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Stephen Tobolowsky is the star of a fine podcast that's produced 50 episodes so far.
Stephen Tobolowsky is the star of a fine podcast that's produced 50 episodes so far. Toby Canham/Getty Images
Telling stories seems like such an easy thing to do. Everybody has them, after all, and everybody can open up and start talking. We tell each other stories every day — someone sees you with a Band-Aid on your finger and you say, "I cut myself slicing a potato."
That might be why people who are Storytellers, deserving of a capital S even if it's technically improper to supply one, are not as celebrated as people who write novels or play the violin.
But a truly great storyteller is the farthest thing from mundane; that person is a profound pleasure. And Stephen Tobolowsky is a truly great storyteller.
You may know Tobolowsky as an actor from Groundhog Day or Glee or Deadwood — he's become famous for not being famous, in that he has literally hundreds of credits at the Internet Movie Database and he's the star of very, very few of them. But for 50 episodes now, he's been the star of an exceptional podcast called The Tobolowsky Files.
The project grew out of the 2005 documentary Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party (which you can watch in full on Hulu or IMDB), which consists largely of him telling stories from his life — both his personal life and his life as an actor who has worked with a remarkable range of folks. After the film came out, Tobolowsky guested on the podcast at the fine movie site /Film (that's Slashfilm, if you need to pronounce it).
And then, in one of those lovely developments that could so easily have never happened but fortunately did, David Chen, who works at /Film, approached Tobolowsky about a podcast project to release more of his stories.
The formula is simple: Chen introduces Tobolowsky, and they have a couple of minutes of chat, and then before you know it, Chen has dropped out and you are just hearing a story. In the most recent episode, "The Primary Source," Tobolowsky talks about having been in a band with Stevie Ray Vaughn when the latter was just a kid people were starting to think was really good. Other things he talks about: having his back waxed on the set of Californication, the dangers of self-Googling ("on a single day, I read articles where I was described as being alternately 'lanky,' 'pudgy,' 'doughy,' 'balding,' 'utterly forgettable,' and 'constantly irritating'"), and a remarkable sequence of events surrounding the death of character actor Trey Wilson, with whom Tobolowsky worked on Great Balls Of Fire.
The show is funny, it's fascinating, it's filled with little bites of wisdom you'll take with you ("belief is a very peculiar thing: we tend to put more store in a belief we like than a fact we hate"), and more than anything, it's surpassingly generous.
That's incredibly important, because what storytellers can't be is vain. They can't be the hero every time out. In fact, they can't be the hero almost ever. The only truly great storytellers are the ones who are just as interested, therefore, in other people as they are in themselves, and entirely capable of finding humor and weirdness in their own behavior. They must be quick to be humbled, quick to laugh gently at themselves and slow to laugh derisively at others. Monologues are tricky: a whiff of self-importance, and it's just an hour spent with a blowhard.
I have come to believe that what sets the tone for this particular show is the way the episodes begin. Chen introduces Tobolowsky using one of his many, many credits — often a very obscure one — and Tobolowsky either takes unexpected levels of pride in it, makes it clear that he doesn't really remember it, or makes some kind of surprisingly kind comment about it. Having done so much work that no one remembers, not even him, doesn't bother him a bit. In "The Primary Source," Tobolowsky is introduced as "the man who played Troll in the Walt Disney animated series, American Dragon: Jake Long!" Tobolowsky's response: "Was I 'Troll'? ... I remember it just like it was yesterday a century ago. I thought I was some sort of dragon on American Dragon."
It's just genuinely wonderful. It's kind and funny and sharp-witted and eye-poppingly observant about people and show business. You can subscribe to the podcast, or just listen to a few episodes online.