Interview: Stephen Tobolowsky on the state of The Tobolowsky Files

(Reminder: I’m on vacation this week, but transcribed a few press tour interviews to keep the blog from going totally dark while I’m gone. I’ll be back after Labor Day.)

In my Nick Offerman interview, I lamented that one of the downsides to a press tour party where a broadcast network invites the stars of its affiliated cable channels is that in a small and/or dark space, it can make the party all but impossible to work in. In a good space, though, it can give the party a very eclectic feel, one where there’s someone unexpected and interesting to talk to around every corner. The combined CBS/CW/Showtime party at the latest tour was one of those, held in an outdoor space on a nice night, where even though I had a list of the actors scheduled to be there I still kept being surprised by who I bumped into.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the night was realizing I was standing at the bar next to Stephen Tobolowsky, character actor extraordinaire as well as writer and star of one of my favorite podcasts, The Tobolowsky Files, an ongoing audio memoir in which Tobolowsky tells stories from his life – some about showbiz, many not, all of them hilarious or moving in some way. I interviewed Tobolowsky and producer/co-host David Chen last summer, but I was glad to bump into the guy (and to meet his wife Ann, a frequent subject of Tobolowsky Files stories), and to catch up on the state of the podcast, which has had an irregular schedule of late while both Tobolowsky and Chen have been busy.(*)

(*) Chen tells me the next episode, which Tobolowsky discusses briefly below, should be released this Friday. You can find all the old episodes at the show’s official website, and subscribe to it on iTunes.)

Though he was ostensibly there because he has a recurring role on “Californication,” we stuck to the podcast – including how its notoriety has changed the way he’s recognized these days (on top of the usual people identifying him from “Groundhog Day,” “Glee,” etc.).

Where do things stand with the podcast at the moment?

David’s been really busy with Harvard and things like that, so we record probably every other work, but he probably only releases one once a month or something like that. But I’ve written six waiting for it. We’ve picked up another couple of radio stations. KUOW in Seattle plays the podcast on Sunday mornings, and we’ve picked up Austin and Louisville.

Do those stations start at the beginning of the series and work their way through?

Right now, I know the one in Austin played “Local Hero,” the Davy Crockett one, so that implies they’re starting at the beginning. Some of the other stations, I think they were going to start with “Groundhog’s Day,” which I think was episode 29, because everyone knows “Groundhog’s Day” and they work backwards. I don’t know what they’re going to do.

I have to ask you about that, actually: you always call it “Groundhog’s Day.”

(Hangs his head) I have been flayed for this.

I’m just curious what the reason is.

I always had called it that. I called it that when I was shooting the movie, and then only this year was it brought to my attention that I was incorrect. All along! I was wrong! And it’s “Groundhog Day.” I know that now. And I do that with some other name, too. I get some other name all wrong. (He looks to Ann, who says, “Ironsides.”) “Ironsides,” that’s it! But it’s “Ironside.”

What can people be looking forward to when you and David have time to record these six?

The first story up is going to be the story of me playing with Stevie Ray Vaughn, and the strange events in Memphis. The kind of arc that begins this group starts with “Dark Matter,” which is when Ann and I got married, then the mid-point is “The Stranger,” which is the birth of our child, and we’re working our way back to the day when Ann told me she was pregnant. The day when I found out I was going to be a father, and all that encompasses. Along the way, we’re going to try to include the stories of my heart surgery. The stories are entertaining to me, and we’ll see if they’re just too personal.

Wait, wait – how can a Tobolowsky Files story be too personal?

I don’t know. Here’s something: after I had the heart surgery, “Glee” asked me to come in and do another “Glee” show. And I said, “Fine, but please don’t make me dance,” and of course they made me dance. And then they cut the dance out. But it’s interesting when people know that you’ve had open heart surgery. People come out of the woodwork and they go, “What were your symptoms? What happened?” And a lot more people are interested and terrified of it than meets the eye. And so even though my stories have a lot of real specifics about what I went through, it may be interesting to people. Like the story about my mother – everyone has had a mother. Everyone has had a teacher like Joan Potter, who tries to nail you to the cross, or a boss or somebody. Maybe not everybody has had a medical crisis where they’re really afraid they’re going to die. It has to do with mortality. I just finished it today. I sent it to David to read to see what he thinks.

We talked about this the last time, but I’m still curious: obviously, doing these stories has affected you personally, and you have all these people reaching out to you, but has it changed your career any? Do you ever go into read for things now, or are on set for things, and it comes up?

All the time. It’s like when I went onto “Glee,” the entire sound department were fans of The Tobolowsky Files, and they asked me if they could have signed copies of (“Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party,” the monologue-driven film that inspired the podcast) if they bought it from the website. I was walking down the street in New York, shooting “Law & Order: SVU,” and a guy comes up to me and goes, “My god! You’re Stephen Tobolowsky, the guy who does the stories!”

Before the podcast started, had there been a dominant one you were recognized for a while? Was it Ned, was it Sandy?

It’s always Ned. And then when “Glee” came out, it was Sandy. And then I did “Memento,” and if I went to the symphony, there were a lot of “Memento” fans, and if I went to the bar down the street it was “Deadwood.” It’s always “Groundhog Day,” Ned, and then whatever the popular thing I’ve done at the time: “Freaky Friday” for a while, “Garfield” for a while. “Glee” now. For about the last six months, more and more it’s the podcast. On the set of “Californication,” a cameraman came up to me and said, “I’m a huge fan of the podcast, and I have a question about the zen story: what if he just lets go of the bird?” And I’m like, “That’s fascinating, but I have to go shoot this scene right now!” 

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at