Deez Interviews: Meet the humor writer whose Shouts & Murmurs you’ve definitely seen (and maybe felt a lil personally attacked by)

Happy Friday, Deezers! Today’s interview is with Irving Ruan, a writer and comedian who’s a regular in The New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs page (his Reasons I Imagine People Change Their Hair Styles made us feel so uncomfortably seen that we’re not allowed to even THINK about bangs until 2030) as well as humor standbys like McSweeney’s.

We talked to him about his creative process for humor writing, that darned imposter’s syndrome, and his fave brainstorm technique: going for a walk! Enjoy.


The interviewee: I
rving Ruan (follow him @irvingruan!)

The gig: Writer/comedian — AND actor, playwright, and engineer!

First q: you do so much! What is your day-to-day like juggling so many roles??

I’m forever a passenger on the struggle bus of balancing everything, as I’m constantly dropping balls everywhere. That said, having a day job helps me be intentional with my time outside of the office. I try to write in the mornings before I start my day job as an engineer, and usually mix in a combination of writing and performing in the evenings.

Weekends are much better for acting/filming since that requires much larger chunks of time. Most lot of the time I just simply give up and watch reruns of Downton Abbey.

I'm curious about how all of your other pursuits informs your writing. For example, how does writing comedy vs. writing humor pieces differ?

I never really think about how a particular play I wrote or an acting role that I was in could be leveraged as material for a humor piece. I wish my brain could work like that because it’d be wonderful if I had methods for immediately extracting material from my pursuits on-demand. But as I’ve often found in my own process, my real-life experiences always emerge organically as material weeks to months after they’ve occurred.

In terms of writing comedy vs. writing humor pieces, my philosophy on the two is very different. The bits I’ve ran with in stand-up are way more personal and anecdotal in nature, so I end up going with a more casual and colloquial voice. Whereas with my humor pieces, I give myself more permission to brainstorm and write wonkier ideas that’d likely never work in front of a live audience. That being said, both formats share common principles in joke writing.

Okay, so what was it like when you published a Shouts & Murmurs for the first time??

I was over the moon excited and felt like I had just lost ten pounds of fat, like I was in the best shape of life. But for many days and weeks afterward, I thought that the universe was pranking me. Like, I still think that it’s absolutely bonkers that somebody out there is willing to publish my dumb Dunkin’ Donuts jokes or half-baked thoughts on Gary Busey. I still have imposter’s syndrome and am waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say “you’re not good at this, please stop.”

This might be a dumb question, but...where do you come up with ideas for humor writing? Are there any go-to creative exercises/brainstorm techniques you use?

I’m in awe of comedians and writers who can just sit down and churn out new ideas until kingdom come. I wish I could do that. Pretty much all of my ideas emerge when I’m out for a walk.

I don’t have a particular exercise or brainstorm technique, but I do my best to pay attention to little details around me. For example, I might see a blade of grass and subconsciously wonder what other objects it reminds me of, or how that blade’s particular shade of green makes me feel about lawn care maintenance. Stuff like that. I suppose the most accurate concept that captures my brainstorming technique is free association.

Finally, I've also noticed you often collaborate with other writers in your humor pieces, like in your latest piece, “The Periodic Table of My Anxieties About Meeting New People.”  What's that process usually like for you?

I’m still tweaking my collaboration process, but one method that’s worked well so far is finding common subject areas of interest with my collaborators.

We never kick off our brainstorming sessions by dishing out humor ideas. Instead, we brain dump all of the concepts, subjects, and influences we’re fascinated by or are interested in. Once we’ve built a sizable list, we’ll find points of intersection and talk through what our mental frameworks are like when we think about those subjects. Doing this shows me how my collaborators process information in their minds, which ultimately helps me align my idea generation to how their minds work, and vice versa.

I wouldn’t be surprised if other humor writers do this, but I try to work with illustrators and writers that I think resonate with my sense of humor, and whose work I really admire!


Don’t forget to follow @irvingruan on Twitter, and have a great weekend!