Thursday, November 01, 2007

Special: Mitchel Stevens’ Guide to Ben Kharakh’s Interview with Ben Kharakh

Editor's Note: The following column is part of an anonymous weekly humor column chronicling the struggle of a new, young journalist out in the working world. You may find the author's previous posts in the archives. --The Ed.

Like many fashionable, highly sought-after writers that spent their evening pounding rotgut gin and watching those Indian soap operas uploaded to YouTube, I have an unhealthy interest with Ben Kharakh.

It started out when I wrote about an interview he did for Gothamist with Red Eye host Greg Gutfeld. From there, I—along with The Apiary—have come to consider Ben as some sort of robot, or android, or Astromech droid with a wig.

(Personally, I assumed he was co-controlled via iPhones by Jen Chung and Jake “Alpha Kitty” Dobkin.)

After talking to The Editorialiste—and, I can’t lie, a lot of LULZ from being directed to The Apiary’s ROBOINTERVIEWER description—we decided that I, Mitchel Stevens, the single greatest freelance writer in all of New York City, I mean, uh, Major Urban City on the East Coast, would examine Kharakh’s interviews.

Am I deterred by the fact that Ben may only be in high school? Nonsense!

(I think he’s in college. I assume, I mean, my High School “ethics” course involved watching The Matrix.)

Anyway, to kick off the latest feature here, I decided to start with an interview where it is BEN who is the INTERVIEW-EEE. Yeah, I don’t know why I hit caps lock there, either.

Interview: Ben Kharakh

Intervieweeeeeeee: Rebecca Curtis, Author. Inspired by Tao Lin, Cultural Masturbator.

I have a question for you: you have some awesome humor pieces on McSweeney's. Why is it that you write funny pieces and not "serious" pieces?

I was always trying to be the funny guy in the group and writing humorous pieces is just an extension of that. Why I try to be funny is a different question all together. I have yet to attempt a serious piece, although I have contemplated it and even have a project in mind called People: The Movie. I'd also like to do something on hubris. It may be that if I attempted a serious piece that it would still have elements of humor in it because of my sensibility.

MS Says: Good start. Wait, he’s been published in McSweeney’s? Shit. And here I thought the time Dave Eggers totally grabbed my ass at Union Hall while Jonathan Coulton smoked a hookah blew my mind.

Seriously, just imagine that. Pretty fucking cool, amirite?

What happens in "People: The movie?"

I would like it to encapsulate a part of the human condition, but outside of that I am unsure. I often like to start my pieces with the title first and work from there. It's even better if the title and the premise are the same thing, like my current screenplay project Undercover Mummy. It's 21 Jump Street meets The Mummy meets Revenge of the Nerds.

MS Says: See, here Kharakh slyly manipulates the interview. Instead of answering a question, he discusses how he titles things and then writes. Much like all of his writing. Not discussed is how Kharakh totally C++ certified or how his statement would be culturally ironic if he name checked “My Science Project.”

How do you think it is that a piece becomes "funny"?

Usually when I write I try to think more along the lines of "good" as opposed to funny. For example, if a boy in an English class was asked what an analogy was, I think a good answer would be "albatross". It's not necessarily funny, but I think that's good. Some people believe that incongruity is at the heart of all humor, others think it's halibut.

MS Says: Man, once you get that whole “I’ve been published in McSweeney’s” thing going, every answer is like Dave Eggers masturbating while Jonathan Coulton sits on a futon smoking a hookah and a midget tap dances to a Kinks song. This is how I believe the McSweeney’s office is when they take a break from saving children and buying everyone in the world a Coke.

Define metaphor: a metaphor is an albatross! I like it. It makes perfect sense. But can you distinguish a bit more between "good" humor and "bad" humor?
What's funny is very subjective and varied in nature, but the one thing that all of my favorite humorists and comedians have in common is that their humor reflects their unique perspective. It doesn't matter if they're political, absurd, observational, or even innovative, as long as what they have to say could only be said by them. After all, if anyone can say what you've got to say, we don't need you to say it.

MS Says: This is boring. I’m going to go make a sandwich.

What are the qualities of a great humorist?

I read a primatologist's essay about the role laughter plays in the lives of chimpanzees. It's used as a means to establish an air of well being in social situations and to show that there is no aggression. Basically it's used for rendering something as harmless. For example, if chimps are play wrestling, they'll laugh before it escalates into a real conflict to show that there is no aggression. For people, humor is an ex-adaptation, meaning that it serves a different purpose from what it once did, thanks to our ability to think abstractly and the advent of humor. Humor, at its core, stems from incongruity, such as surprise, juxtaposition, or irony. When people laugh, they're categorizing that incongruity as harmless. Of course, it all depends on the context. 9/11 was incongruous, but I doubt anyone found that funny. So, humor is all about taking that incongruity and putting it in the right context. The more interesting the context/incongruity, the better the humor. Sometimes it's possible to use a context that's unfunny but the incongruity is so effective that one can't resist laughter. That's always fun.

MS Says: ...
What do you think are the qualities of a great writer?

I imagine they'd be similar to that of a great humorist. I think a mistake people make when judging art is that they make criticisms about what the piece didn't do as opposed to looking at the artist's goal and how close it came to achieve. I think art should be judged for what it is and not what it isn't.

Who are the writers, do you think, that are most consistently and compellingly saying what they want to say in a way that only they would say it?

I don't read enough to be able to give an answer to this question, but there are many comedians that do this well. Paul F. Tompkins, Maria Bamford, Jen Kirkman, Neil Hamburger, Andy Kindler, Todd Glass, and Louis CK, for example.

MS Says: Damn, that was a tasty sandwich. Where are we? Uh huh, “writers,” “blah blah, “great writer,” Louis CK…wait, why is Louis CK on here? Where am I? Good lord, literary types are the worst interviews. Especially when they’re pseudo-literary types. And what is with all these high school and grade school references? Is Kharakh like 12? Dude, Gothamist is totally into child labor. They blind you with kitties—kitties fueled by the blood of underage work-force blogging.

To be honest, I think that literary fiction has to absurd, and/or funny, in some way (even an understated or very subtle way) to be good. For example, Chekhov's stories have an underlying absurdity, and a subtle humor, even though we think of him as a very realist and straight writer. To me, a lot of the "good" contemporary fiction takes itself too seriously to be funny in any capacity. Are there any writers whose work you think *isn't* funny in any capacity? Who are the fiction writers whose work you do find funny?

I think Woody Allen, John Swartzwelder, Neil Pollack, and Douglas Adams are consistently funny. I just read a book called A Woman Trapped in a Woman's Body by Lauren Weedman that I thought was terrifically entertaining. I once read Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin and didn't think that was funny at all.

MS Says: Holy lord, the Shawshank Redemption is a good film. I mean, seriously, I’m thinking of anything to stop the boredom here. God, I am skipping down a few paragraphs. Wait, better get some coffee first.

How come you do all these interviews? Is this a PR move on your part, and/or do you get tired of hearing self-absorbed writers babble on about their formative moments?
I wanted to be a comedian for a long time, so my first interviews were all with comedians and about their formative years. I thought I'd benefit a lot from learning about them and the art of comedy. Since then, I've expanded to other types of subjects. I never get tired of hearing about formative moments, but my sometimes editors do! Personally, I'm much more interested in bits like that than promoting someone's movie or asking, "Mets or Yankees?" Also, it's great for networking and getting free stuff. I don't think there's any other way that I could have met Todd Glass and Andrew WK if it wasn't for interviews.

MS Says: Paydirt! First off, interviews mean shit in terms of networking and free stuff—unless BK’s talking about the swag you receive in order to promote a talent, i.e. DVDs, shirts, tickets, passes. This is what’s known as “payola.” I think they teach a course on this. Ben should drop the ethics a—wait, he’s already in an Ethics class. WTF, d00d. You are totally failing that. And how are you more interested than promoting a movie o—OH SHIT, THAT’S A GOTHAMIST BURN RIGHT THERE. DAMN. HE BITES THE HAND THAT FEEDS! HE IS HARDCORE. HE IS HARDCORE. HE IS--

You know, “This is Hardcore” isn’t such a bad album. I recently put it back on while I was cleaning my room and discovered it can still speak to the new, middle-upper class derelict created in the shitstorm that is “the creative underclass.”

Oh, fuck that. Who am I kidding? I am all about His Name Is Alive. Where was I?

So your editors do get tired of hearing about writers' formative moments--what do they really want to hear about?

They want the interview to answer the question, "Why should I read this interview?" Although I think that's the job of the intro.

MS Says: …BWA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!! Oh…oh, this is good. This is like watching a man on stilts fall on a banana peel.

Do you get sick of doing interviews?

I only get sick of transcribing interviews.


Okay, okay, that’s enough. After that Curtis and Kharakh descend into more faux-lit “if you were a tree, how would you change the world in sixteen seconds” questions devised by James Lipton. Suffice to say, this brings a lot of light onto everyone’s favorite Astromech-Interviewer.

Does he seem like a bad guy? Nonsense. Kharakh is a young writer doing what he wants to do, and semi-successful at it. It didn’t really hit me until now that he mainly sticks with a comedy beat. However, this faux-intellectualism is annoying as fuck for a guy who just transcribes his Q&As.

Will I stop from giggling like a school girl every time I look at one of his hard-hitting articles? Probably not. Although he has shown an ability to respond to people like Neil Hamburger one-on-one, but it’s too bad G’Mist won’t let him actually “talk” to any of his interviews for them. That said…

A) Telephone

B) In-person
C) E-mail/AIM

D) On the back of a dolphin while Tao Lin had his intern slathering Starbucks in sticky wheatpaste made from his brief encounter with Jonathan Coulton smoking a hookah atop a large monkey situated at the center of the universe humming along to “Code Monkey.” Not to mention Kharakh was thinking in portals.

We’re going with D. Code Monkey is a kick-ass song.


UPDATE: Learned on Tuesday that Ben was released by Gothamist, but luckily he's still doing interviews at That said, I wish Ben the best. If only because I still need material. And no longer need to fear Gothamist, as the site now solely run by Jen Chung's iPhone. And a kitten.

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