Talking to Teddy Wayne About His New Comic Novel and the Difference Between Fiction and Humor Writing

Teddy Wayne is the author of the new comic literary novel The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, out today, featuring the titular 11-year-old pop star as he makes his way across America on his “Valentine Days” tour. The book has received stellar advance reviews from a host of outlets, including Michiko Kakutani at the New York Times, who says it’s “sad-funny, sometimes cutting…more than a scabrous sendup of American celebrity culture.” Wayne’s debut, Kapitoil, won a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award; Jonathan Franzen wrote in The Daily Beast that the novel’s main character, Karim Issar, was a type “that we’re all familiar with but that no other writer, as far as I know, has invented such a funny and compelling voice and story for.”

Wayne regularly writes humor for The New Yorker, the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and elsewhere, and he has the distinction of being the most frequent contributor of all time to McSweeney’s, where he writes the column “Teddy Wayne’s Unpopular Proverbs” (which is, as he pointed out to me, one of the site’s consistently least-popular features).

(Full disclosure: Teddy and I are friends and occasional writing partners. Did that influence my decision to interview him for Splitsider about this new book? Yes, without a doubt, but the book is great, and I recommend it highly.)

Recently, over wine spritzers and Rice Chex mix, in the back of a public library, I discussed writing humor, and humorous fiction with Wayne:

You write novels, prose humor pieces, and (often humorous) journalism. Which comes most naturally to you?

I wish I could say fiction came easily, but it doesn’t. The form of the humor piece is probably closest to my default mode of thinking, though it took me a while to get the hang of it. Journalism I stumbled into in my twenties, never expecting to write it, but I got the opportunity and now find I enjoy it.

How did you get started writing humor?

In high school, I briefly thought about becoming a sitcom writer, and wrote a spec script for Seinfeld my senior year in which the characters had all sorts of Three’s Company-esque misunderstandings. To my surprise, NBC did not purchase it and make me a staff writer at eighteen.

In college I wrote some ostensibly comedic plays and screenplays which I’d be afraid to look at now. I always loved reading my school’s humor magazine, but was rejected when I tried out for it junior year — deservedly so; I really didn’t know what I was doing. I did write briefly for the school’s sketch-comedy video program, though I recall getting only one skit filmed, about Charlie Rose interviewing Jesus. Our viewers numbered in the ones.

After graduation in 2001, I stopped thinking about writing comedically and fumbled around for several years. But when I was 25, a friend took me to The New Yorker Festival’s Shouts & Murmurs event, where various writers read their work for the column. It rekindled my enthusiasm for the medium, and I began writing pieces and reading McSweeney’s religiously. The first three were rejected by McSweeney’s before they accepted one, which was my first published creative work (then the next four were rejected until I got another in, which was a good early lesson in how this world works). For a stretch, I wrote a piece, sometimes two, just about every single day, which now confounds me. Thanks to the help of the McSweeney’s editor, John Warner, after a year and a half of publishing there, a few other publications reached out to me, and I started sending my work unsolicited elsewhere, too.

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine includes, among its numerous fictionalized transcripts of media publications, a very authentic-looking, yet fake New Yorker Shouts & Murmurs piece, written about the protagonist. It’s a spot-on parody.

That was the genesis of this book — I thought about writing a parody of pop-star autobiographies, and that was a sample chapter. An hour after conceiving this idea, I realized that, if I treated the subject with more gravity, it might make for a good novel. Once I determined that the novel would include an assortment of realistic journalistic parodies, I found a way to wedge it into there, along with Jonny’s reaction to it: How does it feel for a celebrity, especially a child celebrity, to see himself mocked in public under the banner of satire? That thought process was behind nearly every scene in the book: come up with something that’s seemingly absurd or comical about the world of a child pop star, but depict it with empathy for the character.

Your first novel, Kapitoil, released in 2010, concerns a Middle Eastern computer programmer who speaks English with a stilted, technocratic jargon, often to comic effect. Jonny Valentine talks in a hybrid of adolescent grammar and lingo out of a veteran ad exec’s mouth. I’ve noticed that you also write many humor pieces in vocabulary or syntax that is not standard English. What appeals to you about this form?

It’s very pleasurable to play with language that serves as a creative means of expression while saying something about how we use normative language. This is often the funniest part about various humor pieces. In my two novels, both narrators can therefore say “funny” things without attempting to be funny, because to them, their unnatural phrasing sounds natural. The danger in this practice is if the verbal shift becomes gimmicky or oversimplifies the character, which is fine for a humor piece or Borat, but won’t work for a novel. Once the reader feels the character is a microphone for the stand-up-comedian author, the writer has lost the slyer humor — the subtle comedy that makes you feel you’re immersed in another person’s comprehensive sensibility — and has to settle for punch lines.

In your opinion, as you’ve done both, what are the differences between writing a prose humor piece, then, and writing humorous fiction?

Humor in fiction tends to be less conceptual and more about either character or observation. It still helps to have a premise that suggests humor, but that premise is usually rooted in character: “What if a neurotic or observant person is forced to interact with other people?” (That premise is found in most comic novels written in the last 50 years.)

Out of that premise, though, the writer tends to make quieter jokes, in part because long-form writing doesn’t lend itself well to the shouted punch line; the reader can handle only so much jokiness before he disbelieves the emotional authenticity of what he’s reading. So we get one-liners that are more connected to the character or narrator — which is really the author — coming up with an amusing line about the world than insights about the world itself.

In the kind of humorous fiction I like, this flows directly out of the character, not the author. In The Catcher in the Rye, for examples, it feels very much a product of Holden’s mind when he meets a classmate’s mother who describes her son as being very “sensitive,” and Holden tells her he is, but privately thinks he is “doubtless the biggest bastard that ever went to Pency” and “about as sensitive as a goddam toilet seat.” The premise — Holden deceiving the gullible mother about how nice her awful son is — is funny, but what sells it is his trenchant toilet-seat simile that feels true to both the son’s and Holden’s characters. J.D. Salinger himself is perfectly unobtrusive here; you don’t sense him leaning over your shoulder, urging you to laugh at his brilliant wit.

What’s up next?

I’m going on a book tour the next few weeks. And I’m collaborating on a screenplay and TV series with director/screenwriter Yaniv Raz and novelist Amber Dermont. We’re pitching it as Three’s Company meets Seinfeld.

Talking to Teddy Wayne About His New Comic Novel and […]