Comedy writer Merrill Markoe on why you need a difficult mother to make it in show business

First aired on Q (17/1/12)

Merrill Markoe is a four-time Emmy Award-winning writer who co-created the original Late Night with David Letterman and was the show's first head writer. She came up with many of that show's iconic segments, including "Stupid Pet Tricks."


But, haunted by the thought that something called "Stupid Pet Tricks" would represent the greatest success of her life, Markoe decided to abandon the talk show game. At least until she had something of her own she wanted to plug, like her recently published memoir Cool, Calm & Contentious, a collection of witty, reflective essays.

The book covers a lot of territory, from the time Markoe vomited on her first love to why she finds dogs so much more appealing than humans. But two of her most striking essays are about how having a difficult mother makes for good comedy. "My mother was utterly unpleasable," Markoe revealed to Q host Jian Ghomeshi in a recent interview. "As a child, I always assumed it was inadequacies on my part...even though she was the kind of person who would walk around the grocery store fixing spelling with a pen."

Her perfectionism extended to her daughter's work, too. "The first time I showed her something I had written, I left the room and I came back and I could see her staring at it and I looked at her and she went 'I don't care for it, but I pray I'm wrong,'" said Markoe. "Over time when I would talk to my comedian friends I would notice that a lot of us had the same mother."

So she started developing theories about why so many of her comedian friends had such problematic relationships with their mothers.

But Markoe knows she shouldn't take her mother's high standards personally, as they extended to everything. In the book, she includes excerpts from her mother's diary entries, describing holiday travels to Europe. "After she died, I looked at those diaries and realized she had called the French countryside 'singularly uninteresting,'" she said. "And I knew I had been wrong, maybe, taking it personally."

Still, she added, "it was essentially like being raised by a heckler, so you end up punchy and quick with a comeback."

Growing up with such a tough audience, how soon did Markoe know she would pursue a path in comedy? "I was always a wisecracking kid, but it didn't occur to me that I was professionally comedic until I was teaching art at USC and I started hanging around their film department and I started writing scripts and I got work really quickly writing for television," she explained. "That was a big surprise for me. It was easier for me to get a job writing for television than it was for me to find another teaching job!" That's when she figured she might as well make a go of it in show business.

But the lack of her mother's approval weighed on her for a long time. It wasn't until she shared her mother's first comment about her work ("I don't care for it, but I pray I'm wrong") with an audience and heard it earn major laughs that she could escape the pain of that judgment. "My mother was a really smart, literate person who wanted to be writer, so her approval meant everything to me," she said.

Markoe still feels a bit nervous about making her mother's travel diaries public: before publishing excerpts in her book, she used to read them onstage as part of her act, and as her mother was hypercritical of almost everywhere she went, they generally garnered big laughs. "But I think my job as a writer is to show you what my life is like and what formed me," she said. "So it's only fair to use what life gave me."

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Cool, Calm & Contentious

by Merrill Markoe

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From the publisher:

"In this hilarious collection of personal essays, New York Times bestselling author Merrill Markoe reveals, among other things, the secret formula for comedy: Start out with a difficult mother, develop some classic teenage insecurities, add a few relationships with narcissistic men, toss in an unruly pack of selfish dogs, finish it off with the kind of crystalline perspective that only comes from years of navigating a roiling sea of unpleasant and unappeasable people, and — voil´! — you're funny! But in Cool, Calm & Contentious, Markoe also reveals something more: herself. This is by far her most personal, affecting collection yet-honest, unapologetic, often painful, but always shot through with the bracing, wicked sense of humor that has made her such a beloved and incisive observer of life, both human and canine..."

Read more at Random House Canada.