Tuesday, May 11th, 2010
“It’s a really raw father-son book. I wanted it to be the real Tuesdays With Morrie. I don’t know anyone whose Dad says, “There’s a lesson in what I’m about to tell you, Son.” They yell and sometimes a lesson comes out of it, and sometimes it’s just yelling.”
If you’re not one of its million-plus followers, Shit My Dad Says is Justin Halpern’s LOL-funny Twitter feed. In 2009, Halpern, now 29, was a beginning screenwriter in L.A. when he got a job writing for Maxim.com. It was a job he could do anywhere, so he moved to San Diego, his hometown, to live with his girlfriend. He was dumped upon arrival, leaving him nowhere to go but back to his parents’ home.
You’ve heard of found art. Halpern’s father, Sam, is found funny: “Please. You reek of booze and bullshit”; “‘Snausages?’ I’ve been eating dog treats? Fuck it, they’re delicious. I will not be shamed by this”; “Do people your age know how to comb their hair? It looks like two squirrels crawled on their head and started fucking.” Halpern began using his dad’s daily outbursts as his IM statuses. A friend suggested Twitter, and in three days he had 100,000 followers.
Sh*t My Dad Says is no mere collation of tweets hastily packaged to make a buck. It’s a very entertaining memoir showing that Sam’s profane, sarcastic spleen is just one (marvelous) dimension of a highly educated cancer researcher self-made Jewish Kentucky farm boy who could be loving and wise and self-critical. To his and the book’s credit, Halpern admits that Sam’s anger and pressure were scary (during potty training: “This ends with you shitting in that toilet.”), but the book follows Justin as he ends up grateful that his dad is “the least passive-aggressive person on the planet.” Indirectly and unintentionally—the best way—it’s a comment on today’s awful “Craigers, this isn’t what we agreed to” style of fatherhood. In addition to the book, Halpern is co-writing a CBS sitcom with William Shatner playing his dad.
How do you turn a 25-word chuckle into a book? How do you turn a “character” into a character? Halpern answered these and other questions when we spoke by telephone.
How did you approach expanding the Twitter feed into a book?
I sat down and tried to remember the major moments that captured my dad’s and my relationship. They’re events involving things that everyone goes through—sex, school, etc.—they just don’t go through them with my dad. I whittled 30 or 40 stories down to the best 10 or 20. Then I sat down with my parents and brothers to make them as accurate as possible.
Did you let your dad read the final version before sending it to your editor?
Yes. I wanted him to be cool with it. His edits were weird, very him. It wasn’t, “This is wrong.” It was, “Why did you use the word ‘amazing’ twice in two sentences? It makes you look like a dumbshit.” I said, “Dad, I’m not asking for that kind of editing, only if you’re comfortable with it.” “Well, I’m not ‘comfortable’ with you looking like a dumbshit.”
Be honest. You’re a comedy writer: Did you ever fluff or tweak your dad’s utterances for maximum punch?
They’re pretty much verbatim—I wish I could take more credit! Sometimes I deleted my side of the conversation. I realized that I’m the least interesting part of the story. The more I could cut myself out, the better.
Has your dad always been funny? When you were growing up, did others find him funny?
Others found him funny. I was usually angry and trying not to piss him off. I didn’t want to get yelled at, and that seemed to be a lot of what was happening. Even now, I can’t win an argument with him; he’s impossible to match verbally.
Did he know he was funny? Did he work at it, and was he a fan of comedy?
I remember him liking George Carlin and Robin Williams. Sometimes there’s intent and awareness, but it’s not trying to be funny; he knows it’s funny.
He was old-school in how he upheld truth in parenting, including the naked, ugly truth. Like when your dog died and he said your heartbroken brother “had a nice last moment with Brownie before the vet tossed him in the garbage.” It’s rare these days.
My friends had these PC parents [in whose eyes] they could do no wrong, always getting “positive reinforcement.” Because of my dad, I have a grasp of the world that’s healthy, especially of failure. I deal with it probably more easily than most and I appreciate that. I’m prepared for the things that happen in life. Like when I was in L.A. just starting out as a screenwriter: I got to the final round of the Disney Screenwriting Fellowship and didn’t get it. My friends said, “You must be crushed!” My dad said, “You’re gonna fail much more than you succeed. It’s only when you’re not getting closer to your goal that you worry about.” It helped me get through that time.
He’s an expert in nuclear medicine. Science and reason run through the quirky and profane things he says, like “You can tell by the dilation of the dog’s asshole that he’s going to shit soon. See. There it goes.”
Science has really shaped who he is. He’s scholarly yet blue-collar. He’s incredibly fair, almost to a fault. As his son, you rarely got a raw deal. If you did, he’d let you know. And he’d tell you why.
The title, Shit My Dad Says, with “shit” meaning “stuff,” is just the first step into his world of shit, a word with a kaleidoscope of uses. Verb coinage: “You borrowed the car, and now it smells like shit…Take it somewhere and un-shit that smell.” Another variation on the theme: “Jesus, open a window. It smells like death shit in here.” Punctuation: “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to do one of the best things about being alive: take a shit.” Default: “It’s like rubbing alcohol and—I don’t know, shit, I guess.” Meaning: “You may not think things you do mean shit, but remember that they mean shit to me, okay?” Love: “I love the shit out of you.” The man knows his shit.
My brothers and I joke that it’s like “aloha” in Hawaiian, which means like 200 things. He grew up on a farm in Kentucky. Shit plays a bunch of different roles on a farm: fertilizer, waste, etc. He grew up saying “shit” a lot, with it meaning a lot of things.
How did your screenwriting experience help you write the book?
Studying screenwriting, I learned how to tell a story—the principles of storytelling. So I made sure each story in the book had dramatic conflict. Not really an arc, because they’re short, but a little journey that I took. I made sure each had a beginning, middle, and end. I also hope the whole book contains one journey with a beginning, middle, and end.
I’m proud of it; it’s a really raw father-son book. I wanted it to be the real Tuesdays With Morrie. I don’t know anyone whose Dad says, “There’s a lesson in what I’m about to tell you, Son.” They yell and sometimes a lesson comes out of it, and sometimes it’s just yelling.
You’ve written a pilot adapting the material to television. How did you think it could work on TV?
We wanted to play up the aggressive honesty of a parent telling a kid he’s acting like a dipshit. The last thing I want to do is put out some watered-down garbage. We won’t change “shit” to “poop” and “fuck” to “frick.”
But your deal is with CBS, so you won’t be able to swear. Profanity is a huge part of the book—it’s even in the title. Aren’t you worried that it won’t be as funny and pungent?
I’d say 30 percent of the quotes don’t have cursing. But yeah, it’ll have a different vibe. I feel pretty confident, but if we didn’t have Bill Shatner playing my dad, I might be telling you that we have sort of a shitty pilot. He’s the same guy! He cuts straight to the point. He has this edge as he’s berating; I love working with him.
The other thing is that I wanted it to feel like All in the Family, so it had to be a multi-camera sitcom. HBO and Showtime don’t really have those, except Curb Your Enthusiasm, which I love.
Finally, Justin Halpern, what’s your Six-Word-Memoir?
Very lucky son of a bitch.
VISIT Halpern’s blog.
FOLLOW the famous Twitter feed.
BUY Sh*t My Dad Says.
READ an excerpt of Sh*t My Dad Says.