In the evermore visible world of independent standup, Rob Delaney has emerged as a poster child for the brand of comedy that has quickly begun to define his generation: sophomorically enlightened, engaged but disaffected, authentically ironic. Perhaps best known for his Twitter account, Delaney adopts nuanced tones ranging from genuine earnestness to full-on derision, though he is probably at his funniest when he adopts a faux-obtuseness that lets him get away with tweets like these.
Delaney, who will be performing this Thursday at 8:00 p.m. at Jupiter’s at the Crossing (located right in the heart of Downtown Champaign for Old People), was kind enough to answer some of my questions yesterday afternoon. You should read his answers and then you should go buy a ticket.
You seem genuinely comfortable talking about serious issues such as social justice, depression, suicide, and addiction. Is there any tension between these things and your comedy?
Perhaps, but I don’t think it’s a bad tension. I think tension is fantastic, I think it’s a really great ingredient in comedy. The best comedy is actually about serious things. I do look at things like racism or homophobia or my own issues with depression and alcoholism and sobriety — I think those things go together pretty well, and when handled properly, can be a good recipe for big genuine laughs.
Your political sensibilities seem to be distinctly progressive, especially with regards to gender politics, and yet you make some pretty risqué (some could argue offensive) jokes in your stand-up and in your tweets. How do you reconcile this apparent disparity?
Well certainly the funniest things are not going to be partisan or on one side of the political spectrum. One can only laugh so hard at political humor, in my opinion. The things that are genuinely funniest appeal to, really, everybody. That’s why I should be able to tell a joke that, you know, will make a Puerto Rican woman laugh just as much as it’ll make a plumber in Lawrence, Kansas who’s a fifth generation Swedish dude. So I don’t define myself — I’m not a member of a registered political party. I consider myself independent. I mean, it would be easy to characterize myself as a lefty, but I think that would be lazy, and I think that anyone who self-identifies as conservative or liberal is a silly person and I think part of the problem. That’s my opinion.
You’ve really come to establish yourself across a number of different mediums (essays, stand-up, Twitter, you’re currently working on a book). Do you identify more with one of these mediums than you do the others?
I do feel happiest and enjoy doing standup the most, by a pretty large margin. I love writing for VICE, I’ve enjoyed writing the book, I enjoy acting and stuff like that, but at the end of the day, stand-up is my favorite thing to do, and sort of the engine that really powers the rest of it.
A common thread in most things that you put out there is a willingness to discuss things that we as a culture are really uncomfortable discussing. And so I’m wondering if there’s anything you don’t feel comfortable discussing.
Uuumm, I don’t know, and if I didn’t feel comfortable discussing something I would ask myself why I didn’t feel comfortable discussing it. For example, I will make jokes — I make “fat jokes” on Twitter sometimes where I’ll use “fat” as a negative adjective, right? And people will say: “aw, why do you do that, you’re usually so nice, you may be joking, but you’re a nice guy, why are you making fun of fat people?”
And my reason for that is I’ve been gaining weight over the last couple years, you know? And so it’s a naked fear, basically, and you pursue it till the end, which you have to do in comedy. You’re always compressing and tightening and tightening. And so what happens? I get fat until I explode and die? You know? Like, I’m gaining weight — it’s within my power — and it makes me sad and nervous that I’ve chosen this through a complicated web of self-deceit and stuffing down bad habits and secrets and stuff.
So that’s why I make fun of fat people, because I’m becoming one myself, and I’m afraid of that. So those people on Twitter help me understand that thing. And even us talking about this right now, to me, is kind of funny, that you’ve got a guy trying to explain something that he’s afraid of. I mean, I’m very easy to get under the hood of, psychologically. I mean, I just did a little psychoanalysis of myself, and I think I’m correct — even an undergrad in psychology would be like: “YUP! Dude’s just pulling the hair of the girl he likes in first grade.” I’m afraid of getting fat, so I’m going to point at other people and say, “Hey, fatso.” And we all do that, one way or another with certain things. So that’s just sort of an example that I’ve talked through right now.
You’ve written a little bit about literary figures, namely David Foster Wallace and his choice to take his own life. Does contemporary literature have an influence on what you do?
Certainly. Not necessarily directly, but the curiosity that David Foster Wallace demonstrated is, I think. You know, in comedy you have to pay attention to the world around you. You have to read the newspaper, but you also have to read literature, I think, because the more you have in your toolbox the better off you are — and your toolbox is your brain and your body. When you’re doing comedy you have nowhere to hide, and so you have to carry around an encyclopedia of sorts. So certainly he is a hero of mine, David Foster Wallace, for his commitment to knowledge, his passion and curiosity. But I should also talk about the book Beloved by Toni Morrison, which just knocked my socks off. But, yeah, I like to read and reading helps me in comedy, for sure. If you want to be funny, you have to read.
And so you tend to read funny stuff, like Toni Morrison.
Yeah, man, you don’t have to read funny stuff to be funny. I mean, you just have to fill up your head.
Okay, so not to belabor the DFW connection, but I was struck a few years back when I read a New Yorker article wherein Wallace is quoted as saying, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” and later, that he hoped he was, as a writer, able to help people “become less alone inside.” I’m wondering if you have similar feelings about comedy. Or maybe in a broader sense, how do you feel like comedy can help us?
Well, human beings — and this not an original thought that I’m expressing right now — human beings need stories. We need to be going through mental rehearsals all the time with things that could happen, with things we hope to have happen, things that we don’t want to happen to us, things that we fear. Stories are always playing in our minds: we’re daydreaming, we dream at night, and all the while we’re navigating human life, which is very hard. And you also have to be, or really, you are the Delta Force Operator of your own life, you know? And so you have to play through these scenarios in your mind, literally, to survive.
If thieves took away art and stories and movies and music and stand-up, we’d pretty quickly die. And if we didn’t die of a terribly broken heart, we’d die from war and chaos pretty quickly, so I agree very much with what David Foster Wallace said on that.
Want more Delaney? Click here to read a really great interview he did with The Good Men Project about a year ago. Then, click here and buy a ticket to his performance. Then, if you aren’t already, follow him on Twitter.