"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
It’s a rather stressful time to be Olivia Munn. In June, the 30-year-old landed one of the most coveted spots in late-night, as a female correspondent on “The Daily Show,” an accomplishment that unleashed a surprising geyser of commentary and criticism about women and comedy, starting with a post on Jezebel that sniffed at her credentials and accused the liberal sacred cow “The Daily Show” of sexism. (The post elicited a saucy rebuttal from the show’s female staffers on Wednesday.)
“Looking back, it was ridiculous of me to even prepare!” one “Daily Show” hopeful complained to Jezebel. “Should I have gone to the gym more? Done Playboy? It’s such a joke.”
The level of ire testifies not only to the delicate politics of feminism in the comedy world but also to Munn’s status as provocateur — she has appeared on the cover of Playboy (in a bikini, thank you very much) and when she hosted G4′s games-and-gadgets orgy “Attack of the Show!,” she was beloved for such stunts as jumping into a giant pie wearing a French maid’s outfit and gobbling a raw hot dog dangling on a string. On “The Daily Show,” which has certainly boosted the careers of good-looking people — its handsome host among them — Munn stands out among the cast as something altogether different: an unapologetic sex bomb. And yet all the controversy about what she looks like, where she came from and who she is obscures the only relevant question: Is she funny?
Munn has only made two appearances on the show, her somewhat underwhelming debut as senior Asian correspondent (Munn is half-Chinese) and a far more promising recent segment, poking fun at the Russian espionage saga. But it’s too early to judge; she has yet to hit her stride. On Thursday, the show airs her first field assignment (though she couldn’t say much about it, she did say it took place in Arizona). “It was a hard one,” she says. “But Jon [Stewart] told me, ‘I purposefully sent you to do a hard one, because I want people to see that you’re the real deal.’”
When she met me for lunch on Wednesday, Munn was tired from a grueling schedule and a bit bruised by the storm that has erupted around her lucky break. (Near the end of the interview, she teared up.) But she had an easygoing charm and a sly, flirty banter as she comfortably held forth about posing for Playboy, her abusive upbringing, her new memoir, “Suck It, Wonder Woman!” — and why the haters just need a good fuck.
So you’ve been at the center of some controversy lately …
Yes, exactly. That’s where I was going.
[mock important voice] Well, people don’t know, but Jon Stewart is actually at the forefront of that, making affordable hoverboards for every man, woman and child.
Are you tired of talking about the Jezebel story?
No. But I would really like to make a point that no one knew what the fuck Jezebel was before that story came out.
Well, I knew what Jezebel was.
You do, it’s in your world. But people in Hollywood didn’t know what Jezebel was. “The Daily Show” didn’t know what Jezebel was. But this article was picked up and pushed out and these women sit behind this very thin veil that I can see right through, this idea that “we stand up for women.” If you stand up for women, then don’t bash me.
This woman at Slate wrote a very interesting article that all my friends at G4 have been e-mailing me [Emily Gould's piece, "How feminist blogs gin up page views"]. I kept seeing this over and over — they’re attaching my name to things to get more hits. But what’s more frustrating is that they’ve been given some kind of power as the voice of women, and they are not. If they were, then they would have done a better of job of interviewing people actually currently working on the show.
The interviews were with people who worked there seven years ago. There were people who weren’t even regulars. And at the end of the day, the reason why you don’t know who any of those people are is because “The Daily Show” didn’t find them funny.
That story hurt a lot of people’s feelings. I’m not talking about Jon Stewart. I’m talking about the women who work there and the women who came before me. “Oh, I’m the pretty girl who came in?” That means that Nancy Carell isn’t gorgeous? Like all these other women who have been there aren’t beautiful women? Jon Stewart hires people that he thinks are funny. That’s it. That’s the only requirement.
But the controversy points to how important this topic is, because there’s just such a narrow berth for women in comedy. Of course people are furious about who gets what. There are just so few spots.
There are so few roles for everyone, period. That’s just how it is. But if having pretty women on TV was all you needed to make it sell, then Playboy TV, which is actually a channel, would be the No. 1 channel in the world, and it’s not. And if “The Daily Show” weren’t funny, just in general funny, it wouldn’t be where it is. It’s not about guys or girls. The best man or woman wins the role.
Surely part of the resentment must come from the fact that you didn’t come through traditional comedy channels. I’ll be honest with you, if I was trying out for that part, if I was a female comedian, I would hate you.
I’m easy to hate. I get it. When I first came to L.A., I would go to these commercial auditions for Target. I’m 110 pounds now, but I used to be 135. And I would go to these auditions and these girls would be, like, in that effortless L.A. look: T-shirt, jeans and flats. So thin they’d just walk with a shuffle. I know what it’s like to not think it’s fair for someone to look a certain way and also get the dream job. But it’s ridiculous to say that a woman can’t be funny and also be sexy.
Lots of funny women are pretty. Lucille Ball was pretty. Tina Fey is pretty. I don’t care how many times “30 Rock” tells me she’s ugly, she’s not. But I wonder if people bristle about you because we don’t often see women who are sexy and funny. Because a lot of funniness is about awkwardness in your own body. You know, I cannot imagine Tina Fey, for instance, posing in a bikini.
Here’s the thing: My NBC show ["Perfect Couples," a sitcom debuting midseason], I got that show because Tina Fey recommended me. Because they asked her, who are the funniest actresses out there right now? I do not think that Tina Fey was looking at my boobs. I do not think she was thinking, “Oh, Olivia is eye candy.” I think that Tina said, “She’s funny.”
Are you someone who’s comfortable in a bikini?
I’m someone who knows how to look comfortable. But I know what my angles are, because that’s the job of it.
There is some part of your persona that is tough. And I mean, like, someone who seems like they’ve always had to fight. And it comes across in different ways. For one thing, you cuss a lot. And I wondered where that came from.
It sounds better. Nothing says “bitch” like “bitch.” “Cunt” is a great word. Underused and overanalyzed.
You can see the defensiveness in other ways, too, though. Like there is a post on your blog after the Maxim cover shoot where you say, ” If you have any problems with me in this spread, I have two things to say to you: 1. Just don’t look. And 2. You sound like you just need a good fuck.”
Because at that time I was in my last relationship [with "Star Trek" actor Chris Pine], and I was fed up with comments on the blogs, when girls I’d never met were like, she’s only dating him because he’s a movie star. And I really still believe that anybody who’s sitting there judging my relationship does need to get the shit fucked out of them.
But is there any part of you that understands an objection to your being on the cover of Maxim? Even like a maternal instinct that would say, hey, this is a talented girl. Why is she putting this part of herself first and foremost? The idea that it might diminish your gifts.
Yes, I can see that. But I would like to hope we can get to a place where it’s OK to be funny and sexy and be on the cover of a magazine and you can still be on “The Daily Show.”
I wanted to talk about the story you write in your memoir about the Playboy shoot. [Munn agreed to pose for Playboy on the condition there would be no nudity but found herself continually nudged toward it by an overzealous photographer and stylist. She never did take off her clothes, but it was a constant struggle.] It’s a lighthearted piece, but it made me uncomfortable. I really felt for you — stuck between what you had clearly consented to and what these other people wanted, how you were trying to be sexy and keep it together while clearly anxious and upset that some nip slip was going to be snapped and published.
And the photographer kept going, “Be comfortable, be comfortable,” and I’m like, “I’m not comfortable, because I don’t know you. And I don’t like you.”
When I went in to approve the photos, I literally had to have a conversation with my lawyers, my publicist, my manager, saying: Is that her vagina, or is that not her vagina? It’s tricky if you’re clean-shaven, because what determines a vagina is pubic hair. It brings up a lot of emotions for me to even say it that way. I know all that some people will see in that sentence is: “clean shaven”! But I remember sitting on the stairs, feeling so violated afterward. I was sobbing. [The eventual Playboy cover did not feature nudity but a picture of Munn in a red bikini.]
Amanda Hess on a blog called the Sexist wrote that the story was a case study in how magazines like that coerce women.
I don’t find myself to be the kind of person who is easily swayed. I could see what this guy was doing. But if I pose for Maxim, I know that if my nipple accidentally slips out, they can’t publish that. With Playboy it’s different. I understand that the criticism is: “Yeah, but she posed for it anyway.” Well, that’s like saying, “Oh, you were asking for it cause you dressed a certain way.”
It did mean something for me to be on the cover. There’s such an image of what beauty is: Women get their lips done, and their boobs done. But I’m multiethnic. I’ve got smaller boobs. I’m 5-foot-4. If they’re saying that’s what sexy is, then I think it’s a better image to perpetuate than the stuff that still influences me to the point that I wonder: Should I get my lips done?
I’m very open about the fact that it’s nice when someone says you’re pretty. Especially for someone like me. I have a vivid memory of my stepfather saying to my mom, “Olivia isn’t very pretty, is she?” I remember looking at myself in the mirror that night and hitting myself over and over, looking at my eyes, because they looked more Asian. Literally slapping my face and trying to change it. When people are like, “Oh, I don’t care that I’m pretty,” it’s a disservice to what people really go through. And I know that I wasn’t alone. So when I do these magazines, yeah, it’s nice. It’s nice to feel power for doing it. It’s nice that someone like Jon Stewart can watch a video of me and not have ever seen me in a Wonder Woman outfit and say, “She’s funny.”
You mentioned your first stepfather. [Munn has a second stepfather now, whom she talks about glowingly.] I’ve heard you talk vaguely about being in an abusive family. But what does that mean?
It’s one of those things where I’ve made a conscious decision not to go into details about it. I never wanted to be marked by that. My mom remarried this military guy. On the outside, he was very good-looking. Tall, handsome, and my mom was a very pretty Asian woman. And this guy actually would only marry Asian women, I think, because he thought they were oppressed and seemed submissive. I’ve started to speak out about it in ambiguous ways because I thought maybe young girls and boys, I wanted to let them know that whatever they’re going through, I understand. But the specifics of it, I just want to keep private.
Your book is comic, but actually, my favorite piece is not funny at all. It’s about your grandmother’s death. [She died at home when Munn was living with her after high school. Part of the story details Munn's slowness calling 911 and her inability to perform CPR]. And the reason I like it is that it has a nice honesty about it. I like that you admit the last thing you said to her was some snappy remark and that you didn’t get to apologize, which happens all the time.
They wanted to take that piece out. I said that I would not promote the book if it wasn’t in there. That’s what my life is. My life has to have levity to it. [pause, tears up]
Ever since yesterday, I’ve been on the verge of crying. I’m so thankful for where I’ve been and I felt so bad to see some of the women who were so frazzled by this whole thing, wanting to defend themselves and defend the show and defend Jon. I saw that unnecessary energy, and it made me feel so bad, and I actually said it out loud, that I knew I was the reason they were having to go through that. And I felt like, I just have so much appreciation for where I am right now. I can’t believe the things I’m doing. I’m realizing dreams I was afraid to dream.
But that’s my life — in horrible situations there’s also a lot of laughter. When something’s tough, I make it into a joke. People always want to make themselves sound better. But I can live with myself better if I don’t sit here and pretend that I’m someone I’m not. Like you know how in all those magazine profiles, it always starts off with the woman ordering a big burger and eating it unapologetically. Like all of this is so effortless. And the thing is, I do want that, but I also feel like it’s important to say that I don’t know that I can be that, and I want to tell you my insecurities about not being able to eat whatever I want.
I think about my grandma all the time. You know how people ask if you could go back and do one thing over, what would it be? That’s where I would go. I sometimes wonder: Would I save her? Because I literally froze [before calling 911]. Life is so quick. That’s why I just feel like: Just let me do my thing.
Sarah Hepola is an editor at Salon.More Sarah Hepola.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)