It was just over a year ago that I wrote a post here at Deadspin outing comedian Mike Burns as the man behind @DadBoner, one of the most popular Twitter feeds ever devised. If you're unfamiliar, the @DadBoner universe centers on the labors of a heroically optimistic Michigan man who lives in his car and who loves Bob Seger, cold ones, and bold flavors.
A lot of people were pissed about that doxxing ("You ruined Santa Claus" was a common hate tweet), including Burns himself. But time has passed, and @DadBoner's got himself a fancy new book coming out today, so recently Burns and I traded emails about the outing, the character of Karl Welzein, and life in general. We've edited the exchange a little for length and clarity.
Drew: I guess my first official question, of course, is, uhhhh… sorry about that. Are you pissed at us forever?
Mike Burns: Not at all. WAS I pissed when you wrote those articles? Slightly. It was really just fun, more than anything else, day drinking with my friends and watching the reactions play out in the feed. And, of course, there's no such thing as bad publicity. You did, however, cause a death in the family. [Note: After being outed, Burns "killed" a character in the DadBoner universe named Peanut.]
Found Homeless Peanut dead inside the 'Bring this mornin'.— Karl Welzein (@DadBoner) March 12, 2012
Drew: I know! The thing I liked about the whole Peanut incident is that you managed to respond to it in character, and it was convincing. Deep down, I was like, "Well, shit, if he can off Peanut for this, he could come for me."
Mike: I was worried more that a psychotic fan would come after you. I can't say I didn't enjoy the "hand of God" aspect with Peanut's death. Also, I looked at the whole scenario as a writer's game. Could I create a story within a fake world that would trump a real-life article? I did, but in the process I proved that Peanut was a more popular "human being" than I was. It actually made me really sad to kill off Peanut. Like, tears-welled-up sad. He was the fucking best. That blood is on your hands, Magary. (I should also note, that for about a half an hour that day, the plan was for Karl to find Dave hanging in his room.)
Drew: Since you have so much invested in Karl, do you ever get jealous of him? Do you ever feel like, "This fucker is getting all the credit!"?
Mike: No, I never get jealous. If anything would make me get that way, it'd be his optimism and positive attitude in the face of horrible circumstances.
Drew: Is Karl a useful way for you to deal with problems you have in your real life? Are there issues that Karl deals with in a light-hearted way that reflect some of your own personal demons? Women? Boozing?
Mike: I've definitely had moments where I "drank with Karl." Friday or Saturday morning gettin' shithoused listening to the same music he's playing on "WLZN." There've been whole chunks of the storyline where I woke up in the morning and thought, "Jesus Christ, I made him do WHAT?" And sure, I've written things out of personal frustrations with women and my professional career, as revenge against shitty bosses by basing characters on them, anger toward advertisements, and just plain old debaucherous fantasy sequences.
But a good portion of shit that happens in the feed is based on actual things that I've done or my friends have done. For instance, when Vernon got stabbed, that was after I got jumped in Echo Park by two gangbangers and was stabbed twice in the scuffle, an inch away from my spine. I was paying like $200 a month to live on my buddies' couch at the time, in almost a parallel life of filth and drunkenness. Most of the second year of @DadBoner was written from that couch where I chain-smoked on the balcony and matched Karl cold one for cold one, give or take a few. When Karl was on MDMA, I was rolling. Stuff like that. Also, 90 percent of the characters are named after friends of mine. And the speech patterns are authentic. Like, Crazy Cooter. I've known three or four "Crazy Cooters." The things he says and does in the storyline aren't exaggerations.
Drew: Do you consider yourself a pessimistic person? How much worse is your attitude toward life compared to Karl's?
Mike: I wouldn't say I'm pessimistic, although my mantra has been known to be, "Can't have nothin', tryin' to get somethin." When I blurt it out in a poor-kid-from-the-1920s voice, I'm only half-joking. But when I accept failure openly, I'm trying to be positive about it. For me, it makes life simpler and easier to deal with, knowing that most of the time, shit just ain't gonna work out the way you planned or wanted it to.
In the long run, these things are for the best. For example, I'm divorced. It completely crushed me as a person when it happened. It wasn't ideal, but I believe my life took a better path because of it. Karl is optimistic to a big fat fucking fault. It is his greatest flaw, and also his superpower.
Drew: You said that the breakup crushed you when it happened. Why?
Mike: My wife was my best friend. And we had just moved from Chicago to New York together so I could pursue comedy further. A month after, she went back. So I was there by myself, in an apartment I couldn't afford, and I didn't really know anyone in the city. I spent endless hours in bars alone. They're comforting. I fucking love a dark dive bar on a Sunday afternoon. $5 rail shots and cheap beers 'til you're completely sure your Monday is gonna be a hard bitch to kiss on the mouth.
But I guess the real reason I was crushed was that I failed at something. The disappointment in myself was unbearable. And I felt like I let my family down. Divorce isn't an easy pill to swallow with absolutely no support system other than the bottom of a bottle.
Drew: Did the boozing ever get out of control? Rehab, AA, etc?
Mike: COMPLETELY out of control? No. Excessive? Yes. I'm not an alcoholic. Wait, that's what alcoholics say. But I've never NEEDED to drink. Problem is, I don't get stomach-sick from booze while I drink, or in the morning. I don't get headaches from it, either. I don't get "hung over." If I was partying, the only time I'd physically need to stop drinking is when I'd go to sleep. My aftereffects from booze all came from crippling anxiety—which is a thousand times worse—but that's a whole other article.
I've never really needed rehab or AA. I have, however, needed to "get my shit together." That comes with being a comedian who drinks. There are times when you have to "get your shit together," or you might not ever have the chance to. I'm no longer the maniac drinker I once was, nor will I ever be one again. For example, on the Fourth of July, I had maybe 6 drinks and ate a bunch of mushrooms and smoked some weed. Responsibly. This is instead of having 30 to 50 drinks from 10 a.m.-3 a.m., alongside mushrooms, weed, Adderall, Molly, waking up on someone's floor in Venice wrapped in egg-crate foam, finding any full beers that drunks opened and forgot to drink, pounding those, then going on a bender for three more days. I'm much happier.
Drew: I have to follow up and ask about your crippling anxiety. What is it? Why is there? How does it manifest itself?
Mike: It's hard to describe well to someone who hasn't had anxiety issues. But if you do have anxiety issues, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. The closest I've gotten is: You know, in Seven, when Brad Pitt screams, "What's in the box?!" Well, it feels like that, except there's no box at all, and Gwyneth Paltrow isn't decapitated. You just feel hyper-aware of everything going on in your body, and like you're going to die. Like, you really believe you're going to die. No matter what anyone tells you, you're pretty sure death will come in the next hour or so. Then you can't sleep. And it gets worse as you get more and more exhausted, trying to find that perfect balance of Bud Light and water that'll put you to sleep and hit your reset button on life. It can take days for that to happen, for the chemicals in your brain to even out, so you just feel normal. As I get older, that takes longer and longer. So now, I don't hit it as hard. But if you had seen me in public, you never would have known. I had learned to control it—physically, at least.
Some people's brains just have chemical imbalances that make them depressed, manic, or anxious. When I was younger, I went through a period when it was much worse and took Zoloft, Ativan, etc. Those drugs turned me into a robot, and it was very difficult to be creative or productive on them. Most creative activity—music, writing, stand-up comedy—stems from periods of happiness or sadness, not feeling "even."
I weaned myself off those drugs with beer. Now I'm weaning off alcohol with healthy shit like exercise and prayer. Yeah, I fuckin' pray. It's not to a god or anything. And if there is a God, one I don't believe in—or do I? Fuck it. I believe in God now. It's not hurting anything—then I'm still ahead of the rest of you. Have fun in hell, assholes. I guess some people call it meditation. I'm a non-practicing Catholic, so I call it "praying to myself." Is "praying" still cool? Man, I remember when all the babes just creamed for a big-time prayer guy. Fuck, am I gonna come off as "churchy" now? Look, guys, I'm still cool! (pounds fifth of Maker's while tuggin' one off)
Drew: I think that one of the reasons that I love the feed is because Karl's life is inherently sad. His wife is gone. His employment is always in question. He drinks too much. And he's kind of fooling himself into believing that he's a rebel. Book deal aside, do you feel as if your own life is BETTER than Karl's? Or do you feel trapped in similar circumstances but without the kickass attitude to deal with it (or the right mindset to trick yourself into thinking you're dealing with it)?
Mike: I don't know if my life is better than Karl's. On paper? Sure. I live a very happy life filled with incredible friends, a roof over my head, a pick-up truck, a couple pairs of fresh Air Jordans, and enough money to afford a beer or a cheeseburger if I'd like one. (Sometimes. Other times I have to buy my blood-thinner medication from Walmart with laundry quarters because my checking account is overdrawn because I bought fucking Air Jordans. This happened last week.) I also met Billy Gibbons once and got to talk to him for about 15 minutes. But happiness is all perception. And I'd say Karl's perception allows him to be happier more often than I do. I do envy that, and sometimes live vicariously through it.
Drew: Do you write the feed for Ann Welzein, Karl's estranged wife?
Mike: Nope. Don't know who does. Actually, I think it might be a guy named Conor Lastowka. I don't know him, but maybe a year or two ago, he wrote easily the most insightful piece on @DadBoner up to that point, and maybe ever. It was the first time I thought, "Holy shit. Maybe some people actually get that this isn't just all toilet jokes." I was so flattered that he took the time to craft such a well-written piece.
Drew: Were there moments from your divorce that made it into Karl's marital troubles? Is that a way of helping you work it out?
Mike: I was long over my divorce when I started writing DadBoner. But it did help me create a realistic relationship demise. All that pettiness and passive aggression. Your ugly parts get uglier. Of course, as opposed to the Welzeins, my divorce didn't involve fights over "who ate the kid's Lunchables."
Drew: OK, so now DadBoner is gonna be a book. You've experimented with his voice in longform with Vice. But this is a whole book. Are you confident Karl's voice works in any length, or is this all a bit terrifying?
Mike: I'm 100 percent confident. And I think this form is better. It's the way the story was meant to be. There will be people who will say it isn't better as a book. There will be people who will say it sucks. There are also people who say Kate Upton is fat. I think the book is great, and Kate Upton is goddamn perfect.
What I love about the book is the intimacy. It's just you, and the story Karl Welzein is telling you. DadBoner is fun in the context of the internet. But the dynamic changes when you're reading his story alone, looking into his private journal by yourself, without the ability to RT things or "fav" them. There's no cyber handholding. It gives more weight to the comedic moments, as well as the extremely sad ones, because there's more time to digest them without the distraction of everything in the world at your disposal. Jesus, did I just explain how "books" work? I mean, books, am I right?! The shit's totally all just in your head. It's pretty fucked-up and scary as a notion, folks.
I also love that Karl's language evolves as he wanders further into the funhouse. His speech pattern changes slowly, and I kept that as accurate as possible. There are popular catchphrases that didn't even make it into the book's timeline because he hadn't invented them yet. Like, early married Karl doesn't say "celebraish." It may have been the hardest part of writing the book; going back and recreating his speech pattern and language from three years ago, while writing current storylines on the Twitter feed in a completely different style.
Drew: Your old avatar: Do you miss it? Was the real guy in that photo pissed?
Mike: The real guy? I'm not sure. I just know Twitter took it down because it wasn't my "property." It never went further than that. I got lucky that the storyline just happened to have a way to unveil a new avatar without having to address it directly. I don't miss the old avatar as much as I miss the old Karl Welzein. Things were simpler then. All he wanted was to sneak some of the kids' snacks that were supposed to be for "lunches only," shoot nine on Saturday, and have a few cold ones while he watched the ball game. Now he lives in his car. Kinda concerning?
Drew: Back to the book: People like the feed because of its restraint. You never replied to people. You followed accounts that Karl would like to follow. It must have taken a lot of willpower for you to stay in character the whole time. Do you feel conflicted now that you have to break those rules in order to capitalize on DadBoner's popularity? Some people were pissed you did a sponsored tweet.
*PROMOTED LIFE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY* POWER MOVES: Livin' The American Dream, USA Style, available for pre-order at http://t.co/P6Hii4Ynbt— Karl Welzein (@DadBoner) June 23, 2013
Mike: It's never really that difficult to stay in character, because of those "rules." No replies, no RTs, no @s. Just telling the story is easy. Also, Karl isn't even on Twitter. He's just writing this shit down at home. Most people don't get that. The feed is a fishbowl.
Here's the deal with the newly bent "rules": The storyline remains unbroken, and the feed is written the same as before with VERY OCCASIONAL promotional tweets that I treat like commercials. And, those "sponsored tweets" aren't sponsored at all. I put them up for free to promote strictly @DadBoner-related ventures including the live events, side articles, and the book. I use phrases like "*PROMOTED INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY*" because I'm making fun of promoted tweets. It's a joke. Apparently, some people don't get that.
And I've never taken a dime for a product endorsement. Yet I still get shit from fucking basement-dwelling morons for using the fucking @DadBoner feed to promote fucking @DadBoner shows. What would be a better place to let @DadBoner fans know about things? Telephone poles on Sunset Blvd.? Those shows are for fans. They're not to make a pile of money. And they're so much fun. Everyone yells, and swears and drinks beer and we all laugh together at dick and shit jokes. I'm sorry to use a Karl term, but it's a "celebraish" driven by hilarious comedian friends of mine, or ones I admire. If you don't like that, if you don't think that's fun, and it ruins things for you, then you can fuck off and go be bitter. Don't read the feed anymore. No one cares. It's just Twitter.
Regarding the book, another thing I don't think people understand when they accuse me of selling out: Writing a book doesn't make you shit for money relative to the time it takes. For all the hours I spent on it, I would've been better off working at a coffee shop. I wanted the Karl character to write a book because I think that's hilarious, and I think it's a very cool thing. The book, the article, it's just more Karl. Again: Don't like it? Don't read it. And, yes, I do feel conflicted. Every time I have to promote something, it hurts and upsets me. So I occasionally yell at people in my life who don't deserve it, and I'll think about throwing a chair through my window. Happened today. But you have a responsibility to promote things the best you can when people are nice enough to believe in you and help you publish a book. For which I'm very grateful.
Drew: What made you want to throw a chair through a window?
Mike: I had to do a Reddit AMA, as well as a few other things.
When I complain to someone on the business side of the book about risking the feed's integrity, I don't get much sympathy. It's always met with a guilt-inducing "Well, it'd be a shame to let this possible opportunity pass you by." They don't understand how much I've grown to love the character over the past three years and how it actually hurts me to change the organic nature of the project.
I don't blame them for not understanding. It's INSANE to actually stay up at night, in bed, worrying about a fake person that you made up. If someone complained to me about something of the sort, they'd probably be met with, "Who cares? Shut the fuck up, weirdo." I should mention that since I began my response to this question, I did the Reddit AMA—as Karl—and it was a lot of fun relieving my lack-of-interaction blue balls. 99 percent of the people were incredibly nice, played along, and asked a lot of questions I didn't actually remember the answer to. These usually pertained to something I wrote while I was drunk.
What almost got the chair thrown threw the window was when I was asked if I would tweet at someone of note in exchange for "possibly showin' some love back." I'd had enough at that point. Instead of the chair, I opted for some Indian food and lifting weights like a psycho. I also just quit smoking, which may have a small effect on these moments of rage.
Sorry, was that shit too long?