hobart logo
A Conversation with John Warner & Tom Williams photo


Tom Williams: What do you find funny?

John Warner: I find lots of things funny, and have pretty broad tastes, but you know who I think is the number one comedic genius of the last thirty years? Howard Stern. Sometimes I feel like I’m supposed to apologize after saying that, but anyone who reflexively labels his humor as merely vulgar and lowbrow hasn’t been listening, particularly since he got to satellite radio. The Mimic’s Own Voice takes a kind of academic approach to the taxonomy of comedians, and I think Howard Stern is probably the comedic figure whose had more influence on contemporary comedy than anyone. I remember sitting in Bridesmaids and laughing my brains out at the food poisoning scene where Maya Rudolph squats in the middle of the street, her wedding dress fanned around her and shits her brains out and thinking that that would never have been in a mainstream comedy if not for Howard Stern. While he works less now, for 20 plus years he did five hours of comedy a day, whereas a stand-up comedian may produce a fresh hour every couple of years, or a sitcom generates 22 episodes with a team of writers. In the words of Chris Rock:

Howard Stern’s a bad motherfucker, man. Whenever I talk to Howard, I always point out — and I’ve been trying to point this out to my wife — I know some of it you don’t like, but if I had to be on six hours a day, it would be just as nasty and foul and not sophisticated. The fact that you’re going to see me do an hour every four years? Reduce Howard Stern to an hour every four years, you’d have the most brilliant comedian who ever lived. It’s not even close.

So, as a distinguished writer and academic, who are you a fan of that some people might not expect?

Tom Williams: Your take on Stern intrigues me. I’m not a big fan but that’s more from not really listening to him, rather than hearing him and being offended, or whatever. I’m going to have to check him out on satellite—if I can ever pull myself away from Little Steven’s Underground Garage.

As for the performer that I’m a fan of that few would expect, it’s pretty easy: Rodney Dangerfield. I just mentioned this in another interview, that I was recently watching Back to School and wondered why I hadn’t found space in my little book for a Rodney like character. It would have been so easy, which is why I love Rodney. He’s easy to remember as the “no respect guy”—or, if you saw him when I first did, one of the Lite Beer guys (I think Ben Davidson, formerly of the Oakland Raiders and Behind the Green Door, would say in those fantastic commercials, “Nice going, Rodney”), or Al Czervik from Caddyshack or even “Rapping Rodney”—but he was so much more to me. His delivery was impeccable. I am indeed one of those dopes at a bar who can find a Dangerfield line to quote in every third conversation: “With a hat like that you should get a bowl of soup . . . . Looks good on you, though.” What really still resonates for me is the character that he constructed in his stand up—a guy who angles to get everything going his way but can’t ever bring any of it home. I don’t think I’d ever seen a comedian whose jokes were about his personal failings before Rodney. It was a good lesson for a young writer: don’t always make your central character the most wonderful thing going. Give him a wife and a doctor (Dr. Vinny Boombatts was Rodney’s physician) and kids that all think he’s a loser. Then you’ve got comedy!

But I didn’t get him into the book.

Speaking of books, who were some of the comics you were thinking of—whether you smuggled them into your fictional world (a gem of a fictional world, by the way) or not—when you were writing The Funny Man. (Which I can’t ever utter aloud in any voice other than an Eddie Murphy voice.)

John Warner: The funny man’s gimmick (doing impressions with his hand shoved all the way in his mouth) was inspired by comedians like Gallagher, or Carrot Top, or even Jeff Dunham, in that I wanted his breakthrough to be a true “gimmick,” that is something that isn’t rooted in meaning or really explicable when it comes to the appeal. He’s not meant to be a bad comic, merely an average one, competent, but someone who was never going to rise above the crowd.

There’s a couple of individual spots that are inspired by specific comics. The funny man’s meltdown is in some ways informed by former Howard Stern sidekick Artie Lange’s troubles with drugs. The funny man has a performance/rant late in the book that’s supposed to be bad Dane Cook (not a redundancy). In a lot of ways, though, I was mostly thinking about who hewasn’t — Bruce, Pryor, Carlin, Martin, etc... — the comics who are visionary. My character is not.

The truth is, most performers, regardless of the medium (music, comedy, books, etc...) are not visionary, and for me, that’s more interesting to write about than the true “genius.” Rodney Dangerfield is a good example. He’s a “pro,” but he’s no genius. Most of his jokes are just a more aggressive and edgy Henny Youngman, but he managed to make that work. How he made it work is an area of fascination for me. It reminds me of an evening at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, where I saw Andrew Dice Clay go on stage unannounced. This was not too long ago, well after his prime, and his material was stale and antiquated, but his delivery and rhythms (like Rodney) were so good that he got far more laughs than the other comics who were trying to do hipper or more relevant stuff. That kind of professionalism takes a lot of discipline and drive, particularly when it isn’t accompanied with “genius.” As a writer, I was interested in rolling around with those notions and trying to figure out what’s going on.

On the other hand, I prefer to read about the geniuses. Steve Martin’s biography, Born Standing Up, offers great insight to an artist working in his chosen medium.

The Mimic’s Own Voice is written as a sort of analysis of a “genius.” The conceit of the book takes stand-up comedy (and impressions specifically) as a subject worthy of the most serious study. It’s about a performer (Douglas Myles) who is truly gifted (though he also works at his art), and the book seems to explore the notions of where that gift might come from.. Is this something you were thinking about, the locus of genius, or how it might manifest itself in this particular arena, or am I totally barking up the wrong tree?

Tom Williams: “Manifest itself in this particular arena?” John, did you just take two Derridas and wash it down with some Jameson?

Seriously, folks, I really enjoy hearing you talk about pros vs. geniuses, John, as it does come down to the fact that, in most arenas, the pros are around a lot longer than the geniuses, because the pros figure out what works, hone that until it can’t get any better, and don’t go around worrying about the nature of inspiration or the anxiety of influence. Geniuses often get lost because they don’t have to work as hard, I think. What I had hoped for with my central character was that what he possessed might be seen as genius, but might be an accident of genetics or a symptom of social anxiety disorder or a mental affliction of sorts. What I hoped to get across was that Douglas Myles didn’t mimic people because he thought it would get laughs; he was somehow compelled to mimic people.

And for me, the laugh in all of it is that I have all these scholars fighting to be the ones to figure out just what made him a genius and none of them know any more than anyone else just what that was. Why can’t they—as I feel about scholars with film or lit or whatever—just sit down and enjoy the spectacle?

Which reminds me: How big an influence on you in Funny Man was the fascinating genre of the one hour celeb bio, as in Behind the Music or A&E’s Biography? The funny man has reveries of his peers being interviewed about his ascent and seems to always envision how some solemn voiceover guy, like Bill Kurtis, will characterize the milestone moments in his life. I will say that while eventually it was the tone and attitude of scholarly writing that I was trying to parody, when I sat down with this material, oh so long ago, I was totally trying to parody Behind the Music, but with a comedian rather than Warrant or Bobby Brown. You?

John Warner: I’ve been busted. I love those shows. Not to dive further into the theory swamp and trip over a big pile of meta, but The Funny Man is filled with these sorts of private winks to myself. It’s one of the ways I keep myself engaged in my own work.

One of my personal hobbyhorses that I put in the book is the way media can shape narrative, and how that shaping is transmitted to the viewers who then begin to measure their lives against these narratives. Because he has dreams of fame, the funny man thinks of the biography shows as the model for his future as a famous person, the path he should be taking, but I think this phenomenon can extend to just about anything and anybody.

These shows give us our cues on how to live. Oprah Winfrey has made an empire out of instructing people how to “live their best lives.” The irony is that by so forcefully broadcasting the existence of a “best life,” she creates an instant anxiety over the fact that odds are, at any given time, we don’t feel like we’re living our best lives, because what does “best” mean anyway? How do we know when we’ve achieved it? Oprah is doing a lot more harm than good. In my book, the funny man’s notion of how a celebrity should behave is skewed by his knowledge of how celebrity stories are “supposed” to happen. Once he’s fully unmoored from reality, he has nowhere else to turn for guidance, other than his media diet.

Okay, now that you’ve sussed out one of my Easter eggs, you have to confess one in turn. The Mimic’s Own Voice appears to be filled with allusions and references that you’ve veiled in creating the particular reality that Douglas Myles lives in. Tell me something that you’ve hidden in your pages that we might not immediately recognize, but you feel pleased made its way into the book.

Tom Williams: One thing to note, John, as a distinction, is that the novel-length (and form and shape) of The Funny Man allows it to better easily hide some of the more private allusions that so pleased you. (And pretty damn brave of you, by the way, to not only alternate between first and third person but to muscle up some reverse chronology legerdemain.) My novella, its scant 97 pages, feels much more like a trifle, by comparison; when I read it now, it feels like nothing but private allusion and references. Because of that, I’ll give up two Easter eggs, one because I’ve already more or less mentioned it, and the other because it’s so far avoided much notice.

It should be pretty obvious to anyone who was awake over the past thirty years that most, if not all, of the comedians in The Mimic’s Own Voice are inspired by or composites of standup acts from the near and distant past. One wise reviewer caught on and said there’s some joy in playing, Spot the Comedian; so far, though, people have only been able to partly identify the comics from the eighties and later (the eighties, in my little universe, correspond to the successful period of the central character—who was not inspired by any comic). They think they see the aforementioned Dice Clay, Bill Hicks, Roseanne Barr, Eddie Murphy. And for the most part, they’re right, though it’s not as obvious, to me, as some think.

Moreover, another real joy was, even just in passing, setting up the old timers—the “one liner royalty” and “vernacular storytellers” of the book: the former were inspired by Henny Youngman, Jack Carter, Shecky Greene—the Borscht Belt types—while the latter were inspired by people like Andy Griffith, whom I almost mentioned earlier as the comic I think people would be surprised to learn I admire. His early stuff, like “What it Was Was Football,” is gold, like Seinfeld’s Kenny Banya would say. I urge everybody to take a listen. I even took on Edgar Bergen, who’d really been coasting on his reputation for a long time. Someone needed to call attention to his pretty dreary ventriloquism, and I was relentless. Willie Tyler and Lester’s a different story, though.

The other matter is that from the beginning, I always knew that as much as the book was “about” comedians, it was also about voice, particularly in the sense that writers talk about it: finding your voice, being the voice of a generation. And while on one hand that desire informed all my various “texts” and experts to weigh in on the various matters, what also intrigued me was how in particular artists of color are expected to speak for or be the voice of a people. Douglas Myles, whose race was never prominent during his career, becomes very much a man who urges people “in [his] own voice” to “give to those who need,” which is pretty solid social uplift. But when he’s not making people laugh or startling them with his performances, he’s no longer listened to. When artists of color are saddled with this burden of being spokesmen or –women for the race, it makes for some difficult travel. At times, you have to be more true to your art than the conditions of a people. Take Chris Rock, whom you mentioned, who has that wonderful bit, among many, about the most violent places in the US being the intersections of Martin Luther King Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard. Not exactly PC or uplifting, but hilarious. And that’s one of my little routines in the book: Douglas has a genuine impulse to urge others to aid those in need, but nobody listens, and later on this impulse is just grist for the scholarly mill.

Whoa, that got heavy quick. We need a laugh here.

So, what do you make of the fact, John, that you and I both have written movingly about the pitfalls of fame, yet both of us demonstrate a gnawing hunger for our own celebrity?

John Warner: I think it’s a function of any writer’s desire for attention and approval, which is maybe a less virulent strain of the same disease as what seems to afflict comedians. The biggest difference for writers is that with the exception of the occasional public reading, we are not engaged in performance.

Writer fame also isn’t fame fame, which is what’s so appealing about it. You get to remain publicly anonymous while still reaping certain benefits like attention for your work. Don’t get me wrong, I write primarily for myself since I wrote for quite a long time before anyone paid any attention at all, and even now the audience for The Funny Man just barely extends beyond friends and family.

But you always hope, right? I like to think that I write for the love of writing, but I think it’s more accurate to say that I’m always writing in pursuit of something. Sometimes that something is clarity or understanding, or to rid myself of an idea that’s rattling around in my head, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m also pursuing readers, that to be understood (and therefore appreciated) matters to me.

I couldn’t be a Salinger and disappear into my garret and write just for myself. Does a joke exist if there’s no one on the other end to laugh at it?

Tom Williams: That’s a question I asked myself often in the composition of this book, which is a process that does not get what comedians receive when they try out new material: audience feedback for whether it’s working. I envy that immediate response. I recall cracking myself up a number of times when I was writing the first draft, then wondering for the next eight years or so, whether it was just going to be me laughing.

I laughed a hell of a lot with The Funny Man. But it’s a moving book, too, especially with the funny man’s attempts to deal with his sudden fame and his fall from grace. As the father of a son, I really appreciated the scenes with the funny man and his son. There is nothing more pleasing than getting your boy to laugh, trust me.

But what did you think when you saw or heard about this odd little book of mine? I saw the cover copy for yours when it was still in the advance publicity stage and thought, Who is this dude who wrote the same book I did? Not that they are that much the same, just, as should be obvious from the discussion preceding, ones that share a lot of obsessions and themes and love for stand up (which we both have confessed to never having trying ourselves).

John Warner: My first thought when I saw your book was sort of panicky, panic-ish, related to panicking. I was deeply worried about there being another book in the world at the same time as mine that was apparently similar to mine. I’ve never been under any kind of illusion that my work and my ideas are sui generis, but at the same time, you want to think that somebody isn’t panning gold from the same stream as you at the same time. I thought of what happened to Ed Park, who wrote an amazing workplace drama with dark comic undertones (Personal Days) that was released close to Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End and all of the sudden this profound work that I’m certain took years for Park to write and polish (as all novels do, really), became “that other book about work.”

Reading The Mimic’s Own Voice replaced those feelings with gratitude, though. In the same way a good laugh from an audience confirms a kind of agreement with the comedian’s humor, reading another novel that wrestles with the same concerns showed me that what I found interesting is not only interesting to someone else, but there’s a kind of infinite number of angles of attack. The best compliment I can muster is that reader your book made me forget about my book.



* * *