This story appeared in the Feb.
26, 2004, Portsmouth Times. In the interest of full
disclosure, Lars Trodson is a friend and former
colleague of Humor Gazette editor John Breneman.
Writer following his heart, living the dream
By Lars Trodson
There's a great expression I recently heard: "Feeling
9/10." It means your mood is upbeat and carefree, something
like you felt the day before the terrorist attacks on 9/11
-- hence the name. I think it's just a terrific turn of phrase.
That's what I was feeling the other day. I was driving on
Goodwin Road up in Eliot, Maine. The snow had melted and the
brown grass had emerged and it looked like the end of winter
in New England. I went past the working farms, and the sky
was blue and my little pickup was just puttering along.
I was headed into Portsmouth to see my former colleague and
friend John Breneman, who has stepped out of the workaday
world to pursue the dream of writing humor for a living. We
were going to spend the morning talking about the fulfillment
of a dream and the craft of writing.
Just months ago Breneman had nothing but an idea. He wanted
to write full-time. Over the years, he has written a column
News" where he combines a factual event with his
own flights of fancy, and local readers may know him from
that. He was a regular contributor to the old ThumpCity web
site, which also included Chris Elliott. But those endeavors
proved only enough to scratch the itch.
We had talked over the years about the kind of commitment
it takes to fulfill a dream. It's almost impossible today
to keep that dream on a part-time basis; you must dive into
it headfirst and keep kicking and screaming and scratching
and fighting until someone either hears you or no one wants
to hear you any more. Particularly in the creative arts. We
were working at the same newspaper when I left to write a
book, and John followed -- and I do not mean that in any other
way than in the chronology of things -- just a few weeks later.
takes no small amount of courage to leave a comfortable job,
particularly one you're good at that pays the bills. Once
Breneman turned 40 it would have been even easier to simply
settle into that groove and say it was a little late to change
horses. But when he was searching for something to do in life
long ago, his father Ernie gave
him some advice: Write stuff. That phrase rattled around in
Breneman's head until he could ignore it no more.
Just several months into his pursuit, Breneman now has a
web site devoted to his clever and funny writings. It's called
The Humor Gazette, and it is already creating a buzz in the
extremely populated world of 'zine writing. The fact that
his creation is getting linked up to other well-known comedy
and satire sites certainly means he's onto something. You
can find out what I mean by clicking on www.humorgazette.com.
The web site was originally intended to be a kind of warehouse
for the volumes of sketch pieces, humorous jabs, word-plays
and verbal pratfalls that he's been crafting for quite some
time. But now it's taken on a life of its own. He's being
helped by his web master, a young man named Jeff
Raper, and Breneman has made a commitment to keep his
web site updated and topical. One day Breneman showed me all
the html code that sits just behind the clean and bright graphics
of his web site. So, I said to myself, that's what the mind
of a comedian looks like.
On the day we talked, Ralph Nader had just entered the presidential
race. Breneman, who is nothing if not smart, conflated Nader's
history as an auto safety pioneer with his political ambitions
and wrote a piece called "Crash-test
dummies endorse Nader." You'll be mistaken to think
this kind of joke is obvious; you try to come up with it first.
This is my take: Much of the humor writing today is either
quite precious or downright unfunny. As an example, when was
the last time you actually laughed at something a radio D.J.
or a morning TV talk show host said? Not very recently, I
would imagine. Or: When a writer launches into a "humorous"
piece on NPR, I begin a mental countdown as to when the author
will begin his or her supposedly clever tangent to the original
topic -- which always starts right on time -- and then wait
nervously for the piece to wrap up with its intended ironic
and literary conclusion.
I suppose it isn't fair to build someone up by negating the
talents of others, but the point is comedy, as the famous
man once said, is hard.
Breneman did not, by all accounts, start out as a funny kid.
He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to a father who was
a successful advertising executive and a mother who shared
his penchant for collecting antiques -- something both parents
put to good use when they opened up their own shop. (They
now own two G. Willikers
toy shops.) "We had a big house and a big yard and a
creek in the back," Breneman said. A house they bought
in the little neighborhood of Gibsonia was filled with old
stuff, including an old-fashioned candle-making machine and
a printing press -- which was later used to do promotional
material for the antique store.
In 1972, Ernie Breneman had had enough of the rat race and
decided to move. He investigated several different locales
and the family settled in York, Maine -- "sight unseen."
The kids didn't want to move, "but then we looked up
Maine in the encyclopedia." The Breneman children, there
are three, had never seen the ocean and when they first came
upon the water it was high tide and they looked at each other
and said: "Where's the beach?"
That's a funny story, but Breneman says he does not have
"Pennsylvania, pre-age 10 memories of comedy. My first
memories of being a sapient individual come from baseball."
He was a Pirates fan -- Stargell, Clemente -- "and I
became a voracious consumer of all things baseball. My dad
called me a walking encyclopedia." He was a shy kid,
not loud. His mother Jill said he was an observer. "I
didn't say much," which he said he preferred to "voluminous
pie-hole ramblings." (Which is more my style.)
High school, in York, is where Breneman's first comic impulses
manifested themselves. In English class, teacher Daniel Beetz
told Breneman his writing was "strange, but good. That
was not lost on me." A news-writing class he took in
high school led to assignments, and Breneman said he "did
an off-beat piece about the wombat. I just liked the sound
of the word." The original article combined factual details
and also "fake news" about the wombat. Right there
you have the direct linear descendent of what Breneman does
The production side of the school newspaper, by the way,
was so enamored with what he had written they named the paper
"The Wombat Weekly." There's nothing like a little
outside validation to give you confidence, and that's what
happened. A class in broadcast journalism led to the production
of "fake news bits" for a school TV news program.
Breneman was named literary editor for the school yearbook,
and he was quite right when he said: "There are some
people who carry the load on the yearbook" and quickly
adds: "I wasn't one of them." He wrote a poem, "Ode
to a Wombat."
After graduating from Colby College, there was the proverbial
trip around the country in a van with a friend. "We picked
up a hitchhiker and there was something about attempted murder
so he was the last hitchhiker," Breneman said of the
trip. "When we got back it was very much like: Now what?"
And his father gave him that advice, "Write stuff."
The elder Breneman knew the then-editor of the York Weekly,
Patti Hart, who gave Breneman his first professional gig,
writing sports for the York Weekly, back when it was an independent-minded
The career proceeded amiably, on a pleasingly upward arc,
with a five-year stint in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where
he wrote a humor column, and then a return to the Portsmouth
Herald, where Breneman was the much-lauded Sunday editor.
He also wrote his fake news pieces there.
but. "I needed to make the time to do what
I love to do. Something was burning more brightly inside of
me and that was the humor," he says. "There was
frustration of not doing what I was really meant to be doing."
He had put a book together, pitched it, and received enough
encouragement to "give me a taste." And so, rather
than stew, rather than stay with the conventional and then
look back at a life where the chance was not taken, Breneman
left his job and immediately began work on his writing.
Now he is watching The Humor Gazette make a little splash.
"My numbers are so tiny, but to watch them grow and watch
them spike is exciting," he said.
Breneman is still working on the book, several in fact, and
he hopes to make it into the Holy Grail for all fiction writers,
The New Yorker (and has in fact received a couple of encouraging
responses from that magazine). But in the meantime he continues
to add fresh satire to his site, which, in the main, is a
worthy addition not just to cyberspace but to the cultural
life here in Portsmouth. It is John's hope, it is indeed my
hope, that Portsmouth will be known as the home of this original
and funny and sharp collection of writings.
"People say comedy is a difficult thing and I agree
with that," said Breneman. "But the reason I know
it's what I should do is because it's easy for me." Maybe
so, but interrupting a career to pursue whatever dream one
may have is not so easy. Good for him. And, by the way, good
Lars Trodson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org