(AT)Eleven is a series of Q&As with writers whose paths and mine have crossed in one way or another and whose books I want to discuss—ideally in person, over lunch (my favourite meal of the day)—but given how we’re all in different parts of the country and beyond, it’s a bit simpler to do a vicarious version. So here we are. If you’d like to take a moment to get something to eat, I’ll wait. And if, after the Q&A, you’re inspired to read the book, you might be interested in my suggestion of the perfect meal to go with the reading.
“Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our consciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.”
~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book
I’ve never met John Wing—we were introduced online by a mutual friend—but he’s a familiar face; I’ve been watching him on the Comedy Chanel for years. He’s a regular at Montreal’s Just for Laughs, and various other festivals and clubs throughout the country and the U.S. where he has long made his home. (It’s amazing how many of the best comedians working in the States hail from our side of the 49th.) I was delighted when he agreed to do this Q&A, partly because he’s the only person I know who’s been on the Tonight Show (something like eight times), but mostly because I thoroughly enjoyed his book.
Beginning with the title—When the Red Light Goes On, Get Off—there’s a very engaging kind of instructional entre nous vibe in Wing’s writing; hey, he seems to be saying, if you think comedy is all laughs, think again: here’s the real deal, here’s what the road is like, the people, the venues, the hotels, the food, the hours and years devoted to a single joke. And while we’re at it, here’s how to write a joke—“Take them somewhere, until they’re sure of where it is, and then go somewhere else at the last second. The juxtaposition of the incongruous…” He makes it sound simple but then talks about rhythm, sound, word choice, pacing, why the ashtray in a sex joke must be cold… He tells stories, dozens of tiny, perfect anecdotes, how 25 years ago he hired a couple of guys to help him “shpritz” jokes for his act; they worked for three hours (at $50/hour) and at the end of it he had one excellent joke, which he shares, and which he still uses and so “got his money’s worth”.
Here is what I didn’t know before reading this: a good comedian is a good writer. They have to be. I can see that now. Like a lot of people maybe, I assumed it was all about the performance, but that’s zip unless the words are there first… tight and perfect and rehearsed and balanced and revised and updated and and and. One difference Wing notes between writing standup and writing anything else, is that “The audience has the final say, and it’s by their sound that you make the corrections.”
Wing is a good writer. And this is a good book… should be required reading for anyone thinking of going into the business, as well as anyone curious about the ‘other side’ of the business, as well as anyone who enjoys a well told story. As much as we learn about the business, Wing also candidly shares personal moments. He talks about the addiction to attention, the solitude, drug use, the need for a good memory, his penchant for photographing cemeteries, meeting Eric Idle, rivalries, strange but solid friendships and the ‘private club’ that is comedy—a hard place to make friends ‘on the outside’.
Wing has also published a number of poetry collections… a form he says is not dissimilar in process to writing standup. That in itself sounds like a whole other conversation…
Overall, I was left feeling I’d grown up a little. My naive idea of comedy considerably changed, I found myself more drawn to the form than ever. I’m watching the acts on the Comedy Chanel in a different way, laughing, yeah, but with a deeper, new-found respect. Awe, even. This is one tough business and you wonder why anyone sticks with it. A question that could be asked of many professions that require mere brilliance, passion and dedication.
Let’s just be glad they do.
And now, may I present… comedian, writer and poet, John Wing.
1. What literary character did you identify with as a child?
JW: Probably Tom Sawyer, which was the first novel I read. The idea of coming to one’s own funeral was as delicious then as it is now. And there is such haunting beauty in the note he was going to leave. ‘We ain’t dead. We’re just off being pirates.’
2. Can you recall an early piece of writing?
JW: I wrote a speech in grade eight about the Canada-Russia hockey series of 1972. I started writing poetry about that time, too. Lyric poetry, unimaginably bad. I tried to use large words, many that I had to imagine the spelling. I remember my version of ‘epitome’ was ‘epittamy’, which is, to this day, how I think it should be spelled. I tried to write a novel with my sister when I was around that age, too. I wrote the even-numbered chapters. Unfortunately it didn’t work out, as she hated and rewrote all of my chapters and I had no real idea what hers were about. I also wrote a funny newscast about that time. My brother and I performed it at a family gathering to huge laughs. The first jokes I ever attempted were in there. I recall one: “Studies show that the best way to avoid a hangover is to keep drinking. There is one side effect, however. In two months, you’ll be dead.”
3. Do you find recurring themes in your work that surprise you?
JW: Of course themes are recurrent, sometimes to an embarrassing degree. I try to branch out occasionally, but it is very difficult. I don’t know that I have themes that surprise me. They all come from a deep well somewhere. I am more surprised to find new stories in the well at times, since one always wonders when one book is finished if there will ever be another. The why of things is always my fascination. The truth of what you think is true. A poet friend of mine once mentioned he was trying to get a Canada Council grant. I asked what he would do with it if he got it and he said, “Oh, you know, go up to Baffin island for six months and write poems about my father.” I suppose I have written more than four or five poems that reference Moby Dick. Probably just wishful thinking.
4. A few questions on process. Given the amount of travelling you do, it must be a trick to find time to write or create an ideal work environment—or does the how and where and when depend on the ‘what’, i.e. poetry vs. performance material vs. memoir? Did I read that you’re also working on a novel?
JW: It’s not a trick at all. I write voluminous amounts on airplanes, which are almost perfect places to write. My routine is not a set thing, despite the warnings of all my literary heroes that it should be. My ideal work environment is a deadline. I need goals, concrete goals. I wrote thirty pages of ‘When The Red Light…’ in about ten months, and then was told by the publisher that he needed a full draft in three weeks. I wrote the whole thing in twelve nights, midnight to six, on a cruise ship. I finished the draft so quickly that I had time to do a polish, thanks be to God. Regarding the various types of writing, I tend to stick with one for a while, then switch to another. Where I am generally has very little to do with what I’m writing. The deadline creates the energy. Comedy and poetry are very similar types of writing, so that’s an easy switch. Prose is the hardest for me. I have started many novels and rarely reached a second chapter. However, hope springs eternal. If only someone would put a gun to my head. My favourite writing is the rewrite. I have three editors for my poetry books, and one gets the first draft, critiques it, then I rewrite it, send it to the second for another sandblasting, then another rewrite and the final editor and the final rewrites. Those are the best sessions. Making things better than they were.
5. In ‘When the Red Light Goes On, Get Off’, you mention that you’re good at being alone; I’m interested in the idea of solitude as it relates to art and wonder: is ‘being good at’ the same as being ’happy’ alone? And if we were to take work out of the equation, would the need for a certain amount of solitude still exist? It’s a kind of chicken/egg question, i.e. do the kids who are good at being alone become artists or do artistic kids learn to like being alone?
JW: Yes, being good at being alone is the same as being happy alone. I don’t know why I’m happier alone, but undeniably, I am. This job requires one to live in one’s head a lot, and being alone helps with that. I don’t know if I would like it so much if I were in another profession. I don’t know if my liking it was bred in me and came in handy when I chose comedy or if I adapted when I had to. As a boy I was fantastically homesick, to such a degree that I was razzed about it by my siblings. I was hosting a documentary film last year and we worked full days, 8:00 a.m. to around six. Four of us: me, the director, the cameraman, and the sound man. We would get back to the hotel after a long day and the director, who was the friendliest of fellows, would say, “Okay, boys, dinner in forty-five minutes!” And I would just groan inwardly. Not that I didn’t like all three of them. I did. But God in heaven, I just spent all freaking day with you guys! I have to have dinner with you as well? I have for thirty years been used to going back to my room alone having the rest of my night free. I need the recharge. Or to put it another way: Once I was doing a panel on addiction among comedians, and I said to the host, “I’m not good at interacting.” “You interact with the audience,” he replied. “Yes,” I said, looking out at the crowd. “I love to perform for you, but I don’t want to meet any of you personally.” Cold, I suppose, but it was true. Do I need lots of alone time as an artist? Absolutely.
6. Speaking of art, I was struck by your description of comedy as a skill not an art, how you remind us that art is open for interpretation, yet a joke can’t be ambiguous… you don’t want fifty different reactions, or people leaving the show debating what everything meant. You want laughter, a visceral, immediate response. In that way it’s more like a science. This is what’s so great about the book, this quality of opening the readers’ eyes to the industry in a way that allows for an appreciation of the work as something beyond being able to tell a good joke, which I’m pretty sure is how most people see comedy. (I’m wondering if even newbie comics think it’s as simple as that.) In a nutshell, what would you say is the most important quality any successful comedian has… is there a common denominator?
JW: This is difficult. You need three things to be successful. Writing ability, performance ability, and business ability. The amazing thing is you can do very well on a smidge of the first two if you have a lot of the third. The business ability has always been my weakness. The common denominator I have always seen is enormous insecurity. You need something you failed to get from your parents or siblings or peers when you were very young and impressionable. A prodigious memory helps, also. And persistence, which is the real problem now. Almost all comedians are going to just suck in the beginning. It takes two to five years to really develop an act. And there are going to be a lot of painful nights in that development. And you have to believe in yourself, and what you’re doing.
7. Any thoughts on why the majority of comedians are male?
JW: Well, the road might be harder on women than it is on men, partly because every week you’re working with someone who’s hitting on you. It is an utterly nomadic life, where extended periods of time at home make you really itchy and hard to be around. Also, if your partner doesn’t do stand-up comedy, you can’t really share much of it with him or her. Do women enjoy being alone as much as men do? I don’t know. I married a stand-up comedian. She pretty much stopped when we had children. Women have other pulls on their psyches. I hope none of that sounded idiotically sexist. It has nothing to do with women being funny or not. They are amazingly funny. The club owners are almost all male, and they prefer booking males. Sad but true. Women have a harder time getting booked, because it’s either an all-woman show, or there’s only one. Not as many spots. So it’s a hard life, and a harder living for women.
8. I enjoyed the road stories; you tell them well and I can see how it plays a big part in the lifestyle—the road being almost a character. Does it ever feel like a friend/enemy at times? There are also some nice bits about the culinary (or lack of) side of things and a lovely riff about which hotels/motels have the best amenities, location, bedspreads… I was stunned to learn that the best rooms are next to the elevators. That surprises me. Is it true?? Just curious.
JW: The reason the best rooms are next to the elevators is because they’re the shortest walk with a lot of baggage. and the further down the hall you go, the smaller the room is. You’re also close to the soda machine when you’re near the elevators. Yes the road is a friend, a companion. Have I been here before? Where did I go? Was it good? Let’s go there again. I’m going to Niagara Falls, London, and Toronto next month, and have favourite places in all three. And one of those favourite places will be the hotel room.
9. Of your poetry you say that you started doing it as a way to appeal to women. Did it work? And, more seriously, what about poetry speaks to you? Who are your influences; who do you read? And, finally, of all the genres you write in, which feels most comfortable? Which allows you the most freedom, if freedom is even the right word…?
JW: Did it work? I suppose it did, to one degree or another. One wished to be seen as soulful, or the word we used at the time– deep. In college, all my dorm mates thought I was gay, which was a wonderful way to recognize the idiots. Poetry was something my father loved deeply, and I wanted to impress him, too. In learning about it and reading it out of spite for his criticisms of my poor reading habits, I grew to love it. Housman and Kipling were early influences, also e.e. cummings. The first book of poems I ever bought was The Collected Hart Crane. I thought it was a nice copy, and I thought his name was interesting. His poetry was a new world. I also bought Leonard Cohen’s Selected Poems around that time. Both were large influences. Then I began to get poetry books as gifts from relatives. My aunt bought me Earle Birney’s Near False Creek Mouth, and my grandfather bought me Don Coles’ Sometimes All Over. My grandfather was friends with Don’s father, Jack. And Don had been a school friend of my father. Don became the greatest influence over my writing, and one of my great friends now. He is my first reader, and second editor of my manuscripts. His poetry is among the best I have ever read, and I have learned much from him. In college, my first writing professor was John Ditsky, who had a huge influence upon me. We corresponded for twenty years and he was my first reader and his critiques were brief but telling. His letters usually said one of two things. ‘Liked the poems’ was what I craved, and ‘Not up to your usual standard’ was what I feared. Sadly, we stopped writing each other for a time, and had just started again when he died suddenly. I owe him a great debt.
I read and collect reams of poetry. British, American, Canadian, and some Irish. Philip Larkin, D.J. Enright, Thomas Hardy, John Clare, Dylan Thomas,T.S. Eliot, Robert Burns (technically not a Brit—a favourite of my father) among other U.K. poets. Many Americans, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Theodore Roethke, Carolyn Kizer, John Ciardi, Walt Whitman, Cummings, Crane, Ezra Pound, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and James Tate, a Boston poet who is so original you can’t put him in any category. My Canadian brethren include Susan Holbrook, Julie Bruck, Erin Moure, Phil Hall, Al Purdy, John Newlove, Raymond Souster, Marty Gervais, and Joe Rosenblatt. On road trips, I always take two or three to keep me company, almost always a Don Coles or a Phil Hall. I feel most comfortable writing poetry or jokes, which are very similar disciplines. The hardest thing to write is a funny song, where the jokes have to rhyme AND scan. The only thing I find harder is to perform a new song. The first performance is so scary. What if they hate it? And every song has a weak line or a weak couplet, and every single time you sing that part you think, “Goddamnit, I should fix this piece of crap line.”
10. The memoir ends with your first appearance on The Tonight Show. There’s a whole lot more to your story since then. Will there be another book?
JW: I doubt it at the moment. It’s not on my radar. In the future, who knows?
Chocolate or Vanilla?
Vanilla. No doubt. Vanilla
Prairie or Mountains?
Difficult, as I live within sight of mountains and grew up in a flat place. Though I like mountains, my heart is prairie.
Pizza or Pasta?
I like pizza pretty much one way, and I love the variations of pasta, so I will pick pasta.
B. Dylan or D. Thomas?
I’ll take the poet.
Chopsticks or Fork?
Man is this easy. Fork, fork, a thousand times fork.
Large Room or Small?
I have spent the majority of my life in small rooms, so I would hope it’s my preference.
Editor’s Note: food and drink inspired by When the Red Light Goes On, Get Off
—one perfect grilled cheese sandwich, *sponge cake, strong coffee, Pepsi and beer
*read the book and the reason will be clear; still laughing about this one
John Wing was born in Sarnia Ontario during the Diefenbaker administration.
He has published seven books of poetry, all with Mosaic Press, and one memoir
with Black Moss Press. He has been a standup comedian for over 30 years,
logging more than 250 television appearances. His new book of poems,
Almost Somewhere Else, will be published in the fall. You can find John’s club dates on his Facebook page, and his books on Amazon.