Donna Cavanagh says the world is brimming with mockable material - like the sex toy designed for those grieving the loss of a partner. The glass device can be filled with ashes of your dead lover.
"I mean, come on. That story was like handing me gold," Cavanagh, 53, of East Norriton, says of the essay she wrote about it.
Her writing finds a home on the website she founded four years ago, Humor Outcasts, where now more than 100 other humorists - cartoonists, novelists, stand-up comedians, and TV producers and writers, many well-known - contribute essays, memes, parodies, satires, and cringe comedy at a blush-under-R rating. A dozen or so posts run daily, collectively amassing 3,000 to 7,000 hits - with the occasional piece reaping viral traffic of 30,000 views or more for HumorOutcasts.com.
The name reflects Cavanagh's view of humor writing: It's the stepchild of the publishing world. "It's one of the hardest genres to write," she says, "but in the words of Rodney Dangerfield, 'It gets no respect.' "
Yet her site does, attracting writers who include multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominees.
Philly native Kara Vallow, a Humor Outcasts contributor and TV producer who has worked with comedy master Seth McFarlane on Family Guy and American Dad, says the site is a "bountiful cornucopia of upbeat, relatable hilariousity" about everyday people. "It makes me nostalgic for the days of Erma Bombeck and the [Philadelphia] Bulletin's comic section."
Cavanagh is like a den mother to her contributors, says Roz Warren of Bala Cynwyd, encouraging writers (ranging in age from 20 to 70) to support one another through social media, while hosting a site for twisted and warped entertainment. Warren says her 15-year job at the Bala Cynwyd Library provides never-ending material - "The library is one place where the unlikeliest of people come together," she says - some of which she compiled in her new book, Our Bodies, Our Shelves: A Collection of Library Humor.
Cavanagh was born into a big Italian clan hailing from Manhattan's Little Italy. Her family moved to Bergen County, N.J., where she attended the all-girl Academy of Holy Angels prep school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame. Her teachers said her writing was funny.
She met her future husband, Edward, a computer engineer at Manhattan College, where she took journalism courses but majored in business. Soon after college, they married and moved to Pennsylvania. She freelanced for a communications company and edited books. She then worked as a night reporter for the Times Herald in Montgomery County.
Her daughter Coleen, now 27, was a toddler. Sleep-deprived days and blistered feet from high heels stoked plenty of Cavanagh's humor pieces that subsequently appeared in First magazine, More magazine, emerging mommy blogs, and in a neighboring paper, the Mercury. (Her essays appear in four books, including Life on the Off Ramp, a USA Book News National Best Books 2010 finalist.)
But, alas, journalism changed.
"Editors wanted the 'My mother died of cancer' stories," says Cavanagh, who also runs Humor Outcasts Press and Shorehouse Books. "And sites like Associated Content [now Yahoo! Voices] rejected or cut my posts. I thought, humor writers need a place to go."
Writer Deb Martin-Webster of Leicester, N.C., was one of the first contributors to Humor Outcasts after retiring from a 23-year career in art administration at Temple's Tyler School of Art. Her Friday Humor Devotionals poke fun at the Bible Belt ("I belong to our Lady of Sealy Posturepedic Church") and at our culture's yearning for youth ("Please tell grandfather that putting his Viagra under grandma's breasts won't make them erect. Amen.")
Author of the "Love, Montana" series, Martin-Webster says she happily ridicules everybody, but in an upbeat way. "We need humor with all of the conflict in the world today."
Bruce Ferber, a Humor Outcasts contributor and Los Angeles sitcom producer whose TV credits include Bosom Buddies, Home Improvement, and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, says good comedy writing has a specific form.
"It has to be concise. You also need the right rhythm and a timely delivery," says the author of the recently released book Cascade Falls: A Novel.
Which means that, regardless of the topic, anything written right can be funny - even, says Cathy Sikorski, a Pottstown elder-care lawyer, taking care of sick people. She writes offbeat posts about her caregiving for family members, including her brother-in-law, who has multiple sclerosis.
"Have you ever tried to get a wheelchair repaired?" quips Sikorski, who penned the book, Showering With Nana: Confessions of a Serial Caregiver, about caring for her now-late grandmother while she was a stay-at-home mother.
When Cavanagh started Humor Outcasts, she says, the hardest part was evaluating or rejecting writers' works - so she created the fictional Elizabeth Dickens, a brainy, confident editor who, if the need arose, could candidly turn down a submission.
However, Cavanagh says managing her alter ego became problematic: Dickens, who once was nominated for a media award, became too popular, sometimes getting more e-mails in a day than Cavanagh, causing Cavanagh more work.
"I killed her," Cavanagh says, laughing.
On a sober note, Cavanagh understands the rewards could be substantial should her site start attracting lucrative advertisers. "I'm very serious about humor. My dream is to be able to pay my writers one day."