CHRIS ELLIOT: The thing I like about writing this is that I had free reign. I could go down to my office and just let whatever was in my head come out. I realized half way through writing it that that was why it was so much fun because usually on scripts you plan everything out and you basically just connect the dots between one scene and the next and even if it’s not working you still have to get to that next scene to finish the script. But I talked to people that wrote novels who told me not to plan anything out, to just let it go where it’s going to go and so it sounds corny, but it was a wonderful journey, to put it to you that way. It was a freeing sort of liberating experience to not have somebody saying that’s too stupid, you can’t do that, which I hear a lot.
AD: Please describe your novel
CE: It’s a historical crime thriller that takes place in 1882 but I’ve done absolutely no research on the time period whatsoever so everything is either made up or completely inaccurate. It’s also kind of like a parody of the Alienist and a little Jack Finney stuffed Time and Again and then Patricia Cornwell is in there too with her last book, Jack The Ripper. I got to work all those in.
AD: What’s a thwacker?
CE: That’s how he gets rid of his victims. Ripper was already taken, so he went with thwacker the murderer and he thwacks them upside the head with a bag of Macintosh apples. That’s how he gets rid of his people. It was challenging to make a serial killer funny, but…
AD: When you started it, did you have an ending in mind?
CE: That’s the only thing I had in mind. I knew the ending. I knew I wanted this certain thing to happen in the end and I knew that I was going to go back in time and be accused of the crimes. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have a trial or if i was going to do what I did in the book, but that was really it. When I sold the book I had most of chapter one which is what I sold it on and then I kind of told them the areas that I was going to go into. That I was going to take the people out to Coney Island and do a sequence there and do this, that and the other thing. Other than that, I really didn’t know what twists and turns it was going to take and I thought I could write it in three months. That’s why it took six because I had to go back. Once things went off in a weird tangent I had to go back and set that up in earlier chapters so it made a little more sense, though it still basically doesn’t really make any sense. It kinds of ties up or at least sort of feels like it does to me.
AD: What do you want folks to take away with them from the novel?
CE: I want them to read it, enjoy it, and then ask themselves why they bought it. It’s such a silly book there is nothing I want them to take away from it at all. They should enjoy reading it and then throw it away. Or pass it on. They can give it to the library.
AD: Why did you decide to write a book?
CE: I would like to say it was for the money but I was writing for Miramax and there wasn’t a lot of that there. I had the idea before I went to Miramax to sell it to them because I like those books. I do like that genre, that sort of dark gothic novel type thing and period novels and murder mysteries. I also had an idea to write a history of New York City without doing any research and then I had the idea of writing a silly book about parroting Jack the Ripper and I thought ok, I’ll combine both ideas without doing any research.
AD: Do you think you’ll write a screenplay about it?
CE: I was just talking to somebody about that.
I don’t know how you would do it, because it would have to look really cool. I just watched the Elephant Man again, it was on HBO a couple of weeks ago. If it looked like that, if it looked that cool, like a David Lynch type movie where you go back there, then maybe, but if it looks like a comedy…
There’s this movie a long time ago called Johnny Dangerously with Michael Keaton and it was set in the 30s but it was color and it was a comedy and didn’t look like the kind of movie it was supposed to be parroting. So I don’t know. And then the other question is, who is it for? Who is the audience? I just came back from doing scary movie 4 and I asked them if they were going to work in any Da Vinci Code stuff when that movie comes out and they said no, because that’s not their audience. Their audience is 13 years olds. Those are the majority of people seeing movies.
AD: Well, your audience would be the people who read the book.
CE: I guess, but that’s the point. It’s a parody of a novel, and there has been no Alienist movie, the Alienist movie has not come out, so it’s not a parody of that, it’s a parody of a novel. So you would want people to be familiar with those that went to the movie. I guess you could do it as a documentary on the history channel sort of as a reenactment type thing, maybe, but either way it would cost a lot to do it to and I’m not the most viable at the box office right now. I’m not the same eye candy I was back when I did Cabin Boy.
AD: How did you sell “Get a life” to Fox?
Is that a loaded question? Have you heard my answer to that before?
CE: I couldn’t, there was no way. I mean I sold them a show about a warm hearted adult with the mind of a child. It was going to be like Big in their minds and what they got was a nut who lives at home with his parents who are nuts in a town full of nuts.
We never knew it had a following when it was on. In fact, I remember we were renting a house out there when we were shooting that show and I remember getting out of the car on Santa Monica Boulevard with my wife and daughter who is two and somebody was starting to recognize me and I thought, oh this is going to be cool, and they walked by and said “oh there is that guy from that show we hate”. My daughter was like, “what did they say?”, and it’s like nothing dear, keep walking. So we didn’t know. Now it has a following and you know, it’s great, but at the time we thought nobody was watching. And the people that were watching were like that woman that hated us.
AD: It was meant to be cutting edge.
CE: Yeah, and they wanted it to be cutting edge and at the same time they wanted a Cosby like show at that point. They had Married With Children and they had In Living Color, you know they wanted to be more respectable. They were looking to try to develop these more family oriented type shows and they came to me for some reason. I think they felt the burn of the big switch with what I gave them eventually.
it was early on with that whole trend with that kind of humor too, which wasn’t anything that I started. it was happening, you know, Dumb and Dumber happened fairly soon after that. You know that sort of idiot man child stuff came to the forefront after I was canceled.
AD: Who are your influences?
CE: My dad was one for sure, who was part of a comedy team called Bob and Ray years ago before you guys were born. And David Letterman and Andy Kaufman and Harry Shearer, that’s probably about it. And Bill Murray, I would probably put in there too.
AD: So when and how did you discover that you had a knack for making other people laugh?
CE: I guess it was probably in high school. But it was really Dave Letterman, I mean with my dad we shared a sense of humor and all that, but I think Dave Letterman was the one and it was always like that whenever I was on that show. It was always about making him laugh and I think that what gave me the confidence to try and do it on my own because other than that I think I would have stayed as the goofy guy in the office whose funny. He was the one who put me on the air and hear an audience laugh. And I’m the youngest in my family so I was always considered the goofy one you know and you’re always sort of at thanksgivings and stuff getting a laugh but it’s your family.
I was not going to be an actor and it was really Dave that put me on television. I’ve never been asked that question, but I think it was when I first heard an audience laugh and him laughing along with them that I realized oh, I can do this.
AD: If you can make Dave Letterman laugh, you can make anyone laugh.
CE: And that’s all that mattered to me. I would go out there sometimes and the audience would just stare. But he would be laughing and I so I knew ok; I’ll be back next week. There was never any time where he was like no, no, that’s not going to work. But well, I guess there were a couple of times when he sort of pulled the reigns in on me and probably should have more often than not but he really let me do anything I wanted on that show which was so much fun.
AD: Which is better, being an author or an actor?
CE: Well, I really liked writing this, I had a really fun time writing it but I think ultimately I’m better at being goofy in front of the camera than I am at writing novels. I’m fine at writing jokes and some people might complain that this book is a little too joke heavy and it is, and just as a side note the reason why it’s joke heavy is I just assumed Miramax would edit out the bad ones. And they didn’t. They left everything in. But I probably like performing better, ultimately.
AD: What’s next for you?
CE: I’m supposed to be writing another book. Actually, it’s more of an adventure novel. It’s about climbing Mount Everest–which I’ve never done.
AD: And have you started it?
CE: I’ve started it. but this book tour kicked in and so I suddenly had to get into the mind of what the thwacker was about again, I have to talk about that. You know I wrote The Thwacker in six months straight just getting it down with very few weeks off to go do a movie or something, or a television show, and it was intense work, just 5 in the morning work, because I loved writing it so much and I think that’s probably my process. So even though I started this other book I don’t feel like I really have until I get a couple of months behind me in of just straight work
AD: Here’s a real cheesy question that you must get a lot…
CE: There are no cheesy questions.
AD: What advice would you give to up and coming comedians and writers?
CE: It’s not a cheesy question it’s a really good question and it’s a really hard question for me to answer because it is so f**king different now than it was when I started. There’s so much product out there. Cable and HBO and everything that they’re doing, well that is cable, but you know Comedy Central wasn’t around when I started.
I guess the advice for somebody who wants to perform comedy, if they’re not doing stand up comedy, would be to try and get into an improv troupe and into Second City or whatever and then try and get on a show as a writer’s assistant and then as a writer. That’s generally the way you go. But it’s hard. It’s really a hard business. I don’t know that I could get into it now if I was just starting out. I got into it because that show was so different. I was hired as a runner there and there was just a small group of people there and Dave noticed me right away. That show now is like the White House. I don’t know if you were hired there as an intern that you would ever meet Dave, you know, at this point. So, I think even though there is more opportunity out there I think it’s not as cut and dry as it was when i got into it which was only 25 years ago.
I’ll tell you who I like though, I like Stella, I like those guys a lot. I think those guys are really funny. Have you seen them at all on comedy central? They’re just these three guys who are just hilarious and they started on the internet doing stuff and then moved to comedy central and will probably do a movie. But the internet is a whole other place where you can start showing your stuff, I guess, you know. Which i’m totally illiterate with, so…
AD: Is there anything else you want to add?
CE: Just to thank my fans for years of devotion. Honestly, it’s a humbling experience to write a book because you go into one of these bookstores and you see the amount of product out there and you can’t find your book anywhere even though you’ve been doing a month of press for it. But you know I’ve been doing these signings and I’m basically a hermit–we live in Connecticut and we live a pretty suburban life style. It is so amazing for me to meet fans and it’s hard for me to tell them that when they are there because half my persona is based on insincerity. So I tell them you know that I am sincerely grateful that they are there and they don’t believe me so if there was anything else that I would want to add it would be a grateful sincere thank you to my fans. ***