Live in Chicago With Samantha Irby | WBEZ
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Live in Chicago With Samantha Irby

The first line of a recent Los Angeles Times profile of comedian and author Samantha Irby says it all: She is "not shy about her shortcomings."

Irby joined our own Sam Sanders live in Chicago at the Old Town School of Folk Music this past month to talk about her recently re-released essay collection, Meaty. From the second she walked on stage, she was everything her writing is – unapologetic, brutally observant, and hilarious.

Irby spoke with Sam about her childhood and its influence on her work. She grew up poor near Chicago – or, as she clarified for our audience, she's from Evanston, because "Chicagoans get mad if you're from Evanston and say you're from Chicago!" She was the caretaker of her disabled mother at a young age.

The ultimate loss of her mother is a big part of Meaty, which includes other stories the book calls "tragicomic mishaps": her bad dates with men before finally marrying a woman; her struggle with Crohn's Disease and her inability to eat the things she loves, like cheese; and the time she almost ate her own face. Irby also documents these stories and more on her blog bitches gotta eat.

Once Irby and Sam covered those topics and more, they were joined on stage by a special Chicago guest: WBEZ's Jennifer White, the host of the Making Oprah and Making Obama podcasts. She grilled both Sams in a special live game of 'Who Said That: Oprah or Obama.' And no, she doesn't know what Oprah smells like.

 Producer Anjuli Sastry

Interview Highlights

Author Samantha Irby

On how growing up poor in Evanston, Ill., shaped her life

I learned how to be humiliated early and keep rocking with it. Evanston has a thing called ESCCA [Evanston School Children's Clothing Association]. It's kind of like the salvation army, but it's like all sorts of things. And it's all your peers donating things. So we bought clothes from there, so I would go to school in my friends' parents' old clothes. And when you grow up like that you can pretty much just handle anything. People would be like "Oh that's my dad's golf shirt," and I would be like "Oh. [laughter]," and then like drop dead in the bathroom or whatever for two periods.

But I'm very grateful because I don't — this is going to be a little corny but — I don't think that my life would have been possible if I had been poor someplace else. Evanston is progressive. The public school is great. I grew up super poor. We lived on Section 8. We had food stamps. I went to school with a pool and a music program and an arts program and adequate social workers. All the things you need to have in place to do that boot strap pulling people are always telling you to do. I was lucky enough to grow up in a place where people would help you.

On dating men and then marrying a woman

Well first of all, I had dated women before, but women don't give you as many hilarious problems as men do. Like none of those stories were ever funny. No one wants to hear you say "You know, well Tracey and I, we lived on opposite sides of town, so we just shook hands, and she took one cat, I took the other cat. We decided to go our separate ways." No one wants to read that. But it's like "This dude dumped me because he didn't like the shape of pasta I made." Those stories just [lent] themselves to humor more. This is going to sound terrible but I just reached an age where I was like man I'm tired of feeling bad about myself. I feel like women especially — I don't know the experience of being a man — but I feel like there's a lot of "Maybe if I keep polishing this turd."

On caring for her mother, who had multiple sclerosis, but not getting to know her personality

I think there's a point with every parent and child where you go from having a parenting relationship, where your mom is like "Pick up your shoes. Clean your ears! " All that stuff to make you into a person. And we went very quickly from that part to the part at the end where you're like, "Hand me your diaper. Did you take your pills?"

And all of the middle part where you get to find out your mom's personality and what she liked, I couldn't tell you. I could tell you what she watched on TV and the cigarettes she liked to smoke, but I couldn't tell you anything really about her personality because I never really got to know it. ... The hardest part is thinking about having spent all this time with this person and having come from this person, and still having no idea who that person is.

WBEZ host Jennifer White

On meeting Oprah

Here's the thing. She was shockingly normal. And I know people are disappointed. They're like, "Did she come in with a halo or like backlighting?" No. She didn't. She came in by herself. She didn't have an entourage or anything with her. The oddest moment I would say is ...

We were doing a mic check with her. [...] We said, "So what did you have for breakfast this morning?" Kind of a standard public radio, let me test your mic. And she said "Oh a couple bites of — in the beginning god created heaven and earth —" I mean she just went straight into genesis. I was like, "Damn!"

On the untold stories of Obama

There was a lot he didn't know. And he had these big dreams about what he was going to do in this world and absolutely no idea how to actually get there in this political environment in Chicago. He had to figure it out, and he had to find people to help him navigate those waters. And that's the part of the story that isn't neat. So it doesn't get told so often. But telling those messier parts of history, I think, is where all the fun is.

Brent Baughman produced and Jeff Rogers and Steve Nelson edited this episode for broadcast. Kumari Devarajan adapted it for the Web.

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