betsy stover

13 YEARS

In Autumn of 2002, I moved to New York City and started working at a bookstore.  

Previously, I had lived in Missouri, Liverpool, London, and Oregon, roughly in that order but with some back-and-forth at various points.  (Missouri is my home state.)

I went to drama school in the UK, worked for a couple of years as an actor and then took a break to go live in Oregon where my best friend Jeff Falzone lived.  

The intention was always that I was simply taking a break from “Show Business” and the move to NYC was intended to be a return to that. 

I applied for one job, at Barnes & Noble Union Square. I was hired instantly and was given a brutal 7:30 till 4 shift, Tuesday through Saturday. I hated getting up that early in the morning, although years later I would refuse to work any other shift. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I figured I would work there at least through the Christmas season. I was surprised when I lasted a year there. The time went quickly, and I was a hard worker. 

At the time, the Graphic Novels section was an un-alphabetized mess, blended in with books about Animation, as if comics and animated cartoons were the same thing. I started making myself little projects, like building up the Film & TV section to include books about essential films & filmmakers (whatever could be found in-print) and shortlisting comics titles from great publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly to augment the smattering of DC & Marvel titles that they had. I sent away to D&Q for a manifesto they had printed about how bookstores could/should organize a proper Graphic Novels section, and before long the store manager was allowing me to set up the section so that there was more display space for these nice-looking books I was ordering in. 

One time, Chris Oliveros, the head of Drawn & Quarterly, came to the store specifically because someone had told him that we had a good Graphic Novels section, and he didn’t believe them. Years later, he told me that he had thought at the time that our store’s section was a sign that other B&N stores would also have a great selection of “comics lit” titles, but that he soon realized that it was, he told me, “just you.”

Wait, but what about Show Business? What about my Acting “Career”? 

Well, I tried and it was miserable and nothing I did worked. 

I would try to do plays and it was just impossible to get anyone to show up for them. I tried getting an agent and calling on my now-useless London contacts to try and get something, ANYTHING, going, and it was like pounding my head against a brick wall. Finally, I just decided, “you know what? I was miserable when I tried Show Business before, and I’m FINE now. I’m FINE working in a bookstore, managing my little unofficial sections and making them nice. I have ZERO stress, and I’m surviving.”

So I gave up on Show Business, figuring I could always return to it sometime later.

There’s stuff I don’t wanna get into here, but Life Is Hard Sometimes and this job was kind of this steady, simple, honest thing that kept life moving and gave me some structure. There was a period when I picked up an extra half-shift on Sunday morning (starting at a decadently late 9:30 and ending at 1pm) which served the store well at a time when they were woefully understaffed and which was Overtime for me so it was like picking up a full day’s wages for a few hours of not-very-hard work.

There are 4th floor displays at the store that became fixtures for a long time, like the University of Mississippi Press series “Conversations With Filmmakers” display. The sign was vandalized by someone with the word “MALE” added to it, because the series reflected the sad reality that 95 percent of the titles were about men, with only Campion and Ullman and later Bigelow featured in the series. The sad truth was that the only female film director with a lot of books written about her that we could order in at that point was Leni Riefenstahl. Still, it was nice to have that display while it lasted. 

The “33 and 1/3″ music books series is still prominently displayed, and that was also something that just materialized because I made it happen without asking permission. If you haven’t seen these little books, they are hit-and-miss but it’s a really interesting series that covers a broad and eclectic range of albums and artists. I hope they keep it there now that I’m gone. 

There were sections that were a mess which I would find an order for. An entire bay of Star Wars novels, for instance, would now be organized “chronologically” according to the order of events in the Star Wars universe. I should emphasize that I have never read a Star Wars novel in my life. I just liked that they had a handy little chronology in the front and I thought it would be helpful to shelve them that way. It made the section look nicer, and it made it easier for customers to actually navigate. It’s stuff that I don’t think anyone else is gonna do when I’m no longer there, and there are a lot of things like that.

2002 through 2004 was the period when I was actively trying to be an actor before giving it up.

2005 through early 2009, I was just a guy working in a bookstore in Manhattan. I realized at one point that as a divorced, 30-something bookstore employee, I had somehow turned into a bearded male version of the title character of the late 1980s tv series The Days & Nights Of Molly Dodd starring Blair Brown. It was not what I thought my life was gonna be, but by early 2009, having failed at basically everything I had ever attempted, I had somehow arrived at my early 30s as a happy person. 

I was also, I have to say, the least successful person I knew. And it didn’t matter. I was happy, and stress-free.

I registered for Improv 101 almost exactly 6 years ago this week, for a class taught by Betsy Stover that began on May 6th, 2009. And I loved it.  

Ever since then, I’ve maintained my 5-days-a-week work schedule while first taking classes and then eventually doing indie shows, getting on a house team, and then doing things like UCB TourCo and TCGS and booking commercials and other paid opportunities.  

But here’s the thing: I didn’t start taking classes at UCB thinking it would lead back to attempting to make a living in “Show Business.” I just saw some shows there and it seemed like a magical place and I wanted to learn how to do what the people on stage were doing. I just wanted to get better at it. I wanted to be better at the thing I liked watching, and I wanted to learn how to do it well. Honestly, I just wanted to someday make people like Shannon O’Neill or Will Hines or Chris Gethard think something I did was funny. I never thought I’d ever be friends with them or be on a team with them, or anything even close to that.

Although I’ve gotten used to the work-and-Comedy schedule now, those first few of years of UCB activity nearly killed me, simply because I always had to be up early and most of the Comedy things would keep me out till midnight almost every night of the week. There was a period in early 2011 when I was in Gethard’s “( )” class and we had a session where every improviser in the class took turns making the class do whatever improv form they wanted. When it was my turn, I asked if we could turn off the lights so I could go to sleep and everyone else could improvise my dream. I went to sleep for real until I was awakened by Dru Johnston doing an impression of Alan Starzinski.

Anyway, over the past two years, I’ve accidentally backed into a very modest amount of actual Show Business work. And it got to the point where it became clear that it would probably be the right time and a smart move for me to actually get serious about what I’m doing. I have been taking the Comedy part seriously, but not really the Career part. Because I haven’t had to. I already had a job, so the Comedy could just be the thing I cared about trying to do well, but not the thing I used to pay the bills in any serious way.

At the same time, the bookstore has become an increasingly understaffed and difficult place to work. It feels like every time something changes, it is in a way that makes the place slightly less good. I’m not going to bother to go into detail here but I’ll happily talk your ear off if you ever want to have a conversation about how a handful of very dumb people with bad ideas can ruin or damage a bookstore that could otherwise be doing very well.

It’s just a bookstore. It’s a big one. Four floors. The goal should be to make it as nice as possible for people to come in and find what they’re looking for. I spent the past 13 years trying to help make it a little nicer, and for whatever it’s worth, I did that, a little.

I’m sad to leave my job at the bookstore. It has been a safe place for me. It is the only job I’ve known in New York City. But it would be sadder if I stayed, because that job is what it is, and it isn’t going to get any better, whereas I think there are genuine possibilities if I get it together and try to have a for-real Comedy Career at this point.

UGH, thirteen years. That’s a long time to do anything. If I’d had a baby instead of working there it would be a teenager now. 

This post is far too long, and for that, I apologize. But I’m a very sentimental person by nature, and this is the end of a very long chapter in my life where I shelved books 5 or 6 days a week for over a decade. I’m grateful for the people I’ve met there who were nice and great.

I don’t know what is going to happen next. I’m the warm-up comedian for The Chris Gethard Show on Fusion, a job I also did for last year’s TCGS Comedy Central pilot. It is an exciting opportunity, being a part of this show my friends make that I have been a part of for years now. The me of 2002 would look at this and be happy about it, as would the me of pretty much any year since then.  

It is now spring of 2015, I still live in New York City, and I used to work in a bookstore.

When I Met Phil. 

The first time I met Philip Seymour Hoffman was in 2002. I was 18 years old, I had just moved to New York City and I considered myself an actor! I was the kid who watched Lebowski on repeat and not only quoted Goodman and Bridges, sure, but I did a Brandt impression quite a bit (“..as a necessary means for a- necessary means for a higher education.”). I’d watch Patch Adams and go to school a sophomore and if I’d offended someone, would touch my hand to my chest as Phil did as Patch’s roommate and go “I am not a prick.” Don’t get me started on Scotty. I called myself a “fuckin idiot fuckin idiot fuckin idiot” again and again as we all did in acting school and really anywhere. 

I remember hanging out with a girl and thinking this is not going to work out. Catching up - date shit, ya know - and she goes “it’s like that movie ‘Happiness’ with Philip Seymour Hoffman. He so fucked up but sooo good”. I saw Happiness gathered around the TV with my parents and my sister (I know) and PSH was MESMERIZING, making those horrid, sexually threatening phone calls. I admit I was the kid who would repeat his lines from that movie, trying to replicate his subtlety and weirdness because I felt if I could master that, I could master acting. Anyway, that was enough for me to look at this girl and go “okay this IS gonna work out after all!”

Okay, so the first time I met Phil. Well, I didn’t really “MEET-meet” him the first time, but I did SEE him and I got myself in such close proximity. He was on a phone call outside of a building on 26th street between 6th and 7th avenue wearing khakis, a baseball cap and a button-up t-shirt. I did the slot machine rattle in my head: cherry, cherry, cherry, this is where I took 101 with Betsy Stover, he’s probably here rehearsing for a play. I’m pretty sure it was at or around the time he was doing Long Day’s Journey which of course I saw and I freaked over. I hadn’t before then seen an actor tear his heart out on stage (not literally, but the other way). He said in an interview, “…acting is the equivalent of pushing a grand piano up the stairs” and it made me wish I too would someday play Jaime.

So he’s on the phone, standing outside of the building I thought for sure was a rehearsal space and I’m going holy shit, I have to tell everyone I know. I tried to eavesdrop. Nothing. My hearing even then was like Howard Hughes’. Probably on with his agent, Sarah Fargo at Paradigm, I thought. I knew he was Sarah’s client because the year before I moved to the city, I picked up K. Callan’s The New York Agent Book and stumbled on Paradigm. At the bottom of each agency, they listed some of their noteworthy clients. Bam. Philip Seymour Hoffman. I made a promise to myself that I would someday be with Paradigm.

Sorry, getting off track. So, 26th street. Phil’s on the phone. I pull out my Motorola Startac and text everyone I know. Mostly fellow acting students, including my buddy Michael Cassidy (we used to do nonstop Phil impressions in tandem all day long in acting school, a Mike Nichols’-founded program called The New Actors Workshop). So, my friends freak out. Mike freaks out. And sure enough I can’t bring myself to wait around like a total creep for Phil to get off the phone, so I slink off and kick myself (I’m a fuckin idiot! Fuckin idiot! Fuckin idiot!”) and I think someday, I’ll talk to that man for real…

Three years later, someone got me tickets to see A View from 151st Street at the LAByrinth theatre where Philip Seymour Hoffman was artistic director. Sure enough, he was in the audience. Afterwards, I somehow weaseled my way into the after-party at some spot down in the Bowery and I see Phil across the room STANDING BY HIMSELF. How the fuck? I thought. He’s in a big coat. I remember reading another article about how he felt nervous at parties and feeling connected to him that way. His coat and his beard, things he hid his social anxiety behind. I related completely. I’m an empathetic person. I have to talk to him, have to. We have so much in common, right?

So I drank the rest of whatever I was drinking and I walk up to Phil and I make the first move. “Mr. Hoffman?” “Hi.” “My name’s Josh, I go to the New Actor’s Workshop. Mike Nichols is one of my teachers and he speaks the world of you.” (Fuckin idiot! Fuckin idiot! Fuckin idiot!) “Oh wow, yeah, Mike is great”, he says, and looks around cooly, probably thinking This kid just saw me in Twister and wants a handshake. My synapses were firing on all cylinders – How can I connect with this man! He’s my hero! I’m positive I misspoke, but I manage to tell him something inarticulately to the effect of “Yeah, he cites your rehearsal process as being really interesting and inspiring.”(Fuckin IDIOT!) Phil looked at me and peeled at the sticker on his Stella and nodded. “Ah, thank you. Thanks for that. He’s great.” And sensing we were through, I’d kissed the king’s hand and now I may shoo – I thanked him and nervously slinked off, once again, heart-pounding out of my goddamn chest. That’s what happens in the presence of greatness, I suppose.

Four years later, I was working as an on-staff director/cast member at CollegeHumor. It’s my first year and we were going to do something called the “All-Nighter” where us writers stay up all night and talk to our fans and make videos, all in solidarity for the college kids studying for finals. I’d met an up-and-coming comedian named Pete Holmes once before (I directed him in a sketch for CH where he played a doctor in a parody of The Wrestler) and tonight, he and I, being equally avid Phil fans – were gonna shoot a sketch showcasing our respective Phils. So we made “Hardly Working All Nighter ’09: Philip Seymour Hoffman” where Pete and I – as two Phils – end up calling and creeping on writer Sarah Schneider. We went back and forth doing our Phil impressions as we always did and had a fucking blast and in between takes when we weren’t making each other laugh we would just shake our heads knowingly like a couple of superfans. No one can do what HE does.

In 2010, I met a guy named Ralph Arend through a mutual friend. Ralph had seen some of my videos and thought I was talented, so showed to the powers that be at his place of employment – Paradigm – the office of Sarah Fargo, agent of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Ralph used to put actors on tape at Paradigm and he championed me to get an agent there, one who at the time was working in tandem with Phil’s agent, Sarah. Around the same time, my insanely talented friend Elaine Carroll – completely fed up with the Hollywood waiting game - made Very Mary Kate, a web series featuring her in the title role as the Olsen twin herself (and often, the other one). Eventually, Elaine asked me to play Phil in an episode. I of course I jumped at the opportunity and it was fun as hell. Not long after the video came out, Ralph told me he’d shown Yul Vasquez, a buddy of Phil’s from the LAB. Yul apparently showed Phil our video. “Really?” I asked, as excited as I was freaked PSH would “acknowledge” me. WHAT WOULD HE THINK? I thought. I never found out from Yul’s side, though not long after, my agent told me that during one of their monthly conference calls with Phil, in which they review all of his current and upcoming projects, Phil mentioned me. What on earth did he say!? I asked my agent. “Well” she started, “Phil said that he doesn’t like that we represent someone that does what he can do and is better-looking. He was joking, of course.” I’d never received a higher compliment in my life at that point, other than Colin Quinn telling me “you did good!” after playing the character of “South Korea” in a sketch on Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn.

Three years later, I’d directed a couple of sketches for a Maker Studios’ channel Remix The Movies. Impressionist and YouTube star Alex Farnham was coming to town and wanted to knock out a quick sketch with me where I played Phil and he played Ryan Gosling. The sketch sort of pulled from the same game as the vids I’d done at CollegeHumor and on VMK - Phil creeping on Gosling to a too-creepy point, Happiness-style. On the shoot day, I met a guy who worked for Maker (let’s call him Will) who introduced himself as a good friend of Phil’s. “He’s seen your impression, man,” he said. He held up his phone and asked me if he could take a video of me doing Phil FOR Phi. I really don’t love doing impressions when you ask me to – in fact, unless it’s Anne Ramsey from Throw Mama from the Train I fucking hate it. So half of me is going oh god, fuck this guy, whatever, I’ll do it and the other part of me is going if this is a real thing, better make this good, I guess? So I do it and Will films it and apparently sends it to Phil and I never see him again. For a bit, anyway.

So that takes me to Tuesday, April 30th, 2013, a Maker Studios party at The Jane Hotel for the Up Fronts. I bring my buddy Todd and rendezvous with my partner, Vince. Security is tight. Rumor has it Snoop Lion is gonna perform and Philip Seymour Hoffman is coming. No fuckin way, I think, but worth finding out. So I go and it’s packed and everyone’s beautiful and I’m underdressed and feeling shy as I usually am in party situations that aren’t at my friend’s place in Brooklyn, but I stick around at the prospect that I may once again get a glimpse of my hero. So suddenly, Will comes out of nowhere and goes “You wanna meet him?” He didn’t have to tell me twice. I asked if I could bring Vin and Todd to wherever we were going and was immediately shut down. “Snoop’s entourage is keeping shit real tight, so it’s just gonna have to be you.” I wave bye to my buddies and Will drags me upstairs to a VIP area where we breeze past a table of beautiful people seated around a large man in a big jacket and a baseball cap barely covering tufts of platinum yellow hair. Will tosses me onto the couch: “Stay there.” I try so hard not to look in Phil’s direction but obviously I do. He catches me staring across the table and we lock eyes. I know for sure I turn away before he does. So, I keep sitting there, not exactly sure what I’m waiting for. I strike up a nice conversation with a gentleman from the New York Times, trying not to be rude, trying so hard not to look over his shoulder at Phil who is right there, now for the third time really close and I could potentially REALLY talk to this guy. It took a lot to maintain eye contact, but I did, I focused with the gravity of an acting exercise back at New Actors Workshop.

So several minutes pass and I’m talking to the gentleman from the Times and my nervousness has melted away with the alcohol and conversation before - all of the sudden, Will grabs me – “It’s time.” Great. Heart’s beating out of my fucking chest all over again. I quickly exchange pleasantries with the Times kid and follow Will like some backwards version of The Wrestler, marching toward my doom or my victory or whatever I can’t be flowery right now, my heart is beating out of my fucking chest as I type this so I’ll just get to the damn point.  

Will brings me to Phil – his friend of many years – and before he says anything, three of the beautiful people flanking Phil at the head of this table – turn and look at me and start pointing excitedly. I just remember one guy going “Oh shit! That’s the guy that does Phil!” Years of “inadvertent fanning” over one another (okay, all fanning is one-way, I’m sure) – all the rumors of Phil reacting to our Very Mary Kate videos – all of the rumors he knows who I am, he’s seen what I’ve done, be it via Yul Vasquez, our agents, a friend of a friend who used to babysit his kids, a grip on Jack Goes Boating and on and on and so on – and finally I’m about to find out what this guy really thinks of me. Well, if he hates me, at least I’ll die having actually met him…

So Will introduces me. “Phil, this is Josh.” And Phil looks up at me – the beautiful people continuing to point and shout - and Phil smiles and shakes my hand. “Oh, yeah! Hi. Phil, nice to meet you!” I almost piss myself. Then Will goes, “He does the impression of you!” And that’s when I near faint. And Phil – shaking my arm still like a greeting between two Shakespearean comrades – goes, “Yeah! Well done! Well done!” And I apologize to him for the informality, trying to formulate a sentence that in some way proves that what I do comes from the purest form of love and admiration. And as I’m mid-sentence, I’m whisked away. “Okay, thanks, you gotta go back to your friends!” Will shouts. Long story short, Will and I – in an exchange of  heated words – explained he was getting serious flack from security about allowing me up. I was on the clock and my time was up. Mid-sentence.

So the next day, Will apologizes for cutting off my conversation with Phil – my hero! – and promises he’ll do anything to make up for it. So he invites me to Phil’s play. I can’t go. “Well, what can I do to make up for last night?” And I think long and hard, and I said “Would you mind giving him a message?”  Will complies.

I’m not sure if this ever got to Phil, but I meant every word. I’m as angry, devastated and blindsided as the rest of us. I’m heartbroken for his girlfriend Mimi and their three children. I’ll never, ever forget this man, an uncanny master of his craft. Phil, you’ve set the bar. Wherever you’ve gone, you’ll here remain forever unmatched.  

Hey Phil,

We met briefly at the Maker party last night. Your buddy (Will) intro’d me as “the guy that does that impression of you”. I shook your hand and sheepishly apologized for the circumstances and informality only then to be immediately ushered away too soon. 

So, here I am, reaching out to finish my thought; to tell you what I would have if time hadn’t been cut short:

It’s a pleasure and an honor to meet you. This impression of you - this impression that is my most favorite to do and is everyone’s favorite to see - is the favorite because you’re the favorite. I met you years ago and tried to muster the guts to say as much at the after party for “A View from 151st Street” while bumbling through statements like “Mike Nichols is my master scene study class teacher and he respects you so much” among other things Heineken gave me the courage to say but then forget.

I’m so looking forward to “Family for All Occasions” and to, someday, working with you; to your brain, and talk how acting is indeed as mentally difficult as pushing a piano up the stairs. 

Best and thanks,

Josh Ruben

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Here is the newest Bear Facts! This one stars Betsy Stover and co stars Ajax in her belly. She is all kinds of awesome!