Most of my mail comes via the computer these days, so it’s rare when a hand-written envelope arrives at my desk. When it does, it’s usually a comment or complaint from an older reader.
This time, while the age group was unsurprising, the purpose was not.
The letter — also hand-written — came from a Mrs. Fay Speesler, a subscriber to NJ Jewish News “since its inception.” She informed me that her great-nephew, Dan Zevin, had recently won the Thurber Prize for American humor for Dan Gets a Minivan: Life at the Intersection of Dude and Dad. The award puts Zevin in some illustrious company: Previous winners include Ian Frazier, David Sedaris, Christopher Buckley, and Calvin Trillin.
This is the kind of information that usually comes from a publicist, or the awarding organization. Zevin was shocked when informed that his proud great-aunt was the one who “turned him in.”
“I had no idea she did that,” he wrote in an e-mail. “You know she’s pushing 90, right?! She’s amazing.”
Zevin, who grew up in Short Hills and attended Congregation B’nai Jeshurun there, will return to the Garden State for an author event at the JCC of Central New Jersey, Scotch Plains, on Monday, Dec. 9.
“My late uncle, Sy Geller, was a big supporter of that JCC so it’s an important gig to me,” Zevin said in a subsequent telephone interview with NJJN.
“I’m always really awkward when it comes to using the word humorist,” Zevin said. “I feel when I tell people my profession I should be shaking their hand with a [joy] buzzer and have a squirty flower in my lapel.”
Zevin said he has always liked writing “ever since I was a little kid at Glenwood Elementary School” in nearby Millburn. But it wasn’t easy for him to bring out the funny at that stage. “You’re often told, ‘just the facts’; formulaic and objective dry reporting were always stressed.”
He finally got his chance when he enrolled as a journalism student at New York University. “It was the first time I was sort of allowed to use my sense of humor in my writing,” he said.
After graduation, Zevin took a job with Walking — “an entire magazine about the art of putting one foot in front of the other” — where his main responsibility was writing reviews for celebrity exercise videos, which at the time were all the rage, thanks to Jane Fonda. “All of a sudden the aisles of Blockbuster — may they rest in peace — were filled with [them].” Sid Caesar had one, as did Angela Lansbury and Tempestt Bledsoe, one of the daughters on The Cosby Show. Naturally, Zevin found all these hilarious.
While the job at Walking called for serious critiques, he submitted a different version of the review to Spy Magazine, a popular humor publication from the mid-1980s to late 1990s. He was thrilled when they ran the piece, under his real name, “which was pretty risky.”
“I realized there’s two ways of looking at the world,” he said. “Some people see things through a comic lens and other people don’t.”
His work has appeared in Rolling Stone (where he interned while at NYU, “probably the highlight of my entire life”), The New York Times, The New Yorker, Maxim, Details, Real Simple, and Parents. He has also served as humor commentator for National Public Radio.
Zevin denies he was a class clown in school. “Perhaps that’s the difference between a humorist and a stand-up comedian. I think I was always more of the observer. That, combined with the comic eye, lends itself to writing.”
There’s more to the profession now than isolating oneself for the sake of the craft. Like many contemporary authors, Zevin has a website and a blog.
“These days, authors are expected to go out on the road and do all of these talks and programs and really entertain. For most authors, the whole reason they write is because they don’t want to be out there talking to people and interacting; they prefer the solitary life of writing.” That’s not Zevin’s style.
“I’m lucky. I love speaking in public. I do a whole bunch of these programs. I’m lucky enough to be one of those writers that gets a reaction from the audience. When I’m doing a talk, I see they’re either laughing or not laughing. I think of these serious novelists who are doing these readings and they’re looking out at an audience that’s completely stone-faced and it seems like torture to me.”
The award-winning Dan Gets a Minivan — the latest in a series of books about growing up and growing older — features stories about his family: wife Megan; son Leo, 10; daughter Josie, seven; and their late great dog, Chloe. It reads like a cross between Dave Barry and A.J. Jacobs.
His work includes pieces about his mom and dad (“Why aren’t there stereotypes for Jewish fathers?” he asked). Not surprisingly, a large contingent of his audiences is Jewish. “The Jewish Book Council has been a phenomenal boon for me and my books,” he said. His travels have taken him to Dallas, New Orleans, and “apparently there are Jews in Memphis. We’re everywhere! This was a shock for an East Coast Jew.”