Cracked has grown into something of a monster over the years, coming from a long history in the printed world as the funnybook people either read instead of Mad Magazine, as a companion piece to Mad Magazine, or avoided because of loyalty to Mad magazine. I read the living shit out of Cracked as a young gentleman and I regret none of it. Of course its history evolved and when it appeared on the web and became a juggernaut of lists and videos and assorted lunacy, I don’t anyone knew how big it’d get. Now there’s a book out, bringing everything full circle. And guess what, despite the title… it’s really funny. Funny in a way that actually makes me recommend that most of you get it. Especially if you like this site’s humor, because we are kindred spirits. In many ways, these guys piss me off because damn…
I spoke with Cracked editors and all-around nice dudes Michael Swaim & Daniel O’Brien about the new book by the editors of Cracked called You Might Be a Zombie and Other Bad News. A book that you CAN BUY FROM US RIGHT HERE.
Nick Nunziata: I’ve read your book and I’ve long paid attention to the work that’s been going on at the site. I’ve been doing it myself since 1996.
Daniel O’Brien: Web-Comedy thing?
Nick Nunziata: Sort of. I run a movie website but we do a lot of genre stuff, and we’ve always had a sarcastic sense of humor. I’d like to think that we’re funny at times but then again, judging by some of the talkbacks, maybe not.
Michael Swaim: Never judge by audience feedback.
Nick Nunziata: That’s for damn sure. When they told me about the book and I heard the title, I got really nervous because the zombie thing, obviously as you guys know, is a crutch for a lot of folks. If you go to a bookstore today a proliferation of so many people trying to ride that crest, and I was so delighted to open the pages and have it be what it was. Was that a very wise decision in terms of reaching out to the popular audience, or was there a debate about the title of the book?
Daniel O’Brien: It was titled that for two reasons. One because, yeah, we can at least get eyes on the book from people who are only going to buy zombie books. I’ve seen the same things that you do, I go into a bookstore and I see “The Zombie Dating Guide” and “How to Shop For Your Zombie” and all that kind of stuff, because everyone is trying to capitalize on it. People will pick up our book because it says zombie on the title, but we’re also happy and proud that that’s not what’s going to keep them there. We’re going to keep them there because we got a ton of different articles on a variety of different subjects, well-written ones.
Michael Swaim: Right: history, science, it’s everything under the sun. Cracked.com has really been built on tricking you into learning stuff and this is just a very natural extension of that. Also, if I recall, the title came from that just being one of the most fascinating facts/articles that we’ve ever run, and I still think that’s true, the article in particular about reasons the zombie apocalypse could really happen is endlessly fascinating.
Nick Nunziata: It certainly is and I think we have good evidence in recent memory that as tired as any genre can possibly be, there’s always a Shaun of the Dead or, in the world of vampires, the fact that a Thirst or something can come out of the woodwork and justify the Twilights of the world. I applaud you, it’s a very sly approach because you are going to get those people who are basing their decision on the most lame possibilities, but the great thing is anyone who browses the book, even on a rudimentary level, are going to have an idea of what they’re in store for. It’s smart and my initial gag reflex was quickly quelled by the content.
Michael Swaim: Can we use that as a blurb on our next book? “My initial gag reflex subsided when I opened the book.”
Nick Nunziata: You’re welcome to it.
I grew up in the late 70’s and 80’s reading a lot of fun humor books that didn’t take themselves too seriously and taught you a little bit, but I notice the trend skew much differently in the late 90’s and the 2000’s where, if you go through the humor section sure, there’s a couple of books in there that are great but they’re fewer and far between and you realize it requires a lot more searching. Do you realize there’s a void in that particular marketplace for this kind of material?
Daniel O’Brien: For me there are a few stand-outs there. There’s John Hodgman and the whole Daily Show crew occasionally putting out books but other than that, and a few other notable exceptions, it’s mostly reprinted newspaper strips. Which is staggering to me, because I didn’t know they still made newspaper strips.
Nick Nunziata: I’m glad you mentioned Hodgman because between his two books, The Daily Show “America” and “Earth” books, The Onion’s Atlas, and your book, these are the kind of books that you buy ten of and give to everyone you give a shit about.
Daniel O’Brien: Yes you do. Everyone do that.
Nick Nunziata: Obviously the book is the work of a large group of people, and your staff on the site is a very large, dense group of funny group of people. Can you speak a little bit to assembling this group and how this nutty think-tank came together?
Daniel O’Brien: I can say right off the bat, that’s a misconception. We’re not a giant staff. Our actual staff is maybe five people. Our editorial staff is myself, Jack O’Brien is our editor-in-chief, David Wong is our senior editor and Robert Brockway is a full-time editor, Christie Harrison is another editor, Michael is our video editor and, on the creative side, that is our full-time staff. Period. We rely completely on our freelance writers and that’s incredibly vast. That is as potentially big as the world. Anyone who has an internet connection can join our workshop and pitch articles and that part, I will say, comes down to the brilliance of David Wong and Jack O’Brien who have the crazy idea that you don’t need a degree, you don’t need connections with a newspaper, you don’t need to study the New Yorker to have a good idea and be a good writer. You just need to have the talent there, so we opened our workshop to anyone in the world and it might have seemed crazy but it certainly worked. You know, everyone’s an expert on something and we rely on them to have funny ideas about the subject they’re passionate about, and they do. It’s fueled the site as long as I’ve been part of it.
Nick Nunziata: Yeah, but there is sort of a like mind. There’s a family of people here that (seem to, at least) share an approach. Sometimes you’ll go and see a very scattershot mentality but there is a unified approach to the material.
Daniel O’Brien: I think we put out a fair amount and we got back more of the same. I think that speaks to how engaged our fanbase is. The people who come to Cracked and the people who stay are people who really get it and really key into it. When they get involved and realize “Oh, I can submit articles” and start writing, it’s more of that wry analysis because that’s what drew them there in the first place.
Michael Swaim: Consistancy of voice was important. Before we got the freelancers in place, we needed to make sure that the voice was established, the tone, what we will and will not talk about was clear to everyone up front so we could say “Look, this is a Cracked thing.” We want people to know what to expect when they come to Cracked. Luckily our writers are talented enough that they can adapt or…some of them just have that style naturally that appeals to a certain class of writers.
Nick Nunziata: I might be dense but I haven’t been able to pinpoint what you won’t talk about.
[Michael and Dan both laugh]
Michael Swaim: I don’t think taste bears on it. If a joke is funny enough, there’s not a taste limit but there are things we won’t talk about in the sense that they don’t feel right for the Cracked voice. I think it’s more an issue of how the material is handled than what the material is about. If it just doesn’t read like a Cracked thing, “the most interesting guy at a party” is how I like to think of Cracked if it were a guy. The guy that gets the group gathered around because he or she is full of so many fascinating stories and tells them in such a humorous way. I think that’s something that draws in more of the same.
Nick Nunziata: A little bit more about the brand. I grew up reading the old magazine and, obviously the site is it’s own animal. What kind of obstacles and benefits have you run into with that brand and that logo and people’s built-in relationship with that?
Daniel O’Brien: It’s good in the sense that I am thrilled and honored and humbled to be a part of a comedy brand that’s been around since 1958. That’s really inspiring to me, that, at least philosophically, we’re still a group of people making jokes and trying to make people laugh any way we can with humor the way that, fifty years ago, another group of people were doing it. That said, they did it in a completely different way for a completely different audience and that’s the trouble with whenever I’m trying to explain what I do for a living to anyone. I say Cracked and they say “Oh, that’s the magazine!” and I say “Well, yeah, but if you like the magazine, don’t come to the site, you will probably hate it.”
Michael Swaim: Right, I don’t think we’ve ever been contacted by anyone from the previous incarnation of Cracked.
Nick Nunziata: Well, obviously a lot has to do with when you came into it. I was a perfect age for it when I discovered it, but initially there was some trepidation there because, obviously, there was a more sophomoric and juvenille approach which worked perfectly for print back then but it’s been amazing. It’s not easy to take something that is completely known in one particular way and shape it into something completely different that still works and somehow retains the lineage. It should not work.
Michael Swaim: Well I think the throughline that sustains it, really, is the shared desire to have the highest density of jokes possible. When you look at those old Cracked magazines the one thing that strikes me (and Matt too, for that matter) is they were largely comic strips and the artists would constantly put things in the background, little jokes, little signs, and I really have such a powerful cathartic connection to that guy who did that fifty years ago because that’s exactly what we love to do and I think that idea of throwing so many jokes that you’re just Marx Brother-ing the crap out of it is alive and well. I think that’s something that allows it to still feel like a continuation of the lineage despite, as Dan said, how drastically it has changed.
Nick Nunziata: You guys feature a lot of video content, a lot of it original and on your lists you have these hilarious looks at stuff but one thing that’s kind of weird is how people’s definition of funny has changed. People are just as compelled to click on a link of a guy falling off of a moving vehicle as they are something that people put so much work and so much time and so much effort into. Where’s that balance, how do you guys find a way to keep Cracked from falling prey to a lot of those easy cheap ways of using the internet as a tool?
Daniel O’Brien: I think I’m essentially writing for myself when working for the site because I’m imagining me as an audience member because I certainly was around and conscious when the internet first showed up in a big way and as soon as it was looked at as a place for content I was disappointed as anyone else that it was mostly videos of cats sneezing and what not, and I thought “Well where’s the place to go, where’s the funny, smart people writing stuff?” because I don’t think about it like “Well, this person is either gonna watch a video of this panda farting or they’re going to click on this three thousand word article about bad-ass presidents.” The right people are gonna find our content and they will be happy that we’re doing it instead of pictures of cats doing bullshit.
Michael Swaim: See, I’ve laughed at too many videos of pandas farting to really look down my nose at that aspect. I just think the internet is everything and even on TV there’s America’s Funniest Home Videos and that’s funny on occasion. Sometimes you want to see a cat bite a baby, or whatever.
Daniel O’Brien: That’s true, I’m not against that. I’m just saying you won’t find it on Cracked, because-
Michael Swaim: Exactly, yeah. So in my mind we avoid that by not doing it. There’s plenty of that out there already so we’re over here doing this thing and if you’re interested in this, welcome aboard. But I definitely don’t judge people for having another tab open with dumb YouTube videos.
Nick Nunziata: The site that enabled this book to happen, it is a site, and luckily the book isn’t just regurgitating site material. It’s one of those things. It’s an ever-evolving world. Like you said, the Internet is everything and what’s funny is never going to change.
Daniel O’Brien: I think the book is actually an incredible example of how really interested everyone at Cracked at just finding ways to work on great projects. And we really don’t limit ourselves. I’ve found that everyone in the company, at least so far, seems to be onboard with that ethos so when we sit around and talk about what’s next for Cracked, we really don’t see any limits and working at a place where people have that attitude, I understand, is quite a privilege and it’s been wonderful.
Nick Nunziata: Moving back towards the fun stuff, I can’t imagine the kind of topics, the kind of things that were debated in terms of putting together this particular assembly of material. I’d be interested to hear some of the shit that didn’t make the book or just the process of spitballing some of this stuff.
Daniel O’Brien: The site covers absolutely everything. There’s no ground that we won’t tread all over with our silly dick jokes. And we didn’t want to just say “Hey, this is a book of Cracked stuff”. We wanted to have some kind of theme for it and we realized that a lot of our articles put in the same idea that there’s a conspiracy that’s making the world less awesome, that’s forcing people to accept this one version of the world, whether it’s through a teacher telling you about presidents as very diplomatic and stodgy, but meanwhile they’re really super-badass and totally awesome or a science teacher is giving you very dry, rote facts that aren’t super interesting and exciting way to anyone who watches a whole lot of movies or TV or anything like that. Anything where there’s a science-fiction movie that’s actually possible in real life but, for whatever reason, not enough people know about it. That’s the kind of thing that we latched onto A) because we’re all interested in that but B) because there were a ton of articles already on the site that feature that sort of spirit of “The world is one way, but it’s actually cooler, don’t you want to know about that?” And that’s sort of guided our process for finding old articles that we like and bringing on new articles and whatnot.
Nick Nunziata: It’s kind of a good time, actually, for comedy and that’s not something that’s been easy to say. Stand-up has got some really special folks in it. I don’t know if you guys have seen a show called Look Around You, a British science show with Peter Serafinowicz. Have you heard of it?
Daniel O’Brien: I love him, but I have not seen that, no.
Nick Nunziata: I’m telling you, judging by your work, you guys will shit your pants.
Michael Swaim: Excellent.
Nick Nunziata: I mean, they don’t do it anymore, but it’s really really funny and it’s smart. But it’s a really good time for comedy. Do you see that from your perspective, in terms of a movement of sorts? There are people that are using the web very well, the Funny or Die guys, yourself, a few others out there and also the stand-up world. We’re not seeing as many sitcoms starring ex-comedians, do you feel that? Do you see we’re kind of at an interesting time?
Michael Swaim: Oh, absolutely, we talk about it non-stop and the possibilities are really incredible. We’re actively trying to make Cracked a locus of that sort of thing. And there’s so many great troupes out there online that I think, again, it all comes down to- Technology and the internet, in the larger sense, I don’t think it’s ever been so easy for so many people to do something so difficult. Three guys can get together, buy a cheap camera, get editing software and you can have a movie online. That opportunity was not available to the previous generation. And you see the consequence of that, the consequence of that is all of these really self-motivated young people deciding to just do it themselves and teaching themselves and I think you cannot help but have some kind of movement form out of that. I’m really excited to see the next generation of comedians come up because I think there’s gonna be a lot of great material there.
Nick Nunziata: That power comes with great responsibility too because how much more dogshit do we have to wade through with all these tools? I think it allows the people that are really stellar and sparkling, regardless of where they are in the world to really stick out even more so.
Daniel O’Brien: Yeah, you gotta find it, though, because the other thing is the internet is a loud loud place. But people have found us and a lot of the people online I really admire are starting to get noticed and I think it’s just a matter of time before- You know, Lonely Island’s on SNL, the Derrick comedy guys are involved with Community, so it’s already happening. [I can’t make out the sketch name here], a sketch troupe we really love has started getting movie work and stuff like that, so it’s happening. It’s definitely real and I’m interested to see how it unfolds.
Nick Nunziata: As we close here, let’s say this book reaches it’s audience and is everything you hoped it would be. Where do you see taking Cracked next, into the literary world?
Michael Swaim: Oh, I don’t know if I can talk about that, I don’t know if that’s a secret or not.
Daniel O’Brien: Yeah.
Nick Nunziata: Well, you got a grand scheme. You’ve got some evil scientist-
Daniel O’Brien: I do have- Yeah, it’s a very super-villainesque grand scheme that involves, in part, [word I couldn’t catch] publishing on every single other book out there and Cracked be the sole publisher of literary content.
Nick Nunziata: It might help.
Well I appreciate what you’re doing out there and I appreciate the book. I really did not want to like it as much as I did, just based on the title, and you guys knocked me solid there and you always have a friend at CHUD. So good luck with the book and thanks so much for your time.
Michael Swaim: Thank you.
Daniel O’Brien: Thank you very much, Nick. I love the site, it was great talking to you.
Nick Nunziata: Thanks man. You guys be well and hopefully I’ll catch up with you soon.
Special thanks to Patrick Ripoll for transcription wizardry.