If you want a good introduction to Brian Alan Ellis and his latest book Sad Laughter, you should go and read Bud Smith’s review on Goodreads. Honestly, if you know Bud Smith, then you know that anything I could say here, he said it a million times better.
So in lieu of trying to say something half as good as Bud Smith, I’ll just be honest and unrepentantly self-indulgent in how much Brian Alan Ellis’s writing has meant to me the last few years.
First off, he is the funniest writer I know. He is the type of funny that made me want to be a writer in the first place. He makes misery funny. He makes nihilism funny (which should win him some award somewhere because nihilism is usually quite stuck-up, self-righteous, and not great at the one-liners).
Sad Laughter is the funniest book about misery, depression, and the meaninglessness of writing that I have ever read, by which I mean it is really really funny, and I’m not sure I have ever read or will ever read another book that can make me laugh so hard at my own misery, depression, and the meaninglessness of my own writing.
Which leads me to the following disclaimer: If you take yourself too seriously as a writer, you should probably read Sad Laughter anyway, but you will probably be mad about it for a while. Be prepared to laugh at your own sad and pathetic absurdities and rationalizing, all the things we’ve told ourselves about the importance of what we do and the importance of what we as writers think is so important in life.
Which for me is the real paradoxical genius of Sad Laughter: Through all the jokes, the barbs, the jabs at capital P-Poetry, and most capital L-Literature in capital G-General (many of them at his own expense), Ellis’s writing is most meaningful in its refusal to hold anything sacred. It’s the search for some sort of glimpse of bottom-dwelling humanity in the toxic cesspool of depression, anxiety, insecurity, and suicidal ideations that so many of us are drowning in.
So, yeah, Ellis’s humor is often dark, and yes, jaded with a lot of pop culture references that old white-haired MFA professors will turn up their nose at, and it’s not like he tries to hide his cynicism as his punchlines often find their footing right between the legs of capital W-Writing and capital L-Life. But this sometimes cringe-worthy search for “sad laughter” actually becomes a larger, more meaningful rallying “cry” (albeit mumbly, nasal, and reeking of stale cigarettes) for the best that art and humor can do for us (or maybe just for me).
It shows us that at the bottom of that cesspool nothing is sacred except the effort to find something the tiniest bit meaningful to keep us afloat if only for another day. It shows us that once we stop taking ourselves so seriously and stop taking our art so seriously (quite literally stop telling ourselves that our shit doesn’t stink the same as everyone else’s), we can then start to really figure out what matters and what’s worth living for, maybe, just maybe why we write in the first place.
So no, Sad Laughter is not for everybody. There will be people who do not take its humor seriously enough. There will be people who take its humor too seriously.
There will be people who think it would be absurd to give this book as a Christmas present to someone you know and love.
But here’s what’s also true: it’s fucking Christmas time. And sure, some of you are thinking about how great the holidays are and how nice it is to see your family and to give presents to everyone and how everyone always comes together to celebrate giving… and that’s fine.
But then there’s all of the rest of us who see all this and are told over and over how great things are and how can’t you just be happy and why do you always have to be such a downer and try to ruin everything.
And for those of us “downers,” sometimes it’s nice to be able to read about other “downers” who struggle with this whole meaning of life thing and this whole isn’t art just so important thing, and why do you have to always be such a depressing, cynical, asshole all the time? Don’t you understand how depressing it is to be around you?
And maybe, if you read this and think that’s not for me, sure, fine, but then maybe at least you might ask yourself if there are other people in your life who might actually need to hear from other people that as fucked up as we might be or as depressed and alienated and lonely and miserable and cynical as we might be, there’s still something meaningful to be had once you stop worrying so much about trying to find meaning in all the “meaningful” things that everybody else keeps throwing in your face when they tell you to turn that frown upside down.
Or you know, maybe this is all just me and my own navel-gazing self-pity. Because sometimes I need people like Brian to show me how to stop taking myself so seriously. I need Brian to be able to make me laugh at all the stupid shit I’ve told myself to make myself miserable/happy. Sometimes, I just need to know that there are people like Brian out there who are just as fucked up and depressed as I am and he hasn’t killed himself the way I’ve tried to kill myself so many times. He’s written about it. He’s made jokes about it. He’s gone on living in spite of all the people who would accuse him of being all the depressing, bullshit things he makes fun of himself for.
I’m sure Brian would probably cringe at everything I just wrote and he’d probably crack a joke at his own expense. He’d probably laugh in my face at how bullshit all this idealistic garbage is that I just spewed in his defense. He’d probably tell you all he was trying to do was throw together a bunch of random tweets together to pay the rent.
And so maybe fuck everything I told you. Just go and by this book and give it to somebody who needs it or somebody who it’ll really piss them off because they take themselves too seriously and then just tell yourself: I helped pay a guy’s rent, and now think about how you can hold it over the heads of everybody else at Christmas that you donated to the charity of your choice, and it was this guy who loves WWE, Alf, and his cat (which ironically Alf would’ve tried to eat).
So maybe this Christmas try giving the gift the truly keeps on giving: sad laughter (but also, you know, the book too).
[Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted over Facebook Messenger so it’s kind of all over the place and poorly edited as a not-so subtle commentary on the sad plight of contemporary online literary journalism]
Benjamin Karl Drevlow: So what kind of interview you up for? The Oprah (aka crying and bending over for a new car)? Dr. Phil where I shout and point until you cry and nod and say, I know? The fun, hip alternative interview where I ask you about a bunch of rando shit based on the way I interpret your author photo (having never actually read your book or anything by you)?
Brian Alan Ellis: I want to pretend to be one of those Mansonite kids they give make-overs to on the Ricki Lake Show.
BKD: Goddamnit Brian. The first fucking question and already you’ve got me googling shit. I really wanted seem like I was cool and hip and knew what I was talking about without having to research (editor’s note: here you go world Ricki Lake with the Manson kids). Which version of Ricki we talking about?
BAE: I like the Ricki Lake from the John Waters movie Serial Mom the most. I could definitely use a Ricki Lake makeover right now. A Maury Povich lie-detector test might also be helpful.
BKD: You mean because you’re not the dad?
BAE: I know nothing about dads, really. They are either shitty or they’re just not there. My experience. Some dads are cool, I guess.
BKD: My Two Dads?
BAE: My Two Dads is a fine example of rad dads.
BKD: Honestly, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of Paul Reiser.
BAE: Legit suspicion. Danny Tanner was a rad dad.
BKD: Danny Tanner > Bob Saget telling dirty jokes on the The Aristrocrats?
BAE: … vs. America’s Funniest Home Videos Bob Saget?
BKD: What about Dave Coulier doing the jackalope voice on America’s Funniest People vs. Dave Coulier going down on Alanis Morrissette in a theater?
BAE: I really like that Uncle Joey challenge…
[Editor’s note: so many extremely intelligent and really important things were said here about the role of fatherhood and pop culture but ultimately had to be removed in accordance with FCC regulations for public decency]
BKD: So how you feeling about Sad Laughter these days? Different from some of the last few books or same ol same ol?
BAE: It is same ol same ol. Another book yada yada… Naw, it is cool. Sad Laughter seems to be getting more attention than my other books, which is good because I crave attention.
The irony of that is… SL is kind of an anti-book.
BKD: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. A tough line to walk: Here’s this book that’s largely talking about how it’s all a big circle jerk with Lava Soap. But also: Hey please buy my book so I can have money to pay my bills and not die?
BAE: Yeah, in SL I make a lot of fun of the act of blurbing books but if you flip SL over there are a bunch of blurbs by my friends. I am also doing more to promote this book than my other books. I may even do a book tour next year. It’s ridiculous. Publishing is such a scam.
BKD: Maybe I’m projecting too much here, but isn’t that kind of a similar deal with writing? Like, Hey, look at what a loser douchebag asshole I am and how I don’t deserve to live. But also: HEY PLEASE READ MY SHIT.
BAE: Trust me, the irony is not lost on me. It’s like… What came first, the narcissism or the art? Does that even make sense? Haha. Who cares, right? Sounds good and dumb. Print it.
BKD: I kind of feel like that’s only way to look at writing, though, isn’t it? Like it’s awful and ugly and fuck everything, but also I’m going to write this anyway, so PLEASE READ ME AND JUSTIFY MY EXISTENCE.
BAE: Exactly what it is. That, or it is just boring and academic and people-pleasing.
BKD: Is the writing/publishing a part of the depression for you or is it just like this is what I do and fuck it all? I mean, does it actually mess you up or are you pretty much whatever about it? (…asking for a friend, of course)
BAE: A bit of both. More so it is just what I do because I have been writing and publishing since high school. It can fuck me up. I feel the need to travel and do readings to promote my books, which causes me great anxiety.
BKD: But it’s not like, if people don’t read this book, my life is even more meaningless than it already is?
BAE: No, but I crave validation. That is part of the coping process for me as far as depression goes.
[Editor’s note: at one point interviewer and interviewee both started crying really ugly, snotty emoji crying faces followed by random sad-looking emoji animals and really depressing-looking emoji international flags, which then devolved into them trying to cheer each other up with gifs of 80s wrestlers without their makeup/masks on]
BKD: In my online stalking of you, I’ve read about you working with bands and zines back in the day. Was that what you wanted to do when you first started writing?
BAE: I started writing just so I could get free CDs and to get into concerts for free. Then I realized that I enjoyed writing and that I was pretty good at it.
BKD: How did you get into writing/reading at that time?
BAE: Graphic novels were my gateway into literature. Daniel Clowes. Crumb. Adrian Tomine. The Hernandez Brothers. That is what I read in high school. And then Get in the Van by Henry Rollins got me reading Henry Miller and Hubert Selby Jr.
BKD: Did you read that stuff and think, Hey, I can do that. That’s what I need to do. Or was it like Christ, how the fuck do you even do that?
BAE: Mostly, I just read all the influences of the writers and musicians I was into at the time.
The Get in the Van book, which is just diary entries Henry Rollins wrote while touring with Black Flag, made me realize I had a voice, because I was very angry, so my LiveJournal turned into Henry Rollins Jr.
BKD: Was there a point where you started thinking, Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m just going to do this, that, and the other and then people will realize I’m the next Rollins/Miller/Selby? And then years go by and it doesn’t happen?
Not that I’m saying you’re NOT those things…
BAE: Yes, exactly what happened. I fantasized about being the next Bukowski, as most young male asshole writers do. Then you grow up and become whatever is you actually are. And you make the best of it. Or the worst of it.
BKD: I feel like I reached a point a few years ago where I started regressing… having less maturity… less perspective… I feel like the longer I write, publish, edit, etc. the less I actually understand about any of it.
BAE: I always tell people that the older I get, the less I want to know. I want to be stupider, not smarter.
BKD: Does Alzheimers scare the shit out of you or would it be more, Yeah, no more worries about all this stuff?
BAE: It is scary because I have seen what it does firsthand. My grandmother had it. I think, if I live long enough, I will probably get it. My grandmother and I were a lot like, more so than anyone I have ever met in my family. I doubt I will live as long as she did, though.
[Editor’s note: interviewer face-palms face, TAKES BIG SIGH, mutters stupid, stupid, stupid]
BKD: Christ, I’m sorry. That’s tough, man. I can’t imagine doing it—having it or having somebody close with it. I mean both my grandmothers got it, but I wasn’t really close to them, and I didn’t really see it firsthand much.
It’s a weird thing. Half the time, my anxiety runs wild in my head and there’s no controlling it (even with all the meds I take), but then there’s Alzheimers and that’s just, I don’t fucking have a clue about what that is.
BAE: You pretty much turn back into a child. A very confused child.
BKD: Have you ever written about that? Or is that something you’re not comfortable putting out there?
BAE: I don’t worry too much about it because I don’t have a family of my own, so I pretty much have nothing to live for anyway. Winks. There is a character with Alzheimer’s in my novel. And there is also one in a story that appears in my first collection.
BKD: Something to Do with Self-Hate?
BAE: Yeah, the main character’s grandmother has Alzheimer’s.
BKD: Can we just take a moment here to acknowledge how I am quite possibly bestest most prepared writer-interviewer ever.
But seriously, I apologize. This is kind of offensive at this point. If you want to storm off and never talk to me again I’d completely understand.
BAE: Dude, don’t sweat. I forget books as soon as I read them. I do that with movies too. I will check shit out at the library, put them in my bag and then forget what I’d just checked out as I am walking home from the library.
BKD: Okay, okay, okay, now here’s where I get all my interviewer’s cred back: Did you get the idea for Sad Laughter from “Just Trees” (Failure Pie) or is that just an idea that you think about sometimes?
BAE: I just like the term “sad laughter.” The title originally comes from a portion of this split book I did with Bud Smith in 2015. That was the nexus of SL.
BAE: Goddamn it, what kind of interviewer can’t even cite random references to books you don’t remember writing?
BAE: I am appalled.
BKD: Pathetic attempt at interviewer cred, take three: What did you mean when you wrote, “Ruth often shat herself” in the third paragraph of the first page of “Dirty Laundry” from Moustache He’s Always Wanted to Grow? Is it a metaphor for the post-industrial complex?
BAE: My family shits their pants a lot. My mom once shit her pants while we were in a Kohl’s department store and we had to leave. I shit my pants at a party after snorting coke. Family of shitters.
BKD: I once shat myself while out training for a half-marathon. I’d heard all these stories about bigtime long-distance runners who’d rather shit their pants than lose their lead. Needless to say, no one ever mentioned the chafing. Oh, the chafing.
BAE: That sounds awful. I used to chafe really bad when I worked in kitchens for seven years. Spent a lot of money on Gold Bond.
BKD: Ooh, do you have a favorite fucked-up cook story? As a former short-order cook myself, those are my favorite.
BAE: I dislocated my shoulder reaching in to wipe out a cooler and had to go to the hospital. Once I cut the very tip of my thumb off. Also accidentally dunked my hand inside hot deep-fryer oil.
BKD: If you had your pick, would you rather wait tables or cook?
BAE: Wait tables. I hope I never have to cook ever again. It mentally and physically broke me. Waiting tables is generally cake and you make more money and the hours are not inhumane.
BKD: Oh man. I was always the other. I would rather burn the shit out of my hand and cut my finger off (which I’ve had my fair share of too) than deal with customers. I’ve done that and yeah, you make way better money, but fuck me. I couldn’t do the sales’ pitch to save my life.
BAE: Yeah, that’s where my acting comes in, haha. I get to play extrovert. A little razzle dazzle with the water pitcher. That’ll get em every time.
[Editor’s note: interviewer and interviewee trade horror stories of cooking and waiting tables and all the many many unhygienic food orgies. These have been removed for obvious legal reasons]
BKD: So you have this line in Sad Laughter: “Being in a happy relationship is just part of the work you put into your writing craft before things eventually fall apart and you can write about how miserable the relationship actually was.”
BAE: A truer line has never been spoken. A genius must’ve written that. Maybe I will meet them one day.
Actually, in my younger years I thought that way, but now I crave less drama in my life, writing be damned.
BKD: I used to tell myself something like that when I wasn’t really writing anything, but I wanted to convince myself that I wasn’t completely a worthless human being and toxic to everyone who cared about me: If you just call yourself a “writer,” then all your terrible decisions are “research.”
BAE: It is a good justification. Getting blackout drunk and then peeing on someone’s floor = priceless material for future creative project.
BKD: Do you find yourself looking for different types of friends/women these days? Like ones where you don’t know it will end up in a story?
BAE: No, I attract the same nightmares I always have.
BAE: I write more about myself these days. It is rare that someone I know inspires me enough to use them as a character. They have to be very special in my life. Those people usually cry when they read the result of their inspiration.
BKD: Tears of joy?
BAE: Most times it is a bad cry.
BKD: Sad laughter?
BAE: No, just sad crying.
BKD: You can tell it’s a really good interview when the interviewer subtly works in the title of the book.
BAE: You are a regular Jerry Springer. Stoked for your final thought.
BKD: For me I’ve finally gotten to this self-hating sweet-spot where I’ve been writing so many stories about what an asshole I was, am, and always will be, to where I am now writing stories about how my wife leaves me because I won’t stop writing these shitty “autobiographical” stories to “air our dirty laundry” (because, you know, if it’s meta and self-aware then it’s all okay whatever terrible things you might imagine doing to yourself and loved ones in fiction).
BAE: How long have you been married?
BKD: Married since 2013, but we’ve lived together since 2005.
BAE: Five or six years was the longest I ever lived with a partner.
BKD: Was it mostly good until it wasn’t or was it up and down the whole time?
BAE: The former. The last two and a half years were very bad.
BKD: When you write about things like this, do you mostly keep the sappy good stuff to yourself to kind of keep it sacred or is it more just like nobody wants to read about Brian being happy?
BAE: Yeah, happiness is not my brand. A good writer who does warm, happy domestic writing is a guy named Justin Grimbol. Bud Smith is also very good at it. I have yet to master the happy, fulfilling relationship in both literature and irl.
BKD: I remember back in grad school I didn’t know shit and hadn’t read shit, and everybody in work shop would tell me all my stuff was “too sentimental” and here I am having read Cather in the Rye too many times after the legal drinking age and thinking I was really edgy in trying to show people how miserable and pathetic my life was.
Then I’d get real pissed when we’d read parts of Harry Crews’s Biography of a Place (which is now one of favorite books) and I’d say to my professor, Isn’t that sentimental? And he’d say, I don’t know but I like it.
And I’d be like, What the fuck? That’s not a real reason. You have to have a reason. You can’t just like shit because you like shit.
And now I’m forty and beaten down from all those years of trying to make everything biting and satirical and clever, and more and more I’m like, Yeah, that’s sad and sappy as all hell, but I just like it.
BAE: I think sappy can be done in a funny, artful way. William Saroyan. Ray Bradbury. Bud Smith. Others.
BKD: I think one of the things that hits me most with your writing, especially in Sad Laughter: there’s always something at stake behind the humor. It’s always, like, I don’t really feel good about this, but sometimes you just have to find the humor in the dumpster fire.
BAE: Yeah, that is pretty much the humor I like. The anti-hero humor. Cynical. But I over use humor too.
BKD: I am the same. In real life, I’m kind of scared to death of emotional honesty (and now I really hate myself for just saying “emotional honesty”). Which is part of why I think I’ve grown cynical to really witty and clever stuff. It’s self-hate. It’s my first instinct (in real life) to make a joke, to try to say something clever or self-deprecating to undercut the deep deep emotional insecurity I feel at any given point.
BAE: There is something very offensive to me about positive people making genuine statements, and I don’t even know why. It embarrasses me.
BKD: Right? If I can’t talk to you about what an asshole that rando person at the door is right now eating their carrots, I have a hard time trusting you. It’s like I already hate myself for being the asshole who talks shit about that other asshole, I don’t need you in my life to reaffirm how terrible of a human being I am. Again, my self-hate turned to insecurity turned to mentally taking “positive” people down a peg.
BAE: Like a jerk, I view sarcasm and pessimism as a sign of intelligence, the opposite of which I feel is the mental state of a simpleton, a fool. It is probably awful for me to think that way.
BKD: Do you ever hit those times where you can’t even summon the humor to fight off the despair… but then you’re trying to tell someone that and they’re like, Oh Brian, you’re hilarious? (…asking for a friend again).
BAE: Yeah, that happens all the time. Sad boy who cried woof. A lot of people don’t even think I am funny, though. They just think I am a whiny emo.
BKD: What percentage of social media do you feel like is healthy and fun versus toxic sewer fumes? Specifically for you, I mean?
BAE: I am 100% addicted. Especially since upgrading to a smart phone this year. As far as toxic behavior goes, everything I do is toxic. I am extreme on so many levels. OCD. Addictive personality. I am pretty much that one Britney Spears song. Go obsessive or go home.
BKD: Obviously, this is under the delusion that life itself isn’t toxic sewer fumes.
BAE: Oh, it is. Literally.
[Editor’s note: really smart and profound things about interviewee’s relationship with his cat had to be cut here due to interviewee’s insistence on protecting his cat’s internet privacy]
BKD: It seems like a lot of your early books were more traditional’ish stories in the third person and all that. And of late you’ve done Self-Hate in the second person and a lot of stuff that feels “autobiographical’ish.” Are you one of those people who want each new project to be something different?
Side note: Do you enjoy when interviewers tell you what your career has been? I’ve noticed that you have a recurring theme of trash/garbage… Does that represent your oral fixation as a baby?
BAE: That might have something to do with me being obsessed with the Garbage Pail Kids as a child.
But no, I think I just got bored with writing a traditional story. I tried other things, like run-on-sentence flash fiction and also what I started calling my “cut-up” flash, where I took a bunch of my tweets and tried putting them together to make some kind of narrative. Lately, I have just been publishing poems that aren’t really poems.
BKD: Is Sad Laughter poetry? I kind of thought that was where the running jabs at poetry were coming from?
BAE: No, it’s basically a bunch of jokes, tweets, and aphorisms someone can read from while they sit on a toilet. Poetry gets it pretty bad in SL.
BKD: And here I thought I was really going to impress you with my deep reading. Well it felt like poetry to me, Mister, and you can’t tell my heart otherwise.
BAE: That’s fine. Milk and Honey it is, then.
BKD: Okay, okay, but that last line about books and people and if we keep producing them maybe an amazing one will show up. Was that intentionally the last line of the book or just where she ended?
BAE: I think I intentionally placed it there. I did manipulate the order of things. Thought that one was maybe a strong closer, I don’t know.
I should have closed SL with a reference to the movie Space Jam, which opens the first chapter. Oh well.
BKD: It feels like there’s the tiniest bit hope there and then we get the “doubtful as fuck” part which I think makes it work and sound true. Is there a sliver of optimism/idealism there or more so just kind of tricking the reader into thinking it’s going to be a shift and then stomping on it.
BAE: Maybe both. Like saying there are possibilities of greatness, to transcend, break ground, but don’t get your fucking hopes up because hope will kill you.
BKD: Okay, last question. Time to get S.E.R.I.O.U.S. Like real sloppy tears and male-on-male hugging, by which I mean cue the motherfucking slow-building orchestral music:
Is there some world or some version of reality for you where this all becomes worth it for you?
Like maybe not worth it worth it, but like, well for all the trash and puke and shitting your own pants, is there a day where you can look at something you’ve written or something you’ve gotten out of writing and you can think that’s something, right there. I did that and it’s not complete garbage/puke/shit/meaningless in this world?
Or is the writing mostly just something you do until something gets better or you die?
BAE: This is a tough question to answer. Let’s see…
There are several reasons why I publish my art, even deep-seated reasons I probably don’t even realize are a factor, and one of the reasons is that, yes, I want to matter. I want to make a name for myself. I want revenge on people who have abandoned/rejected me in the past. I want to be a big shot, like someone I look up to or have looked up to. I want to transcend my reality of just being another nameless, faceless person who gets up and just goes to work. That is definitely a strong factor, but that is not what keeps people making art. The real reason to make and promote your art is to connect with people, to validate your thoughts and emotions, to inspire yourself and others, to let each other know how not alone you are at being alone.
Actually, fuck all that. I just want to be adored.