INTERVIEW: Emma Rathbone on the Curious Mechanics of Comedy

April 18th, 2014 · No Comments · By


Emma Rathbone, a Charlottesville local, is a successful writer although in person you may not guess it. She’s incredibly self-effacing, which means her growing writing portfolio is not going to her head. I had to quietly confirm with someone at a party, in the same hush you’d ask if a couple across the room were dating or just siblings: “Emma Rathbone…she’s kind of a big deal, right?”

Emma writes pieces for the Shouts & Murmurs section of The New Yorker as well as a weekly satire gig at the website the Global Post. Her first book, Patterns of Paper Monsters, was published in 2010 by Little, Brown to much critical praise. Emma has been focussing more on comedy writing as of late, so we sat down to talk the ins-and-outs of funny.


What are you working on right now?

I’m working on my second novel. It’s been fits and starts, now I’m making real progress. I feel like I’m always wrong about this, but I think, hopefully, I finally can see the finish line. I’m trying to make a few big pushes, or kind of one big push with that.

After I’m finished with that, I think I’d like to focus more on comedy writing. To that end, I’ve been writing pieces for The New Yorker. I also have this gig writing satire for the Global Post, which is a new website started five or six years ago. They’ve won a few awards for reporting and journalism. The tagline is, ‘America’s World News Site,’ so it’s global news for an American audience. They are trying to increase their Buzzfeed-y, social media side a bit so I’m writing one satire piece a week about world news. That’s an ongoing thing.

Those are my three main writing endeavors right now, along with about five hundred other recently started and not-followed-through projects [laughs].

Do you have a writing routine?

I think lots of writers find it’s more productive to write in the morning, I am also like that. I feel like my brain is the most focussed right when I wake up, and I’ve had just one cup of coffee, and I’m just ready to go. I try to wake up pretty early and get started.

It seems as though with the fiction, and then with The New Yorker and Global Post, there’s a distinctive stylistic difference. You can see the common voice throughout all of them, but it seems as though they have different functions, devices and vocabulary, in a comedic sense and in an authorial sense. Can you talk a little about that? How you distinguish the writing you do for different projects?

The New Yorker work, or any sort of short humor writing like that, allows a total freedom to use whatever voice, format or conceit you like. Probably there is some overlap–like you said–and you can see some similarities across the board.

But the Global Post prefer it to be in a news format, like The Onion or The Daily Show. It’s a satire headline, then a fake-y news piece, so there’s a little less freedom there. But that’s fun to try, I’m enjoying that. There’s that thing where a limitation can make something a little easier. You have something to get a toehold on: “This is what I have to do.” Then you work within that, and you’re not just staring at the howling abyss of possibilities of what you can write.

With my book, it’s a first person narration written in this girl’s voice. Nailing a voice–getting a tone right–keeping it consistent over hundreds of pages–is a challenge. It helps to put it down for a while, and then read it with some distance from it. When you’re so close to it, you can’t see all the little inconsistencies. But when you finally get some fresh air, to me that’s when I can see, ‘Oh, it’s been two or three weeks and i’m looking at this passage again and I can see i need to strike this or that–it’s not consistent with her tone or voice…She wouldn’t really say that.’

I think it would be hard to write in some sort of wildly different perspective, some really different vernacular. The character that I’m writing about is, you know, an extension or a version of me. So it’s really a tapping into an aspect.

On the one hand, there’s the fiction writing you do which is not explicitly comedic, it seems more about conveying that voice and experience and the comedic is sort of incidental. Then on the other hand, you’ve got the short humor writing. it seems to me in our culture now, comedians and comedy has been elevated to a higher cultural position. You always hear people talking about comedians being the ‘truth tellers’ in our country now, and it seems like a virtue that is really sought after, people like people more today who are funny, you know? I know this is a big question thing, and I know you probably have to think out loud about it a bit, but I’d love to hear your first thoughts about your sense of the contemporary public elevation of comedy.

That’s a good point. I think it’s maybe a few things factoring into that phenomenon of comedy being raised to a certain level, with people such as Jon Stewart being considered the major ‘truth tellers.’ Perhaps it’s having something to do with being informed but entertained at the same time? I think things go down easier when there’s a little, witty spark to it. Maybe that’s too easy of an answer, though, that everyone is so media entertainment saturated we have to be spoon-fed this news sugarcoated with humor. But it doesn’t seem ludicrous that’s part of it.

This isn’t quite to your point, but I think comedy is a startling form of telling the truth. Making people see things from a left side, or at a kind of slant. It brings something into contrast, makes you see it in a new way. I think that makes it an effective delivery system for truth, or to make a point, or to show something about the world. But why it’s more now than ever, I don’t know. I think it’s a really good point, I’m just not sure why.

Do you think people are kind of hip to newscast formatting and all those formal things? It’s very clear what a professional news article looks like and there’s something particularly hilarious about it being tweaked in a certain way.

I’m sure it does. The Onion and The Daily Show are very satisfying for that reason. There’s so much about the regular news establishment to parody, like 24-hour cable news cycles and, you know, the media being beholden to economic demands and all of that stuff. So I think that maybe there is a little bit of mistrust in the regular media that makes the parody ones more effective, or seem more legitimate, in a way.

So there’s that one aspect you’re talking about–people being vulnerable in comedic situations and being exposed to something they might be very jaded to in other arenas. What about it as a pressure valve for people understanding what’s wrong with the world, but not knowing what to do about it? Being so glad to just be able to laugh at it?

That’s a good question, too. Sometimes I struggle with that while writing for the Global Post. I mean, there’s so much that’s not funny, that’s impossible to make something funny about. I’m not comfortable tackling some issues like the Malaysian airline thing, for example. There are people who think that their relatives are still alive, you know what I mean? It’s heartbreaking.

Then there’s another aspect to it where you can write something really trenchant that highlights hypocrisy or injustice. But then there’s this aspect of it too where everyone gets a little bit of a laugh, and everyone gets a wry kick out of it and they’re like, ‘I’m on that side because I got this.’ But you’re not doing anything. Now, I don’t think I should have to do something about everything or people that write comedy about the news should have to, I think the point is to make these things visible so people know what’s going on. At this moment, though, in our culture there is a slight thing where people are like [haughtily] Ha! I’m part of this tribe and I get it…kind of smugly, as though we’re on the right side, you know? And that that’s enough and we keep going on with everyday life. I don’t know what else to say about that, I’m guilty of the same thing, you know.

I feel like your voice as a writer comes from an analysis of self, then articulating that analysis clearly in different ways. How do you cultivate that? How do you process that analysis in a way that then people can relate to?

I think it’s a really fine line, a very fragile thing. I’m not sure if I’m speaking exactly to your question, but it makes me think about how sometimes comedians sometimes go off a little bit, you know? You have someone like Robin Williams, who had a heyday, and just struck the zeitgeist and it just chimed with everybody’s weird sensibility at the time and now it’s not quite the same. His kind of comedy–it doesn’t quite work anymore.

This is something that is terrifying to think of as a comedian–number one, the idea that you could have a schtick even though you didn’t think that you did; and, number two, that atmospheric levers could just turn a little way in the culture and suddenly your material is not hitting the same way. It is sort of a fragile, alchemical thing, where there’s something in the voice or the way you present something or the way you channel something that for whatever reason chimes with a larger mentality or consciousness. But, that thing can go off. And it’s a fine line. It’s such a matter of precision. I have not started pursuing comedy until quite recently, although I always secretly wanted to. I’m learning a lot as I go on, and something that I feel like I have learned is when you’re writing a joke or a piece, the difference between something that works and doesn’t work can be within the space of a word.

How that relates to channeling your sense of self, it’s kind of scary because obviously there is a lot of me in my work. It feels great when people respond to that, but it also feels terrible when I write something and it falls flat. Sometimes, you just write a dud, that’s a different thing. Sometimes I write something that I thought was hilarious and it doesn’t feel different from something I wrote that was successful. It’s like not being able to see what you’re doing right or wrong and knowing that it is this very fragile conglomeration of weird factors that you don’t quite understand, it’s frustrating sometimes.

People talk a lot about Jerry Seinfeld writing at a desk, working on a joke for hours, and that always blew my mind. It’s like you’re saying, it’s like a sculpture, there’s all this precision, there’s all this stuff in the way.

That’s a good way to put it. I’ve been doing research on humor writing and, for late night shows, people write a hundred jokes a day, more than that, just to get one. And it just is…it’s hard. It’s a hard thing to do. Just speaking to that sense of sculpting it and find the exact right turn or swivel that makes it funny. I guess one way to think about it is, if a joke is funny–if it’s truly funny–will it always be funny? Or will it only be funny in the era or the moment, or this sort of like time-period in which someone says it? I don’t know, I don’t know the answer to that.


Follow Emma on twitter: @emmarathbone 

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