I had the pleasure of belly-laughing through a long phone conversation with Samantha Irby about her new book, “Quietly Hostile.” After catching her up on her hometown of Evanston, where I live, Sam and I talk about her frank approach to her digestive issues and what it is like writing for television shows like the “Sex and the City” sequel, “And Just Like That…” She pulls back the curtain on how shows in Hollywood are made and even how books get their titles. Our conversation has been edited for length.
I was actually kind of surprised that a lot of your book reads like a self-help book, from the very helpful first chapter, “I Like It!” To “Shit Happens,” about bathroom conundrums. Was that your intention when you were setting out?
I did not intend for it to be self-help. On my blog, I used to take questions from magazines and answer them as if I was an advice columnist. And it’s just, honestly, it’s an easy way to write an essay, right? I’m like, “Oh, you need 5,000 words? Just go to EmilyPost.com.” I can never write a real self-help book because there is a limit to this knowledge. Like the chapter about my step-kid. I have no idea how to be a stepparent. There’s got to be other people out there who are sitting in their office with the door closed, hoping that a thirteen-year-old doesn’t walk by and come in and make fun of them. It’s more of a survival guide.
You talk about the pandemic for quite a bit. I’m wondering how you think we’re going to look back at this very weird time, especially at books from this time in the future, and also if there are other “pandemic books” that you’ve enjoyed?
Okay. Let me answer the second one first. “Severance” by Ling Ma. I loved that. “Station Eleven.” I think, first of all, when we read pandemic books in the future, because they will continue to come out, like you read a book and you’re like, oh, that’s never going to happen. That’s why I can read this book. Now we know it can happen. I became a recluse during the pandemic. And kind of settled into that and then, like, lost my mind. Then I flipped and I became terrified to go outside and, you know, feeling like people were looking at me all the time and really nervous in public. I think there is a line through the country on getting the vaccine, wearing masks versus natural immunity. That’s why I can read this book. Now we know it can happen.I think we’re going to look back and be like, wow, we really couldn’t agree on shit, huh? And like a million people had to die. My mom was born in 1943, so she lived through the civil rights movement. You watch the hoses being turned on Black people in your history class. And my mom could be like, yeah, I saw that! And “Thank God, nothing like that is happening in my life.” You know, like no big catastrophic social problem, blah, blah, blah. And then the pandemic happened and it’s like, oh, look, we didn’t band together. We didn’t support each other. Everybody just sniped at each other and screamed at each other and tried to kidnap the governor. And we all kind of lost it all. Like collective mind-losing.
Your writing reminds me of David Sedaris, how you move from deeply hilarious LOLs to also deeply sad family situations. Is he somebody that you admire or are there other comic writers that you really love?
One-hundred percent. Years and years ago when “Me Pretty One Day” came out in paperback, I remember getting a copy and I was on the bus going to work crying-laughing by myself, people looking at me, and I was like, “Oh, I did not know that you could do this.” In my life, I had always been like, well, this horrible thing happened to me. Nobody wants to hear your bad news without a little sprinkle of sugar on top. And so I learned early that when you’re tragic, it helps to make it funny. It helps me. It helps whoever I gotta tell. So, he had a big impact on opening my eyes to the possibilities. You know who else… and she doesn’t get enough credit? I listened to a lot of Chelsea Handler’s audiobooks. You take a situation that may be terrible or maybe it’s nothing and you retell it, like spice it up with jokes. I know people have strong feelings about her, but she’s incredible. But coming up, I think most of the comedy I was into came from stand-ups. I love Paul Mooney. I was really into Chris Rock. I’m into old dudes like Robin Harris and Redd Foxx. Eddie Murphy! I used to watch “Raw” and “Delirious,” like once a week. And I think that’s where maybe the raunch came from. Or like the freedom to be like, “My butthole…”
You write, “I live every single day in fear that a stranger might yell at me for some normal community thing that I’m doing wrong.” Also, I feel totally the same way. And just reading that was so validating.
Yeah! Why don’t we talk about that more? It’s just all these low-stakes things, but oh my God, if I spill cream on the Starbucks counter, is this dude going to punch me in the back of the head? Yeah, it’s my insane OCD brain. I just got diagnosed with OCD, which explained a lot about the hyper-vigilance. Don’t you feel the hostility in the air, like people are so prickly now? ‘m always like a kid waiting to be chastised by someone in public who’s like, “Don’t use that door, you idiot.”
Yes, yes, yes. Oh, thank you for writing that.
Oh, I wish I could cure it for us. I wish I could be like, “Okay, Kelly, this is what you do.”
But I don’t know! You’re just going to be terrified in public. I don’t think I’m going to get attacked. But I think the thing that scares me the most is that I won’t have a quick enough comeback. And then I will feel sort of frustrated and embarrassed. It’s not like I’m not really upset that I spilled the cream at Starbucks. I’m upset because this guy called me an idiot, and I stood there and blinked tears away rather than calling him a bitch. And then I spent the rest of my life thinking about what I could have and should have said.
I remember you writing on your blog a super-long time ago that your biggest fan demographic were white girls like me. I’m wondering if you could talk about that. Is that still true? Is that frustrating or annoying?
Well, no. First of all, I love it. I don’t know if I am so love-starved or whatever that I will take any affection from most places, but I’m very much a if-you-like-me, I-like-you person.
So I would never, ever be like “Ew! You read my book?” My books are for anybody who has $17 and a willingness to purchase them. They could use it as toilet paper. I mean, I’m from Evanston, so I have a lot of white friends. When I was growing up, I got called an Oreo, wah, wah, wah. I do not have that specific chip on my shoulder. The are-you-Black-enough-chip. What are you going to do? There’s no way to prove what you are. I can just be what I am. I’m always surprised when I see a man in an audience of mine. I don’t know. I don’t know if they want to read about, like, me pissing all over you, you know? I’m grateful when they’re there. If I was smart enough to be tackling racial problems, I might be like, “Oh, no, white people, I’m telling Black people how to rise up, and we’re plotting a coup.” No, if you want to read my poop stories, I love it. No, I really do.
I also have to ask about your newsletter, about “Judge Mathis” (Sam groans —the show had recently been canceled). Please tell me what you’re going to do!
Okay. I wanted to die when it got canceled. Yeah. Tragedy. But, let me tell you the most amazing thing that happened. So I just started writing it as a goof during the pandemic. And I had been to the “Judge Mathis” show multiple times. I’m a fan from way back. I tweeted before I deleted my Twitter, I tweeted, would anyone read a newsletter if I wrote about “Judge Mathis” every day? And, for me, it only takes one. If there is one person who’s like, I’d like it, you know, okay, world, here you go. I didn’t know who was reading it and cared about it. And one day we had gone out grocery shopping or something. We come home, there’s a message that was like, “Hi, this message is for Samantha. This is David at Warner Brothers Television. Please give me a call back.”
Wait, wait, wait. This is recently or back when you first started?
This is back in 2020. Okay. I thought I was like going to go to jail for, like, copyright infringement. I thought, I need to look at the law. So, I waited a couple of days ‘cause I was scared. And then I called back, and he was like, “Yeah, I’m the V.P. in television, and somebody sent the newsletter, and I love it.” And I was like, Huh? And he’s like, “Yeah, I love it. We sent it to the judge,” and I was like, “Please, no.” He’s like, “We all read it. Everybody on the show loves it.” And we tried to work something out so I could do something in tandem with them. But I already had a job, and they wanted me to do a full-time thing that I couldn’t commit to, but I did get the blessing of the producers of the show. And there are a ton of archives on YouTube. As long as they don’t delete those, I think I’ll be okay.
Back to your book. So even though literally your book says “diarrhea” right on the jacket, I was not prepared for how much of the book is about poop. But, um, by coincidence, I had a little bit of a digestive issue while I was reading it, and I was like, Oh, okay, I get it. When you’re having an issue, it really takes over so much of your life.
It impacts every part of your day. Who you can date, who you will be with, what kind of hobbies. What extracurricular activities you engage in. They’re all affected when you are an uncontrollable fount of liquid stool. I can’t mentally make it go away. I am at the will of my intestines. And when I started writing about it on my blog, one of my friends was like, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Do they want to read about shit?”
And I was like, Here’s the thing, man. If they meet me, it’s going to dominate my life. It was very freeing. I never have to lie to anyone about how long I’m going to be in the bathroom. And you would not believe the number of people who come to my readings, who are like, “Thank you for talking about this. Thank you for giving me a book I can give to someone who doesn’t understand why I won’t drink a milkshake. In terms of turning people off. I think—they’re essays, you can skip them. I mean, that’s why we put it on the jacket. I never want to trick anyone into thinking what I do is literature.
I know from reading your stuff that you’ve been bummed out about the reception of the “Sex and the City” sequel series. Was it hard to write about that experience?
Oh, yes. Which is why I sort of cheated. When people know about the things I do, it’s impossible not to put them in the book. If you follow me on Instagram or whatever, you know that in real life, “Oh, you worked for two seasons on an iconic show, and you’re not gonna say shit about it?” So I was like, I have to write about this. This wasn’t the first time I worked on TV, but it was the first time I worked on anything that tons of people watched. When I work on “Shrill” or “Work in Progress,” it’s like, you know, the seven people who watched that, she loved it. No one’s coming to find me or calling me a murderer because Mr. Big died, which did happen. I think the tough thing was I love the job. I’ll do it for as long as they’ll have me. I think it’s fun. I love the people I work with. I don’t know how any high-profile people ever deal with the scrutiny they get.
Your chapter about your own show really does pull back the curtain on Hollywood.
A lot of my writer friends have gotten their books optioned and I feel like no one said to me ever that this is a multi-year process at the end of which you will have made no money and you will have spent money, right? I just wish I had known that what I was going through was par for the course. I wish I knew that the chances of making the show were tiny instead of almost guaranteed. It’s not really for people who don’t have money and infinite time.
So when it came time to put the book together, at first I wanted to just put the script in the book and be like, Here, guys, here’s the show you’re never going to be able to watch. But then I thought, I did not want people to come up to me and be like, that script was so good. I think this is the interesting angle, I would want to hear from someone who has never done this before. Like their experience as a first-timer. Real celebrities lie, I’ll be like, “Yeah, this sucks. I didn’t get email back for nine months.” They won’t tell the truth. Like, I have this opportunity. I have the freedom to do this because they don’t. People aren’t buying my shows anyway. It’s not like I’m gonna get blackballed, and I didn’t name any names.
There are no names to name. It was just like, “Hey, I did not understand what was happening, and this is what happened.”
I do have a show in development at Sony right now. It is not about me, but, you know, isn’t everything kind of always about me? It features a Samantha-esque character. But she has a different name and different problems.
So in the zeitgeist, everyone’s out there all “Main Character Energy” and you go and suggest the best role is “Wedding Guest,” someone who can easily slip into the background.
Oh my God, you really read it.
Uh, yeah! I read this whole book, girl.
I’m just teasing, I love that you remember, that you wrote down… That makes my heart squee.
I mean, I can understand it vis-a-vis your digestive issues and the Crohn’s disease, but it otherwise seems very incongruous with your personality. Is that how you really feel?
I have terrible self-esteem, in particular when it comes to clothes. I don’t want anyone to be like, “Look at that fuckin’ slob who didn’t even roller the cat hair off her sweater.” I have a ton of anxiety about being presentable. And the way to counteract that, or at least the most successful way for me, has been to diminish my importance. Unfortunately, I have many situations where I’m on a stage and then I wear the same black dress and dissociate.
Yeah, but in general, at parties, you’re going to be talking to people and I’m always like, “Just remember, no one is looking at you.” And they aren’t. Yeah, that’s my secret. I get interviewed and people are like, “Oh, you write about everything.” And I’m like, “No, I do not. There is still some darkness and gaps that we have yet to plumb.”
Along the same lines, the title of the book threw me a little bit. I don’t know you, of course, but I would never describe you as “hostile.” Can you talk about the title?
I don’t pick a title because I don’t want to be disappointed. Someone in sales at Vintage, is like, “People are not going to buy this book if it’s called Shit Pussy!”—that would be a good name, though! A tender book about Crohn’s? What I do is turn in all the essays to Molly, my amazingly patient and smart editor. She reads it, and as she’s reading, she picks out phrases that could be good or interesting titles. And then she sends me a list and I pick one. It’s remarkable that it works, but it does.
By Samantha Irby
Vintage, 304 pages