Arts & Culture News

The Quest to Not Become Karl: A Q&A with @DadBoner Creator and Author Mike Burns

Depending on your sense of humor and/or level of empathy, you might be amused to learn that a lot of the life and times of the tragic comic figure Karl Welzein, star of the @DadBoner Twitter feed and subject of the humorous journal novel Power Moves, comes from the real life of his creator, Mike Burns.

Burns said at one low point in his own life, he actually feared he could have turned into the kind of Arby's scarfing, Kohl's shirt wearing, self-deluding average American that Burns writes about and sees in his adventures across America.

Burns talked to the Dallas Observer about what his fans can expect when they catch him and stand-ups Matt Braunger, Clint Werth, Gavin Mulloy and Chris McDonald on stage Thursday at Sons of Hermann Hall, and exactly how similar Burns really is to the "Karls" he sees daily.

Mixmaster: How did all this start, and where does Karl Welzien come from? Mike Burns: Karl comes from a couple of different places. One of them is a fear of what I could have become. I'm divorced like he is and I always thought if I had never moved out of Michigan or never left the Midwest or had certain life experiences, I might have turned into that guy. There's this kind of exploration of trying to go backwards in time and figure out why I made certain mistakes and live vicariously through this guy. The other reason I wrote him is that I thought it was really funny to write a Twitter feed from the perspective of a guy who really isn't proficient with technology or the Internet -- or anything at all -- and what he would say and tell everyone. There's that common man, day-to-day behavior being documented and told to everyone that was really entertaining to me.

Most people use Twitter and they use things like Instagram to let everyone know what they ate that day or what they're doing and they put on Facebook that they're going to get the boat out this weekend. I always thought, "Why the fuck do you feel the need to tell me that? Why does everyone need to know?" So I thought, what if you had someone who had nothing going on who told everyone about every bit of his life with such enthusiasm, even though it was completely boring and normal? It made it more interesting because of the way he filtered it through his brain.

Did it start completely on Twitter or did it start elsewhere, say as a sketch character?

The only place that the character has ever lived was on Twitter and essentially, he's not on Twitter. That's the thing. He never writes hashtags or retweets. You're essentially looking into a fishbowl and watching this guy. What you're reading on Twitter, he's writing at home on a journal or on the back of an Arby's bag about his thoughts. I've always done sketch and improv and love to do different characters and I thought a different way to use Twitter would be to perform as a character as opposed to just writing jokes or observations as other people do.

Everyone knows a Karl. That's why I think it's so popular. Everyone knows this guy. Last night, we were in St. Louis and essentially what we call eight "Karls" sat down at the bar. There are two different versions of him depending on how you think of him in your head. There's kind of the stocky, confident construction worker-esque guy that seems positive and has a positive attitude. There's also the version who we saw last night, which is what Karl may or may not end up to be. This guy had a ponytail who was severely overweight with man breasts and a dirty shirt on who was hitting on the waitress and in his head, you can tell the guy thought there was really a connection there, so he tells her they should hang out sometime.

We're watching this happening and thinking, wow, this is Karl at his worst. This is everywhere we go. We stopped at a Jimmy John's and go, "Hey, there's a Karl." We stop a truck shop outside of Chicago and a Karl walked in. These guys are all over the place.

Essentially for me, Karl is a representation of a good bit of America. All the people kind of mesh together and kind of have a little bit of Karl Welzein in them but there are an awful lot of Karl Welzeins out there and that's the glue that holds the fabric of the country together. These Arby's guys who still aren't into technology or aren't into higher-end food. They still think that Chili's is fine cuisine.

Have you had a moment where you met someone who was the perfect representation of Karl?

No, but Karl is an amalgamation of a lot of people I have known, and myself, and a lot of my friends. They don't necessarily look like Karl, but they behaved the same way that he does. I've done a lot of the same things he has. A lot of those stories are true but they are just changed a bit for the story line. Can you give us an example of a real "Karl moment"?

When Vernon gets stabbed in the storyline, that's because I got stabbed. So I made it happen to someone else.

The shit outside of the Dumpster, that's one of my childhood friends from the eighth grade who took a shit outside of a church. He couldn't make it two blocks to go home, so I was shocked to watch him do that and I thought how funny it is to watch a grown man do that because he couldn't go in to use the restroom at work.

A lot of the petty differences he has with Anne early on in the book and the Twitter feed, some of those are based on my personal relationship demises. They aren't exact instances but it's the same attitude of you just start nitpicking at each other and I wanted to have a real depiction of a relationship breaking down, and it's all based on him not being able to eat Lunchables and not being able to have six beers and do things on a Sunday that he doesn't want to.

When you're in a new relationship, you're very happy just to be with your wife or girlfriend and you'll skip a football game to go to Target with her or go to the grocery store but after you're more comfortable with them and you realize you don't have to do those things to appease them, that's when it's utter hell to go do that and miss the Bears game or miss the Lions game.

I kind of became that at a certain point. I became selfish and all I was concerned with was how to spend my free time doing what I wanted to do like play Grand Theft Auto, reading comic books, watch sports and also do comedy. I was gone a lot of the time at night towards the end of my marriage and that's a good bit of why it ended. I just wasn't physically or mentally available or around. That's kind of what happened to Karl.

He's selfish. He didn't have any interest in his children or what his wife had to say or do and to be fair: His wife's kind of a dick [laughs] and his kids aren't that interesting, which a lot of children aren't. I don't have any kids myself but he didn't have it in him to love them unconditionally, so that's a very dark part of the book. Maybe his biggest character flaw is that he actually is a horrible father but he continually lies to himself about being a good dad.

I wrote a good majority of it from a couch while living with my buddy because I had broken up with a girlfriend and moved out and I didn't care about myself or my well-being. All I wanted to do was sit on the couch and write Karl and I lived there for a year and it was a horrible, disgusting apartment and I think it was pretty evocative of what Dave's place would be like with the smells, the beer cans, the cigarette butts, just the dirtiness. I think a lot of the Twitter feed felt real because I really was living that way.

Do you think of it more as a memoir?

It was very cathartic to write. And the book is half of that sort of thing and it's also half of a study of the United States, just the position that we're in right now. The whole attitude of being the best and everything's the best and we don't need to fix anything. Everything's totally cool. That's not always true but that's the way Karl talks to himself. He always thinks that whatever he's doing is the greatest thing in the world even though at one point, he becomes homeless and has to live in a car. That's not in the book. It's in the actual Twitter feed in the storyline. He calls it "the all-freedom lifestyle." He thinks it's almost better that he lives in his car.

What drives Karl to behave the way he does? He constantly lies to himself and that's why he has all of these philosophies. Although they make sense to a certain extent, they are also the wrong thing to do, but they give fuel to carry on in the way that he lives.

I don't mean to turn this into a political discussion but it's funny to read this book now in the midst of the government shutdown. So many people have this attitude of what they're doing is right, even though everyone else says it's totally self-destructive. It's funny but it's also pretty scary in a way.

Right, it really shows you what can happen. That your life can just be ruined because you drank too many 12-packs too many weekends in a row. It sets a really slippery slope. You wake up hungover one too many times and all of a sudden, you go from being a drunk to an alcoholic and that's terrible. But I do think the book kind of serves as a time stamp for what the country is like as a whole, at this point in time. Guys still wearing jean shorts, novelty T-shirts from Kohl's, all those things.

He's still holding on to things like the [Sports Illustrated] swimsuit issue because it's not that big of a thing like it used to be since sexuality and pornography have become more rampant and that's very, very tame. It's not an excitable thing for men anymore. They have enough T&A shoved in their face that it doesn't have that special effect that it used to. He seems to be stuck in this time period, like he's fighting the wave of time.

He wants to feed his ego and he'll just never give in until he's completely broken down. He hasn't done that yet. He hasn't completely hit rock bottom and who knows if he ever will? For some people, rock bottom is death. How does he work in a live setting? No one plays him. In the live shows, I go up on stage and do like 15 to 20 minutes of stand-up and readings of different things that Karl has written. A lot of things that have been in the Twitter feed, we talk about that a bit. The other comics come up and do stand-up that is usually some sort of thematic stand-up that goes along with the Twitter feed, not always necessarily but we tend to pick people who we think fit the mold. Then at the end, my buddy Matt Braunger comes up and does a full half-hour and the other comics come up and do readings from the book as well. It's an amazingly fun show to watch. Everyone's great and had such a good time with it. I think it really surpasses any expectations.

I think performing as Karl would just be a detriment to it. Everyone who reads the books hears their own voice in their head and hears Karl differently, uses a different cadence when they read his words. Did you ever think about doing a live version of Karl or do you always want to keep him in the shadows or our imaginations?

No one will ever live up to the expectations. If it was too real, it would be too sad and it would look hokey. The only way it will ever come to life is if it becomes a TV show. The way that the story arcs are built and the characters are built, I would love to see it come to life as a television show and I lean towards animation. That's the best way to go because you'll be able to do more things than you could with a live character and it would be more light-hearted because there's so much darkness in the story line. You'll never have to look at someone being that character.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.