From humble beginnings as a participant in season 3 of The CW’s Beauty and the Geek to becoming the artistic director of UCB’s New York theater to his current position as senior writer at Funny or Die, Nate Dern has had quite the media journey. As a writer, his work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Vice, and New York magazine, all of which were precursors to his first book published by Simon and Schuster earlier this year.
Not Quite a Genius, which has received stellar reviews, is a collection of short stories and essays outlining Dern’s childhood predilection for Sunday school contrarianism as well as his elementary school public speaking persona of “Mrs. Ham and Cheese Sandwich.” He also outlines his experience working at an Apple Store on the Upper East Side, where he was overrun by people asking him highly technical questions such as to how they got on the L.L. Bean email list. Some of the other topics he lampoons include anti-vaxxers, our insatiable cultural need for an infinite number of unnecessary apps, and one office worker’s preoccupation to finish a 5K race, no matter the odds.
I recently had the pleasure to sit down with Dern to talk a little about the book and a lot about all things comedy.
Tell me about your experience as the UCB Theatre’s artistic director.
I did this job in New York City for nearly three years. My love for UCB started in college when I was at Harvard and we would make a pilgrimage once a year to watch shows. Then I would deconstruct what we saw and practice it.
Eventually, I moved to New York and got on an improv team and started teaching. So when the artistic director position opened up I didn’t really have a background in theater, but I just loved comedy and wanted to become more and more a part of it.
What was the most valuable comedy school lesson you learned while performing as well as teaching at UCB?
It was probably the lesson that Eric Drysdale (Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert) taught me, which was when you write a sketch, make sure that you remember what you thought was initially funny about the idea. This was an epiphany to me. Is what your original spark for the idea in your final product, or did the sketch turn into something completely else? If it turned into something else, it’s probably not as funny as you envisioned it could be.
Is there a comedian or performer who was there during your tenure that has yet to break out that we should have on our radar?
The most fun part of that job is when I placed performers on teams who I saw auditions for and performed during classes, then to see them thrive on our showcase nights. Sebastian Conelli is someone, from the first time I saw him, I thought to myself, “This guy’s going to be great and it will be fun to see him ten years from now.” He just has this joy when he performs whereas some comedians can get in their heads and become too fixated on career. He just loved what he was doing and that came out in his performances.
Currently, you are the executive editor for Funny or Die. Do you feel this position has helped you creatively or maybe that it has taken you away a bit from the creative process?
It’s great because I get to immerse myself in comedy writing all day. There are times, like anyone else, after a day of work, I don’t feel like pursuing my own side projects. But, that’s probably mostly just an excuse. Overall, it’s amazing and I really love it.
Do you accept unsolicited pitches? If not, how can one get their foot in the door to write for FOD?
The best thing about Funny or Die is anyone can create an account and upload videos or articles. Then we have a community page and if it does well our community manager will send it over to me and say “Hey, we should be featuring this on the front page.” When people submit directly to me it’s more through a referral, or if I see a piece or video on another humor site like The New Yorker’s Daily Shouts, I’ll reach out.
You recently had your first book published, Not Quite a Genius. How long did it take you to write, and what advice do you have for other aspiring authors trying to find their comedic writing voice?
I had been working on the pieces in the book for ten years. I transferred everything into a Word doc then deleted the stuff I didn’t like as much and sent it off to various book agents and received some interest. In fact, it was the third book manuscript and treatment I had tried to sell. The two in the past were more what I perceived a gimmicky comedy book should look like. So, I guess the lesson there is be true to yourself and don’t necessarily try to write for the market.
Who’s your personal favorite comedy essayist or person’s work you are most influenced by?
George Saunders is my favorite contemporary author. He has humor, short stories, and just had his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, come out. I also really like B.J. Novak’s collection called One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories. Highly recommended reading. Simon Rich as well as Megan Amram are some of my other favorites as well.
Any plans for a followup book? What other creative endeavors do you have on the horizon?
I’ve been chipping away at a Sociology PhD from Columbia, which is my big side project right now. Otherwise, I’m always working on TV show and movie ideas. I would love to attempt a sci-fi novel for my next book. I don’t really have a specific plotline just yet, but, have some ideas of what I want to do with structure. I just read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff and found the structure very intriguing.