Zulkey.com will be back on Monday. Happy Thanksgiving! Don't forget to send me your favorite workout songs of the moment. By the way, on Friday, make sure to tune into 848 on WBEZ (starting at 9 AM) to hear my friend and colleague Nathan Rabin, who'll be appearing at Funny Ha-Ha on the 30th!
If you're a fan of The Onion, you've probably read today's interviewee's work without knowing it: she's the voice behind "A Room of Jean's Own," by chocolate-and-doll-loving columnist Jean Teasdale, now in book-form called The Onion Presents A Book of Jean's Own!: All New Wit, Wisdom, and Wackiness from The Onion's Beloved Humor Columnist. She's also written as and Herbert Kornfeld (RIP).
Do you ever feel protective of Jean? I felt that way at the reading where some guy was like "This fat, pathetic lady" and I thought "Hey she has a newspaper column--what are you doing that's so great?"
Well, maybe they're innovative industrial designers on the verge of creating a brilliant new drinking glass. No, I kind of think the same thing, too. It's totally weird, considering what I put her through and the things I have her say, but the dismissal bothers me a little, because for all her flaws and self-delusion, at least Jean's left a mark. I also get a little pissed when the occasional Twitizen finds Jean's Twitter account and calls her fat or a failure. It's like the entertainment factor eludes them entirely. Their tweets are mean-spirited and artlessly phrased enough that I doubt they're joking. Like, who talks shit to a fictional comic character? "Hey, Laurel and Hardy, you stupid retards. Your Christmas tree business deserved to fail!"
Who are some of your favorite real-life newspaper columnists?
I don't read many newspaper columnists consistently these days. I will dutifully read things emailed to me, like Paul Krugman, but I won't seek them out independently. I already know shit is terribly fucked up. I used to read Camille Paglia in Salon, until I realized that reading her columns accelerated my aging. Bloggers have become my columnists. I love Michael K.'s dlisted.com. I enjoy some of the fun meanies on Gawker. I live in Jersey City now, and I like to read The Jersey Journal when I do laundry. I also squeal with delight at the appalling Steppin' Out. There's also something called "The Single Women" out of Nashville that I first discovered on Twitter, and word for word has to be the most intensely clichéd column in American journalism. It's like stealth cliché. It preys on single women's vulnerabilities and makes attached women thankful they're not single any more.
What's the last thing in The Onion that made you laugh?
The last really brilliant headline that stuck with me is "Smart, Qualified People Behind the Scenes Keeping America Safe: 'We Don't Exist.'"
How is the book different from Jean's usual columns?
The book's conceit is it's The Onion's first-ever humor offering, with its obvious author being Jean. This is The Onion's version of lightening up. In The Onion's world, Jean is pigeonholed as a humor columnist, because her life is a disaster and she makes people feel better about their own. That's where the lightheartedness comes in. "Humor columnist" is a title that's been somewhat imposed on Jean--she claims not to like humor that ridicules others, which is quite a challenging attitude for someone in the humor business to adopt--but she takes up the challenge anyway. So along with chapters more consistent with the normal column format, short humor bits are mixed in, such as "Jean's Letters to God," "It Takes All Kinds," which is Jean's crack at observational humor, and "Differences Between Men and Women!"
How did the book come to exist?
Basically, the support and advice of The Onion's longtime literary agent, Dan Greenberg, and the receptiveness of both The Onion and St. Martin's Press, my publisher. I had been wanting to write some kind of Jean book for a long while, going back nearly 10 years, but wasn't sure how much of a book to write or what fans would go for. I wanted to share more about her life, but didn't think a full-blown autobiography would be appropriate for her character. I considered a small, simple book of Jean's "proverbs," her silly, jokey adages occasionally seen in her column, but the concept seemed too slight, even for Jean, and I wasn't sure how to make it ironic enough. So eventually I thought of just writing a freewheeling collection of essays slapped with the "humor book" label; the type of facile thing Jean herself would read. I had written enough columns and developed her character enough that I thought I had a good handle on a longer, but not too long, book.
Which of Jean's treats do you think you'd actually make or eat?
Ooey-Gooey Choco-Cocoa-Mocha Cupcakes with Raspberry Filling And Coconut-Cream Cheese-Cola Icing, because it's the most vile. I would actually try to eat it, as partial penance for inflicting this shit on the world. The only reason why I haven't made it is because our new apartment's oven sucks.
Is Jean's website, um, real?
That was something we put together a few years ago, when we decided to give all the veteran columnists personal web pages of varying sophistication. Jean's is the trashiest. I miss home pages. Everyone's switched to third-party sites, which is understandable, but I miss the personalization, the shitty HTML, the fire of angels.
What's your favorite Jean column of late?
I liked writing "Six Things I'd Like to Do Before I Die." Jean wants to befriend a dolphin and save a celebrity's life.
I heard the Jean podcast: whose voice was it? Was there much discussion over how she should sound?
Jen Cohn, a very busy voice performer who is also married to Rob Siegel, a former Onion editor and screenwriter of The Wrestler, voiced Jean. I think she did great, actually. We gave her a lot of notes and she used them well. I didn't want something too perky or squeaky or youthful. I felt Jean's voice should be somewhat slow, alto, unpolished, and draw out the vowels in that upper Midwestern way. I liked the awkward dips and somewhat uneasy delivery. Jen caught that combination of endearing and cloying.
What have been some of the most memorable questions you've received during the tour?
I've been asked a few times where Jean is actually from. I envision her from being from the upper Midwest, in tribute to The Onion's origins, but she'd be at home in Virginia or Texas or New Jersey, anywhere where there's suburbs or semi-developed rural areas and tons of pressure on women to play the nicey-nice homemaker role. Another asked if Jean's story would ever be filmed. I'm leery about that. Though I totally get the temptation, and the cashing in of course, I'm one of those people who doesn't think something necessarily becomes more legitimized or raised higher artistically when it's adapted into a movie. Plus they'd probably make Jean more attractive and have her undergo some wonderful quasi-feminist awakening, culminating with falling in love all over again with a chastened Hubby Rick.
When you go back to Madison, where must you stop for your trip to be complete?
I will start with something sad. I have not yet seen the site where my mom's ashes were interred. She died three years ago and sadly I have not had a chance to visit since her funeral. She's interred in a beautiful old cemetery near my former high school. Okay, now everyone feels bad. I'm sorry about that. So I will also say Mickie's Dairy Bar, which is a stone's throw from Camp Randall Stadium on the UW campus. I hope they still serve liver and onions. Not because I eat organs, but because it is amazing that a place actually served liver and onions into at least the 1990s. It's like a taste of the Great Depression. I realize none of this makes you feel better.
Which celebrity do you imagine Hubby Rick most resembles?
In a recent tweet, Jean said that Rick as a youth looked like the overweight Seth Rogen, except with much smaller eyes. A somewhat older Rick could be played by...well, maybe it's because I passed by those goddamn Hyundai Sonata ads in Times Square the other day, but he could be played by that husky bearded motorist who makes all those euphoric faces in extreme close-up.
I read the following from a website promoting one of your appearances: Do you think this person doesn't "get" Jean and do many of those people exist? "I've read most of Jean's book and it's definitely a cute and funny book filled with silly but oftentimes useful info about life."
I'm not really sure. I'm trying to think what kind of info Jean provides that is useful and not really coming up with anything. I can see how people might think she is real. Sometimes people who are aware Jean is fictional tell me that they admire her positive and cheerful attitude. She's a lovable character, but a totally exasperating one, because of her inability to get real. I think this very positive, cheerful attitude actually keeps her down. There's a side to her that is deeply unhappy and frustrated that she's not owning up to.
Patton Oswalt apparently loves Jean. Do you know if she has other famous fans?
Peter Serafinowicz has been a surprising and great supporter of the character and the book. Jean actually thanks him in the acknowledgments, between "magic" and "unicorns." Bob Odenkirk and David Cross are fans. Bob wrote a great blurb for the back of A Book Of Jean's Own! Mindy Kaling likes Jean too, which I know because she told me. Unless she was confusing her for Amber Richardson.
How does it feel to be the 268th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?