Start your day with a laugh—and some information—as Write On! interviews Charles Horn, author of the new book, The Laugh Out Loud Guide: Ace the SAT Exam without Boring Yourself to Sleep! (Andrews McMeel Publishing). The book uses comedy to prepare students for the dreaded SAT. Charles is an Emmy-nominated comedy writer (Robot Chicken) and a Princeton PhD.
Why do you write?
On a bad day I ask myself that very question, but on good days the answer is obvious. The passion for creation, the high of doing good work, the hope of sharing something that others will enjoy. Getting paid for it is always nice too.
How did you go from a Princeton PhD to writing comedy?
After working briefly as a software engineer in Silicon Valley, I realized my first passion was comedy, so I moved to Los Angeles without knowing a soul in Hollywood. I struggled for a bit trying to get agents to read me, but finally I started winning some writing competitions. One of the judges in one of them was an agent at William Morris, who then read more of my material and took me on as a client. That was probably my first big break.
How did The Laugh Out Loud Guide: Ace the SAT Exam without Boring Yourself to Sleep come about?
I often tutor in between TV writing gigs and I realized that I was in a unique position to bring something new and useful to college test prep. Too often students are simply handed huge mind-numbingly boring textbooks that put them immediately to sleep, so they don’t even end up studying in the first place. Research shows that comedy is an effective teaching tool in many ways, so I knew a comedic SAT study guide would be helpful and effective on multiple levels. I designed the guide so that it could be used to enhance all traditional forms of test prep. In other words, students can now laugh their way to a higher test score, with questions like:
Yo Momma so _______, when you mail her a letter, you need two zip codes.
At a Saks Fifth Avenue store, Winona Ryder examines four distinct blouses, five distinct dresses, and two distinct handbags. How many different combinations of items can she shoplift if she takes exactly one blouse, two dresses, and a handbag?
Who is your audience?
The main audience for this book is obviously high school students studying for the SAT. Adults actually tell me they enjoy reading the funny questions as well, and I’ve even been told that it works great as a coffee table book (where people laugh at the jokes and see if they still know how to do any of the questions), but I imagine the word SAT will give most adults pause before buying the book.
What was your process for writing it? Getting it published?
I started by writing a bunch of sample comedic SAT questions and structuring them as a mini-test. This served to showcase the heart of my book so that any agent or publisher reading it would immediately get what I was trying to accomplish. A friend of mine then passed along a query on an alumni e-mail list and I got a book agent out of that, who then shopped it around to publishers. Luckily the SAT has a certain structure to it, so when the publisher bought the book I could use that structure together with all of my knowledge as an SAT tutor to guide me along the process.
What was your favorite part of the process? The greatest challenge?
My favorite part was definitely coming up with all the comedic SAT questions in the book. As far as challenges, there were two main challenges in the writing process. The first was making sure that the comedy suited the SAT and that I didn’t twist the SAT to suit the comedy. After all, I wanted the book to be an effective SAT study guide and not just a parody. The second challenge was not to become repetitive when coming up with the hundreds of comedic questions in the book. Now that the book is out, the main challenge is of course getting the word out to all the high school students and their parents.
How does writing a book differ from writing for TV? Any similarities?
Writing my book turned out to have a lot in common with joke writing for late night talk shows because my book is driven so much by the comedic SAT questions. The initial premise of the book even came out of a late night comedy bit I wrote a few years back. One can think of this book as “What if The Daily Show or The Tonight Show wrote a legitimate SAT study guide?”
Why is humor so important in writing?
What is so interesting about comedy in my book is that normally we’re taught that learning and comedy don’t mix, when in fact comedy enhances the learning process in so many ways. Research shows that comedy reduces stress (making it easier to absorb material), makes subjects more interesting (so you want to learn them in the first place), and increases recall (so you’ll remember things better on test day). There is simply no reason why the learning process has to be dry and dull and boring.
Advice for writers?
Don’t be afraid of the editing process. Make sure your work is the best it can be before sending it out.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I wish I realized I wanted to pursue comedy writing years earlier.