Clevelander Finds Success in Comedy: An Interview with Andy Borowitz
Andy Borowitz–It really was not until college. All through growing up, my parents, who were very supportive of my humor, my writing and all that, and always saw it as something of a hobby. It's a great hobby but you should go to law school and do something real for a living. My father's a lawyer, and also a writer. He's published books for major publishers, but it's always something he did in his spare time. So that was their perspective, this was not something that you could really make a living at. Once I was in college, I was on the Harvard Lampoon and there was a guy named Jim Downey who had graduated a few years before I had and had gone on to write for Saturday Night Live. Somebody at one point told me that Jim Downey made as much as a lawyer did. And I thought that was the best joke I'd ever heard. I couldn't believe that it was true. That someone would actually pay you for what we were doing at the Lampoon, which was basically sitting around making fun of TV and screwing up our grade point averages. I thought life couldn't be that easy. But as I became a senior I got a couple of job offers. One was from a producer in Hollywood named Bud Yorkin, who was Norman Lear's partner who did "All in the Family," a wonderful director. He came to Harvard and actually offered me job to come out and work for him.
Dee Perry–How did he know your work?
AB–Well, he had come to Harvard to show one of his films. He'd been a film director. He'd directed a film called "Start the Revolution without Me," a very funny movie with Gene Wilder and Donald Sutherland. That was a few years before and he had done very well in TV and wanted to get back into film. So he thought by going to the Lampoon and showing one of his movies, it would be a good publicity stunt for his career. So he came and I was president of the Lampoon. It was my job to introduce him. I really didn't have a very clear sense of who he was, so I sort of vamped this introduction at this Harvard science center where we showed the film. And what I basically did was just claim credit for most of Bud's accomplishments. I said that I met him during the war and told him to go into TV. I really just shamelessly ripped off his entire resume. And Bud was very sharp, because without blinking an eye after he got a big applause after the introduction he got up and said, " I want to thank you a lot Andy for that introduction, and I just wanted to let you know that after all these years that you look great." It was a very quick comeback. But afterwards I found out that what I didn't think was an audition for a job actually was. Because he sort of, in Hollywood mogul style, said, "Kid, you want to come out and be a smart and funny guy" or whatever. I was just really bowled over and I took it of course. It was really a one in a million kind of thing.
DP–To make fun of TV up close...
AB–Yeah, exactly. That was really how I got started. Nowadays I think kids are savvier, kids now know if you write for the Simpsons you have a big Hollywood career. The idea of "comedy writer" as a career just was not on my radar at all growing up.
DP–I want to go back just a little bit to before college. Because that's another recurring theme-film is. You were hired as a film-making instructor at the Cleveland Museum of Art at age 17. And looking at your bio, I had to ask was that true or was that one of the made up funny things? But no, that's true...
AB–I make up almost everything except about my credits. As a careerist I take those things deadly seriously. What happened was, I started as a student, I was a film-making student and I loved the film-making course there. We were making these little Super-8 films which you know by today's current digital standards I'm sure were...
AB–Exactly, cave drawings in France. And it was really my passion, and by the time I was 17 I was working with the actual instructor teaching film to really little kids. So we were teaching, I guess, 8- or 9-year-olds how to make films which was kind of an amazing thing. I worked there for I guess a couple of sessions as an instructor. I don't think I'm the world's greatest teacher because I guess I'm usually just trying to entertain my audience all the time. I don't know if I told them exactly how to edit or things like that, things they could use. But in my later life, I've gone on to teach film at NYU and even a little bit in Europe. It's really fun because it forces you to practice what you preach. You tell students how you have to structure a script and then after that you kind of feel like a jerk if you don't do that yourself. So it sort of keeps you honest in a way.
DP–What is some of the advice you give to your student filmmakers or would-be writers?
AB–There's a piece of advice I sort give about almost any kind of writing. I think it applies to screenwriting, it applies to the kind of stuff I do for the New Yorker which are these short humor pieces, or even writing a book which is something new to me. You have to really think about what you're writing about. It seems like an obvious thing, like of course you know what you're writing about, when you write something. But it's amazing how many people sometimes lose sight of that, and how easy it is to lose sight of that. And I guess it comes down to just the term "theme," which you get drummed into you a lot in school. You know, what's the theme of this paper or the theme of this paragraph? But sometimes people sit down to write a screenplay and they have in mind a story. They say, "Well I want this to be about somebody who's a CIA agent who infiltrates the Russian mob in Amsterdam." And they have an idea for a story, but they don't really know what the movie's going to be about. In other words, they really don't know what the central conflict is going to be, what each scene is going to contribute to. And as a result, they lose the handle on it and get very bogged down to the details of plot and they don't really stick to one central spine. So that's the biggest piece of advice I give to anybody writing anything from a one-hundred word piece to a book to a screenplay. Really if you could boil it down into one sentence what your piece is about, you're in good shape. But if you can't, you probably don't know yet, and you probably shouldn't start writing until you figure that out.
DP–OK, I'm wondering if you can boil down - you're actually on a double book tour, so I'm not sure which one we're promoting the most or if we're doing them equally. "Rationalizations to Live By" from Workman Press, and "The Trillionaire Next Door: The Greedy Investors Guide to Day Trading" from Harper Collins or Harper Business, depending on which you read.
AB–They're actually calling it Harper Information. I actually prefer to call in Harper Misinformation.
DP–Or Harper Valley PTA...
AB–Exactly. Those Harper Valley Hypocrites. I am on sort of a double book tour. I either have the good fortune or misfortune of having two books come out almost the exactly same week. It was not planned that way. It's just one of the books involved art work done by the brilliant New Yorker Cartoonist Roz Chast. And it took Roz a little bit of time to draw it because drawing takes time. So that book started much earlier than "The Trillionaire Next Door" but both sort of came over the finish line at the same time. So I'm hear to promote and talk about both. What do you want to talk about first?
DP–Let's do the "Rationalizations" first and then we can rationalize about the "Trillionaire."
AB–OK, I'm ready for it.
DP–So "Rationalizations to Live By" we say them all the time, we know them all the time. But what's the function of rationalization would you say?
AB–Well I sort of define it in the beginning of the book. We've got a little definition which is, an excuse is a lie we tell to other people. Like when you come into the office and you say, "Oh boss, you know my car broke down and I had trouble getting the kids off to school." That's an excuse. A rationalization which I think are far more useful, are the lies we tell ourselves. For the same situation, showing up late to work, your rationalization would be -- "I'll do a much better job at work if I'm more refreshed and get an extra fifteen minutes of sleep." Or it's more important to me to spend 15 minutes watching CNBC in the morning to just get my head on straight before I get to work." So rationalizations are those little lies that really get us through the day, and they're tremendously valuable. You've probably done 20 of them today without knowing they're rationalizations.
DP–At least, let's see, no we won't talk about those, my boss may be listening.
AB–Well I do play a little game which you're welcome to play if you want to. It's a little game I call "Rationalize This." And the way the game works is you tell me something terrible you've done lately, or something terrible you want to do and I'll give you a rationalization that will make you feel better about it.
DP–OK, I want to skip the birthday party for my friend who isn't so close anymore.
AB–Oh well, you've given me the kernel which is, "We're really not that close anymore." So you see you've already done it Dee. That's a good one. But you know they're a lot of ways of rationalizing that. One is "It's really not fair of me to eat the food at that party since we're not so close."
DP–Yeah, that's it.
AB–That's a good one. "I'll just get in the way. She'll feel obligated to talk to me." You see you're doing her a tremendous favor by not going.
DP–Yes, thanks. I feel better already.
AB–There you go. I've yet to be snubbed. I've been doing "Rationalize This" all over the country, and I've yet to have anyone tell me a terrible piece of behavior that I haven't been able to rationalize. And diet is a huge one, of course. We have a million dieting rationalizations like "The minute I get off this trip, I'm going on a diet, the minute I'm over with this vacation, I'm going on a diet." Or "It would be a shame to let this cake go to waste." And it's always like what does that mean that it's going to go to waste? I have no idea. We do those and they're a lot of rationalizations that people actually say and then some that we just kind of made up, that I don't think anyone actually has said but they're kind of funny.
DP–I like them. And you have some great rationalizations for why you published the book too. I think... "Big books with small print?"
AB–Oh, "People like small books with big type." Because this is not a very challenging book to read. It's mainly pictures, it's mainly these brilliant Roz Chast cartoons and then just a few words. But as a result I think it kind of does make a good gift because "Rationalizations to Live By" if you give somebody this book, you pretty much can guarantee that they'll read it, maybe even in your presence, because it's about a 10-minute read.
DP–And it's funny. "The Trillionaire Next Door" also a funny book, "The Greedy Investors Guide to Day Trading." And there are some great descriptions of what happens in this book, when to buy, when to sell and when to call Dominoes. You teach someone how to know that.
AB–Yeah, very important stuff for the day trader. Well it's the whole lifestyle of day trading. People are very obsessed by the stock market these days, we have more investors. Are you in the market, do you have anything in the market?
DP–Just the supermarket.
AB–I just flew into Cleveland today and CNBC, of course, is on in the airport. When you're sitting in your Continental airplane, there's a little Bloomberg ticker in front of you, letting you know how the Dow is doing every 15 minutes. I realize we're very obsessed and we take the market very seriously but there wasn't anybody writing a funny book about it or at least an intentionally funny book about it. So that's sort of what inspired "The Trillionaire Next Door."
DP–I find that even though I don't have money invested I watch the ups and downs as if to say "Well, I'm glad I didn't have anything there. Oh man! I should've had something in that day."
AB–It's winners and losers too. I think that earlier generations are gonna remember watching "Leave It to Beaver" and all those shows that people loved or "Bewitched," and we're going to say "Remember when Qualcom was up five points, wasn't that great, that was a great one wasn't it?" So we don't know what any of these stocks are. I don't own much stock but I do own the same ones everyone else owns. I own Cisco Systems and Sun Microsystems and I can honestly say I have no idea what a system or a microsystem is. And I'm sure nobody in the audience does either. I'm gonna go out on a limb and assume that a microsystem is smaller than a system. But how small? We don't know. It's ridiculous.
DP–We don't. But before we let you go I just wanted to survey the things that you've done. We've touched on quite a few of them. They're probably still some that we don't know about. But I'm wondering if there's one thing that pays the bread and butter and everything else is sort of just on the side. Or if your whole life is freelance?
AB–You know, for 15 years I was really a Hollywood TV producer-film writer and that was really sort of my life. I was under contract to a lot of people. I was under contract to NBC when I did "Fresh Prince" and I was under contract to Paramount. And it was a lot of fun but I think at this point in my life I really define myself as a freelance writer and I'm really sort of trying to let whatever it is that appeals to me at the moment be my direction. So I fell into this book with Roz because we were just kidding around about rationalizations. The New Yorker is a tremendous opportunity for me to joke about whatever it is I want to joke about that week as long as they agree with me that it's funny and they want to print it. I no longer have that contractual 9-to-5 writing job by choice. It's so great just to kind of let your sensibility direct you at this point. I'm really having more fun with my writing than I have at any other time because there's so much more freedom involved. And that's actually not a realization. That actually sounds like a rationalization for "I don't have a steady job." But it's not. I really mean that.
DP–I wanna be you when I grow up. It's been fun. Andy, really come back any time.
AB–I will. I love Cleveland, and thanks for having me, Dee.