Zibby is joined by writer, producer, and author of the instant New York Times bestseller Do You Mind If I Cancel?, Gary Janetti, to talk about his new book of essays, Start Without Me. The two discuss how Gary got his start as a sitcom writer by researching scripts in the Writers Guild Library, why the dreamy quality of the book’s short chapters came about naturally, and where aspiring comedy writers should look for inspiration. Gary also shares how he approaches his viral Instagram (which has over 1 million followers!!!) and what he is currently reading.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Gary. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Gary Janetti: Thanks, Zibby. I’m really happy to be here.

Zibby: As I was just saying to you, I literally just recommended your book on Good Day LA as a book to laugh out loud. I am a huge fan of the book and of your writing in general.

Gary: Thank you. I really appreciate that. Thanks for the shout-out.

Zibby: Also, I had the PDF of your book on my phone. We were stuck in traffic last night going to this book launch event in Brooklyn with a lot of people on my team. Everybody was getting tired of being in the — I was like, “You guys, I’m going to read Gary Janetti’s book to you out loud.”

Gary: How did it go?

Zibby: It was so great. There were two cars of us. The other car that got there, everybody was nauseous and in the worst mood. We all fell out of the car laughing and having the best time.

Gary: Good. If I could help a car ride…

Zibby: You helped a car ride, so mission accomplished.

Gary: Yes, definitely.

Zibby: Why don’t you tell listeners a little bit about this book and even about both books, why you’ve started compiling these memories, which ones you pick, how you do it, and all of that?

Gary: It kind of happened just by happenstance. I met with James Melia, who is my editor now. He asked, off my Instagram, its popularity, he was like, “Would you ever be interested in doing a book?” I had actually been thinking about doing a book. I had always wanted to do it, as you could tell. When you read them, I talk about how I see myself as a “writer.” I’m making air quotes if you’re just listening. I don’t actually write, so I had this romantic idea of it that existed not based in any kind of reality. That was something that I felt like, I don’t know what it’s going to be, but this is something I’ve been wanting to do. I started off wanting to do it. Now I’m assuming the universe is telling me that now — I’ll use Instagram as the universe. It’s telling me that now is the time. Zibby, I didn’t know what I was going to do when I started. I had an idea. I just knew I wanted to do short essays. Because I’ve written in sitcoms for so many years, I kind of like to do things economically. I’ve compacted my life into very tight, tidy, little chapters.

I just thought of, what are the things that I still remember? At this point in my life, when you’re fifty — I’ll call myself fifty, generously. You have enough to look back on. If I wrote it at thirty-five, I would be more self-conscious about what I was talking about because you’re almost too close to it. At this point, you think, I’m still remembering these things. I wonder why. These are the things that stuck in my head. The things I’ve written about, these moments from my life, they are things that I still kind of think about. I figured I’ll write about those. I would just write one sentence or even a word down; in this book, write about Irene, my next-door neighbor that I grew up with, write about your obsession with The Carol Burnett Show. You still think about that. It started from that. Then as I wrote them, I felt, naturally, they connected together in some kind of almost, not to sound too pretentious, but in almost a dreamy kind of way because it’s not a real straightforward narrative thread by any stretch.

Zibby: That’s fine, the stream of consciousness.

Gary: It’s all over the place.

Zibby: It’s great because it’s how we think about life, really.

Gary: I think so. I don’t think things are as tidy as we would like them to be. We don’t know. We jump from one thought to the next. One thing connects us to the other. Then we forget our original thought. Then we go all the way back to it, maybe.

Zibby: I’m forty-five, so I got all the references to the previous life.

Gary: Oh, good.

Zibby: I like how you’re constantly telling the younger reader even things like when you talk about the pen pals. I totally made pen-pal friendships. I had a pen pal from Paris who I met in Jamaica. We were pen pals for two years. Every time that air-mail paper came in, I was like, oh, my gosh. Of course, I didn’t visit her like you in your story, which was so funny.

Gary: I know, I did. It was actually probably, in real life, a little bit even more painful than it was in writing about it. My dad worked for a cruise line. I talk about how much that impacted my life and how many cruises we went on and this older woman, once we became pen pals, and the excitement of that relationship of getting letters and passing letters in the mail. Really, I don’t know what we were writing about, actually, because I was a kid. She was a married woman. It was all very weird.

Zibby: You said, at one point, it was just one conversation painfully drawn out over six months.

Gary: Six months ten years. It was, yes, the slowest conversation, drips coming through the mail weeks at a time.

Zibby: Even how you point out in so many instances, but wait, why were they hanging out with me? You don’t think about it until you’re older. What was the twenty-five-year-old couple doing with a fifteen-year-old boy or whatever?

Gary: I think part of it, too, was I always was more comfortable around older people. It wasn’t like they sought me out. I sought out people that were older.

Zibby: I think there should be a whole social network of old souls. I identify as an old soul. You’re an old soul. There are all these old souls out there. I was at these seventh-grade sleepovers. I was literally reading my book with the mom in the other room just being like, okay.

Gary: I was always reading. I read Mommie Dearest when I was a kid. I read everything. I read the books my mother read too. They were around. Best-sellers were there. I just picked them up. The Amityville Horror, I think I was ten. Nobody ever said, that’s not appropriate for you. They might have rolled their eyes, but nobody was paying that much attention. My mother wasn’t looking what you were reading. I had a book, whatever the book was. Also, there wasn’t anything called young adults’ fiction. There was the little kids. Then there was full-on adults. I just skipped ahead.

Zibby: Totally. I went straight to Judith Krantz, from Judy Blume to Judith Krantz.

Gary: Yes, Judy Blume, they passed that book around. Was it Forever or something?

Zibby: It’s so funny. By the way, your sister was the most hilarious character, how you talked about her. You were like, it’s not so easy being a gay boy in Queens, Maria. This probably is making no sense to anyone listening. I’m just talking about the funniest parts. It was just so funny how you developed that and your family and how you feel even now going back and all of that. How do people in your life tend to feel being written about?

Gary: You know, we haven’t talked that much about it. They’ve just recently read this book. I think they all like it. For me, it’s different for everybody, obviously, but I’m looking for a way, for the most part, to celebrate the people that have been in my life in it, not to bring anybody to task about any past grievances that I’m now going to settle, certainly with family. There are other people. Those people, I changed their names. They’re not usually in my life anymore. For the most part, I want to be able to celebrate the things that I have found in them that I love about them and stuff. I’m hoping that people sense that.

Zibby: I love it. That’s so great. How did you go from Queens, feeling so frustrated, Wizard of Oz-boy roaming in the streets in Venice to the sitcom part of your life?

Gary: In my first book — plug for my first book, Do You Mind If I Cancel?, now out in paperback. I work at the Paramount Hotel as a bellman for two chapters. I’m twenty-eight years old. I’m in terrible debt. I just couldn’t make enough to pay for — I look at young people going to restaurants now. I only think, how do they afford this? I’m looking at the prices. There were cheap restaurants when I was in my twenties. Now everybody wants to go to all the restaurants they see in The Infatuation and Eater or on Instagram. It’s expensive. It’s a hundred dollars a person. I would have a twenty-dollar bill in my pocket and thinking, if I spend this whole twenty dollars on dinner, I’m not going to be eating much tomorrow. It was always in my head. I had gotten myself in bad trouble of being in debt and working in the hotel. At twenty-eight, you can see thirty. I felt like, what am I doing? I’m waiting for something to happen to me. It doesn’t work like that. I would work at this hotel thinking I was going to be “discovered” — I made air quotes again — like Lana Turner in the drugstore, for those of us who can remember. I’m too young for Lana Turner. Google it. Somebody just be plucked out of obscurity, I thought that I’d be discovered working in this hotel. Somebody would say, I see something inside you. You’d be a terrific actor on All My Children. You’d be a wonderful writer for Vanity Fair. Would you have a short story? I work for The New Yorker. My job was to just have humility and be like, I actually do. That’s how it was going to happen.

I had this epiphany one day working there where I checked in, actually, somebody who I went to school with. I had carried his bags up to the room. He tried to give me a tip. I was like, what’s happened? I don’t want to be here. I need to fix this. I moved to LA. I quit, and I moved to LA. I was already living in LA a few months later. I was teaching myself how to write for TV. I had been talking about writing, that I was going to write for so long. I was like, you have to do it now. Nobody’s coming to you, you idiot. Nobody’s finding you here. Nobody’s looking for you. Nobody should care about your career and your future more than you do. Why would a stranger care more than I care? It all clicked into place. I just moved to LA shortly thereafter. I started writing and teaching myself. There was no internet, sadly. It sounds so strange to say that. I’m sure it was in a huge, bigger, internet-y kind of thing, but there was no Google. I went to the Writers Guild library. I read scripts from sitcoms. At the time, it was Friends and Mad About You and Seinfeld and Frasier and Roseanne. I read these scripts. They were so well-crafted. I thought, I could do this. My years of watching TV had kind of — unknowingly, I was training my mind to think like that. It made sense. It was a language that I already spoke. Often, I repeat, especially in this book, the language of boys, the language of sports, and all the things that they were interested in, it always felt to me like a language I didn’t speak. I could pretend. I pick up phrases. I go to France, and I can order. That’s what it was like. I was in France all the time not speaking the language.

When I finally went to the Writers Guild library and I read these sitcom scripts, I was like, this is a language I speak, and I didn’t know it, in a way. Even then, I couldn’t really articulate it like I can now looking back. I just started doing it. I just started writing it. I was focused. I was laser-focused on, I am going to make this happen. A switch went off. Once I started writing, I haven’t stopped since. It was a big wake-up call. I was fortunate that a few months after I moved to LA, I got a job writing on a sitcom. I went from waiting for everything to happen to making everything happen overnight, which also is my advice to any young people. I think I write about that in my first book a lot. You say, Zibby, that I write about young people compared to now and then. That’s a thing that people who were in their twenties now were like, I need to hear that, or have said, oh, my god, I have felt the same way. I have felt like something was just going to magically happen to me as well as opposed to — I needed to hear that. Did that answer your question? I kind of went all over the place.

Zibby: I just love listening. It’s great. Yes, that did answer my question.

Gary: I stuck a few other answers in there, too, to other unasked questions.

Zibby: Great. Pile them in. You’re funny in this book about Instagram. You said something about, it’s like having milk in fridge. Just because you see it a few times a day doesn’t mean you’re friends.

Gary: Yeah, the people you know on Instagram.

Zibby: Here you are with this massive following. You’re so clever in the way you use the platform. Just tell me about that. Your captions are often very short, the pictures. It could’ve just been Twitter. It’s also Instagram. How did you decide, I’m going to master these mediums and tap into this whole thing? All this stuff with the royal family, you’ve just hit it spot on. Was it just luck? Tell me about that.

Gary: It wasn’t like I made a decision. I’m going to become a thing on Instagram. You can’t make that decision because it doesn’t quite work out the way you think it is. What I like about social media — we all know the negative things about it. There are lots of negative things, but there’s also a lot of positives. It’s a way to connect with people. For me, I wanted to do something different on it. I like to zig when everybody’s zagging. I like to do the things that people aren’t doing. I’m not interested in sharing my personal life. Although, there are bits of it through my husband Brad, and mostly on his. It’s not about my personal life. I thought of it as a little TV show. I’m like, I wonder if I can use Instagram and make it kind of my own show. It’s like the anti-Instagram, almost. People are posting inspirational posts and quotes. I’ll turn that kind of inside-out because I find that — it’s so trite and meaningless. What’s a way that I can contribute to this? I have something to say. I can use it for that. I wonder if people will respond to that.

Then when I started doing memes with Prince George and then I started developing a personality for him and started pushing how far you can go on the platform to create — I was treating it like it was a TV show — a whole little universe, gradually, I think people started coming aboard. You find people who have a shared sensibility. Do you know what I mean? For the most part, you gather people who kind of share your outlook, as it were, a bit. It happened totally organically. I did intend to do my own thing. I was like, I want to do my own thing. Also, when you write for television for so long — when I started Instagram, it was before the books. For something to go from my head for you to see it on TV is a lot of steps. It’s painstaking. Oftentimes, it does not make it there along the way. There are notes. There’s feedbacks. There are rewrites. There are months that go by. Then you watch it. You’re like, ah. This was an opportunity to have something in my head, and now put it out. It’s right in the audience in a second. It gets a response. It’s satisfying. It can be satisfying in that way, creatively.

Zibby: Yes, there’s nothing like the immediacy. Let me test out this thing.

Gary: Exactly. Totally.

Zibby: That didn’t work at all. Okay, moving on.

Gary: They can’t all be gems.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Gary: Now, just for the most part, working on the book, taking the book out into the world after having spent so much time writing it, even though it’s short. I look at it. I’m like, it’s so short. Yet it took so long. People are like, I finished it in a night. I’m like, a night? I wish I could’ve written it in a night. I’m on book tour. I’ll be taking that around and then seeing what it is that I want to do next.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Wait, so how long did it take to write

Gary: Eight months.

Zibby: That’s not bad for a book, by the way.

Gary: Okay, thanks. Also, it’s not that long. Everything is my attention span. I like a book either to be this length or three thousand pages. It needs to be one or the other. If something is 380 pages, I’m like, ugh. Four hundred pages, hmm… If you tell me it’s 1,500 pages, I’m like, let me see. It’s one extreme or the other.

Zibby: I totally get it.

Gary: I’d rather watch a movie that’s ninety minutes or ten one-hour episodes of The Crown. If the movie’s two and half hours, I’m like, no thank you.

Zibby: I know. It’s so crazy. None of our consumption patterns make any sense anymore.

Gary: No sense.

Zibby: No sense. Seriously, if somebody’s trying to write about their life and they want — let’s say somebody thinks they’re funny. Who knows if they are or not? What do they do next? Is it worth trying? What medium do you like best? What advice do you have for them?

Gary: First of all, you should never think you’re funny. I can be funny. I have my moments when I’m funny. Then I have many moments when I’m not. I never tell anybody, I’m a comedy writer. You can decide whether or not it’s comedy. I’ll just leave off the adjective and say writer. It’s so subjective. I would say if they were interested in writing — are you saying if they think, I think I have something, I think I’m funny, and I would like to write? Is that the general kind of thing?

Zibby: Yeah.

Gary: I would say, what is it you’re drawn to? What do you watch? Do you watch a lot of TV comedy? Do you watch a lot of animation? Do you read a lot? How do you absorb comedy? What is it that you gravitate towards? That’s what you should be writing. That’s what it is. If it’s like, I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I think I would like to write a sitcom, it’s like, no. Why? Because I think I could do it. It’s hard. You have to be passionate. What’s the thing? If it’s, I like comic essays or I like this kind of thing, then start doing that. Then do it. Don’t be afraid. The thing I’ve had to learn, too, is don’t force the funny. Don’t try too hard. We can see when somebody’s working too hard. When I write multi-cam sitcoms — Will & Grace is a multi-cam sitcom versus Modern Family, single camera, versus animation, obviously. They all are a bit different, the way I approach them. Something that’s multi-cam, for Will & Grace, the writing, I feel, is better when it has more of a tossed-off quality. It doesn’t feel tortured. Every joke isn’t so written. An audience oftentimes laughs just at the things that are more human and smaller as opposed to the finely constructed joke. If something is too over-thought, sometimes that kind of comes through. That’s why the thing that you’re passionate about, the area that you love, whatever it is — there’s no shame in anything. I have very high/low tastes. That’s what you should go towards because that’s the thing that you love. Don’t go to the thing that you don’t. It’s like, I want to do stand-up even though — that’s the hardest thing in the world to do. What are you talking about? So many people are like, I’ll do stand-up.

Zibby: My husband and I — where were we? I think we were maybe going to one of the million open houses we do just for fun even though we have no intention of buying anything. We were with this woman. She was showing around a house. She was very serious the whole time. Then she happens to mention, she’s like, “On the weekends, that’s where I perform my stand-up routines.” We kind of laughed, like, ha ha. She was serious. I’m like, you do stand-up comedy? Come on. No. There’s no way.

Gary: Maybe she’s good.

Zibby: Maybe she’s amazing. Stranger things have happened.

Gary: Who knows? Maybe she’s amazing. I know.

Zibby: She probably has her own show.

Gary: It’s hard. To me, it’s like saying, I want to perform surgery. You don’t just get up and do stand-up. It’s crazily difficult.

Zibby: I feel like your whole career has sort of justified the twelve hours a day you spent watching TV, right?

Gary: It has, completely. It was training for it. I didn’t even know when I was in my twenties and I wanted to be a writer and I was doing all of this stuff — I wanted to be a “novelist,” air quotes again. I never even thought, why don’t you want to write for TV? I didn’t connect those dots. There was nobody, by the way, to help me connect the dots. Nobody just said, hey, you want to be a writer, you have a good ear — I did write in school. I did well with it. Teachers told me I had a good ear for dialogue. Nobody was telling me, perhaps writing for television, or this. It wasn’t anything that anybody thought of. I guess it was there in the back of my mind. It was like, I’ll just try this, to do this. I had no idea that I was doing so much preparation for it.

Zibby: I have four kids. I used to have these very stringent time restrictions on everything. I keep interviewing people like you. I read about Simone Biles who’s like, I sat and watched gymnastics videos for four hours a day. Maybe she wouldn’t have been Simone Biles if her mom had been like, you can only watch thirty minutes a day.

Gary: You’re right, by the way.

Zibby: You wouldn’t be a sitcom writer if you had only watched thirty minutes a day.

Gary: No. This is not to advocate for parents leaving their children in front of the TV for twelve hours, which is about how much I — I watched it like it was my job. I also was engaging with it in a weird way. I was a lonely kid. It was more than a lifeline. It activated something in me, my imagination, in a way. I do believe that Simone Biles, of course that helped. She’s extraordinary, obviously. I think that also is a form of training, certainly mentally. I know, it’s ironic that it ended up this way. My mom is so pleased. They complained about how much TV I watched, obviously, but there was nothing to be done about it. I was always watching it. It was like, oh, my god, it ended up being a good thing.

Zibby: You never know. You never know what’s going to go on with your kids or anything else. Last question. Are you reading anything good now? Have you read anything amazing lately?

Gary: Yeah. I just read — oh, my god, I read so much that everything kind of blends together. I just read Edith Wharton for the first time. What’s the novel with Lily Bart? Not The Age of Innocence. The House of Mirth. I just read The House of Mirth because The Gilded Age was on. I was watching The Gilded Age, and I was like, I want to read an Edith Wharton novel. I had never read The House of Mirth. It’s so good, oh, my god. It’s brilliant, The House of Mirth. I read Elena Ferrante’s new book, The Lying Life of Adults, as well just recently. I love her too, and Sally Rooney. I love Sally Rooney.

Zibby: Everybody loves Sally Rooney.

Gary: I know. She’s great.

Zibby: Gary, thank you so much. This was so fun. Thank you for making me laugh. I feel like we all need a good laugh right about now in the world. This is coming at the perfect time. Good luck with your tour. Have fun.

Gary: Thank you. Thanks so much, Zibby. It was a pleasure.

Zibby: You too.

Gary: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


START WITHOUT ME by Gary Janetti

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