52: Ken Pisani (Writing Comic Novels)

Danielle Krage interviews Ken Pisani. Ken is a screenwriter, TV writer and producer, playwright, comic book author, former cartoonist, and novelist. His novel, AMP’D, was a Thurber prize finalist, and in this episode he takes us behind the scenes of creating this comic work.

Chapters

00:00 Introduction and Background

01:18 The Concept of AMP’D

05:01 Choosing the Novel Format

06:09 Challenges of Writing Prose

07:36 Writing Without an Outline

08:06 Balancing Comedy and Drama

09:00 Reversing Expectations

11:20 Writing Situational and Visual Comedy

12:09 Emotional Impact of the Novel

13:30 Finding the Balance of Comedy and Drama

19:02 Creating Beleaguered Characters

20:08 The Play and Game of Comedy

21:41 Publishing and Marketing Challenges

22:03 The Challenges of Funny Novels

25:02 Dealing with Failure and Persistence

29:01 The Appeal of Muppets

33:20 The Humour in Comic Books

38:18 Recommendations

You can find out more about Ken’s work here:

https://www.kenpisani.com

https://twitter.com/kpsmartypants

CLICK HERE FOR TRANSCRIPT

Danielle (00:00.)

Hey everybody, today I am delighted to have Ken Pisani with me. Ken is a writer who has written for many different mediums, including for screen, for comic books, for stage. And today I’m particularly going to be focusing on his comic novel, AMP’D, which I read this winter. I got the flu between Christmas and New Year and was feeling pretty wretched and sorry for myself.

So as you do when you’re a total comedy geek, I pulled up the Thurber Prize website, which has all the Thurber nominations and finalists. And I started reading different samples and from that, found Ken’s book, AMP’D. loved it. It made me laugh out loud. It made me cry in a couple of places. It really cheered me up in my flu state. So I knew I had to have Ken on the show, because it’s so fresh and fun and original, to talk all things comic novels. But before we dive in, Ken, is there anything else you’d love people to know about you and your work?

ken (00:53.555)

Um, well, throw me in the deep end right away. I was hoping it would be like an easy question, like who’s my favourite Beatle?

Danielle (00:56.236)

Yeah. Oh. Oh, tell me, who is your favourite Beatle?

ken (01:18.099)

Keith Richards. Oh, you see, I blew the joke. I should have said Herbie the love bug. Anyway, no, but I’m very glad you… I was going to ask you, how did you find AMP’D? And I love the fact that maybe this is a new blurb, it’s like… it’s perfect for your sick bed. You’re feeling really sick, get yourself, get your hands on AMP’D.

Danielle (01:23.82)

Yeah, and even better than that, when you then inadvertently also give your husband the flu and then he’s feeling really wretched, what you do to make him feel better is you read the whole of AMP’D out loud, which is what I did. So you’re welcome to like double -whammy… perfect if you’ve got the flu, perfect for your wife to read to you if you’ve got the flu, like it’s great.

ken (01:46.931)

That’s great. Well, thank you for finding me.

Danielle (01:48.46)

Yeah, pleasure. And with AMP’D, I’d love to know, it’s not going to be that typical question when people say, where do you get your ideas from? But with AMP’D, it is such a strong concept. I was curious where some of the seeds for that concept might have come from for you and what you might be able to say… a little bit about the concept.

ken (02:03.603)

Well, I have this habit that I didn’t realize until fairly recently that I don’t know what I’m writing about when I’m writing it. And in the middle of it, it just sort of lands hard on me. I’m not really writing about a guy who, well, I guess I would tell people what it’s about. It’s a hilarious book about a guy whose arm is amputated. So like, that’s the terrible elevator pitch. But I’m…I realize I’m not really writing about a guy whose arm is amputated. I’m writing about somebody who feels suddenly diminished. And when I started writing the book, I had just turned 50. And so I think it’s no coincidence that that’s really what I’m writing about. It’s like, who do you decide to be when you’re suddenly not the person you used to be?

And then I’ve had people come up to me and obviously, you know, very few people with that particular disability, but it’s like, you know, I just got divorced. I just lost my job. they were just able to relate to it on that level. So, you know, in a way that’s really what I was writing about. But also I came to it from a place as a screenwriter where, you know, we have pretty, it’s a tightly structured form, and we have tropes and we have you know you need you know the…You need the inciting incident,  it’s a very rigid form, you know, 10 minutes of setup, establish your characters, the inciting incident, send your protagonist on the hero’s journey, there’s gonna be a lot of obstacles, and I wanted to break out of all that format.

First of all, I wanted to write prose, which you don’t get to do in a screenplay very much. So I wanted to flex those muscles and write prose. But I also wanted to, like my inciting incident happens before page one, you know, it opens in the hospital and he’s lost his arm and he just says…fuck me, you know, I’m not the guy who overcomes this. And so I was able to break that form and I was also able to write about a guy who… I believe in the worst circumstances, most of us don’t rise up over those obstacles. We keep tripping over them and falling over and over again. I know I’m a giant coward and if something like this happened to me, I don’t think I would overcome it that well. And so it was a way to break the form of structure and to also break what typically happens with a character. And so those were the things that as my debut novel I was aiming for.

Danielle (05:01.228)

Yeah, I love that. And did you know from the beginning that it was going to be a novel? Like you say that things come as you write, but did you know the form? Did you set out writing it as a novel?

ken (05:10.579)

Yes, very much so. Yeah, I never had this idea for a script or a pilot or anything else. First of all, it’s a terrible pitch. And it just felt like it has to live in this world. I was very lucky. I was very surprised. I did have a couple of attempts to option it for television. I have adapted it. I think I’m going to go back and maybe try it as a feature, but I think it had to start here. It had to start in this form as a novel.

Danielle (05:42.668)

Yeah, and I think there’s so many benefits to it being a novel. And I love what you say. And I read one of your articles that talked really interestingly about not wanting necessarily to follow the rules of screenwriting in it. And like you said about where the inciting incident is placed, were there any things that you found particularly either surprising or delightful or arduous about prose compared to all the screenwriting and comic book writing that you’ve done before?

ken (06:09.011)

I love the form. It just felt so good to flex those muscles. It’s much harder. It’s time consuming. You know, we have this thing called word count. How many words did you get today? And then, you know, even ultimately you have to hit a word count to have a viable novel. And just that little thing at the bottom of my page every day that was nowhere near where I wanted it to be, that was frustrating.

You know, I could write a pilot in a week and I could write a movie in a month and they may not be very good, but I have them. I know where the beginning, the middle, the end is. It’s 40 pages or it’s 110 pages. And now it exists in the world. You know, it’s what we call the vomit draft. And now I can go back and clean it up. But a book, it just, you know…So, I mean, I worked on AMP’D on and off for years. And I also, I didn’t outline. I tend to outline when I’m working on something in film or television. So it really, there are so many just flights of fancy. I always listen to my characters. I always hear their voices, no matter what form I’m writing it. And that’s great because they tell me what they would say and do, even if I think I know. So that part was not different, but plot was completely, I didn’t know what I was doing from chapter to chapter.

And in fact in an early draft it took me a long time to get to, I was really exploring what it would feel like to have this happen and bringing him home. And when I finally got an agent, he loved the book, but he said, like just move things faster. Get him to a place where the plot kicks in a little sooner.

So that for me was the challenge, was just letting it unfold the way that I did and without an outline. And there are things happening all through the book that I just didn’t plan. And that when they happen, I was like, oh, this is great. This is good. And that was really fun.

Danielle (08:16.172)

Hmm. Yeah. I love that. And I wonder if it benefited from like having those things because that’s one of the things I love most in the tone was how you nailed the feeling, the believability of the feelings, but also then this plot, which does, you know, get quite wild and fun and absurd too. But I think it’s, can be a tricky balance, like how we keep it grounded.

And so do you have any insights as to how you managed to do that? Or was it, do you think, because the character work was so good? Because I did have like lots of thoughts of…this is wild, this is fun. Like this is, I liked the plot and I really felt for the characters.

ken (09:00.531)

Yeah, I wasn’t very focused on plot, as you can tell. And so the characters, you know, the characters start making things happen. I think families are both easy and hard to write about. I mean, we all have one. We all understand the dynamics. But I think they’re different and the same for everybody at the same time.

And I just think that once I sort of stumbled into different characters, I won’t call them archetypes, his sister’s type A, but then she’s not. Mom seems very emotionally withholding, but then she’s not. His father is never going to mention his missing arm. And he suffers his own setback. I just think that constantly reversing expectations, which again, like I’m hearing the characters. I think I know what mom’s going to do and say. And then she, she gives me a moment. It’s like, Oh, let me go off on that tangent a little bit.

And then as far as his father… just an example, of not planning, he’s an Olympic biathlete and the dumbest Olympic sport, right? It’s ski, cross-country skiing, and then firing a rifle. And the only reason he’s an Olympic biathlete is because….When I was writing this, I happened to get up and walk through the living room and the Olympics were on. And the biathlon was on. And I said, I’m going to make him an Olympic biathlete. And so it’s such a random moment, but then it becomes a…I use it as a metaphor for him. He’s a guy who, and he explains in the book, the biathlon seems nonsensical, but what it is, it’s to test your ability to go from heart pumping activity to the restful state needed to hit a target.

And so I used that as a metaphor for him for how he’s modulated his life away from the poles towards what he calls the dull stripe of the middle. Now that’s all an accident because I got up to get a Kit Kat out of the freezer at that moment and the biathlon was on TV. And I don’t know if that could have happened if I was writing a screenplay. I just gave myself a lot more opportunities here on the book to do that.

Danielle (11:24.716)

Oh, I love that. That’s so inspiring. And I just really feel like it’s all the… it sounds banal, but it is all the richer for it because there were so many things where it didn’t exactly go as expecting. And I was constantly surprised by the characters and in such a delightful way, because I do understand, and particularly, I mean, I’m assuming from the outside that the tropes can be really important in screenwriting, but I also find them a bit frustrating sometimes as a viewer. And it’s so interesting the way that you play with them and twist them and subvert things.

And I love your term…reversing expectations. But again, not just at like the moment in the arc where people would be like, oh, and this is where we get the twist. It’s like, there’s so many twists within the scenes and you can’t ever quite judge where they’re going to be. It’s delightful, really delightful.

ken (12:09.075)

Thank you. And look, we’re complex animals. We’re very, you know, very few people move in a straight line and, you know, people will surprise you and will surprise ourselves. And so, you know, why not let that happen when you’re writing?

Danielle (12:25.1)

Yeah, yeah, I love that. I think we need more of that. And there was one of the reviews that I pulled out from AMP’D that I really liked. It said, ‘it’s a lot like life, sad and funny and messy and weird, occasionally all at the same time’. And I was like, yeah, I think that’s why I love it. And again, the really bold choices, but always with these really believable characters. So that was awesome.

And I wanted to ask you, because I did also cry in AMP’D. And it was particularly hard, because I’m not joking about the fact I also read it out loud to my husband, who then got the flu. And it’s really hard to read out loud when you’re getting really choked up. And I’m not going to spoil it for readers, but there were a couple of places where I was so choked up. I was like… just give it a minute. I had to have a little bit of water and then carry on reading. And so I’m curious, like we use the term in TV now, comedy-drama, and people are more used to things sort of shifting. But I think it can be quite hard in prose to get that balance. Was that something that came naturally to you being able to make those really like heart rending bits too and then pull the comedy back or did that need calibration?

ken (13:30.291)

You know, tone is really hard and I think it’s the hardest thing in the world in film and television, especially because often, especially in film, the director is responsible for tone and oftentimes he or she didn’t write it. And getting the tone wrong in a comedy, especially what we call a dark comedy or something that’s not conventionally comic, it’s a really hard tightrope to walk.

I didn’t struggle with it much and only because I think I was just writing honestly and when it was funny I let it be funny and when it was real I let it be real and when it was sad I let it be sad. I didn’t plan those sad moments. I didn’t, you know, the ones that we’re not going to ruin right now. I didn’t necessarily, I don’t recall planning them to happen. But when it felt like, either I needed another narrative engine or it just felt like, oh, this is inexorable and so here we are. I just let it happen.

And you’re right. Life is funny and sad and the book can be funny and sad and a lot of…You know, there’s a very popular show on right now called The Bear that it keeps winning all the awards for comedy, right? It’s the best comedy. It’s the best actor in a comedy. It’s the best actress in a comedy. And I watch it and I love it. And I very infrequently laugh. I mean, it’s not, it’s not typically, it really isn’t a comedy. I mean, it’s funny.

And conversely, there are all these great dramas, Breaking Bad, Mad Men. There are so many of them that are, that are just so funny. And so I think, you know, we’re allowed to do that now and we’ve gotten accustomed to that now. And certainly a novel, if it’s going to reflect life at all, you know, it should be, you know, both funny and sad.

It’s funny you mentioned the Thurber Prize and it’s one of the issues I have and I love the Thurber people and I hope they still love me if you’re listening. But I think they should have two categories for fiction and nonfiction because I think when you’re competing with a book of essays, comic essays generated over the course of a year, I can write essays and I can make every sentence funny. I really can. So I think if you’re looking for the funniest book, it’s probably not going to be a novel. And I give them a lot of credit for picking novels. James McBride’s recently, Deacon King Kong. I love to see novels win because it is a harder thing to write funny. You can’t just make it joke, joke, joke, joke, joke, or the whole thing is just going to feel like a very empty experience.

Danielle (16:29.356)

Yeah, and I’m going to second that. So, Thurber, people, if you’re listening, also love you and thank you for making the list. It’s how I found AMP’D. And I also agree. I agree with you, Ken. And I probably do have a vested interest because I’m also working on a comic novel myself and I had no idea what I was letting myself in for in terms of how hard I was going to find it. So, I agree.

ken (16:51.251)

It’s hard, don’t struggle with the comedy. You’ll find those moments, look for…you know comedy, you understand comedy. You just look for those juxtapositions of people in conflict, things that are in conflict. You take your character, like what’s the thing this character would hate the most and put them in it and it’s going to be funny. At least if you’re a comedy writer, it’s going to be funny. Someone else would write it tragically, but you know, like the little boy in the sixth sense, I see jokes. He sees dead people, I see jokes. Sometimes they don’t know they’re jokes. So that’s sort of how it works.

Danielle (17:41.324)

Yeah, I love it. And what I really loved with your book is that it’s situationally funny, as well as like, I feel like lots of writers really lean on the dialogue and your dialogue is amazing as well. And there are jokes, but it is also situationally funny and visually funny, which I really appreciate because that really ramps up the comedy for me and not tons of books do that.

ken (18:04.307)

Thank you. And that is sort of how I write. It’s like, you know, if I’m pitching a pilot or something like that, it’s not necessarily a hilarious premise. It’s not like, oh, it’s a dentist with giant hands. He can’t get them in your mouth. I mean, like, I don’t pitch that. It’s putting a character in a world that we’re… I love beleaguered characters. I know you’re like, your protagonist is supposed to be active and changing things and the hero’s journey and all that stuff. And most of that is not true to life. Most of us don’t have a super want that we chase above all else and the obstacles  come and we overcome them. I think most of us, and maybe I’m just revealing my own weakness here, are sort of beleaguered by the world around us and we’re just trying to get through it. And that is, you know, we’re all doing it. To me, that’s comical.

Danielle (19:02.956)

Yeah, totally. And I love though that it’s still comical with, I don’t know the best way of describing it, but there’s some books that I’ve read where the beleagueredness just comes out in almost, if I was being really blunt, I would just say in a sort of whiny tone, which this doesn’t have. It’s not like tipping into that just kind of microanalysis of all the things that have been done to them. It’s not… it’s this character still trying to move, not necessarily always forwards, sometimes sideways, sometimes falling down a hole metaphorically speaking, but there isn’t this sort of microanalysis, almost like sort of therapist speak kind of comedy, existential comedy. I’m not expressing myself very well, but I know what I mean.

ken (19:46.707)

Thank you. No, no, you are, I hear you 100 % and thank you for that. But I’ll just admit there’s a fair amount of whining. And I even have some comments on Goodreads where it’s like, oh, I didn’t think I’d get past the whining. Again, it’s those opening, like he’s really, he’s wallowing. It’s like…This is the worst thing that happened to me and not only am I gonna wallow in it, but I’m gonna make everybody around me miserable. And to me, that’s funny and people have a little more threshold and maybe that’s not funny, but eventually I think everybody gets on board with this character and what he’s trying to do and his fucked up family. Can I swear on your podcast, I should have asked that.

Danielle (20:31.596)

Yes, you can. No, you’re totally fine. I think the difference for me though is it still felt like this really brilliant balance between it being a comic game and also being truthful. Because for example, doing the things in lists, I’m not giving things away when I say that like structurally, do you know what I mean? There’s a play and a comic game to it in a way that there isn’t if it’s just someone microscopically kind of looking at how bad their mother has been to them or do you know what I mean? So I felt like there is a play and a game in it still.

ken (21:05.203)

It’s a good example. Instead of him just literally whining, he’s constantly making mental lists, things you can’t do with one arm.

Danielle (21:11.66)

Yeah, which is fun. Yeah, I really enjoyed it. I didn’t find it whiny in that sense, which is really fun.

So I did want to ask you a little bit what the publishing and marketing process has been like, because from everything that we hear, like you say, even with the Thurber, it’s all put into one. So in terms of trying to being able to place comic novels, within bookstores…rom-coms have a bit of a section, but otherwise with comic fiction and where it gets put when it’s not one of those joke books, it’s not a Christmas present book, it’s not that have on the coffee table a hundred things to whatever, it’s not like a celebrity with nonfiction. How did you find the publishing and marketing process?

ken (22:03.379)

It’s hard, you know, think about quote unquote funny novels, you know, comic novels. There aren’t that many of them, you know. Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim, and certainly whatever shortlisted for the Thurber Prize every year. But the humour section in your bookstore is, you know, Dave Barry and joke books and cartoons and gags. And so it’s, you know, it’s…I think that makes it hard for publishers, you know, they don’t know what to do with it. You know, I joked when I, for the Thurber Prize, they invite the three of you there and you each do a reading and make a little speech. And then they, they give it to the person who’s not you. At least that’s my experience.

Danielle (22:52.62)

Trevor Noah though.

ken (22:59.059)

In this case, I think I said, well, I think I’m the worst selling novel in Thurber history and thank you for having me. We didn’t sell a lot of books. But look, the reviews are almost universally positive. The people on Goodreads liked it. I’ve got good reviews on Amazon. I got very, I don’t think I got, I didn’t get any negative commercial reviews.

The one you quoted earlier, I mean, they were overwhelmingly positive and I wish more people had found it. But it’s a hard thing to position yourself. Now maybe, Carl Hiassen writes funny books, but they’re very ploty and so they know what to do with them. So maybe the next one, I’ll make it very ploty and obviously funny.

Danielle (23:52.908)

I love and I am drawn to ploty books and this one had plenty of plot in it for me. So I really enjoyed it. I think it hit all the things. I loved the characters, loved how they were grounded and I loved the plot and the visuals. It was amazing.

So I want to come back to comedy and craft in a minute, but I did want to ask you because you’ve done so many things and I read very amusingly on your website, like a bunch of the different things that you’ve done and you’re also quite open about things that have been like

failed or stalled or projects that have not come to fruition, which is to be expected with any creative who’s doing screenwriting and TV and comics and is actually working as a professional.

And one of the ones that you mentioned, for example, was the Mike Tyson project that was absolutely ages ago. So I wonder just because I hear from people who listen to the show and they find it really helpful to kind of have the curtain drawn back, just what you’d say as any advice for people who are going through things and they’re like, oh, I’ve got this and it’s going to be amazing. And then naturally it stalls. So, oh, this is, this is absolutely going to happen. And then it doesn’t come to fruition. Any advice for that longevity aspect of keeping going.

ken (25:02.643)

So what you’re saying is your listeners like to hear about other people’s failure.

Danielle (25:05.9)

Uh huh, yeah, I was trying to be polite about it but kind of, yeah. It just is comforting.

ken (25:09.779)

Yes. Um, look, it’s just, you know, this business is not for the faint of heart and probably any creative business. I mean, if you think about, you know, painters, dancers, musicians, writers, artists, you know, ballerinas, I mean, you know, you’re going to fail more than you succeed. So you, you know, you, you better have a thick skin about it. And I would say, also don’t ride the highs too high. Don’t be so full of yourself when you enjoy a little bit of success because it just gives you that much further to fall.

You know, I keep, as I’m sure most people do, I have a spreadsheet of submissions, you know, books that went out, pilots that went out, movies, features, and you know, it’s like, you know, it’s a boxer’s losing record. It’s just, you know, lost, you know, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass. And occasionally, even with the pass, sometimes it gets you in a room with somebody. It turns into something else later on. So I don’t know. Look, there’s a whole never give up. By the way, I love Galaxy Quest, never give up, never surrender, right? And I get that. But sometimes it’s…I guess I agree. Never give up, but don’t keep doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. Pivot a little.

By way of example, my second book after AMP’D is a little novella, and I had a two-book contract with St. Martin’s Press, and they don’t publish novellas. So I self-published it, and nothing happened, but that was fine. I actually turned it into a pilot. And I’ve sold it twice for television. As I described them, events that expired with a little fanfare. One more thing that didn’t happen.

But my second real book, which to date is still the thing I think is the best thing I’ve written, we couldn’t sell it. We brought it to St. Martin’s. They didn’t want it. We took it out very narrowly, not to a lot of places. And again, it’s a, you know, It’s not a guy with one arm, but it’s not the Da Vinci Code. You know, I’m not writing Michael Crichton books.

It’s about a Russian hockey player in 1989 who defects to the West. He wants to go to New York. He wants to see Cats. He wants to meet Koch. And he winds up in Buffalo, New York, where none of those things are. And he sort of ruined his life because then the wall comes down. And if he had just waited, he would have been allowed to do this. And instead he’s literally guilty of treason, having fled the country, and his family is punished.

And it’s this long 30-year epic story of colliding worlds and people and where they wind up. It was a big ambitious book. And I’m still very proud of it. Couldn’t sell it. And I pivoted. I started writing a thing that to me feels very commercial, but it also feels loaded with the stuff I wanted to explore about life and regrets and who we are and who we think we’ll be and what if we could do things over. And I never tell my agent what I’m writing because he would tell me, don’t write that, I can’t sell it.

So in this case, I told him, I emailed him, I said, just so you know, here’s what I’m working on. And like 10 minutes later, my phone rang and it’s him. And he doesn’t call me that often. And he called me and he said, finish this book, I can sell it. So this is the thing that I mentioned in my email. I’m still waiting. It’s at a publisher right now and I’m waiting to hopefully get good news any day now. But that’s an example, I think, of not giving up, but pivoting. And I didn’t try to write the DaVinci Code. I didn’t write an action thriller. I wrote something that’s still very much, I feel in my heart and I want it to be funny, but I also, you know, look, this could be a movie, this could be a TV show, this could be a beach read. And I think a lot of people would enjoy it very much. And so I think that that’s maybe a good lesson.

Danielle (29:39.66)

Yeah, and I like the sound of your other one too. As you’re saying it I want to read that.

ken (29:45.107)

It’s really good. I’ll send you the first chapter.

Danielle

Yeah, that sounds amazing. So yeah, I love that. And oh my goodness, such resilience. I was saying, you’ve done so many different things in your career, but I want to take a slight left hand.

Everyone check out, if you didn’t see that, rewind it on, you can’t rewind it on YouTube, show my age. Go, go. Yeah. So good, that’s good. We’ll get a picture of that. Look at that AMP’D mug.

ken (30:03.763)

I should put this on my website, shouldn’t I? And do you see the sticker? I put these on books. It was my wife’s idea. It says,

Danielle (30:14.444)

Oh, yeah. There we go. Oh, Thurber Prize. Yeah. Oh no, I didn’t see that bit.

ken (30:19.859)

It says, Thurber Prize. Underneath everything…loser.

Danielle

Oh, okay. Well, yeah. Amazing. So I want to take a little bit of a left turn here, because you did say while we were setting up for this podcast, it was okay to pepper you with questions. I’m going to take you at your word and ask you…in one of your articles you were writing about the fact that you prefer something new and that stretches boundaries to something familiar. And that’s also true for me, where I’m like, oh…a 30 year epic with a hockey player, I want that too.

But then there was a caveat. You said you’ve got one caveat, Muppets. And you said, ‘if the Muppets want to rescue Snow White or battle zombies or join the Avengers or take over downtown Abbey, bring it on’. And I’m like, I second that too. So why do you love Muppets? Because I’ve got a weird love of Muppets.

ken (31:09.971)

Oh, come on, who doesn’t love the Muppets?

Danielle (31:11.308)

People don’t, I get shouted down.

Ken

They’re just so… oh…you avoid those people. Don’t spend any time with those people. Don’t give them the time of day. They’ll just bring you down. The Muppets, they’re just so great. They’re so wonderful. There’s a purity to them. And again, even those characters are archetypes, but there’s a depth to them. They just feel authentic. They feel great. You know, you hear the stories all the time about the actors who would go on Sesame Street or The Muppet Show. And The Muppet Show, by the way, back in the 80s was huge. It was a prime-time show and they get the biggest stars, you know, they get Stallone right off of Rocky and they get… just the biggest stars are going on The Muppet Show. And they would say that after it takes a very, very short period of time and they’re talking to the puppet. They’re not talking to the guy they can clearly see going like this. They’re talking to the puppet as if he or she is real.

And that’s a great tribute to them that they’re able to create these wonderful characters. And God, they’re so funny. They’re just great.

Danielle (32:17.228)

Yeah, yeah. And in the episode that I think will come out, the one before yours, I talked to Caleb Warren, who researches comedy and was asking him about it too, because I was saying that… because I’m a bit obsessed with it at the minute…that I just feel like with Muppets or puppets, the bar changes for me in terms of what I’ll find funny. Like everything is so much exponentially funnier. And you’ve just given me some indications, like you say there’s this weird purity, but also depth to them. I was like, I don’t know how it’s true, but that feels really true. And I will laugh so much more at what they do often than with humans, other than humans in real life.

ken (32:52.659)

Oh, so much.

Danielle (32:54.54)

Yeah, amazing. Great. So thank you for sharing that.

So I’d love to know just a couple more, well, looking at time, so many things I can ask you, but I’m just going to ask you one or two more comedy-based questions and then we’ll wrap up. So I’d love to know from your, the other mediums that you work with, because I know, because I asked you to stand up before we did the podcast, I could see your shirt, that you’ve got one of your comic books on your shirt. Check that out everyone.

ken (33:20.883)

One of my comic books. I’m a walking billboard, I might as well be wearing like a fire suit for the Indy 500 with logos, except they’re all monics.

Danielle (33:24.428)

Yeah, I love it. What did you particularly love about, this is a broad question, but what did you particularly love about comic books as it relates to humour? Because we have had one writer on Ryan North who spoke a little bit to comic books and humour, but it’s not something we’ve touched on loads in the show. And obviously there’s so many different kinds of comic books and people will love them for the action and the characters but I am interested in the humour specifically. What do you love about that?

ken (33:55.667)

Well, now, you know, currently there’s such a wide range of comic books. People think of comic books as superheroes and types, but there are so many more. And, you know, even when you talk about comic book movies, you know, Ghost World 20 years ago was a comic book movie with Scarlett Johansson. There’s such a breadth of storytelling that they do in comic books. It’s almost like animation. Animation is an…it isn’t a genre, it’s a medium. And the same thing with comics, which it’s a medium that you could tell so many different stories in.

I didn’t actually, you know, like, Colonus is not, Colonus has humour in it the same way Breaking Bad has humour in it. But I, like, people who know me know that I write comedy and I said, oh, I wrote a comic book and they said, oh, I bet it’s hilarious. And I said, oh no, my protagonist beats a guy to death with a shovel on page eight. But even that is..It’s kind of funny. So, and that was an example of I had a big idea. And it’s basically, it’s Deadwood in space. So there’s no ray guns, there’s no aliens. It’s Mars, Earth and Venus. And when we fuck up Earth beyond all recognition, we go to colonize Mars.

But all the outcasts, the criminals, the miscreants, the prostitutes, the crackpot scientists, the kooks go the other way. They go to Venus as they call it, a place fit for scumbags. And so like this is a big idea and it was something I wanted to write about, but I can’t sell them. This is a hundred-million-dollar movie. I can’t sell it. And no one’s going to make a TV show out of it, but a graphic novel, if you can just find somebody to draw it, you can do anything. There’s no budget anymore. So, that was the impetus there to do a comic book, and because I loved them, I’ve loved them since I was a kid, but it really was that sort of story-specific. I mean, if I attempt to write this as a feature, it’s unlikely it’s ever gonna get made, but I can do it as a comic book. And it was just a joy to work in that medium.

Danielle (36:09.676)

Oh, that’s so exciting. I love it and very inspiring. And again, I appreciate what you’re saying because things like Breaking Bad, or I also love Barry, Bill Hader’s show where he’s a hitman. And like you were saying with the hitting with the shovel, and it’s that thing again, where a lot of it is very dark, but I probably wouldn’t be able to watch it without the humour. Because in Breaking Bad, I needed those scenes. I still remember there was one with, they’re going to get some… like Jessie and Walter White are going to get some barrels or something. And there’s a whole scene where then Jessie ends up on top of a portaloo and drops through and comes out blue looking like a smurf while he’s doing it.

And it’s like, I actually needed some of the scenes or the, or the humour and often smaller examples to break the tension. Because I’m still one of those people that… I’ll probably watch it one day, but I haven’t seen the Sopranos. Because every time I’ve tried to watch through it, it just makes me too tense. Whereas Breaking Bad or Barry, there’s something about the tone where it’s like, it just gives me just, just enough to be able to kind of wiggle my way up to it and watch it.

ken (37:06.771)

You do need to break the tension and the surprise, by the way, that’s also very funny. I mean, the characterizations are really, yeah. But again, they feel very authentic.

Danielle (37:18.444)

Right, yeah, I’ll have to go back in. It’s just, I just remember how good it was, but how tense I felt in the first episode and I’ve never got past the first episode.

ken (37:27.571)

It’s a great pilot. The Sopranos. Pilots are hard because you have to do so much. And then you look at a lot of shows and they’re nothing like their pilot anymore. And especially in comedies, because they evolve quickly. They figure out what works. But the Sopranos, man, it’s just like that pilot is so perfect. Everything they do in that pilot is just what they continue in a good way. The tone is there, the characters are there, the weird dichotomy of the the mobster in therapy, it’s just, it’s all right there in that first pilot. I just think that David Chase was walking around with this in his head for a very, very long time and he just knew how to get it all out on paper all at once.

Danielle (38:05.196)

Yeah. Oh, brilliant. And I’d love to ask you just if there’s anything that you’re currently enjoying or it doesn’t have to be recent, it could be from years back that you’re watching or listening to. Because I mean, you can give it a little shout out and people might go and check it out.

ken (38:18.995)

Well, I’m watching, I mentioned James McBride, Deacon King Kong. I just started The Good Lord Bird, which is also a series on Showtime that I haven’t watched, but the book is great. My wife and I are watching Resident Alien on SyFy. And it’s based on a comic book. It’s based on a Dark Horse comic. And it really… talk about an adaptation. It really takes the basic premise of the comic book, but it really goes off totally in a whole different thing. It’s laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a one hour, but it’s really, really funny. So, you know, those two, I loved Reservation Dogs. I’m so sorry it’s over. I mentioned I was watching The Bear. Oh, and you mentioned Barry. Now, Barry, I like Barry very much, but I’m hard-pressed to call season four a comedy at all. I mean, it really just seems like…It was just a giant tonal shift. It was like, we’re not even going to try to be funny anymore.

Danielle (39:17.452)

Yeah, I agree with you. I kept watching it because I think Bill Hader is brilliant and I have so much faith, but at the end I was just like, oh, okay. Yeah. Yeah, I agree.

Oh, fabulous. Ken, I could ask you so many more things, but we’re at time now. So I’d love to remind listeners, if you are interested in comedy and particularly novels as I am, AMP’D.

I loved it’s one of my all time favourite comic novels that I’ve ever read for characters, plot, all the things. Like I said, literally had those human reactions of laughing out loud, which is quite a big task to get me to do, particularly from prose, and also shedding some tears because I was so attached to the characters. So brilliant, delightful, surprising, fresh, awesome.

ken (39:48.531)

Thank you so much. It’s so nice to hear, look, I wrote this novel, I started it years ago and it was published in 2016 and got a second bump in 2017 and was nominated for the Thurber Prize. And just last year I won, AMP’D won the Island Book Awards. It was a trip to Greece. I went to Athens. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. And especially to an international award, I asked him, it was like, how is this funny to you? Like comedy doesn’t travel. And they were like…You know, there are Swedes on it, on the voting panel and Greeks and it’s just international panellists. Like, no, it was all our first choice. And so it’s just very gratifying that the book keeps meandering out there. And so I do have the rights back. And so I have self -published it now and you can find it on Amazon and I hope people find it.

Danielle (40:57.324)

Definitely. We’ll put a link in the show notes and where else should people go to find out more about you and your work, Ken?

ken (41:04.435)

I have a website, kenpisani.com, which when I needed it, as luck would have it, was available. And you can also follow me on Twitter @kpsmartypants.

Danielle (41:14.988)

Amazing. I’ll put those links in the show notes and thank you so much. It was really fun chatting with you today.

ken (41:19.283)

Thank you. What a joy to be here with you.