First off, apologies for being away so long. For the past month or so I’ve been in the middle of relaunching another site that pays those bills. Computer stuff – as my mother simplifies it down to- doesn’t happen on it’s own in 10 different languages and it took a little bit more time than I hoped. So check out mtvatthemovies.com when you get a chance.
During that movie-heavy period I had runs ins with two very different figures from my childhood and although they’ve probably never been mentioned in the same sentence by anyone before, they had a surprising impact on me decades after I last thought about them. I have some pretty concrete childhood memories of both Bobcat Goldthwait and Mister Rogers, and after watching a movie directed by one and a documentary written about the other their similar themes have had me thinking a bit about my childhood and my career.
You’ll probably find it surprising to hear me say that as a 6 year old, Bobcat actually resonated more with me than Mister Rogers did. Or you know me quite well and that isn’t surprising to you at all. It’s not like I identified with Zed from “Police Academy 2” or Bobcat’s seemingly mentally ill stand-up persona. But I knew he was from my hometown Syracuse, and as a kid that made him more tangible and real. Way back when, the Syracuse papers did a hometown-hero spotlight article on him around one of his appearances on “Comic Relief” and I was immediately infatuated when my dad showed the article to me. At that point I only knew him as Zed, but I begged my parents to let me watch Bobcat on “Comic Relief” and promised that I would donate money if they let me. I don’t actually remember his set, but I know I was heartbroken when I called to donate and didn’t actually speak with Bobcat. For whatever reason I sincerely thought the 1-800 operators would know I was calling because of him and put him on the line. They didn’t and I never actually sent my money when I got my pledge envelope in the mail. Sorry “Comic Relief,” I still owe you $10. When you make a comeback though I’ll get you back with the interest.
Despite Mister Rogers being the obvious choice of whom a 6 year-old should be interested in, he had a horribly terrifying neighbor puppet, Lady Elaine Fairchild, and I refused to watch his show. My mother still teases me about how I would only watch “Sesame Street” and would storm out of the room if she tried to make me watch “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” But can anyone blame me? Look at her. She’s terrifying. She looks like the mean, old, drunk neighbor that parents warn you to stay away from. Oscar the grouch was okay in my book, but Lady Elaine was like an after school special involving a van with no windows to me.
I immediately loved Bobcat’s latest film “God Bless America,” and at its heart it’s what I assumed “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was all about; be a nice person. Sure, there wasn’t as much shoe tossing and cardigan changing. And Bobcat made it dark and funny by having a couple of killers put bullets into those who weren’t nice, but isn’t that really just what fables are? It doesn’t seem much more violent than the book my daughter has with kings beating knaves over stolen tarts. I don’t know what the hell a knave is, but apparently he deserved a beating and my daughter is supposed to know this before she hits two.
Soon after watching “God Bless America” I had the opportunity to meet Benjamin Wagner, who wrote and directed “Mister Rogers and Me.” Prior to this encounter I would have had no interest in Mister-Rogers-anything due to that whole Lady Elaine thing, but Wagner’s documentary message goes beyond “being nice to people.” Wagner is a fellow MTV employee and literally was Mister Rogers neighbor. A conversation he had with Fred Rogers about the importance of keeping things “deep and simple” led to this documentary being made. Tim Russert and several other neighbors all gave accounts of Fred Rogers and his impact on them. More than 25 years after I should have been hearing his message, Fred Rogers finally was speaking to me.
“Deep and simple” isn’t easy to come by in my field of work though. I have two computer screens at my desk, a television above it, and I spend much of the day thinking of how to maximize ways of getting content to people and getting them to engage with it on as many other screens as possible. Smart phones, tablets, and iEverythings are the new essential vehicles for social media, social viewing, and spreading general awareness of whatever it is we’re promoting on our various channels. Simple doesn’t seem to play into that equation at all.
My mother used to work for the phone company and every night when she came home would tell us how she spent all day on the phone and didn’t want to talk to anyone on the phone once she walked through that front door. After “computering” all day I’m now trying to explain to her that when I get home I don’t want to try to teach her 1 year old granddaughter how to Skype because I’ve been sitting in front of screens all day and want to have a non-digital experience with my kid. Who would have guessed that Mister Rogers of all people could provide me with the backup argument that I needed?
Clearly, I’m not ditching out on the digital world though in my efforts to simplify. I have a solid, single-digit following here at my fledgling project, The Napkin Collection, but I’m trying to figure out how to expand it. A friend’s post best exemplifies the gamut of thoughts running through my head after hitting publish on the few posts I have so far. Whether you’re a writer or just someone who posts status updates on Facebook or Twitter you’ll definitely appreciate it. So I’m still battling with “deep and simple,” which brings me back to Bobcat.
I was given the opportunity to interview him and Joel Murray a few weeks ago for “God Bless America,” and while doing research I came across last month’s “Vice” article that Goldthwait wrote. In it he says to “quit hard, and quit often.” That phrase really struck a chord. I moved here about a decade ago with dreams of pursuing a career in stand-up comedy, but I haven’t actually performed on a stage in almost two years. I wouldn’t say that I’ve “quit” stand-up or that I’ll never get back on stage, but for a while I wrestled with my decision to take a hiatus from the stage. Around that time is also when I got married and became a father, which made it an easy assumption that marriage and a kid have kept me from the stage. In reality that’s far from the truth.
I performed on many different stages with a few household names, and many names that only a fellow comedy-nerd would know and appreciate. But the original aspirations of Richard Pryor – and trust me I’m realistic, I said aspirations – soon became muddled with the aspirations of a different sort. The likes of Chuck Klosterman, Scott Raab, and Bill Simmons took over a bit more and the stage-urge called a lot less.
It’s made fielding the “what’s up with the comedy thing” question a bit more difficult though. Partly because adding “thing” to the end of anyone’s interests generally involves a whole lot of condescension and belittling, and mostly because the people asking are generally just making small talk and aren’t looking for a response that’s more than one sentence. “You should do a skit about [insert anything here]” has now turned into “a blog? oh, like you design websites?” and is still followed up with “tell me a joke.”
I suppose I’m still working at the “simple” part, but for simplicity’s sake, I’m still doing comedy. Just in a different arena. And there’s no cover charge, drink minimum, or reservations needed here. But I just wrote about 1,500 words linking Bobcat Goldthwait and Mister Rogers to my childhood and my career goals. So how’s that for depth?
“Just do what you want to do, when and how you want to do it. And if it’s not making you happy, quit. Quit hard, and quit often. Eventually you’ll end up somewhere that you never want to leave.” Thanks, Bob.
by Sean Murphy