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? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question comes from Josh Modell and is also part of our 11 Questions feature: Do you have anybody’s autograph?
I have but one, and it’s probably deep in a shoe box at my parents’ house. When I was 12, part of JFK was filmed on my street in Dallas. We lived in the “old” part of Dallas, which means our entire street was built in the mid-’40s, and many of the interiors hadn’t changed much since then. The crews spent four days on our street filming in what would be Lee Harvey Oswald’s house on-screen; I vaguely remember the crew walking the neighborhood in search of a baby, because the one they had on set kept crying. It was summer, so a neighbor friend and I spent most of those four days sitting in her front yard hoping we would catch sight of somebody famous, but we were 12, so we perhaps did not have a very mature understanding of fame. Finally, Oliver Stone came out of the house, and we ran up to him. With all the social grace of an awkward preteen who had absolutely no clue who Oliver Stone was, I asked, very politely, “Are you really Oliver Stone?” He was nice enough to sign a scrap of paper for me.
I have a few autographs from my days as a teenage/twentysomething Anglophile, from bands like The Wedding Present and Inspiral Carpets. I’ve also got a really great Morrissey autograph that I got in person, on the cover of the “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful” 12-inch single, but I can’t seem to find that at the moment. But here’s a good one that I actually have a picture of: Elliott Smith’s autograph on the cover of the music ’zine that I published from 1993-1999. Though I saw him play a bunch of times, I never actually met Smith. But his friend/sometimes publicist Dorien Garry liked the cover (and the interview, which was actually conducted by my then-girlfriend/now-wife) so much, that she had him sign one for me and sent it over. (For a weirder autograph story, you can read about the time I sang karaoke with Sting right here.)
One day when I was 5 years old, a friend of my mom’s came by to visit. She had just returned from a trip to California, where she’d apparently gone to a few TV tapings—I don’t remember the details. What I do remember is that shortly after she came in the front door that day, Mrs. Jetsetter looked at my little sister and me, reached into her bag, and said, “I have a little surprise!” She continued, “Now, I couldn’t remember who loves Bob Barker…” I knew she was teasing. My passion for The Price Is Right was legendary, and my sister, Jenna—not yet 3—couldn’t hope to understand the complex, delicate pleasures of a Showcase Showdown or an exciting Punch-A-Bunch climax. So I fidgeted in anticipation as mom’s friend pulled out an autographed photo of Bob Barker. Beneath the glowing smile of my chosen TV demigod were these words: “To Jenna—best wishes, Bob Barker.” And that was the day I learned what it is to hate someone. No, I don’t have anybody’s autograph.
Literally every autograph I own is Cleveland-related. Not, like, “Oh, I met Beyoncé in Cleveland,” but, “This person is exclusively famous in Cleveland.” I’ve got two ex-Cleveland Indians, Carlos Baerga and Brook Jacoby—the latter lived next door to my grandparents for a year or so. I’ve got the entire cast of The Morning Exchange, a regional breakfast chat show I was obsessed with as a young child. And I’ve got “Big” Chuck Schodowski, one half of Big Chuck And Lil’ John, a local TV odd couple who hosted a sketch comedy show in Cleveland for almost 30 years. Interestingly, Schodowski also worked closely with Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson on Shock Theater, a local horror comedy show that ran until 1966, when Anderson left for L.A. to eventually become the voice of ABC and the dad of Paul Thomas Anderson, who dedicated 1997’s Boogie Nights to his recently departed pop.
The whole pre-concert “meet and greet” concept is a sham, for reasons beyond the fact that it makes a run-of-the-mill autograph signing sound like a rollicking hybrid of a cocktail party and an intellectual salon. At least that’s what I tell myself whenever I look at my vinyl copy of Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! and don’t see the signatures of Devo’s core quartet: Mark Mothersbaugh, Jerry Casale, Bob Mothersbaugh, and Bob Casale. Not wanting to be the rube milling about the VIP area of Austin’s Moody Theater with a cardboard sleeve, I headed to a 2011 gig by the spud boys empty-handed. On the ride to the venue, all I could think of was how to engage Mark Mothersbaugh in conversation, and whether or not it was okay to tell the frontman/film and TV composer that he’s one of the most important musical figures in my life. I needn’t have bothered: When the doors opened, meet-and-greet attendees were organized in a line and then paraded past the musicians, who were stationed behind folding tables. But at least I still got their signatures on my ticket, an object that’s taken on unfortunate historical significance following Bob Casale’s 2014 death.
One of my prized possessions is a signed copy of Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men #1, which I procured at Wizard World Chicago in 2005 by sheer luck. I had come to the convention hoping to get something signed by him, but tickets to his signing were sold out when I arrived and it looked like I wouldn’t get my chance. One of the first places I hit that morning was the Browncoats booth, where I answered a trivia question that hadn’t been changed from the previous day. (Question: What is Kaylee’s favorite fruit?) They told me to come back later for a new question, and after sitting through a panel for an hour, I returned to the booth, which was suddenly full of people because that was the same time Joss Whedon decided to stop by. As he walked away, I handed him my copy of Astonishing X-Men #1 and said, “I’m really excited for Serenity. It looks really great.” He signed my comic and replied: “Yeah, it should be good. Unless it sucks.”
My first published piece of writing was a short story I sold in 2006, for a very nerdy book called McSweeney’s Joke Book Of Book Jokes. At the time, I was 22, jobless, and living with my mom, so the money was less important to me than the boost it gave my moribund self-esteem. Even better, my comedy-nerd hero, John Hodgman, wrote the foreword for the book, so I got to annoy my friends and family for weeks by semi-ironically referring to Hodgman as my “colleague.” A few years later, I got to meet him during the book tour for More Information Than You Require, his second collection of wonderful, demented fake trivia. He was kind enough to treat my blubbering fanboyism with grace, and happily signed my copy of the McSweeney’s book. Then, he asked me to show him my story in the book, and wrote “I SHALL READ IT” in orange marker at the top. It was the kindest lie anyone’s ever told me.
I’ve never been an autograph chaser. I tell myself celebrities don’t want to be hounded with that stuff, that they’d rather be treated like ordinary people and simply gawked at. I was also lucky enough to meet a fair number of my musical heroes early on, as between college radio, a post-college stint as a music critic, and volunteering to work behind the scenes at CMJ Music Marathon, I’ve had my share of brushes with fame. I once shook hands with David Bowie and cracked jokes with MCA in the same CMJ weekend. In either case, asking for an autograph would have spoiled the mood. So I’m still surprised, to this day, that my lone autograph comes from the least likely source: Lou Reed. One year, CMJ had a panel discussion about some music industry issue or another, with Reed being his usual cranky self, staying out of the discussion except to lob a cynical wisecrack. When the panel broke up, the rest of the group fled to the greenroom, but there at the front of the stage was Lou, chatting with fans like the mensch he secretly was. I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to at least talk to him for a moment, so I asked him about Blue In The Face—Wayne Wang’s heavily improvised film, which Reed had just finished shooting. He gave me a curt answer, but as he did, he grabbed my name tag and scribbled his name across the front unasked. If you’ve only gone one autograph hanging up in your room, that’s a pretty good one to have.
New York City gives you lots of practice playing it cool when you see a celebrity, which doesn’t actually immunize you from feeling starstruck. A decade or so ago, some friends of mine would go to Upright Citizens Brigade’s free performance of ASSSSSCAT 3000 (where lots of Saturday Night Live, Daily Show, and other fine comedy folks occasionally turn up to do long-form improv) almost every week, and sometimes I would join them. Tina Fey was a semi-regular, and though I saw her and other SNL heroes a bunch of times, she was the only one I ever felt moved to ask for a signature. The main thing I remember about getting that autograph (which I think I still have in a box somewhere but haven’t laid eyes on in years) is that I asked for it while she was hanging out in front of the theater holding a plant, which of course she had to hand to me in order to sign the postcard that served as my ticket that night. You guys, I held Tina Fey’s plant! It may not have been as magical for her as it was for me—but she was sweet and gracious about it nonetheless.
My most prized possession, something that has survived five moves, is my copy of the book Simpsons Comics And Stories. It is signed by the whole cast, including Matt Groening. My best friend was diagnosed with testicular cancer in high school, and being the raging Simpsons freaks we were, his Make-A-Wish was to visit the Simpsons studio in Hollywood. We were young kids from the Chicago suburbs, and to witness my friend go through the hell and the ecstasy of visiting the holy grail of pop culture was a cream dream I could barely comprehend. We used to watch VHS Fox-taped Simpsons episodes while he was ill from chemo, pausing on Hank Scorpio as my best friend got sick and tried to not be sick. He’s married now, with a kid and a second on the way, and that damn, glorious comic will be with me until the end.
On my high-school graduation trip in Rome, we stumbled onto the set of The Talented Mr. Ripley. There was already a crowd around Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, each trying not to faint while wearing winter wools in Rome in 105-degree heat. As soon as I realized what movie it was, I beelined for Anthony Minghella in the hopes of shaking his hand or whatever a smartass 17-year-old hopes will look super businesslike and grown-up. When he heard someone was asking for him, he paused as if he wasn’t in the middle of a shoot and had me pull up a chair. He took a not-insignificant amount of time to talk to some random teenager about the process of adapting The English Patient, what he most hoped to achieve tonally with Ripley, and the hows and whys of the shot he was setting up. My faded map of Rome has his signature on it.
Apart from the time 9-year-old me timorously knocked on the door of vacationing Boston Bruins goon Stan Jonathan (I got the autograph and a mighty annoyed scowl for my bravery), the best (and only) other autograph I got was by proxy. My friend, bluesman Samuel James, was playing a gig with the now late folk legend Richie Havens. I’d told Sam once about how Havens’ rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” at the 1992 Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (the one where Sinead O’Connor got booed by a crowd that clearly didn’t understand anything about Bob Dylan) was one of the most stirring covers I’d ever heard. It still is. So the next time I saw Sam, he handed me a Havens poster where the man himself had written—in a flowing, stylish hand—“To Dennis, a friend forever.” Never met the man, and I’m sure that’s something he wrote a lot, but it still got to me, and the poster is still hanging up in my apartment. Thanks, Sam.
My early days at The A.V. Club, starting in 2000, were a pretty heady era: We weren’t a well-known publication yet, so it was nearly impossible to get interviews with A-listers, but virtually any smaller artist we could get in touch with, particularly in books, comics, and local music scenes, would talk to us at length. So we all just worked down a list of our biggest influences and childhood idols, calling them up in a wave of hubris and entitlement. For me, one of those was Berkeley Breathed, creator of the mainstream-yet-cult-hit comic strip Bloom County, who gave me a long email interview back in 2001. Then he offered to draw a header cartoon for the piece. Then he offered to send me that art. Then he offered to sign it for me. Then my boss at the time, Stephen Thompson (now at NPR) intercepted that art, spirited it away, and had it professionally framed. I don’t normally ask for autographs, and I wouldn’t have dared do it in this case—but when one of your all-time favorite comic artists offers you an unsolicited, original piece of work, with a personal dedication… Well, let’s just say that 13 years later, that artwork still has a place of pride on my living-room wall. I still like the interview, too.