The Justin Halpern Interview
Zulkey.com will be back on Tuesday. Have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend!
Today's interviewee is enjoying some major recent successes lately, most notably his bestselling book Shit My Dad Says and the fact that he is co-writing a forthcoming CBS sitcom based on the book, with William Shatner playing said Dad. Of course also worth noting is that the book and the TV show probably wouldn't exist without his massively popular Twitter feed, which consists of shit his Dad says. The funny, vulgar, heartwarming feed helped get the formerly-aspiring-screenwriter attention from agents (including my own) and now both he and his private yet infamous father (who was raised on a farm in Kentucky, served in Vietnam, and spent his career doing cancer research as a doctor of nuclear medicine) are about to become well-known to even more people. Because of the TV show, not me, I should clarify.
I imagine you must have had a boatload of literary agents contacting you when your Twitter feed took off: how did you know which to go with?
Well, I actually went with the first agent I talked to, but that was the only time during this entire process I did that. The guy I'm represented by, Byrd Leavell from the Waxman agency, just came off as an incredibly decent guy. He was like "look, we'll play around with it and see if there's a book here. If you feel comfortable that there is, then we'll do it." He just seemed like such a normal guy, and is. One of the best decisions I've made in the process was going with him.
At what point did you seriously start working on the book? Had you teased out much before you started getting interest from agents?
I started work on the book in October, '09. I hadn't started before the interest from agents, but these were stories I had been telling my entire life. It was just a matter of finding the best way to put them on the page.
What does your mom have to say about all this Dad-driven success? Do you have to reassure her that she's awesome too even if she didn't say much worth writing a book/TV show on?
My mom is believe it or not, more intensely private than my father. She's just really happy for me, and also incredibly happy there's no page chronicling the things she says. She's beat my ass if there were.
Was there anything you Tweeted or published that your dad wanted to take back?
Actually, one of the tweets referenced my mother's name, and he flipped out about that. As far as the book, I had him read every chapter before I even sent it to my editor so that he'd feel comfortable with it. So, in the case of the book, not one thing.
Have you thought much about the next, non-Dad-related project or you're just focusing on the show for now?
Right now I'm just focusing on the show. I am submerged in dad related projects. Everywhere I look, I see my dad. Especially right now as I write this, as he's sitting across from me.
Who could you see playing your father other than Shatner?
Mr. Shatner was our first choice, so it's hard to say. I didn't really even explore others. But I think Alan Arkin or Gene Hackman remind me of him quite a bit.
So do you owe your dad dinner for the rest of your life?
I owe my dad basically everything. If he wants dinners for the rest of his life, done. New car? Done. Whatever the man wants. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately for my bank account, he doesn't want anything. Every time we go out, I pay for everything and even then it sort of pisses him off.
What's been the most challenging part of writing the series?
Probably figuring out how to get exposition out organically. It's really tough to introduce characters in a way that also furthers the plot. Also, sitting and writing good jokes after you've been sitting and writing for twelve hours in a room. It's really easy to go for the stupid joke, and sometimes we do. Then the next day you read it and you're like "this sucks. Now we have to rewrite it anyway so it didn't even save us any time."
In general which was more difficult, the book or (to date) the show?
The show by far. I love writing short essays and I love telling stories about my family, so it was basically the best of both worlds.
In terms of writing, what are some of your favorite TV shows?
I love 30 Rock. It's so well written it makes me feel insecure about my own writing. Breaking Bad is outstanding, as is Party Down on Starz. If you haven't seen Party Down, do yourself a favor and find it. It's as good a comedy as I've seen on TV.
What's a favorite book or film of yours that covers father and sons?
I gotta say, I know it's cliche, but Field of Dreams really gets me. Also, The Jungle I think, although it's mostly about socialism and meat packing, to me was really just a story about how hard it is to be a family man. That book connected with me on that level more than anything else actually.
Has there ever been a time where you or your dad has felt self-conscious about his quotes, like he's just been tired but either you or he was like "OK gotta say something!"?
Not really. He's been this way for 74 years, I think even if he wanted to change he couldn't. Unfortunately the only by-product of this the notoriety and his awareness is that sometimes he'll say something and then say "Don't put that on your little fuckin' page." So there's been a couple gems I've had to leave off.
Who or what was this in reference to? "Stop trying so hard. He doesn't like you. Jesus, don't kiss an ass if it's in the process of shitting on you."
That was actually an older one that I posted on the site because I hadn't seen my dad in a while. It was in reference to my old boss at this website I worked at. The guy just really was a cold individual and would constantly toss these passive aggressive barbs at me and I'd do the "I'm going to kill him with kindness" thing. It never worked, and one day I called my dad and told him about how I was trying to get on this guys good side, and he said that.
What's the synopsis for the first film script you wrote?
Oh god. Well, it's going to sound absolutely stupid, but remember, it was a ridiculous parody. It actually got optioned by a producer at Fox. Okay, enough qualifiers. An 80s cover band gets hired to play the Top Gun Academy's Christmas party at Seaworld and when the party is taken over by eco-terrorists, the band must come together to save the day. Annnnnnnd I've lost any respect you previously had for me. Think Anchorman meets Die Hard.
How does it feel to be the 257th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
It's everything I thought it would be and more. Actually it's pretty cool in all seriousness. You have some great authors that you've interviewed. Guys who have more writing talent in the broken, blood vessels due to alcoholism on their face, than I do in my entire body. So it's a thrill.