Cover image for The tenacity of the cockroach : conversations with entertainment's most enduring outsiders
The tenacity of the cockroach : conversations with entertainment's most enduring outsiders
Thompson, Stephen, 1972-
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Three Rivers Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
407 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
Format :


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Material Type
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PN2285 .T46 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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For ten years, The Onion A.V. Club--the entertainment section of the award-winning humor publication The Onion--has been interviewing entertainers and storytellers of every style and stripe. But it has always placed an emphasis on those with fascinating, hard-won careers, from amiable retirees and passionate visionaries to bitter, jilted, eternally warring cranks. Collecting dozens of The Onion A.V. Club's most entertaining and candid interviews, The Tenacity Of The Cockroach offers a pop-cultural tour unlike any other.

The Onion A.V. Club can be found at

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

In most arenas, the art of the interview is in peril. Publicists have trained their charges to regurgitate scripted anecdotes and plug upcoming projects; TV, magazines, and newspapers usually play along, fearful they'll miss an opportunity to feature the star of the moment. But editors of the Onion, the satirical newspaper, have long known that people who don't have a movie opening in 2,000 megaplexes still have something to say. While the Onion's pursuit of iconoclastic interviewees began by necessity, not design--Mr. T was more likely to grant an interview to the fledgling, Wisconsin-based publication than Mike Tyson--these strugglers, has-beens, hermits, and successful malcontents proved both more frank and more interesting in discussing their art and experiences. This anthology includes conversations with a delightfully unpredictable mix of filmmakers, musicians, writers, and more. Among the best are cynical comedian George Carlin and a curmudgeonly Harlan Ellison. Roughly organized in an attitudinal decrescendo from vitriolic to content, and interspersed with recurring chats with the creators of the late, lamented Mr. Show, these exchanges sparkle. --Keir Graff

Library Journal Review

Here are two quirky and entertaining collections of celebrity profiles. Since 1993, The Onion's entertainment section, "The Onion A.V. Club," has regaled millions with its profiles of artists and entertainers whose stars are not necessarily on the media ascendant. Section editor Thompson has culled some 68 of them from the last decade, arranged by tone into ten chapters. The dazzling diversity of entertainers and personalities on parade includes Merle Haggard, Elvira, Bob Barker, Joan Jett, James Elroy, Jello Biafra, Ron Jeremy (discussing his penis size), Mr. T., "Weird Al" Yankovic, The Unknown Comic, Henry Rollins (from whom the title is derived), and, wonderfully, Tom Lehrer. Repeated interviews with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, the brain trust of HBO's beautiful Mr. Show, and occasional observations from "Weird Al" provide a throughline. An excellent choice for all libraries. Zehme (Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman), writes director Cameron Crowe in his foreword, is "the King of the First Sentence." Journalist to the stars for the past 20 years, he has accrued an amazing list of celebrity profile credits in, among other high-profile magazines, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Playboy, and Spy. The 25 reprinted pieces collected here, all of which are introduced by Zehme with trenchant comments and observations, reveal his playful irreverance, openly breezy style, and talent for turning guarded deified personalities inside out. If The Onion favors stars whose A-list status has waned, Zehme's milieu is the rarefied air of the most famous, and so we are fated to spend time with the likes of Sinatra, Seinfeld, Letterman, Leno, Schwarzenegger, Madonna, and Howard Stern. Despite its racey and promising subtitle, Zehme prefers to dish rather than dis. More often than not, in fact, he is openly sympathetic with his charges. Fun, informative, and dead-on perfect for insatiable stargazers.-Barry X. Miller, Austin P.L., TX (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Mr. Show, Part II By Stephen Thompson Originally Printed September 1997 During the HBO sketch-comedy series Mr. Show 's four-year, 30-episode run, The Onion A.V. Club took every opportunity to speak to the show's masterminds, David Cross and Bob Odenkirk. In the fall of 1997, at the beginning of their second season, both struggled with the brutal workload that accompanies creative control and the pursuit of excellence. The Onion: What's going on in your lives? Bob Odenkirk: Well, all that's happening in our lives is we're writing and working on Mr. Show. It's a fucking hellish bitch that won't get off our backs. David Cross: A tempestuous shrew. BO: And we will do anything, anything at this point, to finish it up, get a laugh as we're leaving, and run. Run, run from the studio. DC: Not look back. BO: We're working our asses off to do justice to the last few episodes we're working on, as much as we did the first few. That's the hard thing. DC: It's really caught up with us, our lack of proper preparation time. BO: As of now, we've done seven shows out of the 10 we have to do, and they're good. Every one of them is great, and I don't feel like we've dropped the ball yet. Now, we have three left to go, and I know the next two are really strong. With the last one, we're still struggling at this late date. We have to do it in the next week and a half. We have some good ideas to fix it up, but it's more last-minute than we would want. O: Exhaustion is setting in at this point? BO: We're very tired. DC: It is in, my friend. It's set up camp, and it's not going anywhere. O: So you're out of ideas. DC: No, no. But to be totally honest, there is a marked difference in our energy level. It's different when you're in your seventh month as opposed to your third month. BO: Not to be egotistical, but it asks a lot of you to be brilliant day in and day out, and to be as groundbreaking as we are. Have you ever tried to break the ground in a brilliant way? That is hard to do. We want to keep things up to the same level that we always have. You know, I worked at another big-name sketch show for a long time-I'm not going to say the name-but there was a real attitude of, "Yeah, we got our laughs. We got our three laughs. it's done. We filled an hour and a half." And really, that was the attitude from the word "go," and we never, ever want to feel that way. DC: The Edge was an hour and a half long? BO: [Laughs.] We want to look at each show as if it were the only show we were doing. DC: It's tough. It was a fear we had when we started: We knew the schedule was going to be very, very tight for us. Those fears were substantiated. You just have to make the last one as good as the first nine, and it's hard, because we're still dealing with rehearsing, and we still have stuff to shoot. We have one week to do...Oh, it's fucking nuts. It's crazy. I can't fucking wait until it's over. I'm just going to cry a deep, weird cry-the kind of cry that's not happy or sad. O: What made the process different this time around? DC: Well, HBO expected more shows this time around, in the same amount of time, so you're not gaining any time. BO: But we still wrote these 10 shows the way we wrote the first batch of four and the second batch of six. We sat down and wrote a bunch of scenes that made us laugh-all different kinds of scenes. Then we started putting them in order and finding connections between them. So as far as the actual process of writing the show goes, we did the exact same thing we've done every time. I just think we've found a limit of how many shows we can do in this length of time. Fans of the show should look forward to a great season, and ideas that are going to come just as fast and be just as cool and interesting as any other. O: How long are you guys going to do this? DC: Honestly, Bob and I have talked about this with numerous people involved with the show. It just depends on the time we get to do the next 10, if we do 10. This is not enough time to do it properly. BO: It doesn't help that they make us sleep upright. We eat G.I. rations. Worms are eating away at the skin of David's feet. It's called Wormfoot. Chunks fall off. ********************************** Jello Biafra By John Krewson Originally Printed April 1997 Seminal California punk band Dead Kennedys left some listeners wondering whether its music or its politics came first, a question former frontman Jello Biafra was happy to leave unanswered. A San Francisco mayoral candidate even before the release of the group's first album, Biafra has long prided himself on never backing away from a challenge. In 1981, he formed the Alternative Tentacles label to counter the homogeneity of the music industry, and four years later, he faced an obscenity trial (and frequent police harassment) over the band's Frankenchrist album, which included a phallus-intensive poster by H.R. Giger. Following Dead Kennedy's 1987 breakup, Biafra, began dividing his time among the lecture circuit, recordings (both musical and spoken-word), Alternative Tentacles, and politics. In the 1990s, he survived both a near-fatal attack by skinheads and a lawsuit by his former bandmates while becoming one of the most outspoken members of the Green Party. Biafra would always rather talk about issues than himself, however, as illustrated in this 1997 interview with The Onion A.V. Club. The Onion: How's it going? Jello Biafra: Next question. I just did another long interview, so let's just draw a blank on a question like, "How's it going?" O: Okay, I'll jump to the really tough stuff, then. Everybody wants to know the story about your legs getting broken by punks. JB: No, I'm not gonna answer that. That's boring, tabloid, O.J. Simpson shit. I'm not interested. Not gonna do it. Ask an intelligent question. O: Then tell me the story of how you hosted that Make-A-Wish foundation kid. JB: God! Umm...How'd you hear about that? O: I'm not telling. JB: Well, basically, he came to visit, and we took him some places, and he enjoyed it and went home, and I hope he's okay. I was never quite clear from his condition whether he was somebody who was destined to live a short life or destined to be very ill a lot of the time. He went off and bought a guitar, he went to record stores. We mainly hung out at the label and went out to dinner, and I sort of gave him some tips on other places to visit around San Francisco: Avoid Fisherman's Wharf, go to the redwoods, and so on. A lot of people who visit from Europe or Japan or Australia go only to big cities and then wonder why they're not finding stuff that's as interesting as they'd hoped for. O: Well, what's cool out in San Francisco these days? What's your take on the scene there? JB: I can't think of a good answer to that. There are 500 scenes in this town, just like any other town now, and they don't communicate enough with each other. There are lots and lots and lots of bands that want to sound like Green Day or get on Fat Wreck Chords or something, and there's lots and lots of bands that want to sound like Nirvana, and lots and lots of bands that want to sound like Pearl Jam, and lots and lots of bands that want to sound like R.E.M. And every once in a while, someone cuts through who sounds completely unique, and often they wind up on Alternative Tentacles because nobody else will touch them. The reward of AT is being able to put out some really cool music that wouldn't turn up or even be out there otherwise. That was the original goal when not enough of the great bands were being documented. It was just to get music out there that I liked, and to try and help out other people whose minds are similar to mine; that is, they want to operate totally outside the straight entertainment industry and not worry about major-label jackasses in satin baseball jackets telling them what to do and say, or to jump around and look stupid in a video, or to get on MTV or something like that. Contrary to what the commercial industry would like you to believe, there's plenty of room just to play music your own way because you want to, without having to worry about getting signed, making a video, doing a CD-ROM, whatever. O: And the state of punk these days? JB: I think that what's perceived as punk out in shopping malls or in chain stores or on MTV has almost nothing to do with what punk is about. Punk was originally about creating new, important, energetic music that would hopefully threaten the status quo and the stupidity of the 1970s. Now we have an entire audience of people who call themselves "punk" because they've written the name of a British band that broke up 15 years ago on the leather jacket they bought the day before at the mall, who only want to hear one kind of music. They're as conservative as Republicans or fundamentalist Christians. I like to shock and torment those people as much as I liked to shock fern-bar idiots and disco zombies when punk first began. I think the spirit of punk has almost completely evaporated from most of what's popularly thought of as punk music. The sound is a faithful imitation of earlier bands, but the very fact that it's a deliberate, faithful imitation is what makes it not punk anymore, in my mind. I mean, conservative, narrow-minded power brokers, like Maximumrocknroll have played a major role in ruining punk as a forward musical force. People should all think alike, people should all sound alike-that's exactly the opposite of what punk means to me. I think the true spirit of punk has more in common with the spirit of the early Beats or the early hippies, when that was centered on stopping the Vietnam War and fighting for civil rights and cleaning up the planet. That's sort of where that spirit moves from movement-and-theme to movement-and-scene. For all its violence, sexism, and homophobic warts, I still think that rap, and gangsta rap in particular, is far closer to the true spirit of punk than all of the sound-alike pop-punk bands. I don't care how loud the guitars are. As soon as I hear a whiny voice that sounds exactly like The Eagles, it nauseates me as much as The Eagles did. I have very little tolerance for people whose entire lyrical focus is "Boo hoo, my girlfriend left me, I feel so sorry for myself as a middle-class white kid in the richest country in the world. Oh, woe is me. Maybe I should die now." As far as I'm concerned, maybe those people should. I think punk is moving away from causes, except for two things: the punk scene as a cocoon where you hide from reality, and making money. I think they could stand to move much closer to things like environmental causes. I don't think it's too hippie to want to clean up the planet so you don't wind up dying of some kind of cancer when you're 45 years old. It enrages me that these big cancer-research organizations can't be bothered to man the front lines of environmental protest. If you clean up the pollution that causes the cancer, maybe you won't need some magic cure after all. Of course, the corporations would much prefer to pour millions into trying to find a magic cure so they can then force their workers into even worse conditions than they already have, and not worry about making them all sick. There's even been open pipe-dreaming among corporate executives allowing themselves to be quoted in commercial pulp-fiction like Newsweek, saying that they're almost to the point where they think they can require some kind of genetic alteration or DNA work to be done on prospective workers so they don't have to clean up the damn factories. First the lie detector, then the drug test, now this. My latest spoken-word thing, Beyond The Valley of the Gift Police, breaks some new ground for me in that I'm trying to fofer some solutions to the stuff I complain about, as well as looking under rocks to show people why they should really be worried. Forget O.J. and whether Green Day sold out when they signed to Reprise; this stuff is really important, and it's affecting your lives. Arguing about what is and is not punk is not gonna feed the homeless person starving outside your front door. There are two solution pieces on the album. Both borrow liberally from my mayoral campaign platform, but, again, there's the wiseass solutions and others that are dead serious. For example, the California Green Party had a great idea about enacting a maximum wage. You have a minimum wage, so why not a maximum wage? Once a person starts getting really, really rich, it's like a narcotic. The most dangerous drug in America, much worse than crack, is money. Once people have it, they start getting obsessed with making more, and they become much more predatory and uncaring toward all those people they're screwing by accumulating so much wealth and property while other people go homeless. People whine about balancing the budget. Why not just cut everybody off after a hundred grand? There'd probably be enough money left over to bring all the poor up to the level of having a hundred grand just to see what they'd do with it. Unlike right-wing pop culture today, I'm all in favor of more taxes, especially on rich people, and also in favor of more welfare. I've been to enough other countries in the world to know what happens when you have socialized single-payer health care. It works. But here, some people are scared to see a doctor because they'll either lose their shirt or they'll lose their home 'cause they'll get deported back to Mexico 'cause their skin's the wrong color or something. There's actually cholera in this country again. There's reports of cholera all up and down the Texas/Mexico borders, especially in El Paso and Brownsville. There's tuberculosis sprouting up again in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and other places. You'd expect this sort of thing to happen in Calcutta, but corporations and rich people are all too eager to let America turn into Calcutta, if they can squeeze a few more dollars out of it to go blow on Wall Street. I think one thing people need to start working on is a self-help organization called Democrats Anonymous for people who still think there really is an alternative in a Mexico-style one-party state, which in America's case masquerades as a two-party state. People could all go to meeting halls and get up sheepishly before a podium and say, "Hi, I'm so-and-so, I'm a Democrat. But now I've learned, and I've weaned myself from being lied to again and again by Nixonian corporate puppets like the Hill-Billarys and their religious-right Trojan-horse friends the Gores." What puts the spinelessness of Clinton in its place is, here he is getting bashed up and down over a non-scandal like Whitewater when the Hill-Billarys losing 60 grand is a drop in the bucket compared to George Bushs own kids making off with over a hundred million bucks and not going to jail. If you really want to turn the tables on Whitewater, why not start prosecuting all those savings-and-loan Crips who got away with murder in the Reagan-Bush era? We're still paying thousands of dollars apiece in taxes to bail out those assholes, when they should be locked up. You sure have to dig deep to find the good guys in this day and age, don't you? It was interesting that Ralph Nader ran for president [in 1996], but I think he should have openly campaigned more, or at least run some op-ed pieces and some ads. I'm sure they could have raised the money to do that. What good are a bunch of decent new ideas when you don't really tell anybody about them? I like Michael Moore, and believe it or not, this long after "California Uber Alles," I think some good ideas have come out of Jerry Brown. I have very mixed feelings about Jesse Jackson. He's very good about labor and human-and civil-rights issues, but not so good on cultural issues. He's been as anti-rock-music as any of the Tipper Gore types. He characterized it as child abuse in his 1988 campaign, all because he took his kids to see Funkadelic and the singer told the kids to light up joints. That was a reactionary response, but keep in mind that, for the many good things Jackson says, he's also a reactionary preacher. I think Noam Chomsky is a national treasure-make that an international treasure. I definitely think the farty old left is as much an enemy as the conservatives in power, as far as turning people off to activism and change. Resistance should be fun. Resistance isn't some pain in the ass. It's not just good for the soul and uplifting spiritually, but it can also be a great kick in the ass. Remember how much fun you had shooting spitwads at the teacher in seventh grade? Imagine applying that kind of attitude to actually fucking with Mitsubishi! A more mature, sophisticated version of that spirit was probably the driving force of my campaign for mayor, and now several other people's, too. I love torpedoing the illusions of people who think punk should be some cocoon of a scene where you can argue over bullshit and non-issues like Green Day and Rancid as a way of avoiding the real world. You can argue about whether Offspring sold out when they signed to Sony until you're blue in the face, but that ain't gonna feed the homeless person outside your front door. Or did I already say that? O: That's okay. JB: But it's not going to do a damn thing to put a stop to the drug war. How's that? [Sound of splashing, paper rolling.] O: that you? Are you taking a crap? JB: I just finished. O: I respect that. That's fine. JB: It's not a matter of respect, it's a matter of, um... O: It's necessity. It's hydraulic pressure. JB: Even somebody who knows very little about science can figure that one out. Excerpted from The Tenacity of the Cockroach: Conversations with Entertainment's Most Enduring Outsiders by Stephen Thompson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.