A Serialized Man: The Narrative Pleasures of The Tobolowsky Files

When character actor Stephen Tobolowsky was a guest on the /Filmcast, a podcast which (as some long-time readers might remember) I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in myself, I remember being shocked at his level of preparedness: for his first show he watched several movies as research just to be able to offer as much to the conversation as possible, and he was both candid and conversational in regards to the subject at hand. I will admit to not knowing much of Tobolowsky’s work heading into that appearance, but his enthusiasm for that simple podcast gave me a great deal of respect for the man himself.

On its own, that would be enough to recommend his own podcasting project, The Tobolowsky Files, which is entering its second season this week. The podcast, produced by /Filmcast host and friend of the blog David Chen, is a series of stories about “life, love, and the entertainment industry;” it’s a new outlet for his enthusiasm, as he takes hours out of his week to write and record these stories for us to enjoy. The stories are reflections of his personality, hilarious but also able to delve into more emotional territory, and there is a genuine honesty about the podcast which completely erodes any sense that he is simply reading a script. These podcasts are not so much performances as they are expressions of emotions, and the result is a really great way to spend roughly a half-hour of your time each week.

However, I had expected to be entertained: I knew Stephen was a gifted storyteller (he produced a movie, Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, which is built around this ability), so of course he can spin a good yarn. What shocked me, however, was that this podcast has become an extended serialized narrative, turning his past into an ongoing story which has me more involved than I could have imagined. I figured I would enjoy episodes talking about his time in the entertainment industry or his experience on Deadwood or Glee, but I did not expect that I would get sucked into his past, terrified of being spoiled about how certain stories about life and love end.

And that’s something I never expected from a podcast: a true triumph of storytelling from a master of the art form, and something that lovers of narrative storytelling should certainly be listening to.

I don’t want to entirely spoil it for those who have yet to start listening, but a large number of Tobolowsky Files episodes weave their way through Tobolowsky’s seventeen-year (or so) relationship with a woman named Beth who he met in college. At first, the stories were a slice of life, detailing the challenges of new relationships and the trials facing the young couple within the drama department at Southern Methodist University, and as the relationship continued it brought forward more and more stories about adventures traveling in Europe, ways they kept together long-distance, their bizarre living arrangements, and just living together amidst the chaos of lives being lived. Tobolowsky has an amazing memory, and “Beth” began to come alive as a truly fascinating character, as he expertly set up the detours and roadblocks within their relationship while maintaining the romance of their time together.

I don’t think I entirely realized how involved I was in Beth’s story until the season finale, where Tobolowsky revealed facts about the character which made her a very real person, someone with a Wikipedia page and an IMDB entry. In that moment, I realized that I could google my way ahead of the story; if I wanted to know what happens next, I might be able to find that answer somewhere online. He makes it very clear early on that the relationship ends eventually (he is now happily married with children), but if I were to google Beth Henley would I find out something that I don’t want to know just yet? Although I am generally averse to spoilers, some part of me wants to start doing some research in order to figure out where the story might be headed in the future.

However, I resist this temptation because this is Tobolowsky’s story, and what I read online in a Wikipedia entry wouldn’t be nearly as powerful as hearing Stephen speak about that event or accomplishment from his own perspective. Stephen has turned his life into a narrative, dropping us in at various points and expecting us to know what happened before and to some degree what happens after. It got to the point in the first season where episodes would open with a disclaimer that you really weren’t getting the whole experience if you hadn’t already listened to about six episodes which aired before that one, which is something that I don’t normally expect from a podcast but which evokes the pleasures of serialized television. Stephen is adept at working in these references, his stories vivid enough in our memory that he can recall certain events or certain “characters” (also known as people, I suppose) with ease, welcoming us back into his life as if it were one long story rather than a series of facts which make up his past.

Some episodes of the podcast don’t tell part of the “Beth” story, instead visiting one of his experiences working on a movie or television series or a certain period in his life which has stuck with him over time. Every time this happens, part of me gets a little bit disappointed, as I’ve become so invested in the serialized narrative that I’m disappointed that we’re not learning another part of that story. However, Stephen’s skill as a storyteller is that every story feels like something larger, connecting to past themes or relating to something he has experience recently; every time he goes off on a brief sidenote or tangent, it makes you realize that he doesn’t conceive of these stories in a bubble, and they are part of the same life as those which create a more linear narrative timeline. One of my favourite episodes (Episode 13, Conference Hour) doesn’t connect with the central narrative at all, simply telling a story about which Stephen is clearly passionate about and which helps us understand the drive and determination that made him the success he is today (and creates a fantastic villain in the vengeful Joan Potter).

The result of this podcast is that Stephen Tobolowsky has become a serialized man: when I see him on a TV show (like his brief cameo on Tuesday’s Glee), I find myself looking forward to when I’m going to hear that story, and when I follow him on Twitter it extends that narrative into everyday life. Part of a good podcast is listener investment, the idea that we want to keep listening because we care about the people having a conversation or because the topics being discussed are something we’re interested in. However, with the Tobolowsky Files, Stephen (and Dave, who channeled Stephen’s storytelling abilities into the podcast medium and produces a wonderful show) have created a podcast which invests us in a person’s past, present and future. Tobolowsky has made a career out of playing supporting roles in film and television, but this podcast has him deservedly front and centre, and I look forward to the day when the podcast’s success becomes another fantastic story in this growing anthology.

While fans of Glee, Heroes or Deadwood will enjoy the episodes which feature those stories, I think fans of storytelling and narrative in general will be compelled by these tales: you can subcribe to the podcast in iTunes, access all back episodes at the podcast’s official site, and you can also read some stories that listeners have shared about their experience listening to the podcast at the Tobolowsky Testimonies.

You won’t be disappointed, except when you’re waiting a week for the next chapter.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “A Serialized Man: The Narrative Pleasures of The Tobolowsky Files

  1. Jennifer

    Yay, another fan! I’m totally addicted to this, went and watched Birthday Party, etc. Wish I could come out with something like this–maybe I will some day, who knows.

    Heh. I’m amused that you want to “skip ahead” now. I looked at Beth on IMDB/Wikipedia too, but it didn’t say that much.

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  3. Eric

    Myles, are you aware that Stephen Tobolowsky played Principal Flutie in the unaired Buffy the Vampire Slayer pilot?

    • I am, in fact! I think it was either on one of the podcasts, or in my Wikipedia-ing of the Unaired Pilot, where I discovered that fact.

  4. Sanford Sklansky

    I agree with you that the podcasts are great. One of my favorite moments is when a horse wrangler turned out to be Fess Parkers granddaughter.

    I also looked up Beth and here Wickipedia page is remarkably bare.

    I like that Stepehen will answer email as he has done with me a few times. I meant to be funny when I emailed him the other day, about him not being on Beths page. He has certainly become more popular than her.

    I don’t think you will hear much bad about Beth. Stephen said future podcasts will focus more on Anne as well as show business I am sure. I get the feeling that Stephens break up with Beth was not very amicable. They haven’t spoken in years.

    He also said he will be in Glee next week

  5. David

    I can’t believe you unmasked Beth. That reveal was one of the most moving parts of the first season of podcasts. You should put a spoiler alert at the top of your review.

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  7. Dwight

    Well, I knew who Beth Henley was, as she launched on the Broadway scene when I was a theater geek in High School. So when hapless “Beth” transformed into the amazingly talented “Beth Henley” in the last chapter of Season One, my head exploded like a Scorcese gag shot.

    I came for the industry gossip, but stayed for the great writing. Mr. Tobolowsky is a terrific scribe. I never miss an episode.

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