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So you got jokes
Talking with Julie Vick about being a funny mom when mothering isn't that funny
Julie Vick is a mother of two in Colorado who runs the Substack Humor Me, where she posts funny writing and breaks down the art and craft of publishing humor in places like McSweeney’s and the New Yorker (by day she teaches writing at the University of Colorado.) I wanted to talk with her about the energy and process of building something funny and publishing it, despite the often not-hilarious task of being a working mom, so we had a Zoom about it last week.
I see you have the same kids’ easel/chalkboard that we do.
Yeah. I still am using it. I make passive-aggressive to-do lists on it, and then everyone can see what needs to be done.
That’s a good idea. How old are your kids?
They are eight and 11.
We’re about the same spread, seven and 10.
You have boys too, right?
Yeah. Do your boys think you’re funny?
They sometimes do, but sometimes they’ll be like, “Our sense of humor is different than yours, mom,” because theirs is potty jokes.
What’s your humor trajectory versus your motherhood trajectory?
In undergrad, I studied creative writing and journalism. I was writing fiction at the time, and there was no non-fiction program, so it was either fiction or poetry. I was really drawn to humor, even with fiction. I was trying to emulate Lorrie Moore and some other funny short story writers. I graduated in the late nineties and discovered David Sedaris. Before that, I don’t think I even realized that that was a possibility, and realized I was trying to do a bit of that. Then I moved to New York and I took a humor writing class. And then that’s when I started doing more the satirical, McSweeney’s, short-type pieces, or at least trying to do them.
I had a little bit of success with that before my kids were born. I did have one, maybe two, pieces at McSweeney’s. But I wouldn’t say that humor was really my focus back then. I was writing more essays. I would try to put humor into it sometimes, but it wasn’t until after having kids that I really focused on humor writing more after having my first kid. I was trying to just survive for a while so I was not really writing. I probably took a couple of years off.
Then after my second kid was born and I really had no time, I was more motivated to do it again. I was drawn to writing humor: the process, some of the stuff going on with parenting, some of the frustrations, and there was an outlet that I could fit in. I feel like humor pieces, I can write in short bits of time. That’s typically what I had when my kids were a lot younger. I had some success with it, so I kind of just honed in on it a little bit more after that.
After I had my first kid, a woman I know published a novel, and a very famous author blurbed it, and I was like, “Well, that must be nice. I’ll never do anything creative again.” Do you remember when you got the wherewithal to be creative and pitch things after you had kids?
So it’s funny because I had been reading McSweeney’s and was familiar with it, and I had one piece that was actually more like a funny essay. They were doing some series they don’t usually do before I had kids. I remember when I was starting to get back into writing, I was reading some of their stuff, and the community has a lot of parenting humor that was a little bit of an inspiration. I remember I wrote one piece, one of the first pieces I wrote after I started back again, was a piece about toddler discipline. I was trying to read all these parenting guides and stuff, and they’re all telling you something different. They all are like, “This is the one way.” and then they’re just contradicting each other completely.
I remember being frustrated with that because it assumes that you can figure out what the right way is. All this stuff they were telling you to do, I remember just being frustrated with it and then thinking of writing something about it. It just seemed like that lent itself well to the contradictions. So that was one of the first pieces I wrote when I got back into it, and that piece did really well. It’s sort of satisfying to be like, “Oh, I’m not the only one that feels this way,” and laugh about stuff with other parents as well.
How often have you heard back from someone who’s like, “That’s not funny”? Or they didn’t get it? Some people don’t want to hear moms being flippant.
With parenting topics, I feel like you can say the most benign thing, and someone will just take it. You’ll be like, “Oh, I gave my kid an apple.” And they’ll be like, “Well, it must be nice to have apples.”
Something I’m not always great at is titles, trying to make it clear in the title that it’s funny, it’s intended to be satirical or humorous. The title of that piece was “Toddler Discipline Made Easy,” which could be read as a straightforward title. Some people were taking it very earnestly, like, like, “Well, what if your kid doesn’t do it?” They just hadn’t read the piece and hadn’t gotten that it was humor that does come up sometimes.
Early on, when I first started writing humor, I was definitely doing it more off-the-cuff and with less intent. Over the years, I’ve taken humor writing classes and tried to learn more about the craft and the idea of who you’re targeting with your jokes and being intentional with who your target is and not trying to punch down. And so even if it gets misread, which it still does sometimes, then at least I am clear on, “Well, this is what my intent was,” and it wasn’t to punch down or to do this sort of thing.
How good at you at sitting on an idea and working it or not pitching it if it’s not working vs that mentality of “I can’t waste it. I spent time on it”?
I definitely have stuff where I started a piece, and I am not very happy with it, but I can maybe do something with it later, or I’ll figure out something else.
I have a million ideas in notes apps and things that you get in the middle of the night, and you’re like, “This is going to be great.” And then during the day, you’re like, "Wait a minute, what”?
I do have stuff that’s a finished piece that I even sent to friends and got feedback on, and then I just feel like it’s not quite right. Sometimes it’s a time crunch because it’s something is timely, and you have to get it out. But if it’s more evergreen, I sometimes do sit on pieces. I have come back. I have let them sit for a year and come back to them and gotten them to work. It’s painful to let something go, but I feel like I do always think, “Well, there’s other ideas out there.” So I try to not be super precious about the one thing, but it’s hard sometimes.
Does your husband think of himself as a funny guy?
I don’t know that he does. He has a sense of humor, but I don’t know that that’s part of his persona necessarily or something that he would say.
I feel so much of my role at home is the attention giver, the acknowledger. “Great job. That’s amazing. Ha-ha.” And that includes my husband. And sometimes I’m like, “I don’t know if people I live with know how funny I am,” because I have to give them all space. And I don’t know if you encounter that, or if everyone appreciates you?
In the parenting realm, I am probably not usually the funny one or the one who’s doing the physical humor, where my husband is definitely the one who’s being more-
The silly, fun dad. There are a lot of reasons why maybe moms are not doing that, which you’re probably familiar with.
It’s funny, though, because I had co-written this piece for the New Yorker and the editor sent us edits, and we were trying to get them done I was texting back and forth with my co-writer, and my son was right there. And I was like, “Just give me a minute. I’m trying to text about these edits to the New Yorker.” And he’s like, “You’ve written for the New Yorker?” They have no idea. But, yeah, there is something different about having this writing life that’s funny versus parenting, which is not always funny.
Have you published anything that you ever came back across, humor-wise, that you would feel didn’t age great or that you would’ve maybe redone?
I haven’t done a lot of pieces that are sort of Onion-esque, like fake news, but I did one piece. It was something about “Mom barely surviving the Target checkout line still forced to hear about the Target Red card.” It came from experience. I remember when my kids were young and you’re just trying to get through the checkout line, and then they have to tell you the spiel about you need the Red card. I got some people on Twitter who were like, “Well, it’s not the employee’s fault. They’re being forced to do it kind of stuff.” So I was like, yeah, I get that. The point was, it’s just a frustrating experience if you’re a parent. But, maybe in retrospect, I would’ve tweaked something to acknowledge that in the piece.
Either physically or just mentally, where are you when you typically grab onto an idea for a piece and you’re like, “Oh, this could be something?” Are you a shower person? Or a walking person? Talking with friends kind of thing?
Definitely a shower person at times and sometimes a walking person. But with humor, I kind of like observational or reference humor where it’s riffing off something that a lot of people can relate to that’s either a frustration or sometimes it’s just more mundane, just a funny thing that people do. I am a very “put ideas in my notes app” person.
Sometimes I’ll just have a thought and then I’ll be like, “Oh, this could be a humor piece,” just as I’m going through the course of my day. But, also, I feel like sometimes those thoughts are flowing in my head when I’m in the shower or the walk or something. You are able to form them into so something that might work more because sometimes it’s just an idea. And then sometimes I’m also like, “Is this just a Tweet? Or is this a full piece? Or is it both?” So I have had some pieces where I’m like, “Oh, something hit with that tweet or was relatable with that tweet, so maybe I can develop it into more of a funny essay or satirical piece because there’s something to it.”
Not that you asked, but I am envious of your creativity. That was very pre-COVID and pre-kids that I had a little space in my mind of walking around with little funny things. And now that seems like it maybe got crowded out or dusty.
It’s funny, though, because you have written novels, right? That’s what I would like to do one day, but I don’t have the space in my mind to take on a huge project like that, or it feels that way to me.
It’s very much also parenting, too, where it’s like every phase is a fresh hell. You’re never done. And even at the end, it’s like you could keep promoting this book or not, and you’re not guaranteed to earn out or anything. People think that if you write a book, the money rolls in, and you’re a famous author. Not always.
Then you go back to, “Well, what do you want to get out of whatever it is?” If you’re writing a short piece or a book, what is it that you want to get out of the process? But that’s also really important and something since having kids, maybe even more so since having kids, that I felt like I wanted some creative outlet to be my own.
Even though it doesn’t make sense because I have way less time, I’ve almost been more driven to focus on writing and stuff since having kids, just because it gives you that outlet that you’re looking for. Yeah, COVID broke all of our brains.
Do you consider yourself an introvert?
So you don’t go to school functions and then some dad is like, “Oh, you’re the funny one? Be funny, lady.”
No. It’s so funny because I feel like people read my writing, and they’re like, “Oh, you must be funny. You must be funny at teaching.” And I don’t feel like I am. Obviously, maybe sometimes, but I don’t feel like I’m life of the party entertainment.
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