Everyone has a “what I’m doing in Alaska” story: I got a job; I met somebody; I crossed a land bridge from Asia sometime between 60,000 and 50,000 BCE.
But nobody moves up here to write comedy. Nobody, except me.
You see, I spent most of my 20s in New York City, almost-but-not-quite making it as a comedian. Around the turn of the millennium, for instance, I was shortlisted for a staff-writing gig on a popular late-night talk show. Once, I even auditioned to host a cable network reality series. Guess how I scored on my screen test.
Eventually, I grew tired of taking this particular beating. Also, I’d just completed a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction (despite my questionable mastery of the genre). I figured I’d enjoy getting rejected by literary agents for a change. Plus, my fiancée was starting an internship in Palmer, Alaska, of all places, and I really didn’t feel like getting married over the phone.
And so, we packed a Subaru and headed north to the future. Not that I found the Matanuska-Susitna Valley particularly futuristic. I mean, the first several rental listings we saw were cabins without heat, running water or electricity.
Eventually, we found a slightly more modern place, in that it had utilities — but no address (just “behind the barn near Mile Marker 2).” Also included: A spare room for a home office with a breathtaking view of Matanuska Peak, which erupted twice a day in the alpenglow of sunrise and sunset. Back in Brooklyn, by contrast, my workspace doubled as a clothes closet; my desk overlooked an airshaft.
Inspired by these new Alaskan digs, I set out to write my novel.
Well, you know what they say: the road to hell is paved with plans to write your novel. Fifteen years later, 14 with a different though equally breathtaking view of the Juneau Ridge, I’m still re-working the opening sentence.
But there’s a silver lining (OK, silver laminate, but you can’t tell). While my fiction career has sputtered since relocating to Alaska, in the meantime I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words of comedy. Maybe a million. Maybe more — and some are even humorous.
It began as a means to procrastinate — stupid one-liners like “Bill Withers is the John Denver of funk” and “Mecca is the mecca of meccas.” But what I’d always considered a side-hustle quickly grew into my primary avocation.
Plus, I had no choice. During a dry spell in magazine and PR/communications work — two other types of writing I do for what some people might call a living — I started picking up table scraps from friends who stuck it out in NYC. These were often tricky assignments, for discerning clients, on tight deadlines. That’s why no one else wanted them.
Case in point: about a decade ago, out of the blue, a major publishing house asked me to step in and write a page-a-day calendar counting down to the predicted 2012 apocalypse (don’t worry — it didn’t actually happen). A writer for Conan O’Brien pitched the idea when Conan went off the air. Except Conan went back on the air… after the publisher greenlit the project and featured it in marketing materials. They called me in late October, needing a final manuscript by New Year’s. Oh, and my wife had just given birth… and we already had a 2-year-old.
So there I was, suddenly facing down a 60,000-word, 365-joke project—and it had to sound like it came from an Emmy-winning humorist, not some slob in stained Carhartts.
I won’t say it wasn’t difficult. I gave myself carpal tunnel and acid reflux in the process, but I finished. Of course, I pulled out every trick I knew, from suggested doomsday playlists — e.g. “Closing Time” by Semisonic, “Pop Goes the World” by Men Without Hats, anything by Slayer—to doomsday-themed ice cream flavors — e.g. “Almondgeddon,” “Ragnarok-y Road,” “Four Horse-mint of the Achocolatechypse.”
If the experience taught me anything, aside from asking for more free copies next time, it’s this: fiction writing is an art; comedy writing is a craft. Not only is it more fun to write; absent the emotional, psychological and dramatic elements of fiction, it can be a lot easier. In fact, comedy writing is the literary equivalent of pottery. Once you learn proper technique—and refine it through endless practice (say, 60,000 words in two months) — you can crank out as many jokes as you like, about anything. Even the apocalypse.
So, yes, I did move to Alaska to become a comedy writer. All this rugged, natural beauty just makes me want to spend hours on end thinking up ice cream flavor puns. “Four Horse-mint of the Achocolatechypse” — come on, that’s pretty good.
• Geoff Kirsch is an award-winning Juneau-based writer and humorist. “Slack Tide” appears twice monthly in Neighbors.