RANDY! Mike Sacks on His Insanely Funny New Book
Today I have a treat for you: a conversation with author Mike Sacks about his new book, Randy!
Mike Sacks is a humor writer, editor, novelist, and man of many literary talents. He’s written for Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, The New Yorker, The New York Times, McSweeney’s, among others. His past books include Stinker Lets Loose, Poking a Dead Frog, and others.
I interviewed Mike Sacks previously on Hyoom. But I wanted to talk to him again, because Mike’s newest project has arrived, and it blew my mind in more ways than one. It’s a short book (Biography? Memoir? Novel? Experiment?) called Randy: The Full and Complete Unedited Biography and Memoir of the Amazing Life and Times of Randy S.! This is the book’s description:
Randy! is a self-published memoir of a man from Maryland found by Mike Sacks at a garage sale and is being re-published “as is.” Randy is a thirty-something who sells his family farm and commissions an out-of-work local author, named Noah B., to write and type his memoir.
This book is fucking awesome. It’s my life’s story. I’m thirty-four but look twenty-one. Maybe twenty-two at the most. I live in Maryland. Please read it. I’m a writer, a songwriter, an artist. I do it all. I’m an artist of life. I’m an adventurer, I’m the president of my development. Read the memoir. You won’t be disappointed. — Randy S.
Mike and I talked about where Randy came from, and what this totally insane (and insanely funny) book can teach us about comedy, writing, and life.
Randy S. is to put it lightly, a man of grandiose ambition. He calls himself a songwriter, a filmmaker, a regular writer, a poet, an inventor, an artist of life. But his projects go nowhere, and he’s emotionally stunted and massively self-deluded. How did you create the glorious monstrosity that is Randy?
Originally it came from a character I performed on a New York radio station, WFMU. It was for a relationship show called “Why Oh Why” with Andrea Silenzi. I wanted to create the world’s worst single person. The character was just sort of improv, free form, based on all these guys I knew growing up in Maryland and Virginia. Very provincial, never heading into DC even though it was less than twenty miles away. Very suburban. Very much of the retail world, where I myself worked for ten years.
I was friends with a lot of these guys but I also felt removed from them. Tough to talk about comedies and classic movies and little-known authors and bands with them, but they were fun and loyal buddies. They had no greater dream than to get off work and head straight to the sports bars, or to Ocean City Maryland for the weekend. What creativity they knew came through the radio and hit television shows. But I also found in a few of them a desperate need to work out their creative urges, whether it was writing a Dan Koontz type book or coming up with a Judd Apatow type movie involving their own lives.
I just love these characters and I love the DC area. I didn’t in any way want to mock anyone. I miss living there and this was sort of a nostalgic take on my teens and twenties. Quite frankly, I could very easily still be there, working retail, although the store I worked at for years and years went out of business: Kemp Mill Records. I could have been back there now, in my forties, with a name tag and chukka boots, eating take-out lunch, standing up at the store’s counter.
There’s an idea in millennial culture that everyone deserves to live their passion, and everyone who wants to create art should be a groundbreaking genius. Were you thinking about millennials and entitlement when writing Randy? Is any of Randy! cultural critique as opposed to just pure, zany fun?
A bit, I suppose. Not millennial so much as just anyone, no matter the age, who wants to be remembered and respected and to stand out above the fray. Everyone wants to be looked at as being special. It’s a very strong human urge. But I don’t know if we as human are hard-wired for it. I mean, how many people, hundreds of years ago, were known among millions besides kings and religious figures? Not many. It does interest me why this is such a strong urge.
Quite a few people I worked with at the record store wanted to make it as musicians and thought this was the quickest, easiest way to do it: working in a record store. It’d be like wanting to get into movies and working in a movie theater. But what did they know? What did any of us know? None of us knew any artists or writers or musicians or filmmakers. We knew no one but ourselves. And we wanted to be bigger than just a clerk in a store making six bucks an hour.
How does one “make it”? We had no idea. So I can’t fault someone for having creativity and wanting to produce an outlet for it and be known for it. What intrigued me, though, was this sense that you didn’t need talent to make it. You just needed to be on TV. Or in the movies. Or on the radio. Or in print. And it doesn’t work like that.
And even if it does happen, happiness is not guaranteed. I’ve seen that since. Then again, it beats working for six bucks an hour in a strip mall behind a government housing project in Aspen Hill, Maryland.
Reading the book, I couldn’t help but feel bad for Randy S. He lacks self-awareness, any desire for real relationships, or focus, or depth. He rides from victory to victory in his own eyes, but I feel this sense of defeat and sadness and irredeemable disappointment, beneath Randy’s big-mouthed exterior. Do you view Randy! as sad, or tragic?
Definitely sad. I feel bad for the guy. He basically raised himself, with some assistance from his elderly grandmother. He just doesn’t know any better. I think his confidence act is just a way to get through the difficult world we all face. His difference, I guess, is that he now has the advantage of having enough money to fail repeatedly.
I don’t think he’s a bad guy. Just clueless and not as bright or as creative as he thinks he is. He can’t read people. He has to pay for a girlfriend and he has to pay for a best pal to pay attention to him. He hangs out with kids who are fifteen years younger than he is at Spring Break. That’s sad. But he knows nothing else. He’s feral, in a sense. I hope people root for him.
Randy! feels related in some ways to Stinker (from your previous book, Stinker Lets Loose). They’re both grandiose, overconfident idiots. Do the Randy! and Stinker universes feel at all connected to you?
That’s funny. I never thought of that until recently. My friend Nathan Rabin pointed this out in a review.
It never even occurred to me that that was what I was doing but I guess I do like singular, delusional male characters. I relate to that. It’s very, very easy to find yourself alone now, even though everyone’s connected. And it’s very easy to circle the drain into craziness or into being forgotten and shunted off in society. I like those characters who, even though they’re different, at least try to make a difference.
Stinker feels it’s heroic to deliver a six-pack of Schlitz to President Jimmy Carter. Is it heroic? No. It’s insane and delusional. But he thinks it’s awesome. I love that. Maybe it’s very American. To go on these journeys that mean nothing in the long run but are fun to be a part of while they’re happening and that mean the world to you and you alone. Why not, right? Everyone has dreams. Granted, Stinker isn’t solving world poverty, but who cares. Let him have his delusional adventure.
Randy and Stinker live in different worlds, though. Stinker’s world rewards overconfidence; he has hijinks, but at the end of the day, he succeeds gloriously. Randy’s world is closer to real: it gives him what he deserves (in his case, nothing), then he rationalizes his failures. One universe is morally cartoonish, the other is harsher and psychologically more accurate. One universe is Panglossian and happy, the other is more Hobbesian and brutal. How intentional was this?
That’s a good way of putting it. But I’d say that Stinker is fictional, while Randy is real. Of course, they’re both fictional but Randy lives in the real world, our world. Stinker is a hero in a very bizarre, fictional world created by strange men in the 1970s, who truly saw this idiot as being heroic. A modern-day cowboy, out on the road, doing all of the good that the rich men weren’t able to do.
I thought about creating a version of Randy in which he writes a book that shows him becoming a hero. But I thought it might be much more interesting to have an author show what Randy’s world is actually like. And in the real world, he’s not going to succeed. It’s just a fact. I mean, the Smokey and the Bandit heroes to me were as fictional as the robots in Star Wars. Who the fuck could survive like that in the real world? You can’t. It’s fun to pretend you can, but it’s really not possible. That’s not a bad idea: perhaps for my next book, I’ll write a Smokey and the Bandit sequel in which Smokey has to work in an office, perhaps as a temp. I’m guessing it doesn’t go so well.
Randy and Stinker feel like “endless characters.” You could just write their exploits forever. How should humor writers prepare, and research, in order to create great characters that can generate endless material?
I think the best comedy is tethered to character. I don’t think it’s connected to politics or current events. The humor that lasts, for me, is character based, whether it’s Ricky Gervais in The Office or Homer Simpson in The Simpsons or Maude in “Harold and Maude” or a Woody Allen character in his short fiction.
I grew up in the DC area and heard a lot of political comedy. I hate it. It goes bad real fast. But human character doesn’t change. It’s more fun for me to read and more fun for me to write. I admire the comedy writers who can write Trump jokes day after day, year after year. I truly do. I don’t have the talent to do that. But if it’s a character, the humor flows nicely and easily for me and I love it.
What’s your advice for a humor writer who’s writing lots of short pieces but wants to tackle a full-length comedic or satirical book? You’ve been through this transition yourself, I think?
I have. I don’t think one is more important than the next. Borges wrote only short fiction but it’s no less effective than any longer literature out there. Veronica Gang only wrote short humor, not long form, but it’s as brilliant, or more brilliant, than any lengthy comedy book. There is no proper length, there is no proper format, there is no proper anything. Make it work. Again, do whatever the fuck you want. Life is short. Fuck those who tell you that there’s one way of doing something.
A huge influence on me growing up was Ian MacKaye of Fugazi. He started Dischord Records in DC. He was in Minor Threat and a ton of other great bands. Did what he wanted, his way. Still doing it his way. Huge influence! Be punk in spirit, if not in reality. It can only help in a creative and business sense.
I’m not sure how many early career writers you interact with. But what kinds of mistakes do you see beginning humor writers make? What about intermediate ones?
I do teach at Humber College in Toronto and I give talks and such. I think the biggest mistake is that a lot of young writers feel they HAVE to write for a sitcom. Or HAVE to write for The New Yorker. If you don’t want to do that, don’t.
Write your own thing. Do it your way. But you have to practice like you would with any instrument. Accomplish something every day. Live lives! Don’t just memorize Simpsons episodes. Watch and read things others are not. There’s nothing to be gained from watching and reading the same shit that everyone else is reading. Instead of watching a Simpsons rerun, watch a documentary on serial killers.
If most writers are looking this way, look that way. Think differently. Be a good person. Don’t look at this as being a me versus them situation. You should go through life with like-minded people, as a group. You’re all in this together. Help each other out. Make connections. Experience the world, not just comedy. Live a good life. Make your own coffee. Walk more. I’m running out of advice.
After Randy!, what’s your next writing project? Tell us what’s on the horizon.
I wrote a new book that will be released as an audiobook with a huge cast after the New Year, and then as a book in June 2019. This one takes place in the 1980s, instead of the 1970s, as Stinker Lets Loose did. It’s a John Hughes type movie. But more bizarre. An homage to all those movies I loved growing up. Which are strange as shit, in retrospect. A book will follow in June 2019. I make an appearance as a high school student who loves comedy and has few friends. You know, autobiographical. Look for the character named “Mike.”
Randy! comes out September 11, 2018. Grab it at Amazon.
Mike Sacks is also the author of Stinker Lets Loose and Poking A Dead Frog: Conversations With Today’s Top Comedy Writers, among many others.