Journal of the
An Interview with Mike Nelson
"Mike Nelson is one of the country's premier comedy writers. A critic's favorite as long time host and head writer for the legendary Mystery Science Theater 3000, Mike led the writing staff to three Emmy nominations, four Cable ACE nominations, and received the prestigious Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting. The show was also honored with a special induction into the Museum of Television and Radio." From his webpage. Mr. Nelson gave this interview to editors Mayerson and Sutton in February of 2004.
Laurel Sutton: Many of your pieces are about everyday life and things going on in the media. What do you read or watch to keep up with current affairs? Daily newspapers, online columnists, magazines? Do you read any comic strips daily?
Mike Nelson: I get the analog version of The Wall Street Journal and USA Today (I know, I know. It's for the Sports section and the fact that my eldest son loves the national weather map.) Also, almost every morning I peruse many, many online papers including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, and The New York Times. Occasionally The Jerusalem Post.
LS: What fiction are you currently reading?
MN: I'm one of those unfocused people who has eight books going at once. I'm finishing a very large work of non-fiction by the almost supernaturally brilliant Paul Johnson called "Modern Times," a history of the world since WWI. I've also started working through the one volume Martin Gilbert biography of Churchill. That leaves little room for fiction, but I'm a few chapters into "Washington Square," and part of the way through Wodehouse's "Spring Fever." Don't think for a minute I make my way very speedily through any of them, however.
LS: Do you consider yourself a writer or a journalist? What's the distinction?
MN: I'm most certainly a writer. I have no journalistic training and no interest in getting any. I think the distinction is accountability, and frankly, I don't want to have any. What I mean is, I want to serve the laugh first, and sometimes that means being sloppy with facts.
LS: Which writers should be required reading for other writers? Which humor writers set the standard?
MN: Wodehouse is absolutely the gold standard. It's almost unfair how good he was, how long he wrote, and how easy, generous and agreeable his prose is. I also love Benchley, a lot of S.J. Perelman, Mark Twain, Peter DeVries, and, yes, even A.A. Milne. Of course, you have to read "Lucky Jim" by Kingsley Amis.
LS: Your writing shows a wonderful attention to detail - it's obvious how much care you put into choosing the correct word or turn of phrase, and what a keen eye you have for the writing you parody ("Young Master Chillingshead", for example). Why is there so much bad and sloppy writing getting published? Is it really worse now, or are we just more aware of it?
MN: You're very kind to say it, and yes, I do agonize over the prose. Here's my high-handed and probably completely misguided theory as to why sloppy writing is so popular: I believe that Americans have a terrible fear of being seen as Bourgeois in any way, consequently, we tend to admire those about whose work we can say, "Hey, I could do that." It's true in art and music, too. If Beethoven produced his 9th symphony today, we'd say, "Who does that guy think he is, getting all above himself? Get him!" Then they'd tear him apart like a baked chicken. (Okay, perhaps not.)
LS: Is there a connection between your musical training and your writing? Are there lessons or habits you learned as a musician that carry over into being a writer?
MN: Maybe I'm forcing this one, but in really studying music, you can almost feel the thrill that the composer must have felt when he gets on to something exciting. I've felt that in writing at various times (admittedly, quite rarely), where I'm just happy to have discovered something that I'm pretty sure will bring joy to people. I hope that doesn't come across as arrogant, because I'm not trying to elevate myself. I'm just trying to express the thrill of the dialogue of writing, where you can feel that connection with the reader, however remote.
LS: In an interview, you said you were trying to raise your children in a Christian household. What does that mean to you? How do you try to live a Christian life?
MN: Well, it's difficult, especially in this day and age, to talk about it in public without either embarrassing a lot of people or coming across like a weirdo, but it's the very centerpiece of our lives. We're heavily involved in our church, my wife works with youth groups and churches as her profession, and almost every career and life decision I make depends upon it.
Incidentally, I do a great deal of reading and study of Christian Ethics and Apologetics, especially J.P. Moreland, Norman Geisler, Greg Koukl, Francis Beckwith and William Lane Craig. And, on a different level, there's always the warm embrace of C.S. Lewis.
LS: What place does religion have in our lives? Can you be moral without belief in God?
MN: Well, as a Judeo-Christian nation, there's obviously a great tradition of religion, but I do think there now seems to be a phobia about speaking of it in the public sphere. It's too bad, because it closes off a gigantic, well-developed and thorough intellectual discipline. (And I happen to believe there's that whole "saving your soul" issue, that I wouldn't want people to lose sight of.) As the apologist Greg Koukl is fond of pointing out, Christianity is well-equipped to compete in the marketplace of ideas.
And obviously, you can be a wonderful, completely moral, thoroughly beautiful human being without a belief in God (I think it's much more difficult, and you'd be pulling it off in spite of your beliefs, not because of them.) But on the intellectual plane, many Atheist thinkers have tried to construct a framework for morality and all of them have been unconvincing. To my thinking, "morality" is meaningless unless you talk about "absolute morality." And you can't do that without bringing God into it.
LS: Kevin Murphy described you as "perhaps the funniest person alive". Do you agree with this assessment? If it's not you, who is the funniest person alive?
MN: I think Kevin meant to say that about Carrot Top. But, no, I don't agree. At various times, I think certain friends of mine are the funniest people alive.
LS: What did you have for breakfast this morning?
MN: My own home-roasted coffee.
Ginger Mayerson: Do you have any idea what GW Bush's appeal is?
MN: Clarity, I think. And his shoes.
LS: Is John Ashcroft really Caligula?
MN: Did he say that? 'Cause that's a bad slogan for himself. His people should have caught that.
GM: If John Ashcroft could be Caligula for a day, what's the first thing he'd do?
MN: Well, clearly he'd [unprintable].
LS: Do you agree with GB Shaw that "Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve"? Do we deserve the current administration?
MN: It sounds good, but like lots of those clever sayings, it probably bottoms out in practice. And yes, I think approximately 48.25% of us deserve the current administration.
GM: As a musician, how do you feel about the whole Music Industry vs. the Music Lovers Downloading mp3 scene? Is the RIAA really Caligula? Or are they just Luddites trying to twist a few more dollars out of the decaying carcass of the old technology model for pop music?
MN: Well, let me put it this way, I'm no fan of the behemoth retailer Circuit City, but I certainly don't feel that entitles me to walk in and help myself to one of their DVD players.
And I'm one of those nervous types who worries that compression just might not be giving us every bit of the music. (It's because I'm a classical nut. What can I say?)
LS: Who will win the next presidential election? Who should win the next presidential election?
MN: I think it will be very close, but I'll say Bush. And if it isn't clear by now, I think Bush should win. Especially after hearing Howard Dean's infamous scream at the Iowa caucus. (Great, now almost half the people in the country hate me.)
LS: Do you, as a Minnesotan, now feel superior to those of us doomed to live in California due to the extreme ridiculousness of our governor?
MN: I'm so happy it happened, because it takes the heat off of us. At least your governor has never been photographed wearing woman-y sunglasses and a feather boa.
LS: What's your favorite movie pre-1970 and why?
MN: It's probably "Casablanca." I'd love to say it was some little known foreign film instead of this rather pedestrian answer, but there it is. Come on, it's just a beautiful film.
LS: Which side are you on in the nature vs. nurture debate? What makes some people grow up to be SUV-driving inconsiderate jackasses? What steps have you taken to insure this doesn't happen to your own children?
MN: Well, it's both nature and nurture. I can't believe that God would create Larry King all on His own.
And SUV-driving inconsiderate jackasses are somewhat tolerable until they get those phones in their hands. Well, phones and sandwiches. And domed drink cups.
LS: What happened to the Vikings this year? Are they on the road to becoming the Raiders, finding new and baroque ways to lose?
MN: I'm not a football fan so I'm ill-equipped to answer, but let me just say that there's a feeling around here that the Vikings will never win. Ever. Never again. No matter how much talent they have.
GM: Leaving aside that this interview is being conducted via email, do you like the internet or are you just tolerating it because it will not go away?
MN: It's both very good and very, very bad. The fact that creepy, evil people can share creepy, evil things with each other without ever having to walk out into the sunlight is somewhat disheartening. On the other hand, I can buy green coffee beans online!
GM: If you had to be stranded on a desert island with only the complete Beatles or the complete Stones to listen to, which one would you chose and why?
MN: Another window into my extreme plain-ness: I'd easily choose the Beatles. I'm not much of a Stones fan at all. (Although I have to say, I've been softening a little on them lately.)
GM: As a pianist, what era and composer of the repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?
MN: Beethoven. His later piano sonatas seem to have dropped out of heaven. When you look at the Hammerklavier and realize how far he brought composition, it's almost incomprehensible.
LS: How many books do you own?
MN: Well, my wife just cleared house on a whole load of paperbacks, so I would guess about 200 fewer than yesterday.
GM: Who are your favorite pianists and why is that? Would you please recommend some titles? I could use some new stuff to listen to and I don't get out much.
MN: Rudoph Firkusny for Dvorak, Richard Goode for Beethoven, Jorge Bolet for Liszt, Horowitz for almost anything, but especially the Russians, Alicia de Larrocha for Schumann.
Get de Larrocha's version of Schumann's "Carnaval" or Jorge Bolet plays Liszt (on London, I believe). Or if you want gorgeous chamber music, try Schubert's "Trout" Quintet (on Telarc, with John O'Connor on piano.) For whatever reason, I'm unmoved by Glenn Gould's playing, if that helps you to calibrate my tastes to yours.
Guinness or Glenmorangie?
MN:Guinness and Glenmorangie double-wood.
The Replacements or The Clash?
MN:The 'Mats, easily. Especially "Tim."
Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe?
Bob and Ray or Jean Shepherd?
MN:Boy, that's tough, but Bob and Ray.
Marx Brothers or Monty Python?
MN:Another tough one, but I have to go with the Marx Bros.
Carter or Reagan?
Extra bonus super-geek Tolkien question
LS: Just what the hell does Celeborn mean at the end of Return of the King when he says to Aragorn, "May your doom be other than mine"? Consensus here is that it's something like "Be careful, boy, or you'll end up like me - Celeborn the Wise, and does anyone ask me for advice or listen to what I have to say? No, they just want to talk to my wife. Mr. Galadriel, that's what the call me in Lorien." But that could just be me.
MN: It's something all elf-y and abstruse. If you think about it too hard, your ears will begin to sharpen.
LS and GM: Thank you, Mr. Nelson.
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Updated: March 7, 2004