The Tobolowsky Files: Plugging an Awesome Podcast

I didn't get to see Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party in theaters, but a new podcast takes the premise further, giving us a deeper, richer taste of his story-telling prowess than the film offered.

During finals of my junior year of college, I was a bit of a frazzled mess. Between classes, my internship, my responsibilities as an RA, and my involvement in two clubs, I didn’t have time to grocery shop, so I was living off of what I could get from the bodega in my building: Easy-Mac, Pop-Tarts, bottled frappuccinos and breakfast shakes. I also didn’t have time to do laundry, so I want to take this moment to apologize to anyone who had to sit near me in those final weeks: I was operating with far too few pairs of underwear for far longer than I’m willing to admit.

One of the great disappointments of my life, though, is that junior year finals kept me too busy to travel to Philadelphia and review Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party for Giant magazine.

Stephen Tobolowsky as Ned Ryerson
"Played Ned Ryerson in 'Groundhog Day?' BING!"

For those of you who may not know, Stephen Tobolowsky is a prolific character actor best known for his roles in Mississippi Burning (Clayton Townley), Groundhog Day (Ned Ryerson), Memento (Sammy Jankis) and Glee (Sandy Ryerson). If you’re one of the two or three people who read this thing, chances are you’ve seen him more than once, even if you don’t remember.  On film and television alone, he’s racked up 200 roles since the mid-70s, not including commercials. On top of this, Tobolowsky also acts and directs regularly in the theatre, taught acting at the university level, and continues to teach improvisation.

What most people would never guess, though, is that Stephen Tobolowsky is also a master storyteller.

In 2005, I began to hear whispers of an interesting documentary screening at festivals around the world. The film was rumored to feature Tobolowsky in a starring role, and to consist mostly of him just telling stories about his life. Knowing and admiring Tobolowsky’s work, I was intrigued. I started poking around online, and when I finally found the trailer, there was no question that I had to go to a screening of this thing  (I couldn’t find a usable version of this trailer online, so here’s another, less interesting trailer for the same film.):

At the time, I was interning as an editorial assistant at Giant magazine, and had progressed from just doing background research and transcription to writing sidebars, footnotes and sections of the front-of-book.  I pitched the Stephen Tobolowsky movie to my editor, and he approved–I was going to get to travel to FirstGlance 8 Philadelphia Film Festival to catch a screening of the movie and write it up for a national glossy magazine, with a byline.  (This was around the same time I conducted an abortive interview for their coverage of The 40-Year-Old Virgin.)

Of course, that didn’t happen.  As I mentioned above, finals got in the way.  I did eventually see it on DVD, and it was fantastic, and I can’t recommend it enough, but that’s only tangentially the point of this post.  The point of this post is that he’s released a sequel, in podcast form.

The Tobolowsky Files calls itself “stories of life, love and the entertainment industry,” but it functions more like a serial memoir.  As though we were all sitting together around a campfire, Tobolowsky spins yarn about his relationship with playwright Beth Henley, the biblical story of Joseph, theoretical physics, his toddlerhood sweetheart, the politics of higher education, and the countless salty locals he’s met on location over the years.  But most impressive is the thematic through-lines he finds in these stories, turning what should just be disparate vignettes into a beautiful, funny and coherent life.

With 38 episodes produced so far and halfway through releasing the podcast’s second season, Stephen and his co-host, /Film‘s David Chen, are taking a break until mid-October.  Take the time to catch up on what they’ve done so far, and enjoy new episodes when they come back in the fall.

Get used to shameless plugs for this, because there’ll be another one when it comes back from hiatus.

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