Definition: the premise of a pre-arranged outcome
writer and an editor are lost in the desert. They’ve been without food or water
days, and it’s beginning to look like this is the end. Then, they see a shimmer
on the horizon. They run toward it. It’s an oasis!
editorial team is lost—or at least, wandering a bit in that editorial
wilderness called brainstorming. It’s October 2008 and Cottage Life’s latest editorial package is in
danger of being tinderbox-dry. Editor Penny Caldwell gathers her team of two
editors and eight writers to sharpen ideas for the do-it-yourself package on
how to be a cottage hero, slated for the June 2009 issue and set to feature
more than 30 short service pieces. The last thing the team wants is a ho-hum
execution. Enter David Zimmer, a frequent contributor and former editor, the
guy readers love to hate for his brash and often-foolish style. Zimmer presents
an idea to Caldwell about re-rooting a toppled tree—and how you can stash a
dead body while you’re at it. Caldwell laughs. The idea is bizarre—not to
mention morbid—but she is intrigued.
A few days later, Zimmer gets a
call from his handling editor, Martin Zibauer. The story is a go. Several weeks
and 159 words later, he delivers the expectedly absurd piece. To accompany it,
the art department commissions a flight safety card-style illustration of a man
dumping a limp body into a hole beneath an uprooted tree. The editors sell the
package on the cover with a line that reads, “Hide a dead body.” Publisher Al
Zikovitz gives the cover a once-over, not glancing twice at the cover line. He
likes the controversial bit and gives Caldwell his approval.
The piece is a shift in tone from Cottage Life’s usual fare. Caldwell knows that.
But she also knows it’s a fresh take on what might have been a dull how-
to-save-a-tree piece. For the genteel editor, it’s a risk worth taking—a bit of
absurd humour nestled snugly within a value-packed service roundup shouldn’t
hurt anyone. In early May 2009, the issue goes to print and Caldwell thinks no
more of it.
Being funny is something we
Canadians are supposed to be good at. Think Jim Carrey, Dan Aykroyd, Stephen
Leacock and a long list of homegrown and, yes, often-exported comedic talent.
Still, not a lot of laughs find their way onto the pages of our magazines.
Andrew Clark, a National Magazine Award (NMA) winner for humour and author of Stand and Deliver: Inside
says our comedians have found success in radio, TV and film, but when it comes
to print, the laughs are sparse because editors tend to “shy away” from humour.
“I’ve never really been able to understand it,” Clark says. But humour isn’t
easy (hence the theatre truism: dying is easy, comedy is hard). And while
magazine editors often recognize its value as a leavener in what might
otherwise feel like a heavy meal of service, profiles, features and
investigative pieces, getting the menu just right takes skill—and some luck.
And last spring, Cottage Life wasn’t lucky.
Definition: an accompanying
writer reaches it first and jumps into a lake of the cleanest, freshest,
tastiest water he’s ever experienced. He gulps down the water and
splashes around in it.
Fielding reached for his mouse and clicked on the message that had just popped
onto his screen. Subject line: meet me in my office. From: Laas Turnbull,
editor of Report
magazine. Message: blank. It was the summer of 2006 and as a young associate
editor, Fielding had reason to be anxious. Earlier that day, he had forwarded
the first draft of a goofy feature he had commissioned from Toronto writer Mark
Schatzker to five senior editors. It was an investor’s guide to the quality and
quantity of free food and booze offered at shareholder meetings. For a magazine
not typically known for its sardonic content, the story was a risk. Within a
few hours of hitting send, Fielding received a reply from one of his colleagues:
“I don’t see any value in this story whatsoever. I would kill it.” Minutes
later, Turnbull’s ominous e-mail popped up. For Fielding, so did gloomy
diminishing the whole brand of the magazine!
he worried. Discouraged, he walked the few steps to the boss’s office,
anticipating the editor’s wrath. But there was none—Turnbull liked the piece.
“Humour is tricky,” he told Fielding. “You can’t expect everybody to be on board.
I think you should pursue it.” A year later, the piece won a silver for humour at the NMAs. Vindication.
As Fielding discovered, crafting
humour that hits the mark isn’t easy. Editors who take themselves too seriously
are one problem. The typical editing process—circulating the draft widely so
everyone can weigh in with suggested edits—is another. While that can work with
straight features, with humour the comedic spark can get snuffed out along the
way. “The whole thing’s been cleaned up, tightened,” says Fielding. “The
language is beautiful and it’s dull.” Schatzker’s seen it happen to his own
copy. As a satire writer for The Globe and Mail and frequent contributor to
magazines including ROB and explore, he says most editors over-edit
humour stories, almost to the point of “straight-jacketing” the jokes. One
example: for a publication he won’t name, an editor assigned him an anecdotal
piece, saying he wanted some quick-witted voice in the mix. But the editor then
morphed Schatzker’s tone into what he felt was a more mundane voice, effeminate
even. He didn’t see the changes until the piece appeared. Why did you come to me?
he thought. I’m
funnier than you. What are you doing? He blames bad edits on editors’ dual impulses to avoid
offence by softening the jab and avoid confusion by over-explaining the joke.
But the fact that Schatzker has
steady humour gigs—like columnist Tabatha Southey at Elle Canada and Scott Feschuk at Maclean’s—makes his job easier than that of
the untethered humour freelancer. A humorous piece is easier to pitch fully
executed, rather than being boiled down to a query. For freelancers, the
downside is the time and effort put into writing the piece literally doesn’t
pay off if they can’t sell it. In August 2009, Anne Fenn, an nma winner for humour writing, wrote a
piece poking fun at the trials and tribulations of sexless marriages. “The Joy
of Scheduled Sex,” she called it. But actually selling it was agonizing. More passed because it had recently
done a sex issue. Best
had done something “similar” and Chatelaine wanted a humourless approach to the subject. In other
words, a standard-issue feature. “I think the editors are afraid of offending
their readers,” she says. “It’s sad.”
The situation is less dismal for
humour columnists. Southey has been Elle’s funny gal for over six years and says changes to her
columns are minimal and no topic is off-limits. Editor Rita Silvan hired
Southey for her witty voice and gives her wide range. Why? “I’m dealing with a
very talented writer who understands the brand.”
As a Maclean’s regular, Feschuk enjoys similar
freedom, in part because boss Ken Whyte encourages his writers to use humour to
provoke—not just in humour columns, but in serious pieces as well. Feschuk also
produces a blog for macleans.ca where, in December 2008, he ignited controversy
by adopting the character of the baby Jesus live-blogging from the manger. He
didn’t hold back, ridiculing Christianity and the nativity scene. The piece
prompted predictable outrage, with one insulted reader likening Feschuk’s
hostility towards the religion to Joseph Stalin’s systematic starvation of the
Ukrainians. Contentious or not, his editors were supportive—the piece attracted
more attention than usual for the website.
Freelancers might envy the niches
that Schatzker, Southey and Feschuk have carved for themselves, but other
editors likely envy the magazines that have landed them. As any assigning
editor will admit, humourists as skilled as this trio are few and far between.
Since its 2007 launch, More’s monthly humour column has been
the magazine’s trickiest slot to fill, says managing editor Sarah Moore. Rather
than featuring the work of a single writer, she opens it to submissions from
all of her contributors. And when her humour inbox is empty, she puts out a
call to past contributors and brainstorms until the right topic pops up. Even
then, it isn’t easy. “It’s really hard to go to somebody and say, ‘Write me a
funny story,’” says Moore. “It’s easier for them to come to me and say, ‘I have
a funny story that works for your magazine.’”
frustration has a familiar ring for former Saturday
Adam Sternbergh, now a well-regarded funny guy in his own right and an editor
magazine. Back in 1999, Saturday
went through a redesign and added a humour section that mimicked The New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs. It
introduced The Passing Show section as a full page of laughs. “It just seemed
natural that if you were presenting yourself as a national Canadian magazine,”
says Sternbergh, “there should be some sort of element of humour in it.” But
the staff struggled to find a tone that worked—and writers to deliver it. David
Rakoff (who, like Sternbergh, is a Canadian working in the United States)
kicked off the first column. The revamped section ran for only four issues
before being spiked, and The Passing Show reverted back to its original “dryly
reported tidbits.” Sixteen months in, that too was gone.
“The art of print humour is
inarguably in a much weaker state now than it was 50 years ago,” says
Sternbergh, adding the situation is similarsouth of the border, where it’s been
more than a decade since Spy, the oft-mentioned model of modern satirical magazines,
folded. Here in Canada,
Frank’s Ottawa edition ceased
publication two years ago (though the Atlantic version continues) and other mainstream
magazines have reduced their already-limited humour content. In 2005, Chatelaine killed Judith Timson’s domestic
humour column after 14 years. And Fashion axed Elizabeth Renzetti’s back-page column in 2004.
Clark accuses editors of a
stereotypically Canadian crime: earnestness. “They don’t get that you could do
a really serious article and use humour to make a point.” Or maybe they just fear their readers will
miss the point.
Definition: an unforeseen
development of events
Then he looks up. He sees the
editor standing at the waterline. Instead of drinking the
water, he’s pissing into it. “What the hell are you doing?” the writer cries.
Caldwell looks up. She hears the phone ringing. She answers it. A reader is
furious over the dead body piece in the June 2009 issue, which has just hit
mailboxes and newsstands. Caldwell apologizes. A few hours later, she gets
another angry call. She checks her e-mail. More complaints. This isn’t normal, she senses. In the days to come,
Caldwell gets up to five e-mails a day from fuming readers, with responses
ranging from, “How could you do this?” to “The kids might see it!” to “Pull it
off the press.”
Timing, as they say in comedy, is
everything. And in Cottage
case, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Just days before the issue arrived
in mailboxes, police in Woodstock, Ontario, arrested two people in connection
with the disappearance of eight-year-old Victoria Stafford. By the time readers
started flipping through their June issues, a full-scale search was on to
discover where the duo had dumped the girl’s body. Against that backdrop, some
readers just couldn’t see the humour in a tongue-in-cheek reference to hiding a
And so, on June 2, 2009, Caldwell
apologized on her blog for the “over-the-top bit of dark humour,” calling it an
error in judgment. “I knew it was going to be slightly
controversial, but it went further than I had anticipated,” she now says. “It
was just one small story in the overall package.”
Even in the
absence of such an unfortunate coincidence, readers’ reactions can be hard to predict.
What’s snort-out-your-milk funny to one reader could be completely distasteful
to another—but Clark argues if it isn’t offensive to someone, then it probably
isn’t amusing to anyone. Back in 1996, Cottage Life came out with an illustrated cover
by Canadian artist Joseph Salina of a naked woman cannonballing into the lake.
A very slight tip of the butt crack was visible—an amusing, but hardly erotic,
look at skinny-dipping by moonlight. Nonetheless, the magazine received a slew
of letters from disgusted readers. But there were those who loved it—a Catholic
minister wrote, “For God’s sake people, get a life. This is as funny as can
be.” The problem is that anger tends to fuel more responses than agreement
does. Still, publisher Zikovitz didn’t mind that controversy and doesn’t blame
his editor for the most recent one either. “God forbid we ever publish
magazines with no humour,” he says. While he regrets the timing of the dead
body piece, he says it got people talking about the magazine. And that’s a good
thing, even if some of that talk is unhappy.
Still, since most Canadian
mass-market magazines need to attract a diverse audience to survive, it’s more
challenging than ever to come up with humour that isn’t offensive to at least
something that explore editor James Little discovered
late last year when his magazine’s satirical piece on the International Olympic
Committee’s refusal to let women enter the 2010 ski jumping competition landed
with a thud. Many readers missed the joke, with at least five angry e-mails
(mostly from female readers) crying sexism over a piece that joked about how
dull it is to see fully clothed female athletes in any sport. Of course, that’s
not what Little intended and he later had to spell out the joke on his blog,
though unlike Caldwell, he refused to apologize despite threats from
ready-to-unsubscribe readers. For a magazine that relies on paid subscriptions,
it’s an uncomfortable position to be in.
publications that also rely on controlled-circulation like the now-defunct print edition of Toro, that worry, at least, is less of
an issue. If a humour piece pissed off a reader, it didn’t really matter—the
magazine still landed on the reader’s coffee table, or at least on their front
porch, wrapped up in their Globe. According to former editor Derek
Finkle, that liberation was one reason the magazine was able to experiment with
more irreverence than most (although Toro still butted heads with the Globe occasionally). That, and the fact
that the magazine was owned by an individual, rather than a risk-averse
corporate entity, such as a printer or wireless company. Finkle’s unabashed
gusto for impolite humour didn’t hurt either.
But those are conditions few
magazines can match today. And with concern about shrinking audiences and book
sizes in today’s advertising-challenged environment, risky humour content is
often among the first to be cut: Due to space, Outdoor Canada pulled its annual Misdeeds &
More roundup of bizarre news in outdoor life. The section had garnered
attention in the past—the last iteration featured angler Mariko Izumi, wearing
a t-shirt and bikini bottoms, sparking some readers to call it soft-core porn.
a frequent nma humour winner, cut its essay-style
humour features in 2008, with editor John Macfarlane saying he “just hasn’t
felt the need for them.”
Definition: the culmination of a
okay,” replies the editor. “I’m making it better.”
David Zimmer stands behind the
counter of the cottage-country store he owns in Dwight, Ontario. He has a few
issues of Cottage
stacked at the front counter, as always. But this particular summer issue
attracts more attention than usual. “Oh, I’ve got to see what this is all
about,” says one customer who spots the dead body cover line. Curious and
amused, other customers are drawn in by the line as well. It’s one of the few
times he’s noticed a cover line really capture attention. “I had more people
than ever say this was really funny.”
While the audience reaction seemed
gloom-and-doom at the Cottage
office, Zimmer was uniquely placed to catch a glimpse of the opposite response.
If it were up to him, he probably wouldn’t have issued that apology. He isn’t
afraid to test his editors with outrageous ideas and foul language in his
writing (though he didn’t get away with using “sucking face” in a story, a
disappointing defeat). But like Southey and Feschuk, Zimmer has established
himself as a reliable contributor over many years, giving him leeway to add
that little bit of absurdity to his stories. “You’ll always get a handful of
people who are shocked and appalled,” he says. “But that’s better than being
ignored.” It takes trust, and Zimmer is confident that a reasonable reader
would take his how-to piece as nothing but a tongue-in-cheek story. Besides,
who’s got a dead body lying around?
Definition: the response, e.g.
laughter, smirks, snorts, etc.
your response here:
Remorse. Caldwell still feels it
even months after issuing the apology on her blog, replaying the if-onlys in
her head. But that doesn’t mean she’ll stop running humour. It’s a staple at Cottage Life, and even though this attempt
failed, she knows it still has a place in the magazine. “I just won’t be
talking about burying dead bodies anymore,” she chuckles. Despite the
misfortune, Caldwell and her team still think the Cottage Hero package was
worthy of recognition. They submitted the piece to this year’s nmas in the Single Service Article
Package category and—surprise—Humour.
shocking, either, is the biggest challenge editors have to face: accepting that there
is no such thing as a guaranteed laugh. But a magazine that doesn’t even try?
As Clark puts it: “Offend nobody, bore everyone.”