Hanging Out with Dave Hill

The first time I saw Dave Hill perform, he was giving a celebrity interview to Ira Glass and wearing — at least in my memory — some kind of kimono-inspired bathrobe. His answers were slow and sleepy and totally absurd. Periodically and without provocation, he’d solo for a while on the electric guitar, just because, you know. But while another performer might go broad, Hill remains disarmingly sincere: you feel a little like you’re watching him vamp in front of the bathroom mirror when nobody else is home. In his just-off-the-mark version of reality, none of this is a joke. In our world, it is, which is good — Dave Hill is one of the funniest people I’ve ever seen.

In addition to his live performances, his TV and radio projects (he’s everywhere, from MTV to This American Life), his various bands (he may not be a kimono-wearing megastar, but the musician thing is real), his assorted web hijinx (take the three days straight of round-the-clock tweets remembering fun times with Kim Jong-il), Hill has just finished his first essay collection, Tasteful Nudes, which comes out today from St. Martin’s.

I recently sat down with Hill to chat about stumbling into comedy, tiramisu vs. Twinkies, and his one remaining life goal.

So in addition to everything else you do, you wrote a book!

I was wanting to do it for, like, 10 or 12 years, and then at one point, my agent contacted me ’cause he’d read something I’d written for Salon and was like, Hey, you should write a book! Before I went into comedy, I was a writer and a musician, and then I sort of got sidetracked, totally an accidental thing, and that really got me away from writing. So when he came on, I was like, oh, shit, yeah, I want to do that. And then I just really took a long time to get the proposal together — at the time I was like, I’m just busy, I can’t figure out what the theme of the book is, how does it all tie together? — and then it went out to publishers, and then I was like, oh shit, what if no one wants to do this? I’ll be devastated. I didn’t even realize I’d be devastated. I was like, oh my god, I’ll never write another word again, ’cause I’ll be so hurt by it. But fortunately, the process for it was so fast that there was really very little time to freak out.

I feel like becoming a comedian by accident is kind of everyone’s dream. So you weren’t one of those kids who spent their entire childhood in training, memorizing every episode of Kids in the Hall, reenacting SNL?

No, that’s the thing, I’m not a comedy nerd or anything. I wasn’t obsessive about it the way I’ve always been with rock music. I was really into comedians, but when I was a little kid it didn’t occur to me that they were doing rehearsed, written things. I always thought standup was literally someone just walking out and talking, like, improvising. That’s what I thought it was. In a sort of naive, delusional arrogant way, I think I was always like, oh yeah, these guys are just like me and my friends, but they’re adults. When I’m at Thanksgiving, I can kind of hold the attention of the table and make jokes. They’re good at that, and they’re grown men, so they have the Late Show.

When I would watch Letterman as a kid, I was just like, god all of his friends must have loved him, and then he knew some guy who was like, “We need someone to host this thing.” Never occurred to me that he wrote for Good Times, did standup, or anything.

I remember seeing Pee-wee Herman on Letterman and being like, this is just some fucking nut. That somehow, somebody knew someone and was like, “We gotta get a fucking nut on this show.” And Larry Bud Melman — some fucking nut. It didn’t occur to me that they were performers at all. I don’t know what I was thinking.

When did you realize?

I was really into Bobcat Goldthwait. He did an interview in the paper and he made this joke and I was like, oh it’s so funny! And then he was on this morning show, and he made the same joke, and I was like, oh, what are the odds that he would say the same thing twice, that’s weird. I remember being a little kid and just being like, huh. And then I went to see him and he did it again and I was like, oh my god, these are bits.

What is it that appeals to you about him, or Pee-wee Herman, or Larry Bud Melman?

I loved — I still do — comedians who, this is what they’d be doing at home alone. Even now, I certainly can appreciate people who come out and are like, I’m dating a new girl now, blah blah blah, but it’s not what interests me, really. I’ve always been more interested in someone doing this thing they’d be doing at home if no one was around.

Weirdos like Andy Kaufman, Pee-wee Herman, Chris Elliott, they’re…themselves. Even though they’re these characters, you know? What I’ve always loved about people like that is that it felt like they’d created their own world, and that’s the world they lived in and it’s gonna go on with or without you. Whenever you saw them on TV or in a movie or something, their world was butting up against the real world, briefly, and then they’d go back to their own world. That was always super appealing to me as a way of life. As a kid I was like, fuck yeah, these guys are just — comedy aside — they’re just doing their thing and they don’t give a fuck about what else is going on. Even now I understand that it’s an act, that it’s a performance, I’m still just as excited about it.

My favorite people are more about presenting their world and their thoughts, not telling you about universal experiences. You know, you can deliver the universal experience, “Oh, we all know what it’s like to go to the post office,” but if you talk about your personal experiences, I think ultimately the universal comes out of that in a more gratifying way. It’s like tiramisu instead of Twinkies, you know? Twinkies you’re like, fuck yeah!, and tiramisu you’re like, whoa, what’s going on?, but ultimately it’s much better.

Before you started in comedy, you were touring with your band, Sons of Elvis, and working as a journalist. How did the comedy thing start?

Even with Sons of Elvis, I liked talking on stage. I was the bass player, but I was the only other person with a microphone even though I didn’t sing at all. And it was just so I could talk in between songs, and I liked to do it. I found that I really just liked talking onstage as much as the songs. And then I was also writing for newspapers and magazines and stuff. It would be reporting, but I would want to throw in a joke or two. I liked to write jokes and things, but I didn’t have the confidence to be like, this is what I want to do. It was more like, kinda maybe? And then things started happening.

But you were still living in Cleveland at the time, so this was all on visits to New York?

I would come here a lot, I think because I wanted to end up here, but I’m not really good at — it’s sort of the theme — I’m not really good at being like, I’m gonna do this! I’m sort of more go-with-the-flow. I was in New York, and I had a friend who was doing music on Spike TV, and he was like, you should get in on a writer’s meeting, just come in and submit some jokes. I did that a couple times, and I never mentioned that I lived in Cleveland.

They kept asking me to come in, and I happened to be here, and they were like, can you just work full time? Starting next week?  I was literally here with a duffle bag. That was 9 years ago. I never really moved here.

Do you still identify as a Midwesterner?

I’m very much a guy from Cleveland. I won’t call something soda — I’ll call it pop. If I were to use the word soda, in my head, I’d be like, who are you? Why are you saying that?

Even when I go to London, I go there a few times a year, I’ve been there with American friends and they’re like, “Oh, should we take the lift?” And I won’t do that. I’m just this guy from Cleveland, I don’t have any illusions that I’m a Londoner, I’m not going to try to use your words. Sometimes, I’ll be like, “I’m going to go to the loo.” I’m really uncomfortable with saying that, and the only reason I say it is that I don’t want to jar anyone by saying “bathroom.” Just so you don’t have to be jolted out of your Englishness, I’ll use your word.

So you start writing for TV. How did you move into performance?

I was writing for a horrible TV show, it only aired twice, but the people working on it were great. The producer of that show was like, you should perform, so I ended up auditioning. They wanted me, but then the network was like, “This guy’s weird. We don’t want him in the show.”

But that audition was the spark that started it?

That was sort of like, huh, maybe I’ll perform, and I started playing around with video and things like that. So I got hired to write on this other show, and I brought in a few things that I had done. I was like, oh, look at this! The irony was that I really never performed before. I did television before I ever did standup.

What was the first thing you did live?

I did this thing called The Dave Hill Show. It was basically me interviewing people on stage, and maybe playing one video if I made one. I think I was good the first time, pretty good the second time, and then it went downhill because I started asking people, how can I make this better? And my friend Christina Lee, who has since worked at MTV and Comedy Central and stuff, was like, look, you should keep doing comedy, but you should not ask anyone what they think anymore. Don’t ask for anyone’s opinion.

Have you managed to do that?

Yeah. I mean, now that I feel like I’ve found my voice, there are people that I will ask their opinion. But I think I’m best when I go with what comes out naturally.

Where does that confidence come from?

People see me and they’re really into it or they’re just not, which I like. I think there’s a compliment in there somewhere. Maybe this is not good in the big picture, maybe I’d be more successful if I didn’t think this way, but I always think, try to appeal to the fan in you, if that makes any sense. It’s like creating music for a fictional band that I wish was in my record collection. With comedy, I just try to think, what I am entertained by? I’m sure there’s a skill to figuring out what other people like but I have no idea what that is. I wish I had it.

You started performing seven and a half years ago. How has your work changed since then?

As far as live stuff goes, there’s part of me that hates it. I’m pretty introverted, I guess. I don’t go out with 10 friends. When I first started doing comedy, I was like, oh, I can’t show anyone that I’m not comfortable and relaxed. And then I was like, no, I should just try to not fuckin’ hide it at all, and then that became a big part of it. I’m a big fan of the low road, embracing the bad thing. Rather than being gregarious and warm and comfortable, I was like, no, be alienating, and awkward, ’cause that’s how I feel. It’s funny, I used to think singing in a band was hard, but compared to comedy, it’s like nothing.

You score your standup with rock guitar solos. It seems like it’s part of your trademark — when I see you on stage, I expect a suit and a guitar.

Oh yeah, that’s been a more recent thing. For a long time I kept that very separate, I think because it took me a while to figure out what I liked combining music and comedy. I’ve always been super into rock music. I have such a reverence for it that it took me a while to figure out how to mix the two. Now I do it in a way that maintains what I like about both. And in a very practical selfish way, when you play the guitar, you don’t have to talk as much. It’s worked out well in that regard.

Where does your material come from?

Like anyone else, I think, stuff occurs to you, things happen. A few weeks ago, I got an entire bottle of piss dumped on me in the subway. The first person I talked to about it was Kurt Braunohler. And he was like, uh huh, and how soon after this happened did you realize you had a new 8 minutes? Obviously I wasn’t like, oh, I’m going to put myself in a situation where I might get covered in piss. But I think I live my life where I’m open to experiences.

Your first This American Life piece was about night-managing a homeless shelter. In the book, you talk about your three-day stint as a pedicab driver in New York. There’s an essay about performing at Sing Sing. Do you do things in your life expressly because they’ll be funny stories later?

My primary motivation for doing anything is always a personal thing. The first time I saw [a pedicab], I was like, fuck yeah, that’s awesome! A car, a bike, so cool! That’s the job for me! It was genuine. But any time I’m thinking of doing something that maybe seems like not the best idea, I justify it by saying, oh, this could be good for work. Like, going to Sing Sing. I want to see what it’s like inside of Sing Sing, how am I gonna get in to Sing Sing? I know, I’ll do a show.

The poster for that show was amazing: “If you are interested and have one year clean disciplinary…”

I framed that and my sticker to get in, ’cause I was like, this is the best thing ever. I’m not consciously proud of much in my life, which is not to say I’m, like, ashamed of my life, but there’s not much where I’m like, oh yeah, that was fucking cool.

Will you go back?

Yeah, I think so. Now I know what to expect. I’m not just motivated by my own fascination, so maybe I can actually do something that may be good for other people. Though I think it’s okay to be motivated by your own curiosity. Unless you’re a jerk. If you’re a decent person, curiosity is what brings you, but you’re still gonna be a decent person and goodness will come from that.

So what’s next for you?

If I stay [in New York] long enough, I’ll probably think about getting a Newfoundland. That’s my favorite dog. They’re like a large piece of furniture that walks around. Any time I ever see them, it’s like, all my problems just drift away. So I want to get one. I mean, I’m sure it would create a whole new set of problems. Newfoundland-specific problems.

I almost never have goals in life. I do feel like I’m open to stuff happening, and I feel like I do what I do, and hopefully good things will come from that, but I’m never like, this has to happen, that has to happen. One of the few things was writing a book. And the other one was my teenage dream of getting a record contract and a video on MTV and all that, which I did. The only thing left is the Newfoundland.

Photo by Seth Olenick.

Rachel Sugar is a writer in New York.

Hanging Out with Dave Hill