The Kevin Guilfoile Interview

February 14, 2003


Countdown to the interview:

6. Today is Valentine's Day! Whether you're happy about it, miserable about it or just don't care, you can still invent a better holiday than one dedicated to 'love', right?

5. Check out this site. It's simply cute kittens. No gag, no anything. Just cute little kittens. First, you will become addicted (and I'm not even a huge cat fan.) Then, you will become disappointed when you see pictures of full grown cats. Next, you will start being nonplussed by regular kittens and just be impressed by the really, really, really cute kittens. And then finally, you will come to the conclusion that kittens are not very intelligent-looking. I swear to god.

4. I've got a little restaurant review in NewCity Chicago (online and in print.) I love this place.

3. The Black Table waxes off again with ladies like me talking about booze. Check it out!

2. Also, re: love. I have an article in Knotmag about couples who wed in college.

1 Finally, know that Zulkey loves you.

Today's interviewee is a must-know for any writer serious about humor. His work will be appearing in the next volume of Mirth of a Nation, The New Republic, NPR and, of course, his bestselling book My First Presidentiary. Could somebody proven to be this talented, prolific and gosh-darn funny be a great guy to grab a beer with, too? No. I mean, yes.

The Kevin Guilfoile Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions

You co-authored My First Presidentiary with John Warner. In terms of political comedy, what do you think is the difference between quality humor versus the more obvious "Ha ha, the President is dumb"?
I notice you don't take a position on which best describes our book. Clever.

It's not enough just to say the President is dumb. You need to have your dumb president do funny things, like walk into a cheese shop that has no cheese, or take a job in a chocolate factory. Also, if the writer uses the words "Dumbya" or "Shrub" it's an unfunny lock.

Good political humor has a little bit of truth in it, and that gets harder in the third and fourth years of an administration because the truth becomes more complicated. When you write your book right after the election, like we did, forget about broad strokes, you can paint with a roller. That's not to say I think our book is uninteresting or unfunny (we like to call it 'the Finnegan's Wake of hastily written cartoon books') -but you have to look at it as a product of the time, which was the first half of 2001, the "Peaceful Easy Feeling Era." The best political humor in any medium right now is The Daily Show. Going away.

Can you give us a synopsis of how MFP came to be? I imagine there must be a slightly different process for the publishing of such a visual humor book as opposed to other kinds of humor books.
During the 2000 Republican Convention, John had this idea to write George Bush's diary. It looked like it might be a lot of work so he asked me to help him keep up with his stories on television. I'd write Monday night and the next day he'd act out Ally McBeal. It was a very primitive form of TiVo. Anyway, Modern Humorist and Three Rivers Press asked us if we'd like to do a book about George Bush and we said sure. " We'll even do a book about Al Gore if he wins," we said. "No one wants to read a book about Al Gore, funny or no," they said. Once the election was finally decided, we had about three weeks to write it. John and I would get together every few days in a bar near his office and map out parts of the book. Then we'd each go home and write. When we both liked something, we'd print out what we could on the computer, and then I'd grab some colored pencils and draw right on the page. Once a week, we'd pack it up and send it to our editors, Michael Colton and Pete Fornatale. From that perspective, we had an amazing amount of creative control because there was little they could do to change anything once we turned it in. We did have to work fast though. At least five pages were conceived and written on the counter at FedEx.

MFP was published by Modern Humorist. Why do you think that MH, which is fairly young, took off so quickly, whereas it took The Onion about 15 years to get the recognition it has today? Would MH exist without The Onion?
The Onion started as a college paper and, like public radio, for most of its life it never had any ambitions outside Madison, Wisconsin. Once The Onion was purchased as a commercial venture, I think its success came pretty quickly. As for its influence, The Onion's business model proved that you could give away your product online, build a brand with a large group of consumers, and make money with offline projects. The spectacular failure of just about everyone who tried to duplicate that model proved that this is also very difficult. Modern Humorist is still around because Michael Colton and John Aboud are very smart, very funny guys, and because they took this video of John's dog humping a giant Pikachu doll. It's the Kangaroo Jack of Malaysia.

From Modern Humorist to Mirth of a Nation, written humor seems to have found a lot more new niches over the years. Where would you advise young humor writers to submit to give them more humorous literary street cred.
No one knows less about street cred than me. I was so unhip as a kid, I not only owned a Tommy Tutone album, it was the one that didn't have "Jenny" on it.

As a humorist, is there such a thing as being too steeped in pop culture, or do you think that keeping the proverbial finger on what the kids like these days is integral to having a good sense of parody and satire?
I think you should write about things you like. If you don't get some weird pleasure from watching shallow and slutty women eat horse testicles or whatever it is they do on Joe Millionaire, you should keep your proverbial finger away from it. There are many exceptions, but I think the best humor is generally written about things the author has at least some affection for, even if that affection is reluctant or guilt-ridden. If the things you like are unpopular or unhip or square, write about them anyway because unpopular and unhip and square kids will find you on the internet. If that happens, try to ditch them after eighth period.

Tell me something about your writing partner, John Warner, that I should know for when I hit him up for his interview.
He has three of something most people have two of, and two of another thing half the people have one of, and four of a third thing he shouldn't have at all.

Did you receive any scarily critical or scarily laudatory responses to the book?
Our reviews were almost all very good, although Entertainment Weekly called the book both "laugh-out-loud funny" and "tedious" in the same 200-word review. I was flattered by this piece in Ironminds.

It wasn't a review, but we reached number one on the Washington Post bestseller list, and that was pretty exciting. I remember that John and I did about 20 radio interviews in one day and we had a hard time keeping them straight. They booked us on this conservative talk station in Cincinnati and the host started by saying that their listeners probably wouldn't like MFP because the station played Rush every afternoon, and I said, in all seriousness, "Why would Geddy Lee fans hate our book?"

You work in advertising, like me. How would you say that advertising is a good career for writers, and how would you say it stinks?
Advertising teaches the importance of being succinct. The best five-word tagline in the world is less good than the best four-word tagline. Of course, it's all in the service of someone else's product, but historically that's the only kind of writing clients pay for.

Tell us about the process of pitching to, and writing for, and broadcasting on NPR.
The first commentary was through the guys at Modern Humorist. I recorded it here in Chicago at Hubbard Street Studios where we produce most of our agency's commercials. I pitched the next idea directly to WNYC.

I'd rather listen to baseball on the radio than watch it on TV, wouldn't you? I once put a boom box against the TV and recorded all of Smokey and the Bandit and for months that was what I listened to when I went to sleep. This was not recently.

Speaking of advertising, as the moderator, how would you recommend one prepare for the legendary Coudal Partners Rock and Roll Pop Quiz?
The live version, which we do game show style at our Holiday Party, is close to impossible, even with teams of five and the eventual multiple choice options. Drunken spectators were actually booing me when I read the Oscar Wilde question this year. When we open it up to the web, we want to make it challenging for the Google-savvy, so I make sure to research the questions in actual books. Out of over 200 entries this year, two people got ten-of-ten.

In regards to your piece "What Are You, Drunk?"in the New York Morning News, do you think that colleges would have less of a drinking problem if the legal drinking age were lowered to 18, or do you think the it would remain relatively the same, with students simply excited to be rid of parents 'cramping their style'?
If the drinking age were 18, there would surely be more drinking, and that would bring its share of problems, both the serious kind and the kind where you agree to lick yellow goo from the bottom of your roommate's sneaker for three dollars and an ice cream sandwich. My point was that universities present these studies as legitimate research when in fact they're just manipulating obvious or meaningless data for the purpose of furthering an agenda.

An 18-year-old in America can have practically anything he wants except reasonable car insurance and a glass of California Cabernet. An 18-year-old can star in a circus porn movie set in Prohibition-era Kansas, but she can't buy a sixer of Pabst. You don't think that's weird? I think that's weird. By telling young adults they can't drink, we're not teaching them responsibility, we're teaching them to rid themselves of abstinence the way car-bound toddlers want to rid themselves of apple juicebox pee. And the arbitrary laws are a ridiculous burden on our universities. That any academic institution, much less Harvard, should be legally or civilly responsible for keeping three quarters of its adult students sober is absurd.

What about Madelyn Murray O'Hair In Hell makes her good writing fodder?
Oh gosh, I don't know. I keep a little notebook where I write down every mostly stupid idea I have and a few years ago I wrote down "Madelyn Murray O'Hair In Hell." It's sort of X-Files in reverse ("I don't want to believe") and it's also Murder, She Wrote with a lot of cursing. I don't usually like going back to the same humor premise again and again, but I really like these characters. I want to find out what happens to them.

By the way, in the same notebook, from years ago, there's a notation I don't recall making at all. It says, "Sexy Ann Landers."

A problem that a lot of web writers complain about is that it's simple and gratifying to publish on the web, but much more difficult to publish (and get paid) in print. Do you have any advice, based on your own successes and misses, on how to get paid to be in print?
I'm all in favor of getting paid for your work, but early on you should just submit to places you like to read. Get read by as many people as possible, and don't worry so much about the checks (when they come they're not going to have that many zeroes anyway). Also writing for free gives you the liberty to write what you want and you should be able to do that as much as possible. Even if you're not making money, when you write smart stuff and smart people find it, it can be pretty rewarding. Finally, I think the environment in which you're published is important too. If the site is ugly or sloppily designed, it doesn't give words the respect they deserve.

Is there a particular area of writing in which you wished you could improve? Brush up on your romance novel skills? Tighten your iambs in poetry?
God, all of it. But you get better with every word you write and with every word of yours that's read. That's fun.

As somebody who has published in both McSweeney's print books and web page, perhaps you are qualified to answer: many people claim that McSweeney's has gone astray from its original trajectory and simply isn't as fun to read or as good as it once was. Do you agree or disagree? I personally have not been reading it long enough to have an educated opinion.
McSweeney's has changed a lot over the last four years, and you're free to think that's a good thing or a bad thing I guess. McSweeney's #2 has one of the funniest pieces of short humor I've ever read--Jim Stallard's "No Justice, No Foul"--and McSweeney's #7 has one of my favorite short stories--Kevin Brockmeier's "The Ceiling." I think it's true that Stallard's story wouldn't have been published in #7, but it's also true that Brockmeier's story would never have been published in #2. Things are more exciting when they're new, of course, and even if the web site and the journal maintained their original voices through today, they wouldn't have that new baby smell anymore. Everything evolves and nostalgia is dumb.

When I was younger, I wanted to write words that could seduce women and light fuses. Now, I only want to take things bouncing around my head and put them on paper and after I'm gone I want people to say about me, "He loved his wife and I never saw him litter." That's good, I think.

With how much difficulty will you find yourself saying "U.S. Cellular Park" instead of "Comiskey Park" this season? Or will you just call it "Sox Park" or nothing at all?
I'm calling it "Comisk-ular." In fact, the Sox should have sold only the suffix rights.

What's the first non-utilitarian web site you check in the morning?
Steven Green's Plep.

Wait, how explicit does vampire porn have to be before it becomes "utilitarian?"

What's the next big thing your readers can be expecting from you?
I'm helping John Warner with a big project that should be launching shortly. It's really his baby, but collaborating with him is always great fun and this involves some other people I love working with, as well. I'm excited about it.

How does it feel to be the 43rd person interviewed for
Forty-three! Me and GWB!

Honestly, it's like being duct-taped into a safe room full of puppies.