It might not sound like a comedy: A twice-divorced single mom living with her mother tries to save money from her food service job to move into her own apartment. But Penelope Lemon: Game On!, is just that.
“It’s hard to describe why something is funny,” says Inman Majors, an English professor at James Madison University. “Penelope’s backstory is tough. But that’s where comedy starts. You catch a person at one of their lowest points.”
For Penelope, it is all of the above plus her venture into online dating and the discovery that a private photograph from her first marriage has resurfaced into the very public sphere of the internet.
“When I’m writing comedy, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Majors says. “The best comedy happens accidentally.” While he might plot out a little where necessary, “so much of comedy is spontaneity and improvisation that builds on character,” he says. “There should be comedic tension throughout, even in the serious moments. The reader has to realize that they’re going to come out the other end and it’s going to be funny again.”
Part of the inspiration for the book was his aunt, Betty Winton, to whom the book is dedicated. She was the first person Majors knew who attempted online dating, and she had many funny stories about the experience. Betty, who died last year from the same brain cancer as John McCain, possessed “a great appreciation for the absurd,” Majors says.
Initially, he thought it would be a serious book. Observing Betty in the world of online dating, he says, was “the first time I realized how tough it is to be single and 40 or above, specifically for women.” While coaching his son’s baseball team in Waynesboro years ago, before his family’s move to Charlottesville, Majors would observe single moms in their 20s and 30s who worked hard jobs, had three kids, and managed to get them all to their extracurriculars without the help of a partner.
“It wasn’t like they felt put upon by life. This was life,” he says.
During an extended illness, he observed the same hard work, smarts, and capability in his female nurses. After regaining his health, he decided to write something funny, and had plenty of material to draw on for the strong woman character he had in mind.
Majors grew up watching Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Gilda Radner, Carol Burnett, and, later, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. He recalls his mother and her friends sitting around the kitchen table laughing and talking in his childhood home in Knoxville, Tennessee. “I was always the kid who’d come in and take my sweet time getting something out of the refrigerator,” he says, just to hear them talking in a way they wouldn’t normally talk in front of a child, and to hear them laugh.
In the book, the spark of a new friendship is, in many ways, the catalyst for the upward trajectory that makes it a comedy when Penelope befriends another single mom during their sons’ baseball game. “In all of my comedies,” Majors says, “the main characters are like the straight-man (or straight-person), and then they have this wilder alter ego, like the Kramer of Seinfeld.” While the protagonist may be “a little bit wilder than most, or subversive or absurdist,” the foil for her is “sort of the unencumbered id expressed,” he says.
That unencumbered id, named Missy, convinces Penelope to pursue a much younger man on a Christian dating app given to her by her mother. As it turns out, he is not as angelic as he appears. “I’m not trying to make any point about hypocrisy,” says Majors, the son-in-law of a preacher. “I’m very much a ‘live and let live’ type of person.” Through his spontaneous method, he simply followed the comedy, writing to make himself laugh, he says.
The setting for the book, a fictional town called Hillsboro, has grown into “this whole universe in my head,” he says, “like a PG-13 or R-rated Mayberry,” inspired by the small Southern towns in which he’s lived.
His life has informed his art in other ways, too, like the bartending and serving experience he gained from ages 18 to 32, which he applies to Penelope’s restaurant job. And the shorty robe worn by Penelope’s second husband, inspired by a friend Majors had in graduate school.
But in the act of writing, Majors’ life becomes the art for a time. Putting on his professorial hat, he says, “when it comes to narration and point of view, you want to become the character as opposed to observing the character from afar. When it’s going well, I’m not Inman Majors, I’m Penelope Lemon.”