Monday, February 21, 2011

Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

I have a weakness for quick, pointless books that are supposedly funny -- it's one of the few personality traits I share with a plurality of Americans, actually -- so it was inevitable that I would eventually read Sh*t My Dad Says. (I think I follow the Twitter feed, but I've never quite figured out a way to read Twitter and feel like I'm keeping track there, so it doesn't matter either way.)

Justin Halperin was a not particularly successful screenwriter and comedy writer (mostly for online venues) in his late twenties when a failed relationship sent him back to living with his parents a couple of years ago. Halperin's father, Sam, had recently retired in his early seventies, and is the kind of person typically described as "a real character" -- meaning, here as usual, that Sam says exactly what's on his mind at all times, and the things on his mind are often off-kilter. Think of him as a more pessimistic Yogi Berra who swears every other word, and you'll get the picture.

So Justin was home most of the time, since freelance comedy rarely comes with an office. And Sam was also home most of the time, since that's what retirement means. And they bounced off of each other, as aged parents and grown children will, particularly when the former is Hollywood-level "colorful" and the latter is (as he depicts himself) a typically mopey member of his generation. Justin, with such a natural source of comedy in front of him -- and, clearly, annoying him on a daily basis -- began to post some of Sam's pearls of wisdom to a Twitter stream, @shitmydadsays. (The first one, on August 3rd, 2009, was "I didn't live to be 73 years old so I could eat kale. Don't fix me your breakfast and pretend you're fixing mine.")

The power law of the Internet worked in Justin and Sam's favor -- as it does for so few people -- and the twitterfeed got forwarded and followed and quoted massively that fall, to the point where it has over two million followers now. And, since every popular Internet thing must become a book, so @shitmydadsays became the book Sh*t My Dad Says last May (and then the TV show $#*! My Dad Says in the fall of 2010, making Halperin's original career successful in a very roundabout way).

The book is remarkably old-fashioned, a short "my parents are absolutely wonderful" memoir of the kind familiar since the '50s, if not earlier. In this case, the absolutely wonderful parent is also a foul-mouthed grump, but that just says where America is in 2010. It's made up of a dozen or so short chapters, all telling some vaguely heartwarming story about Justin's youth and how his father got really angry and/or verbally abusive at someone, usually Justin. And then, after each chapter, there are a couple of pages of raw Sam Halperin-isms, such as:
"I just want silence...Jesus, it doesn't mean I don't like you. It just means right now, I like silence more."

"They're celebrating you graduating from eighth grade? We just went to your sixth-grade graduation two goddamned years ago! Jesus Christ, why don't they just throw a fucking part every time you properly wipe your ass?"

"That woman was sexy...Out of your league? Son, let women figure out why they won't screw you. Don't do it for them."
It's easy to see how this became a sitcom: it's full of little life lessons and bittersweet moments, and, if Sam Halperin would stand for it one second, it would be full of Aw-Dad hugs, too. Well, the swearing and anger fight against that, but, c'mon! it's a Tea Party country now, which means inappropriate anger and random cursing is very in vogue. Sam Halperin is the face of a new America: old, angry, and absolutely sure that he's right about everything. Luckily, he's funny -- even if it is mostly inadvertently so -- which makes this slim book worth the hour or so it takes to read it.

(Side note: the copy I got from the library was from a printing in July of 2010, and has the second iteration of the cover -- "New York Times Bestseller" has appeared on the top of the cover, but the "#1" has not yet been suck onto the front of that phrase. I'm sure there's an excellent Media Studies dissertation lurking, waiting for someone to do a close examination of the history of Justin Halperin and the Shit that his Dad says.)

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