I hear your kid in the background. Are you sharing any favorites with him?
Of course! I’ve turned them on to Astro Boy and Gigantor. The old-school Marvel comics, Iron Man, you know—stuff that’s stiff but also really bleak.
Yeah. I couldn’t ever totally connect with an adult superhero, but these were little boys. Astro Boy—the first episode is crazy. The scientist has a son who gets run over by a futuristic car, so he builds a robot, Astro Boy, to replace him. It’s very sad. You know, I like to give the kids something real.
Cartoons for what’s real?!
We just moved to Murray Hill! The lap of luxury. So superheroes ground them here.
What other stories did you grow up on?
I was a TV freak. I watched Abbott and Costello and Martin and Lewis every week.
Do you ever catch Costello or Lewis creeping into a performance?
Today! I was doing voices for Ice Age 2, but as I was doing this one thing, I thought, I’m ripping Martin and Lewis off. They thought it was brilliant, so I didn’t tell nobody.
Did you read a lot when you were young?
Besides Playboy? Audubon books! I was all about learning: scientific, cold facts. Whether it was the human body, or birds . . .
The first movie you loved?
Oh, man—when I was young, it was all kung fu films. I went to the Fair on Astoria Boulevard, which became a porn theater later. But back then you could see kung fu and the blaxploitation movies. Coffy, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Foxy Brown. Fists of Fury, Enter the Dragon. You’d go to a double feature and you could smoke. So there’d be lit cigarettes in the balcony, where the cool kids were.
Were you cool?
Man, I was trying to get up there—I was sneaking my way up.
What was cool to you back then?
Everybody wanted to be Jim Brown and Bruce Lee. The women loved ’em.
Did you have posters of those guys on your wall?
I had glow-in-the-dark soul posters, in black velvet, with silhouetted black girls with big Afros and nice chests and big butts, all posed in different astrological positions. I had a black light.
So you were cool!
Well, at middle school, I was a super-nerd. But I got better. I became friends with the coolest guy at school.
What did you two listen to?
James Brown, Eddie Kendricks, Al Wilson—all kinds of funk and soul. Busted and broke, we spent all our money on records.
Give me something embarrassing you loved.
Bugs Bunny? Three Stooges?
That’s not embarrassing.
That’s better. Why?
Karen’s singing makes you feel like everything’s fine, like nothing can go wrong in this world.
And you started acting young.
I wanted to be like, to act like, to smell like, Richard Pryor. I wanted that desperately.
So you went to college and started studying Shakespeare?
By then, Shakespeare was okay to read, but not cool to do. Cool was the contemporary guys: Sam Shepard. Arthur Kopit. Tennessee Williams. Arthur Miller. But it was Eugene O’Neill who really rocked me.
Man, I read Long Day’s Journey Into Night and thought, His family’s as messed up as mine! His mom was a junkie, his father was a penny-pinching alcoholic. I thought, “Close enough!” My show Freak was my tribute to him and my family.
In monologue form.
Back in all those small performance-art spaces in the late eighties, one-person shows were really unique. I got my edge from Eric Bogosian, all that angry satire. Whoopi was beautiful, mad street poetry, with a little bit of consciousness. Lily Tomlin was all stories, all political. And even though Pryor wasn’t in that scene, he was still influencing me. Those four people—I borrowed from them heavily.
What did you listen to when you went home?
Hip-hop. I was in love with A Tribe Called Quest, and really proud of everyone from Queens: Run-DMC, Queen Latifah . . .
And when you wanted something more calm?
Film Forum, to watch that rediscovered print. Like I Am Cuba, done in the sixties by some Russians. Following people into a bar for Boogie Nights? That’s where he got that shot following a person into a pool. And The Battle of Algiers rocked my world. The same stuff is going on today.
I’m not hearing you talk about period pieces—everything is topical.
I guess everything I like is talking about serious issues, and reflecting their times. New sounds. A voice, a dialogue. That’s what this new millennium is going to be about.