ARUN RATH, HOST:
When you've got a great actor who's written a great book sitting in your studio - in this case, Jesse Eisenberg - at least one question is a no-brainer.
Would you be up for doing a reading?
JESSE EISENBERG: Yeah, sure, sure, sure.
RATH: What about the - this is on page 185 - a post-gender normative man tries to pick up a woman at a bar.
EISENBERG: Sure. OK.
(Reading) Hey, how's it going? Mind if I sidle up? I saw you over here, sitting alone, and I thought that's fine, a woman should be able to self-sustain. In fact, a lot of women are choosing to...
RATH: It goes on like that.
EISENBERG: (Reading) I noticed that you were about to finish your drink, and I was wondering if I could possibly watch you purchase another one, and at the risk of being forward, if you would consider purchasing one for me?
RATH: The man may be post-gender normative, but he's persistent, to a point.
EISENBERG: Oh, that beer is refreshing. Thank you for throwing it in my face on this warm summer evening. OK, OK. I'm leaving. I'm leaving. Thank you for your blunt rejection of me. It takes a lot of courage, which you no doubt have in equal measure to any other human. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going the bathroom, where I'll cry silently in a stall, questioning my body and texting my mom. But for now, I thank you for your time, which was equal in value to mine.
RATH: (Laughter) Jesse Eisenberg's new collection of stories is called "Bream Gives Me Hiccups." That title comes from the first part of the book - a series of restaurant reviews Eisenberg writes in the voice of a privileged 9-year-old. The reviews are hilarious, but gradually reveal a moving portrait of a lonely boy's bond with his single mom. All the stories seem to work on multiple levels like that. So I asked Jesse, when he sits down to write, what comes first - the poignant or the funny?
EISENBERG: I start out with every play I've written, with all the stories in here, to write the funniest thing I could think of. And then it just becomes emotional, I guess, just 'cause maybe that's how I was trained as an actor. You know, when you're acting in something, even if it's a comedy, you're supposed kind of find the emotional truth of it. And so, you know, even when I'm in a comedy, you end up trying to find kind of what's driving a character. And it usually has something to do with something that's not that funny. And of course, the - you know, the juxtaposition of funny context and serious person dealing with funny context is what makes it funny.
RATH: So you think maybe from your dramatic background that's where we get these stories, where there are these multiple emotional levels at play, in almost a performative kind of way?
EISENBERG: Yeah, exactly. And some of these stories I've performed, and they're as fun to perform as they are for me to kind of write. It feels like a kind of - like a further manifestation of the writing experience to perform them.
RATH: Because - well, yeah, there are a lot of things in here that are basically dialogues, although they're sometimes, you know, over a telephone or email. One of the great ones is you have Alexander Graham Bell's - his first, but also his second and third and fourth phone calls.
EISENBERG: Yeah. I - when I was younger, I heard a joke - and I was like - I was probably, like, 10 years old - I heard a joke on Comedy Central, which I thought was the funniest thing, which was something along the lines of, like - the comedian said I set my ringtone to "Beethoven's Ninth" because at the time, you know, cellphone ringtones had just come out. And one of the options was, like, you know, a kind of, you know, a cheap MIDI file of "Beethoven's Ninth." And he said I wonder when Beethoven - I wonder if Beethoven, when sitting around to write his ninth thought, you know, it's going - it's going to play and - you know, and in 500 years and somebody's going to go, oh, Jesus, it's my mom. You know - and I thought - so - and I was reading about Alexander Graham Bell's first phone call, I thought, you know, how funny it is that, you know, now, you know, we not only take the technology for granted, but we kind of resent it when somebody calls us, you know, 'cause it's such a burden now compared to the ease with which we can communicate otherwise. So I thought it'd be funny to see how quickly that could possibly devolve. So it's not the first phone call that devolves into boredom, but it's really the third.
RATH: Some of the best humor in this collection comes out of how - we see people who are - what they're doing, what their jobs are, it defines their thought patterns, like a marriage counselor heckling a basketball game. And again, his profession kind of defines the way he does that.
EISENBERG: Yeah, exactly because I always thought, like, I - how do people go to basketball games who are used to conflict resolution when they're standing, you know, with, you know, 14,000 other people who are screaming for conflict? And what would that person have been like at - you know, in the Coliseum? I always think about that because my dad is such a sweet and peaceful academic. And I always think what would my dad have been like in the - like, he couldn't have fit into what we see, you know, in the Coliseums and, you know, with the gladiators. Like, what would he have done? There must've been people like that. And, like, what was the experience like for them? We never hear about people like that, people who are kind of, like, quietly avoiding the - you know, the fights in the Coliseum.
RATH: So you're going to root for one gladiator while emotionally validating the other...
EISENBERG: Yes, exactly, and getting skittish at the sight of blood.
RATH: (Laughter) You know, most people we mention know you from your acting roles. I read that you're going to be making "Bream" into a series for Amazon. So are you going to be just a writer? Will you be performing? Will you be directing?
EISENBERG: I hope to do - like, potentially all of that. You know, I love the variety of what I do maybe even more than the individual elements of it. So I love to be able to do different things. I think it makes me better at each of them because it keeps it fresh for me. And it makes me try harder 'cause things are new to me, and I think informs each other.
RATH: So what next do you have to conquer?
EISENBERG: I'm climbing Everest and...
RATH: (Laughter) Awesome.
EISENBERG: No, I mean, I genuinely feel after I finish anything like I'll never be able to do anything again. And I don't mean that with any kind of, like, false humility. It's, like, a genuine fear, which i think I'm probably not alone in, especially for, you know, people in my position, who are freelance. And irrespective of success, you feel like something ends and you have to find something new. And so always - yeah, writing - I'm hoping to do another play.
RATH: Jesse Eisenberg's new book is "Bream Gives Me Hiccups." It's been really great speaking with you. Thank you.
EISENBERG: You too, Arun. Thanks so much for having me.
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