“Humor Opens Doors:” Advice From Writer Wendi Aarons
By Susan Johnston Taylor, freelance writer
Is it okay to be funny in business?
They say “dying is easy, comedy is hard,” a truth known to anyone with a half-finished sitcom script, a failed wedding toast, or a satirical essay that never quite lands.
How does one insert more humor into their writing?
We turned to Wendi Aarons, an Austin, Texas-based writer and a frequent contributor to McSweeney’s, to find out. Her writing has appeared in US Weekly’s “Fashion Police” and on numerous blogs and websites. She’s also written for Esther’s Follies, Austin’s comedy and musical revue, and co-created a parody Twitter account @PaulRyanGosling that went viral during the 2012 U.S. election.
Aarons shares with us how she developed her comedic voice, where she finds inspiration, and more. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Beat: I see on your website that you worked as a copywriter and for movie studios earlier in your career. How did that work inform your writing?
Wendi Aarons: Well, working for egocentric movie studio executives definitely gives you a sense of humor because if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry when a stapler is being thrown at your head. But I started writing subversive, funny emails just to entertain my co-workers. Then I liked doing it so much that I decided to go into copywriting. Advertising was a good fit for me because the quick, humorous, impactful line is king. Unfortunately, I was laid off from an Austin ad agency when I was five months pregnant, so that curtailed my ad career. But on the plus side, it led to my freelance writing.
What have you overcome to get from your earlier writing work to where you are now?
Like most writers, I can’t read my early stuff without cringing. Why did I put things in all caps? Why was I so obnoxious? Oof. But I started writing in earnest when blogging was popular, and I tried to post at least one or two new pieces a week. Doing so was a good thing because it made me produce something even if the muse hadn’t struck, but it was also a bad thing because not everything was ready or developed enough to really be seen. I don’t really post on my blog now and work on more involved pieces, but the rub is that I don’t get that instant gratification like I got from the blog.
What writing work are you most proud of?
Last year I wrote a piece called “Fifty Candles” for McSweeney’s. I noticed that, like me, the main character of the movie Sixteen Candles was turning fifty, so I updated the movie and wrote about what she’s doing and feeling now. It’s a funny, sharp portrait of what both the character and I were like at age sixteen and how we are now. I was happy with how it resonated with a lot of people.
Worth a read: Aarons’ ode to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Tell us about your parody Twitter account. What was the impetus for that? How have you sustained that account over the past six years?
We started PaulRyanGosling right after [Paul Ryan] was announced as the VP candidate, and it really took off. Our tweets appeared on a lot of national shows and in newspapers, so that was amazing. The impetus was the name play, but also that Paul Ryan is such a weasel. We knew we could take him down a bit using pointed humor and a doofus persona. The rubber sword idea.
Any tips on collaborative social media accounts like this one?
During the height of the 2012 election when the account was most popular, my three collaborators and I used a spreadsheet for our draft tweets, and then we picked the ones we liked the best to post. Now we don’t tweet as often, and when we do, we just text the idea to each other before posting.
What’s the best and worst advice you’ve ever gotten about writing?
I’ve never liked the “write what you know” thing because I’m fairly private and my life is too boring to ever be a memoir. That said, of course, my personal feelings and experiences come into my humor writing, but not in an obvious way.
The best advice I’ve gotten was from my 12th grade English teacher Mr. Myrow. He’d assigned us to write a profile on a famous actor, but I was too lazy to go to the library. Instead, I just made up a famous actor named Venus Arnoldson and wrote a ridiculous profile of him. Rather than giving me a bad grade, Mr. Myrow wrote, “You shirked the assignment, but this is way better. Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing!” Total encouragement to just take a creative risk and not always do the expected. I still have that paper in a trunk in my attic.
What advice do you have for writers in business who otherwise cover boring topics?
If there’s any way to put humor in a boring topic, and it’s allowed, why not try it? Humor opens doors, it’s relatable and it puts the audience in the palm of your hand so they’re ready to hear the boring stuff. Unless you’re writing about computer chips, because that seems impossible to brighten up.
Read Aarons’ business satire I’m Going to Close This Deal Using Business Words I’ve Heard Men Yell in Airports.
What have you read recently that you loved?
I read a lot. Like a lot. Mostly thrillers, which is maybe strange for a humor writer, but I like the twisted stuff. My favorite novel of the past few months was hands down An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Incredible story and voice with a surplus of emotion.
Who do you look up to in writing?
I’m inspired by anyone using their writing to cause change or at least draw attention to what’s going on in the world. There are tons of great humor pieces on McSweeney’s right now, as well as on shows like Full Frontal and Last Week Tonight. It’s a golden age for political satire and parody.
You can read more of Aaron’s work on her website.