It was 2006 and I was a recent graduate from art college with a BFA in theater and writing. I was getting on a plane to fly down to Sundance, Utah for three weeks of artistic enlightenment. I was going there to be a stage manage new play developmental workshops, so the enlightenment didn’t necessarily apply to me. Which is a little like being a teachers aid, except you’re in charge of the teacher too. There were five plays, a musical, and a solo performance, all in early developmental stages. As a hopeful playwright I was most interested in watching writer’s progress over three weeks, I ended up falling in love with something very different.
Josh Kornbluth was the solo performer, and he arrived at the mountain sanctuary with his director David Dower, and an idea. Democracy, that was the idea. Three weeks later he left with a dozen improv sessions and a rough outline for the show that would eventually become Citizen Josh. The idea was so simple and broad that it seemed impossible that he could hone it down to something specific and focused. I was lucky enough to have a front row seat as he improvised his way through stories on the idea of Democracy.
I had discovered Spalding Gray the year previous and was busily devouring everything from him that I could get my hands on. To meet Josh at that time in my life and watch him work, was just unbelievable. Since Gray’s death in 2004, I can say with complete sincerity that Josh Kornbluth might be the preeminent monologist in America. Beginning in the late 1980’s he began amassing a repertory of some of the most funny, smart, somber, and poignant monologues around. They include Red Diaper Baby, Haiku Tunnel, The Mathematics of Change, Love and Taxes, Ben Franklin Unplugged, Citizen Josh, Andy Warhol, Good for the Jews? among others.
After ten years of performing, he turned three of his early plays into the book Red Diaper Baby. In 2001 his monologue Haiku Tunnel was turned into a narrative film directed by his brother Jake. It played at Sundance and was picked up by Sony Classics. Red Diaper Baby was also filmed by the amazing documentary filmmakerDoug Pray(Scratch, Hype) and released as a concert film, and The Mathematics of Change will soon get the same treatment. Josh and Jake are currently hard at work finishing up their second narrative film, Love and Taxes.
Josh it seems has never had a shortage of great material to perform. Whether he’s talking about being a terrible legal secretary, his major tax problems, hitting the mathematic wall at Princeton, or growing up in New York in the 1960’s to committed Communist parents. There’s much that one could say about Josh’s work, but one thing you cannot say is that it’s not original.
My battle with technology was ever present throughout this interview. In fact this is the second time I’ve talked with Josh. The first recording, which was completed in late February was lost immediately after the interview concluded. I can’t thank him enough for being such a good sport and taking the time to answer my questions once again. An hour is far to short a time to really get into Josh and his incredible body of work, but it’s a good place to start.
You might notice that the written interview is somewhat shorter than in the past. These written excerpts are designed to give you a taste of what you will find in the full podcast here or in itunes. We had a wonderful conversation, that covered a range of topics including Josh’s take on the Mike Daisey situation.
Probably the most central underlying theme in your work has to do with your parents raising you as a communist.
Yeah, I didn’t think everyone was being raised Communist when I was a kid, but I didn’t realize until I got a little older just how few of us there were. If I started telling stories about myself, that was one of the obvious things to talk about because it was just so weird. And because it’s such an outsider[y] thing.
Where did you get the idea to start getting on stage and tell personal stories, and what made you think you could even do that?
Really, I didn’t think I could. I was a journalist at the time, I hadn’t been a performer. I was in my mid/late twenties- journalist sounds like I was breaking the Watergate story, I was copyediting at this newspaper in Boston. A friend of mine brought me to see Spalding Gray, who was doing a retrospective of his shows starting with Sex and Death to the Age 14. I was enchanted by Spalding; by his voice, and the focus of the audience. I just loved everything about it. But I didn’t think I could do it because I didn’t have any traditional training at all. I wanted to do it, I thought it would be cool, I didn’t think I could but I tried. When I saw Spalding Gray I just thought that would be such a great form. I guess because I wanted to be a writer and to me Spalding’s stuff, in a really good way was so literary. The connection of the audience to the storyteller had the same rewards and demands on attention span that you would have for a short story or a novella. It felt like this beautiful combination of this theatrical and literary experience.
How did you find places to get up on stage back then?
The first thing I did, there was this bar called T.T. The Bears Place in Cambridge Mass., at the time, and I had some acquaintances, a group called Scruffy the Cat, that was a cool local group. And they were doing acoustic nights in the middle of the week. So I just had this idea, “oh, what if I went in between the two sets?” I asked one of the guys and he said he would let me do that in condition for me letting him use on stage the Martin guitar that my father and step-mother gave me. Basically I just set up this thing that I was going to do, that I had never done before, and I told people about it. It was real stupid or risky- but it didn’t feel that risky, because you’re just being humiliated maximally in front of just the people who have come to acoustic night. I would have done this in 1986-87, which was about what my father told me about sex and communism, probably it will be one of those things that people do, that doesn’t work out.
Bizarrely it worked out. that got me a booking as part of this comedy review. Then I followed a bunch of my friends to San Francisco. The way I got booked initially for my first monologue in ’89, a friend told me there was a space open in North Beach. This guy Enrico Banducci who ran the Hungry I club which had all these great folk and jazz acts, and a lot of great comedians that he’d discovered. But he had a lot of Tax problems and he had a place called Banducci’s, but he was the cook, the owner let him book this little place and he let me do a thing there.
Was there a specific moment, or did you just gradually realize that you were making a career of this?
I was doing my second show, Haiku Tunnel, which was about my day job which I was still doing, as a really bad legal secretary. I got my first professional gig- it was like $50- maybe they weren’t even paying me, but they weren’t charging me. I was going down to LA to perform and I invited my brother Jake to come with me, and Jake said, “Well, this is it, clearly you’re on your way. You should quit your job.” So I did, also I might have been very close to getting fired. For the most part was able to stay quit for twenty-some years.
Anyone whose seen your shows might assume that it’s something that you’ve written down and rehearsed, but that’s not how you create your shows. Can you describe that process?
I found that first time I set up at Enrico Banducci’s, I’d planned to write it like a play and memorize it, and then perform it. As the date approached it was clear that I wasn’t writing it. I was going to do something, people were going to show up and what I did out of desperation was improvise, I just told stories. And I just kept doing that and it became a system. I worked with a sequence of directors and for over a decade with David Dower, with David we’ve refined the system. What I do is improvise at least tens of times some times hundreds of times, or between tens and hundreds. All my stuff is developed in front of an audience through improvisations. As I do these improvs certain stories and certain themes come out, and my collaborator will help me put it into a structure like an outline. But I still won’t be writing stuff down, by the time the show opens it’s pretty much word for word.
In 2001 you transition from the monologue and made a narrative film with your brother Jake, based on your monologue Haiku Tunnel.
There was a time after I did Red Diaper Baby Off-Broadway, in ’92, that made it seem like I might be potentially hot property. I was taken on by a couple of agents at the William Morris agency. So what happened was that I got optioned. Red Diaper Baby was optioned by Universal pictures, and Haiku Tunnel got optioned by Miramax. So I had these two screenplays, one of which, Haiku Tunnel I would star in. Then they both went into what’s called turnaround, so they didn’t make the movie and then it sort of died.
But I’d worked for several years to try to make both as feature films. My Brother Jake said, “We can do it. We can do it ourselves.” He had been working as a PA, volunteering and working his way up. He learned stuff by being a first AD on feature films. We raised money with Pizza parties and people invested and we made the film. Then it got into Sundance and picked up by Sony Classics.
You’re just finishing your next film based on your monologue Love and Taxes. What are the differences between the two films?
The really big difference is that Haiku Tunnel is completed and Love and Taxes isn’t. Haiku Tunnel is a very simple story, it’s about a guy who does not mail a bunch of letters, important letters, and he tries to cover it up and things go awry. It was also pretty compact, it took place in this office, and his apartment with very little transition. It was a good movie to start with. It’s the kind of thing that lends itself to making a movie inexpensively, not that many sets, not that many characters. Love and Taxes to me is a dark and lonely story about this guy who is isolated, and it’s about a time in my life when I was.
You have a book that includes three of your early monologues, Red Diaper Baby, Haiku Tunnel, and The Mathematics of change. Are there plans for another book like that?
Yes, in fact I’m going to do it soon. I have a friends Susie Bright, she’s like the queen of erotica. She’s working with Audible.com, so soon I’m going to be making an audio book for the three monologues in Red Diaper Baby. The other thing is that I’m going to make an e-book of three later monologues, Citizen Josh, Ben Franklin Unplugged, and Love and Taxes, all three that I did with David Dower. And I’m going to make those at least as an e-book, then I can make, hopefully an audiobook.
Did you ever expect that within your career that you would get the chance to do things like turn your monologues into a book?
No. It’s ironic, I had an ambition to be a writer and couldn’t ever meet a deadline, and so I ended up, through failing, doing this form where I talked my stuff out. That that would then be transcribed and then be turned into a book, it’s really nice and weird. But I didn’t really think I’d be able to do it for a living, or do it continually. It’s really amazing to me still. I was thirty when I did my first monologue, which I didn’t think was going to go anywhere, and thirty to me is crazy young now. It still feels new and amazing to me that I get to do this. It’s a tremendous privilege.*
What intrigues me about Josh Kornbluth’s life is how it unfolded. Inspired by Spalding Gray, he attempted to take on the monologue as well. Twenty plus years later he has accomplished a life time’s worth of work, books, films, a stage career, and very soon an audiobook. There’s still so much more to come from Josh, and I look forward to where he takes us next.
If you live in the Berkley area (or just happen to be stopping by) you can see Josh performing three of his early monologues at the Ashby stage. Red Diaper Baby April 30th, Haiku Tunnel May 21st, and The Mathematics of Change June 18th. For all things Josh Kornbluth go to his website joshkornbluth.com. Look for the concert film The Mathematics of Change soon on DVD, and their narrative film Love and Taxes, sometime next year.