My nonpoet friend, D, was over the other night, watching videos of her favorite adult film star, Manuel Ferrara, and flossing her teeth at my desk. “Who’re you interviewing on Friday?” she asked over the ecstatic moans. “Rachel Shukert," I answered, sniffing a pair of underwear on my bedroom floor to see if it was dirty. “God, have you read her Smash recaps on Vulture? They’re the only things that make me want to go on living. Seriously, they’re the only antidote to the hell that’s my life,” she said, and absently dropped the used floss in my coffee cup as she shuffled off to the can.
Shukert is a master of inking out that one tooth on a subway poster that transforms a tableau of icy supermodels into a gaggle of hillbilly goofballs. There’s no high-horse rider Shukert can’t drag down by drawing a floppy penis on his forehead, or bouncy set of DD boobs under his plaid riding vest. She knows transgression works best when you play high off low: peed-on pants should be Brooks Brothers and pinstriped; a steaming pile of poop looks best centered on a very expensive satin bedspread. Snooty forms that easily lend themselves to parody—like poetry itself, villanelles and sonnets—are prime Shukert real estate, but there's no flower in literature's garden that she has not pollinated: poems, plays, fiction and essays.
Shukert is the bestselling author of the critically-acclaimed memoirs Everything is Going To Be Great and Have You No Shame? She is currently at work on Starstruck, her YA trilogy set in 1930's Hollywood, forthcoming from Random House, and has various TV projects going on that she is too superstitious to list here. Her journalism, essays, and fiction have appeared in Vanity Fair, New York, Slate, Salon, and McSweeney's, on NPR, and in numerous print anthologies including Best American Erotic Poetry: 1800 to the Present and Click: Young Women on the Moments that Made Us Feminists. Most recently, she writes the popular recap of Smash for NY Mag's Vulture blog. She is a sporadic Twitter person, as you can see here: @RachelShukert.
If you’re Is your sense of humor genetic, or are you a singular freak?
I come from a long line of major weirdos, I was just the first one cynical enough to capitalize on it. That is to say, everyone was funny, just not always on purpose. My grandfather loved to tell jokes, mostly filthy Yiddish ones that no one under 75 thought were funny, and my grandmother loved to play sort of ditzy (it must have at least been partly on purpose) and she would say these amazingly oblivious things that were almost dada, they made so little sense; sort of Tristan Tzara meets Gracie Allen. My dad can be really silly when he's in the mood, and my mother can be sort of fantastically sarcastic. But everyone took things very seriously, and would get very upset and worried and panicky sometimes, and my sense of humor kind of developed as a guard against that, I think. It made me feel powerful to be the person that could make fun of things.
When did you first realize you were funny?
My parents were very serious, but they both really appreciated comedy: they were really into Monty Python and Woody Allen, that sort of thing. And I would try incredibly hard to make them laugh, because laughter seemed so powerful; it could turn someone from angry to helpless, for example, and after my sister was born I felt my power in the family diminish, and I sort of turned to being funny to try to get it back. But I don't think I realized I was really, truly funny outside my immediate family for a pretty long time, not until I started writing when I was a bit older and realized that I would be trying to write something serious and people would laugh at me, and I started to think, why fight it, you know? But it all actually made sense. I recently read this Philip Lopate piece, which I guess is really famous but I never studied writing so I never read it, called "The Art of the Personal Essay" where he talks about the importance of self-amusement for the writer, and this bell kind of went off in my head. Because I may not have always realized I was "funny", but I've had a very strong sense of self-amusement from a very young age. I've always had a very strong handle on my own inherent ridiculousness.
When was the first time you made people laugh with your writing?
I remember writing this report for Social Studies in about 7th grade, I think. It was supposed to be a researched report about Christopher Columbus, which I did, except I did it from the point of view that Christopher Columbus was a lizard who was also a private detective. I remember he had a cape, and one of the things he liked to do was feel the swooshing of his cape whenever he felt like he was very close to discovering a solution to something, he was a self-stimulater that way. I got very into describing the cape-swooshing. Oh, and he had a glass eye, because I watched Columbo every day after school and I liked that Peter Falk had a glass eye. My teacher, thank God, thought the whole thing was so funny that she forgot to give me a bad grade for basically not doing the assignment, and she basically signed me up for this special creative writing thing, except the creative writing teacher wanted us to do things like: let's write a poem about things that are hot, then let's write a poem about things that are cold, and I was like: FUCK YOU. And I didn't write anything for about five years after that, I was so opposed to the idea of creative writing. Then when I was in drama school, I started to get really sick of hearing the same scenes and monologues over and over again in class, so I started to write my own, which I would pretend were from real plays that someone else had written, but they were always funny—and usually sort of purposefully overwrought, and people would laugh and I began to be so much prouder that they were responding to the writing rather than the performance, and that was kind of it for me. That was that.
Many poets I know started out in theater, and I have this theory that the poets start to write poems via the monologue. Nothing makes me laugh more than a Pinter monologue. Who are the playwrights you love?
Tennessee Williams, always so overwrought, so funny, so performative of femininity, so impossible not to read along with in a terrible Southern accent. I agree with you that Pinter is hilarious. Long pauses always make me laugh so fucking hard. Charles Ludlam was probably my biggest influence starting out, because he was so anarchic and yet so rule-bound and contextual at the same time; that's a combination that has always appealed to me. I like plays where you seriously have no idea what is going to happen next. They're so crazy. And god knows I love me some Chekhov, the father of the modern slacker comedy.
What moved you from playwright to poet?
Peer pressure. I started hanging out with a bunch of poets, and I didn't want to be left out, so I started writing poems. But the form appealed to me. I liked that you could make something out of a simple idea, that there was a sort of ephemeral feeling to it; this is what I'm thinking about, and I'm going to tell you, and I don't have to worry about narrative structure or character or anything like that—it's very rooted in observation. And I liked the direct address aspect of it as well, and I think that eventually began to express itself in my first-person writing, essays and fiction both.
How would you describe your sense of humor?
The one kind of humor I really hate, is that kind of "Really?" or "Awkward!" humor, where you're not adding anything to the conversation, you're just trying to be funny by making someone else feel stupid, when the "stupid" person is actually the funny one, even if they're an idiot. That drives me up a fucking wall, it's just so lazy. I'm always trying to get people to see things in a new way, to add something to the way people see the world, or to point something out that they haven't seen before, beyond just sort of being sarcastic and smug. I am the Anti-smug.
For you, how does comic timing and pace differ from the less funny bits of a poem?
I don't know! I don't have a formula, sort of a "we're going to slow things down, folks" wedding DJ kind of moment. It's sort of organic. But I guess I do like to kind of lure people into a sense of relaxation from laughing, and then plunge in the knife when they're vulnerable and unsuspecting. I don't like to give any warning that things are about to get brutal, I guess.
Have you ever realized that you’ve crossed a line with the funny in a poem?
It's more a suffering from overkill than crossing some kind of arbitrary taboo line. Like, how many things about poop and/or Nazis can you shove in before it just gets old? It's sort of "take one thing off before you leave the house" kind of thing, only instead of taking off a bracelet I have to cross out three references to "butt-sex." So it's a taste issue. I like to be tasteful. That said, I'm perfectly happy with things that make people incredibly uncomfortable. They don't have to laugh. They just have to have a reaction. I don't particularly care if people don't think it's cute.
Have you ever been dissed/dismissed for being a funny poet?
Probably, but I don't take that kind of stuff seriously. If I wasn't funny, they'd dismiss me for being girly. Or young. Or not young enough. Or too literary, or not literary enough, or whatever. People are always looking for ways to dismiss other people. I'd rather be dismissed for something that makes me happy.
Do you decide to be funny, or does it just happen?
I think you can work on being funnier, but if you're not a funny person, no one is ever really going to ask you to be funny, and that's fine. Not everyone is funny, it doesn't mean they don't have something important to say. But I do think people are naturally funny, or not. It's sort of like being a dancer---you can take a lot of ballet lessons, and you might get pretty okay at it, but in the end, if you weren't born with the right kind of rotation in your hip sockets, at the end of the day, it's never going to be more than a hobby. If you aren't an inherently funny person, you just aren't, and that's okay.
Do you believe that you sacrifice anything when you choose to turn the poem down a funny road?
I think, for better or for worse, that when things are too funny there are always going to be some people who can't see beyond that, who can't see the razor blade you hid inside the Halloween candy, if you know what I mean.
Who are your favorite funny people?
I think my husband is the funniest person in the universe, although he's very privately funny. Of famous people, God, there are so many, and these are just the funny on purpose people. Larry David. Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French. Richard Kind. Elmo. Tom Lehrer. David Mitchell (the actor, not the novelist.) The South Park guys. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Jan Hooks.
Do you think your humor comes from a place of self-loathing?
You know that I'm Jewish, right?
Tomorrow: a conversation with Kazim Ali
The fishmonger mongs fish
And the eggmonger mongs eggs
And the breadmonger mongs bread
And the cheesemonger mongs cheese
And the buttmonger mongs butts
And the boobmonger mongs boobs
And the handmonger mongs hand jobs
And the retardmonger mongs retards
And I mong you and you mong me
And we all mong in harmony.
Until . . .
Somebody gets the plague
And then we have to kill all the Jews.
Mating Rituals of the English Gentry
When a lady pours the
Lapsang Souchong or good old orange pekoe
It means her pussy is so wet you could wash your clothes in it
But if a Lady pours
Darjeeling or good old English Breakfast
She wants you to clear the table
With a sweep of your big hairy arm
And stick the spout of the teapot up her butt
While you read the first chapter of David Copperfield out loud
And finger-bang a horse
Advice #3 (for Andy)
A good thing to do
If you’re having a big party
Like a Bar Mitzvah or a wedding
Is to take a watermelon
Scoop out melon part
And fill the rind with ground beef.
Then take little bits of sausage cut up small
And have them be the seeds.
Voila! You got yourself
Whatever you want to call it
It’s some damn fine eating.
For a Special Vice-President on His 300th Birthday
Thinning hair does not a thin man make
So go ahead and drink that
Glass of butter
Slather your body in bacon grease and
Settle in for a nice game of softball
Shirts vs Skins! I know which team you’re
On, Big Boy
Umpires are easily bought for the price of a beer
If you carry some change in your jockstrap and
Aren’t afraid to use it.
For shame, true
Shame is a fat bald failure who can’t even throw a
Children’s softball game.
Who uses these words but Greeks and Jews and
Slaves and Faggots?