Cracked.com’s John Cheese: How not to step in dog shit

January 27, 2012 at 7:51 am (Articles / Interviews) (, , )

An edited, sanitized version of this appears in the Philippine Online Chronicles (published January 2012)

* * *

Readers of the American comedy website Cracked.com would be familiar with the columnist John Cheese (real name Mack Leighty).

In a website filled with raucuous jokes and references to male genitalia, Cheese brings a darker touch to his articles (while still bringing the raucuous jokes and references to male genitalia). They tend to have titles like 5 Things Nobody Tells You About Quitting Drinking, 5 Ways Methamphetamine Can Make You a New Person, or 5 Things Nobody Tells You About Being Poor. All are based on his own experiences.

His articles chronicle a difficult relationship with his father, struggles with poverty and addiction, and the insight that comes with working towards, and maintaining, sobriety. But while he paints some very ugly pictures, he approaches his personal history with brutal honesty, sharp (frequently self-depreciating) witticisms, and an eye for the absurd—so that when he tells his stories, what one may be tempted to call a tragedy becomes comedy gold.

Over an e-mail interview, Cheese tells the Philippine Online Chronicles that the kind of writing he does allows him to put his experiences in perspective.

“There are a lot of elements of my childhood that really could have used a counselor to help me sort them out,” he says. “Writing about it is my counselor. It not only helps me put certain demons to rest, but sometimes it forces me to look at certain situations that I previously blamed on other people, and realize that, ‘Holy shit. That was your fault; not your dad’s!'”

“I think everyone could benefit by doing the same thing. They don’t necessarily have to publish their life for everyone to read. It could just be a journal that they hide in their closet. But writing it down does incredible things for your perspective and understanding of the unanswered ‘whys’ in life.”

Writing comedy in particular, is something he fell into naturally.

“I will always find it funny to paint an innocent situation and then corrupt it,” he says. “Like maybe talking about a classroom full of kindergarteners learning their ABCs, and when the teacher asks a kid what comes after “F,” he responds with something like, ‘What comes after ‘F’ is you turning around and walking away. If after the count of five your whore eyes are still locked on mine, I’m going to jump out of this seat and skull-fuck you with an icepick. One… two…’”

“That probably says something bad about me, mentally, but unexpected violence like that will always make me laugh. And the word “asshole.” It’s probably my favorite word.”

Cheese found an audience for his writing on the internet. Unlike becoming a stand-up comedian, who would have to tour constantly to get his message heard, or a TV comedy writer who would be subject to the whims of Hollywood, the internet allows him to get to readers immediately.

“I’m much more comfortable on the internet than anywhere else,” he says. “ When you write an article for the net, you see not only the instant reactions of fans, but you have the potential to reach people in all corners of the globe, instantly.”

Before Cracked, he had several other online projects, but they fell victim to his then-lifestyle.

“Back in those days, I was an alcoholic and extremely self destructive,” Cheese says. “ Any website I’ve ever had, I kept for a couple of years and then in a fit of depression, erased the entire thing without warning. It was an incredibly dickhead thing to do to my readers, but back then I didn’t care.

Cheese has gone a long way since those days. Among the things he did was quitting alcohol, which he documented in a series of YouTube videos.

His ongoing attempt to crawl out of the pit manifests in his Cracked articles, like 5 Bits of Advice That Don’t Make Sense Until It’s Too Late, 7 Things You Don’t Realize About Addiction (Until You Quit), and 5 Reasons Life Actually Does Get Better.

The result was that although Cheese is primarily a comedy writer, readers have begun contacting him solely to share that they’re going through the same things he did and asking for advice. That people would one day be approaching him for advice about life would have been unthinkable to a younger John Cheese.

“My life back then was all about me,” he says. “ Everything I did was done with nobody else in mind. I was a very selfish person, and when you’re like that, it’s impossible to see outside of your own personal bubble. I never pictured myself giving advice because in my own addled mind, I personally didn’t need any advice.”

Now, as a self-described “reformed douchebag,” he has plenty to share.

“It feels natural to me because at it’s core, my articles are telling my story. Yeah, I phrase it as advice to other people, and I fully intend that in all of these types of articles, but when you put all of those articles together and start paying attention to the fine details, you can see my actual life unfolding. It’s a biography of sorts, and put into that perspective, it doesn’t feel weird at all.

“To me, my earlier life was like stepping in a pile of dog shit. Then as a stranger walks past me in that direction, I turn and say, ‘Hey, watch out. There’s some dog shit over there.’ Except in my articles, I talk about all the things that led up to me stepping in it, and how I got it off of my shoe without getting it on my hands and the rest of my clothes.”

These days Cheese works for Cracked, and runs the website for the book (and now film) John Dies at the End.

But while Cheese says coming up with his own spin-off website would be impractical for him, he is taking the natural next step and writing a “life-type” kind of book.

“The most difficult thing is finding the time and the energy to write it,” he points out. “It’s a project I have to work on after my normal Cracked work is done, and most nights, that doesn’t happen until around 4am. After doing layouts and column work for 14 hours, I don’t have the energy to keep going. And even if I do have the energy, I have to allow myself some relax time in order to avoid burning out.

“So what I find myself doing is finding a rare day when I have no work at all, wait for everyone in the house to go to be, and then write for six or seven hours straight.”

“I’m hoping to finish the draft before this summer, but I have no idea if that’s even possible,” he says. “My biggest concern is that I put out a quality piece of work that isn’t just released to cash in on my internet popularity. If the book doesn’t say something important, I’ll delete the file without ever showing a single person. This is my one opportunity to say something to the world, so I want to make it worthwhile.”

John Cheese is on Twitter and Tumblr.

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