The Ian Belknap Interview

December 2, 2011

Before we get to today’s interview, I thought you might enjoy checking out this fun discussion at the A.V. Club about the worst Christmas songs. Also, soak in the football this weekend because your Cleatus the Football Robot Fan Fiction entries are due Monday at noon.

Today I chat with a colleague of mine from the wonderful world of live Chicago lit and wit. He’s one of the most passionate, ferocious fans and producers of the genre, serving as the producer and host of the wonderful series Write Club, wherein writers thrown down like it’s a boxing match. I read once and lost in the first round and hope to return one day, if not to win, at least not to pout like a jerk. He’s also contributed to fine reading series such as The Paper Machete, the Encyclopedia Show and Funny Ha-Ha. Lately you can find him on the web blogging at the new advice site Irby + Ian. You can find out more about him here. He’s an awesome kind of grouch, sort of like a younger, more handsome Louis Black, the kind of guy you don’t want to cross but whose approval you do want to win.

What are you working on right now?
I have a novel for middle readers that's moldering away nicely, as well as an idea for a play that, I sh*t you not, would win a Pulitzer if I ever wrote the thing. Mostly, I write stuff to read aloud - I whorishly do pretty much any show that'll have me. Chicago has an ass-kicking "live lit" scene and there's a ton of cool shows happening, so I'm pleased to be included. Or maybe I'm just afraid people will read my sh*t wrong unless I read it TO them.

What’s Irby + Ian, and why was it begun?
irby+ian is a thrice-weekly advice column that's a collaboration between myself and National Treasure Samantha Irby (who requires both that I describe her this way, and that I capitalize it - our agreement is quite airtight on this point) for those among us who rankle when confronted by the damp, dewy, limp, Oprah-fied avalanche of tips-n-tricks that clog newsstands and your inbox all the damn time. irby+ian is advice for jerks written by *ssholes. New post by me on Mon, Sam on Wed, and co-post on Fri. If you like your advice unsparing, foul-mouthed, sharp-tongued, and most of all hi-f*cking-larious, irby+ian is your go-to source. You can write in with your burning questions to what all and sundry concur is the best email address yet devised by the mind of man: blackgalafianakis@gmail.com - just please, for f*ck's sake, do NOT expect an earnest or well-intended answer. Misspelled jusssssssssst enough to dodge a lawsuit.

At Write Club, how often do you have to deal with bad sports who were unhappy with the results of the competition? (Aside from myself.)
Never, really. The charity angle short-circuits that a bit, I think. There've definitely been people that have not been stoked about the outcome, but there's never been any John McEnroe-style vitriol. If anything, most are raring to go for another future round. This is what they tell me to my face. What they really feel I could not tell you.

I’m blatantly trying to start something here but how would you say Write Club is superior to somewhat-similarly-formatted Literary Death Match?
Space does not really permit me to fully enumerate the superiorities. But I can outline a few that I think are key:

  • WRITE CLUB (all caps, please - WRITE CLUB is always yelling) is way more interested in cross-pollinating between forms (theater people share the stage with comedy people, and lit nerds throw down against improv and sketch people).
  • LDM is a series of essentially static readings, with "wacky show stuff" between/around them and the competition element feels tacked-on to me, since the stakes are unclear; whereas WRITE CLUB is leaner, more tonally consistent, more mindfully curated show - the competition is not a popularity contest, it's a battle of opposing ideas, of the skill of the opposing writers, and the stakes are a share of the show's proceeds to a charity of the winners' choosing.
  • LDM is primarily concerned with perpetuating/advancing LDM - WRITE CLUB is, too, obviously, but it ALSO has an abiding interest in doing good in the world. WRITE CLUB's donated about $5K to charity in Chicago, more in Atlanta, and its just launched in San Francisco. I have no idea what happens to the $ from LDM - I won it the last time it was here, and I didn't see a dime. I think Todd Zuniga, the impresario of LDM, pockets the money for capering around in his ironic jacket.
  • I don't talk smack about the artists who have volunteered their time and talent to do my show, which can't be said about LDM.
  • Zuniga seems in my view to substantially overestimate how funny he is.
  • Zuniga as host - my opinion - seems kind of above-it-all. I play around with the audience, for sure, and try to grant them license to interact with me between pieces, but I am also intent on showing each person kind enough to consent to do my show to their best advantage. I also have designed a show that attempts to maximize audience good times - never more than 80 min; sometimes there's free candy; always ace talents on the bill. Plus I am actually funny.

There's plenty more, but that'll do for now. If he wants to throw down, I'm his huckleberry.

In general, what makes for a good reading, aside from quality performances?
I've talked with other pals in the scene, notably Robbie Q. Telfer of The Encyclopedia Show, and Christopher Piatt of The Paper Machete (names, dropped!) about the role of what I've come to regard as "curatorial intelligence" applied to booking a show. You obviously want the smartest, talented-est, charismatic-est individual writer/performers you can get, but you ALSO must consider the interplay between them, and the balance of the entire bill. I think there are some shows (which shall remain nameless) that don't pay sufficient heed to the arch and shape of the overall show, to create a cogent and satisfying evening, rather than just a laundry list of performers.

The stuff that I find most surprising and gripping involves novel ideas, and a degree of deftness - leapfrogging between ideas/tones/shades of emotion. I intentionally make no requirements of form - there've been poems, stories, personal essays all in the same show. One of the exciting aspects of the show is the degree to which a smart, engaging person at a mic can surprise an audience - it's what I'm after in watching any show. I want my ass kicked in a good way. I want a punch in the brain.

There seems to be another Ian Belknap around on the internet, one who also has dramatic experience. What do you know about him and have you made contact?
I found that poor bastard shortly after I joined faceborg. He's a theater director - seems a nice enough kid. Prior to coming to my senses and pursuing the dying art of literature, I logged a couple decades in the dying art of theater (between these, I did standup for a couple years, which obviously I had to stop, since people actually like and care about comedy), so I know a ton of people. This year there was a big national theater conference in town, which my wife - ace director Hallie Gordon - attended. She met him and he said he'd been getting "YOU'RE not Ian Belknap" all week long.

I tend not to read at Funny Ha-Ha because I can’t handle the possibility that a performance at my own reading series might not bring down the house. What drives you to read at Write Club?
There is the mortifying possibility of tanking at one's own show, yes. But for WRITE CLUB to work properly, I feel it's important to have skin in the game. I lose WRITE CLUB bouts all the time. My record is atrocious. There's a couple reasons for this (assuming I don't totally suck, which I'll leave to others to assess for themselves):

  • It's my show, so audiences are not as inclined to vote me victor.
  • I always pit myself against the writer who in my estimation is the biggest killer of the bunch. It makes me better. I may not win, but it makes me better over time. And it makes a better show.

In recent memory, which of your own personal reading performances seemed to be most successful with the audience, and why do you think that was?
I brought WRITE CLUB to the Decatur Book Festival in Georgia, and there was a fair bit of excitement generated by my unsavory piece, which I think was inspired mostly by the fact that Georgia is a more polite place than Chicago, with sensibilities more prone to tweaking.

Last year, on my birthday, I was seized by the urge to write a manifesto, which I did. I posted it on my blog, then got invited to perform it at a benefit for The Neo-Futurists, where I used to work (administrative, not as an artist). I was really proud of that one, and it seemed to really land with the audience. Here's that one. I wrote a new manifesto this year, and held an invite-only reading at the Hopleaf, which was pretty awesome, too.

But the one of recent vintage that seemed to generate the hottest response was a piece I did at Paper Machete - - that really seemed to rally the crowd/tap into some barely submerged "yeah, f*ck that guy [meaning Franco, not, me]" energy that they may not have even known was there. This was borne out because it's probably the piece that's gotten shared/passed around by friends/others. I'm maybe at my best when I'm super pissed about something. And if James f*cking Franco doesn't piss you off, then you're not paying attention.

What have been some of the more questionable charities Write Club winners have donated to?
None. People take the charity obligation/angle of the show seriously. The only ethical question that's come up is sometimes combatants want to name a non-profit they work with. I say this is fine/admirable. I've worked in non-profits for like 10 years, I know how f*cking tough it is. Each of them needs all the damn help it can get.

What are your responsibilities at The Paper Machete and the Encyclopedia Show?
I have had to recuse myself from Encyclopedia - I just don't have the kind of time the show deserves. But for about a year, I was a member of the cast, in the role of Fact Checker, which is a foil/heavy for the hosts. I basically just listened to everybody's piece and said douchey things. I was like a cranky academic figure intent on pointing out fallacies, etc.

For Paper Machete, I'm an occasional contributor with the title Dean of Mean. I'll take a topic or trend or public figure and try my damnedest to tear them a new *sshole.

If money and family ties were no issue, do you think you’d stay here in Chicago or you’d explore your career elsewhere?
Chicago is a little frustrating in that there is this abundance of mind-blowingly talented people, none of whom make a living by making art. I know you can do tangentially related activities that can generate some income - actors doing voiceover, etc. - but there is no money to be had from making the work itself. Or if there is, I suck ass at finding it. It's not exclusive to Chicago, obviously, but it's more pronounced here than on the coasts. Part of the problem with the kind of work I specialize in (live lit? solo performance? raconteur?) is that there's not the same level of clarity about it that there is for other branches of the arts. You tell people you're a singer and they get it. You tell them you do personal essays that you perform live that are sort of in the vein of This American Life, maybe, a little bit, and you've lost them.

There's this selflessness on the part of Chicago artists - partly I think because improv is so ingrained here - that's both really inspiring, because people are always willing to make work without much consideration for money or exposure or any kind of "careerist" objectives. There's way less ego here than any other place I know about. Which makes it an amazing place to make work, but an abysmal place to try to earn any portion of a living. I moved here from New York City, and that place exerts a pretty potent draw on me still - the velocity and intensity of it I find pretty addictive. L.A. could crack off and drop into the Pacific tomorrow and I would lead the nation in a victory lap. When London fame comes a-knocking, I will answer the door, though.

But: school-age kids, wife who has an awesome job doing what she loves (she's Artistic & Education Director for Steppenwolf for Young Adults), etc. conspire to keep me here for the foreseeable.

Thanks to your titles at The Paper Machete and Encyclopedia Show, you occasionally wield a persona that’s a tad gruff. In contrast, what’s something that you get unabashedly squealy and excited about?
This will sound totally limp and cliche, but my kids blow my mind. My daughter, who's 8, collaborates with a classmate to write a weekly newspaper about events in their class. Not for an assignment. Just, I guess, to fan the embers of print journalism for the future. And she writes and illustrates books. That are awesome.

And my son, who's 10, started playing saxophone this year, and while he's obviously not Coltrane as yet - I'm hopelessly non-musical - but it kicks ass to hear him practice. And in the summers, I coach his baseball team, which is about the best goddamn way to spend a summer afternoon that I have found.

If you and I are sitting across a conference table for a staff meeting, my face is carved of stone. If you are a baby I encounter at the airport, I can easily become a rubber-faced spaz for your amusement.

And my wife does artistic work that is not merely beautiful - which it invariably is - but that has a huge impact.

And Louis CK. I would take a f*cking bullet for that guy. Some friends got together and got me tix to see him last year. Front row at the Chicago theater. Total chowder pants for yours truly.

What do you want for Christmas?
Louis CK to consent to do WRITE CLUB. Can you make that happen? Can you get his people on the horn? Because I would sh*t a cinder block if that came together. A cinder block of joy. Corn-speckled joy, but still.

Who would you have chosen for People’s Sexiest Man Alive 2011? Serious answers only, please.
Not that Cooper clown, I can tell you that. I know the Gosling kid's got a lotta heat around him, but he's not seasoned enough for me. If you even try to float those vacant-eyed children from the goddamn Twilight movies, I will push you to the ground and call you a halfwit. I gotta go Clooney. I know - this choice wins zero points for novelty. But LOOK at the guy, man. He makes Jon Hamm look like a burn victim whose facial reconstruction was badly botched. Clooney is a full-on buffet of delish.

How does it feel to be the 297th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
Good news for you, Claire: bottom of barrel reached. You may discontinue scraping.