Sad Stories Told for Laughs: Doug McKelvey

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Doug McKelvey is an exceedingly thoughtful and outlandishly funny author, songwriter, and filmmaker. One of the great pleasures of this year’s Hutchmoot was to see first-hand the joy of people who were exposed to Doug and his work for the first time. His book The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog has just been re-released as an ebook (you can get it here). I also adjure you to check out Subjects with Objects Doug’s collaborative effort with painter Jonathan Richter. And finally, if you want to see some heart-warbling promotional videos, hie thee to the blog at DougMcKelvey.com.

Hello Doug.

Howdy Doc Rogers.

Welcome to Sad Stories Told for Laughs.

I’m both nervous and honored to be here. And also mystified as to your choice (of me).

One reason I chose you was because I was actually present for one of your public humiliations, and I wanted to reflect on it with you.

Do tell.

At the most recent Hutchmoot you presented your research into Hemingway’s famous six-word story. I found it very educational. But a lot of people laughed at you.

I know, right?

Not just a little, but a lot. Finally, I turned to the people beside me and hissed, “Don’t you realize the poor chap can hear you?” Anyway, I wanted you to know that I didn’t laugh.

I thought I heard hissing though. So that was YOU, huh?

There’s nothing more painful for a writer than to be misunderstood.

Another way to say that is “There’s nothing more painful than to be a writer.”

Which isn’t exactly true, but it makes a point.

I think.

Perhaps not a very good one.

But a point nonetheless.

What is this point you speak of?

That to be a writer (or a creator of any sort), is probably to sometimes be misunderstood. Publicly.

Tell me about another time–besides the Hemingway story debacle–when you were publicly misunderstood.

Well, I’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding the whole “public” thing for the most part, so I’ll have to think about that.

Fair enough. The humiliations of the writer aren’t necessarily as public as those of the performing artist.

Which is why I was a bit mystified at your invitation.

So now we’re criticizing the interviewer?

I am actually really good at turning my shame into contempt.

Which is another way of saying “I am a writer.”

I see what you just did there.

Okay, I’ve now had time to reflect on a couple of incidents.

The first one probably isn’t that funny, really, but it was embarassing. When Jonathan Richter and I published “Subjects With Objects, Vol 1” there was no publicity to speak of. So we were really happy to be invited to be the literary guests for East Side Storytellin’ in Nashville. It’s a live audience event plus podcast. Typically the author does a reading from their book.

SubWOb isn’t so conducive to that, unless you want to treat adults like children at library story time and read one line and then wander through the crowd holding up the picture.

So I thought “I’m going to do something cool and funny and different.” I had been listening a lot to the “Welcome To Nightvale” podcast and I thought I would try to write something and deliver it in that sort of vein.

Guess what?

What?

It didn’t work. The crowd had no idea what I was talking about. There was no laughter. Not even from my own family. Just a very painful silence.

I got about three minutes in and started to panic.

How did this panic manifest itself?

Dry mouth. Stammering. Odd inflections. Heart palpitations. And rising shame.

Mostly rising shame that threatened to recontextualize all of my life up to that point, rendering all good things moot.

So I basically stopped cold right where I was and threw it to Jonathan. He gave me an odd (and perhaps pitying, pitying in an angry way) look and took the mic and spoke eloquently about his own part in the project, while I stood beside him not knowing what to do with my hands.

I once gave a talk about Flannery O’Connor at an all-boys high school. And, like you, I realized about 3 minutes in that they had no idea what I was talking about or why I was there.

Yes, the right audience is important.

Well, in my case, it wasn’t the audience’s fault. They were forced to be there.

You should have talked about Miley Cyrus and UFC.

That’s exactly what I should have done. But I had this lovely talk prepared, and I soldiered on. Pretty painful. Also, I don’t know much about Miley Cyrus or UFC. Except what I learned from the movie Warrior. Have you seen that one?

Was that the one with the two brothers who end up fighting each other?

You just spoiled the ending. But yes, that’s the one.

I didn’t say which one wins.

It’s Brennan.

Ironically, my kids are quoting that movie in the next room. Pure coincidence.

Good, because that’s a nice segue into my next story. 

The fact that my kids are quoting Warrior?

The movie itself. I was in LA pitching a feature film idea to two producers who were planning to do a project together. So I spend a few minutes giving the short version of the pitch. It’s this sort of adventure fantasy story.

And then when I pause, one of the producers asks “So the protagonist… does he have Downs Syndrome?” And I’m very caught off guard by this. It’s certainly not a question I was expecting, but it was easy enough to answer.

“No, no he doesn’t.”

“Oh. Well, you should think about it. I think that would really make the story interesting. It’s not something you see very often.”

“No,” I agreed, “it isn’t.”

So I try to move on with the pitch, but this producer is off and running and he won’t let me finish because he’s now so excited by his idea and is trying to brainstorm it further with me. And all I can do is just sit there staring at him with an increasingly blank stare. It was like a Seinfeld episode.

Sounds like it.

I had a sales director at a publisher suggest that I make Dobro Turtlebane a girl.

Secretly? Not revealed till book 3 maybe? That would have been awesome.

You and your spoilers. Maybe I could write another feechie book and reveal it. 

I think Pete Peterson already did something like that.

You’re right.

Oh, I just thought of one of my most publicly humiliating moments, though it was from high school. I won’t presume you want to hear it until you tell me you do.

Can we return to it in a minute? I’m composing a thoughtful response to your previous story.

This is a good example of what you said earlier…to be a writer is to be misunderstood. Producers, book salesmen, etc, often misunderstand not just the author, but the whole nature of what the author does.

Well, there are sometimes those conflicting goals between author or artist and the people who are responsible for making sure it’s commercially successful, right?

Exactly.

And desires at cross purposes are the heart of comedy and drama. And the source of endless misunderstandings. Which I find particularly hilarious and have been guilty since childhood of fostering when I see a good opportunity.

You have just reduced my whole “Sad Stories Told for Laughs” project to a single theoretical principle. Now I’m the one wondering why I invited you to do this.

You said you’ve been fostering misunderstandings since childhood…in what ways?

So, for instance. In college, I’m wandering through the journalism department which was quartered in the basement of a building, and there in the hallway is one of those big grey plastic trashcans. It’s almost full, and right at the top are a sheet of photos of a professor–probably a portrait sitting taken for the yearbook. There were maybe eight different photos though, of the same guy. And most were fairly awkward.

So I grabbed them from the garbage can, picked another professor from an entirely different department at random,  and hand scrawled a note that said “Dr. Lumry, Would you mind looking at these and letting me know which one you think is best? Sincerely, Dr. Trott.”

Then I sealed it in an envelope, addressed it, and dropped it in the inter-university mail.

Yes!

And laughed about it for days afterwards.

It’s a one-two punch of confusion. First, Dr. Lumry gets this letter and photos, out of the blue from a prof across campus, and can’t for the life of him figure out why he would be asked to judge such a thing. But it would be more awkward not to respond, so he picks a photo and responds.

Then there’s the second joy of imagining Dr. Trott receiving a letter out of the blue in which a prof from another dept is randomly taking it upon himself to let Dr. Trott know which of his awkward photos is most suitable.

Do you know this, or are you extrapolating?

We can never know such things. We can only imagine.

I shall imagine it myself, and often, from now on. Thank you.

But to remind you of the point of the “Sad Stories Told for Laughs” genre…you’re supposed to be describing your own mortifications, not those you inflicted on others.

You may tell about your humiliation in high school.

Thank you.

Don’t mention it.

When I was 17 and my friend David was 18 we somehow managed to talk the local Top 40 radio station into letting us DJ a Christian rock show on Sunday afternoons. It was the second-biggest station in Longview, TX , listened to by a sizable percentage of the local populace, including most of my peers.

So the station had two locations. And they agreed to let Dave and me go in to the location that wasn’t currently being broadcast from, so we could practice using the soundboard and controls. This was about a week before we were going to do our first show live.

So we’re in there, cutting up, goofing off, thinking we’re pretty cool, and even making fun of some of the stations sponsors, when a DJ working in the back room comes bursting in, flips a switch and says “You guys need to leave. You were going out over the air and the station manager is really mad at you.”

David and I were mortified.

We grabbed our things, slunk out of the station, drove back to Dave’s house in complete silence, went into his room, locked the door, and both hid behind his bed.

You hid behind his bed? What purpose did that serve? Was that where Dave stashed his Carman records?

Yes, we hid behind the bed. Because we were that shamed and humiliated. We didn’t want to be seen by anyone. We didn’t want to talk to anyone. Our lives were effectively over at that point.

Man, this conversation is ping-ponging pretty quickly between humor and abject shame. I take it this was the end of the Sunday Afternoon Christian Rock-and-Roll Hayride?

Actually, it was not. We managed to get a big feature write up in the local paper a few days later and that was good press for the station and smoothed things over some with the manager. So the show did happen and I DJ’ed it till I left for college.

And speaking of music and high school and humiliation… A spring-loaded humiliation you might say. The spring was set in high school but would not go off till a few years ago.

I was a huge Steve Taylor fan when I was sixteen. I wore the print off of my Steve Taylor cassette. I wrote Steve a gushing fan letter, in which I tried to be really cool and zany.

And I included a Steve Taylor “photo-puppet” I’d made out of a photo I took of him in concert. I used brads to make his joints moveable. I did this because, you know, it was ZANY! And I wanted him to like me and respond and be my friend forever.

Then I forgot about it. Years went by. In time, I moved to Nashville and became a songwriter.

I even met Steve and got to know him a bit. And then, just a few years ago, Steve started opening some of the still-sealed fan mail he had been inundated with back in those heady early days, but hadn’t had time to read back then.

And guess what he found?

Oh no. The dread.

Let’s just cut off this interview right here.

I called my friend Dave and we went and hid behind his bed. Metaphorically.

What happened non-metaphorically?

Steve was kind enough not to actually show me the letter and photo-puppet. I think my desperation to be liked was probably oozing from the pages and he knew the cringe-factor would be too high for me if I actually had to read a letter written by my high school self.

Could you perhaps pass it off as another Douglas McKelvey from Longview Texas who was 16 in 1986?

There was another Douglas McKelvey in East Texas back then, and we were the same age, strangely enough.

And both in boy scouts. I thought we could be friends because hey, we had the same name. But he didn’t like me.

That seems strange…at my high school, making articulated photo puppets was the fast track to popularity.

For me, there was no fast track to popularity. If you think I’m socially awkward now (and you should), you should have seen me back then. My awkwardness was a thing of glory.

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


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