Saturday, April 11, 2009

Comedy—It Don’t Get No Respect

Jeffrey Cohen is the author of the Double Feature Mystery series, whose latest installment, A NIGHT AT THE OPERATION, published this week. The series concerns itself with Elliot Freed, who buys a one-screen movie house in central New Jersey and shows only comedies, one classic and one contemporary each week. In A NIGHT AT THE OPERATION, Elliot’s ex-wife, for whom he still carries a torch, vanishes just at the moment she’s implicated in a murder.

Jeff has also written three books in the Aaron Tucker series about a freelance reporter who reluctantly investigates crimes, and two non-fiction books on raising a child with Asperger Syndrome.

Where does your humor come from?

The humor comes from West Palm Beach, Florida, and I’m too lazy to bring it back. Seriously? I don’t know if it’s related to being Jewish, although there’s certainly a tradition of Jewish humor that goes back pretty much forever, always an element of being “different” in that, and humor comes from anxiety, I guess. Living in New Jersey is another exercise in the inferiority complex—we’re stuck between New York and Philadelphia, and are the Rodney Dangerfields of the United States. We don’t get no respect. It’s a lot like writing funny mysteries, now that I think of it.

A hilarious comedy can be made about anything. Anything. It’s not the subject matter that makes the difference. It’s the point of view, chiefly that of the characters in the film. Suppose I told you there was a movie about two people who kidnap a newborn infant and are then subjected to pain and suffering because of that action. Suppose I told you it included extreme violence. Suppose I told you it had, at best, an ambiguous ending. Would you think it was funny? Then suppose I told you the movie is called Raising Arizona. It’s the point of view that makes a difference.

Do you think some readers find humor a distraction in mysteries? Is that part of the “no respect” problem you were talking about before?

The people who refuse to have humor in their mysteries probably wouldn’t want humor in a book without murder, either. They just don’t think anything should ever be silly. They don’t think anyone should ever be rude. They wish every person they see on television would just mind their language. They see the dark and serious side of life and think it’s so dark and serious that mocking it is, in some way, tempting it to strike. That’s a perfectly legitimate point of view; they’re entitled to it. Some people really do have no sense of humor--it’s not that they don’t WANT to think something’s funny; they just don’t have that gene built in. I’m not crazy about ballet; that doesn’t mean it isn’t a real form of art. I just don’t have it in me to appreciate it. Some people, alas, are like that about comedy. So they read the “serious” novelists, and they don’t read me. That’s what they should do--they’re not going to like my books, anyway.

Why is Aaron Tucker funny?

Because he refuses to play along. He won’t pretend he likes someone he thinks is an idiot. He listens to every word someone says to him, mostly because he’s looking for a pun he can make. He’s not angry; he’s amused. Aaron can’t understand why everybody doesn’t act the way he does. And when he met (his wife) Abby, he found someone who will banter with him in every conversation. Heaven.

Why is Elliot Freed funny?

Different reason. Elliot’s deflecting pain. His mission in life is to proselytize for comedy. He won’t be happy until everyone is watching the Marx Brothers instead of reading John Steinbeck. He truly believes that comedy can cure our ills, starting with his own. He didn’t open Comedy Tonight until after his divorce, and he’s still hoping to fix that marriage. Elliot isn’t tortured, but he believes things could be better, and he’s determined to make them so.
Why would it do us all a world of good to spend a couple of nights a week at Elliot’s theater, Comedy Tonight, instead of listening to the evening news or Twittering?

Not “instead of.” In addition to. I believe in reading the newspaper every day (I wouldn’t watch TV news on a bet, but I never miss The Daily Show). I keep up on Facebook, but I admit I don’t understand the appeal of Twitter, even though I’m on Twitter. Why would it do us good to go to Comedy Tonight? Because comedy is, indeed, therapeutic for those who get it. I spoke before about people who have no sense of humor—there aren’t that many, but there are some, and comedy won’t help them at all. But for the majority of us, a good comedy is the tonic we need when life is awful. Why were the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Mae West, Laurel and Hardy and so many others so popular during their time? First, because they were brilliant comedians. Second, and equally as important, because their time was the Great Depression. Watch and see if more comedies don’t get made in the next 2-3 years.

If you could write a comedy right now, for this decade, what would you write about and what comedians or comediennes (living or dead) would you cast in it?

If I had the chance to write for the Marxes, there would be no second place. Except maybe Gene Wilder, who is probably better suited to my temperament but isn’t as brilliant, only because he can’t be three men. What would be the best comedy for this decade? Some sort of wish-fulfillment story about getting even with greedy bankers, I should think. A Trading Places where the heroes aren’t commodities brokers.

What’s it like to write a screenplay?

It’s a lot like baking a chocolate cake, only without the chocolate. Or the cake. Or any baking. Aside from that, exactly the same. Writing screenplays was what I did for 20 years or so, and I think I got to be pretty good at it. Hollywood had a somewhat different opinion, and that indirectly led to my writing novels. So go figure. Screenplays are such a specific form, the storytelling is so visual and external, that writing a novel, where I could get into anybody’s head and ruminate on whatever the character wanted to think about, was very freeing. I still love movies, but I haven’t written in screenplay format for years. If I get a good idea... ah, who am I kidding? I’d probably turn it into a novel.

If you don’t have the stomach to collaborate, you shouldn’t write for the movies, definitely. I tell my screenwriting students that once they sell a screenplay, they have to consider it like a used car: If you sell it to someone, and the next day they paint it orange with pink polka dots, and rip out your $2000 audio system to install two tin cans and a string, you have NO RECOURSE. You cashed the check. The property belongs to them, now. You have to think, too, that the writers, directors and producers (plus cinematographers, sound technicians, Foley artists and for all I know the guy who sweeps up the soundstage) might add something worthwhile to your work. They’re artists, too. I wish I’d gotten the chance to collaborate and found out what would have happened to my work, but I fear that window is closed now. Unless someone who reads this wants to look into my screenplay archives, or buy the screen rights to one (or more) of my books. I’ll be happy to let them tramp all over my words then. And yes, I’ll cash the check.

Not only do you have a long background as a screenwriter, but you have two mystery series (three books each, so far) you’re published by a major mystery publisher and have been nominated for Lefty awards, etc. What’s life like in your part of the mystery world?

It’s green, here, with a little brook that runs through... Life is interesting here. I love being thought of as a funny writer (in a nice way, I mean). It’s what I’ve always wanted. I wish more people read the books so they could decide if I’m funny or not, but hopefully, that’ll come. The Lefty nominations were extremely gratifying, since it’s the only award that recognizes comedy, and that makes it my favorite. I hope the current book is treated as well. What I find interesting is that the people who like laughs in their mysteries REALLY like it, and the ones who don’t think it’s something approaching blasphemy. People say humor is subjective, and that’s just the tip of the subjective iceberg. If that makes any sense, which it doesn’t.

As writers, we strive to be professional, but shouldn’t writing be fun, too?

Should the process itself be fun? It’s fun when you write something you didn’t expect to write and it turns out well. It’s ridiculously difficult the rest of the time. I don’t sit behind the keyboard giggling all day at the tremendous joy I’m generating for myself. I am an advocate of the oldest of old saws for writers: “I hate writing. I love having written.”

What can not only writers, but readers, do to support one another in an economic and publishing situation that currently seems to be a black vortex?

Oh geez, if I knew that... The only thing a writer can do is share. “This is what goes on in my mind. I hope you find it interesting.” The minute we start to write things because we think other people want them is the minute we start writing crap. And even when some of the crap sells, it’s still crap.

What can readers do? Give the new guy/girl a chance. Don’t just read the comfortable old names because they’re the comfortable old names. If a reader doesn’t know how to find new names, there are several mystery journals that will give you a list longer than your arm. Or, ask your friends. I didn’t think I’d like Lisa Lutz’s “Spellmans” series, and resisted it for quite some time, and now I can’t wait to read the third book. Wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t given an unknown (to me) a shot.

For more information about Jeff and his books visit his web site.


Janet Rudolph said...

Great interview. Thanks for posting the link on Facebook! Can't wait to read the book.

Sharon Wildwind said...

This just in: if you want to see and hear Jeff singing the blues about mystery writing, take a look at

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Glad to have you on PDD, Jeff. I particularly love your titles. When I first joined DorothyL, everybody was talking about the one that remains my favorite: A Farewell to Legs.

Jeff Cohen said...

Thanks, Liz. That's one of my favorites, too. Hope you like the book, Janet!

Julia Buckley said...

Jeff, you give a great interview. I look forward to reading your movie theater mysteries--I'm a bit behind in the Cohen series. :) said...


You're very entertaining.
As usual. :)


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Mare Fairchild said...

What a great interview. I truly enjoyed it and you're on my "must buy" list. Thanks.

carlbrookins said...

Yeah, I've read 'im. He's funny. I admit it. Writing funny is hard work, innit? The key to effective, funny, humor in crime fiction is two-fold. It grows out of life, it is intrinsic to the situation and the character, not larded on. My detective is funny. Organic, if you like that better. I forget the other key. I think Jeff stole it.

Patty said...

Fun interview Jeff. One question, you said you would sell your books to Hollywood - but would you take them up on the offer to write the screenplay of your own work?

Jeff Cohen said...

Of course I'd be happy to write the screenplay, Patty. But I'd be amazed if they offered it to me (actually, I'd be amazed if anyone even showed interest in optioning the books, but I'm pretty easily amazed). Thanks for all the kind comments, everybody. Carl, the other key is to acknowledge serious things, like murder, and not make them a joke.

Neil Plakcy said...

So let's see... I'm Jewish and I was born in Jersey. But does that make me funny? I think both those things provide you a heritage of humor, but being funny is about having a skewed view of the world, seeing things that others might miss. Jeff certainly has that!