In 2011, just months after being named the National Society of Newspaper Columnists Columnist of the Year, W. Bruce Cameron stopped writing his syndicated humor column.
I wanted to know why one of the country’s few reliably funny newspaper humor columnists was retiring, and I wanted to take a look back at his column-writing career, so I gave him a call.
We talked about how his column started as a daily e-mail in 1995, about being the most plagiarized man on the Internet, why the book 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter was such a success, whatever became of his teenage daughters, the difficulty of launching a syndicated humor column after terrorists attack your country, why newspapers are so un-funny, why he stopped column writing and what he’s learned about humor writing.
Donatelli: You started your column by sending it to six people by e-mail, and eventually it grew to 40,000. Do you ever stop and think about how much technology played a role in your ability to make a living as a writer?
Cameron: Yeah. It is very strange, because it is the only time in my whole life when anything has gone according to plan. And it really it didn’t happen exactly the way I envisioned. The one thing I never saw myself as was a newspaper columnist. That was an unexpected wrinkle, but it was a sheer delight when I went to work for the Rocky (Mountain News). But the whole idea was, yeah, I’ll send this thing out in an e-mail. I’ll build a fan base. The fan base will become large enough that it would be compelling to a publisher so that they would start publishing my books.
Donatelli: Because you thought of yourself as an author first.
Cameron: Yeah. And that’s what happened. And who saw that coming?
Donatelli: How do you make the leap from 6 readers to 40,000?
Cameron: Well, I can remember how excited I was when I got my 300th subscriber. But you have to remember the time. There wasn’t spam. People would get a personal computer for Christmas and they didn’t really know what to do with them. Their whole reaction was, “Wow, this is kind of an interesting thing.” And then sending e-mails was one of the major things you could do with it. The column really started to come alive right about the time that Windows 3.1 came out. There seemed to be a real explosion in computer users around that time and I went from 300 to 1,000 to 3,000 so quickly. And then it really grew very quickly and then peaked because spam started and then spam and plagiarism just killed me.
Donatelli: You were plagiarized?
Cameron: Oh, I have been informally called, by the Erma Bombeck organization, the most plagiarized person on the Internet, because people would take my columns and immediately strip my name off and send them around. And that was kind of understandable, because I think for a lot of people, they didn’t understand the difference between a column and a joke, so if someone tells you a joke you they don’t very often say, “Two men are walking along…this is something that was written by one of Jay Leno’s writers…” You know, no one tells a joke like that.
But what I really hated was how they started changing the names and the punch-lines and adding profanity and adding extraneous crap that wasn’t funny. Then these people who were the plagiarists are just these relentless self-publishers. And they’d push their versions years after mine had come and gone. They’re still sending around their versions of my chili column and the altered version is much more prevalent than the real version.
Donatelli: You hit at a good time because everyone had these computers and there was no content on them, right?
Cameron: That’s exactly right. That was back in the days when you didn’t mind if your Uncle Harry sent you something that he’d picked up on the Internet. You didn’t mind and you read the whole thing and then it said, “Send your e-mail to this address to subscribe,” and you’d be like, “Oh, yeah. I’ll do that,” you know? When you get something like that now, you know, there’s something going around like cute baby fox pictures, you’re like, “I don’t have time for this,” and you delete it without even looking at it.
Donatelli: Did you friends ever forward you something they did not know you wrote?
Cameron: It still happens today. And I always for fun say, “Yeah. It was even funnier the way I wrote it.”
Donatelli: Online audiences are different than a newspaper audience. When you started writing for the Rocky Mountain News in 1998, did you change the way you wrote?
Cameron: The biggest change was that now it was 700 words, and I had never paid any attention to how long my columns were, and some of them were quite longer and some of them were quite shorter. It turned out, though, that the discipline of landing on 700 words, that was actually good for the column. It gave it the kind of structure it had been missing and sort of a professional polish that wasn’t there. That really is about all it that changed. I write stuff that you can send to your grandmother without being embarrassed.
Donatelli: I look at the things you write about: daughters, dogs, manhood. These are just things that just happen all around you, right?
Cameron: Things I notice and sometimes things I make up, but yeah, things that happen to me. Basically because of my humor, I’m just sort of aware of their existence and I write about them.
Donatelli: Dave Barry had a lot of fun writing about Miami. Gene Weingarten does it with D.C. What was particularly funny about living and writing in Colorado?
Cameron: In retrospect I made very little use of Colorado as a backdrop, mainly because when I started my column, it was international right from the beginning. And rooting it in references that were local would be problematic for that audience. And when I got picked up by the Rocky, it went out on Scripps-Howard News Service almost immediately. I was writing to a national audience right then, actually an international audience, because they had Canada, and frankly I think that was good for me, too. I may have thrown an occasional Denver International Airport joke in. You drive all the way out to DIA and you’re like, “Wouldn’t that have been faster just to drive to where we were going?”
Donatelli: That kind of worked out for you because the way the Internet is now, nobody’s writing for a local audience. So you were just a step ahead, basically.
Cameron: Kind of, or a step sideways.
Donatelli: With the book 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, why do you think that ended up resonating with so many readers?
Cameron: I think that if I have a talent it’s for writing things that are obvious and true to everybody. So when I wrote about the way a father feels when his teenage daughter suddenly winds up dating and suddenly goes from being that cute little girl to being this creature that they become, it was so true for everybody who has had that happen. And then beyond that, some of the other stuff I’ve written about that you mentioned, like writing about How to Remodel a Man, is a book about something that, as the subtitle goes, it’s something that women want to do. They know it’s impossible and they want to do it anyway. A lot of people disparage my writing because it is so accessible and it just feels like, “Oh, this was so easy. You know, it’s not even real writing.”
Donatelli: How many daughters do you have?
Cameron: I have two daughters, so I’ve got one daughter and a spare. I always told them, “You keep in line. One of you is the spare.”
Donatelli: And whatever happened to your daughters? They’re no longer teenagers, obviously.
Cameron: Yeah. That was one of the unfortunate developments that happened was that they refused to remain teenagers even though that was really good for my career. They all live in Colorado. I’ve got a daughter in Denver and a daughter in Boulder. They’re both married and they both work really hard.
My older daughter is the president of an animal rescue that she founded this year. In fact, I got my dog from her, and she’s doing fantastic work. I don’t know how she does it. She also holds down a full-time job and goes to college.
And then my other daughter has two jobs. She’s got two bookkeeping jobs and she’s married, and so as it turned out, the lesson here is profound.
To all those men who live with such despair on what has happened to their teenage daughter, eventually they grow up, and maybe you could never get them to clean out the garage with you or anything like that, but all of a sudden they’re working really hard and they’re really ambitious and industrious. And so in the end, the lesson is and shall forever be: dad is right. And that’s the lesson I took from that.
Donatelli: On the flip side, no matter how much a teen girl might be embarrassed by her father, she will overcome that embarrassment to lead a fruitful and successful life.
Cameron: They somehow recovered from it. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying. We should never fully stop using our power to embarrass them, because that’s really important.
Donatelli: In 2011 the National Society of Newspaper Columnists named you its Columnist of the Year and you announced that you would stop writing your column a short time after that. Why did you make that decision to stop writing?
Cameron: I decided that I wanted to go out on top, and the Pulitzer people just never called me, so I figured they’re probably not going to get their act together anytime soon for me, but I did win the Columnist of the Year award. That’s the most prestigious thing I’ve ever gotten for my writing and so I’m good going out in style and on top. Some newspapers are going to continue to carry my column because they’re just going to run “best of.” A lot of the newspapers have only been running me for a short time. So they’re going to run the classics and that gives me an easy way to come back if I decide, “Okay, I’m ready to plunge into that again.”
Donatelli: You haven’t totally stepped away from column writing forever. It’s something you still could do again some day.
Donatelli: I was trying to think if there’s a corollary to this, like a stand-up comedian does stand-up and becomes a movie or a TV star and then they don’t do stand-up as much so they can focus on the other thing. Is that a little bit what it feels like to you also? Because I know you’re working on books and screenplays.
Cameron: Yeah. Right. There’s a lot of chaos and disruptive disorganization in the newspaper world. It really kind of coincided with my ascension to syndicated columnist. Because on October 1, 2001, I became a syndicated columnist for Creators. I was essentially replacing Tony Kornheiser, who retired, and Tony was in 15 major markets. And the expectation was that I would just step into those newspapers pretty seamlessly.
But between the time that Creators announced that this was going to happen, which was in August, and October 1st, the twin towers fell. I want to be careful here, a lot worse things happened that day than a complete disruption of my career path, so I want to be careful when I say that, but nonetheless, it was true that only a couple of newspapers, I think only six newspapers elected to run a humor column. There was a real sense that we would never laugh again.
And then the other thing to keep in mind is that the fear was on the rise and the newspapers are fighting and they’re trying to figure out how to save money and though an individual newspaper does not actually have to pay very much to get a weekly column from a syndicate, it nonetheless is an expense, and to a lot of newspaper editors it is a frivolous expense. Because why do people need humor? And I’ve always thought it was ridiculous that a newspaper will have one humor columnist once a week and they’re good with that.
Donatelli: I agree.
Cameron: I always want to say, “Well would you only have one sports story a week?” But that’s the way they think and so it’s a really tough time for that business and I’ve got other things that I can do that are really fun. So I’m doing other things. The struggle will take as long as the struggle takes and we’ll just see what happens.
Donatelli: What are you working on now?
Cameron: I’ve got a book coming out in May that is the sequel to A Dog’s Purpose and it’s called A Dog’s Journey. It continues the story of this incredible dog that was the narrator of the first one. And I’m sending the galleys out today to my editor so that one is in the barn. I’ve got another novel that will be out and they’re kind of eying Christmas of this year. And it’s kind of a Christmas-themed untitled dog book. So I’m currently working on that one and then we’re making a feature based on a screenplay that I co-wrote with my wife called Forty Is the New Dead.
Donatelli: Past or present, who do you enjoy reading? Who makes you laugh?
Donatelli: As far as humor writing goes, what do you wish you knew 20 years ago that you know now? What’s the wisdom that’s come with experience?
Cameron: Wow. No one has ever asked me that question before. I’ve got to think about that for a minute.
Donatelli: Take a moment. I’m interested in a good answer.
Cameron: Over time what has happened is that I’ve really learned how to structure humor. That humor has to have pace and structure and you can write a line and you can write about funny things, but it’s much harder and more important to write about things funny. Just because of the time it has taken me to learn this, I wish I’d sort of had that perspective.
But it really is less of a question about what I wish I had known, and what I’m really sort of saying is, I’m answering a different question. The question is, what is the sum total of your experience boiled down to an observation? My observation is that writing humor is very difficult and it’s like a science.
And so many people think that they can write humor because they write amusingly, or they can have something amusing happen to them. You know, getting up in the morning and finding that your washing machine hose broke during the night and your living room is in an inch of water is a funny situation. But what you do with that, whether you write actual jokes about it or just say, “Oh great. Now my new blue socks, they’re from China, and then they’re blue so now I’ve got blue suede feet.” I just made up that joke. That’s a pretty poor joke. Whereas, if you just go, “I have blue feet,” that’s amusing. I guess that’s the difference for me, that whole learning the science of humor is what I would say has taken me 20 years.