Sometimes YouTube really comes through for me. Most of the time the algorithm just sends me U2 concerts, Unabomber documentaries, and pandas sliding down hills. I love all those things but I’m pretty sure there’s more great stuff out there that I could be looking at. Yesterday, the math gods blessed me with an interview of Stephen Tobolowsky that reminded me of how much I miss him. 

From 2009-2017 (recently restarted in 2020) the actor Stephen Tobolowsky told hour-long stories on the podcast The Tobolowsky Files. They were beautifully crafted, layered stories from his life that often took place on movie sets but were never about making movies. He was the first storyteller who really made my jaw drop. To this day, I honestly don’t know how he managed to write and tell so many amazing stories. 

When his podcast ended in 2017, I moved on to other podcasts and other tellers, almost completely forgetting about him. This week, wonderful, glorious YouTube popped up with an interview Stephen did where he worked in a story I’d never heard before. Once again, he blew me away. It’s not easy to tell a story as casually and conversationally as Tobolowsky does. You’d swear he’d never told it before and was remembering each scene just before he says it.

Naturally, I started looking for one of his stories that I could send out to everyone at FGS for inspiration. When I discovered the one called, “The Moth and the Window” I decided to not just share it but to also break it down scene by scene, word by word, to show how it works. It’s a short, simple story that uses a lot of standard elements of personal storytelling throughout. 

The Moth and the Window

:20 Here he quickly sets up the background of the story and his reason for being where he is. He moved to LA in 1976 to become an actor. Notice he doesn’t go into why he decided to become an actor or even where he moved from. None of that is necessary to the story. He could add those things in if he wanted to tell a 10-20 minute story but by leaving them out he tightens the story so the audience doesn’t have to keep track of more than they have to.

:25 – 1:30 Here he sets up the premise of the story. All of it is believable. He was so desperate for work he goes to an audition he has to pay to get into. There he meets other starving actors. One of those actors gives him tickets to a Lakers Basketball game. There were undoubtedly other things that happened in this time period but the only thing necessary to the story is that he met a guy who used to play with the Lakers’ coach and that’s why he has free tickets.

Listen to Stephen’s voice. He conveys how excited he is for these tickets just by using his voice. This also lets us know how important it is for him to see this game. It’s a rare opportunity for someone with no money to get great seats to watch the Lakers in their prime. All of this is very believable. The audience can feel his excitement. Now we have an idea of what’s at stake. We’re less than 90 seconds in and we already know that something important is going to happen around this game.

1:38 Stephen describes the car he’s driving using the classic list of three things. Three is a magic number in comedy, storytelling, writing, etc. I don’t know why this is but it’s a great number to use in a list or when you’re describing something. It just feels natural. Not too few, not too many. I’m sure he could have gone on and told us 15 things that were wrong with his car but three was enough for us to get the idea. This is also a good example of another rule in storytelling. Give the audience just enough information to get the idea. Give them too little and they won’t have enough information to understand the rest of the story. Give them too much and they’ll have a hard time keeping track of everything. Another problem of giving the audience too much information is that you might trigger a memory or idea in people that take them out of the story. Don’t send the audience off on tangents. Give them just enough information and then move on.

2:11 Here he does something that many new storytellers struggle with. He says, “I got into a line of cars that was going into the reserve parking area.” Many new tellers would have said, “I got into a line of cars that I thought was going into the reserve parking area.” By adding “I thought” you tell the audience that at some point later in the story you will find out that it wasn’t a line of cars going into the reserve parking area. You spoil the surprise that comes up later. With very few exceptions, it’s important to stay in the moment you were in when the story originally happened. By saying, “I thought” you step out of the past and into the present to give the audience information they shouldn’t have yet. 

2:20  Great transitional line here. “And that’s when I discovered that I was not alone.” It’s a simple, direct line that lets the audience know that this is an important moment. He also pauses after he says it to give the audience a chance to fully appreciate it. 

2:21  Excellent use of what’s called an act out. He uses his right hand to imitate the spastic flight path of a moth. Not only does this break up the relatively static presence he’s had so far on stage, it also reminds the audience of how hard it is to catch a moth. By using this simple hand gesture, he makes the audience understand how hard it’s going to be to deal with this moth. Using gestures and vocal inflections is a great way to make the audience understand something without having to use words. Sometimes a small gesture or a slight change in your voice can be more effective than any words you might use.

He also doesn’t overdo the act out. He could easily have shown the moth fluttering all around the car and pretended to bat it away but that would have been distracting. All he needs to do is remind the audience that moths are hard to catch. In the second act out he does something brilliant. He taps his forehead to let us know how frustrating this moth is. Look at how simple and direct this gesture is. He’s conveying the emotion of annoyance without any wasted movement. It’s very easy to be distracting when doing an act out so keep them simple. Never do more than you need to in order to convey the experience.

2:45 Now his act outs become a little bigger to show us he’s getting more and more frustrated. The movements are still controlled, though. They look wild but they aren’t so wild that they’re distracting. He also uses his voice to convey frustration without being  so loud that the audience pulls back. There’s a way you can imply yelling during a story without blowing people’s eardrums out. I can’t describe it here but I’m happy to demonstrate some time.

2:55 “Moth keeps hitting the window where it was exposed.”  Here he’s reinforcing the action of the moth to really drill it into the audience’s mind how dumb this insect is. He’s doing this because in the end, we discover this is what the story is really about. He doesn’t tell us that here though. He just emphasizes the idea so it has greater meaning when he finally references it in the end.

3:05  Here he stops talking about the moth in order to ramp up the tension for the rest of the story. “Now they were announcing the players.”  He starts to wonder why the line isn’t moving. He gives us logical reasons for why the line might not be moving. Someone doesn’t have the correct change, the parking lot might be full. These are things anyone would wonder and helps keep the audience from wondering why something is or isn’t happening in the story. You never want the audience to wonder why you didn’t do something they would have done in the same situation. We’ve all wondered why a line isn’t moving so it makes sense that Stephen is giving us understandable reasons for it that keep the audience from wondering if something else going on. 

3:40 “Now the game has started and I was completely freaking out.” This is the one line in the story I would have said differently. I would have said, “…and I am freaking out.” Using present tense keeps the audience in the moment in which the story is actually happening. If you’re in the moment, the audience will be too. It’s not always possible to use the present tense but use it when you can to keep the audience in the moment.

“I got out of the car and discovered to my horror, I was not on the road to reserve parking. There was no gate ahead of me. There was no one taking money. I had pulled in behind a line of parked cars.”

Here he lets the audience laugh before he continues. Many tellers don’t give the audience time to laugh before they start the next line. When you have a good line, let the audience laugh at it. They want to laugh so let them. It also gives the teller and the story a chance to breathe. It breaks up the energy a bit and gives you a chance to shift the emotion or the direction of the story if you need to. 

4:05 A quick and perfect summary. “I saw that the moth and I were the same.” Beautiful. Ten short words that sum up the entire story. The sentence is neither too short nor too long. It also has a rhythm to it that the audience responds to. It sounds like a parable. People remember simple sentences like this. When writing for the stage, it’s important to keep your sentences simple and memorable. You can get away with long, multiple clause sentences when you’re writing to be read because the reader can take all the time they want to get through it. When you’re writing to be heard you have to craft your sentences so the audience gets them on the first try. 

4:15  Here Stephen offers us a comparison that’s full of images both in words and body language. “He couldn’t see the open window, I didn’t see I was in a line of parked cars.” It’s a beautiful comparison that puts two images in the audience’s mind that are quickly and easily understood. He also uses his body to reinforce the two sides of the situation. He uses his right hand to describe the moth and his left hand to describe himself. This is another example of an act out being more powerful than words.

4:40 “Sometimes a wall is not a wall. From a different perspective, it can be a bridge.” Another simple sentence that clearly summarizes the story and is something the audience will remember long after they’ve forgotten the rest of the story. He says one more sentence after this but he could have ended here. Both sentences are short and memorable and a great way to end the story.

So that’s my breakdown of this story. There’s more to be said and other ways to interpret each scene and sentence. This is just my perspective. I hope it was helpful. Breaking down stories at this level is always interesting to me. Sometimes it gives me good examples to share with others and sometimes I see something new and incorporate it into my own stories. 

I hope to see you all on the 18th. Email me if you have a story you’d like to tell.

Below is the interview YouTube sent me that got me all excited about Stephen Tobolowsky again 🙂

The radio host asks him about the time Stevie Ray Vaughan played on a song Stephen recorded with his high school band. This turned out to be the first studio recording of SRV’s career. Stevie was 14 at the time and completely unknown outside of the town they all grew up in. 

Click below if you’d like to check out The Tobolowsky Files podcast