It’s no joke when Rob Delaney explains why Barack Obama should be on Mount Rushmore – and why social media’s funniest comedian has almost kicked the habit
IF YOU’RE a Twitter junkie then you’ll know all about Rob Delaney, America’s most influential Twitter comedian. It’s as if Twitter was invented for him, and with a million followers hooked on his every 140-character despatch, he was named the “Funniest Person on Twitter” by Comedy Central. For the past five years he’s used social media to wind up politicians and the Kardashians, conduct a virtual flirtation with novelist Margaret Atwood and the singer Adele, champion Obamacare and become Mitt Romney’s electronic nemesis. However, if you’re a Twitter follower you’ll also know that Delaney has suddenly gone somewhat quiet on us.
In the past fortnight, Delaney’s trademark profile picture, in which he sported alarmingly tight green Speedos and Robbie Williams chest hair, has been replaced by an altogether more sober still shot of water and a fully clothed Delaney. There’s also a drawing in the style of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Creation Of Adam fresco, with Delaney as Adam and Adele as God surrounded by umpteen cats. What’s going on?
“I have disengaged from daily interaction with Twitter because it has served its purpose for me,” says Delaney, who in the flesh is all leading man good looks, sardonic humour and long, thoughtful responses, in contrast to his taut, irreverent online style. Typical Tweets ranged from “Which Mumford is the dad?” and “I bet Hitler took pictures of his food”, to a Romney spoof, “I’d like to carpet bomb Iran, literally for fun, and generally ignore the rest of the world, except where I store money”.
Despite what he’s telling me, a quick check on Twitter reveals he hasn’t quite managed to kick the habit, although he insists he’s working on it.
“I took Twitter off my phone because I haven’t been consuming too many Tweets lately. I’m grateful for all of my followers, but I never imagined that would happen,” he says.
“I joined because I thought it was a cool place to put jokes to show what I was doing when I was having trouble getting hired as a writer for TV comedy. And trying to flourish within 140 characters, make someone laugh, appeals. Anything I’m going to get from Twitter, I have got and my career is going in other directions.”
As well as tweeting jokes, Delaney enjoyed political jousting, but one of his cause celebres, Obamacare, is now on the statute book and Delaney feels he no longer has to fight that fight. As of 1 January under the Affordable Care Act, it is now compulsory for people to have health cover and insurance companies are banned from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.
“I’m not for any political party but am massively pro universal health care and pro education. I supported Obamacare because I believe in it. The US can’t call itself a first world country when it is possible that everyone I know knows someone who has literally gone bankrupt paying for healthcare. If people don’t have good healthcare and education they can’t care about global warming or international tariffs.
“Obama is not remarkable or superhuman; he’s a corporate-sponsored politician, but the Affordable Care Act is law now, and it’s never going to go away. Seen from space and the future, even with all his problems – drone warfare is a black mark, but people will forget about that – the only thing they will remember his presidency for is the Affordable Care Act, and they will put him on Mount Rushmore because of that. Like him or not, it’s a towering achievement.”
The other directions in which Delaney’s career is taking off involve writing film scripts and a TV sitcom, as well as more stand-up with a US tour in spring. In fact, the real life Delaney can be seen in the flesh in London this month, filming a pilot for Channel 4, that he co-wrote with Irish writer, actress and comedian Sharon Horgan, who featured in and co-wrote the BBC series Pulling. Called Catastrophe, it’s produced by The Thick Of It’s Adam Tandy for Avalon Television, and stars Delaney and Horgan as an Irish woman and an American man trying to fall in love in London in the most disastrous circumstances. To be aired some time this year, Delaney hopes it will lead to a full series.
“I’m writing a couple of film scripts right now with partners, but sorry, I can’t talk about what they are,” he says genially. “But the sitcom I can tell you about. I wrote it with Sharon Horgan, who it’s tremendous to work with because she is unbelievable. She and I are both married with two kids and wrestle with the same issues. It’s for Channel 4 and it’s really exciting.”
Hailing from Marblehead, Massachusetts, Delaney is married to Leah, with whom he lives in LA, and has two children, but despite being happy to put his own life out there, he’s reluctant to talk about his toddler and ten-month-old sons. “No. I’m fanatical about their privacy,” he says. “I am the clown. They’re just normal people.”
He will talk about Leah, however, a teacher whom he met when they were both at a camp on an island off Massachusetts working as carers for people with cerebral palsy, and he just can’t contain his delight at being a dad.
“It’s the best. They’re such fun and see the world through fresh eyes. If you get annoyed by a little child, that means you’re the bitch and life’s failings have damaged you. Kids are right and you are wrong, so do just like them and try to see the world through their eyes,” he says.
Delaney is also taking time off from Twitter as he would like to write a follow-up to his memoir, Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage, which was published at the end of last year.
“You have to go deep to write a book and Twitter is surface,” he says. Delaney, who celebrates his 37th birthday today, certainly goes deep in his memoir, sharing his bed-wetting, vomiting and relentless onanism with the reader. That’s not to say it’s all National Lampoon territory; he writes eloquently of his childhood and manages to make his tales of alcoholism and rehab amusing as well as moving. “If you survive alcoholism or depression you have to use some big guns to get out of it, and humour is a big gun,” he says. He also gives some of the best descriptions around of what it’s like to struggle with depression.
“I would rather have four broken limbs in jail than be depressed,” he says. As someone who did wind up with four broken limbs in jail, after blacking out during a drinking session and running his car into the wall of the Department of Water and Power in New York before deciding to get sober at 25, he should know.
“It was an awakening on many levels. The accident made me get sober,” he says. Not only that, but Delaney had to pay for all of his surgery on his credit cards and his up close and personal brush with US healthcare made a lasting impression.
“It took a long time to pay off. Being in the car accident at the age of 25 and having an insurance company say we are no longer going to insure you, that made me investigate things,” he says.
“My parents weren’t terribly politically active and didn’t discuss politics too much. My dad went to Vietnam for a year, not by choice, and that was the biggest involvement in any government decision that affected their lives by my parents.”
As well as his campaigning on healthcare provision, Delaney is driven to discuss depression and addiction and share his experiences of recovery.
“I am vocal about my depression now because it was so f***ing satanically awful that I view it as one of my life’s primary missions to help other people understand and overcome it,” he writes in his book.
“I’m not the finest person who ever lived, but I do possess a road map for surviving alcoholism and depression so I knew the book had to be graphic and honest. Those things I do know how to live through, and I’m happy to share that.”
Delaney suffered two life-threatening bouts of depression. The first at the end of 2002, after a full year of total sobriety, and the second in 2008, when his comedy career wasn’t taking off.
“The first time was after my final surgery and final occupational therapy and I was free of the court system and in my own apartment and had started to work again. My mind realised, ‘OK, you did it, you are going to live’, and gave itself permission to fully dismantle. Part of my brain thought, ‘you will put the booze back in’, but then it realised the booze wasn’t coming back in and we didn’t know how to operate like that. The depression showed up and it was deadly and terrifying.”
Delaney finally sought help, and the first medication he was prescribed, an SSRI or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, worked.
“The other depression came when I reduced my medication and had been very broke. I’d had to take a day job telemarketing over the phone, at a garbage newspaper, making less than the minimum wage and couldn’t pay the bills. So I took medication again and haven’t stopped. Having had two nearly fatal episodes, it’s highly likely I will be taking it for the rest of my life, which is fine with me. I have surrendered my pride and if I have to take a little pill so I can function as a dad, husband and comedian, it’s a pleasure to do so,” he says.
“My brain has trouble producing a chemical. You wouldn’t say to a diabetic ‘stop taking your insulin’, but it’s silly how your brain tells you you’re a piece of garbage, you’re a shit, because you have to take them. But I don’t listen to that voice any more. I take them,” he says.
Charting his journey from the rural west coast to La La Land and being the TV guest of Larry King and Jimmy Kimmel, his book covers his childhood as the son of Boston Irish immigrants and probably shouldn’t be read by anyone with teenage children. Episodes include sinking a launch while drunk in an attempt to go under a catamaran, breaking into a derelict psychiatric hospital (although to be fair he was with his mother, who had suggested it), bungee jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge and running up thousand-dollar credit card bills after accepting a lift from a stranger in Paris that led to him being locked in a brothel. Delaney doesn’t hold back from sharing the damage his drinking did, and the behaviour that ended in his car crash, which made him teetotal for good.
“When I woke up in hospital I wasn’t sure what had happened. I thought, ‘If I have killed someone I will kill myself.’ I wasn’t a monster in the sense of wanting to hurt other people. I knew in my bones – and they had been snapped so I did know in my bones – that I was a menace to other people and that that amount of drink would kill me. Then after therapy, I started to realise, oh you shouldn’t not care if you die, so let’s take a look at that. Now, I don’t want to die.”
Delaney took to drink like a duck to water, blaming his bottomless appetite for life on genetics – “my extended family had a standard ratio of roughly fifty-fifty for gutter drunks versus relatively normal people,” he says. “Three of my four grandparents were alcoholic, and uncles and aunts, but neither of my parents are. I think it leapfrogged them and came to me and I don’t think there’s anything they could have done to prevent me from becoming an alcoholic.
“The first time I got drunk I was 12 and I wasn’t thinking my life was so painful I must mask it with alcohol. But I tried it and thought, ‘Jesus, this is the best thing.’ I felt like I was flirting with something heavenly. It got bad quickly and had horrible consequences from the beginning, but I had selective memory, and after the hangover, I’d think, ‘I’ll just have one…’ Then towards the end I was thinking I had to drink to interact with other people. Oh, I have to talk to a woman I like, I will need alcohol for that. Oh, I have to do laundry, I’d better smoke two joints before I can do that in public,” he says.
Delaney’s life really was a car crash waiting to happen. He admits to always having been a bit of an adrenaline junkie – when he found himself stranded in Paris on 9/11 he researched how to join the Foreign Legion just in case – but these days, his need for kicks is satisfied by doing stand-up. “It’s weird and you have to have certain psychological kinks to want to do it. It pushes the right buttons. Since I am enjoying being alive and getting adrenaline in ways that are not fabulously dangerous to myself, I’m afraid to not do comedy, because otherwise I would have to be doing something where I was in real danger. Helping people… a fireman, a smoke jumper maybe. It would have to be so dangerous…”
For the moment, Delaney’s risk-taking is confined to filming on the streets of London, and exposing himself to hecklers in comedy clubs, where he is planning to do a little stand-up while he’s here. While he won’t be repeating last year’s stint at the Edinburgh Festival this summer, he would like to return to Scotland for some live shows. Meanwhile, he might have hung up his budgie-smuggler Speedos, but we doubt he’s kicked his Twitter habit for good.
“Twitter is a double-edged sword. It cuts primarily in a positive direction for me. It was my job, but if I were a civilian and had a job where I needed to do other things, it would be terrible, very dangerous. I’ve been sober for 12 years but I know I have the ability to get addicted and I don’t want to do that. There are people I know trying to get sober from drugs and alcohol and I see them vomiting on Twitter, and it’s a bad idea. Not as dangerous as shooting a speedball, but you’re not present when you’re producing or consuming Twitter, so it can be addictive behaviour. I was in danger of doing it too much. I’d much rather be writing a film script or book.”
• Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage, Blackfriars, £8.99, ebook £3.99