Creatives in profile: interview with Sean Leahy

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Named as one of the ’50 Funniest People on Twitter’, Sean Leahy has built quite the following on the Twittershphere as @thepunningman. Appearing on Buzzfeed, Comedy Central, The Poke, Huffington Post, Funny or Die and TimeOut (among others), he has recently published his debut children’s book, The Monster Cafe via award-winning publishers Unbound. 

Illustrated by Hungarian artist Mihály Orodán, The Monster Café is a humourous tale that deals with pre-conceptions, pre-school excitement and pre-tty big monsters.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

LEAHY

I’m 36, and I live just outside the gates of Hampton Court Palace with my wife and two children. I earn a crust as a Graphic Designer, and have done for the past 15 years.

INTERVIEWER

Beyond writing and comedy, what are you passionate about?

LEAHY

Football, punk rock and Guinness. The order is dictated by Tottenham Hotspur.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you, and why?

LEAHY

Shepard Fairey (the mind behind Obey Giant), for taking something as raw as street art (despite my disliking that term) and punk and making a phenomenon out of it. And Jerry Seinfeld for doing the same with comedy.

INTERVIEWER

Was it always your intention to wind up writing jokes for a living?

LEAHY

Well, it’s not a living yet. I had a real interest in jokes, wordplay and the structure of comedy from a young age, and I had a real interest in ‘making’, be it art, design, writing, film, whatever, in order to get through the working day, rather than doing something I had no interest in.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve published The Monster Café, through Unbound books. Can you tell us a little about where the idea for the book first sprang, and how it evolved?

LEAHY

Having two children means I’ve sat through several kids books, and while there are loads of utterly brilliant and beautiful ones, there are SO MANY that are just complete and utter dog eggs.

It’s trite to say “Christ, I could do better than that”, but I think I have, and hopefully the kids agree.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your experience of publishing with Unbound been like?

LEAHY

The’ve been amazing. The book simply wouldn’t exist had they not afforded me the opportunity. They’re really interesting, in that they crowdfund all of their books, which allows the authors total creative freedom.

As designers, both Mihaly (the illustrator) and I wanted to be able to lay the book out ourselves, and we were able to do that and make all the decisions about how it should look. Once the money was raised we delivered the finished book to them and they made sure it was just as we envisioned it.

It’s taken a while, but we’re really pleased with it.

INTERVIEWER

It seems old hat to say it in some ways, but generally speaking the ‘mainstream’ publishing industry has been somewhat risk averse when it comes to championing and publishing new books that aren’t in someway “copies of novels that are themselves copies of previously successful novels”, as Julian Barnes once noted. What opportunities do you think Crowdfunding offers to aspiring writers with new, unique or otherwise quirky ideas?

LEAHY

It’s meant a lot. You just need to take a glance at a some of the books Unbound have published to see there’s a wealth of topics you don’t see on the shelves in Waterstones. Obviously they’re not only way to go about crowdfunding your book, but the fact they’re a publisher (and a respected one at that), means the buyers take them seriously too. They’re not just putting out any old rubbish, they consider each and every project that is submitted to them, but really champion those who don’t usually get given a voice in this industry.

INTERVIEWER

What makes a good crowdfunding project, in your opinion? And what should authors considering following this route themselves consider before starting their own campaign?

LEAHY

Make it stand out. You only need to scroll the length of one screen these days before you’re bashed over the head by someone asking for your money. Give them a valid reason to part with theirs, and make it colourful.

INTERVIEWER

Your creative partner in The Monster Café is Mihaly Orodan – could you tell us about your artistic partnership; how did you know Mihaly’s illustration style would complement your writing?

LEAHY

Mike (to his pals, and some enemies) and I worked together at a tiny creative agency just outside London. His main task was creating infographics and icons for super dry financial companies. But he also drew caricatures for all the birthdays and leaving cards. Once I saw what he was really capable of, I basically twisted his arm until he agreed to illustrate the book. He’s now has an agent and is working on his fourth book since mine.

His work is really incredible. To be able to put your full faith in someone to just ‘get’ what you want is quite rare, but that’s what I was able to do. I basically laid out the entire book with blank pages and small notes on what should be on each spread. I think I had three amends from the first draft he sent me. It was astonishing.

INTERVIEWER

You’re extremely active on Twitter – what role does social media have to play in the professional lives of artistic and established creatives? Is it an inevitable part of our world with which we must participate?

LEAHY

Twitter is the reason the book is here, make no mistake about it. I’ve been lucky enough to gain a decent following on there from writing jokes and little “micro-sketches”, and that audience has meant I had someone to sell the book to. Obviously friends and family make up a big part of who fund a project, but the fact there was an active group of people who enjoy my writing enough to subscribe to it meant I had more eyes to put the project in front of.

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

How do you tell a good joke?

LEAHY

Start with the punchline and work backwards

INTERVIEWER

Curl up with a book or head to the movies?

LEAHY

I never get to go to the cinema any more, so definitely that.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

LEAHY

Both have value, but I’ll go cult.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated book/film?

LEAHY

The Red Dwarf novels

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated book/film?

LEAHY

On The Road – It’s SO short and I still couldn’t finish it.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about?

LEAHY

Jon Klassen. His children’s books, particularly I Want My Hat Back, are brilliantly dark and hilarious.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

LEAHY

I can clap one handed.

INTERVIEWER

A bad film review can sink a new director, whereas a good one can catapult someone from obscurity into stardom. Do you personally feel any ethical responsibility as a reviewer?

LEAHY

I am a very enthusiastic recommender. I will bore the ears off anyone that will listen about anything I love. There is value in criticism though, as long as it’s valid.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

LEAHY

She opened the door.
SURPRISE!
Goose.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 10 tips for writers?

LEAHY

Write all the time.
Write again.
Read it back, twice.
You’re never finished.
Write again.
Tea and biscuits.
Consume everything, even the bad stuff.
Invite criticism.
Listen to criticism.
Write again.

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Why is BoJack Horseman so popular? Simple: it’s real

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If you’re reading this article, the likely reason is that you’ve seen the name BoJack Horseman and clicked on a link somewhere out in the wilds of the internet or social media. You’ve recognised the name and it’s peaked your interest. Why have you heard that name? Simple – because since BoJack Horseman was released in 2014, it has gained critical and popular acclaim – showered in praise for the way it skilfully probes existential anxiety, interweaving zany, offbeat comedy with sometimes sly humour, as well as intensely sad or ‘dark’ moments. It’s popular, in other words; and for good reason: it’s real.

That a cartoon show about a substance-abusing middle-aged horse feels like the most real thing many people have seen for so many years says more about our current cultural malaise than we might like to admit. But it doesn’t make it any less true.

One of the factors that makes BoJack feel so real – so relatable – is the fact that the characters in the show must face the consequences of their actions. No character is “too big to fail” (in the way the banks that crashed the global economy were allowed to carry on Scott-free while the average person has had to shoulder the burdens and crises they created). As Arielle Bernstein writes in an article for The Guardian:

“Throughout the series, we see child BoJack, eager and wide-eyed in his little sailor suit, being verbally abused by his mother and father. But while the series encourages us to see BoJack’s own self-absorption as a response to a traumatic childhood, it also insists that BoJack not be given a free pass. In his heart of hearts, BoJack is never a “bad guy” per se, but his thoughtless choices often have very real impacts on everyone around him.”

Yet, while this is an admirable aspect of the show – that it has created extremely well-rounded characters who we can relate to – the true ‘realness’ of the show comes from the way it counters other aspects of our current society.

The power of the image

Firstly, we must consider the use of images in both the show and in our culture – and the way in which BoJack Horseman subverts what Lacan would term ‘natural’ images with referent – or ‘signified’ images. At its very basic, this is ultimately a joke about the fact that we are all animals – the playful humour of seeing a golden Labrador wearing a v-neck t-shirt, rocking aviator sunglasses and being obsessed with the skunk from next door is funny and surreal. There is also a clear use of Lacanian mirror imagery between BoJack and his ‘inverted mirror’, Mr. Peanutbutter. Mirrors can also be found between the ‘real’ BoJack and his TV personality on 90s sitcom Horsin’ around, as well as his TV detective character, Philbert – and during this portrayal the mirror line blurs completely in Episode 11, “The showstopper”, in which we all witness a very real “crossover episode”, to coin a favourite line from the show. Once again, visual and symbolic mirrors abound in series five episode 7, when we meet not BoJack, but ‘Bobo the Zebra’.

Yet for all BoJack’s surrealism and superficial escapism, the heart of the show carries messages that, simply, resonate with audiences. The escapism that BoJack and his cohorts pursue is the same that we ourselves seek. That it feels ‘honest’, and ‘true’ is often conflated as being ‘dark’ – as though the idea of a person who doesn’t quite feel that everything is okay within themselves, despite being rich and famous, and takes actions that are nearly always morally ambiguous or questionable, is in someway only explainable if we describe it as “dark”. Doing this, however, otherises such concepts and thus fails to recognise that the real reason the show has such an avid following and has picked up such critical acclaim is because the ‘dark’ aspects of the show aren’t dark at all – they are in fact extremely relatable, particularly for anyone who has ever found that their entire construct of societal expectations has been built around lies meant to satisfy shareholders; not to satisfy our egos or our real natures or purposes. Indeed, when faced with this realisation and reality, the actions that BoJack pursues, the depression, the anger, anxiety, denial, etc. – these become not only normal or relatable, but actually natural reactions to an extremely unnatural world and society.

In an excellent documentary series, The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis explains how, since the 1960s, there have been attempts by both psychiatrists and those in power to make us feel as though certain natural human responses to life are the symptoms of serious psychological or mental disorders. This is partly because the financial, marketing and operational models on which capitalism – and particularly consumerism – relies, have been built on the ideal of human beings as rational, self-serving, individuals. This, of course, flies in the face of evidence that suggests human beings are quite often irrational, altruistic members of communities, tribes and societies as a whole.

Living in a world in which we are told that to feel sad is a sign of a serious mental disorder; in which we are told we can only ever aspire to satiate our own desires by buying more and more things, despite the fact that we are ultimately just searching for real, meaningful connections with other people, places us all in an existential crisis that is vividly and expertly portrayed in BoJack Horseman.

Again, images are important here. In both societies (that of BoJack’s Hollywoo and our own world), materialism – and the images that go with it – run rampant. Consumerism is the order of the day; and both TV show and our reality are subject to the fact that consumerism as a socioeconomic is fundamentally built upon the engineering of desire through psychological manipulation, which is achieved by using images – including advertising and peer pressure – to make us inclined to purchase more and more stuff.

Why does this matter? Being bombarded and overwhelmed by images that are not real – that lack any substance beyond activating something in us that makes us feel empty and fuels our desire to consume, ultimately creates a genuine emptiness and aching for reality. As David Shields notes in Reality Hunger: 

“Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we year for the ‘real,’ semblances of the real. We want to pose something real against all the fabrication.”

The problem with materialism

BoJack lays bare the problem with materialism and consumerism in a way precious few TV shows have dared to do.

An impressive body of academic research suggests that materialism, a trait that can afflict both rich and poor, and which the researchers define as “a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project“, is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It’s associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships.

Depression, anxiety, broken relationships; socially destructive and self-destructive. Remind you of anything?

There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, a series of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. What’s more, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, we become more selfish, and more likely to act and behave in the ways large corporations need in order to make continual disgustingly large profits.

The irrationality of society

For years, then mainstream cultural programmes have adopted the use of imagery and story narratives to support and reinforce the myths that keep them in power and maintain the status quo – to help the consumerist models function; and to keep us spending money, buying more things – all in the ultimate pursuit of our supposed individual happiness.

There are obviously numerous problems with this – not least from a moral perspective. Yet events in recent years have markedly laid out some of the flaws in this approach.

In the first instance, the collapse of the world financial system (triggered in part by massive acquisition of unsustainable personal, individual debts) and subsequent global recession has forced millions of people in Western Society to live in times of extreme austerity. Among many other (perhaps more pressing) issues with this – such as child poverty, rising crime, inequality, – the era of low wages and job scarcity or insecurity that has been created by the austerity model has made it impossible for people to actually exist and function within the previous consumer system as they had been told to. In other words, they had been denied the means with which to participate in the consumerist culture. How can you buy the latest deluxe car when you can’t afford to heat your own home or pay your rent?

Without the means to participate in consumerism, people have started to recognise that the society in which they live, and the dreams they have been told to pursue, are in fact not recogniseable, achievable, or real. The reality of their situation is that the entire system has been broken – and so a world which continues to expect them to accrue personal debt in order to buy the latest fashion trend is not a world in which they can be rationally expected to live.

Beyond the fiction of reality

This all, ultimately, leads us back to BoJack – a world in which to be self-aware is often to become self-destructive. To recognise the faults in the world can lead to despair (because you can’t hope to change things); but also in which ignoring reality and going along with societal pressures is to sacrifice any true sense of identity. Indeed, those characters which lack depth or sense of realness are those who lack any self-awareness – a ‘Ryan Seacrest type’, for instance; a character with so little identity he is only a trace (again to use a Lacanian term) of somebody else. In this world, the most natural response is one that does not seem ‘natural’ – as the system would like you to believe – but rather, to respond to a system that is entirely broken by becoming broken yourself; or reacting to the impossibility of the ask placed upon us as individuals by coming to impossible conclusions (see any of Mr Peanutbutter’s whacky ideas for starters here). The show feels real because the characters are negotiating a broken society that mirrors our own. As Slavoj Zizek has noted: “beyond the fiction of reality lies the reality of the fiction.” We are drawn to the reality of the fiction (in this case, a television show about a celebrity horse) because it is what Lacan would describe as the signifier of something we inherently lack in our own world: reality and realness. We experience so few ‘real’ images, that ones that signify truth – the reality of our situation – become precious and to be treasured.

Ultimately, this helps us more effectively bond with the characters and empathise with them. This is important – particularly in a world in which reports of loneliness are skyrocketing – because it illustrates how BoJack Horseman becomes nourishing, even redemptive; we become less alone inside because we recognise that our reaction to the impossibilities of the world is not confined to our own skulls. BoJack Horseman, then, helps us become less alone inside.

And that’s why we need it.

10 of the best-designed book covers of 2015

Of course, we’re all told not to judge books by their covers. But sometimes it can be fun to break the rules. Here are our picks for the 10 best book cover designs of 2015.

1. Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

Satin Island

McCarthy’s novel has been described as “intriguing and infuriating” – a little bit like the book’s dizzying, manic cover design.

2. Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen

Book of Numbers

Some reviewers have noted that Cohen’s novel “doesn’t really get going until around page 238”. This is a shame, because the cover design certainly grabs the attention from the get-go.

3. Not on Fire, But Burning by Greg Hrbek

Not on Fire, but burning

If there is a more apt cover design for a book about a slow motion apocalypse as America implodes, we haven’t seen it.

4. Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser

Paulina & Fran

Hair plays a bigger role in this book than you might think.

5. Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto

Confession of the Lioness

More novel covers should feature lionesses and other big cats. Just a gut feeling we have.

6. The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret

The Seven Good Years

Just where is that dove of peace being catapulted off to?

7. Dark Sparkler by Amber Tamblyn

Dark Sparkler

Dark? Check. Sparkly? Sort of check. What about that woman with no eyes though – what’s up with that?

8. Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce 

Hall of Small Mammals

This fascinating short story collection opens with a story about a man bringing a waist-high, supposedly extinct Bread Island Dwarf Mammoth home to his mother. Need we say more?

9. Speak by Louisa Hall

Speak

More than anything, this book is about consciousness. It’s spellbinding. A little like this fascinating cover.

10. Witches of America by Alex Mar

Witches of America

Are you a witch? Or are you just doing the research? Either way, you’ll probably be using a dead crow in some way or other.

And a bonus 11th book cover…

The Jeremy Corbyn Colouring Book by James Nunn

Jeremy Corbyn colouring book

Come on. What with the rise in sales of left wing literature that have accompanied Corbyn’s meteoric rise to become leader of the UK Labour Party, and what with the huge trend toward adult colouring books, we couldn’t NOT include this fabulous little book.

What are we missing?

Of course, there are countless other excellent book covers we’ve sadly not been able to include in this short list. So, what are we missing? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!