Interview: Height of Folly How much climbing rope does a comic need to hang himself? By Bob Sipchen
Sierra's readers are presumably too tasteful to know anything about Chris Elliott, a writer, comedian, and actor whose relentless efforts to gain public attention have found him hamming across the screen in such films as There's Something About
Mary and his ill-fated star vehicle, Cabin Boy. Now that he has blundered onto Sierra turf with a book that purports to be about climbing Mt. Everest, this magazine saw no choice but to confront him.
The son of deadpan radio comedian Bob Elliott (of Bob and Ray fame), Elliott the younger got his start in television on Late Night With David Letterman, portraying such pointless recurring characters as "the Guy Under the Seats" and "the Panicky Guy." Channel surfers who stumbled, horrified, upon Elliott's short-lived Fox television sitcom, Get a Life, may be surprised to learn that the comedian has won several Emmys for his writing. The unusual folks who became fans of the hard-to-describe cult series (a 30-year-old paper boy lives with his parents, who go everywhere in their bathrobes) were no doubt befuddled too, since the show pointedly avoided plausible plots, sympathetic characters, or any clear raison d'etre.
In 1989, Elliott wrote a "tell-all" book called Daddy's Boy: A Son's Shocking Account of Life With a Famous Father, most of which was untrue. He followed that in 2005 with The Shroud of the Thwacker, a Jack-the-Ripperesque "mystery" in the vein of Caleb Carr's The Alienist. Now comes Into Hot Air: Mounting Mount Everest (Weinstein Books, 2007), which professes to tell the story of an expedition to the top of the world's highest peak.
In Into Hot Air, Elliott and a hastily assembled band of celebrities, along with one well-known documentarian, encounter Nazi gnomes, giant toads, a tribe of snow-leopard-eating yetis, and (just before a bombardment by F-14 Tomcats at Everest's notorious Hillary Step) a Sherpa disguised as George C. Scott who turns out to be—spoiler alert—yet another celebrity (this one known for his solidarity with Tibetans). Some of these occurrences got Sierra's investigative radar buzzing. We tracked the author down as he was driving home in Connecticut, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Sierra: You've never really climbed Everest, let alone carried Michael Moore and his IMAX equipment to the summit on your back, let alone had your prosthetic nose blown off in a windstorm, have you?
Chris Elliott: No. But I write about it so realistically that it's almost as if I have. And to be honest, half the people who claim they've climbed Everest never have.
Sierra: Some of the scenes at extremely high altitude are quite realistic: expedition member Kirsten Dunst making snow angels, you and your taxi-driver friend fist fighting over Oreos in your Family Fun tent at base camp. How much research did you do?
Elliott: Virtually none. I did watch a couple of documentaries on the subject. I tried to weave in some of what I'd learned from the Discovery Channel.
Sierra: This book makes a mockery of everything environmentalists and outdoor people hold sacred, from Al Gore's earnest efforts to scare the holy bejabbers out of us about climate change to the macho pride many of us get from undertaking foolhardy endeavors such as slack lining and mountaineering. Apologize.
Sierra: How severely did Jon Krakauer, the author of Into Thin Air, beat you after reading your book?
Elliott: You know how the photo on the book makes it look like my nose was frostbitten? It wasn't. It was Krakauer.
Sierra: Mountaineers could be severely injured if they followed some of the examples set by your climbing party: throwing the whole trip together in a week or so and carrying children's plastic backpacks emblazoned with the names of 1970s TV shows Adam-12 and Barnaby Jones.
Elliott: Yes, you could say that some of the things I did were irresponsible, but I did a lot of responsible things too, like packing myself an extra pair of dress shoes. I would also recommend that anyone climbing Everest carry a load of Deep Woods Off, because at 19,000 feet the Himalayan mosquitoes are nuts, man!
Sierra: Your book presents the conspiracy theory that Moore, Susan Sarandon, and others are really conservatives trying to give liberals a bad name and that Ann Coulter, Pat Robertson, and others are really liberals staging a public-relations counteroffensive. Do you believe that?
Elliott: I'm not Al Franken and can't write an actual political book, so I had to come up with some sort of sophomoric political message, and that's what I came up with.
Sierra: There's some pretty sick stuff in this book. For instance, the Texan who goes on the climb wearing only a Speedo. He's dying and expedition member Lauren Bacall gives him a farewell kiss. When she steps away, she finds his frostbitten lips still attached to hers.
After Daddy's Boy, there was considerable intellectual debate between your critics and your enablers about the difference between "funny stupid" and "stupid stupid." On which side of the line does this book fall?
Elliott: If anything, my comedy has gotten stupider and stupider since Daddy's Boy, and maybe I've blurred the line even more between smart-stupid-funny comedy and just plain stupid-stupid comedy. There's definitely a mixed bag in Into Hot Air. For some stuff you have to know the references to get the jokes, and there's other stuff that is just plain ridiculous that, like slapstick, stands on its own. Get a Life was this stupid show, but it was also in a way parodying a whole era of sitcoms. You didn't have to know that, though, to enjoy the show. Hopefully that's the case with Into Hot Air. You don't have to have read Into Thin Air or any other Everest book to get the humor.
Sierra: Have you read Into Thin Air?
Elliott: Yeah, when it came out. And I listened to the audiotape before I wrote this book. Well, I didn't listen to all of it. As soon as Krakauer started doing a Southern accent, I bailed. But I actually enjoyed Into Thin Air. You can't really parody something you don't like, because you're spending a year with the material and you want to be in a world that you're interested in and that you like.
Sierra: Semi-seriously, though—are you outdoorsy?
Elliott: I'll paint the lawn furniture and stuff like that every spring, but that's about it. I may swim in a cage with sharks at some point, because to do that, from what I understand, you can pretty much be obese.