It is not an overreach to call Dave Hill an entertainment polymath. He’s a comedian, a writer, a rockstar. He regularly contributes to This American Life. His collection of personal essays, Tasteful Nudes, is as funny and absurd as it is relatable. His podcast, “Dave Hill’s Podcasting Incident,” has been recommended by New York Times Magazine. He blogs. He vlogs. He has a live show, The Dave Hill Explosion, at UCB. He has style. Pizzazz, even. And on top of all that, he’s courteous and humble and has eyes like a goddamned puppy.
The door to Hill’s apartment barely opens, so replete is his place with, well, stuff. Not in a weird hoarder way, but more like the Wonka factory, if the Wonka factory was a cramped Manhattan studio and instead of candy, there’s eye-candy: Laphroiag on the bookshelf, hockey figurines lining the window, several show posters – including Rufus Wainwright and Hill’s own band Valley Lodge – on the walls, colorful throw pillows on the bed, copious books and guitars and draped fabrics. It’s endless visual reverie.
I’m distracted and a little nervous but am well-prepared, because if nothing else, I brought tiramisu, his favorite dessert (and also a great interview snack). We were supposed to talk for twenty minutes. We went on for two hours.
You know who nails interviews like a motherfucker? Dave Hill.
Dave Hill: Someone brought me this wine with chocolate in it. It’s pretty good. do you want some?
No, I shouldn’t be drinking at 2:00 in the afternoon.
Me neither. If I had anything else [besides alcohol and water] I would offer it to you. I don’t want to force alcohol on you. I never really drink alcohol unless people are over.
Do you ever drink while you write?
No, I try not to. Maybe once in a while, if I’m doing a fifth or sixth pass on something. I think, sometimes, it’s good to be in different states of mind. Not that I recommend that state of mind to write in, but I find that, if I’m tired and cranky I’ll be harsher with myself. But I try to be clear minded for the main writing that I do. Wait, I have to ask, does it stink in here?
No, no it smells delicious. It smells like shampoo.
Oh, great. I always worry because I live here alone. You know how when you go to old people’s houses and it’s like, how do they not know that it smells like cats and mothballs? I’m always thinking that.
You have so much content across so many different platforms. How do you generate so much?
It’s all I do. I don’t do anything else, really, other than what people see… but I probably should do a little more quality control.
Was it hard to get comfortable with the internet?
The thing with the internet is, anyone can make a video, and anyone can see it right away. If you were to condense all the comments [from my videos] it would be like “Dave Hill is a fat fucking faggot who lives with his parents and will never get laid.” Which is a bit mean. The fat part. I don’t really care about the rest. The fat part is the only part that ever bothers me. The rest is just people’s perceptions.
I think people understand that a lot of what I do is a persona. There are people who totally get that, and then there are people who think that I’m actually like [the persona] I put out. In a lot of ways I am, but people think, ‘oh I know everything about you, what you do and what you’re like,’ and that’s all smoke and mirrors. That’s not what I’m like at all. My book is pretty forthcoming. I didn’t want it to be all silly. I go into pretty specific detail, so it’s not like I’m really hiding anything [there]. But as far as the internet goes it’s all just fucking around, you know?
Do you ever regret sharing so much in your book? Like the chapters on depression and your mother’s death?
People think of the book as funny, but I think a lot of people responded to the sensitive stuff. I wanted to see if I could write about depression in a way that was different from everything I had read, and maybe make it relatable. I mean, a privileged white guy doing creative things has depression — who fucking cares? That’s everybody! But if I could write about it in a way that people who hadn’t experienced it could understand… not that I thought, ‘oh, this with really help somebody,’ but on the off chance that someone was like, ‘ok, cool, I’m not alone’. Dick Cavett said it was the first essay he had read about depression that was really funny but also didn’t diminish the subject matter. That was cool. As for the chapter about my mom: everyone’s parents die, but it was so weird to me, and different from what I would have guessed it would be like, other than the obvious being-sad part. So I wanted to talk about that.
You have this amazing ability of taking heavy subject matter and making it enjoyable to read, relatable and humorous. Like your piece on David Rakoff.
Thanks. I mean, that was another thing with David; every fucking person in the world had already written about him dying. I didn’t want to be one more person saying the same stuff, so I tried to make it be more about our friendship. After he died, I really learned that he had very different relationships with people. All very great ones, but I think I was one of the few people with whom he would be completely silly. He would do things with me that he didn’t do with most people. I felt pretty lucky about that. He would act like an idiot around me, which I took as a compliment.
Do you bring that out in people?
I hope so, cause it’s my favorite thing. I’m pretty serious I guess, but I like being stupid. That’s my goal. I think it should be everyone’s goal: to just have a super fun time in whatever way you can.
When did you figure that out?
Partially recently, with my mom dying and David dying. I just realized that we spend so much time thinking that everything has to be perfect; want[ing] the perfect relationship and friendships. And then I realized we’re just a bunch of cows. I just like hanging out with my friends and family and eating and drinking and being an idiot. The other stuff I do is just something to keep me busy in between.
Well you’ve made an impressive career out of that.
It’s partially because I proved myself to be unfit for anything else. I couldn’t bring myself to do anything else. I tried. I struggled for a long time with doing something more conventional, something my parents would not worry about.
Like maybe being a graphic designer. Or a journalist. Not just a journalist, I would still love to do that, but just have a job where my parents could be like, “Dave works at the New York Times”. I just wanted them to have an easier time at the grocery store. I was talking to my dad today and he was like, ‘I don’t really know what to say to people about you’. He wasn’t complaining, but he was like, ‘I try to explain what you do. Because you’re a writer, you’re a musician, you’re a comedian. I just say you’re an entertainer, but then they don’t know what I mean.’ Like, am I Wayne Newton or something? My mom would always call and ask ‘why are you sitting home in your underwear? Why aren’t you working somewhere?’ Well, I am. Just [at home]. With no pants on.
How would you define the kind of comedy that you do?
I just do what I find funny, what is entertaining to me and what I think would be entertaining to 15-year-old me. Growing up I’d see Chris Elliott and a few other people just [being] idiots, and I felt like, ‘oh I can relate to this’. I would probably be way more successful if I did stand up; you know, talk about dating, or whatever. But a lot of people have that covered. No one really needs another fucking white guy talking about the same shit. And for me to sit and talk about more conventional and relatable things doesn’t feel like me. It’s just not how I am. I think Tig [Notaro] articulates it well: she’s like, ‘I like people that are silly. If people aren’t silly I’m not into it.’ And that’s actually the thing. Because I think some comedians, even good ones, are ultimately afraid of looking stupid.
Really? I thought that being a comedian required a sense of shamelessness.
But there’s still this thing where they want to be thought of as cool and not be a complete jackass. Maybe it’s residual from having been a nerd. The people that I like the best are not afraid. They go beyond just being self-deprecating to the point where they fully do not care. Someone like Chris Elliott: he commits to what he does so much that his character is fully a moron and there’s nothing really redeemable about it. It’s just fucking hilarious! It’s not about being cool in any way, it’s just about being completely moronic. And I think Tig and I are both kind of like that.
Your podcast, Dave Hill’s Podcasting Incident, has that absurdist comic element as well. You invite people on but don’t interview them. There’s something uncomfortable in not asking questions and having no direction.
I think most people get that it’s just hanging out. Simon Amstell was on and could not fathom that I didn’t want to interview him about his career. And I was just like, get the fuck over yourself. My podcast is more about what I find interesting.