Behind the humour: the Feschuk story

A rare behind-the-scenes look at how this genius column somehow comes together every week
Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

I am closing in on my 400th column for Maclean’s, which means I have written for this magazine some 300,000 words, dozens of which have not been about killer robots.

Every now and then, a huge fan will get in touch to ask me a question, such as “What is wrong with you?” or “When’s Fotheringham coming back?” Occasionally these people are not my dad. So far as you know, other readers will write to inquire how the column comes together each week. There are four key phases:

The Idea Phase. Every week, I have seven (7) days to come up with one (1) idea. Please understand: you are reading the words of a professional writer with more than 20 years experience—so coming up with one little idea hardly ever takes more than 166.5 of the 168 available hours. That leaves a good 90 minutes to somehow link it to Rob Ford.

My only real guideline is that it’s important to be original. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the weather, a topic no one had previously ever discussed. And now everyone’s talking about it!

The Procrastination Phase. A timeless struggle is revived every weekday morning. On one hand, I really should be working. On the other hand, this Showcase Showdown isn’t going to watch itself. Meanwhile, it’s impossible to quantify the number of productive hours I’ve lost to Google. Let’s use as an example a recent column that included a reference to The Empire Strikes Back. Here is a rough timeline of that morning:

9:13 a.m. Consult Google for correct spelling of “tauntaun.”

9:14 Watch “It’s a trap!” clip from Return of the Jedi about 20 times.

9:18 Watch Eddie Izzard’s standup routine about Darth Vader, accompanied by Lego animation.

9:21 Watch Louis C.K. video recommended to me by YouTube.

9:26 Remember that Louis C.K. is featured on Jerry Seinfeld’s web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Watch episode.

9:39 During episode, notice tweet with link to video of polar bear cub taking its first steps at Toronto Zoo. Watch video three times.

9:45 Watch polar bear video four more times after vowing to watch video only one more time.

10:12 Close browser. Return to column.

10:13 Realize I’ve forgotten to check spelling of “tauntaun.” Open browser.

10:14 Search for meatloaf recipe instead.

10:15 Read lyrics to 38 Meatloaf songs for some reason.

10:46 Guess at spelling of “tauntaun.”

So basically, my method of “working” is best illustrated by those old Family Circus cartoons with the dotted lines that weave all over the neighbourhood. As if to prove this, in the space between writing the preceding sentence and this one, I spent 25 minutes reading old Family Circus cartoons. I honestly don’t remember little Billy being such a jerk.

The Deadline Phase. Maclean’s is published on Thursdays. That means my deadline is Monday. Pretty simple. However, if for some legit reason I can’t finish writing on Monday, I’m allowed to file on Tuesday. So in other words, I always file on Tuesday. Never, ever make the mistake of letting a writer know the actual deadline. It’s like throwing a party and letting Rob Ford know the actual address.

My colleagues don’t like it when I’m tardy. If you look hard, you can find subtle evidence of their frustration. For instence, every now and then they seek retrobution by insertting sum typos to mke mee luuk illitrit. Recently, they’ve threatened to deface the photo that accompanies this column—though they’re too professional to go through with it.

The Editing Phase. Fate has kindly ordained that this column fall under the purview of a skilful editor. Sarmishta is talented, wicked smart and she obviously drinks pretty heavily at work because there’s no other explanation for why she’d agree to edit this column, an ordeal that inevitably results in her having to dispatch a query along the lines of, “Hey, should we really have two references to ‘boobies’ in there?”

Over the years, I’ve found that a good writer-editor relationship is built on give and take. That’s why, instead of being irritated by Sarmishta’s question, I bowed to her superior wisdom. I gamely fired up my laptop, went back into my column and added a third reference to boobies. Hey, she’s the expert.