Chris Elliott "writes" a "novel"
When I told Chris Elliott that I felt like I was sparring with a heavyweight, he humbly dismissed the notion. But the outrageous comedian...
Seattle Times staff reporter
When I told Chris Elliott that I felt like I was sparring with a heavyweight, he humbly dismissed the notion.
But the outrageous comedian is a veteran of "Late Show with David Letterman" and the cult classic 1990 TV series, "Get a Life," among his many credits. So I thought I should try to knock him off balance right away as we sat down to talk about his follow-up to "The Shroud of the Thwacker," the comic novel, "Into Hot Air" (Weinstein Books, $23.95), subtitled, "Mounting Mount Everest."
Q: So who really wrote this book?
A: (Laughs.) Jon Krakauer.
Q: I know how Shatner works. Celebrities use ghostwriters.
A: Not me. I actually wrote the book and am proud of it. I didn't actually climb Mount Everest, but I wrote the book. I think that most people who say they climbed Mount Everest, I don't think they really have. It's really easy to write a book about it without actually having done it.
Q: Well then, since you're a "man of letters," shouldn't you be wearing an ascot and smoking jacket for this interview?
A: People always find it amusing that I'm called an author now. And actually I find it amusing. That's why I put the word "novel" in quotes on the book.
Q: Let's dispense with the superficial chit-chat, then. Your book: zany or madcap?
A: God, you go right to the jugular with this stuff, don't you? You know, on the West Coast it's zany, on the East Coast it's madcap. I don't know what it is in the Midwest. It's "goofball" in the Midwest.
Q: I never read the book you're spoofing, "Into Thin Air," because I was already familiar with the Darwin Awards. What made you want to mock it so thoroughly?
A: You know, I was writing my other book, and while I was writing it, I looked up on my shelf and I saw "Into Thin Air," and I remember enjoying it when it came out, and the idea of me climbing Mount Everest suddenly jumped into my head as sort of a funny image. So that's where I got the idea.
Q: People in the Northwest are into this outdoors stuff, but here's what I think: Sports-adventure deaths merit no pity whatsoever, in the same way that a death while vacationing in Beirut with a target on your shirt doesn't.
A: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I think it's true. It's something I would never attempt. At the same time, I have admiration for the people that have actually done it. And this book is not actually a parody of "Into Thin Air." The title sort of makes it sound sort of like that. But I mean that was a tragedy. People lost their lives on that. This is more or less just a conglomeration of a bunch of action-adventure stories with Everest as kind of the background. The original title was "Mounting Chomolungma," which is what Everest is called by the —
Q: That's kind of a porno-sounding title.
A: And I thought it was a great title, but even I couldn't pronounce "Chomolungma." But everybody thought "Into Hot Air" was more catchy, so I went with that.
Q: In the expedition, you've got a fat, rich documentarian named Michael, a TV president named Martin climbing for the homeless, and an actress named Kirsten climbing for cute animals ... How dare you, sir, ridicule celebrities and their causes — especially if they have nothing at stake in these charities and aggrandize themselves in the process?
A: (Laughs.) I guess there is this slight political statement being made in this book, but it's so infantile, it's not even like intelligent. It also has this global-warming thing where I don't believe in global warming until I get to the summit, and then it's really hot on the summit and suddenly I believe in it.
Q: Thank you for putting illustrations in the book. They really pad it out.
A: Jeez, thank you, Mark. Yeah, actually my sister does the illustrations for all my books, and I think they're really cute. The book is obviously goofy and silly and horrible, and her illustrations are kind of like "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," you know. They're just cute little kids-book illustrations.
Q: You mock your "Cabin Boy" movie in the book, but hasn't that turned out to be an enduring cult flick?
A: Yeah, I do make fun of it, but it does have this afterlife, which is really a big surprise to me and Adam Resnick, who directed it. Because at the time it was a career-ending thing for us. I mean literally the phone just stopped ringing after "Cabin Boy" came out. But then a few years later things loosened up, and now I have people coming up and saying they love that movie, which is amazing to me. It's our next "Wizard of Oz."
Q: Has all this and your years with Letterman and "Get a Life" and "Cabin Boy" allowed you to live in a huge mansion with manservants?
A: (Laughs.) No, we don't. We live in Connecticut, my wife, and we have a 20-year-old and a 17-year-old daughter. The 20-year-old is going into comedy and the 17-year-old wants to go into filmmaking. No, we live a really sedate sort of normal life. People are always kind of surprised when I'm not like bouncing off the walls and a goofball in real life, and I always have to tell them that's sort of the act. I don't think my wife would stay with me ...
Q: You meet a lot of people who are like, "Make me laugh, monkey-boy! Do something outrageous!"
A: Oh, yeah. Yeah. More in fact when I used to work at Letterman and even during the "Get a Life Days." I think hard-core fans of mine — and fans of hardcore, too — have just sort of grown up a little bit with me. One of these book things, one of the first ones I went to for my last book, I figured, "Oh, well it's all going to be teenagers there." You know, because I just thought that was my fan base. And they were all bald fat guys like me sitting there.
Q: So if I asked you to get up and do the Banana Dance —
A: Yeah, you wouldn't get anything out of me. I'm not your performing monkey.
Q: You touch on the fact that climbing Everest is kind of like getting tattoos: it's been devalued.
A: That's what I hear. I don't know. I've never been to the Himalayas. But yeah, I think Jon Krakauer made it sound really appealing in his book, so it's become kind of a tourist mecca there. You've got the easy-pass route now that goes straight up there. And they have a handicap route for wheelchairs — wheelchair-accessible all the way up.
Q: That's because they don't want to get sued.
A: No, of course not. So it's a fun place to bring the family.
Q: Heard from any of the stars you spoof — or their lawyers?
A: No I haven't, as yet. I think the book is so silly and insane, I doubt I'll be hearing much from any of them.
Q: And frankly, I think "Tony" (Danza) would be grateful for the attention.
A: Well, and he comes off fine, too. He's kind of the Ernest Borgnine of the adventure. And Lauren Bacall is kind of a heroine in it. In my last book, Liz Smith was the big hero.
Q: I've always wanted to be called the Ernest Borgnine of something. You also have a character climbing Everest in a Speedo. My question is: Who doesn't look good in a Speedo?
A: Exactly. He's a member of the Polar Bear Club. Those are the guys that jump into the ice cold water and so forth. Yeah, he climbs up wearing a Speedo and his skin just turns into like a burnt marshmallow about halfway up, and he starts leaving little bits of his body all over the place.
Q: What are your comic literary influences: "The Secret," "Eat, Pray, Love" ... ?
A: Actually, Woody Allen was the first one. My last book, which was "The Shroud of the Thwacker," I wanted to see if I could actually try to sustain a novel in kind of the style that he wrote his short stories in, which basically there was just a joke almost every single sentence — certainly a whole bunch in a paragraph. This one, I veered away from it and tried to deal a little more with the characters and the people and the story instead of just joke, joke, joke, joke, joke. Because I think it can get tiresome to just keep doing that all the way through.
In terms of novel-writing, these are parodies, so "The Shroud of the Thwacker" was influenced by Caleb Carr and a little bit of Patricia Cornwell's stuff. And this is a little bit of Krakauer, and there's a little "Perfect Storm" in this. There's also a lot of sort of movies in this. There's a little of Alfred Hitchcock, his "Lifeboat" movie, and "Poseidon Adventure" and "Towering Inferno" and so forth.
Q: How is it different to write literary comedy?
A: It's easier for me to write these books these days because there's nobody — You know, I've done a pilot almost once a year since "Get a Life," and some have made it to be made, some have been picked up and canceled or whatever. But you're always under the eyes of a network. They're always telling you can't be that crazy, you can't be that goofy, you can't do this, you can't do that. And writing these books, you know after I sell them, they send you off and you go home and you write 'em, and whatever comes out of your head ends up on the page, and nobody's telling you "Don't do that, you can't do that, it's too crazy."
Q: The "Spewey" "E.T." spoof episode of "Get a Life" is one of the funniest things I've ever seen on TV.
A: That is a funny episode. That was Adam Resnick's creation, and his influence for it wasn't really "E.T." At the time during "Get a Life," there was this horrible movie produced by McDonald's called "Mac and Me," with a hideous "E.T." alien, and we thought, "OK, let's take that and make it even more hideous," and it ended up being an alien that spewed pudding.
Q: Why isn't "Get a Life" available on DVD?
A: I've done commentary on the whole first season. So's Adam Resnick. It's being held up. I don't entirely know why. There's some legal snafu that's keeping it from the fans, which is unfortunate. It may come out. I haven't heard any date at this point. Although there is part of me that, because that is so high in people's minds in terms of what I've done, I'm worried that if they go back and start looking at them again they'll go, "Eh, it wasn't that great."
Q: My reaction was "How the hell did they get this on TV in the first place?"
A: I got it on because I told Fox — I sold them a bill of goods. It was not what they thought they were going to get. They thought they were going to get a show that was semi-real about a guy, a young man who's still living with his parents. But they got a nut living over his parents' garage, and everybody in the show was nuts, and the show was crazy, and they weren't happy at all.
Q: The show has had some influence in the music world: Tell me about The Handsome Boy Modeling School.
A: Oh, those hip-hop guys, actually they sampled a couple of episodes in a couple of their pieces. They're really cool guys. We've actually met with them to talk about possibly at some point doing a live "Zoo Animals on Wheels" show, but I don't know if I'd be in it.
Q: I'd be first in line.
A: Why do you think there'd be a line for it?
Q: I think there'd be a line if they teamed you up with Missy Elliott.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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