‘Start’ Laughing with Writer Gary Janetti
The humor essay is an art form, which was perfected by queer writers like David Sedaris and the late David Rakoff. It’s a style of prose that can be both entertaining and enlightening.
Gary Janetti is another gay writer who knows well the benefits of laughter. As the producer and writer of queer sitcoms including Will & Grace and Vicious, Janetti was good at tickling our fun bones. This ability also carries over to the page for Start Without Me (I’ll Be There in a Minute) (Holt, 2022), a collection of 18 related essays that follow Janetti from his teens in his 20s to the present day. , all while providing multiple opportunities to laugh out loud.
Gregg Shapiro: Gary, I’d like to start the interview by asking you to say something about your fondness for parentheses, starting with the one in your book title and continuing through the 18 essays.
Gary Janetti: I guess it’s a device that works for me, that allows me to do asides. It’s like speaking to the public, if you will. It kind of lets you off the hook and get even more personal or a bit more conversational. But I do not know why. I just started doing this and it works for me.
The majority of essays take readers into your past. Were you a newspaper keeper or do you rely on your memory to write about the events of that time?
No, I never kept a diary. I think someone once gave me a journal when I was in college, and I wrote in it the day I got it. “I’m going to write in it every day for the rest of my life!” And that was the last time I wrote there. I rely on my memory.
Regarding your writing process, when it comes to creating essays, are they created through writing prompts or inspiration, or a combination of both?
There are things that have stayed with me from my past. I feel like if they stayed with me, they stayed with me for a reason. So maybe I just jot down as a few words what those things are that are still present in me. And then I just start writing and let it be whatever it wants to be. Usually I can find some kind of connection to something else, a reason why it’s something that has stuck with me. But I allow it to happen almost by being conscious.
Do the essays in the book appear in the order in which they were written?
They do. I thought after I finished, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep them in that order. But I guess I had an instinct that hopefully they would stay in that order because they felt like that was the order they wanted to be in.
It actually reads organically, so yeah, that makes sense. Speaking of order, Start Without Me opens with the essay “The Carol Burnett Show,” in which you talk about not telling her how much of an influence she was on you when you met her. Anyway, do you think you could try to get him a copy of your book?
[Laughs] It’s a good question. And the answer is yes. Yes, I will, definitely.
Public access television host and superstar Robin Byrd is also mentioned in the “J’s” essay. Are you going to send him a copy of your book?
I hadn’t thought of that, Gregg. But now that you’ve mentioned it, why not? Do you know The Robyn Byrd Show?
Yes of course. I didn’t live in New York. But my friend Denise, who lived in New York, once sent me a VHS tape that she had made of it.
Yeah, it’s so specific. This was our Watch What Happens Live [laughs]!
Well, with a whole lot more including stripping and nudity.
It was like there was something very sweet about it, even though she was interviewing pornstars. Not that one is exclusive of the other. But there was that kind of “Let’s put on a show” charm that, looking back now, I’m like, “Awww.”
“Awww”, that’s perfect. In the essay “Teaching Ten Little Fingers to Play” you write about the song “Hard Candy Christmas” from the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Would you like to share your thoughts on renditions of this song performed by Dolly Parton in the movie and/or RuPaul’s rendition of her 1997 Holiday album?
Oh, I didn’t know RuPaul had an interpretation. I’ll have to listen to this. I obviously love Dolly’s interpretation. But, at the time, it was before the movie, so what I was listening to and obsessing over was the original cast recording. There was no film at that time. Also, just the sheet music. I liked the song so much [laughs]. I didn’t realize how inappropriate it was for a 12 or 13 year old. But at the same time, incredibly appropriate.
In the “Pen Pals” essay, you write about your tense experience in Long Beach, California, and even go so far as to say that the Golden State is not for you. However, you now live in Los Angeles. How has California changed for you?
I think I’m a little freaky when I say that. But that initial journey, when I was 20 or 21, wasn’t what I imagined in my head, just like most things aren’t. I conjured up something incredibly magical and television-like and it was just kind of lonely and upsetting; it wasn’t that anymore. But I’ve always been kinda drawn to LA watching it on TV [laughs]. It looked so fabulous.
While most of the essays have a strong comedic element, there are also some serious moments, like in the “Grandma” essay where you hear the story of the grandmother you never knew defending the nephew of one of his neighbours. How do you approach a serious subject compared to a humorous subject?
Trying not to think about it too much; trying to be honest as best I could; just trying to write exactly how I felt. I think that’s all. I didn’t really approach it differently. I allowed myself not to worry about having to be funny.
It takes the pressure off.
Yeah. I was like, I’m not going to worry about having to be funny and having to be smart or having to crack a joke or find a way. If anything happens, that’s how I feel writing this, and what I have to say is organic, it’s okay. But I’m not going to worry with some of them whether they’re funny or not. I hope the audience will be there, whatever.
A few times in the book you refer to things from your past, followed by the comment “I still have mine”. Would you say you are a packrat?
No the opposite. In fact, I only said “I still have mine” for two things. One is the card that gives me free access to the Roxy. So it’s in a shoebox. The other is the key ring they gave us when we went to the last performance of the original Broadway series of A Chorus Line. It’s a ticket-shaped keychain. I have it in the same shoebox where the map is. So literally I have a shoebox, maybe. The other things that I said I don’t have yet, like the Star Wars schedule or my high school yearbook or things like that. I am the opposite of a pack rat. I get rid of everything.
So basically anything that can fit in a shoebox stays.
Yeah, I literally have a shoebox [laughs]. I feel like I’m accumulating mostly books. I read a lot and I have a lot of books. I like books. I have books in boxes that I donated and give and keep and everything. But that’s all.
The “Start Address” and “Trip Advisor Review” essays are in a different voice than the others.
In the previous book I wrote, Do You Mind If I Cancel?, I did the same thing. There are a few tries that stick out a bit. It’s just a little play with the form. And it’s also a way of saying two things at once.
With the “Launch Speech” it’s very much about going over all the things that I thought were so important at the time that weren’t really going to affect my life or probably not life of most people after they graduate from college. Still, there are some very basic things that are important that you don’t even think about, like not being an asshole. These are simpler things to remember, and have served me well. It was a way of saying something in a different way.
It’s the same with the “Trip Advisor Review”, because I’m obsessed with travel. I have kind of OCD qualities about how I like things to be. I read tons of reviews on Trip Advisor before going to anything. I thought it would be a way to play with this shape, but then I’d see if there was anything I could say about what it’s like to travel and maybe why I get so obsessed with things and what happens below.
Maybe there was a way to do it in a different format. That’s why I like to play with other ways of telling a story.
Your husband Brad Goreski appears in the “Destination Weddings” essay. How do you negotiate writing about him – for example, does he have to approve of how he’s portrayed?
No no not at all. He just read it. He probably read it around the same time you read it. There is nothing to negotiate. I could write whatever I wanted. He appeared in the first book, I think, a little more than he appears in this book. In fact, I thought he might show up more here.
What I write is mostly about a time long before him, but I’m watching it from now on, so he’s part of it. He trust me. He doesn’t read anything until it’s literally done. That’s how I am. I don’t like people except my editor (who reads it). I just prefer to do it.
Start without me: (I’ll be there in a minute), by Gary Janetti Holt. $28.
Gary Janetti will read and sign his books in San Francisco at Book Passage on April 30 at 2 p.m., SF Ferry Bldg., Embarcadero at Market. www.bookpassage.com
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