Texts from Mallory Ortberg
Whenever I have an idea for something funny to write on the Internet, I have to make sure that it isn’t just something I’ve subconsciously ripped off from writer/webmistress Mallory Ortberg. If there is a joke to be made about anything, chances are Mallory’s already made it, in a both subtle and absurd way that will seep into your brain and stick with you for months.
On November 4th, Henry Holt is publishing Texts from Jane Eyre — -a collection based on the series in which Mallory sums up the entire canon of Western literature in a few textual exchanges with great accuracy and even greater lols. Believe it or not, Texts From was spawned on THIS VERY HERE SITE. Buy a copy, then read this interview. Or read this interview and buy a copy. Buy a copy, read this interview, then buy another copy for best results. Anything else you were planning to do today can wait. It was probably dumb anyway.
Hi hi hi!
Are you READY? For some harrowing questions that will make you look deep within yourself?
Let’s DO THIS. I’m ready to get controversial.
How are you? You are in…California, yeah?
I AM. I am Oakland, to be specific. I am at the Starbucks in Fruitvale because the internet in my apartment is down, to be even more specific.
Woah. What are you drinking?
I have had two lattes. They are both gone.
So. We are currently in mid-September. Your book, and this related promotional interview, won’t be published until early November. What message would you like to deliver to future Mallory?
Uhh…”Have a really good time. Really enjoy having a book.”
I imagine future Mallory will just be rolling in it (“it” being good times), as all published authors do (so I’ve heard).
I think so! the hard part, for me, is over. I wrote the book, that part’s done.
Are you planning to tour? See the people? Sign the books?
I will be in New York the week it comes out, and there is a fun event we are doing at Housing Works. AND then I’ve got a few events in SF/Oakland and I will be at Powell’s in Portland in early December. And that is it.
Are you going to write something different in every book or will you have a “go-to” signature?
Oh man, no. I do not have a lot of fun, zany things to say in various books. I’ve never been much of a “get-my-books-signed” person so I don’t have a lot of experience in that area. I will probably just sign it.
I feel like 97% of writing a book is deciding what to write at signings.
I feel like that’s wrong, Anna.
Well, between the two of us, you’re the only one who’s written an entire book. But i’ve probably gotten more books signed. So we both have unique insights. What WAS the hardest part about writing a book?
Oh dude, I will be super honest: writing a book was FUN and EASY. I’m sure I’d feel differently if I had written a novel or a collection of essays, but this was just a series of jokes. Writing it was the easiest part. It was trickier finding a publishing house that wanted the book as it was without changes than it was to get the book written.
And you found that in Henry Holt, I assume.
Yeah they were like, “Looks good!” There were other houses that were like, “I love the idea, but does it have to be texts, and does it have to be literary characters, and have you thought about writing a YA novel?” Which, like, obviously the concept of LITERARY CHARACTERS TEXTING was not sacrosanct to me. My dumb jokes do not require purity, I was happy to try to rework the concept. It just didn’t work out, for obvious reasons.
And now look who’s laughing (answer: all of us, because it is a genuinely funny book). I do imagine that writing jokes is easy for funny people, but becoming funny is like, a lifelong practice. Like, naturally funny people (that’s you!) probably weren’t cracking knock-knock jokes out of the womb. What was the first book you remember reading that had you laughing?
I am sure that I read lots of funny books before this, but definitely the first one I remember really stopping me in my tracks was the copy of The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse that my dad bought me when I was twelve. Like I’d read stupid joke books and whatnot before, but that was the first book that was so funny it changed the way I talked. There was a quote in the foreword, “I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn.” I read that and thought, “Oh yeah, obviously I am that first kind of person. This is great. I’m so pleased this is a legitimate option for a person to be.”
How old were you when you started watching The Simpsons? (I have a theory that every funny person in our age demographic owes a serious debt to The Simpsons.)
Yeah, I remember when I was about 10 or 11, my parents gave me and my brother both a book that was the complete annotated guide to every episode of The Simpsons that had yet aired — -I think up to about season 8 at that point — -and I just read it like the Bible. Everything. Obsessively. Ever since i can remember, I watched The Simpsons. I sort of clocked out around season 10 or 11, but I have the first eight seasons stored in my computer.
I am noticing a trend, re: your parents giving you books that seriously influenced your comedic style. So let’s go back, Mallory. Let’s go back into the deep recesses of your childhood.
Yes! my parents actually were and are huge influences on my sense of humor.
*hops merrily onto therapy couch*
“Sir, this is an all-night furniture store.”
“Find your soulmate, Homer.”
“You don’t even have a computer!”
I think the scene where Homer runs up the lighthouse shouting “NO MORE LONELINESS FOR HOMER AND EARL” is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in modern art. Or culture or whatever is the word I want. I always have to fight back tears during that scene; something in the delivery of it.
For me it’s the scene when Lisa is at military school during the final test and Bart cheers her on.
Oh, you know, that is one of my least favorite episodes! “Least favorite” in the MILDEST SENSE IMAGINABLE.
THIS INTERVIEW IS NOW A FIGHT CLUB.
For whatever reason it doesn’t really do it for me. I think the first act is great, but the military academy stuff and Lisa having to fight just leaves me cold. I also am not crazy about “Fear of Flying” from, I think, the sixth season, but even that has the amazing scene in the lesbian bar.
The one without the fire exit?
“ENJOY YOUR DEATH TRAP, LADIES”
Okay we are getting too far afield. PARENTS. INFLUENCE. SENSE OF HUMOR. This has definitely come up with your posts at the Toast! I remember seeing something you wrote on Airplane! and thinking, before I even read it, “I have to email this to my dad.” And then the first line in the piece was, “Not to resort to gender essentialism, but chances are your dad showed you this movie.”
YES. To my dad I owe Monty Python, Wodehouse, Airplane, The Naked Gun, Leslie Nielson in general, the early Peanuts strips (he had books of the first few years). My dad once took my brother and me to see Jane Austen’s Mafia when we were at the worst age. We thought it was the funniest movie ever made, and demanded he let us rent it CONSTANTLY.
My mom is really funny too and so many of the books I loved best I got from her as a kid. She and I would watch Eddie Izzard together. She has a bumper sticker of his on her car. She’s never had a bumper sticker in her whole life, but “I poke badgers with spoons” tickles her to this day.
I feel like — -not to theorize comedy and suck all the fun out of it — -but there is this definite style of internet humor emerging that combines the ridiculous cheesy punniness of the “Dad Joke” caliber with a dead deadpan delivery and those highbrow/lowbrow Simpsons-style references.
I don’t know! I feel like — -and this is a huge generalization — -there is a wonderful strain of both Mom and Dad Humor. Dad Humor gets more public acknowledgement because of Sexism, probably, but they’re both types of comedy that are on the whole warm and “let’s laugh together at the absurdity of life” as opposed to really caustic or dark. I don’t know. I haven’t thought about this a lot.
Even my mom’s jokes I tend to classify as “Dad Jokes” because I am an agent of the patriarchy.
My parents are really funny together. I think that voice is something I use a lot in my dialogue. There’s this scene from While You Were Sleeping when the guy’s family is like, pleasantly arguing, and at one point the mom (I think) shouts “I DIDN’T SAY CAESAR ROMERO WAS TALL, I SAID HE WAS SPANISH.” It’s that kind of gently chaotic, frenzied arguing that I like. Where everyone’s fighting, but it’s all very good-natured
You are obviously somebody who consumes a lot of comedy (I say “obviously” because you just told me as much), but I notice most of the books you reference in Texts from Jane Eyre are serious, dramatic works. Do you find those are easier to lampoon than works that are already funny?
Yeah. I mean, I think that’s generally true. First of all, the greater “Western canon” has more serious books than comic ones. Even the lighter novels — -Pride and Prejudice, say — -are COMEDIES in the sense that they end well and people make witty observations, but they’re not wall-to-wall Laffs.
Right, (and I know a lot of commenters are going to disagree with me on this — -hi commenters!) because when I read Pride and Prejudice, there were parts in which I could recognize the humor, but it never made me laugh out loud, but every time I think about:
if there is a man you are thinking of
under the age of 35
who is in the militia or an officer of any kind
he is probably at the war
is that where your friend Mary went too
the one who went missing”
I feel like that’s what hopefully lifts this out of the category of just, “Hurr de hurr imagine people in the past with cell phones!!! That’d be crazy!!!” Because, you know, that’s pretty gimmicky and would get dated fast. It’s got more to do with the way the characters treat one another. The texting is just a vehicle to point out how much everyone shits on Mary Bennet, or how much Rochester is physically incapable of listening.
And so much of the humor comes from the very Mallory-specific delivery, the line breaks and pacing, but so much of it comes from “Haha, they really do not care about Mary.”
Like, “Did you give Mallory my number? Because that is not ok.” (The rest of this interview will just be me quoting your own bits back to you.)
Haha, YES. I mean that is exactly how Mallory is in those books. She is literally a red-headed stepchild.
I’m assuming that (most of) the works in this book that you make fun of come from a place of love, because you know these characters so well.
Definitely yes. I love all of these books. I could never give this treatment to book I hated, or even just felt tepid about. I couldn’t do this for Wide Sargasso Sea, you know?
So is it that LOVED these books specifically, or that you were just immersed in them while you read them? That’s a funny question, let me rephrase…did you love Fight Club?
Oh god. Maybe I should walk that back, now that I think about it. Mm. There was something in Fight Club that I loved. I have a lot of love for the part of myself that loved Fight Club. Let’s put it that way
That’s a book that has a lot of jokes in it, but that takes itself very seriously. (Aside: Haley and I were trying to do a bit with my little bios at the end of every Hairpin post where it would be a running joke that I was Haley’s own personal Tyler Durden, and it would escalate with each post.)
Oh my godddd
“Anna Fitzpatrick is a writer and definitely not a figment of Haley’s imagination”
“Anna Fitzpatrick is a writer, editor, bookseller, friend, sister, dreamer and lover. She is not her fucking khakis. “
I feel like there is endless amounts of humor potential in “You are not your fucking khakis.”
Yeah, and I mean, that is also something that I think has not aged well out of the 1990’s. That sort of Fight Club/Bill Hicks brand of white dudes who hate the concept of employment, and also nice pants. Not that there aren’t, you know, legit critiques to be made against LONELINESS or MODERN LIFE or whatever.
Speaking out against the establishment. The Ikea establishment.
A few good recessions really seared that right of our generational memory. “Why is this guy so mad about having a job at a nice restaurant? I bet they have decent benefits.” Plus it’s usually the type of person who has already decided that society is worthless that he’s not going to honor his social obligations to YOU. If he thinks that society has “failed him” he is FOR SURE not going to clean his beard trimmings out of the sink, or buy more milk when you’re out.
Now I’m so mad at that guy.
Hahaha. Put something cold on your head. You’ll feel better
Wait — -my dad just texted, and I said, “Dad, I’m trying to do an interview right now” and he says “Roger.”
ROGER, ROGER. What’s our vector, Victor.
I told him it was with the lady who wrote the Airplane! piece he liked and if he had anything he wanted me to ask you. He says “Johnny! That was a great piece! I’m trying to come up with something for you to ask. What drew him to her?”
Why did I write a piece about that guy? Because he was amazing and one of the first instances of a visibly gay/effeminate character in an American movie who wasn’t punished or killed off or humiliated by the end. VISIBLE QUEER ANARCHYYYY.
WHICH BRINGS US TO THE TOAST! Let’s pretend I am new to the Internet (in journalism, we call this “Role Playing.”) What is The Toast?
Oh my god seriously.
SHUT UP MALLORY, IT’S A LEGIT EXERCISE.
It is a website that I run with Nicole Cliffe that is mostly for and by and about women. It is mostly about books and jokes and history and LGBT issues and whatever else we feel like writing about.
Is this a place where the opinions of straight white men are encouraged and championed?
They are not!!! Poor little buddies.
Do you encourage submissions by women, especially by queer, trans & WOC, regardless of whatever professional writing experience they may or may not have?
We sure do. You sound like you HAVE heard of The Toast!!!
(Mallory don’t make me break character!!!!) What is it like working with a Canadian on a daily basis?
Serene and unflustered. She is so nice when I forget things. “Did you notice, by chance, that you had a piece scheduled for 18:00 tonight?” “I meant to schedule that on the 18th, thank you!!!!”
Did you notice that I wrote “humor” instead of “humor” throughout this entire interview?
I did not! [Ed. Note: I bowed to Awl Network peer pressure and corrected it to the proper American spelling.]
Ok, um, last question. I said to Haley earlier, “What should I ask Mallory?” and she said, “How is world domination going?”
Hah. “Mild internet popularity.” It is very fun. I liked writing the book a lot. I love my job. I’m very happy. I like the people I know on the internet. The lattes I had this morning were just fine. I feel good and I’m pleased.
Anna Fitzpatrick wants to remind you that the things you own end up owning you.