Today is the day to leave a message for future generations.The first time I met today's interviewee, he was subbing in for my usual writing teacher at the Second City Workshop here in Chicago. I was like, "Who is this guy?" And then it turned out he was a pretty good teacher. A few years down the line, he is a contributing editor at The Believer and is guest-editing an issue of Monkeybicycle. Plus, his new book Fast Forward: Confessions of a Porn Screenwriter is coming out in April and it looks fascinating.
The Eric Spitznagel Interview
What's one of the biggest misconceptions about what it's
like being a porn scriptwriter? (And don't say that it's fun, I think most
of us hear that it's not that sexy. Unless that is a misconception.)
No, you're right, it's not that sexy. It's not sexy at all. But the one thing that surprised me about it - and it's actually the reason I wrote the Fast Forward memoir - is that the porn business is not necessarily filled with sexual deviants. I mean, sure, you find a lot of that. But I was shocked to discover that there's a small minority - probably somewhere around 2% of the people making and writing and performing in porn - who truly consider themselves artists. There was one director who pitched me on writing a porn homage to Kurosawa's Rashoman. I'm being completely serious. He asked me, "Have you ever watched one of Kurosawa's films and thought, 'Damn, this would've made a great porno?'" Well, no, not really. "Different versions of events, multiple points of view, a cinematic meditation on the subjective nature of truth. Add some fucking and it practically writes itself." That's almost admirable, in a weird kinda way. You have to give the guy credit for trying. But the thing is, it's impossible to do something that ambitious in porn. The kid doing poetry in some dank basement in a Chicago suburb is justified in believing that he might connect with an audience. He's not delusional in thinking that he might move them or surprise them or make them look at their lives in a different way, because it is possible. The same applies to theater and music and painting and just about every type of art ever imagined. But with porn, that connection is impossible. When your audience just wants to masturbate, you're not going to connect with them on any meaningful level. You end up striving for something that is, by definition, unattainable. So I guess, for me, this book is about the search for relevance in an industry designed to be irrelevant. It's about how when life hands you lemons, it's not always possible to make lemonade, especially when the "lemons" in this particular metaphor are genitals.
What's your favorite porn script that you've ever written?
That would have to be Butt Crazy Part 16. For one thing, I loved that it was a sequel. The title "Butt Crazy" is funny enough, but the fact that it was "Part 16" was just hilarious to me. I tried to do a take-off on Drop Dead Gorgeous. It was a mockumentary about a butt beauty pageant. It has my single favorite line from any of my porn scripts. At one point, the contestants are being coached by the pageant's director. They're doing ass-enhancing exercises, and director is standing over them, screaming, "Come on, ladies! I want to see those sphincters breathing the fire of life! Your butt is the window to your soul! Let it speak for you!" Stupid, I know, but it made me laugh. The entire script is included in the book's appendix because it never got produced. The director didn't get it. He thought I was crazy. When I sent him the script, he went on a rant about how I had ruined the Butt Crazy franchise. It had too much dialogue and too much story. I was given specific instructions not to include any words in the script with more than two syllables. I wish I was kidding about that, but it's true. The director actually told me, "Have you ever seen a porn actor try to speak in complete sentences? Their fucking synapses catch on fire." I suppose he had a point.
What unfinished business from Butt Crazy did you cover in the sequel?
See, that's the thing. There is no reason for a sequel. A film called Butt Crazy gives you exactly what it promises. As the director explained to me, "It's about butts. A bunch of girls with sexy butts. Give them something funny to say and we're in business." There were fifteen sequels in the series, and you could argue that there wasn't a reason for any of them. Not that I saw any of the other films, but a sixteenth sequel just seemed inherently redundant. Was there really anything left to say on the subject of butts or butt-related insanity that hadn't been explored, ad nauseum, in the first fifteen films?
I run another blog that gives advice to writers. How would advice an aspiring
porn screenwriter to break into the business?
I wouldn't. I'd tell them to stay away and find something else to do with their time. Because writing porn is just going to end up breaking your heart. You get into it thinking, "I'll just do a few of these things and make some money and that will be the end of it." But it never happens that way. That may be what draws you to it, but if you have any sense of pride about your writing, you eventually lose all perspective. You start thinking that you can write the Great American Porno. After only my second script, I decided that I was going to write something so funny and original and campy that no amount of bad acting or poor production values could ruin it. I imagined that my films would attract a cult following. Fans would show up at midnight screenings dressed as their favorite character and howl over the best lines. It would evolve into an international craze, and soon even critics would admit that my pornos were a fairly decent guilty pleasure. It was the difference between being Ed Wood and John Waters. If porn was destined to be a joke, I wanted to be in on the joke. But it can't happen. It doesn't happen. You eventually realize that porn is stuck in its little cultural niche, and you're not going to be the one to drag it out of the shadows. So yeah, my advice is don't bother.
Here's another one: what are the best places for humor writers to showcase their work, in your opinion?
Huh. Well, I've always been a fan of the Internet. There are so many great websites devoted to publishing unknown writers. Places like McSweeney's and Monkeybicycle and Hobart and Opium and Pindeldyboz. You're not going to get paid, but you stand a better chance of getting your stuff exposed to an appreciative readership. Sometimes that's the best you can hope for. And there's a real sense of comradery that comes with writing for these websites. Once you've published something with them, you feel like you're part of an actual community of writers. Monkeybicycle, for instance, has a remarkably loyal following. The contributors aren't just looking for a place to get exposure. They read each other's work and encourage each other and actually root for their fellow writers to succeed. You don't get that in most of the bigger, glossy mags.
I took a Second City course from you once. How do you prepare yourself
to teach humor? Did you have any doubt about your qualifications the first
time you taught?
I had nothing but doubt going into it, because I was completely unqualified to be teaching a class on sketchwriting. I'm still not entirely sure why they asked me. When they first approached me about doing it, I was working at the Second City's box office and writing mostly humor pieces for local indie rags. I didn't write sketch comedy and had no real interest in sketch comedy. It just wasn't part of my world, other than the fact that I worked at the theater. I think they just needed somebody to teach the class, and as I made my living (more or less) in writing, I seemed as good a candidate as any. But during those first few classes, I was in completely over my head. I had no idea what I was talking about. I would be standing in front of a bunch of students and wondering what the hell I was going to tell them. "Okay, class, today we're going to work on let's say, fart jokes." I'd be very surprised if anybody learned anything useful. But over time, I developed a better sense of how sketch comedy worked, and I managed to get pretty good at expressing it. I like to think of myself as a living example of that old cliché: "Those who can't do, teach." That pretty much sums up my qualifications as a teacher. I couldn't write a fucking sketch to save my life, but I can tell you how to do it.
Have you ever performed your own material on stage? What is that like?
Well, I've never done my own material, but I was a struggling actor for most of the early 90s, I was in a comedy group called Marlboro Country, which performed in a few venues around Chicago, like the Club Lower Links and The Improv (both of which, not so coincidentally, have since gone out of business). I also played Chewbacca in the Star Wars musical Jedi! at the ImprovOlympic, but I didn't have any dialogue, just a lot of rhythmic grunting. I think it just confirmed for me that I wasn't meant to be a performer. I wasn't awful, mind you, but I don't think the world lost anything because I gave up acting.
What's the worst thing that's ever happened onstage during a show you've
been in or written?
That honor belongs to Marlboro Country. We started the group with the intention of being "The Most Hated Men in Show Business." That was literally our mission statement. Well, when you're in your early 20s and your main influences are Michael O'Donoghue and Andy Kaufman, you're going to make some mistakes. We'd done a few performances already when we were asked to headline a show at Lower Links - I think this was in 93 or 94. We hated sketch comedy, so our shows were more like one-act plays. The premise of this one revolved around a guy named Steve, who was kind of an amalgam of Steve Austin the Six Million Dollar Man and every movie character that Elvis ever played. Steve was basically a cyborg created by the US Government to promote blind patriotism and mass consumerism. I guess you could call him a fabricated American icon. Anyway, I played one of the scientists who created Steve, and at one point in the show, Steve decided that he no longer wanted to corrupt young minds. Sensing that I was about to lose my most successful creation, another scientist and I brought out a vat filled with ketchup and mayonnaise. One of the ways we controlled Steve was by getting him addicted to condiments. So he took one look at this stuff and couldn't control himself. He immediately stripped naked and began covering his body with condiments. He rubbed it onto his chest and arms and even started masturbating with it. Rob Harless, the actor who portrayed Steve, had attached a huge, life-like dildo over his real penis, and let me tell you, you haven't lived till you've seen a man stroke his engorged, enormous member with ketchup and mayonnaise. As he was doing this, Brendan Baber (the other scientist) and I covered him with an American flag while singing "The Star Spangled Banner." And that was it. That was the grand finale of our show. The audience was how can I put this? not amused. Some of them were laughing, as I recall, but the majority were aghast and sickened. They just stared at us like we'd murdered somebody on stage. And I couldn't blame them, really. Lower Links was an underground club so their audiences were accustomed to seeing less than conventional humor. But there's really no way to prepare yourself for seeing a man masturbate with ketchup. If you're not revolted by it, there's something very, very wrong with you.
What's been your favorite interview that you've done so far for the Believer?
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, hands down. Granted, it's arguable whether I actually spoke to him at all. When I came up with the idea for the interview, it seemed like a fascinating way to examine death in the context of a writing career. Every writer I know is a perfectionist. We revise and revise and revise, sometimes even long after our books or stories have been published. But what happens when you pass away and it's no longer possible to tinker with your work? Are bookstores filled with the ghosts of dead authors, vainly grasping at their books and trying to make "just one more change" before going into the light? I tracked down a medium who claimed to be Sir Doyle's spirit guide, and he agreed to let me interview him - meaning, of course, Sir Doyle. As I understand it, the spirit of Sir Doyle would inhabit his body and speak through him. It was the medium doing the talking, but Sir Doyle was providing the words. That interview was a creepy experience, and I'm still not sure if I buy any of it. There were a few times when I got caught up in the fantasy of it. The rational side of my brain knew that it was bullshit, but much like reading a really great science fiction novel, I was able to suspend my disbelief. The medium was convincing enough that, at times, I really thought that I was talking to an author who'd been dead for almost 100 years. But then he'd say something stupid that would completely pull me back to reality. "Oh, by the way, Ernest Hemingway and I have been discussing you. We're very impressed with your writing." Oh, fuck you. No you haven't. Goddammit, you completely ruined the fantasy for me.
What makes for a good interview?
That's a tough one. For me, the best interviews are when you learn something about a person on a less than superficial level. I've done so many interviews where it feels like writing-by-numbers. You ask the expected questions and they give you the expected answers. But when you're able to get somebody talking about things that actually matter to them - and sometimes, it has little or nothing to do with their day job - you can get a better sense of what makes them tick. When I interviewed Paul Giamatti, we talked mostly about comic books and pulp fiction and HP Lovecraft. He's a big reader and an avid collector of trashy mystery novels and sci-fi paperbacks. But nobody asks him about this kinda stuff. They want to know about his acting career, and how he prepares for a role, and does he enjoy being a character actor, and does he have an appreciation for wine after doing Sideways, and blah, blah, blah, we've heard it all before. But get Giamatti talking about books, and you'll see a side of him that you never expected. His face just lights up and he bounces around in his seat like a little kid. At that point, it feels like you're talking to an actual person and not just a celebrity. You're having a conversation and not necessarily using the interview as a promotional tool.
What's been the worst interview you've done? You don't have to give us
names, just tell us what stunk about it. Or you can give us names if you want.
Name names? Not gonna happen. But I can think of at least one interview that was painful and horrid and still makes me wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. I like to give everybody that I interview a chance to review and revise their quotes. Because sometimes the things that come out of your mouth will look very different when you read it on the page. Something meant to be funny will come across as deadly serious, or vice-versa. Without hearing their voice, you lose all of the subtleties in their inflection. And that can make a perfectly intelligent and witty person sound like a fucking asshole. So there was one interviewee - an actor from a popular sitcom that will remain nameless - who completely mangled his interview beyond all recognition. I don't mind somebody altering a quote for clarity. But I do have a problem with taking a perfectly funny and insightful conversation and sucking all the life out of it. This actor didn't want to offend anyone, and he was terrified that his intentions might be misinterpreted. So he completely rewrote every quote so that it was as bland and insipid as possible. I understand not wanting to step on any toes. But if you have nothing interesting to say, and your balls are as tiny as marbles, it's probably for the best if you just turn down the interview from the start and not waste everybody's time.
Is there anything in the dirty humor issue of Monkeybicycle that my Mom
Hmm. Probably not, unless your mom enjoys stories about anal masturbation with cucumbers and Sarah Silverman's fecal matter. To be honest, I'm not even letting my mom read it, and I edited the damn thing.
You're helping on Ron Jeremy's autobiography. Tell us an interesting yet
unexpected nugget about his life.
Well, the thing about Ron that most intrigues me is why he stayed in porn for so long. He started out as a classically trained New York actor and somehow stumbled into porn, always intending for it to be little more than a temporary distraction. It was just something to pay the bills until he could get his mainstream career off the ground. But somewhere along the way, the porn took over. He still has mainstream ambitions, but he can't bring himself to give up on his porn career. I like to think of it this way: How many of you have been stuck in a day job that you aren't crazy about? Maybe you started out working as a temp at some office downtown. It wasn't the corporate career you were hoping for, but it'd do for the time being. It was a paycheck and a chance to pad your resume. But then they offered you a full-time position and you took it, thinking, "I'll just stay for a year or two until something better comes along." Ten years go by and you haven't left. You don't hate the job but you don't love it either. You come to work and sit at a cubicle all day, and you wonder how it came to this. You should be the vice president of some major firm, but instead you're stuck in some dead-end career that you never wanted. You want to quit. You have every intention of quitting. You send out your resume and keep your eye on the job listings. But you never take that leap and walk out. Because if you're honest, after years of working there, you've learned to like your job. It's predictable, it's safe, it gives you health insurance and benefits. Your cubicle is decorated just the way you like it. You know how to fix the copy machine if it gets jammed, and you've got a favorite chair in the employee lounge. You have friends at the office, and they've become like your family. You still have dreams of a more exciting career, with a better salary and more possibility of promotion. But at the same time, you don't want to be too hasty and end up another broke asshole with no job and no way to pay his bills. That, to me, is the perfect analogy for Ron's porn career. It's the shitty day job that he never quit. It's his comfortable cubicle. It's not the job he wanted but it's the job he got. He may never quit, but at the same time, he'll never stop sending out his resume and checking the job listings, just in case something better comes along.
So you wrote a book parodying Cigar Aficionado. If you went into a high-end
tobacky shop and could only buy one thing, what would it be, if anything?
Nothing, really. I'm not a big cigar guy. I like the smell of a good cigar, because it reminds me of my dad. But I'm never been one to spend my money on premium cigars and store them in a humidor and talk about their "nose" or "draw" or "finish." I'll smoke a Cuban if somebody gives me one, because I enjoy that they're still illegal and I like stickin' it to the Man. But otherwise, when it comes to destroying my lungs, I prefer cigarettes. I blame Kurt Vonnegut and Keith Richards for over-romanticizing tobacco in my young mind. All the warnings about cancer and heart disease can't compete with one picture of Vonnegut chain smoking in his office while pounding away on an old Smith-Corona typewriter.
When I look you up on Amazon, there are a lot of dating advice books
on there by you. How do you know your tips work?
Actually, I've written only one dating advice book, called " Guy's Guide To Dating." I wrote it with my one-time writing partner Brendan Baber (formerly of Marlboro Country) back in, oh, 1997, I think. The entire thing was meant as a joke, but nobody seemed to pick up on that. They thought we considered ourselves legitimate relationship experts. But we were just a couple of smart-ass punks who wanted to write a funny book filled with misguided and uninformed advice on dating. We had a few useful tips in there, but most of it was gibberish. We were invited to be guests on The View, and the hosts earnestly grilled us about what men wanted in a relationship. We tried to offer up a few pointers, but c'mon, what the hell do we know? We're fucking comedy writers, and if there's one thing you should never do, it's get advice from a comedy writer. We originally wanted to call the book "Men Are From Mars, Women Are Out Of Their Fuckin' Minds," but Doubleday nixed it. I still think the original title would've been better, because at least readers would've known from the start that we were just having them on.
What's your favorite junk food of late?
Pasta. I know it's not technically a junk food, but the growing bulge that is my stomach would beg to differ.
What's your next project (or projects?)
No idea. I just take it as it comes. I'm working on an essay about improv guru Del Close for The Believer. It's about my experiences trying to write a profile of Close - who, as you may already know, more or less invented his own mythology. But Close is just the leaping-off point to a bigger question. Namely, is the life story of an artist any less valid just because it's probably not true? Do we need our non-fiction to be real? Or is it sometimes necessary to lie in order to tell the truth? Just how important are "facts" when you're writing about actual people and supposed actual events?
Bonus special insidery Zulkey.com/Chicago/Second City question: Did you
know Jim Zulevic? Do you have any fond memories of him to share? If not, make
I did know Jim Zulevic. We weren't the best of friends, but we knew each other from Second City and were, if nothing else, professional acquaintances. We also shared the same birthday (February 20), and tried on several occasions to host a dual-birthday bash. Somehow, it never worked out. It's funny, I was just thinking about this the other day. Jim was one of those people that I always just assumed would be around. I never saw him regularly or made any real effort to stay in contact with him. He was the kind of guy that I'd bump into at odd moments. I'd walk into Sheffield's in Chicago and he'd be sitting at the bar by himself, and we'd end talking and drinking all night. Years would go by, and I'd walk into another bar - maybe The Cat & The Fiddle in Los Angeles - and there he'd be again, sitting at the bar as if he was waiting for me to show up. That was pretty much my relationship with Jim. We were accidental friends. I never sought him out, but I'd always stumble across him eventually. When he died, it kinda threw me for a loop. I was sad that he was gone, but it wasn't like my life changed in any real, discernable way. He wasn't a part of my day-to-day existence. But still, it was devastating to realize that I'd never again walk into a bar and find Jim sitting there.
How does it feel to be the 142nd person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
I think that dude on The Prisoner said it best. "I am not a number! I am a free man!"