The two main literary genres one would associate with Adam Resnick’s new book, Will Not Attend: Lively Stories of Detachment and Isolation, would be humor and memoir. That, in itself, is a minor miracle coming from Resnick, who doesn’t particularly like jokes, and doesn’t particularly like writing about himself.
True, Resnick has a long resume writing comedy that includes the original Late Night with David Letterman, the Chris Elliott sitcom Get a Life and movie Cabin Boy, and the film Death to Smoochy. But his humor has always been more character-based, driven more by how his odd characters interact than witty one-liners. “I don’t consider myself a guy who can just rattle off jokes,” he says. “I’m kind of a funny person. I’m sort of a character, like my dad is a character. Like a lot of people that I’ve met in life. The insurance guy was a character. And I guess that’s what’s funny.”
The characters in Will Not Attend are his family—a no-nonsense father who listened to Burt Kaempfert eight-tracks in the car, a doting mother and a nightmare clan of brothers—plus the kids at school and his boss at his first job selling insurance. Resnick is at the center of it all, writing about his life like a grittier Jean Shepherd, detailing fights where one brother offered him a deadly weapon to help fend off another brother and a road trip to buy pot in his mother’s “borrowed” car that turned into a hunt for a rare record.
Resnick often comes off as thorny in his stories, but he does inspire laughs. The book is full of tension between Resnick and everyone in his life, whether he’s on vacation at Disney World or finding a blade in his milkshake at a fast food chain. Trying to describe his approach, Resnick is true to form, eventually critiquing himself. “I want it to be funny and I’ll play with a sentence, but I’m not necessarily going for a joke,” he says. “I’m going for, I don’t know, some sort of funny truth. That sounds so pretentious. I’m aware that humor is a big part of this. If it had to be on a shelf, I suppose it would say humor/essays.”
There has always been something offbeat about Resnick’s humor. He knew he had to get out of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he grew up, and found his way to New York University dreaming of becoming a director in the mid-‘80s. He knew immediately he wasn’t cut out for that, deciding he was a writer. Desperate to avoid limping home in defeat after an aimless year and a half, he took a chance and called his favorite show, Late Night, and asked if they needed an intern. They did, and needed one immediately. “I just said to myself at that point, I don’t care if it takes 10 years, I’m gonna get a writing gig here,” says Resnick. “I’m gonna be a writer here.”
He worked his way up the food chain from intern to assistant to writer, submitting funny ideas for the opening monologue to the writing staff. “I started to write stuff that I found funny, just goofy stuff,” he says. “And it was all Dave, first-person.” He found he couldn’t read the newspaper and come up with topical jokes, so he developed a small-town sensibility that resonated with Letterman, giving him lines like, “I had a great weekend. I just pretty much stayed on the porch all day and waived at trucks.”
Television and film was a hard racket, and even harder now. Resnick created the cult hit Get a Life with his friend Chris Elliott, but that lasted only two seasons. He wound up directing Cabin Boy when Tim Burton dropped out, and the film flopped. He still loves television and movies, but his writing style often puts him at odds with the mainstream. “I’m not plugged into the youth culture thing,” he says. “And I think now, especially with comedy, more than anything, you can’t write anything that’s too left-field. It’s gotta be for an audience that sees the movie in a mall, then they go to Dave & Buster’s afterwards and they all laugh about the movie and repeat lines from it. I’ve never been that way.”
Some of that frustration led to writing Will Not Attend. Resnick says he asked himself, “If you’re just a writer, why don’t you just think about writing?” A book of humorous autobiographical essays wouldn’t be like a movie script, turned over to someone else’s vision. Every word would be his own. And he’s satisfied with the result. “I would say this is probably the most gratifying thing I’ve ever written,” he says, though he doesn’t think he’ll write any more memoirs. He’d like to try short fiction next. “I’m glad I finally wrote about myself, because I’ve never really done that. And I think this is pretty much all I had in me for writing about myself.”
Nick A. Zaino III is a freelance writer based in Boston covering the arts for Kirkus Reviews, The Boston Globe, BDCWire.com, TheSpitTake.com and other publications.