How to Write Comedy Even If You’re Not Funny With John Vorhaus

How to write comedy

John Vorhaus is the author of one of the best books on comedy writing: The Comic Toolbox. He’s also a scriptwriter, artist, and writing instructor.

In this week’s interview, he explains:

  • How to write comedy if you’re not funny
  • Why comedy is a little like drama
  • How to balance your art with business
  • What he did after facing a bout of writer’s block

And lots more.


The Comic Toolbox

A White Belt in Art

Doctor’s Without Borders

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Bryan: I think we can all agree, it's a nice surprise when an author or writer injects a bit of humor or color into their work. Hi there, my name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast. I'm learning how to inject humor or color or how to write comedy. It's something I've been thinking a lot about recently. I've been thinking about it because I've taken a few courses on the likes of masterclass from humorous and colorful writers like David Sedaris and Steve Martin. And I've also read books like, The Comedy Toolbox by John Vorhaus, who's this week's guest. And I've also come to a conclusion that what you read informs what you write. Basically over the last two to three years, I spent a lot of time reading nonfiction business books, reading books about entrepreneurship and so on.

And that's the type of thing I ended up writing, I wrote a lot of articles for publications like Forbes about how to set up a business and how to take it to the next level. And that was fine, but now that I moved on from Forbes, I want to write something that's a little bit more personal and has a little bit more color. It's not necessarily that I want to get into standup comedy or anything like that, but I certainly like to learn how to inject more color and humor into my articles and into my book chapters and explore different topics like parenting. Now, of course, learning how to write humor is much like learning how to write articles about a business. There are rules that you need to follow on rules that you can only break once you're aware of what they are. So wanted to learn a little bit more about them.

And one of the most popular books for anybody who's interested in learning how to write humor our color is, The Comic Toolbox, by John Vorhaus. And I recently had the chance to catch up with John and ask him about his book, which was published nearly 20 years ago, and also about his other tips for writers who want to inject color into their work and for anybody who's facing problems like writer's block, which is actually a problem that John had a few years ago. I started by asking John, of course, to explain to listeners who he is and why he thinks The Comic Toolbox has had such an influence on writers over the years. But before we get into the show, I do have an ask. If you enjoy the Become a Writer Today Podcast, please, can you leave a short rating or review or wherever you're listening to the podcast because your review or rating will help more readers and help more listeners find both the podcast and this site. And it'll really helped me take it to the next level. Now on with the interview.

John: Sure. I'd be happy to. I left my last, well my first, last and only straight job in my early 20s. I had been an advertising copywriter, and I was young and Footloose and fancy free and I thought that if I stay in his career much longer, I'm going to get good at it and then I'm going to think it's meaningful. And I'm going to wake up when I'm 40 years old, thinking that it's important to make the world safe for advertising. I didn't want to be in that position. So while I still had the economic freedom, that is to say, not very huge financial needs, I quit that job and became a singer-songwriter, kind of like Bob Dylan. I spent five years on the folk circuit singing and playing guitar, and then I discovered there were two things I couldn't do particularly well, sing or play guitar.

So I pointed the wagons West, I came out to California and took up writing situation comedy. I found a mentor who taught me two very important things for a writer. One he said was, listen to what's being told to you, and the other was pay it forward. And the latter aspect, pay it forward, has really been part of my life since then, as I've made it my mission, not just to be a writer, but to help teach and train writers. So from that point forward, for more than a quarter of a century, I have been aggressively writing and selling scripts, screenplays, novels, nonfiction, and also aggressively and enthusiastically traveling the world teaching and training writers. So I have been a professional writer and a professional teacher of writers in 36 countries on five continents at last count.

Bryan: Wow, that's a prolific career.

John: Thanks, it's a blessing. But the thing that drives it is my understanding that, every time I'm writing, and anytime you're writing, two things are happening. One is the process. We're engaged in writing and the words are coming out. And the other is the attention that we pay to the process and the lessons that we can learn from how we think about writing problems and how we go about solving them and what impact this has on our mental health and our state of mind and motivation, procrastination, all these related issues. So the main takeaway from my approach to creativity, which is a tool driven creativity, is always be in your process, but always watch your process and learn lessons from what you're doing, especially learn how you're doing well, the things you're doing well, so that you can repeat them on a regular basis.

Bryan: That's good advice. I'm actually curious before we get into writing comedy or writing more colorful pieces, how do you balance the creative process than what you just described there, with working on your business as a creative entrepreneur or a writing teacher?

John: To answer that question, I have to tell you a brief story, it'll only take a moment. I have a friend who was a heart surgeon. And, as he describes his process, the only part of the process he really enjoys is cutting people open. And everything else he does supports that part of the process that he loves. The bill paying, the meeting patients ,dealing with insurance, whatnot. And since I heard that story, I've kind of thought about my own career the same way. There's something I love, creating. And then there's all other kinds of things I don't love, hustling, getting gigs, introducing myself, networking, whatnot. I hate that stuff like the cat hates baths, but if I'm going to be a professional writer, in the sense of capital P professional, these are some tasks that I must take on. I would say this is a huge and unaddressed problem for a lot of writers in the sense that writers by their nature are solitary creatures and conflict avoiders and not networkers and not collaborators, we just like to be in our own space doing our own thing.

But if you devote too much of your energy to that, then you end up never building a career where your words can see light of day. And then you're just writing for the trunk. So for myself, I had to recognize that hustle, entrepreneurship was going to be part of my game and it needed daily hours, just like this time you and I are spending here together and in all of its manifestations, sending out emails, beating my head against the phone. Anything that I can do to remind people that I'm working right or alive in the world is necessary. We could call it a necessary evil, but just because it's evil doesn't mean it's not necessary.

Bryan: Okay. Yeah, I like that. I think why my approach has been to work a little bit on my craft or something creative each day and then to work on something that's related to business then in the afternoon. Kind of inspired by some advice I read by David Mamet, as that's where I got that from book. I'm curious about The Comic Toolbox, which is the book that I refer to a lot. You write a lot about the difference between drama and comedy and would you be able to explain what you see that difference as?

John: The book you're referring to, The Comic Toolbox, How To Be Funny Even If You're Not, that's the full title and has been teaching and training writers for more than a quarter of a century now. That's a blessing in my life that I never anticipated. To your question. I would consider that comedy is drama plus exaggeration, and that the same things that drive a comic story, drive a dramatic story. It's just that in a comic story, the characters and the situations are exaggerated to the point where it's safe for the audience to examine the underlying issues.

Let me give you an example. Suppose you're writing in domestic drama about the conflict between a husband and a wife, and the issue that you specifically want to explore is let's say, domestic violence. In a drama, the material is treated in a completely straightforward manner. We see the conflict between the husband and wife, and we see that the violence manifest itself, but that leaves the audience in a precarious position, they might not feel comfortable addressing that stuff. So if you take the violence as one example and exaggerated to the point where it becomes cartoon violence, that makes it easier for the audience to feel comfortable examining the underlying issue. That's what comedy does, it takes things that are too raw to be examined dramatically and it puts them in a safe context of comedy.

Bryan: And do the strategies that you use in the book work for nonfiction?

John: Well, some of them do. The strategies that relate to story structure don't really work for nonfiction because they're fictional story structures, but the process stuff, all of that stuff works. I'll give you an example. In The Comic Toolbox, I speak of something called, The Rule of Nine, which says that for every 10 jokes, you try, nine won't work. And this seems like bad news at first, like my failure rate is 90%, that's horrifying. But if you deconstruct it, you realize that the real purpose of it is to remind you that if you only have one idea, then you have to invest 100% of your ego in that one idea, in this case one joke. And if you're investing 100% of your ego in one idea, you're going to experience a lot of failure because the idea probably won't work and then you don't have an ego structure that will support you.

If you have 10 jokes, then you only have to invest 10% of your ego in each of the jokes and if one of them fails or most of them fails, your ego remains intact. Now this principle is the same whether you're writing a joke or conceiving an idea for a nonfiction book or executing the chapters in that book, or even the sentences. The expectation that most of the time stuff won't work out on the first try and all need to be redone and redone and redone again, until it works the way it's intended to. That's fundamental to the writing process no matter where in the writing process you happen to be.

Bryan: It sounds like you're suggesting that somebody sit down and generate as many ideas as possible and iterate write them, rather than attaching themselves to one idea.

John: Yes. And the logic of that is completely straight forward. If you have one idea, the one thing you don't have is confidence that that idea is the best of all available ideas. It's the only one you have. So by definition, it's the best available, but it hasn't been tested and you know it hasn't been tested. And because you know it hasn't been tested, you can't entirely trust it. If you even have two ideas, let's say two different jokes for a moment in a script, then you can look at each one and decide which one you think is stronger. And if you put that one into the script or the story or whatever context you're thinking of, at least you know it's been tested against and beaten out one other competitor. And if you have five jokes, then you're five times as confident, if you have 10 jokes, then you're 10 times as confident. And oh by the way, by iterating and reiterating, you're also increasing your ability to iterate and reiterate, which is the fundamental building block of writing.

Bryan: You also proposed that there are three types of conflicts that underpin colorful writing, global, local, and inner. Would you be able to explain what the differences between those are?

John: Yeah, be happy to. Global conflict is the character's war against the world, generally impersonal forces that don't know the character exists. Right now, we're all experiencing global conflict with coronavirus. It doesn't know where out there, but it's certainly is creating conflict, opposition, stress in our lives. Other sources of global conflict include landlords and cops, the weather, government, military, taxes, impersonal forces of evil we might call them in a joking sense, and they've put pressure on the character from without, that's global conflict. Local conflict is the direct emotional war between characters who have direct emotional investment in one another's lives. To take an example, you and I, if we had a fight right now, it would be global conflict because we don't really know each other. But if we happened to be best friends from childhood dealing with our old childhood shit, then we would be engaged in local conflict or interpersonal conflict between people who have a vested interest in one another's lives.

And then inner conflict is the war within the character, looking at herself and asking questions like, "Am I okay? What happens to me when I die? Do people like me?" Or it may just be a conflict between a different desires. To give you an example, I want to eat a donut, but I don't want to be fat. So those are two inner conflicts at war with each other within. Why this is important is the difference between a melodrama and a drama or between a cartoon and a real comedy is specifically the presence or absence of inner conflict. If you have a cartoon, and I'm speaking of everything from Road Runner to James Bond, it's a cartoon because the central character has no sense of self doubt. Apart from the latest James Bond movies, you could count on James Bond never to question his essential James Bond-ness. Likewise, the Coyote will never stop chasing the road. Runner will never stop to ask, is this really what I want out of life?

So for someone writing a situation comedy, for example, and I imagine that a number of your listeners will be interested in that if they come to this particular podcast, the difference between a comedy that's worth writing and one that's not worth writing is the question, "What is going on inside the character on the level of inner conflict that's making the character suffer?" In a well-constructed story, what happens is, the global conflict creates local conflict and the local conflict creates inner conflict. Give you an example just off the top of my head, global conflict we mentioned is coronavirus.

Let's imagine a young man and a young woman who by accident, they didn't really know each other very well, but they ended up spending quarantine together. They got locked down together, you can imagine such a scenario. The global conflict, we both face this together, we're dealing with coronavirus, but the local conflict is everything from leaving the toilet seat up or washing the dishes to making the bed, to habits, to romantic interests so on and so forth. And then the inner conflict for each of these characters is confronted with this choice that's now in front of me, do I want this person to be a meaningful part of my life? And the answer is yes, but it's also no. And as I explore it, the yes and no aspects of that, I'm experiencing inner conflict.

So the pressure of coronavirus creates the pressure of interpersonal conflict, which turns around and creates the pressure of inner conflict. All of this can be boiled down to the succinct expression, "The truth is revealed under pressure." If you really want to make your characters change and grow and come to fundamental new understandings of themselves, just confront them with pressure and you can divide this pressure into global, local, and inner aspects.

Bryan: That's very well explained. I should exaggerate the consequences for each of those types of conflicts.

John: Sure. As a way of both raising the stakes of the story and raising the comedy of the story. Let's just imagine that this mythical couple we have locked together in quarantine, one of them is under pressured to get married, find a spouse and settle down. And the other is under pressure to live independently and have a career. The stakes will be higher for them than just two people who meet casually because if they meet casually, there's nothing at stake. It doesn't matter what they do with their choices.

Bryan: Okay. And how do I work that into a comic through line? Or is that the entire situation that you've described when all three conflicts are related?

John: That's a really, really big question. We can say that well constructed narrative story built along the structure of the comic through line or any other useful dramatic structure, what happens is that the character starts the story in a state of denial, denial about some fundamental aspect of his life. Let's say I don't need to face my fear, as an example. At the end of the story, the character will be in acceptance of that notion. I do need to face my fear and the way the character will get there, with the initial introduction of global conflict, something will take him out of his comfort zone and make him change.

Then the subsequent introduction of interpersonal conflict in the sense that someone will come along and the character will divide his loyalty between what he wants for himself and what he wants for this other person. And ultimately this whole thing will create an unsolvable problem that can only be solved by fundamental resolution of inner conflict in the form of change. When a character undergoes explosive change from denial to acceptance of the proposition, I don't have to face my fear, that's when he faces his fear and emerges into a new world and gets a happy ending.

Bryan: I like that. So you've written a lot of colorful books throughout your writing career, and like you explicitly set out to write colorful books, but I came across an interesting idea by Steve Martin on his masterclass. He said that one way to write something colorful, or with humor, is to kind of hide it. So people go into whatever the product is, I think he was actually talking about one of the shells or [inaudible 00:16:47]. And they're surprised to find it funny or humorous. Is that something that you've noticed with your work or are you better off saying it?

John: I'll tell you where I've noticed it and where I know it, is in the difference between teaching comedy and doing comedy. I'm not a standup comic. I've done enough of it to know what it has to offer me and what it doesn't have to offer me. But if you go see a standup comic, the expectation is this person is going to make you laugh. And that's the only expectation you're really measuring. But if I go into a classroom, the expectation is this person is going to teach you something you didn't know. And then if on top of that, I'm funny, then I'm not just meeting expectations, I'm exceeding expectations. And that's why it works so well to interpret or interpolate Steve Martin. That's why it works so well to create a false low expectation that you can easily exceed. If no one is expecting you to be funny, and you're funny, that's like icing on the cake.

Bryan: Yeah, that's what I was getting, that make sense? One of your more recent books is, A White Belt In Art and it's more about advice for creative practitioners but would you be able to give a bit of background information about why you decided to write A White Belt In Art?

John: Sure. Let's go back in time, four years, to the year 2016, I had reached a point in my writing career that everybody reaches more than once in their writing career. And that point was this, my process was broken. I couldn't write, I couldn't figure out what to write and anything that I tried to write, I wasn't executing to my satisfaction. This is just a matter of being on a certain plateau, and every writer passes through these plateaus in the course of their career. But this was a pretty significant one for me. And it was acerbated by the fact that I needed shoulder surgery. So I had shoulder surgery and I knew that was going to take me away from writing for a couple of months.

And I asked myself, "What can I do to meet my creative needs during this process? And what might I think about that'll help me out of the greater conflict I'm experiencing this creative trough that I find myself in?" So that moment I decided, well, for the first time in my life, I'm going to undertake to become an artist of some sort or another, not with the expectation of being a successful artist, but just with the expectation of introducing myself to a new creative concept. Now, as a writer, lifelong writer with creative successes, numerous creative successes under my belt, I had a tremendous amount of high expectation, like daunting expectation. I expected myself to be much better at it than I could reasonably hope to be at it because I had no experience of it whatsoever. So in my way of examining my process, I asked myself, "How can I deal with my expectations?"

And that's when I said, "I know I'll go for a white belt in art, because the white belt is the one they give you for just showing up. And if I can set my expectation at just showing up, then anything that I achieve will be above and beyond that. And oh by the way, I'll spend a year doing it, giving myself massive permission to explore without consequence. And then I'll write a book about it, giving myself motivation that would help me carry through on a process knowing that I had created for myself the requirement that I turn it into meaningful information for other people. So I spent a year exploring and I wrote the book and lo and behold, I transformed into an artist. I have become a digital artist of some small success. I can sell commissions to unsuspecting friends and strangers. And I've developed my eye, my hand and my voice as an artist and gotten out of my writing funk because all of the learning that I did in terms of visual creativity, informed my understanding of my writing process in ways both expected and completely unexpected.

Bryan: So how much time do you spend on both types of creative work each day or each week?

John: Depends on where I am with projects, but I split it. And this is another thing that's worth talking about. When I'm writing and doing a good job of it, the hours go by and my brain functions for a while, and then it stops functioning so well. This is a state of mind that I've to call, cheese brain, when my brain is worn out and my choices stop being good, and my critical thinking stops being good, it's just not working anymore for me to, for example, write prose or write script. If at that moment I turned my attention to something different, writing a story outline for a different project or engaging my visual creativity, I find that I get more utility out of my brain day after day. I can be a writer for half a day and an artist for half the day and not wear out the muscles on either side, the mental muscles, let's say, all the physical muscles too, because there are the left hand and right hand issues involved.

Bryan: It sounds like they feed each other, the two types of work.

John: They absolutely do. Let me see if I can give you an example that will illustrate that. As a writer, I spent my entire career understanding that my writing was not a creative and in and of itself, but rather the means by which I was communicating ideas to readers. That is to say, there's an idea in my head, I turned it into a certain sort of code, a story, I transmit the code to a reader. The reader reads the story and decodes it into meaning. The meaning of this story is, love one another, whatever the theme might happen to be. So my fundamental understanding of the relationship between myself and my creativity was, my creativity is a means to an end, it's a means to reaching audiences and that's all I knew.

When I started getting into art, especially knowing that I wasn't planning on selling it or even think about selling it for a long, long time, I started to understand that for an artist, the relationship is not between the artist and the audience, but rather between the artist and the art. And when I'm in my art head, I'm never thinking about anything except the relationship between myself and what I'm executing on, which is fundamentally different from how I think about writing. Now, when I go back to my writing, I can focus on this as an act of improvement. What happens if I stop thinking about the audience and just think about the relationship between myself and these words I'm writing. Sometimes the outcome is better, sometimes it's not, but at least it's a different approach and cross pollinated from my work as an artist.

Bryan: You've also used your poker hobby as inspiration for some of your work too. I thought it was quite interesting that somebody can take something from their personal life and turn it into creative work.

John: This will take us back in time to the late 1980s. When one thing that I was aware of, I was writing sitcom at the time. And one thing that I was aware of was that I was selling ideas for situation comedies that came out of my life experience, whatever was going on in my life or in my mind, I had stuff going on in my life that other people didn't have going on in their lives, so that was my secret sauce, that's something that I could sell. They say write what you know, right? And since I had an interest in poker, as an avid enthusiast, I thought, well maybe I can write what I know about poker and that'll help me overcome some of these other hurdles that I'm encountering. What I found was by writing about poker, where I had area expertise, I could open up doors for myself as a that I couldn't otherwise open.

I literally went to a poker magazine in the early days of my infatuation with poker and I said, "I know nothing about poker, but I'm going to learn. And while I'm learning, I want to share what I learned." And they said, "Well, that sounds like a decent idea for a column, let's go do that." And so from the 1980s, straight through the poker boom, I was actively engaged in playing poker, but also writing about poker, which was a rare combination. There were a lot of poker players and there were a lot of writers, but there weren't a lot of poker players who were writers. And that was a strength of my game. The other thing was, when that business got hot in the early 2000s, and I was still, I hadn't written any books about poker yet, but I went to my agent and I said, "This industry is really heating up."

I said, "I think I can sell a book now." And he said, I'll never forget these words. He said, "I can't sell one book, but I sure as hell can sell three." And I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "I can go to a publisher now," and he named a couple and he said, "I can sell them a series of poker books." I already had a brand Killer Poker, he said, "I can sell him three Killer Poker books in the time it takes to make the phone call." I said, "But I don't have three books worth of stuff to write about poker." He said, "Sure you do, you get the contract, you'll find the content."

And he was not wrong. I actually ended up writing six Killer Poker books and got so used to this idea of, I got to turn out 60,000, 70,000, 80,000 words in six months, go, that the work that I did writing nonfiction under contract really helped me when I transitioned into writing long form fiction novels on my own, because I already understood what it meant to embrace a long form project, break it down, outline it, build it out, write it, revise it, beta test it, edit it, get it, edit it again, copy, edit it. I learned the process sufficiently well that I could apply it where I really wanted to, which was in my novels.

Bryan: Yeah. I definitely think it's important to break down big projects into smaller projects. Are there any comedy or humorous writers that you admire that are working today?

John: I'm always inspired by Tom Robbins, who's a comic novelist. Have long been inspired by Douglas Adams, who's no longer working today, sadly, Stephen Fry is a British humorous writer whom I admire. I'm a big fan of Chuck Lorre who has done several sitcoms. I love, love, love, including ones, Two and a Half Men, Big Bang Theory, Mom. But he also did Dharma and Greg, which was one of the first sitcoms that really got me excited about writing sitcom. Oh, and Hannah Gadsby, I just discovered her. I don't know if you know her, she's a standup comic, storyteller, commentator, social commentator from Australia who is quite potent. I've only just discovered her work.

Bryan: And do you think it's important for somebody who wants to write colorful pieces to read authors or writers like the ones you've described?

John: Boy, that's a good question. And the reason that I say it's a good question is from my own experience, when I'm engaging a topic like creativity or philosophy or how to live life or how to make art, my exploration is very inner directed. I don't read a lot because I don't want to be infected by the ideas of others. I don't want to end up consciously or unconsciously regurgitating ideas that I've acquired from elsewhere. This has led me to do things like invent my own Buddhism, which is a completely ridiculous thing to do because there's a perfectly good Buddhism right there already., But that's my process. I would say, let me see if I can boil it down. Young writers, writers who are new in their process, conventionally fall into the trap of not writing their own experience, but writing their acquired experience of their understanding of life through television and film.

And this makes them, and books, and this makes them derivative in the early phases of their career. They're not really writing about their lives, they're writing their interpretation of what they've seen other writers write about their lives. So there is important information to be gathered from the way other writers approach their work. There is all kinds of value in absorbing every written word or visual piece of information that you can, but a certain point, you need to understand that that stuff is likely to distract you in a certain sense in my dismay you, because they do it so well, and you do it so poorly. So let's say that it's a powerful force that can only be used for good or for evil.

Bryan: Yeah, I would definitely agree that you have to be careful with your influences when you're working on a project, could seep into your subconscious. Finally, you're running a fundraiser on Facebook for Doctors Without Borders.

John: Yes I am, thank you for mentioning that. The project is called The Hundred Head Project and I've set out to do 100 self portraits in 100 days. Now understand that I had this idea in the early stages of the coronavirus when I, like so many other people, felt this explosion of creativity, I'm sure you did, most creative people I know did. In the early days of the pandemic, we just had this urge to communicate. I think it was a matter of saying, "With the world so manifestly out of my control, I am desperate to have something that's in my control. And this thing here will meet that need." Where I was in my big long form writing project, I wasn't really prepared to take on a new writing project that would fill those days, but I needed something that would fill those days, day after, day after day.

And so I thought, well, I'll do 100 self portraits in 100 days and I'll put them on Facebook and I'll do it as a fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders, because God knows those doctors need all the borders they can get. And in doing so, I'll do a couple of good things. One I will give structure and form to my days, which I very, very much needed in your early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Two, I will gain expertise in creating new artistic works every day, seven days a week for the next 100 without any options, it would have to be. So I would certainly emerge with new tools and new understanding of my creative process. And three, I might raise some money for a worthy cause, which met another urgent need that I was feeling. And for, I could do all of this without feeling like an egotistical dick who was interested in doing another pretty picture of himself day, after day, after day, after day, after day, after day.

And I've discovered, this is why artists are drawn to self portraits. That's one image that nobody can take permission away from. You take a photograph of another person, you need their permission to use it. You take a picture of a landscape, you don't need the landscape's permission, but you need to be engaged with it. If you're taking a picture of yourself or doing a portrait of yourself, that's a relationship that only exists between you and yourself and no one can stop you from doing it so that's why I undertook.

Bryan: It sounds like a great project. Where can people find out more information about the project or about your work, John?

John: They can find that on Facebook. I'm John Vorhaus on Facebook. J-O-H-N V-O-R-H-A-U-S. And I have The Hundred Head Project as a Facebook fundraiser. And I also have a discussion group called Coping with John Vorhaus, which looks at issues related to coronavirus and how we, as creative people, can cope with them. I have a website, You can find all of my books on Amazon, just under my name, probably the easiest thing for most people to remember, because Vorhaus has a challenging name to remember and spell. If you just remember The Comic Toolbox and search The Comic Toolbox, by that means you'll find your way to everything I am online.

Bryan: I think that's how I found your at work. Thank you John, it was very nice to talk to you today.

John: My very great pleasure.

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