Exclusive Interview: Humorist Andy Spain

Cash Grab author Andy Spain discusses his new book, his life in media production, work/life balance, and more.

Andy Spain is a video editing and graphics expert living in Durham, North Carolina. In addition to his media production work, Andy has found success with numerous humor outlets such as McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Weekly Humorist, Slackjaw, and others. His debut humor novel, Cash Grab from Humorist Books, released to positive reviews in March.

I spoke with Andy about how his life influenced the book, his journey in the humor game so far, and his advice for writers on a similar path.

CWP: Has it been fun to ask people to buy a book called Cash Grab? That’s a pretty good bit on its own.

Spain: The title Cash Grab was partly a joke I thought of years ago, like telling someone straight out “I only did this for the money.” That kind of blunt honesty is funny to me, and the idea of pursuing a creative endeavor of any kind just for the money is so misguided. Creative jobs don’t initially pay a lot right out of school, and the ones that do are often led by sleazy people. You’re supposed to follow your passions, but how do you put a roof over your head in the meantime? That’s a major theme in the book, plus it’s the name of a game show where people literally grab money! I didn’t realize the title sort of rhymes with “hashtag” until someone recently thought that’s what I said the book was called.

“There’s something deeply hilarious to me about a live TV show going wrong.”

CWP: I was not surprised to learn you have real-world video editing/graphics experience. Is it safe to assume you’ve wreaked havoc on an actual public access station or two?

Spain: I’ve worked in media production since 2001 in marketing, local news, documentary, and feature film (ish), and learning to control the bizarre desire to sabotage everything has been a part of my professional maturation (ish). There’s something deeply hilarious to me about a live TV show going wrong. I know a lot of dedicated people put a lot of hard work into shows that don’t totally work out and it’s a let down, but seeing someone miss a cue, fall, or curse accidentally instantly shatters the fake surreality of the TV experience and sends it into another level that’s just as enjoyable in its own right. I’ve never quite done that intentionally, but I was part of an unauthorized pirate TV broadcast in college that, silly as it was, was invigorating and encouraged me to get out of my shell more.

Also, I was in a band in high school called The Vox Pops and we played live to tape on a public access show in Charlotte, NC where this polite older woman nodded encouragingly and usually featured gospel choirs, poets, and bible discussion. We played some Beatles covers dressed up in KISS makeup. It was hysterical and I wish I still had the VHS tape my brother recorded from the one time it aired. Do you remember The Grape Lady? She briefly filled in as a weekend meteorologist at a station I worked for years ago. She didn’t wreak the havoc some of us expected (or hoped for), but it was great to have that brush with TV fame.

[It’s nice to hear Grape Lady was able to work or simply breathe again.]

CWP: A major theme of the book (it seemed to me) was the balance we look for in our careers of creativity, purpose, ambition, and whatever else we might be looking for. I personally believe some answers are objectively better than others, but that balance is going to come up differently for everyone. Am I in the right ballpark?

Spain: You nailed it. That balance in our careers of creativity, purpose, ambition, and whatever else makes us who we are is something I’ve mulled over since I was a teenager. I was always a “sensitive kid” and emotional about issues other people seemed to ignore, and I could not imagine myself working in an office cubicle when I was older. It terrified me. Working at a grocery store at 15 was a great experience in countless ways, and at the time I thought I could do that indefinitely before I could “crunch numbers on spreadsheets” in some stale fluorescent-lit prison. What I learned is that everyone wants something different, but knowing yourself and admitting what you want while trying to make a plan is only half the battle; you also have to be open to new experiences that might seem a little off the mark from what you hoped for.

I get a lot of satisfaction out of editing and motion graphics, but I don’t have a huge ego about how visible my work has to be. I learned that the work/life balance is the most important thing to me and the wow-factor of the end product I’m working on takes a back seat to that. In my 20s, my nightmare was to sell out for a job I didn’t really want and either wind up stuck there or forget what really mattered to me while my life ticked by. I’d like to think that feeling comes through by the end of the book, but anyone who reads it will have a different view of what’s a “successful” move for Buddy.

“…I fortunately reached a job that’s pretty much ideal for my personality type.”

CWP: You spoke in your book launch stream on YouTube about the decision not to head to an industry hotspot (like Los Angeles) like your friends did. If hindsight’s always a catch-22 (to borrow from the book), do you think you bought yourself a happier life with that choice?

Spain: Thanks so much for tuning in to the book launch! For once I felt like I didn’t sound as dumb as I actually am. Telling people your book is a takedown of Ayn Rand is a great way to trick them into thinking you’re an intellectual. So, going back to “knowing thyself” as I mentioned, at 21 I was really ambitious about working in film or TV but couldn’t picture myself moving to L.A., being a tiny fish in a huge pond, surviving on very little money doing gophering jobs, and probably getting in a bad car accident like everyone I knew out there did. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; I’ve known people who made it work and did well for themselves.

[Spain adds:] I edited a martial arts movie in 2004 called Fight Circle that starred a very young Sam Hargrave who went on to become the head stunt coordinator for some of the Marvel movies and directed Extraction with that Hemsworth guy. Sam’s the nicest dude ever, so huge kudos to him.

I thought about what I wanted for myself and that included getting married, having kids, and living in [North Carolina] where I’m halfway between the beach and mountains, where at the time the cost of living was unbeatable. I stuck to my guns and worked some freelance jobs, taught video production for a couple years, and made moves here and there until I fortunately reached a job that’s pretty much ideal for my personality type. So, as opposed to being a big risk taker, I’ve always tried to make a calculated plan and then swing big. The best career mantra to me is what Conan O’Brien said on his last episode of The Tonight Show“If you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.” Underneath all the snarkiness in Cash Grab is my sincere hope that people are honest with themselves and make plans to pursue the life they want.

CWP: In that same YouTube discussion, your audience participant, you, and I think Andy (Newton) all had different go-to comedy novels you love. I run into this a lot. You also said you knew there was an audience for these books, but it isn’t necessarily a sought-after market. I agree on this also. What do you think is going on with that?

Spain: Humor is so subjective. It’s hard to find two people who agree 100% on comedians and movies, but it’s fun to hear about what speaks to other people that I may have missed. I think the comic novels that I mentioned were The Stench of Honolulu by Jack Handey, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, and The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundey. The last two are from the 1950s, back when comic novels were still a thing, and Handey’s book likely got considered for publication because he’s Jack Handey.

I think many readers have drifted toward television for laughs, and many humor writers who otherwise would’ve considered writing comic novels have gone into TV writing. That’s my best guess. I’ve noticed lots of writers for popular TV comedies also have a lot of Twitter followers, so it’s probably a good way for them to get notoriety for their work and connect with their audience in a fun way. A lot of those people have also written humor books, so it seems like the desire and market is there. Maybe if I had moved to L.A. I wouldn’t have had to write a novel to break into the humor writing world! Dang, now I’m rethinking all my life’s choices.

“Building a brand” makes me throw up in my mouth a little…

CWP: You do video work in addition to your writing that fits very well in the social media world, and I feel like we’re seeing the importance of humor writers dividing their time in nearly equal parts spent working on their craft and their web presence. Do you think the near future Buddy has just as much work to do on social?

Spain: You’re absolutely right about writers dividing their time. Some writers and agents I reached out to when I was first seeking publication told me to work more on “building a brand” online and, if it’s working, someone will find you. “Building a brand” makes me throw up in my mouth a little, but for humor writers and comedians, it can be awesome because you’re telling jokes and making people smile.

Elon Musk is in the middle of buying Twitter as I write this, and I’ve seen a lot of dissent over that already. I hope he doesn’t do anything awful to ruin it. It can be a demented nightmare of a site at times, but I’ve met so many fun people and laughed at their jokes that I can’t say it has been a waste of time. I initially signed up for an account just so I could follow George Wallace, the funniest comedian on earth. He’s doing free stand-up in the wild! What’s not to like?

Having said all that, I very consciously left the internet out of Cash Grab. I prefered thinking the video production people in that story world were still working with boxes of Beta tapes in dusty basements with warped monitors like something out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. That sentiment also somewhat mirrors how disconnected I was from that world in my 20s while I was grappling with the same professional anxieties Buddy deals with. Social media was brand new back then and seemed like a frivolous flash-in-the-pan to me at the time (everyone called it Web 2.0, hahahaha!). Advertisers were trying so hard to monetize social media by “building their brand” and creating “content marketing” which are just new pipelines for them to tell you you’re ugly and you need to buy their acne cream. A pox on all that.

Social media is also so open-ended and potentially scary that it was daunting to even think about including it in the book when there are so many other anxiety-driven issues Buddy deals with. If Buddy had access to Twitter, he’d probably be the type who only tweets twice a year and gets his account suspended each time. He can’t see the big picture and acts impulsively, which are traits that make for terribly insensitive rants. 

CWP: Tell me about the inspiration for the wild physicality between a lot of the characters in the book.

Spain: I wanted the book to be accessible and silly but also have a darkness in the background that constantly threatened to spill over and ruin everything for everybody. There’s something about a balance of goofy and dark that appeals to me, like in Twin Peaks, Coen Brothers movies like Fargo and Burn After Reading, and Oingo Boingo’s “Nothing Bad Ever Happens To Me“.

The violence in Cash Grab is mostly cartoony, over-the-top, and somewhat easy to laugh at, which is in itself a bit of pretentious commentary on how easily TV desensitizes audiences to visuals they shouldn’t be ok with. The character Cliff Montagna is a physical manifestation of this uneasiness but also the primary force for pushing all sorts of heightened debauchery onto TV audiences. He knows that whenever he wants his way, he just has to suggest a violent encounter is imminent for whoever disagrees with him. This attitude shapes the reprehensible shows he creates, and those shows encourage real-life people to attack other real-life people for the chance to be on TV. Hilarious, right?

I didn’t want the violence to get too real, but I wanted to highlight how people mouthing off with anonymity on social media seems to be bleeding over into real life more frequently, which is really scary. If things felt a bit too real when I was writing, that’s when I’d have a horse puppet interrupt the scene and make dumb jokes.

CWP: How did you score the blurb from Bill Martin of 3rd Rock from the Sun and Grounded For Life fame?

Spain: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” When I reached out to friends and acquaintances who had connections for potential blurbs, a really cool guy I did some documentary work for years ago suggested Bill because they’re friends.

I wasn’t expecting such a spot-on blurb and I’m forever indebted to him for being so cool about it. Grounded For Life is sorely overlooked, BTW. Donal Logue, Megyn Price, and Kevin Corrigan are all excellent in it. There have been many FOX shows that should’ve lasted longer, but at least we can still enjoy it thanks to on-demand streaming (it’s currently on Peacock, which will probably have been absorbed by some other media conglomerate by the time anyone reads this).

CWP: Have we seen the last of Cash Grab’s fictional world? Is that something you’re comfortable saying one way or the other right now?

Spain: I honestly had no plans for revisiting the Cash Grab world because I’m more interested in trying something different next, but earlier this year when I started thinking people might ask me that question, random disconnect scenes with those characters started materializing in my head. I should probably go to a doctor to get that checked out.

Little by little, it looks like there might be something coming together where I can shift the focus a bit within the same satirical world. Nothing worth mentioning yet, but I’d love for it to be called Cash Grab 2: Cheap Sequel.

CWP: Some folks say it’s a new day for the humor writer. What are the must-dos for us new guys?

Spain: Sign up for a free trial of Skillshare and watch Mike Lacher’s “Write Funny for the Internet” class. Take notes, practice those principles, then write every day and submit everywhere. Try to fit a site’s style that may not be your usual forte; you’ll definitely learn something in the process because writing is like exercising a muscle. I usually have 6-8 short humor pieces going at once and ping-ponging between them helps the ideas feel fresh and not so frustrating when I get stuck. I’ve had pieces in my “MAYBE NOT” folder for months that clawed their way out and actually got accepted somewhere. It’s good to get into a rhythm where you know when to put something away for a while. I’m constantly shuffling things around, trying something new, revisiting abandoned pieces, and taking breaks when I feel frustrated (hiking always helps me clear my head). Mike’s class kickstarted all of this for me, especially where he mentions taking something that frustrates you and writing from a POV that defends it. That’s Irony 101, baby, and there’s so much of that on sites like McSweeney’s. Don’t go on an angry rant—channel your frustration into something creative.

And know that rejection sucks. It just sucks every time. Some folks say “don’t take it personally” but I have yet to discover what other way there is to take it. My suggestion is to learn to live with it. Each rejection stings, but with time, your other life experiences will dwarf it and take the suck factor out of it a bit. Many rejections have made me curse extravagantly at my computer and clench my fists, but I always try to remember “This is supposed to be fun, right?” And it is. Keep going after the little observations that make you chuckle and try to flesh them out into relatable pieces and stories, but know that you will hear a lot of “no thanks” no matter how long you’ve been at it. If that’s too much for you to handle, then by all means start your own humor site and do whatever you want! You are a beautiful and unique snowflake, and you might have a fresh style and voice that people will connect with.

You’re definitely never too old to try.

CWP: Drop me any social channels/links for folks to check out.

Spain: Please follow and mute me on Twitter! @CitizenSpain

Cash Grab by Andy Spain is currently on sale at discount from Humorist Books.

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