I am slowly catching up on your podcasts – my only chance to listen (having two small boys at home) is on my way to work four days a week. Every day I feel like writing in because the podcast always seems to touch some part of me. Yesterday I listened to Contagion, which I was incredibly moved by – but today, listening to Man in the Closet, I felt something else. I was touched by the similarities in our seemingly dissimilar childhoods. Fear and closets exist somewhere in the minds of most children. Growing up, I was always afraid of my closet. There was a terribly scary wolf who lived in mine. Well, my older brother and mother now insist that it was a cute dog/shoe holder, but I thought he was terrifying. As an adult I know that I could have asked my mother to take it away and it would no longer have been an issue, but maybe even as a child part of me realized that locating all of those fears of the unknown into some sort of tangible object, was less scary than having it be less defined. I would never go to sleep with my back turned away from the closet, for fear that he might creep out and come get me. I was terrified for years over this.
But one night my closet became something else. It became my refuge. This night I woke up and heard noises in my house. We lived on the outskirts of a small town in _____. My mother worked nights as a nurse, and my stepfather worked evenings as a mechanic for the city of ______, but I was most often alone until he came home at 3 or 4 in the morning. I looked out the window and did not see their cars in the driveway, so I knew the noises were not either of them. Then I heard gunshots and someone running through the house. I think I was about 10 or 11. This wasn’t something that happened in small towns in the Finger lakes. I am not even able to recall the emotions that I felt, but I remember hiding in that closet all night long, with my yellow lab, Sunny. Even after the gunshots ended, I stayed in the closet. Maybe part of me felt the strength in the power that my years of terror of the closet held. I don’t know. But I think it has something to do with the known and the unknown. I chose that night to embrace the power of that fear to keep safe from something very real. That, and having the love and security of my dog, kept me (emotionally) safe.
A few years later, after my stepfather was arrested for possession of cocaine and I learned that he had been selling it out of our home, I was able to get some clarity on the events of that night. Although in some ways I felt less safe afterwards, my feelings about my closet changed. I could sleep with my back to it, knowing that I could choose to embrace its power.
Even the less positive side effects of that night most likely eventually lead me to do the work that I do now, dealing with childhood trauma. So, to quote yet another one of your memorable podcasts, never argue with the road…
It’s my birthday today and I’m watching your birthday, a present from
my wife. I’m newly 41, solidly into a new decade, old enough to think
“already? again?” instead of “Yay! Cake!”. This year, perhaps for the
first time since I was 14, I’m having a good birthday.
I didn’t know your name before Thanksgiving. I’d seen you in a couple
of movies, and in Glee, a show I watch only so I understand what my
wife might say about it. If I have to watch it without her, I fast
forward past the singing and dancing to get to the plot portions so
I’m not constantly asking “Why’s he doing that?” later. You were “that
guy”, and that’s nothing to do with you because many actors are that
guy. I now know the name of Patrick Fischler because he was that guy
three times in a night.
Driving from Chicago to Madison to have Thanksgiving with friends, my
wife wanted to play the The Tobolowsky Files, a podcast she had
discovered that week. I wanted to listen to Desert Island Discs,
another podcast I had also recently discovered, but my phone hadn’t
downloaded them. I wasn’t keen on her podcasts choices, which are
often a couple of TK trying to be morning drive-time buddy radio,
proudly celebrating their ignorance. There’s no there there. My hopes
were not high.
Our rule is the driver gets to choose the tunes. I need to listen to
talk radio of some sort. Podcasts are a godsend, but in a pinch, the
crazy late night shows on AM radio will do. I’ve even listened to the
religious stations. The Tobolowsky Files would have to do. We got
through two episodes before we got to Madison. They didn’t suck.
After Thanksgiving, I drove again. We listened to more Tobolowsky
Files, this time because I chose to.
Since Thanksgiving, we haven’t gone anywhere so we’ve had no shared
listening. I had wanted wait for a trip so we could listen to you at
the same time. If we get out of sync, the dinner talk is just going to
be Tobolowsky spoilers.
I distracted myself with Louis CK, whom I had avoided because everyone
fawned over his show. I relented, watched both seasons of his latest
show and a couple of his comedy specials, all in three days. In the
depression of exhausting one interest, I snuck a couple of episodes of
The Tobolowsky Files. I wouldn’t tell my wife, and I’ll only listen to
a couple episodes.
I listened the first episodes again. Then I figured I’d stop at
episode 10, a nice even number, but I went past that telling myself
I’d stop at 15, another multiple of 5, and soon I’d given up all
pretense of waiting to listen with my wife. I even had admit to her
that I was listening to them without her because I wanted to tell her
these cool things you were talking about and I couldn’t pretend you
were some other podcast because she would hear these stories
eventually. I’d have to change all of the details, like the movies.
I’d have to sneak these fake movies into IMDb and have to come up with
story about them missing from Netflix. It was easier to lie for a
But, back to my birthday. I want to stay in Solvang, a town I’ve
driven past many times but never stopped. We’d spend Christmas in
Pebble Beach, but if we showed up a couple of days early we can drive
down for a couple of days. Solvang ended up being much farther from
San Francisco than I thought it would be, so we got to listen to a lot
more of you. That doesn’t explain much about my birthday though.
Three years ago I came to grips with the idea that I had to enjoy my
birthday, whether I liked it or not. I’d been married for eight years
and there’s no escaping the birthdays when you’re married. For as long
as I can remember, literally, I’ve hated birthday parties. One of my
earliest memories, perhaps my second earliest memory, was a birthday
party; I was four, maybe five. It might have been kindergarten because
I have the feeling that some of the other kids I knew from somewhere,
but I also remember not really knowing them or being friends with any
of them. I remember sitting across the dinner table eating the
birthday cake when one of the kids sitting on the other side, the cool
side of the table with the chairs to the wall, said he was taking back
his present, Tonto’s horse. I remember the old dolls, or action
figures, or whatever unfeminine thing they were called. There was the
GI Joe with actual scruff on his face, and the Lone Ranger and Tonto,
each of whom also had their horses. Next to a Tonka dump truck, those
were about the coolest toys a kid could have, and even though know one
knew it and I was too little to understand it even if I knew, I was as
the tail end of an era in toys. Three or four years later, George
Lucas would be raking in money with the merchandising rights to Star
Wars, a movie I saw in a drive-in when I was seven.
In the last days of the Lone Ranger, at my birthday party, my Tonto
would no longer have to walk. Scout had shown up, without saying
anything about where he’d been, taking up where he had left off,
carrying Tonto to whatever danger was waiting for Kemo Sabe. It would
be years before I’d hear Bill Cosby’s interpretation of that
relationship, but I think I already understood it. If it came down to
one horse, Tonto was walking.
I said something. I don’t know what I said or who I said it to, but at
five years old who really knows what they are saying or why? That same
year, I remember sitting on the bumper of a utility truck. My parents
were mad. They kept asking me why I didn’t. I had no idea. They kept
asking, so I just made something up. Then I got in trouble for lying.
You can’t win.
Whatever it was annoyed the boy who had given Scout to me and he
decided to take it back, becoming what I’d later learn was we call an
“Indian giver”, although in this case, he was taking from my Indian.
Even at that young age, to the best of my memory, I realized that no
gift is truly free. I didn’t really understand the extent of that, but
I remember thinking that I had to be careful about what I accepted. I
have a few more memories like that from school: Jeff promised me his
Batman car but reneged as retaliation for some slight when I was on
the monkey bars. Gifts were favors, in the sense of the ribbons that
fair maidens attached to knights going off to battle—a mark of
ownership not only to others but to the knight himself. Nothing is
bestowed without some hope of return, tangible or otherwise.
From there, on each birthday I learned more about gifts. They are
centerpiece of birthday parties and some holidays. They are the
ritual. They are easy in form but tough in function, and they were
more trouble than they were worth. Besides the obligation, presents
are a comment on what people think of your life; sometimes they were
people’s hopes and sometime their disappointments. Some signify
nothing, being completely thoughtless executions of ritual.
Around age 14, I just stopped altogether. I felt brazen enough to
refuse a party and presents, and announced that to my parents. They
were dysfunctional enough to let it go, as they would many other
things. They didn’t participate seriously or enthusiastically, so
there was one thing less to worry them. As each birthday approached,
I’d hope that it wouldn’t come up and it would pass unnoticed, or, at
While in college, birthdays were easier. Christmas break would start
and everyone would leave. I didn’t go home for breaks, so I spend my
birthdays all alone. I didn’t do anything for them, and I didn’t tell
anyone about them. It’s not like anyone would be around, anyone. Since
I was a hard-core science major, a double major even, I also didn’t
have time for girls (that’s a whole other story), so I didn’t have to
deal with that (a major mistake I’d remedy if life gave me a do over).
I survived through grad school in the same way.
So, three years ago, a long time after school, I changed the tenor of
my birthdays. As I joke now, if I can’t eat it or fuck it, I don’t
want it. That’s a crude expression of what I eventually refined to
what I do know. I don’t want anything tangible; I want experiences.
They don’t have to be fancy. I’m not looking for adventures, as you
explain about the modern honeymoon.
I was standing on the Red Line El platform at Howard in Chicago, where
I was living, against my will and only because my wife got work there.
She asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday, which was the next
week. I saw the Skokie Flyer, the Yellow Line train that had two
stops: Howard and Skokie. I’d never taken it. I had no reason to take
it. I decided that I wanted a mini-adventure for my birthday. We’d
take the Skokie Flyer, see what’s on the other side, and do that. We
wouldn’t make reservations at Morton’s, get tickets for a show, or
plan at all.
The end of the Yellow Line is a bus terminal, and the bus goes to the
mall. That’s all there is, not counting the closed Starbucks and the
Kiss and Ride. We ate at California Pizza Kitchen; I had a BBQ Chicken
Pizza. It’s a meal I normally reserve for the road. We took the bus
all the way home. We didn’t need the Skokie Flyer at all.
The next year, two years ago, I wanted to stay the night at the Drake,
the hotel at the top of Michigan Avenue. I see that hotel for 15
minutes when I run south along the lake. It comes into view a bit
after Fullerton and after that it’s a straight shot south with no
obstructions as I run. At night—I usually run at night—the Drake’s
bright red sign is my beacon for two miles. We had a nice room facing
north. My wife made a carrot cake that she carefully brought on a
regular dinner plate. I woke up early the next morning to buy her a
cake carrier to take the rest home.
That’s when I decided that each subsequent birthday I’d do something
that had nagged at me that year. It didn’t have to be fancy or
sophisticated, complicated or planned, big, epic, or important. It
just had to be something that I had been denying myself. It would be
something shared instead of exchanged, and would only exist in that
moment. There wouldn’t be anything left over.
This year I wanted a bucket of chicken from Kentucky Fried Chicken,
some biscuits, and the KFC cole slaw. A bucket, not a plastic dish or
a small box. I wanted a bucket like the old days. I had told this to
my friend Margot and she laughed, saying that was “yummy”, until I
called her after having my breast and thigh, two biscuits, and cole
slaw, when she said “You actually did that?”. Birthdays are a special
time of the year, and now that I’m 41, so is KFC. They both come only
once a year now.
My birthday wasn’t over though. My wife had downloaded from iTunes
Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party to watch on my birthday. We
watched it after having carrot cake muffins (not a whole cake this
year). She just said “I wanted you to see it on your birthday”, and I think that’s all I’ve
ever wanted from a birthday, even if it took me 41 tries to get it.
That, and my trip to Solvang, is all I need.
Thank you for sharing your birthday for my birthday.
I wanted to tell you about a special moment I shared with someone over some of your stories. First, I wanted to say I am the father of three wonderful children, two girls and a son.
My middle child, my younger daughter, is somewhat special. She suffers from bipolar disorder and ADD. We expect children to live in their own worlds, and often they do and it tends to be a happier place, away from the trivial concerns of adults such as bills and relationships and more towards the animated, blissfully ignorant concerns such as where their next sugary fix will come from.
For a child living with mental illness, their world is different. It is at best a bubble, that they can view the world from but still not be part of it, and at worst, a cold prison. Sometimes there are good days, usually there are bad days, in which her mood ranges from angry, to frightened, back to angry, to sad, angry again, and finally…to exhausted.
And as a parent, the process is exhausting as well. And frustrating. What do we want more than to see our child content and happy? Recently, we went on a camping trip, and my daughter rode along with me. Typically car rides rend to be very unpleasant, usually they include lots of fidgeting, outbursts, and demands for songs on the radio that I simply can’t conjure up. This time, on the way there, we experienced the usual boredom and frustration that there was nothing on the radio.
Then, I remembered that I had several episodes of the Tobolowsky files on my phone, so I asked her; do you want to listen to some stories? So we listened to the episode “the city of illusions” and the following episode, “night on mars” and as you talked about Bob, and the break in of your apartment, and the zoot suit, and the bathroom incident, my daughter sat there positively transfixed. We listened together, we laughed together, and I paused the show to explain what was going on and to give some insight on things such as “the difference between honesty and the truth”.
She liked it so much she asked me several times over the weekend if we were going to listen to more of “that Stephen guy” on the way home. And we did. And since then, I always make sure I have enough episodes of “that Stephen guy” loaded for every long car trip. So, I want to thank you for a very rare father daughter moment I was fortunate to share. And I look forward to many more.
Your stories on the Tobo files have really helped me through a hard time in my life. I have listened to episode 35 too many times to count. I ended a relationship with my college sweetheart about 4 months ago and felt all the feelings you described in episode 35. I’m sure your pain was greater than mine but it was good hear in a true life story that someone else had felt the way I did. I found your podcast shortly after the relationship ended and it helped me come through my depression that had held me so tightly since the breakup. It was only 2.5 years that I had been with her but so much had happened between us that she had become related to the survival part of my brain. Your little bits of wisdom and life observations have opened my eyes to new things and I have come to realize that life is like a movie but no one has told us it is scifi. I’m now in Sweden on a trip to celebrate finishing my competing of university. I’ve ended meeting a lovely Swedish girl and may just stay for a while. Going from the states and getting to this point in my life seems surreal. I don’t know how life could be so crazy but I have the three things that I need in life, math, phys. ed, and music. Being fellow musician of sorts I heard that line and though it was pure genius. I hope that you keep on doing the podcast because your stories are inspiring and bring a unique perspective on life.
Thanks for the stories.
I’m a fan, plain and simple. My husband introduced me to the Tobolowsky files a few months ago. I have this routine where I’d walk our 7 year-old to his school and then get about a 2 mile walk in every day. I’ve been doing this for over 2 years now. I love my walks. It’s the one time of day that I have all to myself. Once I return home, I’ve got a wonderful 3 1/2 year old to contend with, and as I’m sure you know, my day doesn’t stop with his energy and activities! So I love my walks. I had been listening to music for a long time, but was getting a bit bored with my routine. Enter your files. I have enjoyed them so thoroughly! I find myself intermittently laughing and crying with each story. I always learn something and I am always entertained. But it’s the fact that I laugh aloud that stands out to me.
My husband is also a character actor. (Although he hasn’t enjoyed the amazing success you’ve experienced.) And he readily shares that one of the reasons he married me is because I don’t laugh at many things. So I was a challenge to him. Don’t get me wrong, I consider myself a relatively happy, bright-eyed person. But my humor, according to Mike, is a challenge to understand. So when I began listening to your files and found myself laughing aloud, and experiencing such a range of emotion within each story, I knew that I was on to something very special. Your stories on the Entertainment Industry are just so great! They’ve offered me the opportunity to open my heart to actors in a broader way. Having been an actor before becoming a Casting Director, as well as being married to Mike, I felt I came to Casting with a unique compassion. I also have been on a Spiritual quest of sorts for many years, completing a Master’s Degree in Spiritual Psychology from a place called USM. (Don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it, but it’s an amazing program that teaches skills on how to live a life in alignment with— well, I’ll just call it goodness. Some people call it God, or Spirit.) In any case, learning and practicing compassion is part of my daily intentions. And hearing some of your tales of the whole process have just opened me to a new level of being mindful of how I am with talent. So thank you for that.
And the stories beyond the industry are just so much fun. You have an amazing gift of taking your listeners on a journey through your life experience in a way that’s compelling and interesting and funny! I’m relatively a new-comer to the Tobolowsky files. I can’t wait to hear a new one each morning that I head out on my walk. I have so many to listen to before I’m caught up, but I’m not wanting to rush through them. I want to make them last.
I share all of this with you because having you in my walks has created a wonderful bond between us, one I’m sure you share with all of your listeners. And I’m just so grateful. You are, without a doubt, the best storyteller I have ever had the honor and privilege of listening to. Your gift is so evident and I thank you for your willingness to share it with others.
I hope that some day we will have the opportunity to work together. I’m a small, freelance Casting Director who deals with talent way below your level. But I know that life is funny and there are always twists and turns. And maybe some day, I’ll have the privilege of thanking you in person for making my walks so much fun!
I recently took a 5-day road trip with my 16 year old son to look at colleges. He’s only a sophomore, so it’s early, but I’m trying to soften the blow and slowly adjust to the thought of him not living with us. This trip was the most time we have spent alone together since he was a toddler. He’s grown into a wonderful young man, surprisingly good natured for a teenager with a very sharp, keen mind, always looking for the ironic. In his early years he was my pal, and I’d read to him literally for hours at a time. I read every “Harry Potter” book aloud…twice. We’d play games competing with each other about much we loved each other. “I love you as much as all the houses in the neighborhood.” “I love you as much as all the grass on the earth.” Once we got to the entire universe the game was over. Those days are long gone, he talks to me a lot less, though I have to admit, the conversations we have now are often more interesting.
I saw this road trip as a way for us to reconnect. I was worried though that the 12 hours of driving in silence might be a bit awkward. That’s when I thought of your stories. I downloaded 19 of them on to my ipod. We enjoyed listening to you talk about Pooch, and your other various adventures. But when we truly appreciated your stories was the last 60 miles of the trip. We got stuck in a traffic jam that took us 4 hours to go 7 miles. Your stories kept us going. As we listened to you, we laughed together. He drove the whole way and not once did he complain.
I will always look back on that trip as a very special time with my son. And woven into that time of bonding, is your voice and your stories. Like the early years of “Goodnight Moon”, and the mid years of “Harry Potter,” your stories are now part of the waning years of his time in our house. Your stories have become part of our story. Thank you so very much.
Some days I just hate you.
I’ve been catching up on the podcast you and David Chen have put together. I wrote you before to tell you how moved I was after hearing your story about your mother. It got me thinking about my parents. They’re still alive, thankfully, but it doesn’t stop me from thinking about the day I won’t have them anymore. I’m in my mid-30s. They live in Texas so I don’t get to see them as often as I’d like. Lately I’ve felt like I have a punch card that represents the finite number of times I get to spend time with them.
Every time I see them, I get a punch - and one day, a day I fear will come soon, I’ll be out of punches.
But I digress. After recuperating from “The Alchemist” episode, I thought I was done with the tears. I figured that there may be some bittersweet stories to follow but that I’d be fine and wouldn’t be quite so moved.
And then came the Pooch and Bob stories. And then I heard the Auschwitz story.
Stephen, I also live in Los Angeles. I don’t think I need to tell you how hellish the 405 and 101 can be come rush hour. I commute from Burbank to the South Bay on a daily basis, most of that time spent listening to the Tobolowsky Files. And even though traffic doesn’t move very well I need to see to drive. It’s hard to drive when there are tears streaming from my eyes. So if I should crash into a Escalade or Chevy truck filled with gardening equipment, you will bear that burden and that blame. I have a high car insurance deductible. Don’t make me pay it.
I suppose I should thank you for the resuscitating the art of story; for bringing back the fireside chat. So thank you, Stephen and thank you, David Chen, for the podcast.
Dear Mr. Tobolowsky,
My name is M_______. I’m a senior BFA Acting major getting ready to graduate from ______ University. This past year has brought on many changes in my department and in myself. Professors I’ve looked to as mentors have been fired for mysterious reasons, parts I’ve yearned to play have been granted to best friends, and fears of graduation and the unknown have seemed to enter into every aspect of my life. I feel I must tell you that one of my biggest sources of comfort and inspiration have come from your podcasts. If I have an audition I’ll often find myself falling asleep to one of your stories. If I have an especially difficult day in rehearsal I’ll look to your experiences for re-assurance. I’ve even started sharing the podcast with loved ones. A fellow student was basically being told in an Audition Technique class that she didn’t have what it takes, so I told her about “Conference Hour”. My sister moved across the country and was dumped by a boyfriend so I had her listen to “Playing It As It Lays”. My one roommate loves throwing parties so I told her all about your 36-hour party as something we need to aspire to! My housemates have even started teasing me because I seem to start every other sentence with the phrase, “On the podcast I always listen to…!”
I wish I could tell you how much your stories have touched and inspired me. I can only hope that you will keep sharing your knowledge with the rest of us. I truly admire the work you’ve done and the amazing path you’ve taken to get to where you are. If you have any advice on what to do when you’re first starting out and how to keep afloat I’d love to hear about it. If not, I’ll be eagerly awaiting next week’s podcast.
Near the end of the film Manhattan, Woody Allen recites a list of what makes life worth living, for him. He names great works of art like “the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, and… Louie Armstrong’s recording of ‘Potatohead Blues’..”
If I were to make a list like that today, I’d put your podcast on it. I am so grateful for the day you published an op-ed about being a character actor in The New York Times and it mentioned your podcast. That’s how I discovered it. I’m still catching up with all the episodes—I don’t want to listen them too fast because then I’ll have no more to look forward to.
I’m thrilled about your book deal but for me the charm of the stories is definitely your voice telling them. My dream would be for you to tour with a one man show, “An Evening with Stephen Tobolowsky” and bring your stories around the country. Or I’d be willing to fly to New York to hear them on Broadway.
One last thing: what’s really striking about your stories is the generosity of spirit. I don’t want to knock anyone but someone like David Sedaris comes off a bit snarky. You seem to have an endless reservoir of goodwill and I find the podcasts so inspirational, in a good (not cheesy) way. As I said, they remind me why life is worth living.
I wish you continued success and thank David so much for orchestrating this.
Just over six months ago, I started a new job that demands a two hour commute each way (first off, it’s rather depressing seeing the moon on a morning commute - second, yes the job is worth it). The struggle to find something to do during those commuting hours has been at times quite difficult. Just shy of a month ago, I was introduced to your podcast. I am still in the process of going through the beginning episodes, however I can’t tell you how much listening to your stories has ‘enlightened’ my commute. At first they primarily gave me something to laugh out loud with - a truly tremendous feat at 5:30am let me tell you. Yet the evolution of the story topics have caused me to take a step back and look past the details of the work day routine, the commuting bustle, the hubbub of it all and just appreciate more so the big picture. Definitely sounds quite corny, but I guess I’m a bit of a sap for a great story with thoughtful endings. :)
This morning I listened to your podcast about your experience at school with Joan Potter - I’ve loved so many of your podcasts but this one I actually felt the need to now sit here at my desk with my daily large coffee and say, “Wow”. How many times have each of us throughout our lives been faced with a seemingly impossible situation and instead of running away and hiding, actually strategically attempted to confront it knowing that the chances of success are slim? And when reflecting on my own history as a high school student and then a college student and now adulthood and then thinking about all the conversations I’ve had with my younger sister when she went through similar “growing pain” situations, it’s fascinating not just to think on those battles but more so the reactions we have given to them in different stages in our lives. Through every pep talk, my mother always stated a paraphrase from that quote whose author I admit I don’t know - ‘We can’t control the situation, but we can control how we react to it’. Yes we always rolled our eyes when we heard the phrase but I of course paid heed and did at least try to take the high road come difficult situations, and I’m sure my sister has done the same as well considering we both still go back to Mom for advice. What the podcast made me think about is how the battles we’ve had to fight over the years have exponentially grown in number, which is of course natural considering the growth of responsibilities and such. As adults we are somewhat used to these battles. But back then, most of us weren’t used to fighting for ourselves, much less by ourselves. Without the protection of our parents and with the heightened emotion and oftentimes selfishness/naivety of a teenager or young adult, we most likely didn’t know how to handle a truly difficult conflict, much less overcome it. I was incredibly impressed with how you handled the situation of getting through college despite efforts against it, and more so with the lesson you said you learned from the situation itself. To add another rhetorical question, how many of us can figure out the moral to the story when we’re the ones in it at the time?
This was a great listen and a fantastic source of inspiration when faced with future challenges. I apologize for the long-windedness of the email, but I’m trying to do the whole ‘typing what I’m thinking’ thing to see if I can get my point across - I hope it somewhat worked. Bottom line, I loved this episode. Thank you so much for sharing. :)