According to Laura Pedersen, former New York Times columnist, author of 16 books and four plays, standup comedian, comedy writer, AND ordained minister, funny books are “usually stashed in a dark corner of the bookstore and rarely come up for awards and recognition.” During the pandemic, “sales of the Bible went up, along with such plague classics as The Plague, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. However, on a zoom lecture that Pedersen hosted over the past few months, she said that everyone agreed it felt terrific to laugh. That is why we’d like to give tremendous attention to her new release, A Theory of Everything Else, a collection of essays where like Stephen Hawking, Pedersen explains everything else. It’ll surely make you laugh, and it will feel terrific.
Take her stance on things that can hurt us: Why, she asks, when thousands are perishing as a result of assault weapons, carbon emissions, forest fires, pesticides, and processed foods, lawn darts were banned in the 1980s after two people died.
Conundrums like these are what the author tries to figure out.
WAT’s MJ Hanley-Goff sat down with Pedersen via email to ask some questions about writing comedy, feeding goats, and questions about cranky people:
What kinds of writing give you the most joy…
Laura Pedersen: I like a good joke or one-liner, but I love a story that takes us from A to B. It doesn’t need a moral or even a point, but should feel like going on a engaging journey, such as when you sit down to dinner with a friend who had an incredible adventure on the way over and regales everyone with the story. It’s truthful, personal, and one-of-a-kind.
Columns are the least stressful form of writing because they’re mercifully short and require limited research, but there’s an emptiness after they’re published since it’s like feeding a goat. There’s no sign of what you just wrote, and the goat is hungry again.
Were there any writers that inspired your writing?
Laura Pedersen: I loved Erma Bombeck. When I was growing up every home in America had Bombeck’s musings about family life taped to the refrigerator door. You want articles “about nothing” — Bombeck chronicled the performance of mundane tasks like shopping, doing laundry, and carpooling kids, and magically made it all sound hilarious and occasionally heartrending. “Never have more children than you have car windows” and “Housework, if you do it right, will kill you.” To a writer the message was that anything from the tiniest cookie crumb to the biggest dust ball can become your best source of material so pay attention to ordinary routines and don’t try and get out of cleaning the oven. And then there was the wonderful Nora Ephron who said, “I try to write parts for women that are as complicated and interesting as women actually are.”
I enjoyed your “what I’ve learned” list, especially “be kind to cranky people.” Have you come across a lot of cranky people?
Laura Pedersen: Millions of cranky people. I grew up in Buffalo, NY, a place with seven months of winter, before fleece was invented, and where an optimist is defined as someone with an outdoor pool. Then I worked on Wall Street, through two stock market crashes, where people lost millions of dollars in a single day. And now I live in Manhattan where many people take pride in being cranky and regularly say “Excuse Me” in a way that clearly means Excuse YOU.
Is there any essay in A Theory of Everything Else that was your favorite to write? Why?
Laura Pedersen: “We Will All Go Together” was written a year before the pandemic and rather imagines a doomsday scenario in the event that we don’t get our collective act together. And here we are! I purposely put it at the end because I sensed it contained the issues that worried me the most. My mom loves mysteries and always reads the last few pages first, so perhaps I was thinking that if people didn’t bother with anything else, they might check that out.
Why write a book filled with essays?
Laura Pedersen: I felt lucky to be able to write A Theory of Everything Else because it doesn’t fit easily into a genre, and certainly isn’t a thriller, which publishers and booksellers find easier to move. I didn’t have to stretch out any of the subjects and was able to skip to something new once I’d said what I wanted to.
What’s it like to write for comedians and being a columnist?
Laura Pedersen: I enjoy writing for comedians if we have the same sensibility and that person is talented at delivering the material. It’s fun to sit in an audience and listen to everyone laughing at your jokes. That said, if I rate my material ahead of time from least funny to most funny, I’m always surprised how the audience will find something I didn’t think very highly of and almost left out to be the real knee-slapper, while my favorite gets a smattering of chuckles.
Share a bit about why you became an ordained minister, does that mean your sermons are humorous?
Laura Pedersen: I hope my sermons contain some humor because I think people are more engaged when they do. I also believe that while we need not agree on how to live or what to believe, humor brings us together, and for those few moments we rise above our differences and are reminded of all that we have in common.
Photos courtesy of Laura Pedersen