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How the New Yorker stays on top of the humor news cycle: "My No. 1 news source these days is my submission pile. Sometimes it beats the Times"

Salon talks to Emma Allen about the pleasures of editing the magazine's digital Daily Shouts & Murmurs


Eric Farwell
September 3, 2016 2:59AM (UTC)

Over the last several years, the Daily Shouts & Murmurs section of The New Yorker website has fostered and cultivated a wide array of voices and humor styles that manage to seamlessly connect to the magazine proper while still distinguishing the online daily section as something unique and experimental. At the helm of this endeavor is editor Emma Allen, whose eye for talent and appreciation for both the absurd and the satirical help Daily Shouts stand out.

Although she’s constantly swamped with submissions (often from me, possibly from you), Allen recently took the time to respond to some questions about how digital platforms relate to comedy, how to edit humor and the value of taste in written pieces.

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What was your interest in comedy before you got the Daily Shouts position? Did you write or produce humor before, or did you have other interests and the transition happened organically?

I've always been interested in comedy (as diversion, coping mechanism, etc.) and growing up in New York City was lucky enough to see lot of live comedy at a young age. In fact, my best friend in high school did standup, so I attended more than my share of horrifying open-mic nights before I could legally buy a beer. I remember there was one frequent open-mic performer who would bend over a stool and narrate the experience of getting an enema, which was pretty enlightening.

Then in college, I was an editor of the Arts & Living section of the Yale Daily News and edited a humor page there, with a stable of incredible writers that included Ethan Kuperberg and Will Stephen, now of "Transparent" and "SNL" respectively, who've gone on to contribute fabulous stuff to The New Yorker.

After graduation, I worked as a visual arts writer and editor, which sounds unfunny, but as the rookie, a lot of what I was assigned had comedic potential. (For instance, I covered the "animal artist" beat, which is a rich one, pun-wise.)

When I was hired by The New Yorker it was by the all-time great humor editor Susan Morrison, of SPY magazine fame, among many other things. She taught me so much about tightening jokes and honing writers' voices without causing them too much anxiety, or having them feel like I've robbed their work of anything essential.

In a position like this, how do you compromise between keeping the voice consistent and bringing in new writers? Is there ever a situation where something is undeniably funny, but you can't let it through because the tone or structure isn't in line with the needs of the publication? 

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One of the wonderful things about Daily Shouts, which we launched about three years ago, and I took over about two years ago, is that there's never been any pressure to have any sort of tonal consistency. I think it's sort of fantastically all over the place. And it's become a venue for introducing new and different types of writers with different styles and voices. It's also become a springboard for them — a place to strengthen their writing, and maybe then get a piece in the magazine.

I'm trying to recall if there's ever been anything that I've felt I had to reject — I guess there are things that are so graphically lewd that I might hesitate to post them, lest I cause some of our readers to have heart attacks — but if it's good enough . . . I usually find a way to make it work.

With Daily Shouts, you've been able to give voice to more female writers, as well as have a mix of absurdist pieces and more topical ones. Were these part of your vision for Daily Shouts, or did they just happen as the site gained a certain amount of popularity?

I definitely didn't have an agenda going in, although I do believe that there's no reason why white men should have any sort of corner on the comedy market. I think the diversity of voices has had more to do with just having a platform where I get to promote things that I believe are good. There are so many awesome comedians out there that I see at readings, and whose work I admire on other Web sites, and I'm in the incredibly privileged position of being able to reach out to them and encourage them to try their hand at Shouts-writing.

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It is true that as Daily Shouts has gained more visibility, more and more people from all over, with crazily divergent styles, have started submitting on their own, which is a huge boon for me. Things are wending their way to my inbox and the general submission inbox (which I also read) that are just superb, by people I maybe wouldn't have found on my own. It makes my job easier, except that at all times I now have like a thousand pieces to read.

Publishing more timely stuff is just a basic benefit of the medium — I can turn things around for the web much faster than we can for a magazine that's on a weekly production schedule.

Do you think that the rise of the Internet helped in any way to either reinvigorate humor writing, or allow new formats to emerge and find popularity? If so, what role do you think The New Yorker's digital platform has been in that?

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Yes! I'd say the Internet has been hugely beneficial for humor writers. There just weren't that many platforms for written humorous fiction before and now there are so many flourishing ones — Reductress, Clickhole, Splitsider, College Humor, McSweeney's. I'm so pleased that Daily Shouts gets to be a part of that dynamic landscape. (The New Yorker was founded as a humor publication, after all.)

Format-wise, sure: there's room for more interactive and multimedia and illustrated stuff; for pieces that are much shorter (maybe too slight for the print publication); or much longer (too many print pages), etc.

One unique thing the site is able to do is feature content that responds directly to a recent news item or cultural conversation. "Behold Your Newest Silver-Screen Sex Goddess, Jane Neighbor" comes to mind as a piece that managed to sharply respond to a conversation that was maybe a week old, if that. In this way, do you see digital platforms as having more power or ability to stay current and engage culture in ways a physical publication might not be able to?

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Definitely — as I said above, the medium is such that I can turn things around very quickly, which is not always possible with a weekly print publication, although we have also crashed great timely Shouts & Murmurs into the magazine at the last minute. (Susanna Wolff's "To Fall Out of Love, Do This," for instance, which lampooned a viral New York Times article that had just come out.)

And, yes, it's always satisfying to really nail the timing on something. With Daily Shouts, sometimes that means seeing some news item and immediately reaching out to writers in our stable (by which I just mean frequent contributors whom I trust to turn something clean around quickly). More often, though, I don't even see the breaking news before I get an influx of pieces satirizing it. My No. 1 news source these days is my submission pile. Sometimes it beats the Times.

Two fairly frequent contributors you have to Daily Shouts are Jesse Eisenberg and Colin Nissan. Both have fairly different voices, but they always work their way to the joke. Do you think it takes a certain kind of brain or set of experiences to write things that are funny?

I'm sure there are plenty of graduate theses that have lots to say about what makes a person funny. But I don't know that I would dare analyze what makes Colin or Jesse or any of our other frequent contributors funnier than your average human. Both Jesse and Colin are very talented prose writers, as well as joke-makers, which is one of the reasons they end up on the site with some frequency.

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The one thing I can say is that whatever it is that makes a humor piece work doesn't follow any obvious pattern. You just have to have an original conceit and execute it well, in a surprising way. (Helpful advice, right?) But you don't need any special degree, or special training to do it. I think it's one of the best things about humor at The New Yorker — in a publication where you generally have to be an expert in your field, a well-established writer or scholar to be published, I get to take random submissions from college kids and first-time writers and people from, like, rural Canada and get them onto newyorker.com.

In your experience, how much influence or reworking should the editor engage in?

I think it varies from piece to piece. Beyond grammatical fixes and reformatting, though, I usually aim for minimal intervention, unless it significantly sharpens a joke or clarifies the conceit. And it's always a give and take with the writer, too. But my writing for the magazine goes through the editing wringer, so I know first-hand the gut-wrenching pain that comes from seeing a new draft of your story that doesn't feel like the thing you wrote. First and foremost, I aim not to cause people too much pain.

Is there anything out there that you feel hurts the medium of humor writing? I think there's a notion for some that written humor isn't for everyone in the same way that Will Ferrell vehicles or the soft punch lines of a Jimmy Fallon monologue might be, but I'm not entirely sure that's the case.

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People have very different tastes when it comes to comedy. And I try to publish well-written things that I think will appeal to sensibilities other than my own, even if they are not my favorite pieces ever. But I wouldn't say that some types of humor are inherently bad (other than just like patently racist, sexist, bigoted stuff).

The only thing I really see potentially hurting the medium is the vitriol of commenters on social media who, sometimes going off only a headline, or an out-of-context quote that's making the rounds, will say horrible and abusive things about a writer or a piece of writing. The democratic potential of online criticism is so theoretically heartening, and I take sane concerns and complaints to heart, but if someone doesn't like your humor piece that makes gentle fun of, I don't know, cheese, it's crazy that then feel entitled to say that you deserve to die.

Do you think humor needs to be tasteful in order to work? What do you think the compromise is between relevancy and intent? Humor and culture at the moment?

I sometimes worry that a quest for "tasteful" humor can push people to publish stuff that's safe or soft, which is dangerous because inflammatory humor can serve a really productive and progressive purpose — where would we be without Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks?

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That said, I think one of the most important job of an editor is to try to anticipate various possible readings of, and responses to, the things you're going to publish, and to try to only publish things that will do more good than bad, once they're unleashed on the world. (Sorry if that sounds too Aaron Sorkinian — blech.) But honestly, I am constantly misgauging how pieces will be received. And I just have to move on to the next one and keep trying to make informed, empathetic decisions.

By now, I'm sure you've seen the Neu  Jorker parody that lovingly skewered the quirks and signature aspects of The New Yorker. While obviously an homage, the apparently one-shot magazine did tear into the humor section a bit. I'm curious if outside criticism like this — no matter how loving or well-intentioned — penetrates a publication with such renown. Either way, what do you do to help keep the Daily Shouts sharp, engaged, and varied week to week? 

I loved The Neu Jorker! And a number of its writers, including Blythe, who wrote the mock Shouts & Murmurs, are contributors to Daily Shouts, which I thought made it even better. There is no greater honor than such a specific and on-the-nose parody. I haven't heard anyone here complain about it. Mostly, our exhausted editors are just amazed that anyone would tackle the task of producing a whole issue, albeit a parody, for fun.

And I'm flattered that you describe Daily Shouts as "sharp, engaged, and varied" — really the writers just keep churning out sharp, engaged, and varied stuff and I wade through a lot of it and try not to edit it in a way that makes them want to kill me/never submit again.

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Eric Farwell

MORE FROM Eric Farwell

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