A Conversation with Author Alan Katz: On Growing Up, New Books, and Getting Serious About Comedy

 

“I was very careful to stay in the world of
‘fiction based on truth.’
I’m not trying to fool or misinform readers —
I just want them to laugh until milk comes out
out of their noses.
Even if they’re not drinking milk.”
— Alan Katz

 

 

I’m so pleased to share my visit with Alan Katz, one of my favorite people in children’s books. An accomplished humorist — he started by writing jokes for Henny Youngman while in high school — Alan has a hilarious new series coming out in October. Come, let’s hang out with him and talk about classic comedy, growing in Queens, NY, and podiatry. Lots and lots of podiatry.

 

 

Just checking: Is this Alan Katz the humorist? Because I just spent the last half hour talking to Alan Katz the podiatrist, from Boise. Wrong guy. However, I did get great advice on bunions. You gotta soak ’em in a hydroxychloroquine solution!

I am a humorist, not a podiatrist. Though interestingly, my father owned a lot of children’s shoe stores, so my background is in feet.

I’m eager to talk about your new books, but first let me ask you this: You used to write for “The Rosie O’Donnell Show?”

I spent five years as one of the writers on The Rosie O’Donnell Show, contributing song parodies, games, guest bits, jokes, and more hilarity. I am a six-time Daytime Emmy loser for that effort. I also worked on Rosie’s short-lived 2011-12 series for Oprah’s network; I flew back and forth to Chicago (from Connecticut) every week.

We’ve seen comedy writers depicted on many TV shows and movies: “The Larry Sanders Show,” “30 Rock,” “Late Night,” others. Which one gets it most right?

I’d probably say, “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” I always wanted to be Rob or Buddy, and my experience with Rosie was most like their writers’ room.

I have clear memories of the banter between Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam (and wow, Richard Deacon as Mel Cooley was a great straight man). There was real warmth amidst all the quips, putdowns and repartee.

That’s pretty much how it was at the Rosie Show. There were six writers when I got there, and after a year or so, it went to just two of us — the amazing Caissie St. Onge and me. Lots of banter. Lots. And lots of incredible friendship.

Thanks for indulging me. Now let’s talk about this new book. Wait, hold on: There are four? Aren’t you special!

Special? Nah, I’m ordinary. But in a special way. Thanks for asking. Three of the books are the first in a new series I call Lieographies: The Absolutely Untrue, Totally Made Up, 100% Fake Life Stories of the World’s Greatest Heroes. They’re paperbacks being released on October 15th by the wonderful folks at Tanglewood Publishing, and they’re illustrated by the amazing Tracy Hill.

          

Tracy’s artwork is hilarious and spot on. 

There’s a Lieography about Amelia Earhart, one about Babe Ruth, and one about Thomas Edison. Each book is all about what didn’t happen to these fine figures. The books are written to accentuate the humor. I’m looking to inspire young readers to read, laugh, and think creatively. And, the last chapter of the book contains some real historical insights on the subjects, to pique readers’ interests in the true stories. Hopefully, they’ll laugh, they’ll learn, and then they’ll go find out more!

My first thought was envy: no research! But I guess you actually did need to know what happened . . . so you could write accurately about what didn’t happen . . . or something like that.

I was very careful to stay in the world of “fiction based on truth.” I’m not trying to fool or misinform readers — I just want them to laugh until milk comes out of their noses. Even if they’re not drinking milk.

Ha!

Dear Readers, here’s the opening salvo from the Amelia book . . .

On her first birthday, Amelia Earhart dedicated her life to flight.

“Aga boo ka pleh ma,” is what the adults standing near her heard.

“Isn’t that cute?” asked her mother.

“It’s totally adorable,” answered her father.

“Sheer poetry!” exclaimed her grandparents at the exact same time. Then they both said, “Jinx. You owe me a soda! Jinx. You owe me a soda!” over and over.

But Amelia hadn’t said anything cute, adorable, or poetic. According to the exact translation in the Larry Webster Baby-to-English Dictionary, what Amelia had said was…

“I believe that I will dedicate my life to flight. I believe that there is a way for women and men to soar high above the clouds to places as yet unreached. I believe I can make a powerful difference in this world. And most of all, at this very moment, I believe that I need a diaper change.”

Educators who’ve seen Lieographies herald them as a way to enjoy reading as they sharpen their critical thinking. Some have used the titles for “compare
and contrast” lessons — “Mr. Katz said this happened, but let’s see what really did happen.” I love that.

By the way, visitors to Lieographies.com will be able to see a new Lieographical “fact” every day. Today’s is: “Paul Revere was chosen to make the famous midnight ride because he owned the only horse with headlights.”

And you also have a short story collection coming out?

I do! The fourth new book is being released on October 6th by Running Press. It’s called Really Stupid Stories for Really Smart Kids, and it features illustrations by Gary Boller (I love his work!), and it’s 20 short stories to make kids laugh. They’ll read about The Day It Snowed Snowmen, a school smelling bee, and much more. A lot of the writing was inspired by my four amazing kids and their school lives, play lives, and life lives. I had a blast writing this book…and I hope that kids will read one or more of the stories at bedtime. Or snacktime. Or anytime.

Let’s shift a bit. Where did you grow up? What was your family like?

I grew up in Fresh Meadows, Queens. The town that had a giant electronic sign above the LIE. But lights were always out, and it mostly read F-ESH ME—OWS. My dad was a Stride Rite retailer (and a very funny man). My mother was very kind and supportive my whole life, though interestingly, she wasn’t funny until my dad died. My brother (eight years older) and I were close as children, though we had very different childhoods.

Ah, Queens, yes. My parents grew up there (next door neighbors, actually). This explains your love for the New York Mets. And yes, sometimes the punchlines really do write themselves.

I am in mourning over this season. Although as I like to say, the Mets finished first. See, the Yankees are still playing, but the Mets are done. So…they finished first.

I imagine you were always funny. Was there a point you can remember as a child when you realized, hey, I can make people laugh.

I had the humor bug very young. I was a mediocre ventriloquist, and I did extemporaneous “shows” in the lunchroom every day. Just me, talking to Jerry Mahoney. My mother made matching sweaters for me and the dummy. I still have Jerry, and his sweater still fits.

I wasn’t the class clown, but I wrote for him. Humor was a way to fit in (though if the bullies didn’t like my jokes, they’d chase me for more). Also, my father sold the bullies Puma Clyde sneakers at his wholesale cost to get them to stop bothering me. It worked, but I often think about the logic of equipping them with better footwear in which to chase me.

If only he sold ankle weights.

Please don’t try to be funny.

Right, leave it to the professionals. Would you mind sharing another photo from your childhood?

Here you go.

Um, Alan. I’m fairly certain that’s a photo of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Excellent spelling. But wrong.

I consider myself mildly funny, or occasionally funny with a chance of showers. But I’ve learned that the worst thing I can do as a writer is try too hard to be funny. Especially recently! Take my Jigsaw Jones series. There’s a lot of humor in those books. But I just try to tell the story, keep the mystery moving along, and trust that my sense of humor naturally leaks into it. 

Your Jigsaw Jones books are funny. You are funny. And I don’t think there’s such a thing as trying too hard to be funny. That’s like saying it’s possible to try too hard to be a podiatrist, which I’d never do.

I can see that you are correct about trying. It’s an important point, or counterpoint to the lazy notion that humor is supposed to be “natural” or “effortless.” Comedians rack their brains working on their acts. I phrased it wrong, I think I’m trying to get at the idea of forcing it — and how that works (or doesn’t work) for me. The best jokes come off as seemingly effortless. You don’t see the sweat. The key might be the editing function. Like taking photos, where you take 20 snapshots to get 1-2 keepers, maybe we need to attempt a variety of jokes, knowing that not every one can land. Is any of this making sense? Or am I trying too hard?

You’re definitely right. I always say, “If you don’t like that joke, there’s always one to replace it.” The trick, really, is to deliver the most appropriate joke — even if it isn’t quite the funniest.

Whoa, dude, that’s deep. I remember listening to a radio interview with Demetri Martin and I really liked it, because he wasn’t funny at all. He came off as this thoughtful, sensitive, articulate guy. It was the opposite of Robin Williams in his prime, where every second was filled with this manic drive to entertain. There must have been a thousand times when you were introduced, “This is Alan. He’s soooo funny!” Then the person looks at you expectantly. Do you ever feel a certain pressure to being funny on demand?

I do get that from time to time. But it’s really no different than bringing a friend to a podiatrist, and saying, “This podiatrist is soooo good at fixing feet.” The pressure is on, but you do what you do, and the anticipation turns to laughs…or healthier feet.

Did you have favorite comedians growing up? 

I was — and remain — a huge fan classic comedians such as Jack Benny, Buddy Hackett and others. In high school, I wrote for Henny Youngman ($7 a joke; I’d send him 20, he’d circle three and send me $21. By parents always wondered if he’d absconded with the other 17.). I very much enjoy old time radio (on the Internet), appreciating the extraordinary wordplay. But my number one hero was Soupy Sales. I’m proud to say I was able to do a couple of projects with him, and it was one of the high points of my career.

As a kid, I grew up loving those early Bill Cosby albums. I listened to them over and over. It was awful what he became, and forever tainted that great legacy.

Never found him funny. And his abhorrent behavior was long-known and tolerated, which is shameful.

What about Allan Sherman?

Another hero. Like Soupy, I had all of his albums. I still do, in fact. I’ve read his autobiography dozens of times. And I met him—backstage at Freedomland (a long-gone Bronx amusement park) in the early 1960s. Sweatiest man I’ve ever met. But funny…funny…funny.

I recently fell down a Rodney Dangerfield rabbit hole. Just got on Youtube and watched a series of his classic appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. My God. He’d just get on a roll and Johnny could only sit back, shake his head, and laugh. Rodney would barrel from topic to topic, riffing: “Kids today,” “My wife, oh, she’s a piece of work,” “I saw my doctor yesterday,” and it was all hysterical and fast, expertly delivered. Nobody can do that anymore.

It’s very true. Rodney was an original. I recently read a biography about him. Quite interesting.

Alan, thanks for coming by. Your gift of complimentary steak knives is already in the mail. I’m sorry I couldn’t afford an envelope. You are one of the truly generous, caring people in this bunny-eat-bunny business. I’m so glad to see you healthy, cracking wise, and putting out great work.

You are very kind. 

 

 

Alan Katz has been a print and television comedy writer for more than twenty years. In addition to being a multiple Emmy nominee for his work on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” and Disney’s “Raw Toonage,” he has written for children’s programming on Nickelodeon, ABC Television, Warner Brothers Animation’s Taz-Mania, and many others. Alan lives in Weston, Connecticut, with his journalist wife, Rose, and their children Simone, Andrew, Nathan, and David. Visit him online at AlanKatzBooks.com. Be sure to wear a mask, or else you might be recognized. 

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