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Writer@Grinnell Q&A with Samantha Irby

Graphic by Zoe Fruchter.
Graphic by Zoe Fruchter.


Samantha Irby sat down with The S&B’s Mira Braneck following her Thursday night visit as part of the Writers@Grinnell series to discuss humor, writing and garbage television. A full version of the Q&A is available on The S&B website.

These roundtables basically are just ‘how do I become a writer.’ So I loved the answer [that you gave earlier] that was basically just loosen up.

Yeah! I mean, if there was a formula, I’d give it to people. The beginning of my story is so … I mean my first book was published because these dudes I used to drink with started a press. And they were like, we’ll publish whatever you put out. I didn’t even think it would be a real book! And then I talk to real people who are trying to be writers and they’re like, ‘how did you do it?’ And I’m like oh … uh …

Find some drinking buddies!

Um, well, people you know have to start a press, and let you do whatever — you know? It’s just so ridiculous. So then all bets are off after I’ve not helped, and I’m like, whatever you want to ask, I can’t tell you how to be a writer but sure, whatever you want to know.

Can you talk about how vulnerability fits into your writing, and more specifically, your sense of humor?

I don’t know that I am — I was just about to lie, I was going to say that I don’t know if I’m a super emotional person, but that’s not it. I think because it has been rewarded — or, when I first started doing this, really writing about it, I started writing for this show called “The Sunday Night Sex Show,” which was a literary show in Chicago. You’d show up in a bar with, like, seven readers that are all reading super intimate stories about sexuality. And so I started going to this show, and there were the people who were like, Lloyd Dobbler, I don’t know, the dude from “Say Anything,” who were telling these, like, heart-wrenching stories of lost love. And then there are people who are like, you know, I got my dick caught in a zipper while I was trying to have sex with my girlfriend. And so, I think being exposed to that, I was like, ok, I can do this, and I can take these moments and, you know, squeeze the funny out of them, and, like, try to win over the audience. And I think it didn’t feel as vulnerable, because it wasn’t, like, painful stuff. And I don’t think that when I started I understood how much of myself I was putting out into the world, cuz it was really, for me, it was just like, ok, I have this skill, I can make you laugh, I don’t mind miming. I mean honestly … I have so many terrible, horrible relationships and sexual experiences that it was almost, like, cathartic to work them out and tell them to an audience, cuz it’s like, listen, if this dude took a shit in my bed, and I just had to walk around thinking about how a person shit in my bed — that’s depressing! But if I take that story and be like, ok, this happened, but, I’m gonna take the reins, flip it, make it funny, and then this room full of people and I will have a good laugh about it — then that’s something else. And so I think starting that way, in my blog and both in performance of taking these things that I could have ruminated on and felt bad about for hours, taking those things and then, instead, making fun of them … other people had come up to me and be like, ‘I have a story like that.’ And I’d be like, ‘You do?! Why aren’t we talking about that all the time!’ And so I think the reward sort of outweighed whatever sensitive parts I was exposing. I think I’ve written only a few things, I’ve written some things about my parents and my childhood that I was like ‘urghh, that was painful to write.’ But even then, it’s like once it’s out, it feels good to have it out. And I don’t know that I have ever had a response that made me feel like I shouldn’t have shared. Cuz most people are like, ‘thanks for that,’ ‘I can’t relate directly but you made me smile,’ or, like, whatever it is. And so I think if someone were to ever be like, ‘this is horrifying and you’re doing a disservice to womanhood’ then maybe I’d be, like, ‘ooh, I shouldn’t talk about myself.’ But it would have had to happen ten years ago, and it didn’t, and so I feel like whatever risk, it’s worth the reward, of, like, the audience response.

Yeah, you write about sex in this really interesting way, like not just sex acts but also going out and trying to get laid and not getting laid. It’s very cool to see, because people often write about sex in a very monolithic way.

[Laughs]. Yeah! So when I first started really writing my blog and stuff, I had been steeped in “Sex and the City.”

As have we all.

Yeah, I love that show! But it also made me feel a little bit like shit at times, like where is this woman meeting these [men] — this is unrealistic, that, like, everyone who wants to go out with you is handsome and has enough money to get dinner. … I mean, I used to date this dude who would come over. I lived in this neighborhood called Roger’s Park, it’s in Chicago, notorious for having no parking. He would double park at the hydrant, come up stairs, we’d have sex, and then he would leave, before he got a ticket.


So, like, juxtapose that against, like, Mr. Big, and I’d be like, this bitch is mad because he won’t let her keep a hairdryer here, at his beautiful, luxury apartment? Has she ever, like, dated a dude who worked at Foot Locker? Who brought over a bag of tacos, and then left?

Miranda did!

That’s why Miranda was always my girl!

But she stopped dating him.

… So I love those stories, I love the fantasy of it, but, also, somebody has to talk about the not-fantasy that most of us, most of the rest of us, are living. … And I say this all the time, even the nice shit that I have, or the exciting things that I do, I will tell you the downsides, because I don’t want to paint a picture of something that is better than anybody else’s thing. Just like, with the TV thing, it was cool, we had to write it in two months, we had to live in this house in the hills that was, like, the mountain was crumbling down on our car, every day, this sucked about it, this was horrible, I didn’t make nearly as much money as you’d think. … I feel like we do better for each other if we try to tell the truth about things. And it’s, like, even if it’s embarrassing, at least it’s real. And if I can make it funny, that’s fine. But, it’s worth it to me to talk about these bad dates. Cuz then when you have them, you’re not, like, ‘oh, I’m the only person on earth.’ I just wasn’t reading any stories about people who were having these hideous experiences.

And I think, like, everyone is!

Yeah! Why don’t we talk about it?

Especially the women that sleep with men.

Yes! I had to give up on that. I mean … I always dated women before, but you know, it was never the kind of shit you would write about, because it’s like, oh, you know, Tracy and I stopped talking because we lived too far apart and she had too many cats.


It was never, like, she drove my car into a convenience store and never called me again.

Is that — we don’t have to — [Laughs].

[Laughs.] No, that is not real but I feel like I’ve had situations like that, where it’s, like, there’s a dude who did, like, try to sleep with my sister. And it’s like, I need to hear other people telling those stories, and if they won’t, I’ll start.


You know? My strategy has always been like, ok, me first, I’ll say my thing and then it’ll free you up. I feel like talking about mental health, too, like I’m anxious and depressed, and I feel like, ok, not always easy for everyone to talk about, so if I say my thing, you don’t even have to say your thing, but here’s my thing. I had a meltdown in the grocery store because my card took too long in the card reader, and I knew that I had the money and I basically sweated to death and dropped dead in the Target line. You know? And it’s like, I can do that, some other people can’t, but because I can, maybe it’ll help them. So it doesn’t even feel like revolutionary to me. It just feels, like, I don’t know, necessary? Like how do people bond if you don’t talk about the crust of your life? You know? If you’re like, I went out with this person, they were great, college-educated, had his own car, had his own apartment, had his own dog, dog was neutered, I can’t even believe it! What a unicorn! And I’m like, oh, well, I met a dude whose picture was not him and he stuck me with the check. Ok! You know what I mean? Like what is the point if we’re not all, like, ok, here’s this horrible thing, let’s talk about our mutually horrible things, you know?

Yeah! [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] All I ever want to do is talk about what sucks!

It sounds like the usefulness you were talking about [at the round table.]

Yeah. Yeah! At some point, and I was interested to see if anyone would ask me to do this, because people do, we’ll see if someone asks me tonight … I always get some groggy old man, like craggy, bitter old dude who’s like, ‘Doesn’t it feel indulgent to write about yourself?’ [Laughs.]

Instant nausea.

Yeah! And I’m like here’s the thing, man, people like you have been writing about themselves for a long time. But also, my stuff serves a purpose, you know, at least, I hope, it makes someone laugh, it’s useful, someone recognizes themselves in it. … But, like, it’s not just navel-gazing. I’m like dude, I’m not just sitting around thinking about how great my thoughts are. I am writing about that time I had my period in a swimming pool!


Or, you know, whatever! And then people laugh, or people go, ‘oh, me too!’ or, you know, whatever … It still blows my mind that people buy a thing that I have made. It’s weird.

It’s cool!

It’s very cool. It also is, like, I don’t want to get too precious about it, but it is like, man, fifteen bucks. I mean, you can get it from Amazon for, like, nine. But ten bucks on a thing that I made! Especially because I have a blog on the internet that’s free. So I’m like, man, you bought that? Ok, well I have to serve you something. I just don’t want to give someone, like, my navel-gazing. Honestly, I don’t even have navel-gazing thoughts. When that girl asked me [during the round table] if my writing helped me understand anything, I just was like, no! I don’t know anything about anything! The point of my writing is to, like, make you chuckle. [Laughs.] I don’t know, I let other people do the understanding stuff. I feel like I have a very specific purpose that I am able to serve, and some usefulness either by way of recognition or by making you laugh — is like, it. You’re not going to unlock any existential—[laughs].

It’s a very Grinnell thing. We’re very concerned with, like, finding the meaning.


Yeah, that’s basically what we study, we study unpacking.

I love that. I wish that Dean or Alissa had told me that so I would have been braced. But it’s like, you know, sometimes don’t you just need some superficial stuff?


Like I love that you guys are figuring things out, but there has to be a time in the day when you’re like, this is pure enjoyment, for me.

Yeah, I watch exclusively shitty TV for teen girls, because I can’t do it all the time.

[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah! Yes! Oh, are you going to watch the new reality teen mom stuff? With Bristol Palin on it?

The reality stuff freaks me out, the drama stuff I love. Reality stuff, it kind of upsets me.

What do you watch?

Like, “Riverdale,” I love. “Vampire Diaries,” I’m really into.

I can’t wait for that new Sabrina!

I’m so excited.

… I fell off watching [“Riverdale”].

It’s worth it, I would say.

Ok, I’ll get back into it.

In the worst way, it’s worth it.

Oh, please, there is no trash that’s too trash for me. There’s some things I can’t stand the sound of. Like I can’t watch “Jersey Shore,” but that’s like an old person thing, where I’m like, my nerves, but no, there’s nothing too juvenile for me. I will watch it. That’s the thing! I watch three things, or like three episodes, and then it’s like, Sam, can you go make dinner? And then I go do it, and then I never come back to it.

What are you watching right now?

Oh man. Ok, so “Glow,” which I did not expect to love, and I love. … I’m really excited for a bunch of things. I want to watch that show, “I Feel Bad,” that new Amy Pohler produced show. I am watching “Ozark” season two. I really have studied all of the Real Housewives, I know you don’t watch reality TV, but they’re so good. … I love, the season’s over now, but “Billions,” is my shit. I watch “Power.” Only black people seem to know what that is, whenever I tell a white person I watch “Power,” they’re like, ‘what?’ But it’s so good, it’s on Starz. That just ended. I watch “Insecure.” But like, I know Issa [Rae] and Natasha [Rothwell].

“Insecure” is so awesome, I think.

It’s so good. I have this show that I’m developing, and in the pitch I was like, you know, it’s like fat “Insecure.” But it isn’t really. They’re just like a step fancier than the show I want to make. Like I really want to show people in the shit. But you know, we’ll see. Yeah, I watch a lot of stuff. That was a lot of — that makes me look like a well-rounded person. I’m going to finish “Riverdale.”

It’s so ridiculous, I’ll say.

I love ridiculous.

It’s laughable. Like I laugh.

I watched every episode of “Gossip Girl.”

How did your blog get it’s name?

The movie “Boyz N the Hood.” … Early on, you’ll figure out where it comes from.

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