2006_12_neal_pollack.jpgNeal Pollack, author of Never Mind the Pollacks and The Neal Pollack Anthology of Literature discusses his latest book, Alternadad, his childhood, and his foray into the world of screen writing.

What are some of your earliest memories of seeing or hearing things that made you laugh?
I have a very vivid memory of watching Mel Brooks's Silent Movie with my dad. I must have been eight years old or even younger. I remember sitting on the couch with him and howling with laughter, especially the scene where Sid Caesar's character is in the hospital and Mel Brooks, Dom DeLuise, and Marty Feldman are playing ping-pong with his head by plugging his life support in and out. I also loved Airplane. To see that was transformativ for me. Before that, there were some funny sketches on Sesame Street and the Electric Company. The four to seven-year-old period of my life was spent in Europe. My parents moved us to Belgium for a little while. There wasn't a lot of comedy there, other than the Asterix comic books- the one with the invincible Gauls fighting the Romans. The slapstick in those used to make me laugh.

Were your parents funny people?
No, but my grandfather had a very warped sense of humor. He drove around an old, lime green Cadillac that he called The Jolly Green Giant. He told me that NASA borrowed it from him to help launch the space shuttle. He lived in San Diego and he used to take me to Padre's games. We'd sit in the nosebleed seats. And he'd pretend to talk to the manager on his watch. His son, my uncle, also has a real goofy sense of humor. It comes from that side of the family.

Would your parents bring comedy into the house?
We had no comedy records. They certainly liked comedy and laughed at comedy, but they weren't actively bringing it into the house.

Are you able to pinpoint one of the first times that you realized that you were able to make people laugh?
Occasionally, I could get a comic reaction from my family if I did something the right way. The first time that I noticed that I had the ability was when I ran for eighth grade vice president. I gave a speech that revolved entirely around people mispronouncing my name and was swept into power on the basis of my "hilarious" speech.

How long were you involved in student council in general.
Just that one-year.

Why didn't you pursue it further?
I went to high school and got involved in other stuff. Gradually, the whole concept of school spirit was zapped from my body and I didn't really care so much. I was acting, running track, and was really busy masturbating. I just didn't get around to it.

What were you like in school?
Academically I was a really high performer. I got straight A's and occasionally I'd get a B in geometry. I modeled myself back then on Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties, but I wasn't a Republican. I was academically nerdy. In terms of the kind of person I was, I got beat up a lot. It's not like I didn't have any friends, I just had a big mouth and the jocks didn't take kindly to me. One time the football team made it look like I'd stolen a camera from one of their lockers and they tried to frame me and tried to have me expelled. Shit like that would happen to me all the time. It was fairly consistent with my adult life, except I was in close contact with people who wanted to kick my ass all the time. It got a little easier the older I got.

Did you ever instigate those sort of things?
When I was twelve or thirteen, I got tired of getting picked on and started jumping on people. If I surprise attacked them, I could get a win or a tie out if it. The PE coach hated me. I remember one year, he threw up his hands and said, "Oh, God damn it! Not again."

Were you good at gym?
No. I wasn't the worst, but I was really bad at baseball, softball, reasonable at basketball and football. And I was pretty fast, which turned out to be a real benefit.

What sort of creative outlets did you have?
I was a writer from the beginning. I had a friend named Brian, and, in the sixth grade, he and I used to do a daily Hill Street Blues comic strip based on our favorite television show. That got me beat up a couple of times. I also did a lot of acting. I went to an acting camp at the local Jewish community center. We did plays during the year and in the summer we'd take our plays on tour in a bus. We'd perform at Jewish community centers all over the country. And I did some theater my first couple of years of high school as well.

How old were you when you started writing?
I wrote my first short story for a contest in school when I was eight. It was a fable-writing contest and I wrote one about a player on the worst baseball team in the world who found a magic glove. It won third prize.

Were you a class clown or funny amongst your friends?
I wouldn't say I was a class clown because class clowns tend to be more well liked than I was. I definitely had a reputation for being funny, or at least I tried to foster that. Starting junior year, I wrote a humor column for the school paper and was also the editor. I would write humor there modeled after Dave Barry. I'd make fun of the Jostens class ring company or the football team. I seemed to almost always be making fun of the football team.

When you look back on the sort of stuff you wrote back then, does it make you smile or cringe?
Some of it was good; some of it was shit. It's always fun when you've been writing for a long time to look back on stuff you were doing twenty years ago. You can see where the seeds were planted and spot what was discarded. What I think is more amusing is my total lack of perspective on the world. You can see that more in the writing I did in college. I was doing this really serious, sort of Nation magazine stuff. About the dangers of the PC movement, culture wars, and they were really boring and nobody liked them.

Was writer your aspiration growing up?
It seemed like it was what I was always going to do. I got really into journalism when I was fifteen. I wrote for the school paper, was the editor of the school paper, and was a teen correspondent for the Phoenix Gazette, a citywide paper. It no longer exists. I went to journalism school. Then I worked as a journalist for eight years after college. Only gradually did I veer back into creative writing.

Were you a member of the creative writing club in high school?
I don't recall there being one.

Were there particular people who encouraged your writing?
Neither of my parents ever discouraged me as a writer. They saw that I was good at it and that it was what I wanted to do. I went to public school and had the fortune of having really wonderful English teachers. I had a great 8th great English teacher who was young, pretty, bubbly, and encouraging. Maybe I had a minor crush on her and wrote well to make her happy. In high school I had a great teacher named Mr. Stewart. He's deceased now. He was a former lawyer who was old by the time I got to him. He had this bird like look to him and would try to subtly teach us Greek philosophy. He was a really good writing teacher because he had this lawyer clarity. My junior year, I had a very theatrical drama guy who encouraged me to write Shakespeare parodies.

Were you incorporating humor into your school assignments?
As much as I could.

Did that ever get you in trouble?
No, the teachers saw that it was what I was good at and always encouraged me.

Around what time would you say that you developed an interest in music?
I was always interested in music, but I always had really bad taste. The kind of interest in music that I displayed in Never Mind the Pollacks didn't develop until I started researching Never Mind the Pollacks. When I was a teenager I listened to the crappiest contemporary top forty you could imagine: Billy Joel, Sting, Phil Collins, Huey Lewis and the News. Really embarrassing. I only had one Velvet Underground album and I only liked that song that goes, "If I could be anything in the world that flew," because I thought it was silly sounding. People mocked me roundly in college for that, but my tastes didn't really improve. I listen to a lot of jazz and Latin music in my twenties because that's just what the people I hung out with were into. My tastes improved in that point, but I didn't get into rock until I was in my thirties, which is kind of a late time to arrive at something like that.

Where you into stand up during high school?
I used to videotape the old David Letterman show and watch it everyday when I came home from school. I loved Monty Python. I really liked Bob Newhart. I loved watching the old Bob Newhart show and the one where he ran the inn. I had some of his records and thought that they were great. I liked Richard Pryor. I liked Robin Williams on Mork and Mindy. He was really funny on that, at least for the first couple of seasons. Police Squad. Any Zucker Brothers movie. And The Muppets. It was a pretty good time for comedy.

Were you confident about being able to make a living off your writing while still in high school?
Yeah, I was. It never occurred to me that I'd do anything else.

Where'd you go to college?
North Western.

How would you describe your experience there?
Eh. It was alright. Journalism school was too rigid for me and I probably would have enjoyed college more if I had a more creative major or had gone to a less professional oriented school. I had some good writing teachers and made some friends who are still my friends to this day. I wouldn't say I enjoyed college very much. When I got there and realized how dominant the Greek system was and that college was just an extension of highschool, except people were richer and jerkier. It got me very depressed, but I eventually found my freak coalition.

Did you enjoy school in general?
I would say that in terms of my youth, with my youth ending when I graduated college, that my most enjoyable years were my junior and senior years of high school. I was getting laid, had a lot of friends, and things were looking up for me.

Do you think outsiderdom and alienation are essential components of being funny?
Not necessarily. Look at Will Ferrell. He's very funny and kind of a frat boy, jock type. Based on interviews, it seems like he never had to deal with being a loser.

How about in your own experience?
Yes. The idea that I'm not above what I'm making fun of but not exactly of it helps. Now that I'm doing this fatherhood writing, the comedy arises from my writing about the same crap that everyone else is in. It just depends on that sort of writing you're doing.

In a biography of Michael O'Donoghue, it was mentioned that he spent a lot of time alone in his formative years and I thought that this might be something that many people in the field of comedy also shared.
I spent a lot of time in my room on my own reading comic books and listening to baseball games on the radio. I also had a pretty large extended family. Other than a couple of years in my early teenage years I wouldn't have characterized my life as being lonely.

Can you recall a particular incident where you started thinking about things comedically?
I can't think of a particular moment. It just evolved from all the particular influences that we discussed. There was no one moment where the spark went off.

How helpful would you say your college experience was in your career as a writer?
I had some really good writing teachers. I studied with Joseph Epstein, who's a prominent essayist who's written a lot of books and he's got a very efficient style and is a very funny writer. There were journalist professors who taught me the nuts and bolts of journalism. I didn't enjoy it, but it gave me skills for sure and gave me professional connections in Chicago. One of my professors was the former editor of The Chicago Reader and he helped get me started there. I worked there for many years.

How about the actual degree?
No one has ever asked me for it. I got my job at the reader pretty quickly after college. I worked at a weekly community newspaper. I was at the reader pretty soon after I graduated. That's the only job I've ever had. No one's asked me about my degree and I don't think at this point that they're going to.

What sort of humor writing did you do during college and did you do any performing?
I tried out for the Improv troupe on campus a lot. Every year. And I never got in. I didn't do a lot of humor writing in college.

How much time did you spend in Chicago?
I arrived to college in 1988 and moved away in 2000. A third of my life.

Did you ever try stand up?
No, but I did do a lot of Improv. I took classes at Improv Olympic with Del Close. Chicago Improv at the time was spectacular. There was so much creativity and genius floating around in the air and hopefully I absorbed a little bit of it. I did a lot of Improv and was a part of a troupe called The Free Associates. We did long form parodies of various literary genres. We did a play called As We Like It: Shakespeare in Your Face. It kind of defined my 20's. That and my newspaper reporting.

What was it like studying with Del Close?
I don't want to make it sound like I was one of his star students. I was like the schmuck at the bottom of the barrel. He was a very strange presence. He'd glower and was always ready to call bullshit on you, but he always had something incisive and smart to say. It was like being in the presence of a profit. I was in a class with the worst of the worst at the time with people who weren't going anywhere in Improv comedy. The theater where we were doing classes had burned down, so we did a class at a theater in mid-north Chicago and there was a play going on with a set that was like a castle and a chessboard. Del Close said to us, "Improvise a play based on this set," we did, it went really well, and at the end he said, "That was the best Goddamn thing I've seen in years." It didn't help any of our careers, but it was nice to get that praise. He'd also stop a sketch to say, "That was the worst Goddamn thing I've seen in years." It was an influential moment in my life. It taught me about comedy right there.

What were some of the things that you investigated in your career as a journalist that you're most proud of?
I hooked into a story about independently employed Mexican corn venders and the city health department started confiscating their wears, pouring bleach all over the food, and giving them a really hard time because they were started to move into more traditionally white neighborhoods. The Mexicans organized as a union and I helped call attention to their plight. I wasn’t the only journalist doing it, but I was the first. I also did a story about a mentally challenged middle aged black man who lived with his elderly mother and was kidnapped in front of the mission where he liked to hang out and play checkers and was taken to a nursing home in the suburbs as part of an insurance scam. I helped track him down.

When did you start writing humor?
1996. I started writing little parodies of magazine articles that later appeared in Mcsweeney's. I'd read those at spoken word poetry nights around town. It was before the Internet was booming, so I had no inkling of publishing them there and then someone told me that Dave Eggers was starting a magazine and looking for submissions.

What's the worst letter of rejection you've ever gotten?
There was one that I didn't receive. When I was twenty-two I wrote to Tina Brown, who was about to become the editor of The New Yorker. I said that I was ready to throw my hat into the ring. I never heard back. I wrote a lot of editors in my early twenties when I still had the illusion that a meteoric media career was my birthright. It took me a while to realize that I might have to work for a decade before anything would really go my way.

Was there ever a time when you thought you might not make it?
I have moments like that every week. Every moment I'm prepared to have everything come crashing down around my head. Despair is part of the equation at any stage.

At a reading, would you take the stage as Neal Pollack the character?
Sometimes I'd sort of do things in character, but I'm not much of an actor so I was never able to really hold a persona and would revert to myself. Sometimes when I was doing the rock shows I was able to carry off the punky thing for a little while. It gave the readings a sense of tension and mystery because there were so many different ways that I could screw things up.

What sort of music were you listening to during the journalist period?
I had a lot of friends who were into Jazz. I signed up for a masters of Jazz CD subscription program. I also got really into 50's and 60's soul music. Chicago in the early 90's was a really fertile time for alt-country, for lack of a better term, and I was really into that as well. I wasn't into any of the indie rock in Chicago at the time. I could barely tell you what was going on at the time.

How'd you decide to write Never Mind the Pollacks?
I had read some pieces of music criticism that I thought were really annoying and fertile ground for satire. I became intrigued by the Lester Bangs story and thought there was room for a novel in it somewhere. There was no real moment where I thought, "I'm going to write a book about Rock and Roll now." With my first book, I just found some writing that was really pompous and pretentious and I thought, "This would be really fun to satirize."

Would you say that once you began the research for Never Mind the Pollacks that that was when you learned how to truly rock?
I don't know about that. I certainly learned a lot more about rock and got a dose of what Rock and Roll was about when I recorded the album and took the band on tour. It's a difficult and somewhat annoying life and I was getting too old for that shit.

How much time would you say you dedicate to rocking now?
None. Occasionally, I'll play songs to my kid or listen to music myself. I don't see music much myself anymore. When I was writing Never Mind the Pollacks, I was living in Austin and rock is a major industry there and there were venues ten minutes away from my house. In LA, it's hard to get to everything and the shows start really early because there so many industry people at them. And, I'm always tired because I'm carting my kid around. So what's happening is, and this is happening all over the country, is that there are these Saturday afternoon rock shows. A lot of parents grew up with rock, but can't go out at night, yet still have disposable income and like to know what music's out there. That's definitely a cultural shift that's current, on going, and rising.

Who are some music critic's whose writing you enjoy?
When I finished Never Mind the Pollacks, I was kind of done with that. I don't know if anyone really struck a cord. I liked Peter Guralnick's writing because it was lyrical and he told a good story. Lester Bangs certainly had his moments and was a real fertile ground for parody. I can't exactly say that rock criticism changed my life.

After coming out of that period of studying rock, which genres of music do you find yourself frequenting most often?
It's a mix of everything. I listen to a lot of rock, jazz, and I like Latin Jazz from the 60's and I love old school country music. My tastes are very catholic.

You've moved to LA to pursue a career in screen writing?
Yep, I'm here. Alternadad was optioned and I wrote a draft of a screenplay for that.

For Alternadad, you kept the actual names of your family members.
I did. It's a true story. My son had no choice because he was a baby and my wife sort of got used to it. I changed a few names, but I figured that this is a memoir and I'm not going to write a book about a fake Neil Pollack and have him give me a fake name when I'm writing about my real self. I refuse to muddy the waters any further.

How did you decide to write Alternadad?
I didn't set out to write a memoir. After Never Mind the Pollacks I was trying to come up with ideas for satirical fiction and couldn't come up with anything that worked. My agent said, "Your stories about being a dad are really funny. You should try writing a fatherhood book for this generation." I was really reluctant to do it. I did not want to write first person confessional stuff and just came to the point where I really needed some money and the only way to make some money is to get a decent book contract. So, I figured I'd give it a try and I wrote up a proposal and it was good enough and people were interested in it and I sort of forced myself to start digging deep.

What sort of things do you learn with each book that you write that makes it easier for you to write the next book?
Each book can teach you a different lesson as a writer. With each book I feel that I'm getting better at telling a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. You can break off from that once you've mastered how to do that. Alternadad, because of the sort of boy meets girl, boy and girl have baby, boy and girl have to deal with baby structure of it helped me to construct a narrative. The nature of the subject matter made it easier for me to tell a joke in a real succinct sort of way and having real dialog to work from was helpful for having to construct real comedic dialog. I definitely think I advanced as a writer. Being able to write honestly, whether it's fiction or non-fiction is real important for good writing. If nothing else, this book forced me to be honest.

A lot of the events in the book depict you as living a life of terrific and outlandish behavior, yet the book didn't have a boastful tone. How did you achieve that?
The key to being funny in writing about yourself is to view yourself as objectively as possible. Honestly, at the time I was writing the book I was sort of at a rough place in my life and bragging wasn't really an option, so I was able to write with some perspective. When it comes down to it, I really don't think I'm awesome. I used to, maybe, but I don't anymore. I can look back on past indiscretions and describe myself as almost another person, because I was.

What sort of projects are you involved in now?
I'm hip deep in this dad stuff. I'm keeping the blog on Nealpollack.com , which is a continuation of the stuff in Alternadad. I'm starting a parenting website, I wrote that screenplay, and if all goes well I'll hopefully be able to write a sequel to Alternadad. It's not that I don't have any other ideas, it's just that, at the moment, this is everything I'm doing. It's pretty much all "hipster dad" all the time for me.

Was that the first feature length screenplay you had written?
I wrote one other one, but it was more of a practice one and I didn't take it real seriously. So, yeah, this was the first feature length screenplay I've written under contract.

How does writing a screenplay compare to writing a book?
It's a completely different discipline. It was very hard for me. It's a different way of telling a story, but once you get used to the form it gets easier. For months, I couldn't figure out an approach even though I was adapting my own book. Finally, after a bunch of botched attempts I managed to approach it in a way that resembled my style. In some ways it was the hardest type of writing I've ever had to do.

Has your experience writing novels proved to be helpful in anyway with writing screenplays?
Not particularly. Screenplays need a plot and they need to move forward. If there's anything wrong with contemporary fiction it's that it's too literary and it doesn't move forward. I think you need this sort of bare structure and then you can layer on as much literary frippery as you want on it. If you're not going to have the basic structure, it's not going to go anywhere. If anything else, writing a screenplay teaches you the basic structure of story.

What do you like to do after a reading?
Get high. Or go home and go to bed, depending on whether or not I got high. I like to hang out, have a beer, smoke a joint, and talk with friends.

Alternadad will be coming out on January 9th, 2007. Neal will be doing a reading on January 21st at The Tea Lounge in Brooklyn and at Mo Pitkin's on January 22nd.