Tongue-tied and painful

© 1990, Dan Clowes
© 1990, Dan Clowes

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:

  1. “I really love your music.” – Well, yeah, you’ve paid to see me perform, so I got the idea that you like my stuff.
  2. “Put on a great show tonight!” – Should I? I thought I’d just half-ass it and cheat my paying audience.
  3. “Good luck!” – 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.)

25 Replies to “Tongue-tied and painful”

  1. Probably Freeman Dyson – so many good (and/or wild) ideas over the years, massively intelligent, close friend of Feynman and many others, one of the last living links to that whole era of physics, etc. Other candidates? One of the Apollo astronauts, perhaps (they’re not getting any younger), and I would also have a hard time figuring out what to say to Martin Amis, Clive James, E. O. Wilson, or Tom Wolfe. And among the deceased there are plenty of what-if possibilities – Kingsley Amis might have been rough, since I don’t drink, and I would have been terrified of Nabokov.

    (I like the Talking Heads reference in the post title, too).

  2. HA! i just have meltdowns – fawning and otherwise – with my love at home. walked right up to barack obama, george clooney, elie wiesel, and others, no press pass in hand, just my little video camera in hand and my convictions on my brain, and asked them for interviews. speaking my mind and heart to the one i love though sends me running for cover under the bed. sydney poitier might make me giddy something awful, and danny kay makes me giggle something silly … oh well, with danny kaye i’ll have to wait for the afterlife to truly find out. i sat at a table across from poitier’s in a restaurant in my hood in manhattan some years ago and i simply blushed all night long.

  3. I’ve gotten a pair of “Clooney. Just Clooney” answers from people in the office already.

    (It would take a chemistry Ph.D. to recognize my Talking Heads ref.)

  4. my favorite Kristofferson lyric is “I’d rather be sorry for something I’ve done, than something that I didn’t do” –
    so Gil, I hope by now you’re past the point of hesitation and/or tonguetiedness next time you bump into someone you may regret not having spoken to – I’m still trying to get past that point, although if it was Clooney I’d probably have to be revived by paramedics if he even glanced my way –
    as for Danny Kaye (Kerstin?) I once had the opportunity to acknowledge him but blew it out of sheer embarrassment –
    also I once passed Liberace on the street, but what on earth does one say to Liberace? especially when he was “dressed down”, no bling, and not wearing a single sequin!
    (I guess that I, too, will have to wait for the afterlife before getting chatty – look out Paul Newman!)

  5. Since my job often requires me to make inconsequential chit-chat at large gatherings or actual conversations with famous or at least rich people (the most recent being Terry McAuliffe and John Grisham), I’m not really sure who would cause me to melt down. Maybe her Majesty Elizabeth I?

  6. for lovely dear old mum on master clooney, cause i met him twice – he is an utterly gentle, gracious, funny and remarkably smart man. totally approachable. and more handsome in person than on screen.

  7. Who’s Jean Kasem?

    Without question, Bob Dylan would cause me to melt down. I’ve been a fan of his since I was about 12–so almost longer than I can remember. I still hold him, as I did then, in pure reverential awe.

    Otherwise, living here I often see stars and celebrities around, and other than Philip Seymour Hoffman, whom I admire and saw in Washington Square Park last fall, I am mostly left cold…. I did like meeting Chip Delaney though.


  8. Why, she’s Casey Kasem’s wife! (she played the towering, ditzy blonde who was married to Nick Hedaya’s character on Cheers)

    And Chip liked meeting you, too.

  9. Bob Dylan. I would just have to stay mute and frozen. I couldn’t chit chat with him like he’s a normal person because he’s not a normal person. He’s like Jesus. Although, Jesus would probably be pretty approachable.

  10. One of my pals on Facebook offers:

    “Easy – hands down / no questions asked – Viggo Mortensen – he’s intellect and art molded into one. Anybody got his phone number?”

  11. Sez another:

    “Diane Lane? Carla Gugino?

    I used to have artist and intellectual heroes, but by now they’re almost all dead. Hard to take people roughly my own age (or younger!) so seriously. But pretty talented actresses could still make an impact …”

  12. Gil, did you have childhood sports heroes? Mine was Walter Payton, so I’m out, but I’m told many people flip out when meeting the childhood sports hero. Muhammad Ali would be interesting. (I’d also be afraid I’d tell him how much I enjoyed his eighth round knock-out of Hun’Ya.)

    Dylan’s a great answer because he seems fundamentally unapproachable and he’s such an icon of the 20th Century, far outstripping any sense of him as an everyday person. Like with Clooney, once you overcome the waves of handsomeness that must emanate from his being like focused microwaves, you have a sense going in how he operates as a normal guy. Paul McCartney, too.

    Fidel Castro would be totally weird. So would Nelson Mandela.

    Anyone you’ve seen naked is weird, but I’m not sure that counts.

  13. Sports heroes? Well, there was Ron Guidry, but now he’s an in-law of mine (distantly) and the family thinks he’s a douche. I was pretty reverent when I walked up to Clyde Frazier at a Knicks game and asked him for a picture, but there was also the issue of that being his workplace; he was on the job, taking notes before a game, so I didn’t want to go with a “Hey, Clyde! What’s up?”

    The funny thing about Dylan is that one of my acquaintances, David Gates, has interviewed him a couple of times, and my pal Elayne was incensed that I hadn’t thought to connect him with her: “You know someone who has had TWO sit-down interviews with Bob Dylan and you didn’t think to introduce us!?”

    I forwarded this post to him and another journalist and Dylan fan (Ron Rosenbaum), because I think they’d have a very different approach to this question.

    A couple of my friends anonymously offered up various “adult film stars” they’d freak out around, but I figure that’s a post for another day. And another blog. One my mom doesn’t have the URL to.

  14. When I lived in LA, I’d stepped into one of the bookstore / coffee joints on the Third Street Promenade, and there, sitting at the table enjoying a cup and the paper was Richard Thompson. I got a cup myself, sat down a few tables away, and just….sat there. Basking, I guess. Nobody else seemed to recognize him.

    And just after 9/11, I saw a wizened, barely upright Charlton Heston being almost carried across the street next to the Hancock building by an older woman. I wanted dearly to shout “You damn dirty ape!” but he looked so frail, I didn’t dare.

    And Dylan, absolutely, Dylan. But I know for sure what I’d say if I met him. I’d beg him to explain “Isis” to me.

  15. hey Gil, as long as you’re claiming Ron Guidry as a (very) distant relative, then you can claim Bob Dylan as one too – via our Kansas City family – first cousin to Sally’s husband – is that close enough to count?

  16. I saw Francesca Lia Block in the bathroom before a reading and was too stunned to say anything, just acted weird and doofy. Too many hours in college in love with her books.

    I would make a fool out of myself if I encountered Suzanne Farrell, too, for the childhood-sports-hero reason.

  17. Well, I was there when you introduced yourself to Clyde Frazier, but after he growled at you for the intrusion, I wouldn’t DARE go up to him even though you kept insisting for me to come over and have my picture taken with him. Then there was Sheryl Crowe sitting next to me on a beach in Hawaii, but my wife was with me so. . .

    But seriously, I can’t think of anyone living now, but if he was alive, I’d want to talk to Winston Churchill. He was involved in the two biggest events that shaped how are world is today: The Treaty of Versailles and the end of World War II/Beginning of the Cold War.

  18. In the mid-1990s, I met Todd Field, the director of In The Bedroom, at a bar in London. This was back when he was a journeyman actor and hardly anyone knew who he was. Somehow, though, not only did I know his name but in a fit of alcoholic enthusiasm, was able to reenact large chunks of the last four or five films in which he’d had supporting roles.

    To this day, I have no idea how I knew all that. But the look on his face – completely perplexed, vaguely alarmed – as I drunkenly reeled off every last one of them (“And you were in that film with Tarantino, right? Sleep With Me! That was TERRIFIC!”) will stay with me forever.

  19. Seriously? I could’ve sworn we had some distant familial relation to Ian Anderson. Or maybe it was Ian Hunter. But I’m goin’ with Tull on this one.

  20. I think meeting any music heroes would make me stupid, because I love music so, but have been embarrassed by even the idea of being the gushing fanboy. Especially those highest in my pyramid of esteem. Now that I think of it, in ’99 or so, I rolled up on Dave Wakeling at a show of his in Pacific Beach, in San Diego. I recall having had the good judgment to limit the “you have NO IDEA what your songs meant to me” stuff, but I would have liked to have said something a little more evolved than “your show was great. Thank you so much for it and for everything over the years.”

  21. I’d say David Bowie, but I got to fawn over him twice. And Patrick McGoohan just died, so no fawning there. I’d say I’d be in full meltdown mode for either David Lynch or Grant Morrison since both fellas shaped my imagination considerably.

  22. Followup from the NYPost’s Page 6 this morning:

    WHO’S the one person who can turn hilariously foul-mouthed insult queen Lisa Lampanelli into a softie? Pop icon Barry Manilow, reports The Post’s Mandy Stadtmiller. “No one is off-limits – no one except for Barry,” Lampanelli told the Friars Club as Manilow became an Honorary Friar. “He provided the entire soundtrack to my life, and how can you thank someone for that? He’s one of the three people I’ve ever been speechless in front of: [Don] Rickles, [Howard] Stern . . . and then Barry.” Manilow thanked the club for the tribute, adding, “Most of all, thank you so much for not roasting me. I have been roasted every day since ‘Mandy’ came out.”

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