“We either laugh or we lie face down in the carpet weeping.” Leigh Anne Jasheway
I first reached out to her after Labor Day. My in-box chimed when I received her message, Leigh Anne Jasheway was game to be interviewed as part of my Humor Project. “It’s almost Thanksgiving,” she wrote, “You’re already behind…. in something.”
Three years ago I stumbled upon Jasheway while road-tripping to Eugene, Oregon. I helped my kid, an Oregon Duck, move into her coop. Between grocery runs I read an article in the Eugene-Register Guard about mutts. The writer, owner of a dachshund pack, lamented how her four-inched legged beasts were reputed neighborhood park beggars.
Locals layer up in this northern latitude, donning pull-overs and jackets, dachshunds included. Prior to her career as a humorist, stress management expert and motivational speaker, Jasheway formerly lead the wellness program at the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center. She’s a stand-up comic, comedy instructor, and author of 25 published humor books and books about humor.
Thanks for being part of the Humor Project. I’m finding out where all the humor writers went.
Oh, they’re around. They’re writing for internet sites like McSweeney’s, Shouts and Murmurs, The Belladona, and others. It’s a broad gamut. It’s harder making a name and a living as a humor writer than 20 to 40 years ago. Have you attended The Erma Bombeck Humor Writers’ Conference in Dayton?
No, but I’m a fan of Erma Bombeck. She’s classic. Your career started in health education?
Yes, my undergraduate degree is in political science and I have a Master’s in Public Health, a perfect background for being funny.
Well, politics is comedy. And there’s nothing healthier than laughing. I get a lot of humorous motivational speaking work because I can combine dealing with stress and finding it funny.
Who hires a comic to motivate them [in business]?
In the past 25 years I’ve worked for hundreds of organizations, mostly groups who share the same professions…dentists, teachers, firefighters. The firefighters are a fun group.
You’re also a comedienne and writer. How do you describe yourself?
I’d say my career is 1/3 comedy writing, 1/3 humorous motivational speaker, 1/3 stand-up and improv comic, and 1/3 dachshund wrangler. Notice I didn’t list mathematician.
Tell more about your comedy writing.
I taught comedy writing at Lane Community College (Eugene, OR) the past 25 years. I also taught comedy writing and other comedy-related classes at the University of Oregon (UO) until I was laid off due to budget cuts. I wrote monthly humor columns for the Eugene Register-Guard over nine years until the paper was purchased by a media group and offered me what I considered a bad contract. I’m also writing weekly humor columns for the Syndrome Magazine and have written columns for the Funny Times, the Comic News, the Los Angeles Times, Family Circle and other publications. My articles about humor writing have been carried in Writer’s Digest and The Writer.
So, is the issue “where have the comedy writers gone?”
No, I think there are actually more comedy writers these days. And we’re all competing on multiple platforms. We all pursue a limited audience trying to get our name out there. It was much easier for comedy writers to become well known before the internet. But today more people are showing off their comedy writing chops.
Tell about your college comedy classes.
I taught in the UO School of Journalism and Communications, with more than 400 students per term in three classes—grammar, comedy in media, and a first year class called Comedy: Hero or Bully. In Hero or Bully we looked at racism, misogyny and homophobia through the lense of comedy. I’ve taught both stand-up and improv at Lane Community College a long time. Many of my students perform on stage for their graduation. It’s fun to watch them develop confidence.
You’re a member of the National Association of Baby Boomer Women (NABBW)?
Yep. The NABBW was set up in 2002 to give baby boomer women a voice whether it’s for lifestyle, health, business, parenting, leadership…anything. I regularly wrote humor columns for them until I got too busy. Humor is a great tool for Boomers who are thinking about writing their memoirs or putting their favorite stories down on paper.
Were you always funny?
No. I “accidentally” took a comedy writing class while in my 30s. I encountered a rough patch of life and took the course as a de-stressor. I was not a high school class clown. I would’ve been voted the most likely to depress people, had there been such a category. I’ve accidently done many things. I accidentally bought a house in Eugene with my second ex-husband.
Are you a serious person that writes funny?
I’m a recovering serious person. I’m now a funny person who seriously writes humor. My phone and notepad are tools I carry everywhere. I’m constantly aware and present. Many people think they’re not funny—they are! They need to get past those voices. Seventy percent of what we laugh about isn’t actually funny. It’s how we look at things, like when my first mammogram caught fire. I could have perceived that as frightening. Instead I wrote a funny column about it and won the Erma Bombeck Humor Writing Award.
A flammable mammogram?
The developing machine caught on fire. That was in the old days when mammograms were developed, like X-Rays. My boobs were clearly just too hot for the machine.
Are more women writing humor?
Absolutely. American comedy in its early years was defined by men, often white, often Jewish. Guys like Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, George Burns, Don Rickles, Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks to name a few. That we have more women who are prolific comedy writers is fantastic— this field is changing. Erma Bombeck changed the way we looked at comedy. She didn’t write jokes; she wrote her real life. Women’s humor is often based in story-telling. I believed she paved the way for modern day comedy writers such as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
What tips do you give your students?
Aspiring comedy writers should take a class so they understand the basics of making people laugh when they’re not your friends or co-workers. We focus on joke-writing styles, such as misdirections and comparison, as well as simple comedy rules like the “K” rule and the rule of three. It’s also important for writers to integrate comedy writing techniques into their own style. And read funny people, both for inspiration and to see what they’re doing that makes them funny in print. Write what you’re passionate about and write every day. Thinking turns the brain on. Learn the tools of the trade from experience. Draw from emotions and personal truths. The three easiest negative emotions to write about are confusion, embarrassment and frustration. Write about the things that cause you to feel those emotions. Be true to yourself. Stand out. I created this idea called the “red dress theory.”
Red dress? I’m not sure I’d look good in red.
You never know if you don’t try. My theory is based on the idea that a woman going to a party usually chooses a black dress. To stand out it must be an amazing dress. But if you wear red you’re already getting attention. This applies to writing. Choose topics that you might not overhear someone talking about at the grocery store—like a mammogram catching fire.
What are your long-term plans?
I’m now 62 but I’m not anywhere ready to retire. I love what I do. I’ll continue my motivational presentations and training, guest speaking, and helping others find humor in the work place. I’ll keep writing. And in my spare time I’ll hot flash.
Thanks for being part of my Humor Project.
My pleasure. Don’t forget the wise words of Eric Idle, “Comedy is the opposite of gravity.”
I hung up the phone, uncertain how to react. Leigh Anne Jasheway’s quick wit charmed me. But I discovered personal limitations that need further research. I’ll start by googling flammable mammograms.
Readers: Visit Leigh Anne Jasheway at The Accidental Comic. Running a corporate event? Leigh Anne has presented humor workshops for Microsoft, Walmart, Coldwell Banker, for hospitals and school districts, the U.S. Forest Service and more….Book her!
Visit my Etc. Guy Facebook page too.