In Conversation: Mallory Ortberg and Hera Lindsay Bird
Before Mallory Ortberg came along, the internet was just a vast cyber-wasteland of neopets, conspiracy theories and constantly buffering porn. Then Mallory Ortberg came on the scene, and it’s still all those things, but there are a couple of throw pillows in the corner, and a decent looking floor lamp.
Mallory Ortberg is one of the funniest people on the internet, and if you don’t like it, you can save up your pocket money and use it to buy a packet of matches to set yourself on fire with. She co-founded popular website The Toast with Nicole Cliffe, writes the Dear Prudence Column for Slate magazine, and has just published her first book Texts From Jane Eyre, which she will be discussing at The New Zealand Festival’s Writers Week.
It’s unusual on the internet, where everyone is constantly riffing on the same material, to find a voice that is so utterly distinct. Ortberg’s sources are always obscure, but it never matters. Whether she’s reimagining the poetry of Byron, making jokes about Ayn Rand’s obsession with trains, riffing on male novelists or writing weird art history in dialogue from the perspective of two medieval monks who are totally out of their depth, obscurity dissolves into absurdity, and whether or not you know your literary canon ceases to matter. As Ortberg says in the title of her recent Toast article: ‘Stop Being Intimidated By History Because All Greek Philosophy Was Just Yelling About Soup.’
I talked to Mallory on Google Hangouts over the course of a week, and then did almost no editing, in case I ended up like the elderly woman who destroyed the 19th century Jesus fresco (and then sued for copyright infringement).
Hera Lindsay Bird: Mallory! How is life?
Mallory Ortberg: It's good! I just sent an email where I spelled my own name "Mlalory"
so that's not ideal
HLB: You're coming to Wellington to talk about your first book Texts From Jane Eyre, but before you had published anything in book format, most people just knew you from cracking jokes about Ayn Rand on twitter, and talking about female NBA stars. Do you think using twitter for years has changed the way you write, or the kind of jokes you tell?
MO: Yes, absolutely
the jokes I tell are super influenced by the format of Twitter
and there are certain, like joke templates that originated (or at least I first saw them) on Twitter
and they've influenced me a great deal
I love twitter is the theme of this conversation
HLB: Recently on twitter you gave your cellphone number out to everyone. Why would you do that? Your grandmother must be so worried. How did it go?
MO: oh my gosh
(a) of all, do not tell my grandmother
she would be so stressed out
(b) of all
I've been on twitter since late 2008/early 2009 i think
very much joined it as just some guy
you know "i had a bacon sandwich today!"
that kind of thing
so it was kind of fascinating to see that change very slowly over the years, to go from someone who just chatted occasionally about their day, to cracking jokes with my friends, to finding an audience, to becoming a professional writer
all of which is to say!
I have always felt very much like my twitter account belongs to me
and isn't, like...the twitter account of some Media Entity
does that make sense?
so anyhow in the early days I felt no compunction about tweeting my number at someone I wanted to become friends with
or saying "I'm at the corner of Broadway and wherever, where are you guys"
and it was this sort of goofy thing between a friend of mine who's a lawyer and me
and she'd always really stressed out
like, "don't include any info about yourself online!"
(and I mean, I'm not, like, leaving my front door unlocked and tweeting my address, i'm not THAT dumb)
and I'd sort of get a rise out of her every now and then
"oooh, here's my phone number, what's gonna happen???"
and as time went on and more people followed me I sort of felt like I'd get a lot of questions like, "oh, you're a woman online, it must be miserable and you must never feel safe and you can't be too careful"
and while it's absolutely true that gendered harassment is fucking garbage
I also sort of bristled at the implication that I couldn't do whatever the hell I pleased
so I guess it was equal parts:
1. I love and trust my audience and I think I can do this, and
2. DON'T EVER TELL ME WHAT TO DO/LET'S NOT THINK ABOUT THIS DECISION AT ALL
so I posted it
and had one of the most fun nights of my ilfe
I got, all told, texts from about 500 different people
about 14 or so calls
and I just walked around my neighborhood answering the phone every few minutes:
"Oh, hello! is this someone from the internet?"
and it always was!
and it was DELIGHTFUL
every single text was charming and friendly
I heard from people who wanted to send pictures of their cats or dogs or plants or cool calligraphy projects
I heard from some really sweet people who liked my work
and I answered every text and it was a blast
and I don't think it has to Mean Anything and it wasn't some big art project or statement about the current state of discourse online or anything like that
I just felt like doing it and so I did it
and I knew it would go great and it did
and I'm glad as hell that I did it
but I mean, we all know that the internet is full of people! harassment and abuse are real and awful, but there's also great stuff out there too.
HLB: One of the things I enjoy about your twitter is that you do occasionally get heckled by people - mainly serious young men who identify too much with Ayn Rand’s political philosophies, but you’re somehow able to wipe the floor with them in a way that is devastatingly funny but also genial and kind? Like this article, which is probably one of my favourite pieces on The Toast. For a long time in the 90s, it seemed like a lot of popular comedy was just kind of implicitly mean spirited? But I remember watching shows like Parks and Recreation and Broad City for the first time, and being amazed that you were allowed to write that way – and that empathising with the main characters actually made everything a lot funnier. Even when you're lampooning Ayn Rand on the internet it feels like it's coming from a place of deep affection, which shouldn't be funny, but undeniably is.
How is your relationship with Ayn Rand at the moment? You guys still good?
MO: Yeah, I get very little heckling
I'm quite lucky in that respect, and very grateful
again, I want to be able to talk about what my experience is online in a way that doesn't minimize the harassment other people experience and I hope I'm able to draw that distinction!
but oh man yes that piece was a favorite of mine as well
I think there is a difference between the kind of laughter that builds up and the kind that destroys
and I know what you mean about 90s style comedy
if I go back and rewatch, say, an episode of Friends
90% of the jokes are just variations on "that outfit is stupid, what you just said is stupid, your ideas are stupid, uuuugh"
(that's fairly reductive obviously but you know)
that was just the style!
and sometimes it works and sometimes it feels really flat and incessant
and it's really not my style of comedy
idk if you saw the DAMN DANIEL video from last week
but that's the kind of humor I love
it's super weird and gentle and kind of supportive but also flips the usual order of things in a totally different direction
like: BAFFLING YET SINCERE COMPLIMENTS
I find that really interesting!
and yes, me and Ayn are good
if we ever met IRL, I would try DESPERATELY to win her friendship because I am a classic Follower and she would be disgusted by my naked need for her approval
so I'm glad the relationship we have is just: she's dead and I make jokes about her ideas
HLB: In addition to writing obscure poetry jokes and having public feelings about dead presidents, you're also writing for Slate as an advice columnist. How did that come about, and how's it going so far? You seem to have a lot of people writing to you in the style of famous literary characters, which is kind of an appropriate crossover for the author of Texts From Jane Eyre.
MO: that is a very short story!
Slate approached me and asked if I'd like to apply for the job
I was convinced it was a friend playing a joke on me
and when they convinced me it wasn't, I applied and did a few test runs and when they offered the job I absolutely jumped at the chance.
yes! I don't get too many fake letters but about once a week or so I'll get one that is clearly from the plot of a fin-de-siecle novel or whatever
and sometimes I can figure it out and sometimes I have to do a little sleuthing.
HLB: Since we're on the theme of advice: what advice would you give to the young & impressionable who want to make jokes for a living?
MO: I think that is a great idea!
so if you want to make jokes for a living you should start out making jokes on the side
and if that goes well you should start making jokes a lot more on the side
and if that works try to make a job out of it
but do not go from 0 to 60 too quickly
HLB: So: what are you proudest of in your career do far?
MO: proudest of my career so far is getting to work with Nicole Cliffe and navigating THE BUSINESS WORLD with her
that we didn't fall apart and explode is pretty impressive
given how little we knew about publishing going in.
HLB: Whats the piece of writing of yours you like the most?
MO: oh gosh
I like SO MANY of the things I have written but one that I am very fond of and think is a little undervalued is You're Going To Wizard Summer Camp And I Don't Want To Hear Another Word About It
I also really loved doing dirtbag hamlet
HLB: Which American president do you think would love you the most? Like, really love you, not just get on well with you at a dinner party.
I firmly believe LBJ would have ADORED me
and chastely, too
he would never have made a pass at me
or I mean, he would have once, and I would have parried in such a way that he developed greater respect for me and never tried it again
and he'd call me a "firecracker" in a way that i realized was a little sexist but was probably the best he could do, all things considered.