By: Rob Tornoe
Not all newspaper columnists are resigned to living on a beer budget. Sometimes, a columnist can work hard, get lucky, and actually support a champagne taste. Such is the case for W. Bruce Cameron, whose humor column is syndicated by Creators Syndicate to more than 50 newspapers nationwide. When he was 16, he caught the writing bug after selling a short story to the Kansas City Star for $50, which he said “was the most I was ever paid for a story until around 1995.”
After breaking into the newspaper business at the now defunct Rocky Mountain News, Cameron went on to become a best-selling book author and a humorist of international renown. His popular novel “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” was adapted into an ABC sitcom starring the late John Ritter, and just this year Cameron was named Columnist of the Year by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
How does it feel to be named Columnist of the Year by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists?
It’s a thrill, an honor, and frankly a bit of a shock. My first reaction was, “Are you kidding?” I do appreciate that implied with this award is the recognition that writing humor is hard. Hard for me, anyway. Maybe they’re saying I deserve the award because I’m the only columnist they could find that keeps getting published despite the lack of any real talent.
How did you get your start writing professionally?
I had an Internet column that I was selling for free and was shocked that I wasn’t getting rich. Eventually, the now (sadly) defunct Rocky Mountain News picked up my column and ran it weekly, and I was again shocked that I wasn’t getting rich. I think the theme of this whole interview is that I’m shocked.
How did you get involved in doing syndicated columns?
The same way everyone does: Oliver North asked me to.
Maybe I should explain. I was being interviewed by Oliver North on his radio show, because one of his staff had taken an essay of mine (called “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter”) and posted it to the colonel’s website, calling it, “Ollie’s 8 Rules for Dating His Daughter.” When I wrote to complain, he apologized and asked if he could have me on the air to talk about the column and my book of the same name. During the off-air chat, he asked me if I was syndicated, and when I said no, he offered to put me in touch with Creators Syndicate. So when people ask me how to get syndicated, I say, “First, call Oliver North.”
With the shrinking news hole at many newspapers, columnists are feeling the squeeze. Why is it important for newspapers to print humor columns at all?
Your question shows what is wrong with our species, which is that not everyone feels the same way about everything that I do. But look, a newspaper will run a column once a week from a guy who is sort of amusing, who writes something like, “I woke up this morning, and my dog had chewed my slippers, ha ha,” and the editor will say, “See? We’ve got humor once a week; that’s all people need.” Of course, you turn on the TV almost any hour of the day, and there’s something funny on at least one of the channels, plus “Dancing with the Stars” is hilarious just as a concept. So clearly people think they need more humor than newspaper editors do.
After the twin towers fell on 9-11, I ruminated in a column that maybe a humor column was out of place. The feedback I got from people was, “No, we need humor, now more than ever.” As far as newspaper editors are concerned, though, there is so much wrong in the world that humor is only something they can take a risk on once a week. And then they think humor is the guy with the dog who ate the slippers, which I suppose is funny — it’s just not a joke.
In addition to your syndicated columns, you’re a successful author. “A Dog’s Purpose” spent 19 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. How do you explain its success?
It is the greatest book ever written in the English language! If you don’t believe me, buy a copy and read it and then if you still don’t agree, ha ha I got your money.
There is a lot of content out that caters to dog owners and pet enthusiasts. How difficult is it to stand out?
It’s like going to a professional football game, sitting in seat 464 E, and trying to catch the eye of one of the cheerleaders.
I was surprised to find that your early books weren’t humor — they were suspense novels. How did you make the transition to humor, and why?
I wrote suspense novels in which the main element of suspense was that the reader didn’t know what was going on. I’d get a letter from an editor saying, “OK, why did the guy named McFee tell the CIA agent that he was a Russian spy when he was actually an Italian dancer trying to penetrate the Canadian drug trade?” And I’d say, “There’s a guy named McFee?” So my early books were unpublishable and may have led to several people having nervous breakdowns.
How would you compare humor writing to other forms of writing, such as non-fiction or journalism?
I’d say the first thing is that humor writing is generally “funnier.” The challenge is to write jokes every few sentences, and write jokes that appeal to a fairly universal audience. I’m very serious about humor.
What advice can you give to columnists or journalists who might be considering making the plunge and writing a book?
I can say, write the book. Don’t take all of your old columns and call it a book; write a new book. And don’t write it with an eye toward getting published — that’s what I did with all those suspense novels that didn’t sell. Write it with the goal of doing the best you can, and that in itself is one of the great rewards of being a writer.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher Magazine and edits the satirical humor magazine Delaware Punchline. He can be reached at email@example.com.