I get my best comic material from God

US comedy writing prodigy Simon Rich says he is inspired by the Old Testament

By Jessica Elgot, August 19, 2010
Rich: “If I wasn’t a writer, I’d have to be a criminal”

Rich: “If I wasn’t a writer, I’d have to be a criminal”

Simon Rich has made a living making people laugh, but secretly the Saturday Night Live writer wishes he could terrify them.

"I love horror," the 26-year-old New Yorker confides. "I've tried and failed so many times to write horror. It just ends up being funny. But the greatest horror writers are usually very witty - Stephen King writes some great jokes. The best comedy comes from the most incredible situations where the stakes could not be higher."

His failure to write the next big slasher novel aside, Rich has so far enjoyed a high-flying career most young writers can only dream of. He secured a two-book deal from Random House before he left Harvard and joined the team writing sketches for SNL, the award-winning, late-night American satire series, just after graduating in 2007.

The show, which first aired in 1975, has seen a steep rise in popularity over the past few years, thanks in no small part to Tina Fey's merciless parodying of the Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin during the 2008 election which gained it a world-wide fan base. During Rich's time on the payroll, countless A-List celebrities have guest-hosted the show, willing to put themselves in the firing line of the writers' trademark pointed humour, including Justin Timberlake, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin and even Palin herself.

Since Rich left Harvard, where he was president of satirical student magazine The Harvard Lampoon, he has written three books. The latest is a rags-to-riches comedy novel about a New York schoolboy, Seymour, who attempts to climb the high-school social ladder with the help of wealthy bad boy Elliott Allagash. Hollywood director Jason Reitman has already agreed to shoot the film, and Rich will write the screenplay.

With his messy brown hair, huge eyes and skinny frame, you could almost believe Rich was still at high school but, he says, it has taken him eight years to get over his school days. "I was never a funny kid," he admits. "I was the kind of kid that funny stuff happened to. I was the butt of all the jokes, the humiliations. It's really ironic that I became the comedian.

Alec Baldwin hosting Saturday Night Live, one of the many celebrities who have been the butt of Simon Rich’s jokes

Alec Baldwin hosting Saturday Night Live, one of the many celebrities who have been the butt of Simon Rich’s jokes

"I have only just been able to write about school because only now can I face up to what I was like in high school - which was just too awful."

He readily acknowledges that he is something of a writing machine, with an enviable productivity rate. "I have always been of the school of thought that I should churn out as much as possible. I'm about quantity, not quality. If I produce 100 pages maybe two will be good, it's the law of averages. I just pray some is usable."

Self-mockery and impending catastrophe are Rich's comedy stock in trade. He says: "I do think it's true most of my writing comes from a place of fear and doom. But the people I am inspired by, like Woody Allen, Philip Roth, I think they come from that place too."

Writing is a Rich family tradition. His father is New York Times columnist Frank Rich and mother Gail Winston is an executive editor at HarperCollins publishing house. But his skills in comedy, he reckons, is something he gets from his Jewishness - from being a nebbish.

"Being Jewish influences me a lot when I'm writing comedy. The God of the Old Testament is the original comic character. He's irrational, he's reckless, he has unlimited power. The stakes are so high and he can just do whatever he wants. People are powerless. Those are the ingredients for the best comic novel.

"I started Hebrew school aged seven or eight but it was only just before my barmitzvah that I really read the Old Testament, and at the time I was reading the great comic novels like Catch 22, and the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. It's the same kind of theme - ordinary people who are in way over their heads. I have another novel in the pipeline. It's called What in God's Name? and it's about an angel who wants a promotion. God is a big part of the story, and he's definitely modelled on the Old Testament version."

Despite his already-glittering CV, Rich is looking forward to learning more as a writer, surrounded by the best in the industry at Saturday Night Live.

"If I felt that I didn't have anything more to learn, or that I'd made it as a successful writer, I'd probably stop. And if I stopped writing then I'd have to become a criminal or something because writing is the only thing I am remotely good at."

'Elliott Allagash' is published by Serpent's Tail, at £9.99

Last updated: 11:51am, August 19 2010