Talking with Jeanne Darst about comedy, gun sense and truth

One time a man knocked pamphlets out of my mom’s hands and called her a Communist. In the late ‘60s, “communist” was a pretty bad thing to call a person. Why the epithet? My mom was campaigning on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall for gun reform. It’s one of my earliest memories. It happened just after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

The concept of gun safety seems like common sense, but in that moment it became clear that a lot of people don’t feel that way. And so we arrive at today with decades of carnage and violence and incalculable loss behind us, around us and in front of us. Or we can take action now and change at least part of that equation.

When Josh Mills, owner of Its Alive! Media, contacted me about his May 11 event, Fun Lovers Unite! An Evening of Music, Comedy, and Gun Sense, I immediately wanted to learn more. The first thing I found out is that it’s in New York. If you’re fortunate enough to be in the area, you can expect an evening of renewed hope, action and a very sweet, unmatched line-up of music and comedy.

You’ll hear from the Brady Campaign, an event co-sponsor. There will be music by Yo La Tengo, Bambi Kino and Tammy Faye Starlight.

The comedy line-up includes Janeane Garofalo, Jon Glaser, John Hodgman, Josh Gondelman, Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells of HBO’s Doll and Em, and one of my favorite authors, Jeanne Darst.

Jeanne Darst
Jeanne Darst

Even though I’m in Chicago and won’t be able to attend in person, the disappointment of missing this event felt untenable. I needed to be a part of it, at least vicariously. So Josh kindly put me in touch with Jeanne.

Jeanne’s book, Fiction Ruined My Family, is proof that magic and comedy can be extracted from difficult times. Her parents both came from backgrounds of prestige and wealth. Her dad’s side included famous writers. Her mom was the youngest person ever to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. They strained harder than Sisyphus to keep up the image, but her dad’s failed dreams of upholding the family’s literary pedigree and her mom’s failed dreams of maintaining her social pedigree were a volatile mix that pretty much exploded one way or another on a daily basis.

There are some extraordinary scenes in Jeanne’s book which are at baseline tragic, but Jeanne is one of those minds who, as she expressed to me, can see the “duality” of every situation. Her flare for mining gold from the detritus of thwarted lives is so on fire with truth and comedy that as I was reading the book I actually imagined that it was smoking.

In addition to Fiction Ruined My Family, Jeanne is a playwright, performer and television writer currently working on Blunt Talk, the new series by Jonathan Ames (Bored To Death). Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine and on This American Life.

Jeanne kindly spoke with me by phone about gun violence prevention, what to tell the kids, the writing life and what happens when you tell the truth. We also learned we both have a parental connection to early gun law reform advocacy.

If you’re in the New York area on May 11, you can go see Jeanne and the rest of the tremendous line-up in person.


Q: How did you become involved with this event?

A: Kim Parker Russell, the head of the Brady Campaign’s New York chapter, saw my Eat Me, L.A. videos. She thought they were really funny and she asked me to be a part of the show.

Q: Why is it important to you to be a part of it?

A: I’m eager to help out because I cannot believe the situation that we’re still in. My dad published a humor piece in Harper’s Magazine in 1972 about trying to get a gun control bill passed in ’68. He was an alderman in St. Louis. He didn’t get it passed and in his article there’s this really prescient, depressing line where he says, “If you can’t get a gun control bill passed in 1968, the bloodiest year in America’s history, you’re never going to get a gun control bill passed.” So it’s a cause that was important for my father and that line in particular was so prophetic. It’s haunting.

Last fall, we had our first “terror day” in L.A. Schools were closed city-wide because there was a threat to a superintendent. So it’s an issue that’s also important because of my son. I make fun of L.A., but it is a place where people think about things like guns and whether kids should be playing with them.

The other day, I was walking into our courtyard and there were a lot of kids running around, neighbors and whatnot. They were all playing with Nerf guns and not to be Sally Goofypants, but I just looked at the kids and said, “Do not point that gun in my face.” It’s not okay by me. So I was like, “Give us a call when you’ve put those things away and you’re doing something else.”

Somebody gave my son a big Nerf gun with Nerf bullets for Christmas. We opened it and he said, “I don’t like guns.” And I was like, yes!

Q: Wow, good for your son! How old is he?

A: My son is nine. But he has an awareness that really started to take over when I was asked to do the event.

Q: How do you talk to him about gun violence in a way that doesn’t terrify him, but helps him stay safe?

A: He’s not really aware of what’s going on in the news because that part really is too scary for nine years-old. The other day, driving to school, we heard “nine year-old boy shot to death in Oklahoma.” Nine years-old. And I thought, okay, we can’t even listen to the radio.

So the conversation with him is more of a local conversation, more about playing with guns. Like we don’t want people pointing things at our face because that’s scary. We don’t want things that fire and could poke out an eye because that’s dangerous. He knows that toy guns are facsimiles for something that is very dangerous and that that’s why they scare me. He doesn’t think that I think he’s going to die from a toy gun.

But he knows I don’t like guns, that guns really hurt people and that they’re not toys. He’s thinking in the same way that he knows anything, that you don’t violate personal space and what constitutes aggression and what’s violence. Hopefully, he has a good grasp about what that means in his world. It’s not okay to shove somebody. It’s not okay to point something at somebody’s face. This understanding can evolve into a larger understanding.

But in terms of his knowing that kids are shooting kids with guns, dying, he doesn’t know that stuff. It’s too intense. But I don’t know how you shield them after a certain point. I really don’t. I think you have to talk to them, really, rather than shield.

Q: That’s such a good point.

A: It’s a big concept to talk about with kids, why people hurt other people. It’s not always because they’re bad people. We were in the pharmacy two to three weeks ago, in the shampoo aisle and my son nudged me and said, “Mom, that guy is stealing.”

I’m half blind, so at first I’m not seeing anything. Then I see this smallish guy. He’s got a lot of stuff in his jacket and my son is like, “Mom, get him!”

Oh, no! I didn’t really know what to do. So I was like, “Sir, sir?” And I was half trotting as the guy is walking towards the exit and I was sort of fake running after him really slowly for my son. I’m fake apprehending a thief! Then he goes out the front door and the alarm goes off, but nobody chases him. So my son is outraged now. He said, “Well, we’ll report him.” So we told the guy at the counter and he couldn’t care less. “Thanks. Thanks a lot, guys.”

A couple of days later my son said, “Mom, I can’t believe you didn’t get the guy.”

“Well, I tried. I tried.”

“But he was stealing.”

“I know, honey. I know. I get that.”

I had compassion for the guy. He was just trying to feed his family. I’ve been there a lot. But then the next day, my son asked, “Mom, why did you feel bad for that guy?”  I said that for some reason he was compelled to do what he did. I’m not saying it’s right, but I have compassion.

Q: Boy, those conversations get so unpredictable and difficult.

A: Yeah. I always say, “Hey, man, I’m not perfect. Don’t put it all on me. You’ll be disappointed.”

Q: I know that feeling! How did you develop your ability to see humor in difficult situations?

Jeanne Darst 1A: Someone once asked, “Were you a funny kid?” And I said, “I didn’t know you weren’t allowed to be funny.” I didn’t know that was an option. In my house we were all very funny. It was a way to deal in a big family. You had to be louder. You had to be funnier. Smarter. You really had to have a lot of skills in that way. I’m the youngest of four girls. It was just the way that it was. Everybody was really funny, although I’m the only person who does it for a living.

It’s a way to deal with pain. I really think it was a survival thing. There’s a scene in the book where my mom is on this gold satin divan in her bedroom. She was a terrible alcoholic from the time I was twelve. At the time I was thirteen and she was in their bedroom and my dad was living on the third floor. They were estranged and having a really hard time. My mom was a crazy alcoholic where every night she would get drunk and cry and talk about wanting to kill herself.

I remember one time she was on the satin divan with her ashtray and her Dewars and her cigarette and her silky bathrobe and wraparound glasses. She looked like Rocky Raccoon in the Social Register.

I remember her crying and saying, “I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna do it.” She caught me on my way up the stairs and said, “Good night. Good night, I’m going to jump.” Her head was dangling over the side of this divan and she’s talking about jumping to her death off this satin divan.

Of course, I’m devastated that it’s the fourth time this week my mom is telling me she was going to kill herself. But I also knew that this was extremely funny, that my mom was telling me she’s going to jump off a divan seven inches from the ground.

I knew that it was my ability to see that duality and to see those things in life that was sort of my talent and my particular interest. It never was just about being funny. It was always about expressing difficult things.

Q: It’s a great thing to be able to see that duality. When I’m stressed, I tend to get cranky and grim. What’s your advice about developing the ability to pull humor out of what’s difficult?

A: That’s very interesting. It’s almost like you’re talking about developing a therapeutic tool, a coping mechanism. I do think it’s something you can learn. With my son, I have this way of teasing him. When I tuck him in at night, we’ll get really silly. I’ll rant, “I’m going to watch five more movies, Mom. No, I don’t really want to take a bath. Listen, could you get me a ….”  I’ll do this thing where I’m running to the kitchen and making fun of how many snacks I get him and he is like, “Mom I’m going to pee my pants. I’m laughing so hard.”

I think this thing I’m giving him is to realize how good we have it. We’re not wealthy and we certainly have our problems. But I think that the coping mechanism you’re talking about, coping through humor, is really the idea of gratitude. That you have to understand what’s working for you in your life and accept the things that aren’t and move on. Otherwise, you’re like that lady on the satin divan. You’ve got everything and you feel like you’ve got nothing. Then nothing is particularly funny.

Q: That is so true.

A: I point out to my son where we are on the spectrum of human condition because I think it is a way of getting out of yourself and seeing more of what other people are going through. That’s absolutely the stuff that I use to keep going. It’s so essential in terms of getting out pride and ego and self-centered desire and fear and all that stuff.

Q: I think that sometimes the things that get me really cranky are this idea of how things should be which is kind of an entitled thought. That’s a great way to look at it. Which comedians and writers make you laugh?

A: In terms of comedians, I really love Louis C.K. and Sarah Silverman. John Hodgman. I think Maria Bamford is hysterical. There are writers I think are really funny. People like Shalom Auslander, David Rakoff and Jonathan Ames and Woody Allen, of course. He’s hilarious.

Q: Your book has gems on every page. I love how you said that “doors don’t open for your mom as much as they just fall off the hinges.” There are beautiful things like that throughout. How did you develop your writing style or is it in your DNA?

A: Clichés were the profanity of our house. Because my dad was a writer and cared so much about language and grammar, I didn’t feel it was okay to use clichés. But then the funny thing was, it was all my mom was. Clichés. “You catch more bees with honey than with vinegar.” She said that stuff all the time, which I put together as her way of driving my father insane. She didn’t have affairs. She used clichés to drive my father insane. So I understood that language was very important and that you were not to just say the easiest thing that came to mind.

Just as a cook would prepare a meal, you were to think about it. You were to put some effort into it. It wasn’t just the way that you wrote, it was the way that you spoke. It was important to be original. I developed this way of caring about vocabulary and language and ideas from a really early age. I knew it was important to care about those things.

But “doors didn’t so much open for her as fall off the hinges,” that’s something that would come to me, I think, because I like exaggerated language which to me is fun.

Q: How are your dad and sisters? I almost feel like I know them from your book.

A: They’re good. One of my sisters lives in Tunisia. One lives in Brooklyn and one in Kansas. I have a piece coming out soon in Vogue about my dad’s reaction to my book. It was a difficult thing for him.

Q: What does he say about your writing? I’m thinking he’s got to be very proud of you as a writer even if the content is difficult.

A: Yeah, you know, I think he is proud of me. I think there are things he disagreed with in the book which is why I wrote a whole piece on it. It’s interesting territory to be from a family of writers and to not apologize for what you’ve written. As a woman, that’s really hard. Really hard. And then when you come from alcoholism and all that, it gets really tricky.

The lesson I learned is that you have to be the thing that you’re supposed to be. It does have a price.

Q: I’ve thought about what the line is, how much to say. Yet a writer contributes so much with honesty.

A: I know. It’s a weird thing. It’s very, very difficult. I don’t know if you saw the Nora Ephron documentary, Everything is Copy?

Q: No. That’s one of the times where my DVR overflowed. I’m hoping to watch it on demand.

A: You’ve got to watch it. It’s really interesting. When she wrote Heartburn her ex-husband Carl Bernstein was against it. It was a really risky thing to do, to write a book about your husband’s affair while you were pregnant and why you left him.

When you do something in a public way, people have a lot of feelings about it. Now people are showing their tits on Instagram and calling it a feminist act. Now it’s very different, but at that time, writing a public memoir about your public husband and your public divorce was like showing your tits on Instagram. But she needed to do it.

Q: When you need to do it, then you kind of need to do it. So then what do you do?

A: I know. I know.

Q: I’m always kind of struggling with what’s that line, too. I hate writing about myself. It’s more out of panic I think than anything else. Fear of being embarrassed or shunned. Everybody’s going to run away, that kind of thing. You need a certain kind of courage to do that.

A: You do. You totally do. In a way, I don’t recommend it, but on the other hand, it is really interesting what happens when you tell the truth.

Q: What would you say happens?

A: You are in a weird way altering everyone’s life when you tell the truth. And then you can’t take it back. People don’t like it at all.  But if you’re someone who needs it, then you don’t really have a choice.

Q: Keeping it in isn’t very healthy. I think the pain starts to get overwhelming if it just sits there and doesn’t have any outlet or analysis or expression.

A: Yes. You have to write the book that you want to write and then deal with the problem that you’re talking about now after you’ve written it. It’s always an option. You write the whole book and then you worry about the problem later.  You worry about it later because you haven’t actually written it yet. Then you go, “if I make a few minor adjustments it’s going to be fine.” You don’t know those adjustments in the beginning. You have to do the thing and then deal with how to put it out into the world.

Q:   I remember Roger Ebert’s review for Albert Brooks’ The Muse. He said that the muse visits in the act of creating. If you keep putting things off until it’s the right time, it’s never going to be the right time.  

A: And the other thing is you don’t learn anything until you finish things. I think when you write half a book, you don’t really learn anything. The people who are really learning are the people who are willing to fail.

That’s the thing about courage. You look at failure and say I can survive that. Something amazing might be around the corner. I think a lot of people looking at fifty have the feeling, “Oh, is that all there is?” and they know how everything is going to go. But I’m forty-seven and I feel like anything could happen. I don’t know if I can survive living a dead life. I know that I can survive an unpredictable, sometimes questionable, difficult life.


Fun Lovers Unite! An Evening of Music, Comedy and Gun Sense is Wednesday, May 11, 2016 at 7:00 p.m. at The Highline Ballroom, 431 W. 16th St., New York City. Tickets here.

Interview with Josh Mills about Fun Lovers Unite! and the events that inspired it here. Stay tuned for an interview with the Brady Campaign’s Kim Parker Russell!

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