The Study: Issue #25 - Links for Readers and Writers

A lesson in writing comedy, new episodes of THE SHELF LIFE, THE PROPHET is now on Apple Books, and more!

Table of Contents

  • Fascinating Rhythm: On Writing Comedy

  • The Shelf Life: Episodes 5 and 6

  • The Prophet: Now on Apple Books!

  • Amazon is Totally Fine with Selling White Supremacist Literature

  • Today’s Moment of Calm: Hanabira工房’s Diorama Videos 

  • Free Activities for Kids from NYPL

  • Support

  • About the Author

Scroll on!


Fascinating Rhythm: On Writing Comedy

When I started The Shelf Life, I knew I’d need to find my rhythm. This podcast was going to be a comedy, and comedy, as legends such as Jack Benny and Mel Brooks have intimated before, is like music. If my podcast was going to be successful—not in numbers, but in laughs—the show would need a solid rhythm.

I didn’t go to school to learn comedy. I didn’t spend years on the road growing my tight five into a tight ten, bombing in dive bars and clubs all over the country. My curriculum was The Dick van Dyke Show and I Love Lucy reruns on Nick at Nite. It was Friends after dinner and Seinfeld before bed. And in later years, it was the long narrative arc of How I Met Your Mother, the cringe-tastic mundanity of The Office, and the sophomoric crassness of Family Guy.

As I got older, I fell in love with the work of the greats like Jack Benny and Bob Hope. However, the Marx Brothers captivated me the most, especially Groucho, who was always ready with a lightning-fast zinger for poor Margaret Dumont. Even though Groucho never played an instrument onscreen like Harpo or Chico (save for the occasional ukulele), his Vaudevillian experience had made him a virtuoso in playing the audience.

Take his “Africa, God’s Country” speech in Animal Crackers, in which he fires out one-liners like a comedy Gatling gun. Half of them go by so fast, even the audience doesn’t get them until a few seconds later:

One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don’t know. Then we tried to remove the tusks. The tusks. That’s not so easy to say—you try that sometime. As I say, we tried to remove the tusks. But they were embedded so firmly that we couldn't budge them. Of course, in Alabama the Tuscaloosa, but that is entirely ir-elephant to what I was talking about.

This is jazz—seemingly fast and loose, but every note he hits is a tactical strike meant to entice the ear. There’s a clear rhythm to it, and it’s something I’ve kept at the back of my mind for most of my life.

When the time came to write my own kind of sitcom, I remembered Groucho while researching the rhythms of some of my favorite shows. Namely Seinfeld and BoJack Horseman—two completely different programs with different styles. I wanted to mash them up in a “peanut butter and chocolate” sort of way.

My main character, Edwin Charles, is a misanthrope. Except, unlike Seinfeld’s characters, he learns something throughout his narrative arc (like BoJack). But he’s judgmental and often says what everyone else is thinking. Much of his characterization was influenced by one of the best bits of comedy ever aired on television. Seinfeld season 3, episode 11 — “The Alternate Side”:

The Car Rental

While the agent is looking up Jerry’s car rental reservation, he and Elaine are carrying on a seemingly inane conversation about dating an older person. The humor between them is organic. She sets him up for lines that don’t necessarily sound like punchlines, but they hit that way because of his tone and rhythm.

Then all hell breaks loose. The woman behind the counter states that even though they have his reservation on file, they don’t have a car to fulfill it. Rather than get angry or belligerent, Jerry (albeit condescendingly) turns it into a routine and fulfills an audience fantasy of having the perfect response to an infuriating situation.

Jerry: I don't understand. Do you have my reservation?

Rental Car Agent: We have your reservation, we just ran out of cars.

Jerry: But the reservation keeps the car here. That's why you have the reservation.

Rental Car Agent: I think I know why we have reservations.

Jerry: I don't think you do. You see, you know how to take the reservation, you just don't know how to hold the reservation. And that's really the most important part of the reservation: the holding. Anybody can just take them.

It’s hard to convey in text. Much of the comedy is in Jerry’s performance—his hand movements and rising pitch as his frustration becomes more audible. He has a particular rhythm.

The throwaway line at the end about wanting the insurance is just the icing on the cake. Seinfeld, whether he’s on stage doing a set or in the middle of a scene with one of his costars, is essentially singing a tune for the audience. He’s hitting specific beats to elicit a reaction. Part of that is learning how to deliver a joke over the span of a career, but a bigger part is gut feeling.

You can tell when a joke will land. It’s in the way the audience laughs, whether you’ve had them from the beginning or you had to pull them to your side throughout a scene. I don’t have a live studio audience for my show, but I do have a gut feeling about how a joke will be received by the audience.

It took me six episodes, but I finally found The Shelf Life’s rhythm. I noticed it when I was editing laugh tracks in episode six. I’d left them in from episode five and watched as many of them lined up within a second or two of their previous locations from the last episode. My jokes were hitting in the same spots.

It sounds like it would’ve made for a boring episode, but it was the exact opposite. I’d finally developed my show’s “signature.” You’ll know when you’re listening to an episode of The Shelf Life because it sounds like The Shelf Life.

It has my rhythm. And from the reviews I’ve gotten from the press, listeners, and even my voice actors, people seem to dig it. So, if you’re writing comedy, be it a character in a book who provides a little levity to a bad situation, or a full 23 minute sitcom pilot, think of it like music. It has to flow and have a rhythm, maybe even more so if it’s limited to written text.

Watch movies and TV shows and stand-up comics you want to emulate. Pay attention to what works. To the cadence of the jokes and how they’re told. Why do people laugh? What do they laugh at more? What kinds of laughs are they—small chuckles or full-on guffaws?

An audience can tell you a lot about your rhythm because it has one of its own. If both sides are doing their part, you can make some beautiful music together.


The Shelf Life: Episodes 5 and 6

Episode 5: “Enlightening Conversation”: An unexpected—and unwelcome—visitor drops a bombshell in Edwin's lap that will change the future of Blue Cat Books forever, and the mail carrier brings a visitor from Edwin's past back to the present. At least Vincent, Sarah, and Mrs. Larson are there to help, even if Edwin never asked for it.

LISTEN NOW

Episode 6: “The Customer is Always Wrong”: A self-righteous crusader organizes a protest outside the store, but Edwin won’t be bullied that easily. And Vincent’s relationship with his daughter has led to some unexpected consequences.

LISTEN NOW

For more information about the cast, visit the Cast page.

Subscribe now in your podcatcher of choice:

Apple Podcasts

For more information, visit the website and follow the show on Twitter and Instagram.

And please leave a review in Apple Podcasts and/or Spotify. IT HELPS.


The Prophet: Now on Apple Books!

My new novel, The Prophet, is now on Apple Books!

Please show your support and purchase it for $2.99 at the link below (and leave a review)!


Amazon is Totally Fine with Selling White Supremacist Literature

Via Pro Publica:

KDP has democratized the publishing industry and earned praise for giving authors shut out of traditional channels the chance to reach an audience that would have been previously unimaginable.

It has also afforded the same opportunity to white supremacists and neo-Nazis, an investigation by ProPublica and The Atlantic has found. Releases include “Anschluss: The Politics of Vesica Piscis,” a polemic that praises the “grossly underappreciated” massacre of 77 people by the Norwegian neo-Nazi Anders Breivik in 2011, and “The White Rabbit Handbook,” a manifesto linked to an Illinois-based militia group facing federal hate-crime charges for firebombing a mosque. (Amazon removed the latter last week following questions from ProPublica.) About 200 of the 1,500 books recommended by the Colchester Collection, an online reading room run by and for white nationalists, were self-published through Amazon.

I took a stand against Amazon when I chose not to publish my book on the Kindle. I’d really like to see others do the same. Amazon has proven repeatedly that it doesn’t care about its workers, the publishing industry, and now it seems it doesn’t care about its customers either.

PLEASE: Stop shopping on Amazon if you can. Pull your books from their platform. Send them the message that their behavior is unacceptable.

Read the full article


Today’s Moment of Calm: Hanabira工房’s Diorama Videos 

I spent half an hour watching this incredibly skilled person make a diorama of their workshop out of balsa wood, foam, and cardboard. One of the most incredible and calming things I’ve ever seen.

PS: Pay close attention to the tiny fountain pen and ink bottles!

Watch the video


Free Activities for Kids from NYPL

The New York Public Library has made a bunch of fun printouts available for kids during the COVID-19 lockdown. Word searches, crosswords, and even little DIY books to keep the ankle biters busy.

Click here to download


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About the Author

Harry Marks is the author of the new thriller, The Prophet, and the creator of the podcast sitcom The Shelf Life, a comedy series set in a small-town bookshop. He is also the editor of the award-winning Plumbago Magazine and a writer for Aaron Mahnke’s Cabinet of Curiosities podcast from iHeartMedia. You can read his work at The CoilHelloHorror, and BaronFig.com.

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