What were some of your earliest writing projects and what spurred you to write?
Well, I originally moved to Chicago (in 1991) with the intention of being a playwright. I had a few plays produced, with titles like “Nothing Cute Gets Eaten” and “Romeo & Juliet Died For Our Sins” and “I Love You So Much That I Want To Tie You Up With Chains and Beat You With Warm Squash.” I basically wanted to be a more subversive Christopher Durang, which is kinda redundant, I know. It’s like saying you want to be the violent Quentin Tarantino. I did most of my plays at a little storefront theater on the north side called the Playwright’s Center, which was located on what is probably the worst street in Chicago. After dark, it’s pretty much overrun by junkies and prostitutes. Worst of all, the producers usually gave me a late night slot, so all of my plays started at either 11pm or midnight. It’s difficult enough getting an audience to come to a play written by some guy they never heard of, but when they showed up at the theater and saw some wino passed out in a pool of his own urine next to the front door, most of them would just turn around and keep walking. The theater was run by this really creepy old guy who wanted to be my best friend. He’d say these wildly inappropriate things apropos of nothing. After one of the shows, he asked if I wanted to hang out and get a few beers. When I told him I’d probably be going home (it was 3am when the show finally wrapped), he just scoffed and said, “When I was your age, I could fuck with the best of them. And when I wasn’t fucking, I’d be beating my beat.” I’m sorry, what? Why did you just tell me that? I eventually gave up on playwrighting, if only because I was getting fed up with writing shows that nobody ever saw and getting paid in cab fare. I started writing comedy pieces for (now defunct) local indie mags like Third Word and Subnation, and while I still wasn’t making a living at it, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. It felt like I was heading somewhere with my career. It never crossed my mind that I might want to be a magazine writer someday. I didn’t study journalism in college, and I had no ambition whatsoever to make that my life’s work. But that’s where the opportunities were, so I just gravitated towards it. I ended up writing for bigger magazines like Spy and Playboy, which somehow led to writing books. I had no game plan at all; I just stumbled ass-backwards into everything. It’s funny, when writers ask me how to break into the business, I have absolutely nothing credible to tell them. “Well, first you have to write a lot of plays that fail miserably. When that doesn’t work out, start writing for obscure underground ‘zines because you have nothing better to do. And then one day you’ll wake up and, blammo, you’re a professional writer.” That’s my secret. Never say no to anybody. If somebody asks you to contribute to their poetry journal, do it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t write poetry and you don’t have a fucking clue how to write poetry and you have no interest in writing poetry, just do it. I’ve never known a single writer who ended up with a career that’s exactly what they intended. They started out as a fledgling novelist and ended up writing sketches for Saturday Night Live. Or they had plots to become the next Truman Capote but somehow got a regular gig as a film critic. That seems to be the only foolproof formula for becoming a writer. You just follow the opportunities and sniff out the writing jobs and eventually you’ll figure out what kind of writer you’ve become.
How is your time split between editing, writing, and everything else you do?
I usually do my best writing at night. It’s kind of vampirish, I know, but it’s always worked for me. I like the idea that everybody else is asleep and there’s no chance I might be disturbed by phone calls or emails or any of the distractions of everyday life. I’ve never felt the urge to, say, do the dishes at 2am, or lounge next to the TV and flip through channels. Even if I did, there’s always a chance that I’ll wake up my wife, so there’s not much I can do but sit quietly at my desk and stare at the computer. It’s a psychological trick, but I fall for it every time. The day is best used for the technical end of it; editing and making phone calls, pitching story ideas and reading pitches. The only problem is, when you’re writing all day and editing all night, it doesn’t allow much freedom to rest. And that’s the big downfall that comes with being a freelancer. You don’t have the structure of a 9-to-5 job. It’s not like you can clock out at the end of the day and put your work behind you. I mean, you could, but how many writers have that kind of discipline? Because we know that every paycheck depends on how much we write. So you just write and write and write indefinitely until you either get fed up with it or break down from nervous exhaustion. I’ve found that it’s helpful if you live with somebody who will give you the occasional reality check. When you get into a writing groove, it’s easy to completely forget about some of the basic necessities, like hygiene and sustenance. I can’t tell you how many times my wife has peeked into my study and said, “So listen, maybe you should consider eating something. And would it kill you to take a shower? The neighbors are starting to complain about the odor. Seriously, you’ve got a stench that they can smell down the block.” If she didn’t stop me, it’d probably get to the point where I’d have to be carted away in a stretcher. Actually, now that I mention it, that wouldn’t be the worst way to go. You know how John Gielgud once said that he’d like to die onstage in the middle of a great performance? Maybe an author should die the same way, while he’s in the middle of writing his last book. Then again, if an actor croaks onstage, the audience will notice it pretty much immediately. But if a writer drops dead in his office, it could take weeks before anybody knows he’s gone. By the time they find his body, he could be so badly decomposed that it’ll take dental records just to identify him. Oh Jesus, I think I just gave myself a panic attack. Forget I said anything.
Tell us about the issue of Monkeybicycle you just guest-edited.
They originally asked me to do a straight comedy issue, but I came up with the idea of modeling it after the National Lampoon Magazine. I asked our contributors to write something that might elicit a response similar to that old Lampoon tagline: “That’s not funny, it’s sick.” So, short answer, it’s a collection of dirty humor. But I was primarily looking for stories that weren’t just funny on a surfacy level. Anybody can write a shit joke, but it’s much more challenging to write a shit joke with a context. It’s the difference between a story that begins, “Ha ha, that dude just crapped his pants,” and one that begins, “Ha ha, that dude just crapped his pants. And that dude is my fiancé. Oh my god, what have I done with my life? I’m going to die alone!” I wanted stories that weren’t just filthy for filthy’s sake, but proved that dirty humor is capable of showing us something painfully honest (and painfully funny) about the frailties of being human. But what really inspired this issue was Sarah Silverman. I remember when her Jesus Is Magic film came out, and it seemed like every critic had more or less the same reaction: “She’s only funny because she’s attractive.” She only got away with saying such offensive things, they said, because she’s easy on the eyes. But if she wasn’t quite so darn pretty, her comedy wouldn’t be funny at all, just repulsive. That really annoyed me for some reason. It suggested that dark comedy isn’t possible without the buffer of a charming, lovable pitchman delivering the punchline. Well, I can think of dozens of examples that contradict that notion. Look at National Lampoon writers like Doug Kenney and Michael O’Donoghue and Henry Beard. They wrote stories that were just so odious and unpleasant, and it’s some of the most amazing comedy writing you’ll ever read. Kenney wrote this story for the Lampoon called “First Blowjob”, and it’s just ridiculously offensive. It’s filled with rape and racism and random acts of violence. But somehow, it comes across as almost charming. You cringe as you’re reading it, but you also can’t help but laugh till it hurts. Never has a single piece of comedy managed to balance such conflicting emotions at exactly the same time. And it has nothing to do with the likeability of Kenney as a person. It’s just words on a page, and it either works or fails on its own merits. I’m not saying that everybody who wrote for this Monkeybicycle issue was able to successfully channel Kenney’s brilliance, but it’s got a few stories that I’m incredibly proud of. Elizabeth Ellen wrote a piece about masturbation that’s just remarkable. It's shocking and so, so dirty, but it's also unflinchingly honest. I'm in awe that she was able to write something that managed to be so filthy and yet so achingly vulnerable.
Besides Kurosawa, what other filmmaker should have a pornographic homage?
When I first started writing porn, my impulse was to try and emulate those mainstream films that share a common aesthetic. John Waters makes films that are pretty damn close to porn anyway, so making the porn homage of, say, Pink Flamingos or Multiple Maniacs seems almost logical. Of course, that’s assuming that the typical porn viewer wants to see an overweight transvestite eat dog poop. But in terms of poor production values and bad acting, Waters is a pretty good example for how you can use your disadvantages and still end up with a damn entertaining movie. I’ve been dying to see a porn director tackle somebody like Fellini. Can you imagine what the adult film version of Amarcord might look like? Oh sweet Moses, that would be something special! If you ask me, you can’t go wrong with a porn about midget nuns and blind accordionists. It’s the same reason I think Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits would make a great porn. I just want to see more midgets having sex. Oh, and what about Hitchcock’s Spellbound? That would make a fantastic porn! Not necessarily for the plot, but for the dream sequence. You’re watching a porn and it’s getting kinda hot, and then all of a sudden it breaks away to this surreal dream sequence with huge eyeballs and floating scissors. That would just ruin the moment. “What the fuckity fuck is going on? I’m supposed to get turned on by a giant eyeball getting sliced open with scissors?” I’ve always thought that Richard Linklater's Waking Lifewould've been a hilarious concept for a porn flick. It wouldn't be erotic at all, of course, because everything would be animated. But that's the point. It's basically asking the audience to masturbate to a cartoon. Yeah, good luck with that, chief. I suppose this explains why I never had much of a future in porn. I never cared about giving the audience what it wants. To me, it was more fun to play around with their expectations. I found out rather quickly that there isn't a market for adult art house films.
Have you ever had comedian envy?
Not comedian envy, per sae, but I’ve definitely had writer envy. During my early 20s, I was obsessed with Kurt Vonnegut and would have given anything to write something as good as Breakfast of Champions. It still happens from time to time. I’ll read A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius or High Fidelity, and it’ll just kill me that I didn’t write it. You start plotting ways to have them killed and destroy every last copy of their books, allowing you to steal their ideas and make them your own. Aw shit, did I just say that out loud? Huh. That probably sounds a little creepy, doesn’t it? But I think it’s something every writer goes through, to some extent. Maybe not the murder fantasies, but the evolution from imitation to influence. When I was younger, I went through a Woody Allen period, in which everything I wrote had that neurotic, Jewish, New York intellectual tone to it. And then I had my Hal Hartley period, and my Hunter S. Thompson period, and my Kurt Vonnegut period. I was always ripping off the writers I respected, trying to write just like them rather than looking for my own voice. But eventually, you get to a point where your idols stop taking center stage. It becomes less about mimicry and more about the subtle ways in which they affect your writing. You can be influenced by Kurt Vonnegut without necessarily peppering your stories with crude drawings of your own asshole. And there’s something very liberating about reaching that place, where you realize that your writing sounds like you and isn’t just a poor parody of somebody else. But that said, I don’t think I’ll ever lose the jealous rage that comes with reading a novel so brilliant that you know, in your heart, you should’ve been the one to come up with it. Oh god, you can’t even imagine the horrible, horrible things I’ve done to poor Vonnegut in my daydreams. Nobody should have to suffer like that.
Obviously, your experience writing porn wasn't really a satisfying one. But what are your feelings about the porn industry in general?
In general, I’m a big fan of porn. I’m a guy, so obviously I’m gonna say that. But I actually think porn provides a useful public service. If it wasn’t for porn, men would have to use their imaginations when it came to sexual fantasies, and no good can come from that. In all honesty, I think that porn is mostly harmless, and in small doses, it can be fantastic. In some ways, it’s the sexual equivalent of fast food. Sometimes you just don’t have the energy to cook for yourself, and you can’t even bring yourself to put on pants and go to a restaurant. So fine, have a Big Mac. It’s not going to kill you. But if you eat Big Macs every day for the rest of your life, well, you’ve just bought a one-way ticket to colon cancer. The same applies to porn. It’s probably better to have sex with an actual human being. It could be argued that too much porn can warp your ideas of what constitutes a healthy sexuality. You forget that sex, at its best, is about two people pleasing each other and not just focusing on your own orgasm. But sure, there’ll be nights when you’re just not feeling it, and all you want to do is sit in a dark room with a bottle of baby lotion while you watch actors play out a fantasy for you. It’s slumming, and it involves about as much personal creativity as shaving, but sure, every once in a while, that’s all you really want or need. Porn is okay in much the same way that watching American Idol is okay. You just need to remember to occasionally crack open a book, if only so your brain won’t atrophy.
If you were a porn star, what would your name be?
Oh god, I’ve spent far too much time thinking about things like that. Well, the standard way to determine your porn star name is by combining the street you grew up on with the name of your first pet. That would make me Freckles Madison, and let’s face it, nobody is gonna hire a porn star who calls himself Freckles. It seems like most male porn actors are required to reference their genitals in some way. There’s Eric Everhard and Charlie Bighorn and Peter North and Chris Schlong and Cockzilla. Either that, or they do some variation on Buck or Steele or Savage. Something with a lot of hard consonants that sounds really tough and mysterious, like a character from a secret agent novel. The best porn star name I’ve ever heard is Lynden Johnson. Seriously. There’s an actress who actually named herself after a former U.S. president. That’s so incredibly stupid that I can’t help but respect her. I mean, is there anybody who thinks of Lyndon Johnson and goes, “Yeah, daddy, the Great Society makes me all hot and bothered?” For a few of the films I wrote, I considered calling myself “Mario Puzzo,” like the Godfather novelist but with an extra z. It’s not sexy at all, and it sounds like I’m taking myself waaaaay too seriously. I don’t know, there’s still a part of me that likes the idea of a more classic porn star moniker, something like Firm Peaches. If that’s your professional name, does it mean you have to use it on your tax returns? I think being audited would be a lot more fun if an IRS agent had to call you Firm Peaches. “Uh, Ms. Peaches, it says here that you spent $2000 last year on anal lube. Do you have receipts for that?” Oh man, that would make me so happy.
Eric Spitznagel is the author of four humor books including The Junk Food Companion: A Celebration of Eating Badly (Plume, 1999). His writing appears frequently in Playboy, Esquire, Harper's, and The Believer.