Joho the BlogMy secret showbiz background: An acknowledgment and an untold truth - Joho the Blog

My secret showbiz background: An acknowledgment and an untold truth

If you go to the bio page I maintain for people who are considering hiring me as a speaker — which is how I make most of my living — you’ll see a reference towards the bottom of the paragraph to my having written gags for Woody Allen’s comic strip for seven years. If you hover over the reference, a popup will add that I wrote about 40% of the gags. But, I usually ask to preview how people are planning on introducing me as a speaker, precisely so I can remove that credit. Even though the comic strip was in hundreds of newspapers and ran for seven years, few remember it, so if I get introduced as having written for Woody Allen, I then have to spend 60 seconds explaining that there was a comic strip, that I didn’t write for any of his movies, that I only met him twice, that I’m sure he wouldn’t remember me, that I’m not funny — all of which is exactly how you don’t want to begin a talk.

Now, the guy who originated the strip, drew it, managed it, signed it, and wrote a lot of the gags has written an article in The Guardian about the experience. Stuart Hample’s memoir of the strip is quite fascinating, at least to me. (Disclosure: Stu took me under his wing, treated me well, and was a nice guy. I have only good feelings for him.)

Because in some areas I am disciplined to the point of OCD, I wrote seven gags a night for those seven years, winnowed down to about 50 that I would send to Stu every week. He would tell me which ones he and Woody had accepted — about 3 a week, I recall — sometimes with comments from Woody Allen. Having Woody Allen critique gags was a rare privilege. It plus the $25 per gag kept me going.

Writing seven gags a night takes some of the romance out of the endeavor. Especially because the Woody Allen strip was looking for wry moments as much as for big gags, the challenge was coming up with situations. Woody is in an existentialist bakery. Woody decides wearing shoes is oppressive. Woody is insulted that a bear won’t chase him. Whatever. If you have the situation, it’s easy to wring a set of three panels out of it, and probably get a Sunday pay-off as well. Plus, there was always the possibility that the real Woody Allen would supply an actually funny punch line, or tell you how you could improve yours. Pretty cool.

I’ve always been ambivalent about using this credit. I mention it in my speaker’s bio and other places because it’s good for business. But it’s easily misunderstood and easily over-stated. Plus, I’ve always had the nightmare that someone will fact check my ass with Woody Allen, who would not remember me. Stu’s warm acknowledgment of my little contribution has made me feel better about this. But it remains a weird line in my resume, and one that can distort an audience’s expectations. So, I will continue to keep it out of introductions.

While I’m fessing up, here’ a little known fact: My mother’s first cousin, with whom she was especially close, was Tiny Tim. Yes, the ukelele-playing 1960s punch line, Tiny Tim. Mom used to babysit him. There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in him. I met him once briefly at my mother’s funeral and again by standing in line at Spooky Town, where he was a Halloween performer. But I can certainly vouch that he was totally for real. Obviously somewhat crazy, but incredibly sweet, and completely serious about his music — he was in fact a serious musicologist.

So, there you have it. Two Unnoteworthy Celebrity Connections. I’m looking forward to your own contributions to this confessional genre…

11 Responses to “My secret showbiz background: An acknowledgment and an untold truth”

  1. For people who don’t like following links, here’s what Stuart says about our host:

    “The star was David Weinberger, a brilliant 26-year-old PhD student in philosophy, who submitted some jokes out of the blue and won instant praise from Woody.”

    And David, when you say “I’m not funny,” we know you’re wrong. But cheers, and congratulations, and maybe someday woody will look you up again.

  2. As I pointed out several years ago when we first met, I actually (still) have the book. :)

  3. In Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air” archives, there is a Tiny Tim interview in which the depth and seriousness of the man’s musicological knowledge (and yes, with appropriate ukelele illustrations!) comes though.

  4. Tiny was certainly for real. Our mother always told us (before he was famous) that his behavior was not an act, but a sincere expression of his personality. He was always polite and did not want to impose. At our mother’s funeral, he didn’t want to come back to her house because he felt it was an imposition. He didn’t have a watch and pulled an alarm clock out of his sport coat pocket!

  5. I always wondered how a public intellectual like you made a living. Speaking fees, huh? Well, I can attest that you are an excellent speaker, as well as writer. Funny too, in a dry, self-deprecating manner.

  6. My “business model” varies, depending on what’s working at the time. Some years more of my income comes from marketing consulting, some years (few) writing was the heaviest contributor. Overall, though, for the past 10, speaking fees have been the bulk of my income.

  7. I really like your articles, your composition is very good.

  8. enjoy it

  9. Something here about the math I don’t quite get …

    Because in some areas I am disciplined to the point of OCD, I wrote seven gags a night for those seven years, winnowed down to about 50 that I would send to Stu every week

    Does this statement not mean that you produced 49 gags a week, each week for 7 years ? Did you write those 49, and then winnow it down to 50 per week (by adding one) that you sent Stuart ?

    I think you meant that you winnowed the & X 7 = 49 down to 5, and I am just being a pedant by remarking on a typo …

  10. Oh, math!

    I’m actually not sure what I meant. I remember for sure the magic number of 7 per night, but I can’t remember what the average winnowed number was. Probably about half of that, or less. I sent in a LOT more than 5 per week, because my rejection rate was quite healthy. If I had to guess, I’d say I sent in about 20/week.

  11. Great weblog, I truly enjoy messages of your stuff.

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