Brian Beatty’s business card reads “Writer. Comedian. Dude with a beard.” He’s also worked as a busboy, a janitor and a bookstore manager. Brian grew up in Brazil, Indiana, where there was no carnivale, but the locals did all kind of look like carnies. When he’s not writing, performing or combing his profuse facial hair, he’s probably out walking his dog Hurley. Or he might be compiling another mildly funny list. Interviewed by Peter Schwartz.
PS: You’ve done a lot of stuff in your thirty-nine years, Mr. Beatty. Maybe you could start off by telling our good readers about some of your interests and accomplishments in this life cycle of you as an intelligent, handsome, bearded gentleman?
BB: My interests are varied, but mostly I’m into writing, comedy, music and the visual arts. I spend a lot of time hiking and camping with my girlfriend and our dog. I’ve never tried my hand at painting or sculpture, but I’ve given everything else I’m interested in at least a cursory go because I’ve always considered hands-on experience the best way to learn.
I’ve written and published articles, book and music reviews, humor pieces, one-liner jokes, poems, scholarly articles and short stories. In college I played in a frightening basement band that had to be heard to be truly feared. I accidentally appeared for a few seconds in the Michael Moore film that no one’s seen (The Big One). I spent an incredible day with Ken Kesey, who taught me a lot about life that I didn’t agree with at the time. I got to meet my original literary hero, Barry Hannah, long after it didn’t matter as much. Which was for the best, I’m certain. For several years now I’ve performed stand-up comedy and turned reading opportunities into impromptu comedy gigs.
I’m not sure how much intelligence or my hirsute appearance had to do with any of this. Really I’m just easily bored. So I’m always looking for the next way to entertain myself. That I’ve done any of it fascinates me. It seems impossible when I sit down and think about it at all. Maybe that’s the dementia of my forties sneaking up on me.
PS: Which interest interests you the most these days?
BB: I can’t narrow it down to just one, but some weird combination of writing and comedy, I suppose. From a Joseph Campell/C.G. Jung point-of-view, making people laugh always interested me more than narrative structure or characterization or prosody or other formal elements of traditional literary writing. This was a late realization as these things go, so I always feel like I’m making up for important lost time. Lately I’ve been figuring out how to be funny in front of audiences like I am in front of people I know. Because, for whatever reason, I need the approval of drunken strangers. It’s probably my parents’ fault.
PS: Ah yes, I sense you take this business of being funny very seriously. Let’s hear more about your
comedy. What’s your process for coming up with new material? What do you consider your best performance? Your worst?
BB: I’ve ended up taking my comedy a lot more seriously than I thought was possible. I don’t have a set-in-stone process for generating material, but what typically happens is that I hear about something on the news or I think of a word or mental image and a simple one-liner comes to mind. Over time I build upon that one-liner with more one-liners, or I develop a larger story that sets up the original one-liner in a way that will create a fulfilling payoff for the audience. Or at least complete the first thought for me.
I’ve probably ruined a lot of perfectly decent jokes trying to justify what I think about the world. So it goes, to quote Vonnegut. I’m not doing stand-up to become famous. I only started telling jokes because of a magazine article that nobody remembers. I took a four-week comedy class, wrote about the experience and was instantly addicted to the immediate response of a live audience. I’d never gotten that kind of feedback as a writer. Now it’s about figuring out new ways to exploit the limits of the stand-up genre. That’s why I sometimes perform in a bear suit.
I think my best performance ever was a fifteen minute set I did a couple of years ago at a coffee shop in Minneapolis. It was a big deal at the time because it represented the direction I’ve been taking on stage since, combining tight one-liners (or written pieces I’ve been invited to read) with an ongoing commentary as my set unfolds, completely dismantling the distance and expectations of professional performance. The emotional honesty of what I’m feeling on stage adds something to the prepared material, I think. The last thing in the world I look like is an entertainer, so I’ve decided to use that to my advantage. If audience expectations are low, I don’t see any reason to heighten them.
I’ve survived plenty of awful gigs, but the worst had to be opening for Louie Anderson in front of 5,000 of his hometown fans one New Year’s Eve. Those people had paid too much money to sit through my clever and decidedly dark one-liners. Louie had warned me that material about slavery and transvestites and child abduction was going to require some work on my part — and he was right. But rather than support my material with a strong, focused performance, I trudged onto stage and withdrew into myself, literally mumbling my jokes into the mic. I didn’t perk up until somebody in the expensive seats down in the front of this enormous theater farted in the silence between two of my jokes and I stopped everything to say that I would’ve thought for sure that rich people paid minorities to fart for them. Things went further downhill from there.
PS: Pretend I’m Louie Anderson, talk to me.
BB: Hey, Louie. Remember when that shitty classic rock radio station ran that reality TV-ish contest a few years ago, to open for you in front of a shit-ton of people who had no idea what was going on? And were too drunk to care? Thank you for allowing me to be one of the finalists sacrificed like a witch or a comedy virgin before your big show that night. Thank you, too, for being so honest about how I have a special talent for alienating audiences by making them think too much. I should try harder not to do that, yes. Anyway, you have no idea how much I appreciate your time and trouble, even if you don’t remember me at all.
PS: Okay, I’m just plain old Peter again. Now I understand you were a bit of a prodigy as a youth. Did you feel a lot of pressure from the expectations of those around you at the time? How much of that do you still feel?
BB: The first draft of the first short story I ever wrote won a scholarship that paid for four years of college, then I started publishing poems and book reviews in mid-level literary journals as a freshman. Three years later — the day after my twenty-first birthday, I remember, because I went out and got drunk to celebrate — I sold a short story to Seventeen magazine. That was the fifth or sixth story I’d ever finished from beginning to end. Gordon Lish and I wrote back and forth for years before he finally published a prose poem-y thing in one of the last issues of The Quarterly. That was my proudest literary moment. I was also fortunate to have as mentors some incredible poets and fiction writers at a handful of summer workshops: Lynda Hull, Larrys Levis and Brown, Bob Shacochis.
I was the first person in my family to attend college, and nobody was much of a reader, so only the story in Seventeen mattered. Because there was money involved and because the story was a fictionalized account of my parents’ ugly divorce nearly two decades earlier. My college professors, undergrad classmates and fellow MFA victims were supportive of my dumb experiments until I started following my muse down stinky, dead-end rabbit burrows. Half the time, I had no idea why or what, exactly, I was doing in a poem or story — and everybody else wanted to know why I couldn’t write another piece like one they’d enjoyed before. Fuck if I knew why. Eventually that nagging question crippled me. So I quit for more than a year. Then I started freelancing book and music reviews again, because I had connections able to provide product and the little bit of cash reviews brought in helped cover my rent.
What other people think about what I do doesn’t matter to me now. That’s as much the result of hacking out ad copy for a living as anything that’s occurred in my own work. I’m not precious about my writing. It doesn’t cure cancer. It’s also not going to last in that vain literary sense. So what? I just write to entertain myself. That’s difficult enough.
PS: Amen, the process is more important than the result and spiritually entertaining yourself is more important than fame which is out of our hands anyway. I’m entertaining myself right now by picturing you in your bear suit. No question here, just wanted you to know that.
BB: Just because I had a bear suit made to wear when I perform stand-up doesn’t mean that I’m a furry. I didn’t know about those freak perverts until I’d done several sets in my costume. Not that I’m calling you a freak pervert.
PS: Oh, I’d just fess up if you called me a pervert. So. Oh yeah, what’s the closest you’ve ever come to killing someone? Don’t say this interview, I’m already intimidated.
BB: I’m quick to anger, but I’m even quicker to turn that anger back on myself, which means I contemplate unlikely suicide scenarios probably a dozen or so times each day. Sure, I’m getting long-in-the-tooth for such thoughts, but comforting habits are the hardest to break. Despite my considerable size (6′ 3″, 280 lbs.) and a stare I’ve been told is either unnerving or deadpan, depending on my mood, I’m just not interested enough in other people to consider them worth the time and trouble killing them would entail. In other words, you’re safe — for now.
PS: Phew. Okay, let’s put on our magic hats. What would you like to see happen in your life? I actually had a dream that you had your own late night talk show but there were a lot of commercials even in my dream so all I saw was your musical guest, Sting.
BB: I would take my own late night talk show, if folks were giving them out, though I worry that my disinterest in other people may make me a less-than-stellar interviewer. And celebrities interest me even less than people I know. The only way you would see Sting on my show would be if Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers were playing, too. Man was I a huge Police fan in my youth. I’m not ashamed to say so. I’m also not ashamed to admit that my career ambitions aren’t even as lofty (or lucrative) as late night TV. I’d much rather host an overnight radio show that crossed Art Bell’s call-in craziness and Joe Frank’s dark storytelling brilliance. My other secret fantasy is to pen a satirical advice column called “Badvice by Brian Beatty.” But I’d settle for the fourteen people who read this far each mailing me a dollar. That would buy my lunch for a couple of days.
PS: Well there you have it, folks. Fourteen people, a dollar each. Thirteen of you can send your money to the fourteenth and then he/she can just mail in a check or money order, or, you can each send a dollar bill inside a cute card to:
Full of Crow
c/o Brian Beatty
PO Box 1082
Beacon, NY 12508
That radio show does sound pretty awesome. I know I’d listen. I loved Coast to Coast back in the day. So let’s pretend we’re on the radio right now. Okay. I also love your bad advice idea so in your best radio voice, please, let’s end by you giving us your best advice…
BB: I know it’s not considered “cool” or “hip” or “happening” to believe everything you read in the pages of The Reader’s Digest, but laughter really is the best medicine — unless you’re a Christian Scientist. Then it’s pretty much the only medicine you’ve got. So best of luck against the cancer.