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Laughing at Love

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here’s what every single woman in pursuit of happiness and love needs: a few tolerant friends, a sense of humor, a positive attitude, a good job and an astute therapist. Here’s what successful female comedy writers need: to spin stories of the romantic disasters 21st century women experience as they stumble through adulthood.

Two first-time novelists, Merrill Markoe and Jill A. Davis, whose resumes each include stints on the staff of “Late Show With David Letterman,” have gone literary to expand upon the lament that a good man is hard to find, even though the search can be amusing.

In each book, the therapeutically savvy reader will recognize some characters with abandonment issues, card-carrying narcissists and others who act out repetition compulsions. Again. Just about everyone suffers from a glut of stupid advice to the lovelorn.

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Five years ago, British author Helen Fielding published “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (Viking), introducing a witty, libidinous, chain-smoking career dieter who outgrows her itch for bad boys and finds true love. The genre has grown wildly popular and has shown remarkable staying power through Fielding’s sequel and a slew of similarly themed novels.

Although the heroines of Davis’ “Girls’ Poker Night” (Random House) and Markoe’s “It’s My F---ing Birthday” (Villard) are ostensibly looking for Mr. Right, their creators feel a happy ending is beside the point. In Los Angeles to read a “Girls’ Poker Night” chapter at a Spoken Interludes program at the Tempest Supper Club, Davis, 32, says, “I didn’t want people to think that my book was about getting the guy.”

Markoe had a similar agenda. “I wanted to write about being alone,” she says, “because it seems no one ever accepts that as a reasonable alternative, and I know a lot of people who live alone, and there are good things about it. When you live by yourself, all your annoying habits are gone. Nobody complains. It’s interesting how everything you do is fine.”

Like most of Markoe’s remarks, the observation is funny, in a sly, true, painful way. She talks about the book at her lived-in Malibu home, surrounded by her four dogs and two “step-dogs,” the latter pair brought to the blended canine family by her boyfriend, musician and writer Andy Prieboy.

“It’s My F---ing Birthday” is Markoe’s fifth book and first work of fiction. She won four Emmy awards for writing the Letterman show and secretly dreads that her obituary will identify her as the inventor of Stupid Pet Tricks or worse, Letterman’s ex-girlfriend.

Since 1988, when her professional and personal association with the comedian ended, Markoe has lived in L.A., writing humorous essays, columns, scripts, television pilots and offering commentary on local news programs and comedy shows such as “Politically Incorrect.” She signed on as a consultant during the second season of HBO’s “Sex and the City” and has penned an episode.

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Selecting a Familiar Subject

Faced with the daunting prospect of writing a novel, which her agent suggested was a more salable format than collections of short comic pieces, Markoe made the task less intimidating by choosing a familiar subject.

“I wound up writing about my parents and using the voice of the women I’ve been hanging out with for the last 10 years,” she says. “The single women I know sing a song of hope, battered wishes and eternal self-improvement as a way out of the constant battering. That voice comes through in all that advice and support women give each other. When you get discouraged, one of your friends will say, ‘When one door closes, another opens.’ That’s complete hogwash. I’ve noticed that when one door closes, another door closes. And then you have two closed doors.”

Obviously, the unmarried, never-named L.A. art teacher at the center of Markoe’s narrative hates birthdays. Anyone would, if an annual celebration included a dinner with critical, competitive parents whose gift was inevitably the ugliest, most unbecoming outfit on the planet. Kirkus Reviews deemed the book “classy stuff that deserves tons of flowers from dazed and satisfied readers.”

The flowers are a reference to the expensive bouquets the teacher receives every birthday from her ex-boyfriend. She tries to parse the meaning of his gesture, believing that his choice of blooms are a mystery meant to be solved. “Women think that men speak in code,” Markoe says. “I’m used to hearing a lot of conversations among women full of neurotic hand wringing and analysis--a lot of terror of saying or doing the wrong thing. If he said, ‘See you later,’ did he mean he’ll see you later, or a lot later? I’ve learned in life that if a guy wants to be with you, he will be with you. There is no code to it.”

The smart woman’s needy alter ego, who looks up the symbolism of yellow tulips and roses on the Internet, is called the dumb girl. The year of her 40th birthday, the narrator sees her dumb girl reflection in Monica Lewinsky. “It seemed to me she was dying for the sins of dumb and crazy girls of all ages everywhere,” Marko writes. “Never before had I seen the paradigm of crazy dumb girl syndrome so publicly X-rayed, examined, dissected and analyzed. I saw myself in her in a million different ways that were painful and embarrassing to acknowledge.

“Starting with how she obsessed endlessly about the details of each encounter with her boyfriend, the president, as though he was a dude she met at a dance club who was speaking to her in secret code.”

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Davis’ narrator, Ruby Capote, lives on the opposite coast, but she and the group of friends she plays poker with on Wednesday nights have their own self-destructive dumb-girl personas.

Ruby writes a humor column for a New York newspaper and falls for a managing editor more adorable and adoring than any boss found in the real world of journalism. He’s a nice guy, though, and dumb girls don’t let themselves stay with the good ones, at least until their therapists show them the wisdom that hides within.

Lest anyone charge Davis with basing her protagonist’s job on Markoe or TV’s Carrie Bradshaw, the author once wrote a humor column for a small Massachusetts newspaper. She sent samples of it to the head writer of the Letterman show after Markoe had moved on; the two have never met) and, at 25, was hired as the only woman on the writing staff. She stayed for five years and received five Emmy nominations.

“I loved that job, and I worked with a great group of people,” Davis says. “But writing something longer was one of my goals, and getting to work around 10 and going home between 9 and 11 made it hard to have a life.”

Davis has a way of making 12-hour workdays and other impressive feats appear easy. Even though half of her female friends are single, and she believes their complaint that there are no good men to be found in New York is accurate, two years ago she married a venture capitalist she met on a blind date.

On the way to finishing her novel, Davis detoured to write a series of dramatic monologues for HBO, commissioned when they read her first short story. Then she knocked off a few screenplays and two TV pilots. Both pilots sold and one was filmed, starring Tracy Pollan as a single woman living in New York.

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There’s a hall-of-mirrors quality to the risks each writer took trying fiction. They faced some of their demons as their characters learned to do the same. “For too long, Ruby was living in the fantasy that she wouldn’t be disappointed if she didn’t take any risks,” Davis says.

The most difficult thing Davis has done was the book. “You put a lot of yourself into scripts, but there are so many hands involved that your work changes a lot and evolves into something else, so you don’t feel as connected.

“When I was writing jokes for Dave, I was fully invested in that, but, at the end of the day, he was the guy who had to go out and make it work. This is the biggest risk I’ve ever taken, because writing a novel is very personal. It’s a work of fiction, but there are seeds of truth throughout it.”

Ruby hides behind her humor. “Writing funny is a protection mechanism,” Davis says. “Ruby uses it to deflect things that get too serious, to shield herself from people who get too close, to make things seem less important than they are.”

Davis and Markoe both know well the technique of using comedy to camouflage feelings. The self-absorbed mother in Markoe’s novel is a portrait of her own, she admits. The woman is monstrously funny, except to anyone who had a similar parent. “The nice thing about writing is it’s a way to explain and protect yourself from stuff that’s hurtful. All that screaming in my family--I make sense of it by making fun of it,” she says.

Comedy as a Form of Defense

Pain is a reliable comic source. But subtract the humor, and all that remains is the sting. “The whole thing about comedy is it’s a form of defense,” Markoe says. “Being funny keeps you from being vulnerable. But I’ve learned that the best comedy really includes vulnerability. I don’t mind being vulnerable if it includes being funny. In writing this book, I scared myself sometimes when I didn’t add the punch line. I made myself terrified and nauseous writing about my mother. I came to realize that terror in art is what you’re supposed to head for. In life, you should run away from terror. In art, you run toward it, because that’s where the growth is.”

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Talking to readers at book signings and reading their e-mail, Davis has discovered that her fans include septuagenarian widowers and 42-year-old bachelors, as well as women from all age groups. Many identify with the struggles of Ruby and her friends. “When I hear a man in his 40s say he has the same issues as women I know in their 30s, I’m not surprised. People are trying not to make the mistakes their parents made; they don’t have a clue how to make a relationship work.”

Perhaps the singleton genre simply amped up the humor always lurking under the tragic surface of romantic agony. But its popularity might be traced to the way it reflects some of the strong currents flowing through contemporary life.

“These books are part of an exploding genre, because there’s a demand,” Davis says. “I’m not worried that people will get tired of them. Each one is different, with its own internal life. I mean, look how many spy novels have been written. There are a million of them, and the guy’s a spy in each one. Do we care?”

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