In 1997, Starlee Kine, then a bookstore clerk living in New York’s East Village, was interviewed by This American Life’s Paul Tough for a segment about her tumultuous relationship with her neighbor “Helga”. This chance meeting changed Kine’s life forever: then a dramatic writing major at NYU, she became a devout fan of the renowned NPR radio digest. Two years later she was working as one of the show’s interns, and soon after became one of the its producers, working on air and off to lend her unique voice to some of the program’s most beloved segments. In her radio reportage, Kine offers a refreshing brand of enthused honesty on subjects as varied as Long Island’s corporate psychics, the world’s slowest car chase on record, fatal hospital negligence, and her lifelong encouragement of her parents to divorce.
Her work, be it behind the microphone or on the page, is marked with dignified self-reflection. In addition to her latest piece for This American Life (an April 2009 performance that appears on the show’s live concert film Return to the Scene of the Crime), Kine has in recent years been a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine, American Public Media’s business watch Marketplace, and her longtime colleague Jonathan Goldstein’s CBC Radio One program WireTap. She’s taught classes in radio at 826 NYC in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, served as a fellow at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and co-created The Post-It Note Reading Series, a collection of staged reading events with illustrator Arthur Jones.
Her latest collaboration with Jones is a barn burner: issue ten of The Thing Quarterly, a self-professed “object based publication” and brainchild of visual artists John Herschend and Will Rogan. Each edition of The Thing is curated by a different collaborator: Miranda July, Jonathan Letham, and Kota Ezawa are among those who’ve made their own editions. Starlee’s issue is a marvel of attractive simplicity: a brown cardboard box containing a text-laden cutting board, an essay of “Crying Instructions” by Kine, and a locker poster illustrated by Jones of British actor Dominic West’s beloved character Jimmy McNulty from HBO’s magnum opus, The Wire. Needless to say, in Kine and Jones’ rendition, McNulty weeps.
In May, Starlee and the Thing’s editors celebrated issue ten’s release with a uniquely staged reading at the Crosby Street outlet of the Housing Works bookstore in lower Manhattan featuring an onion cutting tutorial and an acting teacher offering the packed audience crying lessons. Kine and I spoke about the reading, The Thing, and an array of other topics last month at the locally loved Five Leaves restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. We were joined at our outdoor seating by Starlee’s kind-eyed dog Oh Papa, named after an exclamation uttered three times over the course of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Like his owner, Oh Papa proved gracious, patient, funny, and eager to speak his mind.
NC: I wanted to initially ask how you got involved with The Thing.
SK: I subscribed because I saw it on Miranda July’s website. It said that she was doing something for The Thing. I went on their site and subscribed blindly: it was nothing yet. I remember Miranda July’s was the first that came in the mail, and it was very exciting. It was the window shade, and then the second one was the hat. They all come in these mysterious brown wrapped things. It seemed cool and I wanted to be a part of it. I wrote them an e-mail saying that I had an idea, but I didn’t know anything. It was so mysterious, you went to the website and it didn’t have anything, maybe their names. They wrote back to me right away and they were super-friendly. They didn’t like the idea that I had, but they wanted me on board. That was two years ago. Around then I was issue 7 or 8, and they were like, “In a year your Thing will be out,” and that turned into two years.
How did it end up being a cutting board, and how did crying end up being the subject matter?
I had a bunch of ideas, wrote them all down, then called John and ran them all by him. I was really nervous, I didn’t know if he’d like any of them. I wanted it to be really awesome, and I was really intent on it being a household object. It’s just so hard to find cool meaningful objects for your house that you buy for everyone else, so I wanted there to be meaning to it. I worked on this whole list, ran it all by John, and I almost didn’t mention the cutting board, it was at the bottom. And that’s what always happens: someone else can always see your good idea better than you can. I had my top five, and then a couple stragglers at the bottom. He liked the cutting board the best. We knew we wanted text on there, and I always knew it was gonna be about a heartbroken relationship. I started writing the text, and once onions came up, we knew it made the most sense. I really wanted to give the best bang for your buck, and have as many things in the box as we could. One of my ideas was this very elaborate puzzle that involved an egg beater, a cheese grater, and a spatula. I wanted them to fit onto each other to make this coded message, so I had this idea of fitting the handle of an egg beater into this cheese grater, then turning it to reveal these hidden letters on the spatula. I wanted a game: I like games. Then I wanted it to be a cooking show, with instructions, this whole instructional thing, and the idea of “crying instructions “came out of that.
You were initially not even going to tell the editors about your cutting board idea. I’m reminded of your piece on This American Life in which you work with Phil Collins where you had written but discounted lines for a love song which Phil ultimately really took to. [In an August, 2007 episode of This American Life entitled “The Break-Up”, Starlee enlists Collins to collaborate with her on a break-up song entitled “The Three of Us”.]
Yeah, the bottom of the crazy pile. It was very similar to that, where some outside expert came in. That was the outside musician, while with this John was the outside conceptual artist who could zero in on what would work.
Do you like collaboration? When does it work or not work for you?
I love collaboration, if it’s with somebody who I trust. If it’s with someone I don’t trust I hate it. The whole reason I wanted to do The Thing was cause I didn’t want to be alone, or do a project on my own anymore. I wanted something taken out of my hands that would be a very tangible object. I remember John wrote back and was all, “You can write an essay for us,” and I was just like, “Please, please, anything but an essay, please let me make something if I can.” I knew I wanted an essay component, but I so badly wanted to not be alone, do something with someone else, and have something very real to show for it in the end.
(Oh Papa approaches a fellow dog who also obediently sits in the tightly wedged outdoor seating.)
SK: Oh Papa…
FELLOW DOGOWNER: My dog’s coming to check you out. What kind of dog is he?
SK: He’s a mutt.
FD: So beautiful. [To Oh Papa] You look like a woodland creature!
SK: I know.
FD: Doesn’t he look like a little fox? So pretty.
Alright, awesome. So I’m wondering about the act of cutting onions, and how that may be a cathartic experience, given that you’ve said this is a board upon which only onions should be cut. Do you remember how that came to be the object’s purpose?
I was looking for a household object, for something everyone uses. So much of my stuff ends up being about…. well, so many of my objects are haunted. Like I live in this apartment, and I feel like this bummer about New York is that you have to stay in places that you should probably get out of because they’re drenched with these memories. I have a pretty good apartment, but it’s kinda haunted in that way. I have a pretty good, prominent kitchen: it’s the biggest room in the house, so I think I was zoning in on kitchens. We didn’t really get into it, and it kinda goes away now that it’s been executed, but initially I wanted it to be that you were cutting into the words, which is pretty violent. I wanted it to be something that strikes force, like you were attacking the memories or else they wouldn’t go, so I think a cutting board makes sense. I like that you have to destroy it in order to move on.
At the reading you mentioned wanting this object to be used, and that ideally over time the words will become illegible.
In the crying directions I say that I want it to be cathartic. I would beg everyone who gets it to use it, though I know they won’t, cause they’re collectors. Whoever subscribes to The Thing are these very cool, particular people. I had this very clear vision of people opening it, then displaying it. There was a post on this blog from someone who said they thought about framing it and hanging it up on the wall, so I thought that I just had to say, “Please kill it. Destroy it. Ruin it.”
I wanted to ask about the idea of writing “crying instructions”. If not to ask for a literal explanation of “instruction” and what that means to you, then to ask if the social etiquette of how, when and why we cry was something that interested you in making this piece.
Kinda. I guess I was thinking that it’s good to cry, especially about lost loves, and that maybe this would be a little extra helping hand. The board’s supposed to help, that’s why it’s gotta be an onion. Then John pointed out that in The Tin Drum, there’s this awesome, awesome, super awesome chapter called “The Onion Cellar”, about this bar where people go to get onions so that they can cry. And from there it turns into this orgy.
[Laughs] And why wouldn’t it?
It’s really awesome. So good. It really gets to the heart of why you need to cry. I considered putting an excerpt of it in there. I myself have no problem crying, unless it’s in front of a crowd. I can’t fake cry, which is what that whole demonstration at the reading was about. I can’t pretend to do it, but I can cry. So I thought it might help someone who’s never cried over someone else. There’s actually this old acting trick to have an onion in your hand. So I wanted to give permission and say that it is okay. I do think it’s healthy. And I thought that ideally, crying while cooking would be awesome. You’d become a big sobbing mess.
Do you like to cook?
I’m just neurotic. It came from this genuine place of feeling haunted. Like I have a really hard time cooking unless it’s for other people. I love the idea of cooking, it seems very soothing. Like there’s lots of foods I don’t like. Like raw tomatoes make me really upset. I think I would be a really good baker. But I don’t like it unless it’s for other people, which I guess is why I need my own board.
Prior to this issue of The Thing, you talked in a 2001 This American Life piece about the art of child actors crying in classes you took as a kid. In particular, you cite one boy who got the role of Eddie Munster in a Munsters remake, and how he was a renowned fake crier.
Jason Marsden. He was an amazing child crier. I remember it vividly. I never came close. I was really shy, and I think I was the oddball in my acting classes. My sister and I were from the suburbs, driving to these classes, in it without really being in it. They were big time. I don’t know if he made the cut, but I did interview Jason for that piece. He’s doing voiceover work now. Anyway, we lived in a suburb of L.A, distant from that world, and we had a bad agent.
What makes for a bad child agent?
She couldn’t find us anything. I really think it was a front for something else. It was like, technically we had an agent, but she never called and I feel like after a while we never heard from her again. She was a scam artist, but also, we weren’t really that good. Our teacher was good, he was for real. Joseph Gordon-Levitt credits him a lot.
On the subject of performance: how did your recent Housing Works reading come to fruition, and what did you think of it?
It wasn’t that big of a deal. But there had been a lot of build up after waiting for two years for this cutting board to exist. I really like doing readings, so there’s always a lot of preparation that day. It was exciting because we went to this crying teacher’s house. We tried to make a video of it, and my friends were setting up cameras, running up her stairs. Afterwards it always feels like you just got married. You were the center of attention, and then you feel horrible the next day. Not physically horrible, but I thought about all the things I would have done differently. It’s a weird feeling.
Every time I get married, there are things I wish I’d done differently.
That’s what people say the day after their wedding, that they feel awful because they’ve been stared at so much. I don’t mind being the center of attention, but it becomes about being in control of all the elements. I felt so out of it the next day. A wedding is twelve thousand times more intense, your life essentially has led up to that moment, and you’ve prepared for a year for it. But for The Thing, there’s always a launch for the new issue. Normally they have a party, and people come sign it, but I knew I wanted to have a cooking demonstration. Originally it was gonna be a full-on commercial. I don’t really know much about cutting, but I really like sweets, so originally I was gonna cut sugar cubes or something. But then I realized I wanted other people in it. Once we knew it was gonna be at Housing Works I decided that we’re gonna call Arthur, we’re gonna call David [Rees, cartoonist and creator of the Get Your War On comic series] and David [Lipsky, author and magazine journalist]. I did the curatorial friends thing. Originally I wanted it to be a simple onion cutting demonstration, but in April I was in Hawaii for this work thing, and I got taken to Benihana’s. Benihana’s has this whole show that they do, and this cool onion thing that they do.
Yeah. So I walked around New York looking for a Benihana’s. There’s one listed in Times Square, but it’s not there, so I didn’t make it. I wanted to go and have them show me the onion trick, but by then I had decided that I also wanted to have an acting teacher there, so I aborted the Benihana’s idea. That was something where the next day I thought that maybe I should have gone for it. The problem with one-off shows is that you only get to do it once. But then we got excited about the acting woman: I called up my friends and they all gave me their acting teachers.
She was quite good at getting everyone’s guard down. Sometimes events calling for audience participation can be hard in that it’s a “tough crowd” scenario, or a “too cool for school” situation.
Yeah, she’s awesome, all my friends love her. Earlier in the day I’d gone to her house, and she’d given me this whole crying lesson, which was basically like therapy. I liked it. I’ll never do a traditional reading again. Arthur and I have our series because readings tend not to be that great. Even the best authors tend to not be that fun.
The onion cutting demonstration was particularly interesting. It reminded me of Martha Stewart on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, with you in the role of Conan and this chef guy as Martha, in that what made it enjoyable was your growing exasperation with him and with having to cut an onion so precisely. The live spontaneity of it spoke to me. It seemed like you enjoyed performing for the crowd in a way that a lot of writers don’t.
Yeah, I love it. I’m actually really obsessed with Conan O’Brien lately. He’s so great, so awesome. In the last of week before he went off the air, I felt this intense longing, of wanting to be a part of something meaningful, and actually feeling left out, and wanting to have contributed to this thing in some way.
I did too, in this completely irrational way. In that I’ve had never had any interaction with him, yet still felt a personal allegiance to him and urge to somehow help, as if his show was a cause of sorts.
For me it was about wanting to be a part of some cultural artifact. I get really overwhelmed when I think about comedy. I like lots of things about it, but I don’t always know how to participate in it as much. It does seem nice to have the chance to keep generating ideas every day on a schedule. I love performing, but it always feels like I’m performing a pilot or something: when you do a one-off thing, the next day you wonder about how you don’t get to hone anything. So it’s very spontaneous when you’re on stage, but then it travels into the air and it becomes tough to know what to make of it. The onion cutting is such a blur to me, holding this sharp knife up there.
Your three co-performers did very well in their own right. As I listened to him I realized that I recognized David Rees’ voice from his appearance on The Best Show on WFMU. And David Lipsky’s reading from his new book about his road trip with David Foster Wallace was excellent. But I wanted to ask in particular about Arthur Jones, who contributed the locker hanging of McNulty from The Wire crying. I’m curious as to what the genesis was for it being Dominic West.
I love McNulty. I love cute boys, and enjoy stuff with cute boy faces. I remember originally I wanted it to be four different cute boys crying in their own ways. Like James Franco cries in this one way on Freaks and Geeks when he breaks up with Kim Kelly and then shows up at her door. He’s crying and then just slaps up against her. Then there’s also this video on Youtube of Christian the Lion, who is this lion adopted by two tall skinny boys. You see their crying catch in this special way. But for McNulty I had this idea of him crying on the train tracks in season four, after he’d mistakenly let the kid who killed Wallace in season one get killed himself.
(Oh Papa suddenly barks at a couple passing by. A woman sitting nearby yells “Hey!” in an effort to kindly but firmly reprimand him.)
FIRM WOMAN: [to Starlee] Sorry. I could feel myself yelling at my own dog at home there. It’s like a reflex.
SK: No, that’s great, thank you. Please. He’s getting… what kind of dog do you have?
FW: Beagle. [to Oh Papa] He’s a sweetheart.
SK: So anyway, I had this image of McNulty crying on the train tracks with Bunk. I called up my friend, who also draws, and she’s really good at gauging this. She’s really intuitive with cute male boy looks, just tuned in, and when I said “How about a crying McNulty?”, she just went off and got really excited.
Something about the juxtaposition reminds me of your nickname Queen Choptifah, which is your moniker on Twitter that came from a piece you did on This American Life with Jonathan Goldstein about comedy, and the idea of possessing comedic “chops”.
No one ever remembers that one.
No one? That piece stood out for me amongst all of the work you did on the show, in part because of the great rapport you and Goldstein seemed to have with one another.
There are so many episodes of This American Life. I forget them. You just forget: there have been thousands of stories on that show. I’m lucky that people remember the Phil Collins one. It’s lucky that something about it got snagged. Otherwise they float out there. There are so many good stories on there that no one ever talks about.
Within the “Crying Instructions”, you talk at some length about the movie Garden State.
Writing is kind of organic. You start writing and begin to understand stuff about yourself that you didn’t understand before. I started writing the instructions knowing I had to get to the onion. I sent it to John and asked if it was crazy that I was writing about Garden State in this essay. He said “This is insane, I love it!” I remember starting to read about the movie to refresh my memory, and that fight [in the film’s climax between Zack Braff and Natalie Portman’s characters] was very resonant in my mind. Later in the Housing Works reading I talked about Good Will Hunting, and my embarrassing memory of that movie was running into my boyfriend on the street and telling him I’d just this great movie, and how much I loved that Matt Damon brings up A People’s History of the United States. It’s now so embarrassing, and shows how young I was, but I still like the movie and think it holds up. But when I watched Garden State again, looking at clips online, reading it, I couldn’t believe how bad it was, thinking this was so hilarious and so much worse than I ever thought. I remembered that tear drop so vividly, but all the other details are so crazy, She [Portman] just dances around, it’s just horrible in every possible way, which made it that much more embarrassing that I fell for it every step of the way. It’s a real pleasure to be able to describe a bad movie in such a serious tone. I have this idea for a radio show of people describing movies they either love or hate in real time. I think it’s really soothing to listen to descriptions like that. I want it to play at midnight and have these long, really long descriptions. I think it’s really interesting to hear what people pick up on in a movie when describing it. Arthur is the best at it. Like I don’t know if you’ve seen Palindromes, Todd Solondz’s abortion comedy.
His “abortion romp”, if you will.
It really is like that. It’s like reading about the second Sex and the City movie, where you can’t believe that this was really filmed.
Garden State was a movie I saw only once, in it’s theatrical release, and hadn’t thought about at all since. But your description of it immediately flooded back my memory of seeing it right before I went off to college. I remembered feeling manipulated by it throughout, until the final scene got to me, and I was stuck in this guilty jag of crying that felt irrational, and which I thought I was too smart to be engaging in as an eighteen year old who wants to see through everything.
It seems solid, and seems as though everyone has a strong opinion of it, like it’s relatable despite not being good. There’s a near universal reaction, people like you remember seeing it, there’s a shared cringe factor, and it was a hit, too.
Years ago you had a radio piece about loving TV reruns, particularly Boy Meets World, a textbook example of mediocrity in action. Is that a similar situation for you, wherein a corniness or lack of quality precedes comfort? Would it be seductive for you to work on a sitcom, for example?
Making a sitcom nowadays is less seductive, though working on TV right now is very seductive. I wouldn’t want to work on something bad if it was bad for ironic reasons. I feel like I could throw myself into a show, but the problem with working on something bad is that everyone hates working on it. Like, Law and Order is the ultimate comfort TV. Comfort TV has different levels of badness that fulfill different levels for me. But now that it’s leaving the city, everyone is starting to miss it, and that’s another thing like the Conan feeling where I wish I’d written something for it or been a part of the experience of making it. But Law and Order is different than say, Boy Meets World.
Fair to say.
Law and Order is like an antidepressant to me. There’s something that it taps into. I don’t have a TV right now, but there’s something I really like about having live TV. I use the internet to watch the good shows, but I also use it to watch the bad shows so that I can feel like TV is happening. I wish the internet could just be running in the background the way TV does. There’s a show my best friend and I watch that is such insane garbage. I’m like, current on it. I need to have the good with the bad. I feel like the Boy Meets World time of my life is so special, in Chicago, before the internet had TV on it and before I had cable. What they didn’t say in that piece is that a bunch of us from This American Life didn’t have cable, so we started watching Good Times reruns every night at 11. We watched it as though it were current TV, and we’d call each other in our apartments and be all…
“Are you watching this? Can you believe what’s happening?”
Seriously. We all got really into it, saw the first episode, saw it end. So cool and special, and no one else in the world could talk to us about it, because you had to be in Chicago that year watching TV at 11. And Good Times wasn’t on long enough to have like, a bad seventh season. It could be dark and strange throughout. I ended up flying back to California during a break for This American Life, and I remember coming back and telling Jonathan, “You’ll never guess who was on the plane!” His first guess was Thelma from Good Times, and that’s who it was. I went up to her and told her I loved her, and I was freaking out. It was me and the security people. Like everyone who was older, and then me just freaking out over Thelma. Literally his first guess, because we’d been watching this weird show.
Comfort is sometimes a double-edged sword that people associate with complacency. When you make a project like this one for The Thing, is the idea of comforting someone on your mind?
Kinda. I hope it does. I don’t think comfort has anything to do with complacency. I love it and crave it. It’s like when you find someone whose stuff you relate to. Every writer I like, artist or filmmaker I like… it’s usually because they tap into something that makes the world seem bigger and that is nourishing. That to me is the ultimate comfort, understanding that the world can be bigger than you fear it is. With the cutting board, I felt like if I was going to enter someone’s home, I wanted to have a purpose and reason for being there. People say “The Break-Up” story with Phil Collins comforts them, which I didn’t set out to do, but that’s nice if it does.
At Housing Works you proposed that the writing inside the issue is almost from the perspective of the cutting board. You earlier talked about having a “haunted” apartment of belongings that have been left behind. Is the consciousness of objects something you’ve long been interested in?
I’ve always had a hard time creating a home. It doesn’t come natural to me. Some people are really good at it. I have taste, know what I like, know what my style is, but it’s hard for me to buy stuff that doesn’t have a meaning. It feels like I’m cheating if it isn’t already saturated in meaning. Homes are always filled with such highly meaningful objects that it’s impossible to look at them and not see a story. Even when I go to IKEA, I get so stressed out. Everyone gets stressed out at IKEA, but I have to rationalize everything, and every thing has to be tied to my life in this ridiculous way.
Maybe that’s the next step for IKEA. A gently used section of slightly worn furniture.
A waiter jogs past the outdoor seating, causing Oh Papa and a small poodle to begin barking at him, then at one another. Oh Papa soon recedes as Starlee calms him, while the poodle’s rages on, its yelps growing increasingly shrill for a few more moments before relenting.
But it’s funny, my parents weren’t very good at home stuff either. My dad was an architect, so my sister and I would move from one weird house he was building to another. My parents were bad at very normal things, like unpacking, so my sister and I would have all our toys put into boxes. But then we never unpacked them, so for years we had boxes of toys we never saw. My sister and I one day ventured into the garage and found all these toys from like two years before, our most treasured toys that had just never been unpacked. We were so excited, but then by the end of the night we were so overwhelmed by them that we decided they were creepy. We got really sad about it, and decided that we couldn’t go back to that part of our lives, even though it was only two years earlier. We called it “The Spooks”, and every time that we got that feeling we called it that, this feeling of not being able to go back again. So I always think that may be why I have all these feelings projected onto objects.
A lot of what you discuss in your work is highly personal and introspective. You are the protagonist. It’s your voice on the radio telling stories from your real life. Do fans of yours then feel that they know you very well? That could be presumptuous at times, but also very intimate and rewarding.
I don’t know. People Facebook friend me a lot, and I always accept. I’m sure they do think they know me well in many cases. And I put it out there.
In keeping with the personal and direct, I want to ask about “The Rundown”, a method for conversation you invented for the Little Gray Book Series in a performance that later aired on NPR. “The Rundown” is essentially about embracing candor, minimizing small talk, and “having the conversations you want to be having” rather than conversations you’re having due to social etiquette. Do you buy into it as a daily practice, or as something you employ regularly?
The Rundown came about because it was something Jonathan pointed out that I was doing to someone one day at a party. The original version of that was the first performance I ever did. It kinda kickstarted everything, in terms of doing live stuff. But yeah, I’m pretty candid, and I do believe everything that I say in the piece. I wish it would take off, though I feel like I’ve kind of abandoned it. I could have been a motivational speaker and changed the world. Well, not change the world, but I do want small talk eliminated. But I don’t work in an office anymore, so I’m not subjected to it as often. Nowadays the dog park is the place for small talk. Or clothing stores.
I remember being unemployed two years ago, and having a dog that I would take to a dog park. It amazed me how often it seemed like the casual conversation came around to people asking me why I didn’t have a job, and asking what could be done about this. Even when they were nice about it, it was mortifying to have to indulge this kind of chatter every day.
That conversation wouldn’t happen today, now that no one has a job. I feel like nothing’s talked about in the dog park. It’s like, the bleakest part of my existence. I left New York for a year, and don’t know if I’ll live here in the future, but a big reason for leaving would be to escape the dog park. When I’m there… it’s come to feel like a Sartre play about eternity.
No Exit… Except a Small Gate That Doesn’t Latch Well.
It’s like, nothing is interesting, nothing comes out of it, I don’t even think [Oh Papa] has that good of a time. I lose my ability to converse in there. I don’t want to Run anyone Down, because I don’t want to know anything, because then I’ll get a dog park friend, and I don’t want that all of a sudden. I truly wonder how you solve the dog park problem, because it’s stifling to me.
Has the Rundown helped you interview people?
It probably helped me interview Phil Collins.
He gets very personal in that piece.
He does. He was game, he was ready to go. That was not the power of editing, he was ready right away.
He wears his heart on his sleeve. There’s a similar quality to your work: if not solely on the subject of romance, your interests and passions always shine through. What’s capturing that interest these days? What is exciting you presently?
I really liked Lost. I liked that finale. I like partaking in big mainstream cultural events. I got really into it. I’m relating to Jack a lot these days. I’m feeling like I want to go back to the island too. It took on a profound quality where I got really sad before it ended. I’m as addicted as everyone else, but the internet can feel so… I liked that the internet helped it exist, and that both TV and the internet could co-exist and make the thing better. I’m also really into the Marina Abramovic show [a retrospective of the performance artist’s work coupled with new works that ran through May at New York’s Museum of Modern Art].
When you say you want to go back to the island, is that a tangible place?
Why is Chicago that place for you?
Well, I’m also writing a book about self-help, and every time I go to a workshop, it’s kind of like the island. It’s like a suspended reality where people learn a lot about each other in a brief period of time and then go back into the real world, and feel like they can’t go back to that weekend because it wasn’t real. But it’s Chicago for me because I lived there when I was working on the radio, and I didn’t really like living there at the time, but now I really miss it. Everyone leaves Chicago, or so it seems, everyone I know has moved away. And we leave because it seems like everyone else is moving. But if everyone stayed, it could maybe be the greatest city on Earth. On the island all they care about is getting out, until they leave and then realize they need to get back.
What makes for its potential to be the greatest city on Earth?
Well, it isn’t really. I think that just comes from it being a more innocent time. Anyone who knew me in Chicago that reads this is gonna roll their eyes, because when I was there, all I did was complain about it. It just felt like a very creative time, where I knew everyone who was working on the show, but also a lot of other people doing interesting things. I met Arthur there. It’s not very expensive, but it’s not like living in Kansas. You still get to be in a city. The art shows were really awesome. Everyone was making something, but it didn’t feel like Portland where it’s all crafty. It was the right mix of artists and regular people. The sensibility felt different than it does here [in New York]. Here there’s so much that you have to do, that you don’t always get the chance to actually make stuff. Plus you could have houses, which was nice. A friend who knew a bunch of us who worked on the show said that the old archived shows are like this time capsule of our friendship at the time, and of so many of us working on the show at the same time.
The working title of the forthcoming book is It Is Your Fault. Is it fair to call it a book of self-help guidance, or is it more a book about self-help movements?
It’s a book about the industry of self-help. It’s about taking responsibility for yourself. Not to be too serious about it, but I find the ideas of responsibility and accountability to be really exciting. I originally thought of that title while George Bush was president. That makes it sound really serious, but actually the title’s been around for so long that it was really a combination of George Bush and Ashlee Simpson from when she was on Saturday Night Live. They reminded me of the same person, cause she got caught and yet I knew she wasn’t gonna go away. [Simpson was caught lip synching during a live performance on SNL in October, 2004 when a mistimed, incorrect vocal track began to play before she had even raised the microphone to her mouth – NC]. It’s like Sex and the City 2, in that no matter how big the garbage is, everyone who makes it will be fine. I kinda want accountability: if you make something bad, there should be consequences for it. Ashlee Simpson should have gone away. She should have never been heard from again, ’cause it’s ridiculous. George Bush should obviously face consequences. Then in self-help, a lot of it is about blaming your parents. That’s the point: it’s your fault, unrelentingly. Deal with it. I was raised in a lack of accountability kind of way. I’m not that disciplined. Consequences are important, mainly in cultural and political stuff. Like I just heard what these writers wrote about John Edwards.
Yeah. And it’s very, very rare to be able to say, “I will never hear from that person again,” especially in politics. His particular mix of things that he did is such that we will never hear from him again, moreso than someone like Clinton getting a blow job in a bathroom. It’s interesting to me that [Edwards] is the one who’s inexcusable, and I agree, because we all agree that he could have destroyed our world forever. Like if he’d been able to get through, and then we’d found out about all of it, Republicans would run the country for a hundred years. George Bush is a huge one in that nothing he did had any consequences. We’re the ones suffering. His life is not even dented. I guess I just want some element of sheepishness. Like Sarah Jessica Parker in an interview saying, “Yeah, it’s not very good.” Cause now I’m the one who’s embarrassed for her. Because I like Sex and the City. I think it’s a good show.
Shia LaBoeuf recently stated publicly that he doesn’t think that the Indiana Jones and Transformers films he starred in were as good as he’d hoped they would be, and noted that he feels obligated to be honest about them so that filmgoers can trust him when he’s doing press junkets in the future. That in a way goes back to the Rundown, in that it’s advocacy for candor.
And I’m someone who, if I made a good thing into a bad thing, would then feel bad about it. I’m always surprised that they aren’t more conflicted or embarrassed, in that it can’t feel good to put garbage out there. You’re still a human being. Like, Sarah Jessica Parker once got rich off of a good show. It’s not like her career at this point can be destroyed, so how awesome would it be if she owned up to it?
Before we go I wanted to ask, if only for myself as a big fan of the Mekons, about the TAL piece you did with the band’s frontman Jon Langford where the two of you compose a band made up entirely of musicians who placed listings in Chicago want ads in search of bandmates. I was giddy listening to it, and found it touching. How did you meet Langford, and how did the idea come together?
He was a friend of the show, though I initially didn’t know him or anything about it. He was a friend of Sarah Vowell’s, I think she brought him down. That was a really fun episode, where everything on the show came out of one day’s worth of want ads.
It’s a great theme. The whole thing is a very tight, well-oiled sixty minutes of radio, and something of a high water mark for the program.
It was a special one where different contributors all flew in to Chicago at different times, and we put down a big pile of classifieds. Jon Langford, I love that man. So clever, so quick. Then we went on a tour that year for the live show, and brought half of the Mekons, the electric violinist from the piece, and the theremin player, Eric, who said it was one of the highlights of his life. It was so magical: he got his own hotel room, he loved touring with the boys. His wife was like, “Don’t cheat on me!”. This guy is seventy-seven years old. Those are like, the most magical experiences of my whole career. I listen to that one and think how amazing it was that these things just came together.
Have you had other opportunities to bring seemingly disparate forces together? You had talked earlier about liking collaboration and I wonder where else you may have had interesting experiences with it.
I do. Arthur and I talk about it a lot. I like putting together shows, but it’s rare that they come together to meet your expectations. That’s why I liked the Housing Works show: everyone had a good component, and I knew who I was gonna put in immediately. In the end I feel like all I ever think about is the last scene in Rushmore, where everybody comes together to watch this play. It’s very Muppet Movie too in that way, where everyone’s in the theater. In college it used to bring me great pleasure to combine groups of friends too, to test the waters and see who can mesh with each other, and creatively I’d like to continue doing that more.
Without showing your hand, are there shows you have in mind or in the works?
I think anything that can keep me from doing a blog would make me really happy.
Why no blogs?
I’m a really slow writer, and blogs are something that feel chaotic for me. I need something that’ll calm me down. Making a cutting board is calming to me. It’s so minimal.
In closing, as you work on a book about accountability or a lack thereof, I’m wondering who or what are some beacons of hope for you on the subject: models of accountability who are willing to say “Mea culpa” when necessary, who are in one way or another doing their job and maybe even doing it well.
There aren’t many. Politicians quit all the time, but only when they’re told they have to. I kinda liked the aftermath of Kramer’s thing, that was pretty cool. And I thought David Letterman was pretty cool in the way he handled his situation this year, that was pretty awesome. There’s a lot written about how being on stage is therapy for him, and how that’s the place where he can be truthful. It didn’t seem like he was just trying to save himself. On the other hand Jay Leno is like the least accountable. He’s just so gross to me. But Kramer I liked, because he really did have to pay his penance on that one.
Just to bring this full circle, who did I see on line in front of me while waiting to go into the Marina Abramovic show? One Michael Richards.
Did you follow him in?
No, he was with friends, and seemed a little shell shocked. Though it was interesting to see so many people in the museum approaching him for autographs and pictures.
I totally would have followed him in.
NICK CURLEY has seen a comrade take squirts of flaming vodka to the eye in the midst of a Benihana dinner. Follow this awesome, awesome, super awesome casualty of war at twitter.com/therealcurley.