Patricia Marx on Hazing, The New Yorker, and TV Eyebrows

by Grace Bello

Patricia Marx was the first woman elected to The Harvard Lampoon, her first paid job was writing for Saturday Night Live, and she currently writes “On and Off the Avenue” and occasional “Shouts & Murmurs” columns for The New Yorker. She also writes books: the satirical How to Regain Your Virginity, the children’s book Dot in Larryland (with illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast), and, as of today, the novel Starting From Happy. So we asked her some hard-hitting questions, like who she’s dating, why she doesn’t like shopping, and how to make friends.

So you worked on SNL, the Lampoon, and now the New Yorker. Which do you think is closest to your sense of humor?

Well, it all rubbed off on me. I’d like to think that I have my own style. I think the most important thing for a writer is to be distinctive and write something that only she could write. My style is somewhat different but, I don’t think, wholly different when I write for different places, you know? When I write for children’s books, it’s kind of different from writing for The New Yorker, but not entirely so. I always have the same reader in mind.

And who is that reader?

The reader is kind of myself, I think. At one point, I wrote for my mother because she was my biggest critic; my grammar was very good when I wrote for her. I write for someone who’s bored easily. I try to be as engaging all the time as I can.

A friend of mine gave a copy of a book he was working on to his son. And his son’s advice was, “Put all the cool bits closer together.” And that’s what I try to do.

Starting From Happy is about a woman who dates a scientist, and there’s this kind of impossible relationship. I know you were dating a scientist…

I am. And I was just having a conversation with him this morning when I said, “It’s not really you.” And he said, “What do you mean, it’s not really me? I said a lot of those things, I’m a neuroscientist…” And I said, “Well, we’re not married, we don’t have kids.” But it’s certainly inspired by my boyfriend. And I was trying to be protective. I said, “Well, don’t say it’s about you. That makes me look awful!”

You had said that writing a shopping column [for The New Yorker] kind of kills shopping for you. Why do you say that?

Well, I’ve been in it too much, and it’s also associated with work. It’s eating dessert all the time. But no, I still like shopping. I mean, I’m in stores so much. And I’m always trying to think of synonyms for “buy” and “store.” Lately, I’ve been doing shopping columns that really aren’t “shopping” per se. Or about shopping for things that I don’t shop for. That’s much more fun to do. Cars, that was fun.

When did you and Roz Chast start working together?

The first piece I ever published was in The Atlantic, and it just so happened that Roz Chast, whom I’d never met and certainly had heard of, illustrated it. At the time, my mother called and said, “You should call Roz.” I don’t know why she said it. It was almost like when you’re five and your mother pushes you into the middle of the room and says, “Go play with this person.”

Years later, I wrote a children’s book. I ran into [Roz] at a party. And for some reason, I shudder to think why, I had a copy of the text with me. She said she’d like to read it and then called me up and asked me if she could illustrate it. And we’ve been friends ever since. We went to Galapagos to do a story, we did a story on 29th Street in New York as if it were a country going from end to end…We’ve done a lot.

What do you think she brings to the table and what do you think that you bring to the table in terms of a humor sensibility?

I think we overlap a little — except that I don’t write about her parents, and she does. I think I’m probably more of an absurdist than she is. She is a social commentator more than I am.

Do you keep a journal?

I never wrote a journal. I wish I had a journal just so that I could steal from it now. And I don’t remember anything. I mean, I have to do fiction because I have no memory to do nonfiction. I try to comfort myself about the lack of a journal by saying, “If you do go back and you see a funny line and you try to put it into something, it never works.” It’s never organic. It always seems like a sore thumb. I remember snapshots, which I’ll always remember. I don’t remember the in-between, which was probably not worth remembering. Do you keep a journal?

I do, but I update it very rarely. So when I go back and read it, it’s like, “Oh, broke up with so-and-so.” And then I turn to the next page, and six months later it says, “Broke up with so-and-so.”

Ha! Right.

What’s your writing process like?

I go deadline to deadline, a lot of it. I’m theoretically working all the time. I never take off a minute, in a way. I’m always worried. I’m always, always, always worried. I don’t know if it’s that I don’t need a lot of sleep or I told myself that I don’t need a lot of sleep. I work late at night. I like to work at 2 or 3 a.m. During the day, there are too many stores open, too many people to call, too many people to e-mail. I get the business of work done during the day. And a little work. I don’t have any systematic way of working other than just a lot of guilt, a lot of working all the time.

What was it like to be on The Harvard Lampoon?

So much fun. I was kind of one of the guys, which I liked. I went to college saying I would never be in a sorority and unbeknownst to me, I joined a fraternity.

Was there a hazing ritual? Because I think there is one now.

There is. There was a hazing ritual that was very gentle when I was there. Since I was the first girl, they didn’t know what to do. So instead of making me do disgusting things, I had to do library research.

You were the only girl?

There was another girl who came on a little bit after me, so there were two of us.

What did you write when you were there?

I worked on the parodies. I worked on the Cosmopolitan parody; I did an interview with Barbie. I did a [parody] bra ad — how to look really busty. I did a before-and-after. ’Cause I’m mainly a “before” person. I did a Sports Illustrated parody.

Were those parodies that you wrote at The Harvard Lampoon the jumping off point for How to Regain Your Virginity?

No, not really. That phrase came to me. I don’t know if you can do it these days, but I sold the book on that phrase. And then we had to figure out what the book was. And that was the first time I’d ever promoted anything — big tour. And people would ask me — they would assume [the parody] was real. I’d get really nervous, and I didn’t know how to say it wasn’t real.

And also the first time I was ever on a TV show, I forgot the name of my book! There was a whole panel of other writers and they were all trying to help me, give me clues as to what the title was.

Ha! Were they miming “virginity” to you?

“How to…” “How to…” My mother very kindly told me that I was fine but that I should pluck my eyebrows.

What was it like to write for SNL?

I was in heaven. Everybody used to complain all the time because that’s the norm at TV shows. And because peer group pressure is the operative mode for me, I would complain, too, but I was thinking, “No, make us work Sundays! I love this!” At that time in my life, if you had said that there was a refrigerator full of Diet Coke, take all you want, I was pretty happy. We would work until 4 in the morning. I was around very funny people. I loved it.

What did you write when you were there?

I wrote a sketch for Bill Murray — I don’t know if it even aired — in which he flunked so many times, he was about 50 in first grade. I wrote a parody of a breast exam that was all censored [footage].

You’ve said that humor writing is very topical.

It plays off of what’s going on in the news or going on in the social climate. So it can therefore get dated a lot faster than a lot of forms of writing, I think. And I actually make an effort to write things that will be relevant next week, too. I write “Shouts & Murmurs” directly off the news, but lots of times I try to make it a little bit timeless and dateless. It’s so boring after we no longer care about the event.

What advice would you give to budding humor writers?

Just keep doing it. I mean, really. Keep doing it. No matter how many rejections you get. Well, if you have a lot of rejections…

Grace Bello is a freelance writer based in New York. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and Splitsider and will be performed onstage for a show called “Blogologues” by Lively Productions on August 29.