Article first published as Comedian/Essayist Mary Jo Pehl on Employee of the Month on Technorati.
If you have enjoyed the comedy of Mystery Science Theater 3000, or the more recent movie-mocking gang, Cinematic Titanic, you have comedian/print and radio essayist Mary Jo Pehl partially to thank. There are a few writers that have the power to bring a smile to my face, far less writers can make me laugh uncontrollably. I have grown to rely on Pehl to always be in the latter writer category. Her recently released book, Employee of the Month and Other Big Deals, features some of the comedian/essayist’s strongest (and most amusing) tales. This collection of essays partially chronicles her life as she moved from Minnesota to New York, then ultimately Texas–with all the great and funny tales in between. Upon learning of her new book, I contacted Pehl for a brief email interview about her stories, as well learning which writers entertain her…among other big deals (to clearly borrow from her title).
The blurbs in praise of this book are the who’s who of good comedy, including Trace Beaulieu who said: “Mary Jo Pehl can do what very few authors can—make me laugh out loud.” How gratifying was it to see your peers say things like this and of a similar vein?
I suppose I put them on the spot since we travel together and they’d have to face me. Still, I really respect and value their sensibilities, and so was hoping they’d think of something good to say about the book.
How cathartic was it to write the write the introduction, where you were able to discuss your other previously published “book” (a term I assume you prefer I use loosely).
A friend sent me this quote by Robert Cormier: “The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon.”
I remember reading an essay or story by Ann LaMotte in which she spoke of a high-profile failure. I was so struck by how candid – and funny – she was about the whole thing. That resonated with me, just to own up to it and to realize there are no perfect systems. It’s very freeing to be honest. It’s very freeing to be able to laugh at one’s self. It’s very freeing to admit there were mistakes along the way!
I hope it was clear that the whole thing wasn’t the publisher’s fault. He was a sweet fellow. It just wasn’t a good match and I hadn’t thought it through nor did I take enough responsibility for the end result.
In the introduction you also mock the quality of your journal-writing as a child, but would you say that all of that journal-writing helped to make you a stronger writer?
I think it has always clarified my thoughts and my process. Sometimes I think so many things about something that I have to write to sort it out. A flow chart for myself, I suppose! Hard to say if it’s actually improved my writing. I hope so. I hope I’ve made some progress from labored taco chip analogies.
Your self-made pants that figure so prominently in your essay, The Crush, did you ever wear them again after (not to spoil things for folks who have not read the book) the incident?
Ha! Great question! I’m sure I did! I thought I was pretty bitchin’ in ‘em!
When you write about your family, do you ever vet the stories by them, or are they all fine with you writing about them–no matter the subject?
I don’t vet the stories through my family. I know their sensibilities and none of the stories are particularly inflammatory. However, a person here and there has taken me to task for what they perceive as a harsh portrayal of my parents in the story about living with them. I don’t see it. I say nothing in that story that I haven’t ribbed them about personally! My parents’ are so great: my mom loves it any time she’s portrayed. I could call her a puppy-killing, lard-ass, meth dealing tyrannical despot and she’d show her friends: “Look! Mary Jo wrote about me! That’s me!”
That said, I was concerned about the story about my sister losing a child. Because we are very close, I asked her if it would be okay if I wrote about it. She said yes. I’m not sure she’s ever read it, or what she thinks of it.
Who was your editor on Employee of the Month–and how did they help you to make it a stronger book?
The splendid Tom Dupree, with whom I’d worked on the MST3K Colossal Guide. He has this great way of understanding what I’m trying to do and being encouraging and supportive, and yet administering tough love as needed. It definitely, hands-down, no two ways about it, unquestionably and indubitably made it a stronger book.
There are Postcards from China (and Postcards from Peru) that pop up periodically in the book, were you hesitant to depart from the traditional essay format with these comedic snippets?
Nope! Not hesitant in the least! It was really exciting, actually, to discover a way to have the bits in there. The postcards were derived from longer, more traditional travel essays, and I just felt like those essays, though they had appeared elsewhere, were a little plodding. It was fun to reduce them to their essence – the intent of which was to entertain and make you laugh. And that’s when it struck me – why couldn’t these just be postcards? When you’re self-publishing, you have room to experiment.
Clearly you are a damn funny writer, but I am curious, which writers entertain you?
Why, thank you! Where do I even start… E.B. White, David Sedaris, Nathaniel Philbrick, Sarah Vowell, Mary Elizabeth Williams, Kevin Kling, Evelyn Waugh, Anne LaMotte, E. B. White, James Thurber, Dawn Powell, Wallace Shawn, Lynda Barry… and on and on.
I enjoyed the diagrams/art that accompanied some of the book’s essays. Who provided art for your book and how much did you enjoy seeing the comedic diagrams that accompanied your writing?
Len Peralta did the illustrations. There were a couple of things that I thought would be heightened or augmented with illustrations; the story of me trying to get out of a guy’s car just felt like, “You have got to see this”. With the bridge drawing, I wanted to give a sense of Wodney’s artistic rendering of his cautionary tale — as he was driving a car. Len is tremendously talented, I wanted to work with him, and I think the illustrations are just the right touch!
I love the honesty with which you write in your essay on scuba diving (and the struggles of getting on your wetsuit). Is it harder to write essays like that where you expose yourself half naked (in a manner of speaking) flaws and all to the reader?
Like I mentioned at the top, it is very freeing to me to be honest. To be sure, my ultimate goal is to be funny, not to perform some personal catharsis at the expense of the time of the reader. I find that that when I’m just honest about it, and exposing my own foibles and vulnerability, people can relate.
So will you be selling the book if folks come to see you at future Cinematic Titanic shows?
What did I forget to ask you about?
Irritable bowel syndrome.