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Helene Parsons p1

READERSVOICE.COM aims to collect a few interesting reading tips. The same way gag writers write for standup comedians, Helene Parsons writes gags for cartoonists. Ms Parsons has written for Dennis the Menace, The Lockhorns, and cartoonists for The New Yorker. She does a lot of reading and research looking for inspiration. To read about her fascinating creative process and for some good reading tips on humor writing, read on.

READERSVOICE.COM: You’ve written that you do a lot of reading of business, cooking and other magazines, and newspapers to look for potential gags or lines. Do you look for a punchline, or unexpected part of a future gag, which you’ve written about, and if so, what sorts of lines or ideas or situations jump out at you?

HELENE PARSONS: I read all the time, mostly newspapers, magazines and non-fiction books on specific subjects, like business. When I read I’m looking for specific words or phrases that can be used in my gags. I look for contemporary, trendy words and phrases, and just write everything down in my notebook. Mostly I go back later and try to make a caption out of it and create a cartoon. The words always come first.

RV: How did the ideas come to you for the comic about the guy on the phone who says: “If someone’s listening to this conversation, I need a job.”? And also The Lockhorns gag where they say to the hotel receptionist: “Do we look like we’re interested in a heart-shaped tub?”

HP: One of the ways I look for new cartoon ideas is to study old, published cartoons. I’ll go through old New Yorker cartoon collections just to look at the topics the cartoons focus on. For the cartoon caption that read, “If someone’s listening to this conversation, I need a job,” I must have seen an old cartoon that had to do with surveillance, with a man wondering if someone was listening in on his phone conversation.
Because I’m always looking for work, the punch, “I need a job” just progressed naturally.
As far as the heart-shaped tub in the Lockhorns cartoon, I believe I was reading a travel brochure that listed a hotel that featured heart-shaped tubs. I wrote down the phrase knowing that I could use it in a Lockhorns cartoon, which focuses on an older couple who don’t normally take advantage of heart-shaped tubs.

RV: How do you structure comic strips, which you’ve described as a little story? Does one character say something factual, then the other one say something unexpected? Or do characters come up with weird solutions to problems? And how do you get the beats right for these comic strips, so they finish well?

HP: In the past I’ve concentrated on single-panel gag cartoons. After writing for Dennis the Menace‘s daily cartoon for several years, a few years ago I also began writing for Dennis the Menace‘s Sunday cartoon, which is multi-panel. I start with a very strong punchline at the end and then I work backward. I know how many frames there are and I write a short script, mixing dialogue and drawing with no dialogue. It works for me.

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– copyright Simon Sandall