My new novel, Stay Up With Hugo Best
, is set in the world of late night comedy. It follows a young writer’s assistant and the host of a popular show as they spend a weekend together after the show’s cancellation. When people hear about it, they often assume that I lived it, or that I embedded with a late night staff, shadowing a page or an assistant, sitting in on the writer’s room. When I tell them I did neither I can see their disappointment. It’s less exciting to have read books I ordered from the library. Less glamorous that I listened to comedy albums and interviewed people over the phone.
It’s daunting, too, attempting to write about a subculture of which you are not a part. There are several challenges, chief among them getting things wrong. I worried about this. I was a medium-level comedy fan when I started. Comedy has an avid fandom, and I did not want to offend more serious fans, especially the kind that might feel compelled to threaten my life via the Internet.
And so I watched old late night bits on YouTube. I read biographies of hosts. I read about the late night wars of the ’90s. I read about the LA comedy scene in the ’70s. I read an oral history of the writer’s room on Late Show With David Letterman
. I took a deep breath and Googled “Woody Allen + Soon-Yi Previn.” I went to a taping of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert
and noted all the things no one was paying attention to: what the floor of the lobby looked like, the kinds of shoes the pages were wearing. I wanted to be accurate, or as accurate as possible given that some margin of error was inevitable.
But at the other end of the spectrum was another, subtler hazard: that I would do too much
research. That I would lose control of the facts and the book would become bloated, boring. As a reader I see this all the time. Writers become infatuated with their research. It expresses itself as an overattention to detail. Too much junk about scuba diving or an old wooden bowl. A whole section about daguerreotypes, even if it doesn’t do anything other than show that the author read about daguerreotypes and thought they were cool.
I like to think the facts I did not use nourished the book in some way.
Research is only useful to the extent that it serves the book. I think you have to fall in love a little but not too much. You have to be able to extract yourself. You have to be able to recognize dross for what it is.
Here is an incomplete log of everything I researched and did not use: Johnny Carson’s entire life, Steve Allen’s entire life, Jack Paar’s entire life. I learned a lot about Sid Caesar. I thought I’d have Hugo start his career by writing on Your Show of Shows
like so many real-life comedians. I watched bits from old episodes on YouTube. None of it ended up having any application in the book. The dates just didn’t work out. Hugo was too young. I ultimately did not mention Sid Caesar.
I went down a Dean Martin rabbit hole. I watched his boozy appearances on The Tonight Show
. I liked how he’d show up holding a drink and a lit cigarette — something so alien to what you’d see on a talk show today that he might as well have had gills. I learned about Joan Rivers and watched her spots on Carson. I learned that she almost took over for him. I love Joan, but there wasn’t any way to incorporate her. Not any way that made sense.
I listened to hours of comedy that I did not end up using. I listened to several Richard Pryor records to retrieve a two-sentence bit. Ditto Nichols and May. Ditto endless others. I listened to so much WTF With Marc Maron
that I ruined it for myself. Hundreds of episodes. I can’t listen anymore.
Much of this was likely a waste of my time. But I like to think the facts I did not use nourished the book in some way. Or gave me the vocabulary, the rhythms, that made me able to write about it. Or maybe what most of the research did was to teach me to recognize how much is enough. When to say, “Thank you, you’ve been a wonderful audience, that’s my time.”
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’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House Open Bar, Ploughshares, American Short Fiction, McSweeney’s, The Cincinnati Review
, and many other publications. She holds an MFA from the University of New Hampshire and was a 2016 NYC Center for Fiction Emerging Writer Fellow and a 2016 Millay Colony resident. She lives in Beacon, New York, with her husband and daughter. Stay Up With Hugo Best
is her first novel.