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Q&A: Andy Borowitz

The humorist on his new book, Who Moved My Soap? The CEO's Guide to Surviving in Prison, and writing for both a rap star and The New Yorker.

By Lynn Harris - June 13, 2003

"Martha Stewart Admits to Crafting Own Scandal: 'Whatever Helps Borowitz Sell Books,' Says Embattled Battle Ax"

That faux-headline is an Andy Borowitzish joke. The humor writer and performer is just the sort to notice the actually-not-so-freaky-if-you-think-about-it coincidence of Stewart's indictment and his brand-new book, Who Moved My Soap? The CEO's Guide to Surviving in Prison, which went into a second printing only days after its June 6 publication. The villains in Who Moved My Soap? are only a subset of the usual suspects skewered on Borowitz's news-satire website, The Borowitz Report, which he updates every weekday and emails to more than 50,000 subscribers. The other targets of his faux-newswire "Shockers:" politicians, entertainers, and sometimes—again, not so freaky if you think about it—both at once. (An April 28, 2003, headline: "BUSH: WAR, MADONNA OFFICIALLY OVER.") You might also call Borowitz the CFO—chief funny officer, that is—of The New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs" column and The New York Times's op-ed page, which both frequently feature his higher-concept, freer-ranging satire. He's also a frequent host of The Moth storytelling series in New York and a frequent guest in mb's Humor Writing for Journalists classroom. On the phone with mediabistro.com from his Westchester home office recently, Borowitz discussed his craft and career, the word "gulag," and his stint writing for The Facts of Life—and discovered, interestingly, that the last two are not unrelated.

When you e-mailed to confirm this interview, you said you were on a movie set with Julianne Moore. What?
Yeah—it's a movie called Marie and Bruce, starring Matthew Broderick and Julianne Moore. I've never been in a movie before, so I really started at the top. I got a call from this legendary casting agent, Juliet Taylor, who happened to know of me, and I read for a number of roles and got the part of a boring guy named Jim at a party. So I hope it wasn't typecasting. You know, I actually feel uncomfortable talking about it, because it's so far afield from promoting my book.

Okay, your book. How's it doing?
Well, it just came out, and it is already the No. 1 best-selling "penology" book on Amazon.com. "Penology," as in the prison system—not what all that spam is about. I'm taking the penology world by storm—this is a hotly contested race, you know. And as we all know, as goes penology, so goes the New York Times bestseller list. Let's see what the other titles are... coming in at No. 2, The Little Book of Restorative Justice—see, only a little book—No. 3 is Couldn't Keep it To Myself, Testimonies of Our Imprisoned Sisters, and No. 4 is The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956. Solzhenitsyn is down at fucking fourth place! So it's safe to say that my book is four times as popular as Solzhenitsyn. I'm trouncing the gulag. [At press time, things had shifted somewhat: Borowitz held the No. 2 spot on the "Crime and Criminals" list, behind Noam Chomsky.]

Why CEOs, and why now?
As a satirist, I am always looking for fair game. And CEOs have had so much fun at our expense, now it's time for us to have fun at theirs. When writing my column, I found that whenever I wrote about Tyco or Enron I got a tremendous response from readers who'd say, "Go get 'em!" When you have millions of people who have lost their jobs or their life savings because of these guys, well, it's not a natural topic for comedy; still, we can't get our money back, but we can get our sense of humor back. Also, the reason the book is priced at a low $9.95 is because if you were a shareholder that may be all you have left.

How did you get to be, let's call it, CFO—chief funny officer—of The New Yorker and the Times?
It's an un-useful story, much along the lines of how I became a film star. I got a call about five years ago from Susan Morrison at The New Yorker, when she was starting to edit "Shouts and Murmurs." She knew of my work as a tv producer—and she knew me from college, where I was president of The Harvard Lampoon—and thought I could possibly still write funny prose. She asked me to submit something, the very week that President Clinton was giving his deposition on the Monica Lewinsky case. I wrote a set of talking points for him—explanations about how the sperm got on her dress—that got more and more contrived as they went along. That piece kind of got the ball rolling. In general, The New Yorker is a wonderful place for a humorist to write—it's a place that gets the references that others don't. For example, last summer I did an advice column as if written by Catherine Millet, author of The Sexual Life of Catherine M. Most magazines don't have a readership that will get that joke.

Speaking of references that everyone gets, didn't you use to work for The Facts of Life?
Yes. After leaving the Lampoon—that is, college—in 1980, I went to Hollywood to work for a producer named Bud Yorkin, who was Norman Lear's partner. So my first job was actually working for All in the Family. I have to say, Carroll O'Connor wielded power on that show equivalent to Saddam in Baghdad: He was a despot on that set. I lived in fear, but it was an interesting hazing into that world. In fact, I wound up writing for television for 15 years. I may be best remembered, as they say, for creating The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which ran from 1990 to 1996. Safe to say I'm the only person who has both written for The New Yorker and created a sitcom for a rapper.

Right. Now, about The Facts of Life.
That was the worst year of my professional life. I was so not the CFO. I may have been the worst writer in the history of that show. I went there after writing for a pretty funny show about teen girls called Square Pegs, starring Sarah Jessica Parker. The same company said, "Come apply your hip, edgy sensibility to The Facts of Life." I mean, I was 24 and I listened to The Clash and they thought I could spice up the girls at Langley with my "sensibility." But it turned out I was a dismal failure. I was such a disappointment to everyone. They never wanted to use my jokes. We once did a dream sequence where in the future, Jo is a high-powered business woman. I did a scene where she's on the phone negotiating a deal with Mr. Spacely of Spacely Sprockets, insisting that she would only deal directly with George Jetson. After that I was confined to projects like proofreading, where I couldn't do much harm—the show's equivalent of Outer Siberia. A gulag, really. That said, there could still be some payoff. I'm talking to Comedy Central about doing a monologue about my stint at The Facts of Life. And, honestly, every woman your age wants me to talk about it. You all watched it religiously, and I don't know why; it was like crack. If I were single I'd go to bars and try to work Tootie and Natalie into the conversation.

A real fact of life: What do you think it takes for someone to be truly funny?
A funny person sees patterns in the world around us that other people might not see but will recognize once pointed out to them. It's like that scene in A Beautiful Mind where Russell Crowe tells Jennifer Connelly that if she names an object he can look up into the night sky and connect the stars to find that shape. Likewise, the best comedy comes not from rearranging the stars—it comes from simply pointing out patterns that are already there. That's why the best compliment a humorist can get is when someone says, "I should have thought of that."

Still, it must be hard to get up and make yourself see those patterns every day. How do you do it?
First of all, if you really are just looking for what's already there, that's much easier than laboring to manipulate the truth. I just try to look at the reality and put a different light on it, even just exaggerate it—by 1.3 percent, as Jim Bouton, the former Yankees pitcher, once said. In other words, describing Rumsfeld as cackling manically over a spinning globe really isn't that much of a stretch. Also, yes, people do wonder, what do you do when you can't feel funny every day? The answer is that there are days when I don't feel happy, but there's a big distinction. You can feel unhappy or lonely or depressed—just from reading the news—and still manage to write something funny.

How can you—how can one, that is—make fun of such terrible situations?
Some things that some people find funny—suicide bombings, innocent people killed—I guess it's an issue of taste, but I just don't feel in my gut there can possibly be anything funny there. The Israeli-Palestinian situation, for example, has been such a sad story for everyone that the only thing I can make fun of is when the politicians get involved and do silly things. For me, just the term "road map" is so overused. That becomes funny divorced from the situation, as in, let's say, the notion of Bush having a difficult time refolding the road map. Of course, what jokes like that are really pointing to is how incredibly complicated and intractable all these people and situations are—which is what makes the "road map" fairly meaningless, and fair game, in the first place.

Honestly, when we were at war, it was easier for me to write. Something surreal was happening every day, like the fall of the statue. And let's not forget the gift to comedy known as the Iraqi foreign minister. Whenever the politicians get involved and start using terms like "regime change" and "interim authority," that's when satire really wakes up. I mean, the Clinton years were so ludicrous in themselves that they actually became hard to satirize. The economy was good, we were relatively at peace—you had to dig more. When things seem their darkest satire can really flower. Not that I'm thrilled by bad news, but I did notice the difference in the response I was getting from readers. They'd say, "I'm so depressed, and this thing cheers me up!" I'm a little taken aback, but grateful. It makes me feel like I'm not wrecking their day with spam, but putting a smile on their faces.

Writer and comedian Lynn Harris teaches mediabistro.com's Humor Writing for Journalists and is co-creator of Breakup Girl. Her comic novel, She-Business, is coming soon. You can buy Who Moved My Soap? The CEO's Guide to Surviving in Prison at Amazon.com.



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