Merrill Markoe, Patron Saint of Women in TV Comedy Writing

by Grace Bello

The very funny Merrill Markoe has written for TV, movies, print, and talk radio. She wrote for Laugh-In, Newhart, Moonlighting, and Sex and the City, and she’s probably best known for her Emmy award-winning work on Late Night With David Letterman, where she invented the segments Stupid Pet Tricks — and its Stupid Human Tricks spinoff — and Viewer Mail. In her new memoir Cool, Calm & Contentious, she dissects her life in show business and beyond, recalling that virginity was “something to be gotten rid of quickly, then never discussed again, like body odor.” I spoke with Merrill about her career in comedy, and her Lynda Barry envy.

Who do you think are the funniest people on TV right now?

I like a lot of people on SNL right now. Kristin Wiig, Bill Hader, and Fred Armisen are all consistently amazing. I love Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. I thought Carrie Brownstein was really funny on Portlandia. But I gotta admit I haven’t really been watching a lot of the new shows. Also: Chris Elliot is very funny on his new show Eagleheart.

And it almost goes without saying that Colbert and John Stewart are very funny. They’re so immortalized and entrenched in the comedy culture at this point that I forgot about them.

What kind of humor do you think is definitely not funny, or is perhaps overdone these days?

Well…my personal preference is always toward cerebral silliness. I just don’t have the gene required to laugh at most poo and fart stuff. I can’t help it. I try but my facial muscles won’t move. Same with double entendres. They can stare me right in the face, and I stare back but I can’t smile. What I love is tiny details, detailed observation. That’s what kills me about Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader: The tiny details and gestures and reactions that they add to the people they play are so careful and well-observed. I am also a sucker for arcane references. Plus I need to add that I like pure stupidity. I almost always laugh at the combination of incompetence and confidence. Fred Willard doing his chatty blank person always makes me laugh.

I know you had attended art school and, according to Twitter, you’re a fan of the cartoonist Lynda Barry (who I agree is awesome). Did you have any desire to be a cartoonist?

You know, I have a desire to be everything Lynda Barry is. I think she’s amazing. Her books just knock me out. I took her class last year because a couple of writer friends insisted and they were right: It was very inspiring.

As far as me being a cartoonist, the truth is that I can draw pretty well. But when I was a painter, I used to paint extremely detailed sort of trompe l’oeil stuff with a brush that has one hair. And that’s the gear I go into when I pick up a brush. I haven’t figured out what I can accept from myself in the realm of cartooning. It has to be looser, or no cartoon by me will ever get finished because I’m not going to live that long.

A couple of years ago, I actually talked a magazine into letting me do an illustrated strip instead of a written piece. So I wrote a four-panel thing. Then I spent so much time repainting and repainting and repainting the first panel…I did about 50 drafts of it…that I finally gave up. I have WAY too much perfectionism built in to my graphic style. So I guess I need to figure out what a pretty good cartoon by me looks like and forget about thinking it needs to compare favorably with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

You worked closely with David Letterman from his morning show days up ’til Late Night, for which you won three Emmys. What was the writing process like there? Was it like SNL, where it’s humor by committee, or more like you two huddled in a room writing?

Well, back in the early ’80s when he and I collaborated, it was a very basic kind of a collaboration. I knew him before he had shows. We wrote various things together under various circumstances. Then once we hired the right writing staff, on the night show, and they were all coming up with great stuff, the approval committee to which you allude was ultimately Dave. I was the rewrite filter, but he always had the last word, the final one you had to convince, because he was the only one in the cast and the only one with his name in the title of the show.

I know you invented some of the classic Late Show segments; how did “Stupid Pet Tricks” and “Stupid Human Tricks” come about?

The same way everything came about way in the very beginning. We were looking for ideas that you could re-fill repeatedly. You have to keep filling up five days a week worth of shows and if you try to reinvent the wheel every day, you will want to kill yourself by the end of the first week. We knew we wanted something funny with animals. That idea came to mind because we were consciously trying not to recycle the same old show biz shit that was everywhere else. So this idea took it out of the realm of slick animal trainers and pushed it in to the world of everyday pet owners. Stupid Human Tricks was just an answer to the adjacent question, “Is there something else that is kind of like Stupid Pet Tricks that we can do?” We considered Stupid Baby Tricks, but were worried about inciting people to child abuse…

You mentioned in And Here’s The Kicker that you were at a lot of the seminal counterculture events — The People’s Park Protest, etc. Why were you drawn to these movements? Do you find yourself drawn to things that are underground, contrarian, anti-authoritarian, as I know a lot of comedy people are?

I have always felt like an outsider. I still do. I really am intrigued by fringe group thinking, even though I think I am for the most part even a fringe group outsider. When I invent characters, I enjoy adding odd details. I definitely have a big contrarian, anti-authoritarian streak, though I talk to myself about this tendency a lot and try to keep it from allowing me to play well with others. It can actually get in the way of free will. So I don’t want to be that kind of person. In the name of greater sanity, this past year I’ve been meditating, trying to make sure I’m calm enough to be smart. Though even when I am meditating, sometimes inside my head, a red-faced Rumpelstiltskin is jumping up and down, screaming and throwing pitchforks.

Again referencing the Mike Sacks interview, you mention the concept of TV writing being “the golden handcuffs”: you’re trading artistic control for a higher salary. Is that why you focus mostly on print these days? Did you regret those days working in TV due to your lack of say over the final product?

The only part of it I regret is that I never made it to the head of the class and got to call the shots on my own creations.

What’s your writing process like?

I always start off each new project by getting sucked in to a tantrummy whirlwind full of “ I can’t write this because it’s impossible and I just don’t know how to do it. Period. I just can’t.” After I calm myself down, and get past that stage, I fire off an outline and/or a really crude draft of whatever it is. This draft is permitted to say anything at all and be completely illiterate and unreadable.

Once I have that, life gets easier because I kind of like rewriting. If some part of writing could be called fun, that’s the fun part for me. I do a lot of rewriting. Maybe too much sometimes. One book I rewrote so much that I found that I was inadvertently restoring it to its first draft. When that occurred to me I thought, “Okay, it’s important to know when you have crossed the line out of rewriting and into OCD.” Once a thing is published, I become afraid to look at it in case I see things that need fixing. And, finally, rounding off the 360 degree neurotic process nicely, years later when I look at my old work I think, “Did I even write this? I remember I had a problem with it. What was my problem exactly? It sounds too good to have been written by me. I don’t think I wrote this.”

The girl question: What was it like to be one of the few women — or sometimes the only woman — in the writing room?

Well, in terms of a big group collaboration, I would say that the bigger difficulty for me is being with people who don’t have my same sense of humor. If I am in a room full of women who don’t laugh at the same stuff I laugh at, that can be just as insurmountable a problem. And if the room is full of guys who agree with what I think is funny, well…it’s always great to be with people who have your same sense of humor. That’s one of the real pleasures in life.

That said, where the male/female problem really surfaces is in the area of women getting hired. And that is a self-perpetuating wrong-headed arena full of stupid craziness that I can’t say I really understand. There are an awful lot of funny women around now. More than ever before. So stop that, people. Just stop.

Any advice to aspiring humor writers?

Don’t think you are ever going to please everyone. Try to forget about being able to do that and retain your real sense of humor. Know what makes you laugh. And believe in it. If you allow your forays in to commerce to take your basic comedy instincts away from you, you will stifle your own creative process. Also: Take notes and READ. Learn to appreciate what the people you admire in comedy are doing when they are doing it well. And keep your eyes open. Hilarious stuff is EVERYWHERE.

Cool, Calm & Contentious is out now.

Grace Bello is a freelance writer based in New York. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic and McSweeney’s.