17 December 2012

My Favorite Funny Man: Writer Clark Brooks


by Carrie Bailey

Clark Brooks is funny. And I'm not saying that just to offend Perry Block (though maybe a little on a subconscious level). I've been a fan of Clark's award winning Tampa blog: Ridiculously Inconsistent Trickle of Consciousness ever since he won the 2010 Peevish Penman Writer Advice Blogfest with his post Serve the Story inspired by his experience as a stand up comedian. He joined the Peevish Penman author line-up in October.  

PPM: Clark, I've personally followed your blog for a while and know that you're a writer, a comedian, an actor and an ordained minister. Is there anything you can't do? 


PPM Writer Clark Brooks
CB: That's very kind of you and I really appreciate the way you worded that statement, leading people to believe I do any of that stuff well. That said, I'm surprisingly bad at unwrapping straws. I tend to bend the straw, which breaks it, meaning I can only drink about thee quarters of the cup's contents. At any given time, I'm 25% thirstier than I should be.

PPM: Why do you write? 

CB: I was one of those kids who sat in a small group in the back of class making fun of pompous teachers, pretentious classmates and bullies of all kinds, taking people who took themselves way too seriously down a peg or two. Also, I'm part of a generation that grew up with Saturday Night Live the way previous generations grew up with Elvis or the Beatles. We were the original comedy nerds, the first people to really examine and analyze comedy, where it came from and what kind of impact it could have on not only pop culture but society at large. It became clear early on that performers looked at the show as a springboard to Hollywood, but writers could use the platform to comment on, and maybe influence, the world around them, using comedy as a tool or a weapon to take on the REAL bullies of the world. And they could do so with a level of anonymity and freedom that movie stars could never have. So while I started out wanting to be Chevy Chase, John Belushi or Bill Murray, I figured out pretty quick that it would be better, and more fun, to be Michael O'Donohue, Anne Beatts or Alan Zweibel instead. 

PPM: What do you write? 

CB: I write a lot about my observations on life and the human condition, as it pertains to things that frustrate or confuse me, my efforts to cope with things I can't understand. Why do shitty things happen? More importantly, why do we allow shitty things to happen when we could prevent them? I don't know, maybe everything just sucks. But that obviously isn't true because dogs and baseball and heroes and music and tons of other stuff. Maybe life is the biggest bully of them all and it makes more sense to make fun of it than figure it out. It's easier, anyway. I'll tell you that. Even in the fiction I write, the arbitrary, stupid and just plain mean spiritedness of life tempered by just enough beauty and sweetness to keep any rational being from just giving up on it all tends to be a recurring theme. 

PPM: Where did you grow up? 

CB: I grew up in Benton Harbor, Michigan, a typical small midwestern town, decimated by the decline of the manufacturing industry, going back to the '70s. Benton Harbor's population was, and is, predominately African-American, about 90%. This afforded me a tremendous opportunity in that I could be a caucasian in America, with all the inherent privileges, and still experience life as a minority. I can't say I know what it's like to be Black or Hispanic but I can honestly say I know what it's like to be a member of a minority group. That's the kind of lesson you can't learn in any school and on very few streets. 

PPM: What is your favorite/least favorite food?

CB: Breakfast, any time of day, makes me happy. Even if it's just an enormous bowl of cereal and milk. On the other hand, I can't get past the fact that kidneys and livers are blood filters so I can't eat that stuff. Or beets. I'm pretty sure beets are the kidneys of the vegetable world. 

PPM: How do you write something funny for those of us who don't know what we're doing, but would like to add a little comic relief into our stories?

CB: First of all, write what you think is funny. If you think, "I should try to cram a joke in here somewhere" and it's not organic, it's going to fall flat. That's just part of being honest as a writer. Writing what makes you laugh isn't a guarantee that your audience will find it funny but it will definitely bring you better results than trying to write to someone else's sense of humor. Secondly, humor is unexpected. Look for the absurd in the mundane, but I think you should also look for the mundane in the absurd. For example, getting stuck in the express line at the grocery store behind someone who clearly has too many items. We've all been behind somebody who has 15 items when the sign says the limit is 12. You can exaggerate and say they have 300 too many items and your audience will recognize the exaggeration, how three items might as well be 300 when you're in a hurry, and they'll respond favorably. But you might be able to mine more humor out of fixating on the actual three items. What are they? Olives, corn flakes and toilet paper? Come on, he doesn't need to buy that stuff right now. Maybe if he didn't buy the giant box of corn flakes, he wouldn't need so much toilet paper. What else does he have there? Prunes, bean burritos? Geez, maybe he should put some other stuff back and load up on even more toilet paper. The point being, you can reveal more about your character if they're the kind of person who fixates on details, and what those details are, rather than being someone who just expresses a general feeling of being frustrated by exaggerating the circumstances. 

PPM: Have you ever upset anyone with your humor? How did you handle it? Would you take back what you said? Or was the person just looking to get angry or self-righteous or something?

CB: Oh sure. I used to worry about that, as I think every humor writer does, but eventually you have to get to the point where you let it go. It's not necessarily about being confrontational or not caring how what you say is taken by an audience. It's about realizing that humor is completely subjective. You'll get more strong, varied opinions about how funny something is, or if it's funny at all, than you will about the merits of a song or how food tastes. Jay Leno doesn't make me laugh but there are people who find him hilarious, so I can't say he isn't funny; because, by definition, he is, although his humor doesn't appeal to me. As such, I recognize that my sense of humor isn't going to appeal to fans of Jay Leno. I have a choice a to make at that point: I can try to temper my material and tone to suit an audience that isn't inclined to "get" me or I can recognize that I can't please everyone and stick to what comes naturally and is my honest voice. It can be difficult and take a long time to get there, but once you do, the choice is actually pretty easy. I shouldn't say that applies to only humor writers though. I would guess most good writers struggle to find a level of honesty in their writing with which they can work comfortably.

PPM: If you could be any time of coffee, what would you be and why?

CB: Hazelnut coffee conjures up images of a woman in a cable knit sweater, sitting out on her porch on a foggy morning with a cat curled up in her lap. That appeals to me. I don't know if I'd rather be the coffee or the kitty cat though.

PPM: I hear you've got a book coming out. I'm going to buy it, of course, but can you tell me a little more? Where should I be looking for it?

CB: We're almost done with a "best of" compilation from my web site. I tell people that if it were a car, it would be legal to take it out on the road right now but we want to give it a nice paint job and some cup holders before people take it out for a spin. Hopefully, by Christmas. I don't think the prospect of getting it into the big stores is likely, but it will be available through Amazon.com, some small specialty stores here in the Tampa Bay area and I'm getting ready to launch an online store at my web site, clarkbrooks.com. Also, you can just ask me. I'm pretty sure I know the right people to be able to sell you a copy.

11 comments:

  1. Clark Brooks...are you my father?

    Seriously, I think we're at least distantly related because I didn't stop nodding my head as I read this interview. Early SNL influences, a penchant for humor, and a love of breakfast. I'm right there with you on all of that! Thanks for sharing!

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. Me three! I loved this piece. I wanted to be Gilda and Jane all in one, "Janda." I loved Lisa Lubner and Jane's Weekend Update persona; seeing Martin Short on the show this past weekend illustrated for me how desperately they need good talent again. The "Royal A'hem" skit was brilliant, until Fred Armisen stepped in as Elizabeth II.

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  4. Thanks Rob and Molly! Yeah, there are enough of us comedy nerds and 1st Gen SNL babies out here that you would almost think some of us HAVE to be related.

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  5. What a great interview. Clark, I love your observation on letting the funny find you and not trying to cram the funny in. I'm trying to write more humor pieces and find it very difficult to hit the right note sometimes, so getting reassurance it's not simple is always useful.

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