Undercover Funny

(Illustration for Xpress by Tyler Capps)

Tyler Capps never realized a pot of chili would land him a book deal with one of the largest publishers in the world — until just that happened.

The Asheville-based freelance graphic designer and illustrator had been making chili with his brother for years. One night, about two years ago, he decided to combine his skills into a comic book-style recipe for his favorite dish. On a whim, “2 a.m. Chili” was born. He posted his hybrid creation on Reddit, a forum website.

His creation proved popular with Reddit users, so he followed it up with several more illustrated recipes and a blog, cookingcomically.com. And then, with no solicitation from Capps, a literary agent called and connected Capps with Perigee, a subsidiary of Penguin, one of the largest publishers in the world.

On Tuesday, Oct. 1, Capps releases Cooking Comically: Recipes So Easy You’ll Actually Make Them. On Wednesday, Oct. 2, he’ll host a meet-and-greet at Malaprop’s Bookstore and Café at 7 p.m.

In Cooking Comically, Capps’ drawings guide readers through three dozen recipes for affordable, easy, mostly scratch-made food. The book regards the kitchen with levity: Beneath Capps’ pen, cooking looks like a game. For example, recipes come with difficulty ratings such as, “My cat could make this, and I don’t have a cat,” or, “Easy as looking silly in a snuggie.”

It takes a moment to grasp the tone of the cookbook. Compared with many of the glossy, highly styled cookbooks that have come out recently, Capps’ up-front, no-holds-barred food photography looks like a joke — and it is. It’s also a welcome respite from would-be poignant shots of parsley and crockery that dominate cookbooks right now, and a healthy reminder that we eat, foremost, because we are hungry.

Mountain Xpress: So your literary agent found you out of the blue? That’s the kind of thing everyone wants to have happen to them.
I’ve heard how notoriously hard it is to find an agent, and to have somebody come to me was ridiculous.

Did you believe them, or were you incredulous or suspicious?
I was definitely suspicious. The guy gave me his name and some stuff he’d worked on. I did my research and contacted some people he’d represented before, and they gave good reviews. Turns out he had actually represented comic books and cookbooks in the past.

Had he ever represented a combined comic book/cookbook?
No, I think this was his first one.

I think this is the first one a lot of people have ever seen. Do you know of others?
I’m sure someone has done something like this before. I can’t be the first one to think of this.

Do you see yourself as a cook?
I see myself as an amateur cook. … That means I’m still learning how to cook. I guess everybody really is, but I’m still at the beginning of that whole process, I think.

How long did it take you to make all the recipes and test them and do the drawings?
My timeline for making the book was about six months.

That’s pretty quick.
Yes, I agree.

Did you have any recipes that flopped?
Yeah, I’ve definitely had a few that have just not worked at all.

What was the worst recipe disaster?
I threw out cakes in a mug because I was really dumb about it and I made it in a pint glass instead of an actual mug, so it was the temperature of the sun when it came out of the microwave. … You can actually make cake mix and put it into a mug and eat it out of a mug.

But not so much in a pint glass?
No, it overflowed, and the whole outside was covered with cake.

I’m interested in the photos in your book. A lot of times, cookbooks have super-styled food photos. But you’re putting a block of raw meat in the middle of a page. What were your thoughts about photography and the not- super-polished food photography?

I didn’t really think about it. It started out as me photographing the process as I made them. I try to make it look as nice as I can, but I don’t fake it.

How do you think the drawings play into the book?
I guess it’s just a way to keep it entertaining, I hope.

What was your process? How did you connect the drawings with the recipes?
It kind of varies. I’ll usually make a recipe once or twice before I photograph it. Through making it before, I’m thinking about where the best silly jokes or whatever will go. When I take the photos, I take them in a way that makes space for the drawings to go into.

The little man who runs throughout the book, is he a character? Does he have a name, or is he just an average guy?
He started off as a random stick figure because I did the first one, [2 a.m. Chili] , as fast as I could. He’s kind of become a character, and I have a name for him. It’s Angus.

What’s interesting about him? Does he have a personality?
I guess I’m still figuring out who he is as a character. That sounds kind of pretentious, but I don’t really know his quirks. I guess his main quirk is he uses power tools in the kitchen.

So this book, as the title suggests, is also very funny. Why do you think food and humor go together?
I guess because cooking is a process that can be dodgy, sometimes.

Do you think people take food too seriously?
Some people, yeah.

Do you have training as a comic?
No, people have asked me that before, but no, definitely not. In person, I’m not even that funny, I don’t think. A couple of friends of mine, after they first saw the recipes I was doing, they’ve known me for years, and they pulled up a song they found, a corny old song called Undercover Funny. They never thought I would do anything like that.

Maybe something about putting it on paper instead of saying it out loud?
Definitely. I don’t think I’m super witty. It takes me time to come up with things. Even then, I don’t know if it’s going to be good or not.

Do you feel like you took some risks in the book? Were you worried that some things wouldn’t be funny?
Oh, everything, the whole book. You work on it for so long. It’s hard to know whether it’s good or not anymore.

But I think the audience for this book is clear. I definitely know people who buy Cool Whip and need Angus to say to them, “Now you don’t buy Cool Whip anymore. You make your own Cool Whip.” Are most of these recipes things you made up on your own, or did you pull from other books?
It’s kind of a split. I borrowed from some, and others I just made up off the top of my head, like the Sexy Pancakes. Sometimes, I’ll find something I want to eat, and I’ll research the recipes, look up different types and different cooks and see how they do it and throw my own stuff in and kind of mash it all together and come up with something I can call my own.

So what was the hardest part of making this book?
Definitely the last month before the deadline of finishing the book. You realize the slow and steady pace you’ve been setting isn’t quite going to get you to the finish line. It was a tough month, cranking it all out.


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