Producer Andy Juett on poetry, Updike and reading with his kids

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.

A consummate producer who works in video, radio and live performance, Andy Juett has been behind the scenes for a majority of the Denver comedy scene's best output, including last summer's High Plains Comedy Festival, which Juett co-owns and operates along with comedian Adam Cayton-Holland and Pete Turner and Virgil Dickerson of Illegal Pete's.

Juett isn't content to simply remain behind the scenes, however. Whether regaling audiences at the Narrators podcast with tales of youthful exploits, acting in short films or vigorously beatboxing in character for Grawlix's recurring Mouthstepperz sketch, Juett maintains an infectious enthusiasm that can't help but influence his cohorts for the better. Tonight he'll serve as one of the judges at the Open Screen short film event hosted by Total Ghost at 7 p.m. at the Oriental Theater. In advance of that, we caught up with Juett to discuss growing out of John Updike, not having time for poetry, and reading with his kids.

See also: Comedian Kevin O'Brien on James Joyce, losing faith and North Korea

Westword: Before I started recording, you mentioned that you'd read a lot of the key young liberal books. When did you get into that?

Andy Juett: There was a time in college, like a totally stereotypical cliche, I had a professor named Mike Scladoni, who was literally a man with a helmet mullet. Sixties-style, though, like an artful, crafted poof. He looked like a Beatle. It was a diversity class at Michigan State University and all he talked about was the Rolling Stones and the Black Panthers for the whole class. So I read Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton about Oakland gang violence, his experience of oppression by the police and how his ideals kind of broke down and he became a drug addict and his story ended. All of that kind of blew my mind, even though I was already aware of it. Like, when you read a book by David Hilliard, who took over the Black Panthers, or you read even like The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley, it's so interesting because it was inspired by the social revolutions of the '60s and '70s.

Was that a departure from your education prior to that point? You mentioned that you went to a Catholic high school.

In high school we pretty much just read the classics: The Scarlet Letter, Tom Sawyer,1984, tons of Shakespeare. So we read a pretty wide variety of classics.

Were there any writers from back then that you enjoyed personally enough to go beyond the assigned reading?

Yeah, at the time, I was really taken aback by everything that John Updike wrote. I read the whole Rabbit series. I feel like Updike is the Garden State of literature, though. When you saw Garden State the first time, you were like, "Holy shit" -- but now you feel less sentimental about it. Enjoying Updike probably had more to do with my mental state at the time. I feel that way about the Catcher in the Rye, too. I loved it at the time, but the loss of innocence just isn't as compelling the second time around, especially since I'm not approaching it from such an immature place. It's a rite of passage.

Yeah, once you turn seventeen, your Catcher in the Rye days are pretty much over. I loved Updike, too, although that probably had something to do with his innate perviness lurking beneath all that literary pedigree.

Updike was kind of nervy, kind of pervy. He's a little like Woody Allen that way.

I met John Updike when I was thirteen. He did a reading and I remember I was the only kid from my English class who wanted to go. He really lost touch as he got older, though. Did you read The Terrorist?

No, I haven't had much time to read lately with the pace of my life.

Honestly, don't bother, it's the worst. Do you read poetry at all?

I branched out and read a lot of poetry that seemed pretty out there, at least in the context of how I grew up. Whether it was structurally out there, like e.e. cummings, or politically out there, like Gertrude Stein. What's cool about poetry is that its format is geared towards connecting with you on a personal level pretty quickly. Regardless of style, you can just feel these universal themes, whether you're reading T.S. Eliot or something even more metered and traditional, like Keats. I don't know, I guess I kind of like everything. It's like music for me. I like every kind of music except for pop-country. I'm sad that I don't get to read more now. I read stuff on the Internet that's either brain-melting information to just process or a total waste of time.

I've felt like that lately. I'll read like three separate blogs about female comedians getting heckled by some dickhead, but feel like I just don't have time to crack a book. Have you read any of the standard comedy books?

Yeah, I loved Steve Martin's book Born Standing Up. He's one of my favorite comics because he can do everything. If you have the skill to back it up, that's what everybody should want to be. Because he performs, he acts and he also writes pretty prolifically. He pursues his passions, too, like the art criticism he's been doing lately. He's a novelist.

Have you read any of his novels or short stories? How is he as a fiction writer?

I think he has that same strain of sweetness that's evident in his movies and comedy. He's very clever with words, but he also knows not to be too ornate with descriptions. He can paint a really melancholy picture with words, more so than onscreen. Onscreen, he has to maintain a lighthearted tone, even for conflict. Unless he's doing Spanish Prisoner, or something else dramatic.

Speaking of the The Spanish Prisoner, are you a David Mamet fan? Setting aside the fact that he's a crazy neo-conservative birther now?

Yeah, I'm still a huge fan of his writing. He wrote a book called True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor that basically argues that the written word is all there is. He uses examples of actors whom he deems superior to other actors because they surrender to the script, like William H. Macy. It's all on the page. It's a writer-centric approach. There's a sense of rhythm built in to the way Mamet writes, too. He has all those weird pauses. Mamet plays are easier to visualize than a lot of other plays are based on their scripts alone. He's just written so much seminal stuff.

What kinds of books do you like to read with your kids?

It's fun to go through the phase of literature that my kids are going through right now. Adolescent to high-school literature that's relatable but also imaginative. Some of them are like creative-writing assignments that my kids could have written, but you know, still literary.

Young adult fiction is really having a cultural moment right now. What are your kids into reading?

My son really likes fantasy books and scary stories. He likes comic books and science fiction, too, but he's really into these sweeping tales. He's into the Indian in the Cupboard series. Highly imaginative, almost Jim Henson-esque, where a whole new world opens up in your bedroom.

How old is your son?

He's twelve. My daughter is fifteen.

So she's in her prime Catcher in the Rye years.

She's in the midst of big novels like that, but I also feel like the kids' book selection is more sanitized than it used to be.

Teenagers are also directly marketed to by the publishing industry, so there are more books designed just for them than ever before. Is your daughter into that Hunger Games-type stuff?

Yeah, they've both read all of those books. I'm trying to think of something else they really like, but I'm blanking on it right now.

In any case, they've been reading on their own for a while now; it's been a while since you've like, tucked them in at night with a storybook.

Sure, but I do sit and read with my son about 25 minutes a night. It's part of his curriculum to do daily reading, so we sit and read anything from comic books to fantasy to classics like Tom Sawyer. It's interesting to see how he digests Twain the same way I did however many years ago. He responds to the same themes that I did.

If you'd like to hear more of Juett's thoughts on pop-culture, here he is waxing nostalgic about Caddyshack on the These Things Matter podcast.

Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.

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Byron Graham is a writer, comedian and gentleman thief from Denver. Co-host of Designated Drunkard: A Comedy Drinking Game, the deathless Lion's Lair open mic and the Mutiny Book Club podcast, Byron also writes about comedy for Westword. He cannot abide cowardice, and he's never been defeated in an open duel.
Contact: Byron Graham

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