Nathan Rabin is the head writer for The Onion‘s A.V. Club and the author of the New York Times-approved The Big Rewind. The book chronicles Rabin’s adolescence in Chicago, where he grew up with depression, shuffling between schools and foster homes. His father sent him to a mental hospital after a a failed caffeine-pill suicide attempt. In The Big Rewind, Rabin uses pop culture references, from Matisyahu to The Simpsons, to springboard into the often-horrifying stories of his life. Among them: getting a girl pregnant the first time he had sex, and visiting the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. On mushrooms.
Rabin met Onion writer Keith Phipps while working at a video rental store in Madison, Wisconsin, where the satiric newspaper was then based. He was given a $5-a-review job as a film critic. Rabin is now the architect of features for The Onion A.V. Club like My Year of Flops, where he exhaustively examines failed Hollywood ventures, and Nashville or Bust, an introductory series to outlaw country music. I met Rabin outside his downtown Manhattan hotel last Thursday. We wandered the windy streets of Chinatown in the rain before ducking into a restaurant, where Rabin ordered a strawberry-blueberry-banana smoothie. Then we started talking.
Your parents divorced at an early age. You were in and out of foster homes, and then a mental hospital. But your writing is packed with jokes. Do you take on a different persona when you write?
I find I’ve always coped with things by finding humor in them–turning them into a joke. I think that’s the essence of black comedy. You laugh to keep from crying. At the beginning of my book there is a Jim Thompson quote, “What else is there to do but laugh an’ joke … how else can you bear up under the unbearable?” I think that’s something endemic to my writing. I think being Jewish is a big part of it. Jews have always been repressed. They’ve always been persecuted. One of the ways that they coped was by developing a sense of humor. A dark sense of humor.
Going in and out of foster homes, the mental hospital, how did that shape your musical taste? In the book you have a lot of appreciation for hip-hop– Pharcyde, NWA…
One of the reasons I gravitated to rap music was–I think everyone else’s first exposure to rap music at first was Run DMC. But then I moved to Chicago and I’d listen to gangsta rap and I’d feel such incredible anger and resentment toward the world. And to find a form a music that articulated that was just incredibly cathartic. Teenagers are the most powerless people in the world. They are the most status-conscious and self-conscious people in the world. So to have someone who can be a proxy for you, who can say all the things you want to say, it makes you feel like there’s somebody who shares your pain. The rage in hip-hop, it’s free floating but you can apply it to your own life. I wasn’t oppressed by the cops, although I fucking hated the cops. The fact that there were these young black men not much older than me who were able to turn their hatred of authority into being superstars, into having lots of money and gaining respect and being on the cover of Time magazine, that blew my mind.
When you were 14, your father sent you to a mental hospital. What was it like there?
It’s one of those things that made me cultivate my imagination. It was weird the things you obsess about when you have no external stimuli. There were cute girls there but in no way were you supposed to think they were cute girls. Later there was a sex scandal and I’m like, “that’s really weird,” because you were literally forbidden to touch anybody. All these things that made you human–touching, choosing your own clothes, asserting your individuality–that was all killed. So I retreated into this fantasy world I had developed. The things I obsessed about were how excited I would be to see Marked for Death when I got out of the mental hospital. I started viewing the people running the place as vampires. They were just sucking out of us, draining our youthful individuality and vitality so we’d go out into the world and be like, “Can I clean up after dinner mom?”
I didn’t write about this in the book because I thought it would make me seem even more of an insane narcissist than I actually am. But when I was dragged kicking and screaming to the mental hospital and told to shower, I remember while I was showering I was probably crying still – very cinematic – I remember this song going through my head that said, “When I get out of here, it will mean more coming out of this agonizing low.” And then I remember thinking “You are a 14-year-old. You’ve never succeeded in anything. You’re a horrible student, a horrible son, you have nothing in the world, what makes you think you are going to accomplish great things” But you think that way because if you didn’t think that way, you’d just feel hopeless.
Growing up, you often had nobody to turn to. Does it bother you that now, with a successful autobiography, everyone is finally interested in your story?
There definitely are moments of irony. I have a cousin and growing up, I was like “I’m going to be a writer.” He was like, “That’s stupid, learn a useful trade, learn to be a mechanic.” And to have him say, “Congratulations on all your literary success,” it’s like “Yeah, I guess it’s good I didn’t grow up to become a mechanic.” I know this is an even more bitterly ironic moment. There was this 50-year-old guy I lived in a coop with. He was just a horrible human being. He basically lived there to get 19-year-olds drunk and have sex with them. My girlfriend had a dog, a St. Bernard dog. Everyone knew it was her dog and that she was the dominant one in the relationship and I was very passive, went along with everything she did. This gentleman was unhappy because he felt she wasn’t cleaning up for her dog enough. He made a point by sticking dog shit in my mailbox. And he knew it was not my dog. So I ran into him in Madison years later and he was like, “We’re all so proud of you and your literary success, you’re really making a go of it at The Onion,” and I felt like saying, “You fucking hypocrite, you don’t feel that way. You stuck dog shit in my mailbox.”
What was it like being at The Onion when you were 21, when it was still a relatively small paper in Madison, Wisconsin?
I was there at an amazing period where it evolved into something much bigger than any of us could have imagined. It exceeded our wildest expectations. It was fucking amazing. It was surreal. I had to pinch myself every day and say, “This is actually happening. This isn’t a weird three year long dream you have where you are a successful writer working with a bunch of comic geniuses and they’re your best friends and your job consists of watching movies and listening to music and getting paid.” It was a very modest sum. Now it’s a very modest sum. I was lucky enough to grow up desperately poor. So I had financial aid and a scholarship. So I was living like a pimp. My rent was paid. I had money for books and I was collecting a salary from The Onion at the same time. Part of me also was like “I’m not that good of a writer.”
You don’t think you were a good writer?
I wasn’t. I wasn’t. That’s not an opinion. That’s an objective fact. For the first five years I wrote for The Onion, I was not a very good writer. I look at some of my stuff now too, which I don’t do that often, and say “Oh that’s a pretty good phrase.” But the vast majority of it is just very ugly prose that feels like it was written by a 22-year-old who had no clue what he was talking about.
I feel that way looking at my stuff now.
Yeah, but you have to evolve. I think it’s good to look at your stuff and take a hard glance, but you can’t let it defeat you and get you down. God, it took me five years to become an okay writer. But I think it’s amazing my editors Keith and Stephen saw something in me. It wasn’t elegant prose. It wasn’t that I was a genius when it came to grammar. They saw raw talent, they saw a sense of humor, and they saw something that can be cultivated. They also saw I was a fucking hard worker and that I’d be incredibly grateful for any opportunity given to me. Again, it’s very hard for me to feel happy. And I feel like if I lose that hunger, if I lose that element of desperation, I wonder if some part of my ineffable part of writing will suffer. Hunter S. Thompson is an example of that where after the genius of his early stuff, after a certain point, he was just playing Hunter S. Thompson. Style becomes a shtick. It becomes a straight jacket.
When you think about your shtick, what do you think of?
I think of self-deprecation. A certain amount of dick jokes. I had a Color of Night entry [for A.V. Club series “My Year of Flops”] and I thought, “Oh come on, how often can you talk about your history as a compulsive teenage masturbator? The thirtieth fucking time people are going to start getting sick of it.” My Judaism is in danger of becoming part of my shtick. Pop culture references. I think there are good pop culture references and bad pop culture references. I don’t want to be Family Guy. I don’t want it to be just a bunch of disconnected pop culture randomness and expect it to all come together into something more than the sum of its parts.