20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.
“I think the more interesting and truthful take on why so many queer people live in the creative space is that we are forced to think of the world in terms of symbols and metaphors from a very young age. So, of course, we paint and bake and design and sing and make clothes and perform. I think that gives us more familiarity with the power of creating than straight-culture at large.” David Crabb is an LA-based author, performer, storyteller, and host of The Moth and RISK! His 2013 one-man show, Bad Kid, was named a New York Times Critics’ Pick and was published as a memoir of the same name by Harper Perennial in 2015. Crabb was one of 7 performers chosen by Time Out New York for their 2013 New York Comedy Festival line-up, and The Wall Street Journal praised him as a performer capable of guiding a crowd “from belly laughs to pin-drop silence.”
Crabb has directed and coached storytelling at NYC’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCB), People’s Improv Theatre (The PIT), Occidental College, Indiana University, Kevin Allison’s The Story Studio, and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He serves as a writing mentor with The Writers Guild Initiative and has designed and taught corporate storytelling programs at Twitter, Google, Facebook, Fidelity, Bravo, The New York Times, and more. He’s currently a company member at The Groundlings Sunday Company, and he joins me this week on 20 Questions to talk all things storytelling, writing, queerness, and more.
What is the earliest memory you have of wanting to be a storyteller?
Watching HBO late-night as a kid. They used to feature great solo-show specials and I remember being awake late in my pajamas on the fold-out sofa absolutely glued to the TV. Spalding Gray and Whoopi Goldberg’s solo performances were especially influential.
What time of day are you most inspired?
Mornings and, unfortunately, about 10 minutes after my head hits the pillow at night.
Favorite book of all-time?
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn or Naked by David Sedaris.
What’s one vice you wish you could give up?
Pessimism. Obviously, the last few years have offered lots of challenges to this lifelong issue.
One movie that will always make you cry?
E.T. Every time. Without fail. “I’ll be right… here.” I swear to god, I sometimes get misty from simply hearing the name “Elliot” spoken anywhere, by anyone.
What’s the most challenging part of writing for you?
Starting. If I can just get ten minutes in, then it’s off to the races.
The best book you’ve read in the last year?
I just re-read The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr and it wins this award any year I re-read it.
Bad Kid the memoir was adapted from Bad Kid the one-man show. What were the biggest differences between telling your story in spoken word versus the written word?
There was more room for scenic detail and for internal monologue, which allowed the book to lean more towards drama than the live show did. And just having the page bandwidth to unpack more humor and pathos from it all.
The last series you binge-watched?
The Vow on HBO.
The best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
No feeling is final.
If you could have one writer, dead or alive, to compose your obituary, who would it be and why?
Probably Sedaris, because regardless of how tragic my passing is, I’ll need people to laugh at it as well.
Your work describing your coming-of-age experiences as a gay goth in the ‘80s and ‘90s has central themes of queer friendship and found family. What do you make of the way that friendships often become a sort of platonic love affair for queer people in a culture that still preaches the heteronormative nuclear family?
That’s a great question. I think queer people (at least closeted ones in less-evolved places) are forced to bond in far deeper ways than straight teenaged friends do, because the friendship is not only a choice but a necessity. Finding one or two queer friends in a conservative place as a young person is a major score, to the degree that it almost eclipses any difference of opinion or attitude one might have. So, I think small pods or pairs of queer teenaged besties are really forced to see past issues and connect in ways they would’ve have to as straight people, because of how badly they need each other in the culture. And I think this leads to far more familial and intense friendships.
One song that you will never be sick of?
“Perfect Kiss” by New Order.
How would you describe the importance of storytelling, especially in an age of social isolation?
It’s everything and the ability to have it as a skill in your toolbox has never been more important. Since the pandemic has settled, it’s been interesting to be back in the mix with friends, work & family and notice what a hit LISTENING has taken as a social practice. At parties and gatherings, it seems like it’s become harder for people to just pay attention to each other; interruptions abound, non sequiturs galore, themes change as the next person speaks about what they’ve been waiting to share for 5 minutes versus what was just said… I think this makes storytelling and the ability to capture someone’s attention a more important skill than ever, due to this hyperactive vibe people seem to have about social exchanges lately.
They’re also way worse at driving now, but that’s another story…
What’s your current read?
Between the holidays and my work at The Groundlings Sunday Company, where I’m a company member, I have been dedicated to writing sketch and seeing family for a few weeks now. So, scary as it is, I haven’t been able to pick up a book in at least a month.
You’re stuck on a long flight. Which world-famous musician would you want sitting next to you and why?
David Bowie. I admire his work and sense of style and humor, but I’d really love to pick his brain about being a multi-hyphenate musician, producer, painter, actor, etc. He spun a lot of plates but none if it ever felt creatively compartmentalized or separate from any other endeavor. I think that’s a really special thing and he was a very special and almost other-worldly kind of talent. He never seemed to lose his kindness in all his success either. So, I think he’d make for a fantastic in-flight “meet-cute.”
In an age where it seems as though LGBTQ+ rights are under attack just as much as they were half a century ago, what do you make of the ways that being queer offers a different lens of the world?
I was just talking to someone the other day after seeing a slightly offensive bit of comedy about gays in the creative world that seemed to suggest that “being crafty” is sort of inborn or genetic in queer folks. I think the more interesting and truthful take on why so many queer people live in the creative space is that we are forced to think of the world in terms of symbols and metaphors from a very young age. Sexual desire is base in all of us. So the idea that this core part of our personas is denied (or at least not nurtured by heteronormative culture) means that we find alternative ways to “say things” at a very young age; to tell stories that aren’t entirely “true” because we can’t actually say the thing out loud. So, of course, we paint and bake and design and sing and make clothes and perform. I think that gives us more familiarity with the power of creating than straight-culture at large.
Favorite quote of all-time?
Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
One thing that’s been keeping you sane during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Doing sketch comedy. I’ve been a member of The Groundlings Sunday Company here in LA for a year. The family I’ve found through that work, in addition to the shake-up of writing sketch versus memoir, is invaluable. The bulk of my writing these last couple of years has been screenwriting, but whenever I do sit down to write another book, I’m excited to see how that work informs writing for the page. But for now, being stupid with some truly lovely human beings whilst wearing hideous wigs is a majorly wonderful part of my “coming out of Covid”-life.
What have you been working on recently and what can we expect to see next from you?
Over the pandemic, I wrote the treatment and first season of Bad Kid the TV show, in addition to a couple of features and pilots. I’m curious to see what happens with those. I’m currently doing a lot of character voice work on a great new Wondery podcast with Chris Parnell called This Job is History, where he interviews time-traveling characters with long-dead jobs like funeral clown or sin-eater. It’s perfectly (and weirdly) right at the intersection of all of my fiction/nonfiction interests and it’s been a dream.
Follow David Crabb on Instagram, see him perform as part of The Groundlings Sunday Company in Los Angeles, and buy his memoir Bad Kid: A Memoir of Growing Up Goth and Gay in Texas wherever books are sold.