Writing Jokes with Alison Zeidman (Adam Ruins Everything, NYT)
You can just have fun and play in the dialogue because you did that work to figure out all the beats.
[@alisonlzeidman on Twitter]
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Moorestown, New Jersey, which is a small suburban town outside of Philadelphia. It was kind of a weird place to live, because about half of it is very wealthy, and the other half (my half) is not. Like, mansions and NFL players and teenagers driving BMWs on one half, and on my half…well, there’s a McDonald’s. (But it’s one of the fancy McDonald’ses! Recently renovated to seem more European or whatever!) There’s also a lovely man-made lake (toxic cesspool) near my mom’s house which is kind of nice to walk around and a frequent hot spot for divorcées who want somewhere to make out after they’ve had a forced meet-cute at a Starbucks. I really didn’t feel like I fit in there growing up, but now when I go back to visit my mom I think, “Oh, this won’t be such a terrible place to have to move back to when I have my inevitable breakdown.” I’m just waiting for my own Silver Linings Playbook.
When did you realize you wanted to work in comedy?
Wait, work? You mean, you can do this as a career? Like, get paid for it consistently? Without having to have another job outside of it? Wow. Right now, I guess.
Real answer: For sure around 2011, as soon as I started doing it in Philly. But I’d thought about it off and on since I first started watching stand-up specials and writing funny junk in middle school. I’ve been busting my ass to make it a career ever since, but it’s definitely not the primary way I pay my bills — yet.
That being said, I feel like I’ve picked up a lot in my 9–5 life that’s been useful in terms of marketing and promoting shows, being disciplined about my writing schedule, and just learning how to deal with people professionally in general. If you can balance both, I don’t think having a steady day job is a bad thing or makes you less of an “artist.”
That being said, if I could do it all over again, honestly I think I would just shoot straight to the top after my first open mic and let HBO give me a multi-million dollar advance to develop my own show. Hindsight, right?
What’s the origin story behind Dark Spots at The Creek and Cave?
The short story is: My dad died, I started writing jokes about it, and I wanted a place where I’d never feel weird about doing that. I mean I’ll do them in any room, but obviously not every crowd is coming to a comedy show because they want to hear about some stranger’s hot take on her dead parent. They want to hear about some stranger’s hot take on Tinder dating!
The slightly longer (but still not that long) story is: I was staying with my mom for the month after my dad died, and I was hanging out a little bit at Helium, the club in Philly, and doing some shows. That’s when I first met Shane Torres (Comedy Bang Bang, CONAN), one of the guys I co-host and -produce Dark Spots with. He had just moved to NYC from Portland, where they also have a Helium, and he was in Philly featuring. He had some jokes about his own dad dying, and we ended up talking that night and becoming really good friends. A month or two later, I had the idea for Dark Spots, and we started fine-tuning it together. For example, we knew we wanted the show to be dark, but not necessarily just cover traditionally dark subjects, like death. The monthly themes were Shane’s idea.
We decided to bring on a third comic since Shane is on the road a lot, and the first person I thought of was Nate Fridson (Bridgetown Comedy Festival, AST Records). I ran into him when I first got back to New York and started doing my dead dad jokes, and he was really into them and encouraging, which meant a ton to me early on in doing those jokes, when I still wasn’t sure whether or not it was something I should be writing about. (For lots of reasons. I’ve talked more about that ongoing uncertainty in a thing I barfed all over the Internet on the train one night recently here.) Also, in the last six months four of Nate’s family members have died. Four! So now he’s really the perfect co-producer for the show.
I see comedy as a way to punch back, so to speak, at things that are terrifying or horrible or…just plain stupid. I love that our show gives comics a place to do that with some of their darkest experiences and the world’s most fucked up events, and I really enjoy writing new bits and sketches to open the show with Shane and Nate every month. It’s like having our own tiny little writers’ room.
Can you walk me through your writing process? How do you prepare and execute long-form editorials?
Well, first I get an idea, and I get really excited about it. If I can’t start on it right away, I’ll write it down in a notebook, or in the Notes app on my phone, and hope that later on I’ll remember what I meant by something like “realistic bathroom wall graffiti also remember to pick up birth control razors.”
Then, before I sit down to write a new project, I have to…not procrastinate — I don’t really do that — but just be anxious and nervous about whether or not I’ll be able to write anything good. That’ll haunt me until finally my schedule is clear, and I get the calendar alert on my phone for the time I planned to write whatever the thing is. That alert will be labeled as something really movating, like “JUST FUCKING WRITE SOMETHING IDIOT.” And then I start writing, and everything’s fine, and I really enjoy it.
For stand-up and humor pieces like what I’ve done for the New York Times, for the most part I’ll just go ahead and write and let myself have the fun of discovering ideas as they come out, and then edit later. For something like a sketch or pilot script though, I’ve learned the hard way that it’s better to have a tight, detailed outline before you even get into the writing. It’s painful, especially with the longer stuff, but pays off when you can just have fun and play in the dialogue because you did that work to figure out all the beats.
Why do you think it might be hard to meet new people? And to grow those connections?
Who says I have trouble meeting new people and connecting with them? Oh, everything I’ve ever written? OK, good point.
I can only speak for myself, but I think for me it’s probably hard because I no longer take any anxiety medications. I’ve decided I’m a high-functioning neurotic. Like it’s bad, but not that bad, you know? Besides, the fact that I’m aware of it means I can just embrace it and be fun with it. Right? Oh geez, maybe I should go back to therapy.
Why do you think writers become writers?
So they can go to their high school reunions and say “I’m a writer now.”
And then find that no one’s impressed. Even if their big life update was, “I substitute teach. And I smoke a ton of pot.”
What do you enjoy most about the comedy scene in New York?
You can do so much here, all the time. Actually, you don’t have a choice — if you’re not doing everything all the time, you’re probably going to get a little lost. Or at least feel pretty bad about yourself. Luckily, I really like working, and I thrive on the pace of the New York scene, and the city in general. I feel like being in this environment has made me work harder in ways I never even imagined, and it’s made me a better comic and a better writer. I’ve also met a lot of the most amazing, funniest, best people I know here. It can be a tough place, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Who do you draw inspiration from as a comedian?
I guess I’ll just list some of my favs? As far as the biggies go, it’s Maria Bamford, Patton Oswalt, Tina Fey, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Michaela Watkins, Jon Stewart, Issa Rae… I could list a bunch of friends and peers, too, but I don’t want to seem like I’m choosing favorites or accidentally leave anyone off who might take it personally. Plus, some of my friends just are not funny. Like, at all. And I’d hate for them to find out here. Let’s just let ’em wonder who I’m talking about instead! (I don’t mean that. Everyone is the best.)
What makes a joke funny?
If I wrote it. Wait, that sounds obnoxious. Sorry. Uhh…how about, “If it gets mad Facebook likes.”
Alison Zeidman is a New York-based stand-up comedian and writer. Her humor writing has been featured in the New York Times, Time Out New York and Reductress.com, and she hosts ‘The Banter Show!’ and ‘Dark Spots’ at The Creek & The Cave