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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Misadventures in interviewing

I love interviewing celebrity comedians. They're mostly all really great and engaging. Don't get me wrong. I also have a blast interviewing non-celebrity comics, too, on my show. The ones I'm talking about here are conducted over the phone for print stories. But you can't beat lounging around your pad talking on the phone. Off the top of my head, only two have been less than engaging.

One was Patton Oswalt, who was pleasant enough, but it was a forced pleasantness and he offered absolutely nothing more than he had to. Most comics will treat an interview as it should be treated – as a conversation. But Oswalt took it literally. If there was no direct question, there'd be next to no answer. If there was a yes/no question, you can bet he'd answer with either a yes or a no with zero explanation. I guess he does a lot of interviews with idiots and went into it figuring I was an idiot, too. And maybe I was. But I was also no different than I am with anyone else. Here's the thing: over the years, I've found no correlation between great answer and great question. Sometimes a really original, well-researched question gets a fantastic answer and sometimes it gets nothing. Sometimes a really banal and boring question gets a fantastic answer and sometimes it gets nothing. It all depends on 1) what the interview subject wants to give, and 2) the connection between the subject and me.

I hung up from my interview with Oswalt thinking we didn't really connect and he wasn't all that giving, but I put most of the blame on myself. I always think I should be able to reach whoever I'm talking to – and I usually do. Oswalt certainly was polite enough, so it must have been me. Then, out of the blue, I got an e-mail from a colleague who I rarely see. He didn't know I had spoken to Oswalt. He just wrote me to tell me that he just had the worst interview of his life... and it was with Patton Oswalt. It was enough to turn him off interviewing comedians altogether. What I can't figure out is why someone who wants to promote a show would piss off the very person who can help promote the show. If you don't want to speak to the press, don't. Simple enough. But if you're going to talk, be a professional.

The only other comic I've interviewed who I couldn't reach was Steven Wright. I wrote about that in an earlier post. But with Wright, I figure, that's just the way he is. I can't blame him for that. He eventually warmed up in his own peculiar way but was incapable of really communicating with someone he doesn't know.

Jimmie Walker
was a tough nut to crack. He hates doing interviews and didn't want to do one. He's been screwed over by reporters in the past, who sweet-talk him to his face then turn around and bash him in print. That's not my style, but he had no way of knowing that. But I explained to his publicist that I respect him and I only write about comedy and was finally able to finagle one. I call him at the appointed time and he answers the phone quite strangely, I thought. It was like a sexy voice or something. I can't explain it. He was probably just being funny. But I tell him who I am and he immediately shuts down. The first few questions were like pulling teeth. But I persisted and as soon as I showed I knew something about his history outside of Good Times, he started to warm up and it turned out to be one of my favourite interviews.

Beyond that, I've had a couple of funny experiences while conducting phone interviews, both involving my son. These days, I can tell him I've got a phone interview to do and he'll leave me be. But back when he was two or three, it was more challenging.

One morning we got up around 9 and I checked my e-mail at 9:23. I remember the time because the message said Roseanne Barr was available for an interview at 9:25. So I quickly put on a video, explained to my not-quite-two-year-old that I needed to talk on the phone and he couldn't disturb me, then went in the other room to call Roseanne. Because of the situation, I wasn't as comfortable as I usually am. I was walking around talking to her when my son walks in carrying a big race track. I silently motioned "shhh" with my index finger to my lips while Barr was talking. I had forgotten that we hadn't eaten breakfast, which is no problem for me, but when a toddler is hungry, forget about it. That one little motion turned him from happily playing with his toys to bawling his eyes out. I was quietly trying to console him when Roseanne whined in her distinctive nasally voice, "What's wrong with that kid?"

I brushed it off, and got right back to the interview. We talked a bit more and my son started crying again. Roseanne, quite accusingly, I felt at the time, said, "Who's looking after that kid?" I told her I was and she said, "No, you're not. You're talking to some old broad." Then she told me to give him a cookie. It wasn't the smoothest interview I had done and I thought she was being harsh, but when I went back to listen to the tape, I realized she was actually being nice, in her own sweet way.

Fast forward a year and a bit and my son has just learned to poo on the toilet. So he's out of diapers but still needs help. I think you can see where this is leading. I'm expecting a call from Jay Leno's assistant one morning to arrange a time for later that day when I can interview Leno. I had set up a playdate for my kid so I could do the interview in peace. Everything would be fine.

So the boy is in the back yard playing in the dirt and the phone rings, as expected. Leno's assistant is on the line. She says, "I have Jay Leno on the line, can you take it?" Uh... My mind races. I can't say no. He's a busy guy. But I had no time to warn my son. So I stammered, "Sure," and headed to the office to record the call. On the way there, my cordless phone started beeping. It was running out of juice. So I had to pick up the corded phone, meaning I couldn't even walk around or see out to the back yard to check on my son.

So I'm talking to Leno and he's going on like a pro when my son walks in. He starts to talk and I gave him the shush sign again. Being just over three now, he wasn't reduced to tears. In fact, he stopped talking. And then he whispered those five little words I didn't want to hear: "I have to go poo."


Leno is still talking and I'm trying to figure out my options. I finally pulled my son's pants down around his ankles and pointed him in the direction of the toilet. It seemed to work. He waddled off towards the bathroom and I was home free, I thought, not realizing he had never once gone on his own before. So a minute passes and he waddles back to the office and whispers, "I don't have to go now." Fine with me. So I put the phone between my ear and shoulder and bend down to pull up my son's pants. Leno is still talking, oblivious, and I'm attempting to offer the appropriate responses. While I'm bending over, the phone squirts out and lands on the floor. I quickly finish the job, send my kid out of the room and pick up the phone. Leno's still talking. I figure I can pick it up on the recording, which I did. It didn't make for the smoothest interview, but he didn't seem to notice.


Anonymous said...

was that me?


Anonymous said...

i mean, about the oswalt misadventure.

Guy MacPherson said...

Why, yes. Yes, it was. Care to verify or expand on the Oswalt experience? Or have you on your own blogs?