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Chris Elliott Tackles Mount Everest, Celebrities

Photo: Fernando Leon / Retna

You may know Chris Elliott best from his role on the nineties sitcom Get a Life!, in which he starred as a bumbling 30-year-old paperboy who paved the way for South Park’s Kenny by getting killed off at the end of every episode. But he’s actually something of a goofball Renaissance man, having continued to write for and appear in a slew of series and films, including his gross-out turn as a Cameron Diaz–obsessed hives sufferer in There’s Something About Mary. His second satirical novel, Into Hot Air, in which he tackles Mount Everest with a group of do-gooder celebrities (Michael Moore and Kirsten Dunst among them) hits stores this week.

So, is Michael Moore aware of his supporting role in the book?
I haven’t heard! I know he does stuff with the Weinsteins [the book’s publishers], so I assume he’s gotten some word of it. I don’t think I’ve ever actually met Kirsten Dunst, but the rest of the main characters I’ve met at one time or another. They’re sort of random though: You can put together any group of five celebrities, and just the idea of them climbing Mt. Everest with me seems ludicrous. It wasn't like I went out thinking, Oh, it has to be this person or the other person. The first thought I had was, Who would it be funny for me to end up carrying up to the summit? And Michael Moore was the first person that came to mind.

Were there any ideas that you thought were just too out there to include?
On every page there’s probably something I’ve filtered out at one point or another because it was just too much. And then there were some things that I didn’t even know I was going to do until halfway through the book. Like having the Dalai Lama invade China. Suddenly you realize, Oh, that’s where that should go. Somebody told me when I started writing these, because of the spirit of these books, not to plan it all out too much, and I haven’t. When I write these things, I know what the beginning is, and I know where I sort of want to end up at the end, but then I kind of let it go wherever it’s going to go. I tend to keep CNN on in the background so everything that I hear ends up on the page. I hear a story on the Dalai Lama, and suddenly he’s a character in the book.

Do you think he’ll like the story?
Oh, yeah, I hear he’s a big, big fan.

What’s the closest you’ve ever actually come to doing something like climbing Mt. Everest?
[Laughs.] Honestly, I read Into Thin Air and I guess I watched an Imax documentary on climbing Everest, and then to write the book, I just got a couple of climbing magazines for all the terminology of the gear and that kind of stuff. But I didn’t actually go out in the field and try anything myself. But I think most people who write about it haven’t climbed it either, so I’m in good company.

Aside from you and the various celebrities, were any of the characters based on real people?
There’s no Uncle Percy, although I do have a great-uncle who has lots of great stories. He was sort of loosely based on a climber, I can’t even remember his name, who did actually fly to Everest in the thirties and tried to climb up solo. The guy’s plane was named Everest, and for aficionados of climbing, there’s a slight reference to that, but he’s a made-up character.

Does writing a book like this require you to be in a sort of perpetual good mood?
Writing a book is a lonely process, and it can put you in a bad mood if you’re not laughing at your own stuff, for me at least. If I’m making myself laugh, then I know I’m doing my job. The only times I’ve been successful on television, whether it’s been on Letterman or Get a Life or anything, it’s always been stuff I personally think is really, really funny. Stuff that makes me laugh. So I really wanted to try to do that in these books. It’s sort of me, unadulterated. It’s me, without going through the sieve of a network. It’s just the stuff that just makes me giggle.

I thought it was pretty funny.
Well, that’s good. That’s all we need. Us two.

So now what — the whirlwind book tour?
Yes, but it’s been a little bit stifled by the writers’ strike. I was going to do the big late-night shows and all that to get the word out, and that’s been a bit curtailed. I’ll do them when the strike is over, but the strike could last quite a few months, so you never know. Hopefully the book will still be in stores.
—Sara Cardace