Davy Rothbart, FOUND, and My Heart Is an Idiot

Damn. I love FOUND magazine. If not familiar: FOUND is a salute to the everyday poetry in all of us. (But in a good way.) The premise of the publication is a collection of found love letters, birthday cards, kids’ homework, to-do lists, ticket stubs, poetry on napkins, receipts, doodles– anything that gives a glimpse into someone else’s life. Out of context, these snapshots of everyday life read like a Charles Mingus jazz composition; we’re left to figure out the spaces in between – thus both the humor and the sadness. 

The genisis of FOUND began in Logan Square, Chicago when co-creator Davy Rothbart found a note mistakenly left on his windshield – meant for a guy named Mario. The note read:

"Mario, I fucking hate you. You said you had to work then why is your car HERE at HER place? You’re a fucking LIAR and I fucking hate you. Amber. P.S. Text me later." 

Davy made an appearance last night at powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn (damn fine bookstore) as part of FOUND Magazine’s Unfinished Business Tour, celebrating the paperback release of his acclaimed book "My Heart is an Idiot." As you may know, Davy is a regular on NPR’s This American Life – and has a friendly, powerhouse, storytelling prowess that rivals such contemporaries as Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris. 

I went down to powerHouse Arena, with camera in tow, ready to snap photos of the event – like event photos have never been snapped before. That was until I realized I forgot to charge my camera battery. (Back to photo-taking junior high for me.) Fortunately, I had an audio to give you – oh beloved BlackBook reader – an audible taste. Enjoy a taste of FOUND:

Some Suggestions for Improving WBEZ’s “Go Make Babies” Membership Drive Campaign

For those of you who live outside Chicago, or who don’t pay attention to strange experiments in marketing not perpetuates by Burger King’s Twitter hackers, WBEZ, the local National Public Radio affiliate responsible for such fine programs as This American Life and Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!, is holding its annual membership drive… with a twist. They’re calling the campaign "Go Make Babies," an effort (satirical, of course) to encourage WBEZ listeners to procreate and therefore create more NPR listeners. They’ve even made a GoMakeBabies Facebook app, where a short personality quiz matches you with potential suitors. 

The campaign has received some criticism, particularly for putting procreation at the forefront, from LGBTQ fans who feel excluded by the urges of baby-makin’ and heteronormative tones of the request, not to mention that the app tends to assume your gender and sexual orientation, even if the app doesn’t ask for gender. WBEZ has a set of ads specifically geared toward LGBT listeners to go out in publications soon ("You know who loves rainbows? Infants.") and as WBEZ Director of Marketing Vanessa Harris put it, “I’m sorry. I wish I could hug each and every one of you. We are completely dedicated to you as an audience. We’re in this together.”

This is all well and good, and WBEZ has some fantastic programming, but we think the Go Make Babies campaign could actually benefit from being weirder. If you’re encouraging people to be physically and financially responsible for a tiny human, clean its bodily functions and possibly pay for its higher education, you’ve gotta offer a lot more than just Ira Glass. Here are a few "Sound Opinions" (ba-dum-tishhh) on how to spice it up. 

  • More incentives. Make it even more absurd than it already is. Instagram that positive pregnancy test? A WBEZ mug can be yours. Send in sonogram pictures proving the existence of your future member of the Curious Class? BAM. You get a free WBEZ tote bag. That first date with your GoMakeBabies prospective co-parent go well? Carl Kasell will personally leave a flirty voicemail to say, "We should do this again sometime." Invite WBEZ staff to your baby shower? You actually become a Wait! Wait! panelist. 
  • You know how This American Life sometimes has user-submitted theme weeks? Have a "This American Baby" competition. Every couple who decides to take WBEZ up on their totally not serious offer must record a This American Life-style story documenting the pregnancy, from conception ’til the first week home. Most results will be cringeworthy; some will turn out to be very interesting. 
  • You can actually win a date with a WBEZ staffer. Not necessarily encouraging baby-making, especially if they are married/partnered/don’t want to have kids, but you know a whole lot of people will become WBEZ subscribers if they can land a date with Ira Glass. Come on. You would too. 

You Want To Go Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Drinking With Rosie Schaap

Rosie Schaap, the New York Times Magazine’s Drink columnist and author of the forthcoming memoir Drinking With Men, tends the bar one afternoon a week at South in Park Slope. It’s a comfy neighborhood spot—the popcorn’s gratis, a modest television plays English soccer games, and on a chalkboard menu at the far end of the bar, listed under the grilled cheese, is “The Ryan”—the same thing but with jam on top. It’s named for a young guy I saw in there the other day sipping a hot toddy and reading the newspaper. Rosie said he works mornings at a coffee shop down the street. 

I’d figured that getting a sandwich named after you was generally an honor reserved for Yankees legends and Broadway stars (RIP Stage Deli)—but really, there’s no reason a neighborhood kid that likes jam on his grilled cheese shouldn’t be the concept’s namesake. And what makes even more sense is the very fact that Rosie wound up at a place like this. A former teenage Deadhead with a history of serial regularity at the likes of Puffy’s Tavern, Liquor Store, and the Metro North bar car, she’s less a drink writer than someone who writes about people whom she happens to drink with. 

In the book, she recounts lessons learned in the Irish tradition of good craic (bar discourse with rhythm and flow), and the New York tradition of buybacks (“Free drinks are like blow jobs—if you have to ask, you don’t deserve one.”). She spent most of her undergraduate schooling at a Bennington watering hole and most of her graduate schooling at an artists’ bar in TriBeCa. It was from the expats at Good World Bar and Grill that she acquired her love of Tottenham Hotspurs Soccer Club, and it was a brief affair with a haunt in Montreal that reminded her of the comfort of being a lone woman. But what’s consistent at each stage is the company of others who’ve had something to teach, and Rosie’s willingness to listen. That, and whiskey.

You were a budding poet, at what point did you decide that you wanted to write a memoir?
I never thought I wanted to write a memoir. Drinking With Men really started with one story, that first story on the Metro North. Over the years, as I recalled the story before writing it down, it always felt like a This American Life story to me. And I say that not just because it was weird to be this kid trying to fit in with grown-ups, and finding a way to connect with them really unexpectedly. It felt like a This American Life story because I knew what happened to me, I knew that what I took away from that experience—even though for me it came through tarot card readings—is something that a lot of people feel when they look back on their youth. That there was this time where I really tried to fit in with grown-ups and I learned I wasn’t one of them. That’s what I really remembered from that experience, was feeling really great for a few weeks, feeling like I could really hold my own among these adults, and then something happened that reminded me that I wasn’t ready for that. 

Did you go back to that idea of wanting to be ‘the kid?’
Kind of. After that experience—I was really young, I was 15—I mean, I had walked into bars on my own just to see if I could get away with it. Before then and after then. I’m not going to name names, but most people who grew up here in New York when I did kind of had a list of places that didn’t rigorously screen its clientele. So I was always interested in seeing what I could get away with. After that, I didn’t really make it my business to try and fit in with adults. It kind of happened—again, after college when I moved back to New York and found myself at Puffy’s Tavern in TriBeCa, I just sort of fell in love with the place. 

First, before I really started talking to the regulars there, I just loved the way it looked. Just a really classic, beautiful corner bar, with tile floors and a high tin ceiling. It felt very Edward Hopper, like an iconic bar, it was exactly the way I thought a corner bar should look. And then when I started to get to know the regulars—and they were, at the time, all older than I was, it was great. Here I was, twenty-four, twenty-five, and all of my new friends were in their 40s. And they had great stories, and a lot of them were artists. But they weren’t arty—you know, they were all working artists, but it’s not like we all sat around talking about art all the time. We talked about everything. And even though I was the only native New Yorker in the bunch, they all knew a New York that seemed so much cooler to me than the New York I’d grown up with. I’m perfectly at peace now with the New York I grew up in, and feel very lucky. But they had been at CBGBs in the early days, and Max’s Kansas City, you know, seeing, like, Blondie. 

Do you get nostalgic or think that people moving here now have already missed out?No, I don’t. I don’t feel that way exactly and I want to guard against slightly premature old-fogeyism. Oh, you should’ve been there when—that can get a little tedious. At Puffy’s, it never felt tedious to me hearing the stories of my elders at the time—they’d hate being referred to as my elders. But I loved it, I couldn’t get enough, hearing their stories of the 70s and 80s, when things were just a little grimier and dirtier and people seemed to be having so much fun. 

There are still great days and nights in bar culture. But I don’t think I lived through a time like that, where it was this wild, fun, decadent time. I don’t think it’s been that way in my lifetime as a grown-up, drinking person. But Puffy’s is still around, it’s still very beautiful, but it’s a very different crowd. So many of the artists who settled that area didn’t win their fights to save their lofts, as the neighborhood became so prosperous and so expensive.

And didn’t Liquor Store get turned into a J. Crew?
Ugh! It did, it did, which is still painful to see. And to hurt us Liquor Store regulars more, they kept the bar. The actual bar is still there, stacked with sweaters and stuff. Just to torture us. 

Not that being an artist necessitates bad manners, but does the etiquette in a place change as the clientele does?
I don’t think it should, you know, individuals will either have good manners or bad manners. I’ve met very well behaved, decent, polite stockbrokers, and extraordinarily rude writers. It’s a cliché—the richer a person is, the less they tip. I’ve seen exceptions to that. Groups are often hard, I mean, someone who behaves wonderfully as an individual might not in a group of loud, rowdy people. The people who tend to behave the best are those who work in other service jobs, you know. Other bartenders, people who work in restaurants, people who know what it means to have someone say please and thank you, which happens very seldom. You’ve probably heard a lot how people think your generation is so entitled. But there’s always the exceptions, there’s always the few who are like, I’m sorry about my friends. 

What’s wrong with nightclubs?
Nothing! Well, nothing for those who like them. They’ve just never appealed to me. You know, by definition they’re places where one would go to hear music and dance, which is fine, but for me, going out drinking always means going out talking, and listening. And that’s not what nightclubs are for. Also, they tend to start their hours very late. And for all my love of bar culture—I love to close a bar a couple times a year, certainly when I was younger I could close them more often. There’s something I really love about the early, early hours of a bar. It can be a little depressing, but I think in a kind of appealing way. But for me, bar culture was this kind of after-work pressure valve, so my normal hours would be six in the evening. And I love afternoons in a bar—day drinking is my favorite when I can do it. 

One exception for me was Don Hill’s. I liked the music they played, and a lot of people I’d gone to college with wound up in New York, so there were always familiar people. There was one party called Squeezebox—there was actually a documentary about Squeezebox—that was full of drag queens and interesting people.

Fish Bar has a great sign in the door that says “Please no loud talking.”
Inside the fish bar, I don’t think they care that much. But it’s so small that if you’re being really loud people are going to notice it. Its scale makes it kind of impossible not to get to know the people around you. I organized a reading series there for a couple years. And I always prefer the word organize to curate—somehow reading series started getting curated in the last 15 years. I think I prefer an organizer model to a museum model.

How do you feel about the word “mixology?”
I think it’s gross. I don’t know exactly when it came about, I think pretty early, I think an early guide to drink-making in the 19th century used mixology or some close variation on that in the title. So I think it probably came of age in one of the great eras of pseudoscience, you know.

Like phrenology?
Like phrenology, exactly! I’m not going to go around feeling the bumps on your head. I’m just going to make you a drink, I’m not going to mixologize it. I mean, there’s a lot of jargon and a lot of deep earnestness associated with drinking right now that I think is very much besides the point. The point is just to drink whatever makes you happy and have a good time. 

Does that inform your approach to writing about drinking? There’s only so much you can say about the ingredients of a beverage.
It is, I feel being a columnist is kind of the luckiest things in the world, because I’m not a critic. I can have and express opinions, and I do, but nobody has to shudder when they see me walk into their bar.  And as suspicious as I am of a kind of seriousness and complexity in cocktail culture right now—do you know about Booker and Dax? They have, like, a centrifuge. And they have purpose made hot iron pokers to heat up, you know, hot drinks. And it all sounds very space age, but when I went there, the drinks were delicious, the staff was fun and friendly, everyone there was having a great time. So, great. Let them do what they do. 

What I don’t like is when that kind of cocktail culture takes place in a setting where people aren’t really talking. Or only talking about cocktails. A bar is where you come and complain about work, talk about sports, argue about politics and music, pour your heart out, talk about breakups. All of this stuff. Coming in and talking about the greatest Old Fashioned you had. You know, if it’s a great story, well told, terrific. But if it’s a kind of competitive sport, it’s not interesting to me.

Now what’s the deal with The Grateful Dead?
You saw Nick Paumgarten’s article?

Yeah, and I love the line about him thinking it was a metal band but that actually, the lyrics are about roses and bells and dew.
Yeah the lyrics are probably my least favorite part of The Grateful Dead. They’re pretty—yeah, they’re pretty florid. 

Was your favorite part just, selling beads?
As with bars, my favorite part is always the people. The community. That’s what I loved, that’s what I was looking for. And I didn’t have the nerve to just run away from home and really make my own way, or join the circus or something like that. So The Grateful Dead was kind of a ready-made community waiting for more people to join and see the country. So when I look back on that experience, I’m most grateful for the people and I got to see so much of America that I never would’ve gotten to see otherwise. 

Have you drunk about the country since?
When I was at that age, I was also far too young to be served by most places, so I didn’t really get to experience that much bar culture across America at that time. But you know how it is, when you travel and you’re writing or reporting, you wind up at a hotel bar. Which, in great cities with great hotels, they’re some of the best bars in the world. But you know, you’re average little hotel bar, in some small hotel in Des Moines—it may not have much to distinguish itself from other hotel bars. But the people are always interesting at hotel bars, because they’re coming from everywhere, and usually a little bit lonely, and happy to have a conversation. 

Comedian and Cancer Survivor Tig Notaro Knows How To Tell a Good Story

Comedian, actress, and writer Tig Notaro gained a following in the comedy world for her goofy, sometimes self-deprecating, all-the-while engaging yarns about her family, growing up in Mississippi, a gentleman’s comments about her "little titties," and her experiences at hotels in Mexico. This was the sort of material fans who attended her live "Tig & Friends" show at LA’s Largo Theater back in August were probably expecting.

What casual (or not-so-casual) comedy fans were not expecting was Notaro beginning her set by saying, “Thank you, I have cancer, thank you.” She then proceeded to recount her diagnosis of Stage Two breast cancer, the most recent in a laundry list from Hell: a breakup, the sudden passing of her mother, a battle with a bacterial infection. Her candor and humor (often self-deprecating—one of the most oft-quoted one-liners of the night is “You have a lump.” “No, doctor, that’s my breast.”) brought the audience to attention. Ed Helms called it one of the best he’s ever seen. Louis C.K. called it "masterful."

Notaro says she’s grateful for her audience at the Largo that night. “Thank you for being exactly who you are and for being at that show,” she says. “Every person in the audience was the perfect person to be there.”

Notaro is now cancer-free following a double mastectomy and is preparing for a lot of writing in the months ahead. She’s got a number of projects in the works addition to her standup, including an upcoming book via Ecco, appearances on This American Life, working on a new television show with Amy Schumer, and a short film, “Clown Service,” about a lonely woman who hires a birthday party clown to cheer her up. And today, the Largo set will be available on Louis C.K.’s website, with a portion of the proceeds going to charities in the fight against breast cancer.

Notaro took some time out of her crazy schedule (the day before a cross-country move) to talk about the after-effects of that night, moving to New York, working for Xena: Warrior Princess, and feeling like a badass.

Let’s talk about the Largo show. What was the turning point that made you decide that you were going to open up to everybody like that and that was the time and place you were going to do it?
I had been working on a piece—I was going to work this material out possibly for This American Life before I was diagnosed with cancer. And then after I got diagnosed with cancer, I just couldn’t stop writing. I had this show set up, so I went on stage and I went for the material. I was recording it that night just so I could reference the material and see if it was in a good place to send to Ira Glass. I felt like I did have something that maybe he could use.

What has the response to that performance been like so far?
People have been nothing but positive, and I’m just blown away at how supportive and positive everybody has been. Not that I thought everybody would be a jerk to me because I had cancer, but they really lifted me up during this time, and the performance was something that the audience and my peers really have been so supportive and vocal about, which feels nice.

How has the Largo performance impacted your comedy? Have you found yourself changing your style or anything as a result?
I haven’t performed since that night. I had surgery; I literally got diagnosed, did that show, and then I’ve been dealing with doctors and being cut open and healing. So I haven’t really been doing anything. I just got my bandages off, so it’s still all very fresh. But I imagine this will change me forever as a human and as a comedian in turn.

You’ve dealt with a lot lately, good and bad. How do you use comedy to relate to what’s happening?
The only thing I’ve really written is what happened at Largo. I haven’t really been doing anything. The material from that night—there’s probably only a couple of bits from that night that I will continue with. The rest of it was kind of time and place. But I have no idea. I’m curious and there’s no way for me to know until I get on stage again what this has done and what’s coming. It’s really an interesting time because certain things seem ridiculous to talk about, certain topics in comedy. But it’s exciting and it’s completely unknown to me until I get out there and start again.

It’s so ridiculous but I feel like a badass. I feel like I can deal with anything in the world. It’s so cliché to talk about turning bad things into good, but every bad thing that’s happened to me has turned into something great and I didn’t see that coming at all. At first, I just thought, "Oh my gosh, I’m just going to be beaten into the ground."

It’s almost a literal interpretation of the old cliché about how tragedy plus time equals comedy.
Absolutely, and I talked about that in my show that night. And I talked about how I didn’t have time. I was just on stage talking about tragedy. Time was not something that had really passed that.

Was there a moment in the show where telling your story clicked, where it felt like the right time?
I’m not sure where it was, but there was definitely a moment in time where it felt like there was definitely a special moment that was happening. But I’m not quite sure when that was.

What advice would you give to people going through the same things you’ve gone through in the past few months?
I
t’s mind-numbingly painful, but pushing through was what now makes me feel like a badass and be able to see these positive things that have come from it. It’s so worth it, but it’s a rough journey, to say the least.

What, for you, are the most important rules of telling a good story?
I think being the most personal and true to what happened, because it feels like even if you exaggerate on that, as long as it starts with that nugget of truth to begin with. I feel like that’s so necessary to spring from truth regardless of where it ends up going.  My “No Moleste” bit, that’s a truth. Every time I check into a hotel room, I hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door. That’s true, but I exaggerate beyond there.

You recently landed a book deal with Ecco. What will that look like?
I think anything I want, is my understanding. I meet with my editor next week in New York, but I think anything I want. I’m going to write about these four months of hell that I went through, my childhood, my mother. I think my comedy career, all that kind of stuff is definitely going to end up there.

What are your hopes for the change of scene with your impending move to New York?It’s gonna be a whole new world. Everything in my life right now is New York-centric. My job working on Amy’s show takes place there. Ira Glass from This American Life wants me on the show regularly and he’s out there, and my publishing company is out there. I think I have a lot of writing ahead of me. I have a lot of stand-up to work on. I think it will be a nice change of pace. I have so much writing coming up that it’s just blowing my mind to think about. Everything is just writing, writing, writing. I’m anxious to be knee-deep in all of that.

You’re involved in so many different disciplines of comedy—writing and directing films, acting, stand-up, as well as this new book. How do you go about approaching each of these?
I do most of my writing on stage. I’ll have a concept and work it out in front of the audience, whereas I haven’t started writing the book, so I can’t imagine how that’s gonna happen, but I’ll probably do that from home. It’s such a solitary thing, writing a book, whereas with stand-up, you’re right there in front of everybody, working things out. I’m writing on Amy Schumer’s TV show, which I’ve been doing over the phone and email, and I’ll be in the office, and that’s so collaborative. They’re all very different things.

I was looking through the bio on your website and it says you were once an assistant on Xena: Warrior Princess. Please, please tell me more about that.
I was the world’s worst assistant. I’m still friends with Lucy Lawless and, I don’t know. They claim they kept me around because I was entertaining to hang out with, but certainly not because I was good at my job. I answered phones and I would take Lucy’s daughter to amusement parks when Lucy did photo shoots, or her sister would be in town from New Zealand and I would take her out to lunch. It was a good job for the time and it was kind of silly too, but I’m glad I had it, for sure. But it was so long ago, almost fifteen years ago that I worked there. But she’s still a friend. 

Photo by Ann Johansson

Will Glass Shatter Box-Office Records?

imageIra Glass, the bespectacled storyteller, has already taken his nationally-syndicated radio show “This American Life” to the small screen, and now he’ll kick off the summer blockbuster season with a one-night only movie event. Broadcast live from New York (it’s Thursday night!) and spread via satellite to theaters nationwide, Glass will debut previously unseen extraordinary true stories, show outtakes, and he’ll answer audience questions. Tickets go on sale April 4th. The following day, viewers can sharpen their dulled minds with some cinema for the thinking fan. Iron Man opens on May 2nd, in an art-house near you.