Tag Archives: Humor

Storytelling: “The Office” and Happy Endings

For the past several weeks, I’ve been binge-watching all nine seasons of the American version of The Office, the hit comedy series that ran on NBC starting in 2005. I’d watched it when it originally aired on network TV, but seeing it again, with no week-long intermission between episodes, emphasized a theme on the show that didn’t hit me as starkly otherwise. That theme is: most people are good.

It’s strange to think of that theme when the show itself has so many cringe moments. Michael Scott, the manager of the Scranton, PA branch office of the Dunder Mifflin paper company, is selfish, cowardly, capricious, petty, and egotistical. When you watch the first episodes, you can’t help but be repulsed by his outlandish personality and sympathize with those under his thumb.

Screen Shot 2019-05-03 at 11.49.11 AMBut as you get to know him, you see something else: a fragile, shy, isolated, lonely man who just wants to be loved. Those glimpses often come, though, at the tail end of something particularly annoying.

For example, in the Season Two episode “Take Your Daughter to Work Day,” Michael shows his staff a video clip from when he, as a child, appeared on the show Fundle Bundle. 

You shake your head as he shushes people when they comment as the video rolls, he makes an inappropriate comment about the female host’s body, and he is visibly jealous when staffers recognize a local weatherman as a child on the show.

Then, the boy Michael Scott is on the video screen, ridiculously dressed in a suit, talking to a puppet about what he wants from life: “I want to be married and have a hundred kids so I would have a hundred friends and no one can say no to being my friend.”

The young girls in the room, daughters of staffers, start badgering Michael with questions: Did he get married, did he have children? The obvious conclusion is that Michael never realized his dream.

The camera pans to the staff who just a few moments before were engaged in their usual eye-rolling at his antics. Each in turn shows shock and sympathy. Michael the Fool has become transformed in their (and our) eyes to Michael, il pagliaccio, the sympathetic clown from Leoncavallo’s opera. You can almost hear the heartbreaking aria “Vesti la giubba” in your head with its clown’s soliloquy about turning one’s sorrow into laughter.

In every episode there seems to be a moment like this, where a character’s fragility or vulnerability is revealed, usually after the person has done something embarrassing, mean-spirited, dumb, or just plain bad.

Similarly, you see the other characters then finding a way to lift that poor soul up, even if they have to bite their tongues while doing it.

When I first watched The Office as it aired, I didn’t always catch this constant through the episodes as I laughed at the staff antics and nodded at the inane business practices, the know-nothing bosses, the office parties and the simmering feuds among workers.

But it shows up episode after episode, and, although many characters do get their happy endings as stories resolve, the biggest happy ending for the series itself is the theme that plays out through the nine seasons of its entire story arc: deep down, people are capable of being very good, even when they don’t particularly like each other.

And, since I’m a country music fan, below is a musical rendition of that sentiment.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. She writes under the names Libby Malin and Libby Sternberg.

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SHORT EXCERPT: My Own Personal Soap Opera

My Own Personal Soap Opera (by Libby Malin) is up on Kindle and the serial fiction app Radish now, revised and updated! Below is a very short excerpt. Let me set the scene:

Frankie McNally, head writer for the New-York-based (and failing) soap opera Lust for Life, is about to head into a press conference to explain why the show isn’t pulling a jewel thief story line even though a real thief is imitating it in the city. She’s interrupted by Luke Blades, an actor on the show who recently broke his leg, triggering a rewrite of his character’s (Donovan Reilly) story arc, which will have to be further rewritten as he takes a sabbatical to do an off-Broadway production of Hamlet. Meanwhile, Frankie’s often-absent administrative assistant Kayla tries to help Luke, while Victor Pendergrast, nephew to the soap heiress whose company sponsors the show, tries to help Frankie. Phew! Got that?


The press conference would have started okay, thought Frankie as perspiration beaded on her upper lip, if it hadn’t been for Luke crashing it. As in literally crashing. Just as Mary had finished the introductions and Frankie had started repeating to herself, “You’ll be okay, you’ll be okay, just ten minutes, that’s what Victor said, try not to pop the buttons on your blouse, don’t breathe too fast, but don’t forget to breathe,” Luke had entered the back of the room and stumbled over a microphone wire.

Ka-boom. All control vanished as reporters scrambled to help him.

“Luke!” An anguished cry from the doorway stopped them all in their tracks, as a redheaded angel of mercy swooped into the room to tend to the fallen actor.

That’s no angel of mercy, Frankie realized, squinting at the gal. It was Kayla!


She’d changed her hair color and was dressed in a white skirt and blouse with a white scarf around her neck.

What the…?

“We should help,” Frankie mumbled to Victor, before rushing through the gaggle of news reporters to see if Luke was okay.

Not only was he okay, he was holding court.

“Can’t comment for sure on the Hamlet thing,” he said, dusting off his leg as Kayla helped him with his crutches. “But should have an announcement soon. The show’s been great about it so far. Don’t anticipate any scheduling problems.” Then he looked up at Frankie and smiled. “Right?’

Frankie blushed with rage. Dammit. He’d deliberately sabotaged the press conference so he could get his Hamlet job on the record along with her promises to accommodate his time off. She’d look like Scrooge the distaff version if she said anything other than “How proud we are of our top actor, Luke Blades.”

Someone was sticking a microphone in her face, waiting for an answer.


Victor stepped in. “The character of Donovan Reilly is currently a key component on the show,” he said. “We’re sorry we can’t have Mr. Blades stick around, but he needs to get checked out after this latest fall.” There was no missing his emphasis on Luke’s show name, and the meaning was clear. Donovan Reilly would stay. Luke? Hmm…

With a strength that looked both heroic and yet effortless, Victor grabbed Luke’s good side and glided him from the room. Frankie scurried after, unwilling to stay by the lectern without him.

In the hallway, Victor didn’t hold back.

“I don’t know what you thought you were pulling in there,” he whispered harshly, “but I’ll deal with it later.” Then he more clearly articulated his earlier statement: “Donovan Reilly will be in many stories to come. Whoever plays him.” He let go of Luke’s arm. Kayla rushed to stand by him, her face a mask of worry.

“And what are you doing here?” Frankie asked. “In that getup?” She pointed to Kayla’s outfit and hair.

“She was auditioning for a part,” Luke said, not hiding his anger. “She’s only a temp, after all.”

“Wha—” Frankie tried to compute this. “Only a temp?”

Kayla nodded.

“For two years?” Frankie asked, thinking back to when Kayla came onboard. Why didn’t she know this? The boss should know this. And she was the boss. Why did she have to keep reminding people about that? And what about the—

“Auditioning?” Frankie asked. “For what?” At least this explained the woman’s constant absences, her lack of dedication to her job, her “studying” at her desk.

“For the role of Florence Nightingale,” Kayla said defensively, stroking Luke’s arm. “In a play directed by Mishka Palonovitch. Luke told me about it.”

Frankie looked at Luke, who shrugged and said, “My agent passed it on.”  My_Own_Personal_Soap_Opera_1600x2400

“We don’t have time for this, Frankie.” Victor looked at the door to the room where the press conference was set up.

But Frankie was undeterred. She’d get to the bottom of this. Kayla was an aspiring actress…

“Is this the guy directing Hamlet, this Mishka Palomino—”

“Palonovitch,” Kayla repeated slowly as if Frankie herself were slow. “He won a Tony last year for War Songs.”

When Frankie registered a blank, Luke said, “The musical set at Walter Reed Hospital. All the soldiers are in wheelchairs. Big dance number at the end of act one.”

“So you both want to run off and do stage work with this comedic genius,” Frankie said, disgusted.

“Comic?” Kayla matched Frankie’s disgust and raised her one. “War Songs is a very moving tragedy about the perils of modern life as seen through the eyes of the wounded warrior. I find new levels of irony and insight every time I see it. I cry each time, too. Reviewers say—”

Frankie held up her hand. “Save it.” She glared at Luke. “If you’re so interested in stage work, buster, maybe Donovan Reilly isn’t such an integral part of the show.”

“Frankie, we’ll deal with him later.” Victor grabbed her by the arm, but she shrugged away.

“And as for you,” she said to Kayla, “if you’re interested in acting, why didn’t you tell me? I could have arranged an audition for Lust.” Well, maybe, maybe not. But hell if Frankie would look less than magnanimous.

Kayla’s reaction was anything but grateful. “Thank you, but I’m not ready to settle yet.”

“She’s done some small parts off Broadway,” Luke explained.

Settle? Kayla wasn’t ready to settle for Lust? Red-hot rage lit up her body and her voice as she turned to face Kayla. “You’re not willing to settle for acting on a daytime serial?”

“You see, this is exactly why I didn’t say anything,” Kayla said, her tone sweetly condescending. “I knew you’d offer to help, and, as I said, I’m not really interested in your kind of work yet.”

Inside, Frankie was an erupting volcano of hurt, anger, and outrage. Kayla, the secretary—the very bad temporary secretary, at that—thought her art was too good for Frankie, that her art was better than Frankie’s art. What was the world coming to?

“I… I…” Frankie sputtered, unable to give voice to the cauldron of indignation choking her throat.

“Come along,” Victor said through clenched teeth. He grasped her arm and wouldn’t let go. “We have more important things to do.” He steered her toward the press conference door. She called out over her shoulder, “Lust for Life is moving and touching! Just as moving as any dancing wheelchair farce that that Mucho Parmigiano can come up with! Just as good! Just as touching! Lust for Life is art, too! Damn good art!”

This last bit carried into the room as they entered, triggering the first question from a reporter.

“Ms. McNally, is that the reason why you’re not pulling the thief story, because you’re unwilling to sacrifice your artistic vision for public safety concerns?”

Frankie bumped Victor out of the way, rushed to the lectern, grabbed the mike, and leaned forward, causing the top two buttons on her blouse to pop open.

“Let’s get this straight, bub,” she seethed at him. “Art doesn’t rob people. People rob people!”

Check out My Own Personal Soap Opera at the Amazon Kindle store or on the serial fiction app Radish!

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Funny Ain’t Easy

My Own Personal Soap Opera, a romantic comedy about a head writer for a failing soap opera based in New York, will hit the e-shelves soon. I’m re-releasing this romp of mine (written under the name Libby Malin) after having had the rights reverted to me from its original publisher, Sourcebooks. I enjoyed going through this novel again, after some initial reluctance. Believe it or not, many writers have a hard time revisiting their works. You’re afraid you’ll discover that what you penned…is crap. It’s always a relief when you find otherwise. A low bar, I know. But that’s part of the glamorous author life.

As I went through the book again, though, I found myself reflecting on how writing comedy is hard. Visual gags, for example, are a bear to describe because if you use too much language, too many words, you kill the joke before you get there. And clever dialogue can sound like just that and nothing more, something that might win you an A on a Clever Dialogue Writing Test but won’t earn you a laugh, chuckle or even smile from your readers.

To me, comedy tests a storyteller’s skills more than writing drama. Moving people to smile or laugh takes the perfect combination of talent and knowledge, intuition, command of language and more. When I hear a reader say they laughed out loud at my romantic comedies, I’m thrilled. I’d be happy if they smiled a lot.

“…a world of wit and chaos that is so smart and insightfully written…you get happily lost in the fun.”

Booklist on My Own Personal Soap Opera by Libby Malin

My Own Personal Soap Opera is a smile kind of book, but like most comedies, it has an underlying story that’s more serious than fun. The protagonist Frankie McNally, a head writer on the failing soap opera Lust for Life, comes from a working class family. Raised by a single mom because her father ran off to join the “revolution” (become a hippie), she managed to get into an elite college through scholarships and landed in New York City where writing jobs led her to the soap opera she and her mother used to follow when she was growing up.

My_Own_Personal_Soap_Opera_1600x2400Even though she’s an accomplished woman, Frankie can’t seem to shake the chip on her shoulder about not fitting in to the more literary and sophisticated circles she now moves in. Her story is one of haves vs. have-nots, how the history of a have-not can impact her approach to life even when she moves into the “haves” category.

It’s a story arc that actually colored a famous soap opera back in the day: Another World. That soap followed a have-not, Rachel, as she tried to cunningly make her way up into the world of the haves, eventually landing a wealthy husband, Mac. I remember reading an article about that soap’s head writer/creator who talked about that story arc and how it never failed to generate more plots. How true.

Some of the most talented storytellers, of course, manage to weave wry comedy into even heartbreaking dramas. That’s one of my writing goals that I believe I’ve yet to achieve. Maybe some day I will. In the meantime, my writing life is divided between the lighthearted fun of books by Libby Malin (My Own Personal Soap Opera, Fire Me, and my earlier Harlequin release, Loves Me, Loves Me Not) and the serious offerings, written by Libby Sternberg (things like Sloane Hall, Death Is the Cool Night, and Lost to the World).

If I could figure out how to marry those two writing personas, I’d be a happy camper.

Watch for the release of My Own Personal Soap Opera within the coming month, but meanwhile, for a funny summer read, try Fire Me!

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Dirt blindness, its symptoms and cures

by Libby Sternberg

When I was a child, my mother would put my sister and me to work scrubbing down the kitchen walls during spring cleaning. We used buckets of soapy water which I imagine contained some grease-cutting detergent. I remember it smelled….clean.  But heck if I recall the actual dirt and grease on the walls. For all I could see, we were just wiping spotless surfaces.

I'm told this is a dust bunny. I see nothing.

I’m told this is a dust bunny. I see nothing.

This, I now realize, was the first symptom of a syndrome I have borne all my life: Dirt Blindness. (Immundus Caecitate is the medical term.) After years of therapy, I have come to accept my affliction. Symptoms of Dirt Blindness include some or all of the following:

  • the inability to see dust in corners, tabletops and especially on lamp shades
  • the inability to see grease buildup on any kitchen surface except when the angle of light is just right
  • microwave amnesia: immediately forgetting the way the inside of the microwave looks once you’ve shut its door
  • regularly mistaking cobwebs on walls for sun-dappled shadowscapes
  • viewing stacks of papers, magazines, junk mail, and old store receipts as a charming still life about which you occasionally fantasize spray-painting neon pink and submitting to an art contest
  • thinking there’s something wrong with your computer keyboard when crumbs make one or more letters hard to click
  • shaking your computer mouse and screaming “Oh, the humanity” rather than opening it to empty debris (what debris?)

Dirt blindness has no lasting cure. But it is possible to trigger remissions. Here are some techniques I’ve found useful:

  • Go on vacation. Coming home after several days away allows the Dirt Blindness to lift for fleeting moments as you see your house afresh.  Be warned: The moments of remission might leave you shocked and in need of emotional support. Or a martini. Yes, a martini is better than emotional support. Sometimes two.  (Note: To be truly effective, long and luxurious vacations are the best. )
  • Have company. Dirt blindness seems to recede in the fifteen minutes before any company arrives on your doorstep. This strategy has the added benefit of giving you a high-power workout as you scurry to get rid of the dirt you can finally, finally see in that short window of time.
  • Change your light bulbs: Amazingly, a higher watt bulb can sometimes illuminate dirt for brief periods (up to five minutes if you’re lucky). Please note, however, that this is temporary and curiously only works in the area immediately near the light.
  • Hire a maid. Technically, this doesn’t get rid of your Dirt Blindness, but it does make life easier for the rest of your family, so they don’t have to suffer with you. And, strangely enough, while Dirt Blindness makes it impossible for you to see unclean surfaces, you are able to appreciate, in all its splendor, a sparkling clean house.

I’ve learned to cope with my Dirt Blindness over the years, mostly through acceptance of this sad affliction. I hope my ideas help others who’ve been cursed with this syndrome. Please, feel free to share your own strategies for dealing with this problem, if you are a fellow sufferer.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. In lieu of contributions to the Dirt Blindness Association, please buy her books. That temporarily lifts her Dirt Blindness Ennui, a secondary syndrome caused by the primary disorder.  Check back this Wednesday for the TGIW post on television ads to love and loathe.

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The Deconstruction of Humorous Fiction in a Reactionary Postmodern World, or, From Chaos to Conformity: How to Write the Comedic Novel

(Note: This post first appeared on Fresh Fiction’s blog on April 7 of last year, or maybe the year before — well, some year — during a blog tour promoting My Own Personal Soap Opera. It has been updated to shamelessly try to sell promote my new comedy Aefle & Gisela.)

By Libby Malin

When I was a graduate student at the University of Gussberry-on-Hornsplat reading for my doctorate in “Humor and Humorlessness in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Proto-European Monographs,” my professors often referred to a theory they loosely called “The Banana Peel Slide.”

A great humorist, Mark Twain. Unfortunately, he's dead.

This meme postulated that a humorous trope—such as the man-falling-on-banana-peel— loses its ability to trigger amusement after it becomes part of the greater eco-social-spiritual consciousness, leading to a revolt by sophisticated elites against populist humor grounded in laughing at another’s misfortune, and eventually coming round to popularity again throughout the entire societal continuum when the joke takes on a wry postmodern irony encapsulating the laughing-at-the-laughter-of-those-who-laugh at such simplistic slapstick (See I.M. Gully-Bull, “They’re Laughing With Me, Not At Me, an essay on the struggles of a stand-up comic in the world of spelunking,” Psychiatric Journal of the Criminal Mind, Jan. 09, 43-57).

In other words, slipping on a banana peel was HIGH-LAIR-EE-YUS when first viewed by Cro-Magnon Man, until his momma rapped him on the knuckles for laughing at another Cro-Mag hurting himself, and then became funny again when Momma started giggling about it herself.

But humorous tropes grow stale, so the banana peel gag loses its luster (or “lustre” as we were instructed to write at UGH) when viewed too often.

Another great humorist, Ambrose Bierce. Unfortunately, he's also dead.

Humor, of course, varies from place to place and generation to generation (see Habe R. Dashery, “A Most Dreadful Hat: Materialism and Comedy in the Works of Jane Austen,” Oxford Community College Press, 1998, 90), but one thing remains constant—laughter usually accompanies surprise. One expects the man walking down the street in his fine new suit and boater hat to find his path smooth and journey uneventful. Then—surprise!—banana peel, meet foot. What’s not to love?

Nonetheless, humor writing is more than the mere description of slapstick moments which are, in reality, difficult to capture succinctly while retaining the laughter-inspiring elements. Written humor, in fact, depends a great deal on the effect of the words themselves, their groupings, their compilation, if you will, into a contextual image that ignites some inner Jungian childhood-pleasure-memory within the reader (see Diep Krappe, “Syntastic—Grammar, Puns, and Humor from Iambic Pentameter to ‘Yo Momma’,” Journal of Polska Witticisms, Aug. 01, pp. 3-87).

This is not to say one can’t describe slapstick effectively on the written page. As the great humorist J.P. Sartre (not to be confused with her more well-known and morose second cousin Jean-Paul), once wrote: Je vais chercher du bon vin a la cave, which, loosely translated, means: “It is possible for anything to be funny as long as the writer knows how to effectively communicate the core elements of the humorous situation, whether they be a physical action, a tres amusent observation a la ‘but other than that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln,’ or even, perhaps, the acting out of despair in a completely unexpected way. It is not the full bottle of wine in the wine cellar that makes one smile. It is the empty bottle of wine in the . . .” (the rest was lost to posterity, but the major components of Sartre’s take on humor appear in the brilliant essay by Dom. Pear I. Gnon, “The Banana Peel and the Descriptive Verb: Physical Comedy in a Linguistic Setting,” Wine, Laughter, and More Wine, Lots More Wine, More Wine . . . Please, June 02).

What luck! This humorist, Libby Malin, is alive! Buy her books - help her put food on the table!

So, what, aspiring authors ask, is the secret to writing a successful humorous novel? Good spelling and grammar help (see Strunk N. White, “Spats, Spoofs and Spelling: The Dialectics of Inter-Class Dialogue in the Works of George Bernard Shaw,” Auckland Council Kanberry, ACK Journal of Pedants and Proofreaders, Sept 1910). But beyond that, a funny story is really any one that makes people laugh or smile. If it does so for you, the author, you might be on the right path toward igniting the same reaction in others.

Humorous fiction comes in all varieties, from the zany (L. Malin, My Own Personal Soap Opera, Looking for Reality in All the Wrong Places, Sourcebooks 2010) to the zanier (L. Malin, Fire Me, a Tale of Dreaming, Scheming and Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places, Sourcebooks 2009) to the apex of zaniness (L. Malin, Aefle & Gisela, Istoria Books 2011) and more.

There’s no telling what will tickle any one particular person’s funny bone at any one particular moment. There is no formula for success, in other words, just a keen power of observation—keep your eye on that banana peel, sweetie—and the ability to write characters readers care about even as they face unrealistic situations that could make them laugh or cry (see Gloria Steinmart, “That’s Not At All Funny,” Feminism Yesterday, April 1971).

If you’d like a peek at my latest oeuvre, Aefle & Gisela, go to Amazon, BN.com or Smashwords to download free samples (after which, of course, you will buy the book. Right? Right? Right? Oh, please, oh, please, oh, please, oh, please….) It tells the story of  a timid college professor, an expert on an obscure poetry-writing medieval monk named Aefle, who stops a wedding on a dare…and ends up, well, slipping on a banana peel….

Hope you like it—or that degree from UGH was a total waste of time!


Did I mention that Aefle & Gisela is only 99 cents for a limited time only? Yes, I know, it’s a steal — go on over and steal it for 99 cents! Don’t wait! Who knows when the price will go up to its true value– a case load of gold doubloons! Think how hard it will be to send that to Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Smashwords. Better get it now while the price is manageable in every way!


Libby Malin did not attend (nor go anywhere near) the University of Gussberry-on-Hornsplat. In fact, she holds a bachelor’s and master’s from the Peabody Conservatory of Music. When she finally turned to her first love, writing, she began penning women’s fiction and young adult mysteries (which she writes as Libby Sternberg). Her first YA mystery, in fact, was an Edgar nominee. Her three previous  humorous women’s fiction books (Loves Me, Loves Me Not, Fire Me!, and My Own Personal Soap Opera) garnered critical praise. Here’s a sample of some of it:


  • Malin creates a world of wit and chaos that is …smart and insightfully written. – Booklist
  • Malin’s latest is heavy on humor… (she) coaxes plenty of laughs…- Publishers Weekly
  • I wholly recommend this romance… You’ll not be disappointed. Trust me! Rating: 5 Stars. – Love Romance Passion

FIRE ME by Libby Malin:

  • This fast-paced, humorous book kept me giggling throughout the night. – A Novel Menagerie
  • Fire Me …had this reader chuckling out loud. – Jo-Anne Greene Lancaster Sunday News
  • Libby Malin pens a tale that is hilarious while still being poignant and introspective. – The Romance Studio

LOVES ME, LOVES ME NOT by Libby Malin:

  • The love story is charming and will be appreciated by any woman with bad taste in men who somehow inexplicably ends up with Mr. Right. – Washington Post
  • A whimsical look at the vagaries of dating… an intriguing side plot adds punch and pathos to the story… – Publishers Weekly
  • Malin’s clever debut toys with chick-lit stereotypes and offers quite a few surprises along the way. – Booklist


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