What Are You Laughing At?

What Are You Laughing At?

Johnny

Johnny B. Truant is an author, blogger, and podcaster who, like the Ramones, was long denied induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame despite having a large cult following. Follow him on Twitter @johnnybtruant

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LOLPop quiz, hotshot:

What do all of our books and stories have in common — other than obvious things like the fact that we wrote them, that they’re in English, and the other smart-ass answers you’re about to give because you’re a smarty smarty smart ass?

Before I reveal the answer (because hey, we both know you came here as a distraction and aren’t ready to go back to filing TPS reports or cleaning the litter box just yet), let’s take a quick look through the Realm & Sands catalogue, diverse as it is.

We started with Unicorn Western: western, epic fantasy, and satire rolled into one.

We followed it with The Beam: half hard sci-fi, half political thriller. (Plugged, in the same story world, is fiction written as nonfiction, by a fictional author, in the style of Malcolm Gladwell. We have a hard time even describing that one to people.)

Cursed — the latest of which I’ll be working on tomorrow — is horror. But not just horror; desert horror, which has a sparse, lonely feel. (That’s “desert,” with one S, because it takes place in the dry southwest. But hey, note to self: pioneer the field of “dessert horror” if Dave doesn’t want that one.)

Robot Proletariat is equal parts suspense, revolution, philosophical exploration, and whatever you call it when a story involves rich snobs with butlers, fancy silverware and sexbots.

I could go on: The two genre-benders we write in collaboration with Lexi Maxxwell (Adult Video and The Future of Sex). Greens. Fat Vampire. Space Shuttle. The Bialy Pimps. Everyone Gets Divorced. Namaste, which is the most violent thing we’ve ever written. We have stuff in the works for kids. And we still want to do crazy shit like writing a romance — in grand Realm & Sands style, of course.

Read our books, you know we’re all over the place. So with so many odd projects in the hopper, what’s the one thing they all have in common?

We laughed hard while working on every single one of them. 

We take our art and our business  seriously. But at the same time, we laugh our way through it. Call us crazy, but we think that life — even while giving it the respect it deserves — should be fun.

And because we spend so much time working, we’d be daft if we didn’t make our work fun, too.

How to Have Fun at Your Job

Working with Sean is like working with those hyenas from The Lion King. He has a donkey’s laugh, and there’s little he doesn’t find funny. It’d be distracting if I weren’t the same, but the truth is we’re two peas in a pod. Our story meetings sometimes sound like we’re those two screw-offs in the back of the classroom in school.

The teacher keeps yelling at us to knock it off because school is serious business, but we can’t knock it off because the teacher just mentioned Uranus. (Bonus points if the discussion centered on probes being sent to Uranus.)

It first dawned on me how pervasive our humor is when we were writing our self publishing book Write. Publish. Repeat. I got to the section on “story beats” (the rough summaries Sean writes before I start the first draft) and went to pull examples from our archives for readers to follow. I couldn’t find any that sounded remotely professional. They were all filled with immature, assholes-in-the-back-of-the-classroom jokes. It didn’t matter if Sean was outlining a scene where someone is being tortured; he was always screwing around.

Here’s one from Unicorn Western that we featured in Write. Publish. Repeat.:

Chapter 6: The kid wants to charge them, and knows the Marshal could do it. Clint tells him he’s a fucktard and too young to know it. The kid argues that Clint’s too old, and that his instincts are dull. Clint smacks him down, articulating why he’s the king of the motherfucking desert. Way Clint sees it, no one’s in The Sprawl by accident, and it makes a lot more sense to see what they’re up to than to kill them outright. The kid argues that they need the element of surprise. Clint checkmates his shit because the element of surprise isn’t dick when you ride with a unicorn. Clint tells some story about the kid that shows he’s an impulsive fuckup, then they agree to circle around and use Edward’s magic to see what they can find out.

Fuck this, fuck that. King of the motherfucking desert. At least half of the beats Sean gives me contain weed references (someone sells weed, someone is smoking weed, someone’s as mellow as if he just smoked weed, is that some weed under my sofa?), and I can just imagine Sean giggling like a schoolgirl while he writes them.

Fun at WorkI get giddy text messages all the time with add-ons to existing beats. I got a text when Sean’s daughter Haley put a cotton candy cone on her head and declared herself to be Edward the unicorn, and Sean wanted to insert “Edward horns for sale” into one of the scenes.

My favorite of all time was the text I got about chili. It went something like this: “What if Clint and Edward went into a town and there were signs everywhere for chili, and they spent a bunch of time searching for chili, and chili was this really big deal, and we just went on and on about chili? BTW, we had chili for lunch.”

I thought this was incredibly immature. So in response, I crafted a chili religion complete with its own exclamation: “By the seven spices of chili!”

Not everything we write ends up having humor on the published page. The Beam has maybe two or three small funny moments in the entire first season, and so far the Cursed series, through six volumes, has none. But regardless of what the story, we always laugh when we’re planning. That seems strange to me even now, as I write this. But it’s true.

What you read might not be remotely funny. But it was still created with enthusiasm, and our enthusiasm comes out in the form of fucking around. We channel that enthusiasm. We shape it. In the end, we make the book what it needs to be, but we want to have fun, and humor is how we do it.

Now you know our tricks. Grandma claims that the secret ingredient in her cookies is love. Our secret ingredient is dick jokes.

Either way, when the oven timer dings you have something pretty damn special.

Sneak Attack

Let’s step back in time.

When I was in high school, we were called to an assembly in the gym that I’ll never forget. We had no idea what the topic was going to be, and at first, we all thought the principal had made a mistake. There were two guys in the middle of the floor, making jokes. They mocked the faculty; they talked about the annoying things their siblings did and still do; they made witty observations about stuff we all could relate to. Within 10 minutes, everyone was laughing.

At some point — it’s impossible to say when — the presenters’ moods and words became serious. They moved into their actual topic: avoiding drugs, drunk driving, and unsafe sex. But because we’d hopped on board the laughter train with them, we were willing to follow wherever they took us. Funny stories about growing up turned into later-life stories in which a friend drove drunk and died, or a sibling overdosed.

I remember feeling hobbled after that assembly. The entire student body, based on appearances, felt the same way. Most were crying. But here’s the thing: you can’t walk into a gym and talk to kids about drugs and alcohol and sex and expect them to listen. Not unless you launch a sneak attack, and infiltrate their wall by making them laugh.

Something of that lesson must have seeped into my brain, because I did the same thing when I wrote The Bialy Pimps in 1998. On the surface, my debut novel is about a bunch of assholes who work in a bagel deli. It’s crass, it’s stupid, and it’s full of despicable characters. It features a face-kicking machine, for Christ’s sake. But what most people don’t realize is that the deli was a real place and the people in it were real people (all names changed and events vastly inflated, of course), and that I, as a real person in a real place, loved them all. When college ended and I had to leave those days behind, it broke my heart. The exaggerated shenanigans in The Bialy Pimps were fun to write, but beneath it all was the truth that even the best times must ultimately end. Accordingly, my favorite review for that book is the somewhat annoyed one wherein the reviewer says she can’t believe this stupid book made her cry.

When I think about things like that, it occurs to me that mirth isn’t really a stand-alone emotion. It can bind itself to anything. You can laugh at a comedy show and you can laugh at a funeral. You can laugh in the throes of passion. You can laugh — sometimes bitterly — when you’re angry.

As writers, we see humor as shorthand. If we can laugh while we’re creating, that’s a cue telling our brains to move into a positive, anticipatory state. If we can get a reader to laugh, that means we’ve breached their outer wall to enter their inner space … where they bury their best emotions, like happiness, sorrow, and fright.

Humor unlocks the gates. Once open, the castle is ours and have run of the grounds.

Then we can make readers feel whatever we want.

NSFW

Adult VideoThe first time Sean and I decided to write straight humor — something that was supposed to be funny more than anything else — we failed miserably.

That first effort was based on our red-headed stepchild podcast, Better Off Undead. We figured we could write something meta about that show, turning ourselves into characters, exaggerating everything, and turn our funny on-air antics into funny written ones.

It sounded simple, and we agreed it was a hilarious idea. I laughed hard when I saw Sean’s story beats. Then I tried to write to them, and realized that not even my mother would have pretended I was writing anything worth reading.

At this point, Dave (our third on Better Off Undead and the source of most topics) told us that we were being idiots. He said that humor was so highly subjective as to be exclusionary. It wouldn’t matter how well it was written; some people just weren’t going to find it funny. And he was right. Specifically, Sean and I didn’t find it funny.

We had another arrow in our quiver, though, and were stubborn enough to try again. Sean had an idea for a “sitcom” about three people who work in an adult video store, where inappropriate hilarity always ensues. Adult Video, as originally conceived, ticked all our boxes. It had shenanigans. It had dick jokes. It had outrageous characters similar to those we loved in other people’s work. It even had the feel of The Bialy Pimps, which made me feel confident.

If Bialy was Clerks in a bagel deli, Adult Video would be Clerks in a porn shop. For some reason, retail is a wealth of stupid situations, and I knew I could spin stupidity into gold.

The most wonderful thing about Adult Video doubled as its achilles heel — at least as far as Platt and Truant were concerned. Both of us find pretty much everything surrounding sex to be hilarious. If you listen to our podcasts, you’ll hear us giggle at every bit of innuendo as if we were 13 years old. But the problem was that the level of hilarity (in our minds, anyway) varied in direct proportion to how “wrong” the situations were. I won’t be graphic, but to give you an example, there are numerous ways a given sex toy can be used by an adventurous person … and the way that made us cringe most was always the way that made us laugh the hardest.

Fortunately, we had what most writers don’t: a good friend who happens to write erotica. If you’ve heard Lexi Maxxwell on our podcasts (here, here, and here), you’ll notice 1) how unflinching her sense of sexuality is and 2) how much she giggles. It’s like someone gave Sean breasts.

So we took Adult Video to Lexi and made her a proposal: we’d write what we could of each episode, being as wrong and brash as warranted. She’d dirty the entire thing up and add one very explicit sex scene because it’s what her readers expected. She’d publish it under her own name, not crediting us at all, because the end product was far too dirty to lay alongside the rest of our titles.

It was a marriage made in slutty Heaven. We laugh harder when planning and writing Adult Video than anything else we’ve ever done. Heather — Adult Video’s pixie anti-hero who has as much pride in her exploits as lumberjacks do about their manliness — is perhaps the most fun character I’ve ever written. The result is so, so, so wrong — but if you’re as immature as we are, you’ll laugh your balls off reading it. This applies even if you don’t have balls. It’s that funny.

But laughter is like a drug, and Lexi only had so much time for our little collaboration. We wanted more. We’re proud of Adult Video and claim it publicly in places like our blog and podcasts, but can’t put our names on the cover.

Realm & Sands needed its own comedies.

Or, more accurately, we needed to write them whether Realm & Sands needed them or not.

blogLOL

Let’s get something straight. We love you guys, and we need you, and we want very much to please you. And of course we want to sell books. But at the end of the day, we base our decisions about what to write on our selfish desires — not the market as a whole.

A lot of people thought it was stupid for us to write in multiple genres, but we wanted to. So we did.

We were inundated with well-meaning emails attempting to save us from ourselves when we announced Plugged, but the idea jazzed us, so we wrote it.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re a very special person. You are unique, and I’m not blowing smoke when I say that. We cultivate a specific type of reader, and actively discourage the wrong types from joining us. We’d rather have a smaller group of fans who love our art than a larger group who think we’re “not bad.”

In short, we think you’re more like us than not. If you don’t read more than one of the genres we write in, that’s fine. But we do know that you’re the kind of person who won’t be mad at us for trying new things, even if you don’t particularly care to read them. In our estimation, that makes you outstanding.

When we set out to write our own comedies (those that Lexi couldn’t steal credit for, that wily minx), we almost didn’t care if they sold well. We knew that writing them would make us happy, and that the happier we were, the more heart and energy we’d be able to pour into everything else. Our true fans would understand, even if they didn’t care to read our LOL comedies.

Sean laid out three concepts. The idea would be to write a “pilot episode” for each, then let readers decide which one they wanted more of. I wrote the pilots, but writing them was so fun that afterward we both turned into Cookie Monster, yelled “MORE COOOKIES YUM YUM YUM” and mutually insisted on writing full seasons of not just one series … but all three.

And that, my friends, was the birth of:

• Greens, about a high-end grocery store that opens just before a neighborhood falls into ruin and roving gangs move in to mark their territory near the bathrooms. Dylan, our main character, finds himself low on cash and decides to sell weed … except that he doesn’t know anything about the weed market and is somewhat frightened to learn. But Dylan does know a lot about marketing and sleight of hand, so he instead creates his own non-weed smokable, then passes it off as better than the real thing and ignites a frenzied sensation across the neighborhood.

• Space Shuttle, which you can think of as “Taxi in space.” Our hero is a hapless human named Sloan who finds himself stranded in the galaxy’s far reaches (where humans are mocked at best, repeatedly probed at worst) following an abduction. Sloan begins working at Space Shuttle in a vain attempt to find a fare back to Earth. We used Space Shuttle as a dumping ground for every single science fiction cliche we could think of. We and our lawyers emphatically state that E.T., Predator, Han Solo, Yoda, ALF, vulcans, Jabba the Hut, General Zod, and other trademarked characters are definitely not in this series, so if you think you see them, that’s either coincidence or your imagination. And lastly …

• Everyone Gets DivorcedBecause we like taglines, we’ll position this one as How I Met Your Mother meets It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. EGD tells the story of Archer’s divorce from his wife Hannah at the unwitting and incompetent hands of his group of asshole friends. I think this might be the only one of the three without any weed mentions, but I’m sure Sean will salt them into Season Two.

LOL

If you like Realm & Sands, you like these comedies even if you don’t realize it and never plan to read them. They were such ridiculous fun to write that they energized us in a way that made other things possible — if you enjoyed Robot Proletariat, you have Greens to thank for letting us recharge our batteries between writing it and a batch of Future of Sex episodes with Lexi.

The LOL series metered our workload, and gave us breaks when we needed them.

They made going to work fun. And that benefits us, and every reader we have.

Maybe, if you find our senses of humor amusing, you’d like to read the LOL comedies rather than admiring them second-hand like a candle in a distant window.

And if you would, then today’s your lucky day.

How To Get Free Funny Stuff

All of our comedies need reviews, and that means we can do some win-win stuff.

If you’d like to check out any of our three LOLs, the pilot episodes are free at every major bookseller. Links in the bulleted paragraphs above are for Amazon US, but you can search wherever you read most often and find them.

Please Review

If you like what you see and would like to get a free review copy of the full season, simply leave an honest review on Amazon or Goodreads for the pilot (episode 1), then paste the link to that review on this page so we can see that you’re actually the reviewing type.

The same goes for the LOL Bundle, which contains the full seasons of all three comedies. Send us a link to your honest review on Amazon or Goodreads for any of the individual full seasons (not the episode 1’s in this case), and we’d love to send you a copy of the bundle to read and review.

We’ll close this offer eventually, but for now we’d love it if you’d try those comedies you think you’d enjoy. (NOTE: not everyone will enjoy them. Hopefully by now you have a pretty good idea as to whether they fit your own sense of humor.)

We hope you enjoy our work, and LOL all over the place!