Itzkoff’s new book is “Robin: The Definitive Biography of Robin Williams.”
On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, New York Times reporter Dave Itzkoff talks about his new book, “Robin: The Definitive Biography of Robin Williams.” Itzkoff traces the history of the manic comedian and actor and asserts that Williams’s reasons for taking his own life were more complicated than many assumed.
Below, you’ll also find a lightly edited transcript of the full episode.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me. I am part of the Vox Media podcast network. I’m here at Vox Media headquarters in New York City. If you like the show because you’re listening to the show, please tell someone about the show. Thanks in advance. That’s my full intro.
I am here with Dave Itzkoff, world’s best Twitterer, New York Times culture reporter and author of a book called “Robin.” It’s the life story of Robin Williams. It’s an excellent book. Go buy it. Hi, Dave.
Dave Itzkoff: Thanks. Thank you for that wonderful introduction, which I will in no way live up to.
No, no, no. I said to my wife, “I’m doing this and this and this. I’m interviewing Dave Itzkoff.” [She said,] “Oh, I really like his Twitter.” So we’re going to spend most of the time talking about Twitter.
And then we can also … Let’s talk about the book first. There’s a book. It’s great.
It’s a comprehensive biography of Robin Williams. It is out today, I think; that’s why this podcast is out.
May 15th. Is today May 15th? Then yes.
Yeah, yeah, probably.
How long did this take to create?
It was about three-and-a-half years. I spent probably a year to a year and a half just reporting.
Robin Williams died …
August of 2014. So the real reporting did not start until maybe November of that year.
And it is. I mean, you’ve taken this … It would be weird if you didn’t take it seriously, but it is comprehensively reported. I’ve used that word twice now. You’ve talked to just about everyone you could talk to who’s crossed his path.
I certainly tried to. I think that’s the best way to do it. It was a pretty … I mean, he led an extraordinary life, and I think people perhaps forget, I mean, just the breadth of his career and really the whole life that he led before he got famous.
And we’ll talk about that arc in a minute, but just to give people a sense. This is obviously … you couldn’t talk to him because he was dead, but you had talked to him multiple times over the course of your Times reporting.
So his voice, to you, is in this book as well. Looks like you talked to at least one of his family members extensively, his son, Zak.
Yeah, he has three children, and I talked to his oldest son, Zak, as well as his first wife, Valerie. He has a surviving half-brother, McLaurin, who I spoke to.
Because sometimes when you tell someone’s life story, there is a person or an entity sort of pushing back against you, telling you if it’s not authorized, but in this case basically you had sort of cooperation from the family, or at least parts of the family.
Yeah, his family is complex. There are kind of different branches and divisions of it, but I certainly tried to get support or involvement or participation from all of them. I don’t think you could, for reasons we may get into … You’ll not be able to get all of them, but I certainly tried to get as many as I could.
This is someone who has basically been in my life as long as I can remember, because I was a kid when “Mork & Mindy” was on, and I assume for just about anyone listening to this, there’s some version of that where he has been sort of omnipresent in their life unless you only recently became aware of pop culture really in the last few years. But he was a giant star for multiple decades.
Yeah, and had kind of reinventions. For you and I, we remember “Mork & Mindy” and “Popeye,” and we were there for of course “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Dead Poets Society.” We were older when things like “Aladdin” or “Jumanji” came out in the ’90s, but there’s a whole other generation of fans and people who are in their 20s now that that’s what they grew up on, and that’s what they know Robin for. And then of course the years and years of stand-up and the stand-up specials, the Comic Relief specials, etc.
Right. I mean, there was a period where he had a hit TV show, he had a hit comedy special, he had a hit record, and this wasn’t as famous as he was going to get. That was the beginning part of his stardom, and then he became more famous.
Yeah. It’s pretty extraordinary to think that he was that guy, let’s say in 1978, exactly as you say. I mean, best-selling comedy record that would go on to win a Grammy, top-five TV show, and he’s still 20 years away, let’s say, from winning his Academy Award. I don’t think anybody would have anticipated that, looking at him in 1978 or so. But also if you knew the sort of origins of his career and the work that he did before his sort of seeming overnight success, he was always on this kind of dual track where … I mean, he was classically trained. He studied for three years at Juilliard and before that had attended two other colleges where he was focusing on acting.
And so, as much as I think people sometimes want to paint him as the archetype of the comedian who one day woke up and decided he wanted to be serious, he always had both of those parts of his personality.
Right. Like you say, there is this idea that you become a giant comedian, and then you decide that what you really want to do is be a serious person. And he is sort of the archetype for that, but other versions of it, right, are Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey has played with this. A lot of folks have played with this. It usually doesn’t work very well.
Yeah. Or, yes, I think people become skeptical of it because it is such a kind of well-trod path now.
You mentioned this in the book, after Robin Williams died in 2014 that there’s this giant outpouring over the internet. We’ve now become sort of used to this idea that someone who was a big deal, Prince, David Bowie dies, and then there’s a public reflection on the internet. What I was thinking about when you were talking about that was I think there are not many people who were as big a star as he was for as long as he was, and I wonder if we’re going to have versions of that going forward because culture is so atomized. Someone like Rihanna or Beyonce is very popular. Lots of people know them, but it’s hard to imagine them having such a long career that touches so many people.
Another … I’m thinking again right now. Actually we’ve already done talking about Kanye West. Right? But that was a big deal. A week ago everyone in my Twitter feed is talking about Kanye West, but my hunch is that actually most people in the world are not talking about Kanye West. A long way of saying just about everyone knew Robin Williams for some reason or another, and do you think we’re going to have other people like that?
It’s hard to predict, but I think you’re right that … the volume of outpouring had to do with, on the one hand, as you say, the fact that pretty much to every person in the world, someone who had internet access, they knew who he was. They had a kind of idea of him in their mind in some way, on some level probably thought of him as a joyful person or a person who brought joy to others. So that, just the loss of him, was really palpable, and also the terribly tragic manner in which he died. And at least at the time when he died, the lack of information or just the not knowing really the circumstances that had precipitated his death and that he seemed to have been …
There’s obviously a timeline, but he was still making movies. He had just had a not-so-well-received sitcom, but he seemed to be out there in the world and still working, and so that just sudden loss and the lack of understanding or not knowing why it had happened, I think it was hard for me and I’m sure for many people to just kind of compute.
I assumed that it was drug- or alcohol-related. There’d been a story about him being in a clinic in Hazelden, Minnesota, previously, that I just said, “No, it’s sad, but that makes sense.” Then the narrative was that he had depression, and there was a whole discussion about depression. Subsequently there’s now a different diagnosis for his death.
Well, there were, yeah, a few iterations of what you’re talking about, and I think it’s kind of natural for people to do when there is a vacuum of information. And understandably, his family and his closest friends, they themselves were still just kind of learning what had happened to him and processing that, trying to figure out how, if at all, do we put this into the world.
So in that absence, I think people just kind of made their own hypotheses. And yes, people, I think, went to, again, the stereotype of the sad clown, the person who outwardly is happy but inside is very broken. And he did have depression and he did wrestle with anxiety, so people made that assumption.
Then within about a week of his death, it was disclosed that he had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. And that was correct to a point, that he had been given a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, but in fact, and this did not come out until after his autopsy, which was several months after his death, that that autopsy and specifically the analysis of brain tissue of his found the symptoms of what’s called Lewy body dementia, which is … The pathology is somewhat similar to Parkinson’s, but sort of the spectrum of symptoms is greater, and the effect that it likely had on him is just pretty devastating.
It seems important to his family and friends that people understand that’s why he died. It seems somewhat important to you as a storyteller. Is that an important part of understanding his life? Is understanding the real story of his death crucial to understanding his life?
Well, I think just in telling a story, you want to be as precise as possible, and I think because of, again, the nature of his death, the immediate outpouring that surrounded it, I don’t know how attuned people were to some of the subsequent developments after.
Right. It’s hard to go back in the news cycle.
By the way, for people who do this professionally, let alone someone who just sees stuff on a screen.
Sure, sure, and I also want to be clear, some of the exact circumstances and what happened in terms of his death, maybe only a very few number of people know exactly what happened. Maybe only he knows, would have known exactly what happened.
So we’re not going to get some of those answers, and in some sense some of those blanks are not going to be filled in. But as I was saying, I think some people probably … A lot of people sort of came to that immediate conclusion that, “Oh, he was depressed, he didn’t like the way his career was going.” And for them that was the answer. That’s the story that they tell themselves.
Then when the Parkinson’s diagnosis was announced, people then say, “Well, okay. He was aware he had something that was going to be debilitating over his lifetime and he was not going to be able to be cured of it and he didn’t want to live with that.” And with Lewy body, it’s more complicated.
This is a heavy conversation. Robin Williams was a giant star because he was this manic, joyful, mile-a-minute funny person. Right?
And later became known for roles where he didn’t do some of that. When you’re writing someone’s life story and they are an incredibly charismatic person and you’re confined to typing words about them on a page and you can include a couple of photos, how do you spend time trying to think about conveying that person’s magnetism and charisma and how unique they were?
Yeah. It’s really difficult, and I don’t know if that answers your question. But it is something that I definitely wrestled with because you don’t … There’s nothing like the experience of just watching him perform. It says it all. It tells you everything you need to know, and there’s so much energy and dynamism.
Do you know what I think? Oh man, I wish this was just online because I’d just drop a YouTube clip in here and then you could watch it and/or maybe … By the way, I haven’t gone back and watched this stuff from the late ’70s and ’80s in a long time. Maybe it isn’t as exciting as it is in my mind from when I was at the right age.
Oh no. I will say, particularly if you go back to some of the earliest televised stand-up and especially the … I think it’s called Live at the Roxy. It’s like one … this very first HBO special that he did where he was doing really more kind of character pieces than kind of straight stand-up. I think it completely holds up.
Yeah because comedy often does not hold up.
Right? It’s specific to a time. The references are specific and even just the style. There’s a lot of stuff that just does not … You’ll read about, I don’t know, Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy or Lenny Bruce, all for different reasons, and they won’t strike you as gut-busting when you watch them now.
How dare you? I mean, all those people that you mentioned, I think they’re still, but I …
Lenny Bruce I think is the hardest one actually to translate.
Yeah, actually that might be true, but I do take your point. And it is very difficult, and it really does not serve him, at least in a book, to try to just transcribe a portion of a routine at length and then in brackets … I mean, I had to do it in places, say, “Okay. Now he adopts this voice,” or, “Now he’s doing this with his body.” It’s not equivalent, and you know that as the writer, but I think what you can do is provide, I think, a lot of the context for what’s happening either in his mind, in his world, in his preparation for these routines that kind of lets you understand, really.
Some of the bits, they’re just funny bits. They’re just things that he tossed off, and they’re funny for that reason. But I think as he did it more, as he got better at it and as he started to really incorporate things from his life and started to open up a little bit more onstage, I think the relationship between his life and the stand-up is very rich and it really does illuminate the routines to the best that you can describe them in print.
So, I didn’t do this, but I think when you go buy “Robin” by Dave Itzkoff, you should read it and then periodically go over to your laptop and head to YouTube and watch a clip. What you should do now is listen to this message from our sponsor that allows us to bring this show to you for free.
We’re back here with Dave Itzkoff, world’s best Twitterer and also the biographer of Robin Williams. I wanted to ask you a few more things about Robin Williams or just talk more. Maybe talk is better than ask.
I was surprised to remember, because you reminded me, that he was a giant star in the ’70s, early ’80s as a stand-up and on TV, and then was not a movie star for a long time. Was in movies for a long time but was not Robin Williams, the giant movie star. It took him almost a decade, right?
Yeah. Six or seven years. I mean, “Mork & Mindy” ends in 1982, and then “Good Morning, Vietnam” is like late ’87, early ’88.
Because in my mind he felt omnipresent, but he was omnipresent sort of as a character, not as a giant movie star.
Yeah, and certainly the responses to those movies that came out let’s say between “Popeye” and “Good Morning, Vietnam.” There was decent reception to something like “The World According to Garp” or “Moscow on the Hudson,” but some of them were really dismissed to the point that people were like, “Robin Williams is just not a leading man. It’s not going to happen. People are not interested in him.” And he certainly internalized that.
That really bothered him.
Yeah, it was something that I think he was worried about from the outset, even before making some of these films and seeing the response to them, that it always … He certainly knew what a phenomenon “Mork & Mindy” was. Even the connection to Mork or being perceived as Mork or called Mork everywhere he went, that got at him, and it starts to create this feeling that “Maybe that’s all I’m ever going to have. Maybe that was the best opportunity I had. It’s not going to get better than that.”
And as you start to … You try to step out in other ways and you see people reject that, it starts to reinforce that. And he was very acutely aware of those things, and he did really internalize them and take them to heart. And the sensitivity to negative reviews, to feeling like he was risking losing his audience at any time, that endured throughout his career.
Yeah. At the end of the book, you’ve got him up in Canada drinking and listing all his movies, written down on paper and through the box office. “This was a failure. This was a failure.” It stuck with him.
After “Good Morning, Vietnam,” he becomes a giant movie star. He’s someone who then can command giant salaries and the idea that he’s in a movie then makes the movie a hit. Not always but often. That era eventually ends for him where now it seems like we’re in an era where there aren’t really those stars, period. There’s maybe a handful. Maybe Dwayne Johnson/The Rock. Right? There’s a couple people like that, and we’re now in an era where it’s the franchise. Right? You go see a Marvel movie.
I think that’s the box that I think the studios have put themselves in, yeah.
Right. Do you think that’s a temporary thing? Do you think eventually stars become a thing again where we don’t really care that it’s “Iron Man,” we care that it’s Robert Downey, Jr? Or whomever it is?
Well, I think for at least the time being, it’s been a kind of confluence of the two, is the right star in the right franchise vehicle.
But there’s something … I mean, but it’s definitely tilted towards the franchise. Right? We had Ben Fritz in here to talk about that. And there’s a lot of movies that generate a lot of box office, and you can’t identify the star. Most people can’t tell you who Superman is.
Right. And certainly no studio is going to put its money and its muscle behind something that they don’t think they can spin five or six movies out of and build a whole kind of imaginary universe from anymore, I think.
So do you think that says more about the movie business and budgets and leverage and what Disney needs to do to make its bottom line, to affect its bottom line, versus not having stars that are worldwide and recognized and charismatic enough to get people to come to something?
Yeah, this is going to be a very cynical answer, but I do think it has more to do with the studios and the people running them than the talent. As Robin’s story tells us, even though he was perceived as an overnight sensation at the time, he was by no means that. And it took development and it took people giving him opportunities at various stages before he became the big star that he was.
Now I think the studios are basically just gamblers at the roulette table, and they have put themselves in a position where they have to every time bet the entire house. They can’t … There’s nothing in between, and so they can only make their money if everything is a billion dollar franchise with the possibility of five sequels and 15 spinoffs. And they’ve put themselves in that position.
In the run-up to this book being published, there was a #MeToo story in this book, and it’s Robin Williams’ costar, Pam Dawber from “Mork & Mindy” saying something to the effect of, “Yeah, he would grab me all the time. He would grab my breasts, grab my bottom.” I said boob; that’s a weird thing to say out loud. But it’s not something you spend a lot of time on in the book. You sort of contextualize. And by the way, she says, “and I didn’t really mind.”
As you were reporting that, did you think, “Oh, this is something that’s going to attract attention; this anecdote will attract attention”? Did you think, “No, this is contextual and at the time it’s like his drug use”? It’s something a lot of people did and not a very newsworthy thing?
No. I didn’t think of it in either way. It was a story that she told me and volunteered, so I thought I’ll include this and let people decide. But I understand why people are kind of looking to it and seizing upon it, and I think because it’s complex. It is on the one hand the way that Pam describes it. She and Robin were very friendly on the show. They almost had a kind of sibling relationship in the sense that they were around the same age. They had both grown up at times in sort of tony parts of Michigan and so they looked out for one another and that was how they interacted.
And again, not to make any excuses for Robin, but for example if you watch that Roxy show that he did, the last segment is him. He pulls John Ritter up onstage to improvise with him, and he does kind of the same things. He doesn’t strip off his clothes, but he grabs at him and he’s hitting at his crotch. So on some level that was a playful way that Robin engaged with people, but of course it’s very different when it’s with a woman. And even though on the one hand, as you say, Pam Dawber says she wasn’t bothered by it, it was the ’70s, that was how people behaved, there’s no question that there’s also a kind of power dynamic at play in terms of why and how Robin is, I think, behaving that way with her.
Because one of the things you often hear as these stories come up is this, and you heard it from Harvey Weinstein, right? And obviously it doesn’t make any sense coming from him. But a lot of people say, “Well, what you’re talking about happened a long time ago, and in the time and the context, it was not a big deal. Everyone did a version of it.”
And you’ve been reporting this book for three years. The MeToo stuff is less than a year old. Did the way you thought about that incident change over the last year as a wave of these stories came out?
No, not necessarily. Again, I’m not … I think the reasons for why he probably engaged in this kind of behavior are complex and I think it does have to do … As far as we know, he was not doing things like what Harvey Weinstein is alleged to have done. But as I was saying earlier, I think it does have to do with the fact that, “This is my show, I’m the star of it, it’s getting really popular, and that gives me …” The person thinks they have some license to behave in a certain way.
Right. He wasn’t a PA doing this.
No, no, exactly. And even if he didn’t mean it in a kind of specifically, as a kind of a come-on, “I actually want to date her, get romantic with you,” it’s still a way of saying, “This is my place and I’m the one in charge here.” Even if it was done in a playful way and even if she says that she’s okay with it. I can’t speak to what extent that was going on in other shows. I surely doubt that Ron Howard is doing that to Erin Moran over on the “Happy Days” set.
Yeah. I’ll leave Ron Howard out of it. One of the things about this wave of stories is and it should be disabusing us of the notion of, “Well, that person seems nice. I’m sure they couldn’t have been doing that.” Right? Because we find over and over, “Oh no, that guy did.”
Yeah, I think it’s also … I think when people say, “It was the ’70s,” I feel like that’s kind of shorthand for if you think that everybody is engaging in that, then that maybe gives you permission to behave that way. It doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable or that that’s the way that people should behave, but if you think that other people are doing this too, then maybe you think you’re allowed to, but clearly people shouldn’t have been.
Speaking of excess in that era, I’d totally forgotten that Robin Williams was with John Belushi the night before John Belushi died. Right?
Yeah, and that was …
And then to be explicit, right, at the Chateau Marmont while John Belushi was doing speedballs and you kind of implied whether or not Robin Williams was doing drugs with him or not, but if he was hanging out with him, he was probably was.
Yeah, they were, I mean, not best of friends, but they were acquainted with each other before that happened.
Liked each other.
Yeah, they would hang out. Bob Woodward, in Wired, points out that they probably did share, not go at the same time, but they had drug dealers that they were in common. And Belushi did come to the “Mork & Mindy” set specifically to see Jonathan Winters who was on the show at that time and to watch him improvise, and he and Robin made loose plans to hang out later one night.
Robin had his own kind of post-work routine where even after a full day of taping “Mork & Mindy,” he would go out and hit all the comedy clubs. And a big part of that kind of dynamic was that even after the shows, then he would just be partying everywhere, either at clubs or bars or people’s houses. There would be a lot of drinking. There would be cocaine use. It wasn’t widely known or wasn’t publicly known about him, but certainly in Hollywood that was his reputation. And on this particular night he shows up at a West Hollywood club and he’s told Belushi’s at the Chateau and he’s looking for you and he goes to Belushi’s bungalow and he can already kind of tell Robin …
But first he tries to find Robert De Niro, and Robert De Niro can’t come down from his room, which is a funny line.
Yeah. And when he does get to Belushi, it’s already kind of this seedy dissolute scene, and Belushi is with this woman, Cathy Evelyn Smith, who has a kind of checkered past. At least by Robin’s own account, he’s just kind of weirded out by it all and leaves and goes home to his wife and tells her what he’s seen and then he was a little bothered by it. And then over the course of the night into the early morning, yeah, Smith injected Belushi with a speedball and he died in his sleep.
And yeah, Robin goes to work the next day basically oblivious to this, and it’s Pam Dawber who at one point has to take him aside and tell him, “Hey, Belushi died.” And it really devastates Robin for, just on the one hand the feeling that somebody you were just with is gone, a person who Robin thought of as a real kind of comedic titan and a force of energy in the way that he also became. That’s gone. That was really difficult for him to process, and it was one of the big factors in Robin basically deciding to get clean, that he basically just goes cold turkey and for many years did successfully stay away from drugs and alcohol.
You mentioned the Bob Woodward book about Belushi. That book came out and was really criticized for not … I mean, the family was very protective, but in general it was sort of like, “Oh, this is a square who doesn’t really understand John Belushi and the culture he was in and his importance.” And the criticism had less to do with the facts and just that he just didn’t get what he was writing about.
Did you think about that at all? I mean, you specialize. One of your specialties at the Times is writing about comedians and pop culture. I guess we sort of flicked to this earlier, the idea of trying to correctly transmit the ethos of a person, not just the facts.
I appreciate what you’re saying. I can only point my radar in the direction that it leads me, and I just try to do it the best way that I can. I feel it was fortunate, I think, that I did have some previous exposure to Robin and to get to spend time with him for a couple of stories near the end of his life and at least get a sense of what he was like as a person at those times.
How important is it for you to like the person you’re spending three years of your life writing about? You clearly like him.
I would have had to. I could not have committed, I think, the time. You have to be interested.
But you can be interested, but you clearly … I mean, you say so in the book, right? Like, “He was a big deal to me. I looked up to him. He brought me a lot of joy. He was personally nice to me.” You could have tackled someone who was complicated and fascinating and interesting but was bad to you or, by the way, you’d never met.
Oh, sure. My last book before this was about Paddy Chayefsky, who is also fascinating.
Yes. He was brilliant, and I have a feeling that if we’d ever met, he probably would not have liked me. I could live with that. But with Robin and certainly the conversations that I had with him for some of the pieces that I wrote, he had just had a whole series of really difficult things befall him. So by the time I … The period that I spent the most time with him was in 2009, and so just in the preceding years he’d had a relapse into alcoholism and had gone into rehab for that. And when he came out and was clean, he got divorced from his second wife, Marsha, who was very integral not only to his personal life but also had a lot to do with his work and keeping him organized. So they had split up.
And then he started to prepare a new comedy tour and go out on the road, and just right at the start of that tour, he started having heart problems and then had to have valve replacement surgery. So the whole tour was put off.
So those were pretty difficult things, and I bring them up only because when he and I would have our interviews or conversations, he was open about all of this. And often as an interviewer and particularly I think when you’re talking to highly visible people, celebrities, and it’s known that negative things have happened in their life, they don’t want to talk about it. Or you really have to work up to it, and you have to carefully construct your conversation so that they feel open enough to discuss some of those things with you.
Everything with him was on the table, especially the alcoholism and the recovery and the real understanding of some of the really awful things he had done while he was drinking and then his feeling that it had kind of put a stain on him and his family. He was really willing to go there. And I think if he hadn’t been so candid and open about himself in that way, it would have been much harder to write something like this.
I’m going to leave it there, but just the one idea you brought up which is that he was both super open and candid and almost comically sort of like out there, and then you keep talking about this idea in the book that actually he closed off a portion of himself. And this is his ongoing theme, like no one got a full view of him. And by the way, that’s probably true of everyone, right?
But it’s an interesting theme that you carry throughout the book.
Those conversations that I had with him, again, that was fairly late in his life. I don’t want to pretend like somehow he confessed everything to me and only to me. If you look at, very famously he gave a great interview to Marc Maron about a year later, just very confessional and vivid and honest. And I think that comes after going to rehab and getting clean, and it’s something that I have seen in other recovering addicts. My own father, after he got clean, had this sudden kind of catharsis, this burst of candor and honesty. People say that that happens after people have open-heart surgery and they literally have to break open your chest to get to your heart and that somehow has a metaphorical effect on people too.
It’s a true thing.
But yeah, even to the end of his life, Robin’s closest friends, his own son felt like there were still facets of him that either he kept only to himself or that they couldn’t reach.
Dave, this is great. I enjoy talking to you about Robin Williams, but we’re not done because we need to talk about Twitter.
So we’re going to come right back.
I’m back here with Dave Itzkoff who is the author of “Robin.” Also New York Times culture reporter and also the world’s best Twitterer. These last few things are connected in my mind, Dave. You have a great Twitter account.
You have 218,000 followers. That doesn’t mean it’s great. It just means a lot of people read your tweets. I do. I love them. Two related questions. How much time do you spend creating and curating this stuff? Because you have great jokes that you layer in, but you also do great visual things. On Saturday night you’re grabbing screen grabs and clips from “Saturday Night Live,” almost in real time. This doesn’t seem like a casual thing, but you’re also working full-time at the New York Times. How much of your life is spent on Twitter?
Probably too much, even as I try to limit it and rein it in. I mean, it was tremendously useful just during the creation and the writing of this book because writing is a pretty solitary process, and at least having a TweetDeck column open in the background makes you feel like you’re not entirely by yourself. You can still kind of keep an eye on other people’s conversations or chime in when you feel like it.
To be clear, right, it’s … I get the “I’m reading Twitter as a distraction.”
You’re also spending a lot of time creating awesome Twitter content.
How much, I don’t … I mean, I’m sure that in the aggregate it has probably sucked more time out of my life than I really want to know, but I mean, you tweet also. The total …
Yeah, but I’m not good at it like you are.
But composing, if that’s even … it’s almost too grand a word, but to create a tweet, that’s a time investment of 20 seconds.
I’m going to go at it one more time. There’s the “I’m going to retweet someone” or “I’m going to add one line of funny commentary that probably is less funny than I think” of Twitter. That’s me. That’s a lot of people. You are often constructing multimedia stuff. Right? Here, it’s May 9th; this was yesterday. You’ve done something with Rudy Giuliani at a baseball game, screen grab, and then you’ve got … It’s a much better tweet to look at than to hear me describe the tweet. Anyway, then you’ve got another screen grab of presumably him Googling “law.” Again, it’s better to read it than for me to … And 15,000 people liked it. It’s a great tweet. So that took more than a minute.
Not much more.
Literally. I mean, I will … If we’re going to unpack this and drain it of all comedy, which is the best way to analyze an art form …
Yes, yes. Hilarious.
So Giuliani happened to be at that Yankees game the other night, so even as I’m online looking at other things, I can see okay, people are tweeting this photo of Giuliani. He is conspicuously looking at his own phone in the picture. That is a kind of time-tested setup for a kind of Twitter style.
Yes. What was the Super Bowl kid?
Yes. That was the kid who was looking at his own phone even as Justin Timberlake was approaching him in mid-performance.
Yes. Yes. It’s an excellent one.
Yeah, that was the apotheosis of this joke construct. So I certainly was thinking of things like that, that when you see that, that is the setup for, okay, the next … It’s like a two-part joke, and the second part is what is it that they’re looking at on their phone. And so it’s pretty easy to go from that to think of, okay, now he’s looking at a Google page where he’s looked up, “What is the law.” And so it takes, I don’t know, five to 10 seconds to create that screen grab. You put them together in a tweet and goodnight.
You spend a lot of time talking to comedians. It’s one of your specialties, writing about them, talking to them for the New York Times. How much are you sort of thinking, “This is my form of what they do.”
No, no, because I …
Yeah, but just a little bit?
“I can’t get up on stage and tell a joke, but I can do this tweet.”
No, because it’s just not even the same. I mean, I appreciate if people take pleasure in these things, and it certainly … As I said, it definitely helped me get through the process of writing this book. As a kind of reward system or a pure distraction, it was helpful, but it certainly isn’t my job. It’s nice to now have a pool of people that when I want to make people aware of an event or development with this book or “Hey, it’s out today,” that’s nice that I can share that with them. But I don’t in any way consider … The people who get up on a stage and perform, what they’re doing is … there’s a lot of bravery in that and a lot of risk in that. I’m not doing any of that.
Come on. Tweeting is very brave, too. Last Twitter question.
The Times for a long time allowed its writers to pretty much do what they want on Twitter. The social media policy was, “Just don’t screw up.” Sometime in the last year it became more restrictive. Writers were told, “Listen, you’ve got to rein this in, be much more aware of the fact that you represent the New York Times, and really specifically about politics we want you to sort of buckle down.” I haven’t seen any change in your tweets. I know you’re not a political reporter, obviously, but you’re certainly making political jokes on Twitter all the time. What’s the feedback like from the Times? You’re clearly still doing it, so that’s okay.
Yeah. I don’t want to … The people who created the policy would be better at articulating this or explaining it, but for a while there wasn’t a really carefully codified policy on …
No, it was, “We trust you. You’re adults. You work at the New York Times, so don’t screw up.”
Well, maybe that was the perception, but just as a guidance, we as reporters were not given much more than a couple of paragraphs about just be even-handed or be balanced or be fair and be aware of what you’re doing on social media.
So has your behavior changed since the new policy’s in place?
I don’t know that it has, but I certainly try to be cognizant of what they want. I understand why they issued the guidelines that they did because it did need to be, I think, articulated more fully because it is still a new frontier. It is still kind of the Wild West, and I think to lean on the assumption that, okay, people just know in their heart what the right thing is to do and they’re all going to do it on a daily basis at the volume at which a lot of reporters are tweeting — and they do want to encourage people to participate in social media. You still have to spell out to people how to do it from a Times standpoint. They did have to put that down in words for word people.
What do you think the relationship with the Times and the people you’re writing about most often — not Robin Williams, but Seth Meyers and prominent comedic figures who often, if they’re talking to the Times, they’re talking to you. What’s your sense of the way they view the Times?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t entirely know. I’m sure it’s an important source of information for them because they’re often riffing on or making material out of news stories that the Times is helping to break.
Yeah, I’m wondering if they think, well, this is the paper of record. This is the biggest deal. Or this is one of many sources. Or I used to think it was one of many sources, but now post Trump I pay more attention than ever to it.
Yeah, I think people … I mean, this isn’t just me slapping my own back just as a Times employee. I’m not the one breaking these stories at all, but you do hear from people who are working in the top of comedy in different ways. They are appreciative of it as an institution because if they have institutional memories, they’ve known that the Times has … it’s had to go through some, at times, difficulties, or at times growing pains over the years, and they’re, I think, happy that the brand really means something and that it’s hopefully still finding its way in a pretty wild time right now.
I’m glad you work for the New York Times.
I enjoy reading your stuff.
Thank you. I’m really glad I work there, too. My wife and my son are glad I work there.
You got another book lined up?
No, no, no, no.
Do you take … How long of a break do you need after a three-year book project?
I’m about to find out. I thought when I finished the book on Paddy Chayefsky that I didn’t want to necessarily undertake something of even that scale for a while, and I was working on this, I don’t know, nine or 10 months later. So.
By the way, you kept working at the Times while you did this.
Yeah. I want to just hold the book in my hands. They always make the hardcovers heftier, but it’s a big heap of a book. Now you’re going to tell me you did this sort of on nights and weekends, but you can’t do this on nights and weekends.
Yeah, you can. That’s the only way I could do it. I will say I highly recommend if you want to write a book also, have a child in the midst of that process because it will really force you to organize your time.
Dave, you seem like a really smart guy. That seems like terrible advice, but if that’s what you want to go out on this podcast, that’s where we will let it go. Dave Itzkoff, thank you for coming and giving us terrible parenting advice and writing a great book.
It was my pleasure. Thank you.
So Dave, I want to do what you couldn’t do in your book and drop in a little Robin Williams. What are we going to hear? What era of Robin Williams are we going to listen to right now?
“Live at the Met,” which is from 1986. People may disagree, but it’s my favorite stand-up special of his.
This is Robin Williams, post Mork, still a big comedy star, trying unsuccessfully to be a movie star.
Right. “Good Morning, Vietnam” has not happened yet, but by now he is not using cocaine anymore, so he’s pretty happy about that, and his son Zak was born about three years prior to this. So he is still in the glow of being a parent of a young child and all the ways that that has changed his life for the better.
Okay, let’s listen.
[clip] Robin Williams: Don’t you see that you’re going to do everything for him? Work with him, raise him, nourish him, spend time with him, and 16 years from now, he’s going to do to me what I did to my father. He’s going to walk right up to me, look me right in the eye and go, “God, Dad, you’re fucked.” My father will be standing right behind him going, “Yes. Yes. Revenge is mine. The curse has been broken. Your mother and I are young again. No, Papa.” The next thing you know you’re talking to your kid like, “You know, your mother and I were so poor, we had to smoke weeds. We were that poor. We didn’t have MTV in the old days, son. We used to get stoned and watch the radio. Yeah.”
And you have dreams about your kid. You have dreams that maybe one day your kid will be up there going, “I’d like to thank the Nobel Academy.” And you have this other dream where your kid’s going, “Do you want fries with this?”
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