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Creatively Speaking: Zach Kanin

It's Zach Kanin week here at mental_floss, and I'm so excited about it, I'm going to lock the Caps and type that all over again: IT'S ZACH KANIN WEEK HERE AT MENTAL_FLOSS!

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Zach's responsible for many of the hilarious cartoons over at The New Yorker and has a funtabulous new book out called The Short Book: Tall Stories, Freakish Facts, & the Long & Short of Being Small in a Great Big World.

If you're short, if you're friends with someone short, married to someone short, in love with someone short, envious of someone short, sympathetic to someone short, or just plain short on time, you really want to pick up a copy of this little gem, right over here. Tomorrow, Zach will be sending us our own cartoon for the caption contest, which he'll personally judge. And then Thursday, well, you don't even wanna know what's coming Thursday...

Look, I'm so excited about it, I'm getting ahead of myself. First, a little background on the little man: in addition to working for The New Yorker, at 5' 3", Zach was the shortest president ever of The Harvard Lampoon.

shortbook.jpgAnd now, the interview! Click on through to find out how Zach came up with the idea for his book and other fun things like why Romans used to starve children and constrict their growth. And for more great Kanin cartoons, check out this page at the Cartoon Bank.


1. First let me say, given the nature of your subject matter, you might only be inclined to offer short answers here, but feel free to ramble. Our readers like brevity, but they also appreciate depth. So start by telling us how you got the idea for this snazzy mix of trivia and humor.

Well, I happen to be short, and I've always been fascinated by myself. But it wasn't as natural a connection as that. Originally I was just going to write a book about short animals, for short animals. My publisher explained that books for animals don't sell that well, with the exception being snakes, who are voracious readers. On the other hand, snakes measure themselves lengthwise, so the whole topic would seem rather banal to them. It turns out that almost 80% of people consider themselves short (even if that doesn't make statistical sense), so I figured there might be a potential human market.
When I finished going through puberty and lo and behold, I was way shorter than I expected, I was devastated. And frankly, from an uninformed view, being short seems like it sort of sucks. Not only are there a lot of obvious drawbacks (it's nearly impossible for a shorter man to date a taller woman, it's advantageous to be taller in sports, it's harder to reach things in the kitchen), but there are many studies coming out now suggesting that taller people make a lot more money, taller people are smarter, short people are more at risk of heart attack and arthritis, etc. And I wasn't going to try to debunk these myths, but rather I wanted to write a book that shows: 1) many of the most talented and successful people in history were and are short; and 2) being short is something that you cannot change (unless you endure costly and painful leg lengthening surgery) so just be happy. And mostly I just wanted to make a funny book. Should the book make short people feel good about themselves? Maybe, that would be great! But I basically didn't want to get all worked up about it.

2. I love the book's subtitle: Tall Stories, Freakish Facts, & the Long & Short of Being Small in a Great Big World. Was that your idea?

No. That was my editor's idea. My working subtitle was: The Exciting Sequel to "˜The Da Vinci Code'!

3. Because you're such a brilliant and hilarious cartoonist too, how did you go about picking spots for illustrations and cartoons?

The illustrations are very organic, in that I planned them out as punch lines while I was writing. Originally we were going to hire someone else to illustrate the book, so whenever I thought of a funny idea for a drawing or photograph I would just leave a note saying to draw whatever crazy thing. I didn't hold back on my ideas, because I figured it was going to be someone else's problem to figure out how to draw them. But in the end it was my problem, I think for that reason. I had already included the drawings so much in text that to have someone else come in with a different sense of humor would have been confusing. I didn't want the illustrations to just repeat jokes that were already in the text, so each one had to have it's own additional joke sort of playing off the text. For example, I talk about the size of a whale at one point, and then there is a drawing of a tiny guy with a tiny car yelling at a whale to "get in the car!" even though there is no mention of the automotive exploits of whales in the text.

4. How did your experience with The Harvard Lampoon and The New Yorker help you in writing the book?

One of the most important things you can learn in comedy writing is how to edit out all the crap. Essentially that means just going through and taking out all the bad jokes, but it is harder than it sounds, because when you re-read humor a hundred times you start to forget what was funny about it in the first place. And you start to remove any sentences that aren't funny but are important because they tell you what the hell is going on. Editing the Lampoon was perfect training for this. And then editing and drawing cartoons at The New Yorker was a similar deal "“ a cartoon caption needs to be pithy. So, when the first revision of my book was 150 pages too long, I was (begrudgingly) ready to tackle it.
Also, at the Lampoon, I was surrounded by funny, hideous people. We were all so ugly that there was nothing to do but make jokes and draw.
The New Yorker staff is a lot better looking, which threatened to soften me, but luckily one of my main responsibilities there was to narrow down the caption contest entries. For those who don't know, on the back page of The New Yorker there is a drawing of a cartoon that needs a caption, and about 7-8,000 people send in captions every week. I had to read all of them, which almost made me blind. And I need my eyes for my work. I forget why that helped with the book. I guess it just made me a stronger, more isolated person.

5. There were so many curious factoids in the book. I had no idea Alexander the Great wore a child's set of armor, for instance. Nor did I know musician Prince was only 5' 2". (He looks at least 5' 3" in Purple Rain, don't you think?) While doing your research, was there one fact that totally surprised you?

Actually, Alexander the Great didn't wear a child's set of armor. That was a joke. I consider lies to be jokes. However, many people think Alexander was about 5'2" based on a set of armor found in Macedonia that is believed to be his. This is unlikely though, because he would not have been able to fight so effectively in the style of the times had he been that short, so it is more likely that the armor belonged to a female warrior. So, Alexander the Great didn't wear a child's set of armor, but he did possibly own some undersized ladies' armor for some reason.
A lot of the facts I found surprised me. To me, the most interesting stuff was about royal families keeping dwarfs as servants and jesters (Romans used to actually "manufacture" dwarfs for this purpose, by starving children and constricting their growth). Jeffrey Hudson was one such dwarf who lived in the court of Charles I of England. He introduced himself to the queen by popping out of a pie he had been hiding in (he was 18 inches tall at the time). Later, he killed a man in a duel, was exiled from England for 10 years, and returned, mysteriously 21 inches taller. There was also the story of the 1'11" spy, Richeborg, who the Orleans family dressed up as a baby in order to deliver messages across enemy lines during the first French Revolution.
But I would have to say my favorite anecdote in the book is about James Brown. On January 8, 2007, days after Brown had passed away, two Atlanta residents were having an argument about how tall James Brown was (he was around 5'6". I actually met James Brown when I was President of the Lampoon, and he appropriately and inexplicably would only refer to me as "˜the Little General.') Anyways, these two men are arguing about whether James Brown is 5'6" or maybe 5'7" and so one of them takes out a gun and shoots the other one twice in the stomach. The guy who gets shot then goes to his car, pulls out his gun, and tries to shoot the first guy in the face, but misses. Then they both walk to the police station and the first guy confesses. That's how important height is.

6. There's a great section in the book that compares all the minimum height requirements for some of the top rides and amusement parks across the country. Did you take a road trip to gather these facts?

I wish. Instead, my girlfriend, Christina Angelides, took a plane trip to New York City, where I told her I would wine and dine her. Then when she arrived, I showed her my beautiful, windowless, basement apartment and set her up with a computer and a library card so she could help me find facts for the book for the next several months. I believe she tracked down the amusement park information.

7. It's interesting to see how so many of the great artists and composers over the centuries were short. Do you think there's something to height and artistic talent? Like big and tall people excel at sports, forcing the shorties to engage in other extracurricular activities?

I would like to believe that there is some sort of correlation like that, but I can't really bring myself to. I mean, with a book like this, you'd expect a lot of statements like, "And therefore, short people are the greatest," and, "thus, we can see that the person of inferior stature, is in fact of superior nature." (Actually, now I wish I had included that second one in the book.) The point is, I think that so many people are considered short (almost half of all people), that obviously you are going to see a lot of talented people fall into that category. Do I believe there is some sort of Napoleonic complex that drives shorter people to excel? For starters, Napoleon wasn't even short for his time, he was one-and-one-half inches taller than the average Frenchman. So even Napoleon couldn't have had a Napoleonic complex about being short (although one of his many autopsies revealed that his genitals were extremely petite, which he might have felt insecure about. This fact cannot be confirmed however, because when his body was exhumed, his genitals had been stolen! [That is another fact that cannot be confirmed.])
"¦And back to my point. The real question is about causality. Is ridicule on the playing field forcing short people into their rooms where they can work on their art? Were Voltaire, 5'2", and Kant, 5'0", deciding between careers as professional soccer players or a life of the mind, and a cynical recruiting coach told them they'd never make it pro? Or, instead, is it just that when looking at the talented short people of the world we notice that most of them are in fields where their height is not a disadvantage (i.e. not sports). I don't know. There are just too many people in the world. Sometimes it makes me depressed.

8. So are you on a short book tour now? Any place our readers can meet you?

I am, sort of. In Barnes and Noble and many other bookstores, The Short Book is on the reference shelf, between LSAT practice books and dictionaries. So I decided to go on tour promoting law schools. That way, when people go to buy practice books they will see my book. And I have always felt that the world needs more law students.
So far I have done several readings in New York and Boston, and I have some in the works for Providence and LA and a few other places. Those dates and locations will be up on my book blog, www.smallotry.com, when they are scheduled. And remember, all proceeds from the book go towards curing shortness.

9. If you could have dinner with any short, dead person from history, who would it be?

Pablo Picasso, 5'4". He owes me money.

If Picasso isn't available, I would pick Rabbit Maranville, 5'5", who was the leading National League shortstop from 1914-1919 (not including 1918 when he was in the navy). He was a huge practical joker, often leaping into his teammates' arms, handing eye-glasses to the umpire, and one time faking his own, brutal homicide.

If Rabbit Maranville isn't available, I would choose Ludwig Van Beethoven, 5'4", because he knows where Picasso hangs out and I really need that money.

10. What's next for Zach Kanin?

I've got my hands full drawing cartoons for The New Yorker, but I have a few secret projects in the works and I've been doing a lot of writing and painting. I was also thinking of starting a sandwich shop in my apartment called "Slammers." It would only be open for one hour a day and I need reservations at least one day in advance so I know how much food to buy.
Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

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Creatively Speaking: MeetingBoy

Read on to win a new Meeting Boy wall calendar!

We have a nice interview/contest today with someone you need to know about if you don't already. PC World named him one of the 10 Funniest People On Twitter. Like Racer X, no one really knows who MeetingBoy is, but whoever is behind this madness is one hilarious, talented fella. Tweeting out quips and one-liners, he's amassed close to 80,000 followers on Twitter as @MeetingBoy. I first got to know him (well, as much as you can know a masked-man) after he re-tweeted a Twaggie (illustrated tweet) we did off one of his tweets over on my start-up, www.twaggies.com.

Then one day, MeetingBoy asked me if I'd like to give away one of his new MeetingBoy wall calendars in a contest. I said sure, under one condition: he do the following interview. So read the interview and follow the contest rules at the bottom of this post. We'll pick one tweet/comment at random and send you the calendar in time for Christmas! Good luck!

DI: First of all, where do you take your meetings? Tell us about your day job.

MB: I work in a glass & steel high rise in New York with lots of lazy idiots. The managers spout buzzwords to impress each other, and my boss is a clueless, bullying hypocrite more concerned with covering his own ass than getting things done. Does that narrow it down?

I am stuck in 3-5 meetings a day, so if there’s a way to waste someone’s time, I’ve seen it. And I’m sick of it. I must have really bad karma to deserve this. I must have been something truly awful in a former life, like maybe a manager or CEO.

@MeetingBoy: 125 PowerPoint slides? Well, I hope you're not presenting a case for how efficient our department is.

@MeetingBoy: Definition of insanity: holding the same meeting with the same people every week and expecting different results.

@MeetingBoy: Four meetings today. And then later, no doubt, a meeting with my boss about how I'm not getting anything done.

@MeetingBoy: I'm confused by this article about Bernie Madoff. I thought "white collar prison" was just a euphemism for my office.

@MeetingBoy: 7 hour conference call, though my lawyer says I'll be paroled in 6 with good behavior.

DI: How’d all this Meeting Boy stuff get started? Walk us through the early days.

MB: Since my biggest pet peeve in meetings is people who ramble on and on, Twitter was the right place for me to vent. The forced brevity was just right. If only I could force the people who write PowerPoint presentations to stick to 140 characters instead of 140 slides!

I’d been on Twitter before, but mentions of work had become a problem once people knew I was tweeting and started following me in the office. After I got a new boss last year, I created the MeetingBoy account so I would stop hearing about it. Since then I only tweet under my own name after hours.

@MeetingBoy: I'm married to my job. I don't love it. It was a shotgun wedding; I had knocked up my credit cards with all sorts of debt.

Early on as MeetingBoy, I was getting positive responses. People identified with my complaints-- in fact the most common response to MeetingBoy is “do you work at my company?”

Of course I hate buzzwords, and so many of my rants result from sitting through an hour of them. The word I hate the most is “robust”:

@MeetingBoy: At the end of the day I think we can all agree how tired the phrase "at the end of the day" is.

@MeetingBoy: When the revolution comes, I'm shooting everyone who says "robust". Well, except the coffee roasters.

DI: When did your first little break happen?

MB: Last October, PC World named me as one of the 10 Funniest People On Twitter. My following increased dramatically as a result. This was a huge surprise to me. I had no idea I had broken out of the Favstar community of internet jokers. After that my friends who weren’t on Twitter insisted I start cross-posting my material to Facebook and MeetingBoy.com so they could follow along too.

DI: And then your big break?

MB: Earlier this year someone at Twitter added me to their Suggested Users - Funny list. I was pretty excited; after all, as my friend said, “It sure beats being on the Suggested Users - Not Funny list.”

Though some people would say my “big break” was when I got a boss that didn’t get my sense of humor, forcing me to put more of it on the internet. Speaking of my boss:

@MeetingBoy: We have high expectations for him - he got his MBA in business jargon from Wharton.

@MeetingBoy: You're right. It was wrong of me to question how another layer of paperwork would speed up the process. I apologize.

@MeetingBoy: Hey, everybody! My boss is running a special on poorly thought out, unworkable ideas today. The discount code is YESSIR.

@MeetingBoy: "Dumb it down. Remember, you're presenting it to management."

@MeetingBoy: "I didn't read the executive summary you sent. Can you just put the idea in a few quick sentences and send it to me? Thanks."

@MeetingBoy: New line on my job description: "maintain high morale". Told HR I could do it, but not if my boss keeps trying to motivate me.

@MeetingBoy: My boss is very susceptible to food poisoning. Apparently this occurs when he stays out late drinking.

@MeetingBoy: The boss sent an email at 11:30 "reminding" everyone that he's working from home today. He sent it from his Blackberry.

DI: Did you set out to achieve Internet fame or did the idea sort of take over by itself?

MB: I set out to vent about work in an amusing way, in part because I was so annoyed at how people in the office reacted to my being on Twitter. I certainly had no idea how to get people to write about me or who at Twitter to sweet-talk to get them to recommend me.

Being famous and anonymous is a little odd though. None of the benefits of fame have come my way. I’m not getting a better table at Sparks or celebrity gift bags at the Oscars. And no matter how many followers I have, I’m still stuck in the same meetings every day.

I would like to see a MeetingBoy calendar make an appearance on The Office. Seems like something Jim Halpert would have (though since he gave up his office, I’m not sure where he’d put it). Or maybe Michael Scott because he’s a “cool boss” and none of it applies to him..

DI: Talk about the tweets themselves. Mostly they are things you think up in these meetings every day?

MB: They are responses to things that happen in meetings. Or things I wish I could say. In a few cases I’ve actually said these things. Of course the names have been removed to protect the boring, the rude, the jargon-spewing types, the lazy, the bullies, and the people with “bad grammer”.

@MeetingBoy: I know, I know, but if your idea is so good, why hasn't some VP passed it off as their own yet?

@MeetingBoy: Sorry, I have to leave your meeting. I have something I need to do. I need to not be bored to death.

@MeetingBoy: This PowerPoint needs an art director? Wow! I never thought I'd say this to you, lady, but you're overthinking this.

@MeetingBoy: That email you claim I never sent you? Here it is. Along with your REPLY TO IT.

@MeetingBoy: No, I wasn't playing Devil's Advocate. I really think your idea is stupid.

@MeetingBoy: You are mean, incompetent, and ignorant. Life did not hand you lemons; life handed you CONSEQUENCES.

DI: But other times I see you attributing the tweets to other authors/publishers. How does that work?

MB: Sometimes I see a tweet that I wish I wrote. Other times my followers send me one I missed. Either way, if it’s something I think my audience would appreciate, I share it. After all, I don’t want to be like that guy in my office who thinks the only good ideas are the ones he thinks of.

For example, some of my favorite tweets that someone else wrote are:

@swimparallel: I've recovered from my death sickness. Now I'm back in the office. It feels like a lateral move.

@summersumz: Evaluating data, making conclusions. LIVING THE DREAM!

@kerissmithJA: Your cc list doesn’t scare me. I still refuse to respond to your email.

DI: So now you have this cool wall calendar. How’d that come about?

MB: A friend makes up a calendar with photos of his family, which I dutifully hang in my cube. I thought it would be cool to have a MeetingBoy calendar. I’d hoped to make a 365-page-a-day calendar, which I think would really work for my short quips, but I couldn’t find a way to publish it. So I went with a wall calendar, and asked for illustrators among my followers.

Of course once I had printed the calendar, I realized I couldn’t possibly put the calendar on my desk. I can’t have my boss or coworkers know that I’m MeetingBoy, and it’s probably better if they don’t even know he exists. Clearly I hadn’t thought this through.

I think the calendar makes a great Secret Santa gift. I think coworkers across the English-speaking world would love to get one.

Calendar available for sale online at http://meetingboy.com/calendar

DI: Have you learned any profound lessons going through the self-publishing process?

MB: I’ve learned that self-publishing isn’t very profitable. I’ve been very happy with all the illustrations I got, though paying for them before I sell the calendar has made money tight.

I was going to try to sell them directly myself over the internet, but I couldn’t be sure that my secret identity would be safe. Luckily one of the illustrators owns a comic shop and they agreed to carry it for internet sales.

And I’d still like to make a 365-page-a-day calendar if anyone knows how to go about that.

DI: What’s next for you and what’s your ultimate goal?

MB: Next up I’m starting to do regular illustrated tweets on MeetingBoy.com. Of course I can’t draw, so I’m using some of the same illustrators from the calendar, and any new ones I pick up along the way.

My ultimate goal is to be the boss on The Office after Steve Carrell leaves at the end of this season. Though I would also accept President Obama declaring my birthday, June 23rd, to be a national holiday, maybe National Out-of-the-Office Day. Write your congressman to make it happen.

DI: Will you always hide your true identity Meeting Boy? Or will we one day find out you’re actually Racer X’s older brother?

MB: I can’t reveal my identity without losing my job and potentially risking never working again. After all, who would hire MeetingBoy? A surly, sarcastic person who will mock your every shortcoming on the internet to tens of thousands of people. Even I might balk at hiring that guy. He kind of sounds like a loose cannon.

Okay, contest time! Of all the tweets mentioned in this post, by MeetingBoy or someone else, which would you like to see illustrated on Twaggies.com? RT it with the hashtag #twaggies and we'll pick one of you at random to get the calender. If you're not on Twitter, leave your vote in the comments below. The tweet with the most RTs will also get twagged on twaggies, too!

For my interviews with Jason Alexander, Monty Hall, Mitch Albom, xkcd and more, browse through past Creatively Speaking archives here >>

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A chat with Jeff Garlin

Jeff Garlin co-stars and executive produces the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. The unique comedy, which is one of the rare television shows to become part of the national zeitgeist, stars Seinfeld creator Larry David, with Garlin portraying his loyal manager. Born and raised in Chicago and then South Florida, Garlin studied filmmaking and began performing stand-up comedy while at the University of Miami. He has toured the country as a stand-up comedian, is an alumnus of Chicago's Second City Theatre, and has written and starred in three critically acclaimed solo shows. I was fortunate enough to get this interview with him when he spoke at an event a charity I work with produced.

DI: Which do you prefer: writing, directing, or producing?

JG: I prefer to direct what I write.

DI: If you were to retire, what would you do with your time?

JG: Nap and eat puddin'.

DI: What's your favorite food?

JG: Puddin'.

DI: Of all the comedians and actors you've worked with over the years, who has been the most enjoyable.

JG: Larry David.

DI: Is Larry David as obnoxious in real life as he is on the show?

JG: See my answer above.

DI: What's the biggest difference between Chicago and L.A.?

JG: Human contact. In Chicago you get it on a regular basis.

DI: What's one of your favorite films?

JG: Sullivan's Travels by Preston Sturges.

DI: If you could have lunch with anyone deceased, who would it be?

JG: My grandfather Harold.

DI: Who's your idol?

JG: My wife.

DI: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

JG: A comedian.

DI: Where do you like to go to unwind when you're not working?

JG: Wherever my wife tells me.

DI: If you could change one thing about Hollywood, what would it be?

JG: The street names.

DI: Shakespeare wrote: "Brevity is the soul of wit." What do you think the essence of comedy is?

JG: A plate of fresh cornbread.

DI: I heard you studied law in college and almost graduated before deciding to pursue a career in comedy. Do you think you would have been a good lawyer?

JG: That's on Wikepedia.com and it's not true. I studied film.

DI: What's more difficult: performing stand-up comedy before a live audience or performing on camera?

JG: Actually, my personal life is harder.

DI: Do you own an iPod? If so, what's the most unusual music you've got on it?

JG: Chin Ho soundbites from Hawaii Five-0.

DI: Who is the funniest comedian of all-time?

JG: Jack Benny.

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