On May 11th, 2015 / By Lance Eaton /
Tags abbreviated audio, audio book, Ben Franklin: Unplugged, Guest Contributor, Haiku Tunnel, interview, Josh Kornbluth, Lance Eaton, Love and Taxes, Red Diaper Baby
Tags abbreviated audio, audio book, Ben Franklin: Unplugged, Guest Contributor, Haiku Tunnel, interview, Josh Kornbluth, Lance Eaton, Love and Taxes, Red Diaper Baby
Josh Kornbluth is a comedic monologuist, operating out of the San Francisco area. He was also the co-writer, co-director, and star of Haiku Tunnel (2003)—the office comedy that seems to bridge the gap from the film, Office Space to the TV series, The Office.
This past fall, Josh Kornbluth released, Ben Franklin: Unplugged: … And Other Comic Monologues on Audible.com. I finally had an opportunity to listen to it and was so entertained, I had to stalk—I mean hunt down—I mean talk to Josh Kornbluth about his audiobook experiences.
Eaton: Can you talk about your method for developing your monologues?
Kornbluth: I developed them all through improvisations. I found when I started in 1990, I tried, but I couldn’t just write them out. I sat in cafes in San Francisco, I tried to write my scripts and it just wasn’t coming out. It didn’t feel organic and I wasn’t pleased with it. The show was going to open. It was my first show and I was going to talk about my life but I didn’t have a script. At the time, I threw all these connected ideas together. I couldn’t restrict myself and part of the challenge with writing is that you make all sorts of choices. But I’m unable to do that with writing. So I taped these ideas up on the side of the stage with everything connected. It was kind of illegible. And then I was so terrified of being on stage that I could never sidle over to look at the thing. But what I started to do then and what I continue to do is improvised stuff. I usually start with just a basic idea and I riff in front of audiences.
Now that I’ve been doing it for so many years, it’s something I’m used to doing. I get to a place where I can do that and people show up. That’s how I started and then ever since I’ve worked with a collaborator, except for my first piece. The collaborator is also usually my director. What I tended to do was at some point to supplement those improvs in front of the audience with pieces developed between me and my collaborator. Lots of these are conversations and they help to build the structure of the pieces. So far, I think my collaborators have created that structure. I get so cold thinking about the idea that I will write anything that they actually write out as the structure, especially as the structure gets more elaborate. So hopefully by the time it opens, it’s pretty much word for word, although there’s no script–there’s never been a script. Eventually, after it runs for a while, I do get it word for word.
Eaton: So the script evolves and at what point does it turn into a book like The Red Diaper Baby collection?
Kornbluth: What happened with The Red Diaper Baby book, I was hanging out with a bunch of writers–it’s still going actually–in San Franscisco, called the “Writers Grotto.” One of the writers, Po Bronson, who was on the board of an independent publishing house called Mercury House, said, why not put together a book of monologues. It just never occurred to me and so there were no scripts. So we had to find recordings–occasional recordings that I had made from my shows and have interns transcribe them and edit them. It happened just because Po asked me but it was really cool for everyone to have.
Eaton: What kind of feedback do you get from people who get included in the monologues such as friends, family and acquaintances?
Kornbluth: It’s tricky. The reason I went into performing when I was thirty, you know after being a mild-mannered copy-editor in Boston was because my dad died and I wanted it to reconnect with his stories. I want to tell his story and I also felt like he had just disappeared into the universe and people didn’t know about him. That didn’t cause any awkwardness in terms of my father because he wasn’t there. But then when I added talking about my stepmother at the time and my siblings, and my mom, then I was very very nervous. When I started, I was in Boston and none of them were in Boston. It was a very nerve-racking thing when I sent the tape. I sent off my first show to Michigan where my stepmother was with my little siblings and I was very nervous about it so I was very happy that you know, that they liked it.
Generally–although now that, I think about it, almost always, the actual living people have been very appreciative of this stuff. The character, Claude in “Ben Franklin…Unplugged”, was a real wonderful woman, Claudia Lopez, but she loved it. She came to see it and did a talk with me afterwards. In “Love and Taxes”, Sheldon S. Cohen, who is the former commissioner of the IRS, came to the show in DC and he liked it. People tend to dig it. Even in “Haiku Tunnel”, one of my oldest monologues that I’m performing now in a revival in Berkeley, it has a boss, Bob Shelbie, a fictional Bob Shelbie whom I suspect of being Satan. The real Bob Shelbie loves the show. He would come to see it and when he was in the audience, after the show I said that’s the real Bob Shelby and then, he was very happy to talk to people. At this point, I’ve just gotten a hunch and I don’t know this for sure, but that generally the bad guy in my stories, the impediment, the Nemesis to my happiness and success is me. Everyone else is actually pretty nice so if anyone should object to my depiction of him, it would be me. Now that I think about it, I’m thinking of suing myself right now and making a lot of money and getting out of the business.
Eaton: Have you gotten into any trouble with the content of your monologues? For instance, you mention your tax situation in “Ben Franklin…Unplugged” as well as your completing your thesis at Princeton years later. How much of this is embellished?
Kornbluth: Definitely, there’s a lot of embellishment in my stuff but I will say I mean almost everything that’s weird is true. My thesis was that overdue and when I did call Princeton and was put through to the dean, who could help me see how I could submit my twenty-five years late thesis, it was the same dean who had called me to his office when I was an undergraduate.
But no, I haven’t so far had a backlash. In “Haiku Tunnel”, that was my second show in, originally. I was still working as a secretary at a law firm, I call it S & M in “Haiku Tunnel”. The real name of the firm was P.M.S. That was the real acronym, Pillsbury, Madison, and Sutro. I have a character in that based on the head secretary, who I call in the show, Marlina D’Amore. When I was doing it, word got out that this secretary from downtown was performing this show about being a really bad secretary. It mostly got great feedback from other secretaries but the head secretary, the woman upon I base Marlina, she just gave me an intense look and says, “Please don’t put me in any of the other monologues.” I thought she was a really cool character but that certainly is easy for me to say, I mean I’m telling this story. That’s not how she sees herself. That was in 1990–the one time I had a very gentle, maybe a sort of a backrub instead of a backlash.
Eaton: Looking at the range of your dialogues from “Haiku Tunnel” to “Red Diaper Baby” to the center for “Benjamin Franklin…Unplugged,” which focuses a lot on paying taxes, Ben Franklin, and such, how do you come to terms with the conversion from a Trotsky Communist to a Keynesian Capitalist?
Kornbluth: First of all, them’s fighting words. You just identified me, I think, as the Trotskite. That was the second worst insult. Leninist is more like it. The second worst thing in my family that you could be to my parents was a liberal but the worst thing was a Trotskite–it was never a Trotskyist –it was always a Trostkite. But seriously, I mean it’s an interesting thing and it’s a deeper thing than I’m intellectually capable of parsing. I was raised communist as I talk about a lot of in the shows. I totally and fervently believed everything that my parents told me. Then, in my twenties and as I went to life, I thought, “Oh wow, you know, my parents thought Stalin was a really nice guy. He wasn’t a really nice guy. He was a really really really really really evil guy.” The system that called itself socialist may have had some elements that you might call socialist, but it was not a system that I would want to live under and as a system from which many millions of people suffer and died. A lot of this stuff that my parents raised me with, of being, generally speaking, a progressive, I’m completely still that way.
Maybe it’s a little bit dodging the question and it’s somewhat of a joke question, but it’s really profound too because capitalism won and it’s also that we don’t have a better system yet like some other countries that do some softer mixture of socialism or communism. We see how people reacted to privatized Obamacare-we still have a ways to go. But I see the power of capitalism, and I live in it, but I also try not to accept its tendency toward greed and competition, even though I acknowledge it as a great motor. It’s actually a really big deal to me because I so identify as my parents’ son. So for me to not be a communist is really–I still have this feeling like it’s a betrayal. My mother who is eighty-seven is still a communist. So we just don’t talk about some things. We don’t talk about Stalin. We agree about Rachel Maddow. I was raised in a religion and it was orthodox communism. So to be a Protestant now or whatever it is that I am, it’s still something that I’m uneasy about.
Eaton: For me, I thought it was–not necessarily intentional, but you see some of that growth and discussing of those ideas through the different monologues up to the present and I thought that was what was fascinating with Ben Franklin…Unplugged. Even choosing Ben Franklin who’s this icon of the American ideal, as somebody’s growth and development in being self-realized and all that and the other essays, there’s just a fascinating movement across the different monologues that was really great to see.
Kornbluth: Thank you that’s very perceptive on your part. What happened was family. The first several pieces that I did, the pieces that are collected in The Red Diaper Baby, they are from a time from both when I was single, a child, and young man. One reason that “Haiku Tunnel” I tend not to perform in repertory is because it’s a different me. It’s a me from before I was a husband or a dad. In a way it doesn’t totally feel autobiographical. It feels like I’m portraying this other character. What happened was that when my son was in utero, I was trying to think about how I was going to continue as an autobiographical monologist. Because I knew in advance that I didn’t want to make my son a character in my shows. I want him to be his own protagonist.
But what would I do? How could I go on doing autobiographical monologues and that’s when I realized–I was shaving one day and I realized that I looked like Ben Franklin and that had never hit me before. I called this guy named David Dower who had been highly recommended to me as I was looking for a director/collaborator. I called him and said, “I’m Josh Kornbluth, I think I look like Ben Franklin and I want to do a show somewhat based on that.” He said, “Ok, great!” David became the director of that and the other monologues on the new audiobook.
On the one hand, I was thinking about being not just myself but actually being a father and a husband. That was really the context–that the main thing about me in these new monologues is that I’m a dad, a husband, and a citizen. As cliché as it may be to say, but when we were expecting a child, what the future was became something very different. It became something that I had a paternal obligation to try to affect and to try to make better. Then what turns out is that it was this great new opportunity. I love the fact that I’m not just telling stories about myself but also doing research. Autobiographical monologues can be incredibly self-referential and circle around more and more tightly around your own navel when you’re telling these stories. It just seems like you could run out. It seems much more interesting to me to talk about Ben Franklin, tax law even, democracy, and certainly Andy Warhol than to talk about “well, this is what I did last year.” There’s more stuff going on outside to me than inside of me to put it mildly.
Eaton: But you do manage to pull together that outside and inside world together in interesting ways.
Kornbluth: Thanks! I’m used to doing the stories of course on stage in front of people. The printed book format with The Red Diaper Baby collection are my words but one of the reasons I was so excited to do the audiobook was that it’s so intimate. When I listen to audiobooks, radio, and pod-casts, it’s incredibly incredibly intimate. It’s very very powerful and to me an enormously gratifying media. To be able to do that so that you and others can experience the stories through my voice, and that it’s ringing in your ears and you’re experiencing it, it is going from internal me to internal you. It’s interior to interior. It’s just a very cool idea and experience. I was just thinking about this as I was about to prepare the laundry and I thought “Ohh! I can listen to the new Richard Price audiobook. I can get back in that!” Or I’ll say, “I’ll do the dishes dear!”
Eaton: I have the same experiences.
Kornbluth: Ok, does this happen to you? You finish the chore, but there’s still more to listen to. It’s like what can I do? Make the bed? Remake it? I get to this place where it’s pleasurable to be doing something while I’m listening because I feel virtuous even though I’m really just into the story. The other thing I’ve been doing on Audible and audiobooks, is trying to learn and teach myself Hebrew with Pimsleur. For some reason that goes really well with doing the laundry. But the neighbors come into the laundry room, and I’m speaking in Hebrew. It’s really frustrating too because some start to talk to me because they think I’m talking to them. Then, I have to take off my headphones which means I lose my place and have to go back. It’s really a tragic life that I lead. It gets to the point where I just speak really low and have them think I’m just crazy rather than I’m actually talking to them.
Eaton: What challenges do you run into with narrating an audiobook instead of doing the monologue?
Kornbluth: The thing that was surprisingly natural to me, which really surprised me in doing both of the audio books that I did for Audible, is that I felt very comfortable monologuing in a room to an engineer. It was just me and across the room would be the engineer. That was my only audience, which normally I need an audience. But it was cool because in both cases, the engineers hadn’t heard my stuff and they were apparently at least looking like they were liking it. The other thing was just that because I performed each of these pieces so much that I had the rhythms of it. At first, it seemed sort of weird because I’m sitting in a room and I’m declaring because when I perform these things, I’m a character, and the character Josh and the narrator. It seemed like it ought to be awkward but it didn’t it didn’t feel awkward. I did worry and wonder about whether it would be weird to hear me performing in your ears rather than someone who is reading a book like a narrator. People might wonder why this guy is being so demonstrative. But I can’t help it. There’s no way I really could narrate my stories any other way. In that sense that was a pleasant surprise–just that I enjoyed doing it and that it felt more natural than I’d expected.
The important thing with me is that I need a really good sound engineer whenever you record my voice because I yell and my voice gets very loud and very quiet. It’s theater and so that provides a nice challenge for the audio people. The thing that’s different is that you can’t see me unlike the audience. A lot at what I do when I’m performing as a solo performer is using my voice and my body. I try to use both a lot and to express myself to get a point across. To communicate things like jokes which can be purely visual, and so that was a challenge. It’s a different form and by the nature of an audiobook, doesn’t have any of the visual. I went through each of the pieces and figured out where that was an issue. I tried to figure out where there was a gag that was just visual and how to simulate it. Augment it with my voice, cut it, or describe to people what’s going on but for the most part, it was actually pretty natural that just talking communicated everything or mostly everything. It almost made me think, “Wow, maybe I don’t need to show up at these shows.” I love performing but maybe I don’t really need to be there. I always thought it was important to see me in person but maybe you don’t need to see me at all. I could go avant-garde and just be in total blackness. But getting back, in a physical book you don’t have my voice and you don’t see me. You just have the words in these little hieroglyphic word things that you interpret in your mind. Then, in the audiobook, you do at least hear my voice and the rhythms and so to me, it’s a much fuller transfer of what I do in monologues.
Eaton: Did you find you had to do a lot of takes for this?
Kornbluth: No, in fact, both audiobooks were done almost entirely in one take. We had a lot of time left over because they are allocated a certain amount of time. For the Ben Franklin…Unplugged monologues, Alberto, my wonderful engineer at Fantasy Studios, had this thing when I had started at the very beginning in the day, my voice was different from when I had gotten warmed up. So what he had to do was just go back and start the beginning again. But that was sort of it. It was really surprising there we so very few takes. Those pieces are a part of me in a sense so once I get going in them, I get going in them!
Eaton: Were you working with a script or just going at it from memory?
Kornbluth: I develop my shows using improvisation and when the show opens, I have them pretty close to word for word. I tour with the shows and I perform them a lot. But by the time I am performing them a certain amount, they are word-for-word unless I have some particular reason I want to change something. There is no improvisation in the audiobooks. There are aspects of telling it that change slightly in terms of the nuances and delivery. Probably because I was in this place without an audience, that’s probably made it a little a bit different but that has to do with the delivery slightly, but in terms of the words unless I had to change words to adapt to the fact that it was an audiobook and not me visually, it’s word for word. People have been surprised too because I develop the shows, it feels improvisational, but they find out there’s a script and I’m doing it exactly the same.
Eaton: There’s a point in “Love and Taxes,” where you’re explaining a problem and then you interrupt yourself and say that you went on this long rant about it but the sound engineer didn’t record it. Was that a joke or where did the idea for that come?
Kornbluth: That was a straight up way to do something analogous for the audiobook for what I do on stage. So what I do on stage with “Love and Taxes” is that it has an intermission. My shows that go for 90 minutes have intermission. It’s out of compassion for the audience usually, though there is a costume change in “Ben Franklin…Unplugged”. But in “Love and Taxes,” I was developing with David Dower and wanted to figure out how to jump a number of years from where the story ended at the end of the first act. When we were developing the theater piece, I came up with this gag one day. After the intermission, I come out to the audience and say, “I’m really sorry but for some reason, I just kept telling the story to myself backstage during intermission but you didn’t miss anything.” That was one I think that I do on stage and I thought how can I do that in the audiobook. That’s my taking that gag and transferring it into a different medium. On behalf of my excellent engineers, they did not go out to lunch. They were very attentive.
Eaton: How did Susie Bright end up becoming the producer for your audiobook?
Kornbluth: The larger reason that Susie Bright is involved is because there obviously is a benevolent God. That’s why Susie Bright has been involved in any parts of my life. I’ve gotten to know Susie; she lives in Santa Cruz. We’re in the same area and she’ll come to my shows sometimes. One time, she gave me a foot rub, which was really really great. I don’t know if you have met her personally but she’s just the warmest person. She’s a goddess and just super warm, super nurturing and super sharp. I just adore her as you can tell. Early on, I had done a part in “The Red Diaper Baby” years ago for a CD that was called Cybergasm and I’m not sure whether Susie was involved or not but it was sex stories. At some point after, I was a guest on her Audible show, In Bed With Susie Bright. By the way, it wasn’t actually in bed–it was in a studio. I just want to make sure no one gets the wrong idea. We knew each and we knew each others work. She got to this point with Audible, where she was producing. Audible wanted her to find cool writers that didn’t have audiobooks. That’s how the Red Diaper Baby monologues happened. More recently, she said, “Well I know you have a bunch of other monologues, would you like to do another audiobook?” I said that I would love to and so the question was which monologues should I do? I had these four monologues that I’d done with David Dower that are about citizenship and family among other things. She decided to put them all in and that became the Ben Franklin…Unplugged audiobook. It was just a thing of being in the same creative-social community. Although I’m sure she travels with much more glamorous people than I aside from my wife who’s incredibly glamorous.
Eaton: What is your favorite audiobook? What is the audiobook that you give to people to convert them to audiobooks?
Kornbluth: This actually came up recently. I do these bicycle rides with “Team in Training” to raise money to fight blood cancers. Mostly, it’s for me to lose weight and hang out with great people. But there’s a woman who rides with me, and she got my audiobook. At the end when I said that I really love audiobooks, she wrote to me last week and asked for recommendations. There’s one general category for me that I would start with of my favorites and that is anything by George Pelicanos. Anything. And anything by Richard Price. Take Pelicanos. He has the most marvelous people narrating and it’s a number of wonderful actors. What’s interesting is because his characters are generally in or around Washington DC and are often African American or other races, the narrator has to portray a wide range of people. You hear these wonderful actors telling these stories and taking on the nuances of the way people actually talk. I just find it fantastic and it’s something that I personally could not actually insert as a reader because I don’t have that clarity and fluency of different dialects. Also, the stories are really engaging.
I had an amazing experience listening to Light in August read by a great actor, Will Patton. I always wanted to read Light In August but I really have been intimidated actually about reading it. It’s one of my wife’s favorite books. The beauty of the narration and the sensitivity that he brings. There’s also this wide range of characters from a particular southern milieu. It’s being read by someone who is so sensitive to the rhythms, to the poetry of it and also to the drive of this story. I remember at the time I was on the cross-training a lot. It was really incongruous in a way. I’m on a cross-training moving hard while listening to this beautiful Faulkner material that’s very poetic. So I had this weird experience of listening to this beautiful story being told and really beautifully, while at the same time, sweating my way through a work out. That’s what’s so cool about audiobooks is that you through the world.
When I walk around and I’m listening, I’m in this world; I’m in this mental and emotional world of the audiobooks. And this goes back a while for me. A professional hero of mine was Spalding Gray and he had audio tapes that I used to listen to. There’s also the Red Riding Trilogy and I’m hesitant to talk about them because they’re so so incredibly violent and evil. Not that the writer is evil–as far as I know. But each is called like 1977 and 1978. It is so violent and I also don’t totally understand it because of the English/British’isms. I’m have the next one on my iPod but I haven’t started listening yet. I just don’t know if I can take it.
I volunteer at a hospice now, the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco and I’m working on a monologue but I’ve also been listening to and reading a lot of books relating to death. One that was really great was Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death by Katie Butler. It’s about when her dad got really sick and was essentially being kept alive but in a miserable way. She has to deal with all these complicated feelings. She reads it herself and that’s why I found the book to be excellent. There’s one by the great Calvin Trillin and it’s called, Tepper Is Not Going Out. It’s read by Trillin, and it’s a comic novel. When you asked me, what was a really great experience that I had, that was just a completely and utterly charming experience. I mean obviously Stephen King is probably really great in a lot of audiobooks, but there’s one particular audiobook that I read of his, it’s a lesser known one, From a Buick Eight. That audiobook was just absolutely, utterly, riveting me. It was read by several wonderful and great actors. Of course, I can also recommend, the Pimsleur Teach Yourself Hebrew Hebrew Phase 1, Unit 1. I can recommend it up to Lesson 26.
Eaton: Along those lines, do you have any favorite narrators?
Kornbluth: I haven’t personally found that I seek out a narrator. There’s so many great narrators. I always look each month when I go on Audible if there is a new George Pelicanos. All of his are great and often actors I’ve never heard of. So I haven’t necessarily become a fanboy of the narrators, because I’ve just been astounded by all the narrators. Saul Reichlin does the Red Riding Quartet and he is some crazy good. I really like Katie Butler’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door, because it really calls to me when the author is a wonderful narrator because that seems rare. It’s an interesting sweet spot because it’s a particular art. I think mine are a bit of an anomaly because they’re performances. I’m not reading someone’s piece.
Eaton: Are you working on any movie versions of your monologues?
Kornbluth: I am indeed. It’s a very timely question. My brother, Jacob and I are just finishing the movie version of “Love and Taxes”. It’s an amazing time for my brother because he just had a second baby. It’s much more on our minds right now about what is being begun than what is being finished. But yes we’re very excited about Love and Taxes. As with the movie, Haiku Tunnel, I play me and other people play other people and many of the same actors from Haiku Tunnel. We’re hoping that will be out within the next year.
Eaton: Any other new projects or things that you’re working on?
Kornbluth: The piece about the Zen Hospice Project is really my creative focus right now. There’s also a piece I had commissioned that was really fun by the Shotgun Players here in Berkeley. They’re a great theater company. It was my first commission to do something that wasn’t a monologue. I was in it along with this great actress named Amy Woznick and these musicians. I did it with my long-time collaborator, David Dower. It came out last year and it was called Sea of Reeds. I make an oboe reed on stage and play the oboe, which is something I used to do and picked up again. It’s basically about practice and it’s about learning about Judaism and getting a bar mitzvah. It is inspired by the rabbi who is a character in the Andy Warhol monologue. I thought that he was so cool that I asked him to bar mitzvah me. So at the age of fifty-two, I had my bar mitzvah in Israel with my family. So Sea of Reeds we did as a multiple-person piece for the commission, but David Dower and I want to turn it into a monologue with musicians because it’s easier to tour that way and I’m just more natural that way. So if you hear a mediocre oboist playing in your neck of the woods, it is probably me!
For more information about Josh Kornbluth, visit his website joshkornbluth.com or follow him on Twitter, @joshkornbluth.
Lance Eaton is an instructional designer, instructor, and writer living in Beverly, Massachusetts. He has published various articles on comics, Audiobooks, monsters, and instructional design and regularly reviews Audiobooks for Publishers Weekly and Audiofile Magazine. When not running, listening to Audiobooks, or collecting degrees, he is known to take a ridiculous amount of pictures of his two adorable cats. His musings can be found at byanyothernerd.blogspot.com. Feel free to also harass him on Twitter: @leaton01