Author Interviews
4:00 am
Sat September 8, 2012

An Invitation To Join 'The Dangerous Animals Club'

Originally published on Sat September 8, 2012 6:16 am

Stephen Tobolowsky calls his book, The Dangerous Animals Club, a group of "pieces." They are partly essays, partly short stories, partly memoir. They are anecdotes, stories and insights that are shuffled in and out of order, like cards in a deck.

Tobolowsky is a career character actor. He played Ned Ryerson in the movie Groundhog Day, and Sandy Ryerson (no relation) in the TV series Glee. He was the dog trainer in a Garfield the Cat movie and a Ku Klux Klansman in Mississippi Burning. He has played accountants, cops, insurance sellers and nameless men on the street in more than 200 films and twice as many television shows.

But in recent years, he's been acclaimed for writing and performing what amounts to an ongoing memoir of his life and times. He talks about his book with NPR's Scott Simon.


Interview Highlights

On the "dangerous animals club" he founded as a child

"When you're a kid, there is secret world that you have that your parents don't know about. Every day my mom would think I was going out just to play in the street, but I would go across the alley to [my friend Billy's] house and we determined that we would find all the dangerous animals that lived in Texas. We had a list: rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins, scorpions, tarantulas, black widows — I mean, Texas, we had 'em all.

"So we went out trying to catch the most horrible things in the world. And then I would come home to my mother, and she'd say, 'Did you have fun playing with Billy?' and I'd say, 'Oh, sure, Mom,' and her never knowing that I just had a jar with 50 tarantulas in it a second ago."

On why he believes "our memories choose us"

"No one really thinks of their lives as a chronology. It's almost an artificial construct to say that I was born at this date and then these things happened in order. When we think of things, memory is more a function of importance, of meaning in our life. ... The memories come and tap us on the shoulder and say, 'Pay attention to me.' "

On the line between fact and fiction in his stories

"True trumps clever any day of the week. So I really try to make sure that all of my stories in the book are, one, true, and, two, that they happened to me. It's far more important to tell a true story even if it's not perfect in all the details than to make up a clever lie."

On how to put life into a performance or a piece of writing

"Where there's truth, there's life. ... Aristotle talked about something called techne. ... There is a little jolt that we get when we recognize the truth, and it gives us a little burst of pleasure. Aristotle said it is the basis of comedy and it is the basis of all drama, is trying to find techne. I think that's helped me in my comedic acting, and it's certainly helped me in writing my book, in that I have to have faith in what really happened, and I hope that techne is created in people's brains as either they read or if they watch me on screen. ... When we see truth in someone else's story, we recognize it as part of a universal story."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Stephen Tobolowsky calls his book, "The Dangerous Animals Club," a group of pieces. They're partly essays, partly short stories, partly a memoir. They are anecdotes, stories and insights that are shuffled in and out of order, almost like cards in a deck, the sense and value of each story changing with their order. Stephen Tobolowsky is a career character actor. He played Ned Ryerson in the movie "Groundhog Day."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GROUNDHOG DAY")

STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY: (as Ned Ryerson) Watch out for that first step. It's a doozy.

SIMON: And Sandy Ryerson - no relation - in the TV series "Glee."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GLEE")

TOBOLOWSKY: (as Sandy Ryerson) Oh God, don't you love a good monkey?

SIMON: He was the dog trainer in a "Garfield the Cat" movie, a Ku Klux Klansman in "Mississippi Burning," and has played accountants, cops, insurance sellers and nameless men on the street in over 200 films and twice as many TV shows. But in recent years, he's been acclaimed for writing and performing what amounts to an ongoing memoir of his life and times. Stephen Tobolowsky joins us from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

TOBOLOWSKY: Oh, my pleasure being here, Scott.

SIMON: You call actors literary mechanics, and the way you describe it there's no better background for a writer than to be a character actor. Tell us how that works.

TOBOLOWSKY: Well, I think, Scott, the first person who knows how bad a story that they're really in is the actor and particularly the character actor. We've seen stories that have no Act 3s - that's a big one. We've seen stories that are nothing but Act 1s, that go on and on and on and never get to the point. We see that too. But also on the other side of it, we get to see what really makes a good story. At least I feel that I've been lucky enough to be in some good stories. And you get to see that it doesn't matter and this is for all the character actors out there that are just discovering they're losing their hair. It doesn't matter who small the part is or if the part you're playing is Homeless Man Number Two, you can have just as an important part in telling that story as the big roles.

SIMON: I swear this second question I had jotted down is what did you learn about character and motivation by playing Homeless Man Number Two, which I gather you did on an old sitcom, right.

TOBOLOWSKY: I did play Homeless Man Number Two when I was in "Room 222." It was a sitcom way back when and it was a part in which I had more punctuation than actually words. But what I learned was comedy cannot exist without meaning. Meaning is important to a story whether it be comedy or tragedy. And in Homeless Man Number Two, I was Mr. Meaning.

SIMON: Tell us a bit about the Dangerous Animals Club, the one you founded as a kid.

TOBOLOWSKY: Oh. Well, I think when you're a kid, there is a secret world that you have that your parents don't know about. And every day my mom would think I was going out just to play in the street, but I went across the alley to Billy Hart's house and we determined that we would find all the dangerous animals that lived in Texas, and we had a list: rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins, centipedes, scorpions, tarantulas, black widows. I mean, Texas, we had them all. So, we went out trying to catch the most horrible things in the world. And then I would come home to mother and she'd say did you have fun playing with Billy? I'd go, oh sure, mom. And her never knowing that I just had a jar with 50 tarantulas in it a second ago.

SIMON: You've got a line in I think it's the story called "The Alchemist," where you say your memories choose us. Could you follow that through for us?

TOBOLOWSKY: No one really thinks of their life as a chronology. It's almost an artificial construct to say that I was born at this date and then these things happened in order. When we think of things, memory is more a function of importance, of meaning in our life. For example, I take a look at my father. If you were to say, Stephen, what do you remember about your father? Then I could say, well, I remember the night in Boston he punched a bus. Now, there are a lot of other memories probably more important than the night my dad punched a bus. Why is it that that memory chose me? And the theory I have is something that I read in a book by Berthold Brecht. And he said when he was writing a play, he always tried to find the Gestus of a character. And that is the charactological(ph) gesture which defines who that person was, like Bob Hope swinging his golf club, Bruce Lee's punch. For some reason, we go that is definitive. So, I started thinking why is my father punching the bus definitive. And I was thinking of the fact that my dad always felt he was fighting against something bigger than himself. There are many different reasons, but that is one of my theories of memory, is that the memories come and tap us on the shoulder and say pay attention to me.

SIMON: What's the line between fact and fiction in your pieces?

TOBOLOWSKY: Well, there are two important rules whenever I tell a story. True trumps clever any day of the week. And so I really tried to make sure that all of my stories in the book are, one, true and, two, that they happen to me. It's far more important to tell a true story, even if it's not perfect in all the details, than to make up a clever lie.

SIMON: How do you put life in a performance or life in a group of words or - I mean, what is that animating sense called life?

TOBOLOWSKY: The short answer is you give it truth. Where's there truth, there's life. I can give a more long-winded answer and say that Aristotle talked about something called techne that exists in everybody's brain. And that is when we recognize something is true, there is a little jolt and it gives us a little burst of pleasure. And Aristotle said it's the basis of comedy and it is the basis of all drama, is trying to find techne. And I think that's helped me in my comedic acting, and it's certainly helped me in writing my book, in that I have to have faith in what really happened and what was true and I hope that techne is created in people's brains is either they read or if they watch me on screen in something. When we see truth in someone else's story, we recognize it as part of a universal story.

SIMON: Stephen Tobolowsky, character actor and now performance essayist. His new book is "The Dangerous Animals Club." Thanks so much.

TOBOLOWSKY: Thank you so much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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