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RADIOHEAD: Q&A w/ Wiretap‘s Jonathan Goldstein

 

BY JONATHAN VALANIA Jonathan Goldstein is the creator and host of public radio’s Wiretap, which The (Montreal) Gazette aptly described as “something between borscht-belt comedy and Franz Kafka,” heard locally on Thursday nights at 9 pm on 90.9 FM WHYY. Goldstein is sort of the Woody Allen of the Airwaves — if Woody Allen was an aging Canadian Gen Xer with a punk pedigree and sociopathic-yet-loveable friends. Either way, he’s hilarious and Wiretap is a gas, gas, gas. He’ll be at the Free Library tonight to promote his new book, I’LL SEIZE THE DAY TOMORROW which is kinda like Wiretap in book form. We talk about Lenny Bruce, Ira Glass, Howard, Gregor, his mom, my mom, David Rakoff, Fred Flintstone, Philip Roth, Barney Rubble, his mother’s vagina and, of course, Dino.

PHAWKER: It is an honor to speak with you, sir. I’m a big fan of the show and can totally relate. I think our mothers were cut from the same cloth…

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: Must be a very inexpensive rayon.

PHAWKER: [laughs] Your new book is called I’LL SEIZE THE DAY TOMORROW and that’s one of my mother’s pet sayings, usually employed whenever we’d travel together and she’d always insist on taking the earliest possible flight and then when we get to where we’re going she takes a nap for four hours, effectively cancelling out any ‘seizing of the day’ we’d accomplished by leaving at six in the frickin’ morning.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: That’s very funny, I also come from get-to-the-airport-early stock, there are stories of my people showing up for a flight to Israel 15 hours in advance — just in case, you know?

PHAWKER: In your new book you describe yourself as a humorist, not a comedian. And you explain the difference is that a humorist is a comedian that doesn’t necessarily make you laugh. Can you divide the comedy world into humorists and comedians for us?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: Oh boy, well I guess if you are sitting behind a piano you are a humorist. If you are wearing tweed with patches on the elbows, you are a humorist. And if you are standing in front of a brick wall, you are a comedian.

PHAWKER: You worked for two years at THIS AMERICAN LIFE, tell me the truth, behind the scenes Ira Glass is a raging asshole, right? I mean, he just sounds a little too nice on the radio to be real. I hear staffers aren’t allowed to look him in the eye when they pass him in the hallway. Is that true?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: It is a surprisingly competitive environment, I remember on numerous occasions, when I would go into the studio to cut my tracks he would just walk up to me and punch me in the throat. It was like Showgirls, Ira got rid of the original host of THIS AMERICAN LIFE by shoving him down the stairs on the way to the microphone. That’s called Public Radio Justice. It’s the same thing with Garrison Keillor, nobody can be that folksy all the time. He must have some dark secrets…

PHAWKER: I’m sure he has women chained up in his basement. All kidding aside, I wanted to extend my belated condolences on the passing of your colleague, the brilliant writer/essayist/humorist David Rakoff, whose early death was truly tragic.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: Thank you.

PHAWKER: You and David did a radio piece spoofing The Flintstones that I think is not only one of the greatest moments of THIS AMERICAN LIFE but one of the greatest moments in all of public broadcasting.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: Thank you.

PHAWKER: For the benefit of readers that might not have heard it, can you explain the premise of the piece and talk a little about how it came about.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: It’s structured as a series of voice mail messages that Barney Rubble leaves on Fred Flintstone’s answering machine and vice versa. I played Barney Rubble, David Rakoff played Fred Flintstone — a very martini-sipping, retiring Fred Flintstone. My first message I explain while I was in a rush to make my flight to Rockapulco, I accidentally ran over his dinosaur Dino. I was in such a hurry I just wrapped him in blankets and left him in Fred’s hammock to deal with. This kind of inaugurates this back in forth wherein there friendship basically comes apart over a series of voice mail exchanges. That was the gist of it.

The process was — it probably began as a series of back and forth emails. We did another piece that originally ran on Wiretap, I don’t know if you heard it, rather than voice messages it was a series of letters back and forth between Gregor Samsa, from Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Where upon waking up and learning that he has transformed into a bug he reaches out to a doctor who he hears specializes in very bizarre cases, and that turns out to be Dr. Seuss. I was Gregor Samsa and David played Dr. Seuss.

PHAWKER: In 2001 you published your debut novel, which, despite the fact that it is titled LENNY BRUCE IS DEAD, has nothing to do with Lenny Bruce. Explain.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: It was published on a small Canadian experimental press and it’s structured as a lot of snippets, with a lot of white space, kind of a long prose poem. It’s about this young guy whose mother dies and he goes back to the suburbs to live with his mother and the climax comes when The Messiah arrives and everyone is saved but him. The title, as I recall, refers to a particular type of hipster Jew.

PHAWKER: That’s no longer around these days, no longer on the cultural landscape?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: I’ll be honest I don’t really remember…those were very experimental days…

PHAWKER: [laughs] I also have a hard time remembering my ‘experimental days.’ That’s how I know I was doing it right. Moving on, in 2009 you published LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE BIBLE!, a comedic re-telling of the Bible. A good journalist would have actually read these books before interviewing you, unfortunately you got me instead, so I’m just going to save myself a lot of time and effort and just ask you about them instead of reading them. In your telling, is Leviticus still hung up on ‘the gays.’

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: I didn’t cover Leviticus. It was mainly just the book of Genesis so I didn’t really have to deal with that. I did, however, attempt to re-read, or more accurately read for the first time, The Bible, specifically the Old Testament and there was so much dark, messed up stuff that I wound finding it counterproductive that there wasn’t any good fodder for comedy and I just stopped reading it at a certain point.

PHAWKER: Reading up on some of your old press and the (Montreal) Gazette called Wiretap ‘somewhere between borscht-belt comedy and Franz Kafka,” which I think just about nails it. Tell me about how each episode is put together. I’m assuming it’s sorta like the Saturday Night Live model where each week you write, edit, rehearse and then record a new episode.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: It’s more like THIS AMERICAN LIFE in that it sounds very spontaneous, but it’s actually heavily produced. There is a lot of writing and editing, and hours spent recording it and then many, many hours more spent editing those recordings down into a show. There’s always a monologue segment that requires a lot of writing and then there are recurring characters, friends and family, so it’s a bit like a sitcom. The show has evolved over the years, when it started out it was a lot more freeform, and then it became more like a sitcom and lately it’s something else altogether.

PHAWKER: Who was the woman who was on who decided that evil people smell like cinnamon, and she decides her neighbor, who is actually a very nice person, is evil because she smells like cinnamon…

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: That’s Laura Krafft, she’s a comedienne and actress and for a time she was a staff writer for The Colbert Report and she’s brilliant. But she’s a professional, I am so glad I was able to find people who weren’t pros but were just very funny and give them a forum, like my parents, for example.

PHAWKER: That’s really your parents on the show and not actors?!?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: No, those are my parents. And these are people who didn’t even do high school drama class. They are just natural performers and very uninhibited.

PHAWKER: Wow. I was certain they were actors. Are those segments with your parents scripted or just improvised?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: All improvised. What we do is record for like and hour and then edit it down to five minutes of funny. Often times when I get off the phone with them they are like ‘When are we going to start recording?’ and I’m like, ‘We were recording, why do you think I was asking you what your favorite animals are?’ A lot of people are performing a version of themselves and I think they perform their relationship in public so it comes ripe and ready to record.

PHAWKER: These are your blood parents? You’re not an orphan who was adopted by those people are you?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: No I’m very…I’m very…I came out of that woman’s vagina.

PHAWKER: The reason I ask is that you come across as very cerebral and they most certainly do not come across as cerebral. And I mean no insult to your parents, you just seem like apples and oranges.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: That’s funny because I see so much of myself in them. They are just natural performers, they’ll call me up and say ‘We just listened to the show — we were GREAT!’ They get a kick out of themselves. I think they know what’s funny about themselves.

PHAWKER: Some of the funniest moments in the book concern your parents, who are kind of like the Canadian Costanzas. I love the part where you are talking about your father’s frugality, how he keeps his cufflinks in an old yogurt cup and when you were growing up if a roll of toilet paper fell into the toilet it was fished out to dry on the counter by your mother with strict instructions for you not to use it. ‘That’s your father’s toilet paper.’ Then there’s going shopping with your mother and her making you take off your pants in the aisle of the store. I can totally relate.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: Or even making me take off my pants to try on shoes.

PHAWKER: And then there’s the time you were with your mother when she tried to return a poncho because, quote, ‘it was missing a sleeve’ and she’s getting some resistance from the store about giving her a full refund because it’s clearly marked as a poncho and not a shirt that’s missing a sleeve, they say they’ll give her store credit and you intercede to bring this thing to a peaceful conclusion and grab a ball cap off the rack and say ‘here, I need this hat, let’s buy it with the store credit.’ And your mom turns to the clerk and says ‘you’re just lucky my son needs a hat.’ And then she turns to you and says ‘Walk around with it on for a while, make sure the temples aren’t too tight.’ [laughs]

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: Believe it or not that is actually a true story. Amazingly enough.

PHAWKER: Let’s talk about your friends on the show. All your friends are sociopaths.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: Sociopaths can often be very funny and charming.

PHAWKER: Is Howard really a childhood friend of yours?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: Yes.

PHAWKER: To what extent is the real Howard like the one on Wiretap, is it just an exaggeration of his true self or a complete fabrication?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: I would say it’s an exaggeration of certain aspects of his personality and he is self-aware enough to play up those aspects on the show. I mean, yes, anybody who would intentionally flush my passport down the toilet probably qualifies as a sociopath, but at the same time there is something lovable about him.

PHAWKER: Totally. You almost have to feel sorry for Howard, he’s more idiot than savant. I love the way every week he has some ludicrous get-rich-quick scheme and he never lets the fact that he’s completely unqualified for any of these schemes stop him from carrying them out, invariably to hilarious effect.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, we’re getting to the point where the more absurd the premises get, the more they make me laugh. We did this one last week where Howard comes up with a new product he calls a ‘hot smoothie,’ which is essentially soup. Like, he invented soup, but he refuses to call it that. Even though he created matzoh ball smoothies, that have ginseng and matzoh balls in them. I would say we jumped the shark, but really I think we jumped the shark the first episode.

PHAWKER: No, you have not jumped the shark. I would know, I keep a close eye on the shark and when exactly it gets jumped. Trust me, you will be hearing from me when it happens.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: I wouldn’t expect anything less.

PHAWKER: Just to finish up with Howard, reading up on him I also learned that he is an indie comic book artist and hosts workshops for Drawn & Quarterly and that he is also the drummer in a hardcore punk band with the charming moniker of Nutsak.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: Yes, he’s also the drummer in the longest-running hardcore punk band in Canada called American Devices, who’ve been together since 1980.

PHAWKER: Let’s talk about Gregor, and in addition to Wiretap is also a professional illustrator and holds the inarguably pointless world record for throwing the most knives into a slice of pizza in 30 seconds. On the show he’s like a Teutonic Don Rickles. At a certain point he becomes your Colonel Tom Parker. Have you noticed an uptick in your celebrity since he started managing you?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: No, not at all.

PHAWKER: This is what I mean about the sociopath thing. Then there was the time that Gregor convinced you to blow off work and go to the park with him and he makes you ride the merry-go-round even though you get motion sick very easily and then he makes you eat ice cream even though you are allergic…

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: [laughs] Yeah, I never can tell if he’s trying to help me or destroy me.

PHAWKER: So let’s talk about the book, which is why you will be reading tonight at the Philadelphia Free Library. Once again, it’s called I’LL SEIZE THE DAY TOMORROW, which is a very Jonathan Goldstein-ian sentiment, no?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: I refer to it as not being in the moment rather I’m always adjacent to the moment. A lot of times I do think being in the moment is overrated — I guess that, being a writer, you spend so much time outside of yourself and also commenting on yourself. And I made the joke that ‘being present’ is where pain comes from.

PHAWKER: It is often said that writers stand on the edge of the ring watching the action going on inside the ring. Don’t you think that’s a form of cowardice, just watching the action from the margins instead of getting in there and actually living life, actually feeling life, instead of just observing it?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: I think so. I don’t know about other writers, but for me there is a lot of fear of being fully in the moment.

PHAWKER: I read that you supported yourself for 10 years doing telemarketing, and I was wondering if that experience informed the concept of Wiretap.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: That’s a good question actually. One of the key things with telemarketing, obviously, is keeping people on the line, so you have to be able to entertain on your feet. The goal that our office manager saddled us with was keeping our callers on the line for at least a minute. It was a little like when you’re a kid and you try to trick your parents into letting you stay up later by asking a million questions. ‘Wait, one more question, one more question!’ But I always felt comfortable talking to people on the phone because I could be whoever I wanted to be. I found this old book from the ‘50s on salesmanship and it said whenever possible tell customers your name is Pat Murphy, because not only do you sound like a loveable Irishman, when you say the name ‘Pat Murphy’ the corners of your mouth turn up. So when they say your name back to you they are smiling.

PHAWKER: Duly noted. So, last question. Your book begins with you waking up on your 40th birthday and putting your shoes on the wrong foot — you know, totally discombobulated — and it ends with this moment of grace, you have this simple, almost Zen-like breakfast with your father, and for that moment at least, all is right with the world.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: There is a kind of hopefulness about breakfast. I remember when I was younger and I would stay up all night and write I used to go all over town to find these places that still served breakfast at two or three in the afternoon. That was important to me, because with breakfast, even if it was a breakfast that was beginning near sundown, was the beginning of something and anything was possible. And even though that breakfast too place on the day after my 40th birthday, now that I’m 43, 40 seems young. Mitch Hedberg, the comedian, has this line about whenever you look at a photo of yourself you look so young, because it was taken in the past, even if it’s last week, photos will always be this younger version of you.

PHAWKER: I find that every time I look at a picture of myself, even if it’s from a week ago, I always wince and I’m like ‘What was I thinking with that haircut and what am I wearing?’ and it’s like if only I knew then what I know now. Over and over again. I guess that’s what life is, learning from the mistakes of a second ago. I guess they call that wisdom.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: I was just having this conversation with somebody and wondering if there would ever come a time in my life that I wouldn’t have those wincing feelings or if they would just keep coming. Because I’m in the process of listening to old episodes of Wiretap that we are re-mixing and re-editing for the summer rerun season, some of them from nine years ago. There is that feeling of, ‘Who was this kid?’ even though I was an adult back then. And I’m trying to kind of look at him with a certain amount of kindness, and I find that I like that guy.

PHAWKER: Well, that’s a good thing that you like that guy. I like that guy. I think all the people that tune in for Wiretap like that guy.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: So instead of editing it or re-mixing it, I’m just gonna let that air as is out of respect for that guy.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN BE READING FROM “I’LL SEIZE THE DAY TOMORROW” @ THE FREE LIBRARY TONIGHT @ 7:30 pm

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