#52 Simon Rich

James Altucher interviewed Simon Rich about writing, writing for Saturday Night Live, reading for writing, and did I mention writing. Despite the singular subject it was entertaining throughout. One note, there were a lot of books mentioned in this episode, and I’ve included links to them here, just make sure you’re logged into Amazon. Rich joined Altucher to promote his new book Spoiled Brats.

As the recording equipment gets set up, Altucher asks Rich if he actually listens to any podcasts. He says it seems like everyone is doing them, but can’t think of many people that listen to them. Rich says he listens to the Posting and Toasting New York Knicks podcast and sometimes Jalen Rose. Altucher said he likes WTF with Marc Maron and Nerdist with Chris Hardwick. He also says he should listen have been listening Adam Carollaa past guest – before interviewing him, but listens to his podcast now.

Then the reading love affair begins, and it really is an intimacy with the printed page. Altucher says he’s read all of Rich’s books and that they were hilarious. Those books are:

The Last Girlfriend on Earth: And Other Love Stories. Thirty short stories about love.

Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations. The humor in our everyday lives, including the classic conundrum, “If your girlfriend gives you some “love coupons” and then breaks up with you, are the coupons still valid?”

Free-Range Chickens. A follow up to Ant Farm with more stories of comedy from our “hopelessly terrifying world.”

What in God’s Name: A Novel. God as an absentee owner of Earth who delegates our survival to a pair of angels.

Elliot Allagash: A Novel. The kid who no school could control turns his attention to helping a the least popular kid.

The Married Kama Sutra: The World’s Least Erotic Sex Manual. This “sequel” to the original includes the “prodding position,” where the woman cleans near a man’s feet so as to prod him into helping. The Daily Mail has more illustrations, all SFW.

The pair quickly jump into Rich’s experience at SNL, and he gives some nice backstage information. For one, that he wrote the opening monologue for Seth Rogen, and that most hosts never write their own. That speaks to both the talented writers at SNL, and the hosts who can deliver it so naturally. Rich also said that laughter during rehearsals is a key factor in getting skits to make the final cut. If shows run long before going live, odds are the sketches with the fewest laughs will be the first to go. For more SNL history, Bill Hader said in a NYT interview that “the “S.N.L.” book is Tom Shales and James Miller’s oral history, “Live From New York.” I think most current cast members, the day they find out they’ve been hired, run out and buy that book to see what’s in store for them. I know I did.” In the same interview Hader also said “Simon Rich’s “What in God’s Name” was brilliant. Actually, most of his books are brilliant.”

Rich says that when he wants to see something funny he’ll watch Mr. Show (YouTube clips) with his writing staff.  A few times in the interview he tells Altucher that he watches or reads something to see how it was done. “We should really watch this Mr. Show sketch because it’s very similar to the premise that we’re trying to pull off here.  Let’s learn from this great sketch.” Mr. Show was co-created by Bob Odenkirk who also has a new book out, A Load of Hooey. Ditto for BJ Novak (who also has a book out, The Book with No Pictures), and who recommends Rich’s writings. In his interview with Altucher, Rich explains that comedy writers may not laugh out loud because something is funny, but appreciate jokes on a different level. They may not laugh, but they certainly put in good word about their comrade’s books.

James and Simon talk about 1990’s sketch shows like Kids in the Hall, The State, and Upright Citizens Brigade. They have an interesting conversation about what shows were “the best.” Rich says that it’s hard to figure out the best of something because the order and circumstances matter. “It’s sort of unfair to compare those shows.  You know, it’s like comparing, like, the – you know, the Beatles and, like, the Kinks and, like, the Smiths.  It’s like you have to kind of – they’re so influential on one another.”

Altucher opens a new drawer to ask about the nuts and bolts of writing, and Rich does not disappoint, telling Altucher, “my favorite comedy games are thousands of years old.”

“What do you mean by a comedy game?” Altucher asks.

Rich then goes on to talk about story archetypes. One is the character who is naively missing a key to their survival. Later in the interview he says that another type is the “do anything to get to the top type.”

Whenever writers explain things like this I’m struck by how obvious it is in so many stories. Like a Magic Eye picture, once you know what’s there, you can more easily see it. (Couple that thought with this book.)

Then Rich gives the funniest joke breakdown of Abraham in the old testament. Like Altucher, I had never thought about it this way, but laughed out loud after hearing it.

Rich then talks about the difficulty in being a good stand-up comedian, which Altucher thinks he could do, but Rich doesn’t. He says, “Well, I just know myself to be a terrible performer.  I can tell from reading my pieces out loud in front of people.  And also, you know, you – usually stand up comedians, they love performing.  You know, just like how I love writing.”

Altucher asks Rich about his writing habit, to which he responds that he writes seven days a week. Simon echoes past guests like Matt Stone, when he says that writing is something that you should only do, it if you really want to do it. “I never get anxious about what I’m gonna write ‘cause it – if I don’t have anything to work on, that’s when I get to come up with something new, which is its own kind of fun and exciting experience.” Some days he’ll continue writing what he was working on the previous day, like a screenplay. Other days he’ll have nothing to do and that’s when he gets to work on a new project. “ I wake up in the morning and I’m really excited to sit down and write.  That’s – I can’t wait to do it.”

There’s a lot of conversation in the middle about Simon’s upcoming show, praise of other comedians, and why every four years people hate SNL but not Family Guy.

Then Rich gives a great writing tip about writing comedy – take one idea and flip it. He says:

“All you’d have to do is be, like, have somebody say, yeah, I won.  All right, great.  So what did I win?  You know, then all of a sudden you’re – and it’s like, why’s everybody looking at me.  Is it a car?  It’s a car, right?  I mean, you know, it doesn’t take that much to flip something.  Same thing with Stephen King, like a lot of his premises can be flipped.  The Simpsons has been doing it for years, all their Halloween specials.  You just take a classic Twilight Zone premise, a high-stakes Twilight Zone premise and you just tweak it really very slightly and all of a sudden you’ve got a great comedy premise.”

On his website Stephen King shares how he gets some of his ideas. “I get my ideas from everywhere. But what all of my ideas boil down to is seeing maybe one thing, but in a lot of cases it’s seeing two things and having them come together in some new and interesting way, and then adding the question ‘What if?’”

Off hand I remember hearing about him saying that as he walked out to his mailbox one day and collected its contents, there was a missing persons, “have you seen me?” card. This sparked the idea for a story where those faces could talk to him. About these ideas, King says that he never writes them down, taking their mental stickiness as a gauge for how interesting they truly are.

The pair then get into a whole slew of books that would make me really smart to have read, or at least that’s how they sound. The spitballing of literature includes:

Douglas Adams, Rich says his books kinda bleed together into a single awesome story. Kurt Vonnegut is “another one of my (Rich’s) favorite writers.” Ditto for T.C. Boyle, and the pair agree that Greasy Lake is great. Other writers that Rich enjoys are P.G. Woodhouse, Ray Bradbury, Philip Dick, Roald Dahl, Alec Wilkinson, and Jon Ronson.

Despite all these books and television shows they turn the pages of and reflect on it’s “The Simpsons above all.”

Rich’s has said in another interview that he quotes The Simpsons “ad nauseum.” One interesting moment of the interview was when he was telling Altucher about sitting down with his writing team and saying “we need to make this scene more like this very, very specific, you know, joke or scene or premise on this The Simpsons episode” and who is on his writing team but former Simpsons writer Ian Maxtone-Graham who ”will remember when, you know, he or somebody else wrote it, which is a totally surreal experience.” I’m no where near as big a Simpsons fan as Rich, but that would be cool.

A little later in the interview Rich implicilty gives advice that Scott Adams (a past Altucher guest) shares. About BJ Novak, Rich says, “Right, well that’s a guy who’s obviously a brilliant writer, but he also happens to be a great actor and performer, which is just like – I mean, that’s like knowing how to play guitar and sing.  Like, what are the odds, you know, and if you can do both of those, it’s extremely impressive.”  Adams would define this in terms of his success formula, that is “every skill you acquire double your odds of success.” While this isn’t a mathematical proof, failing to stand up the real world physics, it’s ethos is right. Novak has his level of success because he’s a brilliant writer + great actor + performer.

The interview was good throughout, and if like me, you haven’t read anything by Simon Rich yet, check out Sell Out online at The New Yorker.

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