Next weekend, humorist Andy Borowitz comes to Portland for an evening of conversation and storytelling. We were well aware of his long history with the Harvard Lampoon, and producing credits for films like “Pleasantville” — not to mention the amazing stream of daily satirical gems most days at “The Borowitz Report” — a feed so popular, it was acquired by the New Yorker in 2012.
But we barely knew the half of it. TV writing, production, stand-up, books, bands — he’s kind of done it all. Borowitz’s television writing credits include “Archie’s Place,” “The Jeffersons,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Square Pegs.” He’s appeared on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” and “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” A late-comer to stand-up comedy, Borowitz has managed to pack houses at numerous festivals.
Political satire is his weapon of choice. But how does one write satire when the news is at its most cringe-worthy?
On how he got started:
The fake news story, for me, really starts much earlier, in the 1970s. I was very much under the influence of the National Lampoon. I was editor of my high school newspaper, and the only reason that I wanted to be editor of the newspaper was because it was traditional that every year on April Fool’s we wrote fake news stories.
I honestly slogged through the rest of the year doing real news, just to get to that one issue: so I could write fake news. After high school, I went on to Harvard and when I was president of the Harvard Lampoon, it was the best experience I ever had. So by the time I started up again in the 2000s, I was just really — I guess the term would be regressing. I was just going back to what I had done in college and high school.
On developing stories in the 250-word format of “The Borowitz Report”:
I think anyone who writes fake news — I guess we now have to call it “news satire,” to be clear what we mean by this — it’s a very front-loaded enterprise. All the work, for me, really is spent during the day. I’m a dad, I’m at home. I don’t have an office. I’d go out and go grocery shopping and drop off my daughter at school. I’m just sort of going about my days in this complete zombie-like fog, hoping that some headline will pop into my head. I’m not like sitting in a desk, bearing down. If there is something that strikes me as a good concept, and I sit down to write it, the writing actually goes incredibly quickly. That can be the fun part, because I’m writing in this bad wire-copy style. But the struggle to get that headline is a genuine struggle. It doesn’t really get easier.
On trying his hand at longform writing:
I once sat down and tried to write a novel, and I’ve found that it was an incredibly unpleasant. If it was unpleasant for me, I can only imagine what it would have been like for the reader. I’m very bad at describing things. I’m not a terribly visual person, in terms of describing things. I found that a real struggle, just a character walking into a room, and what the room would look like, and how the character walks across the room. I was talking to a friend of mine who’s a novelist, and he really crystallized what the problem was for me. He said, “What you do, as a satirist, is you take something really enormous, like the problems in the world, and then you reduce it to a few words.” He said, “What a novelist does is take something very small, like somebody picking up a cup of coffee, and describe that in such detail that it makes it palpable.” So it’s almost like looking at the different end of the telescope.
On what he finds funny:
There’s so much good stuff being done. I can go into a black hole and just watch ’60s British satire for three weeks. “Beyond the Fringe” is brilliant. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were brilliant. I know people had mixed feelings, but I really liked Sacha Baron Cohen’s show for Showtime that he did in 2018.
I read a book that was written in 2014, this wonderful book that won the Thurber Prize, called “Dear Committee Members,” by Julie Schumacher, which is easily in the top five funniest books I’ve ever read. She writes it from the point of view of this 50-something, very embittered, jaded English professor at a crap university. He’s just writing letters of recommendation for various people. She brilliantly uses these letters to tell an entire story that’s hilarious, but also really sad and really moving. If I ever had written a novel, that would have been the kind of novel I wish I had written. I’m so glad someone else did it.