Monday, January 23, 2012

Schnooki

Fred Stoller's entry into my life was emblematic of his personal gestalt -- which he's turned into an unlikely career.

You know when you're at a cool party and then someone latches on to you and they're kind of annoying but persistent and you can't shake them and then you give up and realize there's something inimitable about them that is compelling?

That's Fred Stoller.

Phil Rosenthal's awesome screening room (LA Times)
We met at one of those parties you always imagine take place in Hollywood yet never dream of getting invited to. But in 2002, during my year on West Wing, my Rolling Stone buddy David Wild brought me to the home of Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal, who has hosted Sunday night movie screening pizza parties [right] with his wife Monica Horan (who played Brad Garrett's wife on Raymond) since they met in New York in the 80's.

Among the two dozen or so guests were several character actors, writers, and the like. The house was beautiful but not ostentatious; the entry hall was hung with framed autographs Rosenthal had collected from his idols, including, if I'm remembering right, Billy Wilder.

Before that night's screening of Woody Allen's Radio Days (Rosenthal had been re-screening all of Woody's movies) I hung out in the kitchen and ate slices from pizza boxes off the large island (apparently Phil has since upgraded to pizzas from Mozza), and eventually out of the cast of characters emerged -- Fred.

Fred was tall, lean, anxious, nasal-voiced and Brooklyn-born. He told me he'd been working on a memoir about his piecemeal, freelance experiences on the fame's fringes called "Maybe We'll Have You Back" - -the noncommittal statement told by TVproducers to itinerant guest stars like Fred their entire careers.

I was wary, but intrigued.

I'd been a big comedy fan since childhood -- and written a lot of journalism about comedy, including editing two special issues of Rolling Stone on the topic. And I had never read or heard of a book told from the point of view of someone like Fred. Someone like, well, these guys:
"Fred, Ed, Ted, and Fred" (Willard, Begley, Lange, Stoller)
Stories from a journeyman character actor about how different stars behaved, of rating gigs by how good the food is, of trying to fit in and make enough of a mark without stealing the stars' limelight(s).

Fred had started out as a standup. Here he is in a Young Comedians special hosted by Dennis Miller.


If you think he's exaggerating about his mother -- who had warned him he was "too depressed to be a comedian" -- here's a clip of him and her from the early days of Comedy Central. He says only the last line was scripted.


After landing a role as a series regular on a 1990 sitcom with Harold Gould and Esther Rolle, Silver and Sons, which lasted all of four episodes  -- Stoiller carved a modest career out of being typecast as schnooks (his word) and nervous neurotics on many of the major sitcoms of the era.

He'd been Raymond's annoying nearly twin cousin Gerard (ultimately appearing in eight episodes):


If you look at his IMDB page (currently up to 94 titles!) you will see a disproportionate number of his guest roles -- on Jesse, Verionica's Closet, even a voice on The Penguins of Madagascar - - have been named "Fred." It's common for stars of sitcoms like Mary Tyler Moore or Ray Romano to have characters named after them, but not so for a guest star. It's because he's just always so Fred-like. (They also often stole routines from his stand up, as you can see in this clip with Dom Deluise.)  He played "Fred the [annoying] pharmacist" on The Nanny (four times), Fred and seven OTHER schnooky characters on Murphy Brown, plus non-Freds on Friends, Seinfeld, Suddenly Susan....and of course his cartoon self on Dr. Katz.

He had some memorable moments in movies, too, including as the "Get off the phone" guy in Dumb and Dumber (my kids loved watching the last part backwards on VHS):

Stoller even spent a year on Seinfeld's writing staff, turning a true story that had happened to him -- in which a friend who gave him a sportscoat never seemed done with Fred's attempts to repay him -- into the classic episode "The Soup."

When you're a writer or editor and you meet someone who says they have written something and ask if you can look at it, the best option is almost always to declare that you never, ever do that. But I know a good story -- and title -- when I hear one, and my latent editorial interest from my journalism days was piqued.

So back in 2002, against my better judgment, I had Fred email me pages and send a VHS tape of his reel (this was also BYT -- before YouTube).

Fred was funny, both onscreen and on the page. And self-aware. His childhood idols weren't characters played by Clint Eastwood or Harrison Ford, he wrote, but Dustin Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. 
On several auditions, directors have said to me, "Don't be so pathetic," when I had no idea I was being that.
Sure, a lot of it was raw, but there was a real voice and story there. I spent hours with printed-out pages helping him find a shape and narrative, then tried to help connect him to book editors, but the whole thing kind of faded away.

Fred's first action figure
Last year I reconnected with Fred via -- where else? -- Facebook.  I was happy to see he was still getting regular work, including as a writer and voice of "Rusty the Wrench" on the kids' series Handy Manny (very proud of the plastic toy based on his character, which spoke in his own voice [right]).

He started posting about an autobiographical independent movie he wrote and starred in, Fred & Vinnie, about his even more sadsack buddy who lives vicariously through Fred's "stardom" and then comes to L.A. and Fred can't get rid of him. Directed by Raymond writer Steve Skrovan, it showed at several festivals.


In "The Gate Show" webisodes Fred recently created for Comedy Central, he found a character who ingeniously matches his position in showbiz: the guard at a studio lot deluded into thinking he is hosting a talk show from his booth, and that the people who drive up -- Howie Mandel, Sarah Silverman, Bob Saget, and others -- are his (increasingly exasperated) "guests."


TMZ has been picking on Fred on slow news days because he spends his non-working days hanging around the outdoor Grove shopping mall and they can usually get some good soundbytes out of him.

Fred's name also came up on the Chris Rock episode of Marc Maron's always fascinating WTF podcast. Discussing Eddie Murphy, Rock mentioned that Eddie - who did standup back when Fred was doing it -- had out of the blue asked Chris how Fred was doing. Maron and Rock shared a chuckle about that.

So, almost a decade after I'd first met Fred and helped with his writing, I was reminded of his manuscript. But this time, I realized that technology had caught up to him. Stephen Toblowsky, the prolific character actor (Ned from Groundhog Day, Californication, et al.) had done well with a Kindle Single, Amazon's new e-publishing venture. The Singles are longer than a magazine piece but shorter than full-on books, and share a healthy percentage of the proceeds with the author. And, it struck me, Fred's material and similar public stature seemed perfectly suited for this new format.

I sent an email to the editor, David Blum, who I knew from my journalism days, who turned out to be a Fred Stoller fan.  A few emails later,  he and Fred decided to make a stand-alone chapter about Fred's year writing with Larry David and Jerry at Seinfeld. Fred wrote some new introductory material:
Being a perennial guest star is like being a foster kid who's passed around some really great foster homes. I would love for one of them to keep me, but it's a hell of a lot better than being abandoned. 
"Published" in a matter of weeks,  at $1.99, My Seinfeld Year has quickly became one of Kindle Single's best-selling titles.  You can sample part of it free, and don't need a Kindle -- either read it "in the cloud" (online) or download an App on your laptop/device.



UPDATE MARCH 2013: Fred finally sold his whole book -- Maybe We'll Have You Back-- [right].  Its pub date? April Fool's Day. 

Fred's mother is not convinced he isn't just "selfish-publishing" it [sic]. 

 Meanwhile, Fred continues to get regular work. Most recently he reunited with The Nanny Fran Drescher on her new series Happily Divorced in his old standby role -- waiter schnook.

A while back, Maron taped a WTF podcast with Fred, and, in typical Fred style, Stoller felt after the fact that he'd been diverted from telling the stories he wanted to tell.  So Maron agreed to do a followup phone call with Fred which he tacked onto the show.

The do-over reminded me of how my night in 2002 at Rosenthal's had ended. We had piled into the screening room, armed with fresh popcorn from a popcorn machine, and I took my wallet out and put it on the seat beside me during the movie. Afterwards I thanked Rosenthal profusely, left and went home  -- only to realize that my wallet was back in my seat.

I had to drive back, buzz the gate intercom, explain my situation and go back inside. These were people who did not know me, remember. Monica let me inside and I saw to my horror that everyone else had left.

I sheepishly slunk over to the chair, fetched my wallet, thanked them again profusely, and slipped out into the night, cursing myself for my faux pas.

At that moment, I felt exactly like....Fred Stoller.

UPDATE, APRIL 29, 2013. 
After only a decade, Fred's book is out, and he held court tonight with Jerry Stiller in the upstairs rare books room at The Strand in New York. He hadn't been to New York in a decade and couldn't even tell Chelsea from Tribeca, but somehow he made it to the event. Fred mentioned me by name in the interview and talked about how I'd coached him to "slow the story down" because in his first draft, he'd been nervously rushing past what would make it sell.

Stiller -- who will turn 86 in June -- had to leave early for some kind of Robert DeNiro tribute, and clearly hadn't read the book. But he was charming and game, and told stories like when he drove George C Scott and Colleen Dewhurst in his car to Shakespeare in the Park.

Fred was most excited when Jerry informed the crowd that actor Hal Linden never picked up a check. It was the perfect sort of Fredish anecdote.
So all these years after that party at Phil Rosenthal's, I finally held a hardcover book in my hands. It started the way I had advised him.  I turned to the acknowledgements page, and there, as Fred had promised, I had the first and biggest thank you.
Yup, he spelled my name wrong. At that moment, I felt exactly like...Fred Stoller.

5 comments:

JoelfromBrooklyn said...

This is a tremendous tribute to Fred. It is almost like a Biography on tv about Fred, but instead a great history of his work and persona. You have a great feel for the person and the talent. You also have a gift to organize it into a great package...Joel from Brooklyn

Fred the shnook said...

Wow, makes it all seem worthwhile. Thanks for everything David.

Robert said...

A wonderful story, David, very well told. Thanks.

CSS said...

Terrific! His book is going on my Kindle right now...

Sal Nunziato said...

Back in the early 80s, I spent a lot of time at The Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village. My friend was a struggling actor/comedian/mime/you name it, and he asked me to write jokes for him. This was my homework.

During this run at the Comedy Cellar, I got to see Gilbert Gottfried, Ray Romano, Ron Darian and so many others very early in their careers. Fred Stoller, too, who my friend and I thought was the most hilarious of them all.