2006_12_hollis_james.jpgIn a previous interview, comedian Ted Alexandro mentioned that he was working on a pilot for Comedy Central with his partner, Hollis James . The two had started out in comedy together, performing as a duo around the city. At some point, however, life interceded. Ted graduated college and Hollis entered the world of children's publishing. Later, Hollis would move out to LA on a writing fellowship, write for a Christian magazine, and eventually end up as editor-in-chief of Celebrity Skin magazine, which, under his direction, has just as many puns and jokes as it does exposed nipples.

You were a break-dancer?
From eighth grade to twelfth. It was part and parcel of growing up in the neighborhood I did and being one of the few white kids in Hollis. I learned a lot back then. Race equals economics. None of my friends ever treated me any differently because I was white. I was more of a floor guy. I'd spin on my head, hand, and back. That's how come if someone asks me if I'm happy, I'll say, "Are you kidding? I almost broke into my baby swipes." I'll throw out references from the breakin' days because I want to remind myself of how silly and charming it was. Even now, I'm looking up at my hat from those days that has my name and a little Playboy bunny on it. We had matching windbreakers and everything. It wasn't any different from growing up in a town where everyone plays hockey. The most important thing in my neighborhood happened to be hip-hop and break dancing. It was just the way of things in that area.

When did you work in a mental institution?
The first time was in high school and then again throughout college. I knew on the first day when I walked through the front gate, which was off the hinges and lying next to the gate, that it'd be interesting. I'll paint a quick mental pastiche for you: there was the time a heavyset woman tried to cut off my head with a door by slamming it quickly. There was the time I saw one of the cooks from the kitchen out in the shrubs banging a patient- a willing patient, I must admit. There was a black market of canned food, baby formula and diapers going on there.

You very much feel in these jobs that you're going to last only so long. It's like you're on an occupational vacation. You learn that what's temporary for you is really the every day grind for some of these lifers, and these guys came up with ways to get through the day. And one of those things was napping. There was one guy who took a swing at me with a grass cutter. A Jamaican kid beat up this Irish kid and then he started coming after me and the only way they could protect me was that they told him I was Italian, and he seemed fine with that. Everyone gets out, was my one realization. There was one guy behind bars screaming at me, "You white mother fucker, I'm going t kill you, you white mother fucker!" And the next day he'd be walking past me and he'd go, "How you doing, young blood? Nice to see you." I learned that mental illness is best measured in doses. I had some good weeks where the dosage was right and some bad where it wasn't.

What finally made you quit the mental institution?
There was this dangerous patient who walked the grounds. His name was Calvert. He was the guy all us young guys were warned about. I was a part timer and Calvert was only cool with the lifers--the guys who had worked there twenty years or so. He knew them all by name, and they were the only ones he wouldn't take a swing at. One morning, I'm walking through the unhinged gate and I see Calvert. I approach cautiously, as usual, when he turns and sees me and says, "Oh, what's up Hollis? Have a good one." I walked in and quit right then. I told myself it was a day job for me, but Calvert knew my name. It scared me.

How'd you meet Ted Alexandro?
He and I were cast in a Neil Simon play in college, Fools, together, and once I saw how funny he was I asked him to be in a comedy show I had written that I was directing right after Fools ended.

How helpful did you find your college experience in terms of writing and how useful is a degree for a writer?
The experiences that help your writing are those rare occasions where you get a teacher who knows what he's talking about and notices what you do well and tries to bring it out. But it's kind of like sending kids to school to be clairvoyant. Either the kid sees the future or he doesn't. You can teach him to see it clearer, to make out faces, to see exactly who is going to live or die, but you can't actually teach anyone to be clairvoyant.

The only good thing about college writing classes is that they put you on deadlines that you must meet each week. They also force you to put up with criticism from people who don't know what the fuck they're talking about. Great training for the real world. And I feel there's no benefit to a degree for a writer unless it's a degree in some day job that will ensure you'll be able to make enough money to support your writing. There's nothing scarier than being a writer with a political science or philosophy degree.

When did you start writing?
I was writing really early on. I didn't get a great deal of validation as a kid outside of when the teacher would put the thing I'd written on the bulletin board. I remember staring up at something I'd written covered in gold stars and that teacher scrawl of "Outstanding!" and feeling that that was the best I could hope for. I got a great deal of support from my mom and sisters. Writing was something that I just understood I could do from an early age.

What sort of stuff were you writing in high school?
That was a weird period where I felt locked up. I wrote a ton of poetry, which is the way a writer acts out when he feels foreign not only to his situation but himself. It was the only way I could lay off steam. I didn't write anything during high school that wasn't an assignment for class, outside of some really dark journal entries or some really bad poetry. In college I exploded and started writing a ton of material. I was an English major with a concentration in writing and a drama minor. I wrote two shows while I was in college that I directed and acted in.

What were the shows like?
They were both two-hour sketch comedy shows. They were very influenced by Monty Python's Flying Circus, early '70s SNL, and The Kids in the Hall. They both were very successful and made me feel that there was an audience for a different kind of comedy. I was so bored with solo stand-ups, and the success of the two shows I did was the catalyst for me asking Ted to do two-man stand-up with me. I knew we'd be different from everything else in the clubs.

Tell me about Christopher's in Brooklyn, when you and Ted were starting out as a duo.
That was when Ted and I were doing every bar, club, or slaughterhouse that was running a night where you could perform. This was a place that was so mobbed up that I felt naked without a pinky ring. They had their own emcee, who was charming. "This here next act is all the way from Utica Avenue," and the guy would come up and say, "Thanks Tony," "No problem, Vito." Ted and I were the only outer borough guys who were there. We would wait and wait to go on and we had to watch acts like magicians and a dog act. We'd leave room in the act every night to do something based on whatever act we saw that night. They had a dog act and we did this thing where Ted formed a hoop with his arms, I jumped through it, and he gave me a snack.

What were some of the bits that you used to do?
We would play the Duplex and they had a piano. Since Ted's a great piano player, we'd do this piece called Robert Deniro: Piano Teacher, which was me doing my Deniro impersonation while listening to Ted play very well. I'd be doing my Deniro nod of approval, then Ted would hit a wrong note, and I'd go crazy and start slamming the piano cover on his fingers. That was specific to one place. We had really short bits, like Benedict Iscariot, the man who betrayed both God and country. We had that awkward moment where Siamese twins are chosen for opposite teams in basketball. There was one where he was a mama kangaroo and I'd pop out of his pouch. We were very physical back then. I thought Ted and I had some legs to us, but he graduated before I did and life interceded.

When were you Barney at birthday parties?
That was a summer and weekend job through out college. The main thing about playing Barney is that the parents book you and they feel like they're booking a baby sitter, so it'd always surprise me when I'd show up and they'd go, "Thank God you're here. They're going crazy. They're in the back. Have fun!" And I'd take so many kicks to the groin. The company I worked for was horrible, so if I wasn't lucky enough to get one of the good suits I'd show up in this ratty, dirty, with its tail falling off suit. It's a credit to how good I was that they'd only ask for some of the money back from my boss. Even though I was Barney most of the time, they had other costumes, like Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtle. The one time I felt most vulnerable, outside of playing Superman, which I had to do because I was the only white guy in the whole company, was having to be Aladdin. I opened the bag and thought, "Where's the rest of this suit?" I felt like a stripper walking around in that thing. The mortifying part was that it actually made me feel more comfortable in the Barney suit.

Did you have any means of defending yourself from kicks to the groin?
The Barney suit disguised little pinches, kicks, and hair tugs that were my only line of defense against the little angry boys who were taking out their aggression on my Jurassic alter ego.

What finally made you quit the Barney gig?
The aggression outweighed the profits.

When did you get involved with children's book publishing?
I graduated from college and was just about to start my life. I felt really good and, out of nowhere, my sister passed away in a fire and she was eight months pregnant, but they saved the baby. Rather than start my life, I stayed home for a year and helped my mother raise the baby. That was a big turning point for me. I was really desperate and had no idea what I would do. I was so restless and I needed something creative. I couldn't write a word. Nothing came out that wasn't dark and painful, so I did a play. I did a production of Stalag-17 and one of the characters in it worked for a book publisher at McGraw Hill. He brought me in, his boss loved me, and before long I had more and more responsibility. I was working on textbooks and stuff. I wrote a bunch of cartoon books for Goldenbooks. I did a few of the Rocket Power books, a Dexter's Lab, and a Scooby Doo. They'd send me an episode and I'd have to sum it up in thirty-two pages. That period lasted three or four years before I moved to LA for a year. It may seem like I've been all over the place career-wise, but I've never taken one job that didn't make me a better writer. Whatever I had to write or edit, or even while I was in a religious magazine working as a ghostwriter for three and a half years.

And later you moved to LA to try your hand at screenwriting?
I was out there for a year on a fellowship. I was writing and going to this downtown theater. I was mainly writing one acts. I figured that since I was in LA, I might as well try it so I started sending out query letters. I got a few returns and did some work out there, but LA didn't fulfill my creative well. I wouldn't bash LA, but New York just does it for me. Things I did out there are kind of meaningless compared to the things that lay ahead of me.

What'd you do in the adult entertainment industry?
I did a few polishes anonymously for money. When I saw Permanent Midnight, and read the book by Jerry Stahl, his TV work summed up how porn was for me. You can see that these people are so thrilled to have somebody looking at TV in ways that they hadn't looked at TV. It can be an art form. "I see Alf as a modern day Tom Joad, looking for justice." The porn people I came into contact with were so sick and tired of politicians saying, "Porn is a hideous blight on the American dream," and here's a guy going, "I have some ideas about using French Impressionism to create the illusion," and suddenly they remember the dreams they had before getting into porn. I'm taking a long winded way to say that there's no regret on my part about things I've done creatively because I did them the best I could, but everybody has a different path and that's not mine. It gets harder to deal with the older I get. I'm glad that that period just lasted a year. I'm reminded of Ed Wood, who never met a paycheck he didn't like. It's so easy to get caught up in work for hire, which is something all writers do. It's hard to turn down the check because as a writer you don’t know when's the next one coming, and that explains every word I've written in that genre.

How'd you get involved with doing the polish work?
I used to be very big into hanging out in the bar scene and I learned that there's only a few cool bars in LA and, this is the geek in me, I remembered this one guy there from some Cinemax late night B-movies and hardcore. I said, "Hey, how's it going?" and he just assumed I'd talk to him only about the hardcore, and I told him he was really funny in something and he was surprised. The one thing that's always ingratiated me to people in other genres is that because I am such a student of movies, books, and TV that I've done my homework for when I meet these people. These people have movies they're proud of and movies they're not proud of and I just tend to not bring up the movies they're not proud of. So, I met this guy and through him I met some other people and then some girls in the business and it was just a natural progression. I once interviewed Ralph Bakshi and I wouldn't think of him as being a pornographer just because his cartoons featured sex, but he mentioned how you do one film and people look at you differently and it's totally true. It's a palpable feeling that you're a second-class citizen if you do anything in that genre, and that's how come porn people liked me: I don't look at anyone differently. I may be a lot of things, but a hypocrite isn't one of them.

Have you read Fast Forward: Confessions of a Porn Screen Writer by Eric Spitznagel?
I haven't, but a friend of a friend named Allan MacDonell wrote Prisoner of X, about his time at Hustler. I've read a few of these books and it's hard to understand how they feel about this period. If I'm looking for a silver lining from having all of these day jobs it would be that you learn that you go in thinking that they're creative but the people in charge of the money don't see your part in it as creative or any part of it as creative. They happen to be selling films, magazines, or books, but they view them as the proverbial widget. They could be selling curtain rods or televisions, but they just happen to be selling movies. "Okay, we have thirty minutes of hardcore sex and sixty minutes of dialog. Here's a bold thought: let's get rid of the dialog and get sixty more minutes of hardcore sex in there." And, of course, they're right. It's all a business. Every writer is in the business and every writer needs to make their peace early with the fact that it's a business that you don't get into if money is important, if credit is important, and if no one knowing your name is going to irk you. Writing is re-writing and polishing and it's unimportant to the people who order these endeavors that it be the same person, that they have their name known, or anything else. That's why so many writers are alcoholics and why so many studio chiefs send over a bottle of alcohol when it's a writer's birthday.

When and how did you get involved with writing for a Christian magazine?
When I returned from L.A., I got back into textbook publishing at McGraw-Hill. It's soulless, taxing work, pouring over the same information day after day, removing a comma, then putting it back, then having a meeting on this huge event at which it's decided to take the comma out again. We'd have to make sure that a fourth grader can read something, but that a fifth grader can't. Then trying to come up with book titles like "Science: Our Friend." I couldn't take it, so I'd be a wise ass and get what I call literarily passive-aggressive, suggesting things I know won't get past their moral goalie, just so they'd have to waste time in another meeting. I still think they should have gone with my title suggestion of "Science: Explosions, Ejaculations & Eruptions!" Well, after enough of that, I quit the job and waited to find a job in magazines. I just wanted to get my foot in the door at any magazine, to learn the business and the process of putting a mag together. I took a job as a copy editor, cause I'm grammatically anal, at the religious mag; and when they found out I was a writer, they put me in charge of a department to write and gave me two stories an issue to ghostwrite. That's when I truly learned the meaning of the word soulless.

The great selling point of the magazine was that all of the stories were written by the readers, and, to an extent, that's true- the readers send in their stories. But the readers are not writers, so the New York office is filled with a bunch of twenty-somethings that read them and re-write them, and re-write that, and then that's reassessed and polished and changed so much that it's no longer really their story, but they still have to sign off on it. After a while, the powers that be started giving me the difficult stories and the difficult were difficult more because of the author, who didn't like how we operated, didn't want their words changed, and were like, "Wait a minute, I told you the minister gave me that advice and you've got my uncle telling me that. " They gave me these stories because I'd talk to these people and I know how to talk to people. I felt like the worse car salesman in the world because I'd make these people feel like I was on there side, "Oh, I get you, but if the minister says that to you it's a little preachy and we want people to get the essence of the words but not really feel like they're being preached at. You understand that the impact is the important thing and that I'm your soldier, fighting for you, but if we don't get it past my boss," and I felt, after a while, that I was being used. It was ironic that, at a religious mag, that I found the work to be so soulless.

I got so depressed that I got a loan and just quit the job. I promised myself that I'd never take another job that didn't make me want to get up everyday and go to work. I was out of work for a bit, writing every day. I just looked at it as a sabbatical. I was waiting for something to come along and a friend sent me a link for the job that I'm at now, Celebrity Skin. It seemed very odd that, out of nowhere, a job would come along where my extensive knowledge of films and pop culture would come in so handy. I went, interviewed, they hired me, and I've been running that magazine ever since.

You were hired to be the editor?
I was hired as managing editor and a week later my boss told me that he was leaving to take a job as the creative director of Mrskin.com. I thought, " I get a job that's fun, I like, and can do well and now the boss is leaving and they might bring in someone I don't like who'll turn this job into a bad one." I campaigned for the job and told my boss I could do it, so I did both jobs, editor-in-chief and managing editor, for two months before it was obvious I could do it. So I've been running it ever since.

What are similarities and differences between working at a Christian magazine and Celebrity Skin?
There are more similarities than there are differences. Odd as it may seem, they both have a rabid fan base, they both collect and subscribe, they have friends that they talk about it with and share it with, and they're two of the very few magazine audiences that write letters. I've been thinking of putting together a book of the "nut job" mail. It makes total sense because a zealot is a zealot and if you care that much about anything, but specifically an article, magazine, or person something's wrong. The crazier you are the smaller the envelope you send your letter in. Those tiny envelopes carry a big mental wallop.

I'm the final say at Celebrity Skin, but had no say at the other mag. It's refreshing to have all that control. I can write things, edit things, and put out a magazine that I'm totally comfortable with even if I'm toiling in a genre that isn't really my own. I can make it funny, make it fun to read, poke fun at it, but still deliver to the audience what they expect or want and maintain good sales numbers and I don't feel like I'm prostituting myself, selling out, or that I'm somehow above it. But, while I was at the religious magazine, I felt like I was totally whoring myself out. Totally denigrating myself, I wasn't being myself, and was miserable. I was a whore in religious, but I'm a saint in porn.

Do you have any examples of favorite puns you've made in Celebrity Skin?
There was the shot of Tara Reid coming out of Cipriani where one half of her dress came down for like a full minute unbeknownst to her, so one breast alone was clearly hanging out. I captioned it: "Tara Reid: 50-percent topless, 100-percent drunk." There was my piece on the former Hungarian gymnasts who did nude gymnastics on a Japanese DVD. I called it: "Pommel Whores." Our legal department shot that one down, though. Then there's monikers I started calling certain stars a while ago, like Jessica Simpleton, The Vacant Hilton, Sofia Viagra and Mamm Grier.

Tell me about Fringe Underground .
fRINGE Underground was started by me and a friend because we felt that no one had taste anymore. I mean, I understand people who fire on all cylinders all day long who want to shut down the engines and escape with a romance novel or slasher flick. But people were no longer seeing guilty pleasures as anything other than pure pleasure. Crap bands, lousy movies, unwatchable TV shows and boring books were rocketing to popularity because people simply didn't want to think. Thanks to Coldplay, Adam Sandler, The King of Queens, and Oprah's book club, people with no taste actually thought that simply because they liked what everyone else liked they were digesting quality. So we started fRINGE to try and offer alternatives that never got any publicity--art films that died quiet deaths, artists that never sold a record, books that never got a fair shake. We wanted to at least be one voice in the wilderness crying out that you don't have to listen to John Maher when there's Elliott Smith, you don't need to waste time seeing a Matrix sequel when there's Wes Anderson, and while you were watching Everybody Loves Raymond quality shows like Freaks & Geeks were getting cancelled. And if you need Oprah Winfrey to pick your books for you, the only thing you should be reading is an eye chart.

What are some of the pieces that you've written that your most proud of?
My interview with Ralph Bakshi really made me feel good. I asked him tough questions about all his films from "Fritz The Cat" to "Coonskin" to "Cool World" and he didn't duck one question. In fact, he got really heated with me and started yelling. I loved it. I'm from Queens and he's from Brooklyn and we were just two New Yorkers yelling at each other over the phone. At one point his publicist, on the three-way line, broke in and said, "Ralph, you want to end this?" Ralph said, "Are you kidding? I haven't yelled at a journalist in fifteen years; I'm having a ball!" (That's in Celebrity Skin # 131.)

I also like the piece I did writing as the deceased Charles Bukowski. I've been such a fan for so long, I think I captured his style well enough to pass. I did writing as the deceased Charles Bukowski . Back when I thought there was still some humor to be rung from politics, I kind of liked my tongue-WAY-in-cheek piece about GW Bush . But I don't think people got it. Finally, I think one of my first pieces on fRINGE is still my fave. It's about one of my all time favorite flicks, being a born and bred New Yorker, The Warriors.

Tell me about the pilot you and Ted Alexandro are working on.
It's a pilot that was commissioned by Comedy Central based on a short film Ted and I did. Ted performed a lot for that channel over the years, and he got us in the door there. The basic idea is that unlike the bulk of comedy shows, this show is a series of short films. It's a twist on one of my favorite comedies, Ripping Yarns. I've always been a big fan of Monty Python, and after that show Palin and Jones went on to do Ripping Yarns, which were a selection of films, each one a different episode with wholly new characters--the only thing that was the same was that Palin and Jones were in each one. We'd have some films that ran the length of the show, and others would be shorter films that were connected. Each film would have different tone depending its topic; some films are straight comedies and others are more somber genre satires. Ted and I are really proud of the script. I think it's our best work.

As a DJ at Beauty Bar and various other places, you must have witnessed some pretty exciting things. Got any anecdotes?

Most recently I remember a 4AM incident featuring a friend--who shall remain nameless--picking up a bar stool to slam against the head of a guy--who shall remain nameless--to protect the honor of his ex-girlfriend bartender--who shall remain nameless. Was that too specific for you? Then let me get more general. My favorite recurring late-night moment, which occurs like clockwork every weekend, is when I get to watch a guy get ejected from the bar--invariably by multiple bouncers using the SWAT-team 'swarm' technique--only to return five minutes later, once he somehow successfully explained that he was 'only playing.' Why? Because we all have that friend who drinks too much and becomes a problem. And that interchangeable friend's return to the bar always reminds me that socially, although we'd like to pretend otherwise, we're all our brother's keeper. That is until he vomits, at which point the phrase, "fuck him," comes into play.

Visit fringeunderground.com/ to read some of Hollis's writing or meet Hollis as he DJ's at Beauty Bar, 231 East 14th Street on Sundays from 10 PM to 2 AM. You can also be Hollis's friend on Myspace.