Book World: Comedian and writer Merrill Markoe dug deep into…

Merrill Markoe, the writer and comedian, tries to never throw out anything that could make for good material. That could be the goofy ad for “who’s who in the lunch meat industry” or a robe from an appearance on “The Arsenio Hall Show.”

And three years ago, Markoe was rummaging through a box when she stumbled upon something budding with possibilities. It was her first diary, a puffy-covered book from 1958. The tiny lock couldn’t keep her out. It turned out to be one of a stack of diaries documenting her life from fourth grade through college. (After that, they became journals.) Reading her own words from another era, Markoe couldn’t believe how much she had forgotten. “I used to just record everything I did,” she says. “I thought that’s what they were for. So I wrote down everything . . . every movie, every TV show, every assignment that was due at school.”

She was struck by how much was said – about family, teachers, boys – and how much was left unsaid. After examining the diaries, Markoe realized she wanted to understand this “stranger” and memory itself. That’s when she picked up her drawing pencils.

Markoe is best known for her work in comedy (co-creator of “Late Night with David Letterman”) and writing (10 books and counting). But before she did standup, Markoe studied painting and earned a master’s in art from the University of California at Berkeley. “We Saw Scenery,” a graphic memoir of those childhood diaries, covers roughly a decade, from the days of spelling bees to the time she went to one of Ken Kesey’s acid test parties. Markoe observes her childhood self from the present, even planting adult Merrill into several conversations. (“WHO ARE YOU? WHY do you care? Leave me alone,” the younger girl complains.) The result taps into not only the challenges of a girl growing up in the 1960s, but also Markoe’s special ability to use traditions and American consumerist culture as fuel for her absurdist humor. Markoe, who lives in Los Angeles, spoke recently about some of the subjects that inspired “We Saw Scenery.”

– – –

– Hippo

(Page 15)

I started just thinking, “Oh, I want to read about memory. Why do I remember only half of what’s written in this diary? Where do you store memories, and how do you store memories?” That’s how I got to the hippocampus. Which led me to draw a hippo. It was just a dumb joke, but I was wanting to ask somebody . . . why we decided to black this one out. It said it was “the worst day of my life.”

– Adult Merrill vs. Child Merrill

(Page 50)

The younger me wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with me. The younger me was way crazier. Later in life, not in these diaries, I did stuff like jump in the San Francisco Bay. . . . But I was inexorably headed for some career. I never wanted to have a family, and I went ahead and didn’t. I sort of wrote my own destiny that way. I really wanted to fall in love. Those were things I was interested in, the creative life and a love life. I went ahead and did it.

One thing I’ve learned is that everybody, before they are 27, does all that crazy stuff because your frontal lobe isn’t attached. That’s really big. The part of our brain that contemplates the idea of consequences isn’t really connected.

– Roadside Psychiatry

(Page 136)

I thought that would be a good way to meet cute guys. They would sit down. I would tell them they have mental problems. Why else would you do it? It was mostly Rorschach tests, which I was aware of because of Mad magazine. It was modeled completely after Lucy and Peanuts, and it was there for months. We were very proud of it. It was obviously the one place I was functioning. I wanted to be funny, and there weren’t a lot of venues for being funny for a girl that I was aware of. Girls were squelched at that point in pop culture. And school was all about home ec and learning recipes.

– Angry Mother

(Page 235)

My mother is to this day a real enigma. She was a really, really angry person. Like a lot of women in that era. During World War II, she was working at Time magazine and was working at some risque magazine . . . but then World War II ended, and all the guys came home, and she was angry for the rest of her life. And she would never tell you why.

She used to tell me that she had created her own Frankenstein. Looking back on that, I thought, “That’s pretty flattering.” She started finding me a nightmare when I started differentiating myself from my parents, which was about 15, and it lasted for the rest of her life.


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