ADMITTEDLY, ACTOR/DIRECTOR (and once upon a time comedian) Fred Stoller has forever ridden the line between obscurity and success. He’s appeared on just about seventy television shows, in many recognizable films, written for television, and authored numerous books. On top of that, he is a face that has been seen by nearly anyone with a television.
In the middle of acting on almost every show known to man, Stoller decided to begin writing books. His first was “My Seinfeld Year” – a Kindle single that told his journey of working on “Seinfeld” for a season. Stoller’s latest book – “Maybe We’ll Have You Back: The Life of a Perennial TV Guest Star” – is the ultimate dive into his mind and career over the years. It’s in depth, revealing and believe it or not, quite relatable (sans working with some of the biggest names in Hollywood).
Recently, Stoller took the time to speak with TSJ about the book, his career, “Seinfeld,” and why Hollywood is the strangest place for a person like him to be.
The Smoking Jacket: You’ve had a very illustrious career in TV, but you started in stand up. And you did it for quite some time, right?
Fred Stoller: Yeah! I did about ten years in New York and then a few here in LA.
TSJ: Did you like it? It’s sort of uncertain to me.
FS: Well, I never was someone who wanted to have comedy albums or be George Carlin and play Carnegie Hall. I always knew I wanted to be a character actor, but I got caught up in the comedy boom of the ’80s, where you could effortlessly do a few sets a night. I had the agenda of hoping it led to TV and movies as opposed to the purist stand up comedian.
TSJ: From reading your new book, it seems that you had a lot of success in it for someone who didn’t really seek out a stand up career.
FS: I know. In the book, I mainly just discussed the road and how when you move to LA, in order to afford to live here you had to leave it and do the road. I was a little more comfortable doing stand up in New York, honestly, because you could get by doing places in New Jersey, Long Island or Connecticut. You could do twenty-five minutes just running around. LA doesn’t have that circuit, so you had to go on the road and headline and be in these comedy condos and experience these rowdy crowds.
TSJ: It kind of defeats the purpose of actually being in Los Angeles.
TSJ: In the book you talk about being a shy and nervous kid.
FS: Oh, yeah. I was pathologically shy.
TSJ: What do you think propelled you into performing in front of people?
FS: I was never a class clown and no one ever told me I was funny. It was just an accessible world. I knew the real world wasn’t for me. I was paralyzed with fear of what I was going to do, but I had seen weird character actors on TV and thought I’m like them! But I didn’t know how to become that. And then I saw people like Freddie Prinze or Jimmy Walker, guys who started at The Improv and then got on “The Tonight Show” and then got their own TV show. So that path just seemed accessible. What I knew was that if you built an act and started performing at clubs you could get discovered.
TSJ: Did you find that your shy personality went away onstage?
FS: Not really, because that worked for my act, you know? I couldn’t look at the crowd and would make weird one-liners. But that helped developed my character.
TSJ: A lot of people loved your act.
FS: Well, with stand up you can’t dabble. In LA, stage time is fierce, and it can hit you. It’s funny, when I was younger people used to say stand up is the hardest thing to do. I didn’t know what they were talking about. It seems to me that the hardest thing isn’t just getting up in front of people but also vying for stage time, hanging out afterwards backstage with a bunch of angry, competitive comedians who were sometimes snarky too. But you can’t dabble in stand up. You have to really be in it.
“I knew the real world wasn’t for me.”
TSJ: You’ve also written for television, was that at all more enjoyable than doing stand up?
FS: I like writing in my own voice. TV writing is great, the writing. But again, the fiercely aggressive, competitive people…that’s the hard part. The business part is hard. I think I’m happiest when I’m being creative in places like writing this book or writing my independent movie “Fred & Vinnie.” I like being creative on my own terms.
TSJ: What was the experience of writing “Fred & Vinnie” like for you? That was obviously in your own voice.
FS: Years ago, I wrote this short story about my friendship with Vinnie. It wasn’t until years later that we had decided to try and make it into a movie. It was a labor of love. And it was great because we didn’t have to answer to any studio or anyone with notes. We just told mostly the true story.
TSJ: I thought there was an interesting message about isolation, specifically the scene in the lit agent’s office. I think a lot of people can relate to that.
FS: It touches a nerve with a lot of people. It’s funny, some find it depressing but I think there’s a lot of things in truthful writing that people don’t want to see about themselves.
TSJ: Oh, most definitely. I would agree. I think most people are just afraid to admit that they, too, feel that way.
FS: I think so, too.
FRED STOLLER COMIC STRIP LIVE
TSJ: The scene with Fred Willard coming out of the theater. I loved Vinnie’s reaction. It sort of gave this feel that Hollywood can be a lonely place but there’s really no place like it.
FS: That’s true. It is kind of a dichotomy that someone like me, who is so shy, is in the most competitive place in the world. I always described Vinnie as the adoring parent I never had. I was very excited for him to come to Hollywood and see it through my eyes. But the whole story is maddening. I say in my book, only in Hollywood can someone be nervous and profitable.
TSJ: Speaking of the book – “Maybe We’ll Have You Back: The Life of a Perennial TV Guest Star” – can you tell me a little bit about it?
FS: Yeah! I equate it to being a foster kid, going from show to show and hoping that one keeps you. I’ve been on around seventy sitcoms and have never been a regular. I’ve had little tastes of “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “The Drew Carey Show,” etc. One guy described it — I’m straddling the line between success and obscurity. [laughs] And I like that a lot.
It’s all an illusion. People see that I was on “Seinfeld” so they automatically think I’m a big star and have a house in the Hollywood Hills. So the book pulls the certain back, as they say.
TSJ: I think most people think once they see you on TV you’ve hit it big.
FS: Right, exactly. My sister thought that too. When I visited New York recently, I had dinner with her. I always pick up the check, but she read my book and now she picked it up. [laughs] She’s like I didn’t know it was that bad. It’s really not though. It’s really not bad at all. I can’t complain.
TSJ: Of course not. You have to feel some sort of satisfaction from everything you’ve done, no?
FS: I do. But like I said in the book, I think I’ve achieved success but you still have to keep struggling and vying and pushing. I’ve learned to get better at appreciating everything because it can be dizzying.
TSJ: Doesn’t that keep pushing you?
FS: It pushes me to be more creative. Now I put my energy into doing creative stuff like writing more books or a web series or a movie. It pushes me to do more fulfilling things.
TSJ: The books seem to be your new favorite thing.
FS: I really enjoy it. In show business, we’re always trying to fit into somebody else’s puzzle. Like, hey, did I do well? You’re only a little part of yourself. With the books, I get to tell my own story, and that’s very liberating.
TSJ: I would imagine “Fred & Vinnie” must have been a very fulfilling experience then.
FS: Oh yeah! It’s also very heart wrenching because you go to festivals, and it’s a cliché, but it’s like your baby. You don’t take the rejection so hard for an audition but with a movie there’s so much to think about. Is this okay? Is that okay? I sometimes couldn’t sit in the audience; it was hard for me to watch it at times because the movie isn’t laugh out loud funny like “The Hangover.” It’s more of a character study. But even still, it felt so good having something of my own out there.
TSJ: You mentioned “Seinfeld” before. I’ve read “My Seinfeld Year,” and I’m just curious, did you enjoy your experience on “Seinfeld?”
FS: I enjoyed the good parts. It was very exciting to see my name on a “Seinfeld” script, when they did my episode, and just to be a part of TV history. There’s very few shows that live like “Seinfeld.” The overall experience was very dizzying. It was isolating and confusing. The most fulfilling part was being able to put it in my book and tell what a unique and behind the scenes story it was.
So, did I enjoy it? Not so much, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Having to deal with Larry and Jerry or the others, it was sort of walking on eggshells.
TSJ: Is TV writing still that competitive?
FS: It’s all different. The “Seinfeld” experience was very isolating. Jerry and Larry did everything. Many times you’re just at a table with a lot of competitive, loud writers who are trying to get the producers attention for a story idea. But I do think that all shows are somewhat competitive.
TSJ: I guess I was asking because you mentioned “Nightlife” was very competitive in your book. I’m curious if it’s still all that cat and mouse type stuff.
FS: Oh yeah, it’s still filled with loud and aggressive people. [laughs] One thing I love is reading books about old Hollywood because you realize that it’s always the same. The only thing that changes is the technology: cell phones and fax machines, etc. It’s always just people bitching about their age, their agents and so on. It’s sort of heartening that it’s not something sudden that was just given to us. It’s always been that way, and will always be that way.
TSJ: Have you ever thought about getting into stand up again?
FS: Actually, with this book, I’m going to be doing some shows that might incorporate some material, just enough where I can tell stories. But hanging out in comedy clubs and competing for stage time? Not so much.
TSJ: Are there more books in the works?
FS: Oh yeah! I’d love to write more things in my voice, something that goes with that straddling between obscurity and success. I really like that. That’s my thing.
TSJ: Of all of thing things you’ve done, what’ been the most fulfilling?
FS: I’d say this book; it’s the longest in the making. It encompasses everything, my whole experience. I hope it touches people. It’s the most frustrating too because there’s a lot of emotion in it. I’ve got to stop going to bookstores and counting how many have been sold. [laughs]
TSJ: Is putting yourself out there in this book harder for you than putting yourself out there on camera?
FS: Much harder. As a guest, I’m only a small fraction of “Friends” or “Everybody Loves Raymond.” This is like a child. You really want it to be accepted by the world.
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Fred Stoller’s website: fredstoller.net
Fred Stoller is on Twitter: @Fred_Stoller
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