“What I’ve learned about storytelling is that you don’t know what the story’s about until you’re halfway through it. You might have your plot, but plot’s just the vehicle.”
Master tattooist and comics artist Graham Chaffee joins the show to talk about his new graphic noir, To Have & To Hold (Fantagraphics)! We get into the culture(s) of LA and why it’s the quintessential 20th century American city, the way the internet has changed the tattoo business, Graham’s history with comics, the difference between the story and the plot, his lengthy hiatus from making comics and what brought him back to it, the joys of drawing a good dog, the accidental portrayal of race in his comics, and the time he did a full-back tattoo portraying the dark night of Lisa Simpson’s soul! Give it a listen! And go buy To Have And To Hold (along with Graham’s other comics)! And visit his tattoo shop, Purple Panther Tattoo, when you’re in LA!
“I think the dirty, old, crappy version of things was organic, and the newer, cleaner version is manufactured.”
About our Guest
Graham Chaffee is a professional tattoo artist and cartoonist. His previous books are The Big Wheels (1993), The Most Important Thing and Other Stories (1995), and Good Dog (2013). He lives and works in Los Angeles. You can find him on instagram at graham_chaffee
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Purple Panther Tattoos on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photos of Graham by me. They’re on my instagram.
“My plan is to make this a research destination for comics studies, especially as they relate to comics in New York City.”
Karen Green, Curator of the Comics and Cartoons collection at Columbia University, joins the show to talk about her secret origin! How did she go from bartender to medieval scholar to comics librarian? We get into the evolution of the library and comics scholarship, her proudest acquisitions, her love of NYC and being a bartender there in the ’80s, reading Playboy for the cartoons, the experience of having a portrait done by Drew Friedman, her Venn diagram with Mimi Pond, and the one cartoonist she’s still speechless around. Give it a listen! And go buy Drew Friedman’s More Heroes Of The Comics: Portraits Of The Legends Of Comic Books; Karen wrote the intro!
“Things that were throwaway materials for the medieval or early modern period are now priceless artifacts in museums and libraries around the world. Who’s to say that the things we see as disposable culture today are not going to be given the same valence?”
About our Guest
Karen Green serves as Curator for Comics and Cartoons at Columbia University. She founded the graphic novels collection in the Columbia University Libraries, while working as the Ancient and Medieval History librarian. She has acquired the papers of Chris Claremont, Wendy and Richard Pini, Al Jaffee, and the Kitchen Sink Press for Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, as well as items from the estate of Jerry Robinson and research materials from Larry Tye’s history of Superman. A former bartender, Green holds graduate degrees from Columbia University and Rutgers University. For four-and-a-half years, she wrote the “Comic Adventures in Academia” column for Comixology. She served as a Will Eisner Comics Industry Awards judge in 2011, a member of the jury for the Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Cartooning in 2014, serves as vice-president of the board of directors of the Society of Illustrators–and former trustee of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, before its transfer to the Society–has taught and lectured on comics in academia, and curated the Fall 2014 exhibition, “Comics at Columbia: Past, Present, Future,” in Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded in a meeting room in Columbia University’s Butler Library on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Karen Green by me. It’s on my instagram.
“I asked someone who had worked at Tailored Access Operations [the NSA’s black bag division], ‘I’m in your cubicle at work; what am I seeing?’ and he said, ‘I’m sitting at a monitor, and I’m typing code. And behind me is a supervisor, and behind him is a lawyer, and they’re taking down all of my keystrokes.'”
Fred Kaplan rejoins the show to talk about his new book, Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War (Simon & Schuster). (We last talked in 2013). We get into the tangled, wild-west story of how cyber warfare is waged, where it might go in future, and why it’s the ultimate asymmetric warfare. Fred also tells us about the role of cyber in the success of the Iraq surge, the story of Stuxnet, the problem with not having rules of engagement for cyber war, how he came to respect the NSA, the statist/libertarian divide at the core of encryption battles, and what he thinks of Edward Snowden. Give it a listen! And go buy Fred’s book, Dark Territory!
“In the US, privacy has become a quaint notion.”
Then Charles Bivona joins us for his monthly installment of #NJPoet’s Corner, where we focus on his dream course: Batman Studies. Go listen! And buy #NJPoet, Chuck’s newly-published poetry collection!
About our Guest
Fred Kaplan is the national-security columnist for Slate and the author of Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, as well as of four other books, including The Wizards of Armageddon, 1959: The Year Everything Changed, Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, and, most recently The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, which was a New York Times bestseller and Pulitzer Prize finalist. A former Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for The Boston Globe, he graduated from Oberlin College, earned a PhD from MIT, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Brooke Gladstone.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Kaplan’s home in Brooklyn on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. The conversation with Charles Bivona was recorded on the same setup, at his homeI recorded the intro and outro on the same setup. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Kaplan by Carol Dronsfield.
“The things we were seeing on the lamppost that would wash away, the art on the walls that would get painted over: we wanted to codify that in World War 3 Illustrated.”
Alt-comix lifer Peter Kuper joins the show to talk about his new graphic novel, RUINS (Self-Made Hero), a beautiful book about American expats in Oaxaca, Mexico during last decade’s political upheaval. Peter also talks about co-creating World War 3 Illustrated and the legacy that anthology has left since its inception in 1979 (!), how surprised he finds himself to be teaching at Harvard, how he fights despair over the fight against climate change, the need to build one’s own artistic scene, what it’s like to be one of the only people who actually followed through on the “if Bush/Cheney are re-elected, I’m leaving America” pledge, and more! Give it a listen!
“For me, the safest thing has been doing things I love. I’m an atheist, but I’ve had the experience of putting in the love and the effort and have come to believe that it’ll work out. I know a tremendous amount of it is luck, but persistence and putting yourself in the way of possibility has worked.”
Seriously, Peter Kuper’s a legend in cartooning, and this wide-ranging conversations covers a lot of territory, including his revelations about murals in Mexican art, the wide variety of art-styles he employs, the economics of cartooning, the sink-or-swim experience his parents subjected him to in Israel (and why that led him to do the same to his kid in Mexico), the devaluation of political humor, the GOP candidate he fears the most, and the historical knowledge of comics his students at Harvard and SVA have (or don’t have), so go listen to our conversation and then go buy Ruins!
“We all draw. Every kid draws. For whatever reason, we give it up. I encourage people to keep it there. Why not sketch for pleasure? Turning it into a career is a whole other bag.”
We talk about some books in this episode. Here’s a list of them:
- Ruins – Peter Kuper
- Diario de Oaxaca: A Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico – Peter Kuper
- Stop Forgetting to Remember: The Autobiography of Walter Kurtz – Peter Kuper
- World War 3 Illustrated: 1979-?2014
- The System – Peter Kuper
- 7 Miles A Second – James Romberger, David Wojnarowicz, Marguerite Van Cook
- Flood!: A Novel in Pictures – Eric Drooker
- Watchmen – Alan Moore, David Gibbons
- The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984: A Graphic Memoir – Riad Sattouf
- The Complete Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi
- All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
- The Martian – Andy Weir
- Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation – Bill Nye
- The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History – Elizabeth Kolbert
- Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science – Philippe Squarzoni
- After Dark – Haruki Murakami
- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami
About our Guest
Peter Kuper has created over a dozen graphic novels, including The System, Sticks and Stones, and an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. He is co-founder of the political graphics magazine World War 3 Illustrated and since 1997 has written and drawn “Spy Vs Spy” for MAD Magazine. He has been teaching comics courses for over 25 years in New York City and is a visiting professor at Harvard University. His new book is RUINS.There’s a more extensive bio at his site.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Kuper’s studio on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Kuper by Holly Kuper.
“I want to be working, making comics, and knowing that the thing I’m doing right now is the thing I should be doing and I shouldn’t feel guilty about doing it. I’ve been able to keep that going much of the time for the last 20 years, and it’s kinda great.”
Is Scott McCloud comics’ leading theorist or a deranged lunatic? Find out in this lengthy conversation we recorded during SPX 2015! Scott talks about applying (and forgetting) the lessons of Understanding Comics in his new book, The Sculptor (First Second), the massive implications of crowdfunding for cartoonists and other creators, the problems with ‘balance’ in comics pages, his rebellion against Facebook, the Laurie Anderson model of comics, how he defines success, how to keep a happy marriage inside the comics world, and more! Give it a listen!
“We’ve never seen the consumer dollar at full strength. In traditional print markets, somebody spends a dollar on my work, and I get 10 cents at the end of that chain, that massive army of middlemen. Now we’re seeing what kind of world happens when the consumer dollar stays closer to a dollar. That army of consumers really has an enormous power to put your boat afloat.”
We also talk about his next book (on visual communication and education), his strengths and weaknesses as a cartoonist, making a 500-page comic book that readers could tackle in one sitting, why Reinventing Comics was like “trying to eat 10 lbs. of potato salad”, how every success story in cartooning is unique, the differences in working in print vs. working for the screen, and trying to be a scholar for the first time. Now go listen!
“Craig Thompson’s Blankets is probably off the hook now, because I finally did a comic even more sentimental. So now I made Craig look like Gary Panter.”
We mention a few books in this episode. Here they are:
- The Sculptor – Scott McCloud
- Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art – Scott McCloud
- Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form – Scott McCloud
- Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels – Scott McCloud
- Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection: 1987-1991 – Scott McCloud
- Maus: A Survivor’s Tale – Art Spiegelman
- Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth – Chris Ware
- The Complete Elfquest Volume 1 – Wendy Pini
- The Dark Knight Returns – Frank Miller
- Watchmen – Alan Moore
- Beautiful Darkness – Kerascoët, Fabien Vehlmann
- Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir – Roz Chast
- Kill My Mother – Jules Feiffer
- Blankets – Craig Thompson
- Here – Richard McGuire
- Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning (New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies) – Matthew Farber
- The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion
- Rosalie Lightning: A Graphic Memoir – Tom Hart
- Essays – Orwell
- Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything – Joshua Foer
- How Music Works – David Byrne
- Runaway – Alice Munro
- Blonde: A Novel – Joyce Carol Oates
About our Guest
Scott McCloud is the award-winning author of Understanding Comics, Making Comics, Zot!, The Sculptor, and many other fiction and non-fiction comics spanning 30 years. An internationally-recognized authority on comics and visual communication, technology, and the power of storytelling, McCloud has lectured at Google, Pixar, Sony, and the Smithsonian Institution. There’s a more extensive and funny bio at his site.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded during the Small Press Expo at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel on a Zoom H2n Handy Recorder and a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. McCloud by me.
“Comics is a medium that isn’t going to go away. It may just now finally be coming into its own in the 21st century. In this internet era, there’s something very special about what comics do, no matter how much they get warped and changed by technology.”
More than 30 years after taking on the role of British comics’ Man at the Crossroads, Paul Gravett remains at the center of the global comics scene. We had an in-depth conversation about the growth of comics as an art form, the surprise of seeing local manga in Algeria, why he considers himself less of a comics historian or curator than a comics activist, how it feels to have been the first publisher of some of the finest cartoonists of our time, and why he should be called Paul “Mission To Explain” Gravett. Give it a listen!
“I’m probably slightly insane for wanting to go on looking and searching and questioning and provoking myself, trying to find stuff that doesn’t give me what I know already.”
Along the way, Paul and I also talk about his new book, Comics Art (Yale University Press), the new exhibition he’s curating for the British Library, Comics Unmasked: Art & Anarchy in the UK, the history of comics and his history within it, and the way virtually every lifelong comics reader’s home winds up resembling an episode of Hoarders. Paul Gravett is one of comics’ finest ambassadors, and it was a pleasure to talk with him during my recent UK trip. (Oh, and here’s a link to that Richard McGuire comic we effuse about!)
- Tom Spurgeon
- Roger Langridge
- Mike Kupperman / Ivan Brunetti
- Peter Bagge
- Maxim Jakubowski
- Ben Katchor
About our Guest
Paul Gravett is a London-based freelance journalist, curator, lecturer, writer and broadcaster, who has worked in comics publishing and promotion since 1981. Under the Escape Publishing imprint, he co-published Violent Cases in 1987, the first collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, three volumes of Eddie Campbell’s Alec between 1984 and 1986, and London’s Dark in 1988 by James Robinson and Paul Johnson. Since 2003, Paul has been the director of Comica, the London International Comics Festival. His very extensive bio can be found at his website.
Credits: This episode’s music is The Boy With the Jigsaw Puzzle Fingers by Karl Hyde. The conversation was recorded at the Hilton London Euston on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Paul Gravett by me.
Friday, Aug. 12: Dead Men & Funnybooks
After a ridiculously wondrous night’s sleep at the Davenport, I had to get to work.
Shannon, one of my work-pals, was picked me up to take me to her office, so I could interview John B., another one of the guys. (Thus turning this leg of the vacation into a business expense for me.) We went with a 9 a.m. start, so I could get work out of the way and Amy & I could spend the rest of the day in the city before the evening’s Royal Wedding.
About the wedding: my pal Dave was marrying a co-worker (not in his department; I’d never met her before the previous night’s dinner). He’d gotten divorced around 2 years ago (so did she), and I gave him a sympathetic ear while he went through that process. He’s a great guy, and has been the primary parent for his 2 daughters since the split. Dave’s also half-black, half-Japanese, and was the only non-white person I saw in my 2002 trip to Spokane. When we got together in NYC last March, he showed me an iPhone picture of him with chef Morimoto at Nobu. I asked him which one was Morimoto. (What did I tell you yesterday about taking the piss?)
But the wedding was a few hours off. At the moment, I sat down with John in his office to shoot the breeze a while. We’d planned to record a little Q&A about managing customer expectations during facility expansions for a writeup in my October issue (I live life of excitement, I know), but I had a secret motive for this meeting. I was going to interview John about what it’s like to die.
John didn’t attend that NYC trade show in March; companies frequently pick and choose / revolve staff for these events. On the second morning of the show, I stopped by the company’s booth to say hello. My pal Peggy said to me, “Something terrible happened to John. He’s going to be fine, but his heart stopped last night.”
John, who’s an athletic, fit guy in his early 40’s, was playing soccer with his team that evening, felt light-headed, and sat down. And promptly died.
That is, his heart had stopped for 15 minutes. Lucky for him, several doctors are on his soccer team, and they were able to keep him pumping blood till the EMTs arrived and he got zotzed back to life. But he was, as he’s the first to say, dead.
At our dinner the night before, he told us, “I found out recently from my cardiologist that when he got the call that I’d died, his wife, also a doctor, asked what was up. He said, ‘One of my patients just died,’ and she asked, ‘Well, is he still dead?’ Only a cardiologist would ask that . . .” He was laughing when he told this story. If I were in his position, of course, I’d be looking off into the distance, pausing dramatically.
Which is why I wanted to talk to him about it. He was a cheerful guy before this episode, and didn’t seem any different the two times I’d seen him since, so I was hoping that a more in-depth conversation might reveal whether he’s looking at things differently now. My plan was to bust out the audio-recorder for our pharma-interview, but also conduct another conversation with John about his death, and how he’s lived since.
(He said the doctors have no idea why his heart stopped, so they’ve installed a defibrillator in his chest to zap him if it happens again. The day after his death, he told Peggy that he was planning to come to the office the following Monday. She threatened to fire him if he did, but he managed to make it in for a few hours anyway, broken ribs/sternum and all.)
But a funny thing happened on the way to the undiscovered country: we started talking about comic books.
During our pharma-conversation, I mentioned a comics-related anecdote about John’s CEO, prompting John to ask what sort of comics I read. Now, this conversation can be pretty fraught. My comics are, um, “non-mainstream,” which is to say, “not superheroes,” but many people tend to equate comics solely with costumed crusaders. So I offered up an early gambit by saying, “I like more indy, art-fare, like Clowes, Bagge and the Hernandez brothers.” This used to be the holy trinity of art-comic surnames to cite; a little out of date now, but I didn’t want to go hardcore geek, in case John was a big reader of, say, Spider-Man.
I was gratified to discover that he actually knew what I was talking about, and that we could have an intelligent conversation about funnybooks, art, and storytelling. He even tossed a Cerebus reference into the conversation (!). Stupidly, I didn’t turn on the recorder for THAT segment, because it would’ve been pretty entertaining. At one point, he mentioned seeing an episode of True Blood (which I haven’t watched), and said, “I don’t know who the writers are, but they owe a huge debt to the southern gothic vibe that Alan Moore had in his run on Swamp Thing.”
To which I (internally) replied, “Daaaaaamn!” and decided to break out my story of the time I met Frank Miller at a party but didn’t realize it was him for half an hour or so.
So, rather than have a mopey conversation about death (which I’m not sure John’s capable of, since he’s so damned upbeat), we talked comics for at least an hour. He had an 11:00 a.m. appt., we took care of our pharma-interview, and I made a note that I have to bring him one of my favorite art comics when he comes to NJ for our conference in September.
(The last time I mentioned my comics interests in a work context was at a trade show in June. That advertiser-exec took it as an opportunity to ask me what I thought of the Green Lantern movie. I haven’t seen it and don’t plan to, but do have strong opinions about it.)
After we wrapped up, Shannon took me back to the Davenport. I unloaded some of my work-stuff, like the big-ol’ Zoom H4 audio recorder that I brought from the office, and headed out to find Amy.
She was back in Riverfront Park, outside the brazenly named Sugar Shack, shooting pictures. The island was a run-down railyard something in the old days, but had been given a make-over in 1974 as part of the World’s Fair. Which was held in Spokane, WA. No, really. The new park has some nice walkways and rides and fountains for kids, as well as a shit-ton of concession stands dedicated to furthering childhood obesity and diabetes.
Amy & I meandered around the park and downtown, stopping in at Auntie’s, a nice, multi-level indy bookstore that Shannon had mentioned. I had to tell myself, “I have more than 1,400 books at home, along with a Kindle; I’m not buying any books here.” But it was nice to see that sort of store seemingly flourishing. I looked for a copy of The Leopard, so I could give it to Shannon, but they didn’t have it in stock.
After the bookstore, we had a wonderful lunch next door at Sante, where I had a burger that made up for the awful one in the SeaTac airport. Because I keep score.
I liked the vibe in downtown Spokane (which I realize I haven’t discussed). It felt very mid-century to me, with lots of brick buildings, and there were plenty of local shops alongside the inevitable global brands. There was a bit of a college-town vibe, which I miss. The baristas in the coffeeshop around the corner from the Davenport were unreasonably cheery, but I could overlook that.
During our drive to the company’s site that morning, Shannon mentioned that European trade shows the last two years gave her her first opportunities to travel outside America. I told her my theory that Bush II wanted a weak dollar during his presidency to make it more expensive for Americans to travel abroad. That way, we wouldn’t have anything to compare our lives to.
Shannon said she was amazed by the sheer history in these foreign cities, coming from an area that was so recently settled. I told her I felt the same way, even though my town was founded in 1742 and had a ton of Revolutionary War history. We’re both going to a big trade show in Frankfurt in October, but she and her husband are making a side-trip to Prague after. I told her that Amy will kill me if I go to Prague without her. She told me that she likes to read novels about the places she’s visiting. I told her not to read Prague.
Anyway, after our meander around downtown, we headed back to the Davenport, read for a bit (who watches TV?) and got ready for the wedding. Rather than get a ride from Shannon, we decided to walk. However, since our wedding shoes weren’t too comfortable (I brought a pair of black Johnston & Murphy brogue wingtips for the occasion), we packed them in my tote bag (freebie from Monocle) and wore comfier kicks to walk to the wedding venue. In my case, that meant pairing my navy suit (Rubenstein’s) and yellow striped shirt (Brooks) with a pair of white SeaVees. With a seersucker Alexander Olch tie and a white silk pocket square tucked in presidential-style, I felt invulnerable to criticism.
The route we chose put us smack dab in the “club district,” such as it was. It went on for a block and the activity at that hour (6 p.m.) consisted of band-members hauling their equipment out of vans and hangers on hanging on. We drew some looks, but no one made any comments. Even though we deserved them. I credit the tie and pocket square. (This is the closest you get to any Mean Streets of Spokane reference. That pic I posted yesterday was from two blocks away from our hotel, when I was out for coffee. It looked like someone had it in for a car window, the night before.)
At the wedding, we got to meet all my pals’ spouses and kids. It’s funny how much more real that makes people. I mean, it was one thing to see John B. as “the guy who died” and build a little theoretical framework about how that experience might have affected him. It was another to meet his wife and 2 teenaged daughters and to think about how close they were to losing a father last March. The pictures keep getting more detail.
The wedding ceremony was lovely, and included this colored sand rite, in which Dave participated with his new bride and his two daughters. It was meant to illustrate how their lives would blend together. Since Dave’s company performs lyophilization of injectable drugs, I thought he could’ve come up with something that involved freeze-dried particles in suspension, but I guess that’s a little too “inside pharma.”
I don’t have any great anecdotes from the wedding. The food was good, the conversation was fun, and the view of the river from our venue (the rooftop of the Spokane Convention Center) was gorgeous.
It struck me that second weddings should feel different than firsts, but I’ve only been to two or three so I haven’t been able to characterize them “‘Til death do us part,” seems kinda silly to keep in the vows, but what do I know? I only got hitched at 35.
During a conga line, we put on our comfy shoes and walked back to the Davenport and its comfy bed. I wanted to thank Dave for inviting me and wish him bliss & love, but he was already there. Plus, I was afraid of getting sucked into that conga line.
Thus endedth day 2!
Coming up in Day 3: Discovery Park and the Cosmic Cube!
This month marks the 13th anniversary of one of the dumbest thoughts ever to cross my mind.
I was covering the annual Toy Fair for a trade magazine. Held in February in two buildings on the west side of Madison Square Park in NYC (it’s moved to the Javits Center now, I think), the fair brought together makers of toys, gifts, games and children’s products with distributors and retailers, to hash out orders for the next year. For some exhibitors, it was a big media event, with trade and consumer press conferences for product launches.
On my first day, I rode a cramped elevator to visit a crib-maker whom I needed to interview. Or maybe it was a breast-pump maker. That’s not important now.
What is important is what happened when the elevator reached my floor and the door opened. There was a man in front of me. I would say we were face to face, but he was at least six inches shorter than me. Still, his face was instantly recognizable.
And as we stepped aside to get past each other, I had the dumbest thought ever: “Wow! One of the toy companies actually hired a Gilbert Gottfried impersonator for the event!”
A moment or so later, of course, I thought, “You idiot! No one could make a living as a Gilbert Gottfried impersonator! You just missed your chance to –”
— to what? As I headed to my appointment, I wondered what I would actually have said to Gilbert Gottfried: “Love you on Howard Stern!” “You should’ve got more screen time in Ford Fairlane!” “Can you do that Arthur Godfrey impression for me? Or the senile Groucho Marx?”
I have to admit, I’d have been tongue-tied. Of course, he would’ve been incredibly uncomfortable, too, but that’s little consolation.
* * *
A few months later, at the annual Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association annual show in Dallas, I found myself sitting beside Jean Kasem in an overstuffed food court. She was at the show to promote her line of boutique cribs.
I’d wised up since that February and realized that this was actually Jean Kasem and not an impersonator or robot duplicate. Still, I found myself unable to acknowledge her, although I did have a joke that I simply didn’t have the balls to deliver:
I would have gone into Italian teamster voice and said to this towering, lovely, blonde woman, “I know you! I know who you are! You were on Cheers! Goddamn: Rhea Perlman! Right here at JPMA! Man! That is AWESOME!”
* * *
A year or so earlier, I went to see Bob Mould play at a 400-seat hall at Georgetown. The hall was inside a campus building and there was a long line snaking up the stairs to get to the door. Mould, on the way up the stairs, had to wait beside me on the landing for a few moments, waiting for people to move aside so he could head backstage.
Standing beside him, I thought, “I have no idea what to say right now.” It’s not that I was totally in awe of him, but the first few things I thought to say were inappropriate:
- “I really love your music.” â€“ Well, yeah, you’ve paid to see me perform, so I got the idea that you like my stuff.
- “Put on a great show tonight!” â€“ Should I? I thought I’d just half-ass it and cheat my paying audience.
- “Good luck!” â€“ Why don’t I kick you square in the nuts?
So I just said, “Hey,” and he did the same, and then he went up the stairs.
* * *
I’ve gotten a lot better with this stuff over the years, as I’ve met or bumped into more “famous” people. Part of it stems from realizing that they’re still people. Sometimes, ignorance helps too, like the time I met Frank Miller at a friend’s birthday party. In this case, it helped that we’d been talking for almost half an hour before I realized that he was Frank Miller. A friend of mine admitted that he would have genuflected before Miller all night if he’d been at the party.
But I admit, having adored Miller’s work throughout my teens, that if someone had pointed him out to me beforehand, I probably would’ve either avoided talking to him, or come up with some incredibly elaborate opening comment that would have made him really uncomfortable.
Which brings me to my big question:
What living celebrity (artist, actor, athlete, etc.) would cause you to have an absolute fawning meltdown, and why?
(I don’t mean like my Bob Mould story, where I couldn’t think of anything good. I’m talking Chris Farley meets Paul McCartney level of tonguetied-ness.)