15 Questions with Ian Frazier

Magdalena Kala

Ian A. Frazier ’73 has always had a knack for humor. Now a writer for The New Yorker, he has multiple publications under his belt: essay collections, humor books, nonfiction pieces. His latest novel, “The Cursing Mommy’s Book of Days”, brought Frazier back to Cambridge last week for a talk at the Harvard Book Store. Fifteen Minutes sat down with him to talk about childhood pranks, finding a voice, and his time at a porn magazine.

1. Fifteen Minutes: In Tina Fey’s book “Bossypants,” Fey says that she had one moment where she realized that she was funny. Can you recall the moment when you first realized that you were funny?

Ian A. Frazier: When Tina Fey told me I was funny. I’m kidding. It was something that I wanted to do since I was little. I’d like to make anybody laugh. I’d like to make my parents laugh, but it was very hard to make my father laugh. There probably was a point where I made my father laugh, and I thought, ‘Well, if I can make him laugh, I can make anybody laugh.’

2. FM: Do you have any stories from when you were a kid? Any crazy things that you did?

IAF: Mostly they were bad things—things that would get people mad at me. In our house we had a laundry chute, and I would drop army men and my brother would catch them at the bottom. Once, I thought it would be funny if, instead of an army guy with a parachute, I dropped a rock. He forgave me and my parents forgave me.

3. FM: Didn’t you write for the Lampoon?

IAF: Yes, and it was the greatest thing. I don’t think I’ve had that much fun since, to be honest. It was just exhilaratingly fun. It was what I wanted to do before I came here. Well, I probably would have wanted to come here anyway, but a guy four years older than I was who was on the Lampoon would send issues of the Lampoon back to my school. I read the Lampoon when I was in high school. When I came to Harvard, I was in Weld Hall. I put my bags away and went to the Lampoon and knocked on the door on my first day. I tried out as a freshman, and I got on. It was and it still is just a completely good thing.

4. FM: What were some highlights from your time at the Lampoon? Were you ever involved with any great Crimson pranks?

IAF: We did two parodies of The Crimson. One of the parodies of The Crimson, they [The Crimson] found out where our printer was and went and took all of the copies before we got there. But the Crimson guys forgot to take the plates. The [printer] place was closed by then, so we put the plates in the car and drove out in the middle of nowhere and found someplace that was opened and would print it. They didn’t have the right size paper so they printed it on paper that was too big, so we spent the rest of the night cutting the edges off. It didn’t have the regular serrated edge that The Crimson does, so it looked a little suspect, but we got it all done. We wrote parodies of people who are national pundits today like Michael Kingsley.

5. FM: What kind of work did you do immediately after graduating from Harvard?

IAF: There wasn’t a lot out there. Playboy was starting a new magazine called Oui, which was a copy of a French skin mag, and they needed people to work for it. They sent a letter to the Lampoon asking if anybody there wanted to come work. I wrote them back and they gave me a job. I went to Chicago, and I wrote captions for pictures of naked women. That was my first job.

6. FM: What was it like to be a writer for a porn magazine? Was it challenging?

IAF: It is incredibly challenging. It was a learning experience. You think you can write something like that and it’s easy. It’s like, ‘I went to Harvard. I should be able to do this.’ But it’s a talent, and it’s also a kind of frame of mind I guess.

7. FM: Did you have other odd-job writing assignments earlier in your career?

IAF: I did one piece for Harper’s where I went to Abercrombie & Fitch—back then it was mainly a sporting goods store—and I wrote down the name of every fishing lure that they had. I had lots and lots of fishing lures and I just wrote them down and gave it to Harper’s and they printed it. I had applied for The New Yorker, but they turned me down. In fact, they said they had too many people from Harvard. I reapplied, and the second time they did hire me.

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