Eric Spitznagel is the author of six nonfiction books, only a few of which ended up on the remainder table. His books include Planet Baywatch (co-written with Brendan Baber, St. Martin’s Press, 1996), A Guy’s Guide to Dating: Everything You Need to Know About Love, Sex, Relationships, and Other Things Too Terrible to Contemplate (co-written with Brendan Baber, Main Street Books, 1998), Cigar Asphyxianado (Warner Books, 1998), The Junk Food Companion (Plume, 1999), Fast Forward: Confessions of a Porn Screenwriter (Manic D Press, 2006), and the New York Times bestseller Ron Jeremy: The (Hardest) Working Man in Show Biz (HarperCollins, 2007).
At least one of his books has been translated into German and features a cat on the cover for no apparent reason.
The astute reader will surely notice that the author has not written a new book in over four years, which may seem unusual, given that he was churning out books at a pretty steady clip for awhile, and then just stopped for no reason. Could it be that the author has fallen out of favor with the publishing industry? While that is certainly possible, a more likely explanation is that the author no longer has the energy to write humor books that no one will ever read or buy.
He realizes that he has no right to complain, as he was paid handsomely for his words. Considering the number of unemployed writers in the world, he should consider himself fortunate to be published at all. But there was a period after the release of his last book when he was waking up in the middle of the night, his body covered in a cold sweat, trembling violently from the existential horror that only comes from realizing that you’re the artistic equivalent of the guy who writes all those Pollack Joke books.
Eric Spitznagel does not enjoy talking about himself in the third person, so he’s going to cease doing so immediately.
These days, I earn my living primarily as a freelance journalist, writing for many different magazines, most of them glossy and filled with pictures of celebrities with white teeth and flawless skin. My words have appeared in Playboy, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Bloomberg Businessweek, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, MTV Hive, The Believer, Maxim and Salon.com, to name just a few. For two years I was a staff writer for VanityFair.com, where I wrote semi-regular essays about my experiences at Bigfoot conferences and Christian theme parks and major league baseball spring training games. I also had a weekly column called Awkward Question Time, where I interviewed (and occasionally annoyed) people like John Cusack, Sir Ian McKellen, Merle Haggard and Isabella Rossellini.
I’m a contributing editor for The Believer Magazine, where I co-created the popular Sedaratives advice column (originally written by Amy Sedaris). It spawned two books, You’re a Horrible Person But I Like You and its sequel Care To Make Love In That Gross Little Space Between Cars, both of which I edited (or co-edited), and both featuring questionable life advice from the likes of Sarah Silverman, Judd Apatow, Dave Eggers, John Hodgman, Michael Cera, Sarah Vowell, Harold Ramis, Nick Hornby, Zach Galifianakis, and a bunch of other people you’ve probably heard of.
Here’s what a sign said about me on a shelf at Powell’s Books in Portland.
What else, what else? I’m originally from Michigan, and since then I’ve lived in every time zone in the country at least once. I briefly wrote plays in the early 90s, a few of which were produced in Chicago by kind people with access to storefront theaters. My personal favorites were Romeo & Juliet Died For Our Sins and Nothing Cute Gets Eaten, if only because I think the titles were kinda clever. I’ve got one more testicle than Hitler, which I consider a moral victory. Oh, and I was a guest on The View once. That’s pretty interesting, right? Maybe not? Depends if you like The View, I suppose. There’s actually a pretty funny story about that experience, but it’s a long one. But what the hell, where do you have to go? You’re reading an already unnecessarily long bio on a writer’s personal website, so I’m guessing you don’t have a busy day ahead of you. Crack open a beer and I’ll tell you the whole weird tale.
It’s easy to feel invisible when it’s 3:30 in the morning and you’re alone in your apartment and you’ve just polished off a bottle and a half of discount Australian wine.
The self-confidence of solitude is one of the many pitfalls of being a writer. If you’re any good at your job, you don’t leave the house all that often. The best writers can go weeks without feeling sunlight on their face. You forget that the outside world operates under a very different set of rules. When you’re alone with your computer, you can close your eyes and almost believe that you’re Oscar Wilde, sipping absinthe and exchanging bon mots with foppish socialites in fin-de-siècle Paris.
But when you finally leave the comforts of home, you’ll discover just how untrue that home-office mirage really is. The people who get up every morning and get dressed and go to work aren’t easily charmed by your sleep-till-noon eccentricities. They don’t think it’s cute or funny when you wear a “Bukkake Ruined My Carpet” t-shirt, or that you haven’t bathed in so long that your skin smells like brisket. You may think you can win them over with your delightfulness, but human beings aren’t nearly as forgiving as computers, and somehow the brilliant one-liners barreling down the superhighway of your brain always miss the intersection to your mouth.
But one tends to forget these irrefutable truths when, as I mentioned, you’re alone and tipsy and it’s 3:30 in the morning. Too drunk to write, you end up watching a repeat of The Daily Show, and Jon Stewart is interviewing some author you’ve never heard of. You think to yourself, “That lucky bastard. I could do that, if somebody just gave me a chance. How hard can it be? This douchebag’s not even funny. Put me on TV and I’ll show you how entertaining an author can be. I’ll sell so many goddamn books, you’d think I’d written a novel about Mary Magdalene’s affair with a college professor dying of ALS while shedding pounds with the Atkins-approved Black Swan diet.”
Getting on a bestseller list isn’t the only reason writers dream of guest spots on talk shows. We crave it for much the same reason anybody wants to be on television. Because we think an ex-lover will see us, remember how attractive and/or witty we are, and immediately call us with offers of unconditional love and oral sex.
So you lie on your bed, not noticing that it’s almost 4 a.m., chugging the last of your Australian wine straight from the bottle, brushing away the crumbs of whatever it was you had for dinner from your chest hair, and think, “Yeah, that needs to happen. I need to get me on the talking picture box. That would totally rock the casbah.”
You’re going to make some bad decisions in the morning. But sometimes, like a child touching a stove or a liberal arts college student being gay for the weekend, that’s the only way you’re going to learn.
My anti-authority streak has made me do some stupid things, but nothing quite as personally embarrassing as plotting a coup d’état of Vanna White’s dressing room.
“I think she’s in there,” I whispered to Brendan, my writing partner. I could hear movement across the hall, and the hairs on my forearm bristled with excitement.
Brendan just shrugged. “So what?” He muttered. He had far more pressing concerns, like trying to decide between an assortment of colorful neckties.
“We should bum-rush her dressing room,” I said. “Just kick down the door and introduce ourselves. Maybe fill our pockets with some of her complimentary buffet. C’mon, we’re both guests on the same show. It’d be impolite not to say hello.”
Brendan glanced at me with an expression somewhere between pity and fear. “Since when do you care about Vanna White?” He asked.
He made a good point. I didn’t care. But my feelings of self-worth had been challenged. This was my first appearance on a major TV talk show. Granted, it was just a morning talk show, something called The View which, in my egocentric universe, I’d never bothered to watch before today. And the only reason Brendan and I got the gig at all was because one of the producers owed a favor to our publicist. But I still felt like this was a crossroads for my career. This was my opportunity to prove myself, to show the unwashed masses just how infectious my personality could be. I was David Sedaris without the expatriatism, Lenny Bruce without the swears, Bill Cosby without the speech impediment, Ira Glass without a dependable source of income.
I wasn’t asking for much. I just wanted America to fall in love with me.
That’s a tall order for a morning talk show in which your segment is scheduled for the final 5-to-7 minutes, when most of the audience is either taking a piss or have long since turned off their TVs to become productive members of society.
It didn’t help matters that we got second billing to Vanna White. That was like slathering insult frosting on an injury cake. I knew we weren’t exactly a ratings magnet, but c’mon, Vanna White? The Wheel of Fortune chickapoo who managed to become a trophy wife to her own gams? If you really want to chip away at a writer’s ego, tell him that he’s valued just below somebody whose sole job is identifying vowels.
I glared at the closed door of her dressing room, cooking up conspiracy theories on how she was being pampered. I imagined a full spread of fruits and exotic dips and hummus sculptures in the shape of The Pieta and veal cutlets wrapped in pork chops and stuffed with bacon. I glanced over at our snack table, which contained a sad bowl of carrots and bottled water so tiny it wouldn’t quench a midget’s thirst. I was ready to make a scene, to charge the gates of Vanna’s heavily-guarded sanctuary of entitlement and snatch a measly loaf of bread from her greedy clutches, like a modern-day Jean Valjean – albeit a Jean Valjean who’d make sure to mention as he’s fleeing the building that he has a new book coming out from Doubleday next week and he’d sure appreciate it if you picked up a copy, and hey, if come down to the Barnes and Noble on Broadway and 82nd next Tuesday, he’ll sign a copy just for you, “Viva la Proletariat!”
But I never got the chance. A team of six or so interns and production assistants stormed our small dressing room, surrounding us like they thought we intended to escape. They were all women, all somewhere between the ages of 22-and-26, and all breathtakingly beautiful. I never had a sister, but I assumed this is what it felt like to be the youngest male living with a gaggle of female siblings. They combed my hair with their fingers, roughly tucked in my shirt, frisked me for unfastened buttons, plucked stray hairs from my back, tightened my tie until I choked in protest, patted me down like they were searching for needles or weapons – generally just primping and preening me like I was a porcelain doll preparing for a tea party.
One of them eventually noticed what I was wearing, and she fixed on me with a disapproving frown. “You’re not really going to wear that, are you?” She asked.
I gave myself a quick self-exam. Everything looked fine to me.
The other women realized what their associate had spotted, and they responded by clucking their tongues and violently shaking their heads in protest. “No no no no no no no,” they repeated like a Greek chorus. “That won’t do at all.”
I had no idea what they were referring to. Did I forget to zip up? Had my nipples inexplicably started lactating, ruining my freshly ironed shirt? What exactly did they find so offensive about my appearance?
“You can’t wear shorts,” one of them finally told me.
“I can’t?” I asked, honestly perplexed. “Why not?”
I looked at my naked legs. They didn’t strike me as particularly offensive. Actually, all humbleness aside, my calves are delicious. They’re like two grapefruits balanced on a pair of stilts. It’s the only part of my body with noticeable muscles, at least enough to flex and not make onlookers point and laugh. I’m so proud of my legs that I rarely, if ever, consent to wear trousers (my least favorite word in the English language, second only to slacks. Try saying it without sounding like the Penguin from Batman Returns. “Slacks. Slaaaaaaaaaacks.”) Unless I’m being audited by the IRS or attending the funeral of a parent, I just don’t see why I wouldn’t want to show off my best feature – or more importantly, distract from my less bewitching physical traits, such as the belly that makes strangers want to tickle me until I giggle like an albino anthropoid shilling pancake mix.
The women were circling me, dressing me with their eyes. I let a hand drift across my crotch, just to make sure a testicle hasn’t slipped out. Surely they couldn’t be so worked up over a few exposed kneecaps.
“You do what you want,” the head production assistant said, shaking her head in disbelief. “But I’m warning you, if you walk out on The View set in shorts, Star Jones is gonna make fun of you.”
I probably shouldn’t have laughed quite so hard. I’m a coward by nature, and my German roots have conditioned me to be subservient to any and all authority figures. But there are few things in this world that terrify me as little as the sentence “Star Jones is gonna make fun of you.”
Really? That’s your threat? My people had to deal with the Schutzstaffel, and you think I’m going to be intimidated by a woman whose wedding was sponsored by Continental Airlines?
The six or so interns and production assistants were not as amused. They folded their arms and flared their nostrils, glowering at me with such apparent animosity that I thought they were trying to melt my brain with their eyes.
“Well,” I announced. “I guess that’s just a chance I’m gonna have to take.”
I don’t want to get into the messy details about what happened next. Okay, fine, I caved. I wish my reasons were more original. But sadly, sometimes I’m just a dude. And like all dudes, I get flustered when an attractive woman smiles at me, and brushes her fingers across my forearm, and laughs at my jokes a little too hard. I’m helpless when just one attractive woman fawns over me, but when it’s six or so attractive women — who (let’s not forget) are paid to shamelessly flirt with schmucks like me — I am a spineless toad. I’ll do anything they want me to do, because like all dudes, the moment an attractive woman shows any interest at all, I’m convinced that there’s a very real possibility, however remote, that she wants to have sex with me in the nearest unoccupied bathroom stall.
There is no act two. But there is a VHS tape somewhere of me on national TV, talking to Star Jones and wearing slacks. Slaaaaaaacks. Slaaaaaaaaaaaaacks.