Mai Nguyen

I’m dyin’ up here!

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Why Canadian magazines have come to bury humour, not praise it

The Set-up

Definition: the premise of a pre-arranged outcome
A writer and an editor are lost in the desert. They’ve been without food or water
for days, and it’s beginning to look like this is the end. Then, they see a shimmer on the horizon. They run toward it. It’s an oasis!

An editorial team is lost—or at least, wandering a bit in that editorial wilderness called brainstorming. It’s October 2008 and Cottage Life’s latest editorial package is in danger of being tinderbox-dry. Editor Penny Caldwell gathers her team of two editors and eight writers to sharpen ideas for the do-it-yourself package on how to be a cottage hero, slated for the June 2009 issue and set to feature more than 30 short service pieces. The last thing the team wants is a ho-hum execution. Enter David Zimmer, a frequent contributor and former editor, the guy readers love to hate for his brash and often-foolish style. Zimmer presents an idea to Caldwell about re-rooting a toppled tree—and how you can stash a dead body while you’re at it. Caldwell laughs. The idea is bizarre—not to mention morbid—but she is intrigued.

A few days later, Zimmer gets a call from his handling editor, Martin Zibauer. The story is a go. Several weeks and 159 words later, he delivers the expectedly absurd piece. To accompany it, the art department commissions a flight safety card-style illustration of a man dumping a limp body into a hole beneath an uprooted tree. The editors sell the package on the cover with a line that reads, “Hide a dead body.” Publisher Al Zikovitz gives the cover a once-over, not glancing twice at the cover line. He likes the controversial bit and gives Caldwell his approval.

The piece is a shift in tone from Cottage Life’s usual fare. Caldwell knows that. But she also knows it’s a fresh take on what might have been a dull how- to-save-a-tree piece. For the genteel editor, it’s a risk worth taking—a bit of absurd humour nestled snugly within a value-packed service roundup shouldn’t hurt anyone. In early May 2009, the issue goes to print and Caldwell thinks no more of it.

Being funny is something we Canadians are supposed to be good at. Think Jim Carrey, Dan Aykroyd, Stephen Leacock and a long list of homegrown and, yes, often-exported comedic talent. Still, not a lot of laughs find their way onto the pages of our magazines. Andrew Clark, a National Magazine Award (NMA) winner for humour and author of Stand and Deliver: Inside Canadian Comedy, says our comedians have found success in radio, TV and film, but when it comes to print, the laughs are sparse because editors tend to “shy away” from humour. “I’ve never really been able to understand it,” Clark says. But humour isn’t easy (hence the theatre truism: dying is easy, comedy is hard). And while magazine editors often recognize its value as a leavener in what might otherwise feel like a heavy meal of service, profiles, features and investigative pieces, getting the menu just right takes skill—and some luck.

And last spring, Cottage Life wasn’t lucky.

The Act

Definition: an accompanying detailed description
The writer reaches it first and jumps into a lake of the cleanest, freshest, tastiest
water he’s ever experienced. He gulps down the water and splashes around in it.

David Fielding reached for his mouse and clicked on the message that had just popped onto his screen. Subject line: meet me in my office. From: Laas Turnbull, editor of Report on Business magazine. Message: blank. It was the summer of 2006 and as a young associate editor, Fielding had reason to be anxious. Earlier that day, he had forwarded the first draft of a goofy feature he had commissioned from Toronto writer Mark Schatzker to five senior editors. It was an investor’s guide to the quality and quantity of free food and booze offered at shareholder meetings. For a magazine not typically known for its sardonic content, the story was a risk. Within a few hours of hitting send, Fielding received a reply from one of his colleagues: “I don’t see any value in this story whatsoever. I would kill it.” Minutes later, Turnbull’s ominous e-mail popped up. For Fielding, so did gloomy thoughts. I’m diminishing the whole brand of the magazine!  he worried. Discouraged, he walked the few steps to the boss’s office, anticipating the editor’s wrath. But there was none—Turnbull liked the piece. “Humour is tricky,” he told Fielding. “You can’t expect everybody to be on board. I think you should pursue it.” A year later, the piece won a silver for humour at the NMAs. Vindication.

As Fielding discovered, crafting humour that hits the mark isn’t easy. Editors who take themselves too seriously are one problem. The typical editing process—circulating the draft widely so everyone can weigh in with suggested edits—is another. While that can work with straight features, with humour the comedic spark can get snuffed out along the way. “The whole thing’s been cleaned up, tightened,” says Fielding. “The language is beautiful and it’s dull.” Schatzker’s seen it happen to his own copy. As a satire writer for The Globe and Mail and frequent contributor to magazines including ROB and explore, he says most editors over-edit humour stories, almost to the point of “straight-jacketing” the jokes. One example: for a publication he won’t name, an editor assigned him an anecdotal piece, saying he wanted some quick-witted voice in the mix. But the editor then morphed Schatzker’s tone into what he felt was a more mundane voice, effeminate even. He didn’t see the changes until the piece appeared. Why did you come to me?  he thought. I’m funnier than you. What are you doing? He blames bad edits on editors’ dual impulses to avoid offence by softening the jab and avoid confusion by over-explaining the joke.

But the fact that Schatzker has steady humour gigs—like columnist Tabatha Southey at Elle Canada and Scott Feschuk at Maclean’s—makes his job easier than that of the untethered humour freelancer. A humorous piece is easier to pitch fully executed, rather than being boiled down to a query. For freelancers, the downside is the time and effort put into writing the piece literally doesn’t pay off if they can’t sell it. In August 2009, Anne Fenn, an nma winner for humour writing, wrote a piece poking fun at the trials and tribulations of sexless marriages. “The Joy of Scheduled Sex,” she called it. But actually selling it was agonizing. More passed because it had recently done a sex issue. Best Health had done something “similar” and Chatelaine wanted a humourless approach to the subject. In other words, a standard-issue feature. “I think the editors are afraid of offending their readers,” she says. “It’s sad.”

The situation is less dismal for humour columnists. Southey has been Elle’s funny gal for over six years and says changes to her columns are minimal and no topic is off-limits. Editor Rita Silvan hired Southey for her witty voice and gives her wide range. Why? “I’m dealing with a very talented writer who understands the brand.”

As a Maclean’s regular, Feschuk enjoys similar freedom, in part because boss Ken Whyte encourages his writers to use humour to provoke—not just in humour columns, but in serious pieces as well. Feschuk also produces a blog for where, in December 2008, he ignited controversy by adopting the character of the baby Jesus live-blogging from the manger. He didn’t hold back, ridiculing Christianity and the nativity scene. The piece prompted predictable outrage, with one insulted reader likening Feschuk’s hostility towards the religion to Joseph Stalin’s systematic starvation of the Ukrainians. Contentious or not, his editors were supportive—the piece attracted more attention than usual for the website.

Freelancers might envy the niches that Schatzker, Southey and Feschuk have carved for themselves, but other editors likely envy the magazines that have landed them. As any assigning editor will admit, humourists as skilled as this trio are few and far between. Since its 2007 launch, More’s monthly humour column has been the magazine’s trickiest slot to fill, says managing editor Sarah Moore. Rather than featuring the work of a single writer, she opens it to submissions from all of her contributors. And when her humour inbox is empty, she puts out a call to past contributors and brainstorms until the right topic pops up. Even then, it isn’t easy. “It’s really hard to go to somebody and say, ‘Write me a funny story,’” says Moore. “It’s easier for them to come to me and say, ‘I have a funny story that works for your magazine.’”

Moore’s frustration has a familiar ring for former Saturday Nighteditor Adam Sternbergh, now a well-regarded funny guy in his own right and an editor at New York magazine. Back in 1999, Saturday Night went through a redesign and added a humour section that mimicked The New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs. It introduced The Passing Show section as a full page of laughs. “It just seemed natural that if you were presenting yourself as a national Canadian magazine,” says Sternbergh, “there should be some sort of element of humour in it.” But the staff struggled to find a tone that worked—and writers to deliver it. David Rakoff (who, like Sternbergh, is a Canadian working in the United States) kicked off the first column. The revamped section ran for only four issues before being spiked, and The Passing Show reverted back to its original “dryly reported tidbits.” Sixteen months in, that too was gone.

“The art of print humour is inarguably in a much weaker state now than it was 50 years ago,” says Sternbergh, adding the situation is similarsouth of the border, where it’s been more than a decade since Spy, the oft-mentioned model of modern satirical magazines, folded. Here in Canada, Frank’s Ottawa edition ceased publication two years ago (though the Atlantic version continues) and other mainstream magazines have reduced their already-limited humour content. In 2005, Chatelaine killed Judith Timson’s domestic humour column after 14 years. And Fashion axed Elizabeth Renzetti’s back-page column in 2004.

Clark accuses editors of a stereotypically Canadian crime: earnestness. “They don’t get that you could do a really serious article and use humour to make a point.”  Or maybe they just fear their readers will miss the point.

The Twist

Definition: an unforeseen development of events
Then he looks up. He sees the editor standing at the waterline. Instead of drinking
the water, he’s pissing into it. “What the hell are you doing?” the writer cries.

Penny Caldwell looks up. She hears the phone ringing. She answers it. A reader is furious over the dead body piece in the June 2009 issue, which has just hit mailboxes and newsstands. Caldwell apologizes. A few hours later, she gets another angry call. She checks her e-mail. More complaints. This isn’t normal, she senses. In the days to come, Caldwell gets up to five e-mails a day from fuming readers, with responses ranging from, “How could you do this?” to “The kids might see it!” to “Pull it off the press.”

Timing, as they say in comedy, is everything. And in Cottage Life’s case, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Just days before the issue arrived in mailboxes, police in Woodstock, Ontario, arrested two people in connection with the disappearance of eight-year-old Victoria Stafford. By the time readers started flipping through their June issues, a full-scale search was on to discover where the duo had dumped the girl’s body. Against that backdrop, some readers just couldn’t see the humour in a tongue-in-cheek reference to hiding a body.

And so, on June 2, 2009, Caldwell apologized on her blog for the “over-the-top bit of dark humour,” calling it an error in judgment. “I knew it was going to be slightly controversial, but it went further than I had anticipated,” she now says. “It was just one small story in the overall package.”

Even in the absence of such an unfortunate coincidence, readers’ reactions can be hard to predict. What’s snort-out-your-milk funny to one reader could be completely distasteful to another—but Clark argues if it isn’t offensive to someone, then it probably isn’t amusing to anyone. Back in 1996, Cottage Life came out with an illustrated cover by Canadian artist Joseph Salina of a naked woman cannonballing into the lake. A very slight tip of the butt crack was visible—an amusing, but hardly erotic, look at skinny-dipping by moonlight. Nonetheless, the magazine received a slew of letters from disgusted readers. But there were those who loved it—a Catholic minister wrote, “For God’s sake people, get a life. This is as funny as can be.” The problem is that anger tends to fuel more responses than agreement does. Still, publisher Zikovitz didn’t mind that controversy and doesn’t blame his editor for the most recent one either. “God forbid we ever publish magazines with no humour,” he says. While he regrets the timing of the dead body piece, he says it got people talking about the magazine. And that’s a good thing, even if some of that talk is unhappy.

Still, since most Canadian mass-market magazines need to attract a diverse audience to survive, it’s more challenging than ever to come up with humour that isn’t offensive to at least some readers.

That’s something that explore editor James Little discovered late last year when his magazine’s satirical piece on the International Olympic Committee’s refusal to let women enter the 2010 ski jumping competition landed with a thud. Many readers missed the joke, with at least five angry e-mails (mostly from female readers) crying sexism over a piece that joked about how dull it is to see fully clothed female athletes in any sport. Of course, that’s not what Little intended and he later had to spell out the joke on his blog, though unlike Caldwell, he refused to apologize despite threats from ready-to-unsubscribe readers. For a magazine that relies on paid subscriptions, it’s an uncomfortable position to be in.

But for publications that also rely on controlled-circulation like the now-defunct print edition of Toro, that worry, at least, is less of an issue. If a humour piece pissed off a reader, it didn’t really matter—the magazine still landed on the reader’s coffee table, or at least on their front porch, wrapped up in their Globe. According to former editor Derek Finkle, that liberation was one reason the magazine was able to experiment with more irreverence than most (although Toro still butted heads with the Globe occasionally). That, and the fact that the magazine was owned by an individual, rather than a risk-averse corporate entity, such as a printer or wireless company. Finkle’s unabashed gusto for impolite humour didn’t hurt either.

But those are conditions few magazines can match today. And with concern about shrinking audiences and book sizes in today’s advertising-challenged environment, risky humour content is often among the first to be cut: Due to space, Outdoor Canada pulled its annual Misdeeds & More roundup of bizarre news in outdoor life. The section had garnered attention in the past—the last iteration featured angler Mariko Izumi, wearing a t-shirt and bikini bottoms, sparking some readers to call it soft-core porn. And The Walrus, a frequent nmahumour winner, cut its essay-style humour features in 2008, with editor John Macfarlane saying he “just hasn’t felt the need for them.”

The Punchline

Definition: the culmination of a joke
“It’s okay,” replies the editor. “I’m making it better.”

David Zimmer stands behind the counter of the cottage-country store he owns in Dwight, Ontario. He has a few issues of Cottage Life stacked at the front counter, as always. But this particular summer issue attracts more attention than usual. “Oh, I’ve got to see what this is all about,” says one customer who spots the dead body cover line. Curious and amused, other customers are drawn in by the line as well. It’s one of the few times he’s noticed a cover line really capture attention. “I had more people than ever say this was really funny.”

While the audience reaction seemed gloom-and-doom at the Cottage Life office, Zimmer was uniquely placed to catch a glimpse of the opposite response. If it were up to him, he probably wouldn’t have issued that apology. He isn’t afraid to test his editors with outrageous ideas and foul language in his writing (though he didn’t get away with using “sucking face” in a story, a disappointing defeat). But like Southey and Feschuk, Zimmer has established himself as a reliable contributor over many years, giving him leeway to add that little bit of absurdity to his stories. “You’ll always get a handful of people who are shocked and appalled,” he says. “But that’s better than being ignored.” It takes trust, and Zimmer is confident that a reasonable reader would take his how-to piece as nothing but a tongue-in-cheek story. Besides, who’s got a dead body lying around?

The Payoff

Definition: the response, e.g. laughter, smirks, snorts, etc.
Insert your response here:

Remorse. Caldwell still feels it even months after issuing the apology on her blog, replaying the if-onlys in her head. But that doesn’t mean she’ll stop running humour. It’s a staple at Cottage Life, and even though this attempt failed, she knows it still has a place in the magazine. “I just won’t be talking about burying dead bodies anymore,” she chuckles. Despite the misfortune, Caldwell and her team still think the Cottage Hero package was worthy of recognition. They submitted the piece to this year’s nmas in the Single Service Article Package category and—surprise—Humour.

Not so shocking, either, is the biggest challenge editors have to face: accepting that there is no such thing as a guaranteed laugh. But a magazine that doesn’t even try? As Clark puts it: “Offend nobody, bore everyone.”


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