Tag Archives: National Lampoon

Spotlight on Andy Kindler

Andy Kindler’s masterful sharp-wittedness is a divining rod for the unintentionally funny. His sway over the absurd and ridiculous is such that they can be playthings or mapped out in meticulous sequence. Kindler is widely recognized from his copious television credits like his guest set and correspondent work for the Late Show with David Letterman but he is notorious for pulling no punches when blasting fellow comedians and show business, most notably at his annual State of the Industry address at Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival. But Kindler delivers far more than calling “birthday suit” on someone’s new duds. For however candid his bits may be, Kindler’s barbs are couched in the finest joke writing and a signature delivery that is without real animus. Deep down, this Leave It to Beaver-loving kid from Queens is championing “lasting quality.”

Andy Kindler recently spoke to Comedy Moontower from his home in Southern California prior to crossing the globe to perform at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Mr. Kindler couldn’t have been more jovial or generous with his time and insight and although the transcript format doesn’t lend itself to denoting my recurrent and hearty laughter, I can foretell your cackling just from his bon mots on NBC’s Whitney, Robin Williams, a bar mitzvah and Monet. The Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival is proud to present Andy Kindler in person and here in ones and zeros.

Steve Birmingham: So it’s a real honor to talk with you. I’m a longtime fan so…

Andy Kindler: Well I appreciate that. Good to hear.

SB: Well it’s true and without just totally blowing sunshine your way, everybody is very excited to have you as part of the festival down here so it’s…

AK: Me too! I love Austin so much and I’m hoping we can knock down, destroy the SXSW festival. Take it over somehow.

SB: [Laughs] Well, you know, I think that’s the plan.

AK: Dismantle it, event by event. Maybe I’m going too far?

SB: No, no, no. Eyes on the prize.

AK: You’re with me on it then right?

SB: Exactly. I’m curious; the “Don’t Mess with Texas” slogan was originally an anti-littering campaign but was that readily apparent to you? Or did it just seem like Texas bravado?

AK: Well one of my early jokes I think was actually a misunderstanding of the …was it a bumper sticker or on the license plates?

SB: Bumper stickers for sure and perhaps plate frames.

AK: I don’t even remember the joke but the idea was like, “Oh yeah, like I’m going to start something with Texas. I’m 5’5’ and a half.” [Laughs] It wasn’t until some time later that I realized it was about littering so I didn’t change the joke because I dropped it [laughs]. The joke still kind of worked because it is an aggressive anti-littering campaign. They’re like, “Well, I’ll punch you in the face if you throw something on the highway.” That’s kind of where it’s going to.

SB: And I think it’s also been appropriated as a stand-alone kind of slogan.

AK: Yes, but then Rick Perry now stands as the image of Texas.

SB: [Deep sigh] Um, yeah. What part of New York did you grow up in?

AK: Queens. Whitestone, Queens, which is not too far from Shea Stadium. Right near Flushing, where the tennis center is.

SB: I understand you’re the youngest of three kids. Was there a lot of laughter in the Kindler household or did it seem about the same as your friend’s families?

AK: I was misled by my family because everyone in my family is either extremely funny, like my dad is extremely funny or my mom is unintentionally funny. I thought everyone was hilarious. I just thought that was a normal thing and then I realized later, no everyone isn’t hilarious. There were two reasons why it took me a while to get into stand-up. I wanted to be a musician. I was a musician when I was younger so I pursued that for a while. But then I took a sense of humor for granted (I just assumed) and I didn’t realize that not everybody has a sense of humor. Actually one of my favorite quotes from Jonathan Winters is like, “Most people don’t have a sense of humor. They think they do but they don’t.” So when I first started playing clubs, I realized everybody doesn’t necessarily have a sense of humor. Although now it’s different because I feel like comedy is in a renaissance right now.

SB: I agree.

AK: If the word “renaissance” can be used in relation. It’s not a Reformation. It’s not medieval times now.

SB: Well, a lot of women might disagree with that given the political climate, but no I totally agree. So the fact that your household was so humorous, were you drawn to any comedians on TV or as a youngster was stand-up and comedy not something that was especially on your radar given that you were pursuing music?

AK: Well when I was about eight I played a lot of corporate gigs, no. That’s my idea of a joke. Well the one thing I don’t think I said clearly was that my main influence was my dad because my dad was hilarious every minute of the day and so he was really a huge influence. I always think about this: My earliest influences were more with sitcoms. I remember watching Ed Sullivan when I was a little kid but I was so much more taken by when the Beatles came out. When Davy Jones died, I was talking about how I used to love watching The Monkees when I was a kid. I thought they were the most hilarious show. They were like the greatest comedians, but I haven’t watched it since then [laughs] so I don’t know if it holds up. But it wasn’t until I got into like high school; then I started to become aware of Richard Pryor. And then in 1975 when Saturday Night Live came out (even though I’ve never been like a sketch person), that was a huge influence on me, and Steve Martin. And then when the [Late Night with] David Letterman show came out— that was a revelation to me. But I also loved Johnny. I loved Johnny Carson too, but he wasn’t quite my generation. Comedians like Jackie Gleeson, Dick Van Dyke, and Bob Newhart; I saw Bob Newhart’s sitcom before I heard his stand-up. So it wasn’t from an early age I was like stand-up driven, you know, to watch stand-ups.

SB: Gotcha. I can certainly appreciate that with your father being hilarious. It wasn’t like there was this vacuum. So was it the violin you were playing at the time?

AK: When I was in third grade, my mom claims to have heard me say, “Oh, I like the violin,” and then within two weeks I was having lessons. And then I loved it for about another two weeks and then I hated it. Not hated it, I liked playing it, but I hated practicing more than anything else. But because I transferred my parental feelings about my mother to my violin teacher, it only took me until the second year of high school to have the courage to tell her I didn’t like it [laughs]. So I played violin way, way longer than I would have liked to but I was using it as an opportunity to deal with my emotional issues. And then I switched to guitar in high school. I broke my left arm in my sophomore year of high school. I was always pretty much the shortest in school, so the only way you could play basketball by the rules in gym is if I got to the foul line first or if I hit a foul shot then I could be the captain. So I was running so fast, I tripped over someone’s leg and broke my left arm. And so for two months I could hold, my sister played guitar, and I could hold the guitar and move my fingers and so I started playing guitar, which I fell in love with and started writing songs and stuff.

SB: Awesome. Well not that you broke your arm but…

AK: [Laughs] I’m over it. I think I’m over it now although it still cracks. It still cracks especially if I straighten my arm really fast [laughs] and keep doing that all day long. I can feel it crack.

SB: You’d mentioned Richard Pryor, and with exceptions, like say George Carlin or Bill Hicks, the history of stand-up and its finest purveyors basically seems to be the story of Jewish folks. If you search for Lutheran humorists, there’s Garrison Keillor. Period. Without researching it maybe Maria Bamford has a bit of Lutheranism in her family, but why do Jews utterly dominate this art form?

AK: And also let’s add on to that, I mean how funny is Garrison Keillor really?

SB: Yeah, that’s why I used “humorist” instead of “comedian.” But yeah, Prairie Home is kind of Yankee Hee-Haw but I do think he’s bright and writes some good articles and essays.

AK: Yeah. My favorite thing that he does is “The Writer’s Almanac.”  I think that’s so sweet. When I first heard [A Prairie Home Companion], I thought it was the greatest thing and then like four weeks in, like, I don’t want to hear Guy Noir one more time [laughs]. I think what you’re saying is true about the Jewish thing. Lenny Bruce who was also a huge influence not, obviously, as a kid but later on I got semi-obsessed with listening to his stuff because I feel with the way he talks, I feel so close to him. But he has a whole thing about how black people and Jewish people learned to entertain because they were slaves, and so they learned how to get out of being a slave by being entertaining. It’s a really great bit because the slave owner is like [spot on channeling Bruce’s lilt], “Oh Jewish person come over here and be charming” [laughs]. Oh, I probably should say that one of my earliest big influences was Woody Allen but not his stand-up but all those movies. But it’s the long string of self-deprecation and also reacting to maybe thousands of years of oppression. Either you get more depressed or you react to it with comedy so that’s why I think Jewish people have always been part of that tradition. I don’t know if Jews are funnier… I used to have this joke that Jews are funny even when they don’t know they are being funny. I have two examples of that: My friend Bill Kaufman (who used to be my comedy partner when I started), like when Whitney Houston’s song first came out and we’re driving down the street and the song is like, “How will I know? How will I know?” and my friend Bill looked at the radio and goes [flatly enunciating], “You’ll know Whitney. Believe me, you’ll know.” That’s an example. He wasn’t even trying to be funny. And the other example I use is when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel reunited for this big concert in Central Park and my dad’s Jewish friend is looking at Paul Simon and he turns to me and he says, “That Paul Simon is okay. He’s not one of these jazzed up characters in a cockamamie outfit.” That was another example. To him there was nothing funny about that [laughs] but I never heard “jazzed up,” “character,” and “cockamamie” all in one sentence so beautifully used.

SB: [Laughing] That’s marvelous.

AK: I sold stereos in the ‘80s. I did all these sales jobs and I met Bill as a stereo salesman. Currently, he’s a marriage and family therapist [MFT] but he convinced me to do stand-up.

SB: Can you recall your very first open mic experience? How it went and where and when that was and what you may have talked about?

AK: So many events that I remember that are so clear and changing… like we were at a company picnic for the stereo store; it’s so funny to say “stereo store.” It sounds like the oldest word in the world. It’s like “record player.” So I was doing impressions of all the people who worked for the company and I would not say I’m the world’s greatest mimic but I can kind of get the gist of people and my friend Bill said, “Well have you ever thought about doing stand-up?” And I really hadn’t. I’d been to The Comedy Store when I first moved to Los Angeles, it’s not like something I had never thought of. But in college, I did a lot of theater and summer camp. I was always doing acting things but I was so strongly musically oriented, it never occurred to me to not do music and do something else. And so he convinced me, so my first open mic things were with him. And I have to say I don’t necessarily recommend that you comedians be in a duo but it certainly cushioned the rejection blow because I think it would have been worse. I mean it wasn’t fun— you put your name in the hat at the Improv. And we did the same thing at The Comedy Store and then there were all these different little coffee shops and stuff like that. I think the first three-minute thing we did might have actually been at this place in Lomita, California, which was an Italian restaurant called Seymour Hamm’s and it was a community theatre restaurant. Then I did that for two or three years but not performing every night but then I started to get really restless and realized it was too confining for me. A duo is just hard. I don’t know how anybody does it. And then I went out on my own and I’ve told this story before but it’s actually true that one of the first times I went on my own I bombed so badly that I was sobbing on the way home. The first time I did it on my own was Seymour Hamm’s. And it was just awful.

SB: Wow.

AK: And one of the clubs that I started out at with Bill too but also on my own was a club called Igby’s. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that?

SB: Yeah I have.

AK: It was in West Los Angeles and I don’t know if this is true but it’s the weirdest name of a club. Jan Smith was the owner of the club. He was one of the original owners of The Icehouse, which is like this venerable club in Pasadena out here that I’ve never really enjoyed that much because the crowd is trained to laugh like hyenas and you just feel uncomfortable. So he opened up his own club and the rumor (which I think it’s true) is that he called it “Igby’s” so that in the phone book it was between The Icehouse and the Improv when people were looking it up.

SB: That’s kind of clever. Now when you mentioned you cried on the way home, if my memory serves me, Jim Carrey’s first time went so horribly that he passed for another year or so before he took another crack at it.

AK: Well that’s interesting because when I saw Liar Liar, I said, “That’s it! I’m not going to see any more Jim Carey movies for several years.” One thing that is interesting is when people come up or anybody imagines himself or herself doing stand-up. You go, “How do you do it? People ask that all the time. But the thing I don’t think people realize is that it’s like anything else. When you first do it you are scared. The comedian who is not scared to do it, I think, is probably not someone funny. It’s a frightening thing but I don’t think people realize that (I don’t know if you’ve ever tried stand-up) but you just do like a minute when you start— two minutes, three minutes as awful as it is. And many, many comedians have that story, which I think I had too, which is maybe after the first couple times, and then I had a really good set. Then that’s a false sense of, “Oh okay, now I’m over the hump,” but you never really get over the hump. Ever.

SB: [I mentioned that I was an employee at The Comedy Store for a couple years in the early ‘90s.]

AK: In the early ‘90s, the thing about The Comedy Store was …[owner] Mitzi’s daughter, her name is Sandy Shore. You remember her?

SB: I do.

AK: So she had seen me at another club when I was first starting out— Sammy Shore had a little fish restaurant in Marina Del Rey [Sammy’s Comedy by the Shore] and I would play there all the time. And his daughter Sandy saw me there and so she kind of got me to audition for Mitzi. It was like there are so many things I am willing to do in life but there are a couple of things I am not willing to do, like when they said, “Okay Mitzi liked you and you can work the door.” And I was like, “You know what? I’m willing to do a lot of things but I don’t want to work the door at The Comedy Store.” It’s so weird where you draw the line sometimes. It didn’t seem appropriate to me that you have people who are doing odd jobs around The Comedy Store. “I’m a comedian but I’m also a carpenter.” Also the environment there always frightened me a little bit.

SB: [I had back-tracked for a clarification on Seymour Hamm’s in Lomita.]

AK: It’s right near Torrance and it’s funny, well not that funny when I think of my early jokes— I said, “The chef here…” because I don’t remember it being a great restaurant but, “The chef here, [sounding green but selling it] Chef Boyardee [laughing], told me the secret ingredient in the Italian sauce is ketchup.” That’s just the grade of joke I was doing back then. This was like a little club where all these people who did community theatre in Torrance would hang out at this club but I never saw the theatre itself around there.

SB: I believe you attended Binghamton University, if I’m saying that correctly?

AK: Exactly, the State University of New York at Binghamton does not roll off the tongue.

SB: And I guess you went during the Ford and Carter administrations. I was wondering if you could describe what the prevailing zeitgeist seemed to be on campus during your time there?

AK: As you could well imagine, we were all excited about Ford [laughs]. I partied during, well let’s say this, the character of Andy Kindler may have done a lot of partying at school and it was fantastic! I loved college. First of all, I was a Grateful Deadhead, I was in a band, I was in kind of a popular band at school, and I was an English literature major (which I actually loved), and there was all this partying going on. But my senior year, I’ll never forget people in the spring saying, “We’re done, we’re done, we’re finished! Can you believe it?” I was like [exasperatedly], “What are you excited about? Why would you want this to end?” So I just loved it because it was beautiful in upstate New York and after college I went right to Los Angeles and that was quite a slap in the face because I thought I’d get out to L.A., I would audition for a play, then I would go and find if my name was on the bulletin board, but it didn’t work out that way.

SB: You know I’m just curious, how did your bar mitzvah go and did that involve a certain amount of pressure or stage fright or not?

AK: Well it’s kind of sad; it’s not sad but I was part of the baby boom generation so there were so many kids getting bar mitzvahed that I actually had to have a double bar mitzvah which was very emotionally crushing to me at the time. And then I wanted to sing my Haftorah portion. Not that I had the greatest voice but the other guy didn’t want to sing. So I felt limited that way but I actually loved doing it. Well I was a reformed Jew, so one of my jokes is; “I’m a reformed Jew so my rabbi was Catholic.” You got to write your own speech and that was my first example of censorship because I wrote this little original speech and at the end of the speech it said, “It doesn’t matter whether you are black or white, rich or poor, male or female, just as long as you’re Jewish.” That’s what I wrote [emphatically] as a joke and the rabbi changed it to “just as long as you’re a good person.”

SB: Wow, so the moment you’re officially becoming a man you get the brutal beat down of how the world…

AK: By the man! I’m becoming a man but the man won’t let me be a man. But one of my early jokes was that I don’t remember much about my bar mitzvah [with Yiddish inflection] but I do remember that I killed! The rabbi couldn’t follow me! I got six applause breaks during my Haftorah reading.

SB: This is a little random but I’m just curious if you had any thoughts about Hogan’s Heroes?

AK: I remember when it came out. Gilbert Gottfried actually has a really hilarious bit about Hogan’s Heroes. I don’t remember all of it, but the idea of them pitching it, [in Gottfried’s voice] “I have a great idea: Concentration camps! No not concentration camps, prisoner of war camp.” I don’t where it’s available but it’s so funny. He has a couple of really funny ones like, “How did Henry Winkler get The Fonz? [à la Gottfried] “I got a great idea for you, for The Fonz. A young Jewish kid, Henry Winkler, he’ll be perfect!” I know I didn’t do any of those bits [laughing] justice. But I thought that Hogan’s Heroes was like the greatest sitcom. I didn’t even think about it in relation to…

SB: The Third Reich [laughs].

AK: …being inappropriate [laughs] or that it was wrong. Of course, I don’t think I could watch one episode now but I was so sitcom-crazy. I mean I watched shows like Donna Reed. I loved Leave It To Beaver, which I actually think is a great show. I love Andy Griffith, so I think I projected my own childhood desire. To me there’s something about sitcoms where you would disappear in the world. I just loved the idea: These guys snuck out at night and they were having such a great time during [laughing] World War II and Shultz was hilarious and I’m sure there were so many loveable Nazis like Schultz and Klink. So yeah but it is an awful, awful, terrible, terrible show.

SB: Let’s talk about sitcoms today, tabling the fact that there are some wonderful shows like 30 Rock or Louie and some really interesting television like Mad Men. ABC made a show called Work It and then rightly cancelled it after two episodes. And I guess the producers did Friends. So do you think it was a matter of like, “Hey these guys have made so much money. We’ll just kind of let them do their thing,” or is there, not to ape Gottfried, a pitch meeting where they go, “How about a charmless and degenerate Bosom Buddies?” This show had two guys dress up like women to get a jobs but it…

AK: Oh, I know that one. I missed that one. That sounds like it would have exactly been up my alley of terrible entertainment like watching the Celebrity Apprentice.

SB: FOX finally pulled the plug on a show called I Hate My Teenage Daughter and I was just so struck by how much time and energy and money they spent on just promotion alone…

AK: Yeah.

SB: …ahead of its release. Then you think that it probably costs about the same amount of money to make a pretty good show versus a horrible one (as long as you have quality writers). These two shows were sub-lowest common denominator. There are always going to be some things scraping the barrel that will be big…

AK: Yeah you can’t always have all great stuff, but how does it get to this level? Well, on a very simple level, I think the way shows are pitched are like this, “Okay, there’s this guy named Earl and he has a list of things that he has to make amends for and that’s the show!” And then an executive will be like, “Oh that sounds good. That sounds like something I can pitch to the people above me and it makes sense.” So many times you’ll see a show where you go, “Why is the premise of this show so ridiculous?” Well that’s kind of the way it was sold because things that are good aren’t usually things that you can sum up in one logline or one saying. They usually think that if you just watch you’ll get it, you know? So I think it’s always this idea of (I didn’t see Work It), “We’ll get these guys to dress up like women and then it’ll be great!” And somehow they get convinced and they get into this world where they think it could work and then the other part is that it’ll be someone like Whitney Cummings. For some reason, all the sudden they decide it’s got to be Whitney Cummings. “She’s going to be the one.” Or it’s like Chelsea Handler. “Ooh she’s got that show that kids love on “E!” Let’s give her the reigns.” I mean I don’t even understand the difference between 2 Broke Girls and Are You There, Chelsea? I don’t understand. I tweeted that they should merge those shows. There’s no operating philosophy. It’s like Kramer on Seinfeld was funny not because he had long hair…

SB: Right.

AK: But then if you look at these sitcoms, there’s always one person they try and make the crazy Kramer type. And I think a lot of it has to do with the multinational corporatization of these networks. So they’re run more and more by faceless people interested in the bottom line. And that’s why reality shows are so popular. “If we can get people’s attention to watch Snookie or The Voice or The X Factor,” it’s like this constant race to the bottom to get these eyeballs but there’s very few people doing it the real way which is like, “Oh this resonates with me. This is funny. Let’s put it on the air.” It’s almost always some kind of angle. And again, anything that you could describe in one sentence probably isn’t going to be good.

SB: Do you think we’re just past the regular occurrence of scripted shows like M.A.S.H. (how old am I?) and such because they’re more expensive or…?

AK: I don’t think so. I love Modern Family. I think Modern Family couldn’t be more of a traditional show in terms of the setup. The setup is like a traditional multi…well it’s not multi camera. It’s single camera but it is like a regular sitcom but I think it’s just great. To me, the most encouraging signs right now are all the different cable channels. I love IFC. I love Portlandia. And so I think that what’s encouraging for someone like me is in the older days (like in the ‘90s), they would look at someone like me and they would go, “What is he?” I don’t have that Tim Allen appeal or I don’t have the…

SB: Congratulations on that by the way.

AK: [Laughs] … the old broad-based appeal. They were so concerned back then about having that but now something like Mad Men, which someone was saying it gets half the audience of some other show whatever, but look at the cultural [impact]. I mean I love Mad Men. And actually, the wife and me were watching the last three episodes of Season 4 right now to get ready for Sunday [the premiere of Season 5]. The one thing that used to drive me crazy when I had these meetings with HBO years and years ago and I would say, “I love Larry Sanders,” (back then) and their response was, “Well, a lot of people don’t watch Larry Sanders.” So that’s what their executive response was. This was back in the ‘90s. The truth is the fact that The Larry Sanders Show came out was what attracted David Chase to HBO. It’s like you can never go wrong doing something great. AMC was floundering before Mad Men came along. But then the thing too is there is also still the copying thing like FX. I don’t watch that show It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. The mistake (well the head of FX has a really good reputation, I forget his name now, sorry, but [John Landgraf] really did take chances) but then I think there’s this thing like, “Okay, well then let’s have other shows like this Sunny in Philadelphia show.”

SB: Yeah.

AK: But that’s not the way you do it. Your brand, I’ve always hated the word “brand” except when you refer to smoking a Marlboro and that’s your brand. But okay, “Our brand is this,” Then they try and copy that or it’s like when they try to make something subversive. To me, Saturday Night Live was subversive when it came out. Not because they were trying to be, they just happen to be. To me, David Letterman is subversive but not because he’s trying to be. He’s from that long line of making fun of the comedy he’s doing. So there is a constant attempt to replicate the last thing that was popular. And that’s even true with artists. Like I don’t know if you’ve seen Ricky Gervais’ new show, Life’s Too Short?

SB: I have HBO but I have yet to take it in.

AK: You know I love the original Office and when he starts to drive me crazy is when he’s been hosting the Golden Globes. Something has become egomaniacal about the guy. He’s still one of my favorites but Life’s Too Short seems to me like re-churning out The Office. It’s the same documentary crew thing. It’s a very mean spirit, so even an artist who can be extremely creative can get into the trap of trying to reproduce what he’s done before or maybe even know what to do again. And I think on the network level, there is this constant chasing of the tail— of your own tail. I always tell people if you took anybody of normal intelligence off the street and just said, “For the next six months watch comedy. Don’t prejudge. Have your mind open.” After six months, you would be familiar with comedians and you would understand them. But mostly at the network level they don’t know what’s going on. Someone’s telling them what’s going on so it’s this constant race to the bottom in terms of copying and trying to redo what’s been done before and it almost never works.

SB: My understanding is that shows like Cheers and The Dick Van Dyke Show didn’t have very good ratings for quite a while but the networks stuck behind them. And I also recall 30 Rock came out around the same time as Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60: Live On The Sunset Strip, And I just remember this glut of articles and ghoulish speculation after 30 Rock had barely started, “Oh the ratings are only this. Can the show survive?” Have network shows lost the chance to find an audience?

AK: A lot of times networks will give lip service. My theory has been a great show should never be taken off the air, ever, because you’re just going to replace it with something and there’s always going to be shows that don’t get amazing ratings anyway— so why don’t you have something good on that brings respect? Because then we have, “Well we know CBS is going to be great,” but so they always give lip service to it but they’re in such a business where they are worried about their own job and they’re worried about their own company. There’s always this panic that ensues in terms of whether we should keep it on the air or not. But almost every successful show has been under the radar. Seinfeld is the classic show business story where it had terrible focus group results and nobody at the network got it but they kind of let it find its way. Same thing: Everybody Loves Raymond was on Friday night but to Les Moonves’ credit, he got that it was really good. I did this DVD called I Wish I Was Bitter and the concept was that I’m not bitter. If I was bitter I would just give up but I’m always optimistic that things are going to work out. So I always feel like the cream does rise to the top but then there’s always going to be a whole bunch of mediocre stuff that rises to the top like the whole reality show craze. Sometimes I watch Extra, whatever the show is, [and have] the idea that if you put an alien in the world from twenty years ago and now they wouldn’t even understand why people are so crazy over The Bachelor (laughs) or that part of society where people just love celebrity. There’s no lasting quality to that.

SB: I’m kind of at the point where if folks like a lip-synching band or it’s more about choreography than music— if that brings someone enjoyment (something I may view without any artistic merit); it’s fine. But yet… wow I just completely brain-froze where that was going…

AK: Well I know where you’re going with that. The degree to which I get upset about what’s on TV or things like that, the other side of it is, it is where I get almost all of my comedy from so I hope terrible things don’t go away because I won’t have anything to make fun of and you know most comedy to me doesn’t come from anger necessarily but some kind of reaction to how ridiculous things are. So the argument, which is that we kind of live and let live, I definitely agree with that. People say, “You really don’t like Carrot Top?” or whatever the thing was. I don’t even know half the people that I’m making fun of; it’s nothing personal. Actually I do know Carrot Top. I’ve met him a few times. He’s very sweet but it’s nothing personal about these things. It’s not like life or death. It’s more like, “I just think it’s funny.” I have a joke that NBC has bought out my peripheral vision so every time I look to my left or my right it says, “Watch Whitney, Thursdays at Eight!” NBC made a deal with the people who flash your life before your eyes before you die and they’re going to promote Whitney. To me, there’s a funny ethic. And then sometimes, not so much now, but sometimes on Twitter rage will be coming out of but I get way more upset about Republicans using racism to get elected. Like Donald Trump, I find him to be a despicable human being and the fact that he would be a birther and all that stuff. And I still watch Celebrity Apprentice (no, I can’t watch that much of it) but it’s so, so horrible that I still enjoy how horrible it is. And the other thing I was talking to my wife about is that the reason why there are so many reality shows is that every once in a while there’s like a real moment, an actual moment on the reality show. It’s almost as if they had a car accident every week at Nine on TV. Look at the car accident.

SB: Yeah, it’s called The Kardashians. You mentioned your DVD and I see that you’re selling a special collector’s edition with a 2003 glossary. I was wondering if you might be able to share a couple of entries from way back in the early Aughts?

AK: Yeah yeah, I’m very proud of the glossary [laughs], it explains what’s happened in 2003. So one would be George Lopez, but this is recorded in 2003, George Lopez hadn’t reemerged as the talk show guy again so I was assuming that when people read this glossary that you would not ever have heard from him again. But he reemerged so I write, “George Lopez: This television magician was able to produce laughs without the use of humor. His long running, barely-watched show was cancelled in the year 2007 but sputters on in syndication somewhere. Check your local listings with a magnifying glass. If a tree falls in the forest, chances are that George Lopez will not have anything funny to say about it.” Then this is one that people do not even remember. I do a thing about the ABC Miners. Remember when the miners were caught in the mine and they got out of the mine and ABC made a movie about it [The Pennsylvania Miner’s Story]? So ABC Miners: “Remember the trapped coalminers who were rescued in Pennsylvania and then ABC cheapened it by making it into a TV movie.” “Crank Yankers: Puppets and phony phone calls have never been funny. Combining them was a stroke of genius. Denis Miller: You wouldn’t truly believe it. Before he became a shill for the right wing, Dennis Miller was a stand-up comic. In fact there was a brief time when he was hilarious then he decided to suck forever.”

SB: I’ve read that Dave largely just speaks with his guests while on camera, but I’m just wondering if from your many appearances and correspondent work for Late Show with David Letterman, if there is one kind of standout memory or thing you may have discussed that is something that really sticks with you?  

AK: The thing, which I actually think is a great thing, that he does is like whatever kind of relationship we are going to have— let’s leave that for when the cameras are on because I think it works. I think Johnny Carson was also like that. And sometimes I get to talk to him when he’s showing the video of whatever piece we’ve done. So we talk a little bit. But I guess my favorite moment, there are so many favorite moments, but my favorite moment was once where I was saying the movie King Kong came out. You know the remake? Where I think Jack Black was in there, right?

SB: Correct.

AK: I said, “Yeah and they go to this island where these large flying pterodactyls come at them and all these terrible bugs and they have to go through all these terrible things on the island. At one point Robin Williams jumps out from behind a bush and does ten minutes, just awful things.” And I was looking at him [laughing] and I just saw this little gleam in his eye. I could see that that joke made him happy, and that made me really happy because he really is the guy who is my comedy hero. So when I’m on that show, I’m never going to not be awestruck by it.

SB: I’ve heard a few comedians say that if a joke doesn’t work three times in front of an audience they’ll ditch it from their act. I’m not a comic but I think I would have a tough time letting go of something I thought was funny.

AK: Right.

SB: Now to great effect, you often provide onstage commentary on a bit’s success or underperformance. Is there any correlation between that and keeping something in your act that you’re fond of or is it mainly just part of the style that you know works for you and for audiences?

AK: Well I was actually going to write this, I was working on this tweet or joke that… Louis C.K. does this whole thing where he does all this material and then after a year he doesn’t do it again. Once he does the material after a year he won’t ever repeat it and so I’m kind of like in the opposite school. Obviously if you get booked back to a club you don’t want to be doing the same material but I always feel like if I want to go back to the vaults or if I want to add on to a joke, I always feel the license to do it. But in the same manner of Louis C.K.’s getting rid of your material after a year, I now will be promising to start dropping bits that I thought were hilarious for years but that no one laughed at. I’m going to start dropping them now. Because my thing is like, I never drop something if I think it’s funny and I definitely don’t do the three-joke thing (you said someone said after three times they do it) because the thing is that either the joke is only meant for a few people to like it. Like I have a joke that says, “The great artist Monet before he would start a painting, he would yell out to no one in particular, ‘Do you people like Impressionism?’” and depending on the reaction he would paint more realistically.” Now a lot of people get it and a lot of people don’t but to me, I know that that joke is funny so I’m never going to drop it. But I have dropped things that after long, long times, months and months and months are getting no reaction because I feel like maybe there could be something I’m missing about the construction of the joke that I just don’t get. But if I really do know that the joke is written well and it’s funny I’ll keep it even if two people like it.

SB: Well good for you. Because I mean you’re the author of everything else they’re laughing at. Wrapping up, I’m just curious if you sometimes get jealous or angry when you hear another comedian deliver a really great new bit? Like, “Oh I wish I had thought of that”?  

AK: I never really do. I probably pride myself on being able to laugh at other people, so no. Obviously when you hear something and go, “Oh I wish I’d thought of that,” that’s more like, “Aw, he got to something that I may have at one point gotten to.” I have this line if I make fun of Leno or whoever where I say, “70% of the reason why I say these things is bitterness and jealousy and envy and the other 30% are just cheap shots.” So most of my envy and jealousy and whatever (I don’t consider myself bitter) is more about based on, “Why is this person so successful, why are they rich?” But not jealousy based on not wanting someone else to be funny. The weird thing about stand-up is there’s a competitive nature to every art form or business or whatever. I worked with this comic which I’m not going to say his name because I really don’t want to repeat his name but I worked with this comic a few weeks ago who tried to blow me off the stage and I just have never understood that kind of concept of comedy. It’s not that kind of competition.

SB: Andy in closing, I always love hearing if someone has a nightmare road story or an audience from hell. I was wondering if something sticks out from you from all your years of performing?

AK: One time, years and years ago, someone at The Laugh Factory just stood up and started to say, [dripping with sarcasm] “Oh you’re very funny.” I said, “Oh you have a problem sir?” “Nooo why would I have a problem when you are so hilarious?” “Well sir, you sound sarcastic.” “Nooo, why would there be sarcasm involved when you’re such an amazing…” and this went on for about three minutes where I thought maybe he was going to rush the stage and kill me. So that was one, and another gig I remember was a one-nighter in Canada. I used to do all these gigs in Canada. I remember flying into some obscure airport, driving on a road, and then going what seemed like off-road for another hour and then getting to this club, like a bar, where there was an infestation of this kind of flying moth and it just seemed like I was inhaling flies while I was doing my act and they also hated me. So that was like a night where I thought maybe it’s going to all end. Also one time on a one-nighter— I used do these gigs in the ‘80s or ‘90s where you’d have a comic and there would be music afterwards— and I was dancing with this girl. I looked to my right and there was a guy dancing next to me with a girl and I smiled at him and then the next second I think he dropped dead. I don’t know that he died, but it didn’t look good. It did not look good, and the ambulance came and so…and I still completed the tour. I didn’t get the omen.

SB: Well that speaks to your professionalism.

AK: [Laughs] Exactly.

SB: When was your awesome Hack’s Handbook” National Lampoon piece written and was there a certain impetus for that?

AK: Yeah, it was in 1991. It was right before the comedy boom from the ‘80s was about to implode and go away. And so Chris Marcil, there was another guy too (they’re now sitcom writers) they were editors at the Lampoon and I forget how the contact happened. But by that time I had already been known for making comments on other comedians and it was just this real, cathartic type of experience where I went through all the different things because there were so many hacky premises at that time. It just was one of those things, like it just came together. I was so proud of it. My friend Joe Madison, who’s a writer and a stand-up, contributed. One of my favorite things was “Anything’s funny with an attitude and then it’s even funnier on steroids.” That was going around. So then my friend Joe Madison came up with “Steroids are just vitamins with an attitude.” So it was all that kind of stuff and people kind of suggested things to me, and the editors at National Lampoon were amazing. I just had no idea that it would have such like a lasting impression. I’m so proud of it because people keep referring to it and they keep reading it and some people have even told me they’ve actually used it to try to do well at the club (like over the years) to see if the horrible jokes still work— and many times they do.

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THE ANDY KINDLER SHOW

Hosted by Bil Dwyer with special guest Mary Lynn Rajskub

Thursday, April 26th
Doors @ 7:30pm | Show @ 8:30pm
Stateside at the Paramount

Purchase Tickets Here. You can also get them at the Paramount Theatre box office or by calling 512-474-1221. The box office is open Monday – Saturday 12pm – 5:30pm and is closed on Sundays. Stay tuned for other appearances and announcements.

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Interview with Larry Doyle: Thurber Prize for American Humor-Winning Author, Essayist, Screenwriter & Ex-Simpsons Writer.

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, & 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):

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“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.”

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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.

SB: Exactly

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”?

LD: Gosh.

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…

SB: “Norwood”?

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.

SB: Absolutely.

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.

SB: Precisely.

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.

*

Visit Larry Doyle’s web site HERE

 

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