Comedy May Be Dying, But Satire is Alive and Well – An Interview with PAUL CONSTANT
Paul Constant sits down with Katie Liggera to discuss his newest AHOY Comics series Snelson: Comedy is Dying, stand-up comedy, cancel culture, and why walking is an integral part of his writing process.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Welcome to the Comic Book Yeti cave, Paul! We’re excited to have you here for this interview. It appears you’ve been keeping busy in Seattle, writing countless insightful articles and now, a new comic series, during the pandemic. One of your recent newsletters mentioned your impressive 44-mile walk on the longest day of the year. How have you been during the pandemic, and what inspires you to maintain such high levels of productivity -- and creativity?
PAUL CONSTANT: I'm so thrilled to be here! Thanks for having me. The Yeti cave isn't nearly as dank as I feared it would be. I'm glad to see you keep the longboxes warm and dry and free from cave mold.
I've always been a pretty productive writer. I don't have any magical tips for aspiring writers, unfortunately, I just figured out the process that works best for me.
Walking and writing are intertwined activities for me—I couldn't do one without the other. Before I write a column, a book review, a profile, or a comic book, I go on a long walk and do a lot of the writing in advance, in my head. I usually hammer out a lot of the early details—the opening paragraph of an article, say, or the first page of a comic—so when I sit down in front of my laptop, that dreaded first blank page isn't too scary because I already have a plan in place. Then, once I get the opening out of the way and I have a good idea of where I'm going, it's pretty easy to keep my butt in the seat until I get a draft done.
In general, I walk about ten miles a day, and I do longer walks of 15 to 25 miles on Saturdays. That's when all the hardest writing gets done.
"The the only rule of thumb that I try to follow when I'm writing comedy is one that I learned from my friend Lindy West, back when she and I were coworkers at an alt-weekly newspaper: Punch up with your jokes, don't punch down."
CBY: ’90s standup comedian Snelson stars in your latest five-issue mini-series from AHOY Comics, Snelson: Comedy is Dying. Readers first saw Snelson encounter audience indifference toward his outdated material during your backups in AHOY series, Hashtag: Danger. Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Change is the only constant in life.” The best comedians succeed when they adapt to change and can evolve the comedic art form. Do you think older comedians struggle with this cultural shift?
PC: Absolutely, yes! It's always heartbreaking when you see an older comedian complain about how college students today don't understand comedy. I want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them and say, "I guarantee you that young people laugh as much as they always have—they just don't think YOU'RE funny."
This is not to say that I think Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock should do bits about Tik Tok and 75 Hard in order to stay relevant to the kids. There's always been a gap between what young people find funny and what older generations find funny. It's perfectly normal, and not at all the national crisis that these older comics paint it out to be.
CBY: Snelson: Comedy is Dying takes place after Snelson’s public fallout from grace during an internet livestream. After learning about Snelson’s past relationship with a 17-year-old girl when he was 25, even Snelson’s loyal, alt-right internet fans turned against him. Snelson resents being “canceled” online. Despite committing an illegal crime and becoming hated on the internet, he still books comedy gigs. Do you believe comedians are hung up on the idea of “cancel culture” even when they still receive ample opportunities to perform?
PC: One hundred percent. That's a recurring gag in the series—people standing on bigger and bigger platforms to complain very loudly to larger and larger audiences about how "canceled" they are. The truth is, nobody is entitled to an audience, and that's what a lot of comedians are complaining about when they say cancel culture is everywhere—they're saying "my audience isn't as big, or as unabashedly adoring, as they used to be."
"I do think sometimes being heavy-handed is an under-appreciated satirical technique. Sometimes you need the hand of God to come down and slap some sense into the narrative, you know what I mean?"
You know, Louis CK allegedly did some legally questionable things, but he still releases specials and podcasts and he goes on tour. But he's not universally loved in the way he was before the New York Times published the #metoo story about him. So when he complains about being canceled, he's really complaining about people deciding they're not interested in what he has to say. And that's always been the contract between a comedian and their audience.
CBY: How would you characterize the role of personal responsibility for a modern standup comic? Is there a clear line of decency/acceptability? Does the stand-up comedian determine this line, or is it determined by the audience?
PC: The happy answer to these questions is that there are no hard and fast rules. I think that's exactly how it should be. In stand-up comedy, personal perspective is everything. George Carlin wouldn't have been able to tell a Hannah Gadsby joke, because a Hannah Gadsby joke is very much steeped in who she is and what she has experienced. And a George Carlin joke would sort of flop out of Hannah Gadsby's mouth and flap around on stage, because it would feel weird coming from her.
Hell, personal perspective is even everything when it comes to audiences in stand-up comedy, too: Hannah Gadsby probably wouldn't get raucous laughs if she were to open for Tim Allen in the early 1990s, because it's a completely different audience with different expectations.
The only rule of thumb that I try to follow when I'm writing comedy is one that I learned from my friend Lindy West, back when she and I were coworkers at an alt-weekly newspaper: Punch up with your jokes, don't punch down. If I, as a straight white guy, were to make a joke about people that have been oppressed by straight white guys for decades, that's a lazy and cruel thing to do.
And the thing is, I think it's okay to cross lines, too. Everyone makes mistakes, and societal norms change over time. The important thing is how you respond when you're called out for crossing those lines. Can you grow, and think about what you said, and express empathy? I don't know when it became uncool to apologize, but an actual, thoughtful apology is a hugely impressive thing. I wish more people would try it.
CBY: You conceptualized Snelson as a social pariah in Hashtag: Danger, published in 2019. Did you always plan on returning to Snelson’s story? Was the current cultural climate a factor in your storytelling?
PC: Fred Harper, my partner on Snelson, and I didn't have any more stories mapped out. We thought that run of five short stories would be it for the character. But when AHOY Editor-in-Chief Tom Peyer said he wanted us to do a Snelson series, Fred and I were immediately bursting with ideas. Something about this egomaniacal, moronic main character makes him a perfect satirical weapon to use on the moronic egomaniacs who are cluttering up our collective unconscious right now.
And in the time period between the Hashtag: Danger short stories and this Snelson series, all the topics we were poking fun at only became more outrageous. The infamous Harper's Letter complaining about cancel culture and the kids these days wasn't even a gleam in the eyes of the publishing industry elites who signed the letter when we started Snelson. Now, ordinary people are making small talk about cancel culture when they're getting their hair cut. It's been bizarre and fun (and a little queasy-making) to create a book that somehow feels more relevant on publication than it did when we started making it.
CBY: Comics from AHOY specialize in social and political satire. Planet of the Nerds was a hilarious exercise in both satire and the pitfalls of nostalgia. How do you broach difficult topics in your comic writing without the satire feeling heavy-handed?
PC: The trick, I think, is to make sure the characters are 100 percent committed to the bit. Snelson doesn't see himself as a bitter, washed-up comedian. He sees himself as a great comedian who's gotten a ton of unlucky breaks and is still five seconds away from hitting the big time. That vanity and that misunderstanding of reality is the source of a lot of comedy.
I do think sometimes being heavy-handed is an under-appreciated satirical technique. Sometimes you need the hand of God to come down and slap some sense into the narrative, you know what I mean?
I don't ever want to be in a position where someone walks up to me and says "Snelson is my hero—I want to be just like him!" So there are a few points in this series where Snelson comes face-to-face with the unadulterated consequences of his actions, and I want those moments to hit Snelson (and the reader) like a giant Harley Quinn-style mallet, because those are essential to reminding the reader that Snelson is the main character of this story, but he is by no means the hero of this story.
CBY: Your incredible art team, illustrator Fred Harper and colorist Lee Loughridge from the Snelson backup comic is joining you once again for Comedy is Dying. What do they bring to the project you appreciate? How do your creative sensibilities mesh?
PC: I am so lucky that Fred agreed to do this book with me. I wrote that first Snelson short story without an artist in mind, and Tom suggested Fred, who he knew from back in his days editing Vertigo Comics. From that moment on, Fred was an equal partner in the creation of this book. For one thing, he's a big fan of the New York City comedy scene, so he's always inserting little in-jokes and references that only hardcore comedy nerds are going to get.
"...if I stumbled into a Twitter screed by an idiotic internet troll who was furious about one of his favorite childhood cartoons being turned into 'SJW propaganda,' his garbage rant likely influenced something in the book."
And for another thing, Fred's got this amazing ability to draw normal stuff that looks absurd, and to draw absurd stuff that looks normal. That means he can draw a couple pages of comedians talking over dinner that another comic artist might render as a static series of panels, but Fred makes the sequence an absolute feast for the reader: not only does he choose unique angles and hilarious poses, but he brings the interior thoughts of characters to the outside, to really amp the drama up. I guess you could technically call Snelson: Comedy Is Dying a "realistic" or "slice-of-life" comic, but Fred treats it like a Fantastic Voyage full of special effects and high drama.
And Lee Loughridge is Fred's ideal artistic dance partner—his colors can amplify the surreal, caricature-style effects in Fred's drawing by going a little gaudy and hyper-real with his palette, or he can color a New York street with such realism that you'll swear you remember standing on exactly that street corner the last time you visited NYC.
CBY: Were there any specific people who inspired Snelson’s character?
PC: Nobody in particular, no. My brain was a sponge while I was writing this series, though. Basically, if I stumbled into a Twitter screed by an idiotic internet troll who was furious about one of his favorite childhood cartoons being turned into "SJW propaganda," his garbage rant likely influenced something in the book. So, no one particular person is in the book, but virtually everything I've experienced on the internet over the last two years is in here in one way or another—whether I'm responding to it or critiquing it or just trying to understand how someone can devote their life to something so dumb and misguided.
CBY: Snelson physically resembles an overgrown 25-year-old. How does Snelson’s appearance reflect his personality? Were there any ‘90s comedians you or Fred Harper used as a prototype for his look?
PC: I have to give Fred all the credit for Snelson's fashion choices and character design. I basically wanted him to look like someone who could have walked out of a mosh pit at a Lollapalooza where Soul Coughing was headlining, and Fred took it from there. Every once in a while in the script, I'll ask for Snelson to be wearing a specific phrase on his t-shirt, but Fred immediately got the stuck-in-the-1990s fashion vibe I was going for: wallet chains, huge pants, chunky glasses, checkered Vans, unfortunate facial hair, the whole deal.
Snelson goes through a bunch of physical changes over the course of this series, and Fred did an amazing job making him look like the same character even though his appearance changes dramatically from issue to issue. He’s not based on any one comedian, but Fred’s design for Snelson is so stretchy, and yet so durable, that he can take on a bunch of different looks—some more familiar than others—and look very much like himself throughout.
CBY: Snelson: Comedy is Dying #2 features a great variant cover by legendary MAD Magazine artist, Sergio Aragones. Were you a fan of Sergio’s work growing up? How did Sergio become involved with the comic project?
PC: There was a ban on MAD Magazine in my house growing up, so my first childhood interaction with Sergio Aragones was in his comic with Mark Evanier, Groo the Wanderer. I was a HUGE Groo fan—I bought every issue and basically thought it was the best humor comic ever. I loved how Aragones packed so much into his illustrations but still managed to keep everything so legible. And then when I eventually discovered all his work on MAD over the years, I was just in heaven.
Aragones occupies the same legendary place in my mind that a Jack Kirby or a Steve Ditko does, so I'm not ashamed to say that when out of the blue, Tom sent Aragones’s sketch for the variant cover of issue 2, I actually teared up. It was a deeply moving experience.
As to how Tom convinced Aragones to do the cover: he didn't tell me, so I can only assume that kidnapping and/or extortion was involved.
CBY: Who are your comedy comic book writer influences?
PC: The biggest, loudest answer is by far Steve Gerber, who was the greatest satirist that comics has ever known. Howard the Duck is such a personal, profound book, and Gerber's work on The Defenders was an all-time favorite of mine because it cleverly slipped satire into a mainstream superhero story and succeeded on both levels.
Mark Russell is my favorite current comics writer—I still have to pinch myself when I remember that he and I both publish at AHOY. The Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League International was probably more transformative for me than The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. And I love witty writer/artists like Julie Doucet, Kate Beaton, Allie Brosh, Alison Bechdel, and Roberta Gregory (whose Bitchy Bitch series is an underrated classic that deserves serious reinvestigation.)
CBY: Do you have a favorite comedian from the last ten years? Who is your all-time favorite comedian?
PC: I think right now, the answer for my favorite of the last ten years would have to be John Mulaney. I really like writerly comedians who tell a great story, and he's amazing at that. I think Iliza Shlesinger is also a great comedian along those lines.
As for all-time favorites, I think George Carlin would have to be right up at the top, though Steven Wright broke my teenage brain with his brilliant one-liners.
CBY: Would you like to see Snelson someday adapted into a film or television series? Who would be your ideal casting choice to play Snelson? David Cross is an established stand-up comedian/actor who rose to popularity in the ‘90s with a good sense of humor who comes to mind.
PC: I think that the right team could do a great Snelson TV series, but they'd have to have an understanding that it's a satire and they'd have to avoid the impulse to turn Snelson into an anti-hero like Walter White or Tony Soprano. I'd love to see how a group of young, nonwhite comedians would tackle the writing of the series.
And your observation about David Cross's angry-young-man style of comedy in the 1990s being like Snelson's is right-on, but I'd rather see a thoughtful, pleasant, soft-spoken, well-regarded comedian like Chris Gethard play Snelson. Gethard is a smart and compassionate comedian who's capable of change and self-criticism, and the idea of him playing someone as narcissistic and self-involved as Snelson would put a much-needed satirical exclamation point on the series.
CBY: What is the current comedy scene like in Seattle, where you live?
PC: Well, we still have a little pandemic going on, so there's not much of a scene to speak of at the moment. But in non-plague-times Seattle has a very strong, very politically active comedy scene. My favorite comedy show is called Joketeller's Union, and it's a weekly variety show hosted by two Seattle comedians named Emmett Montgomery and Bret Hamill (who is also a very funny cartoonist.) Montgomery has this one bit about a Christmas-themed character that actually had me cry-laughing, the last time I saw it. This is the comedy show I'm dying to get back to once things get a little closer to normal.
CBY: The people in the AHOY Comics seem to be fond of cats. Do you have any cats or furry friends trying to distract you from your writing?
PC: My wife is allergic to cats, unfortunately, but we do have two rescue greyhounds. Oberon is seven years old and he's a gentle giant of a dog—he loves attention and he'll stand next to you for hours if you keep petting him. Wallace just turned three, and he's a lot more energetic, curious, and noisy than Obie. We adopted Wally earlier this year—he's going blind due to a genetic disorder and the agency wanted to place him in a home with a confident older greyhound who could guide him around. So Obie is now Wally's seeing eye dog, and he loves it. They're great pals.
CBY: Are there any upcoming comics or projects in the works? I remember hearing chatter about a Planet of the Nerds film adaptation some time ago.
PC: I'm working on a new comics project that I can't announce yet, but it's the polar opposite from Snelson. I'm having a blast writing this one and I can't wait for the art to start coming in.
Planet of the Nerds was optioned by Paramount Players for a potential movie, and I can't make any announcements there, either, except to say they really understand the comic and things are still moving.
I'm sorry—I wish I could share more! I’m really excited about both these projects and I hope you’ll have me back to talk to you about them when the time is right.
CBY: Where can people find you online or on social media?
PC: I'm on Twitter @paulconstant, my website is paulconstant.com, and I have a free monthly newsletter that compiles all my writing into one place, along with lists of books I've read, other assorted thoughts, and the occasional dog picture or two.
CBY: Thank you again for taking the time to talk, Paul! I look forward to reading every issue of Snelson: Comedy is Dying.
PC: Thank you so much, Katie! I was thrilled and intimidated to hear that you, a certified AHOY Comics Expert™, were interested in doing an interview. Thanks for all the awesome questions.