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Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

Talking to Rob Delaney About His New Memoir, Writing About Mental Illness, and the Importance of Privacy

Standup and self-branded cool dad Rob Delaney, celebrated for his shameless Twitter musings on Mitt Romney, the perils of marijuana, and the filthy things he’d do to his neighbor Karen if afforded the chance, has written the equivalent of several million tweets in the form of a memoir called — brace yourself — Mother. Wife. Sister. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.

Released today, the book is a departure from Delaney’s silly Twitter persona in the same vein as pieces he’s written for Vice and The Guardian, delving into his personal history and confronting the many-headed beasts of depression and addiction. He calls it an effort to “amalgamate stuff from [his] life and hammer it into a book shape,” and promises a wealth of stories never before told in his standup. I talked to Delaney recently about the memoir-writing process, his new standup hour, and why he’s glad he ever decided to write about mental illness.

That’s quite a title. How did you come up with it?

It actually came from a tweet. You know how sometimes celebrities will have a bio on some social media that’ll be like, whimsical and silly, and it’ll mention traits or hobbies that have nothing to do with what the thing is they’re famous for? So I just was sort of making fun of that. People will say like, “Dad. Armchair astronomer. Weekend warrior.”

Did you find it hard to write the book?

Oh, yeah. Yeah, the first draft was brutal. I really felt lonely and sad. You know, being a standup, you get used to people laughing or not laughing right away when you tell a joke — and when you’re writing a book, that doesn’t happen. I was like, 'This is the worst. I hate this, I’ll never do this again.' But as soon as I turned it in to the publisher and then they had notes and questions and stuff, I was much happier on the subsequent draft, which I really actually enjoyed quite a bit.

Is there a chapter dedicated to your neighbor Karen?

[Laughs] No, Karen does not appear in the book. A lot of the stuff I tweet about is just for kicks, but the book is serious.

Was it weird to write longform instead of standup or Twitter jokes? This must be the most you’ve ever written in one sitting.

By the time I wrote the book, I’d written so many magazine articles. And then what’s funny is I’ve been sober for 11 years, and I haven’t kept a journal during that time, but before I got sober I was a crazy journal keeper. Not when I was drunk, but during the day I would just write all the time. And then once I got sober, I guess I was less self-obsessed, so I just wasn’t. Why would I want to write about me all day? I’d rather go for a run or, you know, read.

Did you use those journals to write your book?

I did look through them, yeah. Definitely looked through them for stuff. And I think it’s good to keep journals of stuff like that. I’m glad I did that. It helped me. But it’s just not as interesting to me to spend time that way now that I don’t drink anymore. And why, exactly, is that? I’m not 100% sure, but I think it might have to do with the fact that I’m slightly less selfish and self-obsessed now that I don’t drink.

You’ve said you used Henry Miller’s Rosy Crucifixion trilogy as a model. How did that work?

Well, it’s just to say that in those books, Henry Miller feels free to diverge or go off on a tangent when he wants to in a lot more free of a manner than a lot of memoirs do. If he wants to talk about the books of Knut Hamsun for 20 pages, then he will. And I think that’s great. I love to read stuff like that, where you learn as much or more about the person by the way they talk about something other than themselves, you know?

You mentioned on your You Made It Weird episode that you make it a point not to betray the identities or personal details of your family and friends. Was that difficult to do in a book, given the heightened need for detail?

It was surprisingly easy. I sometimes talk around people rather than talk about them necessarily. You know, I talk about some things in the book like my parents’ divorce, and I don’t indict them for their behavior, but I talk about things that they did that were painful or difficult. And that doesn’t mean for a second that I don’t love them, that I’m not grateful to be their son, you know? But they’re human beings. And again, I never did it to be like, “Well, the world needs to know where they screwed up on this,” but only if it served the story or how I was talking about myself in a certain area. So yeah, my parents are dynamic, flawed people who I can attribute all of my best characteristics to.

Anne Lamott is a wonderful writer, and she talks about how if people didn’t want you to write about certain things that they did, then they shouldn’t have done them. And I didn’t agree with her. She’s a great writer, but just because someone did a shitty thing once or twice — I mean, how many horrible things have we all done? Privacy has real value. While I may not care about my own because certain parts of my brain are damaged, that doesn’t mean that other people don’t deserve care and love and long life and oxygen and darkness, when appropriate.

Have you gotten a lot of early response from readers who identify with the things you’ve struggled with?

Oh yeah, definitely — particularly the depression stuff. I’m so glad that I ever decided to write about that stuff. The first thing I ever wrote about depression was after an acquaintance committed suicide, and I said, you know, I’ve wrestled with that urge rather seriously, and I’m under a doctor’s care and on medication, so I said I’m going to write about this. And I wrote a thing and then I gave it to my friend Dave Holmes, a great friend and comedian, and I said, “Can I make this public? Can I put this out into the world?” And he said, “Yeah, you have to.” So I did.

And I’ve written about it more, but the thing about depression and the stigmas of mental illness, it’s just such a powerful urge to want to hide. And one of the major symptoms is you thinking, this is unique. This thing I’m going through is an aberration, and it is rare, and it is wrong, and I deserve it. And that’s not true; a lot of people have it. It might be a small percentage of people, but it’s still a fucking massive number of people. So if I can do anything, if I can turn on a light switch for one person, then it is my job to do that. I am duty-bound to do that, and it’s a pleasure to do it. So anytime somebody writes me and says that they understood their brother or that they understand why their father committed suicide or something, then my work is done for the day. I mean, what fuckin’ fart joke am I going to write that’s going to even nip at the heels of that?

It’s amazing that you can have that strong an impact on people.

Well, we’ve all been through difficult things. If you survive to adulthood, then you have been through your own gauntlet. You’ve suffered. Nobody has a monopoly on that. The important thing is that we be honest about it. It’s not bad that you’re an alcoholic, it’s not bad if you suffer from depression. It’s not bad at all. But it would be bad if you didn’t tell the truth about it. That’s the real danger. The dualistic thought that our culture prescribes and promotes — that certain things are good and certain things are bad, and they can only be one or the other — kills people. That type of thought process kills people, and people need to know that the things that they’re going through, you know, they’re not alone. Comedy has the effect of bringing people together, and the best comedy comes out of truth, you know? And a wonderful example of truth is the alchemical changing of pain into laughter. So they’re all kind of related.

Do you consider yourself a writer or a performer first? I was watching that clip of you reading the Harper’s baseball scouting report, and you didn’t write that, but your dramatic delivery is just pure performance.

You know, I don’t know. I enjoy doing both very, very much. I could survive if I didn’t write another book. I’d love to write another book, and I plan to, but I wouldn’t die. If I couldn’t do standup, I might die. Like if you showed me my future, and it didn’t have standup in it right now, I would probably throw up and be terrified. But that said, I love, love, love to write, and it makes me very happy, and I’m going to keep on doing it. [Laughs]

I don’t think anyone will actually make you choose.

I hope not. That would be weird, right? I’ve heard stories about how in Communist Russia in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they’d make kids take an aptitude test, and they’d be like, “You’re a ballerina. You…make chairs.” So if that happened to me, I’d be sad.

Have you struggled to get people to see you as more of a standup instead of the funniest man on Twitter?

Not really. I was doing standup before Twitter showed up. Twitter certainly gets people to my shows, but people aren’t stupid, and people work hard to earn the money that they have. Before they come seem me, they watch videos online or whatever to determine if they want to go through with it. So I think people know that they’re not going to see some robot who just writes short little jokes, you know?

Are you working on a new hour?

Yeah! It already exists, and we’ll see when I have the time to record it. With the book and everything, it’ll be a little while. I think it’s angrier, louder, better, funnier, more physical [than the last special]. It’s just more everything, and a little truer. It’s more fun to do.

Do you have a favorite bit from it?

Are you Indian, by any chance?

I sure am.

[Laughs] Okay. Yeah, one of the first things I say, less than 90 seconds into it, I talk about Indian women and how much I like them. And I actually say that they’re my favorite type of women, because my first babysitter that I ever had when I was a kid was an Indian woman, and she just imprinted on me. She was the first woman other than my mother who was kind to me, and so now it just doesn’t matter — like, any Indian woman that I see, she could be a horrible, misshapen, shovel-headed troll, and I would be like, “I love you!” [Laughs] I don’t know, just because I’m talking to you, that came to mind. And it’s funny because I’ve been doing a lot of shows in England lately, and of course there’s a lot of Indians there, and so I can just point to specific women in the audience and go like, “Hello there, how do you do?” when I tell that joke. And that makes everybody alternately happy/uncomfortable, which is my sweet spot.

 

Photo credit: Robyn Von Swank

Meera Jagannathan is a freelance writer and crime reporter living in Syracuse, NY.