I Want to Be Like Ned

TBTL podcast host Luke Burbank, who is also a frequent panel member on NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me, was away for two weeks. This was great for me, because the TBTL shows were reruns, and I had only recently begun my role as one of the show’s time bandits.

The final two days were old shows featuring conversations with Stephen Tobolowsky, shows I hadn’t heard before.

You know Tobolowsky if you have ever seen a few movies or a handful of television shows. Chances are good Tobolowsky, a character actor, was in at least one of them. I always enjoyed his work as an actor, but in the last couple of years I learned about his storytelling abilities. Many of the baseball players today grew up wanting to play like Ken Griffey, Jr. Ever since hearing Tobolowsky, I have wanted to tell stories like he does.

After my dad began living in a nursing facility it was a regular thing to go see him on Sundays. Often that meant taking a drive after church and taking a scenic path, giving me the chance to listen to Tobolowsky’s hour-long broadcast on Seattle’s KUOW.

I got into the podcasts months, maybe years, after they started, so I can’t say for sure the following excerpt from his book “The Dangerous Animals Club” came out from the podcasts, but some of the stories I’ve seen in the book were ones I did hear on Sundays.

When I was five, I had an invisible monster that lived alternately in my closet and under my bed in a kind of winter-home/summer-home arrangement. His name was “Eye the Monster.” Eye would come out of hiding when I was alone and we would talk.

I had an up-and-down relationship with Eye. I often appreciated his middle-of-the-night visits. We would talk about school and about girls I had crushes on. You would think that Eye the Monster didn’t care about the opposite sex. But he did. He always argued for patience and honesty. He urged me to be more aggressive with the ladies on square dance day. It was hard advice to take. I was never a player. I thought five years of age was too young to be married. But not Eye. He thought I could be a trailblazer and be married and have children before I was in fourth grade. And this was years before MTV.

My drives are over and so is The Tobolowsky Files. Reviews of the book say his storytelling translates as well in writing as it does on the radio. In just the little bit I read that seems true.

Adding value to a Ford Taurus

My sexy ride.

Does a car with a name run better? Let’s assume it does, because the other benefits of giving a car a name take too long to explain.

It’s those reasons, though, that had me a little bummed when my car broke down and I feared it was dead. I’ve been driving it a few years and had yet to name it. I’ll concede there are no tangible benefits to giving a car a name. In fact, it might even be counterproductive. A car should probably be treated like the machine it is. But that’s not very fun. And giving a car a name, especially to a car you don’t like, can make driving it a little more palatable.

I only picked this car by default. My dad was driving it, couldn’t drive anymore, so I inherited it. It’s a 1998 White Ford Taurus. I’ve never understood why Tauruses are so omnipresent on American roads. When I graduated from college and got my first job, even before I reported the first day, I bought a Jetta. Named it Biff, because Biff in those days suggested a bit of snobbery. (Egads, Biff, this caviar tastes common.) A Jetta wasn’t a BMW, but it was more than my friends who were still in college could afford. We named my friend’s Mazda 626 “Hoffy” as in Hoffman, when my friend graduated.

The runner up

In coming up with a name for the Taurus, I consulted Wikipedia and found a list of people who died in 1998. Phil Hartman was in there and for about a day I thought I had settled on naming my car Lionel Hutz, a character Hartman voiced on “The Simpsons.” But Hutz is incompetent. The Taurus may be uncool, but it’s not incompetent.

Then I thought of another actor who, like Hartman, is often a memorable, but supporting, character. On Sundays when I’m out in the Taurus I often get to listen to the NPR show “The Tobolowsky Files.” Stephen Tobolowsky, in case the name doesn’t immediately draw your memory, makes an appearance in nearly every movie and television show. He is almost never the star, but his parts are memorable. Know why Mr. Schuester teaches the glee club. It’s because Mr. Ryerson got in trouble. Tobolowsky plays Ryerson on “Glee.” It’s not a regular role, but it’s frequent and usually worth remembering.

That’s Tobolowsky’s role in show business, for the most part. He could win an Oscar one day for best supporting actor. If someone were to make a movie of my life, I wouldn’t want Tobolowsky playing me, but I’d want him in the movie. And take that storyline and attach it to our highways and you have the Ford Taurus. When was the last time you went on a drive of any length and did so without seeing a Taurus? Did it make you want one? I didn’t think so. They’re not cool, but they’re everywhere. And you know what? They work just fine.

It’s because of all this that I have named my car after one of Tobolowsky’s characters, who shares the same last name as his Glee character. From Groundhog Day, I give you Ned “Needle-nose” Ryerson.