INTERVIEW: Dan Kennedy AKA “guy that says stupid shit at four in the morning.”
Aside from his well-known gig as the host of the popular podcast and live show The Moth, Dan Kennedy is also the author of two memoirs and a contributor to GQ and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. His first book, Loser Goes First, is a trek through Kennedy’s adolescence and early adulthood, often citing awkward situations with employers and ex-girlfriends. By contrast, American Spirit, which launches May 28th, turns some of Dan’s real life friends into characters. While it’s fiction, “the stuff I had to make up is obvious,” he says.
I met Dan at a Moth party at the Moth HQ in Soho when the show became a national radio broadcast, and tried to find out the backstory to his satire “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills: Season 99” on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, a satirical short parody of the reality show, “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” set in an apocalyptical future. But parties being parties, I didn’t hear as much as I wanted.
Months later, we sat in his favorite corner (the far back right) at “S’Nice” in the West Village, where we discussed satire, storytelling in the digital age and American Spirit.
– Haniya Rae for Electric Literature
LISTEN to the interview: DanKennedyAudio
EL: Your book comes out at the end of May. Are you doing a live performance [like you would at The Moth]? Going on tour?
Kennedy: Oh, I tour it up.
EL: [Laughs] Oh, you tour it up?
Kennedy: There’s a reason there’s always a tour. I don’t really know what happens to me, but it’s like a cross between like a funny reading and an anxiety attack. Like, a low-grade anxiety attack. And a Moth show. A combination of those three things. It usually takes place at a bookstore or a club.
EL: You mentioned that you were introverted, but that you have this onstage presence that’s the opposite — [Laughs] you’re making this face! [Dan furrows his eyebrows and pouts his lips] Do you feel that having this introversion affects the way that you present on stage, or the way that you come out, or are you all not that introverted?
Kennedy: You know, I’m really introverted and it’s not a shtick, and when I used to hear performers talk, or writers or anyone who does anything public, talk about how shy they can get — I saw someone recently who literally gave me a flyer and he was like, “Hey man, I’m doing a show about my shyness,” and I was like, “What the fuck, seriously? You’re doing a show about your shyness? This has all gone too far. We should all just quit.”
But, I mean I get really nervous, but I’m very comfortable. It’s weird. I’m nervous about the idea of doing it. I say yes almost habitually, for the last 13 years, I’ve just said, “Yes. Just book it, just book it, book it. And, send me where I need to be.” And I’m always surprised that I said ‘yes,’ or scared that I said ‘yes.’ It’s something I can do, and it’s something people tell me I’m good at, so intellectually I’m like “This is obviously a psychology sort of con-job that you’re doing to yourself to get freaked out, because literally you’ve done this over 1,000 times.” You know if you’re nervous and excited before you go on that you’re going to be better or [that it will be] worth the money. Although this bookstore thing is free. So I should really rethink this whole thing. I guess they buy a book?
EL: You would hope. What do you think makes The Moth so successful at this day and age?
Kennedy: I used to say that it was finally having a chance to speak uninterrupted for five or ten minutes in New York City, and everyone was like, “Fuck yes! Sign me up!” But now that we do shows all over the country, and all over the world. I just think it’s what people do. I almost don’t even think The Moth is popular, so much as The Moth just decided to give a place to do what people do. That’s all it is.
As soon as people see the show or take part in the show, they’re like, “Oh, right, I’ve been doing this my whole life.” And I also think it taps into something — as corny as it sounds — I think it taps into something really hugely loving. I’ve just never felt anything like it. Just sitting in a crowd, not even being on the bill, or hosting, or just going to a show, or being on stage, it’s amazing to say something, hear people laugh, and look down and it’s not like fool laughter. It’s not like, “Oh, we’re all really hip and we’re laughing at the hip thing you said.” It’s like, “Oh my god, all of our families went camping together, this is so awesome.” It seems somehow sweet and really wholesome to me. I never thought I’d say stuff like this. It’s like that version of yourself you are when you go to your friend’s house for Thanksgiving… to their family’s house for Thanksgiving, but they’re your friends and they’re cool I’m not saying this really well.
See this is an example of being nervous. I’ve done a lot of interviews, and I can imagine a million clear concise things to say, but when I actually do it, it’s like, ah fuck.
EL: I think you’re doing great.
Kennedy: Yeah it’s okay. It’s normal. It’s not normal, but…and it’s funny. I see certain people that I’ve known through the years that have gone on and done certain things and they’ve been on sitcoms, or they’ve been in movies, or they play way bigger stand up shows now, stuff like that, and it’s funny because there’s this part of me where I’m like, “Why aren’t I doing that?” and then there’s this absolutely honest inventory where I go, “Because, you would never, you would literally not say, ‘yes’ to showing up and trying to act happy.” There’s footage out there, somewhere, of me out there of me standing on the Total Request Live set, trying to sound excited about introducing a pop video. And, that’s really the only answer that there is: the nervousness is genuine. But it’s also weird too. I feel a little bit of suburban shame. To get all those people here tonight, and then talk.
EL: I think that those people gather because of that sense of compassion, or whatever it is that you’re describing.
Kennedy: It’s amazing at this point. The Moth was the only family I had in New York and I just clung to it. And now it’s weird to go different places, to go all over that country, and have that feeling that you’re around people you really like or that you’re your best self with. There’s a huge like therapy or rehab component to what we do, somehow. I don’t know how. But everybody gets up there and shares the shame and laughs and feels better or talks about something that’s not necessarily funny. You feel a lot lighter.
EL: Are there any horror stories from The Moth? Have you gotten into fistfights?
Kennedy: No, but it’s really weird you mention that. I’ve been waiting to get in trouble for a really long time. For like, 15 years, ever since I first started. I’ve probably only been seriously been doing this for 10 years. And I’m always waiting to get in trouble. Sometimes I think someone will just hit me in the face. When Rock On came out I thought “I’m going to get sued for seven figures by Warner Music, I’m just going to, I know it.”
EL: Well, you can always hope. I really liked Loser Goes First. Your stories aren’t controversial, they’re universal … that sounded silly.
Kennedy: We both have subtitles underneath us right now about what we think we sound like right now, so it’s okay.
EL: It’s an honest account of who you are. You’re not trying to be a fictional character, and you’re not superimposing some other idea of what you think you should be. It’s actually what happened. I don’t know if there’s any hyperbole in there…No?
Kennedy: That’s the most beautiful part.
EL: I think it’s impossible to get flack for putting who you are out there in the world. I guess people do get flack for memoirs, but you’re not in charge of the Iraq war…
Kennedy: I think it’s somehow to me comforting to know there are a lot of people that hate what I do. When you first start, you think, “Well it was in Entertainment Weekly, I guess everyone likes it!” There’s this weird dumb precious sort of young thing. But then it becomes comforting to know that some people are like, “Dude, fucking whatever.” And in a weird way, I’m like, “Yeah I know, sorry, want to go out after this?”
EL: Back to writing satire for McSweeney’s…
Kennedy: Wouldn’t that be funny if you just got everything on purpose a little bit wrong, just to shake me up: “Back to writing your science fiction for Miss Sweeney, I believe, is the name of this site.” And then I’m like, “No, it’s actually called…”
“So, you’re in a play about the Mothman? Mothman or something like this?”
“Uh, no, it’s actually…”
EL: [Nods yes] You wrote “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills: Season 99” in a hotel room while you were watching the reality show imagining how it would eventually spin out 100 years in the future. Is all of your satire that spontaneous? Were you angry when you were watching that show?
Kennedy: Just about everything on the McSweeney’s site is urgent and spontaneous, and usually in an attempt to feel better or in the fear of depression. I’m an addict — I don’t do drugs anymore or drink or anything, but if something bad comes along, like that show, I start off just trying to do a little bit of it and then it’s 5 a.m. and I’ve done a lot of it. And I get sad. It sounds weak to say sad, but it just broke my heart that people were being that way to each other.
It’s the alcohol too that gets me down in that show. Don’t you understand that maybe you shouldn’t be drinking if you drink gin in a car and then strike someone with your hand because you don’t like them — in a limo? I’m like, “It could be better for both of you.” And then I told my girlfriend about it, “I was in a hotel while I was out, I watched this show and you know this is just bad, it’s getting out of hand, something is going to happen,” and then she said one of the guys killed himself. That was years ago. And then other times I just laugh and flip off the TV and say that’s not sad, those are fucking rich white people that drink too much. Sad is babies being born with cancer. And the other thing is, a lot of these little satirical indictments that I write don’t come from my best self, I don’t think. In “Pleased to Meet the Facebook Version of You,” I’m the Facebook version of you. I’m full of shit. I’m completely flawed. I’ve made mistakes and I want people to think of me in a certain way. I’m exactly the person that I appear to be railing against. Jesus. I’m sad now.
EL: Okay, so let’s go back to, are there any stories…?
Kennedy: Let’s go back to why you’re flawed…
EL: [Shakes head no] So there really are no funny stories from The Moth? I find that really hard to believe.
Kennedy: That’s great, that’s great. “So you don’t really have one interesting anecdote about all this shit you do? It’s just a bunch of self-important stuff like you were just blabbing?” Ah, pretty much.
Kennedy: Funny stories, yeah there’s always a funny story. Let me think.
A guy fainted like a sack of potatoes and that kind of freaked me out. Like, I was on stage, and I just came back to sit down, and Jennifer Hixon, my producer and I, used to sit in the front of the side of the stage, and we always invited people up to sit, since it was so packed, to sit on the side of the stage with us in chairs. I was saying something, and then I was done, and I sat down next to Jennifer, and I felt this large, I don’t know what it was. I heard this commotion and then stuff fell against me, and then it was a man.
EL: I just realized there is a dead fly in the middle of the table.
Kennedy: Is it dead? I hope it’s not just sleeping. So that was weird. I’m sure I’ll think of something as soon as I lie down in bed tonight, “I can’t believe I didn’t say anything about…” but there’s always something. I’m just trying to think of what. Let’s pause and think of what.
There used to be a guy at the Nuyorican, Miguel, who would echo me, this older gentleman, and he’d bring merch for the Nuyorican, and he would set it up on the end of the bar, and then just proceed to drink. He was hilarious; he was like a Puerto Rican version of the old man on The Muppets. I loved it. It was the best heckling on the face of the planet. Sometimes, I’d just go back and forth with this guy for what felt like an eternity. Essentially it’d just be this weird moment for us, having this strange conversation back and forth over the heads of 200 people.
EL: In American Spirit the characters are sort of morphed from the real life characters you know. Can you describe that process?
Kennedy: The last nonfiction thing I did was a few years ago. I went and stayed with my parents, kind of on a dare from my editor, for 30 nights straight. And I loved it. That was the trick, it was this weird twist that I loved it and we’d all wake up in the morning and read Reader’s Digest together. We were reading the workplace humor column in Reader’s Digest over oatmeal, and it occurred to me that none of us had jobs, my mom my dad or me. I was like, why are we reading workplace humor? I wrote about that, and it came out in the magazine, and they had a big photo shoot at my parent’s house. Everyone was really sweet to them, and that was really nice. But there was a certain aspect to that where it just felt really weird. It just felt like, this isn’t right to drag people you love into this stuff. My mom hasn’t had time to get used to seeing her face in a magazine on a newsstand. It’s a little shocking to everybody. I don’t want to do that to people that I love.
When I first started thinking about writing a novel, I thought, “All this stuff on McSweeney’s is fiction, you’ve been doing this for a really long time.” So, I just came off this period of my life, a bunch of stuff just collided. I had never really traveled that much before in my life. It was a year I was gone a lot. I was everywhere from an island in the Baltic off the coast of Sweden to working in a record store in the Midwest for a month to report on it. It was a crazy year and I had a couple friends, I was at an age where I had a couple of friends that got seriously wealthy off of Wall Street and the Internet, during that boom. It was freaking weird, how do you adjust to this? It feels like all your life you’re 19, 20, 21, and then all of a sudden you wake up and you’re like, some of us are in movies now, and some of us made a killing in tech. We’re like grownups now I didn’t have anywhere to tell these stories, and I didn’t want to drag my friends or write about them very directly.
EL: Protect the innocent.
Kennedy: I mean the stuff I had to make up is obvious.
EL: What do you think is the most profound change for storytelling in digital media and you can’t say the Internet?
Kennedy: I’d say personal computers.
EL: [Laughs] Most profound change in storytelling in digital media.
Kennedy: Somehow there’s a new currency, when we’re having a sandwich. We feel the need to let 4,000 people know that. That’s kind of odd. I think that might be the biggest thing. On a less cynical note, there’s a really beautifully written obituary, and it went crazy on social media. His daughter wrote it, and it was a beautiful, funny piece of writing. Heartfelt. That might have been a rousing story at a dinner table for that young woman, x number of years ago, and now it’s the sort of thing where, it goes up on her site, her Tumblr or something, and then the next thing you know, millions of people are passing it around because it’s good, and heartfelt and deserves to be read.
EL: Are you implying that this currency is good and bad?
Kennedy: It is weird. Twitter, I love Twitter. I’m addicted to it and I love it. But it is odd too.
EL: I know that they hire people who have over 1,000 Twitter followers. At agencies, there are certain requirements that you have to meet socially before they look at your application.
Kennedy: That’s ridiculous.
EL: Followers are money now.
Kennedy: That’s the dumbest barometer of a person’s effectiveness.
EL: I agree, because you can buy 1,000 Twitter followers right?
Kennedy: I have 4,500 twitter followers. In terms of a hire, if that got me in the door, and they ask, “Well, why did you have that many?” “I say stupid shit at four in the morning.” “Welcome aboard, we have high hopes for you, guy that says stupid shit at four in the morning.”
EL: [Laughs] I don’t know. A lot of brands are into that. Because it’s like instant sharing, if you have a million followers, even if it’s funny or stupid. Have you seen brands that hijack hash tags?
Kennedy: But you know, a cool thing to say happening too, this was the one thing I was going to say, that’s brilliant is that it’s self-policing, which I love. I think The Moth kind of shares that. Like everybody says how do you make sure the stories are true, how do you make sure the people are good, how do you make sure this and that The community does that itself. Everyone wants to be good, and everyone wants to be true. No one really tolerates the stuff that’s the antithesis of what they want to experience in that community.
Social media is pretty funny too. The other night, Capital One credit cards — it was like three in the morning — promoted a tweet in my timeline that said, “Retweet if your team is still dancing” and then it had was a picture of a basketball and a megaphone. And I didn’t really know what that meant, but it was literally Capital One. So I replied, “Re-tweet if you understand that it takes a person 22 years to pull off just 2,000 dollars of credit card debt making minimum payments at 18% APR.” I expanded the conversation to see what other people were saying, and they were saying, “I hate your credit cards and I’m quitting your bank.” If you’re doing it for that reason, it’s so hilarious, it’s like the square detective that’s in a club like, “Hey, can I buy a marijuana? I want to get down!” People are just like, “The fuck? Get out of here, man.” Love that.
— Haniya Rae is the assistant art editor for Guernica, and writes about media and advertising for Digiday.