Awards: Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series
Nominations: Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series, More
If you saw Stephen Tobolowsky on the street, you might think you know him from somewhere. The character actor has appeared in over 100 films and TV shows, with recurring roles in Heroes, Deadwood, Glee and now The Mindy Project.
In his memoir, The Dangerous Animals Club, Toboloswky charts the highs and lows of life as a character actor. Some of his roles have been so small, he says, his characters didn’t even have names — as, for example, with his turn as “Buttcrack Plumber.”
“I was happy to get that part — except when the costumer said, ‘All right, Stephen, could you get down on all fours, please?’ ” he tells Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies. “And I got down on all fours, and he says, ‘I don’t really see a lot of crack there. Uh, Stephen, could you scooch around a little? We’re not getting much crack.’ ”
Tobolowsky says the problem with playing some of these roles is the characters are “so low on the totem pole, that sometimes you’re mistaken for the cleaning staff, and people try to chase you off the set when you show up to work.”
Over the years, he’s developed a few theories for the kinds of names smaller characters get in scripts. While someone like Harrison Ford gets two names like Han Solo, the less important characters usually only get one name. In comedies, “you get your job description and your first name — like in Wild Hogs, I played Sheriff Charley” — and in dramas, “You get the job description and your last name — Detective McClaren, Agent Jones.”
Tobolowsky says it’s not easy being a character actor. With leading actors and actresses, “everything they do is in the script — their entire day. You see them drinking coffee.” Smaller roles should ideally have a through-line to their day as well, but character actors have to do that creative work outside of the script.
Tobolowsky’s approach is to ask two questions: What is his greatest hope? What is his greatest fear? Even though he usually doesn’t have a lot of time to study his part, “the two questions will form a tightrope upon which almost any other question in the script can be answered.”
Ophira Eisenberg Joins us on StoryTalks NYC FEB 26th @Gotham Comedy Club
Ophira Eisenberg Gets The Last Laugh
Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg reflects on the first season of the show.
Anya Garrett/Courtesy of Ophira Eisenberg
Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg ruminates on the guests of the season past, her NPR audition and whatever else she feels like in the following essay.
My initial radio experience consisted of DJing my own jazz show all throughout college, at both the University of Calgary and then later at McGill (which we liked to think of as the Harvard of the Great White North). I was introduced to jazz by a boyfriend who was a musician and was soon confronted by a fundamental artistic truth when I joined the college radio station: There was a long waiting list to DJ a rock show. If you wanted – or were even willing – to host a jazz show, you could start immediately.
Ask Me Another Pre-Show Open
In this audio bonus, we take you behind the scenes of our Season One finale with Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg. And house musician Jonathan Coulton turns the crowd into flesh-eating monsters.
Consider yourself warned, fair listener, as this audio extra contains some naughty language.
I moved to New York to pursue stand-up comedy, and along the way discovered storytelling as defined by the Moth. I’ve been working steadily for years, but I have to say that when I got the audition to host Ask Me Another, my chief fear was – Am I smart enough to be host of a trivia show on National Public Radio? Would they give me some sort of test to determine my NPR Intelligence Quotient? I never took the SATs (not required for the Harvard of the North, nor other Canadian universities), I prefer doing crossword puzzles in pairs, and most of the day jobs I had in the past didn’t require so much of an interview as evidence that you were human. In the audition, would they ask if I’ve read Homer? Demand I recite my favorite passage of Proust? Or would they scrutinize the people I follow on Twitter to glean cues about my character?
What I do know how to do is make people laugh. Between the standup and growing up as the youngest of six children, I’ve developed the art of the quick comeback as a survival mechanism. Maybe that would be what I needed to host a highbrow, highly entertaining trivia puzzle show.
When we were first introduced, NPR’s programming chief Eric Nuzum asked me: “What do you think we’re trying to do here?” I thought about it for a second and replied, “Having a good time?” And I got the job. I still had to prove myself, read the copy, make jokes, patter with Jonathan Coulton and the puzzle gurus, and show that I was human.
It felt clear from the very first taping in front of that live crowd at the Bell House that we were doing something right. I chose to do an audience warm-up for each show, and although I don’t work blue, it gave me the opportunity to get swearing out of my system, to make fun of our Supervising Producer Jesse Baker (at the time becoming more pregnant every day), and try out some of the edgier jokes from my act.
It also allowed me to set the show for them and for us: this show was all about fun. It wasn’t a CPA exam. And the crowd got it. In fact, people responded so enthusiastically that by the third live taping, the rest of the season sold out.
Having real contestants added the best wild card to the mix. I loved finding out about our contestants. As it turns out, a lot of trivia lovers also brew their own beer in their kitchen or bathroom. Makes perfect sense. We also attracted game show competitors, including a few former Jeopardy stars, whose hands shook in anticipation above the school bells we taped to high-top bar tables so they could ring in first with the answer. Sometimes they cleaned up, sometimes they got schooled. That was the beauty of the show – anything could happen.
And then there were the Mystery Guests. If one day I convince NPR to roll out the full Simon Doonan interview, you’ll hear some surprising information about women’s handbags and the true relationship between spies and their cocktails.
However, I’ll never forget the show in which I revealed that our Mystery Guest was none other than New York Times crossword puzzle editor and longtime Weekend Edition Sunday puzzle editor Will Shortz. The audience lost its collective mind. It almost blew the roof off of the Bell House. I thought I was introducing Prince. Or the Beatles, circa 1964. After that, I looked out into the crowd and thought, “You’re the people who do crosswords in pen.”
And this is the result of our evil little experiment. Before every show at rehearsal, we’d talk through some jokes to say, try to plan out a moment or two of hilarity, but in the end 90 percent of what you hear happened in the moment. It was completely spontaneous and improvised – which I think says a lot about all of the people involved. In hindsight, I’d like to think that Eric Nuzum got the right answer to that question: What are we doing here? Week after week, we’re just having a great time.