Aaron: Let's get straight to it: A/S/L?
Harrison: (laugh) 28. M. Brooklyn.
A: Where did you grow up and attend college?
H: Well, I grew up in Celina, Tennessee. It is a small town. I was in the first graduating class of Clay County High School in 2004. Just so you have an idea of how big a school it is, we had a big class of 77.
A: Very large.
H: Oh yeah, it's humongous. So after graduating I moved to Knoxville with three classmates, to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in the fall of 2004, where I would eventually graduate in 2009.
A: Awesome. So, what drew you to playwriting?
H: I enjoyed writing in various ways growing up, but I never really knew how to use it. I tried doing little children’s novels as an 8-year-old. Didn’t work out too well. I wrote a little bit of poetry in high school.
A: What kind of poetry?
H: What? I like the sonnet format.
A: Were they addressed to anyone?
H: They weren’t, “To you, from me,” kind of things, but you know, I’d have someone in mind when I wrote my sonnets. It didn’t work too well, but maybe you have a line or two that works and go from there.
As far as getting into playwriting, it was in college whenever I took a playwriting class with Kali Meister. I got to write a little bit of sketch stuff before 2008 but as far as just focusing on, “This is how you write a beginning, a middle, and an end, strong introductions,” any number of things like that, it was that one month workshop that did it. It was non-credit by the way but it did as much for my career as most classes at UT (University of Tennessee).
A: That’s pretty damn interesting.
The work you are known for so far is comedic writing. What are some of the influences that made you want to take that route?
H: Comedy is a wonderful filter for life. I think I come from a funny family. I think of my dad growing up. He had one of the first jokes I can remember: “My son is pretty good when he’s asleep. He just can’t sleep enough.”
A and H: (share a laugh)
H: I enjoyed that joke so much that I would finish the joke for him even with it going against me. I just loved the idea of humor enlightening one’s life. My brother is probably the funniest person in the family. He’s in the Navy, so you can guess what kind of jokes those are. My mother has a wonderful sense of wordplay too.
Also, I enjoyed comedy stand up as an art form. I think the first album I listened to was Jeff Foxworthy’s You Might Be a Redneck If… album.
A: The classic, of course.
H: Later on, my friend introduced me to bootleg copies of the audio files—not the video—of some Comedy Central Presents episodes. That way we could listen to them in the car.
A: Oh, this is before YouTube took over.
H: Yeah, this is before iPods. Before you could purchase the entire discography and listen to it a few minutes later. Like, “Oh look! Someone has Windows 98! Wow! Oh man, and a burnable disc drive! I just hope I have enough batteries to enjoy this thing.” So I would listen to Jim Gaffigan, Dave Attell, Pablo Francisco, whoever else we could get a copy of. It was a blast to enjoy that with friends.
So basically, I’ve always had a comedic filter and have enjoyed exploring that through whatever means.
A: It definitely shows.
The two plays that you have had produced so far are about niche topics: cocaine and video games. Are you aware of any other stage productions that have centered around either one?
H: For video games, yes. When I moved to Brooklyn, I learned about the Video Game Festival at the Brick Theater. That really caught me off guard, because in Knoxville everyone said (about Online Fighting), “This is so original.” A really nice woman said, “This is the most creative play the Tennessee Stage Company has ever done.” That was very nice. But a year a half later, I move to Brooklyn and there’s an entire festival dedicated to plays about video games. And here I am thinking I’m some big guy because I had one. It was a nice way to bring me back down to earth.
As far as cocaine goes, there’s a play called This Is Our Youth by Kenneth Lonergan, one of my favorite playwrights. The play deals similarly with coming across somebody else’s cocaine that they were planning to sell. It’s been done before, but I hope to one day join their ranks because I admire the work that’s come before my own.
A: That’s totally new to me. I did not know about This Is Our Youth.
H: It’s real life, man.
A: Indeed it is. Although that is stranger than fiction.
So moving on to your first play, Online Fighting. Would you mind giving a quick blurb on what the show is all about?
H: Sure. It’s about two old friends who rekindle a feud. The play begins when a system glitch unblocks gamertags for their online console accounts, and they are forced to talk to each other. We later learn that one of them won a national video game tournament and took the loser’s girlfriend, which led to the bad blood between them.
A: That will definitely make you salty. You already got your ass whooped, and then he takes you girl too. It certainly ups the stakes a bit.
H: There is salt all over this play.
A: Maybe you should ask for a sponsorship from Morton.
H: I think we can arrange something. Salt Presents Online Fighting by Harrison Young.
A: The characters from Online Fighting, are they based on anyone you know in real life?
H: Not particularly, is going to be my answer.
There is a mom character in the play. She’s not my mom, but there are similarities and correlations because I have a mom. The mom in the play has alcoholic tendencies, but I don’t think of my mom that way. She’s seen the show and I’ve reassured her that I don’t think she’s like that.
A: That’s one of the many tensions between an artist and the art itself.
Who would you say will have the most fun watching Online Fighting?
H: Video gamers, but I feel fortunate that audiences of all kinds have enjoyed it so far. Video gamers will get the Easter eggs, like when someone says, “Objection!” or the Konami code. That’s not so important for mothers who didn’t really play games. I think the reason they enjoy it is because they hadn’t been exposed to the world of video games and the excitement that comes from it. They’re getting to see something in a different way that friends and family enjoy. Seeing it in a more linear fashion through theatre could make it easier to understand. I think everyone gets something a little different from it.
A: That makes sense.
Your second show, A Cocaine Comedy, covers the worst case scenario for someone trying cocaine for the first time. How did you come up with the idea?
H: I was offered cocaine for the first time at some point in college. I declined because I heard all my life, “Just say no,” "Crack is whack," and all of that stuff you are supposed to say. Even though I said “no” and felt good about that decision, I still wondered what it was like, who would find out about my use, stuff like that. I finally reached the question, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Instead of finding out by trying it, I decided to write a play about peer pressure which goes back to the comedy filter.
Fear is a very real emotion. Comedy sometimes benefits from that, like laughing while nervous. A Cocaine Comedy plays off that. When Richard fails to stand up to the peer pressure and tries cocaine, two police officers kick in the door and arrest him. That is the first scene of the play.
H: Oh yeah, spoilers.
A: Well, the first scene is also the last scene of the first act. It’s a pretty neat way of doing things.
H: I think of Breaking Bad’s pilot episode in particular with the way that intro begins. I won’t spoil the first episode of Breaking Bad. But it’s fun as a viewer to see something the second time around that you didn’t notice before.
A: Yeah, let’s not do that for the two people in America who haven’t seen it yet.
A Cocaine Comedy received positive audience feedback during a table reading at the PIT Theatre in Manhattan on December 23, 2013. How do you think it will be received in Tennessee, a place with a more conservative attitude towards drug use?
H: The Tennessee Stage Company is having three readings of the play for their new play festival. The first reading was well received. I got a Facebook post—which we know is as good as a New York Times review—from an elderly lady saying very kind things, so I feel much better than I did before. But the concern is always there because the title is strong. Most people who are going to be offended by this won’t come. And the ones they do and are willing to leave in the middle of a show probably will probably do so after the first six pages.
A: Are you referring to the testicle stomping?
H: Yeah, absolutely. Tank Gates, the governor of Texas, stomps on them in the name of self defense for America. I hope this part of the interview is safe for work.
A: Unless you work for the Miami Dolphins, probably not.
Last question, and then I’m going to let you go. Officer Mondragon is a police officer in the play who takes on the role of bad cop/hype man. Please explain what that means.
H: There’s a good cop, bad cop team in the show. Officer Mondragon is a bad cop. Early on, we learn that their police techniques have not been working. Tank is framing people to give the impression that his task force is cracking down on crime, but needs the police duo to to find real results because an election is coming up. That plants the seed. The police have to try something new. The two cops decide that bad cop/hype man is the way to go.
Mondragon intimidates suspects with various hip hop references. I believe there are over 40 references in the process of doing his job. For example, a suspect might ask if Mondragon is going to hurt him. Mondragon would respond with, "My mind’s telling me, 'No,' but my body is telling me, 'Yes!'"
A: It's so unfortunate that readers can’t hear the enthusiasm you have for that R. Kelly reference.
H: You could use all caps.
A: The editors will shoot down all caps, but we’ll find a way to make it clear.
H: But yeah, it’s just a lot of fun references to relatively popular lines in rap. Not just throwing them in like Family Guy, but using them to tell a better overall story.
A: I definitely think that after reading this, people will be excited to see more from you. We will see how things go.
A recording of a stage reading for Online Fighting can be found at the end of the post for this interview, which I recommend everyone take some time to watch. We will be closing for now. Thanks to Fanboys Anonymous for the opportunity to do this, and to you for making time.
H: My pleasure.
What a guy, huh? I had a lot of fun doing the interview, and I hope you all had as much fun reading it. Please take a moment to share your thoughts with Fanboys Anonymous in the comments section, and take a look at the stage reading of Online Fighting below. Thanks for reading.