Danny Wallace interview: Awkward Situations For Men

Ryan catches up with writer and actor Danny Wallace about his new book, Awkward Situations For Men, its sitcom adaptation, and the subtleties of Mastermind…

UK writer, producer and actor Danny Wallace started out as a videogames journalist before embarking on a diverse career taking in television, radio and non-fiction writing. His book, Yes Man, was adapted into a movie of the same name starring Jim Carrey in 2008, and his latest, Awkward Situations For Men, has already been adapted into a US sitcom pilot with Wallace playing himself in the lead role. We caught up with the author to discuss his writing, influences, and the best way to peel a boiled egg…

So, your new book, Awkward Situations For Men. How did the idea for it arise?

I started writing this column, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. And in the end, things were happening on a weekly basis, and I just started writing about the strange little things that happened. And the more specific I was about the odd events I was going through, the more general it was becoming. So, it just became a column detailing my awkwardness, and trying to be a man, you know?

I’m in my thirties now, and I don’t feel like a man. I feel like a really big boy, like a large, ungainly child. I’m at the point now where kids point at me and say, “What’s that man doing,” or something. Not that I’m saying I do anything weird near children!

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But suddenly, I’m a man and not a boy, so the column became about that, really. And the response I got from other men – and women – was that we’re all just big boys and girls. There are no men or women.

The book definitely appeals to a universal anxiety about being a modern bloke. I notice there are a lot of excellent geek references in there, too.

Yes, there are references to Golden Axe and things like that – Gilius Thunderhead.

Those are the things we love talking about on Den Of Geek…

Oh yes, I love your website.


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There are a couple of really great things that you did, I remember. You did all these Soviet-era movie posters, and stuff like that, and weird translations for foreign subtitles to films. I love all that kind of stuff. Essentially, Den Of Geek is like, the best resource for pub quiz trivia. If you’re doing a last minute pub quiz, head to Den Of Geek, and ruthlessly steal all the facts!

That’s a strapline, right there. If we ever have a poster, we’ll have to use that! So, I understand that Awkward Situations has also been made into a sitcom as well?

Yes, yes. It was a weird kind of thing, how all that came about. This all sounds very showbiz – and it’s not – but it was the day after the premier in America of Yes Man, which was based on a book that I wrote, and I was at my agent’s out there. And they sat me down and said, “So, what’s next?”

And I said, “Well, the next book’s probably a while away,” and they said “That sounds like it’s a while away,” and I said, “Yes, that’s why I said that,” and they said “We could sell a title, we’ve done that before. You just have to work out what it is.”

I said, “Well, I don’t know”, and they said, “Have you written anything lately?” so, I told them about the magazine column back home, that it was going pretty well, and that I was thinking of putting them together in a book called Awkward Situations For Men – and their eyes lit up.

They said “That’s a good title,” and within minutes the room was packed with all these new men in suits who all liked the title, and that was it, just a title.

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I didn’t have a book deal for Awkward Situations, so I had to go and get one so I could then sell the rights so I could do the sitcom.

Three months later – this is a year ago now – I was in a meeting with Warner Bros. TV, and I sort of pitched him this idea, all based on the columns, but about a British bloke called Danny Wallace, who’s in America. I don’t know how I came up with it – it was genius – and boom, suddenly we’re in business.

We shot the pilot a month ago, and it was an incredible and very weird experience. And what’s even weirder is showing it to my mates. When you see it, it looks like an American TV show, it’s got that unmistakeable thing, it’s just that – somehow – I’m in it, walking down the street, in my normal clothes, with my name, talking in my own voice.

It sounds like a very surreal situation…

It’s really surreal. It looks like a parallel universe, where there’s another me, in America, with a supermodel wife, and a weird friend. But it’s great fun, and I’m very proud of it.

From what I’ve read about it, it sounds like a kind of Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm kind of sitcom. Is that right?

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Yeah. It’s got the kind of heart of Seinfeld, crossed with something quite British.

The director is this guy, Andy Ackerman, who’s one of those names that’s so familiar, because I’ve always watched a lot of Seinfeld and seen his name come up. And then suddenly I was working with him. He did 90 episodes of Seinfeld, so we’re in safe hands with him.

I’d say [Awkward Situations] is like a warmer, nicer version of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Because, as in life, I don’t want to be in these situations, I don’t want these things to happen.

That’s what I took from the book, that you’re not trying to upset or offend anybody. Things just have a habit of spiralling out of control.

I’m trying to make things better, and make people feel more comfortable. But by trying to make people feel comfortable and overcompensating and worrying, you tend to make it worse.

Or, it’ll be little tiny things that niggle slightly, like recently – and this isn’t in the book – I employed the services of a handyman to come and put up some shelves. And there was a knock at the door, and I opened, beamed, and said, “Hi, I’m Danny,” And the handyman replied, “Hi, I’m Mr Barker.”

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And I thought, why is he Mr Barker and I’m Danny? Why is there this level where I have to call him Mr Barker, but he can call me Danny? So, I’ve had this internal monologue, this tortured thing, where I’ve taken against someone just because I’ve got to call them Mr Barker. But at the same time, he’s a man of authority and he can do things I can’t, so, of course, he’s going to be called Mr Barker.

Again, it’s the boy/man thing, where he’s a man who can use a screwdriver. I’m just a boy who has to get someone round. I was playing Xbox two minutes ago. I don’t think my dad, at 33, was doing stuff like playing Xbox. He’d have been fixing something.

On the subject of games, I read that you once worked on Sega Power magazine?

Yes, I still remember that issue 32 was my first feature ever, on page 104. It meant such a lot to me.

And what was it about, that feature?

I happened to be going on holiday to America, and [Sega Power] wanted me to do a feature on the American games industry. I thought this place was going to be packed with videogames. I thought the shops would be incredible.

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As it was, I couldn’t find any videogames shop anywhere, and when I got there they were boring. I ended up having to take a photo of my parents’ friend who ran a computer shop, a repairs shop, and I just took a picture of him standing next to a beige computer holding up a CD. That was my state of the union address, basically, about videogames. It was rubbish.

But I worked at Sega Power, and then Super Play – I wrote a tips column, even though I didn’t own a Nintendo – then I worked on Total, and I’m still in touch with a lot of the guys I used to work with.

So, you got straight into writing from school?

Yes, pretty much. I got into writing because I loved games, and it was a way of getting free games and hanging out with these cool people, who had the best jobs in the world. Being in this office was like a glimpse into what university halls must be like, all these guys in their twenties, just playing games, messing about.

Kids used to wait outside and follow us around when we had our lunch, because it was like this cult, kind of rock and roll thing, for a brief window. Sega versus Nintendo, Mario versus Sonic, it was the Blur versus Oasis of that year.

Gradually, I stopped playing games as much and concentrated on the writing, and wrote about other things. It’s only recently that I’ve got back into games again.

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What are you playing at the moment?

Modern Warfare 2, mainly, because I’m too lazy to take it out of the tray. I’ve realised that if you press the ‘on’ button on your remote control pad, the machine starts and I don’t have to get up.

Going back to the Awkward Situations pilot, is that coming to the UK soon?

If it gets picked up for a series. There’s already people sniffing around, and if it gets picked up, then I hope so. If it does, it’s going to be very strange. People will say, “What’s he doing in that?”

To go to America, you need all these visa support letters, and I looked at some of them, which said “Danny Wallace is an actor of international acclaim,” and I’m thinking, “Oh my God, they think I’m an actor of international acclaim,” when I’m not. I’ve been in Assassin’s Creed 2, and a wordless cameo in the IT Crowd. Not really international acclaim.

And the first day on set, I’m thinking, “I’ve got to act now,” so I had to act at being an actor. Who could act. And who was about to act. I got away with it, and luckily the character I play has my voice.

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Did you write the script alone, or with a group of writers?

I worked with two Americans, Geoff and Jackie. My humour’s quite subtle and low key, and they know what Americans love, so it was a good mix of styles.

I don’t really write gags, I tend to write funny conversations – that’s kind of my style – so, it’s more of a Seinfeld rather than a Friends, which is just gag, gag, gag.

So with Awkward Situations out now, what have you got lined up next?

I’m going back to America to do another pilot. There’s some changes to the script, which is exciting, because they could easily have chucked it away, but they’re reinvesting the money they had to do a whole new one, which is brilliant. So, that might be on the air in January or February next year, if it happens.

I’ve finished a film script, that I’ve got with the producer of Girl With A Pearl Earring, which is bubbling away, but I’ve got to keep that under wraps for a while. It’s a very British comedy, but at the same time it’s quite commercial and high concept, so we’ll have to see what happens there.

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I’m writing a novel as well. I’ve been writing all these books and really enjoyed the process, but I don’t want to just do one thing. I thought I’d take a risk and try something new. So, it’s a year of new stuff.

[Begins to remove the shell from a boiled egg.]

And boiled eggs that burn your hands. A Spanish man taught me this thing where you smash your egg down, and the shell just peels off really easily. He did it amazingly, and I’m not doing so well…

There’s a weird bar in Barcelona, where they just have boiled eggs on the counter, and people just take a boiled egg, smash it, and wolf it down. It was very odd.

So, who would you say were your influences as a writer?

I would say I owe the Beano a debt, which sounds odd, but I really do. It taught me how jokes work, in a way. In fact, the other day I was trying to find some original Beano artwork, but I found instead an original comic strip drawn by the guy who did Oor Wullie, which has been going since 1938, and is still going today.

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I managed to get this thing done by the original artist, which should be arriving today. I’ve been more excited about that than anything in ages. I can’t wait.

Then after that, there’s PG Wodehouse, who’s an amazing writer. He was astonishing in his output, and the quality of it.

The Diary Of A Nobody by George Grossmith is the funniest book I’ve read. And even though it was written 120 years ago, it could have been written today. Some of the jokes and situations are just brilliant.

There’s a bit where a character tells a joke, and it goes well, which never normally happens to him. And he keeps on telling the joke, and everyone laughs, and it keeps getting better and better, and he wakes up at three in the morning, and the bed is still shaking from all the laughter.

My wife gave me a first edition, and I opened it, and I think it’s signed. Sometimes I walk down near Mayfair, the house where one of them lives, and I just have a little look.

One of the greatest compliments came from someone who compared Awkward Situations with Diary Of A Nobody, which sounds a bit like an insult, but I was over the moon.

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One of my ambitions was to write for the Beano, but Jon Ronson beat me to it, so now I can’t. It’s aready been done. I might have to do it for the Dandy.

…or maybe Whizzer And Chips.

Sod it, I’ll do George And Lynne in the Sun. You don’t need a story or a punchline, just people saying stuff and some ladies with breasts.

What’s the football one with the really bad CG?

Striker! It does have really bad CG. Who reads those stories? You could stop a million people in the street and ask, “What’s happening in Striker,” and they’d have no idea what you’re talking about. I know there’s a big bald man in it, because he’s in it every week.

..and he’s always pointing.

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A very angry man.

So how did your involvement with the Jim Carrey film Yes Man compare with making a sitcom?

I was much more involved with the making of the sitcom, obviously. The film was kind of part of the Hollywood machine. They were very nice to me, and sent me scripts to read for me to comment on, and I’d go over and hang around on the set.

The sitcom was much more hands-on. I was in America throughout the process, and I didn’t leave until it was done. It was quite a weird experience.

There are a couple of books I’d recommend. There’s Conversations With My Agent, and Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke, both by Rob Long. I’ve read them four or five times, and I didn’t think that the stuff in them was real or would really happen, but it does. It’s crazy.

I understand you met Jim Carrey by a moose head. Am I remembering that correctly?

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Yes, the first time I met him. When we were shooting, I’d be there on set, and we’d chat about very ordinary things. I explained what Mastermind was, because I’d just done it a week before. My specialist subject was Ghostbusters. He just thought Mastermind sounded terrifying. He said, “What the hell is this show?” and I told him it was just a guy asking another guy some questions.

In pitch darkness.

He was terrified! I guess in America you’d have a little animated sidekick, and there’d be lots of flashing lights, or a couple of models asking questions.

I saw the Mastermind semi-final the other day, and they’ve started making the contestants do a piece to camera about their specialist subject…

My brother-in-law was over from Australia, and we both saw that. And there’s a woman standing in a field, talking about churches. And we said, “Wouldn’t it be terrible if you did this VT all about you and your passion for your subject, and you got about three points? What a waste of everyone’s time!”

That’s always terrible when someone gets three points on their chosen subject. That’s why I chose Ghostbusters as my specialist subject. I knew I couldn’t fail!

Mr Danny Wallace, thank you very much!

Awkward Situations For Men is available in bookshops now.