Spalding Gray performed his monologues, Swimming to Cambodia , Terrors of Pleasure , and Sex and Death to the Age 14 to packed houses at Lincoln Center this year. An accomplished and incorrigible performer who started acting in New York as a member of the Wooster Group, Gray, for several years now, has walked a thin line between actor and writer. The results are innately American, hysterically funny, and incisively poignant.
Spalding Gray Are we rolling? This is Spalding Gray and it’s Saturday, the 30th of August. I’m sitting here with Karry on the beautiful Montauk beach eating a few smoked scallops at 15 dollars a pound. I think I got six for three dollars. And now, the novel. The first thing I wanted to say before we begin is I’m out here working on a book which I might call an autobiographic novel. It begins in the beginning and ends at the end. And the reason I’m beginning to write now instead of speak this stuff is that I can’t work in the same innocent way I could before—where I would start a monologue in The Performing Garage and do what I call previews, an open house that wasn’t highly advertised for about 15 people. And slowly begin, in a trusting way, to unravel what it was that was essential, what it was I finally wanted to talk about in the monologue. It takes about three months of talking it out in front of an audience and tape recording it and listening back to get it set. If people find out that I’m previewing something, suddenly it’s a full house. It’s wonderful, but at the same time it’s detrimental. I try to entertain them and give them the best thing possible. I think there are subtle things which can only be discovered in the writing process when you’re working alone, that can’t be found in front of an audience. And that’s what I’m working on.
Karry Kammer When you were writing a monologue was it always what was created during the performance first or did you indeed write something ahead of time?
SG There was an outline of what I call special memories. An essential memory to me is erotic, something that gives you butterflies in the stomach. I see it as a red neon flashing light. The memories I remember are the ones I consider important. So I look down and I see certain key words like "volley ball," “scallops.” And then I’ll just speak impromptu from those keywords. The story begins like a film in my head. The memory is like a film and then I can re-remember it. Now for instance, what I’m doing with the novel is writing everything I can remember between the periods that I’m working in. And within that, I’m finding that some of the memories really work for me and that they’re charged. And the others are just dead.
KK Why are you calling it a novel if it, in fact, has to do with memories?
SG I guess it’s an autobiography. I’m writing my autobiography. I could see shaping it with an editor and that’s where the new relationship to audience comes in—it’s one on one. I’m working with an editor like I would a director to find what works structurally for an audience.
KK What about creativity? Where does the connection with memory come in? Is there some sort of floppy disk in your mind where all this is stored?
SG The first impulse for my monologues is the compulsion to tell my day. When I was first living with Elizabeth LeCompte who later became my director in The Wooster Group, I would come back and she would be doing these incredibly intricate charcoal etchings and I would begin to fill her up with stories of my day. We didn’t have television, when we were first living in New York on 6th Street and Avenue D. She became my first audience. These stories were obsessive, compulsive. I had to tell the day in a confessional mode in order to kind of relieve myself and then I could go on. It was a clearing and cleaning of the mind.
KK In your performance of The Tenors of Pleasure you use a recorded telephone message of a gentleman who was to have sold you some property and, although I and the audience assumed it to be the actual recording, you later pointed out to me you had an actor re-record it. Do you have legal problems using names and voices of real people?
SG I was very naive when I first started doing the book, Sex and Death to the Age 14. I really thought I was going to be able to keep everyone’s actual name as I had in the monologue. Actual names are very important to me really, under the belief that a rose by any other name will smell quite differently. So much is tied up in language and the way we use language. I sent out a form letter to my friends saying, "Dear So-and-So, This is to ask you permission. May I please use your name? I’m writing a personal history about all of us and in no way am I malicious and it’s a kind of record of our lives together. I’m going up to Barrington, Rhode Island." I got back briefings from their lawyers. Not just polite notes or impolite notes saying, "No, Spuddy, dear, but I’m afraid I’d rather not be a part of your history." Lawyers sending in two page briefings saying they were going to bring me to court. I was in Australia performing when I got those letters. And I can remember spending hours on the telephone with the Random House lawyer redoing, not only the names, but the situations because you couldn’t have a particular house next to my house because I was naming the town, which most writers don’t do. They call it Winesburg, Ohio, whatever. But since I was keeping my name and the name of the town, it got to be very incriminating. And we went through these enormous, paranoid, convoluted, ridiculous changes to turn it into fiction. And I see that they’ve written fiction on the book. And when I go into bookstores I see it in the fiction section. And I think, "Well, that’s what it’s become because of the changes in the names." Why it discourages me to change the names is that I am a Cagian, I relate to John Cage, in the sense that I feel there is a certain larger puzzle, larger synchronicity. And I don’t mean this in a schizophrenic paranoid way. But I mean it in the sense that all of culture, all of our culture is an artifact. Nature is the raw and different thing we have chosen to overlay with a sense of order. We make the order. I’m an existentialist to that degree. And because we’re making the order, there are stories constantly created around us, constant puzzles that are coming at us. And I like to be a conduit to those stories. Using the real names is to keep those larger than my own imagination alive outside of me. This person at a reading in Chicago asked why I changed the names and I told him and gave an example of a name I had changed; the first guy who taught me how to masturbate. And I said I changed it to such-and-so. But I also gave him the original name and he said, “How funny, that happens to be my name as well.” And I said, "You see, you see, you see, exactly. You see how it’s all coming around? You see how things are interconnected in this kind of web. That telling the truth constantly creates new information about that truth and fictionalizing is more an internal private process."
KK Just as the recording industry traditionally labels one album R&B and one Country & Western, publishing has to have certain categories too. But these designations seem to have grown increasingly fuzzy and arbitrary. Do you feel odd, Spalding, having your book in a store parked on the shelf next to The Old Curiosity Shop or Valley of the Dolls as opposed to in the political section or on the philosophy shelf?
SG You know, one of the things I noticed on this tour, I recently did a book tour of the United States where I did ten cities in 12 days or 12 cities in ten days as I like to say because I’m dyslexic and mix up the numbers. But one of the things I noticed was how many different compartments the book was in. That was to me a joy because I could see that things were fuzzy and that people couldn’t pin me down yet. And one of the nicest titles that was given to me was when on the David Letterman Show they referred to me as a humorist. I liked that. I like that one. But I don’t want any titles and, the point is, in the bookstores I would find the books out front or in the fiction section. It’s also at The Drama Bookstore and, I think, people memorize parts of it to do monologues. I like that fuzziness. I’ve always said that I’ve opted for a kind of horizontal fame rather than vertical fame. And I’m still working at that—keeping it fuzzy keeps me spread out like a fine spread on the bread and I’m not even shooting up.
KK How would you define yourself—as a reporter, an historian, a gonzo journalist wired for sound, the town crier? What do you call yourself on your passport? You’ve been around the world a time or two.
SG I’ve been leaving actor on my passport because it tends to get me into places quicker because they ask me, “Actor? What were you last in?” In Killing Fields. I say because Killing Fields still has some power and pull. The only place it didn’t have power and pull was in London when I was there to play at ICM and they picked me up at the airport late and we had to get on a train, we didn’t have any tickets, it was a big rush job. And the guy who was taking us, the producer of ICM, was saying to the woman at the gate, "But we’ll get a ticket on the train. Don’t you understand this is an important artist. We’re late for rehearsal." Finally, I just turned to this woman and said, "I’m sorry, but I happened to have been in Killing Fields. And she said, "I don’t give a good, God fuck what you were in. You’re not getting on that train until you pay your money." But in Bali it worked. I got in immediately. They saw the picture, said, “Actor? What movie?” “The Killing Fields.” The customs guy called all the other agents over to see if they remembered me from the film. So, I leave actor on the passport. I think of myself as an actor and a writer. And lots of other things as well,
KK A lot of people think of you as a story teller. Traditionally, story tellers have a tendency to couch their messages, the morals of their stories, in the characters they create. Thurber had Walter Mitty, and Joel Chandler Harris was a few times removed by creating Uncle Remus who in turn told stories of Br’er Rabbit. How do you, as Spalding Gray, have the audacity to be yourself, to go onstage, to broadcast your own political prejudices, to talk about your own sexual dysfunction. You don’t do it in a derogatory, self-demeaning Woody Allen kind of way. Where does this tradition come from? It doesn’t sound like an enormously original thing that you do, but no one else I can think of does it quite the way Spalding Gray does.
SG It was a slow discovery that I came to with The Wooster Group working in the Performing Garage. I would never have come to it working on my own. The Wooster Group was really my first audience. We were doing a piece, Nyatt School, part of the Rhode Island trilogy, Three Places in Rhode Island. And, in the opening section of that piece I was doing a monologue although I didn’t know it at the time. I was telling a story about working in a production of T. S. Elliot’s The Cocktail Party, as a nunnery in Albany directed by a mad Welshman, John Wynn Evans. It was really my first monologue which developed into A Personal History of the American Theatre. I’d come in every day and they’d say, “Tell it again. We really love the part such-and-so .” And I realized I was giving pleasure to them in telling these stories and it was the first time I ever had the sense of giving something totally from myself. Up until then I’d always been through a role. I’d been interpreting someone else’s work. But the excitement of being the auteur and the performer I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do at that moment and I decided to go solo.
KK Was there any one individual who especially influenced your evolution in attitude, your shift in gear from scripted actor to naked storyteller?
SG I think the major emphasis was that Richard Sheckner, who was directing The Performing Group in which I was originally involved in 1970, said, “Look, I want to see who you are before I see any character.” See we were doing a lot of . . . This was popular in the ’60s—confrontational workshops in which we were asked to be ourselves. No director had ever done that before. First, be yourself and then the role will be an overlay over that. This was a really radical idea.
KK So this actor-first/play-later attitude was unprecedented in the theatre as far as you’ve seen?
SG No. No, We would take as much time exploring ourselves as we would exploring a text. Which meant that we did very few texts. We would do about one play a year. But one of the plays we did was Sam Shepard’s Tooth of Crime. I think that was probably the height of Richard’s environmental theater directing because he had the audience moving around the performing area. I was suddenly as close to the audience as I am to you—a foot away at times. And this broke down that whole fear of the performer being isolated and also enabled me to do the lines directly to the audience. And I think, around then was when it occurred to me that I might be able to speak to them directly from myself if I had something to say.
KK You worked with Sam Shepard pretty early, when you were both fairly new boys on the block. Like you, he started as an actor and evolved into writing, too. Did you guys ever get together, back then, and talk shop?
SG Sam Shepard was in on a few of the rehearsals of Tooth of Crime. We didn’t have much discourse about how he felt about the role. I was really trusting Richard Sheckner to direct me. It really wasn’t until San Francisco that we reconnected when he came to see my monologue Booze, Cars and College Girls, and liked it very much. In fact, afterwards, we went out on what I call my date with him which is in the book Sex and Death to the Age 14— . . . Going to play pool with Lou Reed. I was really happy to have his support when my editor wrote and asked him if he would give a jacket blurb. I hear he rarely does that. And he wrote back and said, "I had to put down Raymond Carver to read the book and enjoyed it as much or more and I’ll do anything, I’ll write anything if it will help out." So I was really encouraged. But I don’t have any real relationship with him.
KK You perform your monologues in a very formal way, it’s almost a lecture behind a desk. You have very few props—a couple of maps, a shirt, a tape recorder occasionally.
SG My first monologue had started as a doctor/lecturer type thing, as Rumstick Road was too, in the sense of presenting evidence. That continued. Sitting squared behind that table gives me a center, makes the story the important thing and to some extent the table is a new image that can’t be pinned down. It is authoritarian but it also is not stand-up comedy. If I were to sit on a stool I would feel like Shelly Berman. Recently, I did a little three minute dialogue for American Promise, on NBC Television. They asked me if I could sit on a high stool. I said, “No way. You’ve got to have that table.” I know. If I don’t have that table I can’t do what I do. It is my housing. It is my shell. It is everything. I’m a snail without a shell without it. And to prevent that table from being authoritarian, its very important that the audience be banked. That really helps. For instance, Lincoln Center was one of the best houses I’ve played in because of that banking. I’m humbly down on the floor. Lincoln Center was interested in producing me at the Lyceum on Broadway and I sat on that stage. It is simply a high proscenium where I’d be looking down at the audience. They’d be catching mostly knees, And I just thought that wouldn’t work.
KK Many people these days might not associate the word “chronicle” with news. What if a network called you up and wanted you to do a running routine on some political assassination as it unfolded or a beauty pageant, would there be any desire on your part to become involved in something where you had to respond spontaneously? I can see you as a real emcee type, a killer commentator . . .
SG It is coming up and I think I’m about to do it. The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles got a grant to have me out there to find what we talked about as natural storytellers from the street. People you might come across who tell a good story. Not people who are professionals or think of themselves as that. I was trying to figure out how to find them without . . . Finding them is one thing. I find them all of the time. They come up to me in the streets. But getting them up on stage for a festival at The Mark Taper Forum is quite another thing, right?
KK So the performers in this festival are going to be just folks off the street telling their own tales. It wouldn’t just be stories that you’ve appropriated from people and are going to perform yourself?
SG It’ll be both. I’ll do a monologue about finding the people and then I will have them come up. But I thought, "How am I going to test out whether or not they work well in front of an audience or whether or not they’ll just clam up?" What I came up with is that I’m going to do a piece called News of the Week in Review in a cabaret setting or small theater in Los Angeles. And every week on Monday night I am going to come in and do a short monologue on what happened to me that week. Not unlike what Johnny Carson does only I’m writing my own. And then I will invite in certain people that I found in the street and test them out and see how they work and take the best of them and finally do it as a festival in April. And that to me is what I refer to as commentary, news, creative gossip, if you will. It’s putting your finger in a public way on the pulse of what’s going on and that’s other than UPI, that’s other than all of that press that’s totally controlled where we read the tame things in the Post everyday. It is a kind of networking that I love—storytelling within the culture. When people haven’t seen each other in a long time they say “What’s going on?” You sit down and you get this interlocking networking that’s gossip but one step beyond.
KK Are you worried that performing your monologues as often as you do around the country, that your chance of being an actor is seriously reduced?
SG My film career which I want is all of a sudden blossoming. I was cast in tentatively three films in a week’s time. Adrian Lynne is doing a new film and he wanted me to write my own role in it because he’d seen the monologues at Lincoln Center.
KK Adrian Lynne of Flashdance and 9½ Weeks fame, if I’m not mistaken.
SG That’s right. And then, what was my big break I thought, was John Hughes cast me in his new film. I don’t even know the name of it. It is about real estate salesmen that all want to write the great American novel. They fail and are kind of buddy-buddying around and I was supposed to play one of them. And I liked the role. I was cast in Norman Mailer’s film. The John Hughes film fell through. My agent called and said all of a sudden Hughes had changed his mind, why he’s not sure. Maybe Hughes saw me as not working class enough, that I would look like the boss and not someone who had come up through the ranks. That was the story I got. But I suddenly got paranoid and thought, "Well, God, maybe the director of that Farrah Fawcett made-for-ABC-television movie I portrayed in Terrors of Pleasure knew John Hughes and said, “Don’t hire Spalding Gray, he’s going to tell tales on you.” The producer of Norman Mailer’s film said, "You know, Norman, he may do a monologue about you." There are some directors that just might not like that. So I began to think, “The more I get known as such-and-so . . .” In the case of Sam Shepard, I mean, let’s face it, we know why he’s in the movies—his jawline. My jawline is nothing. It’s lost. It’s all jowls. But I’ve got a good sense of humor.
KK You talk in Terrors of Pleasure about auditioning for television shows and movies-of-the-week with Farrah Fawcett and so forth. For all appearances you appear to be the up-and-coming media and critical darling of the late ’80s. Why would you want to get involved in insipid sitcoms like Mr. Sunshine, a TV pilot about a blind schoolteacher. Wouldn’t it be extremely frustrating for a wonderful writer like you—someone capable of cooking down life’s compote into something sweet and thick—to perform this strait-jacketed, committee-whipped situation crap week after week?
SG Hollywood is smarter than I give them credit for. They know that my bottom line is telling a story. My bottom line is tattle-tale Gray. And so they don’t cast me. They don’t cast me in Mr. Sunshine. Because they know that I would finally flunk out and tell a story about it. I can remember when I went up for one Hollywood TV audition recently, the casting director, as soon as I walked in the door said, “We don’t want to hear about this in a monologue.” She was laughing, but at the same time she was saying, "Listen babe, we’re not going to give you the role until you give up talking about us." I was good in that audition and made them laugh and I didn’t get the role. I think the writing was on the wall as far as Hollywood goes that I would have to renounce talking for a few years, go out there, live, be humble, climb the ladder up.
KK I believe your new autobiographical novel covers material pertaining to the suicide of your mother which you covered in a monologue on stage at one time. Obviously that’s disturbing stuff to work through.
SG The idea of painful working out of . . . Writing about my mother’s suicide. That was a long time ago that she did that. It was 1967. It’s not as though I haven’t touched the material before, but I could never have touched it alone. I did it with the Wooster Group when we did Rumstick Road. And it was Elizabeth LeCompte and the rest of the group that gave me an editorial distance on it. Liz and Ron Vawter were able to bring humor to it. It was everyone else’s contribution to that theme. It was a theater piece in which I brought in tapes, tape recordings of my relatives. I interviewed them on why they thought my mother committed suicide. We worked off those tapes to make a kind of surreal docu-drama.
KK Did you get permission from your relatives to use the tapes?
SG We just went ahead and did it like we did everything at the Performing Garage. It was totally illegal. There was also a very disturbing tape of my mother’s psychiatrist that I had done without a beeper. The Village Voice was very upset about that. It caused them to withdraw us from the Chic nominations. It was quite a scandal.
KK Art critics don’t consider phone-tapping creative work?
SG It was a political thing that the artistic section of the Voice decided to ride police on. It’s illegal to tape someone over a telephone without their knowledge and that piece was loaded with it. In fact, my grandmother Houghton asked me not to play her voice reading the Scientific Statement of Being. That’s the Christian Science ideological statement.
KK Did you respect her wishes?
SG No, we didn’t. We were really just out-and-out rebellious pigs then. This piece was a rebellious angry scream about what I consider the whole New England cover-up, that is to sweep everything under the rug. My mother’s obituary simply said, “Betty Gray Houghton, deceased, and then the date.” Not after long illness, nothing. I can remember shortly after she committed suicide, my brother Rocky and I went to look at the house we had grown up in, not the one she had committed suicide in, but our old home on Rumstick Road. And in the middle of the woman showing us around—she knew us because they had bought the house from us—the woman said to my brother, “Didn’t your mother pass away recently?” And my brother said, "Yes, she did." And I remember, there was a beat and then I said, "Yes. She killed herself." And that was so important for me to say because I had grown up with Christian Science and with that New England shuffling it under the rug and smile and let’s not speak the truth. I think that I had to go over to the other level, the other place of speaking the bold, almost obscene. "I smell a strong odor of mendacity" which Big Daddy kept yelling when he was dying in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. That’s what I was feeling like particularly after my mother’s suicide. My anger was at cover ups and I was disrespectful to the law and my grandmother. But we built it in, I said, "My Grandmother Houghton has asked me not to play this material to you tonight, but we’re going to play it anyway." This would cause questioning, make me think about what I was doing. This was important. I remember being attacked by Michael Feingold in a review where he said the production was unnecessarily brutal. My rebuttal was Long Day’s Journey into Night was brutal too but he locked it into a safe for 20 years. I said these are troubled, immediate situations that I must get out now.
KK Couldn’t you have gotten an actor to read this? Was it so imperative, so intrinsic to the piece that your grandmother read this tract?
SG To me it was. Again, because of the autobiography and the point that there was nothing more full than her voice. I think I was trying to put myself at that time in an environment where I, too, was experiencing my relatives and not actors, doing my mother’s death. You see, when my mother committed suicide I was in Mexico hiding out. I had given up theater. I was trying to live with a woman, Liz LeCompte, for the first time in my life. We were going through that getting to know each other. Meanwhile, my mother was back in Rhode Island killing herself. And when she killed herself, there was no way, this was in 1967, to get in touch with me. So when I came back, I didn’t even know it had happened. My father didn’t know where I was. I had no mourning period which is extremely important. I realized that afterwards. So nine years later I do this piece called Rumstick Road and I think and I only know this now as I’m telling you this that I was making a ritualized mourning process for myself by hearing my father’s voice talk about the suicide. And my grandmothers talk about their Christian Science and my grandmother’s desire to be reincarnated . . . Pardon me, to be cremated. Beautiful things, like poetry, coming from these women. Richard Sheckner said, when he heard them, “Who’d you get to play the old woman?” He thought it was an actress, I’m not against actors, that’s not the issue. I use them in tapes now. But in the case of Rumstick Road, it was absolutely important for me to put myself in a public way in the environment of my relative’s voice.
KK Renee Shafransky just walked up. She’s going to be producing the film version of Spalding’s Swimming to Cambodia. How does a relationship with a producer who is also the woman you are living with work out? Are you able to keep it fairly objective?
SG I really have to watch out for that. Part of the reason why Elizabeth LeCompte and I fell apart was that we were just together all of the time doing these projects, 24 hours, and it got to a burn out situation. In the case of Renee who’s just arrived here, and is going to eat the crabmeat, seafood salad, which is mostly celery and pressed leftover fake crab, artificial crab, I think we are pretty aware of the dangers of that and this will probably be the only project we’ll work on together. She certainly has her own stuff going. So we really have two different worlds—she’s doing her own scripts and her own writing and in this case we came together on this collaboration and are really looking forward to it—it’s going to be a performance film of Swimming to Cambodia, shot the first week of November at the Performing Garage.
KK Jonathan Demme will be directing it. He is a director of no small renown, and you pretty much have this down as a piece already; it’s your baby as it were. What kind of directorial input do you expect from Demme?
SG I think the major input will really be about his choice of camera angles and certain editing choices because we have a three hour monologue to work into a 90 minute film. The other thing is an enthusiastic audience. Jonathan is extremely up and I tend to get a little down and not believe things are going to work, pessimistic, and Jonathan, like David Byrne, when he’s on set is, and also offset, is very up, very positive. He’ll be the force behind the whole project—that will get it done and get it done well.
KK Jonathan Demme directed Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads concert film with David Byrne. You worked with Byrne in True Stories, which he directed, featured at the Film Festival this year. You refer to David Byrne in a New York Magazine article—I’m paraphrasing—as a man who, in another time, might have been hospitalized, which I think you meant in a constructive way somehow. Do you think there’s a pretty thin line between performance art and the acts of a maniac sometimes?
SG Gee, I’m trying to picture a thin line. Thank God for art and rock and roll. That’s all I can say. It’s the best of outlets.
KK What’s David Byrne like to work with as a director?
SG David was very pleasant as a director. He is an enthusiastic audience too. I can remember one scene I was doing. I didn’t have an audience and I was supposed to, it was an opening speech to a talent show. David was right by the camera, smiling and just responding, the way a director wouldn’t do. And another comic thing about David when he was directing was the way he would run out and do a scene because he was playing the narrator and then run back to be behind the camera, back and forth, back and forth, it was just fascinating. I haven’t worked with that many film directors before, Roland Joffe, David Byrne . . . I’ve been lucky, the two of them, very intense, both of them really seemed to know what they wanted, great concentration, no fits, no classic drug fits or whatever, just down to earth really connected people.
KK Presumably—correct me if I’m wrong—you wouldn’t mind making a little more money than your book sales and featured film roles generate. Would you consider commercial endorsements for a product? I’d buy a used Edsel from you. Are there carcinogenic products—coffee, tobacco—you might hesitate to peddle?
SG I’ve decided not to do any more commercials. Not that I’ve done a lot, I’ve done two in my life and those were . . . The first one I did, when I first arrived in New York City was for Kool cigarettes and then they took cigarette ads off the air. That was 1968, and I played Frisbee W. Schultz, the great American writer. It was for Ted Bates Advertising. I shot it on my birthday, June 5, 1968. Was that when Robert Kennedy was killed or was that in ’69? He was killed the 6th of June, 1969, I think I did this in ’68. It was simply this writer who writes the great American novel, then sends it out in packages which are so big and seasons go by, snow is falling by the window, robins are chirping, while he’s writing. But, as soon as he sends the package out, there is a knock on the door and a rejection slip comes back. Then the ad says, "It’s not the quantity that counts, it’s the quality." And at that point, Frisbee W. Schultz lights up a Kool cigarette. Well, at the time I wasn’t smoking and they didn’t ask me if I was a smoker or not before I did the ad and the director said, "You’re not smoking it right, you’re holding it like a Russian would hold a cigarette." I was holding it between my thumb and forefinger. He said, “You’re smoking it like a joint.” That’s what he said. He said, "Look, you’re a smoker, aren’t you?" I said, “Oh, sure, sure, sure, sure.” He said, "Well, inhale the darn thing." It took all afternoon to get the take on me inhaling it. Everything was fine up to then. Anyway that was an A Slot commercial and if cigarettes hadn’t been taken off the air, which I think they should have been, rightly so, I do think they are poison, I would have been getting a handsome residual from that. The most recent thing I did was about three years ago, Ameritech telephone portable telephones and I only had to say one line, “I’ve come to depend on it.” We had trouble shooting that too. He said, "It sounds like you’re talking about a drug, you’re doing it too seriously. Just say it lightly, you’re supposed to be an architect." And after that one I decided, no, I’m not going to do anymore commercials, I am Spalding Gray and if someone wants me to endorse a product, and I can think of very few I would endorse, one of them would be Cooper’s Sparkling Ale in Australia which I think is a miracle, wonder drug, but there are very few I would endorse. Recently, just as a lark, and this is the last time I ever will go up for a commercial, I went up and Renee told me, “No, no, no,” she told me not to, but again, I probably would have said no if I’d gotten it, but it was fun to go up for it. It was a Gorton’s fish commercial I was supposed to be Mr. Fisherman. I kept calling it Groton but it’s Gorton’s Fish and I was trying to get out here to the Edward Albee Retreat and write my novel and I was working with Norman Mailer, auditioning stuff for him and trying to wedge this in between. I was rushing, trying to catch the train and catch this commercial. All I have to be is Gorton’s fisherman and this is thousands and thousands of dollars, a hundred thousand. I could retire on it. All I have to do is be Mr. Marlboro man only it’s for fish, right. So on the way to the thing, this bird shit flies out and lands on me. I thought someone had dumped it from a building, it was that much. I guess a pigeon, or a seagull, an omen. It was all over my Danish school bag, in my ear, on my shirt. I had to ask if I could go wash up when I got in there. I kept apologizing for what I looked like although I thought it looked like the perfect fisherman too. I got in there and I ran that damned commercial, and I couldn’t take it seriously. He said, "You’re in a fishing boat, yell it." So I started yelling, "Hi, come on down, I’m the Gorton’s, no, Groton’s, I mean Gorton’s fishman, Take a fisherman home, take a fisherman home. Buy Gorton’s fishsticks, they’re fresh like the fisherman says." And I was yelling this out. And the guy said, "You took me literally, let’s get it somewhere in between." . . . I knew, even if I wanted to do the thing, I couldn’t have.
KK You’ve been here in Montauk at the Albee Foundation, writing for a month. We watched them haul a 3,500 pound shark out of the water, beaten and bruised and dragged out screaming. It was of no use to anyone as food or meat, just for sport. Could you get some material out of something like that?
SG You know I’m trying to cut down on my intake while I’m writing. I tried to ignore that shark and I haven’t been able to. Seventeen feet long and the teeth like, you notice no one’s in swimming. It was truly a monster. I haven’t been able to relax since I saw that fish and I know that fish will come in somewhere, because it will stay with me, somewhere into a monologue or maybe my writing. But I trust now more than ever that that stuff is circling in my unconscious and it will surface when it needs to and therefore I just try to when I look at something like that, really look at it and take a photograph in my mind and remember that mouth. It was a swimming mouth, and remember those teeth and remember that man who had shot it kneeling beside it saying . . . I remember this real vividly, this guy was a modern day Ahab, "it was real difficult, because that shark was feeding on a whale and it was happy. It was like a child in a candy shop and we got nothing but a lollipop," referring to his bait, you know "And how do you lure a child out of a candy shop?" Picture, a child in a candy shop and then picture a shark eating a whale, those two images. And he says, “How do you do that? Well, we did it.” It was that kind of mystery around the whole thing and all those people looking at the shark and the way it had this rip in the side, the way they pulled it in harpooned, it reminded me of Christ.
Labor Day Weekend, 1986
—Karry Kammer is a playwright and poet who works as a secretary to the stars.