If you’ve watched much television during the past 20 years, chances are that Merrill Markoe has made you laugh. As the original head writer for Late Night with David Letterman, she hatched Stupid Pet Tricks and garnered five Emmys for comedy writing. She was a regular contributor to Sex in the City, Not Necessarily the News and Moonlighting, to name but a few of her television credits. She is also the author of several books, including What the Dogs Have Taught Me, How to Be Hap-Hap-Happy Like Me and a children’s book, The Day My Dogs Became Guys. Recently, Bark’s Alison Pace spoke with Markoe about her new novel, Walking in Circles Before Lying Down, and the dogs who inspire her.
Q One of the things I loved most about Walking in Circles Before Lying Down is that the dogs actually speak to your protagonist, Dawn. You’ve vividly brought to life the thought that so many dog owners have had: If only I knew what my dog was thinking. What sort of literary decisions, hesitations and big leaps went into deciding to make the dogs converse with Dawn?
A One of my favorite things to do is write conversations with my dogs. I get a kick out of imagining a serious backand- forth on topics like “Why did you pull the face off of the brand-new stuffed frog? We’ve only had it less than 10 minutes!” Or, “How can you possibly have to pee so many times in a row? We just went 30 seconds ago!” There are a number of these kinds of conversational pieces in What the Dogs Have Taught Me.
Before W.I.C.B.L.D. was published, when I was trying to figure out what to write my next novel about, I realized that I had never really gone the distance with the complexity of my feeling for dogs as a long-form topic. So I decided I wanted to flesh it out and go on record in a bigger way.
Q In your essay collection What the Dogs Have Taught Me, many of the essays were based on the life you share with your dogs. Are the dogs in Walking in Circles Before Lying Down based on real dogs—specifically, your dogs? If not, who and/or what provided the inspiration for the characters of Swentzle and Chuck?
A Swentzle was based on Lewis, one of my favorite dogs ever. Lewis was kind of a Flatcoated Retriever, or maybe a Golden/Newfie mix, which I read is what a Flatcoated Retriever was to begin with. I dedicated the book to Lewis, and I wrote the piece “Greeting Disorder” [in W.T.D.H.T.M.] about Lewis. He was the greatest guy.He’s one of those dogs I’ll never get over.When you came in the door to my house, he was so happy to see you that he greeted you in a way that was, for some people, occasionally confused with assault. And then, after you had been greeted to the point of physical and mental exhaustion, Lewis was still so glad to see you that he would go downstairs to my living room and have sex with the sofa for the whole rest of the time you were at my house. That is just how welcome he felt you were! In a way, he was a litmus test for friends—those who were utterly grossed out by this display were doomed to the discard pile. (And probably happier there.) I used to think that if Lewis was a songwriter, his hit tune would have been called I’ll Never Stop Saying Hello.
Chuck is based on one of my four current dogs, the incredibly hilarious and very smart Puppyboy. Puppyboy is kind of a Shepherd mix.He is very attentive and obedient and interactive, but he has that doggy fetch-obsession to the point of mania. From the first thing in the morning to the last thing at night, Pupp is bringing you stuff he hopes you will throw.He is dropping them into your lap and staring at you. And he never stops staring at you in this way until you go home. (Sometimes he keeps it up after you leave.)
When I take a nap on the couch, I often wake up to realize that Puppyboy is poised behind me, staring at my back, holding something in his mouth for me to throw —no hurry, he’s just waiting. And when I try to turn over, I realize he has been piling all kinds of other fetch options on the couch behind me… like, say, the squeaking ice cream cone and a torn stuffed animal and a ball.As though he’s thinking, Well, I guess she’s not into the headless froggy right now. But this’ll get her: the latex bone! I wrote about this particular aspect of him in W.T.D.H.T.M. also, in a piece called “Something Extremely Important.”
Q A life lived with dogs has clearly been an inspiration.What else inspires you?
A I am greatly inspired by all things in the natural world—biology, the different species of animals and their sociology. I find physics really inspiring. I don’t understand it too well, but I keep trying. That goes double for string theory. I am inspired by astronomy and marine biology and everything about evolution. And geology. And ancient civilizations.And plants. I love to read about human psychology. I love anything having to do with aberrant behavior and crime. In college, I had a minor in criminology because I like all of that stuff so much. I still get very inspired by anyone who is really going the distance in any of the arts—music, painting, film, theater. I don’t know if you can include comedy in the arts, but I love comedy and am very happy when someone does something that is actually funny on purpose. I am hypercritical and it doesn’t happen much. Currently I am completely inspired by the movie Idiocracy by Mike Judge (just out on DVD).He is my comedy hero right now.
Of course, I like reading. But I also like collecting stuff that is weirdly phrased, like misconceived advertising campaigns. I get stimulus overload in the grocery store. I feel like I’m on an archaeological dig, collecting samples of a weird culture. I am very inspired by the cheap plastic crap that our culture and every other culture on this planet spews out on a daily basis.
Suffice it to say that I find most of the outside world pretty interesting and inspiring, even if it’s only in a negative way. Sometimes the stuff I react to negatively is the most inspiring of all.
Q You were a judge on the excellent Animal Planet show Who Gets the Dog, in which each week you helped a shelter dog on his quest to find the perfect family. Any special stories to share from that experience, and is there any chance of that show making a return?
A I am pretty sure the show is not making a return anytime soon. I’m glad you liked it. I don’t think it got very good ratings. I can share with you the fact that the vet on that show, Dr. Dean Graulich, is my real vet. So I still see him quite a bit, often under less-than-ideal circumstances.
I can also share with you that everyone concerned with that show really meant well and really fretted and worried about giving the dog to the right home. I used to interrogate the members of the crew who had gone out on location to the potential homes— I wanted to find out what they had observed, because sometimes they would see something in person that was not obvious in the footage we watched, some sign of irresponsibility or weirdness. We didn’t want to give a dog to someone who would end up abandoning it.
Tamar and Dean and I were almost always in agreement about who should get the dog, (with a couple of spectacular disagreements where, of course, I am sure I was right). But we usually unanimously agreed to eliminate the people who had a big problem with dogs getting on their furniture. We really liked those dogs and I hope we did well by them. I would have taken half of them home.Hell, I would have taken all of them home. I’m lucky no one let me.
Q There have been a lot of changes in the dog world in recent years.Among other things, I don’t think I recall there being such a vast array of dog commerce a decade ago.What do you think about the state of dogs today, and how it has shifted over the years?
A Certainly, dog food has gotten a lot more nutrition- conscious, if the packaging is any indication. Even the worst dog food has drawings of carrots and apples on the sack now—and boasts of fish oil and glucosamine and every kind of vitamin and mineral. (I always think if dogs were in charge of making their own purchases, there would be drawings of garbage cans and kitty litter boxes and dirty napkins on the package.)
I have also noticed how even airports now have franchises that sell all kinds of dog and cat gift items—figurines, outfits, bowls, treats—and whimsical, overpriced, supposedly funny things,T-shirts, ridiculous crap. So clearly, dogs (and cats) are now a profitable moneymaking arena for big business.
I would wish that this meant that the dogs of today are being catered to in a nice way. Certainly some of them are.You and I both know their owners. But then, what are all those signs I see on bulletin boards and telephone poles, where people are moving and giving their dogs away? The only violent feelings I ever get happen when I read those signs.How dare these morons give their dog away just because they feel like changing apartments? How about getting a new apartment that takes dogs, you creep! And if things are so great now, how did all those abandoned dogs wind up in rescues and in shelters?
And then there’s the horror of what is going on in other countries. For example, China, where they have been killing thousands and thousands of dogs (including people’s beloved pets, even though the dogs have been inoculated) as a response to a relatively small number of people getting rabies.Not offering rabies shots, just killing every dog for miles and miles! The animal- abuse horror stories all over the globe are so widespread that it is difficult to know if any progress has been made, overall. Sometimes I say to myself, I don’t know why I am surprised at the way people treat animals. Look how awful we are to each other.
Q Having spent time on both coasts, do you see a big difference in the dog world between the East Coast and the West?
A For me, it is much more pleasant having a dog on the West Coast.When I was in NYC, I found all things involving my dogs to be stressful and difficult. I am thinking right now of that cozy moment in the middle of the night when your beloved dog comes up to you at 4 AM and whines and nuzzles your face, indicating that it would be a good idea if you would get up; put on several layers of outerwear, including sweaters, coats, boots, gloves and a hat; and then leave the apartment, travel down in an elevator, walk through a lobby and stand on a freezing cold street full of potentially dangerous strangers so he can pee. Or maybe he didn’t really have to pee, maybe he just wanted to see what was going on. Or bark at something that he thought was going to be there but is now gone.
Same situation here in LA means that the dog can just jump off the bed and go out the doggy door without so much as a permission slip needing to be signed.
I also love how, on the West Coast, I can drive to Costco and get a nice 75-pound sack of food, then drive home. It made me crazy in NYC to buy a four-pound box of dog kibble, serve it for dinner to the team and then be out of dog food.
Q Which rescue programs and shelters are closest to your heart?
A I like PETA because they seem to actually get things done. I like Best Friends. I love Jane Goodall. My friend, comedian Elayne Boosler, has a rescue foundation, Tails of Joy. My friend Sam Simon, one of the creators of The Simpsons, also has a rescue, the Sam Simon Foundation; they take dogs out of shelters and train them to work with disabled people. My “daughter”Hedda came from a rescue called New Leash on Life.
I pretty much like every rescue until I read an article in the National Enquirer about how they are a secret hell on earth. I have donated to so many dog charities that taking in my mail is a traumatic experience, because every day I get 10 envelopes seeking donations, and every one of them is decorated with a photograph of a poor, sad, miserable-looking animal who appears to be on death’s door. It certainly takes all the fun out of getting mail.
Q What advice might you have for someone whose dog is constantly eating vile things off the street?
A Boundaries, Alison.You must maintain your foundaboundaries. No matter how much she goes on about what a great experience it is, how surprisingly delicious and exciting, do not let her talk you into joining her. Take it from someone who learned her lesson the hard way.
Q What’s next for you?
A I’m writing another book. Once again, it is dog-intensive.Other than that, I have a few freelance assignments. I think I am going to get to make a short film based on “Something Extremely Important”— someone is threatening to finance it. If it works out, I will definitely link to it on my website, as I will be very, very happy to give Puppyboy his first starring role. If it doesn’t work out, I think I will make it anyway.