Living

Evil genius has Columbia roots

Josh Lieb was born in Columbia and attended Forest Lake Elementary School and Heathwood Hall.

So why is the middle school in his young adult novel "I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President" in Omaha?

"It's a book about a kid who has an empire spanning the globe, and Omaha seemed a lot more centrally located. It seemed like the logical place to run the world from," Lieb said from New York, where he now lives.

That kind of slightly skewed outlook not only oozes from Lieb's first novel, but it's what propelled him through the comedy writing world from the Harvard Lampoon to "The Simpsons," "NewsRadio" and, now, "The Daily Show."

Stuck at home during the 2007-08 Writers Guild strike, Lieb set out on every writer's quest - The Great American Novel. But flatulence jokes kept getting in the way. So he wrote "Unspeakable Evil," which deftly intersperses references to Vladimir Nabokov, Captain Beefheart and zits.

Someone with a similarly warped sense of humor at Razorbill Books offered Lieb a contract after reading an outline of the book about a tubby seventh-grader who's secretly the third richest person in the world. When other kids threaten Oliver Watson, he gives the signal for his minions (they're everywhere) to shoot the thugs with one of his evil inventions - a drug that causes sudden, intense flatulence and a three-month delay in puberty.

The action heats up when Oliver decides to run for class president to spite his father (or to gain his respect, if you insist on reading at the over-analysis level required by middle school English teachers).

Noted director McG and Warner Brothers have purchased an option to turn the farcical tale into a movie. And now Lieb the author is returning to town for a book signing at 3 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble at 3400 Forest Drive.

"I was one of the kids who always wanted to be a writer and who romanticized that picture of the lonely guy at the keyboard sucking down cigarettes," said Lieb, 37. "It had a glamour for me.

"The reality isn't there. There's nothing very glamorous about loneliness, which is a lot of the job. But it's definitely what I'm best suited for. It's the job that's right for me."

Lieb's television writing experience varies from the pressure of working overnight on his own to come up with 20 pages of script for "NewsRadio" to the collaborative work on "The Daily Show." As executive producer of Jon Stewart's nightly tour-de-force, Lieb does more rewriting than writing these days. But he hatched the "Thank You, South Carolina" segment last summer after politicians and horse lovers in his home state kept popping up in the national headlines.

"I hope I didn't offend anybody," he said. "It came out a little differently than I thought, but not so much."

Lieb loves South Carolina. Really.

When Lisa Simpson expressed horror at the idea of attending the University of South Carolina and becoming a Gamecock, it was other writers at "The Simpsons" taking a shot at Lieb's affection for his home state.

His parents still live in the Columbia area. Folly Beach is still his favorite place for a vacation. He doesn't see the jokes about Gov. Mark Sanford and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson as turning South Carolina into a laughingstock so much as recognition that the state no longer is ignored.

"When I was a kid, I really felt like we never made it into the news," Lieb said. "South Carolina was really ignored on a national level. . . .

"South Carolina these days drives a lot of big news stories; our senators and representatives are on TV talking about the big issues as much as anyone. And our governor is embarrassing us as much as any other governor embarrasses any other state.

"And so it was really kind of a tribute to we're a national player these days. Becoming a player on a national stage means you're going to have to take your pokes."

His understanding of the South - as well as the summers he spent with relatives in Omaha - played into the decision to base his book's Gale Sayers Middle School in Nebraska.

"So often you find when you are a Southerner that doesn't live there anymore, people have such exotic preconceptions about the South, which is why so many books are set in the South, the South becomes a character," said Lieb, whose cadence is closer to Woody Allen than Andy Griffith, despite his Southern childhood. "What's interesting about Omaha is it's foreign to people, but it doesn't feel exotic.

"I set the book in a place people imagine to be a lot blander than it is. It takes too much explaining when you place a book in a place as wonderful as South Carolina."

He insists his days at Heathwood Hall had little influence on the characters and plot lines in the book.

"It's sooo unautobiographical," Lieb said. "I wish I had been an evil supergenius with a billion dollars at my disposal. It's total fantasy. ... I had really great teachers (at Heathwood Hall), and all of the teachers in the book are real morons."

But kids at any school will recognize the truthiness (oops, wrong show) in the unofficial titles of "The Most Pathetic Boy In School" and "The Most Popular Girl In School." And teen angst is universal.

"I think people forget how angry kids are a lot of the times because they feel so powerless, and how much everything hurts," Lieb said. "As adults, we forget how much insults hurt. We're adults, and we've been called jerks or stupid a hundred thousand times, but when you're a kid and you've only been called a jerk 14 times, it stings a lot more."

Oliver is fat and stupid so people won't suspect his evil genius alter ego. But even he seems hurt when election posters portray his rounded features. As unautobiographical as the book might be, Lieb could identify with that feeling.

"No one should be allowed to be photographed before the age of 18 - it's just too humiliating and embarrassing," Lieb said. "You're trying so much on at that point. One of the joys of moving away from your home town is no one knows what an idiot you were as a child."

VIDEO

"The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart "endorses" Josh Lieb's young adult novel.

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