Culture

Rob Delaney On His Memoir, His Twitter, and Why Comedy Is Like Alchemy

Culture

Rob Delaney On His Memoir, His Twitter, and Why Comedy Is Like Alchemy

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Comedian and Twitter master Rob Delaney likes to call himself boring. And with his telegenic face and manliest man voice, he does sort of look like he lives in a Lands’ End commercial. But boring? No way. Delaney’s comedy, whether in URLs or IRL, is clever, pertinent, and deliciously filthy. His tweets range from satiric to serious to silly. He recently used the word ‘turgid’ in one, and it read as both genuine emotion and the world’s most, well, turgid dick joke. He’s politically and socially aware, having written pieces for the Guardian on Medicaid and on women’s access to abortions, and for Vice on depression (among other, less weighty posts for both sites). He is a dad who is vocal against misogyny and hegemonic masculinity–“Funny that the best, most powerful thing I can do to help dismantle the patriarchy is be a good father to my sons,” he tweeted recently– which either makes him the most favorable alternative to #nodads, or the first #nodads dad, I can’t tell which. Anyway, in the gushing words of fellow comedian Pete Holmes: ‘Rob Delaney, you modern man, you!’

Delaney has also survived some dangerous life experiences, which he teases out in his new memoir, Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. The book, out today, is a collection of essays that touches on several hilarious, emotional, and embarrassing moments of Delaney’s life: from the time he accidentally took a shit in front of a Hasidic woman, to long-term bedwetting, to Paris, bungee jumping in New York, and drinking—so much drinking. At the book’s halfway mark, Delaney moves through his darkest alcoholic memories, culminating in his near-death car accident (i.e. the reason he stopped drinking), jail with immobile limbs, rehab, halfway houses, and dealing with the deaths of friends. Fun essays on mental health and Hep A are in there too, but they come later.

Don’t worry, that list isn’t a spoiler: fans of Delaney may have already read about his personal experiences before, either in his Vice column or in interviews. What’s novel about the book is the way he composes such experiences, with a comedic tone that never undermines the weightiness of its subject matter. Below, we talk about his memoir, the current comedy scene, and Twitter – timely topics, but in the shadow of Delaney’s sheer awesomeness feel pale compared with the secrets I really wish to know: which books make him cry? What is it like to be a parent? And did he ever really jerk off to poetry or is that just a bit? It takes a steel will to be professional when you’re a fan.

Your book is a memoir, but a lot of the stuff in your book is material that you’ve used in your set or online. At what point does the book diverge from your routine? When does it stop being part of the set and start being part of the memoir?
On stage, my job is to make people laugh first and foremost, and then a distant second is to inform or influence or even approach things like poignancy or sadness. When I’m onstage, I don’t want to make the audience, you know, cry. In the memoir there are certainly things that are extremely sad and I guess I prefer to give people the opportunity to cry at home in private so that they can lie about it later and be like “I didn’t cry.” So that’s the thing, I try to make people laugh when I perform live, and if as a bi-product they think or learn something, that’s fine with me, but I… don’t… really… care. With the book I am trying to give a wider and a more diverse potpourri of emotions.

The book goes to some dark places, some of which you’ve written about before. Have you always felt like you’ve needed to exorcise/share those experiences through writing?
I’ve written about things like alcoholism, depression, and death before; those are things that are a part of my life and certainly plenty of other people’s as well, so I certainly knew that I would write about that stuff. Anybody who has read, for example, my Vice columns knows that there is plenty of horror in those, and people who know about me on Twitter know that, yes, although it’s primarily jokes, if I want to write about something unbelievably sad or horrific or upsetting, I’m going to go right ahead and do it.

Even when confronting those dark moments, you’re still able to maintain your comedic tone. You allow the reader to experience the darkness with the sense that you’ve gone through it and you can talk about it with humor.
I think, particularly in the modern day United States, people want to wish things like pain and death away. They’re not sexy, they’re not captivating, but they’re a big part of life. It’s okay if our bodies are collapsing and falling apart. It’s okay when a wolf eats someone that you care about–no one gets freedom from that. It can be almost a relief to acknowledge those things and to laugh about the aspects that are funny. It’s not denigrating comedy to call it a defense mechanism. I think it’s accurate to call it magical. You can transmute pain into laughter—that’s probably the clearest example of alchemy that we see everyday.

I have never heard comedy described as alchemical. You’ve mentioned something similar before on Pete Holmes podcast “You Made it Weird,” about taking negative things like comments on Twitter, and turning them into something positive—which is also alchemical.
Yeah! And this is a hard thing to achieve, but it’s up to us—it’s how we feel, our feelings, we’re in charge of them. I am not going to let some random internet comment get into my mood zone, that’s for me. I generally focus on the positive. An example I’ve used in the past is the Mr. Fusion [generator] from the end of Back to the Future, where it can be fueled by anything: garbage, the Mona Lisa, you could throw it in there! So I seek, particularly in comedy and particularly in the way people react to me, to turn it all into a positive. Give me negative, I’ll still go positive.

What has the memoir process given you, reflecting on these parts of your life? What did you get out of the experience in the end?
It made me love my parents more, it made me love my wife more, it made me love the act of parenting. I never really loved my kids more, because everyday you love them a little more—it’s physically sickening how much you love them more everyday. But it helped me build empathy for the people that I liked and loved anyway. I am also just not that serious about myself anymore. I bore myself now. I’ve done enough looking at myself and my own life.

Has your mom read the book?
She did read it and she enjoyed it. There were parts, of course, that were hard for her to read because there are parts where I am in danger and, you know, of my own design, so that was hard for her, but she knows that now I’ve been sober for 11 years and have some distance from stuff like that.

In the book, and in your standup and on Twitter as well, you assume a level of intelligence on behalf of your audience that I think most comedians don’t do. Is this a conscious effort that you make? A lot of the language you use is high-minded. Is that deliberate?
Before I became more confident, I would try to remove things like that. But now I don’t, because I figured that like, I am who I am and the best comedy by a wide margin is honest comedy, so now if I think something and there might be a fifty-cent word in my thought process or whatever, then I’ll keep it, because it’s how it came out of my mind. Also what’s the worst that could happen, really? It’s something that you’ll have to look up in a book? That’s great, that you would leave my silly standup and go pick up a book!

That intelligence level makes its way into the content of your standup too. You do talk about books–great books—often. Has there been backlash? Do people appreciate it?
You know it’s funny, one of my favorite books—well it’s three books, it’s a trilogy—is The Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy by Henry Miller. He talks so much about books in those books. I read them when I was 15, and he sent me off in so many great directions looking for other books, some of which I enjoyed even more than his! Like the books of Knut Hamsun blew my mind! Reading books, and being told about books in books and then going and finding them, is just the best. I hope that somebody reads my book and then goes and reads some other books; that would be amazing. Then you’d crawl down a book hole, and then what happens?

Do you have a daily Twitter schedule? Do you work on tweets like you would a standup set?
I just tweet as they come in. I never have a plan, and they’re never scheduled or anything like that. Um, I just, you know, whatever floats my boat or whatever I’m thinking about. If I feel that other people should hear about it, then I’ll tweet it. So yeah—no plan, no design, no form.

And—I hate to ask—you’re solely responsible for your Twitter persona right?
Yeah I am. When I started using Twitter in 2009, I was broke, I had nobody, certainly no employees who would want to write in my “voice.” It wasn’t like that. I guess I did build my twitter following from the ground up—from the underground up, if you consider the debt I was in from traveling around the country, you know, making less doing standup than I paid for the plane ticket to get to whichever city. It would be hard for me to give up any control like that, yeah so nobody else involved in the inanity that I vomit out into the world. It’s all me, for better or worse.

Do you consider yourself a political person? Have you always been, or do you feel like you now have a responsibility, with such a constant podium?
I always have thought about these issues that I talk about. I don’t think about it in terms of like rights or responsibilities. If I don’t censor myself in terms of what I think politically, you know, on a personal level or a governmental level or global, then I’m less likely to censor myself in my comedy. I just try to say what I am thinking, whether it’s political or something else. I think about things like healthcare a lot, and poverty; you know, things like misogyny and anti-poor policies are strangling our planet, so I talk about them, and if people don’t like that, I really don’t care.

Have you always been someone who didn’t want to censor himself or did you have to work toward that?
Maybe I hit my head when I was younger or something, but things like privacy—well I’ve always been an extrovert and a weirdo. I overshare and I talk about crazy stuff.

Is being extroverted necessary for being a comedian?
Probably not. Jerry Seinfeld is hilarious and he doesn’t get too deeply personal.

But I feel like comedians today do. I guess I lump Jerry Seinfeld in with a different generation of comedians— a pre-internet generation.
I don’t know. I mean, my personal taste is to talk about raw, crazy, painful, insane stuff. I like that, other people don’t, and they’re still funny. There are comedians who are more esoteric, like Dan Mintz: he’s more the heir to the Jerry Seinfeld type of comedy and he is hilarious. He couldn’t be more different [from me] and I think he’s amazing. Jamie Lee, her jokes are super tight. I’m a messier comedian than her, but I’m crazy about her. Or Beth Stelling. All of these [comics] are different from me and from each other and they’re all indicative of what’s happening in comedy today.

When you use your own personal experiences, do you feel the need to stick to the truth?
I feel no compulsion to tell the truth whatsoever. I will start from truths, and the feeling will be rooted in truths, but will I alter biographical details to make people laugh? Absolutely. In some iterations of my comedy personality, I place a strong premium on truth, and in an interview, of course I’m going to tell the truth; and in a book that’s in the biographical section, it’s got to be unadulterated truths. In stand-up, all bets are off. I’m there to make you laugh and I will do it with a metaphorical baseball bat and you’re going to laugh and that is it. I will use every tool at my disposal.

Photo by Roger Scheck.