Comedian and writer Jenny Hagel has good advice for aspiring writers: just write….but also…fake it ‘til you make it. I chatted with Jenny Hagel recently about the writing process, as well as her upcoming appearance at this year’s Just for Laughs comedy festival, which, like most live entertainment events in 2020, will be held online.

Jenny Hagel has a graduate degree in Writing for the Screen and Stage, and cut her comedy teeth while performing for five years with Chicago’s legendary improv troupe, The Second City. Hagel has written for many comedy TV shows over the years, and currently performs and writes for Late Night with Seth Meyers.

While she won’t get the chance to perform in Montreal for this year’s (online) Just for Laughs Festival, she has visited before, and the town left her feeling all warm and fuzzy. Tired of people kissing Montreal’s ‘Charming European’ ass, I worried that Montreal was getting smug, and asked Hagel if there was anything that miffed her about Montreal.

“My brother lived there for a little while, I used to visit him and man, what a beautiful, beautiful place. No, I probably have a different baseline for miffed, because I’ve lived in New York, so when I go to any other city, I go ‘These people’s manners are amazing!’”

My French is terrible though…I speak Spanish, I don’t speak any French. The one time I drove to Montreal, I listened to a French CD in the car the whole way up there, trying to learn phrases, to be a polite traveller, to be able to have some phrases when I got there. I’ll be honest, it was years ago, so those phrases have all left my mind. I tried at least, although I’m sure people in Montreal, when they heard my French accent for one second were like ‘No no, this does not help.’

But when I travel, I always feel the weight of the stereotype of the terrible American tourist, so I try very hard to be a one-person goodwill ambassador. I’ve tried really hard to reset that balance.”

Jenny Hagel’s upcoming Just for Laughs show with Amber Ruffin (Drunk History, The Second City, Late Night with Seth Meyers, The Amber Ruffin Show), Conversations with funny people featuring Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel will be live and unscripted. I asked Hagel if she had any memorable improv calamities she wanted to share.

“Oh absolutely. One time when I was touring with The Second City we were doing a show, and the whole audience was a convention of economists, and I’m sure are very interested in economics, but they were not interested in laughing. At least they were not interested in the jokes we were providing, and it was truly, truly, a gruelling and silent 90 minutes, I’ll never forget it.

I think about 45 minutes in, I thought ‘Well I took two semesters of economics in college, I’m sure I can pull out some fun economic references,’ and I really tried, and they were also not interested in those. I think I tried to pull out something about a PPF curve or something, I really was digging deep. Nothing worked. It was really a rough hour and a half of my life.”

Hagel went on to describe the format of this weekend’s Just for Laughs show, where she and Amber Ruffin ‘will be asking each other questions that they have not seen before.’

Basically we’re going to be interviewing each other. We’ve done a lot of panels in our lives where the moderators ask the two of us questions, but this one, we don’t have a moderator, so I’m going to interview Amber, she’s going to interview me, we’re going to go back and forth, so we each have a list of questions the other hasn’t seen.

We each dug up a clip of the other one performing — I don’t know if it will be embarrassing, but it will be something that the other person doesn’t know is going to be shown, so it’ll be fun. When you do a certain number of panels, over time you start to get the same questions over and over, so I think it will be fun to answer questions that we weren’t expecting.

Oh, and I’d love for people to check out The Amber Ruffin Show on Peacock if they’re able to.”

Jenny Hagel and Amber Ruffin also plan on discussing their approach to writing, and will be giving advice for aspiring writers. I asked Hagel if she could give us an overview of her advice for writers.

“I think I would just say write. I mean nobody wants to hear that, it’s not sexy advice, but it is the most real advice. The best thing you can do if you want to write is just write.

The best thing you can do when an opportunity comes along is to be prepared and have a bunch of writing to show someone. Like (if they say) ‘Hey, I saw you before, you’re great, do have any writing samples?’ If you haven’t written them it is too late, because they want them then.

Or they’ll be like ‘Hey can I see them tomorrow?’ You can’t go home and stay up all night and write a body of work, so the best thing you can do is be writing all the time.

“If you have one particular writing form you are trying to succeed in, write that as much as you can. If you are interested in a bunch of different writing forms, try them all out, and do them over and over again.

“At Late Night with Seth Meyers, I write monologue jokes, and I did not know how to do that originally. I learned how to do it by applying to late night jobs.

One time I had to do an application, I watched several monologues by the host of the show I was applying to and I transcribed them. Then I looked at them on paper and said ‘OK how do these feel?’ and then I wrote a bunch of stuff. I’m sure they were very terrible at the beginning, and a little bit less terrible later on, and slightly less terrible after that.

And over time, it’s just truly like going to the gym and doing reps. I think the best thing you can do as a writer is just keep writing, and it may not feel like it’s getting better, but it is.”

I expressed my admiration for Hagel’s old school ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ attitude, and meekly mentioned the growing pile of Idiot’s Guides I have piled on my coffee table.

“But that’s OK, as long as you’re doing it. It sounds silly, but I like to run, and I am not a world-class athlete at all, but I know that every time I run, I go a little bit farther, and my legs are a little bit stronger. You don’t want to strive to wake up one morning and be a genius, you want to be just a little bit better each time.

You also want to know that every once in a while, no matter how good you get, you’re going to write something that stinks. That happens to me every week — I turn in so many things each week that inevitably, many of them, I would say most of them, are rejected.

And your job is just to keep coming up with new things, and it’s OK — some will be great, some will stink, a lot will be somewhere in the middle, and all of that is OK.”

Hagel and I discussed how writers have to learn how to be prepared to deal with endless rejection…

“But I don’t even think of it as rejection, I think of it like…if you watch someone play baseball, you watch somebody take a bunch of swings, right? Every time a batter misses a ball, it’s not rejection, it’s just ‘OK, well that one didn’t connect. So let’s hope the next one connects.’”

On comedians/late night comedy in the COVID-19 era:

“You know that’s a great question. I think ‘comedians’ is such a big category, and there are so many different forms comedy can take, that I don’t think that there can be one answer to that.

I know for television, during the spring and summer, a lot of late night shows found ways to tape from home — do safe, remote work, and I think that’s what helped late night shows survive. Now some of those shows are starting to bring it back — like the host is in the studio, and SNL had a small audience last week.

So I think that the way comedy is surviving is the way that we are all surviving, in general in the world, which is to continue to adapt to each new phase of the pandemic, to each new challenge that the pandemic brings.”

On the challenges of doing comedy without a live audience:

“I think you just have to go more on gut, like when you’re writing a late night show that has an audience, then the audience tells you what works and what doesn’t, right? And I think without the audience, you have to go with your gut.

One thing I have really liked about that, and not to say that the pandemic is good, but I feel that an interesting outcome of it, is that I think that shows have started to gravitate a little more to their own weird, quirky personalities, because then it becomes less about writing and choosing jokes by committee.

Then it becomes more like, ‘OK, what is the culture, what is the belief set, the comedic taste of this show?’ It emerges a little bit more specifically, which is interesting to see. But I certainly wouldn’t take this over a normal world, where we all get to be together.”

I asked Hagel if she ever wrote jokes that were so outrageous or ridiculous that she never expected them to get on the air at Late Night with Seth Meyers.

“I think that happens all the time, like if you write enough jokes in a row, you stop being able to tell what’s funny to other people. It probably happens at least once a week where I’m like ‘Oh really? OK!’ and then meanwhile, there are other jokes that I think are a complete slam-dunk and my boss will be like ‘Pass,’ and I’m like ‘Really…OK.’”

“That’s absolutely one (Hagel’s ‘How to Properly Wash your hands’ skit) where I pitched it and was like ‘Well obviously this is not gonna get approved,’ and boy, to my surprise, the next thing I knew, the props department was building a bunch of different skeleton hands for me.”

On the 2020 COVID-19 “everything on Zoom” reality:

“I don’t know, I think it’s a mixed bag, I think everybody thinks it’s a mixed bag. There are some days when I think it really helps, like one day recently where I had a crummy day, and it just happened that a group of women that I’m friends with, one of them texted ‘Hey should we all Zoom tonight?’ Fifteen minutes later we were all on Zoom with a glass of wine, and it really helped.

And then there are some days where I feel like if I have to look at one more human face on a screen I’ll die. So I think it’s probably like a weird blessing and a curse to me, and to everybody — I think we’re getting both a little bit of solace and a little bit of loneliness from it at the same time.”

Conversations with funny people featuring Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel will be online on October 9-10, and like all of the Just For Laughs 2020 shows, it will be streamed for free.

When I started writing this post about the dying state of handwriting, I originally intended to write it out in the black journal book that I keep for occasional note-taking. After a few days of procrastinating, I went back to my thoughts on the page.

As I looked down at the chicken scratch I composed the day before I realized that it was completely illegible! How could this be? How could years of practicing handwriting still produce a doctor’s note full of cryptically indecipherable scribbles?

This is just one of the reasons why handwriting has gone out of style for me and why I have turned to the laptop and iPod for taking notes, but I’m not the only one. It seems that the whole world is turning its back on handwriting.

Technology has really put a vice on handwriting; some administrators in the US educational system already consider handwriting dead.

In today’s classes, cursive is used irregularly with the exception a student’s individual note taking. Most teachers, when asking for handwritten work, will ask for printed fonts so it can be read clearly.

Since the 1920s, printed letters have dominated cursive, which is becoming more and more obsolete with the emerging technologies of mass media. Many parents would rather see the subject just simply disappear from the curriculum taught to their children so they can focus on more important subjects, like typing.

As more schools turn electronic the focus has been directed to early year engagement with typing. Think how fast children will be able to type, having all their educational lives interfaced with computers. Computer illiteracy will be a thing of the past. But eventually, most children will no longer know how to use cursive or even print handwriting.

Many in the field of education have been prophesying the death of handwriting for years, and yet, people still write in books, keep journals, students in universities still have to hand in written documents during exams. The great changeover was already suppose to have happened fifteen years ago and yet it still hasn’t come to pass. But why not?

Well, for one thing, old habits die hard. Even though I can’t read my old handwriting I still enjoy the organic quality of writing on paper, the intimacy of being as far from Facebook as possible!!

Another reason is the increased popularity of digital pens and handwriting apps. PenultimateWritepad and Note-Taker have all grown in popularity since the iPad came out. Now you can easily transcribe your handwriting to print at the click of a button. This is amazing for people who just can’t quit cursive!

Also, this generation is the first to live its entire life within the scope of the computer. Think how future generations will use computers comparatively to those who only had a partial engagement with them as children. These days, three year olds can use cellphones! So, eventually, the human experience with education will be synonymous with computer usage. By the next generation, the change will have occurred.

The printed page would forever change once computers were more predominantly used in schools. Even in high school I remember the out-of-date Apple II series computers we had, a few years of kids were trained on these archaic pieces. I remember giving up on cursive around the same time. I just never bothered after teachers complained about my handwriting.

While my computer training effectively helped me to type, all the cursive training I had was not so long lasting. I remember making sure the letters were at the appropriate size and that I was able to reproduce the calligraphic style. It was tough work, well it was for me at least. But I don’t feel bad about learning it, I just feel bad that I might have been part of the last generation that did.

As handwriting becomes less important, do our penmanship skills suffer? And might this have a detrimental effect on learning? After all, we have been writing down stuff for thousands of years and before that we used cave graffiti to tell our stories.

It seems schools have already decided to cut out handwriting curriculum, but it might be a little to early to claim handwriting’s death, especially since many studies have shown handwriting to be beneficial to the educational process.

An article recently published in the Sun Sentinel claims that children that have better handwriting also do better in school. Perhaps we shouldn’t write handwriting’s obituary quite so soon. There is still a lot of benefit that arises from calligraphy skills, after all didn’t Steve Jobs study calligraphy in university?

What if we had the technology to no longer need to write anything? Would we no longer train our young minds to write? No. Of course not!

Just because we can get rid of a curriculum doesn’t mean we should; writing is an art after all, it trains the mind and keeps us sharp.

Now if we can only figure out how to decipher my chicken scratch…

Calling all English majors, journalist grads, creative writing kids—the lot of you! If you’ve tumbled out of your academic bubble with impeccable writing skills and eager zest, only to be splashed in the face by the dejected paper boy as he zooms through a large swampy puddle directly in front of you, traumatized by the fact that he no longer has a job because no one’s reading papers and the newsroom closed—THEN, friends, I bear hope.

Tonight at Bain St-Michel, award winning Canadian authors Nicolas Dickner, Noah Richler and Marianne Ackerman present The Writing Life: Dream or Delusion?.  Dickner and Richler, with Ackerman acting as a moderator, will discuss the changing state of writing in our technology-driven society, where people snuggle in for an evening of reading with their favourite, worn-in iPads. Addressing such questions as “How do you measure success as a writer?”, “Can you make a living writing what interests you?”, “How do you earn money from writing and keep the passion alive?” And, “Is the book dying?”, Dicknar and Richler will talk about the future of writing for writers and readers alike.

It’s promised to be an interactive discussion, with audience questions and participation highly encouraged. Even if you’re not a writer, the future of the written word affects us all; best not to end up like the poor paper boy who didn’t see his dark hour coming. Show up, ask questions, hear what two of Canada’s top writers have to say and get informed!

Plus, if you happen to be a starving student—or an even hungrier, unemployable post-grad—admission is by donation and refreshments are said to be served! (Rumors of hot cider have even circulated, ah, whaaat?!) Or if you’re feeling generous and donate $5 or more, your name goes in the raffle for a chance to win books—real, tangible, wonderfully-smelling paperback books!

All this nerdy fun transpires tonight, Sunday Feb. 20, from 5-7pm at Bain St-Michel (5300 St. Dominique).

Nicolas Dickner is the author of Canada Reads winner Nikolski. He won the 2005 Governor General’s Award and 2006 Prix Anne-Hébert award for Nikolski’s original French publication, and the 2008 Governor General’s Award for its French-to-English translation.

Noah Richler is a widely published journalist, and author of the literary atlas of Canada, This is My Country, What’s Yours?, which won the 2007 British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction.

Marianne Ackerman is a novelist, playwright and journalist. Her most recent novel, Piers’ Desire, was published last year. She currently teaches economic history at McGill.


Photo 1 courtesy of aims.muohio.edu

Photo 2 courtesy of journalinternet.ca