Once Upon a Lifetime
The Dangerous Animals Club
(Simon & Schuster, 2012)
Stephen Tobolowsky is an actor. He is also a radio host, teacher of improv, amasser of trivia, and, one suspects, an enchanting dinner party raconteur. It is, therefore, his nature to seek story. Developing an antenna for narrative trajectory and thematic consistency is an ingrained aspect of his process, and one he would have been expected to apply to the writing of a memoir.
The Dangerous Animals Club, however, is not a memoir, per se. While its stories were wrangled effectively for the cohesive whole of a book—arranged in a loose alternation of chronology and theme—they were written to be told, likely on the popular podcast Mr. Tobolowsky has spawned as a natural extension of his talents. He is that certain type of person for whom the experience of life is a little skewed, as if his daily encounters are guided by an unseen comedic hand. He will invariably choose the infested apartment. He will witlessly patronize a lesbian bar. He will in all innocence mangle a simple Spanish phrase into something sexually suggestive—directed at children. This endearing haplessness, combined with his gifts of comedy, charm, and disarming assertiveness, creates a formula by which he navigates a buffet of challenges, viewed as adventures, and comes out better for the experience. On top of that, he usually comes out with a hell of a story.
The early stories in The Dangerous Animals Club evoke Tobolowsky’s interest in memory and the direction of time, and how themes revisit us throughout the different stations of our lives. “We do not choose our memories. Our memories choose us,” he says before telling us about his mother’s death, an event he views as a miracle. This particular brand of miracle is not uncommon: his mother remained on the very precipice of death, to the puzzlement of doctors, until all of her children were gathered cozily in her hospital room. She slipped away as they laughed together over old memories.
Miracles abound for him. There is so much in our world that defies explanation and stretches belief. Tobolowsky exhorts us to embrace uncertainty, “some form of the invisible.” Yet, might the person who, as a schoolboy, extemporized parts of an oral report about Texas pioneer Moses Austin because he felt the story needed “more oomph,” or who regularly compares the events of his life to movie themes, also harbor a romantic view of his mother’s death? Our memories support the story we want to believe.
Embracing the invisible is a way to describe faith, a complex issue for Tobolowsky. Late in life, he became actively engaged with Judaism, which appears to have been peripheral in his youth. He mentions using a Bible as a window-stop, occasionally taking it down to pore over its many murky tales. He was especially piqued by the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis. “I never could [make sense of it],” he writes. “Like life, I often found that I needed a handle. Every time I read a story or part of a story, the meaning kept shifting, or I would see something in the story I never saw before.”
The idea of a handle serves two functions in the The Dangerous Animals Club. One, it is an angle of insight by which to understand an otherwise opaque story. In the case of the biblical Joseph, Tobolowsky frequently revisited the story at a time of constant adversity in his professional life. After a disastrous opening night performance as Uncle Sam in a play celebrating the bicentennial, the story finally hit home for him. With an assist from Hebrew etymology, Tobolowsky determined that the handle, the foundation, of Joseph’s story is the value of perseverance. “Maybe an underrated element of success is joseph, the ability to keep going,” he writes. “I played Uncle Sam again that night, this time without incident if you don’t count the toxic boredom. I never realized I had achieved one of the biggest yardsticks of success. I had made it to tomorrow.”
The handle’s other function is in what becomes the somewhat tiresome construction of Tobolowsky’s own memory-stories. As with the Joseph story, he too often cinches disparate events in order to package a theme. Here, he grafts a lengthy anecdote about his repeated failures in mastering the clarinet as a child to the courtship of his first real hard-to-get love: “I kept seeing her. I kept showing up. Just like with the clarinet, I didn’t know the notes, but I knew how it would sound if I did … I visited Beth at her dorm. I would have dinner with her.” He eventually gave up on the clarinet, in favor of comedy, but his persistence paid off with Beth.
His account of the birth of that romance is moving on its own; it doesn’t need to be fixed within a more elaborate portrait. It is a useful literary tool to manufacture a graspable overarching motif to illuminate the subtle, connective nuances of a multi-pronged tale, and Tobolowsky often uses it to great effect. However, the approach can sound a dissonant note when, story after story, a single, arbitrary touchstone joins the various narrative strands used to recount the events of real life. Read in succession, as opposed to heard, say, a week apart, the frame and plaster of craft become conspicuous, the stories’ perfect fluidity giving off the slight stench of “Big Fish” syndrome. Perhaps Tobolowsky should write a novel, in which God and author are one.
Still, what we know is that Tobolowsky is a storyteller. There is a loose large-heartedness to The Dangerous Animals Club that countervails the nitpickings of a fastidious mind. We have a wealth of Hollywood tales to enjoy, and what keeps them from reading as tired offerings from a showbiz insider is that Tobolowsky always imbues them with a great sense of luck. Somehow, he has found himself on movie sets with legendary actors and writers and directors, people he genuinely idolizes. And this is how he makes his living! He is just some guy, with maybe a little talent but a lot of desire, who tried, and tried again, and—well, what? Acting is a process, a living and dynamic practice. So is storytelling. “The one common tragedy I have seen woven throughout my life and the lives of others is that we can’t feel the miracle of our own lives,” Tobolowsky writes. There are handles to help see the past, but none for the future. The trick is being able to enjoy the story while you journey to wherever you’re going. As much as The Dangerous Animals Club is about finding shape in shapeless life, it is also about honoring the mentors, lovers, friends, rivals, and natural miracles that created the story.