One of the only joys of 2017 has been watching the rise of Tiffany Haddish, an ebullient, hilarious, risqué comedian and possibly the best guest on any late-night talk show. Haddish, who talks frequently about growing up in foster care and stints spent living in her car, had a breakout role in the comedy Girls Trip and recently published a memoir, The Last Black Unicorn. But the book’s press materials don’t mention its very surprising co-author: Tucker Max, the one-time king of “dick lit.”
When Jezebel reached him by phone in Austin on Thursday, Max chuckled that Gallery Books, the division of Simon and Schuster that put out Haddish’s book, was in a tizzy about our questions regarding his co-authorship.
“They’ve been freaking out all day,” he said, laughing. “They’re a corporation. They don’t have any idea how to deal with media or controversy.”
“Why do you think this would be controversial?” I asked.
“You tell me,” he said.
Let’s do that now. If Max’s name is ringing some faint, unpleasant mid-aughts bells for you, it should. Earlier this century, he was best known as the biggest name in what we could also call “fratire,” a genre of ostensibly trueish stories about banging chicks and drinking a lot, authored by gleefully vulgar, barely post-college white men. It was the faddish, literary offshoot of the pickup artist movement, and like ultra low-rise jeans you had to shave to get into, it’s come to seem embarrassingly dated just a few short years later.
Open, uncreative misogyny isn’t as hip as it used to be. Max once joyously wrote that some women are “hardwired for whoredom.” (He has said that he was quoting someone else, and that person was being facetious.) He came up with a “female rating system” where the low end was “common stock pig.” He thought a good Twitter joke was suggesting that Planned Parenthood “would be cooler if it was a giant flight of stairs, w/someone pushing girls down, like a water park slide.” In front of a New York Times journalist, he told two women, “I’m trying to get you drunk so you can’t consent to sex anymore.” By 2014, even he seemed kind of sick of his own shit.
The road away from career pickup artistry has taken different forms for different bros. Men’s rights activists–cum-sexperts Roosh V and Mike Cernovich have both moved on to careers as openly bigoted members of the alt-right, with Cernovich also working as a self-proclaimed journalist. Meanwhile, Tucker Max and pickup artist author Neil Strauss both wrote relationship books in 2015 that were meant to signal that they’d turned over a new leaf: They were mature now. Thoughtful. Considerate of women’s needs. Less convinced of our innate whoredom.
In a 2015 Maxim interview, Max pontificated on the ways that his raging sexism helped conceal deep-seated emotional distress.
“I got to the point in my life where I had everything I thought I wanted,” he told the magazine. “But I was missing something.” He figured out that it was partly about his emotionally distant parents and got into therapy. But he also didn’t really apologize for any of what he’d written, telling Maxim, “I mean, you’re asking if I’m ashamed of living my life in a way that I had a bunch of fun. I did a ton of things I wanted and ended up writing a genre-creating, best-selling series of books. So, no.”
In 2014, Max also become the founder of something called Book in a Box, marketed as a company that helps “business professionals” write books. For most people, it comes with a $15,000 price tag. Max told Newsweek he thought it was a way to diversify the publishing industry:
Max argues that getting a book into print has always been a rigged game. “The publishing industry has done a very good job of finding and producing books that are designed for white, upper-class intellectuals, because that’s who they are as people,” he says. “I think they do a very poor job of producing books for anyone outside of that demographic.”
In an interview-that-feels-like-an-ad published on Huffington Post (by a “contributor,” not a journalist), Max expounded on the Book in a Box format. Haddish is mentioned there as a Book in a Box author, although her name is misspelled.
Yet none of the promotional materials for Last Black Unicorn mention Tucker Max, and his name is not on the book’s cover. That’s not totally unusual for co-authors or ghostwriters. On December 7, though, Max proudly announced his part in the creation of the book.
In an unusual move for a co-writer—who are usually pretty modest about their contributions, especially to memoirs—Max is also saying online that his role in the book was substantial. In a Facebook post, he called one particular anecdote “arguably the single greatest story I have ever written.” Here’s the full text of what he wrote:
My first new book of short stories in years is out.
No, I did not transition to become a black woman (that would be quite the story wouldn’t it?).
I was the co-writer for Tiffany Haddish’s book.
This is the first book I have EVER co-wrote with a celeb-type.
In the last ten years, I’ve had at least 50 celebs ask me to write their book.
I turned them all down.
So why did I say yes to a comedian who, when I signed the deal was still relatively unknown outside of Hollywood?
Because she was the first one who convinced me that she would actually be open and honest and talk about her life and dig into the painful (as well as the funny) parts of her life.
If you liked my books, if you like funny and honest memoirs, this book will blow you away. The “Roscoe” story is arguably the single greatest story I have ever written—and I include everything I put in my books.
You have my word on this book.
Buy it, read it, and if it didn’t make you laugh and make you feel (maybe even cry), email me, I’ll personally refund your money. That’s how confident I am in this book.
You’ll love it.
The “Roscoe story” he refers to is one Haddish tells about going on a date with a man she worked with at the airport, who had a “baby arm,” as Haddish puts it, as well as a developmental disability. When she told that story on the Daily Show, it was one of several anecdotes that reduced Trevor Noah to helpless tears of laughter, doubled over at his desk.
The way Haddish tells it, it’s a fairly gentle, sweet story about her decision to eventually go out with Roscoe after six months of his pursuing her with ant-ridden flowers and Filet of Fish and “necklaces that turned my neck green.” Although she imitates Roscoe’s speech impediment in a way that makes me personally uncomfortable, he is by no means the butt of the joke. She joyfully describes sitting across the table from him at dinner in Hermosa Beach, and deciding, as she puts it, “Mmm. I’m going to fuck the shit out of Roscoe.”
In writing, Haddish and Max call Roscoe “not just a little handicapped; dude was messed up in multiple ways.” But they also stress that he was, the book assures us, “not mentally disabled. You could have a normal conversation with him, and he would totally be able to talk to you.” Much of the story is the same as it’s told on the Daily Show, with the addition of a lengthy sex scene and a heartbreaking moment when Tiffany decides they can’t be in a relationship and Roscoe retaliates by yelling “Your pussy is garbage!” at her in the middle of the airport.
It’s a story that, thankfully, is again fairly careful not to make Roscoe or his disability the joke. But it’s borderline. It’s a story that works better with Haddish’s charming, joyful delivery. It’s also a moment in the text where one can’t help but vividly recall Max’s previous writing, in which he’s used the word “retard” a generous number of times. (“I guess working with retards is the perfect precursor to hanging out with me,” he concludes, in a blog post about having sex with a woman who worked with disabled kids.)
Jennifer Robinson, a publicist for Simon and Schuster, confirmed that Max was a co-author on the book. In a statement, she wrote:
Tucker Max was the co-writer of THE LAST BLACK UNICORN, not a ghostwriter, which is noted in the acknowledgments of the book. He worked closely with Tiffany on the book, and they were already paired together when Gallery Books received the proposal.
She added, in response to a followup question, “A literary agent represented the book proposal and brought it to us with Tucker already attached.”
In other words, Gallery weren’t the ones who linked up Haddish and Max. In a phone conversation Thursday afternoon, Max told me that he met Haddish through her agent Joel Zadak, who’s at the talent mangement firm Principato-Young. “I didn’t know who Tiffany was,” he says. But Zadak assured him “that she loved my stuff and wanted to work with me,” he says. (Zadak’s office declined to make him available for comment and referred us to Haddish’s publicist.)
Max said he’s received offers from “at least 50 celebs” to write their memoirs, but has always declined. Haddish was different, he said. “I tentatively agreed to do the proposal and flew to L.A.,” he said. “We spent the whole day hanging out. She told me her life story and I was blown away by how amazing it was. A lot of people have great stories. But she was also really willing to open up and be honest and emotionally vulnerable and get into the hard parts,” he added, like talking about being physically abused by her ex-husband. (In his 2012 book Sloppy Seconds, Max once wrote, about texting with a “stupid” woman, that he told her, “People like you make me understand why domestic violence occurs.”)
“We actually had a really heartfelt conversation where she told the whole story about her ex-husband who beat her,” Max says.
Max’s contention is that Haddish couldn’t have gotten a book deal without him.
“I talked about this with her manager,” he said. “Definitely one of the reasons they wanted me too is because she wasn’t well-known at the time. If she tried to get a book deal now she’d get a huge deal easily. It’d be a bidding war. There’ll be one for her second book. But at the time she was a relative unknown.”
He added, “Part of the strategy was that my name would help sell the book.” But, he insisted, he didn’t care whether he got credit. “I told Joel and Tiffany early on, I don’t care if my name’s on the book. What matters is if we do a great book. I get paid the same either way.”
That does not, of course, explain why Max is currently all over social media trumpeting his role in the book. He also takes a good deal of creative credit for the book while still honoring Haddish for her contributions, which is a hard balance for him to pull off.
“I didn’t live her life and I’m not a black woman—although wouldn’t that be amazing—so I have no content to add to this,” he told me. “It’s a memoir. So this is 100 percent her stories and her life and her ideas and her voice. My job was to get Tiffany onto the page. It’s what we say with our company. I like to think in this role my job is to be a scribe for her.”
He added, “As you well know, thinking and talking and writing are all very different things. Writing is a distinct skill. Tiffany’s a fantastic storyteller and speaker but she’s not a very good writer. My job was to get her whole self into that.” (Max also clarified that he wasn’t the only person at Book in a Box who worked on the project: “Her contract is with my company not me personally. There were other people on my team who worked on aspects of it. It was a team effort.”)
Max claimed to be baffled about why his involvement with the book might be surprising or controversial. “Your assumption is that I have something to defend myself against,” he told me. “I don’t.”
Max told me that as far as he’s concerned his books were never sexist, because women bought them.
“The reality is that when I was at my peak, more than 50 percent of my fans were women,” he told me. “You and people like you don’t like to accept or deal with that fact, but it’s the truth. You can call me sexist if you want. You can call my writing sexist if you want, but millions of women disagree with you. You’re assuming that’s true. Millions of women would disagree. What women would buy a book that she thought was degrading and sexist?”
Max decided, upon reflection, that perhaps I was both sexist and racist for questioning Haddish’s choice of co-author.
“The assumption is that Tiffany is not smart or capable enough to choose herself,” he told me. “It’s a sexist insult to Tiffany. I’m serious. I bet any amount of money you won’t put that in the article.” (According to my notes, I assured him that I “absolutely fucking would.”)
Max professed to be completely confused at the very suggestion that he might be a controversial choice. “Saying it’s controversial is to imply she made a mistake, that she did something wrong,” he told me. “Otherwise where’s the controversy?”
“Do you think your views have changed since you were ‘at your peak’?” I asked.
“I’ve changed substantially since 10 years ago,” Max declared. “If there’s ever a 10-year period where I’m not a better person, then I’m failing as a human. Even a one year period.”
Max remains resolutely allergic to prolonged introspection, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us need to be. Although both Haddish and Max share a penchant for what we could broadly call naughty humor, there are significant differences in their bodies of work, given that his trades so heavily in objectifying women and other forms of offensive, belittling, punching-down jokes.
It’s surely Haddish’s choice to pair up with the co-author of her choosing. But one can’t help but wish that the book had come into the world with the help of someone whose previous contributions to the English language were less gross. It’s tough not to feel disappointed that a performer as extraordinary and groundbreaking as Haddish teamed up with someone whose oeuvre contains stories about cajoling and coercing reluctant women into anal sex. Surely there are black women, say, who would have been available to co-author a book? Or, at the very least, someone who doesn’t still have a bunch of old racist jokes to clean up?
We’ve reached out to Haddish’s management for comment and an editor at Simon and Schuster who’s worked them both. We’ll update if we hear back.