By Sarah Bricker Hunt
Photo: Lori Morgan Gottschling
As I tore through a used library copy of Samantha Irby’s 2017 bestselling collection of essays, “We Are Never Meeting in Real Life,” in one sitting, I felt a kinship with the readers who came before me. The ones who collectively adorned the well-worn paperback with chocolate smears, left behind a series of coffee mug rings on the back cover, and who had dog-eared the corners of dozens of pages, no doubt to quickly find the passages they, too, felt compelled to read aloud to their unwitting life partners or passive pets. Before I’d finished, I’d ordered the others, “Meaty” and “Wow, No Thank You,” and pre-ordered Irby’s latest collection, “Quietly Hostile,” which came out in May.
Somehow, I’d missed Irby’s rise to the top of the humor memoir genre, perhaps distracted by things like the Trump era, a pandemic and warily considering what these new Nazis are all about. I asked her forgiveness while expressing my thinly disguised new fangirl energy during a recent Zoom call, where Irby joined me from the home she shares with her wife in Kalamazoo.
“Listen,” Irby begins, “I have incredibly low self-esteem and a massive ego somehow. So, be a fangirl if you like, and I won’t tell. I’m always kind of surprised when someone says, ‘Oh, I like this thing that you wrote,’ but then I’m, like, flooded with gratitude because sometimes it feels like you’re writing into the void.”
“Plus,” she adds, “I’m not gonna read reviews ever. I’m never gonna read anything anyone says about me online if I can help it. So it is really nice to hear from a real person with a voice and a verifiable identity. You like the book; you just made my day.”
Even as a newbie to Irby’s work, it seems reductive to reference it in one of the ways other outlets have: self-deprecating, vulnerable, scatological (rude — also, maybe true) or, especially cringeworthy, a “writer and comedy juggernaut.” Can a person even be a juggernaut? I do know that if pressed — if some dude caught me in an alley and demanded at knifepoint that I describe Samantha Irby in three words or less — one of those words would not be juggernaut. They’d be closer to “Honest. Hilarious. Survivor.” And I would maybe add “painfully so” ahead of each of these.
Because what Irby does on the printed page looks easy, but her breezy vibe belies a labor of love (and a fight against intense chronic procrastination, Irby tells me). Where other authors might hold back or couch their non-fiction confessionals in vague, guarded observations, Irby goes for it.
If she’s going to explain the real, literally messy details about living with chronic conditions like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease (and she is), she’s going there. It might involve cleaning up after herself in socially vulnerable situations or a focus on what it’s like to get a colonoscopy at the hands of a good-looking doctor. It could involve adult diapers.
She’s also going to share the visceral pain of growing up with an alcoholic sometimes-dad and becoming a caretaker at age 11 for a chronically ill mother and share all-too-familiar dating stories about the series of men who disappointed her before she found her person.
Writing is therapy for Irby, a cathartic exercise in trauma-informed recovery. “I work so much shit out in the writing,” she says. “And then I’m like, ‘Hmm, didn’t think about how I’m also working this out for an audience’ — but by then, it’s too late and I’m like, ‘Well, we may as well just go through this together.’”
The approach has garnered the author a fiercely loyal fanbase on one hand and the kind of internet gold we take for granted in 2023 on the other — for example, a critical review on Good Reads written by Mary (a middle-aged white woman whose profile pic is encircled by a red feather boa): “What we have here, ladies and gentlemen,” Mary writes, “is an enraged black lady who had a lousy childhood, and has grappled with severe depression, isolation, racism and obesity all her life. It’s a perfect set-up for humor! Not.” It’s not a stretch to imagine why Irby isn’t devoting much energy to reading what the internet thinks.
Lately, some of the internet thinks Irby is responsible for the things they hate about the new “Sex and the City” reboot, “And Just Like That…” Irby sat in the (virtual) writers’ room for the show, an experience she said was a “joy — no, really. But, also, viewers get so mad and somehow, it’s all my fault.” (Since our interview, the Writers Guild of America, which includes television writers, has gone on strike — Irby has publicly stated that she fully supports the Guild and stands in solidarity with the cause.)
In reality, of course, writers’ rooms include multiple voices, and in the case of a show like “And Just Like That…,” there’s an overarching vision to be considered — in this case, it’s the vision of executive producer Michael Patrick King (“This show is his first born,” Irby explains).
Irby also worked on the animated 2019 Netflix series, “Tuca & Bertie,” featuring Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong, and on Hulu’s “Shrill,” starring “SNL” alum Aidy Bryant. For “Shrill,” Irby lived in Los Angeles for two months, a “fucking dream, but also I had to live in Los Angeles for two months. I was feeling unsettled and discombobulated, but it was cool to be there for work. Still — I’m not thin and blonde and I don’t fit the stereotype, I don’t look like Hollywood, but I had trust in my brain. I knew I could write a script, I knew I could make a Netflix executive laugh. I was pretty confident in that stuff.”
Irby’s love of TV comes up frequently throughout her memoir writing. Like so many Gen X and older Millennials, she grew up at a time when something was almost always on in the background. Growing up, she remembers watching sitcoms like “Mr. Belvedere,” “Gimme a Break!” and “Family Ties.”
Even now, she says, she returns to certain “comfort shows” that play in the background of her everyday life. “I don’t even have to be watching it,” she says. “I just kind of like the drone in the background, and I have to have it on even if I’m not actively watching TV. I like to put on some sports or news or anything with a live person and just kind of have them narrating what I’m doing even though they’re not saying what I’m doing. TV is like my pal. Let me cuddle up with my TV.”
Now that Irby has peeled back the curtain and has an intimate knowledge of how the TV sausage is made, her perspective has changed a bit. “It’s the little shit,” she begins. “Like, where the cameras are behind a person who’s talking, but their lips don’t match with what they’re saying. I know it’s because this was the best shot of the person who’s listening, but now that’s bugging me. It takes me out of it a little bit — not to be too melodramatic, but it’s like, there’s no mystery now, right?”
Los Angeles, and even Irby’s hometown of Chicago, are vastly different from her current, quieter life in Kalamazoo. “It’s funny — when the street outside is quiet, it kind of feels like ‘I Am Legend,’ where’s there’s no one but me and a couple animals and some zombie hunter operations… but it’s good. I’m not built for city life anymore.”
Laughing, she adds, “Any excuse to stay in the middle of the country where it’s flat is fine with me.” ”
Though Irby says she still calls Chicago home, being there at this stage in her life feels stressful. “I thought I’d feel more stressed here [in Kalamazoo], but it is much more stressful to have to fight for parking spots. And I don’t have to worry about pickpockets. I’m not, every time I go outside, playing a game of chicken. It’s slower, easier, better.”
Irby’s tumultuous young adult years in Chicago, as outlined in her essays about that time, stand in stark contrast to daily life now. “What do I do here? Well. I take the dog to his expensive daycare, three times a week. I cook meals sometimes because I have guilt for being a writer who’s been home while my wife was out being a social worker. I do have a few friends here… I go to the library… the bookstore. Um, these things all sound very boring.”
Boring, though, doesn’t mean “bad.” In fact, she tends to prefer boring over the alleged excitement of fame.
Irby’s latest book, “Quietly Hostile,” focuses on the often uncomfortable duality of regular life tinged with the experience of being famous, or at least the kind of edge fame typically afforded to writers. Irby isn’t as likely to be recognized in a grocery store as a well-known actor, but she still has to attend social gatherings and events that smack of Hollywood from time to time, and she is more frequently accused of wielding power in ways she actually doesn’t.
“It’s been weird to absorb people’s ideas of what my career is like versus the reality,” she reflects. “And sometimes, they over-inflate it by accusing me of things in the show that I could never have done because I’m the last person on the call sheet.”
“I have been lucky in that people have enjoyed my work, but Hollywood is unpredictable. What’s not unpredictable is books. If they keep buying my stupid ass books, I’m happy.”
Sarah Bricker Hunt, a proud Eastern Michigan University alum and the managing editor for Pride Source Media Group, believes in the power of intentional journalism focused on people building their communities through everyday acts of love and service.