Francesco Marciuliano is the writer of the nationally syndicated comic strip Sally Forth, the writer and artist of the online comic strip Medium Large, one of the founders of the theater group Rule of 3 Productions, and, along with Carol Hartsell, the proprietor of the humor website Drink at Work.com. His play, This Isn’t Working, is currently running as part of the 2005 New York International Fringe Festival.
Age, occupation, where do you live, where are you from?
I’m a middle-upper-thirtysomething cartoonist and writer living in Manhattan with my wife and two cats. I originally hail from Dix Hills, NY (a town best known for having the ideal name to make five-year-old boys laugh) and attended Duke University before they installed air conditioners in the dorms. My turn-ons include autumn days, early R.E.M. and the movie Breaking Away. My turn-offs include my old boss, my boss prior to that one and sweatpants as fashionable attire. Honestly, people, have we exhausted every other possible sartorial option?
A few for you:
You run a humor website, write two daily comic strips (and draw one of them), and are producing and promoting a play you've written for the Fringe Festival. That's a lot of hats to wear--if you have any free time, what do you do instead of writing?
Okay, this is the part where I should say that I spend my free time making sense of the two highly contradictory philosophies of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Or heading “Doctors without Borders.” But truth is when I’m not writing I’m drawing and when I’m not drawing I’m writing. Although I did have jury duty once. That was awesome.
How do you stay so productive? Is it the short-attention span? Overactive imagination? The need for laughter? And how do you deal with writer's block, especially under deadline?
The best way for me to remain productive is to give myself deadlines. Starting Drink at Work.com gave me a deadline. And everything we add to it gives me more deadlines. And writing plays and working with Rule of 3 has given me even more deadlines. Now I’m suffocating from the unending workload and hate everything and everyone around me. Fuckers. But I do get a lot done. That I do.
As for writer’s block, when I can’t think of anything to write I punish myself. Mercilessly. That usually gets me back on track.
This Isn't Working seems to be working just fine. Pimp it here, brother. What's it about, why should we rush out to see it?
This Isn’t Working is the result of real-life business experiences, actual corporate frustrations and imagined revenge plans. The people who make up our production company Rule of 3—Carol Hartsell, Jefferson Jowdy and myself—all met while working at a certain prestigious publication. I don’t want to name names so let’s just say that the magazine is about “business” and it’s published every “week.” While working there we met several truly wonderful people, amassed countless colorful anecdotes and toiled under a middle management that made the Three Stooges look like the architects of the Manhattan Project by comparison.
In time, we all left for greener pastures and rosier mental outlooks, but the memories of our days in that particular office remained, much like when you finish a rye sandwich only to find a caraway seed has somehow lodged itself in your temple. But rather than endlessly bitch about our experiences we chose to address them through the inexpensive healing power of comedy. And bitching. Comedy and bitching. And so I wrote This Isn’t Working.
In a nutshell, This Isn’t Working is a collection of four short comedies about corporate culture and, more importantly, personal responsibility. It’s about the choices one makes to succeed either as a businessperson or an individual. It’s about the problems that often surface when one questions their self-worth or place in the office hierarchy. It’s about 80 minutes long.
This Isn’t Working also features a supremely gifted and highly comedic cast that any producer would kill for or at least have their intern from Sarah Lawrence kill for them. It has one more performance this Wednesday at the great Connelly Theater, where tickets are selling fast and the comfortable seats are a blessing to even the most demanding ass.
What's the Fringe Festival experience been like for you so far?
We’ve had great attendance and a fantastic reaction, especially for a play that entered FringeNYC with minimal buzz. What we hoped to get out of the experience was for more people to see our play and to get reviewed, both of which have happened.
If you’re a young theater company or playwright and you have any misgivings about submitting your play to FringeNYC, have no fear. The festival is very well organized, very well attended and very well covered by the press. I don’t know how the event has worked in the past, but the staff came through on all their promises and deadlines and always responded to our questions. Plus, they’re just really nice people who believe in what they are doing, and that’s always good to be around.
How does comedy, and the entire creative process, change for you from page to strip to stage?
Panic seems to play a crucial role in all three endeavors. Panic and self-recrimination. Actually, I approach all three in the same manner. I always want the writing to be funny, to be smart and to be finished before dawn. Plus, I never stop with the first script. I actually love the revision process. Revision is what can turn a good concept into great comedy. Or a searing look into the depths of one man’s bottomless despair, depending on how much I’ve been drinking or talking to my folks between drafts.
Humor articles, comic strips, interviews, humor-related news, awesome T-shirts – Drink at Work is a very funny collection, even for the sober reader. How did it get started? Where is it headed?
Drink at Work.com started because my editor didn’t return my calls. I had sent him several spec humor articles for a syndicated feature that never got off the ground. I enjoyed writing comic prose so much that my wife Carol suggested we start a humor website. Eventually I added a daily comic, Medium Large, to the site simply because I wanted to do a strip that reflected my humor sensibilities more than Sally Forth. Then we added reviews and interviews because Carol is just so damn good at doing those. Finally, we threw in the blog because I think it’s mandatory that every American start one under a provision in the Patriot Act. (Plus, when you’re shy but like attention, there’s nothing like a blog to shine a spotlight on you while still allowing you to hide behind the curtain.) At first only our friends and family visited the site but now Drink at Work.com gets close to half a million hits a week, which begs the question, “Why aren’t we making a dime off this fucking thing?!”
That leads us to your next question, “Where is it headed?” We’re planning to self-syndicate Medium Large to newspapers this fall as well as publish a comic collection (the strip is also available on cell phones and soon iPods and PSPs through Full Tilt Features). We also want to host more comedy/music events under the Drink at Work.com banner. And we’re currently pitching some concepts to TV and literary agents. All of this may lead to something big. All of this may lead to nothing at all. All of this beats the ten years I wrote marketing copy for a living.
Do you keep a bottle of liquor in your desk drawer? What and how do you recommend drinking while at work?
I guess it depends on one’s economic level. When I was first starting out, trying to get a career going in writing and/or cartooning, the only alcohol I could afford was any bottle that contained the phrase "kills the germs that cause bad breath" or "for relief of minor skin irritations" on its label. Now, thanks to my big cartoonist paycheck, I can afford Natural Light, although often in lieu of gas and electric. Still, good times, good times.
Sally Forth and Medium Large are vastly different comics--in fact, ML sometimes takes very funny potshots at other comic strips! How do you reconcile such different humor? And, as comic strips are such personal creative works, how did it feel taking over Greg Howard’s job? How have you made the strip your own?
It took me several years to actually achieve a sense of ownership with Sally Forth. Truth is, I always thought I was a rather odd choice to take over the writing duties for the strip. I’m not a working mother, I don’t have a kid and my humor comes from my parents, two people best known for crocheting dildo cozies and designing “The Original Orgy T-Shirt.” The first couple of years I more or less tried to approximate Sally Forth creator Greg Howard’s voice, with less-than desirable results. Longtime readers of the strip would send me nasty emails about how I should quit or list countless things I could shove up my ass, half of which didn’t sound the least bit pleasurable. But in the past few years I think I’ve begun to make the strip my own. I stopped seeing Sally and the rest of the characters as someone else’s creation and started trying to write them as real people. I’ve also stopped editing out everything that makes me laugh. And that’s sort of where my other strip Medium Large has helped. When I started writing Sally Forth, it was through the filter of the concept of Sally Forth. So when readers found things in the strip funny (if they ever found it funny), I was never sure if it was my writing or some preconceived idea they already had of Sally Forth as done by Greg Howard. But when I started getting positive response to Medium Large, it gave me the confidence that someone other than me found my particular sense of humor funny. And that in turn gave me the confidence to put a little more of my humor and my voice into Sally Forth. Of course, that didn’t stop the hate mail but it did result in some positive emails as well.
Rule of 3 gets to hang out with all sorts of funny, funny folks. Who are your favorite working comedians?
Mike Birbiglia, Tom Shillue, the amazing sketch group Fearsome, Aziz Ansari, Patrice O’Neal, Jon Benjamin, Jon Glaser, Flight of the Conchords (in addition to great bands like The King of France, Lolita Bras and Langhorne Slim). Although, I wouldn’t say we actually “hang out” with any of these people. More like “hang around.” Or “hang back.” Or stay far too long in the same bar after their show, hoping to be introduced to them only to go home once more drunk, dejected and despairing about why we should even bother waking up the next day. Such is comedy.
What's next up for Rule of 3?
I’m revising a full-length play, working on a cartoon pitch and finishing a collection of my “Conversations with Dad” articles. Carol is working on a screenplay. Our director Jefferson is writing another play. As for which project will move to the head of the line, let’s just say we’ve got a looooong meeting ahead of us.
Favorite bar or restaurant in NYC?
Truth be told, I’m not much of a drinker. Or an eater. I do like McHale’s because they serve both liquids and solids, and that seems to be rather efficient. Plus, they have the best burgers in Manhattan.
Best celebrity encounter in the city?
Back in June while waiting for the street light to change on the corner of Park Avenue and 53rd, I suddenly felt a hand rest on my shoulder and a commanding yet remarkably genial voice state, "Excuse me, son, but can you tell me what time it is?"
At first I had no idea who was speaking, mostly because I tend to walk with a downward gaze (not simply because I'm a New Yorker but because I'm shy by nature). While I was at first surprised to hear someone refer to me as "son," my immediate response was to dig out my cell phone for the time. Then I heard the same strong yet sonorous voice say, "Oh, son, there's no need to go to any trouble." But I quickly took out my phone, flipped it open, looked up to show the gentleman the time...
And found myself gazing straight up at the face of Morgan Freeman.
Now, I have had my fair share of run-ins with "celebrities." I almost stepped on Joan Rivers' dog outside of Barney's. I stepped on Ed Koch's foot in a movie theater. I walked right smack into Paul Schaeffer on Madison Avenue (like I mentioned earlier, I tend not to look where I’m going). Sigourney Weaver once asked me for the time in Central Park (Note to celebrity-watchers: Always have a timepiece handy). I've even spoken to several well-known stand-up comics in bars, once they realize my wife Carol is not single and I'm introduced.
But Morgan Freeman is not another "celebrity." Morgan Freeman is not just another "star." Having Morgan Freeman ask you for the time is like being in Ancient Greece and having Zeus ask you to pass the grappa. Morgan Freeman is not supposed to walk among us. Morgan Freeman is not supposed to have a need for the mortal concept of "time." And yet there he was on a street corner in Manhattan, in T-shirt and baseball cap, proving both distinguished yet down to earth, baronial yet affable, imposing yet, well, really, really nice.
Plus, he touched me on the shoulder, which more or less means I've been cured of all present and future ailments. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a pricey health plan to cancel.
What place or thing would you declare a landmark?
When I was a kid one of my favorite things in the city was when my mom would take me to a Chock Full O’ Nuts diner for lunch. Of course, those diners are long one. Same with the Automat, one-screen movie theaters and independent bookstores. Frankly, I’m afraid to list anything as a potential landmark for fear that it will be but a distant memory by the time this gets published. Now, I’m not one of those hardcore retro New Yorkers who long for the day when The Warriors, Panic in Needle Park and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three were fly-on-the-wall documentaries of life in Manhattan. But I do think that all those odd places and traditions that made this city truly its own are disappearing, and that we are in danger of becoming the nation’s most populated suburb. Plus, what some decide to embrace these days as “typically NYC” is asinine to say the least. Take the cover story to last week’s Time Out New York (a magazine I subscribe to and usually enjoy): “Who are the Three Hotties Donald Trump Has Planted in an Upper West Side Apartment? (And What Are They Doing There?)” I just stared at that headline in total disbelief. Eventually the only thing I could do was to tell the magazine to go blow me. Sadly, this was not the first time I had told printed matter to go blow me, but that was several years ago when I was single and the statement was more out desperation than disgust.
That said, the one place I would definitely declare a landmark would be my parents’ glass dining room table. Back in 1978, Penthouse magazine did a shoot in our house and the glass table was featured prominently in the resulting photo spread. Of course, being only 11 I was kicked out of my home for the duration of the models’ visit. And my mother left for the day. But we still have Thanksgiving dinner on that table.
Best bargain to be found in the city?
Drink at Work.com is free, our play This Isn’t Working is only $15 and McDonald’s seems to have a rather lax policy when it comes to free ketchup packets and napkins.
Carol also recommends the curry cart at 43rd and Sixth. Look for the long line and arguing proprietors.
Any advice for Mayor Bloomberg?