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James Renner

Interview: James Renner

A chat with true-crime journalist James Renner, who brings "Confessions of a True Crime Addict" to our lounge June 13.

Journalist James Renner hunts killers. The Cleveland-based reporter has done extensive investigations of cold cases and other unsolved crimes, at times becoming what he calls a “true crime addict.” His work has resulted in a few nonfiction books, several collaborations with Discovery ID, and also a podcast series called “The Philosophy of Crime.”

On June 13, James comes to the DC Improv to perform his new show, “Confessions of a True Crime Addict” – a mixture of stand-up comedy, frightening stories from James’ career, and musings about America’s growing fascination with true crime. We chatted with him on the phone in early May.

Most of our interviews are with comedians. You hunt serial killers, and yet you’re doing a tour of comedy clubs. What was the inspiration for this tour and this show?

I think the inspiration for the show came from Spalding Gray. People at this moment in time, it doesn’t mean much to them – they don’t recognize that name. But to me, that name means a lot.

The great monologist!

Yes, exactly right. He was very big in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He did this monologue called “Sex and Death to the Age 14,” and also “Monster in a Box.” I remember being a teenager watching his monologues – I think they were on HBO at the time – and thinking, “Wow, how cool this is. This guy is doing something nobody else is really doing.”

It’s a mix of stand-up, it’s a mix of his real true-life stories, and he’s very honest, and he’s very funny at the same time. And I got the opportunity to work with him when I was about 19, 20 years old. He did this workshop in Cleveland. I don’t know why he came to Cleveland. But he stopped by, and I went up to see him and work with him. The first thing he did was comment on my scarf. He really dug my scarf. I don’t know if that was flirtation or just to break the ice. But it was great.

Flash forward, I found myself in New York for a different project, and I got to thinking about Spalding Gray. I was standing on Governors Island, looking out and seeing the Staten Island Ferry go by – and of course the Staten Island Ferry is where Spalding Gray committed suicide. He stepped off the Staten Island Ferry and took his life that way a few years ago.I was thinking about him, I was thinking about Anthony Bourdain, and these masters of speech and writing and stories who cut their lives short.

I wanted to talk about some of my stories -- chasing serial killers around the country – and do so in a way that was true to them, as a way of celebrating Spalding Gray’s life. I’ll be talking about him a little bit in my set, and the run-in I had with him and the way he keeps popping up in my life in weird ways. I don’t know if he’s haunting me or what. I hope he is. [Laughs.]

But yeah, serial killers aren’t typically fodder for a lot of stand-up comedians. But, y’know, there’s gallows humor in it.

Another reason for this tour is I’m actually travelling to New Orleans for CrimeCon. They now have a yearly convention for true crime fanatics. The guys from “Dateline” show up like celebrities, and everybody’s there. This is my third year going, so I figured I’d make a bigger trip out of the whole thing and keep the travel and expense everything.

[Laughter] I’m glad we could be a write-off for you!

Yeah, thanks very much! But CrimeCon, it’s an interesting experience. My first year there I didn’t know what to expect. I’m selling books, and I’ve got this table set up. I had this idea – I should get a bowl of Dum Dum suckers, and people would see the candy, and they’d come up and see my books. Kind of lure them in.

So I get this bowl full of Dum Dum suckers, and people are buying some books, but nobody’s eating the suckers. I can’t get rid of these things. And I realize that adults don’t eat Dum Dum suckers. The only time we see them out in the open is at banks. And we know the social contract is that those aren’t for us. Those are for kids, to keep them quiet. We’re not to touch them in public. And at CrimeCon there are no kids – except for one. I’m sitting there, it’s day two, and a 6-year-old kid, this boy, is running around. And so I’m like, thank god, I can get rid of these suckers. So I say, “Hey kid, you want some candy?”

[Laughter.]

And as this is coming out of my mouth, I’m suddenly aware of my situation and where I’m at. I’m in the middle of this convention about crime, and I’m now luring this kid with the promise of candy. Then I looked up to see who is mother is. And his mother is former prosecutor Nancy Grace.

Oh wow.

And I’m thinking, none of this looks good. The little kid, he grabs a handful of the suckers, but then Nancy Grace steps in. She’s like, “hey, put those down, just take one.” It was a very precarious situation, but everything worked out just fine.

You could have been featured on Nancy Grace’s show for a week! The publicity would have been tremendous for your career.

I know, right? It could have worked out so much better.

Why do you think that true crime – and its intersection with humor – is so popular right now?

I believe as a culture we’re going through an existential crisis. Up to around the time of Sept. 11, we lived in this safe, bubble America, where we’re kind of untouchable and everything is black and white. And then after 9/11 and the terrorist attacks, we realize we’re wrapped up in this bigger world, and there’s really no black and white. That there’s no such thing as closure in this world.

Not to get too philosophical, but there’s this quote from Camus. He came to the conclusion that every intelligent person at some point in their life becomes aware of the fact that we live in a ridiculous world. An existential world. A world with no answers. And there’s two things you can do about that. You can either commit suicide – which is what Spalding Gray and Anthony Bourdain did – or you can rebel against it. You can find the humor in it, and you can learn to live with that. And I think that’s what’s happening right now. I think people are digesting this new idea through true crime, and coming to their own conclusions.

You’ve described your involvement with true crime as an addiction, and I don’t think you mean that in a casual, “I’m addicted to nachos!” way.

[Laughs] Yeah!

It’s something that has a profound mental or physical effect on you. Has humor helped you cope with working in this field?

Absolutely. Humor is definitely very therapeutic. It’s kind of a crutch. With these cases, there are a couple in particular that I do become obsessed with, and I have written about it. The last book I wrote was “True Crime Addict,” and this tour is called “Confessions of a True Crime Addict.” I do mean that, in the sense of an addict. I realized that I was really internalizing some of these cases.

My wife picked up on it first. I was deep into trying to find a killer. She came home one day and I had moved all the furniture out of the living room. I had poured powder on the carpet, and I was vacuuming and dusting and cleaning everything in our living space. And I said, I’ve been sick the last couple of days and I’m sure it’s gotta be something in this room – dust or whatever. She’s like, “You dummy. You’re feeling this way because you’re sucked into this case, and all these deep, dark things.” And that was kind of the wake-up moment.

I have tried to get out of that addiction of true crime. In college I was involved with a sketch comedy troupe, and so comedy has always kind of been in the background and something that I really enjoyed doing. I realized, here’s an opportunity to mix those two, and talk about the absurdity of my job.

When you’re watching Discovery ID and those kinds of shows, you do get some sense of grim or dark humor shared by police and investigators. Do you think that’s something consistent with people dealing with crime for a living?

Yes. Absolutely. When you subject yourself to those dark places, you have to have the humor to lift your spirits a little bit. Cracking jokes and making jokes. People who aren’t used to that, if they’re in the room, will be a little weirded out.

I remember, I’m sitting outside a guy’s house, that I had been staking out. I believed him to be a serial killer involved in a number of murders in the early ‘80s. The best case scenario is the serial killer shows up and I get to interview him. But even the best case scenario puts me in a very scary, dark place. So I reached out. I know I need some humor at that point in time, so I reach out to a detective friend of mine. And I ask him to tell me a joke, to get me through the night.

He’s like, “I got a joke for you. This child molester and a young girl go walking into the woods …”

And I’m thinking, oh god …

“And he’s leading the girl by the hand. And she says, ‘Gee mister, it’s really dark in here. I’m real scared.’ And he says, ‘You’re scared? I gotta walk back alone!’”

[Laughter.]

And so I’m like, OK, thanks, I’ll call somebody else. But that’s the kind of jokes you tell to get through the day.

Tell me about your crime podcast.

My podcast is called “The Philosophy of Crime,” and it takes these big questions behind crime – I’ll talk about some of these during my set. I look at the questions behind true crime and I look to classical philosophy for answers. For instance, I talk about why true crime is so popular, and you go back to Camus and what he said about revolting against the absurdity of the universe. So it gets kind of heady, but it’s an opportunity – I talk about a specific case each episode (or two or three) and philosophize about what Socrates or Plato or Foucalt would have said about these topics.

So I explore: Are lie detectors reliable? No, they’re not. It’s a bunch of hoodoo. Does psychological profiling really work? Again, it’s not a science. It’s closer to a psychic than anything else. I wanted to do a crime podcast that was different from all the other ones out there, that are just kind of retouching on all the same cases we’ve heard 30 times. So this is the way I’m doing it. There are six episodes per season, and I’ll release them all in one day. We’re a couple of seasons into it right now and we’re doing well.

So it’s bingeable.

Very much so. The last episode I did was about the ethics of familial DNA. Everybody’s into this now, and this is how we’re solving these old cases, and catching people like the Golden State Killer. It’s fascinating. But what are the ethical ramifications? It’s a whole new world. I was very surprised to learn that the founder of one of the big forensic genealogy companies used to write software for the CIA. And nobody’s reporting on that. That seems like a big deal. It makes me uncomfortable. These are things we need to think about now when we send our DNA into 23 and Me to see if we’re related to Charlemagne. What we’re really doing is maybe putting Uncle Ira in prison for a murder he got away with committing 30 years ago. It’s gonna make for some very awkward Thanksgiving dinners in the next year or two.

Sorry I spit in a test tube and mailed it to the Mormons, Uncle Ira.

Right. [Laughs]

I want to ask about one obscure item on your resume: You have worked with Joe Bob Briggs.

Oh my god, yeah.

For people who don’t know, Joe Bob Briggs is a very funny movie reviewer and B-movie film buff. He was the longtime host of a show called “MonsterVision” on TNT. And he has done one-man shows as well. You worked with him on a short film, based on a Steven King story. Could you tell us about that?

Yes! I love Joe Bob Briggs. He’s great. I used to watch “MonsterVision” with my dad, and my dad even would say Joe Bob Briggs’ catchphrase a lot, which is, “Without constant vigilance, it could happen here.” What he was talking about was the decline of drive-in movie theaters. We had a drive-in movie theater not far from our house when I was growing up, out in the country here in Ohio. A lot of good memories there.

So Joe Bob Briggs was always on my mind, and I got this chance to make a short film based on a Steven King short story called “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away.” It’s about a travelling salesman who decides he wants to write a book about the weird graffiti he finds in bathroom rest stops. It’s a weird idea. And I thought, Briggs would be really cool. He’d be perfect for that! We called him up, and he had a small fee, and we flew him out. Actually, that’s an interesting part of the story – Joe Bob Briggs is terrified to fly. He hates flying. So we had had to get him on Amtrak from New Jersey into Cleveland.

I had a friend helping me on the project. His one job on the day of filming – and his name was Dave Thomas, not the Wendy’s founder, a different Dave Thomas – the one job he had was to get Joe Bob Briggs on his train out of town. And he wanted to celebrate by going out and getting a few drinks with Joe Bob Briggs. I said, that’s fine, but you have to be at the station at 2 a.m. -- it was a very late train – because I know how you guys can get. He’s like, “Don’t worry about it.” Long story short, they get completely obliterated at this Cleveland bar. And I get all these phone calls at 3, 4 o’clock in the morning, saying Job Bob has missed the train and we have to fly him out. So it became a big deal, because he’s terrified of the plane crashing.

But It was a fun experience working with Joe Bob Briggs, and seeing him in that film, and hearing all these stories about classic film. One other short story about that shoot: There was a scene where Joe Bob Briggs goes into the hotel, and the clerk is played by Harvey Pekar. Harvey Pekar was this famous artist and storyteller …

American Splendor. Paul Giamatti played him in the movie, and Judah Friendlander played his friend Toby.

Yes. Great movie. And great guy, and a writer from Cleveland. I convinced him to be in the short. And his daughter, she’s like, he’ll do it, but you have to make sure he can’t leave set. Because if he thinks he can leave set, he’ll walk away and you’ll never see him again. Basically, he’s grumpy, and he gets tired of everything really quickly. So we actually kidnapped Harvey Pekar. I sent a guy to pick him up – he’s like “I don’t have time for this! What am I doing again? Where’s my lines?” He had no idea what he had agreed to.

We convinced him that it would only take a half hour. It took more like 8 hours. But he didn’t have a vehicle. So he just kind of took a nap on set while we were working. So yeah, we had to kidnap Harvey Pekar for that short film.

That’s a lot of fun memories packed into one short film.

Yeah. A short film that nobody will ever see. It was a fun experience.

We’re looking forward to your show June 13 – again, a combo of stand-up and stories about your experiences navigating the world of true crime.

Yup. It’s a mix of the two. Finding the humor in the absurdity of life. Talking about hunting serial killers, and the time that I got coerced into buying crack from my neighbor … so, lots of fun little tidbits.