BY MAVIS LINNEMANN BOOK CRITIC All too often reviewers say a book is “laugh-out-loud funny,” but when you finally read it, it’s about as funny as child abuse. That’s not the case with Simon Rich‘s Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations. The book’s super-short vignettes and mini-dialogues had me howling in my subway seat, much to the consternation of the other morning commuters. Only 22-years-old and freshly graduated from Harvard, Rich (son of New York Times columnist Frank Rich) will no doubt be tickling the short-attention span funny bones of Generations Y & Z for years to come. Recently he talked to Phawker about how he draws his best humor out of his worst fears, how he balanced the pressures of being such a high-profile writer at such a tender age with the demands his Harvard course load, the blissfully-ignorant lives of free range chickens, and why he is convinced that a Looney Tunes-style death-from-above is always just around the corner…
PHAWKER: Are those experiences you think other kids had too?
SR: I think so, yeah. Looking back on it, when you’re in middle school you always feel like you’re being persecuted. And then by the time you’ve got some distance, you realize you’re just like everybody else.
PHAWKER: What about the ‘love coupons’?
SR: I’ve definitely received love coupons before, but I’ve never quite been in the situation where I became that pathetic that I tried to redeem that after being dumped, but it definitely crossed my mind and that’s where the piece came from. And my nails never grew to such freakish lengths.
PHAWKER: What got you writing in the first place?
SR: I always liked to write. I write pretty much out of a sense of fear. I write these jokes sort of as a way of dealing with all this stuff I’m terrified of, which is good because I never really run out of material.
PHAWKER: When did you start writing?
SR: Really as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, my favorite writers were Roald Dahl and Shel Silverstein and those are still my favorite writers. So, nothing’s really changed. And my writing hasn’t really changed in the last 20 years. I always write jokes. I’ve always loved cartoons, like Looney Tunes. I love the good old-fashioned sitcoms like “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners,” Sgt. Bilko. Those are my biggest inspirations, I guess. And of course, “The Simpsons” and “Kids in the Hall.” My style is mainly derivative of all the television I watched growing up … I definitely rip off the “Simpsons” more than anything else, also “Kids in the Hall,” even “Seinfeld,” even “The Golden Girls.” … Pretty much every sitcom I saw when I was a kid I loved, and my standards haven’t actually gotten any higher. I still love pretty much everything I see on TV.
PHAWKER: Did your Dad being [the New York Times’ Frank Rich] influence you at all?
SR: I’m not sure; it’s hard to say. We do pretty different kinds of writing, obviously. He writes about the fate of the free world and presidential politics and I write about hockey and bugs and love coupons. On the one hand, it’s like … we both sort of chose the same profession, but from my perspective, it seems like we have totally different jobs.
PHAWKER: Do you see any social commentary underlying your work at all?
SR: It’s definitely not my intent. I never try to teach anyone anything with anything I write. I don’t try to outsmart anyone with my jokes. So, the last thing I want to be is political. If people find some kind of political agenda in the jokes and they agree with, then that’s fine.
PHAWKER:I only ask that because of the war stories.
SR: It’s interesting, because I was surprised at how many war pieces ended up being in the book. They tend not to be about this current war. It’s easy to say that you want to completely divorce yourself from politics, but on the other hand, it’s sort of impossible not to be influenced by what you see on TV… . It wasn’t my intent to write a bunch of war pieces, but when I saw the book in my hand, I was pretty shocked by how many ended up being in the book. I definitely wasn’/t trying to make any kind of political message with them.
PHAWKER: Was there any particular theme you were going with the order of the chapters in Ant Farm?
SR: I decided to arrange it chronologically, for the characters to get older. The first chapter is really about childhood, and then it goes into adolescence. The characters get older, but unlike in most books, the characters in my book don’t actually learn anything. They start off sort of doomed and they remain that way.
PHAWKER: Well you said you were shocked by all the war pieces being in there, how did that happen then?
SR: When I was putting it all together, I just tried to take the pieces that I thought were the funniest, that sort of got that theme across — the theme of powerlessness, of being doomed. And I think the war pieces all sort of fit in with that basic subject. All these jokes are about stuff I’m terrified of and it’s sort of hard not to be afraid of war.
PHAWKER: How much of this was written for the book and how much was written beforehand?
SR: About 40 percent had already been written before I got down to finishing up the book. The way the book came about is that I was just writing jokes one day, and I realized that pretty much all the jokes I had written were about the same thing. I was just writing the same joke over and over again. So I figured, if I’m just writing the same joke over and over again, maybe I could stir them all together into a book and that’s when I got the idea to send it out. I was really lucky and it was really exciting that they let me get away with it. That was a couple of years ago, a year and a half ago. Finishing the book was a lot of fun, ’cause I could sort of continue to write these pieces that I love to write. And putting it together was easier than I thought it’d be. Because the jokes are just so similar to one another. It’s really shocking how repetitive this book is — it’s also unbelievably short. My editor pretended not to be shocked when I handed it to him, but I could see something on his face like he was surprised at how short it ended up being. They had to shrink the Random House label on the spine of the book so that it would fit. I don’t know if you caught this, this is the most embarrassing thing, is that there are a bunch of blank pages at the end of the book, just sort of thrown in there to make it seem longer. It’s like when a little kid has to do a five page book report, but he’s only written three pages on Tom Sawyer, so he makes the font really big. It was an unbelievably fun book to write.
PHAWKER: Did the publication of your book change your life at Harvard in any way?
SR: Well, the great thing about this book is that it let me keep doing what I always loved to do. I just finished college, so I was worried that I would have to get some kind of real job. I feel unbelievably lucky that I keep getting to write jokes everyday.
PHAWKER: How have you balanced the book and school?
SR: I didn’t take very demanding classes. I graduated in non-honors English, which is Harvard’s version of general studies. I was really lucky to just be able to focus on writing these pieces all throughout college. I was lucky my mom didn’t force me to become a doctor, because if she had told me to do that, I would have had to do that. I do whatever she tells me to do.
PHAWKER: What else do you write?
SR: I write stories and I write these short pieces. Those are the only things that I’ve ever published anywhere. I’m obviously just starting out; I feel like I have a ton to learn about writing. I’m just trying to write as many hours as I can a day, throw a lot of stuff out and see what sticks. This is the form that I’m most excited about — these really, really short comedy pieces. … I’m still trying to figure out what forms I’m good at.
PHAWKER: What are you plans now that you’re graduating from Harvard?
SR: I just want to keep writing these jokes, if I can get away with it.
PHAWKER: Are you worried about ever running out?
SR: Sometimes, but it’s then that I remember that all the jokes are really the same. Like I said, I really write out of a sense of fear and terror. And so, I’m so consistently afraid of everything, I figure there’s always going to be plenty of material for me.
PHAWKER: What’s the thing you’re most afraid of?
SR: My biggest, most irrational fear? It’s probably something I can’t write about, because its too specific and its impossible for anyone to relate to, but I have a really strange fear that something heavy is going to fall on my head. Like I’m going to be walking through a field and a chunk of an airplane is just going to fall on my head. Or I’ll be walking down a city street and an air conditioner will just fall on my head.
PHAWKER: That reminds me of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’
SR: I saw that. Well in Looney Tunes, it happens to people constantly. I always relate it with Wile E. Coyote. He was way more courageous than me, but I always had a lot of sympathy for Wile E. Coyote. That’s my go-to fear.
PHAWKER: Do you think cartoons made that worse?
SR: I always loved Looney Tunes, but I didn’t understand it was funny until I was 12 years old. I was very interested in it and I loved to watch it, but I think I thought it was more of a horror show until I was in 5th or 6th grade.
PHAWKER: Are you planning on writing anything else sometime soon?
SR: I’m working on another book, which is startlingly similar to the first book. It’s unbelievable that they’re letting me get away with it. I wonder if they’ll let me make it as short as the first book, that would really be something. It’s the same thing, a bunch of jokes about all the things I’m terrified of. I’m not sure what other projects I’m going to work on. I just feel really lucky that I’m allowed to write this stuff down and have that be my job. It’s amazing.
PHAWKER: So you’re running around the country now?
SR: I’m staying at my friend’s chicken farm in upstate New York. It’s right outside Poughkeepsie. I’m right next to a bunch of chicken coops right now. My friend is starting a farm. It’s pretty awesome, except yesterday we came down to the chicken coops, and a third of them had mysteriously died. The chickens, not the farmers. We’re trying to figure out what happened.
PHAWKER: That could be a good story.
SR: Yeah, I wrote a piece about free-range chickens recently. And they’re just like walking around loving life, everything’s great, they’re free-range chickens. They’re living in paradise. They don’t quite understand what the whole situation is. [Laughs]