'Funny, but No': Shoebox Cards' Hits and Misses For 20 years, Shoebox has brought a quirky irreverence to the once-sentimental realm of greeting cards. Editor Sarah Tobabin and writer Dan Taylor talk to Robert Siegel about the tricky business of humor and the rejected idea that a writer can't quite let go of: the "funny, but no."
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'Funny, but No': Shoebox Cards' Hits and Misses

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'Funny, but No': Shoebox Cards' Hits and Misses

'Funny, but No': Shoebox Cards' Hits and Misses

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Sunday is Father's Day, which we all know is a sop to the necktie and aftershave lobbies, but above all to the greeting card industry. So we thought it would be an appropriate time to acknowledge some clever people who make holidays that depend on greeting cards actually amusing.

Shoebox has been a line of greeting cards produced by Hallmark for 20 years. Think of them as the twist of irony in the sentimental soup of mass-produced greetings. Think of a drawing of a middle-aged chicken who's just crossed the road and says, dang, now I can't remember why I came over here.

Every day, the writers and artists of Shoebox, based in the hilarious town of Kansas City, sit around and try out the latest jokes they've written for their newest cards. Only one idea in about ten makes it to the store.

(Soundbite of Shoebox Cards meeting)

Unidentified Woman: The fact that you don't understand how to download music doesn't make you old. It's the way you keep referring to the computer as a picture box.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: That's what makes you old.

Unidentified Woman: On your birthday, I'll leave a phone message in case you're out partying. I'll speak slowly and use short words in case the president is listening.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: Another birthday, huh? So have you reached the age yet where you set your alarm to wake up to public radio?

(Soundbite of audience oohs and ahs)

SIEGEL: Ah, that's the unkindest cut of all. Joining us are Shoebox editor Sarah Tobabin and writer Dan Taylor. There's now a coffee-table-sized book called Shoebox Greatest: Hits and Misses. Welcome to the program.

Ms. SARAH TOBABIN (Shoebox Cards): Thank you for having us.

Mr. DAY TAYLOR (Shoebox Cards): Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: I'd like to hear from both of you. First, Sarah, if you can think of a card that sort of epitomizes to you the very best and funniest of Shoebox all this time, what's on the top of your list?

Ms. TOBABIN: You know the cards that ring true with me the most just have an attitude that 20 years ago you didn't find in greeting cards. So for example, here's one. You should call your mom on your birthday and have a nice long conversation about your life. Hurry up, now. Your birthday's not going to ruin itself.

Ms. TOBABIN: That kind of brutal honesty is something that I think 20 years ago made Shoebox have the reputation it has today.

SIEGEL: A little different from the sort of filigree letters of Mother's Day and that we think of as a greeting card.

Mr. TAYLOR: Right.

SIEGEL: Dan Taylor, what sort of epitomizes to you the -

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, I've been doing this for a long time now. I've been doing it since Shoebox started, so a little over 20 years. And one of the first cards that I ever wrote has a little guy on the front that says, we're such good friends that if we were the last two survivors on a sinking ship and there were only one life preserver left, the inside says, I'd miss you terribly and think of you often.

SIEGEL: Again, it's that -

Mr. TAYLOR: I know. When that card did well I thought, you know, this is something I could do for a long time.

SIEGEL: You have a lot of animal cards that you've done over the years and some of the book is devoted to them. There's one which shows a number of pigs with sort of carpenter's clamps, metal clamps screwed to the various parts of their bodies.

Ms. TOBABIN: I know the one of which you speak.

SIEGEL: And the text says?

Mr. TAYLOR: If you're happy and you know it, clamp your hams.

SIEGEL: Clamp your hams, which you report was not a joke that everyone in the read-through meeting actually got.

Mr. TAYLOR: Right. It was just stony, stony silence from some people. And other people began singing.

Ms. TOBABIN: Wordplay is not for everybody and that's the thing about funny greeting cards. Everybody's sense of humor is completely their own and so what we have to do is make sure that we're appealing to Robert Siegel's sense of humor and my sense of humor, and it's a tricky, tricky business.

SIEGEL: Now, most of the cards are drawn by artists, but a lot of them have an old photograph that you're working off of. And I just want you to first of all explain the methodology here. Where have you come by these old photographs? Or are they not old photographs? Have you taken contemporary pictures and made them look like old photographs?

Ms. TOBABIN: You know we buy a lot of our photos from photo stock houses. But we actually enjoy delving into our own personal family photo albums. We literally just make copies of these photos and give them to the writers and artists. Then a lot of those end up becoming cards.

SIEGEL: There's one card which depicts from the rear a couple, I'd say they're about 70 years old. And the gentleman is pointing across the water - they're standing at the edge of a body of water. And he says, that land mass over there is called a stick out because of the way it sticks out into the water. And the text inside it says, another year older, another year closer to making up crap.

Mr. TAYLOR: It's a beautiful sentiment, when you think about it.

SIEGEL: Well the C-word, which in this conversation will pass for the C-word, is an instant joke. It's a funny word.

Mr. TAYLOR: Exactly. Exactly.

SIEGEL: What are some other things that, you know, when you're doing this and you're every single day of your working life listening to jokes being told at work, what are things that are typically just very funny?

Mr. TAYLOR: You know two things that make me laugh are raccoons and Canadians and especially combinations of the two things. And none of those cards ever work. I have written so many cards about raccoons and/or Canadians that I got right back. And fortunately they're written on recyclable stock. And so they've gone to paper plates or wherever else recycling goes. The two topics just kill me and apparently it's a private joke that I share only with myself.

SIEGEL: Any all-time great Father's Day cards and jokes that you can think of?

Ms. TOBABIN: We do. I have both some funny but no's, which are some of the rejects that we just can't let go of because we love them so, but they could never be cards. And then I also just have some, Dan brought in some of his most recent Father's Day writings.

SIEGEL: Now, you should explain the funny but no category. These are cards that don't make it out of the meeting but you put them up on the wall there at Shoebox.

Mr. TAYLOR: Right. Right.

Ms. TOBABIN: The writers don't have trouble being funny or writing jokes. That's not the trick. The trick is in actually turning it into something that you would essentially pay money to send to somebody else. So what we end up with are a lot of these, that's funny, but not a card.


Ms. TOBABIN: I'll just read you a few Father's Day funny but nos here.

SIEGEL: Let's hear them.

Ms. TOBABIN: Sometimes, Dad, I think about some of our old family traditions. Like at dinner, when we used to maintain a stony silence with brief moments of yelling at each other? We'd eat as fast as we could and leave the table. Ah, memories.

Mr. TAYLOR: Beautiful. Beautiful. Maybe a waterfall in the background. Or a wooden duck.

Ms. TOBABIN: Or perhaps, you'll always be my dad. That's one thing the casinos can't take away from me.

Mr. TAYLOR: Beautiful. Beautiful.

SIEGEL: Now, those did not make it. So some line of sensibility was crossed there that didn't quite make it, eh?

Mr. TAYLOR: Right. And you know a few that did are, this you may have seen needle-pointed or burned on wood somewhere. Give a dad a fish and he will eat it. Teach a dad to fish and he will drink beer on the dock.

That's a timeless sentiment. And we have another that's nostalgic. Dad, I don't just miss the hotdogs at the ballgame or the movies on rainy Saturday afternoons or teaching me to ride a bike. It was the way you paid for the hot dogs and the movie and the bike. That's something I really miss.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you for sharing that rich sentiment for Father's Day with us, both of you. Those that made it into Shoebox cards and those that didn't.

Mr. TOBABIN: Thank you for having us.

Mr. TAYLOR: Thanks a lot.

SIEGEL: Dan Taylor, writer, and Sarah Tobabin, editor, both of Shoebox. Selections from 20 years of work is collected in the book Shoebox: Greatest Hits and Misses. You can see other examples of their funny but nos at our web site, NPR.org.

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