Finding Humor When ‘Shit Is So Terrible’: A Conversation With Samantha Irby

Finding Humor When ‘Shit Is So Terrible’: A Conversation With Samantha Irby

Finding Humor When ‘Shit Is So Terrible’: A Conversation With Samantha Irby

We talked to the writer and comedian about privacy, blogging, chronic illness, and how to actually enjoy social media.
 

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Samantha Irby is pretty sure she’s “the last person on earth who still has a [personal] blog.” And that’s not a bad thing. The best-selling author—and sometimes spicy Twitter user—has done something most of us couldn’t do well if we tried: made a career out of writing jokes about her butthole on the Internet. Irby’s persona can be described as equal parts confessional and raunchy, vulnerable and raw. Her work spans defecation disasters and the travails of dating and grief.

Irby started a blog on MySpace in 2008—a futile attempt to impress a crush—before she moved it to a new domain and christened it Bitches Gotta Eat. The blog, along with her participation in Chicago’s “live lit” scene, gained her a following. She wrote her first essay collection, 2013’s Meaty, while working her then-day job as an animal hospital receptionist. Since then, she’s published two more essay collections and forayed into TV writing. She still updates Bitches Gotta Eat, though it’s evolved into a newsletter in which she recaps episodes of Judge Mathis, a courtroom reality TV show.

In her most recent collection, Wow, No Thank You, Irby navigates a new set of life changes like settling into married life with a partner with kids and making new friends as an adult. As in her previous collections, she plays with the formal structure of the essay: Fluent in the language of the Internet, she tells her stories through memes, lists, and run-on sentences. In “Girls Gone Mild,” an essay about being too old to party, she takes us on a timestamped play-by-play leading up to a night of clubbing as an almost-40-year-old, describing the physical and mental exhaustion of going out: deliberating an appropriate way to cancel plans, figuring out if pajamas can look like going-out clothes. She places these considerations side-by-side with memories of her 20s, when she could wreak havoc on her body without paying for it immediately. Her body’s various betrayals are something that she regularly documents in her work, often in grotesque and painstaking detail. In an essay called “Hysterical!” she recounts her decision to get a hysterectomy, drenching us in the horror of experiencing her period soak through hotel bedsheets, explaining her choice to “take a blowtorch to the entire apparatus,” and making sense of the post-surgery haze.

We talked about privacy, chronic illness, and how to actually enjoy social media. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

—Rima Parikh

Rima Parikh: In “Lesbian Bed Death,” you structure the essay as a list using the meme format “Sex is fun, but…” A similar thing happens in “Hello, 911?” Does Twitter have a role in helping you generate ideas?

Samantha Irby: I saw those two joke formats and was like, “This could be a framework to make my point about never wanting to get banged.” Those are two that I happened to see and happened to be current. Maybe not anymore—they’re probably on their way out in terms of being current. But those worked well. Not everything can be a story or a traditional essay. For instance, there’s a piece in the book about going out as a 40-year-old person. I was like, “I could write a story about going out that sort of telegraphs what I’m trying to say about being a person with arthritis at the club,” but it was so much more fun and propulsive to write it as a play-by-play: “At 8 o’clock I do this, at 9, this happens.”

RP: What’s your process editing and organizing jokes, especially with essays that have a meme-inspired format?

SI: A lot of my writing is a stream of consciousness. When I sit down, I’m like, “Let me puke all of this out and then shuffle it around.” I do a lot of staring at the screen and talking it out to myself. After I started my blog, I did a lot of storytelling and live readings in Chicago, so I’m always thinking about how this would sound if an audience had to listen and react to it. That’s when it feels like it’s good to me—when I can read it to someone and make them laugh.

Also when I start something, I always know how it’s going to end. Always. I don’t write a thing unless I know the punchline or however it’s going to close. With lists, where there’s a cadence, I read those out loud and see how it flows and move it around. I learned the hard way that the worse something is structured, the harder it is to make it sound natural.

RP: In “Hung Up!” you write about the joys of being on your phone. How do you stay sane on the Internet?

SI: Here’s the tea: You have to mute and unfollow shit that stresses you out. Like first of all, I deleted my Facebook—that was step one. It’s not a moral thing, like, “Oh, privacy.” I don’t give a shit about any of that. Nothing is private. The whole format stressed me out. Once you’ve friended friends of friends of friends, it’s hard to go through and delete people. Scorched-earth Facebook—it’s been like a year and a half. No regrets. Instagram is easy because if there’s someone you feel like you need to follow out of obligation, but their posts drive you fucking batshit, you just mute them. And then Twitter is the same deal. On Twitter I mute words. The mute function is truly the greatest social media gift.

RP: Do you feel like there’s more leniency with privacy since there’s an understanding that these are jokes?

SI: One hundred percent. Like people know—even in the early days of my blog, especially when I would just rip someone a new asshole—it was in a nice, funny way. I have never had anyone who actually knew how to get in touch with me come to me and say, “That thing you wrote? I hated the way you depicted me.” Like in the last book, I wrote about two serious relationships with men, and I used their real names, talked about our real experiences, and I sent them each the essays and was like, “If you hate this, I will not put it in the book.”

But especially now, I think people know what to expect. Sometimes shit will happen, and my friends will be like, “You’re going to write about this, right?” And I’ll be like, “No, but that’s cute that you want me to. I mean, maybe? Maybe it’ll come up somewhere.” At this point in my life, everyone I hang with knows that it’s a possibility, but they also know that I’d change their name if they wanted. I would never intentionally be like, “I’m going to air this bitch out.”

RP: Do you feel like strangers talk to you like they know you and you know them—and if so, is that weird?

SI: All the time. I don’t put everything [about myself] in there—I have to have something to base intimate relationships on. Otherwise nothing feels real, if I’m talking to someone about the same shit that they read in the books or online or whatever. But it’s never weird to me. I’m so humbled by it. I never get offended when someone is too familiar, because it’s like, ”They just read 400 pages of my intimate stuff.” I would be such a shithead if I were like, “Uh, don’t talk to me like you know me.” You do know me. You do. You just don’t know all of it. The parts that I keep to myself are really the most undesirable parts, so they do know my best self. And that’s flattering. That’s nice. I like that. When people come up to me, arms outstretched, like “I love you!,” I’m like “I love you, too!”

RP: You describe chronic illness in a way that’s funny but doesn’t diminish it. How do you strike that balance between emphasizing the weight of an issue while also being conversational about it?

SI: My knee-jerk response to everything is to find the nugget of humor, because when shit is so terrible, I need to know: Can I laugh at that? What’s the part of that that will make me laugh? And then it feels manageable. If you can find the one absurd piece, it’s like, “OK, this is ridiculous—I can deal with this.”

People find their empathy center better when they’re laughing, when you’re not beating them over the head and telling them they’re bad. I never want anyone to think it doesn’t hurt or that it’s not inconvenient or I’m not struggling, because that’s not it either. It’s in equal measure, like, “Hey, look, it’s hilarious I shit in this diaper—but also, I’m an adult wearing a diaper who had to clean her own liquid waste out of it.” I don’t know if it’s anything overt that I do. It’s just like, “Well, I gotta talk about why being this sick with no health insurance is a crime, but also why being this sick and still trying to date and explaining to my hookup why I’m wearing a Depends is also hilarious.” That is me boiled down to my essence: trying to make somebody laugh, while not wanting you to laugh so much that you don’t feel sorry.

RP: With “Body Negativity,” you detail insecurities about individual body parts to show how impossible women’s beauty standards are, especially when they’re couched as “self-care.” What was the experience of writing that piece?

SI: One I really liked, because it felt like I was really doing something with it. I was like, “What are all the things that are ‘required’ of us? Like, how are we made to feel we can do any of these things, let alone all of them? It’s impossible for my toes to look nice, and my eyebrows, and also to have a job—all of these things can’t be done!” I was really feeling like people are going to read that and they’re going to understand. It was like my mini–rage against the machine. I also had a really good time with “Girls Gone Mild,” because that was just truly the play-by-play of that day and how I really felt like I was leaving my body being out and awake and still wearing pants after midnight.

RP: You write about shame in a way that feels visceral. What’s the process of reliving embarrassing moments for you? Do you have a journal?

SI: Where shame is concerned, it’s imprinted on my psyche. If I need to tap into some embarrassing moments, it’s half a second of thinking and it’s right there in vivid detail. I can call it up at any moment, whether I want to or not. I could think about a person I had an embarrassing moment with, and it comes right back—like that kind of shit, the pain does not dull with time. Anytime I’ve made a fool out of myself, it still stings. If I had a journal, I would probably burn it.

RP: You still update your blog, even after all this time. What made you want to continue it?

SI: I don’t know how to stop a blog. And it’s shifted now anyway—I mostly write about Judge Mathis. It’s changed because my regular life was so boring that having a blog about myself meant I didn’t need to update it all the time. But I don’t want to shut it down and lose all those archives. Also you need practice, and I’m never going to study writing or take a class or go to college or do anything, so writing the blog was just practice to keep the muscles strong. When you’re writing butt jokes, are you really strengthening any muscles?

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