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March 11, 2011

Stage vs. Page: Humor writing with Steve Macone
by WomenInComedy - 0

Steve Macone is Boston stand-up comic and writer. He has been featured on Comedy Central and NPR. His humor writing and essays have appeared in The Onion, New Yorker, Boston Globe, Atlantic Online, AOL News, and Christian Science Monitor. American Scholar named recognized him for “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2008. Steve is teaching his workshop, Writing for Comics, on Sunday, March 13 at ImprovBoston.

WICF: What happened first -- stand up comedy or humor writing?

Steve: Humor writing. I think I’ll always think of myself as a writer first. I'll probably never be completely comfortable on stage, though I'm not sure that's a bad thing. I'm suspicious of people who aren't at least a little vulnerable on stage.

WICF:What are the biggest differences between stand up and writing, besides the medium -- and is there ever crossover?

Steve Macone comes to WICF.

Steve: Sometimes I think of them as two completely different things. There's a crossover, like standup definitely helps your ability to know how something will play in a reader’s ear. Other times though, it's like playing two different sports. Boxing versus rowing. You use some of the same muscles, some different ones.

WICF:Who's more difficult -- er, challenging -- editors or bookers?

Steve: Both are tough, but in different ways. They are, generally, both acting in a way dictated by a market. They are not artists. You are the artist. So don't assume they will be connoisseurs of the stuff they traffic in, be it standup or writing. Often they're closer to the guy who unloads the wine from the truck. It’s part of the reason lots of traditional journalism outlets are dying and not all comedy shows are amazing. Of course, there are exceptions. Some editors and some bookers are amazing people who silently make their industry better. Cling to them. But you still can learn a lot from bookers and editors both good and bad, since they see so much of, well, people like you. It only hurts you if you think of them as gatekeepers to your happiness and fame or something. Anyway, both are extremely busy. And many are great at their jobs. It’s all about finding the good ones.

WICF: Is there anything that really doesn't translate to writing?

Steve: Honestly, sometimes the best standup doesn't translate well, since it's a beautiful concoction of timing, writing, mannerisms and mood cultivation. You put that on paper and sometimes it reads like "What's the deal with horseshoes?!"

WICF: You contribute to The Onion and are a cartoonist for The New Yorker - both really require a lot of funny squeezed into a limited amount of words (or a picture). Does stand up help with that?

Steve: I should say that, at both places, I am just a tiny barnacle on a couple of huge ships. I can't get into specifics here about the process of writing for them (I collaborate with an artist for the cartoon stuff), but suffice it to say that yes, writing of that type is the closest thing to poetry I've ever done (or done well, I should say.) To squeeze an entire concept into sometimes four or five words is insane. But standup has prepared me. When you're standing in front of 200 people, you have the potential to be wasting 200 people's time. That tends to bring the necessity of editing to the forefront. Here’s the thing, there are lots of skills that comics already bring to the table when they set out to write funny stuff for publications. They really are ahead of the game, compared to most writers, since they have cultivated that sixth sense of how the writing will play in readers' heads. But comics are also hamstrung by some of the ticks that help on stage but can be annoying in print. So if you can watch out for those you're golden.

WICF: Your essays have been featured everywhere from The Atlantic to AOL. Do you write with an audience in mind, or do you look for a fit after it's written?

Steve: I write what I want when I get inspired to write it. That's a terrible way to go about writing if you're ever looking to do it professionally or consistently, it's incredibly inefficient and something I'd seriously caution against, but it works for me. I will explain why this is such a bad idea.

WICF: Who are your favorite writers -- both growing up and currently. What book are you reading right now?

Steve: Growing up I liked Laurel Ingalls Wilder -- look, she was running around outside using pig guts as a balloon -- tell me how that's girly. Tell me. Alright then.

In terms of what I read now, it's a pretty bizarre group. I like the way Garret Keizer, who writes essays for Harper’s, picks apart things and renders them beautifully as he reconstructs what he’s taken apart. I like William T. Vollmann for the way he gets off the couch and talks to people. I’m in the middle of last year’s Pulitzer winner Tinker's right now, which is fantastic, just unapologetically lyrical yet somehow also somehow humble. Also reading some David Shields stuff. It’s always amazing when comics tell me they want to write and when I ask who they read, or even what publications they read they’ll say “Eh, I’m not much of a reader…” That’s saying you want to do stand up on stage for a living and tell people about your ideas without being conversant in what other ideas are circulating. Sounds strange to me.  

Steve: What can writers and/or comics expect to get from your workshop?

I just felt like there are a lot of comics who ask me questions about submitting stuff and they have all these wildly untrue perceptions of how writing for other people works. So the workshop is partially to learn how to put together a pitch letter the right way and send it. Literally how to ask a place to publish your stuff.  Also, I've learned a lot of the lessons the hard way and there's stuff I wish someone had told me five years ago. Out of all the places I've written for I've only ever had an "in" at one of them—and that was still the hardest place to break into even with my friends there. So it's not this impossible thing. You just have to go about it the right way. And be funny.

Steve's writing:

Steve's website:

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