Scott Sherman doesn’t try too hard to define his career—and that’s the way he likes it.
By Rose Schapiro, ’09
Photography by Dan Dry
Scott Sherman, AB’04, is a comedy writer. “I kind of leave it at that for the most part,” he says, “because it gets a little complicated when you start breaking it down. That’s sort of the excitement of it, that I can never say exactly what I do.” Right now, “it” involves a fascination with vampire movies. “I’m watching one or two a day,” says Sherman, who had just spent a November evening watching The Hunger, a 1983 film about a love triangle between a doctor and two aging vampires (David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve).
Vampire movies interest Sherman beyond their cult appeal. These days researching the undead has become both business and pleasure for the writer, whose latest project is a satirical guidebook for the newly turned vampire. “Today I wrote a chapter on human-vampire love,” he says. He’s seen Twilight, the blockbuster released in late November about a high-school girl and her vampire soul mate, but “what’s even better is going online and watching fans on YouTube react to the Twilight trailer.” A notoriously intense fan base of teenagers turned the film, and the book it was based on, into a pop-culture phenomenon. Sherman pauses. “I’m also gonna need some of that fandom.”
He’s used the guidebook template before. His two previous books, The Dangerous Book for Dogs (Villard, 2007) and The Devious Book for Cats (Villard, 2008), both parody the best-selling The Dangerous Book for Boys (Harper Collins, 2007), which instructs boys of all ages how to do everything from making knots to building treehouses. Sherman, a dog owner, says the guidebook genre seemed ripe for satire to him and his four coauthors, Joe Garden, Janet Ginsburg, Chris Pauls, and Anita Serwacki. “[The Dangerous Book for Boys] was a guide to being something that you already are, and that is in itself a pretty funny idea. You are telling a dog to be more dog-like.” The Dangerous Book for Dogs includes a ranking of frequently ingested items, the rules of “fetch,” and an entry on Pavlov. Both the dog and the cat manuals have their own built-in markets of pet devotees—Dogs has already been translated into ten languages.
For the vampire guide, “we’re basically writing it exactly like a textbook,” he says. “I’m actually referencing the textbook that I used for my neuroscience class at the U of C.” Sherman majored in Fundamentals: Issues and Texts, a program in which students form their own curricula and reading lists to answer a question they propose. Sherman framed his studies around the nature of comedy. For his neuroscience class, for example, he wrote a paper on the brain activity associated with people reacting to jokes.
He sometimes worried that he “was slumming because I wasn’t trying to pursue questions of truth or justice or love. I was focusing on the body parts of Tristram Shandy. I was focusing on the greatest fart jokes ever written in Cervantes.” But he received salient advice from the late Karl Weintraub, AB’49, AM’52, PhD’57, who, after hearing Sherman’s concerns, told him that there’s nothing not pragmatic about critical thinking. Sherman took Weintraub’s words to heart. For him, “writing comedy is always just about being as critical as you can be. I would say more than anything it’s just not allowing your mind to be passive.”
Sherman joined the sketch troupe Off-Off Campus in his first year and made a choice to take his performances “really seriously.” He also worked at Second City, starting as an intern and “sticking around” in office-related roles until after graduation. Seeing professional comedy performed daily helped him decide that he really wanted to write for the entertainment industry. In 2005 he moved to New York, where he eventually became a contributing writer for the satiric daily the Onion. Today, in addition to the books, Sherman has been writing for a forthcoming Comedy Central sketch show, Important Things with Demetri Martin. Scheduled to begin airing in February, the show features comedian Martin, known for his wry contributions to The Daily Show. Sherman has several other television projects in development, and he contributes jokes to Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.”
The best and worst part of being a writer, he says, is the lack of a set schedule. He finds the lack of regularity exciting but also tiring. “Two weeks ago it was promoting the cat book, and last week it was being on set, and this week is writing the new book.”
While on tour for The Devious Book for Cats in November, Sherman returned to his old stomping grounds. Stopping by University Theater to give a workshop, “Writing (for Money!),” to three dozen students nestled in the seats of the Francis X. Kinahan Third Floor Theater, he stressed the importance of writing—a lot. “If you don’t have a work ethic, it’s just not going to happen.” Despite the lack of formal writing preparation at Chicago, “you’re all way ahead of 90 percent of the people on the road you’re going down,” he reassured the audience. Enrolling at Chicago means you’re up for a challenge.
Writing for money, Sherman stressed, “is not Proust. It’s not like I will be able to write when the tea absorbs into the biscuits.” He himself struggled to get started in television writing, where “you really need to prove yourself before anyone will even start to consider you.” Before he got a staff job on the Demetri Martin show, he went to many interviews and wrote pages upon pages of mock scripts. “It takes a long time, and you get really close a bunch of times,” he says. “And then it doesn’t happen.”
Students then asked him questions, ranging from getting an agent to balancing an academic workload with getting writing experience. Sherman responded with pragmatic advice: get real-world practice. Second City and Off-Off, he said, gave him some of his best career preparation. Getting to write as a full-time career took time and effort, a far cry from submitting jokes to the Onion, which, he explains, “isn’t going to pay your rent.” You have to enjoy “the hellacious process of trying to get to that point. That’s generally the hallmark of everyone who’s going to make it. You like struggling just as much as succeeding.”