Samantha Irby Needs to Talk About Some Sh*t
Michele Filgate Talks to the Very Funny Author of We Are Never Meeting in Real Life
To say that Samantha Irby has a great sense of humor is an understatement. She made a name for herself eight years ago when she launched her Bitches Gotta Eat blog, where she writes about everything from blocking annoying people on Facebook (“so yeah, even if people are relatively harmless it doesn’t mean you have to, like, be assaulted by their terrible memes. you don’t owe them shit!”) to dealing with Crohn’s Disease.
In her latest collection of essays, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, Irby establishes herself as one of our most entertaining but poignant contemporary essayists. Whether she’s talking about trying out a strap-on with her wife, pooping on the side of a road, or growing up poor, Irby is the unpretentious but brilliant voice that we need to hear. I recently spoke with her by phone for an hour. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Michele Filgate: When did you create your Bitches Gotta Eat blog, and why did you start writing it in the first place?
Samantha Irby: I started Bitches Gotta Eat in 2009. I had this little Myspace blog that I started to impress this dude. So I was like, I’ll just write these little blogs and they’ll be funny and I’ll win him over. And so I dated him and it ended and I was like “Well, I’m done with this blog.” Then I stopped. Then everybody switched over to Facebook anyway, so you know, a Myspace blog, no one was going to read it anymore. So my friend Laura was like “You know, I really liked that blog and so did a lot of other people. You should start a real one.” And I had no idea that that would be a thing, and I was like how do I do it? And so she explained Blogger and she said “You can just make it whatever you want.” And so I did. I mean, at first I didn’t know what I was going to write about. I wrote about whatever TV shows I was watching and stuff like that. But then I kind of picked a theme and got a readership and just was like “Well, I’ll just write about myself.” I think my lens or my perspective on most things is pretty funny. I wouldn’t describe myself as a good-natured person, but I can experience things good-naturedly, if that makes any sense. I scowl about everything, but even in situations I hate I can find the humorous silver lining.
So I just started writing about all the dumb stuff that was happening to me every day, and then it kind of exploded. And people were really reading it. When people I didn’t know started reading it, emailing me or commenting or whatever, I was like “Wow, this is a thing.” And so then I just committed to doing it. It wasn’t anything that I ever really wanted to do, and then I kept doing it because people were reading it and responding well to it and I just haven’t stopped. Now it’s like well, you know, can I stop? [Laughs] If I take too long to post, people are like “What’s up? Where are you?”
MF: One of the things I absolutely love about We Are Never Meeting in Real Life is how candid you are. You talk about having Crohn’s Disease, for instance. Why is the subject of our digestive systems and poop so taboo? I mean, as we know from Taro Gomi’s children’s book: Everyone Poops.
SI: Yeah! Once I got really sick in 2008 or so, I reached a point where it really was impossible to conceal. Especially when I was dating a lot or whatever, there was a lot of thought that had to go into your life when you’re shitting yourself all the time, like what can I eat? How many Imodium do I have to take? Like how many days before this date should I stop eating solid food so that I don’t have a problem when I’m on the date? It had become such a big thing that I was like you know what? It’s impossible for me to hide it, and if someone is uncomfortable hearing it or dealing with it or knowing about it, that can’t be on me.
If someone said “Oh my god, I have terrible diarrhea,” I wouldn’t immediately be like “Get out of my sight.” How can I get you to the nearest toilet and move to the furthest room so you feel like you can be free and not embarrassed? And so I just decided it’s something I can’t hide. At one point I was taking, you know, 20 pills a day or something. That is a really hard thing to hide from people when you’re around them a lot. And so if I have shame about this, then that’s going to impact my life more than being like “No, I don’t want the nachos because they’re going to destroy my insides.” I just felt like being really frank about it. We’re conditioned to be ashamed and it felt like a big enough burden that I had to deal with it in the first place that I didn’t want to add the burden of also trying to hide it. And so then I was like well, I’m just going to write about it. And the response I get—I have gotten so many emails from people who say “Thank you for talking about this.” I think it’s really brave for people to be like “Hey, my life is often disrupted by my butt.” And not to compare it to the challenges disabled people face, where there are no ramps or no elevators or things like that, but there are not a lot of good toilets all over the place that are readily accessible to people.
I went to LA in December, and I did the thing where I don’t eat so I don’t have to poop. But then I was like if you had to poop two or three times on this airplane, what a nightmare it is, right? This little tiny box with other people impatiently waiting for the box and then you’re supposed to feel bad that you smelled up the little box that you had to poop in. And I feel like that’s a thing we all can relate to, healthy guts or not. Everyone has had that feeling of “Oh, you have to sit in my stink.”
I want everybody to get to that place where they’re like “Sorry I ate a wheel of brie before getting on this flight.” So inch-by-inch, I’m dragging us. I feel like men can take a dump or whatever and be proud of it. They’re really proud of it. And I want us to be as proud of our poops, too.
MF: Me too. Amen to that. I can already see the headline for this interview, by the way. [Ed. note: yup.]
SI: That’s the hill I’m going to die on. Everybody talking about their poop with zero shame.
MF: Speaking of shame, in the essay “Fuck It, Bitch, Stay Fat,” you write that at one point “I learned how to operate under both the physical and emotional weight of unrelenting shame very early.” Did shame motivate you to become a writer? And has writing helped remove the shame?
SI: I started writing in earnest in high school. And at that point, I was writing fiction which was really thinly veiled stories about myself and my dream life. So I definitely was trying to escape. My childhood was rough, plus I was a fat kid. There was a lot happening that I wanted to kind of get away from, at least in my head. I used to read a ton and so I started writing. I think now my view of shame is it’s healthy. [Laughs] I feel like it’s not poop shame, but it’s good to keep yourself from acting like a total asshole the whole time and being embarrassed is a coping mechanism or something. Basically I feel like they keep things in check, and everybody could use a little bit more shame. [Laughs] And so I definitely think it has helped to keep me from humiliating myself all the time. [Laughs] I wish I lived in a world where I could feel free to do whatever, but I don’t, so I make the shame work for me, if that makes sense.
MF: You have a wonderful, twisted sense of humor but there are essays in this book that deal with really serious topics, like abuse and growing up poor. And I’m wondering if it’s harder to write jokes about some of these really painful experiences. Are there any topics you consider off-limits?
SI: I think time is my friend, and the further I get from something the more perspective I get. I feel like one of the things that I’m really good at is living through the horror of something and then, you know, a few days, a few weeks, a few months, a few years later being able to look at it and laugh at the ridiculousness of it. My parents died almost 20 years ago. I don’t have any active hurt about it. At this this point, my friends are all in their thirties and forties and they’re dealing with their parents. I have not seen a situation yet that makes me jealous.
Like, thank God mine are dead.
If they were alive and who they had been before they’d died, they would just be a huge albatross. I don’t have anybody telling me what to do. I don’t have anyone to disappoint. I feel very free. I feel very free when they’re not around. In my first book, I wrote this essay about my mom and when I wrote it I cried. This time around when I wrote about my dad, I didn’t. And I think just as time passes it makes those things easier. And I’d sworn to myself though that this was it. This is it, almost 20 years. I do not need to reexamine their lives and deaths anymore.
This is the last time I’m going to write about them. Not because it’s painful, but just because it’s old, you know? I’m going to be really crass and say how long can I beat this dead horse? But for real, how long?
I’ve just started, but I really do get super shy about writing about my weight and how I feel about myself physically. Like writing that essay where the chair broke at brunch—I wanted to kill everyone in the room and myself so we could never talk about it again.
I think because I haven’t fully decided how I feel about it. I mean, am I going to be a fat liberation person who is like “I don’t care. I do whatever I want. Whatever size I am is what I am.” Or am I going to change and try to see a dietician or whatever my doctor wants me to do? I think because I am so uncomfortable in my body and uncomfortable with what I should be doing, writing about my weight and my body is still tough. But not so tough that I wouldn’t do it.
MF: Do you ever get anxious about writing about your anxieties and then having people read about your anxieties?
SI: Ultimately I feel like every embarrassing or terrible thing I write about is helping someone somewhere. I have gotten the most random [responses to] things I didn’t think would help anybody. People will email me and be like “Thank you for writing about how terrible that plane trip was,” or whatever random thing.
So if there’s the potential it could make someone laugh, that’s always my first goal; or if might do some good, then it’s worth it for me to squirm and feel weird about it.
MF: FX is developing a comedy based on Meaty and your blog, with Abbi Jacobson of Broad City and Jessi Klein of Inside Amy Schumer attached to the project. Can you tell me about your work on the show and what it’s like to see your own words transformed into a script for TV?
SI: Well, I am an executive producer, and Jessi and I are writing it, and then Abbi reads it and makes suggestions. We just turned in the first draft of the pilot, which is very cool. I feel so removed from it, because I’m sitting in a little room in Michigan. It doesn’t feel very Hollywood in here right now. It’s really important for me to get fat people on TV and to be talking about inflammatory bowel diseases on television. I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any shows right now that prominently feature someone who has to poop all the time.
That, to me, was the most important thing, is to be representing for all my IBD people out there. So there’s a lot of diarrhea in the pilot. But also talking about, you know, being young but having to take a lot of pills. What if you can’t always afford those pills?
And what hospitals are like when you’re in and out. I really want to be real. Right now, it feels so abstract right? It’s just a bunch of pages with words on them. I feel like I will really bug out when there’s casting and real people attached. Like that’s going to feel crazy… I feel like people will really be into it. And I don’t want it to be a big deal anymore when you see a black character on television just doing normal stuff. Just trying to live and love and all that, you know? I just want there to be more of that on TV. Plus I really want to see a girl with a big ass on TV.
And another thing that is really sort of important to me is hustling. I worked a lot of random jobs and our focus is going to be, at least in the beginning, on the time when I was working for my friend’s dad as his assistant and sort of straddling the line between my own personal poverty but sort of this access to wealth, you know? Because I drove his car, I had his credit cards, and was living this kind of lavish life on one hand, and then went home to my barren studio apartment on the other…
At least at first we’re not going to talk about writing. Like, you know, there’s that idea of the struggling writer, the struggling artist. I wasn’t ever really that. I just had these jobs and kind of wrote on the side. We don’t often see someone who’s young and just fine doing their job and not aspiring for more. I had no aspirations. I still don’t, you know? Probably that should embarrass me to say.
MF: I like your outlook on life. It’s inspiring.
SI: Yeah. I want to make a TV show about a person who is just like “All right, if something good happens to me today, great. If something bad happens I’m going to joke my way through it and come out okay on the other side.” So cross your fingers that they love this show.
Feature photo by Kirsten Jennings.