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-Shady

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“Stories To Tell Before I Forget” is an ongoing series of short stories about real events from my past. Click here to learn more about the series. And, if you’re interested in reading more, click here to sign up for updates from “The Blarg.”

Stories To Tell Before I Forget: “Frank Oz”

I know it’s been awhile since I’ve posted one of these, and I usually wait much longer before putting a pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard… whatever) on these types of stories. That’s because, like a fine wine or a vat of homemade chili, my stories usually get better with time, mostly because I have more opportunities to tell them over and over again and fine tune them along the way. After a few years, the story’s structure is much more sound, its punchlines way funnier, and I’m able to make myself look both really hilarious and brilliant in the process.

But this Frank Oz tale is much more recent than the childhood friend beating or fart arsenal stories of my youth, or even the dog overdosing stories of recent years. This story happened a little over two weeks ago, though it all began more than a decade ago in February 2001.

Back then, I interviewed Frank Oz for “Tastes Like Chicken” (you can read the interview here). Of course, I’ve been a huge Muppet fan since just shortly after birth, so the opportunity to speak on the telephone with the man responsible for Fozzie Bear, Grover and Yoda (among countless other icons of my youth) was pretty amazing.

Bit of a back story on the interview: Frank’s publicist and I had been playing phone tag over the span of a week or so. She was trying to find a good time for Frank to get on the phone because he was busy with post-production on “The Score,” a film he directed that was released later that year. The interview had been scheduled and rescheduled two or three times earlier in the week, which is a fairly common practice especially when dealing with an admittedly small publication like “Tastes Like Chicken.” We were running the entire thing out of our house, so we all worked long hours (for free) and rolled with the punches.

One morning, probably somewhere a little before 9:00 AM, our phone rang. I had been working/drinking late into the early morning hours the night before, so I sprung out of bed in a haze of confusion and answered the phone. It was Oz’s publicist; she apologized for the few missed previous attempts to get Frank on the phone.

Shady: Don’t worry about it. I’m totally flexible; I can do it whenever.

Frank Oz’s Publicist: Could you do it today?

Shady: Absolutely.

Frank Oz’s Publicist: Okay. Could you hold on one second?

Shady: Sure.

The sound of Muzak filled my ear as I waited. For what, I had no clue. Until–

Frank Oz: Hello?

Shady: Yeah?

Frank Oz: This is Frank Oz.

The next moment happened quickly, within the milliseconds of a beat or two, but I vividly remember glancing over at the full-length mirror that hung on the back of my bedroom door and seeing myself standing there in an early morning cloud of confusion, talking on the phone with Cookie Monster, and doing it all butt naked.

Thank goodness video phones were still considered science fiction back then.

I fumbled as I threw on a pair of boxers and a t-shirt with one hand, and grabbed for the phone recorder with the other. I’m hoping that I sounded cool and collected to Frank, but in reality I was a jumbled mess.

During the interview we started talking about phobias (you can read the actual transcription of this part of the conversation toward the end of the interview), during which Frank admitted to having a small fear of flying.

If you know me at all, which some of you do and some of you don’t, you know that my fear of flying can be quite entertaining. I’m sure more of those stories will pop up in a “Stories To Tell Before I Forget,” but for now all you need to know is that I’m not a big fan of flying today, and I was absolutely terrified of it back in 2001. In January of that year I had purchased tickets to fly from Milwaukee to San Francisco with my mom to visit my sister Bethany to celebrate her 21st birthday in September. After purchasing the tickets I spent the next eight months obsessing over it. Literally.

And so I took the opportunity to ask Frank Oz, this man I held and still hold in extremely high regard, how one tackles his fear of flying. What doesn’t exist in the interview transcription (we had to edit out a lot for print) is this:

Frank Oz: When you board, ask a stewardess if you can meet the pilot. Flying is a cold experience; you’re putting your trust in someone you can’t even see. I’ve realized it helps if I can meet or at least see the pilot first. It gives a face to a usually faceless experience. Remember that they also have a family they’re trying to get back to.

Since then, literally on every flight I’ve ever taken since that day, I’ve asked to meet the pilot before takeoff. I’ve always credited that idea to Frank Oz, and it’s always helped. I’m still not big on flying, sure, but he was right: seeing the pilot’s face before the plane goes roaring down the runway does help.

And this is where the new story begins.

I know, I’m already 900 words into this post and I’m just now getting started? This is a long one, folks, but it’s worth it. Or at least I hope it is. If you get to the end and think it isn’t, hey, you’re not paying to read this so whatever.

On Saturday, October 22nd, KB and I flew out of LAX and headed to Chicago for our wedding a week later. My pre-flight ritual usually involves a drink or two, an anti-anxiety pill and (if I’m really bad) a sleeping pill once I’m on the plane. But I was all out of my meds and instead had to rely on just downing a beer before leaving the house.

Also, we fly a lot; at least four, five, sometimes six times a year. And I’d like to get better at flying over time and not have to rely on drugs and booze to get on a plane. Well, at least not the drugs. Who am I kidding? I’m still down with the booze.

As we made our way through security, KB and I had this conversation:

Shady: I’ve decided I’m not going to ask to meet the pilot today.

KB: What? Why? If it makes you feel better, do it.

Shady: I’ve been doing it on every flight for ten years, ever since Frank Oz told me to do it. But I want to get better and not have to rely on it.

KB: Alright. But if you feel you have to don’t stop yourself from doing it.

We got through security and made our way toward our gate. Stopping at the bar before boarding is a pretty common practice for us. Kathy usually doesn’t get anything, but a drink at the airport usually calms my nerves that much more. We walked up to the bar and found a huge line. I guess there are a shitload of people who don’t like to fly… or alcoholics just really like to depart at eight in the morning.

KB asked if I wanted to stop; I told her no, that we should just go to the gate. We walked over to the Virgin America wing and found it packed with people. On one side, people on our flight to Chicago waited around to board; on the other, people waited to board a nonstop flight to New York. For whatever reason, I opted to stand on the New York side.

KB headed off to grab some coffee. I set my bags down and began going through my flying ritual: putting on my hooded sweatshirt; pulling out my iPod and headphones; placing my good luck charms (a little travel ninja Bethany gave me, my Grandpa Shady’s old watch that doesn’t work anymore, and some coins my Grandpa Hi-Guy had given me) in my pockets; etc.

I was down on the ground going through my bag when I heard a man talking behind me. I looked to my right and noticed that he was speaking to a woman about her newborn child who was in a baby carrier at her feet. He asked if the baby was a boy or girl (it was a girl) and what her name was (I didn’t catch that part); he then told the mother that her child had a beautiful smile.

And the whole time this is going on behind me I found myself thinking: “That sounds like Fozzie.”

I stood up and spun around. The man’s back was to me, but my mind quickly added up all of the visuals: White Guy + Tall + Bald On Top With White Hair On The Sides + Glasses + Sounds Like Fozzie.

My mouth blurted it out before my mind even had a chance to catch up.

Shady: Frank?

Frank Oz, the Frank Oz, turned around and looked at me with the standard “Who the hell are you?” look on his face. I don’t recall accurately how I initially reacted, but I think it was something comparable to “holy fucking shit.”

Jim Henson and Frank Oz are responsible not only for the characters and television/films I grew up with as a kid, but they also had a huge hand in who I am today as a creative being and, more generally, as a man. Talking on the phone with Frank Oz ten years ago (naked or otherwise) was pretty damn cool. This was amazing.

Shady: I don’t know if you remember this or not, but I interviewed you ten years ago for a publication called “Tastes Like Chicken.”

He admitted that while he didn’t remember me personally, he did remember “Tastes Like Chicken,” mostly because it was hard to forget the name. What happened next will forever be burned into my brain.

What I was trying to say:

Shady: This is so crazy! I was just telling my girlfriend this morning about how you told me to always meet the pilot before takeoff.

What came out:

Shady: This is so crazy! I was just telling you this morning–

I caught my error, stopped, then tried to start over. That’s when he cut me off.

Frank Oz: I didn’t tell you a fucking thing.

I paused for a second that felt like a million years. I remember thinking: “Grover just said ‘fucking.’ To my face!” Nervous, I stood there silently, blankly, unclear of what to say next. Luckily Frank quickly leveled my anxiety.

Frank Oz: I’m just kidding with you.

He laughed. I laughed. He shook my hand. My insides shook.

Shady: What I was trying to say was that I was just telling my girlfriend this morning that ten years ago you told me to meet the pilot before takeoff, and I’ve done it for every flight ever since. But just this morning I decided that I’m no longer going to do it. I’m trying to get better.

Frank Oz: The way they make these planes nowadays there’s little to worry about. That, and I just try to keep in mind that the pilots also have a family that they’re trying to get home to.

Shady: You told me that ten years ago!

We made more small talk for a couple minutes and then, just before he walked through the door to board the plane, he turned to me.

Frank Oz: It was nice to finally meet you. Have a safe flight. You’ll be fine.

I turned away from the doorway with a huge smile on my face, looking down the long hallway for KB in the hopes that she caught some glimpse of it so as to validate the experience. KB was nowhere to be found… but John Slattery (Roger Sterling from “Mad Men”) was walking toward me.

There was no way in hell KB was never going to believe this already ridiculous story now.

Slattery walked onto the same plane as Oz, and I spun around again frantically looking for KB. She was still nowhere in sight, but Brett Gelman (“The Other Guys,” “30 Seconds or Less,” etc.) was now walking toward me.

I had interviewed Brett in July of last year for a piece in “Variety,” and we had traded a few emails back and forth for a short time after.

Shady: Brett?

Brett Gelman: Yeah?

Shady: I’m Justin Shady. I interviewed you last year for the “10 Comics to Watch” piece in “Variety.”

Brett Gelman: Oh, yeah! Hey, man, great to finally meet you. Are you on this plane to New York?

Shady: No, but I fucking wish I was because Frank Oz and Roger Sterling are on that flight!

Actually, I didn’t say that last bit. I told him no, that I was headed off to Chicago to get married. He congratulated me, then boarded what I’m assuming was one of the coolest goddamn flights ever taken across the country.

I turned and found KB walking toward me carrying a cup of coffee in each hand. She probably could have seen the grin on my face a mile away.

KB: What?

Shady: I’m very aware that you’re not going to believe any of this, but…

In the end, I didn’t ask to meet the pilot for the first time in more than a decade, and Frank Oz was right: I was fine. In fact, I was more than fine because, for some reason, one of the stewards decided to give me a free bottle of whiskey somewhere over the plains of Nebraska. Best flight ever, as far as I’m concerned.

I didn’t ask to meet the pilot on the return flight either. Like I said, I’m trying to get better.

And so, what began that early morning in my bedroom in Columbus, Ohio in February 2001 finally came full circle at LAX in Los Angeles, California in October 2011.

Luckily, I wasn’t naked this time.

…for this piece in “Variety.”

Way before things got stranger for him,

-Shady

Old Poop!

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