a conversation with Henry Alford      
Henry Alford


You've been described as an "investigative humorist"; what exactly does that entail? I imagine it as "60 Minutes" with you as host and, say, Sandra Tsing Loh, David Sedaris, and maybe Jerry Seinfeld and Eddie Izzard as guest correspondents.

No, exactly, that's what someone said: if Fran Leibowitz were one of the correspondents on "60 Minutes"—that's what I was aiming for. "Investigative humorist"—that's a term that actually Random House came up with, but I happen to like it a lot. I guess because so much of the stuff that I do is undercover, that's where they got that idea.

Coincidentally, I am a "60 Minutes" fan. It seems like ten of the 60 minutes are the people they want to interview trying to push Mike Wallace away with their hand in front of the lens: "come on, get out of here." So hopefully I'm not like that.

But did someone tell me that you do a little acting as well?

Well, I had done some as a kid and then wrote Big Kiss to see if any of my innate skills were marketable. What I do now is more performing than acting because most of the stuff I do is myself, like the VH-1 show or little spots on local radio, WNYC, that I'm doing now.

Recently, I wrote a poem out of Los Angeles real estate ads, using little snippets referring to one house as an "emotional Mediterranean" and it said that this house just also had a "major face lift." And I thought, wow, that's like everyone you meet in Los Angeles! Fabulous! So I wrote a poem as the emotional Mediterranean who had just had a face-lift who falls in love with this woman and it's using snippets from actual real estate ads. And I just recorded it. It was like a character because, obviously, it wasn't me. It was this other guy. That's the kind of stuff I'm doing now.

Can you talk a little about your past acting gigs? I know you did "Rock of Ages" and "Bobcat's Big Ass Show."

I did a tour of duty on "Bobcat Goldthwait's Big Ass Show," which was perhaps the low point of my professional performing career. While I was writing Big Kiss, totally coincidentally and gratuitously, this "Rock of Ages" show came into fruition. That was definitely the most fun job I've ever had. I could not believe that I was being paid to be fussed over, wardrobed in incredibly expensive, glamorous clothing, and then trying to get irritable seniors and adorable moppets to be funny on camera. It was really, really fun. We stopped taping them about nine months ago, but, weirdly, they still show it because VH-1 recycles everything. So that was a blast.

What else? Well, because I had very large eyebrows, I thought always thought I could get cast as someone who just invented something because I can look very quizzical with the big, bushy brows.

You could've been a great dictator, too.

[Laughs.] Exactly. Well, thanks, Kelley.

So what was your favorite?

I spent a summer at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London; that was a total vacation. Really fun.

Related to performance and getting to Out There, in the past, people have used such media as zines and public access cable to get a public presence, to get their particular brand of humor out there. Nowadays people use the internet for that. Why do you think that is?

I think that the internet is the cable television of the 21st century. And I think that the fact that it's so easy is either a blessing or a curse, I'm not sure. Because to have your own cable show you have to get other people to join in your delusion whereas to have a web site you don't need to have very much. So it's even easier. The internet is at once one of the most democratic forms of media that we've ever had. But that's not to say that the quality is as good as we would want it to be.

Why do you think that we're so obsessed with the internet?

It's become such an easy and fabulous way for people to form these networks and, in the face of the breakdown of the family and with lowered church membership and all of these forms of societal crumbling, I think that people are desperate for connections and I think that the internet kind of provides that for them.

Despite it being a kind of faceless medium?

Yeah, well, that's the irony. There's an old Oscar Wilde saying: "You can afford candor only in the face of strangers." So the fact that online communications are so anonymous allows people to be more forthcoming. Whether or not the connections that people form on the internet are deeper as compared to people just making a friend or actually talking to their ten-year-old son is debatable, but it's interesting that at least there is this intense need for hackers or even casual internet users.

Was it a natural step to make Out There an eBook?

Yeah, I think it is. To my mind, the arm of publishing that stands to benefit the most from e-publishing is reference. I think that, for travel, e-publishing will be terrific because you'll be able to, you know, go on a trip to Italy and just buy the chapter on Florence of the eBook. Or for doing research, it will be terrific. Or maybe if people are doing really arty things with streaming video and things like that.

The e-publishing revolution has not really taken off in the way the people thought it would.

Do you think it will?

For that one little pocket of reference, I think that it could. Or what about those books that you'd be reluctant to buy in a bookstore? Like a book on impotence. Or a book about balding. Or how to build a bomb. I think there are certain very specific crises and problems that might best be served by the electronic form.

Back to the faceless media.

Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.]

I'll have to bring that up at the next eBook meeting. Can you describe the process you went through to find the "funniest person on the internet"?

Oh, I pursued a number of different avenues: I told everyone I knew, I sent out a mass e-mailing, I posted a bulletin on, I looked through hundreds of back issues of People, Yahoo Internet Life, Harpers, eCompany Now, places like that. And I think those were the most helpful ways. People would just e-mail me and say have you seen this? I guess I'm sort of on that wave. Did you get that one about two months ago—a lot of people at Random House got it—for that Peter Pan guy?

Oh god, that was the scariest thing I've ever seen.

Yeah. [Laughs.] So three people sent that to me because people now know that I love that stuff. I guess it's like a pyramid: you tell a couple of people, they tell some more.

So what makes a site funny?

Well, I think what makes so many of the ones I write about funny is the fact that it is a medium without gatekeepers. I think that so many humorists and satirists are beset by censorship, political correctness, issues of length, and, on the internet, you can be your own bad self and ain't no one going to tell you otherwise. So I think that in many instances it allows for a more raw, more direct kind of comedy. The downside is that many people need an editor; in fact, a lot of the people that I've written about I'm pulling one or two sentences out of a 5,000-word site. So that was part of my job, to just pore through stuff and find the gems.

How long did it take?

I worked on it for—I had to do it fast—so I think I worked on it for eight months.

Were you pleased were the results? You came up with some real winners, like the gun-toting rabbi.

Yes, he's one of my favorites. Interestingly, he's the one that readers of the book and my friends feel should have won. But the whole point in choosing my family as the judges is that I sort of wanted to get more of a range of humor. Urban people tend to go for the rabbi. I was thrilled that someone like him is working regularly, that he has a venue for his talent. I think he's a really good prose stylist, I think he has an important message—whether or not you agree with him—I think he's really witty.

Although I don't think he was trying to be funny sometimes.

It's true. [Laughs.] I think he's a real winner.

What about some of your other favorites?

I love the guy who does the mangled photo captions on the porn site. That's the one I do look at with some regularity because he does post new photoplays pretty often. And they're all equally bizarre and garbled.

Yeah, I didn't check that one out, since I use a corporate line.

Maybe not. I think that's one of my favorite moments: the one of the woman cleaning the pool, and I think the caption is something like, "What? I've been penetrated! A dick!" And it's just, like, whoa! [Laughs.]

Were you happy with the person who won?

Oh, yeah, absolutely! The tricky thing about this book is that sometimes we're laughing with these people and sometimes we're laughing at them. I think Koko's a little bit of both because I think that Koko and her handlers obviously think Koko is funny, as she is. But there's another element of the handlers being funny, too. So I think that it's a rich experience.

Now that you know what makes a site funny, are you tempted to make your own? I noticed that you don't have one. Don't you want to be "the funniest person on the internet"?

"Is that why you wrote the book?" Yeah, I don't have my own site. Do I want to have my own website? Yeah, I would and I should do it! You know, for years, I've been saying that I wished I had my own column where I could do things however long I wanted to and write whatever I wanted to, so certainly that would allow me to do that. It's just that I don't want to take away from all my contestants. [Laughs.]

So what's the "one man's" next investigation?

I don't know yet. We're trying to figure out what the next one will be.

Do you have any projects going on right now?

Yeah. I'm doing those spots with WNYC, and that's fun. It's a show called "The Next Big Thing," which is on Sunday mornings at 11 a.m. [Long pause, as we're momentarily distracted by a man walking two gray Scottie dogs and whistling almost accusatorily at an invisible someone—or something—behind him.] What cute dogs, though.… I've started writing stuff in different voices than my own. I've written things like playlets—a humor piece written as a play. A friend and I recently wrote a prose thing—it's like a musical—about Alan Greenspan. That's been sort of the effect of having written this book about acting. I'm not starring in "Guiding Light," but I am writing stuff in the voice of other people and that's fun to do.

Who are some of your influences?

Let's see, I really like P.G. Wodehouse.

Oh, yeah, me too. He's brilliant—one of my favorites.

He's terrific. Sometimes if I'm stuck writing something, if the words just aren't coming, I'll pick up some Wodehouse and just start reading and it kind of gets me going. Yeah, so I would say Wodehouse, James Thurber, Paul Rudnick, and Fran Leibowitz.

Last question. I have a website. Can I be in your book?

[Laughs.] Well, if they do a second edition, we can get you in there.

No, I'm not that funny, actually. Hmm…how about if I made a Henry Alford fan site?

Right. A little cross-promotion going on. [Laughs.]

--interview by Kelley Kawano

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