Interview: Cullen Crawford

Cullen Crawford writes biting, absurdist material for The Onion News NetworkGrouponThe Late Live Show and more, and is also one of the funniest people I follow on Twitter (read this article for context for the above tweet). He's is in a pretty unique position here in Chicago as a supremely funny dude that generates a ton of material, but doesn't perform live all that much. 

You can, however, see him in the flesh tonight, as a panelist for The International Movie Betting Game at 7pm in the Schubas Upstairs Lounge. I talked to Cullen over email this week about his background and the several projects currently occupying his time.

The Steamroller: Where'd you grow up and when did you move to Chicago?

Cullen Crawford: Ok. First of all, thank you for asking me questions for a website. The idea that anybody cares anything about me saying something is pretty much proof that God is dead.

I grew up outside of New Orleans, then Virginia, and then Raleigh. After college at Appalachian State in the mountains of NC, I moved here. The South has this weird thing of being the worst and also the best. I couldn't really appreciate it until I moved away. I'm probably never going back, but I like it now. 

TS: Were you always in to comedy/writing or is that something you came into later on?

CC: I wanted to be a little hard-assed Ernest Hemingway clone in college because college is when you do that. I majored in creative writing and had to take a playwriting class and then basically just wrote plays that were series of ridiculous sketches because I didn't want to be there. I think there was one where the conceit was that the play was being put on by a Baptist church to scare children away from sin and was about a haunted abortion clinic and some kid getting AIDS from masturbating or something. Anyway after it was performed my professor was like "you should get into writing comedy." I think he wanted me nowhere near his beloved theater. So I did. 

TS: I've heard you have an Achewood tattoo. That's awesome. Can you tell me the story behind that?

CC: Alright, so I'm not really a comics or webcomics guy. At all. But Achewood is just on this whole different level. It's probably the most consistently funny thing I've ever come across. It's a webcomic about cats (I know), but it is so much better than that sounds. I mean, come on. It is equal parts Louis CK, Kurt Vonnegut, and Mr. Show. It is really hard to get into but everyone who likes funny things should read it. So I got a huge arm tattoo of it cause I was 22 and loved it so much. Tattoos are how 22 year-olds love things. 

TS: You work in the humor department at Groupon, correct? What's a normal day like for you there?

CC: It used to be that myself and my actually funny coworkers (Daniel Kibblesmith, Megan Green, Wes Haney, and Ben Kobold) would write the Groupon Says sections all day (here's an example) . But while we still write those, our job has gotten much crazier.

Basically whatever they want to have a humorous bent comes through us. Anything from creating a cartoon to make fun of marketing to children/market to children to inventing a fake murder-based board game that somehow relates to buying homewares

TS: You also recently started working for the Onion News Network. Were you a fan of The Onion going in? 

CC: I've loved The Onion ever since I was an angry sad teenager. The Onion is so consistently good it is mind boggling. They always have the joke for whatever is going on and they never rely on easy laughs unlike pretty much every other comedic institution. So getting to be a part of that has seriously been amazing. I was just on set for a video I conceived and co-wrote for them and it was probably the best day of my life.

TS: Do you think your sensibilities match well with theirs or is it a different headspace you have to occupy when generating material for them?

CC: I love how mean and dark they are. I kind of naturally gravitated to that stuff being raised Catholic and full of self hatred. The only thing I have to change is to pretend to be smart and well-informed enough to hang with those guys.   

TS: You're involved in the comedy scene here, and have mentioned that performing live is a sort of "necessary evil" for now, and I think that's an interesting point. There's not much in the way of a "local scene" for folks that are especially good at writing comedy stuff, is there?  Do you think there's space on a local level for folks that just do comedy writing or is it such an ethereal thing that live performance has to be a part of it as a way of distinguishing oneself?

CC: I'm probably going to ramble about this. When I first got to Chicago and was exploring the "scene" (for lack of less horrible word), I was surprised by two things: The number of truly talented people toiling in obscurity and the widely lauded bullshit comedy that involves a wig and a funny voice and a reference to the 90's.

Joining up with the Late Live Show was such a revelation. That writers' room is such a sharp group it's insane. And it's through that lens, writing and rewriting stuff for that show, that a lot of the performer-y stuff of like "what if a spicy Latina TSA employee strip-searched Rahm Emmanuel" rings hollow and lazy. I have nothing against performing; a good performer can make or break a sketch. But everyone seems so fixated on being up onstage that most of them don't seem to care about the grunt work of figuring out what's actually funny.

I don't know. All of this is probably just coming from the fact that I'm a terrible performer. That's why I love Twitter. It's essentially the closest thing to writers' community there is. Every day it's this giant contest of trying to make strangers laugh using like 2 sentences.  

TS: You're also working on a serialized Sherlock Holmes novel. How'd that come to be?

CC: So my friend Tom McHenry has started a real, physical newspaper called The Proof and wanted content for it. I love Sherlock Holmes like all hell. He's the British superhero the way Superman is the American superhero. Instead of being a big strong handsome idiot who throws cars at his problems, Sherlock Holmes is smart and weird and gets to be a dick to people in a society where being polite is the most important thing.

So all the Sherlock Holmes stuff is public domain and the original books were published serially so I just though this would be a fun thing to do. I'm working on the first installment right now and it is just dumb as all hell and I wouldn't have it any other way.