Exclusive Interview with Scott Sherman author of “Bad for the Jews”
A Jewish boy from Brooklyn, New York, Scott Sherman is best known as a writer for Comedy Central’s ‘The Colbert Report’ and ‘Important Things with Demetri Martin’. Whilst working on ‘The Colbert Report’, Scott, a talented comedy writer and member of ‘Action 5’ – a writing group who love to sink their satirical teeth into pop culture – has also contributed to such books as ‘The New Vampire’s Handbook: A Guide for the Recently Turned Creature of the Night‘ (2009), and ‘The Dangerous Book for Dogs: A Parody by Rex and Sparky‘ (2007), which he co-authored with his dog – a talented writer in her own right.
You have to consume the news every day at your job and you are exposed to so many different topics and news events everyday that you could write about almost anything. What prompted you to choose this topic for your book?
Even though the book is obviously not about me, it was nice to write something that felt a little more personal. “Bad for the Jews” is a fairly common expression but it’s also the result of constant drive to examine that I’ve always loved about Judaism and have never had a chance to explore in my work.
Other than the obvious time restraints, how did the writing process for ‘Bad for the Jews’ differ from that of ‘The Colbert Report’?
Writing a book is a very special kind of torture. Unlike TV, you are cursed with a much longer lead time and, for me, that lends itself to obsessing about every letter. I’ve been fortunate to write my other books with some great co-authors and that always made the process easier because I can ask if something is solid, get a response, and move on. The efficiency breaks down when I’m alone.
How do you find the drive and energy to simultaneously write a book and for a television show? Were there times when it all got too much? Has writers block ever been an issue?
I was lucky to have written the bulk of this book before I started writing for the show, but I have written other books while writing on other TV shows and there’s really no sugarcoating the situation. It’s exhausting. Switching between the two formats in the same day is tough. You’re writing in one language all day and a different one all night. But you know what? I’m complaining way too much. I get to write a lot for a living. I’ll take it. As far as writer’s block, that’s never been too much of a problem for me. Everybody has days when the ideas don’t flow as easily, but in general when you have as many deadlines and obligations as I do, writer’s block isn’t an option. I think my brain just realizes it doesn’t have the luxury of not producing material because if it doesn’t, my brain and I won’t have money for food and shelter. My brain and I really like food and shelter.
What was your inspiration for becoming a writer? Did you always want to be a comedy writer, or did it happen by accident?
Well, like most comedy writers, I realized it was something I enjoyed and could do reasonably well, while simultaneously realizing there was very little else I enjoyed or could do reasonably well.
Which writers and/or books inspire you, and why?
That’s a pretty broad list. I like Homer a lot. He was good. I listened almost constantly to Brooks & Reiner and Richard Pryor growing up and there’s short book by Erasmus called The Praise of Folly that had a pretty big impact on me. I guess it’s weird that a Christian humanist would shape a nebbishy Jewish kid, but there you go. The common thread is probably writers who I felt were trying to provoke discussion without resorting to gimmicks. I feel incredibly pretentious writing this, by the way. Sorry about that.
You compiled a list of fifty Jews that are bad for the Jews. Were there any others that you wished to include in the book, but had to cut?
The initial list was much longer but ultimately I went with the fifty I thought I had the best or strangest reasons for including. Comedy, especially in book form, tends to have diminishing returns the longer the work is.
You divide your ‘Hall of Shame’ into three categories: bad, badder and baddest. What is your criteria? How do I qualify for the next edition?
The baddest category are the individuals who, for the most part, I think do/did actual damage in the world and who truly reflect badly on the Jewish people. The ‘bad category’ entries are in there for sillier reasons I suppose. They’re not hurting anybody and you’d have to be as big a pill as I am to find any actual fault. The entries in the badder category, as you might guess, fall somewhere in between. It’s all relative, of course, and if debates break out about who deserves to be in what category, that’s something I’m fine with. Hopefully you won’t qualify! You seem very nice. Maybe I’ll save a few pages for you in “Good for Jews.”
Anthony Weiner: Good for the Jews, or bad for the Jews?
Oy. Bad. Bad bad bad. Bad for my eyes too. Those pictures were seared into my corneas. If I blink really hard I think I still see a faint outline. Let’s talk about something else…
Who is the ‘baddest’ of them all?
Well, according to the book, I am. Really, writing a book called “Bad for the Jews” is a terrible thing to do, isn’t it?
Who was the most fun to write about? Was anyone particularly difficult to write about?
Nimoy might’ve been the most fun because I knew how disproportionately livid the response would be. He is such a beloved figure and truth be told I love Mr. Nimoy just as much as any proud nerd. Sometimes, though, a man has to take a stand in life. This is the stand I went with. Sure, it’s not a particularly worthwhile, necessary, or genuine stand, but the chances I’d ever make one of that nature is awfully slim.
Why didn’t you include Henry Kissinger? He was bad for the Jews, the Chileans, the Argentines …
You’re absolutely right. I certainly considered him but in addition to having fifty different entries, I wanted fifty different kinds of reasons one could be bad for the Jews to avoid making the same jokes over and over, and I felt his reasons overlapped with some other entries.
But it’s not all shame. Barbra Streisand, Jake Gyllenhall, Seth Rogen – too talented, too beautiful or too non-conformist. All famous (rather than notorious). Do I detect a hint of Jewish pride?
You could say that. A large chunk of the entries were definitely love letters in disguise.
You co-wrote ‘The Dangerous Book for Dogs’ in tandem with your actual dog (plus other humans, of course). What did she think of this book? Did she have any input? And is your dog good for the Jews or bad?
My dog approved of this book insofar as it provided me with the means to continue buying her food and treats. She’s very happy about that. Other than that, she usually prefers the works of the Russian greats. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, etc.
You also contributed to ‘The New Vampire’s Handbook: A Guide for the Recently Turned Creature of the Night’. Would it be fair to say you’ve got a penchant for quirky subject matter? Where do these ideas come from, and what drives you to develop them further?
That was another book I wrote with my writing group, Action 5. The books we wrote together came out of a lot of brainstorming and a desire to spoof trends in the zeitgeist. Chances are if there is something we see in the culture that we think people are taking way too seriously, we’ll want to do a book about it.
Are there any other writers you would like to co-write a piece with, human or animal?
Tough question. I honestly believe I already write with some of the most talented writers working today. Sadly Heidi the Cross-Eyed Opossum just passed away. I would’ve like to have written something with her.
As a Jew myself, I must say you got the voice down perfectly! Did you have a member of your family whose humour and inflections you channelled while writing?
I am very much a product of my family and I am sure they will all say they had an indirect hand in the writing of this book.
For the non-Jews who are scratching their heads, what does it mean to be ‘a shanda for the goyim’?
In its broadest definition, it’s when a Jewish person does something that’s embarrassing to other Jews or makes other Jews look bad in view of non-Jews. Now, some say it’s specifically when a Jewish person does something to confirm negative stereotypes about Jews in front of non-Jews. Like most Yiddish expressions, it’s open to interpretation or absolutely not open to interpretation, depending on who you ask.
Is Leonard Nimoy even worse for the Jews now that he stepped in for a censored Alec Baldwin at the Emmy Awards?
Nah. I know from experience that any performer who will step in at the last second and help a production out is a mensch.
What was your good bar mitzvah speech about?
Wow, we’re digging deep! In short, wrestling with difficult choices. The VHS tape is available for anybody who would like to know more.
Did they REALLY play Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song” at your Hebrew School?
Yes! A censored version, at least. Needless to say, we’re Reform.
‘Bad For the Jews’ often mentions the ‘wrath of bubbie’. Was your own grandmother a powerhouse? How has your family influenced this book?
More like a powerskyscraper. There are veiled family anecdotes throughout. I don’t think anybody is ever going to be interested in publishing my memoirs so I thought I’d take the opportunity now to share a few stories.
Have your family and friends read the book? What do they think?
Everybody has been very positive! Why, what have you heard? I’m very thankful for their support and encouragement actually. With a book like this, it’s extremely easy for somebody who doesn’t bother to read it to be offended by it, and today it’s also extremely easy for those people who didn’t read it to express how offended they are to a very wide audience.
Has there been a response from anyone featured in the book? Have you heard from anyone personally?
There was a public response from one person in the book so far who wasn’t too happy, but let’s just say in this specific instance, I don’t particularly care.
Scott Sherman, we love your work. Anything coming up in the pipeline we should know about?
Thank you! There’s always stuff in the pipeline – stories, scripts, oil – but right now nothing is more important than the show. Also, I want to throw in a quick plug for my fellow Colbert writer Frank Lesser’s new book, Sad Monsters. Buy our books together, everybody! You’ll get a special discount, although the discount may only be that you have to make fewer trips to the bookstore.
A big thank you to Scott Sherman for taking the time out to talk to us, and to the Hub Staff for helping me put the interview together!!