Back when newspapers had humor columnists, the Orange County Register had a good one. From 1994-2003 Jeff Kramer covered life behind the Orange Curtain, first as a military reporter then as a humor columnist for seven years.
Kramer carved a niche for himself as a local humor columnist, one of the small band of brothers and sisters who entertain and inform regional audiences across the country. They deal with all of the same aggravations as nationally-renowned humor writers, and they reap a fraction of the financial rewards. If they were baseball players, you’d say local humor columnists do it for the love of the game. Kramer’s one of those guys—one of the ones with stories to tell. (In fact, he told me a good one that involves a steamroller that’s not included in this interview. You can read it here.)
Originally from Seattle, Kramer graduated from Western Washington University where he wrote a humor column for his college paper. After graduation he worked at the Middlesex News in the western suburbs of Boston and wrote a humor column for three years under editor Ken Hartnett. Kramer moved to Los Angeles and was a full-time freelancer in the Los Angeles Times’ west-side office in Santa Monica. He was also the Boston Globe’s Los Angeles correspondent. It was while working for the Globe that Kramer briefly gained national attention. He was the reporter who was shot three times during the L.A. riots in 1992. He wrote about the experience for People.
Not long after that the Register hired him full-time, and Kramer wrote his humor column under editor Michael Hewitt. To any OCR folks reading this, Kramer said he’s happy that the Register is doing so well and hiring so aggressively.
The Register lost its resident funny man when Kramer and his family moved to upstate New York, where his wife was raised. Jeff and his wife Leigh Neumann have two daughters, Miranda, 13 and Lily, 10, and they have three dogs. Everyone in the family has appeared in print at one time or another, some rather infamously.
In Syracuse Kramer wrote a freelance column for the Post-Standard for seven years before he and the paper parted ways. In the summer of 2013 he began writing his column again for the alternative Syracuse New Times. In addition to columns and articles, Kramer has written two stage plays, “Reaching for Marsby” and “Lowdown Lies,” and he produces a local sketch comedy show called “Sketchy Mall People.”
THC: What were your favorite moments at the Register?
JK: As a reporter the biggest thing I worked on was when Orange County went bankrupt. Myself and another reporter who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for something else wrote the definitive profile of county Robert Citron, who was the treasurer who led Orange County down the road of bankruptcy. I’m very proud of that.
THC: How about the columns?
JK: I don’t even know where to start. It was a seven year run of insanity and fun.
Remember that craze? Beanie Babies? I got a lobster Beanie Baby and a monkey Beanie Baby, and I had one of our editors who could sew stitch it together into a Lob-key, a lobster monkey. I auctioned it off in the column, and we got 400 responses.
My children were born in Orange County. When Miranda was born I thought that it would be funny to pretend that her name was Squanto Albondigas in the column. Southern California is weird enough for that to be conceivably true. A lot of readers believed it, which was awesome. My mother-in-law was in town, and she didn’t find it the least bit funny. Woke up, the paper is on the table, and neither my wife nor my mother-in-law would speak to me. People would come up to us when Miranda was 2 or 3 and say, ‘That must be Squanto.’
THC: You do participatory stuff.
JK: I once went swimming in a red tide in a wetsuit and wrote this Chamber of Commerce ‘The Water is Fine’ kind of column, completely covered in head to toe in zinc oxide and latex.
JK: It’s a gift to have that kind of an outlet. In your darkest, most miserable hour, you have a productive way to channel it. It’s very humbling that people are receptive to it. Someone once said comedy is complaining in a really funny way. The trick to this stuff is to complain not in a way that suggests that your complaints are serious compared to people’s real suffering. Younger writers get that part confused and think that what they’re writing about is a tragedy. If I’m writing about it, it’s not a true tragedy. There is a slender line between humor writing and whining.
THC: Who do you like to read?
JK: I like Carl Hiaasen. I am in awe of the guy. I always loved Dave Barry. I was writing for my college paper, and this Barry guy was in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and said, “Oh, my God. This guy is me.” There was a similar sophomoric bent and willingness to free associate. I was very excited about it. ‘Someone can actually make a living doing this.’ From then on the rest of my career was differentiating myself from Dave Barry, not only that he made gazillions of dollars more than I did and was a national figure, but more stylistically. I tended to do more reporting, and sometimes I’d break a little news in the column and did local. It’s my weakness—local stuff that nobody particularly cares about outside of Orange County or outside of Syracuse.
THC: Were you syndicated?
JK: Briefly through United Artists, and it never really took off. Whenever I wrote a column for syndication, it would have to be general interest that would resonate outside of Orange County. I didn’t enjoy it, and it wasn’t as good.
THC: Barry’s columns are loaded with jokes. That’s why it works for him. He writes 30 or whatever jokes a week in his column.
JK: I love the funny stuff that people say and do. To me a funny quote is gold. It’s a joke I didn’t have to think of, and it gets somebody else in the paper. I think there can’t be enough humor writing, and you don’t want it all to be the same. I took this Dave Barry thing and got what I could out of it, and then I found my own much less successful voice. (Laughs.)
THC: Why aren’t there more humor writers at newspapers?
JK: Your number one goal, every morning, when you’re the editor or publisher of one of these places, is to piss off the fewest number of people possible. If you’ve got a humor column that’s funny to everybody, you’re not very funny at all. By definition it’s got to tick off some people. You need some self-confidence, as an institution, to have a humor columnist.
THC: What ultimately happened between you and the Post-Standard?
JK: I wrote a column. I turned it in on Friday, which is normal. I was under the belief it was going to run. There were some concerns about it, but it was my understanding those concerns had been addressed, and everything was OK. Monday morning, when it was supposed to appear, I was at the dentist in the chair and my dentist said, ‘Where’s your column?’ She brought the paper in, and we go through this thing, and it’s clearly not in there. This was the second time this had happened at that paper.
I’ve had columns get killed. It’s an occupational hazard. It probably means that you’re doing your job. But I should be the first to know, not the last to know.
I had a good seven-year run there. I don’t think anything lasts forever. Most of the time they left me alone and were very supportive.
The editors, including the editor in chief, who were central in my untimely exit no longer work there. They have retired, took buyouts or left for other reasons. It’s a new day at the Post-Standard. Very Web focused. Still not clear who they are in this new media universe. I wish them well, and that is sincere. Our city needs a strong daily newspaper, maybe more than most, and even now there are a lot of cool and talented people there.
THC: It looks like the New Times has given you a free hand.
JK: They just want me to pick up where I left off. They let me do the Chihuahua penis column, which was the most important thing to get in the paper. It’s alternative. It has more of a loosey-goosey atmosphere. I’m the new guy. They sought me out, and I’m really happy they did.
THC: What’s something about humor writing that young humor writers should know?
JK: I don’t want this to sound pretentious, but I think there are more similarities between humor writing and poetry than any other kind of writing because attention to word choice is so important. Timing and word choice. It’s everything. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written a sentence, and they chuckle and say, ‘That’s pretty funny.’ Then I flip a clause around or change the word stone to rock, which seems like it doesn’t matter, and it just makes the whole thing pop, and then you get a belly laugh.
More Humor Columnist Interviews:
Alan Zweibel (“Saturday Night Live”)
W. Bruce Cameron (“Eight Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter”)
Jen Kirkman (“Chelsea Lately”)
Charley Memminger (“Aloha Lady Blue”)