"Yes, a Bird Is an Animal"
Talking with Rob Delaney About Atheist Prayers and Helper Parrots
Robyn Von Swank
Rob Delaney is a comedian whose act—typified in his special Live at the Bowery Ballroom—involves very long and involved stories, often with no discernible punch lines, about terrible things like alcoholism, hepatitis, and depression. Delaney became popular on Twitter, where he's almost the exact opposite of his onstage persona: quick, brutal, and hilarious. In his first book, Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. (Spiegel & Grau, $25), Delaney fuses those two selves into one whole person, a memoirist who writes with almost alarming frankness about the skeletons in his closet while occasionally slapping the reader in the face with a joke. It's not your typical comedian vanity project; it feels like the sort of book that, properly applied, could save a life.
What surprised you most about writing the book?
Maybe the almost slingshot-like energy of how much I did not enjoy writing the first draft and how much I did enjoy doing the revision. As a comedian, you're used to getting an immediate response, whether positive or negative, and you get accustomed to that. So I was so happy after my publisher and editor read it and it became more of a dialogue. A book is a collaborative effort, even if one person is actually clicking and clacking and writing out every word. Other people are involved. It's fun to realize that. And they know more about books than me. It was fun to create a book under the guidance of a very experienced publisher [Julie Grau]. She published and edited Orange Is the New Black and a lot of other great books.
If there weren't a photo of you on the dust jacket, what would you want to see on the cover?
Maybe a nature shot, something oceanic. There's a lot of water in my book, a lot of ocean. Maybe a purple ocean and a green sky. I remember seeing that one time when out in a storm. The sky became green, and the sea became purple, and it was very scary and beautiful.
In your standup, as well as in your book and on Twitter, you can go for uncomfortably long periods without saying or writing something funny. And your serious moments don't always boomerang back into punch lines. Did you have to fight with yourself to just let the chapters of the book about your struggles with drinking and depression go for long stretches without being funny?
I didn't, because when I'm not onstage, I am at peace with people not laughing for a while. I have to remain compelling, but I want to tell the truth when I'm writing. I err toward humor, but being honest is the most important thing. If you're reading by yourself, it's wonderful to laugh at a book—I love doing that—but I believe the experience is augmented if you have series of time when other parts of your brain are being engaged. If you're getting interested or educated or titillated or offended or terrified, then the laughs, when they come, are going to be more significant.
Do people come to you with their personal stories about alcoholism and depression?
They do; they absolutely do. This might sound crazy, but it was easier [to quit drinking] than coming to terms with depression and learning to treat that. My bottom, as they call it, was me in jail in a wheelchair with four broken limbs. I had a hospital gown on, and sometimes I would fall out of my wheelchair and expose my private parts to everyone in jail. That was easier than pulling the trigger—what a terrible euphemism—on getting help for depression. Because depression was worse than being in jail in a wheelchair, and I'm not kidding when I say that. It was so bad that I prayed actively.
I suppose if we're going to be strict about it, I'm an atheist, which is to say that I don't believe in a deity. So I wasn't praying to a bearded god, saying, "Hey, Dr. God, I need help." I was speaking to the universe. And I did actively and regularly pray for the opportunity to help other people overcome depression. Even at my worst, I still cared about other people. I thought, "Oh my God, I wouldn't want anyone else to go through this." So I really prayed, "If I get through this, may I help other people with this." The fact that people want to come to me to talk about this, or to tell me that they read something I wrote that helped them get through that, is an explicit answer to the only prayer I've ever made in my life. It's quite literally a dream come true when people open up to me about their depression and their desire to heal, or tell me about their healing process. I really can't be happier than when that happens because I know that darkness, and to be witness to someone coming out of that, I soak that up like a sponge. That's a very long answer to your question. No, I don't mind a bit when people do that. Quite the opposite.
Are people already asking you about your next book? Does the question make you weep?
They are, and the thing is, I'd love to write another book. I don't know what it would be about. I don't imagine it would be a memoir. It could be permanent or it could be temporary, but I've run out of curiosity about myself in that realm. I don't know what it'll be. Could be fiction. God knows I consume a lot of fiction and love it. I read more fiction than anything else, always have.
How do you come across new books? What's the process that brings you to a new novel?
If authors that I've read before write a new thing, like a Kate Atkinson or a John Banville, I don't even have to know anything about it, I just need to go pick it up. My wife is an avid reader, and her friends are all avid readers, and they're all sources of books for me. Like a lot of people, I get the bulk of my news from Twitter, and then I'll branch out to other websites. I found some great writers and literary sites on Tumblr. And I've gotta say, it is majorly encouraging to see so many independent bookstores across the country, and to be meeting and touching so many book-lovers. I mean, books are aliiiiiiiiiiive, and it is a beautiful thing to witness. People are still writing great books. Books contain worlds. You can carry a world. You can probably hold three novels in one hand. You can carry six worlds, and maybe one on your head. Seven! You can walk around on the street carrying seven books-slash-worlds. And so to the human spirit, it has yet to be matched and surpassed in terms of an art form, a way for us to consume and imagine ourselves in these stories and how we'd deal with these situations, watch the journey of our narrator and hero, and figure out how to use the narrative to apply to your lives. Books are too vital, and they're here, and I love it.
The book opens with a Juliana Hatfield lyric. Would you call her an influence or more of a muse?
A muse. I love her, and I listened to her during a lot of my drinking years—and after, of course. And she's from Boston, like me. And that quote! "A heart that hurts is a heart that works"? Come on. I mean, that is just so beautiful and so strong. So that's special to me. By including that [in the book], I got to become friendly with her via e-mail. So that was a pleasure, that was special. You know, clearly, that woman making that music was something special, so it was fun to get to know her as a pen pal.
I read your book on an airplane. A man got kicked off the plane before we took off because he had a helper parrot that was making people uncomfortable.
Apparently, helper parrots help people who have severe rage-control issues. If the parrot detects agitation, it speaks directly into the person's ear: "Relax, Sam. It's okay, Sam. I'm here, Sam." Like that. Anyway, after the plane took off, I was reading your book, and a woman behind me said the following sentence: "Technically, is a bird even an animal?" So I have to ask you: Technically, is a bird even an animal? Was the airline right to throw the man off the plane for having a helper parrot?
Now, you know, there's a couple answers to that question. First of all, yes, a bird is an animal. It's in the animal kingdom, so yes, it's technically an animal. But in the context, is a bird a service animal? Jesus, I didn't even know that it could be. And I am skeptical. That woman, I suspect that she and I would be kindred spirits, because they are giving out service animals to people for lots of stuff these days, and you know there's an argument to be made for toughing it out. You have a rage problem? You gotta work on that. You don't mediate it with a talking bird. Get to the root of it. Sometimes our problems are like invitations from the universe to address the things that need work. That guy's not an irredeemable piece of garbage. He has a personal problem that needs to be dealt with, and that bird's making him a total laughingstock. So it gives him more of an excuse to squeeze his rage-juice into the world. That was a great question. Thank you for asking that question.
This is a question that relates to a coworker of mine named Goldy, who wears braided belts. How do you feel about braided belts on men?
I don't like them. We're in the United States of America, where in the Constitution, one of the amendments, I think, is that you can wear what you want. And so no. I don't like them at all. Feel free to wear one. But why braid the leather? Aesthetically, a nice piece of leather is satisfying to the eye. But braided? It just makes you look like a silly person.