An Interview With Cracked.com Columnist, John Cheese
MB: You have used your character, John Cheese, on the Internet since the 90s to voice your comedy articles. I believe you originally contributed content to pointlesswasteoftime.com, which helped build up a certain underground following, and now you are a weekly columnist for one of the most popular comedy websites in the world, Cracked.com. To achieve such a position, you have had to write a ton of articles. Which means lots and lots of deadlines. Do you have any tips for other writers on how to reach such extreme deadlines each and every time?
JC: It’s not easy. A big mistake I see a lot of writers making is taking on too many projects at once. If you have four articles due, I can’t tell you how important it is to pick one of them and devote 100% of your energy to it. Treat it as if it’s the only project on your plate until it’s finished, and then move on to the next. Sometimes that’s easier said than done, but it’s doable.
Another tip is to always be in article mode. For instance, if you have a day job, your article writing isn’t confined to just the hours when you’re not at work. Yes, it’s true that you can’t physically clog up your work time with a project from another job, but 75% of writing isn’t just physically typing the words. Most of the work in an article is coming up with the idea itself—something that people will devote a few minutes of their day to reading. Those ideas are everywhere, but if your brain isn’t conditioned to always be looking for the absurdities of life, you’re going to find yourself making the same old tired “Justin Bieber is stupid” jokes.
But I’ve found that the biggest thing is willpower. Sitting down with your article and not allowing yourself to do anything else until it’s done. Don’t take a break to play a video game. Don’t stop to watch TV. Don’t get distracted on the way to the trashcan and say, “You know, this kitchen could use a bit of cleaning. It shouldn’t take very long.” It’s easy to get distracted when the process is already moving slowly. That piece has to be considered your job, and if you don’t finish it, your ass is fired.
MB: Writing for Cracked undoubtedly requires strenuous research. What are some research methods that you’ve found work best?
JC: Google and Wikipedia are a good jumping off point, but a lot of writers make the mistake of taking their search results as fact. It’s incredibly easy to find yourself in hot water by quoting something that’s just flat out wrong—and even easier to get false information from using those two sources as a cheap, easy means research. The average person is inherently lazy, and many of them will stop after Step One: Google.
What I do is trace back the quoted fact as closely to its original source as possible. The citations at the bottom of a Wiki article are invaluable because I can at least see where the information came from and then decide if it’s trustworthy enough to use, myself.
For instance, let’s say I was writing a piece on “Five Ways Republicans are More Hippie than Democrats.” I find a quote that perfectly proves my point, but when I look up at the URL, I see “republicansarethedevil.com.” There’s no way in hell I’m using that source. It’s obviously biased, even if it’s agreeing with me, and therefore not trustworthy.
A lot of the facts and stats that I quote in articles are done from memory, so that makes the research easier. I just have to find a reliable source that backs up what I’m presenting. But if I can’t do that, the stat gets tossed. There should never be a time when a writer has to resort to, “Well, I know I heard it once. Just take my word for it.” It’s not only sloppy, but it’s dishonest.
MB: I am a massive fan of John Dies at the End, a horror cult novel by David Wong (also now a feature length film by Don Coscarelli of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-tep fame), whom based the titled character “John” on your own fictionalized Internet persona. How much input did you have on the novel itself? Did you come up with any specific plotlines or characters, etc?
JC: I didn’t come up with much. The title is actually a variation of one we came up with, years before “John Dies at the End” was even a thought. We wrote a movie script together just for fun, and when it came time to name it, we threw up around 80 joke titles — one of them was “Tony Dies at the End.” I’m pretty sure it was me who came up with that because I clearly remember Dave laughing pretty hard after hearing it, and he never laughs at his own jokes. It’s an unspoken rule of ours.
There’s a scene where John is destroying monsters with a chair and shouting really bad 80s action hero catchphrases. A lot of those are from me. Dave had emailed me and said, “John is killing things with a chair. I need as many bad pun type catchphrases as you can come up with.”
There’s another scene where John uses a cigarette as a timer for a homemade bomb. That was my suggestion because even without the Soy Sauce giving him supernatural powers, John would still know exactly how long it takes a lit, unsmoked cigarette to burn.
There are lots of little things like that scattered around the book. Jokes that Wong and I have made to each other, years before we adopted the fake names David Wong and John Cheese. But again, what I contributed outside of the idea of John, boils down to one liners and a few real life conversations with Wong that were modified to fit the book.
MB: I understand that you are writing a book right now that will be in the same vein of your John’s Magic Pimp Bus column, which mostly deals with life lessons you have learned through the years, such as growing up in an abusive household and your battle with alcohol addiction. How different of a process has it been writing the book than it is writing your weekly column?
JC: It’s night and day because of the sheer volume and detail of a book format. The organization required is massive. If everything I say doesn’t flow naturally into the next section, people are simply going to close it and use it to swat flies. And if I start worrying about page numbers, it’s easy to fall into the old high school research paper mode of, “I need some filler here.” Bullshit. That filler is what makes a bad book bad. I have to constantly keep in mind that the book will be exactly as long as I have relevant ideas to convey.
I also don’t want to rehash my Cracked articles. Yes, there are some points from a few articles that have to be repeated, but there will never be a time in this process where I copy/paste from an article. I want this to be fresh, even if there are a few hit and miss ideas that aren’t. Since I write 52 articles a year for Cracked, it’s easy to get landlocked on ideas. “This idea works better for Cracked. It flows better as an article.” Or “I love this idea, but it’s not something Cracked would want to run. It goes in the book.” Once you use up your idea for the week, it’s incredibly hard to conjure up another one. Because of that, the book moves more slowly—and not just because it’s longer.
MB: After this current book is finished, do you have plans on trying your hand at fiction? And if so, what genre would you say you are most interested in?
JC: I have a couple of hit and miss short stories sitting on my hard drive, in various stages of completion. One is exactly the way I want it. Another is half finished. Another started out to be a short story, but works better as a full-on novel. But I do want to put together something in the realm of fiction. I’m just not entirely sure if it’ll be in short story form or novel form.
I’m into supernatural plots, so that will be key in my stories. It doesn’t necessarily have to be horror, but I’ve always been a fan of magic. And of course comedy will play a role, though I don’t know to what extent. But all of that isn’t even on a back burner yet. I have too much to do in my current life to tackle something like fiction. Right now, it’s more a personal stress relief than a project.
MB: Would you say you are a fan of horror? If so, what are some aspects that you like most, and what could you do without?
JC: I used to be. When I was growing up, the Nightmare on Elm Street movies were some of my favorites. The scariest book I’ve ever read was The Shining by Stephen King. The scene where he’s in the room and can feel the old lady standing behind him… I about pissed my pants when I read that back in high school.
But Nightmare on Elm Street sequels got so bad, I’m actually embarrassed to even say that I was a fan. Parts one and two were true horror. Freddy was a mysterious, demonic presence who could come out of nowhere at any time. Because the character never knew if they were dreaming or awake, it turned reality inside out, and you were never quite sure what was going to happen next. He was unavoidable because eventually you have to sleep. It was a brilliant idea.
But then they made him talk, and it turned into a goofy killfest, filled with one-liner jokes and bad puns. At that point, it was no longer horror. It was just a guy with knives on his hand, killing teenagers you didn’t like in the first place. It was snuff comedy. I’m surprised I didn’t hear a fucking “boing” sound when he stabbed a person.
But the thing I loved about horror back in the days of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers was the silence. The ever present idea of them being somewhere—anywhere—at any given moment. They didn’t have to show the killers much to whip up some fear. I don’t think you get that in movies now. People want more action and less setup. They don’t want movies. They want video game cut scenes.
I could do without those—the movies that trade their writing budget for a big CGI team.