Adam Sandler. The name alone causes wretches and pained expressions. His is the kind of comedy we assign the term "lowest form" to, and yet, every year, without fail, millions of dollars are spent on tickets to see him do his wacky faces and hear his screechy voice. We are a nation of idiots who love to watch men and women act like idiots. Jay Ruttenberg recognizes this. In fact, since 2001, Ruttenberg has been exploiting the various forms of sophomoric humor in his zine The Lowbrow Reader. Ten years in, the zine’s best material has been collected into The Lowbrow Reader Reader, out now on Drag City Records. The Lowbrow Reader Reader features moments of true comedic gold: an interview with Ol’ Dirty Bastard gone horribly wrong, intricate ruminations on the lightweight humor of CARtoons Magazine by indie rock god Neil Michael Hagerty, essays on old torchbearers like Don Rickles, and the roundtable laugh factory that is the interview with “The Queens of Comedy” about sex. It’s a wonderfully nimble, easy-to-digest read on the brand of humor we often keep guiltily shackled away in the recesses of our mind, only to let the dams of laughter burst upon the squeakiest flatulence, the mere mention of urine, the most fumbling of pratfalls. Sandler, after all, has sent many of you (that’s right, YOU) into fits of giggles. And that’s the point—let your freak flag fly, aficionado of the unrefined. We jostled Ruttenberg to tell us about his obsession with Sandler and more.
The centerpiece of the book is the Billy Madison love letter. I don’t know if you are going to hear this a lot—I have no idea what the popular culture thinks of Adam Sandler—but I am one of the few, the proud that shares your true love of Sandler. Maybe I’m tipping my hand, but Sandler’s comedy album They’re All Gonna Laugh at You was so important to my appreciation of laughing. Do people focus on that? Do you come across a lot of people saying, ‘I love Billy Madison too!’?
Actually, yeah. I have been writing since I was 17, and that’s gotten the best response I’ve ever gotten for something I wrote. A lot of it has to do with they way the people like that movie. Not only that, but how ignored that movie was upon it’s release by people who should have known better. When a movie like that gets dumped on by critics, but then finds an audience, usually five or 10 years later, you’ll see an article in The New York Times about it. Wet Hot American Summer might be an example. Billy Madison never got that, partially because Adam Sandler not only came so successful, but some of his movies were so horrible later on.
He was nominated for a record number of Razzie Awards this year, whatever that fucking means. There is a segment of society that thinks Adam Sandler is the downfall of Judd Apatow. People hate Adam Sandler.
Did you see Jack and Jill though?
Yeah, I didn’t either. [Laughs.] To be honest, it was one of those things that I was obsessed with him for such a long time, and then, after I wrote that, I was over it. We screened Billy Madison and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan—my other favorite Sandler film—at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca. I have seen Billy Madison like a 100 times, but I had never seen it on film before, and we showed it in an original film print. This is going to sounds absolutely idiotic, but it was a beautiful movie. The visual effect of it was stunning.
Have you ever interacted with Sandler?
Never. I originally wanted that piece to be the oral history of Billy Madison. I knew I wasn’t going to get an interview with him; even if it was Rolling Stone, he wouldn’t talk to me. He doesn’t talk to print press. But I contacted Tamra Davis, who directed Billy Madison. She’s an incredible director.
She also did the Britney Spears film, Crossroads.
Is it good? That’s her only movie I’ve never seen.
So bad, it’s good.
So, I had this great interview with her, because I wanted to interview all of the people that are kind of around him. I talked to somebody at his manager’s office, and they said that the people that work at [Sandler’s production company] Happy Madison don’t talk to the press. That’s how tight-lipped he is.
Do you think he has read the piece?
I doubt it. I mailed an issue to Happy Madison. He makes like $50 million dollars a year, right? He is like Eddie Murphy: he’s built this little Hollywood within Hollywood. Adam Sandler never talks to the press unless it’s David Letterman, or another talk show. When he goes on talk shows, he is funny, but he comes armed with these surreal one-liners. So he doesn’t reveal that much about himself. He’ll say things, but then he spins it into a joke, so you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Even back when Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore were coming out, I hadn’t seen an interview with him. So, I think there has never been a big profile of him.
I liken some of that weird, evasive behavior to Jim Carrey, but people have profiled Jim Carrey before.
You know what I think? Funny People is not about Adam Sandler; it’s about Jim Carrey. That’s my hunch. It’s about an evil Adam Sandler, which is Jim Carrey. But, then again, we’ll never know, because we don’t really know who the real Adam Sandler is. When Funny People came out, it had some amazing reviews. David Denby called it a classic. The highbrow reviews were really positive, and by the second day it was out, everyone was saying it was the biggest bomb and it’s ending Judd Apatow’s career. It’s making no money. The same year The Grown Ups came out, and the reviews were the exact opposite: it was the worst movie ever made. There’s nothing good about it, and then when that came out, it made almost $200 million dollars the first weekend. What explains that?
There is some weird thing with Sandler. He really is an enigma that, aside from Carrey, I can’t really think of any comedic actor that has this cottage industry unto himself. But there is no explanation. There are no other instances that an actor has that polarizing affect on people. What did you think of Funny People?
Just like a lot of people, I thought the first half was like the greatest thing I have ever seen, and then it took a turn for the worse when they went to San Francisco.
It flat-lined really. I saw it at a drive-in with a few friends, and it was the most difficult place to watch something like that. It was intense. Everybody I was with thought it was complete garbage. They hated the whole thing. I went against the grain, and liked it in its grandiosity. Maybe I am the only one.
No, no I kind of agree with that. People are still talking about Aziz Ansari. And they do all these little things in that that were really good.
Moving on from Sandler: I want to talk about a couple of interesting contributors that you’ve had. Like David Berman and Neil Michael Hagerty. I wonder how you found out that these guys were funny, because they’re music is not. Silver Jews songs are sometimes funny, but Neil Michael Hagerty’s songs were quite serious. So how did you find out that these guys had as deep an appreciation for humor that you did?
Hagerty contributed to the very first issue. He contributed to every issue besides one, and he contributed to the most recent one. Actually both him and Berman were two people that I interviewed through my college newspaper. And then, I had gone to do this big piece on Royal Trux for Puncture Magazine. Every time I would talk to him; he always surprised me in how knowledgeable he was about things, in not just music, but different realms of culture and politics. In a lot of ways, I felt like I had a similar outlook to him—I felt like he was a contrarian without trying to be a contrarian. In talking to him, I always found him funny, and I liked his writing—he’d published this novel Victory Chimp in ’97. On a whim, I asked him to contribute for Lowbrow, and looking back, I’m surprised he did, because I didn’t know him that well and I had nothing to show him. He took a risk and wrote that article about CARtoons Magazine, which is something I knew absolutely nothing about, but the second I got the article, it changed the course of what I wanted to do with The Lowbrow Reader. I was 23, and I had something in mind that was more bratty and a little less about Adam Sandler movies than David Spade movies, but not necessarily the way that we eventually were covering them. More like, ‘Here’s Joe Dirt. Everybody says Joe Dirt sucks, but Joe Dirt is awesome.’ But Joe Dirt sucks. I was trying to get to this notion that there was this really good lowbrow comedy that the media shunned. The problem is, it’s usually not very funny; usually, the media is right. I think Hagerty, in writing about CARtoons in the way he did—it was from an interesting angle. It was very intelligent, and something I hadn’t seen before. I think before I knew I was even doing it, I tried to go towards that direction.
He inspired you to take a more measured look at lowbrow comedy than you were trying to do?
Also, to try to open it up: it could be about literature, it could be about art. Berman drew cartoons for the two most recent issues. He published a really funny book of cartoons. Both of those people are people that should be writing for and being written about in The New Yorker. They are just talented in all of these different capacities, which is sort of annoying for somebody like me who is barely talented in anything. There are these people who are talented musicians, writers, and painters. David Byrne, if I see him on his bike in the city, I just want to push him down. He just has to be good at everything. And Steve Martin: ‘Well, now he’s a banjo player, and he’s great at that, too. You can’t do anything.’
And he wrote a novel…
His tweets are brilliant.
That’s the best thing about him now.
Everything he does: ‘Oh, he just took a shit. The shit’s going to be in the Smithsonian, because it’s the best shit anybody has ever taken.’ And then you look at it, and it’s a good shit.
People truly dislike lowbrow comedy. Why did you feel the need to defend it?
For a good like 12 years I was a rock critic, and I was thinking a lot about the history of rock criticism, and it started as this disparaged art for teeny-boppers in the ’50s through like the mid-’60s. It wasn’t something that most critics would take seriously. It was just this disposable genre for stupid kids who didn’t know any better. And critics were ignoring The Beatles. Eventually people like Greil Marcus, for better or for worse, created this way to talk about it. And I felt like comedy, and certain kinds of physical comedy especially, were still ignored critically. And embarrassingly, a lot of it really did come back to Billy Madison. To me, it seemed like this was an art form that was arguably better and just as vital as some Iranian movie or something. And it just wasn’t being taken seriously at all.
Which in a weird way it has a bigger audience than anything. If a comedy takes off, so many people will go to see it.
Right. And I think one of the reasons is that it’s hard to write about. It’s cheating to write about it in a little publication, like The Lowbrow Reader, because you can skirt around some things. Whereas, if you’re reviewing a movie for a newspaper, it’s sort of harder to praise something that’s that idiotic on the face of it.
Right, because the newspaper or the magazine has its standards to uphold, and it’s this mainstream recognition of what’s good, and you have to play into that sometimes.
I mean it’s really hard not to.
That that makes sense as to how to defend lowbrow comedy, but why? You got inspired by Billy Madison to do it, but what is it about the entire genre?
Right. I think the problem now, is that a lot of these things are actually praised a little bit more than they would’ve been 10 years ago. I’m a huge Howard Stern fan, and I think it’s easier to like him now than it would’ve been then. A large part of the first issue was devoted to an article about him. It’s not in the book, because it’s actually a pretty bad article—I wrote it when I was 22 years old.
What’s the difference between highbrow and lowbrow comedy?
I’m a big Marx Brothers fan, and I like Harpo the best. He’s like my favorite Marx Brother, and I don’t mean this in any way against Groucho, who I love as well, but I feel like in a way Groucho is the highbrow Marx brother and Harpo, being the idiot, is the lowbrow one. Groucho is tossing off these amazing one-liners and Harpo is humping somebody.
He’s like the clown.
Right. He’s dumb. Each issue, we have a picture of Harpo. He’s my favorite person that there is, basically. Groucho and Harpo illustrate the main difference between the highbrow figure and the lowbrow figure. But then it gets complicated, because Harpo was the Marx Brother who was accepted into the Algonquin Circle and Dali wrote a script for him, and so I think there’s always been this highbrow love for the lowbrow. Maybe I’m full of shit. This is not an original thought, but I sincerely believe it: highbrow and lowbrow art is generally really exciting and the middle-brow is what you want to avoid.
What are like the tenants of lowbrow? I feel like you have to have certain things: farts, shit, pratfalls.
I think my sense of humor revolves around cheaper, more guttural laughs. Hearing somebody say something they’re not supposed to say—I know I shouldn’t find it funny, and it’s cliché, but I really find it funny. And I probably always will.
And there’s also the concept of laughing at things that aren’t technically supposed to be laughed at…
Like Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Although I should point out that when [our interview with him] was originally published, he was still alive. He died a month later, which made me feel like a total asshole.
What is your favorite article in The Lowbrow Reader?
The ‘Queens of Comedy’ interview with Margaux Rawson.
That’s seriously laugh-out-loud.
That’s the one piece that I’m like, ‘If you’re going to read one thing, read that.’
Give me a little background on that article.
That interview was done by Margeaux Rawson. I started working at Time Out in 2000 and I was the newbie in the music section. It was a fantastic music section at the time, and Margeaux was the hip-hop and R&B writer. She cracked me up at work every day. In early September of 2001, she got an assignment from Glamour Magazine. They were flying her to Los Angeles to interview what was known as the ‘Queens of Comedy,’ which was Mo’Nique’s answer to the Bernie Mac thing, because Glamour was starting a series where they talk to someone like The Sex and the City women about sex. So, they send Margeaux to do this. She came back and was like, ‘I had the wildest interview of my life.’ She literally was sent there to get the comedians drunk and bring them chicken wings, which seems like a weird thing. Margeaux is an incredible interviewer—like I think she should be on Oprah—so she did this interview, and it was a thousand times funnier, and a hundred thousand times filthier than anything Glamour Magazine would’ve expected. She sent them the transcripts and they were horrified by it. I could be wrong about this, but I think they even used September 11th as an excuse, like, ‘You can’t use such dirty talk around September 11th.’
‘Too soon’ for talk about fingers in the asshole?
[Laughs.] So they killed this piece, which, is fucked up. They wanted funny talk about sex, but then they were like, ‘Oh no, this is too funny.’ So Margeaux kept showing me the transcripts and we would just be laughing hysterically at work, and I just begged her to let me print it. I’ve probably read the whole thing 50 times, and that was the one thing that, when I had to edit, I was like, ‘Oh yes! I get to edit this again!’