Tiffany Haddish has had a hell of a year. Relatively unknown prior to 2017, the comedian’s starring role in July’s* Girls Trip,* a movie which grossed close to $140 million, launched her as one of the year’s breakout stars. She appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in quick succession and in November, became the first black female comedian to host Saturday Night Live. Her style of humor and candor is peaking just as a multitude of shitty men in entertainment are crashing down, making her a bright counterpoint in a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.
Haddish’s most recent project took her to a new medium: the printed page. In early December, she released her debut memoir, The Last Black Unicorn, through Simon & Schuster imprint Gallery Books. Called “every bit as rowdy as [Girls Trip]” by the New York Times Book Review, the book debuted on the paper’s “Best Sellers” Combined Print & E-Book Nonfiction list at number 10 and at numer 15 on its Hardcover Nonfiction list. At times raucous and raunchy, it pivots to poignancy as Haddish recounts her youth in foster care, homelessness and surviving domestic abuse. She bares it all—a gutsy decision for a young actor still establishing herself—and she deserves the growing list of praise she’s received.
But 10 days after her memoir debuted, feminist website Jezebel reported that Haddish’s book had been co-written by Tucker Max, casting aspersions over what should be a triumphant moment. (Full disclosure: I have contributed to its parent organization’s sister sports site, Deadspin.) The controversy was not that Haddish failed to disclose this detail. While Max’s name does not appear on the cover or title page of the book, his role is suggested by the fact that he has his own acknowledgements section in the back of the book. Max also posted numerous times in the days preceding on his public social media accounts about it. Instead, the controversy was with Max himself, who has been a lighting rod since emerging on the national literary stage in the mid-aughts.
With the publishing of 2006’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, Max single-handedly launched the “Fratire” or “Dick Lit” genre of books. His autobiographical stories, which draw in part from his previously self-published online work, flit from bar to bar and woman to woman, with the protangonist getting drunk, hooking up and caring little about any of it besides for its hilarity. Regardless of his audience’s perception, the dude moved units and the book stayed on the Times’ best-sellers list for seven years, a staggering feat. His follow-up books, 2010’s Assholes Finish First and 2012’s Hilarity Ensues, also made the list during that time. At one point, all three charted in the same week.
Not just anyone could tell Haddish’s story the way it needed to be told.
Because of this, he has become the genre’s totem and, as such, is blamed for its perceived misogyny. "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,” Jezebel senior reporter Anna Merlan wrote.
So why, then, did Haddish, a black woman who grew up poor in Los Angeles, tap a bro-lit Duke alum to cowrite her book? It comes down to truth, as Max tells me—and both his and Haddish’s. “Anyone who tells the truth, I feel like, automatically is going to attract controversy. That’s just always the way it is,” says Max, now 42. “My books told a very real truth about what my life was at a time when no one was being honest about that sort of stuff.”
Talking to Max, I notice his near-fanatical reverence for "truth.” He mentions it often when talking about his work and Haddish’s. By his definition, the truth is telling things as they are and how they felt in the moment, regardless of how they may be received in the present or future. It’s the thesis and through line to his own work, his philosophy as a cowriter and the one requisite for those who want to work with him. The truth, he says, creates the best stories.
“The story about [Haddish] and her ex-husband is so fucking heartbreaking,” he says. “It’s so honest and authentic and raw and painful, but also hilarious too. It’s such a human story. She has an ability—not even an ability, but a willingness to go into the dark, hard places that most people aren’t willing to go. And she did it with me.”
There were also those like the “Roscoe” story, which Haddish told Max over their first phone call and later to a writhing-with-laughter Trevor Noah on The Daily Show. The story involves a man with a deformed arm taking her out on a date, and how, because of his sincerity, she had sex with him. It’s funny and sweet. “It’s fucking hilarious,” Max says. “I was in tears laughing on the phone, and that shit never happens.”
When Max first met Haddish in November 2016, Girls Trip had just wrapped. Haddish seemed destined for a book deal, but not just anyone could tell her story the way it needed to be told, especially when she had yet to become a household name.
“She had a great book in her, but I think—and this is going to sound like a humblebrag, but fuck it, I don’t care—probably 90 percent of people would have screwed that book up,” he says. “It’s, like, the guy who fixes Chevys down the road is a good mechanic and a good dude. But he probably shouldn’t be working on a NASCAR pit crew, you know? Some people are just better at engines. I am really good at this type of writing: introspective, emotionally honest, telling hard truths that other people don’t want to tell.”
Max is adamant that these are Haddish’s stories, some of which were almost transcribed verbatim from her voice to the book. His input was that of structure, of coaxing emotion and theme from them, and of being a scribe and a megaphone for the things that were already there. The result is something that may fulfill Haddish’s goal. ”‘I don’t want other young girls to have to go through this,’“ Max remembers Haddish telling him. ”'I feel like I made it out. It was a gift. I got out, but what I have to do is to go back and help other girls who need help getting out.’“
This book is going to touch millions of lives in a substantial way.
“I was like, ‘That’s fucking beautiful. I’m 100 percent behind that,’” he says. And because of this, Max has high hopes for the book. “What The Autobiography of Malcolm X was to a generation of young, black men, I think The Last Black Unicorn could be for a generation of young, poor, disenfranchised black women,” he says.
There is no hint of trolling or hyperbole in Max’s words. It’s just the truth.
But Autobiography stands in contrast to Max and Haddish’s work. Malcolm X’s coauthor, Playboy writer Alex Haley, was black like X. The comparison between Max, a white man, and Haddish, a black woman, doesn’t sync. Neither do the pair’s socioeconomic backgrounds.
While the critical examinations of The Last Black Unicorn have been positive, the customer response has been ecstatic. After more than 2,000 reviews on Audible.com, the book averages 4.9 out of five stars. “I cried and laughed and sulked all the way through these stories Haddish has graciously shared. LOVED EVERY SECOND,” wrote one reader. Over on Amazon, it boasts a solid 4.8 rating out of five, dragged down by the rare one-star rating of one person’s critique: “Too much vulgarity.”
“She did what she set out to do,” Max says. “That’s why I did the book, and that’s why I’m proud of the book and what’s she’s done. I think it’s a rare thing for someone to be able to genuinely say that they touched lives beyond the people in their immediate vicinity. This book is going to touch millions of lives in a substantial way.”
If Haddish is concerned about the Max controversy, she hasn’t posted about it. Her Instagram and Twitter feeds show her living her best life, plugging her book and riding to the airport in a Rolls-Royce. Even a snub from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which selects the Golden Globes nominees, hasn’t affected her; her Girls Trip performance was awarded best-supporting actress by the New York Film Critics Circle in late November, and some say she may receive an Academy Award nomination on January 23.
Max doesn’t seem especially worried, either. His stock as a cowriter, he says, was already high and if anything, it will only grow the reputation of his boutique ghostwriting company, Book in a Box, which he says has 30 full-time employees and more than 100 freelancers who, all combined, have published 600 books in the past three years.
Max is married now. He has a son. Since the publication of his breakthrough brook, he has changed, having officially retired from “fratire” in 2012. Rereading one of his old stories recently, he remembers thinking of it as “cringe-worthy.”
“So much is different, man,” he says. “There’s not a scale of emotional intelligence and awareness, but wherever on the scale I was in 2006, I’m at least twice as far along now. And it doesn’t mean I’m far, it just means I’m way further than I was. [Back then,] I wasn’t mature enough. I wasn’t experienced enough. I wasn’t skilled enough, I didn’t know myself enough, I didn’t understand other people enough. Ten years ago I wasn’t even close to being ready [for Haddish],” he says. Max told the truth then, and he tells the truth now, but now he tells a better truth.
"Who would have an amazing story to tell?” I ask him.
“I think almost anyone could have an amazing story if they’re really, really willing to dive in deep and get into the hard parts,” he says. “To me, it’s not about if they opened up, it’s who’s willing to. The ones that are willing to, I want to listen and I want to help them get their story out.”
In the same way that Tucker Max listened to Haddish, helping her shape her New York Times best-selling book The Last Black Unicorn, he’s been seeking his own truth for even longer. In 2017, he proves that while regret may be optional, change is necessary.