Finding the Humor in Sadness (and Monsters)
An interview with comedy writer Frank Lesser
Posted Jun 11, 2015
We all have our obsessions. I can’t stop thinking about pancakes and Batman. In the case of comedy writer Frank Lesser—who wrote for the much-missed Colbert Report—his obsession is monsters: sad ones. When he found himself writing piece after piece about litigious giant apes, committment-phobic vampires, lonely Medusas, and passive-aggressive closet critters, he eventually collected those humor pieces into Sad Monsters, one of the best humor books I’ve ever read. Lesser absolutely nailed a unique concept, and his comedy chops rival that of Jack Handey. I emailed Lesser to learn more about monsters, comedy, and why that goblin under my bed won’t stop sobbing.
Mark: You've written a whole book of monster humor, which may qualify you as a monster yourself. What makes monsters so funny?
Frank: The real question is what makes monsters so sad, because that’s what makes them so funny. Comedy = tragedy + time + creature. (That answer might actually make me the true monster.) But I have a clean conscience mocking them: there’s no such thing as monsters, and it’s not like they’re symbolic of the worst deeds and desires of mankind or anything…
Maybe it was an easy formula, but I enjoyed writing about fantastical creatures dealing with very human problems—like a mummy with body-image issues who wishes she'd been wrapped vertically because it would be more slimming, or lovelorn demons posting online about their missed possessions. And because I don't like writing about myself, I enjoyed the distance that came with writing about monsters. It gave me plausible deniability: "Come on, I'm not a ghost upset about his ex-girlfriend dating the Headless Horseman! That would be ridiculous!"
Mark: It's a great formula. You've essentially created a bunch of clash of context pieces that hold together really well. I relate to not wanting to write about yourself. Nothing bores me more than me.
Did you intend to write a book with a monster theme or did it just sort of evolve? Over what time period did you write the pieces? And are you still writing about monsters?
Frank: I tried to vary the tone/format (monologue, diary, etc.), although I'm pretty sure readers unfamiliar with "humor piece conventions" thought they were all just abruptly-ended short stories.
I really didn't plan on writing an entire book about monsters. After a few years at The Colbert Report, I finally figured out a way to have something regular people call "spare time," so I started writing, and everything ended up being about sad monsters. I still need to talk a therapist about that. I wrote the first two pieces probably a year or so before the rest, and they ran on Slate; and then I probably spent a good year on the first draft. Maybe more, maybe less? All I know for sure is that I should have been writing a screenplay. Or undergoing therapy.
As for whether I'm still writing about monsters, well, I thought I got it out of my system with the book, but I'm actually developing a TV comedy with some monstrous elements. I'm going to be vague here so I can later claim all monster-themed comedies as ripoffs.
Mark: I figured the monster thing evolved, much like a clone in an underground lair. To me, that's the funnest thing about writing: figuring out obsessions you didn't even know were obsessions. Good luck with the monster-y TV show. I'm looking forward to hearing more about that in the future.
Writing comedy for Stephen Colbert must be like learning crime-fighting from Batman. What's something you learned about comedy from Colbert? (Maybe something about the psychology of comedy, since this is for Psychology Today).
Frank: Well, it's like learning crime-fighting from Batman when you’ve got another dozen Robins running around. It's a blessing and a curse: on the one hand, you know the guy cutting your jokes is a comic genius (and probably a regular genius, too), so you can't be like, “He didn’t like my joke? Well, that jerk knows nothing!" Instead, you're like, "Aw, Stephen Colbert didn't like that joke? Mannnnnn, I suuuuuuuck.” And you just sit there at your desk staring at a Youtube clip for a couple minutes.
I think the most important thing I learned—and this was due to the work environment—was that you have to write what YOU think is funny. If you're faking it—if you're writing a joke because someone told you to write it, or you're not being honest to your own sensibilities—it won't work as well. And obviously, a lot of times we'd have to write about topics that we were assigned, but they let us write the jokes we wanted to write on them. Stephen and the other head writers would pick and choose which jokes made it to air of course, but I never felt like I was writing a joke that was dishonest, if that makes sense.
Mark: That's pretty cool that you were encouraged to be so original, even when writing for such a specific character. Aside from your monster thing, how would you describe your sensibilities? And who are the comedy writers or performers who influenced your sensibilities?
Frank: I think I have offbeat, strange sensibilities. Dark, but not too dark. Like, in between the dark and the light roast. Half-caf dark humor? I think humor springs from the unexpected (the surprise punchline, the twist you didn't see coming)—so I tend to prefer the ideas that are really unexpected, possibly to an almost uncommercial degree. Aside from Colbert's influence—which goes back to well before I worked for him, when he was on the Daily Show and co-writing Strangers with Candy—I'd say The Kids in the Hall were a big influence, as well as SNL from the late 80s/early 90s. Movie-wise, well, I guess this just becomes a list of my favorite films, but I'll give credit to Ghostbusters, Shaun of the Dead, Election, Being John Malkovich. Fiction-wise, I love George Saunders. Written humor-wise, Simon Rich. And in my late teens I got really into Woody Allen, which I suppose is fitting since he's really into teens.
Mark: Being John Malkovich is a big fave of mine. That was so much weirder and crazier than other movies at the time. Totally unexpected.
Maybe for a final thought you could share a favorite joke.
Frank: I saw Being John Malkovich twice in the theaters. I've only really ever done that with Election (which came out around the same time, so maybe I just had a lot of time to waste). Well, that's not fair—I got peer-pressured into seeing the awful Tim Burton Planet of the Apes remake after I'd already seen it. The final Ape-raham Lincoln scene made even less sense the second time around.
I'll be honest—I don't know that I LOVE particular jokes (at least not in all-caps). I like funny ideas, or situations, and sure, I'll get pretty attached to lines of dialogue. But—and I've thought about this before when it comes to my lackluster one-joke-a-day Twitter effort—I'm not a joke writer. I'm a comedy writer. I fully realize how pretentious that sounds—after all, I'm a comedy writer, we're supposed to mock pretension—but I prefer jokes that are in the service of something bigger.
Having said that, after quickly scanning my Twitter timeline, I'd say this is one of my favorite jokes, at least of all the ones I've written for Twitter: "Eskimos have over 70 words for 'We prefer to be called Inuit.'"
Or wait, maybe: 'He died doing what he loved: trying not to die.'