If you’re a parent and have even a glancing acquaintance with Twitter, you’ve no doubt come across the snort-inducing Twitter feed ExplodingUnicorn, where an out-(wo)manned dad of four plays straight man to his comically brilliant daughters, ages 7, 5, 3 and 1.
(I absolutely adore the convos he has with his eldest; like when she noticed that he doesn’t have many friends and said, “I told my teacher you always play with yourself.” Yep. I’m sure his parent-teacher conference is not going to be awkward at all.)
The man behind the Twitter handle is James Breakwell, an Indiana dad/web comic strip creator who’s been hailed by American media as the “funniest dad on Twitter” and British media as “the most hilarious man on Twitter.”
Once you’ve been certified as “that funny” by arbiters of humor on both sides of the pond and you’ve amassed nearly 1 million Twitter followers (with several hundred thousand more on Facebook and Instagram), the next logical step is to write a book. And Breakwell is delightfully on schedule.
Just in time for Halloween comes Breakwell’s remarkably helpful Only Dead on the Inside: A Parent’s Guide for Surviving The Zombie Apocalypse. Not just for The Walking Dead, Night of the Living Dead and Shaun of the Dead fans, Only Dead on the Inside is filled with life-saving tips like turning diapers into currency and relying on burger joints for food. “Rational people will assume the food went bad without refrigeration,” he writes. “That’s where they’re wrong. Highly scientific studies conducted by random people posting pictures of their food on the internet show certain fast food burgers never, ever spoil. Some images show “beef” patties remaining unchanged for entire presidential administrations. Those sandwiches could outlast humanity itself. Cows will have the last laugh after all.”
I’m not sure which one’s more terrifying—parenthood or the zombie apocalypse—but after reading Breakwell’s book, I know my odds of coming out on the other side of either (or both) are vastly improved. Breakwell took a break from fending off zombies and tweeting about his daughters to chat with me about precocious children, secret identities and finally getting that Colossally Big Break.
Norine: No one wants their kids’ real names splattered all over the internet, so I get having pseudonyms for your children. Waffle, chosen by your Twitter followers for your youngest, definitely goes down as the all-time best code name. But I just found out that your name, that “James Breakwell,” is a pseudonym too! Oh my God! Seriously? And now I feel silly I started our interview saying, “Hi James!”
“James Breakwell”: My employer still doesn’t know about my book. Or my Twitter account. Or literally anything I’ve done on the internet for the last nine years. At this point, I think I could walk into the office holding a sign that said, “I’m living a double life,” and no one would notice. I might be invisible. I’d like to keep it that way. They wouldn’t be thrilled to find out how many hours they’ve paid me to tweet. Though with all the writing I do, I basically have two full time careers. It might be a relief to get fired from one of them. I could use the downtime.
Apart from that, my pen name keeps me grounded. Any time I think I’m famous, I remember that people who have been sitting next to me for almost a decade have never heard of James Breakwell. My alter ego is the most well-known nobody they’ll never meet.
I read on your site that the name Exploding Unicorn dates back to high school when you wrote a satirical book of the Bible, featuring hydrogen-filled unicorns that, well … exploded. Walk me through that trajectory from high school Bible scribe to Twitter’s patron saint of fatherhood.
I wrote a humor column in my college newspaper. At the end of my junior year, I started a blog so people could read my articles over the summer. No one did. College kids are smarter than they look. After college, I kept the blog going. I wrote comedy articles about work and marriage and my general failings as a human being. In 2010, my wife and I had a baby, and I suddenly had a whole new area of my life to fail at. I made the most of it.
In 2012, I joined Twitter to promote my blog. I started out tweeting about everything, but gradually zeroed in on tweets about my kids. It turns out people like my children more than they like me. I’m okay with that. Somewhere in there I also started three daily webcomics [Unbelievably Bad, Wombat Dojo and Unfridgeworthy, where he adds dialogue to his kids’ artwork]. It was an easy transition since they’re basically just tweets with bad art attached. I know what I am. In 2016, my Twitter account went viral, and I expanded to other social media platforms. These days, I put my jokes everywhere on the internet I think someone might accidentally read them. The internet isn’t thrilled about it.
Are you an accidental humorist? Did you want to be Berke Breathed or Gary Trudeau or Charles Schultz?
I tried really hard to be a humorist on purpose. I just fell short for so long that when I finally made it, people assumed it happened by accident. My comedy writing role model was Dave Barry. I thought I could hit it big with long humor columns like him. I tried humor essays for years, but I could never build a consistent following. I didn’t take off until I cut back to 140 characters. People can only take so much of me. Too bad I just wrote a book.
I totally get the impulse to find the humor in your kids. I always say that that’s why writers have kids — so we never run out of material. When my son was 18 months old, I caught him jamming a dead lizard in his ear. As I shouted at him, “Don’t put lizards in your ears!” I thought, Oh yeah, there’s definitely comedy here. What was the moment when you looked at your daughters and said, “This is a goldmine right here”?
My 2-year-old threw a temper tantrum because she couldn’t get rid of her shadow. I wrote a tweet about it, and it did okay. Then an Australian magazine took a screenshot of my tweet and posted it on their Facebook page. It went viral for them with no link back to me. That’s when I realized two things: 1) My kid jokes resonate with many people. 2) The internet is deeply unfair.
You’re always the straight man to your daughters’ comic genius. How much of what you write is verbatim and how much license do you take to go for a joke?
My tweets are a mix. Some are real, some are exaggerated, and some are made up. Most are at least inspired by my kids. My jokes are seldom completely true or completely false. Comedy, like the rest of life, happens in the gray area in between.
Now that they’re older, are your children more aware that you’re writing about them on Twitter? Do they “play” to you or try to give you things to tweet? Do they feel famous?
The older ones have a pretty good idea of what I do, though they view it more as my hobby than theirs. But when they do something they think is funny, they come get me and tell me to bring my phone. The attention whore gene is hereditary.
Zombie Apocalypse Parenting Tip Number 84:
What was the take-off moment for you? I mean, I knew you from our own Big Book of Parenting Tweets and you were already hugely popular when we published that in 2014. Since then, you’ve been profiled by American (US Weekly, USA Today, Cosmopolitan, Upworthy) and British (The Telegraph, Metro, Daily Mail) media. Have you been blown away by the response?
Buzzfeed posted an article about me in April 2016 that featured 10 or 20 of my tweets, all of which had clickable links back to me. I ended up with half a million followers, an agent, and a book deal within a few months. I always heard people say that those who hit it big don’t deserve it. They were right. Everything changed when I went viral, but it also stayed the same. I’m still writing the same kinds of jokes as I did when I had almost no followers. Now I just disappoint a much larger audience. So much for personal growth.
Let’s talk about the book, Only Dead on the Inside. I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a neophyte when it comes to the undead. So why zombies? Why write a guide to parenting during a zombie apocalypse? And the even bigger question — why write a book? Tweets are easy, comparatively. Books are hard. What drove you to write this?
My tweets skirt the line between truth and fiction, so I was hesitant to put them in a book. I didn’t want Oprah to call me out as a liar on national TV. So instead of taking a risk and writing a book that was 30 percent lies or 50 percent lies, I wrote a book that was 100 percent lies, and that’s how I ended up with a parenting guide to the zombie apocalypse. I should clarify that when I was writing the book, I THOUGHT it was 100 percent lies. My publisher ended up classifying my book as non-fiction. Apparently the book industry knows something about zombies the rest of us don’t. As for why I wrote a book at all, if I’m going to make a living off comedy writing, at some point I have to get paid for it. It’s hard to buy groceries with likes and retweets.
Man, if we could turn likes and retweets into currency, we could remake the world economy. We’ll let Janet Yellin ponder the implications. Meanwhile, zombies pop up pretty frequently in your tweets. Are your daughters fascinated by zombies?
My kids and I play zombie games together all the time. I’m always the zombie. I’m not sure if my kids like the undead or if they just want an excuse to shoot my head with darts. I have a lot of unexplained welts to hide from my co-workers.
The zombie comics in the book are hilarious. I noticed they bear a striking resemblance to your web comic “Unbelievably Bad,” which probably not coincidentally is about a dad, his wife, their four daughters, a dog and a pet pig, which you also have. I’m wondering which came first—zombies in Unbelievably Bad or Unbelievably Bad comics in the zombie book?
The zombies in my webcomic came first. When I landed a publishing deal, I used the same art style from my webcomics for the book. The only difference is I gave the book zombies mouths, which most of my other stick figures don’t have. My pictures are getting fancy.
In honor of this week’s release of Only Dead on the Inside, we asked Breakwell to pull together some of his favorite zombie tweets. You’ll die laughing. Hopefully zombies won’t eat your brains.
My wife and I divided up the important talks we’ll have with our daughters.
She’ll handle puberty, sex, and college. I’ll handle zombies. — James Breakwell (@XplodingUnicorn) May 4, 2017
4-year-old: I don’t want any more long dresses.
Me: Why not? 4: I can’t run from zombies. Valid concern. — James Breakwell (@XplodingUnicorn) May 12, 2017
[filling out a worksheet for preschool]
Me: Give me an example of a good deed. 4-year-old: Killing zombies. Nailed it. — James Breakwell (@XplodingUnicorn) May 3, 2017
My wife compromised
I can start a fund for the zombie apocalypse But if there are no zombies, I have to use it to send the kids to college — James Breakwell (@XplodingUnicorn) March 23, 2017
4-year-old: Are zombies real?
Me: Do you want the truth or the answer I give when your mom is in the room? — James Breakwell (@XplodingUnicorn) January 20, 2017
4-year-old: Why do you always lock the bathroom door?
Me: In case zombies attack 4: What about the rest of us? Me: Find your own bathroom — James Breakwell (@XplodingUnicorn) January 17, 2017
6-year-old: You taught me different stuff than my teacher did.
Me: Like what? 6: Fighting zombies. It’s a shame I can’t home school. — James Breakwell (@XplodingUnicorn) December 12, 2016
Me: What’s wrong?
6: I wasn’t line leader at school Me: A line leader dies first if zombies attack Now she doesn’t want to line up at all — James Breakwell (@XplodingUnicorn) September 28, 2016
4-year-old: I hate the winter. It’s too cold for kids.
Me: It’s too cold for zombies, too. 4: I love the winter. — James Breakwell (@XplodingUnicorn) December 9, 2016
Whether you’re deep in the trenches potty training your kid or training to repel the undead, Breakwell’s book totally has you covered, a must-read for anyone who hopes to get out of parenthood or the apocalypse with your brain (and sanity) intact. But we’ll let his 7-year-old have the last word on this. Somehow, it just seems appropriate.
7-year-old: Are people really buying your book?
Me: They sure are.
7: On purpose?
— James Breakwell (@XplodingUnicorn) October 11, 2017
Only Dead on the Inside: A Parent’s Guide To Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse available at Amazon and wherever books are sold.