Eisenberg’s jokes don’t always land.
was that time in July when the actor, while walking the
red carpet for the premiere of a movie, compared
attending Comic-Con to genocide. Or there was that time
earlier this week when the Internet exploded with
outrage over a short story he wrote for the New Yorker
that poked fun at film critics, depicting them as
self-obsessed and vindictive.
Oscar-nominated star of "The Social Network,"
"Zombieland," "The End of the Tour"
and "Now You See Me" is used to mixed reviews.
But the sort of anger his comedy stylings sometimes
engender — the website Salon just published a fiery
essay titled "Jesse Eisenberg is not funny"
which reminded readers of his use of the word
"squaw" in another story for the New Yorker
— is a more personal type of thumbs-down.
the reviews for "Bream Gives Me Hiccups,"
Eisenberg’s first collection of (mostly) humorous
short stories, have been warm, including an unabashed
rave from the Associated Press which was published on
— ahem — Salon.
said offensive things in my life, but I’ve usually
only been around my friends, and they just tell me to
shut up," Eisenberg says via telephone from New
York. "This book is a perfect way for me to have a
real interaction with the public in a way that’s
contextualized. It’s a book of humor, so even if it
offends you, you understand the context, and hopefully I
don’t have to apologize for it."
is no stranger to writing. He’s an accomplished
playwright, with three Off-Broadway productions to his
credit. His most recent play, "The Spoils,"
premiered in June and co-starred The Big Bang Theory’s
Kunal Nayyar. He has also contributed pieces of fiction
to magazines and online publications.
Eisenberg, 31, says the idea of a book simply hadn’t
occurred to him.
never even thought a book was a possibility, because the
humorous short story is my favorite format to
read," he says. "It’s a good fit for someone
like me, who has a short attention span in the age of
cell phones. I’m not sure I would be able to go
through with [writing] a novel. But I didn’t realize I
could collect them into a book until I started reading
my friend Simon Rich’s books. He’s written several
collections [including ‘Ant Farm: And Other Desperate
Situations’ and ‘The Last Girlfriend on Earth’].
Then I found George Saunders and Miranda July and other
people who wrote collections that weren’t necessarily
humor-based. So I realized I could put in stuff that was
a little darker or a little sadder. It could all fit
into a book, tied together simply by being stuff I
Gives Me Hiccups" takes its title from the book’s
first section, "Restaurant Reviews from a
Privileged Nine-Year-Old," which are exactly what
they sound like. The stories are short, funny and
shrewdly capture the thought processes of a smart little
boy who lives with his divorced mother and considers
every move she makes.
night, Mom took me to a new restaurant called Masgouf
… Mom said that all the women in her book club already
went to the restaurant, but I didn’t know why that
meant we had to go to the restaurant too. And I don’t
know why Mom is even in the book club, because she doesn’t
read any of the books and, on the nights before the book
club meetings at our house, she says [expletive] a lot
and asks me to look on Wikipedia."
these stories were originally published individually by
McSweeney’s over a two-year period, read together they
present a psychologically complex and bittersweet
portrait of a child of divorce who is aware he is being
used as a tool of war against his father.
says this group of stories came from a simple
observation he made while dining at a fancy Japanese
restaurant with his girlfriend to celebrate their
at the next table was this nine year-old asking his
mother ‘Mommy, do I like tamago?’ It was funny to
see a little boy in this fancy restaurant. I thought it
would be funny to write restaurant reviews from his
perspective. And then as I started writing I realized it
would more interesting to write about a kid who is a
product of divorce and is only going to these
restaurants because the father has agreed to pay for
anything the mother does with the boy.
stories took on this kind of sad tone. Then I realized
this kid would be more aware of the hypocrisies of the
adult world, because he’s not encumbered with the
white lies adults tell to get through the day. He’s
not burdened by all the nonsense surrounding human
interaction. So he would have a greater insight into the
truth. He would see the mom’s desperation. So the
reader gets to see the world through a nine year-old’s
eyes, but it’s more insightful than if the adults were
telling the story."
he was writing this particular batch of stories,
Eisenberg says he was also shooting "The
Double," the surreal 2013 thriller about a sad-sack
office worker who discovers he has a doppelganger with
all the charisma and confidence he lacks.
was playing two roles: One of them was an emotionally
stunted man who is so sincere and honest and thinks like
a baby, and the other one was this brash and insensitive
guy. I already had those two mindsets going, so I was
able to think in terms of a young child and a cold,
older person. For me, acting and writing are overlapping
creative process. When I’m writing plays, I’m
performing them in my mind. I’m playing Lex Luthor [in
next year’s "Batman v Superman"], and I have
to find a way to sympathize with that character, even
though he’s doing horrible things. By doing that, you
challenge yourself to understand the darkness of the
human experience. Even though the movie is a superhero
movie — just like some of my writing is comedic — it’s
still about finding the emotional reality of another
longest section in "Bream Gives Me Hiccups" is
titled "My Roommate Stole My Ramen" and is
comprised of letters written by a frustrated college
freshman to her former high school guidance counselor in
which she complains about everything from her
insensitive roomie to her teachers, complete with
elaborate, funny footnotes. Eisenberg says he drew on
his experience with the oldest of his two sisters to
create the character, one of the myriad ways in which
the collection is autobiographical without really being
autobiographical (he was born in Queens and raised in
suburban New Jersey by Jewish parents).
older sister was always a very sweet and contemplative
person, and then she went away to college," he
says. "One day she called me, furious about
something really petty, and I told her she was being
petty, and we laughed about it. One of the things that
struck me is that at the beginning of the
self-actualization process, young people are coming to
terms with a lot of simple situations that make them
angry. There’s something funny about that anger,
because often the situations are insignificant, like
your roommate eating your Ramen. But for you, at that
moment, it’s a big deal.
I started writing about this girl who at first comes
across really angry but as you learn more about her
life, you realize she’s sad and lonely, and she’s
struggling to find herself. It’s hard for me to write
a character over the course of a long story who is not
struggling with something. If she was just a funny angry
girl, I could only write about that for a page or two.
But here, I thought it was funny if you were invested in
her emotionally and sad too, because you’re laughing
at her pain."
bulk of "Bream Gives Me Hiccups" consists of
smaller, high-concept pieces, many of which seem
designed to be read aloud. Marv Albert Is My Therapist
imagines what a session would be like if the shouty
sportscaster was your shrink. Alexander Graham Bell’s
"First Five Phone Calls" ingeniously builds on
that premise over a quick four pages, suggesting the
template for all forms of future telephone conversations
were formed in 1876. If I Was Fluent In … is written
in script form and explores cultural stereotypes and
xenophobia with humor.
"Men And Dancing" (reprinted from the New
Yorker, with "Native American woman" in place
of "squaw") is comprised of four vignettes
regarding the innate male fear of being forced to dance,
including a wide receiver dismayed at learning he is
required to do a celebratory dance in the end zone after
a touchdown. Like most of "Bream Gives Me
Hiccups," the entry is fast, hilarious, ready to be
performed and pared down to its tightest, leanest
I wonder if I’m cutting too much," Eisenberg says
about his ruthless self-editing. "I always end up
cutting a lot down. But what’s great about this format
is that there’s a number of words that work really
well — somewhere under one thousand. Once you get past
that, the stories start to sputter a little bit. There’s
an absurdity to these premises, and once the premise
wears out its welcome, you lose mileage. When I do find
a premise that can last longer, like the girl who’s
struggling to adapt to college, I can go on about that.
But usually these work better in short form. That’s
what I love to read, and there’s a real art to doing