Spoilers: An Interview with Comedy Writer Carlos Greaves on his New Collection of Humorous Essays
by Writing Workshops Staff
2 months ago
We're thrilled to feature an interview with Carlos Greaves, who has taught a series of seminars on writing topical satire at Writing Workshops for the last few years. We're very excited about his new book, Spoilers: Essays That Might Ruin Your Favorite Hollywood Movies, which is out now.
Carlos is an electrical engineer turned comedy writer—a career move that haunts him to this day. When he’s not busy questioning his life choices, he also teaches online classes at The Second City, is a features contributor at The Onion, and runs the topical satire newsletter, Shades of Greaves.
His writing has been featured in The New Yorker, NPR, and he is a frequent contributor to the humor site McSweeney’s, where he’s written several of the site’s most-read articles in 2020, 2021, and 2022.
WW: Your background is in engineering, but you've transitioned into a successful career as a comedy writer. How has your engineering background influenced your writing style and creative process, especially in the realm of satire and humor?"
CG: Having a background in engineering has been super helpful for improving as a writer in a methodical way. I try to break down the writing process to figure out how pieces are structured, what makes something funny, and what resources are available to learn more. It’s a balance, of course, because in comedy, unlike engineering, formulas stop working after a while. Which is why nobody is doing Three Stooges-style slapstick nowadays, or why Dave Chapelle isn’t funny anymore. So there’s the additional challenge of constantly having to evolve and find new ways to be funny.
WW: "Spoilers: Essays That Might Ruin Your Favorite Hollywood Movies" seems to blend satire with unique perspectives on well-known films. How did you come up with these unconventional ideas and translate them into humorous essays?
CG: I rewatched a lot of classic movies for the book and tried to look for plot points that either felt silly, or felt like they could tie into something going on in modern society, or both. So, for example, in Dead Poets Society, I thought about how the Welton Academy kids were ripping apart their textbooks, which felt wasteful considering my experience of reading worn-out books in public school. So I imagined the principal of the public school nearby begging Welton to donate their books instead of ripping them apart. From there, I played up the idea of Welton having a ton of money and the public school having none with jokes like “Welton’s school uniforms were made by Brooks Brothers. Meanwhile, our football team’s uniforms were handsewn by Brooke’s brother — the brother of our cheerleading captain, Brooke.” There were several essays in the book where I tried to step into the mindset of minor characters or even imagined characters and examine their point of view inside the world of that particular movie.
WW: Humor can be a challenging genre to write effectively. Could you provide insights into your process of crafting comedic narratives? How do you balance the fine line between humor that resonates universally and humor that might be more niche or specific?
CG: It’s tough to find ways to write about experiences that are universal without being cliché. Specificity definitely helps, which seems counterintuitive, but often the more specific a joke is, the harder it lands. In the essay I wrote about Hocus Pocus, for example, the parents (who are totally oblivious to the Sanderson Sisters coming back to life) come home the morning after Halloween and are understandably pissed that there’s a giant hole in their roof. There are a lot of specific details the dad mentions about the house like “Second Empire Victorian built in 1870” and “Italianate-style cupola.” You don’t even need to know what those details mean exactly to understand that this is a fancy old house. That paints a clearer picture of what the repairs are going to entail. Dealing with home repairs is something many people can relate to, so it’s a fairly universal experience, but those details are what make the story unique and the humor land harder. Familiarity with the movie helps too, of course, so I definitely tailored the book to focus on movies most people would at least have heard of, so that there’s something for everyone.
WW: Your decision to self-publish "Spoilers" is a bold one, particularly for a debut book. How has this allowed you to maintain creative control and freedom over your project? Were there any unexpected challenges you encountered during the self-publishing journey?
CG: Having ultimate creative control was both liberating and terrifying. I liked being able to take risks in terms of the more experimental essay formats, like patent applications or declassified FBI memos, that are in the book. But it’s scary knowing there isn’t a book quite like mine on the market to compare it to. Luckily, I worked with fantastic people like my editor, Ginny Hogan, and illustrator Alana McCarthy, who could help guide the direction and serve as a sounding board. But the biggest challenge has been getting the word out about the book. It feels uncomfortable to self-promote my work, but as a self-published author, you have to be the one yelling, “I know there are a lot of books out there, but I assure you this one is very very good!”
WW: Many writers struggle with finding their unique voice. Your writing showcases a distinct style that combines satire, wit, and social commentary. Could you elaborate on how you honed this voice over time and how other aspiring writers can discover their own authentic writing style?
CG: I’d always enjoyed comedy, and especially satire, but never thought about writing it myself. After taking a filmmaking class in college and falling in love with that creative process, I started writing and directing short films and sketches in my spare time. That eventually led to making a satirical news webseries similar to the ONN Newsroom videos The Onion used to do. As part of that, I also wrote satirical news articles and performed a sketch version of the series live at a comedy theater in Boston. From there, I transitioned to writing timely humor for McSweeney’s and got my first piece in (after 9-10 rejections) at the beginning of 2020. Both the webseries and writing timely satire forced me to stick to deadlines and gave me a way to get a lot of writing under my belt in a short time. Developing my voice as a writer took a while, so finding mediums that gave me intrinsic motivation along with quick turnaround timelines was helpful.
WW: In your description of "Spoilers," you explore unconventional scenarios involving well-known characters. How do you approach staying true to these characters' core traits while giving them new and unexpected narratives? What's the secret to effectively subverting audience expectations?
CG: I tried to place characters in situations that would be plausible for them but that wouldn’t have already been explored in a movie. One way to do that, which I found myself coming back to a few times, was characters dealing with bureaucracy. So, for example, I imagined Superman getting a letter saying his visa application has been denied. Superman is a character we all know, and the challenges of immigrating to the U.S. are something we’ve either experienced or can empathize with. But put Superman in that familiar situation, and suddenly there's an opportunity to make unexpected connections in funny ways because of who he is as a character. An EB-1 visa for “aliens of extraordinary abilities'' (that’s the actual language the U.S. government uses) suddenly takes on new meaning, and there’s opportunities for jokes like “Your timely visa application was greatly appreciated, although there was no need to fly straight to USCIS headquarters to hand deliver it yourself.”
WW: "Spoilers" touches on various aspects of pop culture, society, and entertainment. How do you navigate the process of blending humor with thought-provoking commentary? What advice do you have for writers who aspire to tackle serious topics through a comedic lens?
CG: I think the most important thing when making social commentary in a funny way is to try to tap into how people are feeling about a particular story, and picking a premise that helps articulate those feelings. When I wrote the first Jurassic Park essay, for example, I was thinking about how Trump’s decision to loosen Covid restrictions so early was clearly motivated by his desire to get the economy back up and running and improve his re-election chances. I think many of us felt he was being reckless by ignoring scientists and putting his own interests above public safety. I saw a parallel between that and Jurassic Park, where the park creators’ greed and hubris leads to dinosaurs escaping and eating people. I think the piece resonated because it spoke to those feelings of our elected leaders abandoning us for their own selfish reasons.
The other thing that helps is to find ways to distance the piece you’re writing from the story itself. Movies are one way to do that by writing about horrible things happening in a fictional universe instead of our real one. There are a lot of other ways to do that, but whatever the approach, it helps to try to keep things as silly as possible and to trust your audience to understand the point you’re getting across without telling them directly.
You can buy Carlos' new book, Spoilers: Essays That Might Ruin Your Favorite Hollywood Movies, which is out now.