DA: I got a lot of inspiration from The Kids in the Hall. They were the healing side of my rejection of the comedy world. The first couple of years I was in Too Much Light, I had never had cable TV, so The Kids in the Hall? I had never seen them. And people would come up to me after Too Much Light and say, “Have you ever heard of a show called The Kids in the Hall? Because you really remind me of this guy in The Kids in the Hall.” I’d be like, “No, I’ve never seen it. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And later on, once I did know, I assumed they were talking about Scott Thompson—that it was a gay thing. Although, in my crazier moments, I like to think they were talking about Dave Foley or Mark McKinney and that it wasn’t just a gay pigeon-holing thing.
But at any rate, I was hearing that a lot and I think that that company was on the same wavelength I was on, or trying to be on. And when The Kids in the Hall moved to CBS, finally, the little people like me who couldn't afford cable could watch it. I would watch it every week. I would tape it, in fact. Greg K and Ayun and I would come home on Friday night after Too Much Light. We’d go up to their apartment because they lived upstairs from me. I’d run down to my place and pop out the VHS tape, bring it upstairs to their place and we’d all sit, drink cheap merlot and watch The Kids in the Hall. Those were some of the best Friday nights of my life. I remember watching it and thinking, “Oh, yeah — sketch comedy can be smart and imaginative and inventive and cool.” It just revived the whole idea of comedy for me. Because before that, I was feeling like the idea of comedy as a genre was kind of stupid. You shouldn’t do something for the sole purpose of making someone laugh. What you should do is try to write something smart, and if it’s good, laughter will happen along the way. Being funny is a product of being good. And after The Kids in the Hall, I was able to say, “Okay, yeah, you can start out to write comedy and write something that’s worth watching and it doesn’t make your brain shrink up and die.” It’s funny, when people were accusing me of trying to imitate The Kids in the Hall—if that’s what they were doing—I wasn’t, but then after that, for a while, I was. [both laugh]
JP: That’s happened to me. When I was in high school and college I was instinctively drawn to physical comedy, pratfalls and stunts. Also I have always been a huge fan of reading philosophy. And I would get frustrated because my brain had trouble grasping many of the concepts. So I began writing to try to help myself understand these philosophical ideas, and my natural inclination was to incorporate my passion for physical comedy. When I began showing this work people began saying, “You’re influenced by Samuel Beckett. I had never heard that name before but then once someone says that, and you investigate, then you’re caught in that thing where now you are influenced by him or her.
DA: Exactly. There was a good stew of influences and some of the best plays I ever wrote were just funny… not sketches. We don’t do sketches. But plays that maybe leaned in that direction.
JP: This is probably off the book for me, but a lot of people I’ve worked with and the people I see that are successful are callous, and some always have been. This is what what I call the Asshole Principle. You get farther and quicker if you don't allow yourself to be affected by people. I think that’s one of the things that slows me down incredibly. I seem to be caught in a gray area where I feel I am not an Asshole but that I am more distant than I would like to be, perhaps resisting using others.
DA: Being thick skinned—there’s nothing like it. And if you’re really thick skinned, and maybe even a little bit insensitive, it doesn’t always endear you to people but it allows you to keep charging forward where other people are daunted.
JP: And it creates a mystery, or an ironic obsession. There is a mystique in being an asshole. And often if ou try to befriend them you end up hurt.
DA: Exactly. We choose different people for artistic and literary idols than we choose for friends. There are a lot of people that I idolize that I know from what’s said about them that I wouldn’t necessarily want to have lunch with them. That they wouldn’t be very easy to go on a long car ride with. But that’s different from what they’re giving you when they’re onstage and I am a very thin skinned person. I have learned that is one of my greatest failings is that I really internalize criticism. I collapse with one blow to the stomach and curl up into a fetal ball and I lose a week of my life detoxing and getting it out of my system. Again, going back to my astrology days, my whole chart is full of Neptune energy. I’m a 12th houser. All these planets in the 12th house and Pisces and a direct opposition between Neptune and my Sun and symbolically what that means is I am like a box of baking soda in a refrigerator full of onions. In a refrigerator full of onions, I soak up all the stinky fish and cheese and internalize all the negative aroma of my surroundings whereas I think, again, people who are more like tanks that keep rolling across the battlefield, regardless of what gets fired at them. Those are the people who often cross the finish line. I have always tried to use my sensitivity and turn insecurity and anxiety into work. And I think that worked much better for me when I was younger, partly because when you’re younger, you’re more resilient and you bounce back a lot easier. But also, when you’re younger—this is not true of everyone in the world, but it’s true of people like me—we witness less tragedy when we’re younger. It takes awhile to really sink in on us that our bones can break. When you’re young, you read about tragedy and it makes you sad, but you sort of feel like you’re in a bubble and it’s not going to reach you. And then you have a bad night that gets you scared and rattled, that something bad could happen to you. You wake up the next morning and you shake it off. You get older and you lost friends and loved ones and you witness a few flaming car wrecks and you know, watch some people’s hopes go down the drain and it’s a little easier to get spooked. You think, “Wow, sooner or later your number’s going to come up and if I’m not careful, that could happen to me.” But yeah, I think you’re absolutely right about what you call the Asshole Factor and I think of it as having a thick hide. That’s very, very valuable to the people who have it going for them.
DAVID BYRNE, REDUCTIO AD ABSURDUM, AND WRITING IN GENERAL
DA: There’s a spoken word piece on The Remain in Light album by Talking Heads. This is an album that was the first Talking Heads record I bought as like a freshman in high school. First or second. But there’s a piece on there that’s David Byrne doing a kind of a little prose poem called “Seen and Not Seen.” And it’s about a guy, who, it starts out, he’d see pictures in magazines and newspapers of people and he would see their facial features and idealize what he wanted his face to look like and imagine the perfect face for himself and then, by an act of will, try to make his face become this perfect face he had imagined for himself. And for some reason that was archetypal for me as a spoken word piece because I liked the idea that it was written in the conditional voice. “He would blank and as a result of blank, he would…” and there was this sort of hypothetical idea that it would just follow to an interesting or surreal or absurd conclusion. And that became almost a stock writing technique for awhile. I think if you look over my monologues, you’ll find a number of things that start out in that conditional voice. “He would do this… She would do that…” Because if I can write one, interesting, compelling sentence in the conditional voice with a little twist to it—a little surreal idea behind it, then I can just start milking that like the udder of a cow to see what else comes out of it as a writer. I can just start saying, “If he or she does this, then this is what would happen next and then here’s this bizarre direction that might all go in.” So maybe it was a writing exercise that I learned from David Byrne that really…
JP: That’s another track. That’s seems a little more in the middle then because it’s not stream of consciousness, but your sort of starting point may be stream of consciousness, but then there’s sort of hypothetical following.
DA: Not so much stream of consciousness as saying, “I’m going to pick a spot in my brain and start scratching it and just see what happens.” You know, in argumentation, there’s an arguing tactic called Reductio ad absurdum, reducing something to the point of absurdity. You take your opponent’s position and say, “If you want to make it legal for gay people to marry each other, then next thing you know, you’ll have people marrying goats or coat racks or blah blah blah.” Reductioabsurdum ad sometimes can be, I think, useful and then other times it’s just a fallacious arguing technique. But as a literary device, it’s really good fun. And I think that maybe a lot of what I do in that sense of what Richard Cooper was talking about: taking an idea for a walk and to see where it goes. It’s taking an idea and making it a little more absurd and a little more absurd and a little more absurd. Or you can substitute the word “surreal” for “absurd” there. But starting with that first sentence and then seeing what else I can load onto it with the second sentence, then how much I can keep loading onto it before the whole thing collapses.
JP: I always love talking about people’s writing styles. When I first started writing plays, what fascinated me was and what I found out what I was good at is I would write out a sentence or an image and then the rest of the play was just justifying that sentence or image.
DA: It was also kind of easy to use that technique when I knew was only going for a two-minute piece. It’s harder to thing of writing a whole short story or a novel that way, but it’s really great for a one or two-minute piece, or even what would for me, very often turn into a four or five-minute piece. And one of the people who inspired me early on to want to do performance poetry was Lori Anderson. I mean, I just absolutely ate, breathed and slept Lori Anderson when I was in high school and college and I think she was a big influence on that voice as well. And she also would tell a little story and just introduce a twist. And so, just like that David Byrne technique, sometimes I would have what I guess was my Laurie Anderson technique, which sometimes would come more out of the words and the rhythm of the words, then a narrative device.
JP: I’ll look at a sentence and I’m not happy with it. I mean, it’s saying what I want, but it doesn’t sound right. Then sometimes I realize that the perfect sentence will actually have the rhythm and then I realize by changing those words, it actually clarifies what I was trying to say. That tuning into the rhythm also helped me with the meaning.