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Philip Yates (1958-) - Sidelights

book jokes joke ten

The author of a dozen books meant to entertain children with jokes, excuses, and snappy responses, Philip Yates has also published a humorous book for children, Ten Little Mummies: An Egyptian Counting Book. The ten little mummies of the title get bored with being buried in a tomb and go out to play in the deserts along the Nile. As they cavort, various misfortunes befall them: one is arrested for trying to paint the Sphinx, another is blown away by a sandstorm, and a third simply unravels. "The misadventures here will draw chortles from young readers," commented a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Horn Book critic Peter D. Sieruta found Ten Little Mummies "a cheerfully offbeat addition to the genre," while Booklist's Gillian Engberg called the work "an excellent read-aloud, even for youngsters who have already mastered one through ten."

Yates once told SATA: "I stumbled into writing humor books for children quite by accident. My friend (and eventual coauthor) Matt Rissinger and I met in a comedy writing group. Several of us got together once or twice a week to write and perform jokes for each other. Eventually, we stopped performing for each other and hit the comedy club circuit, to mixed success. There was a mixture of comedy types in the group—some of us did straight stand-up, some did song parodies, others did improvisational bits.... Matt and I hit it off right away, eventually becoming known as the 'writers' of the group. We started writing and performing in our own sketches. We also took a class taught by Joe Medeiros, Jay Leno's head writer.

"Eventually, our comedy-writing group broke up, but Matt Rissinger and I kept in touch.... Since Matt and I were kind of tired of the whole adult comedy performing scene, we tossed around the idea of writing a children's joke cookbook. Lots of food jokes and funny recipes. We had lots of rejections until Sheila Barry at Sterling Publishing sensed our potential and offered us a contract for a joke book. We wrote over two thousand jokes for the first book, although only about six hundred were really required. Our second book, Biggest Joke Book in the World, required us not only to come up with more original jokes, but to collect and rewrite some old ones, giving them a new twist.

"We try to approach each joke as if it's a story with a beginning, middle, and end. That's the impossible goal of joke writing: you have to create a setting, evoke a character, and deliver a socko punch line all in the context of a few sentences. Picture books are great, but with humor sometimes the only picture available is the one the hearers will create in their heads when they hear a joke. Matt and I both love words—love experimenting with words and twisting them inside out until a joke comes squirming into the world.

"Believe it or not, some of our best jokes were written while driving in the car—long distances, of course. Matt always drives while I write the jokes. Sometimes it's very random writing, other times we have specific subjects in mind. You're very relaxed in the car, and your mind is free to roam over all kinds of subjects. We once wrote a hundred or so jokes in the car on our way to a book signing at a library. Sometimes we write our jokes separately, and then get together and help to fix each other's one-liners, riddles, and knock-knocks. We're very honest with each other. You have to be when you write humor for children, because when you end up telling them out loud, you either sink or swim.

"We think it's important for children to learn that words can be the magic ingredient in the joke, especially in their alternative meanings. Like when you hear the word 'order': The judge slams the gavel and shouts, 'Order, order in the court.' Naturally, everyone understands the judge is talking decorum. But when some smart aleck shouts, 'I'll have a cheeseburger with fries,' suddenly 'order' takes on a new meaning. It's so important to select the proper word for best effect. The right word means the difference between laughter and silence."

Yates concluded to SATA: "Victor Borge, I think, once said, 'Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,' and I think he hit the nail on the head."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, November 15, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of Ten Little Mummies: An Egyptian Counting Book, p. 604.

Horn Book, September-October, 2003, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Ten Little Mummies, p. 605.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2003, review of Ten Little Mummies, p. 1081.

Publishers Weekly, August 4, 2003, review of Ten Little Mummies, p. 79.

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