Hungry Man

In August, Dave Eggers will publish a book of his short stories. The book is called How We Are Hungry.


Tee-hee, Demetri

Last night, comedian Demetri Martin appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and was hilarious. I looked him up online and it turns out he's been a writer for Conan since 2003. (He also portrays the tiny stuntman on the show.) Here's a short bio of him from the Comedy Central website:

Demetri Martin began his career in comedy when he dropped out of law school. After graduating from Yale College, Demetri headed to NYU School of Law with a full scholarship. When he realized that law school was boring, Demetri started doing stand-up across the street at the Boston Comedy Club in Greenwich Village.

Since venturing into comedy, Demetri has appeared on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien", Comedy Central's "Premium Blend" and NBC's "Late Friday". He has contributed writing to The Daily Show and written for VH-1's "Don't Quote Me". In addition, he can be seen as an on-camera personality on Showtime's ShoNext channel. Most recently, Demetri was the winner of the 2003 Jury Award prize for Best One-Person Show at the Aspen Comedy Festival.

Click here to watch a Comedy Central clip of Demetri performing and discussing his standup.

Demetri has his own website, where you can read about his life and look at some of his drawings.


Breathing Funny
Today, on The Leonard Lopate Show, Jay Mohr talked about his anxious two years (1993-95) as a featured player on Saturday Night Live. He has a new book called Gasping for Airtime: Two Years in the Trenches at "Saturday Night Live." Click here to listen to the interview.


Smokin' 'n' Jokin'
David Sedaris was on The Leonard Lopate Show today. Click here to listen to the interview.

Bierut Salute

Over at Design Observer, Michael Bierut, Steven Heller, and others are discussing Chris Ware and the design of Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern.

Here's Bierut's original comment (posted on May 29):

The McSweeney's phenomenon is a force to be reckoned with in American graphic design. It began as – and still is – an online journal with an admirably understated visual presentation: while website designers worked themselves into grand mal seizures of hyperactivity in the late twentieth century, McSweeneys.net never abandoned its plain vanilla format. But it was when founder Dave Eggers moved into the world of conventional publishing with McSweeney's Quarterly Concern that the design world took notice. Simultaneously intricate and restrained, the dense-packed all-Garamond pages of the Quarterly refracted Victorian foppishness through a prism of ironic cool, and provoked Andrew Blauvelt to take to the pages of Eye to proclaim the arrival of a new movement: Complex Simplicity.

Eggers's brand of simplicity got ever more complex with successive issues: issue 4 was fourteen saddle-stitched books in a cardboard box; issue 7, nine perfect-bound books held in a case with a massive rubber band; issue 11, ersatz-elegant brown leatherette with gold foil stamping. The latest issue, Number 13, guest edited and designed by Chris Ware, has just been published. It goes far beyond anything McSweeney's has ever done. It is extraordinary.

Eggers is a self-taught designer who famously writes his best-selling books in Quark Xpress rather than Microsoft Word; the cover of McSweeney's No. 2 included the aphorism "If words are to be used as design elements then let designers write them." But thinking of him as a designer required quite a leap when Blauvelt did it. Now he's the perennial flavor of the month. He was featured in the last Cooper-Hewitt design biennial. At the AIGA Voice conference, he entertained the crowd by evaluating his pages in terms of the frequency of their paragraph breaks, and noted that the most recent IBM annual report had a more-than-suspicious resemblance to the design (and editorial tone) of the most recent McSweeney's Quarterly. Perhaps he began to sense that when corporate America starts appropriating you, it’s time for a change. Enter Chris Ware.

The theme of McSweeney's No. 13, not surprising to anyone who knows Ware's amazing work, is the comics. The 264-page hard cover book is bound with a giant, folded, comic-festooned dustjacket ("an enormous dust jacket that does much more than guard against dust," as it says on the website). It took me right back to the way the Sunday paper used to arrive on my childhood doorstep, and it conjured up that same sense of excitement. Inside is a feast of work: beautifully wrought pages by R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Julie Doucet, Chester Brown, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns and Richard McGuire, and of course Ware himself, to name a few. These are complemented by thoughtful essays from Michael Chabon, John Updike, Chip Kidd, and others. Finally, there are appreciations of cartoonists of the past, including Rodolphe Topffer, George Harriman, Milt Gross, and – perhaps most tellingly – Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts.

Ira Glass, the eloquent host of Public Radio International's This American Life, describing his childhood obsession with Peanuts, nails the essentially tragic tone of McSweeney's No. 13 in particular and the world of cartoons in general. He read Schulz's strip not for amusement ("I don't remember ever thinking they were funny") but for reassurance ("I thought of myself as a loser and a loner and Peanuts helped me take comfort in that"). Charles Schulz himself understood the world view he was setting forth. Glass quotes from a 1985 interview: "All the loves in the strip are unrequited. All the baseball games are lost, all the test scores are D-minuses, the Great Pumpkin never comes, and the football is always pulled away."

The artists that Ware brought together for McSweeney's No. 13 do not seem to lead enviable lives. They are, as Glass says, loners and losers, inept at human relationships, tormented by the popular kids, given to swearing, hostility, and compulsive masturbation: in short, like Charlie Brown, nerds. But drawing and storytelling is their way to connect with the world, and with us. Lynda Barry's painfully revelatory contribution, my favorite, describes the moral quandary faced by the cartoonist (and perhaps by the designer as well): "Is this good? Does this suck? I'm not sure when these two questions became the only two questions I had about my work, or when making pictures and stories turned into something I called 'my work' – I just know I'd stopped enjoying it and instead began to dread it."

In the four short pages that follow, Barry seems to overcome her dread to find a place of solace. So do the other artists in the book, and, somehow, so do we. In a hostile, uncaring world filled with senseless wrongs, McSweeney's No. 13 provides a moment of exquisite, gorgeous revenge.

Piece Talks
The following interview with Ian Frazier originally appeared in the May 1996 issue of Interview magazine.

What Is Ian Frazier?: Interview with Fiction Writer Ian Frazier

Nobody looks at life the same way after reading a story by Ian Frazier.

Ian Frazier's new book of stories, Coyote v. Acme (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), is a collection of ten years' worth of humorous pieces, mostly written for The New Yorker. Frazier is the author of the sorrowful yet moving memoir Family, the drivin' and cryin' history-cum-travelogue Great Plains, and a previous collection of humor, Dating Your Mom, just reissued in paperback by Farrar, Straus. Known to friends as Sandy, he lives in Montana with his wife, writer Jacqueline Carey, and their two children, Cora and Thomas. Interviewer John Howell, editor and publisher of Hemp Times, a new lifestyle magazine, is a longtime Frazier fan who contributed seminal Stonewall Jackson stories to the "Civil War" chapter of Family.

JOHN HOWELL: I was reading "Stalin's Chuckle," the last story in your new book, where Comrade Stalin tells his secretary, "A comic is one who says things funny, while a comedian is one who says funny things." I wonder which category you put yourself in.

IAN FRAZIER: Mmmm . . . probably neither. I mean, I don't even know if that's really true.

JH: It sounds so authoritative, though.

IF: It sounds authoritative, but that's the point of what I try to do - write stuff that sounds authoritative. If you read it more slowly, you realize it means absolutely nothing. I don't know that that means nothing, but I think about it, and then my mind breaks down thinking about it.

JH: There's a lot of silly officialese in your stories: letters from banks, questionnaires, tax notices.

IF: You get all this stuff in the mail that frightens you. You read the whole thing, and then at the bottom, it says THIS IS NOT A BILL. [laughs] Why did you read the damn thing? What's the interchange between you and these people? It's just money, right? So if this is not a bill, what are they bugging you with it for? They say things like, "Your money has to work for you" [in his story "From the Bank With Your Money on Its Mind"]. I wrote, "Money that just sits around actually loses value, and must be cared for the way you would care for any helpless thing." You could read that in a bank statement and not notice. A lot of writing - and so much of what you read as part of your life - is just boilerplate that somebody wrote.

JH: A story like "Line 46A," which is a "Dear Taxpayer" notice, is why people stand up at political rallies now and cheer anybody who threatens to do away with anybody who has anything to do with the whole tax system.

IF: The movie ad that I based that piece on read THE GOVERNMENT GAVE HER A CHOICE: DEATH, OR LIFE AS AN ASSASSIN. [laughs] That slogan was on a billboard I saw. You just see these things. Today I saw - you used to be an editor at Elle, right?

JH: Yeah.

IF: I saw this Elle cover line: THE SUNBLOCK BIBLE. [laughs] What is that? I can understand The Shooter's Bible, we grew up with that. And I can understand the PC Bible, but the "Sunblock Bible"? That's really getting far from the idea of a bible.

JH: We can look for Elle's "Shampoo Missal: the Common Book of Conditioner." [laughs]

IF: Mike Royko wrote about how the phrase Internet surfing is the most exciting thing about that activity. You're sitting looking at a screen! It has nothing to do with surfing. The stock market came up one-hundred points today, and they said [in deep, ominous voice], "Stock market bungee jumps." The stock market did not bungee jump. It's what writers do now; they lay a lot of language on something.

JH: Speaking of laying on the language, a couple of your stories adopt a literary attitude toward pop-culture phenomena and get a lot of laughs out of the contrast. For example, "Boswell's Life of Don Johnson." Are you a fan of Don Johnson's?

IF: Actually, the reason I did that piece was because when my previous humor book came out ten years ago [Dating Your Mom], people would say, "What are you working on now?" I would say, "Boswell's Life of Don Johnson." Mel Brooks did "Springtime for Hitler" in that movie The Producers, because when people asked, "What are you working on?" he would say, "A musical called 'Springtime for Hitler.'" So then he made The Producers, and after he made it, people would ask, "What are you working on now?" He would say, "A movie called The Green Awning," [laughs] . . . which he never did make.

JH: Your title story, "Coyote v. Acme," has the max of two of the qualities we've been talking about, the absurd officialese and highfalutin language applied to an offbeat phenomenon, i.e., Wile E. Coyote's legal brief against the Acme Company. Wile E. Coyote stands for an American kind of surrealism, don't you think? The parallels in your stories are those Insane eruptions of wacky violence that seem to come out of nowhere - like the story about the satanic college president whose commencement address is constantly being interrupted by the devil, or the one where the suburbanites are lounging in the backyard when World War II-era Germans attack. That's like a traditional New Yorker short story interrupted by history.

IF: You mean those stories that go, "I am sitting at my mother's . . ." That kind of present-tense story? I hate the first-person present. God, that's why I love history. If you can't write it in the past tense, then don't write it. Now, everybody writes in the present. The worst are stories that begin with a phone call. "The phone rings. I pick it up. 'Hello, Madonna,' I say. 'Am I waking you?' Madonna asks." [laughs]

JH: The last couple of pieces in the book, "Your Face or Mine" and "Making 'Movies' in New York" sound to me more like your own voice as I know It, as opposed to a sort of officialese or the Bob Hope-like ventriloquism of "Thanks for the Memory."

IF: About "Your Face or Mine" - I'd hoped that if I wrote a piece in which the phrase "in your face" appeared, it would disappear from the language. I thought if I made fun of it forcefully enough, people would be disciplined into taking it the hell out of there.

JH: "Making Movies" is one of those quintessential New York experiences. You come around the corner to your neighborhood deli, and you can't get in because it's been commandeered by a film crew for shooting.

IF: I got more angry mail about that piece than anything I've written in years. In that story I wrote, tongue in cheek, "And the movies never appear." And then I wrote, "Did anybody ever see a movie called Hudson Hawk?" I knew that Hudson Hawk had been made, but I was just pretending that no one had ever made it. I got a letter that said, "What is Ian Frazier? Out of it? Doesn't he know that Hudson Hawk, while not one of Bruce Willis's finest efforts, blab, blab, blab." They really belabor the hell out of it. You would be amazed at the things people take seriously.


Helter Swelter
The following article was written by Ian Frazier. It was originally published in the March-April 2003 issue of Mother Jones. (I found it here.)

As the World Burns: When It Comes to Global Warming, the President Is a Man with a Plan -- about Planning to Plan

President Bush has called for a decade of research before anything beyond voluntary measures is used to stem tailpipe and smokestack emissions of heat-trapping gases that scientists say are contributing to global warming. "When you're speeding down the road in your car, if you've got to turn around and go the other direction, the first thing is to slow down, then stop, then turn," said David K. Garman, the assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy.


PRESIDENT BUSH HAS CALLED FOR A DECADE of additional research on global warming, but needs more time to decide which decade it will be, assistants to the president announced today. So far, 2060-2070 "looks nice," said one insider, though other decades have not been ruled out. "We don't want to pick just any old decade," the source continued, perspiration beading on his forehead. "Finding just the right decade for this type of in-depth climate research might take as long as 10 years."

Privately the White House expressed regret that the decade from 1790 to 1800 is past, and thus not able to be a part of their plans. In other respects, it would be an ideal decade for the purposes of research into climate change. Most of the Founding Fathers were still alive then, and with the Revolutionary War over and much of the work on the U.S. Constitution completed, they had free time. The thought of all that talent being brought to bear on the problem is indeed exciting, as the White House likes to remind critics. President Bush himself is known to have a special fondness for many of the years between 1790 and 1800, particularly 1797, and he has asked his tech staff if anything can be done to get us there. Advances in time travel, or at least in movies about time travel, offer some possibilities, but for now those solutions aren't feasible for political reasons. Inquiries on this subject went unanswered by the White House press office, which had closed early in the February heat.

Other members of the Bush administration who have the president's ear on energy matters refused to give out any information, including where the ear is kept when not in use. They have argued, so far successfully, that that is nobody's business, not even their own. In several recent off-the-record interviews they told the media that an excellent job is being done on national energy policy, now go away. Someone who sometimes delivers their take-out barbecue says he's seen them working really hard, but adds, "Who can formulate policy, or even think, when it's s'dang hot like it's been?" According to an individual who knows this delivery person, he believes the whole process of deciding when we might want to start thinking about global warming would function better if we didn't rush around so, but just laid out by the pool and let the ideas come.

For the moment, the administration seems to agree. Simply letting yourself relax and drill for a while in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a problem-solving technique which, though counterintuitive, may produce surprising results. Similarly, when you ease clean air and water standards, often your whole mind and body eases along with them, allowing access to undreamed-of inner resources of decision making. Loosing some of the bonds of the Endangered Species Act, saying "yes" to the deeper self that wants to log, letting go of rigid, controlling attitudes toward federal lands--all these, creativity consultants teach, help to free the executive-branch imagination. Of course, mastering mental powers in this way is not done overnight. When it is complete, however, White House staffers promise that the issue of possible global warming will be fully gotten to the bottom of at last.

One proponent of such innovative thinking is David K. Garman, the assistant energy secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable-energy energy, with the Department of Energy. Using the new idea-generating method, sometimes called the Halliburton Method, Mr. Garman produced a metaphor, and he held an informal press briefing to share it with reporters. "Okay, say you've got a car," Mr. Garman began, "or no, not just a car--say you've got a really big car. Are you with me? Okay, you've got a great big car. You decide to go for a drive. First thing, you go to the convenience store and fill that car up--top your tank right off. Maybe you even bring along a few extra tanks, the ones for the dirt bike and the lawn mower and the chain saw, fill them up, too, because you never know. Then you buy a few snacks, and you're ready. You're heading right straight down that highway--can you all please excuse me for a moment while I change my shirt?"

A complete transcript of Mr. Garman's metaphor was made available after the briefing. Interpreters of figurative language have since examined the metaphor, and they now believe they know what it means. The car, they say, is America, and the driver, responsible businesspeople involved in its governance and energy extraction. The "crybabies in the backseat" are the majority of everybody else in the world. The driver firmly resists their pleas to turn around or even stop for a minute at a rest room (the Kyoto Protocol) until he is good and ready and feels it is in the best interest of the entire car. The "tantrums and whinings" that the driver ignores represent low approval ratings on this one minor isolated topic, and the happy arrival at the driver's destination equals prosperity and peace everywhere.

That this was in fact Mr. Garman's meaning White House sources would neither confirm nor deny. The assistant secretary himself, having left town until the weather breaks, could not be reached. EPA officials running out the door to beat the traffic would say only that whatever Mr. Garman or his friends wanted was fine with them. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer limited his response to blowing through his lips, whinnying, and repeatedly stomping his front foot on the floor as part of a new administration effort to communicate better with the American people by means of friendly sounds. Pressed further, however, Mr. Fleischer said it would be wrong for him to comment beyond the noises he'd just made. Some Beltway observers believe that the administration is hoping the recent news stories of weird savannah wildlife turning up in the suburban Northeast will distract national attention from complicated, wonkish subjects like climate change.

Clearly, it is time for the discussion to move on. "Junk science," as administration sources label much of the data on global warming, has already led many astray. Most laypeople do not understand that higher temperature numbers, in themselves, are not strictly scientific, because they don't use test tubes, Bunsen burners, white smocks, and other equipment familiar from high school science labs. On the contrary, in the real world, hotter weather may be experienced very differently depending on a person's metabolism and daytime job. It is stifling, as we know, in any office when the air conditioning breaks down. But to employees in a cool and pleasant work space, the same external temperature may appear completely comfortable. So-called climate experts overlook this disparity when they talk about glaciers melting, coral reefs dying, Venice going underwater, etc. Such evidence, while interesting, is not practical science.

One of these days the decade specifically set aside to look into allegations of climate change will arrive. Most of us will not be around then, so dealing with the situation, if there is one, will be up to someone else. If the Bush team has played its cards right, the people alive then either will have gotten to like year-round T-shirt weather, or else the climate will not have changed that much and there was nothing to worry about after all. Or maybe (as is more probable) they still won't know for sure what's going on, but with technology developed in the meantime will be able to air-condition a much wider section of the planet. And in the remote chance that it really does become a lot hotter, and certain unforeseeable consequences are the result, perhaps they will do as those long before them, and resolve not to think about the problem just now.