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Jesse Eisenberg onstage during The New Yorker Festival in 2015.Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images
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Bream Gives Me Hiccups

Jesse Eisenberg talks about Woody Allen, Obama’s tailor, Jewish humor, and his new collection of funny short stories

Tal Kra-Oz
January 28, 2016
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Jesse Eisenberg onstage during The New Yorker Festival in 2015.Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images

Bream Gives Me Hiccups, the new collection of humorous short stories by actor Jesse Eisenberg, opens with a set of restaurant reviews by a 9-year-old boy. Precocious young foodies are not an uncommon sight in restaurants, but for the unnamed child, a visit to a high-end sushi joint is less an opportunity for culinary indulgence than for personal introspection:

When the woman brought the bill, Mom smiled at her and said thank you, which was a lie, because Mom hates when people bring her the bill. When Mom and Dad were married, Mom would always pretend like she was going to pay, and when Dad took the bill, which he always did, she said more lies like, “Are you sure? Okay, wow, thanks, honey.” Now that Dad doesn’t eat with us anymore, maybe I should pretend to take the bill from Mom and say a lie like, “Oh, really? Okay, thanks, Mom,” but I don’t because lies are for adults who are sad in their lives.

I told Jesse Eisenberg during a recent Skype conversation that his stories strike me as really sad. (He was in New York, on a day off work on the upcoming Woody Allen film he appears in. I was in my apartment in Tel Aviv.) “Well, as an American Jew, this is like my world perspective,” he told me. “You’re Israeli, so you’re just kind of necessarily more confident than I am. You look at these stories as sad, whereas I look at them as incredibly optimistic.”

So, everything could be a whole lot worse, I offered.

“Yes, exactly,” he said. “This is the fundamental difference between us.”

Jesse Eisenberg and I have been friends for 20 years, and the nature of our conversations, mostly about geopolitics, girls, and musical theater, has stayed more or less consistent throughout that time. That Jesse became, over the course of those years, an Academy Award-nominated movie star never took much getting used to on my part, because I considered him a thespian of some renown from day one, even though when we first met his acting career consisted of community productions of classic musicals. (I might have the distinction of being one of the first people to ask him for an autograph, although that may in fact have been his own idea. I don’t know if he has hung on to my own autograph, which he insisted I give him in exchange.)

Twenty years later, Jesse’s Internet Movie Database page lists some 37 acting roles, with highlights including Jeff Daniels’ son in The Squid and the Whale, a zombie killer and master magician in Zombieland and Now You See Me, and, of course, Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, which earned him the Oscar nod. (My personal favorite among his varied roles was the ultra-Orthodox drug dealer in Holy Rollers.) This March, Batman v Superman—a natural contender for box office success—will open, with Jesse as a relatively youthful and hirsute Lex Luthor.

I first met Jesse at a Fourth of July barbecue in central New Jersey, through family friends. Though I never shared his passion for the NBA, many of our other interests coincided. He was very funny and as close to being a mensch as an 11-year-old can be. We’d get together whenever I’d visit the United States, and pick up where we left off. We were good kids; he once passed me off as himself (using his driver’s license and baseball cap) to get me past the doorman at the Bowery Ballroom when I was just shy of 21 and he was not yet quite so famous, but I am afraid that was the extent of our mischief.

Since his teens, Jesse has also been writing: first screenplays (optioned but unproduced) and then plays (three of which premiered off-Broadway in recent years). Throughout, he’s amassed the dozens of short prose pieces that constitute his new collection, many of which have been published in places like McSweeney’s and The New Yorker.

So, how did this book actually come about? I’d read a lot of your stories throughout the years but they’re all pretty short. Now suddenly it turns out you have more than enough for a full-length book.

I started by writing jokes. In retrospect I realize that a lot of the humor writers that I like started doing the same thing. I love stand-up comedy and I love the idea of a quick joke, a one-liner. And then probably like most people who write humor, you feel like the value of that maxes out pretty quickly, and you want to write something more substantive. I started writing plays, and more dramatic stories. The jokes there are character based, oftentimes masking a character’s deep pain. That’s more interesting, because you’re getting at something that’s beyond the surface.

‘I’m writing in a tradition of, frankly, mostly Jewish writers.’

When I discovered that there are books that are compilations of short humor—Woody Allen has done it, my friend Simon Rich has written a few—when I realized these exist, I was inspired to write a lot, because I thought I could do it well. And I thought I could do it well enough to match the quality of the books that I like, or at least be in the same league.

I honestly don’t think I’ve ever heard you speak this confidently about anything. You’re always apologizing, but you’re completely unapologetic when it comes to your writing.

That’s just because I haven’t achieved that much success as a writer. The most confident writer you’ll meet is an unpublished writer. I’m sure Shakespeare was a nervous wreck! There’s a line in The End of the Tour [where Jesse played journalist David Lipsky, profiling David Foster Wallace (played by Jason Segal)]. “I say, ‘Is it great, having all these people read you and think you’re really brilliant?’ and he answers, ‘That’s not so, the more people say they love you, the more scared you are of being a fraud.’ I’m new at this, so I still have the cockiness of the loner in his bedroom thinking that his thing’s great. Once people start having reactions to the book—and I’m sure they’ll be across the board, as they are for everything—I will probably start to feel the kind of vulnerabilities that anybody who has put their work out for public consumption feels.

Now you’re embarking on a book tour, meeting readers and doing press. How is this different from when you’re doing junkets for movies you’ve acted in?

Tonight I have to give a speech at a conference of independent booksellers, and it’s fun for me because I can do something a little more creative than typical public presentations. When I act in a movie I have to be an ambassador for a multi-million-dollar project that I am a small part of, so it’s more difficult for me to do something that’s unusual. But with the book, because it’s only me as the creator and it’s a smaller economic undertaking, I can do something creative. Tonight I’m going to give a comedic speech about doing the different things that I do, but in a faux-self-aggrandizing way, talking about what it’s like to be a writer.

But aren’t you still basically selling yourself?

If I’m talking about a movie and I say something sarcastic, it can be parsed and repeated and used for slander. Whereas if I say something about my own book, there’s just so much less interest in it that I can just speak a little more freely. I feel only beholden to myself, and my publisher. When you’re surrounded by the big apparatus of a movie, you have a responsibility to so many different people to be the public face of a big investment that’s trying to appeal to a large amount of people, so you have to be not only more careful but you end up having to censor yourself, if only in an attempt not to say something that’s going to be parsed inaccurately. You can make a joke or something offhand—there’s a kind of simultaneous and conflicting demand that a public person be both authentic and not say anything that hurts anybody’s feelings. And that’s kind of an impossible and paradoxical set of requests.

How about fame on the more mundane level? I know you can’t really blend into the background any more and just observe situations which could provide fodder for your writing.

Being recognizable makes things both difficult and advantageous. I can’t really do what I used to do, which is sit in public places with headphones, pretending to listen to music, and eavesdrop on conversations. It’s hard for me to do that now because people will come up to me. On the other hand, I can now talk to people in personal ways that I would never be able to do if they hadn’t approached me in order to ask me a question about being in a movie. By virtue of them breaking this tacit pact we have of living in New York City, which is that you don’t talk to anybody, I now have free rein to ask them something very personal. So, I have this great advantage as well.

The acknowledgements note in the book ends with a thank-you to your family, “who never seem to exercise their veto power even when the joke’s on them.” I guess I’m a slightly privileged reader because I know you and your family, but I think anyone reading the book will get the strong sense that some of the stories are very personal, even if they’re clearly fictional and sometimes outlandish.

I can’t understand what drives somebody to write about their lives. I’m absolutely bewildered when somebody writes a memoir. I’m reading a book now, let me find it so I can give you the exact title, Measure of a Man, by Martin Greenfield. He’s a tailor. He did all the suits for the Woody Allen movie that I’m doing, and for Obama and Patrick Ewing. He survived Auschwitz and became the most successful tailor in New York. So, someone like that, I completely understand why he would write a memoir, because he has a story that’s really powerful and unusual and interesting to a lot of people.

I would never write about something that I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling the entire world, but I can talk about feelings and have the catharsis of self-expression through fiction. You and I know each other, and you could probably see where things come from, but someone could read the book a thousand times and not have any idea of what the feeling is based on. It makes total sense to me to write a book like this that has elements of feelings that I have, because it’s so veiled in fiction. I suppose that maybe the difference between me and the memoirist is not so vast, but to me that difference is everything.

I think the young people in the book—the 9-year-old critic, or the freshman Harper Jablonski—are its most fully realized characters. What sort of childhood experiences did you draw on for them?

There’s a line in the book where the 9-year-old critic says that adults have less original thoughts than children, because the more they live in the world the more their thoughts become similar to other people’s, just by virtue of being around other people longer. That’s how I feel. You’ll talk to a child and they’ll have this completely inaccurate yet totally vivid imagination of reality.

Sometime in your teens, you discovered Woody Allen. How have Allen and his contemporaries influenced your writing?

I’m writing in a tradition of, frankly, mostly Jewish writers. You could say that Woody Allen is the most important father of this. And while I don’t think of what I’m writing as particularly Jewish, when you print out the pages, after it’s done, you realize that it’s in the tradition of Jewish writers. I think there’s something in writing humor, writing this kind of fiction, that actually dovetails with the Jewish-American experience, or with the Jewish experience in general, which is that Jews have a way of both assimilating and separating, and they do it very deftly. They’ve done it in Europe, they’ve done it in America. It’s not Machiavellian, it’s just habitual. And this kind of writing manifests from that because you’re both commenting as an observer and also immersed as a player, and it’s that strange world perspective of the kind of outsider-assimilator that creates a funny and often compelling juxtaposition.

How about the 9-year-old restaurant critic? Is he Jewish?

I think of his dad as Jewish, and his mom as not Jewish. Which I guess technically makes him not. In my mind the mother’s not from New York, and the dad is.

You’ve pretty much avoided the Jewish-mother trope in your stories, except for that one monologue by the mother accompanying her son to the ballet.

Probably because my mom is not that kind of overbearing cliché. What makes the overbearing mother funny is that it’s not the mother thinking that her son is the best in the world, but the juxtaposition between the mother expecting the son to be the best in the world and permanently disappointed that he’s not: arrogance on behalf of your son and total disappointment in him. So, I’m certainly aware of that cliché, but my mom is not like that. She grew up in the hippie movement, she was a socialist Zionist, part of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, and saw Israel as a bastion of socialism led by the kibbutzim. She was interested in Israeli folk-dancing—that was actually her main artistic expression as a child and a teenager. And then she parlayed that interest into becoming a choreographer at a Christian boy’s school in Philadelphia, which is the first job she got. She was a choreographer and on the weekends became a professional birthday clown. And that was really the beginning of my interest in the arts.

Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.