KONCAST Episode 3: Author Jeff O’Brien

In this episode, I talk to Jeff O’Brien, writer of Very True Stories, Big Boobenstein, Byron the Barbarian, and Heart Shaved Box.


Links from this episode:

Jeff O’Brien’s author page:

Jeff’s Facebook page:

I kept referring to a low-budget film director named “Ramirez” and blanking on his book name – Sorry, I am an idiot, and meant Robert Rodriguez, his film El Mariachi, and the book about it called Rebel Without a Crew (

The Little A’Le’Inn:

The Day After Roswell by Philip Corso –
New episode of The Koncast


Various theories on Louie

One of the favorite parts of my recent vacation, aside from the 47 pounds of chocolate I ate, was watching Louie.  I’ve already seen all of them, but my brother-in-law hadn’t, and somehow stumbled upon them on the Roku box.  Part of the enjoyment of this was simply that we watched them after everyone else went to bed, and instead of hearing “The Wheels on the Bus” or “Itsy, Bitsy Spider” for the 4,000th time like some kind of psyops torture normally reserved for Gitmo detainees, we got to watch an Adult Show.  But part of it is that my brother-in-law M is an English professor, and we spent a lot of late night rambling poking at the edges of what the show Louie really meant.

Point one: stand-up comedians have a shelf life.  When you hit it big, you have a certain hang time, usually a couple of years, and then you have to either reinvent yourself or do something different or hope for a second wind, or spend the rest of your life scraping together a career out of appearances with your most loyal fans.  (I would call that the “CMC syndrome”, after the record label that pulled a bunch of big has-ran bands from the 80s and resurrected their careers in the 90s with records that almost nobody bought and appearances at county fairs, ala Styx, Journey, Loverboy, etc.)  If you’re someone like Dane Cook, you have this peak where you’re selling out stadiums, and then when your single male fans get married and have kids, that goes away.  And maybe you start doing material about wives and kids, or maybe you do smaller shows, or maybe you get into movies or you get a talk show or a sitcom.  And the sitcom is the gold standard; it’s the big go-to for comedians who want to take it to the next level.

What’s interesting about Louie is how it isn’t a formulaic sitcom, because it’s not entirely a grab for career leveling.  CK took much more creative control of the show in exchange for much less pay and a spot at a less prestigious network.  This may be partially based on his previous experience with HBO’s short-lived Lucky Louie, which was much more of a prototypical sitcom.  But it seems to be a move in doing something beyond stand-up and yet not the typical “crazy guy with the too-hot, too-young wife, couple of young kids, and the goofy neighbor” show that pretty much every other stand-up would have churned out.

CK is much more of a comedian’s comedian, the kind of person who does comedy that’s not swinging for the fences of general appeal, but is aimed more at the craft of the art form.  It’s like the prose of a Raymond Carver versus the volume sales of an EL James.  And the edge of a comedian’s art is always what gets lost in translation to a typical sitcom.  If you look at Tim Allen, George Lopez, or even the short-lived Andrew (not-)Dice Clay sitcom, it’s as if the edginess that makes their stand-up shine is what’s trimmed away to make a typical formulaic TV show that appeals to the Nielsen numbers.  Part of what Louie‘s charm is, is that he manages to keep the quirkiness of his stand-up in the show, and doesn’t compromise the humor in a need to cookie-cutter the writing for a test audience.

One of the things that M and I discussed is how CK often takes the same tropes that Seinfeld often used to form his episodes, but instead of polishing them into finely structured two-act plus closer, A/B-plot, 23-minute gems, he sometimes goes off into nothingness, not using conventional endings or structures.  Although Seinfeld is remembered as a show “about nothing”, look at any of the episodes and they are all highly structured.  Louie borrows some of the stock structure, like beginning and ending with a piece of standup in a club, but sometimes there’s not a B story; sometimes there’s no ending.  And I think this is very off-putting to some people who expect a specific structure to a TV show.  (My wife hates Louie, for example.)

This is analogous to my own inner conflict over plot in fiction.  If you go to any genre writing site, they beat to death the need to follow the three acts and 12 steps of the journey and five types of plots and two threads and rising and falling and all of that other shit that’s “required” to make a book work.  And a lot of people will freak the fuck out if you write a book that doesn’t do that, and that’s why “plotless” is seen as an insult and not a genre.  But take something like Infinite Jest – it breaks so many of the rules that you’d find in a typical Writer’s Digest “how to write a novel” book.  I don’t think fiction needs endings or plot structure, just like Louie doesn’t need the same structure as an episode of Matlock.  My hope is that the popularity of Louie would primer an audience for cutting-edge prose that also doesn’t need to follow the same convention as the same generic short stories everyone’s been writing for fifty years.  I wish I knew exactly what that would be, and that’s my struggle.

My other observation is how Louie seems to relish discomfort, and a theory of mine is that each episode of the show isn’t what is happening to CK, but rather is his inner monologue, or what he wishes was happening to him.  This was an observation that Richard Linklater made about his movie Slacker: that the structure allowed each character to essentially externalize their inner monologue, talking aloud about the thoughts that normally they would only think.  For example, in episode 7, “Double Date/Mom”, CK has lunch with his mother, and lashes out at her with an extended diatribe about how he doesn’t really love her, and just endures her.  Many of us might feel the same way during a parental visit, and would internally fantasize about going on a tear like CK does, but instead just sit silently and endure the visit.  And maybe CK would too, but what we see is actually his inner fantasy, of telling his mom what he really feels.

So yeah, Louie. I still haven’t seen season 3.  Maybe I need to pull the trigger and spend the $20 to get them on instant.  That will have to tide me over until 2014 when season 4 starts.


So two comedians walk into a bar

I wish I was a stand-up comedian.

I have trouble saying that, because I feel like the many or most people would reply with “you’re not funny.” And I’ve probably spent a lifetime trying to make other people laugh, and maybe I have, but the only thing that sticks in my mind are the too-serious people who reply with “you’re not funny.” And that’s probably why I couldn’t become a comic – it takes a certain amount of confidence to get up on the stage and talk to people like that. But lately, there has been something compelling to me about the whole comedy world.

Last night, I saw this documentary I am Comic on netflix.  It’s sort of about comedian Ritch Shydner, who had a ton of old Carson appearances, and then graduated into bit acting roles and staff writing jobs.  In the movie, he decides to make a comeback to stand-up after 14 years, and it documents his appearances at open mics and small gigs, both the horror of bombing in these small places where people are more interested in the pool tables and TV sets than the comedians, offset by the total high you get from running a show like that.

But the movie is more of a primer on stand-up, the process, the lifestyle, and the good and the bad, told through interview clips with at least 40 top-rate comics.  The wide swath of appearances is awe-inspiring, from household names that we forget got their start in stand-up (Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen, Jeff Foxworthy, Tom Arnold) to the current a-list (Sarah Silverman, Dave Attell, Lewis Black, Margaret Cho), and lots of other great cameos.  It talks about middling, and comedy club condos, and life on the road, and jokes versus bits versus chunks versus sets, and worst shows ever.  It’s a great movie if you’re a huge comedy nerd, and I am.

There’s a huge comedy boom going on right now.  I can’t quantify it and show you a Gartner report with pie charts or anything, but all the indicators are there:  there’s a whole world of podcasts and twitter feeds and web sites dedicated to stand-up; there are all of these shows like Last Comic Standing; there are tons of venues and shows; there are a bunch of stand-ups crossing over into movies and TV shows; there are something like 79 late-night talk shows now, every one employing a dozen staff writers and spotlighting a hundred comics a year.  It’s huge right now, which in my pessimistic mind means that there are orders of magnitude more people trying to break into the business, and I’m sure there are thousands and thousands of unemployed actors and directors and agents who are thinking “I need to start doing sets at open mics so I can segue that into a line producer job at Two and a Half Men.”  It also makes me think that if I decided today to become a stand-up and started writing jokes full-time, I’d just start to get momentum around the time 90% of the comedy clubs in the US shuttered and all of the trend-hop fans who are into Patton Oswalt today will move on to becoming professional salsa dancing fans, or whatever the hell the next trend will be.

I look at the huge growth of the comedy world as I look at the ever-dying world of publishing and wonder why the hell I got into a craft that’s so hugely unrewarding and impossible to crack.  As I try to study how to make it as a literary fiction writer, all I hear are horror stories about how there are now more MFA candidates trying to sell stories than there are readers of literary fiction, and there’s no money in publishing.  And yes, I could write genre fiction and make money writing hack murder mystery crap and publishing it myself, but you can’t choose your voice, it chooses you, and I can’t even read stuff like that, let along write it.  I write what I write, and I try to convince myself that someday the trend will change and people will trade in their vampire and zombie books for Kerouac and Wolfe.

But comedy has such an appealing ecosystem.  For one, you get up on stage at an open mic and go – there’s no trying to finagle blog followers and spamming your stuff to these lit e-journals in hopes that someone will pick it up.  You get on the mic and go, and there is immediate feedback.  I write a book, and maybe a year later, someone will read it and maybe I will hear back from them.  But comedy is immediately absorbed; you tell a joke, a person hears it, they laugh or they don’t.  And people seem to seek out comedy, go to clubs and pay money and see comics, and seek out these podcasts and XM Radio shows and live CDs.  I think in any art, there are two different cycles: either you follow the potential fans, or the fans follow you, and I feel like writing is very much the former right now, and comedy is the latter.  And maybe that’s not entirely true, and I’m sure a lot of comedians bust their asses trying to find Facebook friends and grow their mailing lists and post one-liners to twitter constantly.  But there’s not a huge audience of literary fiction fans out there eager to snap up anything you produce.

I recently took a comedy writing class, to see if I could do it.  And I found that I could and I couldn’t.  I mean, one of the assignments was to write something like 30 monologue-type jokes, which was hard only because I had to actually read the news, and I hate reading the news.  And after carving away at 30 jokes over the course of a week, I found that writers at Kimmel or Letterman have to write at least 40 or 50 jokes a day.  And their pay ranges somewhere between dick and shit.  I think I could hack away at being a comedy writer, or punching up scripts, but it’s probably as unrewarding as hacking away at user manuals all day.  And I don’t mean to knock the tech writing career, which pays more than all but the top tier of fiction writers on amazon, and gives me health insurance and paid vacation and pays me every day, whether or not I scare up sales.  But I remember that feeling when I hit ‘send’ and launched the final, final manuscript of Summer Rain to the publisher, after five years and a quarter-million words of pain and torture, knowing that it would be a 650-page chunk of my life and other peoples’ hands, and it was not the same feeling I get when checking in the final PDF of a developer’s guide for a software product that will literally sell a million times what my book does.

I wish there was a writing community more like the comedy community.  I mean, I look at stuff like the people taking UCB classes who are working with each other and building their careers and doing awesome things, and then I look at any number of literary sites where people are talking about their head shots or whether or not they should change their names to market to the Young Adult romance genre.  I’m slowly finding more authors that subvert this paradigm, but I need an order of magnitude of readers that do the same.  And lately, it’s hard to get people to pay attention to 140-character updates, let alone 140-page novellas.  But I think that will eventually change.

Oh yeah, I did standup once.  It was 1988 and I was in the Catskills and I did a talent show/open mic in some bar in East Windham, in front of maybe 20 people.  I don’t remember a single joke I did, but I vividly remember between the time I put down my name and the time I took the “stage” (really just the same floor as the bar), I went on this long walk in the upstate New York summer night, and listened to the bugs and talked to myself and tried to write a set on the spot.  I remember the smell of the August night, and the cool feeling when it was like a hundred all day and all you could really do is sit in the pool or hide in the AC of the motel, and the temp would drop to like 75 at night, and it would feel almost cold.  And I’m walking by myself, muttering “okay, no, start with that, then go into this, and then, no, then say this, and then mention I’m not from here, and go into that, and, and, and….”  And the set completely bombed; I think one joke got laughs.  But I did it.