Guy Branum, whose My Life as a Goddess: A Memoir Through (Un)Popular Culture hits shelves today, is a stand-up comic. He created and hosts TruTV’s Talk Show, The Game Show.
He’s written for sit-coms including The Mindy Project and for comedians including the late Joan Rivers. Maybe you remember him as a frequent panelist on Chelsea Lately, his most high-visibility gig to date.
And its these latter aspects of Branum’s being — on abundant intersectional display in his singularly genre-busting literary debut — that have the potential both to thrill and perplex.
“I worry about this book getting into the right hands,” Branum acknowledges. Not that its getting into the wrong hands would lead to a Russian takedown of the U.S. utility grid. But it might well create a buttload of flummoxed, average reading-skilled heterosexuals.
To be understood by a typical television-viewing American, books need to be written at a seventh grade level. Guy Branum has a law degree, and his sophisticated, footnote-spiked prose ain’t hiding it.
“There have been early readers who received the book through [promotional websites] GoodReads and NetGalley who seemed to only be interested because they knew me from Chelsea Lately,” Branum explained last week during a break from the writers’ room for a proposed television adaptation of A League of Their Own.
“They’ve left comments like ‘I don’t know what this is! I was expecting funny childhood stories and dish on celebrities.’ I’m not sure they were ready for all of my queer theory and stuff.”
While the book’s cover and title suggest it will be a fluffy, hardbound souvenir for fans of a bigtime comic, the facts are otherwise: 1) Guy Branum really isn’t a bigtime comic yet, so there’s got to be a reason to read him other than celebrity idolatry; 2) Guy Branum seems constitutionally incapable of fluffy.
“Look, I’ve done lots of different kinds of work,” he says. “This book is the one project I really decided to write for myself. When I’m working on material for other comedians, or television scripts, or even my own stand-up I think about what’s palatable for the audience. But with the book, I just wanted to do something that’s, ‘Here’s who I am.’”
Coming from as multidimensional a guy as Branum, “Here’s who I am” can be deliciously headspinning, a latticework of interwoven tangents.
“Part of me feels that I should have spoonfed the ideas in this book to people a little more, but part of me is so fucking happy that I didn’t. I’m like, well, this is me.”
“You don’t to get to just hear what life is like for me as a fat person, or a gay person, without having to also hear about me as a person who cares too much about Canadian history.”
He’s not kidding.
Right between his eloquent, multifaceted analysis of Hairspray’s Tracy Turnblad as “Western literature’s greatest fat character” and a moving explanation of how his sense of identity was impacted by growing up in a small town with a significant population of Punjabi Sikhs, Branum offers a thoroughly researched ten-page tangent on Canada’s international relationships between 1763 and the present.
Remarkably, he then manages to send his digression looping back homeward:
“It actually does have something to do with me as a fat person and a gay person,” Branum reiiterates during our conversation. “Here’s this country of 30 million people who are right next to us and we never pay attention to them. Who do we choose to pay attention to? Who do we ignore? Those are questions that really point to cultural arrogance and self-absorption.”
“I want this book to read as if you were chatting with me at a party when I was two drinks in and really rolling,” says Branum. “I hope that maybe 70% of the time, I’m getting to my main points and 30% of the time I’m off on a tangent.”
“There’s a section where I write about Nurulagus, which is this giant rabbit that lived on the island of Majorca. If I was in an everyday conversation, I would leave that out. But if I was talking to a close friend after a couple drinks, I would definitely force them to learn about that rabbit in the middle of a conversation about my first time at a gay bar.”
Branum says that unliked crafting gags for stand-up or sitcoms, writing My Life as a Goddess let him work in a form that closely matches the way his mind functions.
“I have a stand-up friend who used to tease me by saying ‘You don’t write jokes, you write essays about jokes.’ But its true. I’ve tended to write verbosely and then chop it down. I write the essay first and then try to figure out what the joke is.”
In My Life… we get to read those essays whole cloth, and for readers willing to engage with Branum’s complex arguments and thought processes, it’s a fascinating complementary experience to hearing his undeniably funny stand-up routines (Branum’s album, Effable, is widely available in digital distribution).
Among the topics that are addressed most extensively and insightfully in Branum’s stand-up and his book is gay sexuality. Earlier this month, when Branum had a My Life… teaser video rejected for paid promotion on Twitter, he spoke to Hornet about institutionalized cultural repulsion over sex between men. (The video, rejected for breaching community standards, featured three men — not nude — comically caressing each other and a copy of the book).
— Guy Branum (@guybranum) July 13, 2018
Returning to that argument, Branum says, “The thing that bothers me most is just the fact that mid-level gay contact is seen as extremely, problematically sexual. There’s no PG-13 for gay sex. The gay in PG-13 is a sassy gay friend. Unless there’s a straight guy onscreen being grossed out by it, its just not OK to have any gay physical contact.”
“I have a straight friend,” remarks Branum, “who said he just couldn’t understand how a respectable dentist or accountant could be gyrating in a Speedo on a float in the Pride parade. He needed to think of people who do that as somehow less than fully human. Well, some fine, respectable men I know happen to go-go on the side or have a very, very nude Instagram account.”
“I think straight people could learn a lot from our attitudes toward sex. Not just that we’re comfortable having it and talking about it, but that at the end of the day, no one is dehumanized or insulted by anything we do. You know, an important part of feminism is being able to see someone as both human and sexual at the same time.”
Asked about another hot button topic in contemporary comedy, Guy Branum says the recent slew of jokes and cartoons presenting Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin as sex partners is anti-feminist as well as anti-gay.
“Nobody in our society thinks it’s a bad thing to have your dick in someone’s mouth but we all talk like its bad to have a dick inside of your mouth — or inside of you in any other way. Its deeply misogynistic, and it fundamentally construes straight female and gay sex as humiliating.”
“I know that people think its adorable because they think Trump and Putin would be repulsed. Well you need to remember that when you make that joke, its pretty unlikely that Trump and Putin are hearing it — but a kid is definitely hearing it and that kid is learning why he should hate himself.”
“This kind of joke is tired and hack,” Branum says, speaking at length in a manner as passionate and momentum-driven as his written prose. “But comedy writers are largely older, white men who have been doing their job for a long time and are going to keep doing these jokes because they’re comfortable with it. It really takes strong negative audience reactions to make them thing about changing.”
“Even then, you hear these older comics whining and complaining about how audiences have gotten too PC. The world has changed! Your shitty fag joke worked ten years ago, but that doesn’t mean it was good. It doesn’t work now because its still not good — but now you also need to stop doing it.”
“Comedy is in a bubble today, just like politics.” says Branum, “We looove jokes that allow people to smugly pat themselves on the back People can hear what they want to hear and then feel good about themselves when they watch The Daily Show. But jokes that really ask people to challenge themselves and think twice about who they they are and what they’re doing — that’s interesting: Showing men in an audience ways that they are complicit in misogyny, asking a nice liberal audience about things they’re doing every day to prop up our government. I want to see comedy that makes people feel less smug and more uncertain.”
My Life as a Goddess, in all its gloriously shaggy discursiveness, provides a look into a mind that’s capable of making that very comedy. Guy Branum may tell you that he’s “a very frivolous person,” but he considers his frivolity with all due seriousness.
If a joke is a single polished gem, My Life as a Goddess invites readers to venture into the labyrinth of a diamond mine.