Los Angeles Times, June 17, 2006

By James Verini

Last Saturday, while you were busy doing something stupid, maybe knocking back that beer that put you over the edge — or was that you skulking guiltily into “Da Vinci Code” at the ArcLight, refusing to yell “thank you!” at that nice usher? — some of your fellow Angelenos were having a much smarter evening at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater in Hollywood. The theater is in the Barnsdall Art Park, atop a hill overlooking East Hollywood and Los Feliz, next to the Barnsdall House, a dilapidated pile from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mayan phase. There, a crowd of smart-looking adults, peppered with art kids and hipsters, watched a grab-bag show of readings and multimedia presentations by a group of very brainy and clever, but warm, people.

The show was the latest in “The World Explained,” a series being put on by the L.A. contingent of the magazine and publishing mini-empire McSweeney’s, to benefit their after-school tutoring facility, called 826. Bob Odenkirk was in the audience. So were Carrie Fisher and, to everyone’s great pleasure, Emo Phillips. Andy Richter, Conan O’Brien’s old sidekick, hosted. Though smart, like pretty much everyone else there, Richter pretended to be dumb. He claimed that even though he was hosting a literary event, he preferred television over books. “Here’s why TV kicks books’ butt,” Richter said, launching into a lengthy exegesis of an episode of “CSI: Miami” in which David Caruso saves a man from an exploding building and foils a bank robbery, all while a tsunami is overtaking Miami.

The trademark McSweeney’s tweeness and curio fetish were on full display. Following Richter, Evany Thomas, a contributor to McSweeney’s and author of a new, mostly tongue-in-cheek book called “The Secret Language of Sleep,” dissected couples’ sleeping positions — Classic Spoons, the Seatbelt — to lots of amusement. Then Starlee Kine, a regular on the public radio show “This American Life,” talked about her relationship with her therapist. She was upstaged by Joshua Davis, a small, scrawny editor from Wired magazine, who showed footage of himself taking on a 400-pound man in a sumo wrestling competition. Finally, Davy Rothbart, editor of Found magazine and a frequent guest on “Life,” read excerpts from discarded notes sent to him from all over the world. Zooey Deschanel, the thinking man’s starlet, sang interstitial music with Grant Lee Phillips.

Los Angeles has long been home to great writers of non-screenplay-related verbiage, but the literary scene here has traditionally been diffuse. We have no Harry’s Bar or George Plimpton’s town house. And then there is that unjust but automatic presumption when we meet the rare L.A. author who doesn’t work exclusively in Final Draft: Why is he making pennies writing books when studio hacks in this town live in mansions?

There have been recent steps to correct these municipal shortcomings, among the most promising the advent of 826, which opened in early 2005 in Venice. One of six 826 locations conceived and overseen by McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers (the others are in New York, Chicago, Michigan, Seattle and San Francisco, where Eggers lives), 826 is more than a place for after-school tutoring. With a staff and phalanx of volunteers heavy with first-rate writers, 826 has also turned into a rallying point of sorts for L.A.’s nascent young literary set. It has become a second home to talented writers coming out of the MFA programs at USC and UC Irvine and to television and screenwriters looking to escape Hollywood.

Through “The World Explained” and other events, McSweeney’s and 826 have given some new contour to the next generation of local authors. Novelists including Glen David Gold and Salvador Plascencia, essayists and journo-bloggers such as Stephen Elliot and Joshuah Bearman, and TV refugees Rodney Rothman and Paul Feig, late of David Letterman and “Freaks and Geeks,” respectively, have all read at their shows. The McSweeney’s and 826 crowds are also cross-pollinating with the high-brow comedy and music scenes centered around Largo and M Bar, and performers such as Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins and Jon Brion.

Saturday’s show was the third installment of “The World Explained.” The first, which took place last fall at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, featured Tompkins’ comedic stylings and Deschanel’s dulcet strains. Rothman detailed how to create a boy band from scratch, and Bearman talked about the giant gerbil infestation in China. At the second show, at REDCAT in February, Modern Humorist founder Michael Colton discussed the time his mother almost disowned him for losing his virginity in her bedroom, Oswalt gave his theory of why a certain fast-food chain is probably a front for heroin dealing, and Brion played extemporaneous accompaniment. The next “The World Explained” will take place in the fall. Be smart. Go.