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Adam Resnick on His New Book, Writing for Letterman, and Annie Hall’s Lobster Problem

It’s pretty much a well-known fact that there is nothing more difficult than being funny. It’s much harder to make someone laugh than it is to operate on their brain or send them into space. But Adam Resnick has never shied away from hard work — just people. In his new nonfiction book, Will Not Attend: Lively Stories of Detachment and Isolation, the esteemed former Late Night With David Letterman writer and Chris Elliott cohort (Get a Life and Cabin Boy) manages to crack you up on one page and have you in tears the next. And not because it’s sad, either — because you’re chuckling so strenuously. I first met Adam in 1986, when I was interning at Late Night during his long and influential stint there; he and I forged a deep bond over being anxious and constantly sleepy that continues to give us common ground all these years later. We caught up recently and discussed various neuroses, the Letterman days, and why his ideal place to live would be Overland Park, Kansas.

Before we begin the interview, check out Adam’s recent appearance on Late Show With David Letterman, in part so you can see what he looks like.

You talk a lot about being crazy. How has that served you?
Well, when I'm talking about myself, "crazy" is just a romanticized word for neurotic. To say that I'm neurotic is a bit misleading because it conjures up the image of a person with all types of worries and phobias. While I am a worrier, I don't have classic neurotic fears. For example, I’m not a hypochondriac. I don’t obsess about death. I have no patience for people like that. You know in Annie Hall, there's the two lobster scenes — one with Diane Keaton, who gets Woody Allen's character and finds his fear of escaped lobsters amusing, and the later scene with the woman who doesn't? And she says something like, "What's the big deal? You're a grown man. They're just lobsters." I'm that lady. I mean, jeez, first of all, how did the f***ing lobsters get out in the first place? The guy would’ve had to physically remove them from the box and place them around the kitchen. And then what? Make some kind of a scene, so his girlfriend runs in and saves him? Because he’s afraid of lobsters? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty good movie, but keep me away from anything resembling that guy. So, to the extent that I overanalyze and get annoyed by things like that might indicate a basic all-over-the-map craziness. No need to put a fancy name to it.  

So what are you afraid of?
Human incompetence and laziness. That will ultimately be the downfall of the planet. You heard it here first.

How did you feel writing about people who are alive, particularly family members, who will presumably be reading your book? If you don’t mind me saying, you didn’t pull any punches.
That's how it read to you? I've been bullshitting myself for over a year that I was using a "light glove" approach. I thought I was pulling punches. I was constantly toning things down and editing out the really bad stuff. And sometimes I used pseudonyms and changed certain details to further disguise people. All I can say is, no one comes off worse than myself. Give me that much, at least.

Though your book is extremely funny, it’s also quite poignant. Were you conscious of that? Was it a relief to not have to be ha-ha funny every page?
The stories had to be funny to a large extent, otherwise they would have been too difficult to write, or to even think about. I wouldn’t be able to pull off the Tobias Wolff version. But yeah, as you so beautifully put it — I wasn’t always going for “ha-ha funny.” There’s a lot of personal stuff in there I have yet to find humor in. Besides, I’ve never been much of a joke man. Or a song-and-dance man, for that matter. Wait — was that a joke? 

Did you find writing the book easier or more difficult than screenwriting?
Writing is always a bitch, I think. But I’d say I found writing the book way more enjoyable and satisfying than screenwriting. For better or worse, it’s completely mine. It doesn’t have to be turned into anything. Very few meetings are required. The erosion process that typically begins once your writing takes the trip towards being “produced” doesn’t happen. Of course, if the book’s shitty, you're fucked.      

People always want to know what it was like to work at Letterman. Tell me the best and worst things about it.
It was all great. I've said this before — they was the happiest years of my life. Anything I did after Dave — real show-business stuff — was never as fun, and in fact, could be pretty awful. As far as bad memories, the only thing I can think of is the fucking birdseed. [Beat] Just go out on that.

Who do you think was the best intern you ever met at Letterman, and if it was me, why? Just kidding.
Well, I’d like to think I was the best intern. I did it for about nine years. Back then, at least a third of the U.S. Department of Labor was in Dave’s pocket, so no one came sniffing around. But I can still feel those bags of birdseed on my shoulder. His secretary sent me out every day for six of them, rain or shine. Fifty pounds each. At first I thought it was nice that he liked birds so much, but then I found out it was just to lure them towards the porch so he could throw hammers at them.  So ... other than myself, you were the best intern, Julie. You were bright and, I seem to recall, very clean-looking. 

I don't know if you remember, but back in the day, you and I used to talk about what our perfect jobs would be. Mine was working for Woody Allen from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with two hours for lunch (this was pre-controversial Woody). Tell me what your perfect job would be now — or better yet, your perfect life.
Well, back then, I was already working my fantasy job — writing for Late Night. Now, I usually daydream about being a different person. Someone who’s wired to be calm and optimistic, and lives in a nice town like Overland Park, Kansas — a beautiful place, by the way — and I have no creative urges. I’m not overly ambitious. I have no envy, jealousy, or sense of competition. Everything is steady and uncomplicated and my family is the only thing that’s important to me. Essentially, we’re talking about a brain transplant.

Who is in your mind as your audience when you write? Is it your wife? Your daughter? Your dog?
I’ve talked about this before; the main person in my head when I write is Dave Letterman. After all these years, I still want to please him more than anyone. Sometimes, though, when I’m just doing a money job and I’m not creatively enthused, I’m thinking, Please, Dave, forgive me. Like I’m sinning, you know? Sort of a “Dave as God” type deal. Just good mental hygiene, is all.

Tell me what question I neglected to ask you?
I can’t think of anything. Probably something about Bridgegate.

Adam Resnick will discuss Will Not Attend with Bob Odenkirk at Book Court in Brooklyn tomorrow at 1 p.m.