Larry Doyle is a man who knows funny. The comedy writer has enjoyed a prestigious career that involved being part of the team who introduced Beavis And Butthead’s adolescent idiocy to the world and contributing to The Simpsons during its peak years.

He’s experienced all facets of the painful grind of writing for the Hollywood, but Doyle’s true passion has always been for comedic fiction. Since 1990, Doyle has contributed humour pieces to The New Yorker and held editing positions for National Lampoon and Spy Magazine, before later embarking on novels with the critical hits I Love You, Beth Cooper and Go, Mutants! This week an archival collection of Doyle’s short humour is being released entitled Deliriously Happy And Other Bad Things and TORO got a chance to pick the author’s brain about his long career of crafting yuks for page and screen.

How did you compile this collection?

Primarily what I tried to do was come up with — this is so boring when you talk about it [Laughs] — was a balance of material. You don’t want too many things that are essentially the same idea. The other thing was that when you put something like this together, you have to read everything that you’ve written and realize that you’ve developed this style that you don’t like that much. Then there’s the inevitable thing where there were at least a couple of places where I did the exact same joke without realizing it, but at least I did my same joke as opposed to somebody else’s joke. That’s something.

How do you find writing humour pieces for print versus writing for TV or film?

Well, to make a living I prefer film, but if I could pay for everything writing short pieces, I would. In fact, when I was younger my ideal job was to be one of those spiraling New Yorker writers who just wrote short humour pieces. That doesn’t exist anymore. I probably wouldn’t have gotten it anyways, so that wasn’t worth worrying about, because it wasn’t possible [Laughs]. I would much prefer to do that I guess, for obvious reasons. If I was a writer/director I might prefer film because it would be more about getting what I want done. In film you’re always in service of somebody else as a writer and it’s never really yours.
How did you initially get involved with The New Yorker? I can’t imagine that’s easy as a young writer.

I’m old so I did it the really old fashioned way. I wrote things, typed them and then put them in an envelope with these things called stamps. Then I wrote, with my hand, where it would go on the outside of the envelope. Magically, it would go there and a couple of weeks later it would come back with a little pre-printed form something saying, “thank you for your submission, but no thanks. Good luck.” I did that several times and then one day they wrote back a little note saying they weren’t going to run my article, but they liked it and encouraged me to submit more.

I probably sent them about another dozen things over a two or three years before they actually liked one enough to have me revise it. I was so scared because I was the only person I knew who had not been fully rejected by The New Yorker that I literally didn’t revise it for more than a year. I only revised it after certain aspects of my like had totally gone to shit and it was this little nub of possible success that was bothering me and so I figured I needed to revise it so that I could get rejected and everything could be consistent. But they took it and we edited for I would say about six months through the mail without a single phone conversation. Eventually the magazine came out with my article and it was just sort of astounding to me at the time. I got another piece in within two months, which was sort of astonishing, but nothing else for three years.

How did you find working for the National Lampoon at the end of its run?

Well, we were at the tail end of the magazine. This new guy had bought the magazine and had somehow been convinced to bring it back to what it had once been. It had sort of become a high school yank magazine. It was the magazine that high school boys could buy that had some nudity in it. A huge number of their subscriptions went to prison because with the satirical content they couldn’t ban it outright like Penthouse. So one of the first things the editor did was take out all of the nudity because they wanted to go after a different type of advertiser beyond ads for special kinds of lamps for growing weed and condoms. We had a run for about a year where we got to put out the magazine the way they used to put it out. I had a lot of fun, but we did get fired and then they shut down the magazine. 

What was the experience of working on Beavis And Butthead? From the outside it seemed like you guys had a blank slate with that show.

Nobody cared what we did. My contributions to Beavis and Butthead were relatively minor. Unlike most Hollywood writing, I would send in maybe 10 episode ideas to the story editor and he would say, “ok, do 2, 7, and 9” or whatever. Then I’d write an episode and my next involvement would be when it came out. They never expected rewrites because we were being paid so little. I got to know Mike Judge a little bit and I would watch him in the recording room. If he didn’t like what he read, he’d just make something else up on the spot, which was always pretty great. I also went down there once to do the music videos, which were always done separately. Basically he would sit there with a mic in a room and they’d play the videos. You could pitch jokes to him and if he liked one all of a sudden you’d hear Beavis or Butthead saying it. That was surreal, like having the ultimate puppet or something.
Was The Simpsons the dream writing job everyone imagines it to be?

No, it’s an amazing experience but it’s still a job. It is sort of interesting how annoyingly unhappy people can get doing things that other people would chop off toes for. There were times on that show when I really wasn’t a happy camper and that was because there were some people there who were really unhappy campers who would make the entire process difficult. When I first got there I almost had a nervous breakdown because I thought there was just no fucking way I could do the job. But, it’s one of those things where you go in thinking that you can’t do the job and you leave thinking that you can do it better than anybody else there.

So was it just an intense hierarchy amongst the writers was the problem?

You know, it is so much like a regular job that I swear Greg Daniels, who wrote for The Simpsons and went on to run the American Office, modelled that show on what it was like to work for The Simpsons. Not the particular characters, but the idea that just like any other office job there are a mix of personalities that make things awkward. There are always rivalries going on and people who don’t like each other.

In terms of hierarchy, there’s a fairly simple hierarchy, which was the longer you had been there, the more likely it was that someone would hear you when you spoke. So, when I first got there I’d pitch a joke and no one would react and then a couple of minutes later someone more senior would pitch the exact same joke and everyone would laugh. I say that acknowledging that when I was in my last year there, I was doing that to some other junior writer.

In addition to that, there was a kind of superstar situation where there was one writer on The Simpsons named George Meyer who was an astonishingly funny guy and could at any moment dictate a perfect script off of the top of his head. I was there several times where I saw him literally come up with an entire page of dialogue that was better than anything anyone was going to write for a month after that. We had another similar guy named John Swartzwelder, but he just wrote from home so we never had to deal with him directly, mostly because he didn’t like that you couldn’t smoke in the office.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on getting all of the internet crap to promote the book up and running. They want me to be tweeting and blah, blah, blah. And I’m writing a weekly thing for where I make offensive statements and try to make comedy out of it. So I’m doing those and I’ve got a couple of books ideas. Almost every day I decide to not write any of them, but one of these days I’ll start one of them.

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