Monday, September 10, 2012

Interview: John Cheese

Pretty much all the readers of this blog come from Pointless Waste of Time, the forums at, so no doubt John Cheese needs no introduction. However, since he insisted on drawing up a legal document before this interview began, I am now contractually obligated to write one.

Mack Leighty was born, like so many great men before him, in a log cabin that he built with his own hands. Then, like Jesus (and Shakespeare!), his childhood years are lost in a fog of mystery, until we finally catch up with him joining his best friend David Wong to write for Wong's website Pointless Waste of Time, writing articles as John Cheese (also like Shakespeare!). This incarnation of John Cheese was a little different than the John Cheese his newer readers might know and fear today. John then started the website Juvenile Comedy after an argument with Wong over whether or not to spend the ridiculous amount of money they'd accumulated on illegal mongooses or a nice set of Wedgwood china.

They had completely forgotten about the Xbox 360.

John Cheese later became a regular article writer, and then a columnist, at Cracked, while also gaining a permanent layout job behind the scenes and offering his services to the Editorial team as a contract killer.

He usually does all three jobs without pants. (Again, like Shakespeare. The parallels are downright spooky.)

I had the contractually-obligated pleasure of sitting down and talking with John a few days ago, and managed to get a fairly professional interview. We discussed his early work; his opinion on the old media vs. new media issue; his friendship with David Wong, the man who made the FBI's Top Ten Most Wanted Criminals list famous once he was added to it; John's upcoming marriage; giving him one good reason not to kill me where I stood; why he was holding a knife; me not being a hired assassin, really, John, I swear, I've never even heard of the League of Squancho; and which was the quickest way to get to the hospital.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  * 

I arrived at the restaurant ten minutes early, eager to begin.

As I waited for John to show up, I looked over my notes once more, steeling myself for the most important and so far only interview for a blog that I need to pay more attention to.

He entered the restaurant and I tried to catch his eye, but the hostess had begun talking to him and so his attention was routed to her. Their exchange lasted an unusually long amount of time, and when it was over her eyes were different colors and he had somehow exchanged his necktie for a bow tie that closer inspection would prove to be made of construction paper.

He sat down, de-napkined his silverware, and spent a moment glaring at it. When he had finished, he looked up at me expectantly.

I started with the most important question.

"Did you manage to see where the restrooms are?"

He pointed me in a direction that was somewhat correct, and when I returned from my adventure, I discovered that John had already ordered for both of us, and that he'd already eaten the food he had ordered for me.

I sat back down at the table and cleared my throat. John settled himself into an attentive pose.

Suddenly I realized that somewhere on the way back to my chair I had become extremely tense. I clutched my legal pad like a life preserver and felt my panic-freeze sweat soften its edges. I looked up to this man. Not, like, in a Martin Luther King, Jr. way, where you idolize him for a world-changing achievement--

(his mustache)

--but more in the way where I thought he was cool and wanted him to think I'm cool, too.

I decided to launch into my first question before I could think about all the ways I might end up disappointing him.

Nimby: How do you think your writing style has changed over the years?

John Cheese: When I first started out on the net back in 1997, all of my writing was based on the surreal. I used to set up innocent sounding, fictional situations and then make them progressively more corrupt and bizarre as the article went along. Since it was all character based, I could take an article like that anywhere I wanted. There was no research. No facts. Just silliness.

Not long before I came to Cracked, there was a transitional phase where I mixed reality with surreality. For instance, I'd write about finding a new girlfriend, but during the course of the article, I'd have it break down into a ninja type of fight, complete with back flips and ridiculousness.

Now, I've stripped out the fiction completely. There is no character. And it turns out that the reality-based articles that have a personal touch pull an absolutely insane amount of traffic. People want to read something they can relate to--and though my old fiction pieces had value on a comedy level, they never had the support and following like my Cracked pieces.

I was jittery. I was also still perspiring, dampening everything around me. It didn't help that the restaurant had turned up the heat. I figured it was so I'd order more water, but that seemed stupid, because water was free. Oh God, my mind was wandering. I couldn't think of my next question; thank goodness I'd written them all down. I glanced at the legal pad resting in my lap.

There was so much sweat blotting out the words that it was obvious my body had figured that if it was going to lock up in panic, it would go all out.

I began trying to take deep breaths without looking like I was taking deep breaths. Excluding my slightly desperate inhaling and exhaling, a long silence draped over the table. It was like being in a skyscraper elevator full of strangers.

All I could think of was that this was like writer's block.

Writer's block. Question Seven had been about writer's block!

Nimby: I've found that writer's block is one of those vague complaints that receives diverse advice reminiscent of old wives' tales and homegrown remedies. I've heard everything from "take a walk" to "put your tongue to the roof of your mouth" to "apply pressure and elevate," although on second thought that last one might be for ice cream headaches. What do you do to alleviate writer's block?

John: Do any mindless activity you can find. For me, that's doing housework. You hear about writers keeping a notepad with them so that when an idea springs up, they can jot it down right away before they forget it. And those ideas always spring up at the weirdest times. When they're driving, or in line at the bank, or taking a crap. The reason those ideas spring up at those times is because they're doing something mindless, and the mind's natural reaction is to wander. It tries to keep busy, so it starts firing off random thoughts and ideas.

If I feel myself staring at a monitor for too long without being able to start typing words, I start doing dishes instead, and just let my mind wander. Before I know it, I'm bouncing back and forth between chores and jotting down ideas. For me, it works every time.

I'd hoped that while he was answering the question I would have remembered the others. I had not.

My brain started to generate worst-case scenarios, as it often does when I meet people whose opinions I respect (Roger Ebert, David McCullough, Atticus Finch, Dick Van Dyke, Mr. Rogers). Anyone who's ever had the opportunity to say more to a personal hero than "I'm a big fan of your work" knows what I mean. The mind needs something to do while the mouth is busy trying to stop not talking.

What if I say something stupid? What if I say something offensive? What if he says something offensive? What if the restaurant kicks us out? (I worried that this question was not as hypothetical as the others.) What if the restaurant is knocked over by a mob of tommy-gun-wielding sharks?

You scoffed, but isn't this image terrifying?

John picked up his water and stared at me, slowly sipping through the straw.

"I'm a big fan of your work," I said.

John picked up one of his two milkshakes and stared at me, slowly sipping through the straw.

There was no clock in the room, but I could hear it ticking. I suppose it could have been a heart beating under the floorboards, but if it was, it wasn't one I'd put there.

I realized that interviewing him as myself wasn't really working--I was too nervous--so I decided to change tack and interview him as Brian Williams.

Brian Williams: What piece of writing do you consider your best or most important?

John: "Five Reasons Life Actually Does Get Better." I had written a burst of fairly dark articles leading up to that, and I felt that I really needed to let people know that although we all have to deal with some pretty terrible things in life, we're not all doomed. That it's not all gray and glum and depressing. The response to that article was incredible.

I nodded sagely, which was one of the advantages of being Brian Williams.

Brian: Is there any particular thing (or things) that you think has influenced or affected your writing?

John: Age is a big one. I've matured a lot in the last five years, and I let that show in my articles. I think it's incredibly important for a writer to continually change not only the type of material he writes, but the style and tone as well. If you get stuck doing the same thing for too long, it's easy to not only burn yourself out, but you'll burn out your fans as well. And that is death to a writer.

Booze is another, which is pretty obvious to anyone who regularly reads my stuff. When I was drinking, all of my articles were done in a single sitting, and it rarely took more than an hour to complete one. When you compare those old articles to my new ones, where I've taken days to organize and do the research... it's night and day. And what made the difference was putting down the bottle and turning that addictive side of my personality towards writing.

Brian: You wrote, if I'm remembering correctly, about twenty pages of a companion novel to John Dies at the End called David Wong is Fat and Gay...

"Wait..." John interjected. "Wait a minute. First, let me just say I love your work on 60 Minutes, but..."

"I do not work on that show."

"...but how do you even know about all of that? It just doesn't make sense."

I let him think for a moment, which he did while glaring at me. Sometimes it's best to let the questionee gather his thoughts. You don't get to be the anchor for NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams without a keen sense of professionalism and the nuances of interviewing. And being Brian Williams.

"Hold on... did you used to post on PWoT? Because I never got that vibe from you and anyway you shouldn't have been able to get a job with that on your record. And speaking of that, where did Nimby go?"

I gave up and decided to interview him as me again. It would be a lot easier. Besides, John Cheese knew who I was!

Nimby: You wrote, if I'm remembering correctly, about twenty pages of a companion novel to John Dies at the End called "David Wong is Fat and Gay," and then you got distracted by a new special at Taco Bell and didn't finish it. Have you ever wanted to try any more long-form writing?

John: I started that as a goof-off project because I had all kinds of ideas and fantasies about what went on from John's perspective, and I thought it would be a fun little project to do in my spare time. I showed it to Dave, and he was totally supportive of it, but he gave me a file that had all of the background info for every character in the book, as well as time lines and what went on behind the scenes. Things that aren't in the book, but needed to be documented so he could keep the story consistent. And it was so different than what I was writing, it made me think of the project in a completely different light.

For the first time, I saw it as a massive, complex body of work that I really had no business diving into. That was his thing, and if I wanted to be creative in that way, I really needed to find my own story and my own voice. So I scrapped the idea and moved on.

I do want to do longer bodies of work, and in fact, I'm working on a book right now that's a more detailed version of my "life" type articles from Cracked. But as far as a large piece of fiction like a novel, I'm not sure I have it in me. I have a few hit and miss short stories that I may put together sometime in the future, but right now people know me for my views on life and writing from an honest, real perspective. And I really like the idea of continuing that in the form of a book.
I got an advance copy!
Nimby: Speaking of books, what did you think about High School English? Did you hate it, love it, like one book, hate one book, etc.?

John: I excelled at the technical aspect of English, but I realized when starting a career in writing that a lot of those grammar rules have to be broken in favor of creating tone. We still get people from time to time, telling us that we're breaking some obscure writing rule, and I tell all of those people the same thing: If I wrote while obeying every composition rule, the article would be stiff and boring. I know I'm breaking a rule while I'm breaking it. It's written that way intentionally.

As far as the literature part of high school English class, I mostly hated it. What normal people consider classics, I consider flowery-worded, boring bullshit. I did enjoy Lord of the Flies, though I thought he went through so much trouble to make every little thing in the book symbolic, it took away from the actual story. A lot of people are surprised to know that I actually hate to read. Even though I enjoy creating it (and obviously do it for a living), I just don't enjoy reading at all. It's a chore to me, and the payoff versus the time spent just isn't enough of a reward for me to do it as a form of entertainment.

Nimby: I know you and Wong wrote a screenplay that never got developed. What was it like working on it? Would you be interested in doing more things like that?

John: That was something we did just as a personal project after high school. It was something that kept us in a creative frame of mind, and we never intended to really do anything with it. But it served its purpose. It kept us entertained, and it was the first big project that we had ever worked on together. It was fun, and we found out through that script that we could work well as a team.

I think it would be fun to do another script if it ever had a chance of going somewhere other than the top shelf of a closet. But I've also worked on a few hit and miss sketch scripts over the last year, and I'm not a big fan of the process. There are lots of hands in a project like that, and by the time it sees completion, it's been written, rewritten, edited, and reedited so many times, it only slightly resembles what you originally had in mind.

That's the nature of the game, and I'm not upset about it, but I just don't like that process.

I decided to ask him about an Important Topic, because modern journalism has taught me that it is crucial to find out the opinions of celebrities. Unfortunately, I could only think of a question relevant to my interviewee's field, which isn't the way it usually works.

Nimby: What do you think of the New Media/Old Media debate?

John: I actually don't know what that is.

Nimby: Okay.

I took a moment to eat some of the parsley he had kindly left on my plate.

Nimby: What do you think people who read your articles would find most surprising about you?

John: I can tell you from experience that they're always surprised to find out what I look like.

As the FBI has proven, this picture also makes a great wanted poster. 
The ones who read my Cracked articles picture me as a much older man. Gray hair, tie, maybe smoking a pipe while cleaning my monocle or something.

When they find out that I'm a guy in my mid-thirties, with long hair, and who dresses like a '90s grunge band roadie, they're always taken aback. I give fairly conservative advice, and the visual image versus personality image doesn't line up for many people.

Nimby: That "conservative advice" thing reminds of one of the Brokeass Cooking videos you made, where your daughter refused to swear when prompted because you had already made it very clear to her that it was not appropriate. And I was thinking of some of the parenting articles you've written, especially the articles involving the internet. Are you going to install anything like NetNanny (whether or not it’s a trust thing or just to keep them from accidentally stumbling on to something), or what?

John: I monitor what my kids do on the net, and all of our computers are out in the open, so I can see what they're doing at any given moment. I've never really had much of a fear of them getting into something bad -- at least no more than I would putting an adult who is new to computers behind the keyboard. I just constantly teach them lessons about where to go and where to not go. I show them examples of the consequences of going to bad sites, and they take that stuff pretty seriously.

I'm really lucky with my kids because they're extremely mature for their ages, and they take my teachings to heart. I understand that there will be a point where they want to experiment with stuff when I'm not in the room, but at least they're going into it educated on the possible outcome.

I like weddings a lot, because they're pretty, so I smoothly segued into that subject by abruptly changing the topic.

Nimby: Why did you decide to get married now? Was it just a matter of being in a place to do it, now that you have the columnist job and are working full-time, or was it simply because it felt right? Have you guys started making plans? Are there any traditions you're going to forego?

John: I decided to propose because I've finally reached a place in my life where it feels right. I was married once before, and it was under horrible circumstances. I was given an ultimatum of, "Marry me by June, or I'm moving on." I never should have agreed to it, but I did. After that marriage failed, I told myself, "Never again." But as I got older, and I repaired my obliterated trust issues, I started to see the relationship I have now as real. And with or without marriage, we've proven to each other that we're in this thing for life. That's something I've never had before.

We have started making plans, and it's looking like we're going to be married sometime in September of 2012. It'll be a fairly traditional wedding, aside from the fact that she wants all of the guys to wear black Chuck Taylors instead of dress-shoes.

If this was a magazine, that would have been a nice little question to end this piece with, and there'd be a little symbol that lets you know you're at the end. But as it turned out, the interview wasn't quite over.

John: Now, can you give one me good reason not to kill you where you stand?

Nimby: Uh, John, I'm supposed to be the one asking the why are you holding a knife?

It all kind of went downhill from there.N


  1. John's actions in this interview have disgusted me to the point that in protest I will abstain from reading his next column: "The 5 Ways You Know It's Time to Murder Nimby"

    Simply abominable.

  2. Great read! I never knew John Cheese looked like until now. I must admit my mental picture was exactly as he described, older gent, perhaps mid forties, slightly grizzled.

    No wonder he's such a good contract killer. No one on earth would expect to be knifed by that goofy smile.

  3. I just followed the link from the Cracked sig. The picture of you waiting for John kills me. Reboticon


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