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"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show
"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket
"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming
August 27, 2007
Matt Taibbi Interview
A while back I spoke to Matt Taibbi by phone. Technical difficulties prevented me from getting to it immediately, but here it finally is. I can't claim it's timely now, but Taibbi was just as entertaining as you'd expect.
COMING UP: An interview with Norman Solomon
How did you start wanting to write?
Well, I was a real nerd growing up and moved around all the time, so I read a lot. I went through some really bad times. Books were my only friends.
Then sometime in high school teachers made me aware I had some ability writing-wise. And since I didn't really have anything else going for me personally, especially after high school, I basically locked myself up in my room in my late teens, doing nothing but writing fiction, plays, all kinds of crap, and all of it sucked. I was always really into funny writers. My heroes were mostly all Russian, although I was a big fan of guys like H.L. Mencken and Saki and Evelyn Waugh, too. But eventually I went to Russia to study Russian. That's how I ended up staying there.
I've pretty much wanted to be a writer since I was thirteen or fourteen, but mostly by default, since I was clearly not qualified to do much else.
What Russian writers in particular and what other funny writers did you like?
The books I read when I was really young were things like Catch-22, some Waugh books like Decline and Fall, then Fear and Loathing, all the Hunter Thompson stuff, Woody Allen, etc.
And then somebody turned me onto Nicholai Gogol when I was about seventeen -- the first thing I read was his story "The Nose," and then I read "Dead Souls" about forty times before I was twenty. He was my hero. For the longest time I just wanted to... well, not to be Nicholai Gogol, because he was an insane and miserable boot fetishist who ended up becoming an overbearing religious bore before starving and bleeding himself to death with leeches, but to write like that anyway. But you should see how pathetic it is when a modern American tries his style.
From then I started reading all the other Russians, guys like Bulgakov, Tolstoy, Leskov, Babel, Zoshenko, etc. Among the modern guys I liked Trofimov and Dovlatov, both of whom were really funny. The Russians have so many funny writers, a lot of people that don't really get read here in the states -- people have this image of Russian writers being these guys who write these huge, baggy, pretentious novels that you need 300-page Cliff's notes for, but it's not like that.
How did you get to Russia in the first place?
I left after my junior year at Bard. I basically finished my studies at the University of Leningrad. I went over there and I just didn't come home.
So you're now fluent in Russian?
Yes. I'm also trying, unsuccessfully, to learn Thai.
I don't know what Thai sounds like, but it's a real cool-looking language.
I can't pick it up at all. Their alphabet looks like noodles to me.
There's something about Russia that captures a certain kind of person from elsewhere. What is it?
It's really hard to put your finger on it. There's definitely a certain kind of person it agrees with. The Russian way of looking at life—there's a real what-the-fuck element to living there. Everything in America is so strict, the rules are ironclad, you know. There are always forms to fill out. If your credit card is overdue it won't work. Your life is regulated by these ironclad structures that are part of being part of a rule-based society where everything works.
Whereas Russia... Russia is completely dysfunctional. Everyone's sort of equally miserable at all times. There's a real carefree, completely chaotic atmosphere there that's appealing. They have this expression there, na avos, or avos prenesyet, which means "avos brings"; to do something na avos means to do it and just basically leave the matter of whether it will work out or not in the hands of fate. Roll the dice, avos brings the answer. Like once, for instance, I quit my job and moved to Mongolia na avos. Just didn't really think about it beforehand at all. The whole country is run na avos.
In the States, there's so much pressure on a person to succeed, to not fall behind, to not be a loser. Whereas in Russia, except for the very few super-rich, everybody's a loser. So you don't feel so bad.
Solzhenitsin said something about that after he came to America. He said that here, a person who has horrible dandruff or picks their nose constantly would be immediately sanctioned by society...but in the Soviet Union, he'd be part of the group. Everybody got to be part of the ongoing Russian enterprise.
Yeah, though that's changing now, especially in Moscow. But in the old days it was like: who has a cool car? Nobody has a cool car. Who has nice clothes? Nobody. Everyone is... the Russian expression is "v govne," which means "in shit."
There's an expression in Russian, "sovok" which roughly means a Soviet mentality. The literal translation of the word refers to a tiny shovel you use in a sandbox. There is a legend about a Soviet film director who was getting drunk in a sandbox with some friends of his in the seventies; completely wasted on vodka, he picked up the little shovel and said, "But all the same, gentlemen, we all of us live v sovke [in the shovel]." The story, of course, is total bullshit, means nothing, and certainly has nothing to do with the origin of the expression sovok. But placing so much stock in this long-winded, idiotic, totally fictional story is very sovok in itself. I'm not explaining myself very well, but whatever. Anyway, Putin is draining the life out of sovok a little, which is too bad.
That sounds like a relief, compared to America. I think of somebody like John McCain, who does the most incredible groveling at the feet of Bush. My friend Mike thinks the Bush people are blackmailing him with something, but I think what they have on him is just ambition. He wants to be president. If you have a certain kind of ambition it just destroys you. People will do humiliating, grotesque things for ambition.
They'll drink their own pee.
If you know everything's hopeless, you won't bother. Then you can just get on with enjoying being alive.
Do you know that thing Hunter Thompson wrote about the bull elk? He wrote this thing bout how it's normally the craftiest animal in the forest, and normally you can't get within 2,000 yards of it without it bolting. But when it's in heat, the town drunk can walk right up next to the fucking thing. It's just so horny that its judgment is completely clouded. That's how he described politicians. I always liked that.
How did you end up playing basketball in Mongolia?
I played basketball in Mongolia in 96. I'd been working in Moscow and I played a lot of street basketball and I ran into this Mongolian kid who told me there was a Mongolian basketball league called the MBA -- the Mongolian Basketball League.
So I just packed up my shit, na avos like I said, and got on a train and moved to Mongolia. I got a tryout and I ended up this team called Altain Burgid, which means "Mountain Eagles." I played there for a season.
The only reason I left is because I got sick. Otherwise I'd probably still be there. I got pneumonia and had to leave the country to be treated. Mongolia was great, but its health care system nearly killed me. At first their doctors thought I had bronchitis, and their idea of treatment was a sort of Buddhist acupressure thing. That didn't work. I started coughing up blood a few weeks later and ended up being airlifted out of the country.
Actually that wasn't the whole story. In the latter stages of my illness I continued to play in the basketball league, despite the fact that I was losing ten pounds a week or so. At one point I caught an elbow in the mouth and had three of my teeth shattered. Then in another game I got scratched in the eyeball, which left my left eye completely blood red. Meanwhile I had long before shaved my head and grown a goattee as part of this Dennis Rodman look I was trying for on the court. So by the time I left I had pointed fangs, a bald head, a bloody eyeball, and I weighed about 50 pounds below my usual weight. When I finally got off the plane at JFK I looked like Nosferatu. Incidentally the one tooth the Mongolians did fix, they fixed using cement, like industrial cement. So I had a cement top front tooth. It was a dark, almost pencil-gray color. It ended up exploding in my mouth on a chicken bone. I went for a long time without a date after Mongolia.
Have you ever read Roald Dahl's memoirs? I bring it up as an example of horribly mistaken medical treatment. One of his grandfathers fell off the roof of his house when he (his grandfather) was a kid and broke his arm. The town doctor showed up drunk, and was convinced that he had a separated shoulder, and his arm had to be put back in the socket. So he kept twisting the grandfather's arm...until it had to be amputated. He was Dahl's one-armed grandpa. It's a, uh, funny story.
I never read Roald Dahl, his books scared me, but I guess that makes sense. What is it about English writers -- they all seem to have mutliated aunts and uncles. Wasn't Saki's mother trampled to death by a cow or something?
Did you play basketball as a kid?
Yes, I grew up around sports. My father was a much better athlete than I was. I played everything when I was a kid.
Me too. I'm jealous of anyone who's ever able to get paid for paying sports.
I got paid once in a half-goat. That was one of our bonuses in Mongolia. And they split the goat literally right down the middle of its body with a saw.
And so it was then your responsibility to transform the half-goat into...?
Well, food or whatever. I was also working as the head of the English-language department of Montsame, which is the state news agency. So I just threw my half-goat out on the balcony at work. And since it never gets above minus twenty during the winter, the goat was fine. Then around the holiday season one of my co-workers got drunk in the morning and came up to me and asked me if he could have it, so he got the goat.
Well, getting paid in goats would be good enough for me. Just as long as I got something. For playing sports, I wouldn't mind getting paid in tadpoles.
What were the other people on the other team like?
Basketball is a really big deal in Mongolia. So even though I wasn't making a ton of money and it wasn't a real high level of the game, we had the lifestyle of pro athletes. Everywhere we went people would fawn over us. I also had my own radio show.
In English and in Russian. Almost everybody spoke Russian in Mongolia back then.
It was a call-in show. Our slogan was "Bringing the new steps to the steppes." It was the gayest thing of all time. I had no I idea how funny I wasn't.
But when we would go into a club...there was a guy on my team named Batzaya, the national slam-dunk champ, he was like the Michael Jordan of Mongolia. If you were rolling with Batzaya, you weren't going home alone. I remember once he and his girlfriend crashed at my girlfriend's place and he came in to our room in the morning and asked us both if we had been listening to him and his girl have sex the night before. It was very important to him that we tell him how long he'd lasted. I told him tav minute, five minutes. That bothered him for days. During the next game, in a timeout, he pulled me aside and said, "No tav minute! Arav [ten] minute!" But I held fast and said, "Tav minute." He yells back: "No Tav minute! Arav minute!" There are only like 600 people in the stadium, everyone could hear what we were saying. That was some seriously funny shit.
You know, I don't think I've ever met a Mongolian. There also aren't many Mongolians in movies. What do you look like if you're Mongolian?
Like a really muscular Korean. There's some Russian blood in there somewhere, but mostly it went the other way. That's why the Russians are sometimes down on Mongolia. They spent 800 years being raped by Mongolians. It's kind of funny actually. A lot of Russian women have these beautiful, big, exotic, almond-shaped eyes, and to most foreigners that makes them seem mysterious and alluring, but I look at them and I just imagine their great-great-great-great grandmothers being set upon on piles of oats by crowds of grunting Batzayas.
Anyway, the Mongolians are fantastic people. Drunken, but very charming. They have an advantage, which is it's so far away from everything else no one wants to travel the distance you have to go to get there. And there are no resources there that anybody really wants. There isn't too much interference by the outside world.
Yeah, the paradox is that being a country with lots of natural resources sucks. You get invaded every six minutes.
I remember there was great dread in Mongolia when it was thought that oil had been discovered there.
What do you eat in Mongolia?
Flour and meat, basically. I think the high point of my masculine existence was one night when I was sick and my girlfriend there cooked me an antelope steak. She was like, "Here you are, honey." I thought: it doesn't get any better than this.
She was Mongolian?
No, she was ethnically Indonesian. She worked in a Canadian aid program, teaching. Half the people in Ulan Bator were working for some kind of international organization like US-AID.
Do you have a list of the weirdest foods you've consumed while traveling?
Definitely. I've eaten horse penis.
I was in Kazakhstan. I honestly do not remember what the circumstances were. I was at dinner at somebody's house, in a situation where it would have been rude to say no.
Was it presented as a delicacy? You were the guest so you got the horse penis?
I was made to understand it was considered a really good food.
What did it taste like?
...please say, "Like chicken penis."
I don't think it had a distinctive flavor. But then there's kmuiss, both in Mongolia and Russia. It's mare's milk. It has a really foul smell, but you get used to it. It's also almost as alcoholic as beer.
I've also had dog soup, in Uzbekistan. I lived there for a while in my early twenties. Stalin moved a lot of Koreans there after World War II, so there's a huge Korean population in Taskent. I had a lot of Korean friends, and one night they made soup with dog meat.
I've always wondered about that. Which are the delicious dogs, and which are the dogs you should steer clear of?
I don't know. I'm sure I was eating low-grade dog. But I do know there are natural steroids in dog meat. So if you eat dog you'll bulk up like you're taking steroids.
So it's possible Mark McGwire has never taken steroids, but just eats a lot of dog.
I think Korean athletes actually have been bounced from the Olympics for that.
So after Mongolia you went back to Russia. How did you start the Exile? Were you ever scared of having people blow up the office? Were you scared of your advertisers being threatened?
Originally I was supposed to do this paper called Living Here, which was a competitor to the Exile. Basically I showed up in Moscow and found out it was a mess and bolted to the Exile instead. Ames was there already, he was there from day one.
I wouldn't say it was enormously scary. There was a situation once where I was working in a partnership with this Russian paper called Stringer. And the Stringer editor and I arranged to wiretap the phone of the Kremlin Chief of Staff. We bought off this ex-KGB operative to do that. And then we published transcripts of his telephone calls. That was a pretty dangerous thing to do. I was pretty nervous about that. I was actually out of the country when we first ran that. When I flew back into the country, I was detained on the way in, and I didn't know what for, and nearly shit my pants. It turned out the lamination on my passport was messed up.
There were some tight moments, though. The thing about Russia is you really never know. You never know when you're safe, and you never know when you're in danger either. Anything can happen.
Early on I had this situation with this pimp named Michael Bass, who made a fairly serious threat to my life. So I had to split town and negotiate safe passage back with some other gangsters.
My life has never been threatened. How is a death threat carried out?
In Russia they have this thing called a krysha, which means "roof." It's your mafia protection. I published this thing on this pimp, and he called me up on the phone and he said, "Matt, I don't know what to do. My roof wants to have you wacked, but I don't feel good about that. You know what I'm saying?" He didn't say "I'm going to kill you." He just let me know there was this discussion going on. And he's not sure how he's going to come down on the issue.
I went to the FBI after that happened, because this guy happened to be an American citizen. And I complained to them, saying that these guys were threatening me. Their advice was, "Observe normal safety precautions." I was like, thanks a lot! I remember the FBI guy like it was yesterday. I was telling him this story in the basement of the embassy, and he wasn't listening to me because he was enjoying a cold Diet Coke so much. It was like he'd never had a Diet Coke before.
What made you decide it was serious enough you wanted to leave town?
This guy Bass was in a lot of trouble generally. He was constantly borrowing money from people and getting in scrapes. He was always on the verge of getting killed himself—he was actually kidnapped a couple of times. He was a real doubledealing swindler-scumbag. And when he was in trouble he would often get so desperate... not having much experience with this sort of thing, I thought maybe that if he needed to prove himself to some other underworld figure, I could easily see how someone like me could become expendable.
So I left town and ended up talking to the people who were the real gangsters in the situation, and worked it out.
What was the case that you made to them?
To be honest, I don't even remember. It was something along the lines of, Michael's making threats and invoking your name. Again, that was a dangerous thing for Michael to be doing if that wasn't true. But they pretty much let me know that they didn't have any problem with me. Within a year I was having dinner with Bass. Hilariously, he stuck me with the bill.
Violence often has a self-limiting aspect to it. Your smarter gangster will only resort to violence when absolutely necessary. It's the real morons for whom violence is a first resort. For instance: the Bush administration.
Yes, well, that is why America is a doomed empire. You can see it so clearly in the Putin-Bush relationship. On the one side you have Putin, a self-made criminal genius, a guy who's had to learn to see every angle before they even happen in order to keep from getting shot on his way to the top. On the other side you have Bush, a total zero who fucked up everything he ever tried and ended up in the White House anyway. These other foreign leaders in the third world, the Putins and Musharrafs and the like, they're playing every hand with their own money. They understand the immediate physical consequences of failure. It has been a long time -- not since World War II, anyway -- since America has needed to be smart enough to protect itself from real harm. It has forgotten how to save its bullets for the real fights. And so it stumbles into this place and that, shooting out windows and randomly wrecking shit like teenagers playing mailbox baseball. Sooner or later that is going to come back and really bite us.Posted at August 27, 2007 03:40 PM | TrackBack