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So What Do You Do, Justin Halpern, Author of Shit My Dad Says?

'Keep creating as much content as you possibly can... Because eventually, hopefully, you'll break through'

By E.B. Boyd - September 8, 2010

--Photo by Matt Hoyle
A year and change ago, Justin Halpern was just another 20-something struggling to find a toehold in Hollywood. He and his writing partner had sold a script for an independent film and had another one optioned, and they were hammering out a show, on spec, for Comedy Central. But for all intents and purposes, his bank account remained bone dry. So he moved back home with his parents, where he was once again subjected to the quirky harangues his father had doled out as he was growing up. Halpern started a Twitter feed for no greater purpose that to share those mumblings with his friends, while he concentrated on his day job at Maxim.com and focused on breaking into Hollywood as a screenwriter.

Fast forward a year. After the Twitterverse caught wind of Halpern's unintentionally hilarious tweets, an agent came calling, and a book contract was quickly inked with HarperCollins. The book, Sh*t My Dad Says, came out in May and debuted at No. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list. In the meantime, CBS picked up a pilot for a half-hour sitcom of the same, though slightly modified, name, $#*! My Dad Says, which premieres September 23. Halpern tells mediabistro.com how it happened.


Name: Justin Halpern
Position: Author, television writer
Resume: Author of Sh*t My Dad Says, co-executive producer of television show $#*! My Dad Says, senior editor of Maxim.com, and self-described "lucky son of a bitch."
Birthday: Sept. 13, 1980
Hometown: San Diego, CA
Education: B.S. San Diego State University, 2003
Marital status: Engaged
Favorite TV show: Breaking Bad
Guilty pleasure: Top Chef
Last book read: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Twitter handle: @justin_halpern

When did you first realize your Twitter feed might actually lead to something much bigger?
At first, I didn't even know how to check "@ replies." I didn't think there would be any, so I never learned how to check them. Then I figured it out and started scrolling through them. I was getting so many, and I saw one that said, "Hey, I think there might be a book in this. If you get this, please Direct Message me." I did, and then I talked to the guy on the phone. He was like, "What do you think about doing a book about this?" And I was like, "I haven't even told my dad that this is going on."

What did your dad say when you finally told him?
He seemed not to really care.

So what happened next?
I asked the agent to send me a sample of a book proposal, and I said, "I'll write one, and we'll see if anybody's interested." At first, I didn't even know if there was a book in this. If there was, it wasn't going to be just a collection of tweets. That's not a book, that's a wall calendar. I just sat for a few weeks and came up with the proposal and structure of it and how I wanted it to work thematically, and the stories I had to tell. Even though it's a silly little book about my father and me, I was attempting to tell a story and make it centered around, not just the father and son, but stories to have lessons to them. My agent sent the proposal out, and we eventually signed with HarperCollins.

When the book proposal went out to the all the publishing houses -- it's pretty incestuous, in terms of publishing houses and studios. They're all kind of intertwined. A lot of producers got ahold of it. My literary agent started getting a lot incoming [calls]. My writing partner, Patrick Schumacker, and I took a few meetings for feature-length [film] adaptations. But I felt like I wasn't the right guy for those. I didn't know if I wanted to write a movie about this subject. It's a small story. There's not a large, high-concept to it. It's very relatable, and, in a sense, mundane, in terms of what was happening in my life, and in my father's life. So we asked ourselves if this was a TV show, and we started concepting it. We went around to the studios and said, "If you're interested in the idea, we'd like to meet with show runners that you have deals with." I knew no network or studio in their right mind is going to hand over a TV show to two 28-year-old kids who have no credits. And I wouldn't have been prepared to take that thing to where it needed to go. I would have failed. So we met these two guys David Kohan and Max Mutchnik who had created a hit show [Will and Grace]. They were good guys. They just wanted to create a good show. And they wanted to mentor us. That's what we were really looking for. So we partnered with them, and we pitched the networks. And we ended up signing up with CBS.

"The Internet has, in a way, democratized ideas. If you have one that's really good, or you have a piece of content that's really interesting, it can make its way to the top. "

It's really interesting that, for each medium -- Twitter, book, TV show -- you haven't just reproduced the content from one to the other, but really molded the general premise into something unique for each medium.
The Twitter site was just a happening. It wasn't premeditated. It wasn't thoughtful. The book was much more so. The relationship I had with my father was very similar to the ones my friends had with their fathers, and there wasn't a book on the market that, I thought, was an honest depiction of a father and son. They were very syrupy with these really saccharine moments, and I just thought that was bullshit. (Laughs) It wasn't my experience with my father, and it wasn't any of my friends'. So I wanted to write a book that people could say, "Yeah, this reminds me of my father."

With the TV show, it's funny because the first thing [people asked me after he signed with CBS] was, "Why are you doing this on a network?" Instead of for a cable channel, like HBO. The first response I would say is, "I don't recall receiving any calls from HBO." (Laughs) But also, I told the honest story that I wanted to tell in the book. Any recreation of that on TV or in a movie is going to be a bastardized version of it. I thought we should do it a different way, so it's not me trying to film versions of these stories on television. I thought we should do the best we can to tell fun stories that have that same kind of vibe and keep true to the character of my dad, but also break free of that and make it work for television.

Why do you think Shit My Dad Says has resonated with so many people?
I think my dad reminds people of someone in their family or someone they know. I also think, as a parent, there are so many times when you just want to tell your kid what you're thinking, and you don't, because the social conventions that are in place right now dictate that we don't do that. It's somewhat liberating that, if you can't do it, to hear someone else call their kid a dumb shit. (Laughs) But I also think that my dad has a way with words. He's a hyper-intelligent dude who has this really blue-collar element to him. I think it was a take on that that people hadn't seen in a while.

What have you learned in the past year that might be useful to those wanting to follow in your footsteps?
The first thing I would say is that, on the Internet, people like stuff that is honest and has a kind of voyeuristic element to it. If you look at videos that are popular, they're real slices of life. They show someone who's being really genuine but also doesn't know that they're funny. Like the double rainbow video that just became gigantic. That guy doesn't think that he's funny. He's not saying these things as jokes. He's unintentionally funny. Next, I'd say, keep creating as much content as you possibly can. If something strikes you as funny, or you have an idea for something, keep at it. Because eventually, hopefully, you'll break through. The Internet has, in a way, democratized ideas. If you have one that's really good, or you have a piece of content that's really interesting, it can make its way to the top.

And last, I'd say when you're in a position where you have a piece of content that other people want, try to think long-term. There will be a lot of short-term offers that sound really good but that will really kick the legs out from what you're trying to do.

"Son, people will always try and f*ck you. Don't waste your life planning for a f*cking, just be alert when your pants are down." -- Twitter.com/shitmydadsays

Like what?
When the Twitter feed was blowing up, I was getting crazy-weird offers to do stuff. This one hotel in Las Vegas wanted to fly my dad and me out and have us tweet at this pool party. My dad is 74. He doesn't give a f*ck about a pool party. He's not going to do that. And if I did that -- they were offering a good sum of money -- if I did that, anyone who's following my Twitter account, they'd say, "This is so stupid. I'm not interested in it anymore. I'm not following it anymore. And, in fact, I actively hate it." (Laughs)

There seems to be only a single picture out on the Internet of your dad. It's at a ball game, and your dad and this young guy are looking at the camera, and there's this other guy, off to the side, with his face mostly in shadows. It turns out that last one is actually you. Do most people think you're the guy looking at the camera?
People do all the time, which is fantastic. (Laughs) My poor friend Brad. The British publisher, who's publishing the book, for a while they thought that was me too. They designed a cover that had that on it. In a starburst in the middle, it's Brad and my dad. I showed [a mockup] to my dad, because I thought it was funny. My dad didn't think it was funny. He wrote this scathing email to Macmillan Publishers, in the UK, and he tore them a new asshole. (Laughs)

What pissed him off about it? Just that they hadn't done their homework?
Yeah, it wasn't even that they were using the wrong picture. I think he just thought it was lazy and half-assed.

NEXT >> AvantGuildHow To Be Funny Online -- Even When You're Not


E.B. Boyd is the Silicon Valley contributor to WebNewser.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2010. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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