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An Interview with Samantha Irby

This phrase captures her own self-deprecating humor and is a testament to her witty personality. When she is not writing her daily recaps of_Judge Mathis _for her newsletter subscribers, she is creating sarcastic and referential essays about the intricacies of modern life.

Irby’s writing displays the characteristics of both generations which she belongs to. She was born in 1980 in Evanston, Illinois and her writing style is agile and reminiscent of the old-school Chicago stepping, as well as being full of the lingo of the internet-savvy millennials.

Reading her books is like finding a time capsule of Web 2.0 buried in an abandoned Meetup site. Her essays convey the realness of a LiveJournal, the wit of Twitter, and the inside allusions of old online communities like BlackPlanet.

The career of self-proclaimed “internet joke person” Irby as a writer began online. She initially used Myspace for blogging to make an impression on a guy she liked and then moved on to her own blog, _Bitches Gotta Eat , in 2009.

Her three full-length books, all essay collections, reflect the emotions and irony of the present day in their titles.

Her first publication, Meaty, from 2013, refers to the physical pleasures and difficulties of the 21st century. Her second collection, 2017’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. , explores the difficulties of online interactions and the demands that come with her newfound fame as a writer.

In her writings, one can find comical accounts of her bad dating life as well as heartbreaking memories of her late father who, as Irby writes, “would soak a loaf of bread with shoe polish and drink whatever he could filter through the loaf into a glass.”

Wow, No Thank You. , which she devoted to Wellbutrin, an antidepressant, immediately alludes to someone who is “over it” – an irony, given that Irby’s writing has become increasingly popular in recent years._

Irby is everywhere nowadays: she made an appearance in Time Magazine’s profile of 2019’s “Entertainer of the Year” Lizzo, her chic style is featured in Warby Parker’s ads on YouTube and Instagram, and her name is in the credits of a popular web series.

In 2019, the first season of the Hulu adaptation of Lindy West’s memoir Shrill was released, and the episode Irby wrote, “Pool,” which follows a writer’s inner conflicts when documenting a pool party for fat femmes, was particularly well-received.

Moreover, Irby is still involved in television – a show based on Meaty is currently in the works at Comedy Central.

When I had my call with Irby in December 2019, the topics of her writing surfaced: modern ambivalence, self-parody, and body philosophy.

It was three in the afternoon and she was in a weird place in the day where it feels like it’s done but still has hours left. She was in her house in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her wife and her wife’s children (she has stated her opposition to being called a parent or stepparent).

She was looking for a snack and she suddenly remembered our scheduled call and grabbed someone’s earbuds, pointing out the earwax mixture. She had to wake her wife’s kids by 4:30, but she was willing to talk until then.

We covered various topics, from copyediting to club literature to Crohn’s disease. I laughed more than anticipated, with cackles and honks. Of course I did, she’s hilarious.

_ –Niela Orr, a proponent of the idea that words have power_

Niela Orr firmly believes that the power of words is great. She stands by the notion that the language we use can be potent and impactful.

I. READY TO GO

Ensuring that the area is tidy and orderly is the first step to take before beginning. Preparing the spot so that it is fit to use is necessary.

THE BELIEVER: There are numerous punk memoirs, but comparatively few about club culture. Your experiences as a club kid are a common motif in your work.

Your pieces, in tandem with those from Zadie Smith and Jia Tolentino, appear to be the seeds of a new type of memoir concerning club culture. Why is club culture not given the same appreciation as punk rock in literature?

SAMANTHA IRBY: Punk has an aura of being edgy, and this is something many people aim to be. But, back in the days when I used to go clubbing, I was never into the idea of moshing or getting hurt in any way.

It’s seen as cooler to say “I went to this club and got my teeth busted out” than “I went to this club, desperate to find someone to go home with, and danced with a lot people while listening to Jon B.”.

Additionally, mainstream culture isn’t interested in “the mating rituals of young Black people in the early-to-mid-2000s”.

Furthermore, it’s the cheesiness of the time period, with guys wearing structured button-downs and sunglasses inside at night, that turns people off. I, on the other hand, prefer to be clean and seated. [ Laughter ]

BLVR: People don’t generally find it thrilling to be informed of feeling a man’s erection through his loose-fitting jeans. The general thought is that it is not as exciting as being at a mosh pit and hearing the Dead Kennedys.

SI: Absolutely! I’m curious to hear how many guys hit on you while Mad Cobra’s “Flex” was playing. [ Laughter ] I’d love to revive the conversation about the club scene.

I’m about to turn forty, so I don’t know if I can still fully engage in clubbing, but I’d really like to move on to the more “mature” type of clubbing, like the stepper set, getting dressed up nicely but going to a club and listening to Al Jarreau and Frankie Beverly and Maze.

I’m prepared to look back on those years, but the recollections I have of being in those dark and humid places full of music and possibility are so fond.

It’s something that many people my age can relate to. Before the internet, if you wanted a date or a romantic encounter, you had to go to a club.

Those memories are so pleasant to me now, but at the time, it felt like a huge ordeal with great gravity. I’m surprised that no one speaks about it, but I’m totally into it.

BLVR: I absolutely concur that club culture is negatively viewed due to its link to people of color and the LGBTQ community.

That leads me to the topic of address. You initially wrote on Myspace, created a blog, and now have published various books. Considering your roots in the online world, does the transition to printed books modify the way you craft your writing?

SI: My initial reaction is to say no. When I look back, I believe my writing has improved in general. Not to boast too much…

BLVR: I urge you to do it!

SI: To put it simply, I’ve grown as an author, or storyteller, since my first two books. I can’t translate all the techniques I use on my blog to book writing. I can’t write in all-caps, bold font, jump paragraphs, and make lists all in a book.

The essays I write about my late parents are more tender; they don’t have all the vomit-like writing of my blog.

When I write for a big, well-known place, I try to make it more sophisticated. But for my books, since it’s all me, I’m not thinking about making it sound great; I’m trying to make myself laugh. I need to talk to my readers, not put on a fancy tone.

II. THE WISEMAN BEHIND THE McDONALD’S DRIVE-THRU

BLVR: The other day, I was perusing your Lizzo profile and noticed that you described yourself as a “lifelong pessimist” who “denies positivity.” Is being pessimistic more entertaining or captivating than being optimistic? Does pessimism simply come naturally to you?

SI: My tough upbringing taught me to prepare for the worst and be thankful when something good happens. Every time I went in with high hopes, nothing came out of it. I find it helpful to keep my expectations low.

We were destitute in comparison to everyone else and I thought it was risky to believe that something good would happen to me. Being pessimistic, I get to enjoy the positive surprises and I’m able to turn a bad situation into something humorous. It’s something I’m grateful for.

BLVR: I understand what you mean. I experienced some difficult times in my early years. My dad passed away when I was a child, and my mom had to raise my brother and me alone. She had to work, which meant we spent a lot of time in the house.

This led to me watching way too much of shows like BET, VH1, and MTV. I got into reality TV and this kind of stuff because of the amount of time I had to spend in the house.

I don’t think I would have developed an interest in reading and analyzing pop culture if I hadn’t been stuck inside so much.

SI: I completely understand. My mother had multiple sclerosis and was unable to leave home, so I stayed with her and read a lot.

From the Harlequin Romance-of-the-month club to Stephen King books and Sweet Valley Twins and Highs, I read whatever I could get my hands on. I was an indoor person who liked sitting still and that, combined with the fact that my mom couldn’t play outside with me, made me read even more.

Reading so much is probably why I have any writing ability in me today, since I never left the house unless it was to go to school. [ Laughs ]

BLVR: Did reading titles such as those found in Harlequin Romances, Stephen King novels, and Sweet Valley High have an influence on your reading style?

SI: I would much rather read a John Grisham or James Patterson-style novel like Gone Girl than put myself through the laborious task of reading literature.

That’s why I don’t continue my education, because I don’t want to suffer through something that’s too difficult for me to comprehend.

I believe Harlequins formed my reading sense by teaching me that a quick and entertaining book is more enjoyable than struggling through something that’s hard to understand.

BLVR: Is there any particular work or material you encountered during your college studies that you felt was too hard to comprehend or that seemed intentionally complicated?

SI: My parents weren’t the type to emphasize attending college, so I decided to leave school after they both passed away.

Furthermore, college life wasn’t really my thing, since I didn’t want to get drunk and lose control. I also wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with a degree, and didn’t want to rack up a massive debt on something I wasn’t passionate about. Instead, I decided to get a job and take care of myself.

Even now, I would rather do anything else than get a college degree; I wouldn’t mind bagging groceries or pushing a broom. I sometimes wish I had learned how to do hair instead.

It would not be an ill-advised move if it is something you are passionate about. At age seventeen or eighteen, if that is your calling, then it is worth pursuing. In my case, it was just a way of joining the others in my high school who had already decided their paths.

I did not have any plans, so I thought I should go too. After high school, I had a series of jobs, none of which were related to writing. I had written some in high school, but schooling does not make you a writer.

It is meant to give you a way to make money. I had no support system, no one to assure me that I would have a warm bed and hot shower upon my return. Both my parents passed away, leaving me to make something of myself. So, I got a job and stopped reading philosophy books.

III. It was not until a few moments prior to the appointed time that I remembered about the interview.

BLVR: In the introductory essay of Wow, No Thank You., you lampoon the style of the contemporary profile.

As I read your Time cover story about Lizzo, I was reminded of this particular essay; the enthusiasm for your subject was clearly evident, even though you have been known to take a wry attitude toward the profile genre in your other works.

Do you often find yourself carrying out activities that you deride in your writing?

SI: Absolutely. There are times when it cannot be helped. I’m always cautious when I’m poking fun at various topics.

I prefer to joke about institutions rather than individuals and I’m usually the main target of my jokes. I’m also aware of the fact that there could be a reason why I’m mocking certain things, so I try to avoid doing the same things that I would make fun of.

But when it came to the Lizzo thing, I was getting a byline in Time magazine so I had to do it. I don’t usually enjoy travelling or other activities, but they allowed me to do it my own way.

I didn’t want to ask the usual questions so I asked what I really wanted to know. I told the editor that I’m not a journalist, so I don’t understand the journalistic rules.

As long as I could get written assurance that I don’t have to write a highbrow journalistic piece, then I agreed to do it. I don’t usually do what I make fun of because I’m already full of shame and I don’t need to add more. [ Laughs ] I try to avoid it.

BLVR: The opening essay in your book has a hint of the writing style used in celebrity profiles. You often use satire in your work by making lists about things such as wellness plans, getting ready for a night out, and recipes. What is it about rituals and lists that you find so comical?

SI: I always wish I was the kind of person who could plan ahead and be organized, but I’m far from it. Just before our call, I was in the kitchen, panicked, looking for my phone.

I’m not even wearing headphones that are mine, so I’m getting someone else’s earwax in my ear. It seems as though being tidy and organized are essential parts of being a good person, something that is drilled into us from kindergarten.

I really want to be punctual and remember important events, but I can’t seem to make it happen.

I’m not the most organized person, but I’m quite interested in the routines and rituals of those who are. My wife, for example, has a certain pattern that she follows daily, from the mug she drinks her tea from to the spot she leaves her shoes.

On the other hand, I feel like I’m always coming into a new place, never really sure of where my belongings are or what I should be doing. Joking about the habits of the more ordered people is a way to make myself, and others, feel better about not having the same structured lifestyle.

Lists also help me out in that way, providing an easier way to get my thoughts down when I can’t connect them together in a story. It’s a great tool I use to speed up the story and make it more concise.

BLVR: One thing that is common across your pieces–particularly the lists–is your storytelling of not having the desire to do something. You write about the happiness that comes with staying indoors, declining requests, saying no, not attending gatherings, and sleeping in. Why is there a joy in not participating?

SI: I used to be scared of missing out on something that was supposedly great, but eventually I realized that those other people weren’t really having any more fun than I was. It’s like a switch flipped and I stopped caring.

Being a pessimist helps too – if I imagine the worst, it’s clear that I’m better off not going. For example, if I go to a party in the snow, I’m going to have to wear boots and drive my car. That’s not fun – and what if it’s too crowded or there are people there that I don’t like? It’s just easier to stay home.

IV. NEGATIVE ATTITUDE TOWARDS THE BODY

BLVR: In Wow, No Thank You., you have a quote that reads: “Sure, sex is fun, but have you ever watched a television program then read no fewer than six think pieces about it to make sure you understood what you just watched?”

You had the chance to craft the “Pool” episode from Hulu’s Shrill, which has been one of the most acclaimed TV episodes of the year 2019–

SI: I really thought I should have been granted an Emmy. I’m not sure why it didn’t happen.

BLVR: [ Laughs ] After the episode aired, did you look at the responses and did they alter your perception of the episode, even though it was written by you?

SI: For my books and such, I’m not one to check out reviews, be it on Goodreads, Amazon, or even real reviews.

Even if I get a five-star review, there’s always something that will get stuck in my head that I can’t do anything about, which is the most painful thing. It’s like, I can’t alter it if twenty thousand copies have already been printed.

I was a bit less worried about the response to the show since it wasn’t my own production; it wasn’t based on my book. [ Laughs ] So I felt more calm when reading the reviews.

My wife typically reads the reviews first, and if they’re not taking hidden jabs at me, I read them too. I was so pleased with what I read, but I was surprised to hear that it made people cry.

I knew that fat people would think it was great, and that we featured people of all sizes, including size twenty-two and thirty-two in bathing suits – something rarely seen on TV. I knew some people wouldn’t be so happy with that, but that’s their problem.

I was taken aback by the sheer number of people who reached out, saying things like, “I was overcome with emotion during the final speech” or “My non-plus-size friends finally understand now”.

The direct messages I received were overwhelmingly satisfying. Women of size were ecstatic to see themselves represented in a positive way on a major streaming platform, instead of being tucked away in a corner of the internet, so proud and visible.

I was pleasantly surprised to read the reviews in the New York Times, but the ones that really touched me were from people who related to seeing a fat girl in a pool floaty, and those meant a lot to me.

BLVR: The opening line of “Body Negativity” in the book is quite powerful: “I have been stuck with a physical form that I never requested and am continually bombarded with conflicting, intense instructions regarding how to nurture and nourish it.”

In this period of improvement and the quantifiable self, body negativity appears to be a reasonable yet compassionate notion that recognizes the restrictions of our bodies.

Is body negativity a perspective you find yourself taking more often, and is it a progressive stance? I think some individuals may mix up body negativity with body shaming, and there appears to be a difference between those two concepts.

SI: Writing this was certainly an interesting experience. I was expecting that someone who had no clue what I was trying to do might give me some attitude, but if they take the time to read it, they’d understand.

I’m aware that the title might be a bit too provocative, so I want to make clear that when I talk about my body, I’m not talking about weight. I’ve been living with a bigger body type since I can remember and I know how to dress and move it.

However, I have had to deal with a lot of health issues for a long time, such as Crohn’s disease, bad joints and I even recently had jaw surgery because my teeth are deteriorating.

I have never had a body that works the way it’s supposed to. And I don’t think it’s wrong to express my disappointment about it.

Those whose bodies work properly can say that we should be content with whatever we have, but it is okay for those of us who have to carry around physical challenges to be able to complain.

People always tell us to be positive and accept ourselves, but no one really talks about how many strenuous tasks we need to do to make sure our bodies are in their best condition, no matter what shape or size they may be.

So I thought, how can I express this without doing any research, since that’s something I’m not too keen on. I came up with the idea of talking about all the things you’re expected to do to keep your body in top shape, starting from the scalp.

My scalp needs to be moisturized but at the same time dry, without dandruff. It must have a full head of hair, preferably in its original color, though if not, a dye should be used. My nose can’t have any hair or blackheads.

Take a step-by-step look at yourself and think about what your nails, teeth, and earlobes should look like. It is an almost impossible challenge for someone whose job is to look good.

Trying to have perfect nail beds, get all the calcium and folic acid, and have pedicured feet is too much. I wanted to point out the absurdity of it all in a humorous way and to talk about the unrealistic standards we’re expected to meet.

It’s not up to you if you don’t have smooth skin or drink twelve glasses of water a day. I’m here to support you if you don’t follow those rules. It’s impossible to do everything that you see in the media and have a good life.

My essay ended with something like, “I need seven stomachs to digest all the spinach and beans I need to be eating a day.”

BLVR: How do you differentiate between your identity as an “internet joke person” and a comedy writer/comedian?

SI: I am uncomfortable being called a “comedian” because I have never done stand-up, and don’t feel like I can live up to that title. I don’t think I can be called an “essayist” either, because that tends to bring to mind Joan Didion.

I do, however, think “internet joke person” is an appropriate description of what I do. I make jokes and post them online, and sometimes those jokes get published in books.

However, I don’t write for Seinfeld , so “comedy writer” isn’t quite accurate either. If I could choose, my title would be “joke person”. That title encompasses both my work and who I am as a person. I’m simply a collection of jokes, and that’s what I would want on my tombstone, if I had my way.

BLVR: No way, let’s not end this conversation that way! [ Laughter ]

I: Well, I felt obligated to make it more unfavorable. It was getting too carefree and I felt the need to put a damper on it.

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