“A Better Kind of Scum”: An Interview with Nathan Rabin

Tim Lehman speaks to A.V. Club writer Nathan Rabin about his new memoir, The Big Rewind. Topics discussed include Rabin’s short-lived TV career, Orthodox Jewish summer camp, and the Family Guy effect.

Nathan Rabin had a tough childhood. He was placed in a mental hospital after attempting suicide at 14, then spent much of his remaining adolescence in a group home after being kicked out by a foster family. Through it all, he relied on pop culture and his imagination to cope and envision a better life for himself.

At the age of 21, he was hired to write for The A.V. Club, the entertainment and popular culture section of The Onion. Rabin, now 33, has written for them ever since and is their head writer.

His recently released memoir, The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture, chronicles his life from childhood to his stint as a critic on AMC’s short-lived film review program Movie Club with John Ridley. Each chapter references a piece of popular culture that either resonated with him at the time or serves as a lens through which to view his life.

I spoke with him before his recent reading at Minneapolis’ Magers and Quinn Booksellers.

The Bygone Bureau: The couple interviews I’ve read so far have seemed to focus on how you’re 33 and writing a memoir.

Nathan Rabin: Yes, yes yes. I am deeply apologetic for it.

Nathan Rabin. Photo by Chris Schodt.Was that something you expected?

Yeah, I feel like you have to justify yourself; you have to justify your existence. It’s a matter of feeling like I had a compelling story. I felt like after 12 years [of writing for The A.V. Club], I had the tools intellectually and artistically to tell it in a way that wouldn’t nauseate people.

I’ve been working on this for two and a half years, so I actually wrote a memoir when I was 31 years old. I’m even more agonizingly narcissistic and self-absorbed than people might imagine.

The book started out just about Movie Club, right?

It did. It was a subject that fascinated America. They were rapacious; they just couldn’t get enough. But it’s weird, people sometimes say, “Oh, I watched your television show.” And I want to say, “You damn liar. Nobody watched my television show!” I barely watched — no, actually I did watch my own television show. I have Shabbas dinner with my dad every Friday night, and the ritual was that we would eat the bread that he got from the soup kitchen — that’s another thing, I think food always tastes better if you’re ripping it out of the mouths of the disadvantaged. If I can steal money from poor people, than more power to me. It tastes more delicious-er. But yeah, we’d eat the challal from the soup kitchen and then we’d drink really nasty wine and watch my television show.

Do you feel like you’re recapturing any of that fame now that you’re touring with your book?

Movie Club never got any press. I was on Chicago Tonight once, and what I did not realize at the time — this is so beautifully pure to my whole television experience — is that my show had been cancelled. I didn’t know this and I had been telling people, “Wait for Movie Club to come back.” What had happened was that Head Producer Guy [Movie Club’s unnamed producer] had told me that we had been picked up for thirteen to fifteen episodes, and there was part of me that wanted to believe him.

But my pessimism and my skepticism have seldom steered me wrong. There was part of me that was like, “I don’t think this is true. I think you said that because you wanted it to be true. I think you’re trying to will it into existence and make something happen.” To be a producer you have to be that, you have to have this passion and drive, and I felt that he was carrying she show on his back to a certain extent.

He was not happy with his depiction in the book.

Oh really?

Some of the terms he used were “hatchet job” and “stabbed in the back.” He called me scum, and also “the worst kind of Hollywood phony.” At one point in my life I had this very convenient thought, that writers are assassins, and that people who write about their lives and the people they love are people who assassinate the people closest to them. That’s kind of overwrought and melodramatic and giving myself far too much credit — I’m not that malignant of a force or that powerful of a force.

I tried to tell the truth, I tried to be honest. Another thing about Head Producer Guy is that he never accused me of making anything up. He never said, “That’s not true.” He said, “Why didn’t you write this? I thought we were friends, you betrayed my—” But you know what? I feel bad and I feel that part of that is a bit of an overreaction, but part of it is justified.

When you’re writing a book it’s such an intense thing that you have to exist in a bubble. I held off showing it to anybody because part of me was like, “It’s too personal!” But after July 7, everybody in the world will be able to read it. It won’t be personal at all. Well, it is and it isn’t. It’s my personal pain, and it’s going to be public spectacle.

Part of me is just bracing for people like Head Producer Guy who will say that I’m the worst kind of scum. But I think I’m the better kind of scum. I don’t want to give myself too much credit, but my epithet will read, “Nathan Rabin, he was the better kind of scum.”

I thought it was interesting how you started the book with a spiritual awakening that was not to be.

The conceit of this book is that I joined together moments of my life with popular culture, and sometimes it’s a little iffy and sometimes the connection is very abstract. Like the chapter about visiting a brothel and linking that to the Steely Dan song, “My Old School.” And the more I knew about the song, I’m like, “Oh god, I am so wrong. I have no fucking idea what I’m talking about.” They were writing about something very specifically that happened to them at school; they were not writing about prostitution.

But this was one instance where there was a very direct link, where I was at an Orthodox Jewish summer camp, and we would pray and we would yell, “We want moshiach now, we want moshiach now.” We were really angry, like we were trying to demand things from God. That’s how pushy Jews are, they’re like, “We’re not going to wait for the messiah to happen, we’re going to angrily demand the messiah.” And God’s probably like, “Stop judging me, stop judging me! Fine. You can have your messiah. You can have pork and shiksas, whatever. Just leave me alone. I’ve had it with you. Chosen my ass.”

And then many years later when I heard Matisyahu — and I feel like I must apologize for writing about Matisyahu because he is painfully, painfully unhip. I might as well be writing about the Dave Matthews Band or GrooGrux and the Whiskey King. Whatever. But it was such a direct thing, because when his single came out, the chorus was literally, “I want moshiach now, I want moshiach now.” It took me back all those years.

It was so interesting because it was one of the periods of my life where I had the closest elements to a normal childhood. I had a step-mother, I had a father. They both had jobs. But at the same time, it was kind of a recurring theme in the book: being a fish out of water. And you find yourself thinking, “Why am I here?”

I think one of the reasons people are really responding to the stuff about my childhood is that children are powerless. They have so little power over their fate that I think there’s a vulnerability people really respond to. And once I become reasonably successful, they’re saying, “Who the hell cares if your TV show was crazy?” But, when you’re a child or a teenager, I think there’s this protective, nurturing element to human nature that causes you to really respond to it.

Nathan Rabin talks with his hands. Photo by Chris Schodt.

Photo by Chris Schodt.

One of the parts of the book I found most enlightening was the part in “Lukewarm Crawlspace Vermouth” where you discuss The Chronic and talk about growing up in the group home and how you responded to the theatricality of gangster rap.

On one hand, I was cognizant that this is a fantasy that we’re being sold. This is something that’s very empowering but is fundamentally false. There’s almost this cognitive dissonance, where obviously 50 Cent can’t be number one on the Forbes 500 and be selling cocaine and firing machine guns. [50 Cent was number one on Forbes’ 2008 list of richest hip-hop stars.] But it’s such an appealing fantasy, especially when you feel powerless, when you feel like adults and authority figures have this vice-like control over you. To feel like there are people who don’t have to abide by the rules everybody else does–it’s absolutely intoxicating.

You compare yourself to Tarantino in your use of pastiche.

I’m a cultural magpie!

But at the same time, I felt there was also a structural resemblance between your book and his films. It’s ultimately chronological, but it jumps around a lot within the chronology.

I think part of it is that I’m rambling and digressive. The Q & A’s for the signings I’ve been doing have been absolutely marathon affairs. Sometimes I’ll have people ask really, really strange questions. Like the reading last night, a gentleman — a very interesting character — showed me his tattoo of The Onion logo with a knife through it. He was like, “I’m a chef and I really love The Onion,” and I’m like, “I’m very glad to hear that.”

So it was positive?

It was a positive thing! It was a positive tattoo. He was combining two things that he loved, The Onion and a sharp knife that could be used to stab something. It’s funny, it reminded me of GZA. He was being interviewed for something, and said that [the Wu-Tang Clan] inspired a passion and loyalty that G-Unit never could. He’s like, “People have come up to me, and they have Wu-Tang tattoos. You ever seen anybody with a G-Unit tattoo?” And that kind of made sense. You know how Johnny Depp had that “Winona Forever” tattoo, when he was in love with Winona Ryder Forever, and then he had it changed to “Wino Forever” after they broke up and he became a horrible alcoholic? So, even this answer about how my answers are long and rambling and digressive and make almost no sense is long and rambling and digressive and makes no sense. The way I write is digressive and sometimes I go too far and need to be reigned in.

Pop culture references can be such a dead end, too. I think there’s such as thing as the Family Guy effect, where if the reference is random and doesn’t have an emotional center to it, then it becomes very empty. One of the things I tried to do in my book was to have lots of pop culture references, but to have them mean something and to have them related to something that I believe people are going through. I wanted very badly for it to not just be snark, and not be just jokes.

One of the incredibly gratifying things about doing this tour is hearing people say, “This really resonates with my own bout of depression.” I feel like the secret of the book is that it’s kind of a serious book about depression. I went to kind of ridiculous extremes dealing with depression and I feel… I can’t say this without feeling so pretentious and self absorbed — “My book is saving the world!” — but it’s the greatest vindication. Growing up, there were books that just meant the world to me and made me feel like people shared my problem. It would just make me ecstatic if people felt that way about my book.

I was glad to see that you acknowledged A.V. Club regulars like Zodiac Motherfucker at the end of the book.

I felt a little bit self conscious about it because I didn’t want anybody to feel left out. I didn’t want people to say, “Well why did he get picked and not me?” Part of it is that Zodiac Motherfucker cracks me up. He brings a lot of joy to my life. When I see his all-caps messages on The A.V. Club, a little shiver of joy goes through my body. I’m insecure enough that I almost thanked everybody who was ever nice to me. I don’t know if that’s sad or over compensating or something.

It’s weird, the first part of any book I ever read was the acknowledgements, and I understand now why the agent and the editor are the first two people thanked in every book, because these books would not exist without them. It’s a little bit like winning the Academy Awards and thanking your agent. It’s like, “Who the hell cares about your agent and your manager?” But you’d just be a horrible, horrible ingrate if you were like, “First and foremost I want to thank my second grade teacher and my tai kwon do instructor.” They’re the ones who got you to the ball so you are contractually obligated to sleep with them on prom night. One of my specialties are really bizarre, really unwieldy, unsavory metaphors. That is one of them, one for the ages.

It’ll live on in internet infamy.

Some day I’ll have a little picture book of unsavory metaphors. For children. Deep Thoughts with Unsavory Metaphors by Nathan Rabin.

Do you think your interactions with commenters on The A.V. Club changed how you wrote the book or went about promoting the book?

I think Roger Ebert is this interesting guy. He’s as legendary and famous and big a cultural figure as there is in film criticism, and probably criticism as a whole, and one of the many things I love about him is that if you go to rogerebert.com, he’s constantly responding to readers. There’s this sense of being equals and having a conversation. I go through different cycles about comments, and there are times when I’m just feeling really fragile and somebody’s saying something mean about my voice and it will just ruin my day. You have to develop relatively thick skin. If you dish it out, you have to be able to take it.

Then, there was one time when I missed an episode of The Office for my TV Club post, and I just posted, “I screwed up, I didn’t know it was on. Talk amongst yourselves.” And the comments were as lively and luminous as ever. There were as many comments as if I had been there. I’m like, “Why am I even here? You guys just want to talk about this TV show.” I feel like, in that instance, I’m just part of the conversation. I’m not even the leader of the conversation. I’m just like, here’s my opinion. There’s this internet democracy that’s a beautiful and a terrible thing at the same time.

That’s actually Guns N’ Rose’s next album. It’s going to be called Internet Democracy and they’re going to take 27 years to record it.

I read that you saw “My Year of Flops” as a place to give movies that had been skipped over a second chance, just like pop culture gave you a second chance.

Very much so. One of the reasons I started it is that I have an innate affection for the underdog and for things that people revile and just dismiss. To put it into context, the book that I spent nine months writing was rejected. It was thoroughly rejected. I felt like such a failure and if I gave these films a second chance, maybe people would give me a second chance. A lot of this is the tortured way that my mind works; I felt like, karmically, it would be a good thing.

It was also intended as an antidote to snark and the idea that everything sucks. You know the idea that, “Let’s just be superior and sarcastic and vicious. Sincerity is for losers.” One of the ironies is that I don’t think I’m immune to snark; it’s something I do on a pretty regular basis. But I feel like there’s this underlying idealism to a lot of what I do. Without it, I think my work would be a lot less interesting and a lot less valuable. I care, man.

I’m curious about the Johnny Rotten quote you closed the book with: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

One of the conceits of the book is that I wanted the pop culture references to start before the actual book and then end after the actual book, and for them to comment obliquely on the book. I liked ending with a question mark, on an ambiguous note. The movie endings that I like the best, from the ‘60s and ‘70s, are the ones that end with a freeze frame, with a cryptic look on somebody’s face. This was my way of ending with a freeze frame and a question mark.

I also want people to be able to read this more than once, and, if I can be incredibly pretentious, I wanted it to have a Nabokovian denseness in terms of literary allusion. I wanted more Nabokov and less Family Guy. Although there’s something to be said for Family Guy; it’s often a very funny show. But I haven’t watched it many, many years.

You can read and hear the full, unabridged interview at Tim Lehman’s personal blog, Lehmanade.

The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You By Pop CultureNathan Rabin’s memoir The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture is out now on Simon & Schuster imprint Scribner. You can find more of his writing at The A.V. Club or follow him on Twitter.

Tim Lehman is a graduate of Macalester College. In his spare time, he attempts to relive the four months he spent studying in Amsterdam by drinking Grolsch and eating sub-standard Minnesota falafel. He may well be missing the point.