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Writer Harvey Pekar and his Wife Joyce Brabner

Underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner. In 1976 Pekar published the first in a series of comic books about his mundane life as a veterans hospital clerk and record collector in Cleveland. It was called American Splendor, and he has continued to publish them since. In 1987 one of them earned him an American Book Award. Now he is the subject of the new film American Splendor which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.


Other segments from the episode on August 4, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 4, 2003: Interview with Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner; Interview with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner discusses the movie
"American Splendor" based on Pekar's comic book series

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The new movie "American Splendor" is an adaptation of the comic book series of
the same name. No, it's not another movie based on a superhero; the American
Splendor comics are a series of autobiographical stories by Harvey Pekar,
which he's published since 1976. They're about his daily life working as a
file clerk in Cleveland's VA hospital, collecting jazz records, running into
annoying friends and strangers on the street, dealing with the ups and downs
of married life and being constantly disgruntled about how little money he
makes. His book-length comic, Our Cancer Year, co-written with his wife,
Joyce Brabner, was about having lymphoma. Pekar doesn't draw, so he relies on
artists to illustrate American Splendor, including his old friend, R. Crumb.

The movie stars Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis as Joyce Brabner. They
first connected through letters and phone calls when Brabner was a partner in
a comic book store in Delaware. Here's a scene from one of those early phone

(Soundbite of "American Splendor")

clip (:40)

Mr. PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Harvey Pekar) So, are you married or what?

Ms. HOPE DAVIS: (As Joyce Brabner) I'm divorced, thank God.

Mr. GIAMATTI: Look, I think you and I got a lot in common. You know? How am
I going to get you to come visit me in Cleveland?

Ms. DAVIS: Cleveland?


Ms. DAVIS: You think that's a good idea?

Mr. GIAMATTI: Yeah, it's a great idea. You know, you should meet me because
I'm a great guy. You know? Despite the way my comics read, I got a lot of
redeeming characteristics.

Ms. DAVIS: I don't know. Where would I stay?

Mr. GIAMATTI: I don't know. With me. You know? Don't worry. I'm not going
to put no moves on you or anything.

Ms. DAVIS: I'm not worried about that. Hold on. I just spilled my camomile
tea all over me.


GROSS: Although "American Splendor" stars Hope Davis and Paul Giamatti, the
real Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner are interviewed within the film commenting
about their lives. The movie won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's
Sundance Film Festival. We invited Pekar and Brabner to talk with us.


000 Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. HARVEY PEKAR (American Splendor): Thank you.

GROSS: How do you think the movie "American Splendor" compares with your real
lives? Harvey, let's start with you on that.

Mr. PEKAR: My real life? I'm even more hairy and frantic than you see there.

GROSS: Is that true?

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah.

GROSS: Joyce, what do you think?

Ms. JOYCE BRABNER: Well, you know, we're watching people who look better than
we do and, you know, sitting on furniture that's better than stuff that we
have. And for some reason, everything that's happening to them has an arc and
it seems to all be taken care of in--What?--80, 90 minutes, you know. So
things go awfully fast.

GROSS: Whereas real life leads in many directions and in slow motion?

Ms. BRABNER: Yeah. Yeah.


Ms. BRABNER: Right.


(American Splendor restaurant clip 1:30)

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Harvey Pekar) What's wrong?

Ms. DAVIS: (As Joyce Brabner) Nothing.

Mr. GIAMATTI: Something's wrong. You keep looking around everywhere.

Ms. DAVIS: I guess I never imagined you'd eat in a place like this.

Mr. GIAMATTI: What? Me? No, I've never been here. I don't know. I thought
you'd like it. But obviously you don't, do you?

Ms. DAVIS: No, it's fine. What difference does it make?

Mr. GIAMATTI: (Sighs) I don't know. None, I guess. (Sighs) Hmm. They've
got a lot of meat on this menu.

Ms. DAVIS: You're a vegetarian?

Mr. GIAMATTI: Kind of, you know. I mean, ever since I got a pet cat, you
know, I've had a lot of trouble eating animals.

Ms. DAVIS: Hmm. I support and identify with groups like PETA, but
unfortunately, I'm a self-diagnosed anemic.

Mr. GIAMATTI: Uh-huh.

Ms. DAVIS: Also, I have all these food allergies to vegetables which give me
serious intestinal distress. I guess I have a lot of borderline health
disorders that limit me politically when it comes to eating.

Mr. GIAMATTI: Wow, you're a sick woman.

Ms. DAVIS: Not yet, but I expect to be. Everyone in my family has some sort
of degenerative illness.


Harvey, Joyce, what's it like to hear Giamatti and Davis portraying you?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, it's not strange. A lot of times people think that it's
strange for me to hear somebody playing me in a theater or in a movie or
something like that, but it's not because while--I'm not saying that, you
know, other people wouldn't find it strange, but I don't find it strange
because people have been drawing me in comics for 30 years or more.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. PEKAR: And I've been on, you know, a few documentary movies, and the book
has been dramatized about four times, or portions of it about four times, you
know, before an audience. So it's not--I guess I've gotten used to the idea
of somebody else portraying me.


Ms. BRABNER: Well, you know, I'm alternately just knocked out by the
accuracy and spirit, if not in fact, that comes out. I mean, I think they
nailed us. But you also wince at the little things that aren't exactly the
way you remember them.

GROSS: Well, good. Would you compare that scene fro
m the film with what
really happened...

Ms. BRABNER: With what really happened?

GROSS: the restaurant when you went out to dinner?

Ms. BRABNER: OK. Well, Harvey didn't take me to a really fashionable, you
know, yuppie chain. He took me to McDonald's, and I just was a real good
sport and sat there and ate the french fries.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BRABNER: But I guess Bob and Shari decided I deserved better. And

GROSS: They're the directors and writers.

Ms. BRABNER: The directors, right.

GROSS: Go ahead.

Ms. BRABNER: Right. And then they based some of what they saw on
observations of us as we are now. And, actually, at the time I was the
vegetarian, and Harvey would eat different kinds of meat. And that was my cat
that turned Harvey into a hardened vegetarian after we moved in. But, you
know, who cares? I mean, these are things that I don't even think my mother


Ms. BRABNER: It's pretty different because the only contact I had with Hope
was, you know, the time that we spent together before she went to work acting.
We spent some time, and, you know, she had questions, and I tried to give her
some answers and some explanations, you know, back story, things like that,
what was, you know, behind some of the stuff that was in the script. But I
went down and I watched it, and I watched it from a distance, and I got a
message from Ted Hope, the producer, who sort of took me aside and said, `Hope
is freaking out. She feels like, you know, your eyes are burning into the
back of her neck. And she just feels very, very uncomfortable doing this with
you.' And so I was asked not to come down and watch, although they did arrange
for me to, from time to time, look at it through the remote or, I don't know,
hide me out in the bushes or something like that.

So it made me a little uncomfortable during lunch breaks because I would never
know--you know, I tried to sit as far away from her as possible, and, you
know, she'd say, `Come on over here. Come on over here.' And I'm thinking,
`I don't want to contaminate her with my Joyceness or whatever it is.' But I
never gave her any suggestions on the set. I never...

GROSS: Right.

Ms. BRABNER: ...said anything. You can't do that because you have to be
quiet and let them film.


Mr. PEKAR: Well, I was sort of hoping that, yeah. You know, I expected she'd
be like she'd been on the phone, you know, like pretty straightforward, maybe
a little acerbic and with a good sense of humor and, you know, basically a
pretty honest person and, you know, a person who's pretty loyal. And I guess
that's what I got.


Ms. BRABNER: It wasn't the reading. It was strictly the visuals.
Start here? @ 838
I thought much about this guy, but I really had to check him out in person to see
whether or not he smelled bad, he had any twitches, Tourette-like, you know,
symptoms, things like that, because I had no real clues to what he looked
like. And, you know, like I said, well, in real life before I said it in the
movie, that with the range of artists from Gerry Shamray to R. Crumb, you
know, Harvey was presented to me as anything from, you know, `The Missing
Link' to just this sort of noble, you know, high forehead, you know, young
Brando type.

GROSS: So where do you think he falls in in that range? What did you think
of him when you met him?

Ms. BRABNER: Well, he was more muscular than I thought he would be.


Mr. PEKAR: Right.

GROSS: Is that the first thing you really said to her?

Ms. BRABNER: He said that to me when we were talking over the phone. When I
said I was coming out, he just blurted it out. But they don't show too much
of the telephone conversations.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. BRABNER: So they just moved that up a bit. But it really had that kind
of impact, you know, and just came out apropos of nothing.

GROSS: Did that seem presumptuous to you?

Ms. BRABNER: To me?

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. BRABNER: It seemed Harvey.

1022 FLOAT

GROSS: My guests are Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner. The new movie "American
Splendor" is based on Pekar's autobiographical comic book series of the same
name. Pekar doesn't draw; several artists have illustrated his work,
including Pekar's old friend R. Crumb, the father of underground comics.
Crumb was Pekar's first collaborator.


Mr. PEKAR: Yes. Yeah.

GROSS: And he lived around the corner from you, and you used to go
record-collecting together.

Mr. PEKAR: Right. Right.

GROSS: He wrote an introduction to the first collection of American Splendor
comics, the first anthologized version.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah.

GROSS: And I'm going to read something that he said. He said, `Harvey was
the first person I ever met who was a genuine hipsters. I was very impressed.
He was heavily into modern jazz; had big, crazy, abstract paintings on the
wall of his pad; talked bop lingo; had shelves and shelves of books and
records and never cleaned his apartment. He was seething, intense, burning
up, always moving, pacing, jumping around just like a character out of
"Kerouac."' What kind of connection did you make with Crumb? I know you
shared a passion for music, for record-collecting. But what was it about your
sensibilities that you think really connected?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, I liked him very much personally. I'll say that. He was a
real calm, quiet person. I mean, I know he's done some pretty wild things,
but talking to him, you know, had a calming effect on me. And I guess you
could figure if I was like Crumb said I was, I needed some calming down.

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. PEKAR: And later on I can remember discussing my theories about comics
with him, like as to what kind of stories you could put in them, or I, you
know, was telling him, `I thought you could put any kind of stories in them,'
or, you know, things like that. And so for years these ideas were percolating
in my mind about how to do a different kind of comic book. And in 1972, when
Crumb was staying with me at my apartment building, I wrote down some of the
stories I had made up, and I did it in storyboard fashion with panels and
dialogue and captions and directions to the artists. And he looked at them
and he said, `Wow, these are fine,' you know, like, `Could I take some of
these home, illustrate them?' And I was just totally, you know, knocked out.
I mean, Crumb illustrating my stuff would give it instant credibility, you
know, and I was thrilled. And I've always been very grateful to Crumb for
doing that. I mean, if not for him, I probably would not have gotten into
comics at all.
1407 **
GROSS: When he first drew you--now you're used to all kinds of artists
drawing you, and you're used to actors portraying you.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah.

GROSS: But that first time when he drew you, when you were not used to it,
what did you think of the way he drew you? And I should mention that I think
of all the artist portrayals of you that I've seen, his portrayal of you are
the most kind of, you know, like neurotic and worried-looking and ethnic

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah. Well, I was a neurotic, worried ethnic and still am.

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. PEKAR: I think, you know, I was just very impressed. Crumb just never
disappoints me when he illustrates my work, and he sometimes surprises me by
doing things I didn't expect. I mean, like, for example, in a story called
"Hypothetical Quandry," and maybe some other stories, too, his work really
knocked me out because this was a straight, serious story, and his
illustration was less cartoony and more realistic than it normally was. And
it worked. It seemed like nothing this guy could do--you know, it seemed like
everything the guy did worked. You know, that's sharp--that keen.

GROSS: And you never said to him, `Look, make me more handsome'?

Mr. PEKAR: Ah, no, I would never presume to do that. No. I mean, I didn't
tell people on the movie set what to do, and I didn't tell Crumb what--I don't
tell these people, you know, usually what to do. It's just like I give them
an assignment, and I take, you know, pretty much what's given to me. I mean,
I've, fortunately, been working with a lot of really good artists, and I don't
have to, you know, struggle or fight for what I want.

GROSS: Joyce, you were a reader of "American Splendor" before you met Harvey.

Ms. BRABNER: You should ask me about how I felt when I was first rendered in
the comic.

GROSS: Go ahead. Answer that questions (laughs).

Ms. BRABNER: OK. I did ask that I not be drawn like a comic book female, and
the first artist who drew me...

GROSS: Wait. Comic book female meaning, like, big, curvacious, you know, big

Ms. BRABNER: Yeah, basketballs pushed down inside a spandex leotard, things
like that.

GROSS: The standard R. Crumb female, in other words (laughs)?

Ms. BRABNER: No, no, no.


Ms. BRABNER: Crumb never drew me. The first artist who drew me drew me
as--well, he'd been doing a lot of illustrations for a local strip joint for
ads or something like that, so I came out looking like a Barbie doll. And I'm
not even talking about the new, modified Barbie doll who has had breast
reduction surgery, something like that. I was long-legged, straight-backed,
you know, enormous front. And the weird thing was is that I was blond.
Harvey and I have the same color hair, and there are plenty of pictures of us,
and there'd be pictures of us standing together in the same light; he'd be the
brunette, I'd be blond. And I remember bringing this to the artist's
attention after it was done, and he said, `Oh, my God, you're not blond.' And
that's because, in comic books, women are supposed to be voluptuous and blond
and completely not looking like me.

GROSS: So did the artist comply with your request? And, Harvey, had...


GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

Ms. BRABNER: No. You know, we just--I mean, part of the fun of all this is
to send it out and see what somebody's going to come back with. It's not--I
mean, we'd be drawing them ourselves if we really wanted to have that kind of

GROSS: Harvey, did you want Joyce to be portrayed as more glamorous than she
was in real life, or did you want it to be as true to who she was as possible,
just as you wanted your own depiction to be as true to yourself...

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, I wanted things to be accurate. But I...

Ms. BRABNER: We weren't paying this guy enough money to start insisting on
major changes.

Mr. PEKAR: I have to say, though, that I think Joyce looked a lot less like a
female superhero than her remarks would lead you to believe.

Ms. BRABNER: Well, Harv, this is the...

Mr. PEKAR: He did draw you with glasses.

Ms. BRABNER: Yeah, the first artist that I'm talking about was Mitch.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, I know. I know who it was.

Ms. BRABNER: And--OK. Afterwards we never worked with him again, and

Mr. PEKAR: I worked with him one more time.

Ms. BRABNER: One more time, yeah. But other artists got the point because,
you know, we were more direct about it. And then I started coming out looking
like this harpy with rays coming out of my eyes, deadly rays, that would bore
into Harvey's head while he would not wash the dishes appropriately, things
like that.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah.

GROSS: Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, we'll talk more about "American
Splendor" in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, we hear from the writing and directing duo that made the
new movie "American Splendor," Shari Springer-Berman and Robert Pulcini. And
we continue our conversation with Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner. Pekar writes the autobiographical
comic book series American Splendor. Many of his stories have been about
his married life with Brabner, who used to run a comic book store. She's also
written journalistic comics. Now there's a new film adaptation of "American
Splendor" which stars Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis as Brabner. But
the real Pekar and Brabner are also in the film talking about their lives.

Joyce, when you got married to Harvey, you knew that you would be a character
in his stories 'cause the stories are autobiographical, and so it changed your
life not only 'cause you now had a, you know, partner in life, you were also
in a position where parts of your life together were going to be described in
this comic book. What was it like for you to suddenly be a part of the comic
book that you had read and to know that things that you said, things that you
did might end up in the story?

Ms. BRABNER: Well, it was a little annoying because I could no longer enjoy
the comics once a year. I always knew what was going in, and so I was
deprived of that--you know, the experience of just opening a fresh, new copy
and finding out what had happened to this character this year. But it was
sort of incumbent upon me to make sure that our marriage had a happy ending.
I first became really aware of what was going on when after about a year or
so--people, you know, send fan mail to Harvey all the time, and we got letters
that said things like, `Well, we weren't real sure about you, you know, in
issue 9, but now that we've seen what's going on in issue 10, you know, it
seems like you're here to stay and you're good for our man, and so'--you know,
the marriage was approved of by all these people who don't know who we are but
just read about us in comics.

GROSS: That's kind of weird, isn't it, I mean, to have readers weighing in on
whether you're the right choice.

Ms. BRABNER: Well, it's either people like that or relatives, and Harvey
didn't come with a whole lot of in-laws and relatives.

GROSS: That's funny. So you have to please the readers.

Ms. BRABNER: Yeah. And it matters just about as much. You know, and we see
them and hear from them about as often as you'd hear from, you know,
long-distant aunts and cousins and...

GROSS: Well, you know, there's parts in American Splendor the comic and
"American Splendor" the new movie where you seem to drive each other a little
crazy. What's it like to expose that part of the relationship to the public?
That's the kind of stuff people like to not have people see.

Ms. BRABNER: Well, actually in my case, it's very liberating because now that
everybody sees what I have to put up with--I mean, people are almost offended
if Harvey doesn't have a meltdown or something or do something gauche or...

GROSS: It's like part of the show.

Ms. BRABNER: ...whatever. I think it's--when you try and hide these things,
you get into trouble. But now it's like he gets paid to be this way. He gets
paid to be squirrelly.

GROSS: Harvey, what's your take on this?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, I don't deliberately act, you know, neurotic, although I
guess I am. But I don't try--you know, I don't do it because anybody's paying
me to do it. And I'm glad that Joyce allows me, you know, so easily to write
about our disagreements and stuff like that 'cause I don't want to idealize
our marriage. At the same time it's a--we've been together for 20 years now
and we're still working things out and we're still, you know, growing and,
you know, I think it's a good marriage.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Harvey Pekar and Joyce
Brabner, and Harvey writes the American Splendor autobiographical comic books.
There's a new movie adaptation of "American Splendor," and it stars Paul
Giamatti as Harvey Pekar and Hope Davis as Joyce Brabner.

And how many years have you been married? Twenty years?

Ms. BRABNER: Twenty.

Mr. PEKAR: Yes. Twenty.

GROSS: One of the best-known works that you did was a collaboration between
you and Joyce called "Our Cancer Year" about the year that you were diagnosed
with lymphoma and you had chemo, and it was a--you were very, very sick. But
then you went into remission and seemed to be clear and was it after
retirement that it came back?

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, that's where I just...

Ms. BRABNER: It came back right after the movie wrapped.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, the movie was...

GROSS: So did you have to do chemo all over again?

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah.

Ms. BRABNER: Yeah. It wasn't as bad physically as last time. Actually,
Harvey had been pronounced cured and so this might actually be coincidental
rather than related. But it was still really, really rough 'cause he was
still, you know, kind of depressed and out of sorts trying to find his way
after retiring. I mean, he'd retired, begun working on this movie, and then
boom, he's got a tumor again.

GROSS: In what way was it not as bad as the first time around?

Ms. BRABNER: Medically. Medically, because when Harvey had his treatment 10
years ago, it was horrific. They were telling him that he was taking the
second harshest form of chemotherapy, the second harshest protocol, and it was
very rough on him. But this time physically it was better. There's a lot of
deja vu though. I mean, George Bush was president then; George Bush
is president when he had lymphoma this last time. We were in a Persian Gulf
war the first time he had cancer, another Persian Gulf war. I was involved
with 15-year-olds from different countries who were war survivors, and now I'm
guardian to a 15-year-old girl. So it kind of felt that we were stuck in the
same tape loop.

Mr. PEKAR: I think one of the main reasons that I didn't suffer as much the
second time as the first time around when I had cancer was that they'd come up
with some milder medications.

Ms. BRABNER: Yeah. Much better medication.

GROSS: So did doctors give you the all-clear this time around?

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, I'm in remission again.

GROSS: Good.

Mr. PEKAR: I was just found in remission again last--well, I mean, it's been
some months since I've been in remission, but I just saw the doctor last
Friday and I'm still in remission, so...

GROSS: Good.

Mr. PEKAR: ...knock on wood.

GROSS: My guests are Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner. The new movie "American
Splendor" is based on Pekar's autobiographical comic book series of the same
name. More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner. The new movie "American
Splendor" is based on Pekar's autobiographical comic book series of the same

I'd really like to ask you a few things about your backgrounds, starting with
your parents. In--this comes from one of your comics. You wrote about your
families' attitudes toward getting into fights when you were a kid. You
wrote, `My family considered physical violence and even sports as unthinkably
barbaric activities fit only for Gentiles.' So...

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah.

GROSS: ...tell me a little bit about your parents.

Mr. PEKAR: Well, my parents were both from northeastern Poland from shtetls.
My mother's from a place called Restavitza(ph); my father's from a place
called Nomy Dwor. And my mother came over to the United States first in the
1920s and--I don't know, I think maybe partly because she was, like, really
short, you know, you couldn't find a husband. And she got sent back to Europe
again in 1935, and I guess at that time, you know, she was supposed to be--or
maybe my relatives who were still there were supposed to be, you know, looking
out for her and trying to find her somebody. And she did come up with my
father. My father's--I--he--as long as I've known him, my father's been real
religious, and my mother was a Communist. We were for Henry Wallace in 1948.
But they seemed to have resolved their differences that way.

Ms. BRABNER: They were both short.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah. Well, you know, my mother wouldn't go to shul on the High
Holidays and stuff like that, and--but they got along. They respected their
differences. I don't know too many cases that are like that because they both
believed pretty strongly in what they--you know, in my mother's case, in her
politics; in my father's case, in his religion.

GROSS: I could see how both a Communist parent and a religious parent would
think that reading comic books was frivolous and something to be discouraged.
What did your parents think of your interest in comic books and music or any
other parts of pop culture?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, they thought--yeah, they thought it was just a waste of
time. I didn't read comic books from the age of 11 until, like, I moved out
of the house, so that was one thing they didn't have to worry about. But I
mean--and my father tried to be tolerant of jazz, although he--I don't think
he liked it very much. He collected Hazlanasheer(ph) records, you know.

GROSS: What kind of record?

Mr. PEKAR: Hazlanasheer. You know, like, cantors...


Mr. PEKAR: ...the records of cantors, like, Yossele Rosenblatt or Moshe
Kousevitzky or--well, you know, there used to be a guy that used to sing
for the Met that was also a cantor, by the name of Richard Tucker--I don't
know if you know about his stuff.

GROSS: Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah. He used to--so my father actually was into collecting these
records, too. I wasn't the first record collector in the family.

GROSS: Did you like those cantor records?

Mr. PEKAR: At first, I--they just made me so depressed and sad I couldn't
take them but...

GROSS: Why were they depressing?

Mr. PEKAR: That's the way they--have you heard them? You've heard them,
haven't you?

GROSS: Well, I've heard cantors. I'm not sure I've heard the records that
you're talking about.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, but the style is extremely, you know, it's--it's really,
you know, like a melancholy, pained style of singing, and I really like it
now. I really do. But--and I, you know, collected about--I don't know--maybe
a hundred or more cantorial LPs, you know, just have--so I could refer to
them. And but it's--well, one guy described it as the cantors were men with
tears in their voices.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. PEKAR: It's sort of like--I don't want to make too close an analogy, but
it's sort of like equivalent to blues singing in a way.

GROSS: I regret that we're really out of time, so one last question for you

Mr. PEKAR: Oh, that's...

GROSS: How do you and how do you not want the movie adaptation of "American
Splendor" to change your lives?

Ms. BRABNER: The big thing about doing the movie is access. It grants Harvey
access to more chances to work, which means he isn't going to hang around the
house and drive me crazy, and he can, you know--I mean, he's, you know,
somebody who's self-educated and self-published for as long as he was--I think
at this point it'd be nice if he wouldn't have to keep proving himself every
time he got a gig. So we like that. According to form, we're supposed to get
divorced as soon as the movie peaks.

GROSS: You mean 'cause that's what happens when celebrity strikes.

Ms. BRABNER: That's just what happens. Exactly. As soon as the celebrity
strikes, I'm going to have to run away with I don't know what, cameraman or
something like that.

GROSS: Or Harvey gets to run away with a 25-year-old model.

Ms. BRABNER: Well, he can't really run.

Mr. PEKAR: Oh, perish the thought.

GROSS: Harvey, what else do you or do you not want from the movie?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, it's pretty much like Joyce says. I'd like the opportunity
to get more writing jobs, and you know, like, as a matter of fact, every time
somebody'll interview me or something like that--well, I'm not going to do
this to you, Terry, but I would ask them if there's anything at their
magazine or anything like that that I could do. Can I write some jazz
criticism for you? Can I write some, you know, literary criticism for you?
I'm pretty aggressive and maybe obnoxious about trying to get work. But I
realize that it's really essentially that when the dust has settled from this
movie that I still am, you know, somebody that people want to work with.

GROSS: Are you willing to risk being obnoxious to get that?

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah. It comes easy.

Ms. BRABNER: Yeah, it's--I don't think there's any risk involved for the
being obnoxious. I don't think there's any `willing.' I think Harvey is more
or less compelled to be obnoxious to get this stuff. He's a very driven

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah. Yeah, I can't help myself. What can I do?

GROSS: Well, I regret we're out of time. I really enjoyed talking to you

Mr. PEKAR: Thanks.

GROSS: I love the movie. Love the comic. And thank you so much for talking
with us.

Mr. PEKAR: Thanks. It's always a pleasure to talk to you, Terry.

GROSS: Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner. The new movie "American Splendor" is
based on Pekar's autobiographical comic book series of the same name. It won
the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini discuss their
film "American Splendor"

"American Splendor" stars Paul Giamatti as Pekar, and Hope Davis as Brabner.
The film, which is in part about married life, was written and directed by the
husband and wife team, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. They're our
next guests. They also directed the documentary "Off the Menu: The Last Days
of Chasen's," about the famous restaurant which catered to a Hollywood
celebrity clientele.

Did Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner give you any advice on writing for them or
on writing for the fictionalized versions of them?

Mr. ROBERT PULCINI (Co-writer and Co-director, "American Splendor"): Well,
you know, they were pretty hands-off. It was kind of amazing. I mean, Harvey
really prides himself on this warts-and-all portrayal. So I mean, his one
caveat if he had any was, you know, `Please don't whitewash me as a character;
you know that's not what I'm about.' You know, when you do a real story, a
true story about someone who's alive, you know, your big fear is that they're
going to interfere and try to protect themselves in the process. But they
didn't do that at all.

GROSS: Now in the documentary part, in one of the documentary parts of
"American Splendor," Joyce, Harvey's wife, says that Harvey can be very
depressed and therefore very depressing. Is that something that came up with
you, like, dealing with both of their mood swings on the set? You know,
'cause Joyce is prone to depression also.

Mr. PULCINI: Yeah, yeah. Harvey's obsessive-compulsive and very sweet at the
same time, so it's an interesting combination. You know, he would call us a
lot, you know, worried about things, and I don't think he ever really believed
the film was happening, so he was always worried before, you know, when we
were in preproduction that it was going to fall apart. And then once things
were rolling on the set, he was able to relax a little bit more. Although
when we needed him to come on and do his thing, he was, you know, pretty
grumpy and hard to manage. But that's just Harvey, you know.

And Joyce, I think--you know, she protects Harvey a lot, so she's naturally
suspicious of everyone, you know, that comes on board and, you know, I guess
they have had some bad experiences in the past. So you know, she was very
protective of Harvey and his portrayal. And you know, on set, maybe she had
more of a--she was a little more cautious than Harvey in watching. And
ultimately they weren't much of a problem.

GROSS: Harvey Pekar's big moment of celebrity was in the mid- to late '80s
when he was a guest several times on the David Letterman show. And those
appearances were always really weird. He'd be on to promote American Splendor
and, you know, Harvey would be mocking Dave for being a phony celebrity and
David Letterman would be mocking Harvey for being so eccentric. And things
usually go kind of like so smoothly; it's like one celebrity to another on
these late-night shows. But Harvey was so eccentric and so himself that it
was just like really odd match, and you'd kind of be on the edge of your seat
thinking something's going to go terribly, horribly wrong any second. And for
these appearances, you used the actual David Letterman footage with the real
Harvey Pekar, except for the very last in the sequence, and this was the time
when Harvey Pekar was on Letterman wearing his `on strike against NBC' T-shirt
and going on about the conglomerate that owned NBC, and David Letterman was
getting very obviously uncomfortable with it. Why didn't you use the real
David Letterman footage for that? Did they not want you to use it?

Mr. PULCINI: The real Letterman footage for that fight was restricted by NBC.
Harvey named a lot of names, and I think it was immediately restricted after
broadcast. You know, we actually had a copy of it; we had a VHS copy. We
were able to edit with it just to see what it would feel like. And in truth,
it was so hard to understand 'cause they were kind of yelling over each that,
you know, when people saw it in the cut, it didn't make any sense. They had a
lot of questions about it.

It also felt--at that point in the story, it felt wrong to leave the
character, the Harvey character that Paul Giamatti was playing, where he was
emotionally--you know, it's a very interior sequence; he thinks he may have
cancer and his wife is away and he's extremely depressed, and it's all kind of
part of a longer sequence. So we thought, `Let's re-create it and have a
different perspective on it, you know, shoot it from behind the stage and kind
of tie it to the rest of what's going on in Harvey's life.'

GROSS: Why don't we hear your version of that appearance by Harvey Pekar on
David Letterman. And this is the fictionalized version from the film
"American Splendor."

(Soundbite of "American Splendor")

Mr. JEFF PETERS: (As David Letterman) Harvey, this is not the forum. This is
not "Meet the Press."

Mr. PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Harvey Pekar) You just want me to talk about
simple-minded bull(censored), David, but I ain't co-opted like you are. I got
things I want to say.

Mr. PETERS: (As Letterman) Oh, relax, Harvey.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Pekar) For instance, like, I want to talk about a conflict
of interest situation.

Mr. PETERS: (As Letterman) Harvey...

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Pekar) Can we do that, David? How about that? You know,
like GE owning this network, NBC. GE has basically become a
military-industrial-financial-communications complex.

Mr. PETERS: (As Letterman) Can we get the singing Shih Tzu back out here,
Larry? Has he left the building yet?

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Pekar) Now you think that NBC News is gonna cover the
(unintelligible) fairly? That's funny, Dave.

Mr. PETERS: (As Letterman) Harvey...

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Pekar) I got other things I want to talk about.

Mr. PETERS: (As Letterman) That's enough, Harvey.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Pekar) Just shut up, man. Don't push me, man. I'm doing
my own thing.

Mr. PETERS: (As Letterman) Harvey...

GROSS: That's Paul Giamatti playing Harvey Pekar and Jeff Peters playing
David Letterman in the new movie "American Splendor," which is based on the
real-life comics of Harvey Pekar.

And my guests are the director-screenwriter team who made the movie, Shari
Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.

Have you heard from NBC at all about this scene?

Mr. PULCINI: I don't think so. I don't know if the producers have heard
anything. We certainly haven't heard anything.

Ms. SHARI SPRINGER BERMAN: Hopefully we won't be the people hearing about it.

Mr. PULCINI: I mean, you know, the thing is Harvey has a lot of affection for
Letterman. I think at first he was in on the joke, and then it became
tiresome for him and he had to destroy it, you know? So I think if you talk
to Harvey, you'll see that he actually has a lot of affection for the guy. I
mean, they're both from the Midwest, and, you know, it was an interesting

Ms. BERMAN: Also, Harvey told me--he said, `You know, man, since I did those
shows, we both had really hard times, and we both'--Harvey had cancer, and
David Letterman had his open heart surgery. So I think, like, illness humbles
everyone, and they kind of found that as a common denominator.

GROSS: We'll talk more about "American Splendor" after a break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. They wrote
and directed the new film "American Splendor," which is based on Harvey
Pekar's autobiographical comic book series of the same name.

The two characters at the center of your film, Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner,
are married, and they have a kind of neurotic, bickering relationship. You
are married, too. Shari, Robert, you're married to each other. Does being
married yourselves help give you insights into how to write a married couple?

Mr. PULCINI: Well, we certainly know how to write arguments. I think we have
a good ear for that. Yeah, I mean, it was interesting because sometimes
Harvey would come up to me and complain about Joyce on the set, and, you know,
Joyce would go up to Shari and complain about Harvey. And it was a very
strange dynamic.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. PULCINI: Yeah.

Ms. BERMAN: There were a lot of times when Joyce would call and say--you
know, Bob would pick up the phone, and she'd say, `Put Shari on the phone.'
And she'd start complaining about something Harvey did, and I'd be like, `Oh,
yeah, Bob does the exact same thing.' And, you know, Harvey would call really
early and try to talk to Bob about Joyce and so on.

GROSS: But, you know, when you're watching people you know who are in a
relationship not getting along, when you're watching them have a fight or
being neurotic with each other, you kind of want to, like, look away. It
makes you really uncomfortable. But here you are not only in the middle of
it, but you should be kind of soaking it up so you can capture it in the
screenplay. So, you know, what was it like for you? Because it was probably
making you uncomfortable, but at the same time you've got to be using that as
information to help you document what their relationship is like.

Ms. BERMAN: Well, our first trip to Cleveland to meet Harvey and Joyce--and
this was even before we were officially on the project. It was kind of like a
mutual `check each other out' trip. I'd say maybe within 10 minutes of
meeting Harvey and Joyce, they had an argument, a very big, vocal one. But
Bob and I come from documentaries, so we're pretty comfortable with watching
things unfold and being the people who document it. The other thing, also, is
that Harvey and Joyce, having spent a lot of time with them--they might argue
a lot, but we've also seen a lot of strength in their marriage and, you know,
sort of the beauty of their marriage. And, you know, I've seen Joyce do
things to protect Harvey. I've seen Harvey do things to protect Joyce. And
there's a lot of love there, too.

GROSS: Now that you've done a movie about Harvey's comics, comics which
feature all the people, or at least a lot of the people, in his actual life,
have you become characters in his work?

Mr. PULCINI: Well, we've certainly popped up in one or two recently. Harvey
documents everything in his life, so I know the movie's a big part of that.
So, yeah, it comes full circle, I guess, and we're fair game for him now.
And, you know, now we'll read his perspective on us, I guess.

GROSS: Are you uncomfortable about being characters in his comics?

Mr. PULCINI: Well, it wouldn't be fair to be uncomfortable. I mean, he gave
us license to make a movie about him, so that's his art form. And, no, I'm not
uncomfortable with it at all.

Ms. BERMAN: I mean, Harvey...

GROSS: Taste of your own medicine.

Mr. PULCINI: Yeah. You know, it's fun, and let's see what he does.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.

Mr. PULCINI: Well, thank you.

Ms. BERMAN: Thank you.

GROSS: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini wrote and directed the new
film "American Splendor." It opens in New York, LA and Cleveland August 15th
and will open in more cities in the following weeks.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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