‘Empathy Implicates You’: An Interview with Bill Hader

On Jeffrey Dahmer, classics professors, soccer hooligans and comic books. 

Kathleen Hale is the author of two novels, No One Else Can Have You and Nothing Bad...

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I’m not sure Bill Hader needs any introduction other than a nice, high-resolution photo to prompt those who suck at names to be like, “Oh, that guy! I love him! He’s so talented and funny!” But just in case: Hader writes and performs comedy. He is perhaps best known for his roles on Saturday Night Live, Knocked Up, Superbad, and most recently, Inside Out and Trainwreck. He also voices the talking peanut for the Planters commercials.

But Hader’s also a voracious reader. Every year, he inhales more books, completely sober, than a manic English major totally out of her mind on deadly dosages of Adderall. An erudite autodidact without any affectations, he is refreshingly and insatiably curious, with an interdisciplinary creative diet consisting of comic books, novels, short stories, biographies, true crime, and documentaries. 

We spoke on the phone about what he’s been reading, writing, and watching lately, and how his lettered habits  influence his comedy. 

Bill Hader: What’s this for again? Is this a book you’re writing or…?

Kathleen Hale: No, it’s for Hazlitt, this magazine thing run out of Penguin Random House Canada.

[General silence.]

Yeah! It’s fun. So, much of your work is comedy writing and comedy performance, but I know that you’re an avid reader—you stay up really late reading, and you consume a whole range of genres—and obviously your influences are not just comedic so I was wondering how genres such as, for instance, true crime, or horror, affect your writing and other endeavors. 

It’s weird…I don’t know if it’s this age or if I’m just getting older, but documentaries and true crime and biographies are way more interesting to me, lately, for some reason. Even the fiction I read now includes more realist things. I just went on a total Tobias Wolff tear, where I was reading all his stuff because his stuff is really, really funny, and very honest. He wrote a foreword to this collection of Chekhov stories that is just unbelievable. And he so succinctly can just get to the truth of something.

Right now, that’s a thing that I, in acting and performing am like, “Let’s cut through all the bullshit and just get right to the finite truth of what this situation is. We don’t have a lot of time!”

Recently, with books, I’m into—what is it called again, with fiction writers? — A dirty realist thing or whatever? You know like Raymond Chandler and Richard Ford and people like that. I enjoyed that Lucia Berlin collection. My wife is reading that.

But I don’t know, more to the point of your question, I guess reading true crime, it’s, you know, all that “But this actually happened”—and like, “There is someone as insane as this person, and what they do in their life is way more disturbing and really interesting because it’s true.” But at the same time it wouldn’t work in fiction. It wouldn’t be believable there.

For instance, this is an awful thing: I was reading about the one guy who escaped Jeffrey Dahmer. And I was reading about him, and when he described his night with Jeffrey Dahmer, I was like, “Oh, I would never buy that!” You know? A killer…he gets the person alone, he tries to drug him, and then he just kills the person. But his whole thing with Jeffrey Dahmer was that Jeffrey Dahmer tried to drug him, but he didn’t like alcohol, which ended up, you know, saving his life, and Jeffrey Dahmer pulled a knife on him and tried to bind him up, and then the guy was able to talk Jeffrey Dahmer down so then they sat and watched a movie together? They watched The Exorcist III, and then everything was fine—

Wait—

And then Jeffrey Dahmer said, “Okay, I’m going to eat your heart now.”

And the guy said, “Okay, well before you eat my heart, can I go to the bathroom?”

And Jeffrey Dahmer said, “Sure!”

[Laughs]

And he ran out! I mean, if you were to put that in a movie or something, you’d go, “Oh, no way.” The plausibility and the logic of it is, “No. He’d kill the guy.” But that’s how it actually happened. And there’s something fascinating and liberating about the fact that we experience more than is depicted in movies—just a wider range of incredibly strange interactions and feelings. People have come up and told me, “Your guy was just too nice in Trainwreck and there’s no way that he would put up with that woman.”

How does that feel? 

I think he would put up with it. He truly loves her. He sees something in her that he doesn’t see in himself. I’ve seen that in life—and by the way he’s not a pushover! He does say, “Yeah, it bothers me that you do this shit and I want you to stop it.” You know?

Why do you think the improbability of non-fiction is so liberating for you?

When you watch movies, and you grow up on movies, you kind of have a set amount of attitudes and behaviors that you see played on screen. And when you read non -fiction, or watch some sort of documentary, it gives you a whole set of behaviors that people usually don’t play with because they might seem totally implausible or insane—or it might just be deemed uninteresting to people backing movies, you know what I mean?

[Laughs]

But I mean, sometimes that’s the truth. Sometimes people do something completely unrelatable, or act without conscience. And I like people who just go, “Well that’s the truth!” Whatever you say about it, that’s the truth about the situation, and you can say that for people from Chekhov, to Martin Scorsese, to the South Park guys. They’re all just trying to get at, like, “Say what you will—but that’s the truth.”

What documentaries are you obsessed with right now?

Oh man. Restrepo and Korengal got me on a kick of watching a lot of on the ground, battlefield—there’s another one called Armadillo, which is another famous documentary, and pretty intense. I watched Tales of the Grim Sleeper, which I thought was really great—the Nick Broomfield documentary, which is actually kind of a very moving portrait of south central Los Angeles. And if you’re up on your true crime, if you read a lot of true crime, you do find these stories like Gary Ridgway and other people who targeted prostitutes, so they weren’t reported for a long time because no one…cares about those people? And so it’s basically a documentary that works on one level as this kind of history, and mystery, and this man in south central, for 30 years—over 30 years—just killing prostitutes and drug addicts in south central, and how no one took it really that seriously. It’s a beautiful, a very moving portrait of those women, you know?

And then another one I loved, that is totally bonkers, is called, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On. That’s the name of it: The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On. It’s pretty insane. It’s about this guy, it was made 1980s, it’s Errol Morris’s favorite documentary. He did The Thin Blue Line and he’s my favorite documentary  filmmaker. Anytime he makes a movie I’m like…first in line to see it. And [The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On]’s basically about this guy in Japan who fought in WWII. It was made in the 80s. When Japan surrendered, a lot of the soldiers were like, “Oh, so we’re leaving!” And some of the captains in the unit executed these guys, for leaving, for deserting. So this guy’s decided that what he’s gonna do is find these captains now, 40 years later, and bring with him family members of these executed soldiers and say, “Tell them what you did to your men.” So he like, goes into a restaurant and finds this former captain, now an old man sitting down—this nice old man with his life, in the restaurant—and is like, “You were a captain in this guy’s unit!” 

The old man’s like, “Yes I was.”

“Alright…you murdered their brother. Tell them why. And if you don’t tell them why, I’m going to kick the shit out of you.”

It really is just this guy with a camera crew, walking in and beating the living shit out of these guys. And getting arrested! And it even gets to the place where even the victims, they’re like, “You know what, we’re fine. You’re nuts.” But this guy is just running on anger, and resentment, and you get his emotion, so at first you’re going along with it—but then: is he crazy? Is he an insane person? What he’s doing is insane but you fully understand the emotion, and empathy implicates you in his actions, so it’s a fascinating movie.

What books have you read recently that you liked?

Redeployment by Phil Klay. A Doctor’s Visit—the Anton Chekhov stories that Tobias Wolff edited that I liked. Among the Thugs, have you read that?

No, what is that?

It’s about soccer hooligans.

Like soccer hooligans in the UK?

Yeah it was written in the 80s.

I saw a thing about that—well, granted it was a film, not a documentary—where rival soccer fans were just like running around in their Adidas snap pants and killing each other with hammers. It was terrifying. 

Yeah, terrifying. [In Among the Thugs,] this guy just hung out with soccer hooligans and it’s incredibly violent, but really fascinating and kind of—even now—with all this kind of awful extremist groups and stuff, you get the attractiveness to group violence. Those are the ones off the top of my head. And then I read…what else did I read?…I read the first book of Michael Powell’s who was a British filmmaker, he has like, two autobiographies and I read the first volume of his autobiography which was really interesting because I’m just really interested in the British film industry.

What’s your favorite biography?

My favorite biography? Oh man that’s tough…I don’t know if I can answer that…it’s too hard.

You could just give me a couple that come to mind. I think my favorite, off the top of my head, is the Roald Dahl one— 

I did like that one. That was pretty great. There’s one…oh my god. I’m fucking blanking on biographies. You know what? Hold on—let me go down to my bookshelf. I’m going to say something and then be like, “Wait no there’s this one! Oh no this one!”

[Footsteps, etc.]

Okay, here we go: one was like, The Emperor and the Wolf, which was a dual biography of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. I love Kurosawa’s films, especially the one’s he made with Mifune. It’s a big book, but it’s really fascinating how it correlates these two men’s lives, and they work so well together, and they broke up, basically. And that is, I find for me, a really interesting book. Also—well, it’s not really a biography, but it’s a great book about film and the film industry called City of Nets, by Otto Friedrich. It’s basically about all the expatriates who came over to Hollywood in the 30s and 40s and essentially built Hollywood as you know it—made all those Golden Age movies. And the way I know about it is a friend recommended it to me and I read it and one time I was on the train with Joel Coen, of the Coen Brothers, and I told him about that book, or I was talking about that book, and thinking, “Oh, I’m going to recommend a book to Joel Coen!”

And he said, “Oh, that’s the book we based Barton Fink on—the whole reason we wrote Barton Fink was: we read that book.” So I guess a portion of City of Nets became Barton Fink, which was a film I really liked.

Another book I like that’s an autobiography, all film stuff, is Sam Fuller’s book, A Third Face. Sam Fuller was like, a newspaper guy and he fought in WWII, then he became a film director? There’s a great documentary about him called…The Typewriter, the Rifle, and the Movie Camera. He’s just an interesting person, and it’s in his voice, and he’s just a fascinating guide…

Another thing that’s kind of an autobiography but it’s weird is The Groucho Letters, which is just correspondences between Groucho Marx and other people that’s totally fascinating and hilarious. I started flipping through it and was laughing and was like “Oh wow, this is a letter about Duck Soup not doing well, testing bad.” I just love seeing, in my mind, these iconic people…

Geez Louise. You read like a monster. Could you maybe send me a reading list?

Wow. Yeah.11Bill Hader’s Reading ListStoner by John Williams, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs: Stories by Tobias Wolff, The Duel by Anton Chekhov, The Diary of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain, The Dog of the South by Charles Portis, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, Naked by David Sedaris, Tenth of December by George Saunders, The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.  Sure! I…

[Laughs]

No one ever asks me about this. Oh! And I liked Raven about Jim Jones. It’s like 600 pages and I think I finished it in two sittings. I was so drawn into that book.

Have you read A Thousand Lives [by Julia Scheeres]? It’s about the cult and the author went through 500 zillion unseen FBI documents to write this beautiful narrative…

Really? 

Yeah, it’s incredible. Also have you read Murder in Little Egypt [by Darcy O’Brien]? 

No!

It’s a true crime book about Southern Illinois where like, a local doctor—everyone loves him so much that he’s literally getting away with murders? Yeah, it’s really good.

Oh wow.

Sorry, I interrupted you. What else did you say? 

No, no, this is what I love! This is why I love talking about books because every time I do I walk away with like, five book recommendations. 

I can’t remember the title but it’s a really old book and it’s about a guy—it starts with his death, he’s like a lowly professor—

Oh Stoner. By John Williams. Yeah, it’s kind of great. It spans the whole life of this guy, and basically if you put on paper what happens, it’s about a guy who becomes a professor in the Midwest. And it’s thrilling! Again, it’s that thing of just the utmost…I don’t know, I guess the honesty of it and just the kind of sadness of “Here’s an unexamined life.” 

I’ve never heard a novel explained that way! That’s so smart. That is good fiction. “An unexamined life…”

The first chapter in it—the first paragraph in it, is essentially saying, “This guy’s totally forgettable”—like, “If you go to the University of Missouri in Columbia, you will see a plaque that’s dedicated to this Professor Stoner. And no one knows who that is. The students don’t know who that is, and some faculty, older faculty, have vague memories that he was a guy who taught classics.” And then it’s like, “Now I’m going to tell you a story of his life.” And the story of his life is incredibly moving. But it’s just a story of this guy, and how he was a farmer, grew up in a farming family and then decided, “I’m gonna go to college for something else.” Oh man…my brain…it was…

It was farming, I think, like agriculture.

Agriculture. Thank you, that’s the word I was looking for. Agriculture, and then he discovered the classics and was like, “This is what I’m gonna do with my life.” And we watch him having to go to his family and explain that to them and them saying, “Very well,” and him going and then meeting a woman, falling in love, and she’s just…out of the gate you, as reader, see that this is gonna go awful. And just the mistakes and the great things, and the things that start as great things become bad things and bad things become great things. It’s this unexamined life and I found it just…every kind of movement of it I found incredibly touching and I was like, “Yeah, that’s kind of what it is.” 

It’s a book that, while reading you go, “Well how can they make that into a movie?” And it’s like, you can’t. It has to exist as a book.

It’s like Watchmen, the comic book. Everyone wants to make Watchmen as a movie or TV show but the power of Watchmen is the fact that it’s a comic book. It’s taking your history as a reader, and what you know of reading a comic book, and inverting it. And the way the panels are laid out, and the way the costumes look, you are technically reading a superhero comic like you would as a kid, but Alan Moore is completely subverting it. And you just don’t get that when you watch a movie. A movie just looks like a comic book movie! It’s like no—it should be subversive. But you can’t do that without much money! So we’re not going to make a crazy movie like that. It just has to be a comic book movie. And I feel like that’s why it didn’t really work…I don’t know. 

Watchmen is great.

Yeah. I haven’t really been up on comic books as much as I wish I was.

Well, I mean, it’s pretty incredible and cool and a real testament to your love of reading and creative mediums in general  that you make time to engage with any of it at all. Like, you have a job and a big family and are very much part of the world. I’ve been reading the same book for weeks, and all I do with my life is wake up and clean my rabbit’s litter box.

[Laughs]

[Laughs] Yeah, I’m an intellectually bankrupt loser. Meanwhile you’re over there doing several curriculums’ worth of reading, and you have a zillion kids: three young daughters!

[Laughs] 

You have three young daughters.

I know.

I can’t believe you have three daughters.

I can’t either. And, to be fair, I don’t read as much as I used to. But with the girls I’m really into the Junie B. Jones series—the hilarious children’s books by the late Barbara Park. My daughters are obsessed with them. I love those books.

Is it true you wrote an issue of Spider-Man? 

I did write an issue of Spider-Man [The Short Halloween] with Seth Meyers, a very long time ago and that was like, we were…like, we won a contest and Joe Quesada was like, “Yeah, you guys can go write a thing for me,” and we were like, “Really?”

[Laughs]

“Oh, okay…”

Can you tell me a little bit about writing for South Park?

Sure! It’s really interesting, those guys, they’re very in tune and concerned with logic and emotion. This past season they had a character “PC Principal” and that came from us just doing a voice like, “Hey man—[Caitlyn Jenner] looks stunning in that dress, you shut the fuck up!” And then that emerged into a frat guy, and then it just became what if that guy was a principal? Oh, a PC Principal. And I went, “Oh, so that’s how a new character gets made.” So it comes out of an emotion about something, sometimes, not all the time. If that makes any sense… 

No totally, it totally makes sense. It also sounds like empathy is a huge factor for you as a reader, you know, reading stories about empathy and I guess I wonder…a lot of people don’t really think about how much empathy is important in comedy writing and I was wondering— 

Oh totally! That’s how you lose people!

Tell me more about that.

Well, with comedy you gotta let people in a little bit. When I first started SNL, I wanted to just be really weird and strange and kind of “Break the mold”—you know? And I came in and my stuff just sucked, like, tanked. And I didn’t understand why and then I realized, “Oh it’s because none of this is relatable. It’s a hat on a hat,” which is a comedy term meaning you’re doing one crazy thing and you put another crazy thing on top of it.

A good example is: I did a sketch where I was Peter Falk, helping Natalie Portman do Star Wars noises. So it’s Peter Falk, and the thing was: I was shifting from Peter being Peter Falk into doing a Tauntaun impression. Or Peter Falk into doing Jabba the Hut—whatever. And Seth Meyers was like, “It’s a hat on a hat. You gotta be just a normal guy.”

And I was like, “Why?” 

And he was like, “Because Peter Falk is one joke, okay—he’s this high profile guy teaching stupid noises—and then Natalie’s the other, and her doing the noises is the second joke, and it’s confusing.”

And I resisted the advice, I go, “No it’s great!”

And then I went up and did it and it played to silence.

[Laughs]

So I gotta let people in a little bit, be a normal guy [in the sketch]. Like, “Here’s [Natalie Portman’s] situation, put some emotion in it!” Why is she there? Is she nervous? Is she freaked out? What does she want? — Focus on her, give her humanity and cut the layers upon layers of jokes that are sort of like, barriers to that. And now there are stakes, and now it’s easier to be funny.

So it’s about vulnerability. 

Yeah, just being open so people can go, “I’ve felt that, I feel that.”

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