Our New Battle Cry is Samantha Irby’s 'Wow, No Thank You'

With the same edgy, unabashed, and spit-take funny wit that brought us 'We Are Never Meeting in Real Life' and 'Meaty,' Samantha Irby tackles approaching middle age, raising her stepkids in a small Midwestern town, and being okay with just being okay in her new collection of essays.

Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.

Rachel Smalter Hall: I'm Audible editor Rachel Smalter Hall and I'm delighted to be talking to best-selling humorist Samantha Irby about her new book of essays, Wow, No Thank You. Sam, I love your work. And I really love the title of this collection. From the moment I saw it, it became my immediate battle cry. I say it in my head all the time. Thank you so much for being here with me today from the comfort of our homes.

Samantha Irby: Rachel, thank you for having me. I love anytime I get to talk to someone while wearing a sweatshirt and no shoes.

RSH: I know, right? And we have the added bonus of it being socially acceptable right now.

SI: Yes. This is really ideal for me. I'm almost too comfortable.

RSH: I love it. Do you have a face mask situation going on or just the cozy clothes?

SI: No, just cozy clothes. There's like almost a blizzard happening outside.

RSH: Oh lovely.

SI: So the heater's on. There's a blanket right here. I am very cozy.

RSH: Good. For posterity, I'll mention for our listeners that as we record this, we are in the middle of the COVID pandemic. We are sheltering at home. Sam, how is life for you right now? Are you sheltering at home? Are you digging it? What's been great, what's been hard?

SI: I am sheltering at home. I live in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which is in Southwest Michigan, just kind of around the lake from Chicago, a couple hours. I'm kind of a homebody by nature. It has not been a big stretch for me to not go outside for many days at a time. So I actually am doing okay, I have many books. I will truly watch anything on television. If you turn it on and you're like, "Hey, watch that," I will be happy watching it. The hard part, I think, is that my wife is an outside person. She's a "got to be busy, got to be in the garden, got to do this, got to go there” kind of person. And so it's been hard to feel happy while she's like, "I wish I could go outside." I have to hide my joy from her. When she's complaining, I can be like, "Mm-hmm, me too. I know, it's so hard." But really I'm like, “Oh, I could stay like this for a few months. I'd be okay.”

RSH: Mm-hmm. I wanted to talk to you about this big life transition you had recently. One of the big themes in Wow, No Thank You is that you turned 40—congratulations.

SI: Thank you.

RSH: You got married, you moved from the city to a small town and you're super honest in the book about some of the challenges of having to compromise with your lady and be a role model for stepkids that you never planned to have. And I was wondering if any of those disruptions helped prepare you in any way for the kinds of disruptions that we're now experiencing as a society?

SI: Well, I think probably the biggest and maybe saddest one is that—even though I've been here for almost four years—I have not established much of a life outside of the house, right? It's not like I have friends all over town or places I was always going. I found a guy to cut my hair and I have a little office space with a friend. If I was in Chicago, I'd be like, “Oh, my friends! I know where they are. I can see their houses from here.” But here it's like, “Well, I don't know too many people anyway.” So it's not that tough to be away from them. I mean one of the hard things is—at least with having the kids around all the time, and thinking about being a role model—there's really no place to hide what I'm like and where I am. And how I don't mind moving from the couch to the chair, to the bed, and back again.

The kids are really getting to see me in my natural state. Which at first I was like, “Oh man,” but now it's cool, it's cool. We've all found our ways around each other and at least I can hide kind of when I'm watching violent movies or whatever it is I don't want them to see by watching it on the iPad. But we've got it figured out I think.

I would like to reserve the right to hate my cracking knees or my eyes that just had to get progressive glasses. The idea of body positivity doesn't mean anything anymore and also I don't think you have to be it.

RSH: Nice, good. I have a family too that I'm sheltering with and I feel like we've all just figured out how to be more okay with all the things. That's one positive to come out with it. So you mentioned a few things that you do feel confident about in being a stepparent and I need to ask you about these. One of those is making toast in a frying pan. And another is the lost art of ironing. I need to know more. Talk to me about toast in a frying pan and the lost art of ironing.

SI: So no one irons and I understand. We have shifted to athleisure and I get it, I'm here for it. I love an elastic waistband. But no one knows how to iron anymore. And I feel like maybe that's the one domestic thing my mother made sure I learned. I have a fancy iron and an ironing board. I keep offering lessons in how to make a crisp collared shirt really sing. They have not taken me up on it yet, but I am here and ready and available with my deluxe Rowenta iron whenever they are. And toast in a frying pan. I came to this late, but you essentially make a grilled cheese without the cheese. Just butter both sides.

RSH: Wow.

SI: Mm-hmm. And when you think of a grilled cheese, you're like, “Oh, man, it's so good and crisp and crackly.” It's the same thing just with no cheese on it. You just butter both sides and flip it in a shallow frying pan until it gets to your desired level of brownness. I never feel like toaster toast is exactly what I want it to be. And the frying pan always gets me there.

RSH: Yeah. It's the introduction of the butter to the pre-toasting phase. And it's incorporated into the toasting, that's genius.

SI: It's in all the little crannies and nooks. So I have taught the children how to do that. They don't do it, but they know how.

RSH: They are going to look back and appreciate that someday, I promise you.

SI: Yes, they'll be at my funeral like, “Well, she didn't give [us] anything but we do know how to make toast.”

RSH: And there was something about ironing, which to be fair, ironing is really hard. It's really hard.

SI: It is. If you don't have a good iron, if you don't know how to use starch, it's tough.

RSH: Yeah. And I always run into trouble with the multiple layers of fabric and the weird angles anyway. I don't know if anyone else cares as much about this lost art of ironing as I do talking about it with you right now, but just one reader right here.

SI: Even if they don't care, the next time they go to pull a pair of pants out that would look better with a little heat on it, they're going to remember this conversation and they're going to be like, “Man, I should get an iron.” If you have to dress up, which I don't, but like, occasionally someone will get married or someone will die. And I'm like, “Oh, I can't wear this thing I just pulled out of the hamper looking like this. I need to iron it.” And then I'm like, “Oh, I'm glad I know how to do this.”

RSH: Yeah. So pivoting a little bit, although I really do wish we could talk about this for the duration of our interview, you talk a lot about this idea of body positivity—and we're going to get to more of that later—but you talk about the moment when you saw Universal Standard ads for the first time, and you hadn't even realized what you'd been missing all those years. For those who haven't listened to the book yet or might not know about Universal Standard, can you describe what that is and what that feeling was like?

SI: Oh sure. So I'm sure I'm going to get the origin story of the brand a little bit wrong. Now I think they make clothes from size double zero to 40, but when they first came out, it was just plus sizes. Because some places make clothes for fat people, but you only see like a size 10 modeling it and there's a difference between a size 10 and a size 20, or a size 20 and a size 30—things don't look the same. But they were committed to showing every size on the body it was made for.

The first time I ever saw an ad, I think it was for jeans with a woman who's like a size 32 or something, I was like, “Oh, this is shocking.” Especially because it was high quality. We've all seen like—I don't want to defame any places that make kind of muumuus or whatever—but we've seen all of those cheap-looking ads with some woman with her like hands daintily crossed as she's wearing a polyester house gown or whatever. We've seen that.

RSH: Sure, yeah.

SI: But these were slick, beautiful ads on websites where you're like, “Oh, this isn't some weird off-brand site and I just happened to see fat-people clothes.” It was upfront and bold. And it was incredibly empowering... I hate the word “empowering,” but I can't think of a better one. It just was a shocking breath of fresh air. I don't know why it feels revolutionary. Well, I mean, I do know why but I'm not a sociologist, so I can't explain it in a way that makes sense. But it feels revolutionary to see a regular fat body not being denigrated. I mean, there are so many fat people that it should not be shocking to see a fat person wearing clothes.

But because they’re featured in advertisements—when you see a big person, being not even celebrated because I'm not into the whole like, “Oh, it's so courageous of you to put pants on and stand in front of a camera.” So forget the “celebrated” but just being featured as like, “Hey, if this is the size pants you wear, we make them for you, and this is what you will look like when you put them on,”—was shocking. It shouldn't be, but it was shocking in the best way.

RSH: Do you feel like part of that is just the care and production value that goes into a shoot like that? Like, “Here's fashion, here is a beautiful fat body given the attention that a fashion shoot deserves.” Is that any part of it?

SI: Yeah, yes. I mean, again, I don't want to be that person but it's like seeing a Kmart ad versus seeing one where they spent money and they had a good photographer and there was lighting and there was a stylist. It wasn't just like, “Hey, chubby. Put on this shirt. Put on this flowered muumuu and hold still while we take your picture with this Polaroid.” It was styled and there's a theme and they look really beautiful and they take good care. Yeah, that's definitely part of the experience, too. There's a difference between just throwing something on because it's there and it fits, and intentionally getting dressed in this thing that you purchased that makes you feel good, that you're excited to wear. A company like Universal Standard making clothes that you feel special about buying, not like “I just got to put something on to hide this girth,” it feels better. It's nice to get the package and put that on and know that it was made for you and they want you to look good. And it looks like what you thought it was going look like when you saw it online.

RSH: Yeah, yeah. So we have to talk about the pool party episode, so I'm going set that up for our listeners who don't know about it yet. Okay, so Lindy West wrote a book called Shrill. Then it got turned into a TV show. And she asked you to be the one writer she could pick out of a group of writers to write for her TV show. I know I can't get you to just recap the entire chapter for me here, but if I could, I would. But everyone who's listening: go download the book and listen. I love that chapter.

I love this clip from Wow, No Thank You:

"I used to pick up dog shit for a living. I had no reason to believe I would ever sit in a room with people who make decisions about what other people get to watch and be taken seriously when I suggested WHAT IF WE THREW A FAT BABE POOL PARTY THAT WILL COST A MILLION DOLLARS?"

Okay, I want to know how that decision really went down and what it feels like to have written one of the best TV episodes of all time.

SI: Oh my god. Well, first of all, thank you. Just hearing you say that makes me tear up a little. So thank you for saying that. The nuts and bolts, I'll try to make it sound more interesting, but we knew how many episodes we had to work with. And we knew where the character of Annie—who's like the Lindy character—was going to start in the season and where we wanted her to end up. So then as you're putting the arc of the season together, it's like we need to have a moment where... You don't want it to be cheesy. No one wants a montage where at the end of it, you're like “Oh, she really changed, she's had a metamorphosis.”

But we wanted there to be a moment where she went from being kind of a meek person who eats diet food and subsists on almonds to a person who's like, “This is my body, deal with it.” And so we were kind of batting around ideas for what that could look like on screen and you have to think of a way to do it that is entertaining and doesn't take five years or however long it takes for a real person to come to grips with who she is. And so Lindy and I were talking about all of the fat positive spaces that we have access to as young women. And I was talking about clothing swaps and dance, there's like Dance Dance Party Party, which was a thing where you could all get together and dance and just be with women without thinking about your body and who was looking at it.

And I was like, there's the Chunky Dunk, which was like a precursor to the Fat Babe Pool Party. And then we were talking about what ideas would look best and we were most excited to write. And I really was like, “Let's do a pool party. We can pay homage to Essie Golden [who] had a pool party, we can pay homage to these people who have done it before. Also, we can put a bunch of half-naked fat bodies on TV, which there aren't many opportunities to do. And we can have it be beautiful... because we've all seen the trope where the fat girl has something embarrassing happen to her and she looks sad and then the cool guy says, ‘It's okay, you're okay.’ And she's like, ‘Okay, I believe in myself.’ Like we've seen that.”

And so with the pool party, the more we talked about it, the more it seemed like, yes, that was a way to accomplish a bunch of things at once. To have her have this revelation that there are people who look like her and who don't look like her, who are living out and proud or whatever cliched way you want to say it. But also it was a chance for us to make a really beautiful looking thing. My dream always is to have a brightly colored fantasy land on screen. So the more we talked about it, the more we were like, “Yeah, let's do it.” And at that point, we didn't know who was going to write what episode until we mapped out the season and we knew that that was going to happen in episode four. And then the assignments got handed out and they gave me the pool party and I didn't lobby for it, I was ready to write whichever one they gave me, but when they gave me that one, I was like, “Okay, this is it.”

I think maybe you have to hear me speak to get the full picture because I do sound tough on the page. And then you talk to me and you're like, "Oh, am I talking to a sentient tuna casserole? Okay, got it."

RSH: Yes.

SI: “I am not going to blow it. I'm going to do my best work and it's going to be amazing.” I don't know that I thought it was going to be amazing, but I wanted it to be amazing.

RSH: And what does it feel like now that that's out in the world and you can look at it and just know that you're a big part of the reason why it's here?

SI: I mean, so Lindy and I are very close friends. And we share a television agent, which was like a happy accident, you know? I have watched this process from the very beginning, right. I've seen all the steps and heard about all the meetings and who wants it and who doesn't want it. So I've seen the whole thing. And for me, I mostly look at it as like a victory for her. I wanted to do a good job because... Not that I would ever not do a good job for someone else but it felt especially important for me to do a good job because it was for her.

And so I look at that first season and I'm like, “We made such a great thing.” Because it's a nightmare... I mean, as two people who write about ourselves, the biggest nightmare is having no control and opening up your material to other people's interpretations. That's terrifying. And I felt the trust that she had that I could write it and do a good job at it. I felt like I really needed to live up to that. And I wanted to make something that wasn't going to embarrass her. Because that truly is the worst nightmare: you do this beautiful job writing your story and it means so much to people and then some idiot comes along and messes it all up. I didn't want that to be me.

So now I am just so proud that it does service to her book. And TV is so collaborative, it's hard to feel like it's mine. It's mine but it's also a lot of other people's too. So I don't think a lot about how much... I don't think like, “Oh, you did such a good job. You wrote that episode, you're great.” I am glad that it came out well and I feel like we all made a thing that was good and I'm proud that it turned out just as beautifully as it did. Even when I went to set to watch them film it that week, and just walking into that country club and seeing it come to life. Because it's one thing to write, “Okay, I want the pool to be very cute and I want there to be little snacks and just make it cute.” It's one thing to write that and it's another thing to walk in and see that realized.

And I was like, “Oh, everyone here gets it, all these people are amazing.” There's so many people involved, it is incredible. So I feel like we all did a good job. But trust me, on my Hollywood resume, I'm like “I did a great job. Please hire me.”

RSH: Good, good for you, as it should be. So, Sam, in Wow, No Thank You, you have a chapter that is fascinating to me. It's called “Body negativity.” I want to know what your inspiration was for writing that chapter.

SI: Well, I have sort of a problem with the idea that you must be body positive. First of all, what does that even mean anymore? It's been so diluted and so warped, like the phrase “body positivity” doesn't have really any meaning. I also really resent that as a person with a sick, broken body that I have to publicly declare my love for it all the time. I would like to reserve the right to hate my cracking knees or my eyes that just had to get progressive glasses. The idea of body positivity doesn't mean anything anymore and also I don't think you have to be it. So then I was thinking, because I always... I want to write about things that are happening but not always in... I don't want to sit down and write an analysis of the body positivity movement, because who cares and also I'm never doing research.

But I was thinking about how difficult it is because this is my constant struggle: how difficult it is to do all of the things that, if you read magazines and you listen to your doctor and you watch the news, you are supposed to do to have a body, right? From your scalp to your toes, it is a daunting list of activities. And that's before you even think about what you put in your body. So I just wanted to write a thing that's like, “Whatever you're doing is okay.” Because for you to do all of the things that you're supposed to do, you don't have time. Even if you have literally nothing else to do, you don't have time to take extremely good care of your scalp and your eyebrows, your nose, your ears, your teeth, your tongue, and your throat. I mean, all the way down to your toes, you do not have time for the kind of maintenance that is required, while also being able to shovel in all of the beans and vitamins and supplements and nutrients that you're supposed to get.

I wanted to poke fun at all the stuff we're supposed to do while reassuring people. Because ultimately my goal is always just to tell people like, “You're fine, it's fine, whatever you're doing is fine. Life is hard, stop putting pressure on yourself.” So I was like, “If I could kind of take each body part and talk about what it's supposed to be and what we're supposed to do to maintain it, you would think it was ridiculous.” So I mostly just wanted to pull the body apart and reassure everyone that whatever you get done on your body on any given day, or to your body, or in your body is fine. And then the next day, maybe you can do a different thing. The day after that maybe you can do a different thing, but it feels impossible to do all of it and it's okay if you don't.

RSH: There is a phrase in the book that I love: "being okay with just being okay." To me that is like the heart and soul of your entire body of work and I love it.

SI: Thank you.

RSH: We should all strive to be okay with just being okay.

SI: Life is so hard, if you could just look around and be like, “You know what, I'm fine with warts and all,” right? And I mean, both warts, physical and on your bank account, and on your house, like whatever it is, if you're just like, “I'm doing what I can with what I have.” I don't know that anybody's ever going to be happy, but life feels sustainable if you take that approach. I mean, I'm still struggling to get there. I'm always just like, “Girl, just, it's fine. You did that thing, you don't have to do all 20 things. That's fine.”

RSH: It's okay.

SI: Yeah, yeah.

RSH: So Sam, we have something else I really want to talk to you about. I'm getting to the end but I really want to dig into this because I was talking to a colleague and she told me that she was surprised when she heard your speaking voice, because you are known for having such an acerbic wit, and she said you sounded nicer than she expected. And I'm wondering—I mean, I have a hunch which we'll get into, but I'm wondering if you have gotten that before and what you think that might be about?

SI: Well, first of all, here's the thing: I am so nice and the wit, the lacerating tongue, is just a shield because deep down I'm like a squishy marshmallow who would never hurt anyone and who would flee from conflict. I do get that sometimes. I think people forget that Chicago is in the Midwest and I am deeply Midwestern.

RSH: Yes.

SI: And I have a nasal Midwestern twang, which I think is surprising. I think people do forget and then they talk to me and they're like, “Oh, oh, not only are you from the Midwest but you are from the suburbs in the Midwest, got it. It really resonates now.” I think maybe you have to hear me speak to get the full picture because I do sound tough on the page. And then you talk to me and you're like, "Oh, am I talking to a sentient tuna casserole? Okay, got it."

RSH: I am an Iowan. I was born and raised in Iowa. And people see me and they're like, "Oh, you look so nice and corn-fed." And I live in New York City now. And I find that being Midwestern—people don't realize that's what it is. They're just like, “You're so nice.” So I was really wondering if you were going to take it there because that's kind of where I thought it came from.

SI: Yes. I know how to be passive-aggressive but I do not know how to be straight up mean.

RSH: Exactly. Okay, so from one Midwesterner to another, I want to know how stereotypes about Midwesterners have been used to your advantage or disadvantage. Do you have any thoughts on that?

SI: Yes. Well, although I can't prove this, sometimes when you talk to people from New York, especially like in these business circumstances or, in LA too, like when you're doing Hollywood stuff, people really do act like we don't have schools or kombucha in the Midwest. It's like, “Listen I didn't ride a tractor here, you can talk to me like a normal person. Yeah, we have public transportation. Yes, yes I've been in a car.” See this is the problem with the many margins in which I occupy. I'm going to consider being Midwestern a margin just for this. When somebody is being condescending to me I don't know exactly what it is. It's like, “Do you think I'm a rube or do you just hate fat people or what?” But I think with my Midwestern niceness, despite what I write, people don't seem to be afraid to approach me. And I think that's because they know that deep down I'm just a hash brown with cheese on it and they know that my Midwestern niceness and goodness makes me a person they want to talk to. I'm going to say it's the Midwest in me.

RSH: I like that.

SI: Yeah, people know. They're like, “Hmm, yeah, you eat butter.”

RSH: There's this approachable-ness that I think you learn to use to your advantage.

SI: Yeah, yeah.

RSH: So I want to wrap up by asking you a question about how the book sounds. We've been talking about that a little bit with the Midwestern thing and with Midwestern voices. One other thing that my colleague mentioned to me is, “When you listen to it, do you hear the Midwestern?” I really had to think about it. To me it sounds like a person. But some people might hear that Midwestern in there. But I think about how you got your start by being very funny on the page. And I'm wondering if you've learned any new tricks from writing for the screen and by narrating your books out loud.

SI: Well, I got a little practice though. Chicago has what we call... I guess in general you could call it the “storytelling community” although people in Chicago call it “live lit.” And I spent a lot of time in the back of bars and clubs reading my seven-minute-long essays to people. I've definitely learned how to read for a crowd. I don't know that writing for the screen has changed anything. But I will say I am my own worst enemy, in that every time—and this time included—I go into the booth to record an audio book, the first thing I think is, “Oh I wish that I didn't use so many commas and write so many run-on sentences for comedic effect.” Because once I get into the booth to record them I can't breathe. And the jokes, every time I get to the booth I go, “Okay, next book you're going to read this aloud during the editing time and then you're going to not shoot yourself in the foot again.” But every time I get in there the director is like, "You're running out of breath. Sam, you're running out of breath. We've got to do that again. You ran out of breath." So despite having read my work aloud before, I need to get better at writing so that the audiobook sounds good and that I can time the jokes correctly on the first try.

RSH: Well, it sounds like the only real obstacle is the breath. Once you get that down you'll be fine.

SI: It's because the sentences are just too long. And Kim, my long-suffering editor, is so nice but she is always like, “Damn, use periods.” I'm like, “Okay, next time, next time. I'll stop writing endless lists and I'll use periods, I promise.”

RSH: But one thing that you keep coming back to in all of your work and in this book is that old habits die hard and sometimes it's just nicer to come from a comfortable place and that's okay.

SI: Yeah, that's totally true. And when we talk about this in a couple years after the next book, I'll be saying the same thing. I wish that I had learned to use a period to save myself many embarrassing audiobook takes. They should put out the bloopers of my audiobook because I'm sure—

RSH: Listen, I love a good audiobook blooper reel and I will plus one on that suggestion.

SI: Okay, I'll call him. I'll tell him put it out there.

RSH: Listeners, thank you so much for joining us for this interview with Samantha Irby. Her new hilarious book of essays is out now. It's called, Wow, No Thank You, and you can find it on Audible.com.

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