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You can call James Folta a lot of things, but you can’t say he isn’t funny.
The accomplished humour writer and editor has bylines in all the greats: The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, National Lampoon, Funny or Die, and Esquire. He also co-created The New Yorker parody, The Neu Jorker, a project WIRED called “a parody so perfect it’s scary” for its appallingly accurate depiction of the famously highbrow magazine.
But comedy doesn’t need to be perfect to be great. Like any humour writer, James has had jokes fall flat, pitches get rejected, and days dry for ideas. It’s a reflection of the difficulty inherent in breaking into the comedic writing industry — an impenetrable form, even for experienced writers.
That’s why James is packing much of his hard-earned knowledge into Short Humour for Beginners, a 90-minute Pandemic U workshop. The event is live on Apr. 6 at 1pm ET and tickets are $20 Canadian, or about $16 USD.
Ahead of James’s class, we asked him about how his humour writing obsession began, how comedy treats depressing world news, and whether there’s anything he finds distinctly unfunny (spoiler alert: there is).
When did you first know that you wanted to pursue humour writing, or that you could be really good at it?
My obsession with short humour started in a moment of loneliness, oddly enough. I did a ton of sketch comedy in college, which is where I first caught the comedy writing bug. But a few months after graduating, I moved across the country to San Francisco, where I didn’t have a comedy community (a less depressing way of saying that I had no friends in the Bay Area). I started writing short pieces on my own and sending them to friends for feedback.
I had a few early publishing successes that put wind in my sails, but I initially sparked to short humour because it was a way to create comedy, solo, in a new city. It kept me connected with other funny people, without having to worry about scheduling rehearsals, memorizing lines, or gathering props. Short humour’s accessibility and versatility is still one of the things I love about it.
My big, broad observation about new writers is that they tend to limit themselves.
What’s the biggest mistake that people new to humour writing make?
My big, broad observation about new writers is that they tend to limit themselves. I find there’s a tendency to default to certain formats based on assumptions about what humour writing has to be. I see a lot of work from first-time writers that is a single funny anecdote, or a memory, or stand-up-style musings. These are perfectly fine formats, but I think new writers can benefit from thinking beyond memoir and monologue, and experimenting with other formats. It’s a great way to expand your writing, and find new ways to express the things you find funny.
How can writers apply comedy to depressing daily headlines and alleviate things for people a bit? Do you think there’s a place for that right now?
I think so. There should always be a place for humour that addresses the depressing, infuriating, and unjust parts of the world, and jokes can be a great way to explore things that anger and frustrate you, and take the shine off of the powerful.
Personally, I’ve found it difficult to write topical humour in this moment, since it feels hard to make an impact when so many of the people and institutions who are deserving of ridicule seem incapable of experiencing shame or self-awareness. Or worse, they take the fact that they’re the targets of jokes as reinforcement for their aggrievement. So much to say, there are people who are better at making jokes about the depressing state of the world than I am, and I admire their ability!
There should always be a place for humour that addresses the depressing, infuriating, and unjust parts of the world, and jokes can be a great way to explore things that anger and frustrate you, and take the shine off of the powerful.
What’s something everyone else finds funny that you think is distinctly unfunny?
I have a hard time watching those videos where people accidentally fall down, or slip on ice, or get hit by a kid on a bike or something. Even “America’s Funniest Home Videos” clips hit me as more sad than funny. That video of the newscaster falling out of the grape-stomping bucket? Doesn’t do much for me.
I’ll note that I’m only talking about “accidental” here — as a male millennial who grew up in the suburbs, I am of course a “Jackass” fan.
What’s one good habit that you’ve picked up during the pandemic?
Early in quarantine, I made a point of methodically exploring my neighborhood on my little mental health walks. It’s been very rewarding to unpack the density of the city, and to pay attention to all the details I’d overlooked. It’s an attentiveness and sensitivity I’d like to keep up. There are a lot of things to see and many places to go, even when life is very hard.
I’ve also been trying to teach myself French — gotta keep that up.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.