some humor pieces, that when read aloud to an audience, fall a little flat. Probably the most popular piece on the site is “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers” by Colin Nissan – it’s the piece that’s launched 1,000 mugs, (still available in our store.) – but he’ll be the first to tell you that it doesn’t translate too well to the spoken word. It’s one of those pieces where the voice is so strong that people have it ingrained in their minds, from the cadence to the timing, etc., and no actor or comedian can do justice to it – not even the guy who wrote thing.

As an editor, how do you try and circumvent those limits? Do you think McSweeney’s is held in high regard partially because it attempts to find pieces that will rise above them?

I think people like how we bring a certain literary/intellectual sensibility to humor. Part of appreciating a McSweeney’s piece is getting the joke to begin with, and I think that appeals to a reader’s ego. I get this! I am a clever person! Now, I don’t think that’s as true as it used to be. Early McSweeney’s pieces could sometimes be a bit esoteric, and if you didn’t get the joke it could be a little alienating. One thing my predecessor John Warner did when he took over the site was to make the humor accessible to a wider audience. I’ve tried to do the same. One could argue that we actually have dumb downed the site some. Not a lot, our content is still smart and nuanced, but more folks are in on the jokes.

At what point does a humor piece transition into a sketch premise? Is that transition a bad thing in regard to the possible success of the piece?

We get submissions from UCBers and the like, so they can probably answer this better than I can. But to a large extent humor pieces and comedy sketches derive from the same “What if?” scenario. What if Ernest Hemingway wrote Yelp reviews? What if Sean Connery was on Celebrity Jeopardy? So a humor piece evolving into a sketch feels like a natural next step.

There are tons of people out there who want to become standups or comedy writers. Are there skills that are applicable to succeeding in those mediums that can only be learned in learning the mechanics of good humor writing?

I don’t think so. Writing can certainly help you find your comedy voice, but like I said earlier, just because something is funny on the printed page it doesn’t always mean it will translate to the stage well.

Are there any habits that aspiring writers should look to avoid, ones that might be bad for comedy?

Sometimes writers are a little too deep inside their own heads and their work can be hard for others to tap into. You should always be thinking about your audience. Who’s going to read this? What sort of scaffolding do they need to “get” the joke? Also, I wouldn’t trust your audience on Facebook. Half of them are your relatives and people who had crushes on you in high school anyway, so they aren’t exactly objective when it comes to praising your hilarious status updates about shitting your pants or whatever. Odds are people and internet humor editors who don’t know you won’t cotton to stuff like that so readily.

Finally, I know you always get questions about “cracking the McSweeney’s code” and the like. Instead, I wanted to ask about revisions. How good does a piece have to be in order to move onto the punch-up phase, and are re-submissions acceptable if one had a good premise but a weak execution?

If a submission has a strong premise but the execution doesn’t quite rise to it, I’ll send back notes and say I’d be happy to consider the piece again. But if a submission requires a lot of heavy lifting, I’ll be less inclined to give it a second chance. That’s largely a product of the amount of submissions we get every week. I just don’t have the time to go through multiple drafts and revisions. Resubmissions are fine, but unless I said something encouraging about the piece the first go around, chances aren’t high it’ll get through.