Photo: Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photo by Christopher Patey/Getty Images
Here are things I believe to be true:
1. Steve Rannazzisi lied repeatedly about how escaping 9/11 compelled him to focus on becoming a comedian.*
2. Doing so was very wrong.
3. When he says, “I don’t know why I said this,” he is telling the truth.
Since his confession proves No. 1, and No. 2 is obvious, I intend to investigate No. 3.
My first reaction to hearing this story was, decidedly, Huh? Though Rannazzisi’s actions have been called “disrespectful” and “inexcusable” — and that was just by Rannazzisi himself — I mostly found them so very weird. Then I read the part where Rannazzisi said, “It was an early taste of having a public persona,” and a picture of the decision started coming together: Being interviewed is profoundly strange, and nothing prepares you for how much you will be interviewed once you get on television.
The story reminded me one of the all-time great meditations on interviews and why people even do them: the first chapter of Chuck Klosterman’s 2009 book of essays, Eating the Dinosaur. In the essay “Something Instead of Nothing,” Klosterman speaks with legendary documentarian Errol Morris, king of public radio Ira Glass, and prominent profile writer Chris Heath in attempt to answer the question of why people answer interview questions. Is it because they think they have something important to say, because it’s an obligation for their job, because of a need for attention, because they are bored, because they are kind, because when someone asks you something, “it’s human nature to respond”?
Morris’s feelings boiled down to, “Perhaps something interesting will transpire.” “Maybe this person will present me in a way that will be interesting,” he says, imagining the interviewee’s reasoning. “Maybe this person will present me in a way that I would like to be seen.” To which Klosterman pointed out the inherent contradiction: “Presenting a subject in an interesting way inevitably means said subject is unable to control how perception will be received.”
This is what is so hard for young artists when they are first being interviewed. The “WTF” episode in which Rannazzisi first publicly lied came out in December 2009, a couple months after the premiere of his big break, The League, for which he surely had to do a junket, and thus forfeit control of his story to dozens of strangers whom he talked to for a handful of minutes. In “Something Instead of Nothing,” Chris Heath** tells Klosterman:
Celebrities do so many short, pointless, bad interviews — weeks of talking in which it must be impossible to maintain the delusion that one is being understood or accurately depicted in any way — that when they find themselves in a conversation in which, maybe subconsciously, they feel the possibilities of being somewhat understood, and that the reality of their life will be somewhat realistically portrayed, the interview may begin to feel less like wasted time and more like an antidote to all that other wasted time.
With his hour-long “WTF” interview, Rannazzisi had an opportunity to take over his story.
Glass, meanwhile, told Klosterman that it comes down to a desire to do a good job. The people he interviews can tell he’s “really, really interested and really, really thinking about what they’re saying in a way that only happens in nature when you’re falling in love with someone,” so they want to give that back. “I want to be sincere and actually answer the question I’ve been asked [when interviewed],” Glass tells Klosterman. “And I want to say it in a way that’s sparkly and interesting. I want to get an A in the class.”
This was a huge part of it for Rannazzisi, who first publicly lied while talking to a comedian he respected, one who likely intimidated him. Rannazzisi wanted to be interesting, to justify to Marc Maron that he deserved to be interviewed, and more than that, justify it to himself. Many artists have a reciprocal relationship with attention: They both have a tremendous need for it and they don’t feel they deserve it. I can imagine Rannazzisi, after having to answer the question “When did you realize you could be a comedian?” 50 times, second-guessing himself and whether he actually “could” be one. Surrounded by TV shows and movies in which men with great powers do great things, he did the only thing that made sense: He created an origin story.
The other big comedy news yesterday was that Pete Holmes, a comedian who had his own talk show on TBS, The Pete Holmes Show, just signed a deal to develop a comedy series for HBO with Judd Apatow. I bring this up because Holmes, who is just one year younger than Rannazzisi, told me earlier this year that 9/11 also caused him to take comedy more seriously. What makes Holmes’s story different is that he lived in Chicago at the time, he was telling the truth about his location, and the story itself was much more boring.
I’m not a stand-up, but I, too, have a 9/11 origin story. I was living in New York, about 20 miles from where the planes hit, and on the third floor of my Long Island high school. I remember a few things about that day: The moment before I found out what happened, I made a snide comment about my principal coming on the loudspeaker, as I didn’t know what he was about to say; it was my was little brother’s first day of preschool, and I was irrationally very nervous about him, as if I thought he was in a tower; seeing the smoke, seemingly right behind our athletics field; being told that, instead of watching a movie in film class that day, we could just write whatever we wanted. Writing made me feel safe and powerful and in control: That was the day I knew I was going to be a writer.
The thing is, that story — the writer part of it, at least — is kind of a lie. There was no one moment when I stuck a flag into Mount Imma Writer. After a few failed reasonable careers, I tried giving writing a real shot, and eventually, people liked what I wrote; then, two years later, people paid me sometimes; and now, five years later, I just am a writer. This story is more accurate but less true. It doesn’t truly convey why I am where I am.
So, maybe my origin was 9/11 making me feel like I could die at any time, and thus instilling an urgency to leave something behind; or maybe it was the moment when I was watching The Simpsons (“Secrets of a Successful Marriage”) and realized people write jokes for a living; or maybe it was the significant loss I was dealt as a kid that created a tremendous need for approval; or maybe it was losing to my friend in Perfection in kindergarten that made me focused and competitive. “Self-deception allows us to create a consistent narrative for ourselves that we actually believe,” Morris told Klosterman. “I’m not saying that the truth doesn’t matter. It does. But self-deception is how we survive.”
Morris was referring to life, but more basically, it’s how we would survive talking about ourselves. Rannazzisi admits to starting to tell the story privately when he first moved to L.A. from New York, a decision he must’ve constantly had to justify. People want to feel like they are supposed to be where they are, whether it’s sitting in an interview chair, in Marc Maron’s garage, or in a city in which thousands of gorgeous, talented people think they are special.
If you listen to him tell the story, it really sounds like he believes the story. I don’t think he really thought he was in the World Trade Center when the planes hit, but to him, the rest of the story is real. He might have been in midtown, but it doesn’t mean he wasn’t terribly scared — just like I was for my little brother, 20 miles away. I have very little doubt that that day motivated him to dedicate himself to stand-up, just as it did Pete Holmes, 800 miles away. But he knew that wasn’t that good of a story — as it wasn’t when I interviewed Holmes — so he made the “disrespectful” and “inexcusable” decision to lie.
I’m not oblivious to the counterargument: Hundreds of actors and comedians are interviewed every year, and none of them lie about narrowly escaping 9/11. Which is true, but doesn’t mean they don’t lie about other things. They say they’ve always dreamed of working with people they never heard of before the project; they say they relate to poorly written characters; they say a project is good when they know it isn’t; they say they were a real nerd in high school when they were definitely not a nerd in high school. They say anything they can to validate to the interviewer and to themselves that they should be there.
To get a sense of how different it is to be interviewed than to interview, I asked Klosterman, who went from an interviewer of bands and celebrities to a person who had to talk about his books. In “Something Instead of Nothing,” he admits to lying to an interviewer about whether a character in his novel, Downtown Owl, was saying something he would say. He explains the lie in “Something Instead of Nothing”:
When I wrote those words on my computer, my goal was for every reader to come to the same conclusion that this reporter did. My intention was that people would read this sentence and instantly recognize that the character was a proxy for my own worldview and that this narrative device would allow me to directly write about the way I felt. But I didn’t want to admit that. I didn’t want to say, “Yes, This how I feel.” I just wanted people to suspect that this was true.
He wanted to seem mysterious, or at least interesting. “The main thing is that I was never truly cognizant of how much more stressful it was to be interviewed than it was to conduct an interview,” he told me over email. “If you ask a bad question when you’re conducting an interview, you can just reframe what you asked or move on to something else. But if you give a particularly bad answer when you’re being interviewed, there is no way to reverse time. Even if you restate what you said in a different way or attempt to explain yourself, you can often tell, by the reporter’s reaction, that he or she is going to take the one thing you didn’t want to say and make it a central part of the story.” The result is it causes a debate inside the interviewee. “It makes a person suspect that giving boring, banal answers is actually a better way to go,” he told me. “There is very little upside to being publicly interesting, especially now.”
Klosterman ends “Something Instead of Nothing” by saying that we answer questions because, what other choice do we have? “The defective practice of trying to understand the world by asking other people how they see it is still the best means we have for establishing a reality we can all agree to be real,” he writes. “We have to do it, because it’s better than nothing. It is, in fact, something. But that’s all it is: Something. Instead of nothing.”
When I first reread that, I disagreed. Stories, I thought, are more than just something. I know it’s a lie, but I still feel like I know more about how 9/11 affected Rannazzisi from the fabricated story than from the real one. I posed this idea to Klosterman in our emails, and he rightfully refuted it. “That’s a popular cliché, and it’s sometimes true. But very, very rarely,” he wrote. “I think fiction tends to generate the sensation of truth, which is what confuses people. And in fact, that sensation is sometimes the polar opposite of reality.”
He’s right. I don’t necessarily know Rannazzisi better, I just feel like I do. And Klosterman’s point brings to mind another generally incorrect idiom: Truth is stranger than fiction. Sometimes it is, but rarely. Often, the truth is very boring — it’s, “I thought of my defining joke while brushing my teeth.” We demand people to answer questions, we demand they “establish a reality we can all agree to be real,” but they are entertainers; sometimes they just can’t help but do what they were put on Earth to do. Though no one was put on Earth to do anything. That’s another lie, though it’s a nice one to believe.
*It should be noted that the New York Times also unveiled that Rannazzisi’s website also incorrectly stated his college and major. This could’ve been part of the same lie, or an accident, possibly made by a manager’s assistant, who was tasked with providing the site’s designer with Rannazzisi’s bio.
**An earlier version of this post misattributed this quote to Chuck Klosterman.