Jeanmarie Simpson: Hello, Dylan. Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions today.
Dylan Brody: You’re quite welcome. And thank you for letting me sit with you at the cool kids’ table for a few minutes. At some point, when I’m not being interviewed, I want to have a whole other conversation with you about playwriting and your work, about performing Shakespeare for American audiences… I want to talk to you about the place of activism in modern American culture and modern American art. I have a sense that you will have thoughts and ideas about this stuff that will energize me and feed my work. I know this interview is supposed to be about me. Sorry. I’ll shut up and stop being a fan-dork. Just know that there’s this whole other conversation we ought to have down the road some time. Ask me questions.
JS: Okay, but first I need to indulge in a bit of fan-dorkishness of my own. I’m crazy about your work. Your voice is delightfully, shockingly unique.
DB: Oh, Good! Thank you. I like having fans, and I like shocking them with my uniqueness. Uniquitude. Unique-osity. One of the things that keeps happening lately, as I get some press and some notice, is that people tell me how unique my voice is, and then, with no sense of irony at all, as if they are proving the point, they tell me who I remind them of. So far, I haven’t been insulted by any of the comparisons -– Garrison Keillor, David Sedaris, people like that. One person compared me to Woody Allen and it sort of made my day, but I’m always biting back the impulse to explain the meaning of the word “unique” when it gets thrown around just before the phrase, “You’re just like…” This, I suppose, is an indication of what sort of pompous, self-important word-geek I am. Even as I’m receiving compliments, my impulse is to blurt out a grammatical correction.
JS: What drives your work? What inspires you?
DB: I’m a little bit embarassed to admit the shallowness of it all. A large part of what drives me in my work is a desire to impress people. How pathetic is that, really? I want people to say, “Oooh. He’s really good with words.” Or, “Wow, that guy is really funny.” I love getting laughs. I love the sound and the feel and the smell of an audience. When I was a regular road comic, truly, that’s almost all it was about…that and the desire to counter some of what I saw as dangerous and unhealthy trends in stand-up comedy in general.
JS: Please elaborate.
DB: In the mid-’80s, there was a backlash against the liberalism of the ’60s and ’70s. A great many comics became what I call right-wing rebels. By using a great deal of vulgarity, they staked out a position as fringe performers, risk-takers, heirs to the legacy of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. But from that position, they built material around themes that were really horrific, throwback sentiments. Sexism, racism and homophobia were commonplace in clubs. Part of the power of comedy, of all humor, is that it comes in under the radar. A well-structured joke gets its laugh without necessarily making the listener aware of the underlying message that’s being sent, being received and — without any conscious processing — being internalized. Sam Kinnison was an acquaintance of mine; I remember arguing with him about a recurring tendency in his work to blame the victims for their plight. He blamed the starving people in Ethiopia for their hunger, blamed gays for AIDS, blamed abused women for driving men crazy. He was a brilliant craftsman and performer, and he made people roll in the aisles saying things that I found reprehensible. Dangerous. Unhealthy. He was one of several, and some are still working today. When called on it, Sam and others would decry “political correctness,” as though pointing out their bigotry, their wrong-headedness was a direct attack on their civil liberties. I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think such performers should be countered by funnier, smarter folk. At one point, I was a feature act working with a headliner who did about twenty minutes of fag jokes. I saw his set the first evening that we worked together. From then on, I made certain that at every show, I did eight to twelve hilarious jokes about how homophobia is an accepted form of bigotry in our culture. For the remainder of the week, he couldn’t figure out why his killer bit about queers kept going down in flames. He never sat down to watch my set — never figured out that I was innoculating the crowd against his witty hate speech.
JS: I love the subversion factor. There you go –- art and activism hand-in-hand. Beautiful!
DB: These days, if I’m really being honest, there’s more going on. I use my work to unseat my demons and to disempower the fear and the shame that have gripped me through so much of my life by shining light on them. The more I look closely at my own stories, the more I discover about what I share with the rest of humanity. At one point, I mentioned to my wife that I seem to be making a career for myself in the exploration of sheer narcissism, and she said, “Oh honey, no. You tell your stories and people hear them and think of their own stories. You speak to the narcissist in us all.” She’s smart and funny, and I think she really nailed it in that comment. I hope that the more truthful I am about those aspects of me that I seek to hide, the more comfortable the members of my audience can be with those aspects of themselves that they seek to hide. The more I reveal the foibles of my own humanity, the less shame others will feel over those aspects of themselves that make them human. Also, sometimes, if I perform really well, people buy me drinks.
JS: Is your work really biographical, or do you use flashes of life as departure points for your writing?
DB: This is such a complex question. People ask me versions of this all the time, usually right after a performance, and usually with their focus on a particular point that they want verified or debunked. My work is really autobiographical and also highly fictionalized. Once, when I felt the need to explain to my father where I’d departed from the actual memory in a story, he said, though he acknowledges that he was paraphrasing someone else at the time, “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Dylan. I know the difference between the facts and the truth.” This has become a key thought for me. When I write a story, I am almost always trying to get at the truth of the incident, or some larger truth that I think is revealed in the incident. If that means the details of the incident need to be changed to make the point clear to a reader or a listener, so be it. Often, as I’m driving home, I imagine myself telling my wife about a thing that just happened. By the time I get home, the story is more interesting than the event ever was. The reason I want to talk about the event, though, is that something was revealed in the incident. If I tell it right, the thing that coalesced for me will be prompted to coalesce in the mind of the audient (that’s right — “audient.” I’ve coined the singular, and I’m sticking with it), letting him or her arrive at the same discovery rather than feeling lectured or explained to.
JS: Do you ever worry about going too far?
DB: Occasionally, when I’m doing a live interview, the old Comedy Tourettes comes back and I blurt something out that I wish I had not said publicly. I try not to worry about it, as that could only inhibit my ability to answer things honestly and to remain true to the self-revelatory nature of what I’m doing. There have been things I’ve said about friends, about family members that upset them. When I’m asked to and it’s possible, I change names of people in my stories so that I’m not forcing public revelation on them that they do not want. It’s not always possible. There are some things I’ve said about my parents that have upset my mother pretty badly, but those pieces don’t make any sense if they’re about a friend or an aunt. It is the very nature of the relationship with one’s mother or father that I’m exploring in those pieces, so I sometimes have to make hard decisions about what to keep and what to lose, whose feelings need protecting the most — mine or hers, and so on. I think about whether I’m going too far, but, again, I try not to worry about it. As long as I’m making the best decisions I can, I don’t need to worry overmuch.
JS: If you ever did go too far, what would that look like?
DB: If I ever began writing stories that were distorted to make me look heroic and others look foolish, it would be an indication that I had crossed some horrible boundary. If I stopped telling stories and just started lecturing, that’d be too far, and similarly, if I just started telling jokes and stories without regard for their underlying implications, that would be going too far too. If I ever found myself justifying what I said by claiming, “It’s just entertainment,” or “It’s just a joke,” that would be a clear sign that I’d wandered off in my journey and had stumbled into loathsome realm of hackery…
JS: You’ve got a couple of things coming out this summer: Brevity and True Enough. Are you pleased and proud about both of those projects?
DB: I’m enormously pleased with both of the CDs. The first, Brevity, is a compilation of pieces I recorded in the studio for radio broadcast. It’s actually been available through my website for some time, but the official release from Stand Up! Records is extremely gratifying. Also, an incredible photographer named Miriam Preissel did the photography for the proper release, and it’s just gorgeous. True Enough is a live performance CD. This is incredibly exciting for me. I remember sitting as a child, carefully lowering the phonograph needle onto the black vinyl to hear George Carlin, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby… Those records were so much a part of the soundtrack of my youth. I remember the voices, I remember the jokes, and I remember the sound of the laughter. The idea that people will be slipping a disk into their CD players and hearing my voice in that way, hearing my laughs in that way, is just heart-speedingly delightful. Both of those CDs will be out on July 14th officially, but you can already place advance orders for them by going to my website.
JS: Any recent disappointments?
DB: One of my two dogs, Lord Buckley Sweetlips, Greatest of All Dane Mutts (The Dinosaur Slaying Dog), recently got a foxtail in his paw and he kept me up all night for two nights before I realized something was really wrong and took him to the vet. I was very disappointed with myself over that. Also, on my birthday, my wife and I planned to have sex but then I was distracted by a story that I’m working on and couldn’t properly get it up.
JS: Well, I’m glad to know you made it past that one. What’s next for you?
DB: Right now, I’m working on a new novel that’s coming together steadily and beautifully. I’ve written a humor book called The Modern Depression Guidebook: A Handy Manual for Surviving That Bleak Period Between Birth and Eventual, Inevitable Death that I hope will find a home in print somewhere soon. A small boutique publisher called Sam’s Dot Publishing is about to release a short adventure fantasy piece that I wrote several years ago. There’s interest in my play, Mother, May I (winner of the 2005 Stanley Drama Award for Playwriting). I’m hoping to do a tour of colleges and hip, intimate venues, reading and performing stories this fall. So, you know, I don’t have much coming up at all. Why? You want to get together for coffee or something?
JM: Definitely. We’ll wax on about Shakespeare and activism. Meanwhile, thanks for speaking with me today, Dylan.
DB: You’re quite welcome, Jeanmarie. It’s been a pressure and a pilferage. A plague and a pestilence. You’ve been a colonic obstruction in your own right but now it’s time to play You Bet Your Life.