A conversation with Jerry Stahl on writing, the connection between stand-up comedy and memoir, and half-miracles in Hollywood.
Jerry Stahl is a Pushcart Prize–winning author whose recent works include Bad Sex on Speed, I, Fatty and Happy Baby Mutant Pills. His 1995 memoir Permanent Midnight, chronicling his recovery from heroin addiction, was adapted to a film starring Ben Stiller. Stahl’s recent screenwriting credits include The Bleeder (2016) and episodes of Maron and CSI. Here Stahl opens up about addiction, writing, and finding humor amid chaos.
A professor once told me, “All great authors endure some form of suffering.” Do you see this as a valid expression? I imagine it holds true with your memoir Permanent Midnight.
Well, I guess it was valid for your professor. That poor bastard. But ultimately one man’s suffering is another man’s honeymoon. So who the fuck knows? But I’m sure there are a lot of happy, well-adjusted motherfuckers out there who write books. (Not to mention a hell of a lot of people who enjoy suffering.) A sizable chunk of the “suffering” in Permanent Midnight, since you mention it, was self-induced. Not sure that makes you a writer. What suffering can do, on a practical level, is transform writing into a kind of relief. When daily reality becomes too brutal — whether physically, psycho-emotionally, socially or whatever — the only thing harder than writing is not writing.
I will say, on a personal level, I don’t trust anybody who hasn’t been to hell. But that’s me.
The writing of Permanent Midnight, would I be wrong in assuming it was part therapy?
You’re the critic — you can assume whatever you want. For my part, it certainly wasn’t any kind of conscious choice — the way, say, deciding to sign on with a Jungian therapist or a pharma-happy Lithium dispenser might be. Most writing — again, speaking for myself — isn’t a matter of choice. Any more than breathing. At some point getting shit down on paper (or keyboard) becomes an autonomic function.
Is it difficult to strip down for all to see? Was it more innate or a learned attribute with age, experiences?
Again, you’re making the assumption that anything an artist — or this artist, at any rate — does is some kind of calculated, conscious endeavor. Basically, if you had the nerve to live it, you should have the nerve to write it down. Barring, of course, those niggling items for which there is no statute of limitations and which could land you in a privately run prison complex somewhere.
You’ve got the humor with the tragedy, and many times in the same situation. In some way does the meshing of the two keep the sanity?
It is a rare and wonderful treat to be called sane. No need to butter up your subject. In truth, I would say, sanity is a luxury that’s hard to come by these days. It’s a cliché to say so, but the only reaction to an insane world is not necessarily being sane. Some called Standing Rock protestors crazy. But the humans out there braving bullets, freezing weather and hoses blasting ice-cold water doubtless believed it’s insane to not do everything you can to save our water — and the planet. One of the reasons swells like Hitler have been so successful is that straight media people tend to treat them as if there’s some kind of reason or “sanity” going on behind their eyeballs — as opposed to, say, gurgling toxic out-of-control id.
But, yes, I suppose the humor is natural. A survival mechanism. That’s why your oppressed — your outsiders, misfits, etc. — are always the funniest people. They have to be. And it’s why there aren’t a lot of funny Nazis.
Do you find the humor in your work to be a form of self-release, a coping mechanism?
My old friend and mentor Hubert Selby used to talk about his work as “a scream looking for a mouth.” To which I can relate. But don’t be moronic enough to assume that turning pain into humor is the same as “making light” of it. Just the opposite. Lenny Bruce went to jail for getting on stage and talking about sex, drugs and God. If it were just a matter of “making light,” they wouldn’t have hounded him to death.
Larry Charles directed a Funny or Die skit for the release of your book Happy Mutant Baby Pills. How did this come about?
Larry and I are good friends, and we were at the time trying (unsuccessfully, as it turns out) to turn my novel Pain Killers into a TV series. (Nobody wanted a buddy comedy where one of the buddies was Joseph Mengele — go figure.) So, much as I hate to ask anybody for anything, I needed a book video, asked Larry if he would do it and, being a total mensch, he agreed. As for Flea, Ben Stiller, Jason Schwartzman and Michael C. Hall, what can I say? I called in favors. Ben and I are actually great friends — and have been for 20 years, since we met when he played me in Permanent Midnight. I ended up being best man at his wedding. Jason I sort of knew, and he was game. Flea I’d met because my daughter used to take piano at the music school he started in Silverlake. And Michael C. Hall, it turns out, is a very literary guy — who, along with being one of the greatest actors in America, loves books and writers. And has the wonderful and rare quality of not being too big a star to do small shit.
In other words, I was lucky.
Is it true your first screenwriting credits were adult films?
Failed adult films. My old running buddy Stephen Sayadian and I met when he was Hustler’s visual director at the ripe age of 21 and I signed on at 24 to be a “humor” editor. (Which largely involved making jokes about genitally shaped fruit people sent in from the Midwest.) We wanted to make movies — didn’t have any money or connections, and got some dough from some porn guys in LA who literally paid us with quarters from their peep shows. Long story short, we made Café Flesh and they said, like, “Ah…we love it, fellas, but you need to, ah, like, stick in a half a dozen money scenes.” So, long story short, being punks, we decided to stick in the most alienating unsexy sex scenes imaginable.
The Bleeder is, at the time of this interview, your most current film: a drama starring Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts and Ron Pearlman. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Sure, it’s the story of the Chuck Wepner, the real boxer whose life Stallone stole for Rocky. This one more or less fell into my lap. The director, Jeff Feuerzeig — best known for his Sundance-winning documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston (about schizophrenic Austin songwriter Daniel Johnston) and, more recently, Author: The JT LeRoy Story (about the whole LeRoy/Laura Albert controversy). Jeff needed a cowriter and we hit it off and that was that.