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Festival of Books: Talking funny with Merrill Markoe, Jill Soloway

April 22, 2012 |  5:33 pm

Click to view photos from the Festival of BooksIt's probably no surprise that a panel about writing comedy began with enough laughs that it could have included a two-drink minimum.

After a boisterous introduction by moderator Tod Goldberg that fairly outlined one potential working title for the discussion ("Let's put the frumpy Jewish guy with three funny ladies and watch him squirm"), the Festival of Books panel titled Does This Book Make Me Look Fat: Laughter on the Page gathered three very funny female writers -- Merrill Markoe, Jill Soloway and Dani Klein Modisett -- during would could be charitably called "interesting" times for women in politics and pop culture.

Goldberg opened the discussion with a question pointed to Markoe about what's been called a "war on women" this election year, the author and onetime head writer for "Late Night With David Letterman" responded with a bit of a shrug. "Has there ever been a time where they weren't under attack?" she asked. "I haven't got an easy answer that comes with a laugh, that's such a big topic."

PHOTOS: Festival of Books

Soloway, an Emmy-nominated writer for "Six Feet Under" and a live comedy veteran, stepped to the plate. "I know it's related to Pinterest somehow," she said, adding an anecdote about how much of the social-networking-meets-scrapbooking website seems to involve women's nails.

"I'm just very disappointed this panel wasn't called '50 Shades of Fat,' " interjected writer-performer Modisett, referencing E.L. James' runaway erotica hit.

Sex was a frequent topic at the panel, with Goldberg asking if it was possible for them to feel they shared too much. Modisett, who created a live storytelling show about the realities of parenthood, credited having married the right man. After the panel threw around jokes about whether her husband was blind, deaf or illiterate, Modisett responded, "No, he doesn't care as long as it's funny."

FULL COVERAGE: Festival of Books

"Oh, he's insane," Goldberg replied.

Although Soloway described feeling embarrassment when she meets readers of her book, given how brash her writing got in pursuit of a laugh, she insisted that as a writer she has an obligation to be honest. "It's a brave act just to report what it's like having sex," she said. "Ladies, we have got to catch up.... If you have a voice, just speak, write. Just so people get used to having women as protagonists in their stories."

The panel cited Lena Dunham's "Girls" and the runaway success of "The Hunger Games" as positive signs, though Markoe indicated there was still work to be done. "It’s just not a level playing field," she said, at one point referencing her experience pitching sitcoms only six or seven years ago only to hear, "We're sorry, we're not looking for shows that are centered on a woman character."

"I think the problem was you didn’t say, 'She will be saying "vagina" every five minutes,'" joked Modisett, referencing one of Dunham's tics.

But it was Markoe who may have had the session's warmest line. After Goldberg asked the panelists when they first realized they were funny, she responded with something heartfelt. "You play the hand you're dealt," she said. "It was pretty much the only thing I could think of to bail myself out."

"It's like in the Bugs Bunny cartoons," she continued. "You're in a situation where there are no exits, then with comedy you paint the tunnel and run into it. You're doing a rewrite on reality."

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-- Chris Barton

Photo: Tod Goldberg moderated the panel Sunday. Credit: Linda Woods

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