Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Forget the Itsy-Bitsy spider! The hilarious Ethan Berlin talks about his first children's book, The Hugely-Wugely Spider. delusional ideas of making money and being a funny, story-writing dad.

The book, which both parents and kids adore

Portrait of the hilarious Ethan

Because words are even better with pictures! Illustrator Karl Newsom Edwards

I first became friends with Ethan Berlin's wife, Kimberlee Auerbach Berlin when she was single. I had reviewed a wonderful novel of hers (The Devil And Me: My Life in Tarot) and we met for lunch and began emailing. And because Ethan makes her so, so happy (I swear, her very words light up when she talks about him), I became even more interested in HIS work, too! He's an Emmy Award-nominated comedy writer and performer who has written for some of today's top comedy voices and networks. He teaches comedy writing classes at NYU and the Peoples' Improv Theatre. The Hugely-Wugely Spider is his debut children's book--and it's a knockout. 

But let's talk about the great illustrations:

Karl Newsom Edwards
is a children’s picture book author and illustrator. Born in Oakland, California, he is a graduate of the California College of the Arts with a degree in drawing. He made his debut as an author/illustrator with Fly!

I loved the book, laughed out loud, and I really want a sequel. Thank you so, so much, Ethan for being here 

You’re famous for your sometimes ribald humor and comedy. What was the why-now moment when you thought about doing a book for kids?

Wait, famous or infamous? Yeah, a lot of my career has been writing for “edgy” adult comedy shows, but in many ways I have the mindset of a child.  I am filled with wonder at the world, I love being silly, and I enjoy getting attention by saying “naughty things.”  When I write for adult comedy shows, the “naughty things” part of my sensibilities tends to get the most use, but silly and absurd are still there. It’s the same for the Hugely-Wugely Spider. There’s a joy and wonder to the story in discovering this previously unknown part of the familiar Itsy-Bitsy Spider story. And then Hugely himself is silly, but has an acerbic edge to him.

As for the why-now moment, as often has happened in my career, Hugely came about as a bit of an accident. A few years ago I had an idea that I could quit the TV comedy writing business and support myself by making funny iPhone apps. As it turns out, this was what economists would describe as a “delusional idea of how to make money.”  In the process, however, I made a funny calculator app called, The Revenge of the Calculators. Basically, it looks like a normal calculator, but when you try to enter numbers it does silly things like call a fake customer service number. I was showing off the app at a party — as one does when they’ve made a funny calculator app—and one of the people who saw it was a book editor named Joy Peskin. She asked me if I’d ever considered writing a children’s book. While I was a big fan of children’s books, I hadn’t ever seriously considered writing one. We spoke for a while and she walked me through what kind of books they were looking for and what a manuscript should look like.

My second son was only a few months old at the time.  So while I was feeding him in the middle of the night, I held the bottle with one hand and wrote book ideas on my phone with the other hand. Shortly after that, I wrote the first draft of The Hugely-Wugely Spider.

What I adored about this book is how hilarious it was for adults, too. When my son was little, the books of his that I loved the most (and the TV shows) were the ones that realized adults were reading and watching, too, and threw something in for them. I laughed out loud when the spider insisted that he must be retaining silk. Can you talk about the whole process of writing a kid’s book?

Ha. Thanks! I read that part recently to my kids and for the first time thought, “they’re not going to have any idea what that means.” They didn’t, but my mom, who was in the room with me, laughed out loud.

I’m happy that both kids and adults enjoy reading it. I read a lot to my kids and I know that feeling of dread that comes over me when they pick a dull book off the shelf. “Oh, boy, we have to read this again?” So, I wanted to write something that both kids and adults would enjoy reading together.

I didn’t employ any particular process to do that, other than just feeling it out. I shared it with the adult members of my family and got their feedback. If it made them laugh, I knew I was on the right track.

I also loved that the hugely-wugely spider sounded like my mom. (“Do you know the personal sacrifices I’ve made?” How did you go about getting the voice just right?

I carefully studied your mom for months! The honest answer is, I don’t know. I have this cool ability/annoying thing I can’t control, where I internalize the voices of those around me. It’s served me well as a comedy writer, because I can get the rhythm and cadence of the hosts I’ve written for in my head and then write jokes in their voices. I didn’t start out to give Hugely any particular voice, I just started writing and that was the voice that came out. I’m guessing he’s a mixture of my voice with little snippets from people I’m close with.

What was it like to work with an illustrator? Did you ever change some of the story for an illustration that was just too great to pass up?  Or vice versa?

The process was great. My editor partnered me with Karl. He found jokes in places I hadn’t thought of and gave the text a whole second life. There were a few minor changes to the text because of illustrations, but mostly just adding words to accompany moments of action, such as my favorite, “flomp!” when Hugely gets stuck in the spout.

Did you test drive any of the story on your own kids?  What do they think about their story-writing dad?

While I was writing it, I definitely tried to test the book on my kids, but it turns out that children have very little interest in looking at unillustrated Word docs. Now that I have a physical version of the book with illustrations, they enjoy it quite a lot.

My kids are two and five, so it’s hard to get a read on how they feel about having author parents. My 5-year-old son does like to tell people that my “job is funny.” I can’t tell if he’s proud of that or is just explaining why I act so weird.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Right after I wrote the first draft of Hugely-Wugely, I got a job running a digital comedy channel. One of my responsibilities was “to define the brand.” One of my other responsibilities was to think, “oh, man I wish it wasn’t my job to define the brand.” In the process of thinking of the values of this channel, however, I started thinking about my own values. I thought about the work that I had made in my career and what brought me the most joy to make and what I was most proud of to share. The words I kept coming back to were wonder, joy, and exploration.  So, that’s what’s obsessing me now, exploring the wonder and joy in the world and figuring out how to get it onto the page or on screen.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Q: What wild animals have you seen lately?

A: I’m so glad you asked! This weekend I saw a groundhog outside the science museum, three deer on the sidewalk near my house, and a dozen turkeys walking through a parking lot. Did I mention I have a childlike sense of wonder?

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