“I think the universe is trying to tell me something. Or it could be my friend Bethany, it’s hard to tell because I’m hiding in a barrel.”
Welcome to the weird, wonderful world of Ted Travelstead. Travelstead brings a refreshing dose of oddity to his popular Twitter and Vine accounts. He also writes for the FX show Wilfred, authored The Patreus Files and played the role of Mordechai in Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice. Between important meetings and radical creative bursts, Ted found time to talk to us about writing, social media and Grandpa Jimmy.
Isaac Kozell: Where are you living now?
Ted Travelstead: I’m living in Los Angeles. I moved here in November to write for the fourth and final season of Wilfred. My wife and I – and our dog – had been bouncing around to different sublets until June, when we moved into a nice little house in a neighborhood called Elysian Valley, more commonly referred to as “Frogtown.” It’s nestled between the 5 freeway and the LA River. Kind of reminds me of my old neighborhood in Brooklyn – Red Hook – because of the mix of industrial buildings, family dwellings and artist studios and galleries. I like it here.
IK: Do you like LA better than New York?
TT: Yes. I spent close to 20 years in New York. I feel like we both got everything we could out of each other. New York is for the young and the rich. I’m neither. When you’re young you thrive on the energy there. As you get older that same energy begins to thrive on you. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for New York City. It’s the longest I’ve ever lived in one place – I moved around a lot growing up – so I consider it home in many ways. But my time there is done for now. I’m not saying I’ll never go back. I mean, if the right opportunity presents itself sure, I’d consider it. But I do not miss it at the moment.
IK: Let’s talk about Wilfred. How did the opportunity come up?
TT: I was introduced to my agent late last summer. He encouraged me to write an original spec script, which I did. I was very lucky in that the folks at Wilfred were the first people outside of my agent and wife to read it and they liked it. I got a Skype interview with them based off of it and I think my vision of where I saw the final season going aligned with theirs in many ways. So they hired me and a week later I was in LA.
IK: Wow, that’s fast. Did you have any reservations about relocating for a show that was in its last season?
TT: Well, I knew it was a gamble but my wife and I felt like we were ready to leave New York, so that helped with the decision a bit. I guess the biggest motivation was being able to write for television. It’s something I’d been wanting to do and finally I was being given a chance. I felt like to pass that up would be a regrettable decision.
IK: Agreed. You’ve become pretty well known from Twitter and Vine. What draws you to short-form creative tools like those?
TT: Part of it is the difficulty I have with focusing for more than five minutes at a time and part of it is the beauty and simplicity of short, encapsulated nuggets of comedy that can stand on their own and get a laugh. Twitter and Vine are like opening a small window on a character, situation, etc. and letting someone take a peek inside for just a moment. I like trying to find a freedom within their limitations and hopefully creating something entertaining.
IK: Do you have a process for creating and refining these short comedic pieces, or do you just create on the fly when inspiration strikes?
TT: Mostly it’s when inspiration strikes. For Twitter and Vine especially I try not to spend more than a few minutes crafting one. If I’m writing short fiction on my own it’s a bit different but for something as disposable as Twitter and Vine I think it’s a waste of energy to bang your head against the wall trying to come up with something funny. Sometimes I’ll spend a few minutes playing with the wording of a tweet, editing it for length, or fitting the words together in a way that sounds pleasing to me. But if I’m sitting there for more than 10 minutes trying to make something work, it’s usually a lost cause. With Vine I rarely do more than one take and if you watch my Vines that’s pretty evident. They’re not known for their technical wizardry. Whether I’m going for something in the realm of three-panel comic strip with the Twins characters, or just doing some other goofy scenario, I usually try to create when the inspiration strikes and only do a second take if I can’t fit in everything I want on the first one.
IK: Trying to describe your style of humor is challenging for me. You take wonderfully unusual turns and so many of the characters and objects you use exist a few steps outside the borders of everyday life. Where do you draw from?
TT: I love surprises in comedy. Please don’t hide in my azaleas, or send a singing clown to ambush me at a bar. My mind has always been drawn to the absurd and anytime something takes an unexpected turn toward the absurd in a joke or a sketch or a film I usually find it delightful. From a very early age I found that I possessed an uncanny knack for accessing a part of my brain that held on to random information and was able to spit it out in no particular order to form something resembling a story. Like right now for instance, right off the top of my head:
Grandpa Jimmy went to David’s for a piece of cranberry loaf and found that the anthill now encompassed every last inch of the yard.
I don’t know what that is, or where it came from, or of what use it is really, to the world but that seems to be something I have a knack for. Spitting out word Polaroids from the camera of my mind. Cheap disposable stories that fade quickly in the sunlight.
Growing up I loved Steve Martin, Bugs Bunny, Airplane, anything that had a sense of the absurd and first and foremost, was silly. I love being silly. I think it’s severely underrated in our society. You can be silly and still be smart but I think some folks forget that. Also, you can be funny without being mean. That’s another thing that drives me crazy. The idea that you have to be mean to get a laugh. Ugh. So lazy and so depressing. Just be kind for Pete’s sake. Is it really that hard? I guess being kind means being vulnerable and that’s just impossible for some people, which is a bummer. Anyway, look at me, I’ve gotten off track. Sorry.
I draw from everything around me but also everywhere I’ve been. I’ve done all sorts of things in my life so far. I moved around a lot as a kid. Every couple years I was at a new school. I’ve worked a lot of different jobs to pay the rent, I’ve been in bands, I’ve done sketch comedy, stand-up, written books, moved back and forth from NYC to LA twice. I’ve had a health crisis – I was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2011. All these things have helped shape me and influenced what I draw on when I create. I feel lucky that I’ve experienced a lot of different places and a lot of different people. It certainly gives me a lot to think about when creating.
IK: Can we discuss that anthill for a minute? Because I have a vicious ant problem. Like, carry-your-picnic-away-while-you’re-not-looking vicious. What did Grandpa Jimmy and David do?
TT: They laid down a tarp and riddled it with cranberry loaf. When the ants made a dash for the sweet loaf they gathered up the tarp – which now contained the ants – and trucked it on down the to edge of a bog. The ants could do what they want down there, maybe start a new life. Grandpa Jimmy didn’t give a care but he knew his friend David was very sensitive – not the killing type – and since it was his yard he respected David’s wishes. David was a little disappointed about losing his favorite tarp – he’d had it since graduation – but in the end, it fixed the problem, so the trade-off was fair.
This is not a traditional way to take care of an ant problem though. Here’s what you should do: Spray ’em with Windex – kills them, sorry, but once they’ve made trails they’re just too tiny to shoo away – and then once that first batch is gone, spray a mixture of water and mint oil to ward them off. They do not like mint. This took care of our ant problem in Brooklyn.
IK: Sorry for the long pause. I was just thinking about nice tarps. Anyway, brain tumor?! Are you ok now?
TT: I’m okay! I have something called a vestibular schwannoma. It’s tumor on the nerve sheath that leads from my ear to my brain. It’s benign – thank goodness – and I’ve been monitoring its growth since it was discovered. The process for extracting it from my head is very involved so I’m really trying to avoid that if necessary. It affects the hearing in my left ear and sometimes I get some vertigo but overall so far – knock on wood – I’ve been very lucky. When first diagnosed it caused me a lot of anxiety but I’ve learned to live with it, try to be vigilant and know that when and if I have to deal with it, I will. I really try not to dwell on it too much. I don’t want to give it all the credit but I think it helped me get out and start doing stand-up more, because when I found out about it I had more anxiety than perhaps anytime in my life – except for my whole junior year in high school where I was secretly afraid I was going crazy and couldn’t stop thinking about going crazy and was therefore making myself crazy, ah youth! – and so I made the decision that I wouldn’t say no to any shows anyone asked me to do for a year and I just went out and did a lot of shows and it really gave me a place to focus my anxiety, you know? If I knew I was doing two shows in a week, I would get really nervous about performing and channel all that extra anxiety from the brain tumor into performance anxiety and it was a great outlet. And in the process I met a lot of great people and got to do some very fun shows. So, um, thanks brain tumor…I guess?
IK: Whew. I had a similar anxiety thing in 7th grade. I was convinced that somebody was living in our house, sneaking around when we were asleep or away. No one would believe me so I started setting booby traps all over the place, most of which were set off by my unsuspecting parents. Ah, mental problems!
TT: Wow! That’s brutal. I bet you came up with some cool traps though.
IK: What are some other interesting projects you’re working on right now or in the near future?
TT: Right now I’m working on a bunch of different stuff. Screenplays, TV pitches, animated shorts, directing a music video, just throwing a bunch of stuff out there. I’m learning a new way to work since I quit my day job and came to LA. It’s like tending a garden. You plant a bunch of seeds and do your best to tend to them. Shifting your watering priorities depending on what you see starting to sprout. The frustrating thing is that no garden grows overnight. And that’s tough when you’re trying to pay the rent. It’s been an interesting perspective change but I’m trying to keep a positive spin on everything.
IK: In five words or less, how does it feel to be a full-time artiste?
TT: Starfish in a tide pool.
Follow Ted on Twitter @Trumpetcake (Godlin does. )