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It’s hard to tell if Larry Doyle tells a joke the way someone might mention the weather. The Thurber Prize-winning author of the novel I Love You, Beth Cooper and former writer for The Simpsons lacks that annoying self-awareness that most of us unfunny people have when we think we’re telling a good joke. Musing about his 35th high school reunion in Buffalo Grove, which will happen the week before his reading at the Penn Bookstore Nov. 15, Doyle wonders how this one would be different. There were conversations about “finding yourself” at the 10-year reunion, marriage updates at the 15-year reunion, then bragging about kids at the 30-year reunion. “So for the 35th,” he says, “the only thing I can possibly think of is going to be who’s dead.” Sometimes it takes a minute to tell if he’s actually joking or if he’s serious. Or maybe it is both, and maybe that’s why the jokes are good.
Doyle’s third book, Deliriously Happy, out Nov. 8., collects Doyle’s humorous essays from The New Yorker, National Lampoon, Esquire, and elsewhere. His scenarios often feature characters who are in fact deliriously—or delusionally—happy. There’s the sleazy porn star bombing his first date, the kid who doesn’t realize his father is a taxidermy project, or the writer hopelessly trying to write the next bestseller about hot angels not vampires. Doyle spoke with The A.V. Club about when jokes don’t work, why “Shit Party” isn’t as funny as “JoJo’s Poop Party,” and how he’s like a traveling salesman.
The A.V. Club: Deliriously Happy is mainly made up of pieces from The New Yorker based on news items. When you look at the news or turn on the TV, do you actively look for those ideas? Or is it more organic?
Larry Doyle: I hate to say it, but I think I do the opposite. I decide I want to write a particular piece, and then I look for a news item that it might go with it. Doing it my way, I think the pieces seem, strangely enough, more inspired, since they’re only obliquely related the news item itself. “Sleeper Camp” was one where I read the item and I thought it was funny. I liked the idea [Russian spies defending buying an American house], but the problem was that the news clip was already funny. I was trying to find some way to transform it so that I could write about a world that was something other than the idea itself. I think because it was summer, it occurred to me that it would be a funny thing if you had kids in summer camp where the guy is trying to infiltrate the neighboring camp. But that was active, unlike a lot of things, which are just inspiration. The other night in a dream, a line occurred to me that I might write a piece on, which was, “I’m crawling across America to prove a point.”
I don’t know if you call it “inspired,” but there’s a piece in there, “Fun Times,” about going to one of those awful places, which was “inspired” by going into one of those awful places. I was at a Dave And Buster’s for 45 minutes and lost my hearing for about a day. That’s fairly straightforward and hopefully more fun than an actual trip to Dave And Buster’s.
AVC: You take a lot of jabs at Hollywood, too. How do you reconcile being a part of that world, but also making fun of it in pieces like “Let’s Talk About My New Movie”?
LD: You mean, how do I morally or ethically reconcile working in a business that I don’t really respect, like 99 percent of all Americans?
AVC: You’ve said you openly imitate humorists that came before you: Parker, Thurber, Swift, Benchley, etc. How much of your comedy do you think relies on imitation?
Well, all writing is imitation. I hope that I’ve combined my various sources in an interesting enough way that it doesn’t seem like it’s a total copy of something else. Barthelme is another person who I’ve stolen from. I was just looking at one of his books on the shelf.
One of the really bad things about compiling a book, or writing a book, of any kind is that you have to read it. At this point in my life, I do have a writing style that annoys me. There are things that I do that I don’t like, but it’s too late to change them, especially editing a collection. I found—and I changed it—that in two different pieces, I wrote the exact same joke. Functionally at least, they were the same joke. Of course some jokes sound the same or seem like they’re mining the same thing, but these were the same joke. So that can be a little bit frustrating. I also didn’t want to just contemporize everything, but there were some references, because in a lot of cases people were dead, so it turned the joke in a different direction.
AVC: And this is your first collection. It seems like the whole book is making fun of the idea what a “collection” is, with all of the synonymous chapter headings and the “Things Left Out Of The Collection” chapter. Did you feel a need to make fun of that self-absorbedness of writers?
LD: I wish I had something more like that as a point to be made, but I think I just did it for fun. I wasn’t consciously thinking, “This is going to be a satiric construct as well as a collection.” Some of it was just a “What the hell?” kind of thing. Like “The Pieces Left Out Of This Collection” at the end? They were pieces that I was going to leave out of the collection. Then I thought, well, that’s kind of funny, to just have them actually be in the collection.
Oh, here’s why I put them in there: Harper Collins has this annoying policy of making you add a bunch of material to the back of a paperback that has nothing to do with the book itself. They want to put this little, 15-page thing at the back with some branded name.
AVC: Like author interviews?
LD: Yeah, interviews and crap like that. I just find that really annoying, and I don’t like doing them. So “Pieces Left Out Of This Collection,” actually, is that thing they have in their little head as something that’s “Extra!” So, in a way, it’s there because I thought it would be funny, but it’s also replacing yet another version of this chat we’re having now. For those pieces, there’s also an explanation, which is joking but also true of why they failed.
AVC: Were there more pieces actually left out of the collection?
LD: No, there are a bunch more. Those are just the ones I had something interesting to say about, or that I thought their failure would be interesting. Or in one case, one of them is piece I really loved, but I couldn’t justify putting in a humor collection because it just wasn’t funny.
One thing was: I was doing fake non-fiction, and I did these incredibly long articles for GQ and Esquire and Rolling Stone. They were written as real articles, but they were about fake things. One—you can see why I didn’t put this in—was a profile of JFK Jr. written 20 years in the future, after he has become president. [Laughs.]
AVC: So is there any subject that’s off-limits? The character in “The Hot Book” gets in trouble for saying his book is funnier than the Bible.
LD: Because I was writing for a couple of different places, I was able to do things that I couldn’t have done at The New Yorker. I guess you can write about anything you want online, but I like to write things that get in The New Yorker, and The New Yorker is not going to run a thing showing the explicitly homosexual parts left out of Huckleberry Finn [“Huck Of Darkness”], and probably a bunch of other things. It’s funny though, because there’s a joke I really love that came out of The New Yorker being a little squeamish. In the piece “Why We Strike,” the guy is arguing that writers are not trained chimps, and in the original version he said, “The last decent show written by trained chimps was ‘Shit Party,’ which was largely improvised,” and they wouldn’t let me do Shit Party. They wanted it to change it to Poop Party. But then as I was driving, and literally the thing was going to press, it occurred to me that it should be called JoJo’s Poop Party, which for some reason I liked so much more than even Shit Party.
AVC: On the back cover of the book it says, “If Earth ever needs an Interplanetary Humor Ambassador, Larry Doyle’s the guy.” That sounded almost like one of the news clippings you would use to frame an essay. Do you want to elaborate on what that scenario might look like?
LD: I hadn’t thought of that, since that was from a very nice review of Go Mutants! [Laughs.] Well, here’s one thing you don’t write about very much– though there’s a piece where I do write about it: You can’t write a humorous piece about humor. It just doesn’t work.
AVC: Because if you were sent as an interplanetary ambassador, how would you explain what you were there to do? Doesn’t explaining humor kill it in a way?
LD: It does. Well, that last Albert Brooks movie, and I love him and I love all his movies, but [Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World] just doesn’t work because its whole construct is humor.
AVC: But you do write about humor, like “Tell Me If You’ve Heard This One,” and then the guy who’s just miserably failing at his stand-up comedy routine in “I Killed Them In New Haven.” That works, though.
LD: Those are both about something else. “Tell Me If You’ve Heard This One” was about this insular world where I took after-dinner speakers and made them kind of like college professors who hate each other and are out to get each other, but in the form of a kangaroo-in-the-bar joke. The joke itself is like 50 words long, and then there’s 900 words of footnotes, arguing various points of the joke. Then the stand-up comedy one is based on the premise of that I had just seen one too many stand-up comics take about how they were crazy. So that is a parody of stand-up comedy, except the joke is that the jokes were truly the work of an insane person. He’s an observational comic who’s a paranoid schizophrenic. So what he’s observing isn’t the same as everyone else.
I actually tried a version of that. Like most stupid people, I tried stand-up comedy, and I was just terrible at it. I did it in Chicago at a place called the Maroon Racoon and Zanies. I tried to do “bad observational comic,” so it was an observational comic who kept observing things that weren’t happening or weren’t like anybody else’s observations. And he just kept going, “Am I right?” [Laughs.] It just—[whispers] it died like a dog.
AVC: But somehow you transferred that into a successful writing career. It just didn’t work onstage?
LD: I think that your 100 percent lack of charisma doesn’t show as much when you’re behind a computer screen. That was really it. The fatal flaw in my comedy career was zero stage presence. I think that my material delivered by somebody that someone would want to look at for 15 minutes would do okay.
AVC: But if you thought you were bad at stand-up comedy and that you didn’t have stage presence, is a reading somehow different?
LD: I think when I’m doing readings now, I do pretty well because I discovered the secret to having a good performing style for me—which was no performing style. I actually work the anti-charisma. It sort of works in the context of being a book writer. I do the same thing when I pitch movies. A lot of people pitch movies, and they jump all over the room and they do voices. I do the exact opposite. I do that thing parents do, where they talk more quietly so you have to listen to them.
AVC: And that works?
LD: Enough. I wouldn’t say it’s a wildly successful strategy that should be imitated, but it works better than the flop-sweaty performance I gave when I tried to be the other guy.
AVC: Pitching sounds like a pretty terrible experience.
LD: Well, one of the sad things, in the sadness that is my life, about [pitching] is that my dad was a salesman. And he was a really good salesman, but I just could tell from what he did and what he had to that I did not want to be a salesman. Whatever I did in my life, I did not want to have to have my little [wares]. I remember there was this guy who used to come around all the houses in our neighborhood with just this little basket of shit, like cleaner and other kind of weird stuff, and he’d try to sell my mother some of it. He was a traveling salesman, and he was this old, kind of stooped guy, and all his stuff in his basket was kind of sad and had brand names you had never heard of. But that’s how he made his living, and I just thought, “I don’t want to have to do that.” Then I end up going into this business where 90 percent of my job is going in, and the only difference is that my basket is invisible. I don’t have the actual basket, but it’s sort of like, [in The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns voice] “So Larry, what have you got for us today?” “Oh! I’ve got a number of interesting things!” It is a peddler.
AVC: With your sad little jokes.
LD: Right, [in a low whisper] my sad little concepts that are not high enough.
AVC: Or not based on a board game.
LD: [Laughs.] I got a call from my agent last year because Universal bought all those Hasbro games and had a penalty if they didn’t make the movies. So he called me and said, “They’re really looking for a game-based thing.” And I said, “Okay, what game do you want me to think about?” And he said, “All of them! The more games you can get into one of these movies the better!”
AVC: Did you have any ideas for how to swing that?
LD: No, sometimes there are some things that are just so—I just can’t think of anything to go with it.