In retrospect, actor, podcaster, and author Stephen Tobolowsky admits it was incredibly weird growing up Jewish in Oak Cliff, Texas.
But before we begin, maybe we should explain why that picture of Tobolowsky looks so familiar, as we're sure some of you are currently scratching your heads. He's one of Hollywood's epic character actors, with roles in everything from Memento to Glee to an early episode of Seinfeld. Currently, he's a co-star on Fox's The Mindy Project.
Actually, every Charlestonian should know Tobolowsky well, because he was in Groundhog Day with Bill Murray, our favorite local celebrity (Stephen Colbert notwithstanding). In the classic comedy, Tobolowsky played Ned Ryerson, the overly enthusiastic insurance salesman and thorn in Phil Connors' side day after day after day.
But back to Tobolowsky's childhood in Texas. There were only three Jewish families in his community and no synagogues, but there were neighbors who threw Nazi parties, where they got together to drink beer and hail victory. In fact, Tobolowsky's parents, not wanting their children to feel out of the loop — and not wanting to shell out for eight days worth of presents, as required by Hanukkah — celebrated Christmas. "We ended up exchanging presents on Christmas Day, but to compensate for the Jewish aspect of it, my mother for some reason felt it would be more Jewish if we didn't have a Christmas tree, so we exchanged presents under the dining room table," he explains. "I have no idea what this meant in her head."
Even as a child, Tobolowsky thought the tradition was pretty weird and once asked his mother why Santa (whom he believed in at the time) was stocking gifts beneath the dining room table. She assured him that Santa didn't want the Tobolowsky children to feel different from their goy neighbors, so they should still get their presents from under something. "And I said, mom, we're still different from other kids," he says. "There's no other kid in my school that gets their presents under the dining room table. And when kids have a Christmas tree, the presents aren't under the Christmas tree. You don't need a shovel to get them — they're around the Christmas tree. I just don't see how Santa could do this."
Stories like that one have made their way into Tobolowsky's first book of essays, The Dangerous Animals Club, which he will be presenting at the Charleston Jewish Bookfest. However, at his appearance, Tobolowsky won't explicitly be telling Jewish tales. "All of my stories are true stories that happened to me, so if you were to take a core sample of me, you would have various elements in there," he says. "You would see a ridge of showbiz and a ridge of my growing up in Texas and you would see a ridge of my odd Jewish upbringing and you would see a ridge of my close encounters with death, and all sorts of things in there." They're stories that Tobolowsky has shared for a while now on The Tobolowsky Files, a podcast produced by David Chen for the blog SlashFilm.
"What happened to me was I was almost killed, about four years ago," Tobolowsky explains. "I broke my neck in Iceland riding a horse on the side of an active volcano, which for some reason did not seem dangerous at the time. It was." While sitting in bed for three months of recuperation, Tobolowsky realized that had he not survived by some fortuitous fluke, he may never have seen his children again. He wanted to write a story so his kids would know who their father was, and that's how he approached the podcast.
"I had these two voices in my head, one that was helping me write these stories, and another that was telling me what the next story would be," he says. But instead of casually winging an interview each month and adding to the plentiful jawboning already active on the internet, Tobolowsky wanted to create quality content, so he writes out each podcast before it's recorded. The program now has almost 60 episodes and has been picked up by Public Radio International for a new radio show.
The Dangerous Animals Club is a book about beginnings: the first time Tobolowsky fell in love (at the age of five), the first time he genuinely fell in love (in college), his first heartbreak (in his 30s), his first psychiatrist (after that heartbreak), his first agent, the first time he got fired, and so on. During the process of composing The Dangerous Animals Club, Tobolowsky has learned that there's a huge difference between telling a story to a person, writing one for a podcast, and writing one for a book. "When I tell a story to you, it is the most forgiving of media," he says. "When you write a story for a podcast, it's less forgiving because you're kind of concretizing your ideas, and even though there's still improvisation in telling the stories, you have laid out a groundwork of where you're going."
But the most unforgiving, and the most challenging, is the written word, Tobolowsky says. "The word is the word, and the word is the word now, and the word is going to be the word 10 years from now."
Being an actor, and having large gaps in time where he's waiting to get on set, has afforded Tobolowsky plenty of time for writing. What's more difficult is the business of book promotion. "It's exhausting, and in doing that, in traveling around the country promoting the book, that is not as compatible with writing as sitting in a trailer with them saying we're going to get to your scene in two hours, and you just type away," he says. "It's not so easy typing away when you're exhausted, when you're in hotel rooms, when you're always running for a cab. Then it becomes difficult." Regardless, he's already thinking about the next book, which will look at what happens when life doesn't work out the way you planned.
The muse of writing is a very wicked lady, according to Tobolowsky, and she has no sense of time. "When you write, that muse comes to your head all the time, day and night," he says. "You have to respect that. You have to honor that, because if you don't honor that call of that little voice in your head saying wait a minute I've got the answer ... those words, images, and stories will go away."
And unlike in Groundhog Day, Tobolowsky won't get a second chance.