Comedian Kevin O'Brien on James Joyce, losing faith and North Korea
Reading is about more than following a narrative or learning facts; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, a weekly feature celebrating the books that inspire Denver artists.
Kevin O'Brien is a local wiseacre and archivist of analog technology who's responsible for some of Denver comedy's most consistently entertaining shows. A consummate host above all, O'Brien runs the highly touted Arguments and Grievances comedy debate show that celebrates its three-year anniversary at 10 p.m. November 17th at the Vine Street Pub. O'Brien also co-hosts the similarly acclaimed These Things Matter Podcast, interviewing DJs, comedians and Westword writers, and exploring their personal relationships with pop culture. We met up with O'Brien at his house to play a game of bookshelf trivia, talk about his lapsed Catholicism, existentialism, James Joyce and the film criticism of Kim Jong-Il.
Westword: I'm trying to figure out which books on the shelves are yours and which belong to Mara.
Kevin O'Brien: Half of them are mine, and half of them are Mara's. They're all mixed together. Let's play a game: I'll call out a title and you'll say whose book you think it might be. Ready? The Invisible Man.
I'm going to say, whoever's book that is, it's from a college class.
So it's yours, then.
It's mine from high school.
Was that one of your point-proving books?
It definitely was. It showed everyone that I had principles. Let's try again. Water for Elephants? I'm gonna go with Mara. You got it. How about Fear by Hunter S. Thompson?
Nope, that's Mara's.
Oh, man. I'm not giving her enough credit for her subversive reading habits.
How about Dubliners by James Joyce?
Yeah, that was my big Irish lit phase in college. I was getting super into my Irish heritage at the time.
I've heard that Dubliners was a pretty dense read.
No, you're thinking of Ulysses. I haven't even tried to read Ulysses. I've been reading Brief Interviews with Hideous Men this week to prepare for a podcast about David Foster Wallace we have coming up, and they're different, but they're both built out of these little vignettes that change in tone and structure.
I've only read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Which is a great book for a lapsing catholic.
Yeah, it totally is. That book felt like it was made for me when I was 21.
Were you religious?
Oh, yeah. I was a good Catholic boy, I was an altar boy, I got confirmed, I did all that stuff. I visited a seminary in college.
Yeah. I used to do a standup bit about it, um, but it's not very good. But I, but yeah, when I was seventeen for about, I don't know, for a couple of months I thought about it.
Yeah? Even celibacy and shit? Were you all straight-edge at that point?
Yeah, yeah I was super into straight-edge punk music, so like the whole cultural aspect didn't seem to bother me too much, so when I visited seminary it's just a lot of, I sat in essentially on college classes and it was like the first college visit I had gone on, and it seemed like a cool place where people read and talked about things and it was all like kinds of philosophical. It was discussions and all this sort of shit, and I also liked it was public speaking -- once a week you got to get up to talk to people, you got to give your opinion or insight on something, that was really cool to me. I was super into speech in high school and I really liked doing that stuff, but I also liked that you're kind of like a therapist in that way. They counsel people and they get to help people like that, which I thought was really cool. It took going to a Catholic college for me to become an atheist and start drinking and having sex and everything. The celibacy thing didn't bother me because I wasn't getting laid anyways -- that was the other thing. I'd had a couple girlfriends, and I was horny all the time because I was a teenage boy, but at the same time I was starting to think about it deliberately, what the lifestyle would be like what would I really be missing out on.
But you had no idea.
I had no idea! And it's like you know I've already got a sense of what that is, I know I'm straight or whatever, running to the collar as they call it. It didn't seem to matter to me too much at a certain point. It was like if I thought on an objective level, it didn't seem like a big deal. I was trying to be all logical about it. But then maybe after like a couple of months I was like, "I can't fucking do that" because I think I had started going out with a girl again.
Did you generally lose interest in religion?
Yeah, it was pretty quick. it was within the span of maybe, I don't know, like full-on maybe a year at the most. It was within a few weeks, a couple of months, you know, because I took intro to philosophy class, which is just the dumbest and most clichéd way to question your religion. That's how square of a Nebraska kid I was. Because I took intro to philosophy and didn't even get through the whole semester before I already started to have doubts. I was going to mass every Sunday my freshman year of college still; I would pray dude, I would pray at night, I would fucking pray. I guess you could say I was fucking religious. Then I took a philosophy class and from a former priest who was essentially excommunicated from the church but he decided that he would leave under his own volition. He had been working there for thirty years, he was the man.
Do you remember any particular philosophers that inspired your newfound godlessness?
Seems about right.
Dude, Sartre. Right away, Sartre! Once again,that's so fucking cliché. But everything I've done looking back is the biggest white guy cliché shit and like, and it was the most obvious shit, like when I read The Wall for the first time and it got my wheels spinning in this way where I was rethinking a lot of what I'd been taught. And then I think the summer after my freshman year I was with my parents and it was June or something and I went to mass with them and afterwards I said is it wrong that I feel less inspired after mass than I did before? And they knew and neither one of them said anything. So my dad was just annoyed with me and then when I started telling him that I didn't believe in God and I didn't want to go to mass he was yelling at me, like, "You have to go to mass," and I was like I'm not going, it was a power struggle and I won.
For a long time that was a big thing in my family because everybody in my family knew I stopped going. My nana would still write me letters and stuff and she was like, "I know you think God turned his back on you," but that wasn't even how I felt about. Logically, I couldn't go along with it anymore because I was so into this continental philosopher thought process. It's like everything I know is a reality of my own construction. So if my brain dies, my conscious being ends, then that's it. I know my neurons fire in a certain way that make this the thing that it is, so when that dies then I die, then there is no heaven, there is no hell, there's no after-life. So, it's like as much as I want to believe in God, I can't believe in an afterlife.
My theology teachers were pretty by the book. Old and traditional, even more so than my parents, and I started getting to the point where I was rebelling but I was still really into being Catholic, so I starting to trying to come up with my own philosophy where I would say I like to believe whatever your religious faith is when you die, you go to some version of that in the afterlife. Which is such a sweet sentiment, but now it feels like the dumbest fucking thing ever. I liked the idea of everybody just getting what they want out of this belief thing, which is I think was the first sign I was going to end up becoming an atheist.
Yeah, that's pretty much what I wanted to believe as a kid.
It took No Exit for me to be like, oh my God, oh no, what does this mean? And I tried to read Nietzsche and I wasn't smart enough. I wanted to be a philosophy minor, and then when I started getting into the harder stuff, I was like, oh man, it was so much cooler when we were just talking about ideas.
Ideally, philosophy should be discussed like that in a symposium-type setting. On the page, everything gets repetitive and hard to understand because they're also referencing all these other philosophers.
Kierkegaard is like that. I don't think I could handle the reading so much at a certain point because it got so dense. I don't know if I developed adult ADD or what, but I had a tough time just sitting there and reading this stuff.
That's why I attached to Camus and Sartre so much -- because they were good writers, they frame their philosophy around a narrative.
Well, it's kind of easy to read and grasp; it's always about people, that's the thing. It's always identifiably like it doesn't matter what race and gender you are, you can just identify with the people in the stories so well, just by the way it's written, because it's written so simply you know.
They're making a point, but it's not as didactic as other philosophy writing.
It's not Ayn Rand or something. That stuff is just so poorly written. I tried to read The Fountainhead and I couldn't even get through half of it. To me, it might as well have been Dianetics.
I always at least try reading books by people I strongly disagree with, but I rarely ever finish them.
Yeah, it's good to try because you feel stimulated on an intellectual level, like you're not completely one-dimensional.
I tried to read "The Cinema and Directing" by Kim Jung Il.
What? That exists? Do you have that? Can I borrow it? What the fuck is that?
No, but you can find it pretty easily. I just read a pdf of it online.
Is it better than, equal to, or worse than Roger Ebert?
Well, I love Roger Ebert, so I'm pretty comfortable saying that Kim Jong-Il is worse than Roger Ebert in every conceivable way, but especially as a film critic. It's just propaganda about how movies should have songs and reinforce the message of the State. He even kidnapped a South Korean filmmaker once.
I can't believe you read that. I have been so fascinated by North Korea in the past few months. I've been reading up about tourism there, seeing how much a ticket would cost. I hope the NSA isn't following my google searches because it looks like I'm planning a trip. Dennis Rodman, of all people, was the one who sparked my interest.
He seems like he totally bought into the propaganda.
But I'm still kind of intrigued. Kim Il-Sung, the first Dear Leader, his books are like their bible. I want to read it, but it also seems like such a waste of time. There's so much of it, and it's all just empty propaganda, but I want to see what it is that has all these people thinking he's the messiah. I also worry that I'd just be too stupid to read it. I don't feel smart enough to read really dense stuff. That's why I went through this phase when all I read was oral histories. read so many oral histories of bands and shows.
Like Live From New York?
Yeah, it's right there on the shelf. I remember in college, my senior year, I read that 600- page oral history about Saturday Night Live just casually in like a week. While I was in school, with stuff I was supposed to read for class. I remember, I felt like, what happened to me. I remember in high school I would just read to show off. That was my way of proving to people in my town that "Hey, I'm smart, I'm cool and I'm getting the fuck out of this one-horse town. I'm reading the Beats, man. I'm reading Salinger, everyday. I'm reading Faulkner for fun." After college, I'm tearing through a book about SNL. I wouldn't touch Moby Dick, but I read Artie Lange's Too Fat to Fish the entire way through.
O'Brien will be performing at the Cartoons & Comedy showcase at 10 p.m. November 17 at Deer Pile. Fans of comedy, schadenfreude or both can also check out O'Brien's weekly open mic at the Matchbox, where things get sublimely weird every unday at 11 p.m.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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