Last week I received an assailment of frustrated texts, phone calls and emails after taking a week off from posting to the blog (I had actually planned to write a very uplifting piece about how caffeine is quietly killing us all, but I caved and became a coffee drinker instead.) Alas, I am deeply sorry for any anguish this short hiatus has caused my beautiful community of readers, as I sincerely had no idea this project meant anything to anyone except me, my dog and my easily distracted toddler (who, surprisingly, has a LOT of notes). I promise I'll be better. For us.
In the event that I have yet to repair the holes in our relationship, today I'm here to bribe you back into my life with a serious treat. For some totally insane reason, an Emmy-award-winning writer agreed to participate in this sham of a website and give me an incredibly meaningful interview. His name is Frank Lesser, he wrote for our beloved show The Colbert Report, and I worry he thinks he did this for charity. (Frank, thank you for being so kind to me. For future reference, I spill chips and salsa in my bed very regularly and am not to be treated as a respectable human.)
You can catch up with Frank at sadmonsters.com for more about his book of essays about how monsters have feelings too, access to comedy videos he wrote and produced, along with a long list of short stories he's written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate.com and McSweeney's. If you're anything like me, you'll find Frank's work to be warm and relatable with a level of truthiness that will make even the most crestfallen monster light up with joy.
Frank Lesser! I must tell you, when I emailed you to pitch the interview I made a typo in your email address and accidentally emailed the wrong person. I might have to interview a man named Frank Lesker next week. This might be awkward, but I've registered all email variations of my name, so I saw your request but chose to ignore it (classic Frank Lesker). On a semi-related topic, when people finally stop reading white male authors, my backup plan is to write under the pseudonym Fran Klesser.
My first question is very important, so please be honest. What part of Ohio are you from? Columbus. Technically a small suburb that you'd only know about if you were-- oh my God!-- FROM COLUMBUS! (I read ahead.)
It's true, I'm from Columbus too! Next time we’re home we should visit the museum that preserves the former smallest book in the world. We could also try to make time for the Hot Dog Bun Museum if we’re feeling wild. Oh man, I'm ashamed to say I'm unfamiliar with those museums. I should have paid more attention when I went to the Columbus Museum Museum. I do know that Columbus used to have a Wendy's fast-food museum, housed in the very first Wendy's, but a few years ago they tore the whole thing down! Really, based on all the food chains headquartered in Columbus (aside from Wendy's, there's Bob Evans and White Castle), the city should have built a museum to Type II Diabetes.
And it did hurt my Columbus pride that they tore down the original Wendy’s. I’m also upset that Columbus failed to save the Kahiki, this crazy 40-foot-tall tiki-themed restaurant that was torn down and is now a Walgreen's. On the plus side, that's where my dad now picks up his meds.
We need to have a VERY serious conversation about the Kahiki. It's my all-time favorite restaurant. The volcano? The gift shop? The rain forest? Pretty sure the reason they're not there anymore is because I'M not there anymore. Do your parents still live in Columbus? Is your childhood room intact? My dad still lives there, and my childhood bedroom is intact in the sense that I did not lose my virginity in it.
I'm dying to know more about your childhood, but let's shift gears before we wedge too far into our Ohio roots. You attended Brown University where you wrote for and edited the humor magazine, The Brown Jug. Did you always intend to become a comedy writer? Not exactly. Very early on, I wanted to be an artist. That sounds so pretentious, so let me change that: I wanted to get paid to draw and paint. (I should point out that the painting in the selfie is not my work-- it's by a great illustrator Chris Buzzeli.) I also liked writing, though, and my middle school teacher Mrs. Meckley forced me to join our school's writing team. (You can probably guess that I was not a very athletic child.) Later I’d write these weird little stories, and people would read them and go, “Hey, this is pretty funny,” and so I decided to focus on the humor. Or maybe I was peer-pressured into it. I find it amusing that my conservative, responsible backup plan to “be an artist” was “be a writer.”
How did you end up writing for The Colbert Report? I never know whether to credit it more to my TALENT or GENIUS. Kidding. My friend Alex Cooley got hired as the writer's assistant, and I got mugged, beaten up, and semi-dumped by my girlfriend in the space of about two weeks. So I told all of this to Alex shortly after she mentioned that the show (which had been on for two weeks at that point) was looking to hire additional writers, and I asked if I could submit a packet. I don't think she thought I'd get hired; she probably figured writing the packet would be a good way to distract me from worrying about what the hell I was doing with my life.
Walk us through a day-in-the-life of a Colbert writer. Were you there every day? Was it stressful? Was there a kitchen where people would commiserate about their upcoming deadlines? Who was your best friend? Did you have staff meetings like the rest of the American workforce? These memories are lost to the mists of time. Besides, I'm saving all the juicy details for my memoirs (to be titled either “The Lesser is Too Evil” or “No, Let ME Be Frank With You LOLOLOOLkdjaflkjsdlfkj.”) Sorry, it’s just that while we were on the show, they didn’t like us to reveal too many of the “magic tricks,” and I think that’s still a bit ingrained in me.
How were ideas pitched and selected? Well, semi-ignoring what I just wrote above: We'd pitch to the head writer, who'd then cull the “joke herd” and have us re-pitch in front of Stephen, and he'd ultimately decide what ideas to pursue (plus he and the head writers would have their own ideas and topics). Having to re-pitch was never my favorite part, which is odd, considering how jokes are always funnier the second time you hear them…
How involved was Stephen Colbert in the process? Stephen Colbert was incredibly involved. But even though the show is over, I still want to preserve its mystery-- am I talking about Stephen Colbert the character or Stephen Colbert the real person??? WHAT IS REALITY???????
What a seamless segue into my next question! There’s an ambiguous line between Real Stephen Colbert and Character Stephen Colbert. Was it difficult to write in a way that kept the two personas separate? I'd rather not speak for him. (BUT WHICH HIM????) For me, the show was always starring “Stephen Colbert the Person as Stephen Colbert the Character.” Little bits of the real Stephen would peek through from time to time, and the “character” was just him wearing his own face as a mask (whoooaaaaaa). And even with other shows, it's not like you're watching The Real David Letterman-- you're watching TV’s David Letterman. The only time writing for “The Character” was difficult was when you'd really want to weigh in on something, and you'd have to stop and figure out how to say it through Stephen's reverse worldview.
Did you have a passion for politics before writing for Colbert? I had made some political videos beforehand, some of them with my friend Jason Woliner, who went on to much bigger things (Human Giant, Eagleheart; if there’s a legitimately funny comedy show out there, he’s probably directed at least one episode of it.) I do think it’s hard to keep doing political comedy year after year; politicians have term limits, and so do political satirists.
Who's your favorite political figure to write about? I liked making jokes about the Fox News folks, but maybe that was low-hanging fruit, since they were basically walking joke set-ups. Nowadays, I’m not as focused on politics. The problem with writing about topical subjects when you're not on a show is that you send a piece somewhere, and by the time they reject it it’s no longer topical and you can’t send it anywhere else.
Do you have a favorite sketch/segment from the show that you wrote? Oh, man, it all blends together so much, and the process was so incredibly collaborative. I’d like to point out that I never wrote any of the bits I actually appeared in (I played Stephen's roommate, Stephen's beard, a conquistador, an Ottoman Turk, a Colombian drug-lord posing as an intern, and Stephen’s Black Friend's White Friend-- oh wait, I did co-write that one). As for things I wrote... I’m not sure, but I always wondered if it was a bit gauche to claim credit for bits. Again, everything was so collaborative. The only thing I’ll claim right now is the original idea for “Charlene (I’m Right Behind You Now),” which was a stalker-y pop song Stephen “recorded” in the 80s. The idea was mine, and so was the chorus, but Eric Drysdale wrote the much funnier verses. (I’m only claiming this one only because when Jack White came on the show and produced a cover of the song, the LP accidentally credited someone else.) Okay, wait, two more things that at the very least wouldn’t have happened without me: Stephen claiming Kareem Abdul Jabbar ripped off his documentary “Hiphopketball: A Jazzebration,” which turned into a bit of a multi-year runner; and Jeff Goldblum’s first appearance on the show to speak on behalf of flies after Obama killed one during an interview. You know, the hard-hitting political stuff.
What was the most fulfilling part about writing for the show? Getting asked to do interviews like this? Really, I think it was knowing that my writing and jokes were actually having an audience; and not just the TV audience, but Stephen Colbert and the other writers in the room. It was pretty great to get Colbert to laugh (but the flip side of that was when you pitched a joke and he didn't laugh, and then you'd be like, “Aw, man, Stephen Colbert doesn’t think I’m funny”). And not to get too political here, but it was also somewhat fulfilling to feel like I was “doing my part,” or “trying to make the world a better place”; regardless of any real world impact of our show, I felt we were at least entertaining the people who were making a real world impact.
What's it been like moving on from that experience? Well, it coincided with some family stuff, but that won't make for a very funny interview (unless you like VERY DARK HUMOR). It's been a bit tougher trying to write without a daily schedule and the pressure of deadlines, and it was also great to have a bunch of incredibly funny people to bounce ideas off of.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is also coming to a close this year. Are you as broken up about it as the rest of the world? I sort of had a feeling it would end on the sooner side of things, but I was still shocked when he actually announced it. I'm sure whoever takes over will be great, and John Oliver is doing a great job carrying on the tradition of satirical comedy, but we're entering a bit of an uncharted era, so I weep for the future.
With Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert both becoming free agents this year, do you think there’s a chance for another collaboration, or is the timing just a coincidence? I'm holding out hope that Jon Stewart revives his old MTV talk show and interviews Colbert about a new season of Strangers With Candy (one of my favorite shows of all time).
I just bought your book, Sad Monsters: Growling on the Outside, Crying on the Inside, on Amazon. It's a delightfully clever look at the disadvantages of being scary. How did you come up with the concept? I looked inside myself, Lauren. And what I saw terrified me. Eh, I don't know; after a few years on Colbert, I decided to write some humor pieces, which was something I always enjoyed doing. And for whatever reason, the first three pieces were monster-themed, so I figured I should write a collection. Actually—and this was only apparent more recently, after some reflection—I think it was inspired a bit by growing up with a somewhat crazy and angry father. I wanted to write the book to show that monsters, just like Darth Vader—just like all fathers-- are human. Really, I just felt that there was some humor to be had in the idea of a crying mummy using its bandages as tissues (which wasn’t even a joke that ended up in the book). The German translation may have actually had a better title-- it was “Even Monsters Are Scared of the Dark.”
Were you afraid of monsters as a kid? Yes. Show me a kid who isn't scared of monsters, and I'll show you a kid who is hiding cat skeletons beneath the floorboards. Honestly, I was always fascinated by the macabre; as a little kid I loved going to the Kahiki for birthday parties (see my earlier nostalgic comment), and I always desperately wanted to order the zombie drink because it came in a skull-shaped mug. I recently bought one on EBay (see the selfie THAT YOU FORCED ME TO TAKE)
Don't worry, Frank, I won't tell the people how excited you were about the selfie. Have you always wanted to be a literary writer? Yes. Wait, are you saying that you consider me to be a literary writer??? Thanks!
Did you have anything to do with Stephen Colbert's books? I worked on “I Am America, And So Can You!” and “America Again: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't,” along with all the other writers. It was a lot of fun, but due to the different time frame, you’d think your jokes all made it in—until a few weeks before the final deadline, when suddenly everything changed.
You’ve written and produced several short films as well. My favorite is Bloody Murray, the story of a little girl wanting to see what happens when she says “Bloody Mary” into the mirror three times. It turns out Bloody Mary is on vacation, and her temp, Bloody Murray, is there in her place. Can we expect to see more in the future? For a while, I was trying to make at least one short film a year. Having said that... Bloody Murray was the last short film I made, and that was back at the end of 2011. I've got a few ideas, but I've actually been spending most of my time and energy on longer projects (screenplays, comedy pilots). The annoying thing about that is you spend all this time on stuff that no one will necessarily see, and you start to feel like you're not accomplishing anything!
I beg to differ! You’ve written an impressive list of short stories for some of the most esteemed outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s and Slate.com. My personal favorite is called "Password Check" which you wrote for NYT. Do you have a favorite unpublished story you can share with us? That’s a great question, and I’ll try not to insult any publications with my answer… I wrote a piece that I still love called “Lincoln’s Little Helper,” which is based on the true story of how an 11-year-old girl named Grace Bedell wrote the clean-shaven Abe Lincoln and suggested he grow a beard. So, my piece imagined the entire letter she wrote, where she also suggests he wear his hair in pigtails and pick a unicorn as his running mate. I also wrote a piece titled “A Passive-Aggressive Letter to the Mouse in My Apartment,” which the New Yorker rejected about six or so years ago. Earlier this year, they ran someone else’s piece titled “An Open Letter to the Cockroach in My Apartment.” It’s obviously a case of parallel thought, but it’s a good illustration of how subjective taste in humor can be.
I have to bring up Twitter because it’s become this surprisingly valuable community for comedy writers to showcase their talent in a way that’s easily accessible and digestible. How do you feel about it? The Twitter-friendly, sub-140-character answer: “It’s great! Please RT.” The real answer is that I somewhat begrudgingly force myself to write a joke a day on it. I was talking to another comedy writer, and I realized that I like to write comedy, but I don’t like writing jokes; or, to be clearer, I like writing jokes in service of a story or a character, but I’m not really into one-liners. I wouldn’t say that on Twitter, though, because it would probably start a shame war (it’s like a flame war, only the outraged internet folks are all trying to say “For shame!” louder than the next person). Really, though, Twitter’s a great tool for aspiring comedy writers—it’s a great way to network, a great way to get your work (or at least jokes) out there, and a great way to meet other funny people.
Do you enjoy social media in general? Are you okay with the fact that I quickly skimmed (very thoroughly examined) your Facebook page for a few seconds (hours and hours) before writing this? I think I’m stuck in the internet circa 2009 or so. That’s the last time I felt I understood what it’s deal was. Maybe I just don’t get outraged enough, or maybe I’m getting old, but I find it a bit exhausting. I’m as much of a narcissist as anyone else, but I’m a lazy narcissist.
I recently had a baby, so I really related to your tweet, “Pregnant women get really freaked out when I touch their stomachs, just because I use my tongue.” Totally unrelated question: Have you ever been arrested? Glad you liked that one. I don’t have kids myself, but I consider my jokes to be my children, and I'm very proud of them all, even the dumb ones. No, I have not been arrested, but when I was in high school I did have a police officer show up at my house at 6 in the morning on a Sunday to ask if I’d been involved in a traffic accident that resulted in a stolen 25 MPH sign. There’s more of a story there, but I’m saving it for my memoirs (“Frank You for Not Joking”).
In 2013, The Colbert Report won an Emmy for “Outstanding Variety Series” ending The Daily Show with Jon Stewart's 10-year winning streak. Stephen Colbert accepted the Emmy on the team's behalf, so to close out the interview, I thought I would give you a moment to write an acceptance speech of your own.
Wow, look at all these people!
(Awkwardly walks offstage as the music plays me off. (It was a really long fart.))