There are four kinds of people in this world. There are those who do not yet know Frank Lesser. Then there are those who wish they were Frank Lesser. After that there are those who know Frank Lesser but are comfortable with who they are; these are exceedingly rare. And finally there are those who are Frank Lesser. I interviewed the last living member of this elite fourth category. Frank Lesser is an NYC-based, Emmy-winning writer for The Colbert Report, an avid producer of short films and the recent author of Sad Monsters, a book of humorous short stories (illustrated by Willie Real) about emotionally tormented monsters, from a mummy with body image issues who wishes she had been wrapped vertically because it’s more slimming, to Godzilla wondering whether destruction has lost its meaning. We talked about his experience on Colbert, his new book, and the early history of modern comedy.
The Independent: How did you end up writing for The Colbert Report?
Frank Lesser: It was the lowest point of my life. I had just been mugged, I had injured my back and the girl that I was dating at the time went to California for a month and a half to work on a pot farm. When she got out there, she was like, “Yeah, I think we should see other people.”
I met somebody who had just been hired as a writer's assistant on Colbert. She invited me to a taping and asked what was up. I told her this whole sob story ending with, "I was at the lowest point in my life," and she said, "Oh well, you know that they’re hiring," and then sort of didn't say anything.
And then a month later they hired me, although she did say after I got hired, “Yeah, give it a month and a half, you'll be complaining just as much as you were before.” I think she really nailed the comedy writer mindset.
Indy: What’s it like writing for Colbert?
FL: It’s wonderful when the person who's in charge is a brilliantly talented, hilarious person. And so in some ways, you don't feel as bad when they cut your jokes because you're like, "Okay, well this person knows what they're talking about," and in other ways you're like, "Why doesn't Stephen Colbert like this joke?"
Indy: Do you watch a lot of the O'Reilly Factor for inspiration?
FL: No, luckily—and this could just be bad work habits on my own part—you can get a lot of that stuff from clips. We have researchers who watch stuff.
Indy: And the jokes grow out of what they find?
FL: Well, what's really great is that we're also allowed to do very goofy things on the show. It's nice when you get to make a satirical political point, but sometimes it's fun to just have Stephen fight a giant Styrofoam cup. I think that humor can definitely have a point, but I also do like the really goofy stuff; I think you can entertain people with the goofy stuff.
Indy: Are professional comedy writers fun to work with?
FL: Comedy writers aren't known for being social, but I've found that about a third of them in the real world sort of are. You're working sort of long hours in close quarters with other people. The toughest thing is figuring out how to tell somebody you just met that you're not crazy about their joke, and that takes a couple months, but that's an interesting part of the job.
Indy: What's your opinion on puns?
FL: If you'll read the book, you'll know that I am somewhat pro-pun. I am not crazy about them always. They're fine for titles. I think it's bad if the pun is the only joke, but sometimes they're funny because they're so stupid, you sort of have to laugh.
I'm just reading this on Wikipedia: "Samuel Johnson disparagingly referred to punning as the lowest form of humor." But I would say eighteenth-century humor is the lowest form of humor. The only thing worse than a pun is an aphorism.
Indy: Who was the funniest person from before the twentieth century?
FL: That's the terrifying thing: how long does humor last? Actually, I think Herman Melville is really funny. Bartleby the Scrivener is a very funny short story. It's weird and weirdly human and I'm pretty sure it was written to be funny. And the first third of Moby Dick is hilarious. I think Moby Dick is this strange book that gets gradually worse as it goes along. It has the most famous opening sentence in all of literature; the whole first page is absolutely amazing; the opening, where he talks about standing on the edge of Manhattan and looking out to sea and feeling an urge to get out there, is absolutely amazing; and when he meets Queequeg it's absolutely amazing. For me, it fell apart when he started talking about the whale.
Indy: When was the hardest you've ever laughed?
FL: I have a lot of friends who enjoy watching really awful movies and somebody had seen this movie called Sleepaway Camp. It’s this horribly-made -- yet adequately comepetenet -- movie that just goes on. At one point they show this scene of twelve-year-olds playing softball that goes on literally for like several innings. You're sitting there, and it's about three or four minutes of them just playing ball without any kind of narrative advancement in any way. The ending of that movie is so unexpected. It's horrifying but also hilarious, and it's not really a scary movie in any way. I almost threw up I was laughing so hard.
Indy: Is there a level of hilarity that unintentional comedy can reach that intentional comedy can't?
FL: I think so. I wonder how much of it has to do with some sense of schadenfreude or something. It's similar to improv in a way. I'm not a huge fan of improv, but improv laughter's a little different from planned stuff because partly you're laughing at, "Oh, they didn't expect that" or "Oh, they just thought of it at the same time. If you take that even further it's like, "Oh, here's a movie that didn't think it was being funny but actually was." For me it’s partly the horror of thinking , “Oh my gosh, what if I'm the person who made this movie?" What if I'm M. Night Shyamalan after making Lady in The Water, and I thought I was making this big intense thing? But that’s a hilarious movie.
Indy: What’s your take on stand-up comedy?
FL: I have a love-hate relationship with stand-up. I tried it once or twice at Brown [class of ’02] and kind of enjoyed it, but I don't think I like telling the same joke over and over, which is why even when I'm talking about my book, I'm blanking because I'm like, "Oh god, do I have to tell this joke again?" I prefer to keep writing new stuff or to write sketches where you have actors performing the stuff.
Indy: You’ve just released a new book, Sad Monsters. How did that come about?
FL: For whatever reason, I've always been interested in monsters. I think I find a lot of humor in the pathos of the hideous creature. I had written a few pieces about monsters that had appeared on Slate and then decided to write a few more. My manager sent it to a literary agent and asked, “Hey, do you think there could be any market for this?” I definitely felt like people would accuse me of capitalizing on the whole monster humor thing. But I think I am doing something different in this book, where they are sort of self-contained little narratives that usually have more than just humor.
Indy: When you write jokes, are you going for something more than just making people laugh?
FL: I prefer to just write something that's entertaining to me and funny to me. And depending on what the piece is, there could be a bigger point. I think if you analyze stuff too much, it stops being funny, it stops being entertaining. I was a semiotics major at Brown, so I know a little about analyzing things too much. And I do feel like if you analyze your own process, that's where writer's block comes from, that's when you get stuck. Sometimes it's better to just say, "Oh, I got an idea: what if, um, what if I write about a werewolf whisperer?"
Indy: What’s the difference between TV jokes and book jokes?
FL: The main thing is that no one really changes the jokes in your book. No one asks you to rewrite the joke. I had an editor who had some really good input, but it was a really nice experience to just say, "Everything in here is something I worked on." Also, television is incredibly collaborative so we're usually writing with someone else: there are head writers who are giving input, and Stephen's giving input. And this book was just a fun nice thing where it sinks or swims on its own and I can sit there and obsessively read the reviews.
Indy: Ah, the solitary life of an author.
FL: People I trusted or friends of mine who had similar senses of humor, I would show them pieces and ask, "What do you think of this?" And I would take some criticism and ignore other stuff if it didn't make any sense. I feel like that's very helpful and something that you sort of get from workshops at Brown. If anybody's reading this and wants to buy the book, they should do that, and then give it a five star review.
JAMIE BREW ’12 received a tepid reaction when he read Moby Dick for his stand-up comedy set.