Actor Stephen Tobolowsky, On Finding Meaning In Moments We Can't Explain
To some, he’s “That Guy” on “That Show.” But to those in the know—a number that’s growing every day—Stephen Tobolowsky is not only a great character actor (known for Ned Ryerson in "Groundhog Day," and now on "Silicon Valley" and the rebooted "One Day At A Time"), but a writer and storyteller whose podcast, “The Tobolowsky Files,” has touched the lives of countless listeners. The show began in 2009 after Slashfilm’s David Chen suggested the idea to the actor. Since then, the two have produced 83 episodes about “life, love, and Hollywood.”
Some of those stories made their way into “The Dangerous Animals Club,” an alternately hilarious and touching memoir about Tobolowsky’s early life, including Hollywood parties, travels abroad, and the titular club formed by elementary school friends in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood. His new book, “My Adventures with God,” recounts “stories about those moments in my life where something I can't explain happened.”
Stephen Tobolowsky will be appearing at the Houston Jewish Book and Arts Fair on Saturday, October 28, and at the Barshop Jewish Community Center in San Antonio on Sunday, October 29, to share stories from his new book. I spoke to him by phone for the below interview, which has been edited for length and clarity. [To listen to our whole conversation, including much more detail about recent stories in his podcast, use the embedded Soundcloud player.]
Nathan Cone: Your new book, "My Adventures With God," discusses something that I don't think you've specifically addressed in previous written form or on the podcast, which is a religious experience. What led to that theme at this point in your life, to put it on paper and to write that in as part of these stories?
Stephen Tobolowsky: I think truth of the matter is, a lot of writing comes from catastrophe. As a listener to the podcast you probably know the story of my life, of riding on the horse in Iceland. That story is in this book, the story of what happened to me and how I healed. Basically the whole podcast came from that accident, when I broke my neck--I think the technical term was, "in five different places." I mean, your neck isn't that big, to break it in five places! But five vertebrae were broken, and the middle vertebrae was crushed. The doctor in L.A. told me I had a fatal injury, which was very upsetting at the time. But then on the car ride home I felt it was kind of funny; it was a terrible misuse of the word "fatal." And then I got home and went like, "wow, what if what that guy said was true?"
"We are all metamorphic rocks. We begin one way, and we are changed by heat pressure into something else."
For some reason, instead of watching "Law & Order" reruns, which I would normally have done for the next three and a half months, instead what I did was I said, "What if I wrote down all the stories that I never got to tell my two boys about their father who died on that mountain in Iceland?" And so as kind of therapy, I began writing these stories, that ended up becoming the podcast, that ended up on the radio, that ended up with Simon & Schuster, and it became one of the most profound events of my life. After [my first book], “The Dangerous Animals Club,” was released, my editor at Simon & Schuster called me and said, “well, you know what people are really responding to is the humor in your stories, but also that your stories sometimes have this spiritual bent to them. Is it possible you could do another book of true stories that connect with the spiritual thread?” That was the genesis, so to speak, of “My Adventures With God,” about how we are shaped a lot of times not by what is within our power but what is outside our power very much like in my story with the broken neck in that affliction.
I really feel I encountered a miracle, and the miracle was that I lived. I'm a science guy, so I could chalk that up to a collusion of cervical vertebra. I could just say it was a fluke that I lived. I am willing to accept coincidence, but the thing I cannot explain is how in my backyard as I was recovering, as I was writing these stories, in an instant my vision of the world and my life changed. And to me, that was a miracle. I've never been able to see my life the same again.
Once that happened to me in the backyard, once that flash happened to me, it changed my entire life… the way I approach acting, the way I approach writing, the way I approach other people. I remember in college I was a geology major, and we studied sedimentary rocks created by water, and we studied igneous rocks created by fire, but then there were metamorphic rocks which were created by heat and pressure. And over the course of my life I began thinking: we are all metamorphic rocks. We begin one way, and we are changed by heat pressure into something else.
And I think one of the “something elses” is what a lot of people call God. Some people call it inspiration, whatever you want to call it. It is something beyond us. Something that has no science, no explanation, that is beyond anything we understand. So these are stories about those moments in my life where something I can't explain happened.
You said you're a science guy, and I am, too. So when I try to reconcile the idea of God and science, or religion and science, I have this idea that science itself, and the things that happen to us, are presented to us by God as revelations. And when it comes to God and science, each one makes the other more beautiful in that way.
I have a theory--and it’s one of my early stories in “My Adventures with God,” where I talk about the monster that lived in my room when I was a child. Eye the Monster, who was a constant companion with me for years. And the story of Eye the Monster lived on with my aunts and uncles, even after I quit believing in Eye the Monster.
But it started me thinking: whatever happened to Eye the Monster, who I believed in so perfectly for years of my life? He was a constant companion. And as an adult I got this notion, what happens to our fear of the dark? Because I'm not afraid of the dark anymore. And my theory is that over the course of centuries, man developed science, art, and religion to deal with the fear of darkness. Science to measure the darkness, art to show its beauty, and religion to tell us that it's really light all the time. You just have to believe in the light to see it. So I think so much of man's achievements have come from fear, and particularly fear of the dark, if I were to say anything, which in a way is also fear of death—the ultimate dark--but we create so much out of fear, which is also in the book. There are stories about that.
In the most recent series of The Tobolowsky Files, a lot of it is centered around this idea of discovering one’s self. When you were at SMU, that’s where you were discovering who you were. But as you talk about this other transformative moment, you know… do we become almost the person we are at different points in our lives? Do you think it’s kind of like, “oh here's my formative person” as I am coming out of college, and everything else has been layered upon a top of that? Or did this accident, where you see things differently…. Well, is that a different person? Or is it more of a layer upon that first persona that you have?
Well I think it certainly has to be a layer. But I think you could argue that at a certain point you become a different person.
But this is something I was talking to my wife Ann about the other night-- we were having this self-same discussion, and I was saying I think it requires a recipe of three things to become who you are. First, you have to be cut off with what you've previously known. So [at SMU] I was cut off from my family, cut off from where I lived, where I slept. So the first step is you have to be cut off from what you know in the past. Second step is you have to have a hero. And third, you have to have an adversary. And if you end up getting those things at the same time, sort of in conjunction, it reshapes you. It didn't even dawn on me until I started writing that podcast that first of all there was me being cut off from everything I knew in my life going to SMU. Then meeting Jim McLure, who was an adversary at that particular point of time, and theater was my hero. But truly when I started the first day of my sophomore year, within 24 hours I met Beth Henley [Tobolosky's partner until 1988], and I met Joan Potter [an acting professor at SMU], who formed my life. These two women--like one of the greatest adversaries I've ever had, and one of the greatest heroes I’ve ever had, both at the same time. And I think that completely remade who I was in that fire.
I think when I had the event in my backyard the same formula applies. I had a fatal injury. I should have been dead. I was cut off from everything I could do physically, I couldn't hardly do anything for myself. Ann had to do almost everything for me. I couldn't act, I couldn't make money, I couldn't do anything. And it really shaped me. And one of the things that became my adversary was my affliction. My broken neck became my adversary, and then the weird thing was that in a couple of weeks, it became my greatest hero. And then I was like, wow, that fits the template of the people with cancer who say “cancer was the greatest thing that happened to me.” And the people in prison who go, “Bless Jesus, I found Jesus in prison.” And suddenly I see it all differently now. And I'm sticking with that formula until I change again. But you have to be cut off from all you know you have to discover a hero and you have to find your new adversary. And those things really shape you.
I know in terms of with Beth, I became a completely different person, and that changed again when I married Ann, and became a father. I became a different person again. But obviously still Stephen.
Yeah, I know. The same thing happened to me when my kids were born too. I mean, talk about a transformative experience!
Yeah! How many kids do you have?
I have two. They're 10 and 12 now.
Oh, wow! [laughs heartily] Are they boys or girls?
I have one of each. I have an older girl, Samantha who is 12, and Maximillian is the boy at 10.
Oh, wow. And I don't know about you, but in my case it was amazing how my scope of fear changed when I had my boys, and that all of my fears were directed toward my children. It wasn’t that I was fearless. But it's like, all that stuff? I don't care about anymore. Now, I don't want a teacher to be mean to my kid. Now, I don't want my kid to be picked on at the schoolyard. I don't want them to suffer any unfairness in their lives. I don't want them to be bullied. You know, certainly all of my fear and all of my care went toward my children.
Yes and any personal fears you have now all are also influenced by them. Oh! My job. I must have it so that I can so that I can provide for my children, so that I can do this for my children... Everything has to do with your relationship with your children.
I had probably the best two years of my career ever, the last two years, and it wasn't just the book, but it was like, suddenly I was on all the shows that were good shows!
And people were good, and people liked them, and it was wonderful. And it was the same time that my youngest son William got accepted into Johns Hopkins Medical School. When I was in college we used to get the prospectus from the school of you know, “Welcome to SMU,” and you got the glossy little magazine that had pictures of the professors at the blackboard teaching, and pictures of various boys and girls in flirtatious attitudes either in the student center or by the fountain at the center of SMU, and all this stuff. People writing poetry, and kids like doing skits wearing Mickey Mouse ears, and I’m going like, “oh, college is so great!” William gets accepted into Johns Hopkins Medical School. What I get in the mail, “Welcome to Johns Hopkins,” was loan packages! Nothing about the school! You have four different loan options to get you through this period of your life. We are hoping to get you out of this with less than $90,000 of debt. Yes. If we can get your son graduated with $90,000 of debt or less, we have achieved our goal. And I went, “Oh my God!” $90,000 in debt? And just at that time, I got “Silicon Valley,” and just at that time I got “One Day at a Time,” and I'm not one of these people that says “oh, the Lord provides.” But it was a coincidence. To hell with the fact that suddenly I'm going to have a steady income stream for one the first time in my career, it was [more], “Thank God I'm going to be able to pay off his debt as he accrues it. And maybe we will be able to give our son the ability to leave Johns Hopkins debt-free. So it goes on. I'm 66 years old and the only thing I still worry about is that my kids are happy!
You mentioned your college roommate Jim a moment ago, and he was such a great character in these most recent podcasts. And I want to say I love the fact that in these most recent podcasts that you're doing character voices.
I never thought it would end up doing that because that isn’t one of my fortes. But it's funny, when Jim passed away, I saw Beth for the first time in years and years since we broke up. We were at his funeral together and I thought, "I have to write a story about Jim." And when I was going to write the story of how I became me, I realized a lot of it was about Jim, who was ultimately one of my greatest antagonists and certainly one of my greatest friends of my entire life--and his entire life. And there are more Jim stories coming in the next series. There are more Jim stories coming out that are mind boggling, and there are Jim stories in “My Adventures With God.” So, I've realized that the door had to open in a certain way. But yeah, I ended up having to do the voices!
"I had no idea that when I began writing and telling these stories that it would change them in my mind."
Also with these older stories too, when you have characters--and obviously Jim is not here for you to go back and kind of recollect with him--but when you're remembering these stories, do you ever try to reach out to somebody who's part of them and either clarify, or ask if it’s okay to talk about them?
Yeah absolutely. If the person is alive and if they're here. For example, in all the stories of Beth, I sent all of those stories to Beth and the first story she listened to and the first story she happened to read was “The Alchemist,” the story from “Dangerous Animals Club” of the day my mom died. Beth wrote me back and just said “I can't, I can't do it. It's too much,” she said. “I had to be in bed for a week after I listened to that story.” She says, “Just please just don't write anything that will make my head explode.”
I love what you said also at some point in your podcast about a telling true stories versus telling honest stories.
That's Bob Darnell. Yeah that's Bob, dear Bob, and he said there's a difference between truth and honesty. He said you could use honesty like a bludgeon to hit somebody over the head. But he says once you tell the truth, it changes the course of everything from that point on, and you could start to hear the difference between honesty and truth.
And when you tell the truth, when you tell it as you saw it, we as the audience can place ourselves within that same frame. And I think those same feelings that can come up with an inside us. I think we're going to feel those same feelings, without you trying to spoon feed it.
Absolutely. It's amazing. Take the story “Conference Hour,” which has proven to be one of the more popular stories both of the podcast and from “The Dangerous Animals Club.” I've got e-mails from all over the world of people saying that was their story. The same damn thing happened to them! They start telling me what happened to them and I'm reading this, and it's a completely different story. They heard their life in my story. But when I heard their story I could see that it was a completely different thing. And all they were relating to is usually dealing with someone who had all the power, and they had none. It would be a story of something that happened to them at church, something that happened to them in the workplace, or something that happened with their family, a brother or sister. And none of it had to do with college teachers or theater or anything. But it's what you said. They heard the truth of the story, something that resonated with their life.
One last Big Idea question here because I love talking about big ideas. Something that I happened to read right around the same time that I listened to this podcast is an old news story about how when you actually tell a story, you're bringing it up in your memory again. And then you've kind of almost destroyed the original memory and you're re-implanting it in your brain the way you've told it, so by actually telling these stories you're almost erasing them from your mind and then putting them down again so they're never gonna be quite the same. There's something kind of strange and beautiful about the way our brains work in that way.
It is so true, and it was something I didn't expect would happen. But as I told these stories in the podcast, and around the country, telling them… changes the event. I think it is the way we heal. And I think it's also the way we become neurotic when we relive something. In “My Adventures With God,” I built the stories into five groups based on the five books of the Old Testament. And so the last group of stories is like Deuteronomy which the Hebrew word for Deuteronomy is Devarim, which means “words,” but it also means “things.” And it it brings up a Jewish mystical idea that is when we say something it becomes. That is why in the Talmud they always say you should say your prayers out loud rather than just read them silently, because through the act of speaking the words, the words become things, and they become action, as opposed to contemplation.
I had no idea that when I began writing these stories and telling these stories that it would change them in my mind. It healed a lot of the hurt I had with my breakup with Beth in recalling all the good things. And the funny things and the triumphant thing in writing those things down and talking about them, it completely reshuffled the deck. And you aren't living in the last two, three years of the relationship disintegrating which is where people usually end up with what happened last, instead of what happened first. And yet at the same time, it can bring up neuroses, like “I never have a good audition at this building in this room. Whenever I'm in this room something bad happens.” And the words become things, and you find that true in telling acting stories, when you tell acting stories of things of where you had trouble, it suddenly puts those blockades in your mind, so I think you have to be enormously careful about what you say and what you write. It is magical, and it creates.
I have to ask, because you're from Texas and you're coming back here to your home state... what does this state mean for you, in your mind?
I have to go to something Willie Nelson said. He said the thing about Texas is that you feel like there are no boundaries. You look out and there's plains, and a huge sky and there are stars, and it seems to go on forever. He says as a songwriter it makes you feel like you could do anything. And whenever I come to Texas, I feel that I think he said it so perfectly. I feel there are no boundaries and I'm so happy. I grew up in Texas, in a family of love, which was great, in an environment of intelligent people, which was great. But in a climate of people who felt there were no boundaries… and that applies to everybody. That applied to everybody. That even applied to our black maid, Lenora, who worked at our home. She ended up buying our home and every stick of furniture in it because she always wanted to own the home she worked in. And now she's a multi-billionaire. She turned to our home in Oak Cliff into a church, and I went to visit her a couple of years ago at our childhood home and she said “Oh Stevie, you'd be so happy. We saved so many souls in your home.” And you know for her it was limitless too. Even in a world of limits that she had to deal with. So that's what I think of Texas-- is big sky, no limits, anything's possible.
Stephen Tobolowsky will be appearing at the Houston Jewish Book and Arts Fair on Saturday October 28, and at the Barshop JCC in San Antonio on October 29, to share stories from his new book, "My Adventures with God." Find more about "The Tobolowsky Files" here.