James Breakwell is a comedy writer and self-described amateur father. Coming June 8, he will be releasing, or perhaps unleashing, his new book: How to Be a Man (Whatever That Means): Lessons in Modern Masculinity from a Questionable Source.
In this podcast, we chat with James about his new book, his family, his comedy career, and how pigs and tweets can be used as currency.
You can find James on Twitter and Instagram, as well as his website.
1:05 – Who is James Breakwell
2:47 – You have written a book called “How to Be a Man” in 2021… Why?
7:30 – Breaking down stereotypes…
10:45 – When is the book coming out?
12:25 – What was it like to write a more personal story?
19:00 – What is it like having two pigs?
32:30 – How has social media shaped your comedy?
44:00 – What are you passionate about aside from writing, comedy, and family?
47:00 – Where can people connect with you?
Brandon: Hey everyone, welcome to the Marketing is the Product Podcast. I’m Brandon Rollins, and I’m joined today by my co-host, Pierson Hibbs.
Pierson: How’s it going, guys?
Brandon: And none other than author and comedian, Mr. James Breakwell.
James: Hello. I love the “None other,” it put some importance there that probably shouldn’t be there, but I will take it. Thank you.
Brandon: I’d like to give things a little bit of a flourish.
James: I appreciate that.
Who is James Breakwell?
Brandon: Yeah. To kick things off, I’m gonna do something I don’t normally do on the show, I’m gonna do a quick summary of who you are, James, and what you do, but summarizing stuff is hard, so rather than going to the trouble of having original thoughts, I’d like to read directly from the “About the Author” section of “How to Be a Man, Whatever That Means: Lessons in Modern Masculinity from a Questionable Source.”
James: You might be the only person who’s ever read that far into the book, so I am eager to hear this.
Brandon: I do appreciate the… I appreciate the review copy, that was really kind of you. Anyway, here we go. James Breakwell is a professional comedy writer and amateur father of four girls, ages 11 and under, he is best known for his family humor Twitter account @XplodingUnicorn, that’s xploding with just the letter X at the beginning, which boasts more than a million followers. The account went viral in April 2016 and transformed James from a niche comedy writer into one of the most popular dads on social media. Since becoming internet-famous, James has been profiled by USA Today, US Weekly, The Daily Mail, Metro, The Telegraph, Cosmopolitan, Better Homes and Gardens, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, Upworthy, The Chive, Bored Panda, 9GAG, College Humor, various ABC and Fox TV news affiliates, and countless other TV, radio and internet outlets. Pictures of his smiling girls have been displayed in newspapers as far away as India. His articles have appeared in Reader’s Digest, Vox, The Federalist, and AskMen. He’s been a guest multiple times on HLN’s “The Daily Share.” And now he’s made it to the big time because he’s recording with Marketing is the Product, our 30-listener podcast.
James: This is definitely the high point, I will put this at the top of the list for the next book.
You have written a book called “How to be a Man” in 2021…Why?
Brandon: I appreciate that very much. So, I guess I will kick us off with maybe the elephant in the room, if you will. You’ve written a book called “How to Be a Man” in the year 2021. And so a lot of people, there’s a lot of questioning about what exactly are gender roles, what do they mean? People are asking, what’s it mean to be a man, what’s it mean to be a woman, and are these the right questions to ask at all? So my question for you is, what made you wanna take on this particular subject?
James: I think for all the reasons you just said, it is so topical right now, and I feel like the only examples of masculinity out there are negative examples. We’ve got this weird dichotomy where the right way to be a woman is to do whatever you want, and the right way to be a man is stop whatever it is you’re doing right now. They’re all negative examples. There are entire ad campaigns for major brands that have been based around negative things men are doing that they should stop doing, and I looked at it, I said, “Okay, well, these are the things men shouldn’t do, though,” that’s pretty obvious to all of us, if you’re a decent human being you can get the, “Hey, don’t do these horrible things.” But what should you be doing? What is the positive example of how to be a man, and that’s what drove me to this. I had all of these funny stories built up over the course of my life, and most of them are pre-Twitter, stuff that I didn’t have time to live-tweet out, or back when I didn’t have a newsletter or a blog, or all those kind of things.
James: I had this big stock pile of my best material, I looked at what united it all together, and I thought, “Oh, what about manhood? What about the lessons I took away from that on how I interpret how to be a man? What lessons did I learn about what I should do or what I shouldn’t be doing? Or what lessons should I have learned that I completely failed to learn and then misapplied?” And so that was the glue that held everything together. And hopefully that makes it topical and relevant today, and also keeps the hordes with pitchforks and torches at bay, ’cause any time you step into the gender issue today, it’s not exactly a safe territory, and I tend to stay away from those topics in general. I have this family-friendly Twitter account, and I’m as far away from controversies as you can possibly be now, any time you post something about your kids, controversy has a way of finding you. But this is probably… This is probably the furthest out I’ve stretched on any kind of particular social issue, so we’ll see how it goes.
Brandon: That’s really interesting ’cause we’re in a very plastic moment in time, I think, where these old values are falling away, and a lot of them for very good reasons. A lot of the things that we have internalized about how to be a man or manly, just, they don’t make a lot of sense. But then it’s like you pointed out, we have a lot of negative examples, thou shalt nots. So the question is, what do you do?
James: Yes, and it took me 60,000 words to answer that question, and I’m still not sure if I came up with the entirely right answer, but I think I got close. I don’t know that there is one example for everybody, I think my version of manhood looks a lot different than somebody else’s, but I think one thing we can be certain of is that being a man isn’t kind of the Ron Swanson model. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with Parks and Rec. Mind you, I love Parks and Rec, and Ron Swanson is my favorite character on there by far. But you don’t have to be Ron Swanson to be a man, you don’t have to be able to build your own chairs out of wood and bury all your gold in the woods and all of those things, there are lots of other ways to do that. You can be a man and never know how to fix the thing, you can be a man and be part of the system. I think it just comes down to staying true to your own values and living the kind of life that you wanna live.
Brandon: Yeah. And you can certainly admire just the competence and the crafting of somebody like Ron Swanson, without necessarily wanting to imitate every single exaggeratedly manly aspect of his personality. Ron Swanson is hilarious, he’s a source of many a good gaffe.
James: He is. I think one of my favorite moments from him is, he makes a commercial, in the last season where everybody gets their happy ending, which by the way, if you’re a sitcom writer out there, do it like Parks and Rec, give everybody a happy ending, don’t be controversial or cue to abrupt with your ending, just give everybody the fan service they want. But Ron Swanson, he goes out and he starts his own business, and he’s making a commercial, “Hire us, or do not, I am not a beggar.” [chuckle] I just love, I love that outcome independence. I wish I was that way with whether or not people buy my books, I would be a better man for it.
Brandon: I wish I had the guts in the company, something like very good construction.
Pierson: So James, I take away from the book, and from the extent that I’ve read, one of the main goals that you’ve got is really just breaking down those stereotypes. Obviously that’s a big passion to you, right?
Breaking down stereotypes…
James: Yes, absolutely. And how I got into comedy writing to begin with, it’s a little bit counter to the stereotypes. I’m a dad who tweets about his kids all the time, and right now I’m working from home, and I’m the one who takes them to school and drops them off and does all that. And so I’m probably… My wife and I split the duties, but I’m more hands-on with them than she is just by nature if I’m not in an office 40 hours a week, and that’s something that I think used to be really, really uncommon. And up into the 2000s it became more common, and now with everybody working from home, now all of a sudden, it’s kind of a toss-up. I think there’s a lot of dads who are suddenly stay-at-home dads, or partial stay-at-home dads, who just never anticipated that happening, and all at once, they were thrust into that and they caught up with me, so that’s been interesting as far as knocking down stereotypes.
James: Then another one, just as far as staying away from stereotypes. I started out the book talking about how my dad was a farmer, and he came from a long generation of farmers, and I was the first one out at the farm because he hurt his back and he had to move off the farm, which was the greatest thing ever, ’cause you do not wanna be raising pigs in a small farm in the middle of Iowa right now, there’s no money in it, we would’ve had a very, very different life and not in a good way, had he stuck it out. But at the same time, my role model growing up was a guy who wasn’t necessarily physically strong, he had a bad back, and if you’ve ever hurt your back or even tweaked it temporarily, the back is unfortunately connected to everything, so when you can’t use your back, it really diminishes everything else you can do with all your arms and legs and all of that. My default example of masculinity was a lot different from the start, and I think the book reflects that.
Pierson: It absolutely does. And you said something a second ago that’s pretty interesting to me. Even before the pandemic and before everybody was at home, regardless of who you were or what you do, you’ve been in this position for quite a while, you’ve been at home, you’ve been a hands-on dad; and even going back to what you said about your dad growing up on a farm, from a very early age, your perspective on gender roles has been a little bit different than a lot of people’s typically would be, would you say?
James: I think so. Even when my wife and I were planning back when we were in college and thinking about getting married, she was gonna be a chemist and I was gonna write for a newspaper, now we know how that turns out based on the book. But we were thinking when we have kids, if one of us has to stay home full-time, it would make more sense for me to do that and write at the same time. We always had it in the cards that that would be a possibility, and it didn’t bother us really at all. And so we’ve done it both ways, we’ve had it where we’re both working full-time and the kids go to daycare, we’ve now had it where I’m home almost all the time with them. We even had situations for a while where we were both home, my wife took point with the kids and I secluded myself off in a bedroom for certain stuff that I had to do where I couldn’t be interrupted. So we’ve tried it all ways and had it from all different perspectives, but I definitely prefer to be the one staying home, this is my jam, I’m a big fan of not leaving the house, it’s exactly as wonderful as it sounds.
Pierson: You get the best of both worlds.
When is the book coming out?
Brandon: Let’s see. Before I forget to ask. Do you know yet when this book’s gonna come out?
James: Yes. The official release date is June 1st, but shipping and the book industry and everything’s real wonky these days, so it might come out some places as much as a week later than that. Because of the confusion though, we told them to go ahead and lift the street date, so basically, every retailer has permission as soon as they get it, they can send it out and we’re not gonna stop them, there’s no embargo or anything like that. Official release date, June 1st. Actual release date, question mark. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe a month from now. We’ll see.
Brandon: Oh, lovely. I think it’s just gonna so happen that our podcast is gonna drop on May 24th, so that should line up pretty well with your release week.
James: That is perfect timing, yes.
Brandon: Yeah, we did that on purpose. Not at all.
James: It’s all part of your master plan.
James: Those are the good kind of accidents. I’ve had many of the other kind of accidents, I much prefer the happy ones.
Brandon: Yeah, a lot of them are in the book too. I don’t wanna spoil it, I’m afraid to spoil it. But I can say this without… Or I can at least get into this without spoiling it. You’ve written some books before, and they’ve all been, as far as I can tell, comedy writing. I’ll just read a couple of these titles here. You’ve done “Bare Minimum Parenting: The Ultimate Guide to Not Quite Ruining Your Child.” And another one, “How to Save Your Child from Ostrich Attacks, Accidental Time Travel, and Anything Else that Might Happen on an Average Tuesday.” So a lot of these… From what I’ve heard, I have not actually read these, just being [chuckle] perfectly honest. I didn’t read… I have read “How to Be a Man.”
James: Full disclosure.
What was it like to write a more personal story?
Brandon: I have read that. What was it like to write a book that’s more about personal stories than your other ones?
James: It was an interesting experience, a stretch where I was as a writer, maybe not so much as from the writing standpoint, from the comfort of disclosure standpoint. It’s like, to make this book true, I can’t necessarily end every single paragraph with a joke, and I can’t necessarily even make every paragraph funny. If I’m going to play to the larger point of, what were the actual things that influenced me, I had to go to some places that weren’t so comfortable. There’s one chapter in there that’s very serious about a dark time in my life, and I was on the fence up until the last minute about whether or not to even include that in there, and in the end, it did stay in, and I’m glad it did. I think out of the entire book, that’s probably gonna be the one chapter people remember, and I think that’s gonna be the one they reach out about the most.
Brandon: I think… I’m not gonna spoil this for anybody who’s listening to it ’cause that wouldn’t be fun for anyone, but I do think that having that particular heart-wrenching chapter in there does help anchor a lot of the comedy, gives it some more context as well, so I think that’s… I think that’s a good inclusion.
James: I’m glad you agree. I guess, had you said that was a terrible idea and I shouldn’t have put it in there, it’s too late now. The book is going to press so I can’t… [laughter] I cannot change my mind at this point. [chuckle]
Brandon: Suckers. We’re already in ARCs, we’re done. [laughter] There’s no going back.
James: That is a scary moment. I actually, I just got the finished copies yesterday and I opened them today on a live video, and that’s always a harrowing moment because you open it, it’s like, “That’s awesome,” but I don’t wanna look too close ’cause I can’t change anything. And on my first book, there was something where we went… You could go through it with a fine-tooth comb, draft after draft, person after person, all the copy editors, all of that, and the very, very, very last person to touch the book bumped their keyboard on one of the graphs and added a big typo, and it was a typo in 30 fonts, it was just huge. [laughter] It’s like, “Welp, I guess we can fix that for the e-book, but they’re not gonna re-run 10,000 printed books.”
Pierson: There’s also the pressure of, you can’t look incredibly disappointed if you do see something like that on camera in front of your many, many followers. [laughter]
Brandon: See, that’s why we do this without the video cameras on, that way…
James: Yeah, and I’ve had… I worked with another publisher for my guided journal, and I can’t even recall the title of it exactly, but that’s part of the problem with having longer titles for books, eventually they all get jumbled together, but… Oh, it’s “Prance Like Nobody’s Watching: A Guided Journal for Exploding Unicorns.” And when I went to get them to send that book, there was just so much confusion about sending the author copies, and in the end, they wanted to send me copies of some kind of like sex dictionary, I was like, “No… “
James: “This is not the book… This is a guided journal for children, do not send me copies of that book.”
Brandon: The publishing process can be a mess, I’ve had a passenger seat view to this on behalf of an author, Kline Morris, and the kind of stuff that happens in the middle of just publishing a book can get really nuts.
James: Yeah, and there’s so much that’s out of your hands. For that guided journal, that was gonna be the biggest book tour of my career, they were gonna send me to schools all over the Midwest, and two weeks before I was scheduled to go, the entire country shut down for the thing that’s been in the news everywhere, and they’re like, “Oh, it’s cool, we’ll just send you in a month or two when they open back up.” And yeah, we know how that went. [chuckle] They did not open up in a month or two. But that’s always happening, there’s always stuff in the news. And as somebody who writes jokes every single day, that’s something I’ve had to be cognizant of, because I’ll write a joke and people will be like, “Well, how can you write a joke on a day like this?” It’s like, “Well, this is the day we need it the most,” and also I write jokes every single day, I’m consistent, and you come here and you’re not gonna really find something about the headlines, you’re just gonna find some nice safe family humor. But my agent was telling me that, I think it’s so hard releasing a book and the times of COVID, but there’s always been stuff like that.
James: He said he had one of his clients who released her book the week of September 11th. Can you imagine? In terms of… And how do you even… Not only does all of the coverage go away, and rightfully so for this national tragedy, but you can’t even promote yourself, you’re like, “Hey guys, the world’s on fire, but also here’s a link to my book,” nobody’s gonna look at that, and if you even share it, they’re just gonna think you’re a horrible person, so it very much… There’s a lot of luck to it, even beyond the luck of getting a book deal, the luck of when your book comes out and what the world’s like when it comes out on that day very much have a lot to do with it.
Pierson: It’s all about finding that perfect timing. Which is also completely out of our control entirely. [laughter]
James: Let’s hope there is a spirited gender debate in the headlines about a month from now, and we’ll just… We’ll hope my book will ride that right in, but yeah, you never… It has been, but you never know, sometimes… And that’s part of the thing with books, there’s such a long lead time, you’re like, “Yeah, I’m gonna catch this trending topic,” and when your book comes out a year and a half later, it’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s old news, man. What are you doing?” It’s like, “I wrote it as soon as I could, it’s… “
Pierson: Yeah. That does create quite an interesting dilemma when it comes to making sure stuff’s coming out at the right time.
James: And that’s why I really… Some of these political intrigue books, true stories from the White House and all that stuff, you look at the turnaround time on those, it’s incredible because the publishers know that there’s such a ticking clock that like two weeks from now, nobody might care about this, it might be completely surpassed by something in the headline. So, those… The way, the speed that they get those books written and edited is incredible, and I’m very glad that I write about things that are not quite so urgent ’cause that would break me, I would definitely have a nervous breakdown.
Brandon: Yeah, and it’s also why they tend to not have the best prose too, ’cause you have to turn it around really quickly.
James: [chuckle] You mean you can’t write the greatest novel ever in a long weekend? Is that not a thing?
Brandon: You’re not gonna get a Dostoevsky, a political intrigue from true stories.
James: [chuckle] Yeah. No, there’s no way. And as we say that, I’m sure somebody will come out and prove us wrong, but for we mere mortals, it takes a tad longer than that.
Pierson: So James, I’ve gotta ask. What is it, what’s it… This has been my own personal question I’ve been waiting to hold out on. You’ve got two pigs.
What’s it like having two pigs?
Pierson: What is that like? What’s it like having two pigs?
James: So they’re like smarter, stronger dogs that also are incredibly selfish. So dogs can on some level, display selfish behavior, they might jump up and steal your hot dog or something like that. But overall, you know they’re your best friend, you know they’re in your corner. Pigs can be incredibly loving and friendly, and they can give you a lot of companionship, but when there’s food involved in any level, they don’t know you. They’ve never heard of you, they’re going for that food and that is it. They’re like a, yeah, and I can too. It’s like, “Okay, I get it, you’re a food-seeking missile and that is your highest priority, and that’s why you’ve survived as long as you have in the evolutionary food chain. You can eat anything and when anything is in front of you, you’re gonna go for it.” And so we have two pigs and they have two very different personalities. Our older one is ornerier and gets into everything, and our younger, smaller one is just the most pleasant thing in the world. So it’s good that we have two ’cause if I’d just had one I’d be like, “Well, it turns out pigs are kinda jerks,” and it goes… And actually, now I know it’s like, “Oh, it turns out that particular pig is kind of a jerk.” It’s like kids, you just don’t know what you’re gonna get for personality.
James: But we’re in the middle of a home renovation that’s been going on. It’s supposed to be like two weeks and we’re in month seven, ’cause that’s how home renovations go. But one of the things we did is we bought wallpaper, and wallpaper, apparently is the most expensive thing in the world. But we’ve got an old house, it has wallpaper that’s coming down, we basically have to put wallpaper back up. And so there is a box of an incredible amount of wallpaper, just sitting three feet from where the pig sleep. And I am so nervous I’m gonna wake up one of these days and they’re gonna find a way in there. And the wallpaper isn’t edible in any way, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t destroy it just for fun. And I am positive if they ever make it to that box of wallpaper, that will be the end of my marriage and possibly of my life. So pray for me and that wallpaper.
Pierson: It sounds like you’re speaking out of experience in them getting into stuff that they’re not supposed to and destroying it entirely.
James: They do, and they get into things you don’t even think about. So Gilly, the older pig, her favorite thing in the world, if she can find an undefended trash can, is gum. You’ll look at her, and she’s like… “What are you chewing?” She’ll find somebody’s old gum and just chew it, and it doesn’t decompose so she’ll chew it indefinitely. But then when people come over to our house for birthday parties and things, they’ve to be careful. It’s like, if you have things that smell that you might even not even think of, she’ll smell them. If you have gum in your purse, she will attack your purse and get that gum. So we have to be cognizant of that. And then a step down from that is just, she’s smart and she gets bored, so she likes to pop bubble wrap, that’s very enjoyable for her, but she also likes to shred cardboard boxes. And so that wallpaper, it’s paper, which is fun to shred, and it’s in a cardboard box, which is fun to shred. So it just has, it has all those triggers, it’s like jingling keys in front of a baby. I just know it’s perfectly suited to all of her fascinations, and so we’ve gotta make sure to keep those closet door closed or bad things will happen.
Pierson: I’ve gotta be honest though. I had no idea how intelligent pigs were until I heard that you had pigs and I was like, “Oh.” I’m like, “Let me do some research on pigs,” and I had no idea. I actually saw something, and which this could be completely false, so if I’m speaking out of turn, please feel free to speak up and correct me. But I have seen that forensic cases that have been cold for ages, you know how they’ll get a dog to pick up on a scent? If there’s a cold case from ages ago and they’re trying to find something, they’ll actually use pigs for their sense of smell to track stuff down.
James: Yeah, I’ve heard that. I don’t know a lot about it first hand. Obviously I haven’t used my pigs to hunt down any bodies, at least not yet. [chuckle] But yeah, there we go, that… Man, you guys are giving me all the good ideas here, you should be… I should be paying you for this. [chuckle] Yeah, but their sense of smell is incredible, and when you combine that with their problem-solving skills, it’s a dangerous match. So for example, we have a bread drawer in our kitchen, and the bread is down at the bottom. And the pig, the older one figured out how to grab the handle and open it. And we had to finally, we could not figure out how to get it closed. We finally, the only way we could get her to stop opening the bread drawer and stealing entire loaves of bread at a time was to take off the handle. There is no handle on one drawer in our kitchen, and that’s just how it’s gotta be. But we have kids and kids are the biggest security breach of all. Because if the kids make themselves toast and they put the bread back in the bread drawer and they don’t get it closed all the way, if there’s a little bit of that plastic bag sticking out, she will grab it, pull open the drawer and steal all the bread she wants, and go and just sleep in a carb coma for the rest of the day. And I am sad to say she has outsmarted us in that way more than once. Far, far more than once.
Pierson: She’s sleeping so well. How nice, how sweet. And then you realize hours later, “Oh, we have no bread.”
James: That was my worst moment of pig ownership. So there was a… So I went outside and so one of the things I did to keep the pigs entertained is I set up a deer pellet spreader. And it’s meant to spread corn and hunters then attract deer back to the same spots every day, but I use it to spread out pellets for the pigs to eat for lunch and dinner. And that way they have to root around and really work for it, it gets them some time to kill. But I got it set up the wrong way when I first set it up, and this 25-pound bucket of feed fell to the ground and it crashed and it spilled everywhere. And I was like, “Oh no, the pigs are gonna go berserk and they’re gonna… ” I stumbled upon it after it had fallen. I thought, “They’re gonna go berserk and they’re gonna eat all of this, it’s gonna be terrible.” And they didn’t even move, they just laid there. I was like, “How can they be so calm?” And I realized then that it hadn’t fallen recently, it had been down all day, and this food have been out for so long that my pigs ate their fill and gave up on food. Do you know how much a pig has to eat to be full? I didn’t know it was physically possible, but it is. It is somewhere around the 10 or 15 pounds of pig pellet mark.
Pierson: That’s… I can only imagine the realization you must have had at that moment where you know you’ve that you were in checkmate by a pig.
James: Yeah, it’s like, I hope pigs can’t fatally overdose on food, I hope that’s not a thing.
Pierson: Yeah, it’s honestly kind of impressive when you think about it. They ate it all, or all but a little bit and gave up, which says more, a little bit, to me.
James: Yes, it really is. And all the time since then, I don’t know that I could eat an entire loaf of bread, maybe if I put my mind to it, but like, they don’t even slow down. They’ll eat that entire loaf of bread they steal, then they’ll go out there for the pellet spreader and they’ll just still eat like they hadn’t had anything before. I thought, and people had warned me, even like I heard from a Humane Society shelter, they’re like… The pig would always whine for food, and they’re like, “Oh, the owner, the previous owner must have been starving this pig, she’s so hungry.” And that pig got morbidly obese, and somebody had to finally tell them, “That pig’s not starving, she just figured out when she whines, you give her food. You need to stop this. You need to… ” They’re like kids, if they figure out something works, they’re gonna keep doing it. So yeah, don’t ever think your pig is starving unless you see them physically getting smaller. If they are maintaining their size and getting around, you’re feeding them just fine.
Pierson: Key lessons from our episode with James Breakwell.
James: I can’t imagine who that lesson is going to help, but if you are that one person out there, you’re welcome. [chuckle]
Pierson: Well, the last thing I’ll ask about this is what prompted to get a pig? Pigs aren’t typically the go-to animal for domestic pets these days.
James: You are correct, they are very much an odd choice in the eyes of most people. The weird thing is they’re considered an exotic animal. There are like eight billion domestic pigs in the world, but the weird thing about them is having them in your house. That’s where they become unusual. And they’re considered exotic animals because they usually just don’t get that much veterinary care other than being spayed or neutered, actually just neutered. Usually the female pigs, you breed them and then you eat them very briefly, the male pigs, you neuter them and then you eat them and they don’t… So vets aren’t really trained to treat them. So they are an unusual animal. And the reason I went that way, and it’s something I go into in the book is because my dad was that pig farmer. And so I was born there, and up until I was three, we lived on the farm, and my greatest joy in life was chasing those baby pigs. Then my dad hurt his back, we left the farm, and I always viewed that as the greatest tragedy in family history. I was like, “I could have grown up playing with baby pigs all day and I’ve been deprived of this life.” So my whole goal throughout my childhood was to get a pot-belly pig. And most people grow up and mature, and I did not. And so I got to adulthood. And I finally had a house and a yard with a fence that I built for a dog.
James: And I got to the point where I realized there were people in Indiana who bred these mini-pigs. Now when people think mini-pig, they think like teacup pigs. Now, they don’t stay that small, my bigger pig is about 100 pounds. She only comes up to my knees, she’s about the size of a mid-sized dog, but she weighs as much as a very heavy dog, they’re just like bricks made of ham. But I thought I could do this, and my wife absolutely forbid me from spending money on a pig, but she did not forbid me from getting a pig for free. That was the loophole I saw. And I was like, “Okay.” So I finally, for the first time in my life, put my social media empire to good use. And I reached out to a pig breeder and I said, “If I promote you on social media, will you give me a free pig?” And she said, “Yeah, if you can give me enough likes on Facebook, I’ll do it.” So I reached out to Facebook and Twitter to all my followers and said, “Hey guys, help me endanger my marriage, and get lots of likes for this Facebook page and she’ll give me a free pig,” and people did it. I’ve never seen people on the internet come together like they did that day, and within a week, that pig was mine. And my wife honored the loophole and we came home with that free pig. And she’s been here ever since.
Pierson: Now, was that one of your crowning moments of having a substantial following on Twitter and on Facebook?
James: Yes, I mean, in the most direct economic terms, I traded a tweet for a pig, and I can’t imagine any higher accomplishment to aspire to.
James: No matter what I do for the rest of my life, no matter how much money I make or don’t make, the fact that I turned 140 characters into a pig will still be my crowning achievement.
Pierson: What does that equate to and how much does a pig typically cost? Let’s break this down a little bit further to how much 140 characters got you.
James: So the price varies greatly depending on the breeder and the market and the pig, but they’re not cheap, they’re kinda like designer dogs. So on your low end, like a sketchy pig dealer, you’re probably… And there are sketchy pig dealers, as weird as that sounds, you’re talking probably 500 bucks, and they go all the way up to maybe like 2000, depending on what they are and how small the breeder claims they’re gonna stay and all that. But it’s like with dogs, no matter what the breeder says, no matter what the parents say or the parents look like, you never really know what you’re gonna get. So no matter how small you think that pig’s gonna stay, I would expect it to get up to about 100 pounds.
Pierson: I love it, just, I think of sketchy pig breeders, and I think of rounding the corner into some back alley with a guy in a trench coat, and behind him is a string of three leashes with pigs on them, like, “Hey, which one do you want over here?”
Brandon: So I’m just sitting here on Google doing some math, and if this is a non-sketchy pig, and I’m assuming this is not a sketchy, back-alley pig deal. [chuckle] It’s worth maybe about $25,000, and if it took you 15 seconds to put the tweet together, then you, my friend, made $6 million an hour that day.
James: [laughter] I don’t know how the math works out, but I will choose to believe that. I wholeheartedly embrace that. You wanna talk about marketing, that’s the greatest marketing success you can have, translating ones and zeros into a living breathing pig. That’s alchemy right there.
Brandon: Hearing this, I’m like, “Shoot, I’m quitting the business. That’s crazy.”
James: Have any of your clients asked you if they could be paid in pigs? I mean, it seems like a very economical option.
Pierson: I mean, forget Dogecoin, pig currency is the next step in our society.
Brandon: You can pay me by check, wire transfer, credit card and pig.
James: I think I would trust pigs as an instrument of barter more than I would trust Dogecoin. I think long-term, I think if things go south with a pig, you can always eat it, there’s… You’ve got that fall back. If things go south with Dogecoin, you’ve got nothing.
Brandon: Yeah, I’m going diamond hands on my pig holdings. We’re gonna send it straight to the moon.
How has social media shaped your comedy?
Pierson: Well, so okay. Getting off the topic of pigs, James. You obviously use social media as an incredible tool to vet your comedy, which is something that, you don’t see a lot of people really break through with mainstream success in the way that you have. So what has that process been like, being able to refine and figure out what your comedy style is through social media?
James: It’s really been a godsend. So I first, I started out writing way, way back in the day, I started emailing people stuff and that doesn’t really give you any useful feedback. Then I moved on to, I had a newspaper column in college and that doesn’t really give any useful feedback. And then I, for a decade, I had a blog and I would spend a whole night writing a 1000-word piece, and you get two comments. It’s like, “Ha ha, that’s hilarious,” and the other person’s like, “Delete your site.” It doesn’t really teach you what went right and what went wrong. But then when I joined Twitter, it gives you very specific feedback about did this joke work or not, and that was back when it was 140 characters. So it wasn’t like they were rating a collection of 25 jokes, you don’t know which one were good or which ones weren’t. It’s like, one set up, one punch line, if people like it they retweet it and it goes further, and if they don’t like it, it just disappears in obscurity and shame, which is what should happen to it. You don’t want everybody to see it if it’s bad. And that’s how I became a parenting guy. That’s how I really zeroed in on that family-friendly humor, ’cause that wasn’t my thing at first, but I figured out that’s what people like, and that’s… And I became better at it.
James: I’d like to say I always had this in me, and just I needed to find people to appreciate it, but that’s really not the truth. ‘Cause I’ve gone back and read some of my old tweets and they’re terrible. I just, I didn’t know what was going on. So Twitter made me a better writer through the crucible of that unflinching feedback. You don’t hear laughter. You get back a number, you get back a score, a grade, it’s like, “Hey man, that joke sucked. Do better.” It’s like, “Okay, I will.” And so for a couple of years there, I was writing 25 jokes a day, just sending out everything, trying everything out, and as I zeroed in on the formula that worked for me, and as I got better at it, I didn’t have to put out quite so much, each joke went further and further. And then ultimately I built up to about 200,000 followers doing that, and then finally BuzzFeed ran an article on me linking back to me, and their article went viral, and they made my account go viral, and that’s where it exploded from 200,000 up to eventually over a million.
Pierson: What’s impressive to me about that though, is you found a way to take an analytical approach to a problem that people don’t think to apply it to, like you were able to through numbers, see what was working and what wasn’t working, and tailor in on your audience before you were able to build this empire.
James: Yeah, and it was really, it was a painless way or a cowardly way, if you will, to do it. I think the way that people tested out jokes in the olden days, you had to go do stand-up comedy and stand in front of yourself and really put yourself out there, and I didn’t, I didn’t have to do any of that. I was just like, “Okay, I’m gonna tell this joke.” And if it bombs it’s like, “Okay, I’m gonna delete it, and we’re gonna pretend that never happened,” and you just tell another one. If that one bombs, you just tell another one. So yeah, it worked because I got the feedback and it worked because I was too stupid to quit, and it’s like, “Okay, I’m finally getting meaningful data for the first time in my comedy writing career. I cannot waste this,” and that was just super valuable all the way through.
Brandon: I have to wonder if social media is making stand up better in general, simply because people have the ability to try jokes and see what people respond to.
James: You know what, it’s such a different skill set. So as I’ve gotten into the comedy sphere, I’ve interacted with a lot of stand-up comedians. And they are absolutely hilarious in person, they’re hilarious in video or in audio, you can watch their sets and you can see their mannerisms and all of that. And then you’ll read their tweets, and their tweets just aren’t very good at all. And I think part of it is you don’t realize how much of comedy is non-verbal. And so they, by going and doing stand-up, have mastered the presentation, the timing, the presence, all of those other non-tangibles that make them great. And when you go on Twitter, you strip that away and you just have the words. And so I came up from the opposite end, and I just had the words start to finish, which was a great base as I moved on from tweets to books, because I didn’t have to worry about the presence and timing and making this all translate. It was natively in a written form, and I just kept it there all the way along. Now if you stuck me up on a stage, I would bomb horribly, but if you leave me here, I can write books all day, every day until the end of forever, because that’s what I’ve gotten the free practice doing, and it’s been wonderful. It was exciting and overwhelming when it happened.
James: It was one of those things where I was just hitting refresh every few minutes when I first went viral and just watching my follower account jump by thousands. And I’ve gone viral a few different times, you’ll get a burst here or there, and every time you realize, “Yeah, this is fun,” and you also realize, “Yeah, eventually things are gonna settle out.” And ultimately, whether it’s your best day ever and you gain all the followers or it’s your worst day ever and you lose a bunch of followers, you gotta write the next joke.
James: I mean, my approach after I went viral didn’t really change at all. It’s like, “Okay, what am I gonna write about today? What’s this joke gonna be. I just have to keep going and I keep chopping wood,” and I just took this very workman-like approach to it, and you kind of realize as you go. I think early on, one of my first goals, kind of like the big overall thing was I saw how hard it was to get a book deal, and people would write query letters and write this book and they wouldn’t have an audience and they’d kinda go in there with this big crush to humanity trying to land a book deal, and I came at it from the opposite angle. I was like, “I’m gonna see if I can build up an audience on my own and eventually get to book deals, have publishers and agents come to me,” and I was able, I was able to do that. And as I did that, I thought, “Okay, that’s my finish line, one book, I’m gonna get a book, and I’m gonna be happy, that’s I will feel satisfied and accomplished, and that’s it,” and that’s not how life works at all, you get to that one thing you’ve been striving for for a decade.
James: And it’s like, okay, what’s next? Well, if I can get you two books that’s all I’ll ever need and then three, then four. I mean, I’m up to book deal number seven now, and I’m seeing you just keep going, and I think that it’s good to stay hungry, but it’s also good to stay realistic, you realize there is no finish line to this. There is no walk-off home run, you always have to keep working, you always have to keep getting better, you always have to keep a fresh perspective on things and keep putting in the time.
Brandon: Yeah. I think it’s interesting when you watch people who have been in creative industries for a really long time, like their whole life, musicians make for great examples. You take a guy like David Loy, he basically never made the same album twice, he did something different all the way from the late 1960s to 2016. It was always something different, always something, always another one, and he didn’t always hit it out of the park, not at all, but when he did, he really, really did. I think that’s really like that’s… For a creative person, long-term, that’s probably the best way to go about it, just keep making the next book, the next album, the next video or whatever it is you do.
James: Yes, and it’s really nice that these avenues have opened up, not just in books, but in everything, and I think now that everybody is working from home, now that everything’s remote, that’s expanded even further. I had another conversation, another podcast, from time to time I got asked about what about writing for a sitcom or things like that, my answer always used to be, “Well, that’s never gonna happen. I live in the middle of Indiana. We’re very happy here, my kids are in school here, and I can’t drive across the country to where houses cost $2 million for a three bedroom, two bath, and go sit in the writer’s room with a bunch of 21-year-olds.” But now that everything’s remote, that everything’s by Zoom, I don’t think there are those barriers anymore, if you are a writer and you wanna do a specific kind of writing, be it marketing copy or be it books, or be a TV or whatever else, I think people have finally accepted that, hey, that thing… The value we put on face time, it’s not there anymore, maybe it’s actually a detriment, so you can actually just get whoever you want from wherever they are to jump into that role, so the options have really opened up.
Brandon: We’re at the beginning of a very exciting time to be a professional, because when some of the worst parts of COVID finally start to wear off, and I think they are starting to wear off a little bit, but once the worst of it’s passed, we’ve got this whole infrastructure now for remote work, I sit here in my home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and one of my clients is in New Jersey, and there’s no issue whatsoever doing what we need to do for them. It’s like, there’s no gap at all.
James: Exactly. I have two podcasts that nobody listens to, and my partner for both of them, my co-host is in Nashville, and we’re in the same room maybe once or twice a year, and that doesn’t stop us at all from putting out two episodes a week, every week year-round, it just… There are no options. I mean, for a while I had a writing partner and he was out in LA, and we used to do that every night, and that was both pre-shutdown, so it’s kind of remarkable how… We had all these tools in place, but I don’t think anybody really took them completely seriously or they were kind of a fringe thing of, yeah, we’ll use that as a back-up, but that’s not really the preferred way, and then overnight everything shut down and we all just shifted online. And it was more or less seamless. Now, I know some places that cause more trouble than others, but for people who deal strictly with information, it really has been seamless, and it raised the question, it’s like, “Okay, why did you make us come in and sit at desks for all of those years, for some time now it’s pretty clear that wasn’t necessary.”
Pierson: Exactly, and I think that that’s one of the big takeaways from it is I think it’s really redefined what productivity looks like for a lot of people, especially because Brandon and I, we talked about this, how much of going into work is sitting at your desk and thinking about how little time it actually takes to do something, and you’re able to be at home and really knock the stuff out that you need to knock out, and you’re not limited to the confinement of a desk from 9:00 to 5:00. And for some people that still is the case, but for a lot of people it’s redefined what it looks like to work from home and to be a professional.
James: Yeah, it’s, there’s so much you don’t have to worry about. You don’t have… You don’t have co-workers kind of bothering you either, like if somebody is gonna bother you, it has to really be a deliberate effort, you don’t have people just kinda drifting by your desk and, “Hey man, what’s going on,” and the water cooler talk. And I realize that’s a big perk, that’s something that people go to work for, but that’s something that was removed from my life and I was like, “Oh, okay, I’m actually perfectly fine without that, that works out.” And if your kids aren’t doing e-learning, which mine were for a while, that’s obviously a huge distraction, but once my kids got out of the house, it’s like, holy cow, then the productivity really sky rocketed. So I do feel definitely for the parents who are working full-time and still have their kids home full-time as well, because that is a not easy situation, and I can imagine they are just counting down the hours ’til that’s over.
Pierson: So James, I gotta ask, what do you do when you’re not writing, you’re not hanging out with your kids or your wife or the pigs? What are some of the things that you’re passionate about? Obviously, comedy, obviously, writing, you’re a big family man, but outside of that, what makes James Breakwell who you are?
What are you passionate about aside from writing, comedy, and family?
James: I got big into health and fitness here recently, like right after I finished the book, talking about how much I didn’t care about fitness and how much out of shape I was. Right after that, I’ve gotten to a phase where I’ve been going to the gym for two hours every morning, so I do enjoy working out, and I love audio books, so there’s just so much in life, whether it’s work or chores or anything else that is just mindless repetition, and I used to hate that. I used to absolutely hate that. And then I discovered that you could listen to audio books at triple speed, and now I look forward to the mindless sections of my day, because it’s like I will never in my life again have time to just sit down and stare at a book for two hours, but I can stand up and fold laundry and listen to half a book just like that, or I’ve been battling my front yard, I’ve been building a retaining wall piece by piece, and every section of wall I finish, I finish another book with it. I feel so productive, and now when I only do one thing at once, I hate it, I feel like I’ve wasted my day, so I’m a big fan of reading in the form of audio books, if you wanna call that, or listening.
James: I’m a big fan of working out, and I’m a big fan of… I guess my friends and I have been playing Xbox game called Halo for a decade. We also… The area where I didn’t grow up to is not limited to pigs, it’s also limited to Xbox, we started playing that together back in college, and we just never stopped, so every Friday night, we get together online and play that game together, and we get destroyed by all the 13-year-olds on the internet, and we don’t care because we’re old and we’re slow and we’re just having some beer, just catching up on the week and it’s a great time.
Brandon: Well, that’s awesome. Are we talking like the original Halo?
James: It’s all of them on there. So we play the Master Chief collection, so it’s got Halo 1, 2, 3, 4 and Reach. Halo 1 is my favorite. Because you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I got good at one Halo and that was it. But we actually mostly play Halo 4 for reasons nobody really cares about, but we’ve kind of found that’s where the easiest people are, and so we like that we can occasionally win a game. [laughter]
Pierson: Sounds like there’s a pretty clear-cut reason for Halo 4.
James: Okay, maybe it’s not so complicated after all.
Brandon: I was just curious, I was just surprised. It sounded like… I didn’t realize the original Halo servers were still up.
James: Oh see, the original ones, there were no servers, you had to be in the same room to play and physically connect your Xboxes together with a cord, which is awesome, and then they went back and retrofitted it and now it is on a server, so it’s a whole new life for an old game, so for people who old and nostalgic and don’t wanna keep buying new games, I just play the old game until the disc starts on fire. That’s my, that’s my aim.
Brandon: Shoot, I wonder if Team Fortress 2 still have servers up too.
James: Oh I’m sure.
Where can people connect with you?
Pierson: Awesome, well lastly, where can people connect with you online, James?
James: The easiest place to find all of my stuff is explodingunicorn.com, from there, you can find my books, you can find my podcast, my Twitter account, and my newsletter, which is my biggest push right now. So I write a 2000-word comedy article every week, all original content, that goes out every Sunday night, so I definitely recommend signing up for that. If you wanna find my books, you can just go to your book retailer of choice and search for James Breakwell. My most recent book is called “How to Be a Man, Whatever that Means, Lessons in Modern Masculinity from a Questionable Source,” and of course, I’m best known from Twitter @Xplodingunicorn, without the E, where I tweet jokes every day about my kids.
Pierson: And we will absolutely be including links to all of those sources in the show notes below, as well as connecting you with all of James’ social platforms for your easy convenience.
James: That’s what it’s really all about. Yep. You guys have it all. Full service.
Pierson: Full service. Well, James, I have no more questions for you. Thank you so much, James, for coming on the show.
James: Thank you for having me. This was a blast.
Pierson: Always, and if anybody wants to check out the show, we are on Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, Google Podcasts. Wherever you listen to your podcast, we’re there, give us a like, leave us a five star review, the whole nine yards and stuff that you do for people that have podcast. And so for James Breakwell, for Brandon Rollins, I’m Pierson Hibbs, and this is the Marketing is the Product Podcast, and we’ll see you.