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Will Newman

My Best Effort

The first time I ever tried to be funny, regularly, with someone else was in my comic strip in college.  It was called "My Best Effort" and it ran five days a week, throughout the 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 school years in the Brown Daily Herald.
As a freshman, I lived next door to Elena Lesley, who became the Editor in Chief of the Herald.  Her boyfriend, Andy Hull, had a comic in the paper, which Elena did not find very funny.  She suggested she partner with someone who was funny, and I'm flattered she thought of me (largely because I don't think many people really ever thought of me).
I cannot draw (although I recall attempting to draw two episodes of the comic), so the process involved me coming up with the material and then explaining them to Andy, who drew them and made them cute.  Andy, who I believe is a devout Christian, had a knack for softening my twenty-year-old edges.
Unlike the other strips, which were written well in advance and submitted to the newspaper in bulk to be printed per a routine schedule, "My Best Effort" was written every day at the last minute.  I remember waking up every day with the challenge of coming up with something funny by the end of the day hanging over my head.  There were some days we held up the printing of the paper because "My Best Effort" was not yet done.
Partially because of the haste, I never held on to most of the comics.  I have a few hanging in my apartment, but besides that, I figured that one day I'd head to Providence and scour the Herald archives in search of my old jokes.
Apparently, when you google the comic, some of them come up!  I remember the comic as funny and smart.  But looking at the comic now, ten years later, I realize that I had highs and lows (although I could only find comics from the 2003-2004 school year, after Andy had graduated and during which I may have been in decline without his regular guidance).
Some examples (none of these are my favorites, which I will one day recover):
College Will references his thesis, but also makes references to children's literature!  And throws in two gratuitous sex jokes.  Okay, maybe the punchline was a bit juvenile, but not awful.  And Andy is an amazing artist!
I still think this one is funny.  It's not too gross and it's got a nice amount of surrealism to it.  The sniffs (probably Andy's idea) bring the joke home.  And it's a nice memento from a time when people had to write their phone numbers down on paper.

This one was pretty characteristic.  Very wordy, a pop culture reference, a crass sex reference.  I didn't realize how crass these were at the time.  People kept telling me, though.  And now I see it.  Aging!

I think this is a fun one.  First off, it shows off my ideal for the comic: that it have a separate joke in each of three panels.  Other comics pull a "Garfield," in which one panel sets up a joke, other panels draw it out, and then a weak punchline arrives in the last panel.  Above, I have a joke about how bad my LSAT practices were (I still did pretty well), then a joke about a bad dentist, and then we finish with a joke about mistaking dentists for janitors.  I certainly believed that I was the hardest working comic strip writer at the Herald that year!

 This strip was drawn by Grace Farris, who drew another daily strip in the paper.  I remember that, one day, her strip was just a very detailed drawing of a vagina and then a statement that that was all "My Best Effort" pretty much was.  In fact, many of the other comic strips had episodes in which the joke/message was that "My Best Effort" was bad/offensive.  That made me sad, but I probably also thought they were jealous that my strip was funnier.

I can't believe anyone cared.  Aging!

Okay, so I thought I'd share a bad one:

The above strip kind of sums up a bad "My Best Effort."  It was drawn by Barron Youngsmith, who is a very bright guy, but who also did not tone down the potential off-putting material I wrote.  Anyway, the above strip doesn't really have a clear joke (I think I was just reacting to the fact that I saw a girl one day who appeared to have large breasts and then, on another day, appeared to have small breasts... not exactly comic gold).  It suggests voting Republican is good, which was just asking for people at Brown to hate it, and there are pictures of faceless boobs.  I do like, however "End the War on Her Rack."

On the topic of low points, there was one incident in which I said in a comic that business majors at the school were mentally disabled.  (A joke that I would never ever tell today, as I know why this is hurtful and offensive, but nonetheless a joke that 21-year old me thought was funny). The artist, my friend Nate, drew the mentally disabled business major in a poor, exaggerated light. (In my defense, I didn't see the drawing until the strip was published). Anyway, we got called before a dean and the newspaper got really angry at me.  What I found interesting was that no one in the business department got mad at being called mentally disabled, but that a group of mentally disabled students were upset with being called business majors (and the unflattering picture drawn of them).  Anyway, I felt bad and learned early on what it feels like to make an offensive joke that gets out of hand and also gets you in trouble.

I mentioned that story on a job interview once.  The whole interview was going great, then I told that story, then the interview ended and I didn't get the job.  Another lesson learned!

All in all, I'm very proud of "My Best Effort."  There were a lot of good ones (I think/vaguely recollect) and the task of having done them, every weekday for two school years, gave me a sense of purpose, however misguided and dumb.  It also made me mildly campus famous, and widely disliked.

Below is the strip's finale (I think there may have been 3 finales, but this was the final finale):

I'd like to think I listened to my young, immature self.  That I didn't not underestimate the power of my own best effort.  At first I think I let me down: I haven't stuck with anything long enough to really give my real best effort on becoming great.  But then I guess that I keep getting myself into projects, believing that if I try, something great will happen.  And while I'm not famous or anything, and my efforts have been far from "my best" I guess, the results have been some fun adventures along the way and some interesting and good work.

What Women Want

I spent a bizarre amount of time in college participating in parliamentary debate.  I was a member of the American Parliamentary Debate Association and the Brown Debating Union.  It was a priority for me over classes and over developing a social life, and looking backwards, I did it all wrong.

In college debate, students come up with their own debate topics.  And, for reasons that escape me now, I came up with very few topics of my own.  As a result, my partner, Brookes Brown, and I, debated the same topics over and over.  To her credit, she frequently wanted to come up with new topics.  She came up with the following:
  • Should non-lawyers be allowed to practice law?
  • Should it be legal to sell children as opposed to put them up for adoption for free?
I can't think of other debate cases she wrote.  I'm sure there were others, but not a ton of others.  I remember writing more (possibly because I remember things I do more than I remember things other people do).  Among them:
  • Should a person factor in the race and gender of a candidate when voting for him or her?
  • Assuming you had nothing to live for, should you kill yourself? (other debaters thought I meant this as a joke, but I wanted to have an honest, serious conversation on the subject after seeing it discussed on an episode of Boston Public)
 Part of the reason I did not write a lot of cases was that I did not read the newspaper back then (though I read the Brown Daily Herald every day).  Another reason was that I had a terrible, terrible work ethic, hardly doing the reading for the classes I was in.

But I wrote one debate case which I was very proud of, and which other schools even used for their demonstration debates.  I wrote it freshman year, after seeing the movie What Women Want with my mom at the Pleasure Island theater in Disney World.

Here's the case (from what I remember nine years after the last time I used it): assuming you are a healthy heterosexual male, would you accept or reject the ability to hear what women in a conversational distance are thinking without the ability to turn this power off.

Reasons to Take the Power:
  1. 1) You could save lives
              • You could overhear troubled women's thoughts and prevent their suicides
              • You could overhear plans for crimes and prevent those crimes
2) You could make a lot of money
              • You would ace every interview with a female interviewer
              • You could be some sort of advice expert or consultant
3) You would have a lot of sex for obvious reasons

4) You could improve yourself by having access to constant feedback and criticism

5) You would have the unique ability to be able to answer questions about inter-gender mysteries

Reasons not to take the Power:

1) You would go crazy
  • Listening to voices all day would deprive you of rest
  • You would hear mean things about you
  • You would hear disgusting things you can't unhear, such as the sexual thoughts of your grandparents
2) You would be a walking rights violation
  • Listening to thoughts when people do not consent to you listening is like stealing people's diaries
3) People would avoid you like the plague
  • No one would let you near them if they knew your secret
  • You could even be locked up and studied by scientists
  • It's not easy to keep this secret because you would inevitably know something you weren't supposed to know, in which case the best case scenario is that people think you're spying on them or are otherwise stalking them
4) You would never be able to fall in love
  • You'd be forced to lie to someone you love, which isn't real love.
Most novice people choose to defend having the power, older debaters realize the easier side to defend is not having the power.  In real life, I think I would take the power.  The most potent argument not to take the power, its ethical problems, would not concern me as much as its possible benefits and the possibility it would confer to save the lives of others.

One of the triumphs of my life, though, was proposing this debate subject at a dinner with Thomas Nagel and the late Ronald Dworkin.  A good debate subject is one where there is no one right side that all smart people would pick and one where you could have a lengthy discussion on the subject with many different points of view and layers to the subject.  Dworkin and Nagel took different sides and debated the subject thoroughly.  It was amazing!

Dying Wishes

In 2010, I made a second short film.  The premise was what if a father left behind a bunch of terrible dying wishes.  On the one hand, everyone seems to be entitled to a dying wish (It was my dying wish that you finish high school!) and you'd be a jerk to betray such a wish.  On the other hand, nothing stops someone from abusing this privilege.  Indeed, the wisher is long gone by the time you're stuck with her request.  There's no pleading, negotiating or even an ability to withdraw.  You're stuck.

Does this sound like a funny premise to you?  Well it didn't sound funny to most of the people I pitched it to.  But I spent a bunch of money anyway:


The one non-college film festival that accepted Like Jumanji rejected this.  But at the one screening this movie did get, it was warmly received.  My parents were proud.

This movie helped me realize that I cannot both direct and star at the same time (to the extent I can really do either).  Specifically:
  • I'm angry that my shirt collar is all messed up in the church scene.  How did no one tell me? 
  • The scene where the doctor and nurse try to revive my dying father looks ridiculous.  They basically touch the IV and the bedside and then give up.
For a movie that makes me chuckle a bit now, I could not stop laughing during the filming.  In particular, the scene where the lawyer reads my father's will took like ten takes (we literally had to leave the building and regroup before trying again).  And for that laughter, maybe it was time and money well spent.

It's amazing the movie got made actually.  We talked our way into a hospital to shoot the first scene after our first hospital fell through.  To this day I'm amazed that whatever I said to the lady at the front desk convinced them to let us interrupt an actual hospital to film this.

Like Jumanji

Towards the end of my time as an associate at White & Case, I was looking for a creative project.  I didn't have the time anymore to go to improv classes, attend improv practice or other people's shows.  Vulva Van had ended and I thought I could make a movie.

Or at least a short movie.

I think Like Jumanji was born at the end of 2008 at China Fun on the Upper West Side, at a dinner with me and Jonathan Marcus.  It was just a fun idea: what if people played a knock-off version of Candyland ("Candypath") and it came to life, like the movie Jumanji.

Then, later, Ben Ragheb proposed that the movie actually be called "Like Jumanji" and helped make an outline of how the movie would work.

I wrote the script on a flight to France, but when I returned, no one wanted to make the movie.  I ordered a bunch of pizzas and had my camcorder ready.  I sat around my apartment all day, December 22, all by myself.

I resolved in 2009 to make this movie for real.  I spent a lot of money.  And people showed up.  Jill Morris helped round up a lot of UCB people.  We filmed at my brother's apartment.  And voila:

The movie was shown at a showcase of Brown filmmakers and also at the Iron Mule Comedy Film Screening.  And then... pretty much nothing. 
Was it a waste?  A little bit.  It was a fascinating experience, but it was also really tiring and difficult and, at times, unpleasant.  And then anticlimactic. 
I was laid off by White & Case a few days before filming, so I was also kind of nervous about the rest of my life at the time.
Looking back, I wish I spent less money on the movie.  I only spent the money so people would take it seriously and show up to help make it.  I wish I made more movies right away, instead of waiting a year to make Dying Wishes.
I rewatched this last night for the first time since 2010.  It's not as funny as I once thought it was (also the iPhone references are kind of dated).  I think the plot moves too quickly and is a little too gimmicky.  You have to pay close attention to get the humor.
I looked so young back then.

Vulva Van

I studied improv at the UCB in New York for about a year.  I didn't become a great improviser, and when I ask myself what good came of my year of improv study, I can really only point to Vulva Van.

Vulva Van is probably the coolest thing I did in 2007-2008, besides be a teacher.

Vulva Van was a parody of the porn site Bang Bus.  On Bang Bus, dudes would drive around in a car, and then meet a woman who would then have sex with one of the dudes.  They would offer to pay her, and then kick her out of the car without paying her.  It's a misogynist male power fantasy.  But here's the thing I noticed about Bang Bus: the episodes (oh yes, there are many many episodes of this) were an hour long, but the woman would often not appear until like minute 20 or 30.  That means that for like 20 or 30 minutes, you're just watching a video of dudes driving around in Miami.

So Bryce Richardson, Ben Ragheb, Bridget Fitzgerald and I drove around my parents' car on Long Island with a video camera, lampooning the premise of this (now very dated) web porn series.

The first episode dealt with the dumb premise of the 20-30 minutes of non-porn driving banter:


Subsequent episodes dealt with the strange character types.  For example, Bang Bus featured:

1) a driver who never spoke
2) a cameraman who did all of the talking
3) a male sex participant who spoke very little (and was often the good looking one of the group)
4) a female interviewee/sex participant

Despite the fact that only the cameraman spoke, it seemed weird that he wasn't the sex participant.  Thus episode 3:


All in all, we made six episodes.  The last one was pretty much a remake of an existing episode wherein the Bang Bus bros, in the 30 nonporn minutes at the start of the episode, steal a dog for some reason.


I miss Vulva Van.  It was a lot of fun to make.  Sadly, Bang Bus is the Friendster of web pornography, so it's not as hot to parody.  I've been waiting to find something else that was so easy and so fun to make fun of, but sadly it's been a few years and nothing's come up.
will newman is an artist and romantic who writes songs about love and romance and hearts and et cetera.  you should go see one of his shows or read the one mcsweeney's article he wrote or read an article will wrote for mcsweeney's and then it got rejected but then some other site accepted it or an article he wrote on the huffington post or like him on facebook or listen to his podcast about making out or find something else to do i guess.
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