Breaking free from my own Groundhog Day

He's one of the best-known unknown actors in Hollywood. Stephen Tobolowsky talks about being that actor everyone recognises and his stand-up show at JW3


What brings you to The Jewish Comedy Festival JW3 in London?

I was asked. I spent many years not being asked to do anything. Yes, it is exciting to come to London and perform but being asked was the key. And good things almost always come from saying yes.

How did you manage to get asked in the first place?

As with most things in life, it was a combination of events. A perfect storm. I am somewhat recognisable from various comedic performances. I played Ned Ryerson, the obnoxious insurance man Bill Murray punches out in Groundhog Day. I played the "well-endowed" Stu Beggs on Californication, which has made its naughty way across the ocean to the UK. Now I am on The Goldbergs and Silicon Valley, both very funny shows. Teenage girls recognise me from Glee. Women with tattoos recognise me from Deadwood. People who like good movies know me from Thelma and Louise and Memento. People who watch terrible movies know me from Beethoven 5.

I am the guy that no one knows by name but when I show up on screen people elbow one another and say, "Hey, it's that guy, whoever he is!" It hasn't been easy becoming one of the best-known unknown actors in Hollywood. There are so many new unknowns coming out every day trying to knock me out of my niche of anonymity.

I was performing my stories in Edinburgh at the Fringe Fest this year. Someone from the Jewish Comedy Festival saw me doing one of my stories and found it entertaining. She asked. I said yes.

You said you were "performing a story?" What does that mean exactly? Aren't you a comedian?

I don't do stand up. I admire that skill, but that's not me. I tell true stories from my life. Most of them are amusing. Some are strange. Some horrific. But they are all true. I have a motto for my storytelling: True always trumps clever.

Did you always tell stories?

I must have. Everyone tells stories of some kind. Sometimes we tell them to amuse. Sometimes to get lucky on a date. Sometimes to avoid arrest. Telling a story is a group experience that seeks to make sense of the two main imponderables in our lives: Why was I so lucky? Why am I so cursed?

Which are you?

Both. I began writing my stories down after I had a terrible accident in 2008. I broke my neck riding on a horse on the side of an active volcano in Iceland.

No way!

Way! I know it seems incredible. Horseback riding on a volcano - what could possibly go wrong? A few days later, I got back to Los Angeles. My doctor took X-rays and was horrified. He told me I had a fatal injury - which seems like an odd thing to tell a living patient. He sent me home in a hard brace with the hope that I could avoid surgery. I was lucky.

When you have a broken neck, there aren't many things you can do. You have a lot of time on your hands. Months of recovery. My doctor's pronouncement came back to me again and again. What if I really did die on that mountain? What if I never saw my wife or my children again? What would I want them to know about me? One of the few things I could do was write. So I did. I began writing stories. I wrote about my mistakes. My triumphs. My loves. My foolishness.

During this time, I got a phone call from a graduate student at Harvard, David Chen. He was working as a movie reviewer for the website / David was a fan of my first storytelling film, Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party. He wanted to ask about my acting career, but also about storytelling. During one of his interviews, I told him about the horse accident and the new stories I was writing. He asked if he could record them. I said "Yes." (Here, I refer to the beginning of this interview and the power of saying, yes). David recorded, edited, and put them on the Internet. He called the podcast The Tobolowsky Files. (Just Google. They are there. And they are FREE!)

Jeff Hansen, the programme director at KUOW radio in Seattle, became a fan of the podcast. He played them every Sunday afternoon on his station. They developed a following. Other radio stations around the country followed suit. Simon & Schuster published a book of these stories called The Dangerous Animals Club. Fans of the book and the podcast in the UK invited me to perform at the Fringe Fest in Edinburgh. And now, I am coming to London and the JW3.

So the long-winded answer to your question is both.

What question? I'm sorry I forgot. What was the question?

As to whether I was cursed or lucky. The answer is both.

What can we expect from your stories at JW3?

I plan on telling one of my favourites. It is funny and horrible. Unbelievable but true. It even has Jewish content - which I thought was appropriate. My stories are adult in theme but they are "family safe" (translation: I don't use bad language.) I know it is trendy to say anything on stage, but I don't. This is a lesson I learned from one of your great playwrights, Harold Pinter. He said he always tries to avoid profanity because it is like a nuclear bomb in the middle of a story.

Have you been to London before?

It seems like I used to come a lot when I was younger. I shot Great Balls of Fire here. It has been a while though - unless you count Heathrow as part of London.

What do you expect to see on this trip?

What I always expect to see the unexpected.

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