Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Dangerous Animals Club by Stephen Tobolowsky

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

Whether or not you know the name, you have undoubtedly seen Stephen Tobolowsky on the big or small screen. He is a character actor who has appeared in well over 200 films and at least that many television episodes. He is usually one of those minor characters which fill out a particular imaginary universe. Probably his best known roles are the insurance salesman in Groundhog Day, and a recurring role on Glee.



Anyway, I kind of knew the face, but didn’t remember the name. I ran across the name when he wrote a delightful piece on losing his belief in Santa Claus. This book was mentioned in his biography, and I thought I would add it to my list. (His recent tribute to Harold Ramis and another on the miseries of 7th grade are also worth reading.) 

I laughed harder while reading The Dangerous Animals Club than at any book I read in the last few years not written by P. G. Wodehouse. Tobolowsky has a deadpan, self effacing delivery that belies his observant and introspective nature. Whether he is poking fun at the ludicrous system that is Hollywood; recounting escapades from his childhood; or musing on relationships, depression, and breaking up; he shows a gentle humor mixed with thoughtfulness.

I guess this book could be considered a memoir of sorts, as it is a collection of stories and memories from his life. It isn’t laid out chronologically, however. In fact, I can’t really figure out how he decided the order of the stories. They read more like a collection of essays, or short stories perhaps: connected by the fact that he is the central character in all of them. Since he started telling the stories in person before they were made into a book, I guess I could see a resemblance to the way real life stories appear in a conversation. One idea leads to another, and chronology goes out the window.

Some of the stories are about Hollywood, naturally. More are about his childhood and college days.

The title comes from a club he formed with his best childhood friend Billy. They would go out and try to catch dangerous animals, with varying degrees of success. (The young Stephen accidentally grabbed a water moccasin by the tail and had to figure out what to do with a snake he was swinging above his head to keep from getting bit.)

There are too many of these to really recount, and I would do it badly anyway. Better to just read the book.

There were a few great Hollywood stories that I do wish to mention. First, when talking about the difficulty of coming up with a convincing monster in sci-fi or suspense films. For one (completely forgettable) movie he did, he recalls that “The alien came out of the makeup trailer looking like a green teenager covered in calamari. It did not inspire fear, only hunger. I kept looking at him and wishing I had a squeeze of lemon and some cocktail sauce.”

Or, during the same shoot, he gets asked if he is an extra. The person questioning him didn’t believe he was a “real” actor, because he was bald.

I was thinking about murdering this strange man, and I had only been talking to him for forty seconds. In acting class, students always ask, “How would you play a murderer like Othello or Macbeth?” Easy. Imagine you’re Othello and Desdemona comes into the bedroom and asks if you’re an extra.

This whole chapter is outstanding, ranging from the whys of filming in Vancouver to the bet he makes with this guy named Freddy that he could prove the existence of God. (I couldn’t do justice to this without quoting several pages. You’ll have to read it for yourself.)

Another enlightening chapter described his acting on the show Heroes. Why is television acting often so bad? Well, because the actors don’t actually get to read the script in many cases, because the producers don’t want to risk leaks. Nothing like delivering lines with no idea what the heck is going on.

And then there is the non-continuity. Scripts that get rewritten after more episodes are ordered, or rewritten after the episode is filmed, requiring piecemeal rework. And then, there are the resurrections. After being killed off in a brutal manner, he is told, “Stephen, just because you’re dead, remember, this is Heroes. Don’t be surprised if we call you back for more episodes.”

Only in Hollywood could they kill you, cut off your head, eat your brains, and tell you with a straight face, “You may be back.”

Of course, the silliness isn’t limited to Hollywood. Tobolowsky recounts his role in a college production of ‘76 Town Hall, wherein he had a 45 minute monologue at the end. (Aside from the gruelling memorization work, who would want to listen to that?) Oh, and he was dressed as Uncle Sam for the monologue. And then there was the brilliant idea that he should start the monologue while inside a giant paper mache casaba melon. It went downhill from there.

This being Hollywood, the book does contain some language (usually in quotes by other people) and a number of depictions of drug use. Nothing is particularly objectionable, but some might not want their kids reading it. I will admit, though, that his tale of the crazy party at his apartment that got out of hand was pretty funny. He ends up taking more drugs than he should by a good bit, and things get crazy faster than he can control or even comprehend. And yet, he misses out on whatever “good time” was being had.

This was it. This was the Hollywood party I’d heard about my whole life! And it was at my house! And I was the host! Despite being naked and wearing a red derby, despite standing on ground zero of a hands-on display of the seven deadly sins, despite being high on acid, cocaine, marijuana, beer, and martinis, I never did anything. I was too busy loading the dishwasher, putting out bowls of chips, refilling dip, opening beers for people, getting desserts on plates, cleaning vomit off the walls, and sweeping up broken class. Debauchery requires maintenance.

I presume I will find a good occasion to use that last line someday, even though I don’t do the debauchery.

While the humor was expected, I was surprised at the way Tobolowsky dealt with more serious topics. Before meeting and marrying his wife, he had a long term relationship with dramatist Beth Henley. They met in college, before either of them became famous. The breakup was difficult for Stephen (maybe for her two, but he doesn’t speculate). She would eventually go on to write Crimes of the Heart and other well regarded plays. Henley appears in many of the stories, because she was such a huge part of his life for so long. I was impressed at the graciousness that Tobolowsky shows in his writing. Sure, he laughs at her foibles - particularly as they clash with his own, but he still portrays her very positively. He goes out of his way to praise her works and her success. It is a total contrast to the way many tell-alls relish digging up garbage, and tearing people down. If anything, he lays his own faults bare and makes no excuses.

I’ve done quite a few divorces in my practice. I’ve seen all kinds of breakups from the nastiest to some where the parties remained good friends. I’ve seen vindictiveness and kindness. I’ve heard more than I wish about the ways that relationships can go wrong. So this was very interesting to read.

I think Tobolowsky understands the death process of a relationship better than most. He describes how people will say they broke up over minor things, while failing to acknowledge the deeper shift within the relationship.

The partner who is “drawing a line” is really saying: “We need to change things to protect what is mutually valuable.”
The brokenhearted often focus on the first part of that phrase, “We need to change things.” But the real heartbreak rests in the last few words: “to protect what is mutually valuable.” At the end of a relationship, as much as people want to have discussions on changing the behavior of their partner, the hard truth is understanding that the relationship, the thing you felt was constant, is no longer mutually valuable.

This is true stuff. But hard to acknowledge.

But even this bitter edge has a bit of humor. We “try to get through the pain by alternating varying amounts of tequila and psychiatry. The results are often that we end up just as miserable but with a new appreciation for country music.”

One final bit. Stephen gets hired to do this Japanese commercial (alas, apparently not on YouTube) wherein he plays this ludicrous stereotype of a tail-chasing “Yankee sailor man.” He is supposed to say the following lines:

“We American sailor like girls in big city. They nice and all right. But not like girl in backcountry. No. No. But we American sailor man like the pretty girls, yes, yes indeed.”

After several bad takes where he can’t keep a straight face while saying the lines, he asks if he can rewrite them a bit. He is informed that he will be overdubbed anyway, so he can say whatever he wants. Realizing that he will be in a reverse Godzilla situation, he elects to recite from Hamlet. The take was a success.

Ironically, it remains the only time I ever performed Shakespeare in Los Angeles.

Again, delightfully witty, a bit introspective, and well written. If you can find this at your library, it is worth picking up.

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