A Week of Sketches: Holiday Soup

Years ago, I used to watch General Hospital religiously. Not so much for the show itself, but for the ongoing war between Campbell’s soup and Progresso that raged every day during the commercial break. Basically, every commercial made it sound like you were some kind of moral degenerate if you ate the other company’s soup. I’m not sure who won the soup wars, but my suspicion is that they’re still raging to this very day. What follows is my response, which I wrote for the Madhouse Theater Winter Extravaganza. Feel free to film your own version and make yourself into the next  YouTube sensation. Just promise me that when you’re YouTube-famous, you mention my name.

Holiday Soup

Two men are sitting at a table, a bowl of soup in front of each. Between lines of dialogue, they spoon soup into their mouths.

 Progresso: Hi, I’m Progresso soup.

 Campbell’s: And I’m Campbell’s.

 Progresso: This holiday season, we’ve decided to set aside our differences …

 Campbell’s: And simply agree that soup is good food.

 Progresso: That soup is great food.

 Campbell’s: Mmm, mmm, good.

Progresso: Mmm, mmm, better.

 Campbell’s: Mmm, mmm, pretty freakin’ awesome.

Progresso: Mmm, mmm, I slept with your wife.

 Campbell’s: Mmm, mmm… Wait a second. You what?

 Progresso: I slept with your wife!

 Campbell’s (lowering spoon, losing will to live): I… I don’t believe it.

 (Enter Mrs. Campbell’s, carrying a pot of soup as Progresso continues to slurp away.)

 Mrs. Campbell’s (spooning soup into her husband’s bowl): It’s true, honey. I slept with Progresso.

Progresso (appetite still hearty, slurping down his soup): Though I wouldn’t say we did much sleeping, if you know what I mean!

Campbell’s: My God. I… I…

Progresso (noticing that his bowl is empty): Hey, are you going to finish that?

 Campbell’s: I… No… I… No.

Progresso (taking the bowl from Campbell’s): So from all of us here at Progresso….

Mrs. Campbell’s: And Campbell’s.

Progresso & Mrs. Campbell’s: Happy holidays to all!

Campbell’s: I think I’m going to be sick.


A Week of Sketches: The Pledge Drive

Last week, my local public radio station launched its latest pledge drive, and it reminded of a comedy sketch I wrote for my friends from the Madhouse Theater group a few years ago. The sketch was called (in case you haven’t guessed) “The Pledge Drive” and was about (predictably enough) a pledge drive. After that, I wrote two more sketches for (and with) Madhouse — one about the soup wars and the other about community theater. Since I’ll be spending the majority of this week grading papers, I thought I’d lighten things up a bit with some humor. So without further ado, I present…


Characters: Patrick and Ed

Setting: Pledge central, your local public TV station. Volunteers man a bank of phones in the background.

PATRICK: For those of you just joining us, you’re watching WHAT, viewer supported public television, and this is day 79 of our never-ending pledge drive.  I’m Patrick Cummings, and with me today, as always, is the inimitable Ed Stoner.

ED: As always, Patrick.  And as always, we’re coming to you live to, well, frankly, to beg for money.

PATRICK: But beg is such an ugly word, isn’t Ed?

ED: Absolutely.  That’s why I prefer the term “grovel,” because here at WHAT, you, the viewer, are our life support.

PATRICK: But you know what’s funny, Ed? I don’t hear any telephones ringing, and I think you know what that means.

ED: I certainly do, Patrick! It means our viewers are a bunch of good-for-nothing freeloaders.

PATRICK: Exactly, Ed. In fact, I have to admit that I’m very disappointed in our viewers right now.  Not angry, mind you.  Just disappointed.  But you, the viewer, can redeem yourself right now by phoning in your pledge of support to 1-800-365-WHAT.

ED: That’s right, Patrick.  Because the kind of quality programming you’ll find here on WHAT doesn’t come cheap, and it’s up to viewers like you to keep us on the air.

PATRICK: Viewers like me?

ED: Not you, specifically, Patrick.  No, I’m talking to all of our loyal viewers out there in TV-land who tune into our station regularly and never send us a lousy dime.  Shame on all of you.  And a pox on all of your families if you don’t call right now with your pledge of support!

PATRICK: True that, Ed. Sure, our viewers love to watch shows like Minnesota Bee Keepers, but do they want to pay for it? No-ho-ho!

ED: You’re right, Patrick. They must think these shows grow on trees! That we just go out to a yard sale and pick up a few episodes of Cheese Purveyors so we can put them on the air! WELL LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHING, PEOPLE… THESE SHOWS COST MONEY! LOTS AND LOTS OF MONEY!

PATRICK: Hey, Ed, who am I? Gee, I guess I’ll just watch the latest episode of The Knitting Tree and not pay for it!

ED: Hmm… You’re either a heartless sociopath or… Don’t tell me… Don’t tell me… You’re one of our viewers!

PATRICK: Right on both counts, Ed! But guess what… I still don’t hear any telephones ringing.

ED: Okay, people, I’ll say it slow so you understand: Stop jerking us around and send us your money. It’s that easy.

PATRICK: Seriously. Don’t make us come to your house, or you’re looking at a whole world of hurt.

ED: Word! And try this on for size, bee-yotches: If you don’t call with your pledge of support, we won’t return to the Butterfly Junction marathon.

PATRICK: That’s right, Ed. We can keep this up all night if we have to.

ED: All week!

PATRICK: Hell, we can do this all year, and you’ll never see another episode of Uncle Worm as long as you live.

ED: Just hours and hours of fundraising. Two-four-seven, three-six-five.

PATRICK: And how’s this for incentive? If you don’t call right now, I’ll strangle Ed on live television.

ED: That’s right! If you don’t call right now… Wait. What?

PATRICK: His blood will be on your hands, people. You have ten seconds.

ED: Actually, Patrick, that really isn’t funny.

PATRICK: Not meant to be funny, Ed. Five seconds.

ED: Folks, I think he’s serious. If you’re watching, for the love of God, please call.

PATRICK: Okay, Ed, looks like you’re out of time. And it looks like our audience has spoken!

ED: Mom, I know you’re listening! It’s me! Ed! Your son! Please!

(Patrick takes Ed in a choke hold and begins to strangle him.)


PATRICK: You people make me sick. Look what you’re making me do! That number again, by the way is… Why don’t you tell them, Ed?

ED (Gasping): 1-800… 365… W… H…


(Telephone rings. Patrick releases Ed, answers telephone. Ed is too tired to move.)

ED: Oh, thank God!

PATRICK: Hello? Oh, hello, Mrs. Stoner… You never liked him much anyway? This is your son we’re talking about… Really? That big of a disappointment? But he works in public television… Oh, I see. That’s why you’re so disappointed. I understand completely… So can we hit you up for a small donation? …No? Not even a few dollars to save your son’s life? Okay, well, thanks anyway.

ED: Oh, no.

(Patrick resumes strangling Ed. Ed struggles.)

PATRICK: Last chance, folks… Give me a call or Ed here takes one for the team… No takers? Sorry, Ed. Looks like the people have spoken.

(Ed goes limp.)


“Hey! This Is Cool!” (Or: How Books Happen)

I don’t talk about it much, but I’m the acquisitions editor for a very small press called PS Books. It’s the books division of a journal called Philadelphia Stories, which publishes, as you might guess, fiction, poetry, and nonfiction by writers with at least a loose connection to the City of Brotherly Love and its outlying communities. We publish three or four books a year, and I usually take care of book design in addition to seeking out titles for publication. Tomorrow, we officially launch our first title for 2012, a collection of flash fiction titled Stripped.

To give you a sense of what the book is all about, here’s the copy I wrote for the back cover:

Stripped is a collection with a twist. Yes, the fiction contained herein includes works from some of the best-known names in flash fiction as well as the work of emerging writers, but the bylines have been removed so you can’t tell who wrote what. What’s more, the stories hinge largely on gender roles — but with the authors’ identities stripped from their stories, editor Nicole Monaghan has created a bit of a guessing game. Did a woman, for example, write that piece about ambivalence toward motherhood? Or was it a man? More to the point, does it really matter? Or is there something bigger going on when men and women stretch their minds and imagine what it might be like to be the other? Authors include Meg Tuite, Michelle Reale, Myfanwy Collins, Tara L. Masih, Michael Martone, Nathan Alling Long, Curtis Smith, and Randal Brown.

As interesting as the collection itself may seem, the story of how it came to be might also be worth considering.

About a year ago, I read a blog post about depictions of gender roles in flash fiction. In the post, blogger Nicole Monaghan marveled at how well some of her favorite authors could write from the perspective of the opposite sex. Eventually, Nicole wondered aloud about whether she’d be able to identify the gender of an author if the story were stripped of its byline:

But wouldn’t it be a curious and wondrous thing if for some allotted time period–I don’t know, we’ll say a year–flash writers had to remain anonymous and we all had to read them wondering, is this written by a man or woman?

As soon as I read this, I thought it would be a great idea for a book, so I emailed Nicole and told her so. She wrote up a proposal and sent it to a couple of publishers who specialize in flash fiction. Though they liked the idea, the publishers turned her down, mainly for financial reasons; the kinds of publishers who work with projects like this one are also the kinds of publishers that are perpetually strapped for cash.

Given the circumstances, I couldn’t help volunteering to publish the book as a PS Books title. I mean, I thought it was a really neat idea. I’d also gone to grad school with Nicole, so I knew she could complete the project in a timely and professional manner. And if she could convince some of her favorite flash fiction authors to contribute works to the collection without having their names attached to said works, then who was I to stand in the way of this book’s publication?

Granted, we published the book on an extremely tight budget. As PS Books has been doing for the past year or so, we used a print on demand service rather than going the traditional route of printing a large number of books, and we were also fortunate enough to get permission to use a painting by one of my favorite artists, Anne Buckwalter, for the cover.

It also helps that I’m working within the framework of a larger organization. I’m okay with the technical aspects of this job – e.g., finding titles, putting the books together, making them available to the public – but I’m glad that there’s a team at Philadelphia Stories who was willing to put together a launch party and help to promote the book.

My point in all of this is to say that books can come into existence in the least expected ways—and that publication, though a reasonable goal for many writers, doesn’t really validate a piece of writing. Rather, publication only means that one person (or committee or corporation) decided to put some resources behind a project. In some cases, the calculations behind the decision to publish are purely commercial and a bit like betting on a horse. In other cases, the motives may be artistic, philanthropic, or philosophical. Chances are, all of these issues come into play in one way or another, but in no instance does publication confer some kind of objective “goodness” upon the written word.

It just means that somebody somewhere said, “Hey! This is cool!”