Talk to Him: Spanish Director Pedro Almodovar on His Latest Masterpiece, ‘The Skin I Live In’

Pedro Almodovar is the most acclaimed Spanish film director since Luis Bunuel and Carlos Saura. A true auteur, Almodovar‘s work is passionate, colorful, and controversial, often full of comic misfortune and perverse wit. His latest feature film, The Skin I Live In, is one of his darkest pictures in years—and under your skin it will certainly get. Based on Thierry Jonquel’s novel Tarantula, the film stars Antonio Banderas, who reunites with Almodovar after their early work together on movies like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!. A frank and hilarious Mr. Almodovar gave an interview from his hotel suite in Midtown Manhattan during the week of The Skin I Live In‘s release.

You’ve been a filmmaker and screenwriter for over a quarter-century. Is there a particular part of the process that you enjoy most?

For me, it’s really the shoot that’s the most exciting. It’s the great adventure! When shooting, what is already written in the script is really more of an abstraction. It’s only what’s in front of the camera that’s alive and breathing, and you have to find a way to control all of that. Truffaut used to say that a shoot is like a train that has lost its brakes, and it’s the director’s job to make sure that the train will not derail. I think it’s dangerous and it really becomes an addiction, but you need to feel that addiction in order to be a director and shoot a film.

Tell me about adapting Thierry Jonquel’s novel Tarantula into The Skin I Live In.

I spend long periods of time writing. With this film, it took me a lot of time to figure out the medium where the characters would interact and develop, and this took me much longer than with other scripts in the past. But once I decided that I liked the script, it took me four or five months in production. I rehearsed with the actors for at least two months. I edit the movie during the shooting period, though the chronological structure is always decided by the script. In the USA, directors have a very different relationship with the film and the editing. The director might not have access to the footage while shooting, but I insist on it.

What is your relationship like with your actors?

I work more like I am directing a theater play rather than a movie. Everything is rehearsed for five months and the shooting is around ten weeks. This is something I really demand as a director. My movies are not expensive to make, but I demand more weeks than most. In Spain it’s usually eight, but I demand ten or eleven weeks. This is just the way I work–I work very hard with the actors.

It seems you tend to work with the same actors for years, particularly female certain female actors. Why do you think this is?

Ah, yes. It’s not something I’ve done consciously. It just has happened that way. I don’t feel that pleasure or pain is experienced any different between a man or a woman, but I think it is true that women are more spectacular in their reactions, and more expressive and a lot less judgmental towards what they feel and a lot more direct. Also there is a lack of prejudice in general that it makes it more interesting. Women even in a conservative society tend to be less prejudice than men. So for me, at least, it becomes more attractive. The women from my childhood influenced me very much. They were very strong and they marked me in a very particular way.

You have discussed your childhood before. Are there subjects you don’t feel comfortable talking about?

Oscar Wilde used to say, there is no such thing as indiscreet questions, only indiscreet answers. You can say that I am ready for anything.

What’s most challenging for you as a director?

I don’t want to be too transcendental, but the challenge is always to survive. For me the biggest challenge is the changes in my life and confronting them, and of course that has to do with getting a little bit older. For example, I still want to shoot movies as if I was 25, the way in which my outlook on life was colored. I think it’s different now, but I would love to recuperate the feeling of the first time. My philosophy is to never throw in the towel.

I don’t think you should be too concerned. Do you read reviews of your work?

You can’t ask people to see a movie twice, but in Madrid I asked the audience the first time it screened to see it twice. See the movie and take it home, sleep with it, because in my experience you realize what the movie is about after sleeping on it. Everyone who has seen it for a second time has really enjoyed it a lot more. I tend to see films twice, not only the ones I like but also the ones that I do not like. My movies are very overwhelmed with emotion. What I hear always is that the second time, people like it more in the sense that they can pay attention to the details because the plot is very extreme and the twists—once you are familiar with the movie, then really you can enjoy much better.

Do audiences react differently to your work in Spain than in America?

The American audience tends to be noisier, and have very immediate reactions, which is good. For example, I write humor into the script, but of course there will be moments when the spectator will be laughing at something I was not expecting, and I think it’s out of nervousness and discomfort. It’s not good or bad, but it is interesting. As a director I welcome all of that because I think there is an entire range of reactions to any one of my films. The film becomes one hundred different films depending who is viewing it.

How about the role humor plays in your films? I find most of your work immensely funny.

You must never be embarrassed about finding something funny in a dramatic moment, because life itself is like that. It’s something that belongs very much to American culture, which robes the ability to react. The contrary happens in Spanish culture. Pain is always mixed with humor and tragedy is always part of humor, too. It’s like life — humor makes it more palpable, more livable. A movie is like a person. You understand a person better as you talk to them and get familiar with someone. I know a movie is something to be seen and forgotten with the passing of time, but The Skin I Live In demands a special kind of attention.

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Empire of Ink: The Rise of Tattoo Artist, Reality Star, & Business Man Ami James

“We changed the history of tattooing and opened minds,” tattoo artist and rising reality TV star Ami James nimbly explains to me one day earlier this summer. “People would see a bunch of artists, not that whole thug mentality of big biker outlaws, which is now so unrelated to tattooing.” Leading me inside his bustling New York City tattoo parlor, Wooster Street Social Club, it’s immediately clear that James’ onscreen intensity isn’t a trick of the camera. His high energy, his tattoos (we try counting—maybe 60), his muscular physique (he boxes)—all are quite real. For nearly a decade, James has been building an empire of ink, starting with Miami Ink, LA Ink, London Ink—and, now, his latest, NY Ink, the TLC show chronicling his signature tatts—and the customers who ask for them—in the Big Apple. Through it all, James as eased into what you might call a New York kind of celebrity.

“I would take you to my office, but there are sixty pounds of artwork in there—like, $1.5 million of artwork,” says James, navigating around tattoo chairs and eager patrons. The Wooster Street Social Club, a ’50s-style parlor and art gallery (where at least half of the sixty pounds of artwork stashed downstairs rotates on display), also serves as the set for TLC’s NY Ink series. There’s hardly a quiet moment, which means business is booming for James.

A group of fans is gathered around the storefront, some watching other customers getting inked on vintage leather tables, others snapping photos of the artists and themselves, “Tag me on Facebook!” one young woman with an Ed Hardy hat and an orange-tinted faux glow tells her friend. I’m surrounded by people looking to have their chance at fame by association, getting a permanent tattoo by one of the artists on James’ staff featured on the show. The store’s policy states: “Don’t call. Don’t email. If you’re interested in getting tattooed then simply walk in. No need to make an appointment.” None of the walk-ins here look like the kind of people who you’d expect to be inked, but then again, tattoos have become just another accessory. A mother and her teenage son are leafing through books and picking out tattoos for themselves. “We are big fans of the show, we came from Texas for this!” the woman explains to me.

I am reminded of my own regrettable ink: three stars, which look more like blotches, on my ankle, which Ke$ha gave to me during an interview for BlackBook last year.

Now downstairs in the basement, lounging back on a chair, James breezily thinks back to the beginning of it all, before he became a brand. “Back in the day, if a customer wanted to get their neck tattooed, I’d be like ‘Cmon! I need the money, let’s go!’ But now I suggest you shouldn’t, or just go somewhere else.” He then pauses. “I’m not saying I’m rich, but I can live off what I am making.” James’ first tattoo was done with a needle and read ‘Miami Punks,’ an homage to the city where he still spends half of his year. image

Tattooing in New York City was illegal from 1961 up until the late 1990s. Some say the law was on account of a hepatitis outbreak; James blames it on the sailors who caught it from prostitutes overseas. James remembers those early days well. “I made a lot more money,” he exclaims. “Eastside Ink, which was operating illegally, and Fun City next to Coney Island High were the only two shops that were real. You had to get buzzed in.”

Anyone prone to an impulse tattoo will have to prove their need for ink, at least if Ami James is the one holding the needle. “Yesterday, I tried to explain cherry blossoms. Everybody gets them but nobody knows the meaning. it’s very sad,” he sighs, his frustration seemingly genuine. “They bloom once a year for a week and then they fall. Life is so beautiful but so short, and the lesson is to make the best out of life and respect it. You realize why they’re Japan’s national flower, and it’s sad that people don’t know.” It’s humbling to hear this from a man with a tough-guy demeanor. James then goes on to tell me about one of his best memories at the shop, when a woman with breast cancer, who hardly had anything left of her nipple, came to him for guidance. James gave her an inked nipple.

Of course, cosmetic tattooing is not what the average customer at NY Ink will request, or receive. “People don’t put enough thought into it. They watch stupid hip-hop videos and see every rapper with their hands tattooed and they want to look tough. We call it the Swedish Sleeve, because in Sweden guys will get their hands tattooed and wear a long sleeved shirt so it looks like they’re fully covered, but they are not. To this day I don’t have my hands inked and I’m fully fucking covered!” he says proudly. James explains that when he began inking, in order to work as a tattoo artist, one had to be “a car salesman, a hustler. You needed to be tough, you needed to fight in order to work in a tattoo shop.” he swiveled in his chair and nervously tapped his foot. “But all of these things ceased to happen when pop culture took over. It just evolved, with shops on every corner and more open doors for artists. You literally had one shop per city, and there were maybe five shitty tattoo artists and one that was good. We just wanted to get tattooed as young kids and we were like, ‘I just want to get fully fucking covered!’ We didn’t care who did it. ”

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I ask about his own tattoos, the body art I’m observing. I try counting the visible designs, surveying all the way from his neck to his ankles. His chest tattoos peek out through his undershirt. “How many do you have, thirty?” I guess. “Maybe 60 or 70—at least. It’s hard to count when you are fully covered.” Some of the tattoos are of ex-wives, or friends, and Ami warms up when pointing to one in particular given to him by his old apprentice, Yoji. It’s a decapitated Samurai head, which James explains is “not supposed to represent something bad. The Samurais would pay the warriors to bring back a head. It’s a kabuki story about a traitor and the revenge at the end…”

James balloons his cheeks. He quit tattooing for almost two years after Miami Ink ended and his contract expired, and given that he now has a whole new series, with much the same premise, I’m curious about how he’s feeling being back in the spotlight. Of his official break he says, “I was trying to cure myself of something that I was stuck in for three-and-a-half years, doing eighty nine episodes, seven tattoos a week, every week. It was overwhelming for an artist to be in. It crushed me.” James, also a painter, says he grappled for a while with his ability to separate his two art forms, “if you tattoo a lot you drag it into your paintings, which is a completely different thing for me,” he explained. “I was so tainted by it. I felt like I was boxed in for so long, in a room being filmed, and I forgot that I had a passion for tattooing.” Before Miami Ink, tattooing was more of a hobby for James, but once the series began, everything changed. “I realized that I was going to start hating tattooing. I found myself bled to death at that shop. They squeezed every creative drop.” Artistic dilemma aside, the show was a hit, and James continued to prosper. He launched a clothing company, opened a night club (Love Hate Lounge in Miami), and, mostly, focused on his own art, separate from tattooing.

“I think people respect what I do as an artist,” says James. “No one would go up to Shepard Fairey and say, ‘I want a woman on a toilet bowl.'” So far, no one’s asked for that particular tattoo. Then again, the season’s not over yet.

Comedy Is Hard to Quit: 9 Months at Comedy Cellar, New York’s Most Diehard Club

Last January, I almost lost my sense of humor. If you had locked me in a room and played a marathon of funny films, I would have left drowning in tears. It was a daunting period: I went through a numbingly brutal breakup and watched as several publications I had been writing for regularly folded; I struggled with insomnia, sought out an analyst, and started chain smoking. After the subject of an article I wrote for Penthouse, long-time Howard Stern sidekick and stand-up comic Artie Lang, attempted suicide – stabbing himself nine times in the abdomen with a kitchen knife – I spun into a full-fledged breakdown. I had become close to Lange after nearly a year of interviews, and the news was almost too much to bear.

Strangely, after it became clear that Lange would survive, I found myself inspired by the comic’s ability to make people laugh even as he was suffering himself. As the days trickled by outside, I turned to writing comedy sketches of my own in my increasingly disorganized downtown apartment. In early autumn, after four months of hoarding my joke ideas in piles of post-it notes and surveying my friends and colleagues for approval, I arrived at Comedy Cellar for the first time.

The famed comedians’ clubhouse on West Third Street and MacDougal is nestled in the heart of a neighborhood I had always written off as New York University freshman territory, with its hookah bars and hole-in-the-wall falafel joints. Sure enough, when I arrived outside, an eager crowd stretched from the front entrance all the way around the block: older couples who looked a touch too excited to be standing on a line, a bridge and tunnel baccalaureate posse, a few die-hard comedy groupies. I felt out of place, a lost soul seeking alternative therapy for my depression, cloaking my intentions behind a journalistic endeavor. It wasn’t the ideal support group, but I had spent enough time alone in my East Village fortress twisting and turning punch lines, and now I wanted to learn from the best. I also wanted to laugh again.

For decades, Comedy Cellar has served as a sounding board both for aspiring comics and established talents sharpening new material. Its many distinguished alumni include Chris Rock, Ray Romano, Jon Stewart, Gilbert Gottfried, and Dave Chappelle. I watched John Mayer slip by, incognito in a hooded sweatshirt and a backpack suitable for a camping trip. I later learned that he, too, was flirting with the idea of pursuing stand-up.

After waiting for 20 minutes, I made my way past the club’s gatekeeper and descended the steps into the aptly-named basement space. Comedy Cellar holds only 150 seats and isn’t much bigger than a railroad apartment. There’s a classic stand-up club brick wall behind the floor-level stage, putting the comics at an intimate, almost uncomfortable proximity to their audience. Most of the patrons look as though they’ve already exceeded the two-drink minimum. That night, veteran funnymen Dave Attell and Louis C.K. were in the lineup along with several up-and-comers, but at the Cellar, all comedians receive the same amount of time and pay: $25 for an eight-minute set.

“Welcome to the late show!” boomed William Stephenson, the on-again-off-again host at Comedy Cellar for the last 20 years. “Here’s what is going to happen. In a few minutes I will say the name of a very funny comedian who will come to the stage to a thunderous round of applause. They will say words to you. You will laugh at them. They will leave. I will come back and we will do the same shit until it’s time to go.”

My first night at the club I kept a low profile save for when a loudmouth comic, Jessica Kirson, caught a glimpse of my morose expression and announced to the audience, “This girl need to get fucked!” It was humiliating, but at the same time I couldn’t help but feel exhilarated by the interaction. The very next night I returned to the Cellar.

image Dave Attell performing at Comedy Cellar

After the show, I wandered up to the Olive Tree, the restaurant and favored comic hangout that directly connects to the Cellar through a backstage door and a steep stairway. While it’s open to the public, the back two tables, in the darkest corner of the restaurant, are permanently reserved for comedians. Small colored lamps hang above each table, creating a spotlight effect. The tables themselves are made of slate and come equipped with bowls of chalk—meant for comics to scribble material. Cellar regular and character actor of 30 Rock fame Judah Friedlander—bearded, bespectacled, wearing his trademark trucker hat and “World Champion”-emblazoned jacket—leaned against a jukebox. Dave Attell paced by the bar, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam Dunkin’ Donuts cup, a soon to be smoked cigarette between his tense lips. Saturday Night Live alum and popcorn-flick mainstay Tracy Morgan was being Tracy Morgan. “BITCHEEEZ BE CRAAAAZY!” he announced to nobody in particular. Colin Quinn, former SNL Weekend Update Anchor-turned-Broadway star, swaggered into the room alongside Jerry Seinfeld, who was directing Quinn’s play. They all had a startling cartoonish look about them—too painfully recognizable.

Surrounded by career comedians, I considered the possibility of a future at the Olive Tree’s back tables. I wanted to be funny. I was funny, wasn’t I? My friends thought so, at least. If only I could reduce my problems to one-liners, I thought, maybe everything would instantly feel right again.

“Quite the star-studded night,” Noam Dworman, the owner of the Cellar, said to me as he passed by the table where I sat alone nursing a glass of white wine and doodling on the slate tables. Dworman is a bookish man in his mid-forties with a full head of cherubic salt-and-pepper ringlets, who, despite his success running the club, is seldom seen laughing — a disposition not far out of step with the perpetually sleepy feel that hangs over the club in spite of the incredible comic talent gathered there and the endless variety of caffeinated beverages they consume. Noam’s father, the late Manny Dworman, opened the Cellar in 1960 as Cafe Feenjon, a Middle Eastern nightclub featuring “cross-cultural” music. In the early 1980s, comics started showing up after hours. The impromptu stand-up thrived, and the club was soon re-christened as Comedy Cellar.

“We were the new kids on the block. Catch a Rising Star and the Improv were the leading comedy clubs,” Noam told me later that night about the club’s first days. “My father had a great rapport with the comedians.” At that time, Jerry Seinfeld—then known as Jerome—could be seen doing “food spots.” Dworman explained, “We couldn’t pay them, but we would feed them.” I knew it was hard for a comic to kill right out of the gate, but as I watched a throng of established comedians humbly paying their respect to Jerome across the room, it was surreal to picture the Seinfeld literally working for scraps.

Hoping for some words of encouragement or wisdom that I could apply to my own evolving act, I asked Dworman if he believed a person could learn to be funny. He told me, “If you have it, you can only get better at it, but if you don’t, there’s not much you can do.”

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The Cellar became my haunt. “You again?” was a phrase I’d grow accustomed to hearing from staffers and comics alike. And while at first they kept me at bay with playful jabs and, on occasion, outright cold shoulders, my determination — my obsession — to infiltrate the comedy world held strong. I was now convinced that comedy was the perfect means to escape my own demons, even to reconstruct some kind of social life. One night in early August, my efforts paid off when I was begrudgingly offered a chair at the comics’ table.

image Judah Friedlander performing at Comedy Cellar

Soon I was spending most of my nights at the Olive Tree until last call listening to the comedians vent about the state of their worlds (offstage and on), cursing each other and themselves as they went over bits from their evening’s performances. “Three times is the rule,” explained Julian McCullough, an amiable comic with the face of a homecoming king after the late show one evening. “If I don’t get anything after three times, it’s just my threshold for pain…I never ask people if something is funny. Your friends don’t know better than three audiences.”

Most comics will boil down an hour’s worth of material into a polished routine good enough to take on the road or on a late-night television spot. Almost no one, I was beginning to realize, is privy to the excruciating self-editing process that precedes a show. Furthermore, a comedian doesn’t know which jokes will work—and which will fail miserably—until they’re performing live. “A perfect joke for me is when 40% of the audience likes it. That way I know it is a specific point of a view and I’m not being a crowd pleaser,” said Nick DiPaolo, a quarter-century-toughened stand-up with a bullish demeanor, and one of the few politically conservative comics to have made the Cellar his second home. When I ask about his take on Last Comic Standing, a reality show that aired on NBC from 2003 to 2010, and which paved the way for a spate of greener comics, DiPaolo huffily answered, “It totally misrepresents what stand up is. A guy comes out and does a mediocre spot and gets a standing ovation. Would I let some network jerk-off tell me what’s funny in a room with no audience? The crowd [on Last Comic Standing] never sucks. It’s so false.” He paused, and then lit up, “Even to this day, the Cellar will keep you honest. It separates the men from the boys. If you ask me how clubs have changed, there are a lot of women running them. And they’re pretty good.”

Tellingly, females – the girls and the women – are absent are absent from DiPaolo’s estimation of the Cellar. Women remain pitifully underrepresented in the comic sphere. There are just under a dozen females who regularly perform, but never will you see two comediennes booked in a row. Female comics who do choose to enter this boy’s club must be comfortable with having their membership constantly challenged—and their sexuality used against them. Joan Rivers, a pioneer for female comics, used to tell a joke so true that it rang bittersweet: “My name is Joan Rivers, and I put out.” Susie Essman, made famous as the loud-mouthed wife of Larry David’s agent on Curb Your Enthusiasm, was among the first women to perform at the Cellar, and while she recalls her time there fondly, she still gets heated when asked about the dearth of female performers at the club. “They wouldn’t book more than one woman a night,” she told me of her days performing at the Cellar. “It’s like they think we are going to go on stage and talk about our periods. Who the fuck would do that?”

Among the new generation of women to successfully infiltrate the comedy sphere is Rachel Feinstein. After she performed one night, I sat down with the doe-eyed brunette for drinks. When I expressed interest in her performance, she responded with modesty and humility. We were soon gossiping about men, the abundance of “dick jokes,” and her path to Comedy Cellar. “I guess that I always wanted to be one of those people that could have been a doctor or a scientist and I made this noble decision to leave it all for the arts but I had no other apparent talents,” she said.

image Comedy Cellar’s Famous Stage

For me, however, the challenge of getting a foot in the door at the Cellar was daunting enough. I also realized that comedy wasn’t necessarily an entirely male-based cabal conspiring to keep women out of the business – and that the person conferring entry to the club (and the Club) was, in fact, a woman herself. Known as “The Most Feared Woman in Stand-Up Comedy,” Estee Adoran is the Israeli-born matriarch of Comedy Cellar, and she’s held court there since the days of Manny Dworman. Slightly zaftig, she has the pleasant face of an elementary school teacher offset by the razor-sharp tongue of a drill sergeant. Adoram books comics, auditions newer talents, and has little patience for the undeserving (including myself). No one gets to grace the Cellar stage without going through Estee. She booked the first tier of notable comics to graduate from the club: Chris Rock, Dave Attell, Louis C.K. They’ve earned her respect—and she theirs. Even Los Angeles has its own comic matriarch. The world-famous Comedy Store was founded by Mitzi Shore, who ran it with her husband Sammy Shore until 1973, when she took over operations herself.

* * * *

I had spent nearly every night at the Cellar for a month when I finally felt ready to try out a few of my own jokes. On a Wednesday night during the brief interval between the 9 and 11pm shows, I sat down with one of the club’s managers, Steve Fabricant, to test out some of my material. True to life, you can see Fabricant in the opening credits of Louie, Louie CK’s TV show on FX, greeting the comedian as he steps into the Cellar. Just before my audition, I asked Fabricant what he’d learned about aspiring comics over the years, and he told me, “The biggest misconception is that all comedians are a bunch of clowns. Talent plays such a crucial role in what can’t be taught.” Then he adjusted his posture and looked directly at me – this was it. “Okay, let’s hear it.”

I don’t exactly remember the first joke I told. All I recall is monologuing—okay, blathering—about the acid-induced time I lost my virginity and something to do with my Catholic grandmother calling me mid-coitus. Fabricant interrupted me before I could even deliver the punch line: “Who the fuck do you think you are? Sarah Silverman?”

I felt as if the Apollo Theater’s legendary “executioner” would appear at any moment, broom in hand, to whisk me out of the Cellar and back to my dismal reality. Though I was only performing for Fabricant, the weight he carried as a gatekeeper of the club’s stage made his critique devastating. In the glum, awkward silence that followed I tried to drum up a good comeback, but instead found myself dopily telling him about the comics who’d encouraged me as I tore up a cocktail napkin and nervously applied a disturbing amount of lip-gloss. Had I been unfairly interrupted or was that just the nature of the business? I excused myself and walked around the block, my head swimming with frantic thoughts. I glared at a crop of comics and groupies hanging outside the club, laughing. I couldn’t stand it.

“There’s nothing worse than a person who wants to be funny but isn’t. It’s fucking painful.” I heard the voice of Jim Norton, veteran comic and third mic on the Opie and Anthony Show, playing in my head from a conversation we’d had the previous week at his swanky uptown apartment. “But how do you tell them?” I asked. “They should know. It’s humiliating for everyone,” he said.

The jagged-pill truth is, while a few of the Cellar’s comics had initially encouraged me – some even going so far as to tell me I was funny – not one, in crystal-clear hindsight, had ever actually said I’d make a great stand-up. No one had said, “You, Jessica, have the makings of a great comedian!” There was a difference between having a good sense of humor and possessing the ability to be funny in front of a crowd, to know timing, tone, and body language. I was painfully awkward, and not in a way that I could use to my advantage. Was I giving up too easily? Maybe so, but I was coming to terms with the fact that comedy is both a trait and a skill to be honed. And I was beginning to realize my naiveté in thinking that I could waltz into the Cellar and become an overnight sensation. I had too much respect for the comics to make a fool of myself. There was no room for us amateurs, at least not at Comedy Cellar.

image Chris Rock Performing at Comedy Cellar

Not all comedians share the perspective that one or even many embarrassing attempts translates to a day-job keeper. The pleasantly levelheaded Colin Quinn offered a different take on failure, one I prefer to subscribe to. Stretching back in a wooden chair by the entrance to the Olive Tree one night after my calamitous audition with Fabricant, smiling while acknowledging a fawning passerby, Quinn recalled his early memories of the Cellar. “The first time I went on stage, I knew it was what I was supposed to be doing, but the MC said to me, ‘You’re a natural! Come back in a year!’ I was the biggest bomber in the business. Only comedians kept me in the business.” Quinn’s long time “BFF,” Nick Di Paolo, compared his own first attempt at stand-up to “childhood rape.”

Comedy is as difficult to master as any other craft, something aptly demonstrated by the botched attempts of Charlie Sheen during his Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not an Option tour, which I had the displeasure of attending (it’s worth noting that, much as I had, Sheen turned to comedy mid-psychological meltdown), and Mike ‘The Situation” Sorrentino during his slot on the Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump. “This is my first time doing comedy,” Sorrentino whined as the crowed booed and eye-rolled. “And your last!” the roast master yelled back.

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The tortured comic is an old cliché, but it’s hard to deny the truth in it when looking at some of the most legendary comics of the past six decades: Lenny Bruce was found dead, naked on his bathroom floor, a syringe still in his vein; Sam Kinison was killed in a car accident, the autopsy revealing that his body was flooded with narcotics; John Belushi passed away in a suite at the Château Marmont after shooting a “speed ball,” a combination of cocaine and heroin; Mitch Hedburg died when his pre-existing heart condition was exasperated by a drug overdose; Chris Farley was discovered by his brother, dead from an overdose in his apartment. Photos of Farley’s corpse, saliva running from his mouth and rosary beads clutched between his fingers, were leaked by the sex-worker who had been with him at the time of his death.

Comedy is a balancing act between a relentless compulsion to confess everything, harsh self-loathing, and narcissism. Me, Me, Me, says the stand-up, I am absurd and pitiable but not nearly as pathetic as you are! You, who need me to make you laugh–and pay for the privilege. “I don’t think that the depression makes you funny, but I think that being funny comes out of bad places more than good,” Jim Norton once told me. “As a comedian, you feel like if you become content then you are not going to be funny anymore. When you are in love with someone you don’t want to go on stage and talk about it — when you get dumped, then you want to go out and talk about it. Cars don’t slow down to help, you slow down to see a car accident.”

On September 27th of last year, about a month after I first became a regular fixture at the Cellar, I received word that the stand-up world had been dealt another blow. Comedy Cellar staple Greg Giraldo had been admitted to the emergency room in New Brunswick, New Jersey after overdosing on prescription drugs. He would remain comatose for the next four days until his family decided to remove life support. “RIP Greg Giraldo. Belly-laugh hilarious, prolific, good & kind. A thousand oys can’t express,” Sarah Silverman tweeted, a sentiment that echoed widely as many comics voiced their condolences. Parrot-voiced comedian Gilbert Gottfried, a frequent dais companion of Giraldo’s at celebrity roasts, took to Twitter hours after the death: “If Greg Giraldo is cremated, will that be the ‘Greg Giraldo Roast’?” Gottfried was later fired from his gig as the voice of the Aflac duck for tweeting jokes about the earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan. Initially, I was stunned by this harsh-feeling form mourning, but I came to accept it as the comic’s own way of paying respect. They were afraid, so they told jokes.

Just a few months ago, on March 6th, yet another Cellar regular passed away: Mike DeStefano, a burly 43-year-old tattooed comic who used comedy as a way to recover from his heroin addiction. “Don’t do drugs, because if you do, you’ll end up with a ‘Comedy Central Presents’ special,” he advised a crowd not long after getting his own half-hour special on the network this past year. DeStefano died suddenly from a heart attack, just a day before I had planned on seeing his latest bit at the club. A Bronx-born native, his life hadn’t been easy: depression, heroin addiction, the death of his wife, living with HIV. DeStefano was never ”on,” off or on-stage — he was just a natural storyteller. I enjoyed the conversations we had during my nocturnal visits to Comedy Cellar. “I didn’t see you laugh tonight,” he once commented after he gave a sedate performance. “You know–I appreciate that, I like honesty.” Another night, he shared with me his philosophy of humor: “Great art comes from great suffering. I know it sounds fucking cliche, but it’s true for me. Comedy for me is a process of expressing–and really healing myself.” image Artie Lange Performing at the Comedy Cellar

Laughter was starting to feel overwhelmingly perverse. I was no longer enjoying live comedy. I had anecdotes and bits memorized. If a certain joke worked, it would invariably be repeated in some form at the next show. After my own experience bombing, I had put my own standup on hold, having no desire to revisit those feeling of rejection. Or perhaps I was just sour grapes. I had made friends with some of the comics, infiltrated their table, but I knew I wasn’t one of them.

I tried to drift away, and I did — for 48 hours.

On a bitterly cool and gray Thursday evening in early March, I ventured back to Comedy Cellar. I was restless in my apartment and needed the distraction, or so I told myself. A group of made-up women was hovering around the entrance, rattling off their names to the comics, who were signing cardboard coasters. Dave Attell was smoking outside. He looked fatigued, and I wanted to give him a hug, so I did. “I don’t know why I am here,” I said by way of a greeting, before realizing this might sound offensive to someone who’s spent the better part of the past two decades building their career in the club just downstairs. Attell lowered his tired eyes. “I don’t blame you,” he muttered, his voice trailing off. He then ballooned his cheeks with air and waved goodbye, his exhalation white in the frozen air, as I once again descended into the Cellar. “See you next week,” I shouted over my shoulder.

* * * *

The show begins and I become lost in the comics’ hypnotic patter, the now familiar sights and sounds and several glasses of dry white wine. “Let’s talk about rape,” says Godfrey, a Nigerian comedian whose warm toothy smile oddly juxtaposes his subject matter. “What if you raped a group of people? What if you were that bad a motherfucker, you raped everybody, men and women, and you didn’t give a fuck? You deserve to be raped if you’re in a group and he succeeds.” When I first arrived at the Cellar, material like this would have bothered me, but I found myself repeating the joke to a prospective employer who ran charity for Darfur refugees several days later.

“If people don’t like it, we tell them we’re sorry, we don’t have editorial control–it’s a comedy club,” says Dworman. I ask him what his hopes are for the club’s future, and his answer is gratifyingly warm and reassuring. “I’d really like there to be a whole new crop of all-star comics who in ten years from now can say they made their name here. But we don’t pick them. They pick us.”

Ke$ha Puts Her Money Where Her Dirty Mouth Is

Naked save for a pair of cowboy boots, an American flag-patterned jacket, and some glitter on her cheeks, Kesha Rose Sebert sinks into a couch in her dressing room and ponders the concept of money. “It comes and goes, and it buys you shit,” says the 23-year-old pop sensation known to the public as Ke$ha. “But it’s a manmade creation, so I don’t let it rule my life.” Then she grins, flashes her wide blue eyes, and says, “I am fucking money.”

Which isn’t entirely inaccurate, judging by how she spells her name, at least. I ask about the stylized moniker, bracing for an eye roll. “Anybody would get sick of that question, especially if you’re being asked 45 times every day, but I’m the asshole who put it there,” she says. “I had no money when I chose it and, instead of wallowing in self-pity, I decided to use it as a statement of self-worth.”

That was then, and this is now. Ke$ha’s debut album, Animal, was released in January and raced to the top of the charts, with the hit singles “Tik Tok,” “Your Love Is My Drug,” “Dinosaur,” and “Blah Blah Blah” packing dance floors from L.A. to London and back again. In the span of a year, she’s gone from worshiping music industry power players like Diddy and Flo Rida to working with them.

In a way, hers is a typical rags-to-riches story. Raised in Nashville by her mother, Pebe Sebert, a country musician, her family was often forced to survive on welfare checks and food stamps. Encouraged by her mother, Ke$ha moved to L.A. before finishing high school with the ambitious goal of establishing herself as a recording artist.

It was there that Kesha became Ke$ha. Shortly after landing in the City of Angels, she made the acquaintance of Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, the producer behind hits such as Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.” Dr. Luke immediately took a liking to Ke$ha and helped broker a deal for her with Sony Records. The two of them then put the final touches on “Tik Tok,” the song that would change everything for her.

Though by no means a philosophical treatise, “Tik Tok” was borne of Ke$ha’s knack for visualizing her dreams, mixing inspiration with supreme self-confidence and running with it. “I thought, When I wake up in the morning, who do I feel like?” Ke$ha says. “Who is the biggest baller—the male incarnation of me? Diddy! I bet he wakes up surrounded by hot chicks all the time!” image

Of course, plenty of aspiring musicians like to identify with the rap mogul, but Ke$ha took her self-actualization to the extreme. “Dr. Luke spoke with Diddy the next day and told him, ‘You will never believe this, but Ke$ha and I just wrote a song about waking up and feeling like you,’” she says. Impressed and presumably flattered by the idea, Diddy dropped a couple of ad-libbed lines—and his imprimatur—on the song. Within weeks of its August 2009 release, the song rose to the top of the singles charts, instantly transforming Ke$ha into a bankable star.

Given her Sunset Boulevard predecessors, one might assume that Ke$ha’s rapid success would make her a prime candidate for career burnout or worse, especially considering her hardscrabble background, but she insists that the party-girl label just doesn’t fit. “Am I getting busted in Vegas for coke possession? Have I ever gotten a DUI? Do I hang my vagina out of my stretch Hummer?” she asks in her throaty Southern twang. “No, I’m just a fun motherfucker!”

Casual listeners can nonetheless be forgiven for getting the impression that Ke$ha is a loose cannon. In addition to “Tik Tok’s” endorsement of brushing your teeth with Jack Daniel’s and getting wasted at parties, the tracks on Animal sound like a teenage girl’s Facebook status updates: “Party at a Rich Dude’s House,” for example, is about puking in a closet at Paris Hilton’s mansion. One verse reads, “I threw up in the closet/ And I don’t care/ ’Cause the sun is coming up/ And oh my god I think I’m still fucked up.” Proust it ain’t, but the girl can get a party started.

When asked how she feels when she hears her songs on the radio, she says through a wide smile, “I want to rip my clothes off! I want to tell everyone, but I try not to, except when I’m drunk. I still can’t believe I wrote that shit about the stupid stuff I do and that it’s on the radio.”

During our conversation, Ke$ha’s biggest reveal is that she still lives at home, in Nashville, with her mother. “Why pay rent?” she asks. “Maybe I’ll move out of my mom’s basement sometime soon, hopefully.” According to Ke$ha, that Nashville basement is home to her creative soul. She credits her upbringing—the dumpster diving, the coupon clipping—with her adult indifference to wealth. “I had the best time of my life when I was dead broke and digging—literally digging—through old T-shirts on the street,” she says. “I always looked good, and when I’d find something that fit my body properly, it made me feel euphoric—kind of like how I feel when I write a good song.”

Those piles of unwanted clothes were the origins of her eclectic, shabby-chic, and frequently criticized wardrobe. “I remember the first time I showed up on a worst-dressed list. I was like, Awesome!” she says, laughing and twirling her fingers around a matted hair extension. image

Ke$ha has plans tonight. She’ll meet up with Dirt Nasty, an actor and onetime MTV VJ whose real name is Simon Rex. She brandishes a shopping bag filled with “penis gifts” for her friend, toys she picked up at a nearby sex shop.

“Ke$ha and I worked on a few songs together before she got famous, and I play her boyfriend in the video for ‘Tik Tok,’” Rex says. “Then she just blew up, but she is exactly the same person she was when I first met her. Like any of us, she likes a drink and a laugh, and she’s just fucking awesome.”

Ke$ha might have friends both old and new, but her fame hasn’t done her any favors when it comes to dating. “It’s completely impossible because I’m already kind of scary. Add to that the fact that I’m probably busier and more successful than they are,” she says. “I’m always like, Dude, I’m your wet dream. I’m gone half the time and I don’t want an exclusive relationship. Let’s just hang out and be funny. We’ll bone and it’ll be great.”

God help the man who rejects her advances. Her song “Stephen” is about a guy from Nashville who wouldn’t pay her any mind, and who still gets under her skin. “He wouldn’t return my phone calls,” she says. “It drove me so crazy that I wrote a song and made a video about him.”

But surely there’s a man out there for the leggy blonde. “They all turn into ladies,” she says. “I actually just wrote a song called ‘Grow a Pair’ for the repackaged album.” She breaks into laughter and offers to give me a tattoo with a safety pin and a ballpoint pen that she finds on the floor. And just like that, Ke$ha is inking a permanent constellation of “hobo dots” onto the inside of my right ankle. Looking up from her work for a moment, she says, “I never get bored.”

Ke$ha is a creative force, an artist in her own right—or at least her own mind—who’s dedicated to her image and her music, which is clear after spending just one afternoon in her company. “When I went on tour, my life turned into the circus that I’m living now,” she says. “It’s therapy to write songs. If someone breaks my heart, I write a song. That’s how I deal with everything. If I can create something beautiful, I win.”

Photography by Yu Tsai. Styling by Marjan Malakpour. For a behind the scenes look at Kesha in L.A., head here.

Meet Doron Ofir, the Man Behind ‘Jersey Shore’

“Can you give us your best fist-pump?” Kimberly Giebel, an animated and unapologetic talent scout in her mid-twenties, asks a longshoreman and his unemployed, gum-smacking, Bensonhurst-based girlfriend. Despite having driven to a catering hall off the Long Island Expressway on a foggy Saturday afternoon in March, hoping to land a spot on a reality television show called Guido Weddings (it has since been renamed Friggin’ Weddings, another working title), the pair is hesitant to comply. “I’ve got great fist-pumping music on my cell phone,” Giebel continues, hoping to inspire the couple to action. Her eyes dull as the man, stocky with a thick Brooklyn accent, explains that without “real bass” there can be no fist-pumping. “Okay! Thank you!” she trills, dismissing the two. “We will be in touch if the producers like what they see.”

When Giebel says producers, she’s referring to one in particular: Doron Ofir, the sought-after casting director and president of Popular Productions. Since 2000, Ofir has cast reality television shows for almost every major network; they include Jersey Shore, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, Paris Hilton’s My New BFF, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Millionaire Matchmaker and dozens of other series. Ofir is the man who unleashed Snooki, The Situation, Tila Tequila and countless other, lesser reality television personalities on the American public.

(Check out the official MTV Jersey Shore City Guide — a free app for your iPhone!)

“Doron is incredible to watch in action. He throws himself into every demographic. He puts desperate people together and gets inside their heads. He’s very gifted,” says VH1’s creative programming VP Shelly Tatro, who has worked with Ofir on Shot at Love and Jersey Shore. “I can’t speak highly enough of him,” says Justin Rosenblatt, VP of alternative programming at The CW, and formerly a VP at MTV, who has worked with Ofir since 2006. “In reality programming, other agencies are choppy. His candidates are real exceptions. All the networks know he is the best. I would hire him for all my shows, but he’s in demand.”

And how. Ofir is currently casting for the third season of Jersey Shore, which will feature an entirely new cast; The Persian Version, a Jersey Shore-like take on the Iranian community in Hollywood; Wicked Summer, a Jersey Shore-like take on Massholes (assholes, of course, from Massachusetts); Chongas, a Jersey Shore-like take on Latino gay men; and the aforementioned Friggin’ Weddings, among other projects. (The titles of the un-aired shows are subject to change.)

Watching the casting footage for Weddings in his office, a 1,200-square-foot Los Angeles loft that houses a staff of six, a collection of vintage action heroes and a mural that reads “YOU’RE GOING TO BE POPULAR!” (also his company’s slogan), Ofir is not seeing the “big, brash, loud and proud Italian-Americans” he is looking for. “We don’t want just any guidos. They better be fist-pumping down the aisle,” he says. “The problem is that these people are from Long Island. They are not loud enough. We really want My Big Fat Greek Wedding meets Tool Academy.”

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Ofir is starting to get agitated. “I dare anyone to find us a guido wedding,” he challenges his staff. “They need to be like, ‘What the fuck? I need to spike my hair.’” Frustrated, he dashes off an online casting call to post on the Internet: “Are your parents like the Sopranos? Do you have a crazy uncle?” (A previous ad wondered, “Do you have a relative that starts every sentence with, ‘In the old country… ’?”)

Ofir is looking for candidates who “pop” like the cast of Jersey Shore did. When that show’s Jenni “JWOWW” Farley auditioned, she told a casting scout that, as a “guidette from Strong Island, I have diplomatic status. I can get away with murder.” In his audition tape, Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino told the camera, “Mikey Abs, Mikey Arms and The Situation are my nicknames.” Josh Allouche, Ofir’s casting assistant, discovered Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi at a bar in Newark. “There are still streaks of bronze on her application, literally bronze fingerprints all over it,” he says. “She had just come from a tanning salon.”

If the Friggin’ Weddings wannabes are not quite up to these standards, it’s not for lack of trying. Most of the candidates are more unfiltered than a pack of Marlboro Reds. They boast about their tanning habits, claim to have sex “40 times a day, in between keepin’ a check on my text messages,” all while pronouncing themselves dedicated guidos. “We are pioneers of an ugly age,” Ofir says. “Our business is like a short bus.”

The success of Jersey Shore has created a frenzy for reality shows focused on outlandish subcultures. It certainly isn’t the first of its kind—this approach harkens back to reality television’s documentary roots, and there was Amish in the City in 2004—but it is the most successful. Despite being blasted for promoting negative Italian stereotypes, Shore has turned into a bona fide pop culture phenomenon that “took back” the term guido and made its cast members stars. The seven of them (one of the original cast members quit mid-season) have appeared on Leno and Letterman, in the pages of Us Weekly and The New Yorker and alongside Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Michael Cera, while cashing in on their notoriety thanks to product endorsements, paid party appearances and memoir deals. (Season two will begin in late July.)

“All of the projects that are lined up are trying to be like Jersey Shore,” Ofir says. “If you come up with something like that show, they like it.” Over the past six months, he and his team have infiltrated clubs, bars and social media networks on a quest to find shame-free homosexuals, Latin Americans, Massachusetts dwellers, frat guys and engaged couples who could be the stars of the next sensation. “I know for a fact that any place where there is a culture, there’s a show,” Ofir says. “We obsess over every subculture or interesting, existing world. Everything and everyone can be turned into reality television—this is my Holy Grail.”

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Ofir’s dedication to upending sacred cows has made him an unexpected player in heated intra-cultural debates. The cast members of Jersey Shore might love the term guido, but not all Italian-Americans feel the same. After the phone number of Shaggy Bajrami, vice president of Popular Productions, was printed in an Associated Press story about The Persian Version in April, she received hundreds of calls, many of them furious. If and when that show makes it to air—or the ones giving Jersey Shore treatment to Latinos and New Englanders (the reality shows about Russians in Brighton Beach and Asians in Los Angeles’ Koreatown aren’t being cast by Popular Productions)—Ofir should probably change his number.

To find a cast that can inspire such vehement feelings, Ofir’s team hits social networks hard. He recently tweeted to MikeJerseyShore, “Hi mike! I need some help from your fans! Can u announce the search is on for guido engaged couples for a summer wedding?” Potential contestants are often approached via Facebook. (One Iranian-American messaged about The Persian Version declined and then started a campaign to “help save us from becoming the next JS.”) An online ad for Chongas sought “outrageously misbehaving, bilingual Latin men or women who are willing to do whatever it takes to become numero uno!”

Ofir often hires freelancers “within the niche” to cast his shows. “If I am doing a show about bartenders, I will hire the best bartender to scout,” he says. “How did I cast Jersey Shore? We followed around DJ Jonathan Peters [a Garden State mainstay]. That’s how it’s done.”

Allouche, who has been working for Ofir for nearly eight years, recalls that when casting A Shot at Love, “We would go out to lesbian bars and clubs.” He says, “Honestly, going out to bars and clubs has been ruined for me. I am constantly scanning the room, trying to figure out everybody’s story, often ignoring the conversation I’m in.” Ofir insists, “Whatever the concept, we come up with a sell to make the potential cast want to stop what they are doing to audition. We are at malls, high schools, clubs—wherever kids hang out.”

Ofir has personal experience with all of those places. He grew up in Great Neck, just outside the Queens border in Long Island. In his twenties, he moved to Miami and became a regular on the club scene. The self-identified “total art fag” and “pop culture obsessive” worked as a doorman known as Kid Durahn at clubs such as The Roxy and Liquid from 1989 to 1995. He credits this experience with his ability to ID talent, saying that he “casts with the same eye I used when I was a door guy.”

CBS gave Ofir his first break, hiring him to recruit for The Amazing Race in 2000. Soon after, ABC hired him to cast the short-lived series Are You Hot?: The Search for America’s Sexiest People. Ofir says, “I pinky-swore to the VP that I’d make her proud.” He did. Another casting director got him in the door at MTV and he has worked steadily, and often chaotically, ever since. In 2007, he started Doron Ofir Casting; in 2009, he started Popular Productions, signaling his desire to start creating—and selling—his own shows.

Ofir often works on a cast-contingent basis, meaning that a network will only film the pilot after meeting, and liking, the main players. (In the case of Jersey Shore, originally titled Guidos, the two networks involved—VH1, which ordered the show, and MTV, which ultimately outbid them for it—weren’t even sure there was a show there, so Ofir worked on a reduced budget.) Once a project is greenlit, the network will work with Ofir to flesh out its plot. “Rather than telling people, ‘We need a cast of six loudmouths,’ I really create a format. We do the creative writing for these shows,” he says. “We didn’t realize in the beginning, but that’s what these shows are made from, and I’ve discovered just how fundamental it is.”

In most cases, he finds and selects a cast in six weeks, the absolute minimum amount of time he needs. This is the period he devoted to Jersey Shore; for Friggin’ Weddings, he had six weeks to select four couples and film their marriages. At most, he will take 24 weeks to cast a show. In contrast, according to Ofir, it took 10 months to cast eight episodes of Jerry Seinfeld’s NBC show The Marriage Ref. “I don’t sleep,” he says.

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Here are excerpts from the audition tapes for Friggin’ Weddings: “I get laid like 17 times per hour at least. I look in the mirror about 100 times. Then I take a shower and eat and look at myself again 200 times. I go to the gym and look at myself. I get yelled at because I spend too much time in the bathroom, doing my eyebrows. Everywhere I go, people look at me.” —Tony

“I go right to the gym because us guidos have to look fly for our girls. I take a girl out, go back to the gym and then go out and find another girl who will be my masseuse by the end of the night.” —Mike M.

“I’m daddy’s little princess. Daddy bought me my Dolce & Gabbana purse. I get down. I’m hot and I have a nice ass.” —Stefanie

“I’m the fucking definition of lucky charms: magically delicious.” —George J. R.

Ofir has a complicated relationship with the people who try out for his shows. He’s dismissive of them. “I’ve got it—offer them $500 worth of tanning!” he says, while brainstorming how to attract more of the right types of guidos for Friggin’ Weddings. But he also relates to them. “I would make fantastic television and, strangely, I use myself as a model when casting,” he says. “But I am way too self-deprecating.” (Ofir has also hired wannabe reality TV stars: He discovered Giebel, the fist-pumping encourager, after she auditioned for, but did not make it onto, Paris Hilton’s My New BFF.)

Mostly, though, he doesn’t worry that he’s exploiting potential cast members. “We get a girl who says, ‘I’m not a bitch,’ and she turns out to be a fucking bitch,” Ofir says. “When people come in they have complete misconceptions about themselves. We do our thing, getting them to reveal themselves in the worst way.”

Ofir’s nonchalance about exposing people’s worst qualities is not just callousness. At this point, those who try out for reality television shows really do know what they are getting into. “Every person who grew up watching VH1 and MTV develops the expectation that they’ll become a star at some point in their life,” Allouche says. “The people who know they are exploiting themselves usually give the best interviews and performances.”

Furthermore, what some might interpret as Popular Productions taking advantage of the fame-hungry masses can also be seen as a (slightly twisted) kind of open-mindedness: however promiscuous, however foolish, however histrionic, however tanned you are, you still get to decide what to do with your life. Ofir is adamant that those he casts are just “real people” leading their lives. “They work, they go to school, they love, they cry, they laugh,” he says. “But they have a little something extra, which is that they know, and are unapologetic, about who they are.”

An Interview with Rockabilly Queen Wanda Jackson

Back in 2004 Jack White, of the White Stripes and, more recently, The Raconteurs, teamed up with country legend Loretta Lynn to produce the Grammy winning album Van Lear Rose. This year, White will be collaborating with another legend, the 72-year old rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson. One of the most celebrated, hard-headed yet delicate rockabilly artists of the 1950s, the native Oklahoman’s fizzy pop approach, with a touch of Southern twang, gave her a distinct sound that catapulted her onto stages with everyone from Elvis Presley to Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Costello, The Cramps– and now, hopefully, onto a new generation’s radar.

Jackson was one of the first performers to bring glamor to rock n’ roll: She dated Elvis before she was legal, and was dubbed ‘Queen’ of her genre long before her induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame last year. With her jet-black, perfectly coiffed hair, red lipstick, tailored dresses and risque songs like her cover of “Fujiyama Mama” (“I’m a Fujiyama mama/And I’m just about to blow my top”), she was cool enough to crack the all boys club that was 1950s rock.

Now, half a century later, Jackson’s first two singles from her collaboration with White– a raw, bluesy cover of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” and another of British rock band Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ “Shakin’ All Over”– have just been released and Jackson’s set to start touring next month. Calling us from a hair salon in Nashville, Jackson spoke with us about her appeal in Japan, present-day pop singers and Jack White.

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How has it been working with Jack? So far I have been very pleased. Jack is very protective of his work and I made the mistake of telling people about recording with him and of course it was printed.. He keeps quiet until he’s ready. But I was excited! It was great working from Jack’s home. He records analog believe it or not! No electronic things, he played the real horns, every instrument was live. I said to him, “Jack, I’m putting myself in your hands because you’re very successful, creative and talented and I just want to trust you. The songs that you think would be good for me to record, you know best.”

What do you think of Jack’s music? It’s not the kind of stuff I’d go out and buy. But he said he was a big fan, and I said, “Well, darn, Jack, I’ll take a chance!”

When you were first starting, it took a while for rockabilly to catch on. Yes. Initially, I don’t think Capitol Records knew what to do with me, so they signed me as a country artist even though I was working with Elvis who was teaching me about Rockabilly, which was a new kind of music and style at the time. It wasn’t until rockabilly and ‘50s rock music had a revival here that I could get airplay. Not until 1960. I was mainly working in Europe before that.

Were you big anywhere else? I couldn’t get a hit in America, but I was so big in Japan right away! I thought it was pretty funny. ‘Fujiyama Mama’ is still an anthem there. They hold on to things a lot longer than they do here.

What song do you think defined you as a Rockabilly singer? “Let’s Have a Party,” the first song I did with Elvis. That was played everywhere, not just in Europe and Japan.

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Are you excited to be touring again? To be attracting a new audience? Oh, I am so excited! I think I’m bigger now than I ever was in a way. In 1995, I toured for Rosie Flores for five weeks and she introduced me to a younger group of fans. There were new venues and festivals and I was blown away. My music became worldwide again. It’s all still fun for me. Performing live is all I know how to do and it’s all that I love.

What do you think of some of the female musicians performing now? Well, I would only advise them: Remember you shake the same hands going down as you do coming up. Make friends, love your fans. Take it seriously. So many young musicians get caught up in drugs and partying. I went through my phase of that stuff. But my daddy toured with me. And I’d say, “Daddy! It don’t matter if I am late for the job!” I was having my fun, you understand. He’d tell me, Wanda, “Now you listen. This is your job. This is how you are making a living and they are paying you to be here. You are going to be there and going to be on time and do your best.” I was lucky to have him. That put a stop to me playing big shot. They need to know that it is a business. Have some respect.

Your dad managed you for the first six years of your career. Then you got married and your husband took over, for the past 30 years. Is it easier being managed by your husband or harder? My father looked out for me. I mean I had a record contract by the time I was just 16. The drugs, the lifestyle and there was Elvis… But you know Elvis turned me on to Rockabilly right away, I was not going to be billed country when we played together. My husband is great. He’s very good at the business side and he always encouraged me to keep performing, playing live. I’m busier now than I have been in quite some time. And the music industry has changed.

How so? Do you think it was harder to be a female rock musician in the ’50s? Definitely. It was really only a bunch of guys. And we didn’t have all the equipment which is why it’s so nice to be recording on analog with Jack.

How did you pick the Amy Winehouse song to cover? Had you heard it before? I had not heard her music before Jack played it for me in the studio. It was the right choice for me, it was smart of him.

Did she hear your single yet? Well, I’m not sure just yet but I guess she will have an opinion about it.

You’ve inspired a lot of fashion too. It wasn’t until after my induction [into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame] that I realized how much it’s caught. Or until I began touring again last year with Rose Flores, but I don’t really follow it that much. I do suppose it’s nice to see the younger generation keepin’ it up.

Well, I heard of a local cover band called The Wanda Jackson Five.

David Cross Doesn’t Like You

imageEvery comic hears his biological career-clock ticking, and while comedian David Cross is only in his early 40s, he tells me that he’s past his prime for “these types of interviews.” Really, his prospects are only improving — devoted fans will surely line up for his first book, I Drink for a Reason, on shelves in August. And let’s not forget his upcoming role in Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squekuel, which Cross is apparently less than enthusiastic about. “There is nothing in my contract that says I can’t show up to work stinking drunk every day though, so I’ll have the last laugh”, he told Gothamist. Fellow comic Artie Lange once said, “David Cross plays a gay guy and it just doesn’t work. And his stand-up is self-indulgent, awful, boring and he treats an audience like shit. … There’s moments of brilliance. Don’t get me wrong. … He comes off like an uptight prick.”

When I ask Lange about Cross now, he says, “I’m sorry you had to deal with that guy. He is a pretentious and boring guy, that’s all he’s got — his self-indulgent act, and expects everyone to pity him, but it’s ridiculous — he is making money! He’s a fucking loser, fag, and a fake intellectual. Bob Odenkirk was funny, never Cross, on Mr. Show.”

Before Cross was offered his rebound stint in the Chipmunk series, he had been unemployed for nearly six months, and this recent, reliable “chunk” reportedly went towards a down payment on a house he purchased in upstate New York. I first met Cross three years ago at a barbecue hosted by former Vice magazine editor Gavin McInnes . At the time, Cross was writing a column for the magazine titled “My America” (which I loved), while also still doing stand-up comedy. He had a following, and thus was not fazed when my aspiring-actress friend, who I invited to the party, had (gasp) no idea who he was. She had just moved to New York from a small hillbilly town in Tennessee, hoping that by moving to the big city, she’d get her big break. She visibly lit up when one of the attendees leaned in and said of Cross, “He’s a well-known actor.” With her southern belle charm, she introduced herself to Cross and used the line, “Have I seen you at an audition before?”

She was referring to an audition for a hair product commercial, her first “real” gig, the week prior to the party. Since at the time Cross wouldn’t stoop to wait in line for a commercial — or the chance to join the Chipmunk legacy — he walked away, immediately. My friend couldn’t bear to stay at the party; she later got depressed, became an alcoholic stripper, and finally gave up on her acting career and moved back to Tennessee a few months later.

Cross has emerged from indie fame, and he should be proud. Kiddie movie aside, he’ll soon be a published author — no small feat, these days. He started writing I Drink for a Reason three years ago, originally as a collection of short fiction. But after about a year of struggling, Cross “scrapped all but two pieces and re-approached it to make it more ‘essayish.’” His lenient publisher gave him an extension, and he was able to finish the manuscript in a year’s time. Cross says he relates to one of his characters’ penchant for being dismissive and sarcastic — in other words, “Never giving a straight answer.” Cross’ publisher wisely didn’t push for his book to become a memoir.

Writing a book is a lot different for Cross than writing stand-up, though. “I don’t write any of my stand-up. I’ll think of an idea and then talk about it on stage riffing as I go (at first). Then I’ll tape the set and pick out the parts that are funny, or at least not redundant, and then try to hone it over several sets, then voila — I’ve got a new ‘chunk’.” Given the book’s title, what are the author’s drinking habits like? Are comedians really as prone to ending up as drunks and/or junkies as the popular conception seems to indicate? “That’s kind of an old stereotype. Unless, wait, are you talking about Garrison Keillor? Otherwise it’s all an act. The last bar I visited in New York was 2A (one of the only dive bars left), and for the record, here’s the Cross cocktail recipe: one part shot of tequila, two parts pint of beer.”

Though Cross still lives in New York, he advises young comedians to avoid the city until disaster strikes. “Don’t move to New York until at least three months after 9/11. You’ll get a much better deal on rent then.” If you happen to catch him on stage, he’s got a fair policy for audience members offended by his politics. “I usually thank them and give them five bucks. It’s the least I can do, since I’ve earned way more money than I should have due to the huge tax cut someone in my bracket gets now at the expense of their much smaller tax cut that was the reason they voted for (if they disagree with my views) Republicans in the first place. It’s my way of saying, ‘thanks, idiot.'” What’s funny about Barack Obama? “He’s black!” How about recession jokes? “Only if they [comedians] are rich Jews. Otherwise it appears unseemly.” Cross isn’t offering any refunds for moviegoers disappointed with the Chipmunks sequel, but you might have better luck if his book fails to live up to expectations. Here’s hoping.
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Tor Hamer: Uptown Fighter

“White-collar boxing is keeping Gleason’s open,” owner Bruce Silverglade had said. Gleason’s motto is, “You don’t have to smell good to train here.” Despite the fact that he’s a graduate of Penn State, is well off, and comes from a good family, 25-year-old native New Yorker Tor Hamer is not only the country’s number-one ranked amateur super-heavyweight, but also the anti-Rocky (sorry, Philly). Towering over his posse (preppy kids from the UES, the Gossip Girl types) at 6’2’’ and pushing 230 pounds, this charmer with a baby face (still intact — he’s yet to get hurt, not even the boxer-trademark black eye) has a misleading mug for a bona fide boxing champ and party boy. Hamer’s other homes, besides the ring (he trains six days a week, for three hours straight) are “exclusive” nightclubs: Bungalow, Tenjune, Southside, and the Box. His longtime friend is Southside’s resident DJ, Nick Cohen, who’s dating Keith Richards’ daughter. “You’d think I ‘d get laid more often,” Hamer says.

He’s talkative and charismatic, which is part of the appeal amongst white-collar boxers — those who need not come from the street to become a big deal in the boxing world. When Hamer practices at Gleason’s, he’s constantly bombarded by a crowd around the ring: other fighters who gape in awe. He has only been fighting pro for two years. “He doesn’t need a stage name. The guy’s name is fucking Hamer!” boasts one of his fellow glove-buddies.

Hamer’s a two-time New York Golden Gloves winner and an Empire State Games champion; this past summer; he avenged his sole defeat to become the National Golden Gloves champion.

In boxing, the typical story is of a rags-to-riches, street-life kid who fights his way from the streets to the ring, but in Hamer’s case, it was the opposite. What makes Hamer’s story novel is that he could have very easily landed a solid job. His father is a Harvard-graduate top-dog at the Board of Ed. Hamer even resides in a swank, bacheloresque apartment uptown. This isn’t to say that he isn’t a businessman — he’s in the midst of a business deal with Gleasons’s owner, Silverglade, to buy the gym.

Though educated at Manhattan’s top-tier private schools, he ended up at my public alternative high school, Urban Academy, after being mistakenly charged with stealing laptops at Trevor Day. I can’t help but remember he had a chauffeur and a preppie posse waiting for him when class was dismissed. Everyone was intimidated by Tor, even the teachers. “He’s 230 pounds now? Wasn’t he the same at sixteen?’’ commented our former English teacher.

“Boxing is my outlet,” Hamer says. “I don’t need to have a temper outside the ring.” But that doesn’t mean he won’t get a little aggro when it suits him. At Southside a few weekends ago, he was in line at coat check when a waify brunette, a tenth of his looming frame, inched in front of him. “Move over, you cow!” Hamer yelled. At that point, she turned to the exit sign and left the club. He then strode up to DJ Nick Cohen’s booth and demanded that Cohen play music other than Billy Joel. His wish was granted. Satisfied, he stepped into the VIP area, where another petite, preppy girl fell into his lap, along with a glass of Hennessy. “This is how I roll,” he remarked, satisfied.

Photo: Adam Taki
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‘America Swings’ Gets Down & Dirty

Paradoxical as it seems, during a time when right-wingers and leftists are at each other’s throats, there are still those who leave their politics aside when it comes to bumping uglies. America Swings (Taschen, October 2008) is documentary photographer Naomi Harris’ first book — a borderline-X-rated expose, featuring middle-aged middle-Americans at good old fashioned swinger sex parties — from hoedowns, barbeques, and private clubs to the inside of their suburban homes. Exclusivity amongst swingers’ clubs varies, but the parties Harris shot are far from haughty (see our gallery of samples, which, while among the tamer examples, are still most certainly NSFW).

Traveling solo, Harris photographed swinger parties across the country, from Mahwah, New Jersey, to Pleasanton, California, and Big Lake, Minnesota, to Washington, Texas. The book is a sharp, three-dimensional, at times grotesque collection that leaves the reader (or at least this reader) feeling guiltily voyeuristic. Harris’ subjects display the fullest degree of exhibitionism; so-called average, middle-aged, bored couples in pre-, mid-, and post-coital positions … schoolteachers, ad execs, lawyers, and, not to be forgotten, the bisexual senior citizens, as well as the “Mandingos” (a group of African-American men who service white wives).

Harris explained that at a typical swinger’s party, one must pay a door fee, and once you’re inside, the club provides guests with the “works”; condoms, a buffet (one popular East Coast swing club’s buffet has a sign above the hot food that reads, “Please cover your lower torso”). Then there’s beds and linens of course, though you may have to wait in line; if you get bored waiting, there’s always the streaming pornography on flatscreen TVs. No introductions necessary beyond “Would you like to swap?”, swing-lingo for, “no strings attached”.

In the early 1990s pre-Giuliani, the swinger club scene thrived in New York City, but couples-only sex clubs still exist, such as Le Trapeze and Carousel. So who attends these clubs? As Harris’ book has proven, it could very well be your boss, or arguably worse, your next door neighbor. Experiencing the scene through Harris’ book at least doesn’t mandate a shower afterward, long as you don’t look too closely.