Maybe you’ve found yourself watching standup comedy on TV at 2 or 3 in the morning, looking into the medium-sized audience that the camera pans across occasionally. And maybe you’ve found yourself wondering, “Who the hell are these people who get suckered into showing up at some hotel banquet room on a random Tuesday afternoon to sit and smile and laugh politely every time a damn camera swings past their heads?” Well, allow me to introduce myself. That’s right, while you were having problems using paper and paper-related products, e-mailing me and waiting patiently for solutions, a 22-year-old production assistant with a loudspeaker/bullhorn was screaming at me and the 40 other people who got conned into this thing.

“When he says ‘strippers and buffets!’ we need everyone to really give us a good toothy smile and laugh! Let’s go again!”

Not so long ago, at a dinner party, some guy told me that standup comedy has become a business of simply franchising one of five styles of humor delivered by one of five types of comics. I made a scowl, continued hunching in a corner near a bowl of nuts, and waved that person away like a gnat, because he was an intellectual. But when I was sitting at the comedy taping doing my toothy smile and laugh for a punch line I’d already heard four times, I started to wonder if he wasn’t right, and if we wouldn’t have become great friends.

Anyway, you’ve got paper problems and I’ve got qualifications.

- - -

From: Katherine J. Lee
Date: July 2, 2005 3:00:50 PM EDT
To: Dan Kennedy (paper advice)
Subject: Paper Has a Problem with Me


I came to New York without a sketchbook because I didn’t know I’d be drawing. So here I am, alone in my room, penciling in the panels of my new comic strip, sometimes erasing things, and—BAM! Out of nowhere, the corners buckle and wrinkle as I’m erasing. Now, I know I should be admonished for expecting copy paper to stand up to the task, or maybe even for needing to erase, but my problem is this: Is it wrong for me to take this personally? Should I get out more? Why does my upstairs neighbor insist on practicing his drumming on the floor above my room?

Your friend (and more?)—
Katherine J Lee

OK, first of all, get it together and focus on the problem, your choice of paper, in this case. Not the guy upstairs practicing drumming, or whether you should get out more. And not whether you and I could be more than friends. (Although, understand that I’m flattered. Look … yes, I may have started writing an Internet-based advice column [at nearly the age of 40] aimed at helping people struggling with various office supplies in order to meet hot girls, OK? But once your Internet-based-advice-column dreams become reality, and you get a little taste of life on the road/information highway/Web, you realize you’re not in it for the ass. You’re in it because it’s your only option … you couldn’t live straight like the squares if you had to. Because somebody out there in the wholesale paper business lit a fire inside you at an early age … in this case, a family member who was working as an administrative assistant for a Southern California-based wholesaler of Hammermill, Strathmore, Mead, and Fox River products.)

Anyway, what happens with us—whether or not we’re more than friends, our future, buying a home, raising a child, caring for each other in retirement—is just part of the craziness of the position I find myself in. The solution to your problem, on the other hand, is this: The few illustrators I know are keen on a simple trick when stuck without a decent pad of their favorite drawing paper (300 and 400 series Strathmore Bristol Vellum, almost unanimously), and the trick is this: If you’re stuck in a hotel, raid the guest-services book of its pages, almost always three cuts above the stationery you’ll find on the desk, even in the nicest places. If you’re at home, take the dust jacket off a hardcover book you won’t be traveling around with, and use the back.

- - -

From: cass alexander
Date: July 30, 2005 12:47:41 AM EDT
To: dan kennedy
Subject: Paper problem

Dear Dan,

I have recently developed a potentially emotionally scarring reaction to light-brown sturdy recycled envelopes. My boyfriend, who once wrote me lovely letters and posted them in said envelopes, now uses them as commonplace items! For example, last week, he dropped off the earrings I left at his place in one of these envelopes, no note, nothing! And the other day I found an envelope on the kitchen table containing money he owed my flatmate’s boyfriend Pete with “Pete” written on it! Just to top it all off, yesterday I saw him post a letter to his university tutor, with a letter I suspect was groveling for an extension on his microbiology assignment!

Dan— it’s become too much—what shall I do?

Yours sincerely,

First of all, you’re English. Relax … you have no idea how I could tell, and that’s OK, because I don’t expect you to. But when you get as many letters as I do, you learn to look for little signs … little cues in the body of the text … I can’t even really explain them. I’ve thought this forever: If I were English, I’d move to a suburban neighborhood in the United States and really capitalize on it. Get promotions at work, go to huge parties, do regional radio ads for maid services trying to appear upscale in the market, be invited to people’s homes for supper and begged to answer the phone if it rang while I was there. It would be like being a Beatle in Japan circa ‘68 if you did it, because know this, Cass: Average middle-class Americans are drunk on Anglophilia. Without even a hint of awareness for the cultural bankruptcy that haunts them, Middle Americans are quick to associate themselves with anything English. Paul Fussell has written brilliantly about this amusing and heartbreaking condition. West Coast suburban housing developments are named Kensington Gardens. Residential streets in Central California are called Notting Hill Court and Windsor Place. It would not be out of the question to find a frozen-yogurt shop named Royal Albert Hall in a hot and faded strip mall in the Sacramento Valley or in the suburbs of Reno or Phoenix. But look, I have to tell you, this envelope thing is not a problem. Give this guy a case of white, sturdy, recycled envelopes if it’s breaking your heart to see the light brown fall into everyday, pedestrian use after being mailed so many times with love letters in them. At any rate, if he doesn’t have to use the post office to reach you anymore, you must be a lot closer than you were, which doesn’t exactly spell heartbreak. No … no, it doesn’t. Heartbreak, Cass, is visiting family in California and being talked down to by some tool named Steve Montgomery who has taken an interest in dating your middle-aged sister, and who lives on Downing Street in Sacramento, and who wears Polo shirts bearing a completely invented coat of arms for an imaginary yacht or artificial, vague family or institution, apparently in the hope that you’ll infer he’s a Central California-dwelling Briton who clearly outclasses you. He is also fond of reminding me several times during dinner—and for no apparent reason—that San Francisco was rated by a magazine as having a high cost of living, similar to New York, and that Sacramento is nearing the same socioeconomic status as San Francisco. Ergo, Sacramento equals New York, equals Steve and I are on similar ground. I shouldn’t be so bitter—it’s been a great visit, no matter how brief, and I’m grateful for getting to have dinner with my sister, since we live so far apart these days. As I type this before getting some sleep so she and I can meet up with our parents tomorrow morning, Steve is exiting Interstate 80 and discovering that the brakes on his car aren’t working for some reason.

- - -

From: James Cole
Date: July 24, 2005 1:00:00 AM EDT
To: Dan Kennedy at McSweeney’s
Subject: Spanish Napkins

Take it from me, someone who lived five years in Spain—Spanish napkins are absurd. They’re extremely small, and thin.

Just thought I’d let you know.
James Cole

Duly noted, Mr. Cole.