Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Best Friend I've Never Known

Late last year, I stumbled across Ken Jennings' blog, which the renowned Jeopardy! champion fills with his musings about trivia, game shows, raising kids, the quirks of being a semi-celebrity, and pop culture. Mostly pop culture. Over time, I've learned a few surprising things about Jennings' taste. He likes classic alt-rock (everything from Television to Wilco), old super-hero comics, dopey TV and quality cinema (everything from Michael Powell to Jafar Panahi). In short: He's me, right down to the two children and affable demeanor. If we ever met–and I could prevent myself from asking him to loan me money–I think we'd be fast friends.

The first time I read The Catcher In The Rye, back in high school, I was especially struck by Holden Caulfield's description of his favorite kind of books: "What really knocks me out is a book, when you're all done reading it, you wished the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it." After reading The Catcher In The Rye, I felt that way about J.D. Salinger, until I later read about his prickly reclusiveness. (Maybe he became such a creep out of self-defense, to avoid friendly phone calls from melancholy adolescents.) So I try to keep Salinger in mind, every time I read about a famous person whose sensibility seems simpatico with mine.

It's actually pretty easy for me to remember The Salinger Paradox, given the fairly regular encounters I have with famous people, by phone, conducting interviews for this publication and elsewhere. Most of these celebs are reasonably nice, but rarely chummy. The major exceptions are movie actors, who've mastered the art of the schmooze. They chuckle easily, and seem to end every other sentence with, "Noel," and just generally make me, on the other end of the phone, feel like a very special person. I know it's an act, but I appreciate the effort.

Musicians are a lot trickier. There's one singer-songwriter in particular–well-known, but not a superstar–whom I've interviewed four times. The first time was early in his career, and we spent as much time talking about our respective personal lives as about his album. Later I heard rumors that he was kind of a careerist, inclined to cozy up to people in a position to help him out; but the second time I interviewed him, just a year later, he was still pleasantly chatty, even though his star was starting to rise. A year after that, after he'd started getting reviewed in all the national entertainment magazines, and had landed songs on TV and movie soundtracks, our third interview went much rockier. I tried to catch up on all the off-the-record personal stuff we used to talk about, and he gave me brusque, all-business replies. I didn't talk to him again until a few more years went by, and he'd reached a kind of "cult favorite" career plateau. Taking my cues from our previous conversation, I pretended no personal relationship, and asked him straightforward questions, which he answered kind of rotely. Then, when the interview was over, suddenly he brightened up and said, "So Noel, how's it going?"

Maybe that third interview was an aberration, and my lingering hurt feelings were responsible for that misfiring fourth one. Either way, it doesn't matter. I still like this guy's music, but I've learned from the whole experience not to take an interview personally, even when it goes well.

The problem is that these days, we live in a world of blogs and message boards, and a lot of us have "friends" that we've never actually met. So it's all the harder to shake that familiar fantasy, when you read a compelling interview with an artist whose work you like, that you and that artist have a lot in common, and could be pals. By and large, I'm not all that interested in meeting celebrities in a non-professional capacity, but I'm not so above-it-all that I don't think it's neat when I get to talk on the phone with people like Peter Falk or George Carlin. If nothing else, it certainly gives me something to talk about at dinner parties. ("Do you know who called me yesterday? Marlo Thomas!") And every now and then, the conversations go so well that for a moment I wish I were one of those journalist who gets to do interviews in person. ("Aaron Eckhardt and I are standing in the middle of his Montana ranch," etc.) Then, just maybe, after I turned my recorder off, we'd grab a beer and talk about movies, or bands we like, or our families. Then I'd really have an anecdote to dine out on.

All of which is a way of saying: Ken, if you're ever in Arkansas, give me a call.


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