John Howell Harris
When you google John Howell Harris, which you should, one of the first things that comes up is a 7 second video of him at a nice brunch, shouting and screaming incoherently, sitting shirtless with two very attractive men who are also screaming incoherently. The other salient items are articles from The New Yorker’s Daily Shouts, including a list of old sayings—“Here today, here tomorrow. I mean, it’s a pretty big rock.”—and some writing on McSweeney’s, including “I Wish I Could Say This Is The First Time I’ve Been Handcuffed to a Radiator.”
Harris has written for Adult Swim, Funny Or Die, and IFC’s Onion News Network. He’s also editor of two knee-slapping issues of Pendulous Breasts Quarterly, which includes writing and art from some very funny people, including cartoonists from The New Yorker and writers from Full Frontal, The Colbert Report, and The Onion. When asked if he had plans for a third issue, Harris said that he would likely die and we’d have to walk over his body before he’d agree to make a third installment. Unfortunate.
If you’re still googling him, here’s what won’t appear: the million-or-so headlines he’s written for The Onion, where he’s Senior Contributing Editor. Maybe he didn’t write it, but this recent headline is pretty funny: “Christ Does Soft Return To Gauge Interest.”
When was the first time you remember making someone laugh? What happened?
That’s a tough question, because I wasn’t really a kid who wanted to make people laugh, I was more a kid with intense anxiety who was pretty focused (with limited success) on avoiding humiliation at all costs. That’s not really a recipe for a risk-taker who’s trying to make people bust a gut.
What is the toughest part about being on the comedy scene in Brooklyn today? What is the best?
Hmm. My answer to this has a high potential to be misconstrued, so I’m going to attempt to be very clear. For me personally, BOTH the toughest and best part of comedy/entertainment right now—really not just in Brooklyn but in general—is that diversity and inclusiveness are very much at the forefront of every conversation. I truly and honestly believe that this is THE BEST thing for all parties involved, and of course, a long time in coming. And I do very much realize that I am at the pinnacle of white, male, cis privilege. To that point, right now there are constant opportunities for me to change and refine my way of thinking, which I really embrace. I think you can always try to go deeper with empathy, and folks in comedy and entertainment right now are provided every single day with chances to try and see things from someone else’s perspective in regard to their experience of life. As for the “toughness” of this, I think empathizing in this way can often be a very, very difficult thing for the human brain to do. But I also think if you make a concerted effort to be open to changing the way you think and understanding where someone else is coming from, it’s one of the best experiences you can have as a person.
In some arenas, people are beginning to be a little hostile toward someone such as myself (an industry person told me recently that I “have a case of white-guy-itis,” in regard to my hireability for writing jobs). HOWEVER, I fully understand that this is a natural reaction to thousands of years of white male dominance (and murder!) and that it is an infinitesimally, laughably tinier version of what other people who are not white men deal with every single day of their lives. So, it is all intertwined, and my personal view of the current ‘geist (industry-speak for “zeitgeist”) is that it’s an opportunity for me to try to be better at what I do, as well as more proactive about understanding that the people I meet potentially have a vastly different experience of life than I do, particularly if those people are women or people of color or queer or whoever else is not me, Big King Patriarchy.
Who do you find funny?
I really love whatever Kate Berlant does—she just seems so fully formed, in terms of her sensibility and what she wants to do and how she wants to do it, and that’s always super inspiring. I saw a set by Nore Davis recently, and he’s incredible; he has this chunk on his trans brother that is hysterically funny and unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Julio Torres is really, really funny and a totally unique performer. Joe Pera—he’s from Western New York, like me, and he does a seven-minute bit about the Buffalo Bills that is pure art—trust. And Chris Locke—he is this incredibly underrated Canadian stand up, and his album, The World Is Embarrassing is so GD funny. It’s been out since 2014, and I listened to it earlier this year, and could not believe I hadn’t heard of him. Also, my friend Dan Guterman is a genius and also Canadian—he keeps it pretty low-key and behind-the-scenes, but I used to work with him, so I know. He’s a writer for Rick and Morty now, which is one of my favorite shows. My dad is pretty funny, but not on purpose and mainly because he is, as of recently, a vocal atheist, and says things like, “when you’re dead, you’re dead—throw me in a ditch, I don’t care.” My mom is pretty legit funny.
What was the last time you laughed so hard you cried?
Ted Cruz being reminded by a reporter that John Boehner called him “Lucifer in the flesh.” It’s this super short, 15-second video at a press conference, where Cruz is responding to Boehner’s criticism AND PRETENDING LIKE HE DOESN’T REMEMBER WHAT BOEHNER SAID. Then, the reporter, Hallie Jackson, cuts him off and crams the Lucifer thing right down his fucking throat, and Cruz responds immediately by saying, “well, there was that too.” It’s absolutely amazing. I watched it 10 times in a row, quite literally pounding my fist on a table like a cartoon dog, I was laughing so hard. To duplicate the exquisite timing of this clip on a scripted TV show would be almost impossible. It’s just an incredibly sublime moment that I’m tearing up about right now, just thinking about it. And the best part of Ted Cruz being humiliated is that he’s a complete sociopath, so you can enjoy the huge dopamine release of pure, uncut schadenfreude totally guilt-free.
What are your goals for your comedy career?
I think I would like to move more into narrative TV writing. There just seems to be a lot of opportunities and outlets to do weird, cool stuff right now that you couldn’t do maybe even five years ago. And after all, like Ron Howard, I’m really just a storyteller, you know? I also consider quitting comedy altogether about 6-14 times a week.
And finally: What is your favorite knock-knock (or otherwise goofy) joke?
I can’t think of a goofy joke off the top of my head, but I can tell you the stupidest thing that’s ever made me really laugh. One time, I was meeting a friend at a party, and when I saw him there, I walked up to him, stuck out my hand and said, “Hey, how ya doin’—Mike Sandwich.” And then we both laughed to the point of crying. I don’t know why I did that or why we both found it so funny, but there you go. I’m pretty dumb, is the takeaway.
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Photo by Nicolas Maloof.