The lighter side of holiday letters

Michael Lent got the idea for his humorous holiday book, “Christmas Letters From Hell — All The News We Hate from the People We Love,” from hard-earned experience.

The Glendale screenwriter-producer and his family sit down at the dinner table each yuletide season and critique Christmas letters they’ve received from family and friends. The majority are very funny, Lent said.

“We call them letters you love to hate,” he said. “We divide them up at the dinner table and each of us, my wife, two kids and mother-in-law, read them and decide which is the best.”

Lent has written features films, like “Hellseeker,” and writes books. His first book, “Breakfast with Sharks,” based on the business side of screenwriting, came out in 2004.

Two years ago, Lent decided to write a fourth book of fictional Christmas letters and put it online.

An editor from Simon & Schuster in New York saw it and ordered it.

The company bought the rights in 2006 and released it in time for this holiday season under the title “Christmas Letters From Hell — All the News We Hate from the People We Love.” It’s now No. 2 on Amazon.com’s best-selling list for holiday books.

It was just the project senior editor Amanda Patten was looking for.

“I’ve wanted to do a collection of family holiday letters,” she said.

“I personally am always entertained by these in-depth newsletters. They’re very funny to read. I think people who send them don’t realize how funny they are to other people.”

For legal reasons, they couldn’t publish real letters, so the next best thing was a spoof of the common themes of holiday letters, she said. All of the letters come from Lent’s imagination.

“I think he’s hilarious,” she said. “That’s why we signed him up.”

Annual Christmas letters seem to have a certain form, Lent said. When they try to be funny, they’re usually not, and often are unintentionally humorous. They are more like annual reports to shareholders, he said.

“There are pie charts, growth charts on their children and medical charts on the state of someone’s sciatica,” Lent said. “And a collection of new prestige items — cars or boats they’ve acquired over the past 12 months.”

Lent’s had his own experience writing a holiday letter when he was in graduate school working in the public relations department. His boss asked him to write her holiday letter, and when she asked him to rewrite it in a livelier tone, he wrote two, the second one with some over-the-top exaggerations. That one was accidentally mailed out.

“I didn’t lose my job,” he said. “And years later, her friends still asked her about the letter. So I made an impression.”

The letters in his book also push the envelope, he said. Some of his favorites are Santa’s letter to the elves that says they are moving operations to China and another supposedly written by the family dog about his experience getting neutered.

“They are silly and just amusing enough,” he said. “Which says you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously in these letters.”

Stand-up comedian Keith Barany has read the book and said it was long overdue.

“Prior to knowing Michael, I had always thought someone should come out with a parody book on people who send self-absorbed, annoying Christmas letters,” he said. “I’d like to have seen it edgier, and really skewer the people who write these letters more. In the introduction, he did a nice job on that.”

Lent hopes the letters will give readers a chance to laugh at themselves.

“When you look at the headlines of the paper, these are tough times,” he said. “I hope it takes the load off a little bit.”


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