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The Da Vinci Cod

Chris Elliot gets a life as, of all things, a novelist

By Bill Forman

Chris Elliot wants you to know that The Shroud of the Thwacker is not one of those cheesy Da Vinci Code rip-offs currently competing for bookshelf space. "I don't want people to think it's The Da Vinci Cod or something like that," says the David Letterman protégé who went on to star in his own film (Cabin Boy) and TV series (Get a Life). Instead, Elliot cites The Alienist, Time and Again and "any book, really, on Jack the Ripper" as the inspirations for a first novel that he contends is more homage than parody.

In Thwacker, Elliot sets forth the tale of 19th-century police chief Caleb Spencer, flatulent New York City Mayor Teddy Roosevelt (don't ask) and seductive Evening Post reporter Liz Smith as they track down Jack the Jolly Thwacker, a jaunty homicidal maniac who gives his victims extensive cosmetic make-overs. The book also chronicles Elliot's own historical detective work, with an assist from Yoko Ono (I said don't ask). The resulting mélange is both hysterical and surprisingly engaging. Metro Santa Cruz caught up with Elliot on the road last week to discuss a story whose denouement, he promises, is "so controversial that it will rock the very foundations of religion, politics and New York City real estate."

METRO SANTA CRUZ: You obviously did an incredible amount of research for this book.
CHRIS ELLIOT: Yeah, I watch the History Channel a lot.

But there's probably going to be people nitpicking.
Yeah, well, you got your David McCulloughs ... [Elliot's voice trails off as he attempts various pronunciations of McCullough]

Right. Well, your Teddy Roosevelt stuff is obviously very meticulous, but I did feel like you were pushing thing a bit with the 'yeast rings [the term Elliot uses for confections enjoyed by 19th-century cops]; did you make that up?
Those were originally "yeast balls" in my first draft. I think that may have been the only thing that [publisher] Miramax added to the book: "Could we make it yeast rings instead of yeast balls?" That actually was an editorial note. And I went, "Oh yeah, absolutely."

So how long did 'Shroud of the Thwacker' actually take to write?
It took six months, but I thought I could actually pound it out in three.

What slowed you down there?
At the first couple of readings I went to, I said, well, it took me six months, thinking that it's a long time to work on a book. But apparently it's not. I guess people spend years.

Did that six months include your, uh, research?
You know [sounding a bit defensive now], I did actually do a little research on this.

Tell me what that might have involved?
Well, I looked up stuff ...

You 'looked up stuff'--what does that mean?
All right, well, I wanted some things to have some basis in reality. Not just for the backbone of the book, but also just for people that did know something about that time period, that they could actually look and go, "Oh, I see, he's making fun of. ..." You know, there was a Kit Burns sportsman's club, you know, where people would squash rats. And there's a sequence in the book where the characters go out to Coney Island; the baby incubator building was an attraction in Dreamland. There was enough weird shit that went on back in the 1800s in New York City that I didn't have to make up everything.

And there was a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest ...
People don't believe that part. But yeah, there was. It was given to the North by the South.

You might want to describe that for those who haven't read the book.
Well, where the Statue of Liberty is standing today, there was originally a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. And it was kind of a conciliatory gesture, a peace offering from the South at the end of the civil war. It was a statue, and actually kids used to run up to the hood at the top and look out at the windows. And there was an inscription at the bottom that said "Bring us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, from no further south than Spain and no further east than Russia, unless they're good with railroads."

Your father [Bob Elliot of Radio Hall of Fame–inducted comedy duo Bob and Ray] also has a very dry sense of humor, and can say pretty much anything with a straight face. Did that mess you up as kid, him putting stuff in your brain?
I don't think I know exactly all the things that he put in my brain yet. ... I think my dad and I actually have similar senses of humor, even though on the surface it may look very different.

You're much more obviously animated, but there's that shared drollness. When your own kids were little, were you tempted to make up stuff just to see what they'd believe?
You're asking if I ever just put them on? I do that all the time around the house. They're used to that. And yeah, I'm sure that has an effect on their lives [lowers voice guiltily] that may or may not be good. When I was in my 20s, and I had just had my first daughter, I can remember getting very strange looks wheeling her down the street in New York City, because people who just knew me from the Letterman show did not think I should be having a kid. That guy should not be pushing a stroller. You know, there's something wrong here.

Because of your masculinity, no doubt.
Absolutely.

Speaking of which, you were the inspiration for [hip-hop group] Handsome Boy Modeling School.
I know, and I've met Prince Paul and Dan the Automator. Actually, Adam Resnick [Elliot's former writing partner] and I and they all met, and we talked about maybe doing "Zoo Animals on Wheels" as some sort of live musical. They're really cool guys.

Are you and Adam working together still?
We try not to actually.

I can't imagine why.
It's not really to our benefit to do that. But we're the best of friends. And we talk all the time. I'm a novelist now and he's doing screenplays, so we're in different worlds.

Is it true you pitched your TV show originally with your Marlon Brando character?
I think one of the ideas was Brando giving up show business and hiding in middle America, you know, working as a maid in somebody's house. Once we got the reaction to that one, I realized we had to come up with a serious idea that could actually get on the air. I think the next idea was Get a Life. It was a strange process to sell that show to Fox, because I had to essentially sell them a show about an adult who had the mind of child and wasn't sure what he wanted to do yet in his life. But that warmhearted show was not what they actually got. There was a little bait and switch there.

So what's next for you?
Miramax wants another book. So I'm actually working on a book about my experience climbing up Mt. Everest, which I've never done and would never do.

Have you done much research for that? You've probably read that guy's book?
John Krakauer's book?

That guy, yeah.
I, uh, scanned it.

Any good?
Eh. It's all right. I may try to work in that bonehead who cut his arm off when he was climbing.


At presstime, Chris Elliot's reading next week at the Capitola Book Café was postponed and is being rescheduled for December. For updated info, go to www.capitolabookcafe.com.

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From the October 19-26, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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