In 2009 Kathy Benjamin signed up to write for Cracked.com, “out of boredom more than anything,” but she happened to be pretty adept at it from the start. She quickly became one of Cracked’s most prolific writers, turning her natural disposition for researching into a long run of informative and hilarious articles, before bringing her talents to other sites like Mental Floss and UrbanTitan too. In the course of all her freelancing, she incidentally made herself the perfect candidate when Adams Media wanted someone to write a non-fiction/humor book about funerals and death. Now her first book, Funerals to Die For: The Craziest, Creepiest, and Most Bizarre Funeral Traditions and Practices Ever, is slated to come out on April 18th and can be pre-ordered through Amazon today. In this interview we discuss writing for Cracked, writing fiction, and funerals, among other things.
Brendan Bourque-Sheil: So, to begin with, I’ve been trying to find where your online writing career started. Did you write for any publications before you joined the Cracked workshop in 2009?
Kathy Benjamin: Nope. I entered a few short play competitions in the months before I joined the Workshop, but my first ever success was with Cracked.
BB: Were you specifically looking for writing gigs? Or did you just see they had a workshop that took submissions and decide to go for it?
KB: I was working retail at the time, and the creative part of me was dying inside. I got a BA and MA in History and had spent most of the past six years writing essays constantly, and then suddenly I wasn’t anymore. A friend had introduced me to Cracked and after reading them for a few months I finally noticed that Write for Cracked link at the bottom of an article. So I clicked, out of boredom more than anything.
BB: You got your first article accepted pretty quickly, and of course you’ve had a lot of success writing for the site since then. What appealed to you about writing the kind of content that Cracked does?
KB: I think the fact that they made the information so interesting and accessible. I don’t mean the jokes, which are very funny, obviously, but in most articles the jokes just compliment the way the information is presented, they are not the crux of the piece. Cracked has a way of presenting information that makes reading a 2,500 word article that is just full to the brim with facts feel like it took thirty seconds to read. So then you read another one, and another one. I know I’ve found myself totally fascinated by topics I don’t usually care about, like video games and comic books. I wanted to learn how to do that, how to get a million people interested in something seemingly boring that I was passionate about.
BB: Speaking of interest in topics you don’t normally care about, you can usually tell what a Cracked writer’s interests are by looking at the articles he/she’s written for the site. Movie buffs tend to write about movies. Science enthusiasts tend to write mostly science articles. But you cover a pretty diverse range of subjects (psych experiments, courtroom juries, dating, rats). What’s your research process usually like, that you end up writing on so many different subjects?
KB: I just read everything. Originally I thought that I would write mostly history articles, because of my educational background. But then I discovered that the closer you are to the subject the harder it is to notice those weird patterns you need for a Cracked article. So I just read lots of books and websites about whatever seems interesting to me that day. Once you find an interesting fact, like for example, that left-handed people may have “killed” their twin in the womb, then you have a starting point: babies are secretly evil. So you start googling from there and before you know it have an article about six ridiculously evil things babies are capable of. But it’s hit and miss. For every good idea you have, you have five terrible ones, or ones where the research just isn’t there.
KB: Oh man, that is a tough one. I like the IDEA of fiction. I think everyone believes that they have the next Harry Potter inside of them, and I know I’ve got some plots I’ve been working on in my head since I was 13. But I’ve started three different novels at this point and never gotten very far on any of them. I remember a comment from a professional writer, although I can’t for the life of me remember what their name was, that writing is like running. Some people can run marathons, others are best at sprints. It’s the same with writing. I think I am definitely a sprinter, someone who loves to write articles but for whom the mental endurance of a completing a novel might be too much.
BB: I would’ve thought writing Funerals to Die For required quite a bit of mental endurance. Didn’t you have two months to write the whole book?
KB: Six weeks. And I may have slacked off a bit for the first two… Yeah, that was definitely mentally and physically taxing, but really it was just like writing article after article. Every topic got a page or two, and then I moved on to a different one.
BB: So Adams Media came to you with the basic concept for this book, right?
KB: Yes. That was the greatest day ever, opening my email and basically being offered a book deal. I was so sure it must be a scam until I googled the company.
BB: Did you already know much about the subject going into writing the book?
KB: In that first email, Halli, my now-editor, didn’t mention the exact topic. She just said it was “kind of weird.” Immediately I was like, “Please be about death.” I have the most pathological fear of dying, ever since the first time I went to a funeral as a kid. So I decided long ago that the only way to get un-afraid of it was to subject myself to all the information about it I could. I’ve taken classes on death and funeral rituals at three different universities as well as reading about it on my own. So when Halli called me and told me the book’s theme, I was so happy. It was literally perfect for me.
BB: Wow. Very serendipitous. By the way, have you seen the web series “Ask a Mortician?”
KB: No! That sounds awesome though.
BB: Oh, it’s fascinating. This very peppy mortician just answers a bunch of user-submitted questions about death and funerals. (I send her a link to the series)
KB: Haha, five seconds in that has totally won me over. I have a lot of respect for morticians now. I researched some really gross things for this book, like cannibalism and dancing with dead relatives, but by far the most disturbing was learning about the embalming process. To the point that I kept almost all of those details out of the book.
BB: Yeah, there must have been a challenge in making some of this information funny and accessible.
KB: Definitely. A lot of it is innately funny, like the tradition of strippers at Taiwanese funerals or the real life Weekend at Bernie’s, because I purposely tried to find lighthearted things. But every now and then there was something really difficult, like the Indian tradition of Sati, where widows burn alive on their husbands funeral pyres. I got there in the end though, and nothing in the book should be disturbing to read.
One thing I learned was that even those things that seem weird or gross at first, once you delve deeper into their meaning you find they are actually kind of beautiful, a meaningful celebration of a loved one.
BB: Yeah, well one thing the host of that show “Ask A Mortician” talks about a lot is the idea that death and funeral practices should be much more approachable subjects, but they’re not because we as people don’t like thinking about our imminent deaths.
But of course, the opening line of your book is “You’re going to die.”
KB: Ha, yeah. It’s one of those things we have to deal with. Death is something that we can and should all joke about together because it is literally the only thing every single person on this planet has in common. It is the ultimate shared experience. But it also scares the shit out of most people and the only way to combat that as a group is make fun of it.
BB: In that spirit, has all this research into funerals made you think about what you’d like to have at your own funeral?
KB: I’ve wanted to be cremated for a long time, but after writing this book I realize that is really boring. There are so many cool things you can have done with your body after death, like environmentally friendly burials, or being made into a museum display. Right now I’m sticking with cremation but maybe I’ll have a bit of me made into a diamond with LifeGem, if they are still around when I shuffle of this mortal coil.
BB: So suffice it to say you liked writing the book and working with Adams Media because you’re already working on another one with them. What’s it about?
KB: I absolutely love working with Adams Media and can’t recommend them enough to any aspiring writers out there (they have a submission page on their website.) But I look at this like childbirth: I’ve forgotten how hard it was the first time around so I’m ready to do it all again. Book two is still in the pitch stage at this point, but hopefully it will be about historical secrets, like the fact that the NYC subway was originally built in complete secrecy in less than two months, and the recipe for KFC’s 11 herbs and spices is only known by two people with armed guards watching over it 24 hours a day.
BB: What’s the book you’ve reread the most?
KB: To Marry An English Lord, a very Cracked-style book about the dozens of American heiresses who married into the British aristocracy in the late 1800s. There are lots of pictures and it is hilarious. I’ve had to buy it twice because the first one fell apart from over-reading.
BB: Who are some of your biggest creative influences?
KB: I try to be as funny as English writer/actor David Mitchell and Irish comedian Dara O’Briain (yes, that is spelled right.) When it comes to writing, the editors and columnists at Cracked deserve all the credit for the way i string words together on a page.
BB: What motivates you in your writing?
KB: I can get lazy sometimes, so I know that my main motivation is that antsy feeling I get when I haven’t written something in a couple days. But you can’t go wrong with money and nice Facebook comments either.
You can pre-order Kathy Benjamin’s book on Amazon today.
Here continues part 2 of our interview with cartoonist Stephan Pastis…
KS: Since we mentioned standup comics, have you seen that HBO special, Talking Funny?
SP: I’ve seen it twice. I thought that was so fascinating.
KS: It really is. Do you think you have the same responsibility as a standup?
SP: Yeah, to put something out everyday that I find funny, which is a difficult standard. To not pander, which I am guilty of sometimes. To produce something I’ll be proud of. Ricky Gervais talks a lot about that. We all die we all go away and are forgotten, but there is the illusion we like to cling to that when we die, there is a body of work left behind that someone down the road will find instructive or influential. I think if people are honest that’s all they want. That’s what it comes down to for me, using my small field of cartooning. There’s a stream of ideas and goodness and insanity that comes from Herriman and goes through Sparky (Charles Shulz), Watterson, and Larson, and you want to somehow dip your toe in that stream. You want to carry that water forward so when the next generation comes along, you opened the door for them like Sparky did for me. I think that’s the ultimate test for an artist. Their influence. I can’t think of any higher compliment or praise than “you changed the way I work.”
KS: Have you seen the Woody Allen documentary, by the way?
SP: I have. It was great.
KS: Woody Allen made a point about how an idea is at its very best in your mind and beyond that, you just have to avoid screwing it up when you put it to paper.
SP: Ooh yeah, that’s interesting. There are all these steps that can get in the way of that instinct. If you over-rehearse it, it loses its freshness. Like Jackie Gleason in The Honey Mooners–no rehearsal. They’d have to put a stand-in for him in rehearsals. And remember, in his days, it was truly live TV. And he’d love those moments where you didn’t know what would happen, and seeing if he could recover. Those were often the best moments of the show…
I’ll tell you something too–the best advice I could give anyone who does something creative; whatever you do creatively, you have two big dividing ways you go about it. One is this voice that, whether or not you know it, is designed to make other people laugh, and it results in you trying to be funny. The other voice is you actually being funny, making yourself laugh. They sound a lot alike. You can fool yourself into believing that something is funny because you’ve put a lot of work into it and would hate to think otherwise. On the other hand, you could be at a party with your five closest friends, shooting the shit, and say something offhand in the middle of a conversation that gets the guy next to you laughing, and that’s what it’s all about. And yet, when you go to write or perform, the other voice creeps in; it’s what you should do to make people laugh. The ability to tell those two voices apart and be faithful to one voice and not the other is the difference between a hobby and a career. And to this day I struggle with it.
KS: Really? Still?
SP: All the time. Because it’s so easy to fool yourself. “Am I really laughing at it?” The best example I could give was a guy who was an animator at Pixar who invited me to tour, because he also did a comic strip and he wanted me to look at it. So this guy–super creative, now very high up–he pulls out the comic strip and it’s not very good. Now I’ll remind you he works with the best and the brightest in his field. And I said to him “so what do your colleagues think of the strip?”
He said “oh, well I haven’t shown it to them.” And that just stopped him cold. Because I asked “why not?” And he said “Because I don’t think they would think this is funny.”
And I go “Why would anybody else?”
And that was it. I could tell, the light went on. That’s learning to write to the first voice as opposed to the second.
KS: What else was I going to ask? Do you have any dating advice? (laughs)
SP: Yeah I do! Man, confidence is everything!
KS: Is it really?
SP: That is by far the most important trait. And not just in dating, in everything. God, if you are confident, people just glom onto you. It must be biological. Like that’s why you see guys who aren’t very attractive who get a lot of women. It is always confidence. You see it in stand up, boy if you don’t have confidence, the audience will eat you alive. You can’t fake that.
KS: Does that include faking it if you don’t have it?
SP: No, I think faking it gets you through a few situations but true confidence is so appealing to everybody around you. I don’t know why, but we respond really well to it and we get so mean when someone doesn’t have it. You jump on that person and tear them apart. Like, when you see a stand up who lost the audience. It’s really key. And that ties back to the thing about the two voices. That is is the key to success. That’s why I love guys like Belushi. For him, it was so clearly about making himself laugh. And it was so ridiculous. Like a samurai with a sword at a deli–that is so…odd. And if you pitched it, it would sound awful. And yet, when he does it, man it just had to make him laugh. And it works! You’d be surprised how many people are like you. The more personal something is, the more universal it is. And conversely, the more you try to reach an audience on a universal basis, the more you’ll fail.
KS: What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given
SP: Boy… it wasn’t advice so much as what the sales people said about Pearls, which was “don’t do it, it will never sell because it has no demographic. It has no determined base of people that will like it.”
Someone said it much better than I did… if you don’t come up against great resistance in your creative endeavor, you’re probably not doing something worthwhile. Like I worry if I go a long time and don’t see complaints in the paper… like I’ll then seek them. (laughs)
KS: What I’ve found is that as much as you want to bring people together, part of you just wants to fuck with people to keep them guessing.
SP: That’s a good attitude. That’ll take you far. I like reading about works of art that were resisted or considered shit in their time. Everything from Vertigo, to Kubrick’s 2001, to Gervais’ The Office, which got the lowest audience review of any show the BBC had tested. It got a zero. And I could keep going. They were all viewed as shit. Not just shit, but offensive. And they were all pioneers. So I would be very weary of anything I did that was received well by everyone when it came out.
KS: What book or movie have you revisited the most?
SP: A Confederacy of Dunces. Best comedy every written. Talk about fucked up. The author killed himself. Especially the story of how it got bought. Once again, the hallmark of something good, everyone thought it was shit and after the author was dead, his mom brought it to a professor who read it because he felt guilty, and he just started getting into it. So the university published it and it wins the Pulitzer. You know the other advice I’d give you for what field you go into–seek out as much failure as you can get. It sounds odd, but the other hallmark of a successful person, in addition to loving what they do, is everyone gets rejected for good work and bad. Successful people stack those failures up and almost enjoy them in a weird way. Like Scott Adams who does Dilbert, just kept trying different things and hoped he would hit. You’re never guaranteed acceptance, but you have to keep doing it, not blindly. You do want to adjust. The strips I did failed for a reason. That separates successful and unsuccessful.
KS: You had a great line about how one person’s success is another person’s lesson.
SP: Yeah, I might’ve said that (laughs) I think it’s really true. I learned how to do it not by asking Scott Adams how to do it. I learned how to do it by reading Dilbert. It’s all there in front of you. Hunter S. Thompson retyped and retyped The Great Gatsby.
KS: What do you do better than other people?
SP: It’s hard to say what I do better, but the thing I do that other people can’t is my voice. That is all I have. I’m just conscious of it. Everyone’s got a voice. And you need to stay true to it. The worst thing is anything related to drawing, particularly objects or things that are round.
KS: Do you have any addictions?
SP: Control. I am addicted to control.
KS: How do you like to procrastinate?
SP: I wish I didn’t, but it’s always the internet. I just go website to website. It’s just all in front of you. It’s unbelievable. One interview leads to a Jon Stewart video and that leads to Fox News video and it finally ends with that Gangnam Style dance. It’s so dumb and obscure.
There are times in life I’ve heard someone describe procrastinating as the plumbing in your house. Like you go to write and there’s nothing there for a long time. Like what a waste of the day that is. But the truth is, that nothingness was as important to getting to the water as letting the air out of the pipe that’s in front of the water. You can’t get to the water ’til the air comes out. Creatively, it’s no different.. That air is as valid as the water that sits behind it. Both are necessary for the water to get out. That nothingness is serving a purpose.
KS: What’s next for you?
SP: Hopefully more of these kids books. That has occupied all of my free time the last year and will occupy most of my free time this coming year. I’ve written one of them and I’m almost done with the second. It’s called Timmy Failure. I hope it does well because I’d love to write more of them.
KS: Do you have any hopes for a movie?
SP: Yeah, I met with an agent so we’ll see! The kid has a polar bear for a partner so it goes well for CG. (laughs)
Timmy Failure is coming out later this month. You can pre-order it now.
In the mid-1990′s, Stephan Pastis was a successful lawyer in San Francisco. It would’ve been great if it weren’t for the fact that he despised being a lawyer. To break from the stress of his day job, Pastis began cartooning at nights and on weekends and submitting comic strip ideas to syndicates across the country. Lucky for us, in 1999 Pastis finally ditched his lawyer’s suit and briefcase after a syndication deal with United Media. His strip, Pearls Before Swine, now appears worldwide in about 600 newspapers. His latest book, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, is coming out later this month.
Kevin Sheil: For starters, why do you love what you do? Why do love being a cartoonist?
Stephan Pastis: It’s one of the rare commercial art-forms where you have total control over everything. So if you’re sort of control freakish, which I think is a common denominator of most cartoonists, that’s appealing. Whatever you can think of that morning is what goes into the paper. It’s a pretty G-rated field, which can be restricting, but if you can play within those rules, you have pretty much total control.
KS: What did cartooning have that other platforms, say, novel writing, did not?
SP: I think a cartoonist is someone who has this weird combination of skills. They can write a little bit. In theory, they can draw a little bit and that’s why we choose it, or I guess it chooses us because that’s what we can do.
KS: Do cartoonists share personality types? Having met and worked with other cartoonists, is there a certain kind of person that tends to do this?
SP: Yeah, I think they’re the kind of person that, if you were in a bar and wanted to pick up women, they are the last person you’d want to be with. They are, on the whole, shy, awkward in social situations, smart, open minded. Interestingly, not always funny in person. Most people expect them to be funny and that’s rarely the case. There are a few of them that are, for sure, but most of them are not.
They are loners, by and large. You have total control in this field and by that token, you’re alone most of the time. You spend most of your day as I am now, in a room by yourself. Sometimes the only voice you hear is on the other end of a phone, when you order a sandwich from the grocery store.
KS: How does the process start for you?
SP: If I think of new ideas at home, I’ll write little notes and leave them all over the house. Then when I go to write–usually in a café–I’ll take those little notes, which are kind of step one, and then I’ll turn them into a strip. I pretty much know, based on the quality of the note, whether I’ve got something there, and then it’s just a matter of working it into something that I know is funny. If I don’t have any notes and I’m doing it cold, I’ll definitely have days where I go 3 hours and not come up with anything. Then there are other days where circumstances in the café are perfect and you can come up with 5 and it’s like you’re barely trying. The whole process is very brain chemical induced. Unfortunately so much of it is beyond your control. I try to control as much as I can, but there are going to be days where you’re just not very good.
KS: Do you usually get a family member or someone for a second opinion?
SP: No, never. I used to run them by my son and get a vote but at that point they were already done. But no, I don’t trust anyone else because if you do that and you listen to the person, inevitably that person is going to become your coauthor. If I were to run it by somebody, I would subconsciously try to please them, so it wouldn’t be my strip; it would be our strip, and I don’t want that. The beauty of the comic strip is, it’s so individualistic. It’s just you. So the weirdness in my head, or the strange predispositions all come out. Sometimes for good, sometimes for bad, but always my voice.
KS: I read the story of when you met Charles Schulz. You were still a lawyer at this point, and you took the day off work to meet him. Why that day?
SP: I was in the middle of a terrible, shitty case. It was the only time I was ever a plaintiffs lawyer and there were like 20 defense lawyers against us. It was just one nightmarish day after another. I had read an article in an independent weekly paper in San Francisco about CS, and it was about what he’s doing these days. It mentioned that he was going to this café each day to have his breakfast and the café was attached to this ice rink. So I asked my wife directions and took the day off work–which may have been literally the only day I just plain took off work–just on the off chance that the article was right and that he would be there. He didn’t show up for an hour and then he finally did.
KS: What’d he say to you?
SP: I waited for him to finish his breakfast and then I knelt beside his table and said “Hi Mr. Schulz, I’m Stephan Pastis and I’m an attorney.”
He was taken aback because he thought he was being served with a subpoena. And then I said “I also cartoon.” And the minute he heard that, he cleared off the seat next to him and we sat together and we talked for an hour. It was unbelievable how kind he was. And he asked if I had my stuff, which was very nerve-racking. He was very nice, despite my shitty drawings and we took a picture together. He gave me advice on it and, yeah, it was crazy…
I’ll tell you a story I don’t usually tell…When I got syndicated, when I signed the contract, so I wasn’t in papers–I wasn’t even close to papers–my editor who was also Schulz’s editor invited me to meet him (Shulz) at this big Peanuts ice skating show they did every December.
So I said “yeah, I’ll go,” but as fate would have it, Sparky (Shulz’s nickname) had just checked into the hospital for cancer. He was dying. It looked like he wasn’t going to be there for the show. I told the editor I was going to go anyways because it looked like it’d be fun. And lo and behold, it turns out that day he got out of the hospital. And I was with his editor so I got to talk to him, which was a thrill in and of itself, but what was really weird was that Sparky’s daughter walked up to me and the editor and said “I got tickets for the show sitting next to Dad, but I’ve seen this a million times so do you guys want them?” and I said “yeah!” (laughs)
So I went from not thinking I was gonna see Sparky at all to sitting next to him the entire show, and when it was over, he turned to me–and the audience was all applauding to You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown–and he turned to me and he said “you do that,” which I took to mean create a character that people like like that. But then he said “you do that for the next 50 years,” and he just started crying. It was no reflection on me as a cartoonist. He didn’t even remember that he had met me and he hadn’t seen the strip that got syndicated. It was just a weird thing to say to somebody who, as far as he knew, was never gonna be in papers and it was so unforgettable, especially the fact that he was crying. It was one of those crazy “how did i get here” sort of moments.
KS: I distinctly remember when he died, when I was in about 4th grade and the only comparable thing was when Mr. Rogers died. Just two people who were such a huge part of my childhood. And it effects you in ways that you don’t even realize.
SP: You know whats really weird too, he always said that he would not outlive the strip because he didn’t know what else to do. Like there’s a famous moment of him–he had a little beatnik faze in the 60’s–and he would hang out in San Francisco with hippies, which, for the straight-laced Schulz, is eye opening. They would play this game where they asked “if you weren’t doing the job you’re doing, what would you be doing” and they got to Sparky and he said in an earnest way, “if I wasn’t doing the strip? Well I’d be dead.” Which killed the room, I think (laughs) That was his life. And wouldn’t you know it, on the night he died, literally as he died, that last strip was being printed. He dies with the strip.
KS: Maybe that’s a nice question for you. If it wasn’t for Pearls, would you still be doing law?
SP: Yeah, I think I would’ve, because I don’t know what my out would’ve been. I guess I would never have believed that anything I did creatively mattered enough or would have been good enough to succeed. Now I’m doing all sorts of stuff. The big thing is this novel I have coming out in February. That was a huge departure for me, and I hope one day that I can do more of that, because I like writing more than I like drawing. So I’d like to do that in my next incarnation.
KS: Pearls is going to be 10 years in, which is a hell of a relationship…
SP: I will have done it for 11 years.
KS: You beat Bill Watterson.
SP: That’s crazy. He stopped at 10, huh.
KS: How’s the marriage with your strip and is the spark still there? Do you ever get the hankering to put it in another medium?
SP: Oh yeah. I wrote a whole Pearls screenplay and went round and round with studios twice in terms of getting it made. Again, they didn’t give me the control I wanted, so I didn’t do it. I loved writing the screenplay. I loved writing the novel. I think with Pearls, there’s a natural end to it. I don’t think I could go 50 years like Sparky did. I think a more natural end is somewhere in the 15 to 20 year range. There are parts of the strip that tire me sometimes, that I know people like, and it’s tempting to give them what they like.
KS: That would be so maddening, I would think.
SP: It is. The funny part is, if you give them what they want, but you’re bored by it eventually, they’ll be bored by it. Like the crocodiles kind of ran away with the strip and I don’t really think of strip as being “the crocodile strip,” but people like it, so I’m in the process of making a storyline that puts them in new story lines and stuff. And I think if you’re creative and you’re not doing that, you’re probably stagnating. You have to constantly challenge yourself. My model for that is always Bob Dylan. You look at his career and he was constantly shifting things up for whatever reason. He never stayed still and there’s a great quote from him–“Being an artist is to be constantly in the state of becoming.”
KS: When it comes to doing anything creative, it takes a little bit of an ego to put your work out there and expect people to take the time to read it. When did you feel like you had that?
SP: On my first rejection from an editor at Kings Features, the editor said I had a voice. Before that day, I had nothing. I was just a guy who cartooned for his high school newspaper. When I got that, that’s when it became something that might not just be a dream, but could be a reality. I look at that moment as more exciting than when I found out I got syndicated.
KS: Have you had much brush back from readers? Occasionally you’ll parody other comics, do you hear back from any authors?
SP: Yes. Like the one I do the most often is Family Circus. People always run to their defense. I’ve been to both of their houses and Bill Keane had what most would call the most offensive one I did framed in his studio. Jeff (his son), I visited his home last week. We’ve gone on USO trips, Germany twice, Kuwait. Jeff is like a brother to me. When people get offended, it’s so absurd. That’s not how cartoonists feel. It’s a surprisingly collegial field. Especially when you realize it’s a zero sum game. Like I only succeed at someone’s loss. And you wouldn’t know that at the get-togethers. They’re surprisingly kind. I think it’s because we are so strange and insecure and alone. When you’re at these get-togethers, you can look at the person next to you and say that you hate looking at that blank sheet of paper. That you have nothing that day. That you’re afraid you’ll never recapture it. If I say that to a stranger they say “what?” If I say it to cartoonists, they finish my sentence. That insane, odd profession bonds you more than the realities of the zero sum game.
KS: I was going to say, “what cartoonist’s work has inspired you,” but I’ll open this up to all creators.
SP: Yeah, that’s the way more interesting question. There’s so many of them. I was watching a documentary on Hunter S. Thompson yesterday, and it just made me want to have a career that had as much integrity and individualism as that. Hemingway is the same way for me. Early Letterman. Early SNL–Mr. Bill, Belushi, Chuck Jones. The Honeymooners–that influenced me. How you make a comedy in one room with four strong characters? Showed you how little you need to be funny. The funniest guy now, to me, is Zach Galifianakis. Specifically, it’s not the movies he’s in but its those things he does called Between Two Ferns. I will watch those over and over. That to me is the essence of comedy. I’ve never seen anybody get timing down like that. If you watch those little shorts, the second he goes out is not a frame too soon or too late.
KS: I was infatuated with Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. After Peanuts, it was something I got into. I loved those books. But he retired early… what are your thoughts on the strip or the man?
SP: You know it’s funny. I learned recently that he learned who I am and I was so thrilled to hear that.
KS: How’d you hear that.
SP: In a weird back-way ‘cause my editor was at his house and that was so thrilling. With Watterson, it’s difficult because I think most cartoonists will tell you this. Everybody places him on the pedestal for the cartoon, deservedly so. He influenced all of us. Talk about someone who combines writing and drawing. I think in terms of the person, most of us are sad that he chose to be as reclusive as he did. I sort of understand it because he’d be mobbed and I get that everyone makes their own choices.
I think the model is Sparky. He showed up to the Reubens. He picked up his award, unlike Watterson. He was there to talk to whoever–like me in a café. And nobody will ever–including Watterson–be as successful as Sparky. In 1969, Sparky was on top of the entertainment world. That guy has space capsules named after him and he could still sit down with me and talk. I think a lot of us feel sad that Watterson and Larson didn’t want to be a part. I think it makes us all sad because we want to like him. Again he has every right to do it the way he did it. And Sparky was the model.
KS: And Watterson was a huge Peanuts fan.
SP: Yeah, so that reclusiveness, we don’t understand it and wish it wasn’t the case. Same with Larson. For me, Larson was the pinnacle of comedy in my field. If there was a ranking, Larson is 1, 2, 3, and someone else is 4. He’s so high up there. I even tried to meet him but his wife turned it down. That was really a bummer but that’s the way it goes. We had Sparky and he wasn’t that way, and we should be thankful for that.
Part two of this interview will be up next week…
I’ve been watching a lot of the web series Hate by Numbers lately. In each episode, the show’s creator, Gladstone, takes some irritating news story, music video, or movie trailer that has hijacked the public’s attention and counts off all the things that make it ridiculous. A personal favorite of mine is his take on the country song “Stop the Mosque at Ground Zero.” Back when the Ground Zero mosque debate was dominating the news cycle, he also wrote about it in his column at Cracked.com and in both cases, his analysis was funny and insightful enough to almost make me grateful that this stupid debate existed.
In addition to Hate by Numbers and Cracked, he’s coming out with his premiere novel, Notes From the Internet Apocalypse, later this year. In this interview, we discuss his column and his book among other things.
Brendan Bourque-Sheil: One challenge of writing for a big website like Cracked is producing content that will be relevant to a large audience. Many of your columns center around politics and pop culture. Do you write on these subjects to be relevant to your audience or just because that’s where your mind goes in looking for material?
Gladstone: Writing for Cracked is usually about finding the shaded part of the Venn Diagram where the audience’s and my interests meet. The politics columns, however, were for me.
BB: Describe the process of writing your Cracked column each week. How do you know when it’s ready to go live?
Gladstone: I have a folder of half-formed ideas. At the beginning of the week, I start pondering a topic or seeing if there’s an idea floating around in there. I work it during the week while riding public transportation. When I have five or more list entries or two thousand words, it’s done. That might sound like I don’t care, but you have to keep in mind that as I write, I constantly rewrite each paragraph before going on to the next. Also, when picking a topic, I’m already thinking of ways to frame subjects so that they come out to five-ish entries or two thousand words. A lot of the work is done up front in how to conceptualize the piece.
BB: As a freelance writer, you’re expected to conform your style to whatever publication you’re writing for. Has adapting your voice for sites like Cracked and McSweeney’s helped or hindered you in the development of your own voice?
Gladstone: That’s an excellent question. Because I’ve been writing at Cracked for so long and am a columnist, I don’t have to conform to a specific voice. Cracked has always afforded me a good amount of freedom. Having said that, I’m writing to an audience that Cracked has cultivated and honed for years now with very specific content and style. So while I write like me, often, I do package my stuff in a way that that will be accepted by that audience. Sometimes, I don’t worry about that though. It’s good for the soul to break that convention.
It took me a long time to learn the McSweeneys voice and I definitely had to conform to their mindset to get published consistently there. That is a magazine’s right, but yes, I found it limiting. And I don’t know if it’s true, but I was afraid to write too much for McSweeney’s for fear it would mess up my voice. Indeed, even though I’ve loved the Onion, I rarely read it because I’m afraid I’ll start thinking in only that kind of humor.
BB: Last year you wrote a column about the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It ended on a fairly serious note which I’ll quote here:
“Don’t fabricate excuses for our leaders. Look what has happened straight in the face and say that you’re totally fine with it. In fact, scream it. Scream it loud enough to wake all the journalists who aren’t reporting. All the liberals concerned only with wedge issues and greater evils. All the patriots who forgot to keep fighting. Scream it loud enough to pierce the sleep of anyone who dreamed that they could rest their heads with indifference and still wake up in America.”
Did you see this piece as a departure from the kind of columns you normally do on Cracked? What motivated you to write it?
Gladstone: I think NDAA is the scariest thing to happen in America in my lifetime. Even scarier, no one cares. Scarier still, ultra libs who are usually the watchdogs of Constitutional abuses are so in love with Obama, it’s hard to imagine what transgression he could engage in and be called out about in the press. Romney would have signed NDAA too, but my liberal friends would be pissed off about it. I wrote that because I felt I had to. I ran it on Cracked instead of elsewhere because I wanted to educate a large audience. I’m not sure that was the right choice. Perhaps, I should have tried to publish at a smaller site of more politically-minded people. I’m still not sure.
BB: What are some subjects you’d like to write about in the coming year?
Gladstone: Boobs, mostly.
BB: Who are some writers you cite as your biggest creative influences?
Gladstone: I really don’t know. I love Franz Kafka. I’m a big fan of Jonathan Franzen. Michael Chabon is clearly gifted. I’m not sure any of them are big influences though. Monty Python are the only ones I feel comfortable citing as influences because I’ve known Python since I was five so I did not have a voice when I was exposed to them.
BB: Who are some of your favorite writers on Cracked?
Gladstone: I don’t have any favorites. I appreciate different things about each of them. They each have so much to offer even if none of them are as talented as I am sexually.
BB: Has your approach to making your web series Hate by Numbers changed since it became a viewer-supported show?
Gladstone: Only in one way. It’s more important to me than ever that each episode be as good as I can make it. I always took pride in HBN, but with people paying for it, I feel added pressure to maintain quality.
BB: Your book, Notes From the Internet Apocalypse is (as far as I know) expected to come out later this year. How has writing a long, fictional piece differed from writing the short, non-fiction pieces you normally do in your freelance work?
Gladstone: I signed with an agent at the end of 2012. She’ll either sell it this year or I’ll self publish so yeah it’s coming out in 2013 one way or the other.
Notes is a novel. Even when I did it as a serialized novella on Cracked. I sat down and outlined and framed it as a novel. As far as putting it on Cracked, I cut it down from 12 parts to 9 because as it got more character-driven, it was harder to frame in a way for the Cracked audience.
BB: When you spoke at the Edmonton Expo last year, you said your book has a lot to do with internet addiction. What compelled you to write on this subject?
Gladstone: The whole novel sprung from a freewriting. The first paragraph of the novel is not very different from what first poured out of me. At first, I made the protagonist older because I wanted him to remember life without the Internet and satirize all the foolish kids who didn’t’ know how to live without it. I soon realized, however, it would be more interesting if he were addicted too. More interesting still if he didn’t realize it.
BB: The book explores what people do in the sudden absence of the internet. If the internet really did disappear tomorrow, what would you do?
Gladstone: Buy a road atlas.
You can follow Gladstone on twitter. Look for his novel later this year.
Like the character he plays, Chase Williamson got thrown into a pretty unbelievable circumstance when he landed the part of Dave in the upcoming comedy/horror film John Dies at the End. He’d never done a feature-length film before and suddenly he was sitting across the table from Paul Giamatti, working under the direction of horror legend Don Coscarelli. Fortunately, he happened to be a horror movie aficionado and to have plenty of experience with comedy in his own right (he performs regularly as part of the sketch group Bowling for Tiffany). We talked yesterday about his work on the film and what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Brendan Bourque-Sheil: Were you a fan of horror movies before you did this?
Chase Williamson: Oh yeah. I’m a lifelong horror fan. And a big horror/comedy fan as well. I was a fan of Bubba Ho-Tep in my early high school years. I got Army of Darkness for Christmas when I was ten or eleven. I loved it and I got really into Evil Dead. I don’t know what about it appeals to me. I guess just the subversive humor of all of it. When I heard that the Bubba Ho-Tep guy was doing a movie, I was really scared and intimidated and then I read the script and just got obsessed with it. It’s definitely exactly what I wanted to do–like exactly.
BB: Did you feel like you really connected with the character of Dave?
CW: Yeah, I just remember reading the script and saying to my roommate and friends, who are actors, “This is me. I don’t understand.” Even the writing style–I do a lot of sketch comedy and I write a lot of really weird sketches–the tone of it was such a perfect match for me. I couldn’t believe it was real. It seemed like I had written it in another dimension. It was really weird. But people feel like that about roles all the time. I didn’t think I was going to get the job, so when that happened, it was crazy.
BB: It’s interesting–I know the author David Wong loves Phantasm, so it must’ve been pretty crazy for him when he heard Coscarelli was interested in adapting his book. It seems so weird that everybody else was kind of in the same camp.
CW: Yeah, it’s like from all sides. Very serendipitous. The stars definitely aligned on my end.
BB: Was there any challenge for you as an actor switching between horror and comedy and maintaining a consistency in your performance?
CW: Not really. The tone is so specific in the script and in the book. It was pretty easy to get. It doesn’t really switch from comedy to horror from my perspective. The comedy sort of comes from the character’s attitude towards what is going on.
BB: What do you think are some specific strengths required for the kind of acting in this film?
CW: Timing first of all, because there’s a very specific rhythm to the script and the dialogue. But also, there’s so much crazy shit happening to me the whole time that just going in with an attitude of abandoning all logic and diving into the circumstances of whatever’s happening is the only way to do it. You can’t get distracted by the zaniness of all of it when a mustache bat is supposed to be biting your face.
BB: Since you brought up the mustache bats, was there a lot of you having to react on the set to computerized visual effects that weren’t even there when you were shooting?
CW: Well a lot of them were practical, which is really awesome as an actor to have. It’s also awesome just to see how the art department can make that shit happen. Like with the mustache bat, a mustache rips off this guy’s face and starts flapping around in the movie. They had this fake mustache with this gore under it, and this guy just tied fishing wire to the end of it and puppeteered it a little bit. It gave me a lot to work off of and it was really cool to just see all the artistry that goes into that.
BB: Yeah wow. There must be a lot of underrated geniuses in the prop and art departments of low budget films.
CW: Yeah, like we had this baseball bat with nails in it that got lost or something and then they just melted together a bunch of plastic and made an exact replica of it in like twenty minutes. Just created it out of nothing.
BB: So what was it like working with Paul Giamatti in your first feature length film?
CW: The fact that it didn’t seem real made me not afraid. It was hard to even get nervous about it because it was hard to believe that the guy I was sitting across from was this guy that I’d been a fan of for all this time, who matched the idea I had of him in my head, because he’s a really down-to-earth dude. Looking back, I can say “wow that was incredible,” and it was amazing watching him work, but it wasn’t this big scary thing at the time.
BB: I’ve heard Coscarelli say in an interview he’ll do five to eight takes of something if he knows exactly what he wants and fifteen to twenty if he doesn’t. Did you end up doing a ton of takes for every scene?
CW: I never felt like it was an excessive amount of takes. I’ve definitely done other shoots where people were getting excessive coverage. He taught me something that was really helpful. He said to do one take small, then do one broader take, and then do one take for yourself–have fun with it and see what happens. Usually if you only have three takes, one of those will work. I felt at the time like I had such a clear idea of what I wanted to do with every single part of the script, because I was so into it. I wish I had given him a little more variety.
BB: What are some of the things that you do physically to embody the character of Dave?
CW: Well it was right after I graduated from college and people kept telling me I needed to get ripped to work as an actor. So I was trying to work out a lot around the time I got the part and then once I got the part I didn’t do that anymore. I just drank a lot of beer and started smoking a lot more cigarettes, because he’s kind of a slacker. I didn’t want to look like some douche from the movies. I just wanted to look as slobby as possible.
BB: That is one of the most casual descriptions of method acting I’ve ever heard.
CW: (laughs) Yeah, it worked out. It was all things I loved to do. And then I had to get out of that after it was over, which was hard.
BB: What were some of the biggest challenges in shooting for this film?
CW: I don’t know if I’d call it a challenge, but definitely a point of education was seeing how a set works. I had no idea how anything worked, none of lingo or any of that. So soaking all that in while also trying to do my job was kind of an overload but it was cool. I learned a lot in a really short amount of time. It was just sort of challenging to maintain my focus when I was in awe of everything around me.
BB: What’s a scene where the final product looks drastically different than what you were working with the day of the shoot?
CW: I really like the way the epilogue turned out. You’ll know when you see it. There’s this part where it ends and then there’s sort of the beginning of the next chapter as the credits come up. The aesthetic that they captured for that wasn’t really how I imagined it, but it was hilarious and amazing. And it’s cut in between the credits, so it’s all this comic timing within the editing that I never pictured.
I’ve seen the film five or six times now in the different festivals I’ve gone to and every time I watch it, it’s been a little bit longer since I did it, so I kind of bother myself more every time I see it. But I love the movie. I’m proud of it. I want to do another one so I can come at it from where I am now instead of having to watch myself two years ago.
BB: What was it like working with Doug Jones?
CW: Oh my God. Have you met him? He is literally the sweetest, nicest, warmest–almost cartoonishly warm, but genuinely warm–person I’ve ever met in my life. And watching the kind of stuff he can do with his body is insane. I’m definitely not a physical actor. My weaknesses in college were definitely in movement class, so watching someone who’s an expert with what I struggle with is crazy. Just the tiniest movements that he can make speak volumes. It’s really nuts to watch. But he’s also just a really good actor. And then he’s the sweetest man ever and anyone who you ever talk to who’s worked with him–an he’s worked a lot–will say he’s the nicest man in the world.
BB: What is something you learned from filming John Dies at the End?
CW: I think I learned to completely commit to everything that I do. The fact that it was so appealing to me in all those ways and I was a fan of everything about it–I really, really became obsessed with it. I read the script over and over and over again. I thought about it all the time. I think to really be successful in any role, you need to do that, even if it’s not something that you’re immediately attracted to. You need to find a way to let it matter that much to you. And it’s hard to do that, but I think that’s the key.
You can see John Dies at the End through your local video On Demand provider this December. It will be coming to a theater near you in January.
Eliza Skinner says she envies people in the entertainment industry who can just pick one craft and stick with it, but her more all-over-the-map approach certainly made my job as an interviewer easier. It’s hard to be at a loss for questions when you’re talking to someone who is lauded for her improv, standup, writing, acting, and freestyle rap battles, among other things. When Eliza’s not teaching and performing musical improv at the UCB Theater, writing scripts, and acting in videos, she can be seen co-hosting the weekly standup show Magic Bag with DC Pierson. In fact, the only real challenge on my side of the interview was figuring out how to cover such a vast and varied talent in one 40-minute Skype session. We talked last Sunday afternoon and what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Brendan Bourque-Sheil: You’re hosting Magic Bag in a couple hours right?
Eliza Skinner: I am, yeah.
BB: How’s it been, doing it every week?
ES: It’s been fun. I really like working with DC and having to do a show every week kind of forces you to write new material. I’m not always great about writing new material for every show, but it does kind of motivate me to add some new stuff. It’s really low stakes, low pressure. It’s not something we invite industry to. We don’t tape there. It’s just a place where it’s safe to try new stuff out. It’s been really more fun than anything.
BB: You do standup, improv, acting and script-writing. What do you think is the advantage of having a split focus and doing a lot of things at the same time?
ES: For me the advantage has been momentum. When I try to focus on just one thing, I feel very dragged down and stuck. A few years ago, I remember having a meeting with a manager and she was like “well, are you gonna be an actor or a writer? You have to pick one.” And I was like “oh, okay, she knows what she’s talking about,” so I decided to just focus on writing. I couldn’t just do acting. I would be very uncomfortable not being able to generate my own material, having to wait to have somebody call me. So I tried just being a writer and writing just one kind of thing. I couldn’t do it. I would just sit there and stare at my computer. And while there is something to having some discipline and pushing through those moments, I’ve found that when I’m busy, I stay busy. If I go to a show, when I come home, I’m kind of jazzed up and I don’t want to just watch TV; I’ll sit down and write something. And if I’ve been writing all day, I want to go out and do some new standup jokes. And if I want to interact with other people, I can do improv.
BB: So it’s kind of an overall mindset changer to have these different things to do.
ES: Yeah, and for a long time I was like “be a good girl, chain yourself to the desk, and do the work you’ve assigned yourself.” Then I realized that just depressed me so much. (laughs) I couldn’t work that way. I kind of have to zigzag all around and likewise my career has zigzagged all around. I very much envy the people who know the exact one thing they want and just go after that, because they reach it much quicker.
BB: Yeah, but I guess it’s not altogether natural for most people. What if DC hadn’t written a novel just because that’s not conventionally what improv/sketch comedians do? That perception seems kind of dated–that you have to choose one thing.
ES: Yeah, I think it is too. As I said, I did talk to that one manager who told me that and that was a few years ago. Now, I feel like it is seen as an advantage; those are the types people want to work with and it’s exciting because the finished product that they make is more multifaceted. Like DC’s stuff–his book at one point had a playlist that went along with it and that’s going to inform when it becomes a movie. If he was just a novelist sitting in a room, writing a book, I don’t think that he would have even thought to explore all those different avenues. I think you’re right; it is very dated to just do one thing, unless that’s what you want to do, in which case that’s fine. My sister is an actress and that’s all she wanted to do and all she does and she hit it really early.
BB: Yeah, you grew up with that, right? With her auditioning and stuff?
BB: Did that sort of shape you and what you’re doing now?
ES: Yeah, definitely. It probably almost held me back in ways because, you know, I had little sister stuff where I was like “oh, I’m not gonna be like her.” Just, any things that a little sister would see in a big sister and go “ew,” were things I equated with actors. When in fact, I’m a performer. I should’ve just gone with it. Finally, I had to be like “oh those are decisions you made when you were a child. You can let go of those decisions now.”
BB: Did you see yourself as anything creative? Did you see yourself as a writer or a performer in any capacity in those years?
ES: I didn’t know about all the jobs that were available. I knew about acting because of my sister and I knew about musical theater, so I liked those. I wanted to be an actor or maybe a director, but mostly an actor. But the whole time, I was writing. I used to write funny stories all the time when I was a kid and win little prizes for funny stories and I loved comedy. It took me a long time to realize that jobs like sketch comedy were real jobs and that I was better at them than just anybody would be, because, you know, everybody’s funny. Everybody jokes around. So, to think that you’re better at it than everybody else isn’t most people’s first thought. It’s like saying “I’m better at breathing. I’ll do that for a living. I’m gonna be a professional breather.”
BB: (laughs) So for you, when was the turning point of realizing that you were better at it than the average person?
ES: I went to school in this little college town and there wasn’t anything else there besides the school, so there wasn’t any form of entertainment besides the local improv group. And one of my housemates wanted to go audition for this group. They would have auditions once a year and between one and two hundred people would show up. They took all day and they would just eliminate people until they had gotten down to just a few, and out of all of those people, my roommate and I got cast. I’d never seen them perform. I had just gone to keep my roommate company and I had no idea that I was going to be good at it, so I instantly was like “whoa improv! That’s my thing!” And I went online and found out about improv festivals and tried to get the whole group to go and they wouldn’t, so I just drove myself to an improv festival halfway across the country. It was great. Then after college, I was like “well, I’m done with that. I’m gonna be an agent.”
ES: Yeah, absolutely. I thought I was going to be a talent agent. Did that for four months.
BB: What is the career path for that? Did you Google “how to be a talent agent?”
ES: Well my sister was an actor so I was like “do you know any agents?” And she was like “I know mine. You can go be his assistant.” So that’s what I did. I stayed there for four months and it was the worst. It was not fun at all. Possibly, being an adult with a job was shockingly unfun to me at that point, but it was pretty bad, so I stopped working there and started working at a hotel. But I thought, “I shouldn’t live in NewYork just to work at a hotel. What could I do to make it worthwhile?”
And I remembered improv, so I started taking improv classes again. I took a couple improv classes–like one class with a few sessions–and I wasn’t crazy about it, but then they were having auditions for their touring company so I just showed up. I got an audition and I got cast again out of a lot of people. I just kept falling into improv and having it work out very easily without a lot of effort, so I thought “what if I actually put effort into this? What if I tried,” which, in your early twenties is not a cool thing to do, but I decided to really give it a shot. The part I always liked the most was the musical improv stuff–improvising whole musicals or even just songs. Because I had grown up doing musical theater, I kind of had those pathways in my brain already, so it was fun and easy.
BB: Was there ever, at that beginning stage, a confidence issue? To have never done it before and to just jump in and be like “oh, I’m really good at this…”
ES: I’m sure a little bit. You kind of learn some things as craft, growing up doing musical theater. Things like where you look–that your eyes should go right above everybody’s heads, that you should stand up straight–all these things that basically ape confidence. I learned that no matter how you feel, once you get on stage, you do these things and that creates a certain level of confidence, which ended up being a huge boon to me with improv and is actually something I teach in my classes now. I would’ve walked around looking like I was terrified to be on stage as any sane human would be. But I also really have this (laughs)…thing with fear. If I notice fear, I kind of grab onto it and go after it…
BB: Like in an aggressive way?
ES: Yeah, like “oh, that thing scares me? Well then I’m gonna do that thing.” It’s almost like a childish approach to fear. Not with physical stuff, like I’m not going to jump out of a plane, but the way that I act and who I interact with and how I interact with them. That idea of fear is kind of a motivator for me and it’s a challenge. In any kind of improv, I love being given those challenges and having to figure them out and figure out “well how do I do a whole song that rhymes and has feeling to it?” It’s a fun little game for my brain to unpack. I was always far more distracted by that than by any kind of terror or insecurity.
BB: You said when you were on A Bit of a Chat with Ken Plume that you really liked being around people who inspire you in your work. Could you talk about how and why that’s important to you?
ES: Yeah well, it’s fun to bounce ideas off of people. When you’re with funny people and you’re joking around, you’re coming up with ideas that can be used other places. I love it when that is the way standup is done. A good friend of mine–Baron Vaughn, hilarious standup–you’ll be hanging out with him and you’ll say something funny and he’s like “that’s a bit. Write it down right now.”
And I’ve started doing that to people also. You get up on stage and try to make those little snippets of things from conversations into whole standup bits, which makes you feel like your general funniness isn’t for naught. You’re not losing those little thoughts you have all day that you would lose if someone wasn’t sitting across from you saying “hey, write that down.”
Also, seeing what people are capable of helps me. I feel like a lot of people have a very negative connotation with the idea of competition. I think competition is great. When I see one of my friends doing some new, cool thing, I’m like “oh, that’s a thing we can do?” Like with DC (Pierson), it’s like “we can write a novel?” It opens these doors you wouldn’t have thought of.
BB: You’ve said that emotion is very important to musical improv. How do you access it consistently?
ES: Oh, by being a raw nerve of a human being. (laughs) I’m joking but it’s a little bit true. I just try to remember emotional experiences. In my classes I get people to sing songs about things that are important to them. Sometimes those are dark things and sometimes those are small things, but if they’re important to somebody, then there’s a lot of feeling attached. I don’t think there’s any point to having a song that is about something you don’t care about. Nobody sings songs like (singing halfheartedly) “yeah I have an old box in my room and I should get rid of it,” unless they can attach some meaning. It’s music; it’s essentially just emotion heightened.
BB: The thing you brought up about remembering emotions made me think of method acting, where you remember a sad moment in your life to bring out an emotional performance. Does that actually come up a lot?
ES: Oh yeah. For me, I’ve been doing it so long, I don’t still have to make associations with certain people and instances. I just kind of have buttons in my head that trigger certain emotions. It’s like there’s a getting-broken-up-with button, and a feeling-lost-and-abandoned button. But when I first started out, it was a lot of going to those specific times and places and feeling those feelings. It’s very cathartic and there’s some crazy in there too. I’ve dated people I’ve performed with and I remember doing a scene in a musical improv one time about a boy who had to give up his cow. I was playing the cow and my ex-boyfriend was playing the boy and suddenly the audience was like “what is going on? The boy and the cow are both crying but they both want each other to have good lives…” It just got real messy. So I’m glad I’ve moved past that.
BB: So do you think that doing musical improv is a little more imparting of yourself than doing standup? Because I would think it would be the other way around.
ES: It is the other way around. Well…as far as content goes, it’s the other way around. Like when I’m doing standup I’m saying things that actually happened to me, but with musical improv, I am kind of turning myself inside out a little bit. Like people can see what’s going on inside me in a different way than they can with standup…
BB: A less informational part of you.
ES: Yeah. More like “oh this is the goop that makes up you.” (laughs) “And I don’t know what the goop means or spells, but I can see what shape and viscosity the goop is,” to make it more complicated.
BB: (laughs) What are some of your favorite characters to play?
ES: The worst ones. The terrible people. I really like the baddies, because I feel like those are the parts of us that everybody’s scared of. Nobody thinks they’re the bad guy but everybody’s worried they’re the bad guy. Know what I mean?
BB: Yeah, I’ve noticed it’s a lot of people who don’t know they’re really bad people.
ES: Yeah, well I think most people who are really bad people don’t know. Everyone thinks they have reasons for doing what they do and if they could just explain it to everybody, then everybody would get it. And I think, like many of us, I’m scared that at my heart I’m just a bad person, just a sea-witch of a human, so, to get close to that and explore that is really fun, and I think that it’s fun for audiences. It’s also fun as a woman because so many of the parts that are created for us from a male gaze are women who are just plot points, rather than characters. Or they’re just kind of black and white–either very, very good, or just pointlessly terrible. So, playing somebody who’s bad but complicated, and for a reason, and just shamelessly ugly, is really fun.
BB: Who are some of the comedians you really liked when you were younger?
ES: Fozzie Bear.
ES: I didn’t know that he was a bad comedian. I just liked that he got to go on stage, delivered punchlines and then said “waka waka.”
BB: So you liked his punchlines unironically?
ES: Yeah, I always liked the rhythm of comedy. I think that happens with a lot of people, at least musical people. Even when you’re too young to get the comedy, you understand the rhythm of it. Like “da dum, da dum, da dum.” I loved The Young Ones. It was more gross and terrible people living together. I loved French and Saunders. I always loved Jennifer Saunders–Ab Fab. She’s really great and, again, creates these unlikable characters and then makes you like them. I remember really liking Ellen Degeneres and her whimsy and her stream-of-consciousness stuff. And I loved Steve Martin, Bill Cosby–those were albums that I had and would listen to. I liked Monty Python a lot. I had a bunch of Python albums, specifically the music that they would have on their shows and that was probably a big influence. I don’t think I’m that absurdists but I think a lot of the people I liked were pretty absurd and character-based. Loved Martin Short. Big Dana Carvey fan.
BB: Where do your tastes go now?
ES: Honesty. People talking about how they actually feel, so Louis CK. I like a lot of my contemporaries, like people who are a couple steps ahead of me like Kumail Nanjiani, Pete Holmes, Hannibal Buress. It’s hard to just name a couple names, because it’s kind of like asking “what foods do you like?” I can name a lot of foods that I like but I’m eating all day long. I’m listening to comedy, going to see comedy…I fell like it’s all pretty relevant and exciting.
BB: Is honesty something you try for in your own standup?
ES: Yeah. One of my pet peeves is hearing people say they did something on stage that they definitely didn’t do. Like if they’re like “this dog came up to me and I punched him in his face and stole his collar.” You didn’t do that. I would find it much more interesting if you said “and I wanted to punch him in his face and steal his collar.’” That distinction is pretty important to me. But even when people are being absurd and silly, I feel like if they’re really letting themselves connect with the audience somehow so we’re like “oh you’re making that all up, but I feel like you’re really letting us know you,” I still really appreciate that.
You can see Eliza’s standup at Magic Bag, every Sunday at 8pm, at The Little Modern Theater in Hollywood, CA.
Maybe it’s the fact that when I talked to Tom Shillue he’d just landed a surprise booking on Jimmy Fallon for later that day, but he gave a pretty excited interview. His answers were long and comprehensive, with the same kind of streamlined precision he brings to the comedy clubs, and by the end of our talk, I thought “yeah, I could definitely see this guy being able to come up with twelve albums in twelve months.” On November 6th, Shillue will release an album (entitled Better, Stronger, Faster) that he assembled in a matter of weeks. Then, he’ll repeat this process every month, until the year runs out, or, until his head explodes–whichever comes first. He’s bringing together old and new material, recording his storyteller standup in every kind of venue from the giant theaters where he opens for Jim Gaffigan to the tiny clubs where comics go to work out. I called him last Wednesday to talk about this momentous project and what follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Brendan Bourque-Sheil: So, twelve albums in twelve months. Has anyone told you yet that this sounds insane?
Tom Shillue: Yeah, other comics have. Hopefully this will impress more than just other comedians but, yeah, a lot of my peers are like “really?” I had the idea originally that I would do five albums. I had plenty of material to do five, but then there was extra material and I thought “you know what, I could do ten.” Then I thought, “wait a minute, since we’re doing ten, let’s just do twelve.”
BB: How much of this is pulling from material you already have and how much is planning ahead to write on the fly?
TS: It’s probably half and half. I could probably dump out six albums tomorrow from shows I’ve done, because I record all my sets. But at times I’ve done shows like Whiplash at UCB, where I’ll go perform a story based on something that happened in the week or whatever. And it will be like 20 minutes of new material that I’ll perform that night and then just leave and never do again. So, I thought I could probably do albums out of this material–take those stories, go back and work them up. I only have a few weeks so, I go out on stage, record it, see if it works, and if it does, put it on the album. If not, rework it and do it again. Sometimes I think I do better material when I’m under the gun.
BB: So, right now, how far into this twelve album series are you?
TS: I’ve got two done. I’ve got a bunch of files I haven’t even listened to yet of my recorded live shows, then I’ve got stuff in GarageBand. And then I have notes for sets I’ll be doing that hopefully will be making the albums. The third album is in GarageBand now, and that has to be released in early January, so I’m going to get that to my guy at BC Media as soon as possible. I’m sure this whole year is going to be a major headache for my guy who is releasing the albums. He’ll be calling me late at night all the time but hopefully we’ll stay ahead.
BB: The album Big Room consists of two different spots you do opening for Jim Gaffigan in Denver–an early show and a late one. I noticed before you went on for the late show you said “if you hear me repeat a joke, let it go; I’ve gotta stay alive out there.”
TS: (laughs) I was worried I was gonna do that. I’ve had people complain to me on twitter because I wrote some funny tweet and then reused the line when I was doing Red Eye on Fox. They’ll be like “I’ve heard that joke before,” like I’m not allowed to use the same joke on TV and twitter. (laughs)
And in this case, I was trying to cut an album, but I’ve also got an audience to entertain. They’re there to see Jim Gaffigan, so I’ve gotta give them my A-Game and there’s a thousand people in the seats. The idea is I may do that. I might go into some old material and get some laughs and then get back into the new stuff. Some of my stories overlap. Some of my bits are in several of my stories. The albums are all independent of one another but the thing about comics is, we have a tendency to repeat ourselves.
BB: I’ve noticed just in the two albums that I’ve been able to hear of these twelve that a lot of times, you’ll start in the same place but go to a very different place.
TS: Yeah, definitely setups will be repeated. There’s only about four things that I’m interested in, in the world. At some point you have to say to people “look, it’s all the same crap that I’ve been saying.” (laughs) We’re all rewording ourselves, and if I’m telling a fifteen minute story, I think it’s kind of fun to see how an old bit works in the context of this other story–how comedy gets repurposed in a different way. Some of my favorite artists like Woody Allen will constantly repeat themselves but as long as they do it in a new context each time, it’s great.
BB: So in opening for Gaffigan, you were in a big theater venue, and then in Better, Strong, Faster, it was a smaller room. Is there something that appeals to you about contrasting the different kind of venues that comics play in?
TS: Oh yeah. I love small rooms. When I get out there in front of Gaffigan’s crowd, it’s great to be in front of a crowd, but you do need to be a little more on-message. And I think you can hear that on that album; I’m definitely doing more punchy material. But I like small rooms because I like going around and working new material in front of more intimate crowds because you can be more loose with them. You can go to interesting places, do more interesting material, more jazz–it’s just like with jazz guys who are playing for the other musicians, because you’re playing for the other comics in the back. You can’t do that in front of a big crowd.
I love going up there in small rooms and not worrying about your laughs-per-minute but just kind of working on a piece. And people there in the audience like it, but it’s sometimes considered too loose for recorded comedy. That comes out of an older attitude of making albums–like record albums. Now in the digital age, I feel like people just want to consume stuff. Some of my favorite comics, if I could listen to them work on material and get it in my inbox once a month, get their scratch-tracks, I would love that. This project is kind of an in between of that; they’re not scratch tracks, these aren’t my notes, I’ve really worked on them, but on some of these albums you will be hearing improvised material for the first time.
BB: Why do you think you gravitate towards storytelling comedy as opposed to something like what Steven Wright or Demetri Martin does?
TS: I think everybody gravitates to stories in the end, even those guys. Like, look at Demetri lately. His latest stuff has a kind of story-like arc to it because we kind of learn more about Demetri. When you become a fan of someone, you want to get into that narrative. And it’s the same with Steven Wright. When I saw him a few years ago, he was on a show at Emerson College–we did this big reunion show. He went out on stage and he did all new material and it had more of the storytelling. I feel like a lot of people gravitate that way because these big names have a loyal following and the audience always wants to hear more. Like with Bill Cosby, his fans want to be able to hear what’s going on with Bill Cosby now. He can go up there as a legend, sit there on stage and talk about brewing a pot of coffee, and the audience is right there on the edge of their seats.
I’ve always been more about stories than jokes because that’s what I like–that’s what I want to hear. And some of my favorite comics, my favorite stuff of theirs is their stories, after a show. We’ll go and have a beer and I’ll be laughing so hard. That’s what I’ve always got a charge on, even as a comedy fan. Stories go deeper and they give you insight. And it’s a little bit more of a meal when you have to tackle it on stage. It’s like serving up slow food vs. fast food. If you can take your audience into the story to the point where they’d buy it without the laughs, then it’s like, alright, take it to the bank.
BB: You’ve finalized two of ten albums. Are you still as enthusiastic as you were at the start of the project?
TS: Yes. More so. As I’m doing it, it’s all very doable, until the last album or two. Those extra two albums are what kind of scare me. I don’t have a plan for them at all. I think during the course of the year I’ll come up with enough material for those last two, but by the time we get there, I may have to just walk out on stage and do an album. It’s like when you’re driving on the highway and the tank’s on “E” and starts to glow red. It’s that feeling of excitement, “am I gonna make it?”
But I’m seeing these things take shape. I need a deadline to make any of this stuff work; if you set a deadline, you’ve gotta fill it. On Jimmy Fallon tonight, he’s gonna say on national TV “this guy’s doing twelve albums in twelve months.” It’s like “alright, I’m committed now.” There’s something about that that gives you energy. I better come up with it, you know?