LARRY DOYLE (photo: Courtesy of the Author)
“Humorists” can exude cleverness with a generalized air (e.g., Mark Russell, am I right, kids?) but Larry Doyle is an impossibly clever literary humorist who is howlingly funny. He is perhaps most known for his comic essays that have appeared in the New Yorker
since 1990 (Here
, & Here
) but millions of non-credit-reading Simpsons
viewers may be unaware of his four-year tenure (seasons nine through twelve) that garnered three Emmy wins. Yet, with genuine humility, Doyle declines to take any real credit for his writing/producing work on The Simpsons
On the page, Larry Doyle sutures words together with a surgical precision (cuz surgeons are hilarious, kids?) and devoid of frivolous language. His inventive style is notable for a mastery of assimilating and recontextualizing pop culture (and culture-culture) in service of astute satire, parody, and silliness. His first novel, “I Love You, Beth Cooper,” set in Doyle’s Illinois alma mater, Buffalo Grove High School, rejiggers the teen comedy genre with such wit, pathos, and freshness that it won the 2008 Thurber Prize for American Humor. This book grabbed me from the get-go and the following passage from Page 1 gives you a wee taste (which I like to think falls under HarperCollins’ copyright exception for “brief quotations embodied in critical articles [“two thumbs!” Ed.] and reviews):
“Ed Munsch sat high in the bleachers, between his wife and a woman who smelled like boiled potatoes. Potatoes that had gone bad and then boiled. Boiled green potatoes. Ed thought he might vomit, with any luck.
Anyone could see that he was not a well man. His left hand trembled on his knee, his eyes slowly rolled, spiraling upward; he was about to let out that exact moan Mrs. Beber had just before she escaped when his wife told him to cut it out.
“You’re not leaving,” she said.
“I’m dying,” Ed countered.
“Even dead,” said his wife, at ease with the concept. “For chrissakes, your only son is graduating from high school. It’s not like he’s going to graduate from anything else.”
Doyle’s second novel, “Go, Mutants!” (HarperCollins, 2010), is a wildly creative imagining of a society that has survived the 1950’s sci-fi B-movie attacks and invasions but where subsequent thriving integration with biological monstrosities remains precarious… but high school angst endures. In November of last year, those non-litigious superchamps at Harper Collins published “Deliriously Happy and Other Bad Thoughts” which compiles over twenty years of Larry Doyle’s comic pieces from the New Yorker, Esquire, the National Lampoon and previously unseen “pieces left out of this collection.” “Deliriously Happy” is quite simply one of the funniest books that I have read and it unassumingly illustrates that Larry Doyle is handily one of America’s premier comedic talents. Mr. Doyle spoke to Comedy Moontower from his residence in Baltimore.
Steve Birmingham: How does it feel having “Deliriously Happy and Other Bad Thoughts” out? In a matter of, I don’t know, a pound, pound-and-a-half, you have more than a couple decades of your work compiled.
Larry Doyle: Yeah, it feels almost too narrow. Doesn’t it? Like…
SB: No, not from a reader’s standpoint.
LD: … here’s the tombstone. I’m glad to have gotten it in collection form because we were already at the tale end of being able to publish a book like that. Those things just don’t sell and this one didn’t either. I think going forward it’s going to be very hard for people to even put those things together, so I was very happy that they were willing to do it. So that felt good and it’s a way of looking at the shelf and saying, “Oh, there’s a lot of the pieces that I’ve written.”
SB: I read that you tried your hand at stand-up. Do you recall some of the topics you covered?
LD: [Laughs] Painful memories coming back. I actually tried to do thematic monologues, which really didn’t work because I wasn’t very good at doing them but I would do rants. Probably the worst one was on suspecting that Santa was a Communist [inaudible]. You know typical stuff: breaking up with your girlfriend and being depressed.
SB: When you say thematic monologues, it was then less joke, joke, joke and more like…
LD: Telling a story or a lot of times I would do something in a persona of somebody; very similar to the things that I write for the New Yorker now.
SB: I’m such a fan of your work and think you’re so incredibly funny. Was stand-up something you just didn’t care to follow after a while or is it something that you just didn’t feel was going to be your natural outlet?
LD: It was something I was incredibly bad at. And I really did try to do it for a couple of years. Not like as a job (I was in college) but I kept going back there− once a month at least, and then more in the summer… and just embarrassing. I would get heckled by my friends.
SB: May I ask why you thought it went so poorly given your comedic talents on the page?
LD: Well, I would say it was a combination of the jokes not being very good and then that they were being delivered poorly. I have no stage presence; I have like a negative stage presence. As a writer, it doesn’t really matter much and in fact when I do readings my lack of affect becomes my persona. Because I can’t perform, I just try to turn that into something that looks like an asset. I was just really bad at it, there’s no getting around how poor I was at it. I would say in general, the whole humor writing thing was something that I certainly started from a not-naturally talented place, I don’t think. I was really awful when I first started trying to write.
SB: Well (to speak to your humility and talent), bad jokes and poor delivery unfortunately have not stopped a lot of comedians from…
LD: No, what was really funny was that the first night that I went on (you know, you get on at the end of the night on open mic night), one of the guys for whom it was also his first night got up and I’d say he was even worse than I was and he seemed to have one joke that worked. He played a hick. I think he was a hick but he also played one. And his joke went like this [with Gump-like vowel elongation], “Like they say… that thunder is the angels bowling but then what’s rain? The angels pissin?” So if you’re drunk enough, you’ll laugh at that joke. About twenty years later, I’m walking down the street in Chicago and I walk past this place called Zannies and there’s this guy, it’s the same guy! Only now he’s twenty years older and he’s the MC. So he just kept at it and now he’s the MC. And I couldn’t help myself. I go in there and watch and he’s going in-between acts and he’s doing all of the shitty things that MC’s do to get hated by the other comedians. What he’s supposed to do is if someone bombs, he’s supposed to go out there, throw his best material out there, to get people laughing at him then bring up the next guy.
LD: Or if somebody does really great, he’s supposed to go up there and just really quickly switch over. Instead, he was doing the exact opposite. He was leeching the energy off somebody that did well to do big chunks of his act. And if the audience was dead, he was like, “Okay, now it’s your turn.” But anyway, he’s up there and he’s sucked out all of the whatever someone has managed to do, so he’s doing a chunk of his act and he’s dying, just dying. And I could see (cuz I’ve watched stand-up enough), him going for “I’m going to have to pull out my saver.” And so he goes, “You know they say…” [laughing]. He does that exact same joke and he gets a response. I guess that you can get kind of far with dedication.
SB: I guess stand-up career by way of attrition?
LD: Yeah, a lot of them really do just work at it as hard as they can and for a while there (partially when I started) you probably could’ve been pretty shitty and made a living at it.
SB: So this was the comedy boom?
LD: Yeah, when every single old discotheque was being turned into a comedy nightclub.
SB: Larry, I learned that you have a master’s in journalism and worked for UPI’s Chicago desk as a medical and science reporter for a number of years. What lessons did that experience carry over to being a humor writer, essayist, and screenwriter?
LD: I tend to use words that I don’t know a lot when I’m writing. The great thing that UPI did for me (and whatever skills I picked up journalistically), I guess I did pick up some that I apply— especially in the more complicated writing I do. Even the shorter pieces some times have a decent amount of research that goes into them, and I like them to be right. I like when a character is talking, I like that character to not use words they wouldn’t use and to use the particular regional kind of vocabulary they’d blah blah blah. So I think that helps a humor piece work. But the main thing that it did for me, frankly, was when you’re working a wire service it is due now and it cured me, probably forever, of ever getting the kind of writer’s block that some people get.
SB: I believe you’ve long been a comic book fan and I was wondering if there was competition or a tough sell at the interview to land the First Comics editor-in-chief position?
LD: I don’t know what the competition was; it couldn’t have been very strong because they gave it to me. And I actually used a journalism trick to get it. I had liked comics when I was a kid but I wasn’t really following comics. I saw that there was this job opening for this comic book to be the editorial director of First Comics and in fact it wasn’t for editorial director. What I didn’t realize is that the editorial director who was interviewing me was out the door, so I was being interviewed for a lower-level position that everyone knew was going to be his position. But I went into the interview and [LD to himself] I wonder if the guy is still alive? Rick Obadiah was the publisher and the owner of the company and he was a really nice guy. But one of the things about him is he really liked to hear himself talk. And so I did this thing that you sometimes do when you’re interviewing people, which is if you want to get them to say something sometimes you just shut the fuck up and you leave empty air sitting there and they’ll start talking. And so he asked me this question about the future of comics that I didn’t really have any idea about (nor did anybody really), but anyways in his mind there was a correct answer and I didn’t answer it right away. I sort of was outlining my approach [laughs] kind of thing and just leaving enough space into which… I basically turned the question back to ask him and then he told me what he thought about the future of comic books and then I told him what I thought about the future of comic books, which sounded a lot like what he thought.
SB: Is there something you learned that you took with you from writing for the Pogo comic strip?
LD: Well, you would think that I had learned not to try to bring back any classic thing again but obviously I did not. That’s what I should’ve learned.
SB: I’m sorry, why would I think that you’ve learned not bring back something classic?
LD: I don’t think it was a good idea and I don’t think we did a good job. I think it would’ve been better left alone. We took it because we had been trying for years to get a comic strip syndicated and here this came along and they wanted someone to do Pogo and we loved Pogo. And they were going to hire us to do it and I think that we talked ourselves into the idea of doing it. The argument in our heads went something like, “Well, they’re going to bring it back anyway, so it might as well be by people who really love the strip and aren’t going to ruin it.” And then we ruined it, I think. But then, what is it, eighteen years later; I’m deciding that I’m going to do Looney Tunes again. [Laughs] You’d think I would’ve learned. I even came up with a second argument for why it would be okay to do Looney Tunes and that was, “Pogo was the work of one man, one mind.” Right? So it seemed to me, especially having worked at “The Simpsons” at this point, that the right collection of people could do really good Looney Tunes because Looney Tunes wasn’t just Chuck Jones. There was a collection of them and they all worked together and I thought that we could recreate that collection. I thought we’d probably be given the chance, which we really weren’t. We might’ve been able to do it but it was very difficult to do the way they had originally done Looney Tunes because nobody was paying attention to what they were doing and we had the full force of Warner Bros. on top of our heads the entire time. So it became trying to create the kind of anarchy in the old Looney Tunes with somebody questioning every joke. Other people didn’t get that. It just was not going to probably end well and then there were management issues where I kind of had a bad relationship with the head of the studio. And it blew up at some point. I’d say it was 90% my fault.
SB: Can you talk about your tenure in 1991 as an editor at National Lampoon? I believe Matty Simmsons fired the then current staff in 1985 and you likely started after the brief Tim Mattheson-led joint was at the helm.
LD: I wasn’t the first one in, but Jim Jimirro (head of J2 Communications, which may or may not still exist) bought the National Lampoon with the idea of bringing it back as a monthly magazine. And I think he was planning on building a comic empire around it. His previous experience though had been marketing the very successful (perhaps not prime comedy) videos called “The Dorf.” That had been his primary success in comedy. Anyway, so he hired George Barkin who among other things had been an editor at High Times magazine and had written stuff for the Lampoon and was good friends with Ratso Sloman, who was the previous editor of the National Lampoon.
SB: My understanding is that you did put out nine issues that year.
LD: We did and then we got fired. First, George got fired and then we were doing it without him for a little while and then we got fired.
SB: What was your regard to the Lampoon environment with the name being licensed out at that time? Did you still feel a sense of lineage to founders Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, and Rob Hoffman and the subsequent heyday of other contributors and editors, or was it another era but still, “Hey, the National Lampoon!”
LD: I thought at the time and I think I’m right about this that there would have been a market for that magazine done well and that that magazine could’ve been used as a platform for what would’ve eventually been online stuff, movies et cetera. I think that we were very close to the sensibility of the Lampoon and there was definitely plenty of material still out there. The problem was probably that the brand was just too damaged. It had a dual problem, one of which was it had nudity in it from the early Seventies on and the world had changed a bit and you couldn’t really get advertising any more in a magazine that had nudity in it. We were being racked with Juggs where we just didn’t compete very well on the wanking potential and people who might want to get it for other reasons would never see us. The National Lampoon was similar probably to Sports Illustrated where it was the kind of magazine that guys could have out in the open but still get their swimsuit issue. The bottom line is they couldn’t get the advertising back on track. They had originally committed to the idea that we wouldn’t put any nudity in the magazine until we repositioned it editorially We were just going to try to clean it up enough that we could approach Coca-Cola. It was still a pretty filthy magazine in terms of the prose but that didn’t really matter to advertisers. Jimirro lost his patience and to some extent, I think George wanted to do a much more high-minded magazine then the Lampoon had ever been and that didn’t go over well at some point.
SB: Could you talk a little about your tenure as a deputy editor at Spy magazine? That was such a sharp magazine and I’m unfamiliar with any behind-the-scenes descriptions. And was part of your time there with Tony Hendra [whom many know from his role as Spinal Tap’s band manager, Ian Faith]?
LD: The very end was, yeah. I was there very happily with Kurt Andersen as the editor and he decided to leave because maybe he could see the writing on the wall and so they brought in Tony. And Tony was not acting, in my view, in the best interest of the magazine, and so I left. That’s a pretty simple version of the story but that’s pretty much what it is. He wanted to change the mastheads. He basically wanted to change the magazine to be more like the National Lampoon. Spy had made its reputation on being true and he wanted to add a lot more made-up stuff: Foto Funnies and stuff like that. And I just didn’t feel like Spy should be the National Lampoon.
SB: With your recent Time column “Why You Keep Seeing the Same Movie Over and Over Again,” plus protagonist J!m [sic] in “Go, Mutants!” lamenting “cinematic sausage” for “mass ingestion,” and that he loves “most movies that were made before they were all terrible,” (as well as the entire human/humanoid/mutant student body seemingly having no regard for “plex” content. And from your essays like “Let’s Talk About My Movie” and “An Open Letter To All Academy Members,” you excel at film/media criticism/mockery. Can you talk about why this is such a rich area for your work?
LD: Well there’s the rather obvious one, which is I work in it. If I worked in an insurance office maybe I’d be putting out comic [laughing] insurance forms or something. Movies and TV are the predominant art medium now for better or worse. They’re more important than music and visual arts. In some ways, if you’re writing about the world and our culture you are writing about those things but the real reason behind it is I’m writing about those things because they interest me. In “Deliriously Happy,” you’ll see that they’re also quite a few pieces about books and there are quite a few probably more comic essays that revolve around questions of science then you would ordinarily see. But those are my interests. If I knew opera (which I don’t), I’d probably write comic opera pieces.
SB: You have a writing credit for “The Simpsons” “Girly Edition” episode [Season 9, Episode 2]. I thought the kids’ news broadcast was a great satire on TV news’ style versus substance. Were you involved with that story line? It also seems like Mojo the Helper Monkey has your fingerprints?
LD: That was my first script for “The Simpsons.” Obviously, most Simpsons episodes are very collaborative but you still have one writer who goes off and puts together the script and gets to put as much of their stamp on it and they can. I don’t know if any more than a quarter of what ended up on the air was written by me, by myself. But the idea to do the helper monkey thing was originally the idea I came to Mike Scully with (who was the head writer) and then the kids’ news thing was something that he had wanted to do and we put them together. I might have brought some of the satire about those kind of non-news news things to it but the original idea to do a thing about Bart and Lisa being on a kids news program together was Mike Scully’s idea.
SB: I read “I Love You, Beth Cooper” in total awe of your precise and whip smart sense of humor and I also couldn’t help but think that the book was going to make a great movie. Was it in fact a script or treatment in the first place?
LD: I didn’t finish it but I wrote most of a screenplay that my agent didn’t think was going to sell and then I talked to a book agent who said that maybe I should write it as a book. I think he’s right that it wouldn’t have sold in the absence of a book and the fact that it was a book is what sold it and, so I wrote it up. It changed a lot but I wrote it as a book and immediately people in Hollywood were interested in it.
SB: Despite you penning the I Love You, Beth Cooper script, and I sincerely do not mean to sound disrespectful (and I know this sounds shitty) but I’ve thus far elected to pass on seeing the movie since, for me, the book was such a sublime, wonderful experience. And when I saw the poster and the trailer, I just questioned whether the tone was preserved and/or translated. What was your level of satisfaction?
LD: I probably don’t want to speak to that. I wish the movie had done better and I think everybody was sincere in their wanting it to be a good movie. Although, the truth of the matter is that I’ve been involved in several movies, not all of which have turned out well and I don’t think I’ve come across an instance of somebody who didn’t care.
SB: Understood, and to this point too about saying that I personally didn’t think that the way the poster looked or that what the trailer presented, for me, was capturing why I love the book so much: there’s a good history of wonderful films that kind of had sub-par marketing. I think you’ve even noted Adventureland. I would point to Dazed and Confused, which wasn’t a PR triumph and I’d even point to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
LD: I like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
SB: Oh yeah, me too.
LD: And that was sort of dangerous because I had read the graphic novel and liked it. The movie went on too long, kinda. But I’d say that there were a lot of things I liked about the movie more than I liked about the book.
SB: I saw Scott Pilgrim on DVD. I hadn’t read the graphic novel and I knew Edgar Wright was a really great director, but as somebody who’s not terribly interested in video games (and I’m likely not the target audience), the marketing didn’t highlight how stylized the film was. And there had been some other recent Michael Cera films… I’m going to stop talking.
LD: I think that there might have been a bit of Michael Cera fatigue and that’s a shame because, I agree, I think it was a fun movie and it deserved to have done a lot better than it did. Although I Love You, Beth Cooper was a pretty spectacular failure upon its initial release; it appears to have done really well on DVD and in secondary stuff. It has an audience for it, which you can see if you go the Facebook page.
SB: Awesome. I have to see the movie now. It was just a matter of having such a perfect experience with the book and sort of leaving well enough alone. But I’m glad to hear that it has (like Dazed and Confused and HBO’s Mr. Show with Bob and David), found a second life on DVD. And I wanted to ask what are the main challenges of adapting your books to the screenplay format? Also, parts of “Go, Mutants!” are written in script format, but would direction-based jokes like “In BLACK AND WHITE, and not art” be lost in translation?
LD: Yeah, you just don’t do them. You come up with a different thing. For example, in “I Love You, Beth Cooper,” you don’t notice it because you’re hearing his internal voice but there’s a large section of the book where [protagonist Denis Cooverman] barely does any talking at all (he’s so scared) and so you can’t really have a main character acting that way in a movie. So we had to translate that into ‘he becomes a nervous talker’ but he talks too much but that was a translation you have to make. In “Go, Mutants!” there’s all sorts of levels that I don’t think you would put in a [screenplay]. If “Go, Mutants!” was like a Harry Potter-sized success, they’d do the test to get all those things in but if you’re just making this thing into a movie, you would jettison a lot of the political stuff. There might be seven or eight character storylines and I don’t think you’d want to do all of them in a movie. It just wouldn’t be satisfactory.
SB: Can you talk about receiving the 2008 Thurber Prize for American Humor? Its namesake and the other recipients put you in pretty, deservedly, rarified company.
LD: It was really exciting, I honestly didn’t think there was any chance I was going to win. The two people I was going up against both had produced really, really great books and I could think of really strong political reasons why either one of them should have won instead of me. Simon Rich was really young and so it just seemed like a great reason to give him the award and Patty [Marx], I also think she did an award-winning book [“Him Her Him Again The End of Him”] but she was also female and they hadn’t given the award to a female, so I thought that maybe that would be the way they would go and I was rightfully shocked when I won… but quite pleased.
SB: Does “Thurber Prize-nominated author” translate into the economic uptick, à la the Oscars? Although I’m sure it is sincerely an honor to be nominated.
LD: Because I was paying close attention, we did actually do pretty well off of that. I mean the magnitude is much different but we still did really well. I think it helped quite a bit.
SB: The paperback version of “Go, Mutants!” has an index of allusions, influences, suggestions and assorted ephemera (my word). You reference Larry Doyle’s childhood obesity [in the index] with the introduction of the Larry “Jelly” Sweeney,” character— the “big tub of purple goo in husky-boy clothes.” Is this factual or an embellishment, or both?
LD: I was a fat kid. I wasn’t super-obese or anything but I was fat enough that among my group of five friends, my nickname was “Fats.” So that’s fat, right?
SB: Since that reference was made to Page 40, I just have to compliment and share this passage with our readers. [Per a physical description of Manhattan High already in progress] “… and a central bell tower that had remained locked ever since Dr. Terwilliker, the old music teacher, had castrated dozens of pupils up there, using the pealing bell to mask their girlish screams, in hopes of creating an unstoppable five-hundred-boy soprano army, his plans becoming vague from there. Either that or the tower was locked because the administration didn’t want kids messing with the bell.” Is this an example of an idea that just materializes or has to be refashioned? And how much of that notion holds true for most of your writing?
LD: A lot of ideas materialize but that one is a reference to [1953’s] The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T., the only movie Dr. Seuss ever wrote.
SB: Man, I missed the reference. I was just tickled with the humor.
LD: [The movie] is about Dr. T. who tries to train 500 boys to play the piano at the same time. So he’s like an evil music teacher and then I obviously added horror movie elements to the whole [inaudible].
SB: Potential marketability of the high school setting aside, your first two books have elevated the genre’s bar. How similar was your high school experience with protagonists Denis Cooverman and J!m Anderson, and do you still think a lot about high school?
LD: I was writing about different things even though they were about high school. The first book was really, for me, about ritual and the second book was about tribe. And the reason why the second one is set in high school is because the first one was very successful. I had five books that I could’ve written as the second and I listed those five books for my agent and publisher and they picked the one that was set in high school. So that shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody.
SB: Would the New Yorker likely reject something in the vein of your “Huck of Darkness” piece from the National Lampoon (which presents lost episodes from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” where Huck is twice violated) for thematic reasons?
LD: They would reject that for all sorts of reasons. First of all, the material itself they would never run. I mean it’s porn basically… but done in the style of Mark Twain! So they would never do that. It’s also, I’d say, five times longer than anything they would run, and also stylistically, it’s a different style of doing things than I’ve ever seen them do. I wrote it when I was at the National Lampoon (that’s why I was there), and it was written specifically for the National Lampoon. I don’t think that I would’ve ever even tried to send something like that to the New Yorker.
SB: Is “Life Without Leann: A Newsletter” your first piece to appear in the New Yorker [Jan. 15, 1990] and if so, can you describe the editorial process and was that also your first submission?
LD: It definitely was my first submission [to appear]. I had submitted a bunch of things and eventually I sent something in and I didn’t get the usual rejection. I got the usual rejection with a little handwritten note on the bottom of it and that gave me a name to send stuff into, Julia Just was her name. And I eventually sent in a version of “Life Without Leann” and they wrote back a letter not actually rejecting it, having issues with it but not actually rejecting it. I was asked to revise it and I didn’t do so for more than a year because I had this thing that was not rejected yet by the New Yorker. And so I just held on to it for about a year and then about a year later when things were going pretty poorly in my life, I still had this unrejected New Yorker piece so I decided that the best thing to do would be to revise it and send it in and get it rejected because that’s how my life was supposed to be. The inconsistency of it was very bothersome to me. And then they took it but then it had further editing, I’d say at least six months of editing after that.
SB: Also, are there distinct things you’ve learned from editor-writer collaborations or is perfecting your craft largely do to continued writing?
LD: I think I’ve learned a lot from different editors about how to do things a particular way I’ve definitely learned a lot from Kurt Andersen who was my editor for a long time both at Spy and at New York [magazine] and I think I’ve picked up a lot of his sensibilities from the types of things that he brought to the table in terms of how I might do things. I think that I learned a lot on the ground at “The Simpsons,” just being around that many great comedy minds allowed me to soak up some approaches to comedy that I hadn’t thought of before.
SB: To me, your writing is extremely concise. It seems that you have a knack for garnering monster laughs from a minimal amount of words. It seems like this is your inherent style but is that the case or is that also something that’s been gleaned from working with editors?
LD: Some of it’s from working with editors and some of it’s from the requirements of the form. I used to write 1500 word pieces when the New Yorker published 1500 word pieces and now I write 800 word pieces because that’s what the New Yorker publishes.
SB: That’s about the average Casual length?
LD: Yeah, I’d say they go between six and nine hundred maybe.
SB: You won Emmys for two of the four years you we’re with “The Simpsons”…
LD: I won an Emmy one of the other years but I wasn’t eligible for it.
SB: Why is that?
LD: I wasn’t high enough up. I was a story editor and you had to be a producer and above to get the Emmy.
SB: Wow, thank you for highlighting that. Do you have a favorite moment or bit that you wrote for “The Simpsons”?
SB: Or do you not have one?
LD: I don’t really have one. If you ask me what my favorite Simpsons joke is I can tell you what it is but I wasn’t there when they did it. I’m not going to get it right but it was in the “Lisa the Vegetarian” episode [Season 7, episode 5), which is also one of my favorite episodes and was written by David Cohen. Homer is badgering Lisa about, “Why would you want to be a vegetarian? Where would we be without the animal that gave us bacon or the animal that gave us ham or the animal that gave us pork chops?” And Lisa goes, “Dad, those are the same animal.” And Homer says, “Oh yeah right, Lisa, a wonderful, magical animal.”
SB: Is there a joke or bit you really liked but never got on air?
LD: I’m sure there were hundreds of them but I don’t remember, I’m sorry. We went through a lot of material on “The Simpsons” that didn’t get on the air. Many of the jokes that everybody laughed the hardest at wouldn’t be allowed on television.
SB: You earlier mentioned “attention” with Looney Tunes. My understanding is that with James L. Brooks’ involvement with “The Simpsons,” that he was able to establish an environment where there wasn’t a lot of attention.
LD: It was not an environment; it was a contractual reality. There was no executive input, besides people who worked on “The Simpsons.” The studio and the network had no say on what went on the show except for standards and we kind of ignored most of those anyway.
SB: With “The Simpsons” just celebrating their 500th episode, when is the last time, if ever, that you’ve thought about the impact your work has played as part of the global pop lexicon?
LD: I don’t. I had a great time on “The Simpsons.” I was there for four years and I’m really happy that I was there. I consider my contribution to the show to be minor. There are jokes and lines that I wrote, obviously, there are things that I contributed to the show but I had no significant influence on the direction of the show. The characters were already fully-formed. The only character I think that I introduced directly into the show was the Cat Lady. In a backhanded kind of way, I think I also introduced (although she was mostly George Meyer’s idea anyway) was the [corporate business woman] Lindsey Naegle character (who is played by Tres MacNeille) and she’s in all sorts of different things; in other words, whatever we need her to be into she’s into. But she had kind of appeared in a short form a couple times but her first fully-blown character appearance was in “Girly Edition” but, like I said, she wasn’t even my idea. I’m proud of having worked there but I really don’t think of it as like my legacy. “The Simpsons” isn’t something that I really can take credit for. That doesn’t mean that a single piece of PR about anything I’ve written doesn’t even mention that I worked for “The Simpsons,” but I can’t really take credit.
SB: A lot of the characters in your writing dream; it seems to be a common thread in your essays and books. How much, if at all, do dreams play a role in coming up with ideas?
LD: I don’t know, I hadn’t noticed that. It may just be [laughs] the clichés that I keep returning to. I like writing dreams because you can be doing something relatively realistic and still have crazy things happen in your dream. And sometimes dreams are a good way and, again, they’re almost like crutches but they’re a pretty good way to expose what characters are really thinking about things without having to come right out and say it. And in “Go, Mutants!,” it’s a metaphor for the whole thing. The reason why those things are in script form is because I sort of turned the world inside-out. The world of “Go, Mutants!” is the world of the movies made real. Right? And to play with that I have [J!m] dreaming in the forms of the movies that are the inspirations to the book. Each one of his dreams is taken from either a specific genre of horror film (like the first one where the monster is chasing the girl through the hallways of the school) or directly lifted. There’s a scene from Frankenstein in there. There’s a scene from It Came from Outer Space in one of the dreams.
SB: What writers do you find funny and also who were some of your influences?
LD: There are a lot of writers today that I find funny. Simon Rich, who I mentioned earlier, is very funny, as is Patty [Marx]. I thought Simon’s novel [2010’s “Elliot Allagash”] was great and all of his writing is very funny. Other writers I like but I consider influential even if no one else can see the influence… Thomas Pynchon and Donald Barthelme. A writer that I really like now who Barthelme made me think of is George Saunders.
SB: Whom I hate to say I am unfamiliar with.
LD: You should read him. He’s really great. It’s not pure comedy but it’s really great. Get his first book, which is a book of longer short stories called “CivilWarland in Bad Decline.” There’s no big surprise to the people I like. I like Charles Portis who wrote “True Grit,” but also…
LD: He wrote “Norwood” and one of my favorite books, “The Dog of the South.”
SB: Excellent. Last question and it’s pretty random but I like asking people about generations generically. There’s always overlap but I guess you’re technically a Baby Boomer…
LD: I’m right at the end.
SB: I’m technically part of Generation X, not that we got together and decided to call ourselves that. And we weren’t a market force, given the number of Baby Boomers. So, a lot of my cohort had a little disdain for Boomers with exceptions of course (especially if someone was in an awesome garage or punk rock band or artists like Richard Linklater, who I think has a couple years on you but gets lumped into Generation X). I’m curious what difference you see between the two generations, if any?
LD: I don’t recognize them as real things— is the best way to put it.
SB: Nice, that’s really well put.
LD: I think that there are identifiable generations but I think that they’re probably much smaller than media tends to put them through. For example, Baby Boomers would include everybody from people who went into corporate America in the late Fifties to all the hippies to people who grew up in the Seventies, which is me. Right? All of whom had very different experiences and very different kinds of lives and so Generation X includes…
SB: It can go back to being born in ’65, I think is how some mark the earliest… not to interrupt.
LD: Right, that would put you into everything from people who came of age in the Go-Go Republican Eighties to grunge people to Silicon Valley type people, and the other thing too is that when you talk about a generation (even within any one set of time) there were people living completely different lives and having completely different identifications.
LD: Like in the late Sixties or Seventies, everyone thinks [everyone was] a hippie, well no they weren’t. There were a lot of people who had very conservative upbringings at that same period of time and whose friends were all very conservative and who never smoked pot. So, those are the kinds of things that define you rather than this sort of rather larger label. In the Baby Boomer generation, at least it defined a specific demographic phenomena but the Generation X thing doesn’t mean anything. It’s sort of self-defined by the media because they call it Generation X, meaning it’s the lost generation kind of thing? It’s only lost because they weren’t paying attention to it.
SB: Touché, that’s why we’ll joke that we were discovered by a Time magazine cover story [“twentysomething.” July 16, 1990]. Some Boomers, not all, had this notion that rock stopped and we were clobbered with classic rock (which is an oxymoron) while the best bands of my generation were completely ignored by Rolling Stone et al., and not that we were looking for their validation.
LD: What you’re saying is true and has always been true. Rolling Stone shouldn’t have been your magazine.
LD: It’s like me grousing that when I was growing up Reader’s Digest didn’t cover any of the things I was interested in.
SB: [Laughing for the umpteenth time] Well put and I appreciate all your comment and insight on this and it’s not like “Oh, sour grapes!” It’s just something I enjoy talking about with people younger than me, close to my age, and older.
LD: One other thing on the generational thing, I’m supposedly a Baby Boomer; if it’s ’65 I’m still at the very, very tale end of it. So, I was never really part of the generation that I’m supposedly a part of and [I] felt some affinity for the other generations. I guess “on the cusp” is what they call it, like in your horoscope maybe. You’re not really a Scorpio— you’re a Scorpittarius. As a result, you had a popular culture that was covering itself and that was sort of alien to you. But you were also distinctly another level down. Keep in mind that until the Sixties and Seventies really took hold, the youth culture was not covered by the mainstream media (that you would recognize that much). And when it was, it was always done in the most patronizing way and it didn’t begin to dominate until those people started becoming adults or until they became so big that it couldn’t be ignored anymore. But in the Sixties, you would be hard-pressed to find a review of a rock band in the New York Times. It just didn’t happen and the movies that were the big movies that would get covered were movies like Becket and Doctor Dolittle. They weren’t Easy Rider. So it’s always been the case that the adult culture is not covering what’s going on in the youth culture very well. And part of that is often by design of the youth culture because they want their thing to be alien to the adults in some way. And it’s not always a rebellion issue; it’s a “this is our thing” issue. They want to have something that they can identify as being different and hopefully somewhat mysterious to somebody over a certain age. For me, I never felt like a Baby Boomer. By watching what was covered in the media I always felt like that I was just getting a free preview of what was coming up. Now I’m hearing all about Alzheimer’s. Sweet! Right? People are writing all about that. So I’ve got that going fifteen years down the road. Retirement is now in every single article. So I’m getting kind of a preview but it’s still not my life right now.
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