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Dave Hill on Discomfort, Japanese Toilets, and “Tasteful Nudes”

Dave Hill didn’t start as the Toast of the Comedy World. No, it took hard work, dedication to his craft, and several greatly uncomfortable detours to become what he is today, which is not only a successful comic based in New York but, now, a published author. Tasteful Nudes, published this month by St. Martin’s Press, is a memoir in the form of a series of essays that run the gamut from his youth in Cleveland (first girlfriends, playing hockey) to adulthood (working at a homeless shelter, reporting on a nudist cruise, doing comedy at Sing Sing, dealing with his mother’s passing), in chapters that can turn from wildly funny to touching and back again on a dime. The book has already been praised by luminaries from John Hodgman and Ira Glass to Andy Richter, Janeane Garofalo, and Malcolm Gladwell, and you can buy it by clicking here. I know Dave would want me to mention that.

You may have seen him on his MOJO HD (remember that channel?) series The King of Miami, or heard him on This American Life, or even in his parallel musical career as a member of Sons of Elvis and Valley Lodge. But right now, he’s here: I caught up with Dave via email to ask him a few questions….

Nerdist: A recurring theme of your work, from “King of Miami” through several stories in the book, is discomfort, specifically you putting yourself or finding yourself in uncomfortable or insecure situations like a nudist cruise or a golf course or an alligator farm or a Maureen McGovern concert — what’s the most uncomfortable situation in which you’ve found yourself?

Dave: I was super uncomfortable right before doing a comedy show at Sing Sing prison for the first time, something I talk about in my book. There were about 300 inmates there, all violent maximum security felons, who can apparently be real jerks sometimes. It occurred to me that if you were behind bars for life, there wouldn’t be much a reason to not shank me or something just to break the day up a bit, so I was bracing myself for the worst. A couple minutes into the show though, I was feeling better. I don’t know what murdery or rapey stuff these guys had gotten up to in the past, but I found them to be an absolute if slightly menacing delight the whole time I was there. I’ve since been back and hope to go back again soon. Prison- who knew? I just can’t stay mad at those guys.

Nerdist: Among your stories are the recounting of your youthful pursuits of hockey and rock stardom (which, with Sons of Elvis and Valley Lodge, sort of happened, didn’t it?). How and when did becoming a comedian enter the picture — what drew you to doing comedy? Is the experience of performing comedy comparable to what you feel from playing music before an audience?

Dave: I never planned to become a comedian- it was kind of an accident. I had been writing, mostly journalism type stuff, and playing in bands. When it came to writing, I realized I just liked to slip jokes into my newspaper and magazine pieces. I didn’t really care about the rest of the piece all that much- it was almost like filler in between the jokes I wanted to get past my editors. And once I started singing in bands, I realized I liked talking in between songs just as much as I enjoyed rocking. My bandmates would want to start the next song and be like “Wait, I want to squeeze in a tight five first.” If an amp blew out or something, I’d be psyched because it would give me more time to talk. So I guess between those two things- the writing and the talking – comedy kind of made sense. I came to New York City from Cleveland for the weekend in 2003 and never left. I started writing for TV shows and slowly began to meet people who ran comedy shows around town. My friend Tony Carnevale ran a show at the Parkside Lounge on the Lower East Side and asked me if I wanted to do a spot. That was on December 23, 2004. I didn’t necessarily plan on doing it again after that night, but it just slowly grew from there. Now my life is a complete nightmare. The sex is fabulous though. And sometimes you get drink tickets, which is great for me.

But getting back to your question, performing comedy is much harder but ultimately more fun than performing music, which is already insanely fun. With music, you can stare at your feet all night if you feel like it and still get through the show (not that I recommend it). And your band can still play even if no one shows up to see you. With comedy, you have to deal more directly with the audience and you don’t have big amps to cover up the silence if they’re not laughing. Performing comedy is way more “in the moment” for me than music as much as I hate using that phrase. When I’m performing comedy, I’m never thinking about something else – it’s just about right there and then. With music, no matter how great or fun a show it is, you can just let a big chord ring out and catch yourself thinking “Shit – I forgot to buy toilet paper!” or something like that every once in a while. The sex is still fabulous though. I figured I should probably mention that just for clarity’s sake.

Nerdist: Now that you have a book out, let’s ask: Do you have any literary influences? To which books would you compare “Tasteful Nudes”?

Dave: I’m sure I have a ton of unconscious influences, but I try to just write like myself. I can’t tell if that sounds a-holey or not. But there’s a ton of people whose writing I love – people like David Rakoff, Calvin Trillin, Jack Handey, Eric Broder, Malcolm Gladwell, Dick Cavett, and, you know, those Bronte chicks and stuff. I’m sure I unconsciously borrow things from all those people and probably a ton of others too. But to me writing is like talking- you just want to try to use your own voice or it’s just annoying. It’s not like music where if you’re writing a song and your stuck at the bridge you can just think “What would the Beatles have done here?” and then just do your best to rip that off.

Photo: Beowulf Sheehan

Nerdist: The book contains your Japanese toilet story, which remains surely one of the most vivid and entertaining descriptions of using a (high-tech automated) toilet in recorded history. Clearly, it was a special moment for you. So, why do you think that kind of toilet experience hasn’t spread to America? (And if it’s due to expense, is there a price to be placed on personal hygiene?)

Dave: I’m convinced it’s only a matter of time before every man, woman, and child in America is totally blasting themselves silly with those Japanese toilets every single day. Once you try it, the whole American toilet paper routing seems like caveman behavior. In fact, you don’t even need toilet paper with Japanese toilets – it’s insane. The Japanese have got it figured out. They’re so far ahead of us it’s crazy. Just to give you a sense of the state of things over there, they think the iPhone is a joke. You rarely see a Japanese person using one. Every time I’d pull my iPhone out over there, someone would say “Oh… you have an iPhone” and then smile sympathetically at me like I was struggling to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together.

Getting back to the Japanese toilets though, I have a nice little update on my own personal saga with them. As a result of talking about Japanese toilets in graphic detail in my book, I was contacted by a guy in Wisconsin who works at a company that manufactures American versions of them. He’s offered to send me one entirely free of charge. Apparently, I’m gonna have to get a plumber to come over to help make it all happen, but it will totally be worth it. I don’t plan on leaving the house much after that.

Nerdist: Finally, here’s a chance to tell Nerdist readers: Why should they buy this book?

Dave: My book is seriously good for reading, but if that part doesn’t work out for you, it also works great as a table dewobbilizer or especially attractive door stop. Also, if you are holding a copy of my book and someone tries to kick you in the crotch or something, you just cover your goods with my book and you should be fine. “Thanks, Tasteful Nudes!” you’ll be thinking. If you want to throw my book directly at the head of your assailant after that, I say go for it. It’s 240 pages, so it’s easy to throw but will also seriously hurt someone if they get nailed by it. This is something my lawyer really fought for when negotiating my book contract. I did it for you. I should probably also mention that I peppered my book with a fair amount of profanity, which is always great.

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Again, you can buy Tasteful Nudes by clicking here. You should. And Dave will be in L.A. at Stories Books and Cafe on June 3rd, San Francisco at the Punchline on June 4th, and at Underground Arts in Philadelphia on June 9th, if you’re so inclined. Hey, we didn’t even mention his fascination with Norwegian black metal… next time, definitely.

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