Today I chat with a humorist who is a regular contributor to Cracked.com (one of my favorite daily reads), and is the creator of the web series Hate By Numbers. A contributor to Comedy Central's Indecision Forever, he has recently signed with an agent to produce an old-timey print version of his popular fiction web serial Notes from the Internet Apocalypse, a modern take on a sci-fi crime novel. You can find out much more about him here and on Twitter.
Typically where and when do your ideas for Cracked/HBN pieces strike you?
80 percent of my ideas come to me in the shower. Maybe it's because my brain has been tinkering during my sleep and it comes together in the morning. Maybe it's the creativity-catalyzing properties of steam. I'm not sure, but early morning showers. Incidentally 80% of all my public output is written on a laptop on public transportation.
What are some great story topics that you wanted to make work for Cracked but just couldn't get moving past the premise or first two examples or so?
Only one comes to mind and I haven't quite given up on it yet. I want to write about my disappointment with President Obama, especially in terms of civil liberties. I don't think you'd see much of a difference on the foreign or domestic war on terror between Obama and Romney. They're both moderate centrists without strong core beliefs, and like most centrists, they must pick extremists for the Supreme Court so they don't lose their base. That's the only thing we know about these men for sure.
Now, of course the Supreme Court is always important, but I honestly believe this country doesn't get better until new precedents start to eat away at the Citizens United decision. So at this point in my life, I only see one reason to vote for Obama: he'll appoint a more liberal judge than he, and, hopefully, the court will take a new case that starts to undo Citizen's United until one day it is gone. See? Hilarious, right?
Also, I want to do something about boobs.
Which Cracked pieces have you worked on that seemed like a fluffy, funny idea at the time but surprised you with how much research they ended up entailing?
5 Gay Guys That Got More Women Than Most Straight Men was incredibly hard to write.
I had to make up all sorts of rules for myself as to who I would call "gay" and "straight" as opposed to bisexual, and the research was rough. It's not like all that info is readily available.
Where do you procure most of your humor-type entertainment online?
It's shocking how little Internet humor I read. I spend the most time on Cracked. I also frequent WWTD.com to stay abreast of everything that doesn't matter. I'm trying to figure out how Brendon can make me laugh routinely with the same three jokes. I love McSweeney's and The Onion, but I don't read them often. I find they have such strong voices that I'm afraid they'll affect how I write and even think about comedy. Its like when you hang around with someone from England and start sounding like a douchebag by the end of the week. Also, I started out by saying this answer was "shocking." In hindsight, I think I oversold that.
Tell me about Cracked.com's evolution. I used to think of it of the website of the magazine that I would describe as "not MAD" but now it produces content that's reliable yet unpredictable in terms of humor, pop culture content and even science and politics.
I was asked to freelance for Cracked many years ago based on work I'd done for Yankee Pot Roast. At that time, the site didn't have a very strong voice. I also had a problem with some of the content being occasionally homophobic or misogynistic. With a change in management, and Jack O'Brien's ascension to Editor in Chief, however, the site greatly matured. You have to give Jack and Cracked a lot of credit for being successful on the Internet without resorting to soft core porn or cheap jokes.
After a year or so, I was asked to audition for a new "blog." I got that gig and began writing weekly. Then some dbag straight out of college named Dan O'Brien started making his blog posts more substantive and better than ours, which was a pretty rotten thing to do because it forced us to work harder. Then Robert Brockway began blurring the distinction between the Cracked list article and the stuff we were doing on the blog by writing, well-researched interesting pieces, often in list form. Again, an awful thing to do because we had to work that much harder to match his quality.
I had an initial bias against the list form and there's no doubt that it has been abused by the Net to appeal to semi-literates, but I soon realized my dislike of the format was ill-founded. You can write lists like numbered essays if you want to. Pieces I'm very proud of like 3 Reasons the Ground Zero Mosque Debate Makes No Sense or 3 Mistakes Women Make When Dealing With Men or 3 Types of Occupy Wall Street Protestors Hurting Their Own Cause are all pretty much essays. If adding a number in front of some paragraphs and in the title, gets more people to read it and helps them understand it, I can accept that.
More importantly, besides Cracked's concerted move over time
to the pop culture list format, Jack had the audacity to let me write a
serialized novella on Cracked, and I've just signed with an agent for my full
length novel form of Notes
from the Internet Apocalypse. Serialized fiction averaging 250,000
views on the Net is pretty much unheard of. It was also bold of Cracked to let me do 50 episodes of my Hate By Numbers video series.
It was not an intuitively obvious choice to support a video series that often
satirized the failings of cable news for a young Internet audience, but the
show was a success for Cracked, culminating in the Black
Eyed Peas episode which is still one of the biggest videos on the site. Cracked
also had the foresight to embrace hilarious and occasionally bizarre
videos from Michael Swaim and Cody Johnston who grew into video
So yeah, Cracked has become known through its current written content and videos as a place for numbered pop culture observation and factoids, but there has always been freakish content around the edges.
Speaking of NFTIA, how far ahead of time did you plot the book as you posted it? Did you know well ahead of time how it would end or did you discover it as you wrote it?
Yeah, that was rough, I was very afraid of writing myself into a corner. I didn't have the whole thing written before I started posting, but when I started on the third installment, I outlined everything that would follow. Big key moments. A couple of sentences in the first two parts are probably a bit off considering what I learned by the end, but I escaped the experience unscathed.
How will the book version of NFTIA differ from the online version?
Well, its 65% longer for one,
but it covers the same basic plot as the online version. The emphasis, however,
is on Gladstone's addictions, loss, and loves with the social satire as more of
a backdrop. The online version is
very terse and the hook of each chapter is front-loaded with what's missing
without the NET: Internet porn, 4Chan, Google -- what would that be like. The
novel is character driven. It's ultimately a love story.
What have been some HBN topics that your followers most disagreed with?
I've never done an HBN where the audience was overwhelmingly against me, but several have pissed off a sizeable audience. Even those, however, seemed to please a greater number of people. I took the most heat for Avatar, Ground Zero Mosque, and South Africa's Avatar-themed nightclub "Avastar." But, y'know, judging from the comments, those weren't people I wanted as fans in the first place.
Either from Cracked or HBN, have you ever heard back from anybody you've hated on?
Yes. My favorite episode of Hate By Numbers was episode 41 a local Rhode Island news show that did a ridiculous segment on a cell phone that allegedly took a picture that revealed a ghost. Within a day of the show, one of the co-hosts, Shawn Tempesta, contacted me to say he was a fan of the show and honored to be included. He turned out to be a great a guy, and that made me like the episode even more.
How often do you let comments piss you off, and what do you do to get over it?
I read comments. Not all, but a lot. And if they annoy me, I respond. I don't get annoyed by simple hatred like "you suck." I think that's a perfectly fine comment, but if a comment makes a factual assertion that pisses me off and can be disproven, I respond. I know that's not cool. I know mature people aren't supposed to read comments and are absolutely never supposed to respond, but I'm not sure who started that concept. Why cast your stone out into the world if you don't care about the kind of ripple it creates? And sometimes people will say something terrible to you and be right. So yeah, I read 'em, but I try not to get pissed off over merely subjective stuff.
You don't have to name what you do but one thing we both have in common is that we have dayjobs in addition to internet stylings. Do you aspire to be a fulltime creative type? Sometimes I think that I would actually be more likely to burn out on ideas if I had the freedom to stay at home with my shoes off all day.
I absolutely aspire to be a full time creative type. I certainly know what you mean. Even in High School, I wrote the most songs when I had a test to study for, but I'm confident I could be productive if being creative were a full time gig. After all, I have a family to support. That's a pretty good impetus.
Who are some of your favorite people on Twitter that you follow?
@jasonroeder, @trumpetcake, @danguterman @rachelaxler @blainecapatch
@mtobey @ladybirdj @lanyardquirk are all super funny. Some of them are even
friends of mine. I also enjoy following Jackie Collins for reasons I cannot
explain. You would think that if you had a super easy job and a ton of a money you'd
be really happy, and y'know what? She totally is.
What advice do you have on maintaining a sense of current events and humor while raising kids?
No advice. Kids are impossible. When Bush won in 2000, I stopped watching television news because it was too painful. I got my news from the Daily Show. Now with three kids, I can't manage even that. I get my news from Twitter jokes then I Google the stories. Then I take those facts and wonder what the truth might be.
You wrote a good piece about how to make meeting internet friends in real life, which is a topic I can get down with. What advice do you have, then, for explaining to already "real life" friends who your Internet friends are? Because sometimes I think some of my friends think my other friends are figments of my imagination.
Ooh, sorry to let you down, but you can't explain that without sounding crazy either. I found some of my best friends at 30 when I started emailing other writers whose work I enjoyed online and/or received such emails from other humor writers. This was before Facebook and Twitter. And a funny thing happened: almost every single one of those guys started talking to me like they'd known me for years, almost instantly.
The only thing I can compare it to are those married men with kids who wake up one day and say, "holy shit, I'm gay! I should be gay like all the time!" Well, I'd spent time with musicians and people with grad degrees and serious fiction writers and actors and none of them were like me. But humor writers, holy crap, it just clicked. Did that sound crazy? Yeah, sorry. Can't help.
What's the funniest part about the 2012 Presidential campaign so far?
I've never felt so disenfranchised in my life. I used to gobble up election politics, but I could not care less this year. We have a democrat in office and yet, Gitmo still thrive, drones kill US Citizens abroad, and, apparently, we live in a country where a citizen can be jailed indefinitely on the suspicion of terrorism without due process. I find it incredibly depressing and all the liberal comics who are getting irate at Republicans should use their energy to keep our current administration in check. Nevertheless, I did laugh though when it appeared to me that Paul Ryan was checking out his own mom's rack.
How does it feel to be the 325th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
Y'know that moment when you're about to sneeze, but then you can't, and then you trip and fall while looking for a tissue, but then land in a super model and have a screaming orgasm? It's exactly like that. Thank you very much.