Simon Rich is afraid. He thinks he’s missing out on some vital piece of information that could land him in jail, cost him his job, maybe his life, or, at the very least, embarrass him in front of others. It’s a fear he’s explored as an editor of The Harvard Lampoon, in the pages of The New Yorker, and as a young staff writer on Saturday Night Live. One would think that Rich’s fears would lose their grasp on his psyche after he’s explored them in such detail for the amusement of countless others, but such is not the case.
While the tragically uninformed may be the perspective with which Rich identifies with most, Free-Range Chickens, his second collection of humorous vignettes, contains an eclectic mix of point of views ranging from animals, monsters, and even God. Sometimes Rich attempts to justify his own habits, such as in The Only Emails I Could Receive That Would Justify the Frequency with Which I Check My Email; other times, he provides a glimpse into A Conversation Between the People Who Hid in My Closet Every Night When I Was Seven, shares the misadventures of an awkward youth questing for popularity in Ninth-Grade Experiments, and exposes the demons that lurk in many of us in Inside the Cartridge: Duck Hunt. While the subject of his pieces may change from page to page, Rich’s work remains consistently funny, unique, and memorable.
Ben Kharakh: What’s your favorite perspective to write from?
Simon Rich: Any perspective where someone is missing some vital piece of information — preferably a piece of information so vital that it will probably result in their death.
BK: Have you ever found yourself in such a situation?
SR: I feel like I’m always in that situation because I feel like I’m never fully clued in on what’s going on. I feel like I have a lot in common with animals and small children. It might be because I’ve only been a grown-up for a year or two. I feel lost in the adult world almost all the time.
BK: Is there anything you miss about being a kid?
SR: What I miss is the confidence of knowing everything when you’re a little kid. There’s something fun about that. I write about that point of view in the book a few times. Like when I got the Publishing Clearing House letter, I knew that I had just won a shocking amount of money and no one could tell me otherwise, not even my mother, who forced me to read the fine print.
BK: What do you consider to be the adult world?
SR: I’m still trying to figure that out. My working definition for being an adult is moving out of your mother’s apartment, so I guess I’ve been an adult for 14 months.
BK: What is it like?
SR: Terrifying. I fear that a responsible adult will go inside my apartment and see how I live. They’ll see all the sardine cans in my pantry and the unmade bed. There are all these forms you have to fill out! They come from the government. You need to fill them out and send them in, and I freak out about missing something or filling in the wrong box and ending up in some sort of jail.
BK: Have you been doing your own taxes?
SR: I’ve been trying to. I get a lot of help from my older brother with all of these adult things. I call him many times a day. He only lives about five blocks away.
BK: Has your writing matured with time; and what would a mature Simon Rich entail?
SR: I just wake up every day trying to write something that’s fun to write and fun to read. I don’t really think about it in those terms. That’s a good and valid question that I wish I had an answer to!
BK: How would you compare Free-Range Chickens with Ant Farm?
SR: They’re very similar, but I’d say the only difference is that the stakes are higher within the pieces of Free-Range Chickens. The original title for Ant Farm was “Horrible Situations Volume 1,” and I was convinced to take a more subtle title. So this is really “Horrible Situations Volume 2,” in my brain. I guess it could be described as more horrible situations in the sense that they are even more horrible! It’s a little more horrible than the first one, but I still consider them to be part of the same project.
BK: Are all these jokes still about fear?
SR: Yeah, it’s still the same theme. The only way I really know how to write is about fear. I feel like the fears in the second book are maybe a little bit more extreme types of fear, but there are definitely exceptions. I wrote a piece about an all-you-can-eat buffet.
BK: What happens with the fear once you turn it into a piece?
SR: It’s a mixed bag. Sometimes it drastically increases, specifically if it’s a piece that requires a lot of Wikipedia research. That and WebMD are two resources I maybe shouldn’t have in my apartment. When I was writing the piece about the electronic chess board which rapidly degenerates into a plot to destroy all humans, that was a scary piece to write because, while I was writing it, I convinced myself that this was a done deal and that computers were definitely going to take over and kill us. Now when I read that piece, I feel like maybe I was being a little melodramatic on the day that I wrote it.
BK: When else do you feel that the end is near?
SR: Every time I get an automated response from a company and I feel myself altering the pitch of my voice in order to make it more robotic so that the robot will understand me. I feel pretty scared because I don’t think we humans should be working so hard to accommodate the needs of robots. I think it should be the other way around. I shouldn’t have to coddle a robot in my day-to-day life.
BK: Robots are the real silent threat. Some say, “Oh, immigrants are stealing our jobs!” When in reality, it is machines that replace factory workers and cashiers.
SR: Robots don’t care who you are. All they want to do is get the job done by any means necessary.
BK: How would you describe your writing process?
SR: I wake up every day and write for as long as I can, and throw as much out there as possible and see what sticks. I’ll take a break, and then later in the day I’ll try to brainstorm some ideas to write about for the next day so I don’t wake up to a completely blank slate. I try to write for a few hours every single morning.
BK: Why the morning?
SR: By the end of the day, I usually get distracted by e-mails or people who call wanting to hang out. I always succumb to peer pressure…about anything. So if anyone’s asking me to do anything, I’m almost always going to do it, regardless of who it is or what they’re asking me to do. My friends tend to convince me to do good things, though. The only reason I moved out of my mom’s apartment was peer pressure, but I’m glad that I did. I also lived on a chicken farm one summer. A bunch of my friends were doing it and they said I should go, so I really had no choice. But it ended up being a great experience. I actually feel content having my friends make my decisions for me, because they seem to know better than I do.
BK: What was the experience of working on the farm like?
SR: I wrote in the mornings, and in the afternoons I helped them with pretty basic farm stuff like planting seeds, throwing fertilizer onto the field, building chicken coops, feeding the chickens, and putting chickens back into their cages, which was actually the most fun part.
BK: How do you feel about chickens now?
SR: It hasn’t affected the frequency with which I eat chicken, but I am more aware of where they come from. I can visualize much better how the chicken got from the farm to my plate. One thing about chickens is that they are unbelievably dumb. When you try to get them back into their coop, they’ll run from you, and when they get winded, their only recourse is to hide, but since they live on plots of grass, they’ll hide behind a blade of grass, which is really like a full grown man trying to hide behind a mailbox or a parking meter. I’ll never forget the image of a bunch of chickens hiding behind blades of grass.
BK: There are certain things that are hard for us to imagine ourselves doing because we’ve yet to do them. Perhaps the chicken farm was such an experience. Might that be how you feel about the adult world?
SR: Yeah. These days, almost everything I do is something I’m doing for the first time — like buying a bed. Last year was the first bed I ever bought. I bought a suit a few days ago. I never had one, but I needed one because grown-ups need to own suits. Dishes — I try to cook.
BK: How would you describe the experience of doing things for the first time?
SR: My expectations are definitely low when I cook, and I think my friends’ expectations are similarly low when I’m cooking.
BK: Do you learn things that you don’t know from such experiences, such as when you began to write for Saturday Night Live?
SR: I learned a lot about writing visually. It’s very different, and you have a lot more tools at your disposal. It’s fun to think of different ways to get a joke across. One tool that you have that you don’t have when just writing is that you have a cast of super funny talented actors, because they can really bring your stuff to life and make it work better than it does on the page. It’s been incredibly fun and exciting.
BK: How can people recognize a sketch as being written by Simon Rich?
SR: If there’s a sketch where something horrible happens and people keep talking about how horrible it is, then there’s a good chance that it’s one of mine.
BK: Right now you’re working on a comedic novel. How does that compare to writing your jokes?
SR: It’s freeing. You can space things out more. You don’t need a joke on every third line, so you can explore premises that are more complicated than a one- or two-page piece. It’s still about the same theme that my first two books are about. It’s a comic novel. I think it’s written in the same tone, but structurally it’s exciting to have the freedom to write about subjects that require a page or two.
BK: What’s your revision process like, with both the novel and the jokes?
SR: With jokes, I just write a ton and cut the ones I don’t like. A novel is more like a house of cards. If you take a piece away, it can fall apart, so you have to do some restructuring since it’s one long narrative. I’ve been diligent about outlining every section before writing it, so there won’t be a point where I get to the end of a chapter and then have to re-write everything else from scratch.
BK: Do you revise jokes?
SR: When I write jokes, I write about a piece a day. I’ll throw five away, try to fix two, and then only half of what I finish I actually show to people.
BK: Laugh-out-loud funny written humor is difficult to pull off, I think, so I consider your books quite an accomplishment because they produce so much audible laughter. Do you come across a lot of laugh-out-loud written pieces?
SR: I think that people who write laugh-out-loud jokes end up in TV or film. A lot of people that I’ve met can do what I do, but they prefer to write for TV shows for actors. It’s lots of fun to do that, so it makes sense, but I like books because there are certain things that you can get away with in a book that you couldn’t do on TV. For example, a lot of my jokes depend on you not actually seeing what’s going on. In that way, they’re like radio plays. That’s especially the case when I’m writing about something horrible. If the audience actually saw the horrible thing happening, they might get freaked out or spooked, but if it’s on the page, it feels a little less real and you can go to a darker piece. If you were to build the actual set for the Titanic piece, for example, it might get a little bit tragic and the jokes wouldn’t land as well.
BK: What’s the relationship between humor and horrible things?
SR: The two are very similar. My favorite genres to read are comedy and horror. Some of my favorite authors are Roald Dahl, T.C. Boyle, Edgar Allan Poe, and Philip Roth, who often has comedy and horror in the same paragraph. I just love writers who are interesting and fun to read. Stephen King’s premises, for example, could be easily mined for jokes. He actually has a lot of jokes amidst these terrifying books. That’s why I think I write a lot about horrific subjects, because of reading Stephen King books and being so fascinated by high stakes premises.
BK: At the same time, the thing that you thought was horrible might end up not being as horrible as you thought.
SR: Yeah, it’s very interesting to see what works better live or on the page. I have an instinct as to where a joke belongs, but I’m not always right. Really, I’m still just a beginner.