Sam Tallent on "Running the Light" and Will Smith | Westword

Sam Tallent on Running the Light, Will Smith, and Being Too Big to Fail

The Denver comic talks about his new book, Running the Light, and how Will Smith played his nipples like a drum.
Comedian and Author Sam Tallent, pictured here in his current Super Saiyan form
Comedian and Author Sam Tallent, pictured here in his current Super Saiyan form Christie Buchele
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A compulsively readable story of a disgraced comedian mired in the show-business purgatory of life on the road, Running the Light is the debut novel of local comedian and perennial Westword interviewee Sam Tallent.

Unlike the ghostwritten memoirs and humorous essay collections that typify most comedians' contributions to literature, Tallent's narrative follows his protagonist's slow decline into obscurity and oblivion rather than a rise to fame. Inspired by the spartan yet lyrical prose of Denis Johnson, who shares Tallent's predilection for broken addicts on the margins of society, Running the Light tells the story of Billy Ray Schafer, an aging road dog charging wildly through an endless gauntlet of nightmare gigs — at one point he's upstaged by a pooping duck— in the sad twilight of life.

Harrowing, heartfelt and often pretty damn funny, Tallent's novel is also a self-publishing success story and the proudest achievement in his decade-long career of peddling goofs. The book's already won some high-profile admirers, including Doug Stanhope. After a flurry of flattering tweets, the comedian invited Tallent to his Bisbee, Arizona, compound for a weekend of boozy podcasting and regrettable haircuts. 

While primarily concerned with selling, signing and shipping copies of his debut all over world, Tallent is currently at work on his second book, editing an independently produced one-hour special, and recording the podcast Chubby Behemoth with Nathan Lund.

We caught up with Tallent over cabeza burritos from El Taco de Mexico to discuss the benefits of self-publishing, the genius of Norm MacDonald, and hanging out with Will Smith on the set of the upcoming series This Joka.

Westword: Okay, repeat what you were saying earlier about the book selling in all these different countries. I didn't have the recorder on before.

Sam Tallent: I've sold the book on five continents, seventeen or nineteen countries and then every state. I got Delaware, finally.

Delaware was the last holdout?

Delaware was the last one, yeah, but they came through. It turns out that my big markets were in Iowa and Alabama. Per population — I have a whole algorithm that does all the math for me — I sold a shitload more books in Alabama than almost anywhere. I sold more total units in Chicago, but per capita, it's Alabama. So, yeah, people are reading it.

Aside from selling it directly to people you know over Venmo, which is how most of the people I know bought it, how are you getting to these new readers whom you haven't met before and who might not even be familiar with your comedy?

The big thing was that I put a typed insert into each copy of the book that was basically a call to action. "Thanks for buying the book. Now please post about it online, review it on Amazon, and share it on social media." And that created waves. I'll see, like, a prominent comedian in Boise, Idaho, would buy the book and post about it, and then over the next seven days, I'd sell fourteen books in Spokane, Boise and Missoula. So I can pretty much pinpoint to this one person's post about my book and how the likes they got correlate to my sales. So now it's a lot less people that I know buying the book now. Because I see everyone's name.

But it's still basically just word of mouth, just amplified by social media?

Basically. I bought Amazon ads, which is a weird, fucked-up matrix. I buy Instagram ads Friday night so they'll go up Saturday at 7 a.m. and last until Monday. For some reason, I sell a lot of books on Monday. I feel like they get back to work and they're bored, so they'll buy the book on their phone, but Sunday is really the biggest day for sales. So there's a small social media promotion effort on my part, but it's mostly word of mouth. People who are more famous than me help out a lot, too. Matt Braunger bought a book, Sean O' Connor bought a book, Kyle Kinane obviously wrote the intro. Mishka Shubaly or Ron White or Doug Stanhope will post about it, and I'll sell forty books that day to people I don't know.

I remember when you first finished the book, and you'd gotten some nibbles from big publishers, and you had an agent...

I still have a literary agent, at UTA [United Talent Agency], but the biggest offer we got was like seven grand for the book. And then once you sell the book off, you don't make any money back until you sell a certain amount of copies, and then it's like a $1.20 per book. So you have to sell 70,000 books just to make that initial $7,000 back. By selling it myself, I've already made close to 50K off this thing. There's a lot of expenses, but self-publishing was ultimately a business move, I think. I think the big money will come from the screenplay. That's where the action is.

Is that just in the ether, or are you already at work on that?

No, I'm at work on that with my buddy Zaq Tull. He's the director for my special, he has a master's in film, and he's written a million scripts. So we have a deal, and we're working on it. The weird thing about the screenplay is that you can sell the book rights for X amount of dollars, or you could sell the screenplay for X amount of dollars, but if you can find a director and produce it yourself, you're talking about the difference between eighty grand and a million dollars, potentially. So that's a whole new headache. Do you bet on yourself and try to make a million bucks, or settle with the security and validation of what you're offered?

It is a leap, but it's basically the same principle behind deciding to self-publish and self-produce. Self-publishing was a gamble. I'm sure it would have been nice to see a big publisher's insignia on the corner of your cover page.

It's all ego, too, man. I wanted to be reviewed by the New York Times. That was my whole thing. I was like, "I'll take 5K if I can just get the New York Times to review this book." But I had to kill my ego and not do that.

Michiko Kakutani doesn't work there anymore, anyway.

Damn. But the Denver Post is gonna review it, the Anchorage Daily News is gonna review it, the Las Vegas Star Journal; there are papers that are going to review it, just not the paper of record. But appearing in the New York Times review of books was a huge deal to me. Which is an insane thing to think you're ever going to do, but it's all just a world of possibility. I read that thing every Sunday. I want to be picked apart by one of those really smart people. But why? I know plenty of smart people who've written some really insightful shit about it. I'm blown away by the eloquence of the people on my Amazon reviews.

I think most habitual readers can generally string a sentence together. But most people aren't readers.

No, they're not. It's insane to me. But that's the thing about my book and my comedy, too; smart people can like it...

But dumb people like it?

Yeah, that's my masterstroke.

Well, the prose in the book is very writerly, but it's not inaccessible.

I think it's propulsive. Setting the story on a seven-day timeline makes it easy to get through. And he's like banging girls in bathrooms and getting into fights, and generally doing the sort of shit that makes even an idiot say, "Oh, cool!"

The main character does a lot of blow, as well.

Lot of blow, dude. So it's easy to read if you've only read one other thing this year. There's not a bunch of words that are too big for a limited vocabulary.

So, Norm MacDonald is a major character in the book. Have you heard anything from him about it?

Norm's the moral compass of the whole book. I definitely don't think I could make it into a movie without him. He's the person I want to read my book the most. But he's just the best comedian. Who's funnier than Norm MacDonald? This is my big conversation with other comedians lately: Who is funnier than Norm MacDonald? Some people are as funny as him, but is anyone funnier?

I don't know. I love John Mulaney, but his bits don't take surprise left turns like Norm's. He's not as transgressive. But I do find him delightful.

Me, too. I've come around on Mulaney. The Sack Lunch Bunch thing was a delight, and I was so ready to be like "This sucks. This is for babies." But it ruled! Through the inquest of my thoughts I've had during quarantine, it turns out I really like the people who can get so good at something that they can take it apart and reassemble it in a new way. Like Norm MacDonald, the drummer from Lightning Bolt, and this chef Francis Mallmann, who only cooks over an open flame. He was educated in a fine restaurant, but his thing is being the best live-fire cook in the world. People fly out to his remote restaurant just to eat there. I just love the idea of masters getting back to the basics.

So to pivot back to the book a bit, the character of Billy Ray Schafer is similar to you in a lot of ways, but he's pointedly not autobiographical. He's thirty years older than you, first of all. Maybe twenty, I don't know.

How old is he? I think of him as like 59.

I was thinking early fifties but looks 59.

Oh, yeah, he looks rough.

Is he maybe like a bizarro version of you if you went down the wrong path? Because his wife's dog is called Gordy, and his material is your material

He's from Elbert County.

How do you find a balance between the parts of yourself that you put into the book and the parts where the character is a separate and distinct creation?

Look at Byron, asking good questions. I did a podcast, and the guy was just like, "So, do you like Chuck Palahniuk?" and I was like, "So that's what this is gonna be." [Laughs.] But I think that the parts of the book that work wouldn't work if I hadn't actually done those shows. Like the Duck Shit Bingo thing. That's from a real show Christie Buchele and I did in Greeley. The cancer thing about a lady going down on her horse? That's a word-for-word quote from that same Duck Shit Bingo show. I think that the tracks are me, and the actual train car and barreling monstrosity that is Billy Ray Schafer is an amalgam of a million stories I've heard on the road. There's Troy Baxley in this guy; there's Joey Diaz in this thing.

Charlie Weiner?

Charlie Weiner! God bless him.

"If you can't fuck ’n' drive, you can't fuckin' drive."

He had that on his merch! Charlie Weiner...remember how after that last show, he got into his car and drove straight back to Cleveland? "All right, boys, I got a 2,600-mile drive ahead of me." Weiner turns out to be a very smart guy. I'm friends with him on Facebook. He's got some real profound thoughts. But, yeah, the way to think about Billy Ray is that he's the guy I don't want to turn into. He's a cautionary tale of just living on the road, when the job of standup comedy becomes like an actual job. I feel like him a lot, though. You know what it's like when you're out on the road and you drink too much and you hate your act. And you think you're a hack between the rare moments of insight where you're like, "Oh, I'm actually good at this." But, yeah, he's the guy that I don't want to turn into.

I thought it was interesting to write the character as a good comedian rather than just a hack. That might have been too maudlin, if he was a hack on top of all the other awful shit he does.

Yeah, because you already don't really like the guy. I don't think I really like the guy. He's like those comics you vaguely know but never want to hang out with. Like when you're in a green room or a condo with them, you can't stand to be around this jerk, but then you see them perform, and they're actually good. That's the great unifier in comedy. Steve McGrew, for example. I don't agree with a word that guy says, but I've worked with him and seen him get three standing ovations throughout his set. He's a good standup comedian. And there's nothing I respect more in a person.

Before I knew his political beliefs, I liked Mudflap. He was always super-nice to me, and crowds loved him. I still respect him, but that respect is much more grudging now that I can't ignore the things he says and believes.

If someone's good at standup, they can be a complete jerk-off and I'll still have some respect for them. But anyway, if [Billy Ray] was a hack, the book would have sucked. There would have been nothing redeemable about him. Also, I don't know that I could write hacky stuff. Not that I'm a fucking genius at standup, but it's much easier for me to write what a good comic would say than to try and write like a hack. Because then it's just tropes. I'd just be regurgitating stuff we've all heard people say. That's not exciting, creative shit.

Have you ever noticed that when you write out a joke like it's a piece of dialogue, you look down at it and think, "Is that all there is to it?"

Oh, yeah. That's why there's so much crowd work in the book. I'm proud of the section I wrote where he has that onstage breakdown when he's opening for Norm MacDonald. And it's just this free-flowing, I think I go three pages without a paragraph break. I was proud of the way that came out, and that was the material I created specifically for the book. He's got attempts at jokes in there, but he's finally being honest. I think I walked the line on that very effectively. Because, man, I must have read Angels and Cockfighter and The Hustler ten times while writing that just so I could know what a good book sounds like. There's tricks to being good at writing, just like there are with standup. But you get nervous, because you're alone and you don't know if the book's any good.

How about the decision to set parts of the story in the 2012-era Denver comedy scene? Kevin O'Brien and Nathan Lund show up, and Comedy Works is a major setting.

Because I know what Comedy Works looks like with my eyes closed. I was living in Vegas when I was writing this, and I could still remember where all the server windows were at the downtown club. I know what Larimer Square looks like in October. That section of the book opens up with a description of how the sky gets before it snows, like rosy towards the edges, there's flecks of purple, and when you look towards the center of the sky it's white. It sounds like, "Oh, this guy knows good prose," but no, I've just always admired this sky, so I've thought about it a lot.

Do you think being away from Denver somehow helped you to write about it?

Oh, I would never have written the book if I was living in Denver. I would have been coming over to your house and playing video games or hanging out with Lund playing grab-ass. I didn't have my friends in Vegas. I had acquaintances, and there's really good comics in Vegas, but for the most part, I didn't enjoy going out to open mics. And my wife, Emily, was in her second year of medical school, so she was constantly gone. So I was just alone in a house all day with Gordy, and you can't go outside because it's 120 degrees nine months out of the year. I don't think this book would have gotten finished if I lived here. I couldn't write at my apartment in Denver when I came home, because I could just walk to Cheesman, or call my sister and go cook dinner for four hours. So the isolation made it easier, like some Count of Monte Cristo shit.

Have you started writing anything else?

Yeah, I'm about 70 percent of the way through the next novel.

Is it about standup again?

No, I don't think you can go back to that well. Although Walter Tevis pretty much just wrote books about pool. I could maybe write a story about someone just starting out in standup, like the beginning of their career instead of the end.

Most stories about standups seem to cover the "first big break" phase of their career.

I remember my agent and publishers saying, "How has this story never been done? Why has this pitch never been made?" They've heard pitches about a comedian who's also a psychic, or a comedian who's a pilot. Why hadn't they heard a pitch about the final days of a scumbag, outlaw comedian yet? My next book's about Elizabeth, man. I'm gonna call it The Blight.

So like a Colorado version of Southern Gothic? Elbert Gothic?

Elbert Gothic — I like that. That's gonna be the new name of my publishing company.

Oh, yeah, why'd you call it Too Big to Fail Press?

It's funny, right? Because I'm a big fat guy? But also because, you know, I couldn't get it published. My whole entire career, no one has really helped me — besides other comedians — and I've had do a lot of things for myself, like self-publish. So I'm too big to fail because I'm gonna keep doing it myself.

I forgot to ask you about Quibi! You did a show on Quibi with Will Smith called This Joka! Do you think that the show might have got more attention if it hadn't been overshadowed by the story of Will and Jada Smith's open marriage?

No, I think it didn't get much attention because Quibi's going to be a failure. It's the dumbest idea. Remember Seeso? Of course not? Well here's Quibi! The show was supposed to come out on Emily's birthday, but then everyone from the show got an email saying, "Good news, we've been pushed back to November because we wanna give this thing a real media push," which I'm pretty sure means that Quibi is going out of business, and if this show doesn't air...

Maybe they can sell it to YouTube or something?

Or Netflix, hopefully. I mean, it's Will Smith!

Have you seen an early cut of your episode?

I haven't seen anything yet.

I know you and David Gborie are in it. Who were the other comics?

Shane Torres, Sean Patton, Clayton English, Jackie Fabulous, Rosebud Baker, Christi Chiello, Vanessa Gonzalez, Baron Vaughn, Martin Urbano, Chris Estraded, Rell Battle and Daphnique Springs. It was a real good snapshot of modern comedy. I was surprised they had two fat white guys — me and calzone-face Sean Patton. Big breakthrough for us. Lance Bangs directed it. It was a fucking blast to shoot it. We were in Vegas for five days, all expenses paid. We got a nice big check. We had very little to do besides partying and hanging out with Will Smith.

Is Will Smith good at standup?

He didn't do standup, but he is really good at being everything you want him to be. He's a pillar of light. He's amazing. There's no odor to him. He has no smell. He's just the perfect example of what fame should be. Really funny, too, great hang. He touched us a lot, like physically, which surprised me. I expected him to be all "Don't look me in the eye," like Ellen, but no, he ruled. And he also told us that the only thing he couldn't do is standup comedy. Even though he's an A-list star who's done sitcoms and blockbusters, and he's a rapper, he still says he can't do standup. He was a fan of ours. There was one time when we were recording that no one was laughing at me because I was getting kind of naughty, and the only person laughing was Will Smith, like scream-laughing in the back of the room. And I was just having this existential crisis like, "Fuck, I'm bombing on television, but Will Smith is losing his mind!" So I'm not sure how the episodes are going to turn out, but I did three sets, so I'll probably look okay in the end. Plus, Will Smith played my nipples like bongo! That's great television.

That better make it into the final cut.

If it doesn't, then Hollywood should be shut down, and not just for the pedophilia.

Visit Sam Tallent's official website to buy a copy of Running of the Light or to check his performance schedule, if those ever become a thing again.
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