Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
This week, Josh wants to know Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever met face to face?
This question was inspired by today’s “Why Do I Own This” column, in which I recount my glorious afternoon spent with Sting, so you can head over there to read about that craziness. Now, you’d think that Sting would easily be the most famous person I ever met, but I think his actual reach isn’t as long as that of Phil Collins, whom I also met under strange circumstances. In the late ’60s, my dad started one of the first college jazz programs in the country, and he has lots of friends in the jazz world, so when Collins was looking for a big band to fulfill his fantasy of doing a jazz tour (with him playing drums), he called Quincy Jones, who recommended my pop. I’ve yet to meet Quincy, but I did get to meet Collins on that tour—my dad hired himself to play trumpet. (Also from jazztown: There are home movies of me as a 3-year-old being entertained by Dizzy Gillespie.) Others on my “quick-hello” list include Eminem, Dr. Dre (he tried to give me a cool-guy handshake, and I fucked it up), and, umm, Henry Mancini. On the “guys who stopped by the record store I worked at” list, there’s Bille Joe Armstrong, Ad-Rock, David Gray, and Frank Black (“Hi, I’m Charles!”), among many others. On Kyle’s “hero-dudes” tip (see below), Ian MacKaye once gave me a bro-hug where he pressed his forehead against mine while gripping the back of my neck. That was actually way cooler than meeting Sting. Oh, and lastly: Picture me backstage at what was then Mecca Arena in Milwaukee, October of 1993, backstage pass stuck to my shirt. “Should we go upstairs and meet Kurt Cobain?” “Nah, let’s just take off.”
I don’t know, Josh, how exactly do you objectively measure fame? Like a lot of us here, I’ve done in-person interviews with a lot of famous people, and I’m not sure I’d want to be around while their publicists dueled it out over who was most famous. (Now if the celebrities themselves had to fight it out, possibly in a mud tank, I’d be there for that. I want the popcorn concession, while I’m dreaming anyway.) The ones I normally cite when challenged with this question at a party are Christian Bale, John Cusack, and Christopher Walken. Complicating the who’s-most-famous question is the fact that I didn’t talk to any of them at the height of their fame; in each case, the interview was to commemorate a comparatively minor project. I’d say Bale is the most famous of them at the moment, while Cusack was more famous than Bale in his ’80s heyday, but if fame can be stored up and accumulated over time, Walken would probably win. I’m betting he’d take the mud-bath cage-match, too. Dude is seriously grizzled. When I sat down with him for our interview, though, he was wearing sweats and covered in ghastly orange pancake makeup to make him look normal under TV interview lighting. That was pretty hideous, but took the edge off that Christopher Walken inhuman scariness.
I usually judge people’s fame based on whether my family has any idea who they are. I’ve met loads of people who are heroes of mine—J. Robbins, Bob Mould—or otherwise important to The A.V. Club’s world and my subset of that, but generally, I have to explain these people to my disinterested family. No such introduction would be needed for David Schwimmer, whom I met in 2007 for Run Fatboy Run, his directorial debut. If my family asked what’s he like, I’d say tall, handsome, friendly, and possibly a pot-smoker. I keep the little mics and extra batteries for my digital recorder in a medicine bottle, and when I took it out of my bag at the interview, Schwimmer thought I was whipping out some pot. (So now we know where he keeps his.) Alas, being some kind of “professional,” I only smoke out before and after interviews, not during. “Hey, next time,” he said as I left, “bring your other container.” So when I run into him again—which, being in Chicago, isn’t unheard of—we’re totally gonna be weed bros!
The film editor at my old job was too good to me. He received the opportunity to interview Jerry Seinfeld, and for some reason offered it up to me, the lowly Comedy Editor. I was to chat with the man whose sitcom, Josh Modell’s future favorite show, shaped 90 percent of my sense of humor at a young age, in person—an honor on that tour bestowed only on Roger Ebert, Michael Phillips, and myself. (The other journalists participated in a roundtable.) The only catch: The interview was to promote his daringly unfunny Bee Movie, and I had to sit through a special sneak-preview screening beforehand. I could hardly contain myself, I was so nervous, so I spent the half hour or so between the screening and the interview walking in a daze around Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood hoping to find some baklava—all the shots of honey in the film had me jonesin’ something fierce—which proved almost impossible. Somehow I tracked down the only place in the area that served baklava, though it wasn’t very good, and I took my treat over to the hotel where I was to chat with Seinfeld. The publicists first planted me right in the center of the hotel’s atrium, which got me even more excited—passersby would think Jerry and I were best buds!—but then relocated me to a silent, empty conference room across from where Seinfeld was doing the roundtable. I sat there for a while, scrambling to get my notes together, until I heard uproarious laughter, followed by polite applause, coming from across the hall. The door to my room opened, Seinfeld sauntered in, we shook hands, the publicist told me I had 15 minutes and closed the door, and there I was. Just me and him, two best buds, sitting in a silent room drinking water. I freaked, and asked if he wanted some baklava. He acquiesced, and proceeded to answer my questions while scarfing down the dessert. The interview went really well—minus one point where I told him I had forgotten my next question, to which he replied, “Hey, it’s your time, man. You do what you want,” and my nerves all ran wild at once. I’m honored to have had the opportunity to talk to him, and to this day it’s the most star-struck I’ve ever been in an interview; part of me wants to refuse to believe it even happened at all. Hell of a thing to think about your best bud.
I’ve been lucky to meet a few people who made me shake with excitement at meeting them in the flesh: Elvis Costello (waited outside a concert) and Jon Stewart (spotted in him line at a McDonald’s at O’Hare airport, got behind him, and made some sort of idiot comment) being a few. But hands-down the most famous person I ever met was Michael Jordan. My Dad handled the sports tickets that partners at his law firm would use to take out clients. When I was about 10, the Bulls held a promotional something-or-other where season ticketholders could go to Chicago Stadium, where a player was stationed at each gate for a meet-and-greet, and afterward, there’d be a scrimmage. Of course my family raced to the Michael Jordan line, and we waited among other people who had things like Wheaties boxes to sign. Now this was before the Bulls had even won a championship, but MJ was so famous to me that when I finally got up to him, I squeaked “Can you please sign your first and last name?” because I thought that he’d just sign it “Michael.” He laughed and put his hand on my head, which is why I’ve never washed my hair since. At my parents’ house I’ve got his autograph and some photos somewhere, probably rotting because I didn’t archive them right.
Boy, there’s no way this piece is gonna come off as anything other than us bragging. So if this be bragging, let us make the most of it: I met the president of the United States, Barack Obama, at a local political event when he was a senator. I actually talked to him for about five minutes, which puts him over George W. Bush and Al Gore, with whom I have merely shaken hands. The most famous person I’ve met in my capacity as an entertainment writer is probably Ozzy Osbourne, now that David Carradine is no longer among the living. (Nathan and I interviewed Carradine on the same day, and we could tell you stories…) The Game, whom I interviewed a while back, is only a somewhat famous second-tier rapper, but his people made me jump through the kind of hoops that you’d expect if you were interviewing Jesus Christ returned. But strangely, I get the most excited interviewing people who aren’t really famous at all, but are influential and renowned in their somewhat limited fields, like Silver Age comics artist Ramona Fradon, White Sox color man Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, and humor writer Ellis Weiner.
Back when Nathan Rabin and I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, we would occasionally drive down to concerts in the big, scary city of Chicago together. A tour by Brian Wilson in 1999 was one such occasion. We’re both big fans of the Beach Boys—as all right-thinking people must be—and the chance to see the reclusive, recovering insaneaholic genius in person was too enticing to resist. What’s more, reviews of the tour had been really good. The show was solid. Wilson was carefully supported by his band, which kept him in a safe, freakout-resistant environment. Afterward, Nathan and I decided to get some food at a nearby Denny’s. Halfway through, I noticed a familiar-looking figure coming in: Brian Wilson. At Denny’s. It felt like spotting a unicorn at the mall. Nathan and I decided to pay our respects, briefly, on the way out. Wilson kind of nodded as his entourage looked on nervously, and we were on our way. It was strange seeing him in the first place, stranger still in a place best known for its Moons Over My Hammy platter.
I’ll skip past the time I got an autograph from “Macho Man” Randy Savage and babysat the children of William “The Greatest American Hero” Katt, and head straight to my biggest celebrity meeting: Michael Stipe. In the ’90s, I worked at Wax Trax in Denver, an independent record store that’s such an institution, everyone from Henry Rollins to the Beastie Boys regularly shop there when they’re in town. The members of R.E.M. have been frequenting Wax Trax since they started touring in the early ’80s, and around ’95, the band was once again playing Denver. (I’m thinking it was their Monster tour with Sonic Youth.) I was behind the counter that day, and in walks Stipe; I remember some douchebag yelled “Hey, Michael!”, then made Stipe give him a high five. Stipe looked mortified, but he slipped the dude some skin nonetheless. He then walked up to the register and asked us—very shyly, very quietly—if we knew the name of the ’70s English punk band that did the song “One Chord Wonders.” I was the only employee on duty who knew the song (I still own that Stiff Records 7-inch single by The Adverts), so I ushered Stipe over to the compilations section and started flipping through the punk discs with him. We chatted a bit while we searched, and I remember how genuinely excited he was at the prospect of finding this awesome, semi-obscure old punk tune. It kind of surprised me for a second; then I remembered that R.E.M. covered Wire’s “Strange,” and in any case, it’s hardly unusual that an alt-rock musician of Stipe’s generation would be a fan of such stuff. I don’t think I was actually able to find a CD with “One Chord Wonders” on it, but I was definitely left with a new perspective on Stipe—I’d already loved his music for years at that point, but he really came across as a sweet, geeky, and endearingly skittish kind of guy.
Hey, Michael Stipe! I bumped into him once at a bar in Athens, Georgia and caused him to spill his drink. I apologized, he glared at me, and when I went outside, I told my friends how I’d just made “the guy who looks like Michael Stipe” slosh booze all over himself. And then they told me the good news about the identity of my dousing victim. Yikes! I actually had quite a few celeb-sightings when I was living in Athens, and not just of the alt-rock variety. I once spotted Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates pushing a stroller through the High Museum in Atlanta, and when I snuck up to get a closer look and to make sure it was them, Kline caught me staring and looked straight back at me for an uncomfortable few seconds before I looked away and moved on. I also used to see Kenny Rogers all the time in Athens, because he lived nearby and would see movies at the mall multiplex where I worked. (I swear he once sang “thank yoooouu…” to me when I tore his ticket.) But my favorite movie-theater celebrity story would have to be the night that Joe Pesci walked in. He was filming a movie in the area, and he and some of his fellow cast and crew chose to spend their night off seeing Sleeping With The Enemy. (The other two movies playing at our theater at the time? Goodfellas and Home Alone.) He came up to the concession stand I was manning and I experienced that weird freeze-up that occurs when someone famous unexpectedly appears. While I was trying to figure out if I was actually taking Joe Pesci’s snack order, I was nodding in agreement to everything he ordered, even though we didn’t actually have any of the beverages he was asking me about. (Believe it or not, there’s not much call for seltzer in Georgia movie theaters.) While he was watching the movie, I tried to explain to my co-workers who Joe Pesci was, and the general reaction was: 1. It can’t be him; and 2. He’s not a big star, so who cares? I talked my manager into giving me a Goodfellas one-sheet, and when Mr. Pesci was on his way out, I got him to sign it. (And suddenly all my co-workers changed their minds about whether Joe Pesci was a big deal or not.) A month or so later, he won an Academy Award. But here’s the best part of the story: A year later, when the movie Pesci was making opened, I realized who the attractive woman standing next to him at the concession stand was. The movie was My Cousin Vinny. The woman? Marisa Tomei.
For some reason, when I interviewed David Lynch, I thought it would be a good idea to give him a Buddha’s Hand when I showed up at his hotel-room door. For those who have not yet had the pleasure, Buddha’s Hand is an incredibly weird fruit that looks like something from space: It’s kind of like a lemon crossed with an octopus. I had just seen Buddha’s Hand for the first time at a store down the street from our office, and once I got the idea of giving one as an offering, there was no use fighting it. So I gave him one, and he just kind of accepted it graciously, a little confused by what it was (he hadn’t seen a Buddha’s Hand either), but without a fuss, and not exactly clamoring to usher me into the realm of brilliant weirdo visionaries that I imagined he could help one gain instant entry into. He put the Buddha’s Hand in a bowl on a table, and we sat down to talk. His assistant, who had described the affair beforehand as a chance to talk over coffee, came over and told us she was ordering Mr. Lynch a cappuccino from room service, and would I like one? I said yes. But that, too, foiled another grand plan I had hatched: to order my coffee, as per Twin Peaks’ Special Agent Dale Cooper, “black as midnight on a moonless night.” The other interview story that competes was talking to Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham about a woman paying insufficient attention to a CD-R he had made for her. He looked and sounded miffed and genuinely hurt (the way makers of insufficiently attended mix-discs often do), but it turned out the woman he was talking about was Stevie Nicks—the whole legendary rock myth of Buckingham/Nicks discord distilled down to talk of an underappreciated CD-R.
Since we’re only talking spitting-distance sightings, I’m at a bit of a disadvantage down here in Austin. Still, I guess I’ve bumped into a few “famous enough” people in a non-professional capacity—sometimes literally, like Quentin Tarantino, who shoved past me in the lobby of the Alamo Drafthouse some years ago. I turned and started babbling something about Reservoir Dogs, I think, which he politely withstood until my wife came over, at which point he suddenly became very friendly. I also once literally ran into Jim Jarmusch during SXSW; he told me he’d enjoyed my band’s set, I told him I’d enjoyed Down By Law, and we just sort of nodded at each other. I’ve brazenly flirted with Janeane Garofalo in person several times, the first nearly a decade before I interviewed her for The A.V. Club: I discovered she was sitting near me at an Austin club, and when I saw her hunting for a lighter—after I spent 30 minutes not-so-subtly staring in her direction. I slid in on one knee, Zippo ablaze, the very picture of chivalry. Later, she told my friend that she thought I was cute, but my friend only passed that message along after we’d left the club. (Thanks, Erin!) And I’m really digging here, but when I was just a smart-assed little kid, I met Robert Guillaume at Universal Studios, and I told him I thought Benson sucked—which was just pointless and mean, and I could tell from his face that it hurt. (I still feel guilty about that, so if you’re reading this, Robert Guillaume’s assistant, please tell him that Benson had its moments, and that he was great on Soap.) On that same vacation, my family was approached in a Sunset Strip-area parking lot by a very large man and his shorter, bespectacled companion, who were looking for a nearby restaurant. We helped them out as best we could, and as they were walking away, my moron aunt said, “Wasn’t that the guy from Animal House?” In fact, no, it was not John Belushi—who’d been dead four years or more by then, something even 8-year-old me knew—but it was John Candy and Eugene Levy, who were shooting Armed And Dangerous at the time. Oh, and when I was a teenager working my first video-store job, I totally busted Arlington resident and Hall Of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer on some late fees for a shitload of Shannon Tweed movies. (He was pissed.) Also, a scant four years ago, when I was making ends meet at a Mexican restaurant, I was Keanu Reeves’ waiter. He was actually pretty nice, although he and his female companion made a loud toast to “getting the hell out of Austin,” which I thought was sort of dickish, so I spit in his food. Just kidding. Maybe.
I’m actually pretty shy and a disastrous small-talker, so I’m not big on chatting up celebrities when they do wander into my orbit—I generally prefer to just kind of gawp from afar. As far as bump-ins go, I’ve been in the vicinity of Kid Rock a few times, but so has pretty much everyone who’s spent a good deal of time in Southeastern Michigan; I think he just kind of hangs around on street corners waiting to be recognized. And I once quite literally bumped into Jenny Lewis as she was headed to the stage as I was going backstage to interview her opening band—in fact, I nearly knocked her diminutive ass over, and was too flustered to properly apologize, an anecdote I did not share with her when I interviewed her for this site a couple of years later. But my most prolonged celebrity exposure—and the most forehead-slappingly awkward—was earlier this year when I interviewed Andrew Bird. I generally stress out about doing interviews, and in-person ones get me especially worked up, due to that aforementioned shyness/small-talk aversion. But I practically imploded upon learning that not only would I be interviewing one of my major musical crushes in person, it would take place over dinner at an intimate little restaurant, and he would be bringing wine. Cue Josh and Kyle teasing me for days about my “date” with Andrew Bird. It actually turned out to be not as mortifying as I expected, though I ran out of questions about an hour and a half into the meal, forcing me to engage in some of that dreaded chitchat. Luckily, by that time, I had drunk enough of his wine to keep my flight response in check.
Like GK, I’m also too shy to ever say hello to anyone. So even though I’ve seen Michael Stipe in a restaurant in Athens, Georgia, ridden in an elevator with Elton John, and stared at the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling alongside Rhea Perlman and Danny DeVito, I’ve never said hello. The closest I came to breaking this trend was when I saw André 3000 in an Apple Store in Atlanta. He was wearing an awesome green hat. When I started walking toward him, someone decided it’d be brilliant to play the then-ubiquitous “Hey Ya!”, mortifying everyone in the store, including me. Mission aborted. But man, he is one good-looking dude.
Since I live in Madison, Wisconsin, most of the few mildly famous-person interviews I’ve done are by phone, and even at concerts and the like, I rarely have this impulse to chat up the performers unless it’s really necessary. In fact, my best stories come from before I even had this job. When I was in high school in Florida, I worked at a Winn-Dixie supermarket, and every so often, basketball star Patrick Ewing would come in. We’d all whisper among ourselves and marvel about how he’d always have to duck to get in and out of the door. Once he came in with some pretty young woman, and they walked up to the register with about 10 large bottles of Johnson & Johnson’s baby oil. I bagged that shit up and handed it to him with a smile; he didn’t seem to like me too much. Neither did noted presidential blowjob stenographer Ken Starr, who once came to my college purporting to give a talk about some issues facing the Supreme Court, and proceeded to give us what I felt was a pretty basic middle-school book report about the basic workings of the Judicial Branch. Just an utter lazy horseshit rip-off, if you ask me. During the Q&A portion of his talk, I got up and asked him if he was actually planning to talk about whatever the title of the speech was. I got the most rewarding 10 seconds of “Oh, you little bastard!” silence in my life, and then he dribbled out some softball answer, trying to mask his hatred with that weak little shit-eating grin. Oh, I also introduced Chuck Klosterman at a speech in Madison last year and nervously mispronounced his last name, five minutes after he’d very graciously told me the correct pronunciation. Sorry, Chuck!
Wow, guys, I never knew I worked with so many celebrity magnets. An afternoon with Sting? Flirting with Janeane Garofalo? Like Scott, I make my home in Wisconsin, so I tend to grade my famous-person encounters on a comically generous curve. For instance, I’m fond of regaling friends about the time I had my picture taken with Jack Sikma and Paul Mokeski—only two of the most memorable big men in Milwaukee Bucks history—when I was around 10 years old. Oh, and then there was the time in college when I chatted with Ian MacKaye from Fugazi, who I’m sure thought I was quite the suave dickhead in my horrible, self-described Donnie Brasco leather jacket. But my best celebrity encounter happened 10 years ago when I was in Duluth, Minnesota and ran into Paul Simon in a Native American arts-and-crafts store. Lest you think Duluth is a hotbed for Native American art-loving celebs, Simon was in town for a show that night with Bob Dylan (which I was also in town for). It was strange, because Paul Simon didn’t really look like Paul Simon. He looked more like a middle-aged Jewish man. We exchanged nods, and shared a moment that I’m sure he still talks about to this very day, too.
There’s a whole, perhaps unnecessary chapter about mixing and mingling with celebrities in my memoir, The Big Rewind (available for purchase on Amazon and at your local bookseller!) The two celebrity encounters that spring to mind are two folks I met, after a fashion, in 2005 at LAX while coming back from tapings of my poorly rated TV show: Barack Obama and Topher Grace. Granted, Topher Grace isn’t super-duper-famous these days (though he really should be. What the hell is he doing? He has to be the least prolific actor of his generation) but he did vomit enthusiastically in front of me, which lent a surreal edge to our encounter. I met Barack Obama while waiting for a plane back to Chicago. At first I thought I’d let him and his wife be, but then I thought, “Dammit, I’m his constituent, so I have a God-given, constitutional right to walk up to Señor Handsome and tell him just how great I think he is.” I also briefly contemplated asking him to sign my bright pink Win A Date With Tad Hamilton autograph book, but ultimately decided it was beneath the dignity of the office. I did a quick cost-benefit analysis, and decided the coup of getting Obama and Grace’s autographs wasn’t worth the loss of dignity inherent in securing them.
When I was a young, avid fan, baseball-card shows and their autograph tables (as well as some banquet thing in Santa Maria that I used to drag my parents to) gave me the chance to meet tons of famous players, including Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Willie Mays, and Mark McGwire. And I have a great photo of me standing next to Pete Rose, who should have been looking at my mom’s camera, but wasn’t. Later in life, when I ran a music magazine that had an annual baseball feature, I was given access to the A’s locker room, and I talked to Barry Zito about the bands he listened to—I think I remember him mentioning Lagwagon (I’m from Santa Barbara, and he went to UCSB for a year), and I know he gushed about John Mayer, whom I hadn’t heard of at the time. Zito went on to win the Cy Young that year, and I like to take a little bit of the credit.
Other famous people who have crossed my path include: Michael Stipe, who was a jerk when I asked him if I could have my picture taken with him—he asked me “Why?” and I said, “To capture a moment,” which is pretty impressive considering how I usually act in these sorts of situations, but he just shook his head and walked away; Eddie Vedder and Billy Corgan, who were at a Seattle bar together after a Pumpkins show in ’93; Britney Spears, on her first tour; Monica Lewinsky, at an L.A. book-signing; Kim Deal, my childhood mega-crush, who many, many years later I spent the day with in East L.A. for a story—she’s definitely the most famous person to ride in my car; Stephan Jenkins (my love of Third Eye Blind was documented in my SXSW blog this year); and perhaps most famous of all, Bill Clinton, right before he became president.
But the best famous-person story I have took place on New Year’s Day 2008: I was hungover in L.A. and planning to drive back to San Francisco in the afternoon, but that all changed when I ended up at a small gathering that included some notable music friends and acquaintances, as well as the most famous shoplifter I’ll probably ever meet: Winona Ryder. While it’s true that I probably had a crush on her after seeing Heathers and Edward Scissorhands, the excitement really kicked in when we started to play a marathon game of Beyond Balderdash, which I’d never played before. I swear, it was like a six-hour session that went well past midnight, and I guess I’ll quickly skip to the end and let everyone know that I won, and it was a feeling of triumph that I’ve only experienced a few times in my life. But back to the good part: Beyond Balderdash has a category where you make up plots to movies, and even though I’ve probably seen fewer films than anyone else who writes for The A.V. Club, I really cleaned up with that category. And on at least one occasion, one of the fake plots I’d written inspired Winona to say, “I’m pretty sure I read for this.” Ha ha ha, it still makes me laugh to this day. Noni was way more timid than I thought she’d be, but she was super-nice, gave me a big hug at the end of the night (I guess everyone loves a winner), and I’m glad she didn’t notice me take one of the little slips of Balderdash paper that she’d written on, which acts as both a souvenir and proof that I’m not making all this up.