Author Interviews
4:38 pm
Sat November 2, 2013

A Comedian's Voyage To 'The Membrane Between Life And Death'

Originally published on Sat November 2, 2013 6:15 pm

Stand-up comedian Rob Delaney has been called the funniest person on Twitter. He's known for his zany observations and for condensing pithy, often vulgar commentary on politics and pop culture into 140 characters or less.

In his memoir, Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage., Delaney takes a walk on the more serious side. He delves into struggles with alcoholism and depression, which eventually led him to comedy.

"I lived my life in a way where I could have died at any moment, and that was OK with me," he tells NPR's Arun Rath.

After trying to quit drinking several times, Delaney hit rock bottom a couple weeks after his 25th birthday. He was driving drunk, blacked-out behind the wheel, and drove into an office building of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

"I'm really lucky in the sense that my bottom really took me to the membrane between life and death and I got to poke against it and feel its strength and its fragility," Delaney says.

He ended up in jail, in a wheelchair, with two arms in casts and both his legs badly damaged.

"Once I realized I could kill other people, that's when I said, 'OK, I'm going to stop with this because I like other people,' " he says.


Interview Highlights

On the process of writing the book

"Thankfully, for the reader, I had really dealt with all that stuff through therapy and medication and time, as well. So writing the book for me was not therapeutic in any way. And I'm glad, because that way you sort of, I think, as the reader, feel safe as you're reading it. You're not like, 'Uh oh, this is gonna devolve into sentence fragments and screaming and like the next few pages will be finger-painted blood.'

"You know that I'm talking at it from a position of health, even though I'm certainly describing gnarly things."

On getting sober and then making it big

"I'm very fortunate that all this stuff happened and was dealt with before I started comedy, before I even met my wife. My wife, who I've been married to for seven years, has never seen me drink and that's cool. And, I'm a dad now.

"So I'm lucky. And I was 33 before I made my living only through comedy, and that's like 3 1/2 years ago. My appetite for drugs and alcohol probably would have killed me if I had any kind of money or fame. That would have been a very volatile combo."

On joke-stealing

"Stealing jokes is wrong. Period. There's no getting around that. But when people do it to me, I just don't stress about it because I would rather go write more jokes. So, other people can stress out about that and they certainly do. If somebody steals a joke of mine online, then 40 people let me know in 10 minutes.

"So stealing jokes is wrong, but ... if you steal a joke from me, I make five more and beat you to death with them. That's my approach. You think about it, and I'm going to hurt you with more jokes. That's how I feel."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Rob Delaney is a standup comic. He's been called the funniest man on Twitter. There's actually an award for that, and he won it. He has a peculiar ability to make clever points about sexism or politics with a gleeful vulgarity of a teenaged boy, all in 140 characters, many of his funniest tweets we can't read on air.

His new memoir takes on some pretty serious stuff. Delaney delves into his struggles with alcoholism and depression, but he maintains his irreverent tone throughout and describes how his hard times launched him as a comedian. We began our conversation with a moment just weeks after his 25th birthday when Delaney was at his lowest point.

ROB DELANEY: I'm really lucky in the sense that my bottom really took me to the membrane between life and death and I got to poke against it and feel its strength and its fragility. I was in a blackout - blackout drunk, which was not an infrequent state for me - and I drove into a building, an office of the Department of Water and Power here in L.A. I broke both my arms badly to the point that they needed surgery. And I was in jail in a wheelchair with four limbs that didn't function. So sometimes I would slip out of my wheelchair and - to the floor - and my hospital gown would come up, exposing me in all my glory to everybody in jail. And...

RATH: It's not a good thing, I think.

DELANEY: No.

RATH: I'm not an expert in jail but...

DELANEY: Yeah. If you haven't been, that's generally stuff you want to keep to yourself in a jail setting. But I bucked tradition, and it's bad where I got to. Nobody heard about my accident when I had it and thought, get out of here. He drove into a building? They were like, how many casualties were there, you know?

So I lived my life in a way where I could have died at any moment, and that was OK with me. Which is, yeah, sure, that's sad, but once I realized I could kill other people, that's when I said, OK, I'm going to stop with this because I like other people.

RATH: Usually with these sort of biographies, it's the Hollywood type who's writing about this after they've done all this stuff while they were famous...

DELANEY: Yes.

RATH: ...you know?

DELANEY: Yeah.

RATH: And it was like, oh, you were wasted when you did that album. But with you, it's - you kind of got this stuff sorted out, and then you made it big.

DELANEY: Yeah. I'm very fortunate that all this stuff happened and was dealt with, you know, before I started comedy, before I even met my wife. My wife, who I've been married to for seven years, has never seen me drink, and that's cool. And I'm a dad now. So I'm lucky. You know, I was 33 before I made my living only through comedy - and that's like three and a half years ago. So my appetite for alcohol and drugs probably would have killed me if I had any kind of money or fame. That would have been a very, very volatile combo.

RATH: Have you gone over that material before just on a personal level or was writing through this book the first time that you've gone through things in a really serious way?

DELANEY: Yeah, no. Thankfully, I think for the reader, I had really dealt with all that stuff. Writing the book for me was not therapeutic in any way. And I'm glad, because that way you sort of, I think, as the reader feel safe as you're reading it. You know, you're not like, uh-oh, this is going to devolve into sentence fragments and screaming and, like, the next few pages will just be finger-painted blood. No. You like - you know that I'm talking at it from a position of health, even though I certainly am describing gnarly things.

RATH: But at the same time, though, you don't lose the humor at any point in there. And that's one of the things that that was very bracing at how reading you talking about it and not losing any of the Rob Delaney-ness.

DELANEY: Well, thanks. You know, I just - depression kills people. It almost killed me. And I'm not saying let's go on a Carnival depression cruise together. I'm saying take a look at this for a few minutes and then look away. And here's A, B, C, how I got out of it.

RATH: What was it like changing from Twitter form to going long form?

DELANEY: Well, I started in long form, like the rest of the world. Who knew you could make something as small as a tweet, you know, even five years ago? I didn't. You would be forgiven from reading my Twitter feed, for thinking that I, you know, was trying to do, like Steven Wright or Mitch Hedberg-type stuff with short jokes. And I love that stuff, but I don't do it standup-wise. My stuff is much longer stories.

RATH: You know, joke stealing is a big point of controversy, I know, in the comedy world. But you have sort of a relaxed attitude about people stealing your material. Could you explain that?

DELANEY: Well, stealing jokes is wrong. There's no getting around that. But when people do it to me, I just don't stress about it because I would rather go write more jokes. So other people can stress out about that, and they certainly do. If somebody steals a joke of mine online, then 40 people let me know in 10 minutes. So stealing jokes is wrong, but if you do it to me - you steal a joke from me, I'd make five more and beat you to death with them. That's my approach. Don't - you think about it, and I'm going to hurt you with more jokes. That's how I feel.

RATH: So we learn about you in the book, but one thing that's not there, there's not an awful lot about your comedy career and the story of your success.

DELANEY: You're right about that, and I figure that stuff is sort of more public domain. You know, the last few years of my life are very well documented by myself and others, in my standup as well. So I wanted to show people the plumbing and the framework rather than, like, the coat of paint, which is the last few years.

RATH: You can go to Wikipedia for that.

DELANEY: Yeah, and frankly, I would probably write better about the last three years five years from now.

RATH: Got another book in you?

DELANEY: Yeah, certainly. Might not be about me, though, 'cause currently, I'm out of curiosity about myself. It's all been plumbed, those depths. So, yeah, I'd love to write another book. But who knows what it'll be about?

RATH: Rob Delaney is one of the funniest people on Twitter. His new book is "Mother, Wife, Sister, Human, Warrior, Falcon, Yardstick, Turban, Cabbage" - one of the most fun titles to read. Thank you for that, Rob, and thanks for your time today.

DELANEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.