If the equation of comedy is tragedy plus time, then the current happy life of Cracked columnist John Cheese (née Mack Leighty) is the example of when the clock finally catches up with the laughs. His father was a smoldering drunk who thought the best way to teach his sons "the birds and the bees" was to show a young Mack and his brother a pornographic tape.
As if that wasn't enough, a deluge of childhood traumas left Leighty without proper role models or a successful way to earn a living, figuratively leaving him in a sea of Budweiser without a paddle; Leighty would spend over two decades grinding gears with his own alcoholism, abject poverty, and mental illness.
Discussing John Cheese's rough childhood and financial depravity can be a conversation heavier than the Acme anvils Wile E. Coyote attempted to drop on the Road Runner, which is why Cheese always sees humor as a safe zone. For as long as Cheese can remember, comedy was just as much about escaping from his dark corners as it was about lightening them.
"When I was a kid, things were bad. A lot worse than I even let on in my articles," he says. "Comedy was a shield from that. I learned at a very early age that when my dad was about to go on a rampage, if I made him laugh, he kind of left me alone."
When I ask Cheese questions for our vis-à-vis interview over Skype, the humorist from Illinois grins from ear to ear. The inside of his room displays a modest layout of filing cabinets, a jet-black TV stand, and an oak table supporting a small plant. As soon as he speaks, a trail of sunlight seeps in from his window, onto the growing greenery and thin beige carpet. Should you be looking for it, there's a metaphor for Cheese's reclaimed life within his dwellings.
Earning a freelancing position at Cracked a few years ago after quitting a job requiring physical labor -- a chronically sore back left him unable to lift heavy boxes -- Cheese has worked his way up to signing an exclusivity contract, meaning that as of last April, he's legally forbidden to write articles for competing sites. The perks, though, is that now he earns a healthy buck as a full-time writer, editor, and layout designer. He is also deep into the Cracked discussion board, which allows him to unlock new portals into the site's eccentric universe. His "Brilliant Pieces of Comedy Hidden on YouTube" series was birthed after a late-night browse into the forums.
"I've got a place that I mine right now, which is on the Cracked forums. We've got a section called 'The Mirth Canal.' In that section, I had started a thread called 'I Can't Believe _____ Made Me Laugh.' It contained these goofy little videos that I couldn't believe I was laughing at. Every once in a while I find a video that makes me laugh so hard, I have to write it in a notepad, and I'll write about it in an article."
Cheese's articles also often fall into the "advice" category, though they tend to avoid cliché aphorisms in favor of offering real-world experience. Within a single paragraph, Cheese can hammer in a serious piece of advice and an amusing quip without lessening the impact of either one. The aorta of the articles is the balance between the two; a prime example would be the following excerpt from his January 9 piece, "5 Things That Have to Happen Before You Fix Your Crappy Life":
"If get-rich-quick schemes worked, if breaking up or fixing a relationship was easy, if ending addiction just required willpower and a decision to quit, nobody would have problems ever again. We'd all be rich and grinding genitals with virtual deities. It's insanely hard, and it takes time."
Cheese's words express a true-to-life urgency that suggests if his articles weren't written with ink, they'd be written with blood. He can rattle off rage-fueled rants akin to comedian Sam Kinison with the picturesque detail of Confederacy of Dunces author John Kennedy Toole. When you browse through the Cracked archives for a while, there's a good chance you'll be able to identify one of his articles just by reading the headline. He doesn't mind having a recognizable output, but is determined to depict a cornucopia of topics.
"The biggest part of being a writer is to not say stuff just to say it," he says. "So I try to throw in pure comedy pieces to break up the more serious ones. My favorite things to write are surreal comedy pieces. I did an article about a fake Valentine's Day date that was just absolutely surreal. My biggest thing is that I like writing these 'life' type pieces, but I never want to force it because I think readers are going to see right through it. I don't want people to read an article title on Cracked and be like, 'Oh Christ, it's him again.'"
Among Cheese's most popular pieces are the ones where his life lessons are inflicted with personal candor. In particular "5 Things Nobody Tells You About Quitting Drinking," a largely first-person perspective of giving up booze cold-turkey, and "5 Things Men Will Never Understand About Consoling A Woman," a meticulously researched exposé of men's communication struggles -- it even ended up a subject of conversation on the all-female TV show, The View.
Cheese's most famous and favorite new fan is Patton Oswalt, who introduced his audience to the Cracked writer's work through a series of complimentary tweets. When the former is asked about their friendship, his response is warm and self-deprecating. "Basically, our relationship boils down to me bothering him from time to time, and him being polite in not telling me to fuck off," he says. "He invited me out for coffee in LA, which is gonna be really cool. Meanwhile, I'm thinking: 'I can't believe that I'm this dorky redneck guy from the Midwest who walked into this type of job, and now I get the opportunity to get coffee with Patton Oswalt.'"
As Cheese continues to function as a nucleus within the Cracked brain, he mentions that he's at work on two novels. "The people I'm talking with want two regular novels and a collection of the 'life' type articles from Cracked; the two novels being one regular novel and a sequel to it. I want to do a parody of every fantasy novel ever written, and a sequel to it - Dungeons & Dragons style. I want to make fun of every cliché that's ever been in one of those things."
Online, John Cheese is a bold personality who will thwack your brain with jokes and sagacity; in person, he's generous and unstintingly polite. He's earned the trust of his readers through continued focus on his sobriety and respect for his audience, and understands that maintaining that trust is a requirement for employment.
"I'm closing in on four-and-a-half years sober. Even if there's a cough medicine that has alcohol in it, I won't even do that. Because I know that if I have one beer, I'll go right back to drinking again and my whole life will go right out the shitter."
Towards the end of our conversation, Cheese lights up a cigarette. "I know, I'm such a fucking hypocrite for writing that '5 Life Lessons You Only Learn Through Quitting Smoking' article." he says, offering the most austere moment of our light conversation. "I quit for a year, and then ended up going right back to it again." He may not be perfect, but as long as writers with creative and complex personalities continue to offer honest and absorbing work, there will always be a readership for John Cheese.