When it comes to giving advice, TV dads pretty much take the cake. But M.J. Dougherty gives them a run for their money in his new book Life Lessons from a Total Failure. In the book, Dougherty reflects on the highs and lows of his life, taking readers on his journey with advice laced in along the way. In fact, you might actually see that advice come to television, as he is in early talks to option his first book into a series.
M.J. is no stranger to television. Having appeared on hit shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Glee, it’s always been a huge part of his life. When he’s not on-screen, he’s probably watching a Friends re-runs, working on his next writing project while humming the tune in his head. M.J. always has a song in his head. On this particular morning, he woke up singing “Chikity China the Chinese chicken” courtesy of The Barenaked Ladies – though he has no idea why.
Looking at M.J.’s world now, “total failure” would not be the first words to come to mind. On the contrary, with 96 percent of Amazon reviews giving his book five stars, it would seem Dougherty has proven himself a hit author. Ironically, this is never a title he thought he’d have. He even admits that writing a book took a lot out of him. “I would be lying if I said I didn’t say a couple of times ‘I am never reading this book again'” Dougherty jokes.
I got on the phone with M.J. to discuss how his world has changed since publishing Life Lessons, and how it all came together.
The clever title of the book seems to stand out to a lot of people. The other thing that stood out, at least to me, was the cover art; it’s an umbrella with rain under it. Is there a story behind that?
(laughs) Well, I will tell my husband that you said that. He will be very happy because he did that cover. We had so many cover ideas; it was the thorn in my paw. The cover was driving me nuts! The book was done, and it was like “What do we want to do with the cover?” At first, I had wanted this TV with this kind of test pattern on it to show that there was nothing on the TV. But people didn’t really get it. So, then we had a guy with an umbrella and the rain going under the umbrella, but that was too involved. And then my husband Pete just really quickly drew this red umbrella and put the rain underneath it, and the words. And it was like “Oh, perfect! That’s it!”
It was on the shelves in the Barnes & Noble in Santa Monica, under the beach section, like good beach reads. And I kept seeing people – I would kind of stalk around the table, because it’s very exciting for me – and I constantly watched people look and pursue the different covers, and grab that and pick it up. And so I asked a couple of people, you know, what made you pick up that book? And I always thought they would say, first, the title. But they would be like, “Oh, well the umbrella stands out. It’s cute.” And then they’d say the title. (laughs).
Another thing that jumps out is that each chapter is the title of a TV show. How did you choose the show designated for each chapter?
Most of the titles for the chapters kind of have something to do with what’s going on in that chapter. So, some are very literal, like the Grey’s Anatomy chapter, or Glee, where it talks about me being on that show. But a lot of them were titles like…you know, the title FRIENDS. It was a moment in the book where I realized the value of my friends. And Home Improvement, was when we moved into our first apartment, and I felt secure and happy.
So it kind of went along with what the chapter was talking about. But for me, I really wanted to do that because the book itself has very kind of heavy tones to it at times. I was trying to find a way to lighten it up a bit, and TV has been such a thing in my life that I thought well how much fun would it be to assign each chapter title the name of a sitcom? So that’s kind of how that happened.
It also kept the extended metaphor you used that your life is a sitcom. And overall, it was written a bit like a sitcom. How did you develop your writing technique?
I have never anticipated being a writer. This wasn’t something that was ever in my wheelhouse. I like to read, and I’ve always been a strong writer in school, I always did well in English and stuff like that, but I never in a million years thought I’d write a book.
Writing a book is not like writing a paper for college, it’s very very different. I learned that it takes a long time to develop and kind of figure it all out. So, I developed my writing style by trial and error. I would tell people I was writing a book, and people were like “Well when are you gonna have it done? You’ve been saying you’re writing this book for two years.” And I’d say “Yeah, and I’m still writing it” because I would go through the whole thing and then go through it again…and again…and again. (laughs). You start to weave different things in and out, start actually to find where the different nuances are, and you start to kind of weave the messages together.
With the TV sitcom metaphor, I wanted to lighten up the plotline because even though the story’s heavy, I’m not a very heavy, serious kind of guy. So that doesn’t really compute when people meet me, and it’s not how I wanted to portray everything in my life. Because, as dark as my life has been, it has been very fulfilling and there has been a lot of good, so that was important to me. Once I wrote the core of the story, I always knew I wanted to do this TV reference, because it’s who I am, I’m the TV guy. And I started inserting into the story little things first, like hearing an audience say “aww.” And then you can put more and more in, and then it starts to develop and weave together nicely.
One of the core lessons of the book comes from advice your Uncle gave you: “Don’t let the highs get too high or the lows get too low.” You’ve published this book, and it’s getting great feedback, so how are you keeping yourself grounded during this high?
Oh, well (laughs) it’s very easy to keep me in check because I am M.J. – life lessons from a total failure. No matter what, on every day I have a high and I have a low, so I just have to learn to cancel them out. There’s something that’s always happening. I use this example now when people ask me; we had this book launch party. We had this big book launch party in L.A. and celebrities were coming, and I waited three years to do this, so I was so excited. It could’ve been the highest high of my whole life, other than my wedding day.
Instead, it was a comedy of errors. (laughs) It was 104 degrees outside, the hottest day in L.A., the place was under construction, it was a filthy mess. They had no air conditioning; the sun was beating through the front glass onto the red carpet. It literally was like an oven. I was sweating so profusely that, celebrities were coming to give me a hug, and there are pictures on Getty images of me pushing them away going “Don’t touch me, don’t touch me.” So, you have this high high and this low low, you just kind of…they’re a wash, and you have to laugh.
You had to revisit some very dark times in your life while writing this book. Was there ever a point that it was too stressful and you thought “maybe I can’t write this book”?
Oh yeah, it was really stressful. I mean, it was stressful and cathartic. In my head, I assumed that everybody, even my supporters, still were ashamed of me or thought I was a terrible person. When I would call people, like calling my friend Erin in particular, that conversation I remember, and Shana, the people I talk about in the book, talking to Shana was hard for me. Because I knew Shana, and I knew Erin, they love me, and they support me, but they’re not liars. They don’t bullshit, for lack of a better term, and they were going to tell me exactly what they thought.
Humans have this remarkable way of tailoring their memories to kind of fit their own needs, to protect themselves. So, I was preparing for them to be like, “Are you crazy? This isn’t how it was.” And what I realized was I had tailored those memories to make it worse than it actually was, as far as how people perceive me.
I realized that I had these outside influences telling me not only, yes this is how it was, but they never thought of me that way, they never thought the way I thought they did. And that was important because, until that moment, I always assumed these people were sticking by me really out of a sense of loyalty and pity, because they were like “Aw, poor M.J., he’s such a screw-up.” Then I realized, no they’re not gonna do that. (laughs).
First of all, they don’t care that much, they have their own lives to lead. But they were also just kind of like, “Why did you get so upset about it? Things happen.” When we do things in our life, and things don’t go the way we want, we assume everybody is looking at us, pointing fingers, ridiculing us. And you know what? There are a lot of people who do that. But it’s not how it is a lot of times. A lot of times people may have a couple of things to say, then they move forward. So although it was hard for me personally to drudge up all that stuff after years of trying to let it go, it was really kind of cathartic to listen to people say, “Eh, you weren’t so bad. You did the best you could. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” (laughs).
Who was the first person to read a final copy of the book?
Oh boy. Well, I should say my husband, but he still hasn’t read it. (laughs). He was the first person to attempt to read it. He got through like the second or third chapter, and he’s like “I can’t read this, it’s too much.” He lived through it; you know what I mean? I totally get it.
So, he hasn’t actually read the whole book yet. He’ll pick it up and read a chapter here and there, but he hasn’t read it all the way through. The first person to read it all the way through was my friend Brea, who I do talk about in the book. She read it, beginning to end the first, first draft. She was the first one…It was a really good first reaction, because it taught me how to tailor my emotions for what’s to come.
You’re in very early talks to option the book for television, what is that process like? What does it mean to you for it to have that potential?
Remember we were talking about don’t let the highs be too high or the lows be too low? (laughs). This is really, really testing me. In my life, I couldn’t think of anything I would want more – more than I already have, I’m very happy with what I have in my life – but to be on TV and to have a sitcom is just the ultimate. So, when this kind of happened and it started, it was so exciting. It was so exciting to the point of, you hang up the phone and do a little dance, and I’m definitely that kind of person.
Now, what I’ve learned as it goes further, and the more real it may become, the stakes get higher and the more anxiety comes. Because there’s no time limit to when you know for sure. It could be tomorrow, it could be three months from now. All I know is that it’s being talked about, and for the first time in this whole process, I have no control. So all I can do is be patient. Man is that hard! (laughs). It’s not stress, it’s not worry, it’s anxiety. It’s this good anxious, because I believe this is going to happen. I do, I feel it.
In the meantime, you’re giving five percent of your proceeds to The Trevor Project. How did you get involved with them?
I guess I just have to go back to my whole plight, and the stuff that I had gone through. I think that The Trevor Project is a very specific organization, and I think that that’s very good in this case, because the needs of LGBTQ youth are very specific. When you’re growing up, like I was, in a place where it was completely unacceptable or not even talked about, to have an organization that they can reach out to that knows exactly how to speak to them and help them realize that their life is gonna be okay – if I had had that back then, who knows how my life would have taken shape. Now, obviously I’ve already written and stated that I can’t change anything in my life or I wouldn’t be where I am today, and I’m very happy where I am. But, when you are that only person, [or] you think you’re the only person you know who’s gay, and that you’re isolated and alone, it is a horrifying, horrifying place to be.
What The Trevor Project does, which is so great, is you don’t have to go to a building, you don’t have to ask someone else for help. A teenager can dial a phone number and talk to someone who specifically understands why they’re on that line, and they can really change their perspective and how they view themselves as they continue to grow. It’s such an important thing. So when I decided I wanted to partner with a charity, I was initially going to partner with the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, because that’s where I got my free therapy. But I realized that would only be helping a certain amount of people in the L.A. area.
As someone from a small town, I wanted to go with an organization that could help people more broadly, and then I found out about The Trevor Project. My friend told me about them, and I did some research, and I called and talked to people there. I was blown away at how amazing they are and what they do.
What has been the biggest change for you since the book is done and published?
That people I don’t know, know me so well. (laughs) It’s a fascinating thing. You could be on a hit TV show and go down the street, and people come up and recognize you. It’s very different when you go to something, and someone has read your book and come up to you. They know your family, your friends, they know how your brain works, they know what you’ve gone through in your life, they know you! And it’s weird!
I have had people come up to me and give me a hug, be like “You know, when Karen died, I was just a mess because I wish I had a Karen” or “If I had a Pete…” And they’re talking to me about these people in my life, and I don’t know who this person is! It’s really weird. It’s the coolest thing in the world, I just never really anticipated that.
Life Lessons from a Total Failure is available online and in stores now.