xkcd: the exclusive interview

A fan of Randall Munroe's brilliant webcomic xkcd? Well, today we've got an exclusive interview with the stickmeister himself, just in time for the release of his first book: Volume 0 recently published by our friends over @Breadpig.com. Plus, we're going to give you a chance to win a free copy of the book! (stick around and see details at the end of the post) But first, the interview...

DI: For the ignorant among us, or those too lazy to check out your Web site: what's the deal with xkcd? What's it stand for and why do you insist on making me feel like a moron who can't figure out how to pronounce it?

RM: I can't pronounce it either, although I once saw someone argue that linguistically, each letter is silent. As for where it came from, sometime back in 1999 I picked a set of random letters to which to stake my claim, so that it would always mean what I wanted and nothing else. So I wanted something with no pronunciation, something that didn't make an acronym, and which didn't look like any other word. And something which was short, so I could type it fast!

DI: I heard before you became Digg and Reddit's most famous cartoonist, you were working on robots at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. Um, honestly?

RM: Yup! But it's not nearly as dramatic as it sounds. I spent one summer interning working on a student-run virtual reality project, and was hired the next year to work on another section of the base on a project building a little R2-D2-sized robot that was serving as a testbed/demo platform for some technologies other groups were working on. It was pretty standard programming work, and I was only there a year or so before leaving to do xkcd full time.

DI: I don't know how much you know about us _flosser, but we're on a mission to take over the blogosphere. How much do we have to pay you to put our URL or some branded rat-a-tat in your next comic?

RM: Oh, I'm not sure you want that. I did a comic early on about Cory Doctorow wearing a red cape and goggles while he blogs, and I don't think he'll ever live the image down.

breadpig-blue-1DI: Breadpig has never published a book before, so this is quite unusual. Talk a little bit about how it all came about.

RM: Really, we weren't looking for a publisher. The normal role of a publisher is to give you an advance, oversee the distribution of your book, negotiate with retailers, and take most of the profit. Since the main potential readership for an xkcd collection is already connected to me through my site, I wasn't looking for bookstore distribution, so I wasn't even sure I needed a publisher at all. My business partner, Derek, was talking with my friend Alexis [Ohanian] about what we'd want in a book, and Alexis thought he and Breadpig could fill the reduced role pretty well (finding printers and scheduling a basic tour). The idea sounded good to me, so we went with it.

DI: Is it true that some of the proceeds go to charity?

RM: A portion of the proceeds went to Room to Read, which was suggested by Alexis. It's a great charity which builds schools in countries where they're needed. The world's got a lot of problems and I sure don't have the answers, but there's a great Aristotle quote that's something like, "All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth." So education is as good a place to start as any.

DI: People often ask songwriters, "Which comes first? The music or the words?" Likewise, I wonder: Which comes first for you? The setup/scene or the punchline?

RM: It really goes both ways! A lot of the time, when a comic is inspired by real life, it's the setup that comes first. Someone makes fun of me, and days later I finally come up with a clever retort, and since it's too late to reply I turn that into a comic. But sometimes I have an idea and I work for a while to figure out how to lead up to it. And occasionally, like in comic #77, I draw a picture I like and then try to figure out a comic to go around it.

DI: Because your characters rarely have distinguishing characteristics--one of the things I love about them, btw--when you're writing them, are you thinking: "Oh, this is a gag THIS character would say" rather than "Oh, this is a gag THAT character would say"? Or are the generic-looking characters more or less the same person in your mind?

RM: The generic-looking characters don't have particularly consistent identities, and from looking carefully at comics it's clear there are several of each. But I try to make sure the focus is on the conversation or the activities and not on trying to figure out how the character who's talking fits into previous strips.

DI: What are some of your favorite comics?

RM: I read comics by some of my friends pretty regularly -- among many others, there's Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, by Zach Weiner, Jeph Jacques's Questionable Content, A Softer World by Joey Comeau and Emily Horne, and Cyanide and Happiness, which is by four or eight different very nice guys. A couple of comics I really like have ended -- Men in Hats by Aaron Farber and Minus by Ryan Armand. And one of my favorite comics ended some time ago but restarted -- Buttercup Festival, by David Troupes.

DI: Besides other comics, where do you, er, draw inspiration from?

RM: Arguments with my friends, when we're competing to try to be as clever as possible. That, and my ongoing frustrations trying to get various pieces of software to work properly. The problems I manage to create are notorious for their absurdity -- some of my sysadmin friends spend a lot of time doing double-takes. I frequently hear things like, "how did you manage to break that?"

DI: If you could sit down and have lunch with any comic strip character in history, who would it be and what would you want to know?

RM: If we're limited specifically to comic strips, I think lunch with Huey from The Boondocks would be a lot of fun. We could be angry, nerdy, and self-righteous about things for a while, and then heckle politicians and bad movies together. But if we can broaden the constraints slightly, I'd pick Wile E. Coyote; I desperately want to give him a tutorial on basic engineering and physics vis-a-vis Roadrunner-catching.

Win a copy of the new xkcd book!

Here's how:

Mosey on over to the xkcd store. Poke around! Then, find the missing word in this tagline: A webstore of romance, sarcasm, ____ and language.

Next, head over Breadpig's blog. Answer the questions you find there and send your answers, along with the missing word from the tagline, to: AnotherAwesomeMFContest@gmail.com.

Everyone with the right answers is automatically entered into a drawing for the book. It's that simple.

Creatively Speaking: MeetingBoy

Read on to win a new Meeting Boy wall calendar!

We have a nice interview/contest today with someone you need to know about if you don't already. PC World named him one of the 10 Funniest People On Twitter. Like Racer X, no one really knows who MeetingBoy is, but whoever is behind this madness is one hilarious, talented fella. Tweeting out quips and one-liners, he's amassed close to 80,000 followers on Twitter as @MeetingBoy. I first got to know him (well, as much as you can know a masked-man) after he re-tweeted a Twaggie (illustrated tweet) we did off one of his tweets over on my start-up, www.twaggies.com.

Then one day, MeetingBoy asked me if I'd like to give away one of his new MeetingBoy wall calendars in a contest. I said sure, under one condition: he do the following interview. So read the interview and follow the contest rules at the bottom of this post. We'll pick one tweet/comment at random and send you the calendar in time for Christmas! Good luck!

DI: First of all, where do you take your meetings? Tell us about your day job.

MB: I work in a glass & steel high rise in New York with lots of lazy idiots. The managers spout buzzwords to impress each other, and my boss is a clueless, bullying hypocrite more concerned with covering his own ass than getting things done. Does that narrow it down?

I am stuck in 3-5 meetings a day, so if there’s a way to waste someone’s time, I’ve seen it. And I’m sick of it. I must have really bad karma to deserve this. I must have been something truly awful in a former life, like maybe a manager or CEO.

@MeetingBoy: 125 PowerPoint slides? Well, I hope you're not presenting a case for how efficient our department is.

@MeetingBoy: Definition of insanity: holding the same meeting with the same people every week and expecting different results.

@MeetingBoy: Four meetings today. And then later, no doubt, a meeting with my boss about how I'm not getting anything done.

@MeetingBoy: I'm confused by this article about Bernie Madoff. I thought "white collar prison" was just a euphemism for my office.

@MeetingBoy: 7 hour conference call, though my lawyer says I'll be paroled in 6 with good behavior.

DI: How’d all this Meeting Boy stuff get started? Walk us through the early days.

MB: Since my biggest pet peeve in meetings is people who ramble on and on, Twitter was the right place for me to vent. The forced brevity was just right. If only I could force the people who write PowerPoint presentations to stick to 140 characters instead of 140 slides!

I’d been on Twitter before, but mentions of work had become a problem once people knew I was tweeting and started following me in the office. After I got a new boss last year, I created the MeetingBoy account so I would stop hearing about it. Since then I only tweet under my own name after hours.

@MeetingBoy: I'm married to my job. I don't love it. It was a shotgun wedding; I had knocked up my credit cards with all sorts of debt.

Early on as MeetingBoy, I was getting positive responses. People identified with my complaints-- in fact the most common response to MeetingBoy is “do you work at my company?”

Of course I hate buzzwords, and so many of my rants result from sitting through an hour of them. The word I hate the most is “robust”:

@MeetingBoy: At the end of the day I think we can all agree how tired the phrase "at the end of the day" is.

@MeetingBoy: When the revolution comes, I'm shooting everyone who says "robust". Well, except the coffee roasters.

DI: When did your first little break happen?

MB: Last October, PC World named me as one of the 10 Funniest People On Twitter. My following increased dramatically as a result. This was a huge surprise to me. I had no idea I had broken out of the Favstar community of internet jokers. After that my friends who weren’t on Twitter insisted I start cross-posting my material to Facebook and MeetingBoy.com so they could follow along too.

DI: And then your big break?

MB: Earlier this year someone at Twitter added me to their Suggested Users - Funny list. I was pretty excited; after all, as my friend said, “It sure beats being on the Suggested Users - Not Funny list.”

Though some people would say my “big break” was when I got a boss that didn’t get my sense of humor, forcing me to put more of it on the internet. Speaking of my boss:

@MeetingBoy: We have high expectations for him - he got his MBA in business jargon from Wharton.

@MeetingBoy: You're right. It was wrong of me to question how another layer of paperwork would speed up the process. I apologize.

@MeetingBoy: Hey, everybody! My boss is running a special on poorly thought out, unworkable ideas today. The discount code is YESSIR.

@MeetingBoy: "Dumb it down. Remember, you're presenting it to management."

@MeetingBoy: "I didn't read the executive summary you sent. Can you just put the idea in a few quick sentences and send it to me? Thanks."

@MeetingBoy: New line on my job description: "maintain high morale". Told HR I could do it, but not if my boss keeps trying to motivate me.

@MeetingBoy: My boss is very susceptible to food poisoning. Apparently this occurs when he stays out late drinking.

@MeetingBoy: The boss sent an email at 11:30 "reminding" everyone that he's working from home today. He sent it from his Blackberry.

DI: Did you set out to achieve Internet fame or did the idea sort of take over by itself?

MB: I set out to vent about work in an amusing way, in part because I was so annoyed at how people in the office reacted to my being on Twitter. I certainly had no idea how to get people to write about me or who at Twitter to sweet-talk to get them to recommend me.

Being famous and anonymous is a little odd though. None of the benefits of fame have come my way. I’m not getting a better table at Sparks or celebrity gift bags at the Oscars. And no matter how many followers I have, I’m still stuck in the same meetings every day.

I would like to see a MeetingBoy calendar make an appearance on The Office. Seems like something Jim Halpert would have (though since he gave up his office, I’m not sure where he’d put it). Or maybe Michael Scott because he’s a “cool boss” and none of it applies to him..

DI: Talk about the tweets themselves. Mostly they are things you think up in these meetings every day?

MB: They are responses to things that happen in meetings. Or things I wish I could say. In a few cases I’ve actually said these things. Of course the names have been removed to protect the boring, the rude, the jargon-spewing types, the lazy, the bullies, and the people with “bad grammer”.

@MeetingBoy: I know, I know, but if your idea is so good, why hasn't some VP passed it off as their own yet?

@MeetingBoy: Sorry, I have to leave your meeting. I have something I need to do. I need to not be bored to death.

@MeetingBoy: This PowerPoint needs an art director? Wow! I never thought I'd say this to you, lady, but you're overthinking this.

@MeetingBoy: That email you claim I never sent you? Here it is. Along with your REPLY TO IT.

@MeetingBoy: No, I wasn't playing Devil's Advocate. I really think your idea is stupid.

@MeetingBoy: You are mean, incompetent, and ignorant. Life did not hand you lemons; life handed you CONSEQUENCES.

DI: But other times I see you attributing the tweets to other authors/publishers. How does that work?

MB: Sometimes I see a tweet that I wish I wrote. Other times my followers send me one I missed. Either way, if it’s something I think my audience would appreciate, I share it. After all, I don’t want to be like that guy in my office who thinks the only good ideas are the ones he thinks of.

For example, some of my favorite tweets that someone else wrote are:

@swimparallel: I've recovered from my death sickness. Now I'm back in the office. It feels like a lateral move.

@summersumz: Evaluating data, making conclusions. LIVING THE DREAM!

@kerissmithJA: Your cc list doesn’t scare me. I still refuse to respond to your email.

DI: So now you have this cool wall calendar. How’d that come about?

MB: A friend makes up a calendar with photos of his family, which I dutifully hang in my cube. I thought it would be cool to have a MeetingBoy calendar. I’d hoped to make a 365-page-a-day calendar, which I think would really work for my short quips, but I couldn’t find a way to publish it. So I went with a wall calendar, and asked for illustrators among my followers.

Of course once I had printed the calendar, I realized I couldn’t possibly put the calendar on my desk. I can’t have my boss or coworkers know that I’m MeetingBoy, and it’s probably better if they don’t even know he exists. Clearly I hadn’t thought this through.

I think the calendar makes a great Secret Santa gift. I think coworkers across the English-speaking world would love to get one.

Calendar available for sale online at http://meetingboy.com/calendar

DI: Have you learned any profound lessons going through the self-publishing process?

MB: I’ve learned that self-publishing isn’t very profitable. I’ve been very happy with all the illustrations I got, though paying for them before I sell the calendar has made money tight.

I was going to try to sell them directly myself over the internet, but I couldn’t be sure that my secret identity would be safe. Luckily one of the illustrators owns a comic shop and they agreed to carry it for internet sales.

And I’d still like to make a 365-page-a-day calendar if anyone knows how to go about that.

DI: What’s next for you and what’s your ultimate goal?

MB: Next up I’m starting to do regular illustrated tweets on MeetingBoy.com. Of course I can’t draw, so I’m using some of the same illustrators from the calendar, and any new ones I pick up along the way.

My ultimate goal is to be the boss on The Office after Steve Carrell leaves at the end of this season. Though I would also accept President Obama declaring my birthday, June 23rd, to be a national holiday, maybe National Out-of-the-Office Day. Write your congressman to make it happen.

DI: Will you always hide your true identity Meeting Boy? Or will we one day find out you’re actually Racer X’s older brother?

MB: I can’t reveal my identity without losing my job and potentially risking never working again. After all, who would hire MeetingBoy? A surly, sarcastic person who will mock your every shortcoming on the internet to tens of thousands of people. Even I might balk at hiring that guy. He kind of sounds like a loose cannon.

Okay, contest time! Of all the tweets mentioned in this post, by MeetingBoy or someone else, which would you like to see illustrated on Twaggies.com? RT it with the hashtag #twaggies and we'll pick one of you at random to get the calender. If you're not on Twitter, leave your vote in the comments below. The tweet with the most RTs will also get twagged on twaggies, too!

For my interviews with Jason Alexander, Monty Hall, Mitch Albom, xkcd and more, browse through past Creatively Speaking archives here >>

A chat with Jeff Garlin

Jeff Garlin co-stars and executive produces the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. The unique comedy, which is one of the rare television shows to become part of the national zeitgeist, stars Seinfeld creator Larry David, with Garlin portraying his loyal manager. Born and raised in Chicago and then South Florida, Garlin studied filmmaking and began performing stand-up comedy while at the University of Miami. He has toured the country as a stand-up comedian, is an alumnus of Chicago's Second City Theatre, and has written and starred in three critically acclaimed solo shows. I was fortunate enough to get this interview with him when he spoke at an event a charity I work with produced.

DI: Which do you prefer: writing, directing, or producing?

JG: I prefer to direct what I write.

DI: If you were to retire, what would you do with your time?

JG: Nap and eat puddin'.

DI: What's your favorite food?

JG: Puddin'.

DI: Of all the comedians and actors you've worked with over the years, who has been the most enjoyable.

JG: Larry David.

DI: Is Larry David as obnoxious in real life as he is on the show?

JG: See my answer above.

DI: What's the biggest difference between Chicago and L.A.?

JG: Human contact. In Chicago you get it on a regular basis.

DI: What's one of your favorite films?

JG: Sullivan's Travels by Preston Sturges.

DI: If you could have lunch with anyone deceased, who would it be?

JG: My grandfather Harold.

DI: Who's your idol?

JG: My wife.

DI: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

JG: A comedian.

DI: Where do you like to go to unwind when you're not working?

JG: Wherever my wife tells me.

DI: If you could change one thing about Hollywood, what would it be?

JG: The street names.

DI: Shakespeare wrote: "Brevity is the soul of wit." What do you think the essence of comedy is?

JG: A plate of fresh cornbread.

DI: I heard you studied law in college and almost graduated before deciding to pursue a career in comedy. Do you think you would have been a good lawyer?

JG: That's on Wikepedia.com and it's not true. I studied film.

DI: What's more difficult: performing stand-up comedy before a live audience or performing on camera?

JG: Actually, my personal life is harder.

DI: Do you own an iPod? If so, what's the most unusual music you've got on it?

JG: Chin Ho soundbites from Hawaii Five-0.

DI: Who is the funniest comedian of all-time?

JG: Jack Benny.


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