First lauded as the original head writer of Late Night With David Letterman, a position she held for six years, Merrill Markoe was the only female head writer on late-night television in an era that mostly relegated women offscreen to secretarial work, and onscreen, to giggling and jiggling. Since departing Late Night, Markoe has written for myriad television shows and films with varying degrees of commercial success. The one-time Berkeley art student tended toward jobs that fulfilled her creatively, but didn’t necessarily fill the coffers, or make her a household name. (HBO’s 1988 series Merrill Markoe’s Guide To Glamorous Living lasted only one season.) In a business that pigeonholes artists, the creator of “Stupid Pet Tricks” is no one’s rat with wings.
Markoe has sustained great commercial success as an author, however, writing four novels (The Psycho Ex Game and Nose Down, Eyes Up among them). Her fourth essay collection, Cool, Calm & Contentious, comes out today, November 1. In her most personal essays to date, Markoe quotes liberally from her dead mom’s journals, describes in hilarious detail how vomiting all over her first love curtailed her adolescent relationship and maybe foreshadowed her adulthood ones, and touches on what it was like to get dragged into the wall-to-wall news coverage of David Letterman’s sex scandal. Markoe recently spoke to The A.V. Club about narcissists, her mother, and buying machetes in bulk from Costco.
The A.V. Club: Your new book, Cool, Calm & Contentious, is your most personal work to date. What prompted you to address topics like your mother’s unhappiness now? Is it relevant that you’re near the age she was when she died?
Merrill Markoe: Well, I think there has been a kind of shift in me, partly because since I last put out a book of essays, I published four novels. I never thought I’d write even one novel. I find them very difficult to write. But in the end, I think they made me a more expansive writer.
I went back to essays in this book because it’s a form I really prefer. But when you have been writing for a lot of years, you have to make an effort not to start repeating yourself. It occurred to me that I tended to tread certain ground automatically, because it was comfortable, but that there were areas I avoided automatically because they made me nervous. Over time, I have learned that the stuff that causes me anxiety, the stuff I instinctively veer away from, is usually a road map to where my own creative growth can be found. So I consciously head toward the places that make me uncomfortable.
At the same time, I got a new editor, Andy Ward, who was really pushing me toward more openness. Ditto for the man with whom I live, singer-songwriter Andy Prieboy, who is a fantastic writer. He is the only other person who looks over my work before I turn it in. So four novels and two Andys are really the engine that drove and reinforced the result. With regard to your point about my mother’s check-out date: I don’t think that was a factor in assembling this book. But it is definitely the reason my kitchen counter is so cluttered with food supplements and vitamins.
AVC: In the book’s opening essay, “The Place, The Food, Everything Awful: The Diaries Of Ronny Markoe,” you quote extensively from your mom’s journals. Did you wrestle with ethical issues there?
MM: I wrestled with all of it, big-time. I’m pretty sure I qualify as a professional wrestler now. My thinking about this went through phases.
It all started when I realized that things my mother had said to me got big laughs. For example, her remark when she read something of mine for the first time: “I don’t happen to care for it, but I pray I’m wrong.” That remark is one of the most reliable jokes I have ever used. It’s hard to explain the relief it was to me to learn that rooms full of strangers found that remark funny, because in real life, when it happened, it was stunningly painful. The first time I said it out loud on a stage and it got a huge laugh was fantastically validating for me. So with that in my back pocket, I began to try out, both in print and on stage, additional material about my relationship with my mother.
To my surprise and delight, she continued to get laughs. And this kind of culminated in an appearance at a Mother’s Day show where I read excerpts from her diaries. It definitely felt weird. Yet I gotta say, hearing those diary readings get big laughs was enlightening to me in terms of rethinking my childhood. For a while after that, I vacillated between delight with my newfound treasure trove of comedy material and wondering how much luggage Satan would allow me to bring when he checked me into hell.
Around the same time, a magazine, Real Simple, asked me to write a piece called “Life Lessons.” They especially liked the idea of mother/daughter teaching moments. I didn’t really have any adorable moments to share. What I had was about learning to understand narcissistic personality disorder by talking to a therapist endlessly about my mother. When the therapist first explained the syndrome of narcissistic personality to me, I found it confusing and counterintuitive. It took quite a while to grasp. But once I did, it changed how I saw and understood everything and everyone. It was the biggest life lesson for me. Therefore, I went ahead and explained it in my piece. And the positive feedback I got from readers was very gratifying.
Eventually, all of the above caused my thinking on my mother to be as follows: Since—in my belief system—we each get only one go-round here on planet Earth, it is the task of the writer to interpret, examine, and reflect on the specifics of their one and only life experience. None of us is that unique. The things that apply to one situation apply to many situations. And since I always really enjoy it when other authors really tell me about how their lives came together, I decided that my troubled relationship with my mother was a card I should play.
That she would not have approved of me doing this remains a little sad and unnerving. When she was alive, I once wrote a mom character that was generally inspired by her behavior into a sitcom where I was working. Even though it was a fictional character’s mom and did not reference my mother in any way or share her name, my mom didn’t speak to me for weeks. So, no question that I would never have been discussing any of this if she was alive. But since I don’t believe in an afterlife, I decided that shedding light on the things I learned in this life is what I do for a living.
And if I am wrong and there is an afterlife after all and I have to move back in with my mother again when I die, I am in big, big trouble.
AVC: Your dad’s reaction to your mom’s decades of journals is inadvertently hilarious and depressing. He spent decades with her, and didn’t express even nominal curiosity regarding her journals’ contents.
MM: I thought that was amazing too. But that’s just who he was. He was confounding in an entirely different way than she was. When my mother first died, I called to touch base with him the first night he was spending all alone. He picked up the phone and said, “Listen, Merrill, I can’t talk right now. I just made myself a hot cup of coffee. I want to drink it before it gets cold.” And that was the end of the call.
AVC: Did you feel some responsibility to preserve her time here? Or were you only trying to figure things out for yourself?
MM: Family lore and wisdom when I was growing up had it that my mother was always right. No one agreed with that more than she did. So I felt compelled to figure out if that was really the case. My mother was very bright, as in a high IQ, but so full of symptoms of odd emotional damage that it got in the way of everything else.
More than any other personality trait, my mother seemed to be ruled by anger and sadness. She seemed to hate being a mother. Watching her unhappiness as I grew up made me conclude that the answer was to try and be as unemotional as I could, which many therapists have taught me is a bad idea. It also made me want to avoid marriage and having children.
AVC: You often write about dogs—in this book, in an essay called “Why I Love Dogs.” Are you tired of getting asked for pet advice? How do you feel about people who don’t understand that even the most well-behaved dog can’t become a butler?
MM: I guess you must have heard that I sent my dog, Jimmy, to that rigorous and expensive canine butler-training school, and it turned out to be a total scam. Though to be fair, it’s because of them that he can finally make a decent pot of tea.
Truth is, I actually don’t mind hearing about people’s dogs. Or seeing their pictures, either. When it comes to talking to strangers, I have an easier time making a genuinely interested facial expression when looking at pictures of their dogs than I do with, say, pictures of their children. Something about the face of a dog in pretty much any mood, whether I know him or not, whether or not the picture is in focus, still gives me something I can smile about and relate to.
Plus, for the most part, even the most convoluted dog issues are often solvable. This is definitely not the case with the convoluted issues of children.
AVC: In “But Enough About Me: Narcissism For Echoes” you write about narcissists that it takes a while to figure out, “Hey, this person only cares about me when I praise him or her and only praises me when it makes him or her look good.” You say you’ve received an enormous amount of feedback. How many shitty relationships do you think you’ve preempted for others?
MM: None. Of the things I know to be true in life, right at the top of the list of irrefutable truths is, “No one ever listens to anyone.” It might even be No. 1. Coming in a close second is “Whatever behavior you’ve experienced from people in the past, expect them to do it again and again and again.”
That whole narcissism and echo syndrome is usually the result of early childhood training. Those are very hard habits for anyone to break. If you were raised by narcissists, you really need to do a lot of reading and talking to a therapist for a long time to get some bearings and find your way out of that landscape. I wrote the piece as sort of a simplistic road map, going on the theory that if you are walking in circles, and you at least know what the terrain looks like. Then when you get sick of it, you might decide to find your way out.
AVC: Shouldn’t you get some sort of ribbon-cutting ceremony for providing this help? Or maybe the cash you readers might save on therapy?
MM: Well, yes. My life should be one ribbon-cutting ceremony after another. There should be a trail of recently clipped ribbons wherever I walk. And yet… nothing. If it could just somehow translate into book sales, I’d be a happy girl.
By the way, have you seen the section of my website called “Narcissists Say The Darndest Things”? It’s a page, listed in the “Writing” section, where people contribute that one mind-boggling incident that happened in their crazy relationship with whoever it is or was. As a result, there are a couple hundred specific case histories people left for me there, and it’s very interesting and satisfying to read. I love it.
AVC: “Bobby” is a hilarious, scathing, not very thinly veiled account of David Letterman’s sex scandal. The two of you were involved decades ago. When the media started bringing up your relationship in conjunction with the news of his cheating, what was your inner monologue?
MM: Well, I recall my first thought was, “Oh, perfect. Yay. Just what I needed. Another chance to go out strolling on the deck of the Titanic.” That was a second or two before the time-travel monorail showed up to whisk me back to a portion of my life I had decided to stop visiting.
But as I was sitting in my office, on the computer, trying to take in enough information to comprehend what all the news coverage and the phone calls from television shows and the reporters in the driveway were even asking me about, I was smacked in the face by the bizarre memory that the Letterman show had, just a few years prior, phoned to ask me if they could send me to the winter Olympics to write special material for some female intern. And that the female intern in question seemed to be the same one who was now at the center of this whole brouhaha. Because I had no idea who she was when they mentioned her to me, they offered to send me videos of her segments.
When that conversation came back to me, it took me quite a few hours to make my head stop whipping back and forth like a vibrating tuning fork. Then I needed a little more time to reattach my lower jaw to my upper jaw. The whole thing struck me as so darned weird that I felt I needed to write about it. After all, that’s what I do. I write about stuff that happens in my life that is relevant to me.
AVC: What stopped you from purchasing a blowtorch and/or a machete?
MM: What makes you think I didn’t? Though I never buy a single blowtorch or machete. I am a member of Costco. I am able to buy them by the crateful at cost.
AVC: “Virginity Entrepreneurs” tackles the phenomenon of young ladies willing to give up “the v” to the highest bidder, whom they usually meet online. You examine how pragmatic but sad this is. What formerly sacrosanct personal milestone will be up for sale next?
MM: I’ve already seen evidence of people selling their weddings to advertisers. I attended a wedding of a couple who didn’t drink, yet had big banners for Absolut Vodka hung everywhere, because they were sponsors!
And reality TV has managed to commodify everything we used to think of as the elements of normal life. But you know, I think the big wedding night is still pristine and available for branding. Maybe that will be how I can make a nice chunk of change. Pitch a show that takes us behind the scenes in bedrooms of wedding nights. If no network wants it, maybe I can host a big eBay auction, or cut a deal with pay-per-view.
AVC: Your essay “Medusa’s Sister” is a poignant story about rape that never uses the word “rape.” Was that deliberate?
MM: Yes. “Rape” is such a charged word, it almost writes its own story when it is spoken. So I thought I’d just detail the sequence of events instead, as I remembered them, and let the specifics as they happened create their own mood. I decided not to interfere with readers having their own reactions. Also, I thought that a lot of the behavior I was detailing in the setup, like my goofy art-school behavior, was funny. I didn’t want it to be falsely colored by a looming hot button.
AVC: You didn’t want reviews to lead with your sexual assault when you were a student at Berkeley? Or is that just the way the story unfolded organically?
MM: I think it was the latter. I had earlier versions of this piece that had the word in it. I ended up taking it out because I felt like the word came with such an elaborately pre-programmed database that it made my particular specific story more generic. And that’s why I removed it.
AVC: You’ve got a funny, insightful new book out, you’re in a loving relationship, and you have your dogs. Any sense this is well-deserved?
MM: I don’t know if the concept of “deserved” ever really applies to any of the things you mention. If it did, how do you explain victims of the Janjaweed Militia, or people trapped near that nuclear-power-plant meltdown after the tsunami in Japan?
Maybe the successful relationship is kind of deserved, since I put a lot of time and energy into trying not to replicate my past screw-ups ad infinitum. At some point I decided that, okay, there was no way I could eliminate all future screw-ups, since humans screw up, but I was going to at least try for all new kinds of screw-ups this time around. If for no other reason than to prove I’d learned something by being alive.
But it’s funny to hear you say that, because that’s not how it feels in here at all. After the work I did on the Letterman show, I felt like I had learned a lot, and decided to try and go my own way, seeking creative outlets that would let me use what I thought I’d learned. So I only said yes to jobs that looked like they would lead to results I’d be proud of. And the truth is, I probably would do that again.
On the downside, by pursuing that kind of path, which I hoped was going to put me in the best possible position creatively, I ended up working on a lot of projects that never made it out of the start gate. Don’t get me wrong, I am deeply grateful for the life I do have. In many ways, I am very fortunate. And I also give myself credit for trying very hard to do what I thought was right creatively. But the tally sheet, in terms of accomplishments, has many more things listed in the “incomplete” column than anywhere else. The path I pursued led to a lot of frustration.
The phrase “singular incredible life” seems to me that it applies more appropriately to Jane Goodall or David Attenborough, people I regard with awe and who stand for great humanism and knowledge. Or, on the creative front, to Nora Ephron, Tina Fey, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, etc. The folks who repeatedly figured out how to succeed in a big way on their own unique terms.
That said, I do admit to having the four best dogs in North America, each such a wonder to behold that day after day, I gasp in appreciation at their brilliance and beauty. And this despite the fact they all insist that mud is primarily a refreshing beverage.
AVC: Rolling Stone and other outlets are doing features on David Letterman’s 30th year on late-night television. You were a producer on Letterman’s cancelled morning show, and head writer for six years on Late Night With David Letterman. How do you feel about it at this point?
MM: I don’t know. The thing is, I missed it all. We were all in a bunker, in the midst of it, working really hard and incredibly long hours with little sleep. And when you’re in it, it’s easy to focus on the turbulence and forget you’re going to come out of the clouds. I give myself credit that I kept going and didn’t get exterminated in this business.
AVC: So it’s hard to tell you’re changing something when you’re changing it?
MM: Right. In some ways, Late Night was like Seinfeld. Dave and I collaborated like Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, but Jerry was the focus of the show onscreen. Now, of course, Larry David has Curb Your Enthusiasm. Like all of us, I’d like having my own Curb Your Enthusiasm.
And we were being true to our sensibilities on Late Night. It’s not as if we had an agenda: “We’re going to change late-night TV.” When we started the show, old-school show business was still dominant. It was almost just one step removed from vaudeville. Johnny Carson’s production company, of course, produced Late Night, and everyone knows how much Dave adored Johnny. I looked at Johnny, though, as someone who probably wouldn’t like me. The women on his show, on some level, were all about boobs and giggling.
AVC: It doesn’t seem like he’d want a woman to create “Stupid Pet Tricks” or Larry “Bud” Melman’s character.
MM: Right. And “Bud” was played by Calvert DeForest. He had already been in two of the writers’ student films, and he just went for it. He had this wonderfully naïve, attention-seeking quality that was entirely genuine. It’s like singing off-key—it’s almost impossible to teach someone to do it intentionally.
In comedy, there’s almost nothing as reliable as naïve attempts that lead to people falling short in life, whether it’s in love, art, or commerce. It’s predictably hilarious, and a lovely quality that makes us human. When anyone lacks self-awareness and doesn’t recognize their transparencies, it’s always funny.
The humorous thing is, if Dave had been a hardware salesman, I would’ve written about this area of my life more. Because that’s what I do. I write about my life. But I don’t like the celebrity gossip culture, and I certainly don’t want to contribute to it. I don’t care about the Kardashians, or any of them.
AVC: Rolling Stone suggested that in some ways, Late Night was responsible for reality TV, because of the remote segments that featured real people. But Late Night’s sensibilities seem to be the exact opposite of reality TV.
MM: Our remote segments were nothing like reality TV. We made real life interesting. Reality television is a scripted hyper-life that employs writers, but won’t allow them to call themselves writers or join the union. It features people who are screened specifically because they’ll act out in some erratic way. We liked things you would never see on TV now. We liked genuine humans, the oddly misshapen. We wouldn’t have featured the cast of Jersey Shore. Well, maybe we would have featured Snooki if she’d owned a shoe store or something.
AVC: What’s next?
MM: Honestly, I don’t know. But I’m making notes and figuring out what’s open to me. My goal was always getting my work out in the world, and in many ways, I feel like the luckiest person alive. I care about being creative and productive. But IMDB doesn’t have about two-thirds of what I’ve written. Where do they get their information?
AVC: I think your management team is supposed to make sure it’s current.
MM: I don’t have a management team.
AVC: Okay, there’s the missing link.
MM: I really enjoyed Merrill Markoe’s Guide To Glamorous Living, which was a weird hybrid reality/sketch thing I wrote, directed, and hosted, with two male-model bimbos whom I made agree with everything I said. Then there was “News 2 Us,” which was another news/reality/comedy/opinion thing I co-hosted with Richard Rosen. We alternated segments. That was HBO, back in the day. It came out great, in my opinion.
These things all aired and got good reviews, but then disappeared. Man, if one of them had moved forward to launch, that would have been so cool. Then I started doing my own comedy-sketch opinion segments on Not Necessarily The News. Which was also a fantastic gig. And it got cancelled and disappeared.
But in answer to your question, I’ll figure it out. Another novel? Another screenplay? It’s like I buy a kit each time.
AVC: Like a Merrill Markoe Lego set.
MM: Exactly. We’ll see what I’ll build with my Legos this time.