Special People Ep. #05: Matt Ruby

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I think Matt Ruby is a brilliant mind, a superb creator of comedy, and a great guy. He’s the man behind Vooza, a start-up tech company that satirizes start-up tech companies. He also runs Sandpaper Suit, a comedy blog that, in ways large and small, changed my life. We had a conversation that speaks for itself. I think you should follow him on Twitter @mattruby and watch/buy/pay attention to everything he does.

My war on milk

rancid milkIf I buy one more carton of milk that goes bad before its printed “best before” date, I’m going to start executing dairy farmers. Nothing makes me angrier.

It’s not the inconvenience. It’s the betrayal.

When I buy a gallon of milk that says “best before March 30th”, and I consume it on March 26th, I want it to taste exactly that: its best. I don’t expect it to smell like a teenage boy’s armpit. I don’t expect it to mingle with my coffee and clump off into a dozen rancid cheese flakes, floating like a parade of tiny white flags, signaling the surrender of American Dream.

There was a time when you could trust your grocer. It was a safer time, a better time.

It was a time when these gatekeepers of agricultural plenty had some fucking integrity. What do we have now? Lies. Not just lies, but proudly printed falsehoods on that most cherished patch of our retail landscape: the milk carton. Are those kids on the side of the carton really “missing”? Or is that just another cynical marketing ploy? To make us feel good about “Big Milk” and their fight against child snatchers? Did the milk industry kidnap those kids itself, to boost profits? Maybe. I don’t know what to believe any more. I can no longer trust milk.

Think about that. Let it really sink it. YOU CANNOT TRUST MILK. MILK IS A LIE.

This universal symbol of hope, and of mornings, and of motherhood… is now a cruel joke. What’s next after a week in the fridge? Will cookies taste like dog shit? Will apple pie putrefy into baby vomit?

Don’t tell me I’m over-reacting. Don’t tell me “it’s a living substance, it goes bad sometimes”. Hogwash. That is fascist hogwash. Milk doesn’t just go bad early sometimes. It goes bad early all the time. Here’s an idea for solving that problem: make the “best before” date closer! Warn us it may go bad earlier!

But the arrogant dairy boys and their milk distribution cartels and their grocery syndicates and all their other merchants of milk death would hate that, wouldn’t they? Then they couldn’t sell me that dream – that fantasy – in which I trust my milk will be safe to drink for seven whole days. And what happens when I find out the milk is bad? Of course, the coffee is already made. Of course, my recipe is only half complete. Do I go out and buy another carton of milk? Of course I do, and those fat-cat parasites in their glittering milky towers laugh all the way to the Swiss bank.

I’m switching to soy.

Dr. Princess Lawyer

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Regular readers know that I played a small part in a live table-read with Janeane Garofalo this week.

So I met Ms. Garofalo properly. She’s a remarkable person. In public interviews she says that she struggles with anxiety and social interaction. I’m sure this is true. But you’d never know it. She makes conversation with such an easy, unaffected bearing. And she talks to complete nobodies (i.e. me) with full attention, and an apparent real desire to connect. We discussed nothing of consequence: cigarettes, New Jersey, the London borough of Hackney. But throughout, I had to keep noticing: “wow. This person is very giving in this conversation, despite us only knowing each other for a few minutes”. This quality must be difficult to cultivate, since few have it. And it must be even harder to maintain after a career spent largely on the brightest stages of the entertainment industry, where every conversation could – at any moment – dump a request, or a project, or “this script you’d be perfect for” into your life.

The table read was fun. The premise for the show was “Not Suitable for TV”: television writers presented scripts, jokes, bits etc. that had – for whatever reason – been rejected from production. Garofalo read the lead role in Dr. Princess Lawyer, and animated pilot in which a Princess is both a successful attorney and ER surgeon. It was actually very funny. As a British person, I of course played my typical roles: narrator and butler.

These were the good parts of the evening.

The bad parts weren’t so fun. And they mostly took place inside my head. Once again I struggled with jealousy and bitterness. It’s like my brain is a lush jungle of negativity. I hack away at the creeping vines of resentment with my self-belief machete, but they grow back with remarkable speed. The night’s performers were all working, respected TV writers – something I aspire to be. They were all reading “bad” stuff that had been rejected, but the fact remained: they were all successful people. Part of me bristled at that. Like the whole show was a giant “meta-humblebrag” designed to make me – and me specifically – feel like a failure. It was total nonsense. Yet my brain thought it.

Also, one of the performers and I shared weird personal history. We were classmates together in my very first 101-level UCB improv class, way back in March 2009. Back then I was in a deep depression, and comedy was the only thing I could cling to. Fast-forward six years from that point. This person writes for a nationally-known TV show. The success of their career seems assured. I still feel like I’ve barely made a dent on this world. I sat in the back of the room and festered while this person performed, semi-ruining my earlier interaction with Ms. Garofalo.

I did this to myself. Me. No one else. I’m writing this experience down as a reminder to my brain: no one can make you feel bad without your permission. I gave that permission, and unsurprisingly, I had a crappy time because of it. Let’s try to get out of that habit, OK?

Come see me and Janeane Garofalo

Me and Janeane Garofalo are on this show tonight. Sparks have flown between us (largely in one direction) since I fell in love with Vickie Miner in Reality Bites. Sparks kindled into flames for her portrayal of Paula on The Larry Sanders Show. Then an inferno erupted during her performance as Beth in Wet Hot American Summer. Come on down to Littlefield (littlefieldnyc.com), doors at 7.30 pm. Tickets are $8. I’m going to ask if she got my fan mail in 1995.

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Why my podcast terrifies me

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I launched a podcast this month. It’s called Special People. The premise of the show is basically “I interview people about the most important people in their lives, plus jokes”.

I love deep conversations with people. I love connecting with strangers. I love connecting with “almost” friends and turning them into actual friends. And I love radio, and podcasts, and interviewing people, and making jokes. These are my passions. I would do them for free. Jesus, I am doing them for free.

Many people try podcasting and it doesn’t suit them. That should NOT apply to me. On paper, I actually suit this medium to a tee. So why am I so consumed with fear about it all?

Since launching the show, I have had serious doubts about literally every aspect of it. The whole project now terrifies me.

Here are all of my fears:

  • I’m afraid it’s boring. I’m afraid that I want to hear about people who are important in strangers’ lives, but no else gives a flying shit.
  • I’m afraid it’s sappy. I worry that the title – “Special People” – makes it sound like a trust fall in MP3 format, or a line of Hallmark greeting cards for people with mental retardation. I’m scared we’re all such products of a cynical, metropolitan, “don’t let anyone see your feelings” culture that this thing will sink without trace. I’m also deeply afraid that people will make fun of me for being some sort of NPR/BBC pussy. The truth is, I am a NPR/BBC pussy. I just don’t want people to mock me. Period.
  • I’m afraid that I will fail. I’m afraid that after 50 episodes, no one will listen, no one will care, and that the show will only exist as a giant embarrassment on a hard drive somewhere, completely ignored by the universe
  • I’m afraid that it’s not funny. I’m afraid that this stuff is IMPOSSIBLE to make funny. I’m afraid that while I’m a decent talker, I’m actually a shitty BROADCASTER. And comedian. And show producer. Just shitty all around.
  • I’m afraid that the artwork is all wrong, that the website is unwieldy, that I don’t have any theme music, and that I do not have the knowledge or the talent to fix these problems. I also fear the whole enterprise will degenerate into a giant money pit. No joke, I have probably spent $2,000 up to this point (through a mix of procrastination, hosting fees and ill-considered equipment purchases) to produce exactly FOUR episodes of content. I’m a guy who throws money at problems in the hope they’ll go away. I’m sure I’ll throw just as much money at professionals in the vain hope they’ll fix my problems. But they probably won’t.
  • I’m afraid that I barely have a handle on the technological side of my podcast, and that if anything goes wrong, I literally will not be able to get it up and running again.

What sent me into this spiral of despair? I’ll tell you. I have four episodes of the show online, but I really only “went public” with the thing yesterday, by plugging the most recent episode on Facebook. So far, 96 people have downloaded shows. In that 24 hours, the following has happened:

  • My most recent guest said that the podcast episode page was redirecting to a GoDaddy “broken link” page. Why? I don’t know. The link worked for me, but not him. Now it works. For both of us. As I told the guest concerned, I fucking hate technology of all kinds. We’ve all bought this line of shit from Silicon Valley that “everything is available and easy and at the touch of a button” but NOTHING WORKS and IT’S ALL CAKED IN SHIT and costs A THOUSAND DOLLARS and filled with the GHOSTS OF DEAD CHINESE FACTORY CHILDREN. Fuck them.
  • A friend and colleague told me over Facebook that my microphone technique was bad. He was right. I still wanted to kill him.
  • Another friend told me that one of the episodes had about a minute of dead air in the middle. It was also released in stereo, rather than mono, which meant that if you listened on headphones (like everyone does) it only came out of one headphone. I now know how to fix this but it adds another step to releasing each show.

YOU ARE NOT CUT OUT FOR THIS. YOU SHOULD QUIT.

Phew.

So. Let me introduce you to the voice in my head that typed all that. His name is Tom’s INNER CRITIC. And I am not going to let him win. I am going to shut him up with my INNER COACH. He’s going to refute the Critic point by point.

Is the show boring? No. It’s about the most important emotions and relationships in peoples’ lives. It may be INACCESSIBLE to people who don’t KNOW the interviewee personally, but that’s my job: to open them up and out to the world. And you will learn how. No one is Howard Stern or Michael Parkinson on day one. Give it time.

Is the show sappy? No. You’re going for real and raw and true. Not sappy. You have a great bullshit detector. Plus, you’re allergic to saccharine moments. You’re not capable of making a sappy show. So don’t worry about that.

Will the show fail? Maybe. But who cares? Failure creates wisdom and strength. As Louis C.K. would say (and did), “whenever you leave behind failure, that means you’re doing better. If you think everything you’ve done has been great, you’re probably dumb.”

Is it not funny? Possibly. Maybe it’s not as funny as it could be. Maybe it will get funnier as it gets better. Or maybe as it gets better, it won’t need to be as funny. Or maybe, it IS actually funny, especially compared to the giant heaps of hippo dung masquerading as comedy all over the Internet. Either way, a sure fire way to make it un-funny? Stress over the funny-ness. So relax. Enjoy it. And PUT THE JOY OF DOING THIS front and center. That feeling is infectious. So is laughter.

Are there technical problems? Yes. And every day, in every way, you get better at dealing with those problems. You know a great way to NEVER master technical challenges? Never do anything you think you might screw up at. In a short amount of time, you will know this stuff COLD. You will have decent audio, production, interviewing, graphics and RSS skills. Pretty cool, right? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Also, take a page from Louis C.K.’s book again. He taught himself how to make short films, and do everything on them: write, produce, shoot, direct, edit, etc. At the beginning, he was terrible. By the end, he was a master. And now he needs precisely ZERO permissions to do his thing. He needs no one else, beyond the people he chooses to need. He has complete control. THAT is a fucking artist. That really could be you.

Now go get ‘em.