Movin’ Right Along with Tough Pigs

As always, it’s a blast to hang out with the folks at Tough Pigs, and I’m always genuinely delighted when they ask me do A Thing with them. This time, I’m lending a hand talking with Anthony and Ryan about two of the saddest minutes from The Muppet Christmas Carol, minutes 71 and 72, as the Cratchits mourn the loss of Tiny Tim. We’ll talk about Miss Piggy’s acting abilities, debate why Scrooge can’t or won’t enter the Cratchit home, and try to figure out IF TINY TIM IS REALLY DEAD.

Click here to have a listen.

Talking Seuss with American Stories

To mark Dr. Seuss’s 119th birthday, I sat down with the kind folks — in this case Madisyn — at the Our American Stories podcast to trace the arc of Seuss’s life and work. If you’re so inclined, here’s about 30 minutes of me enthusing about Seuss — and Frank Capra and Chuck Jones and Bennett Cerf and so many others — and his astounding work and work ethic. I also seem to be doing a spot on Reuben Kincaid impression.

Icons Unearthed, Marcia Lucas, and Me

I’m so glad to see Marcia Lucas — wife of George, and the Oscar-winning, ace editor who put together the original Star Wars trilogy–finally going on the record about her life and experiences for Vice’s Icons Unearthed docuseries. (I tried like heck for three years to get her to talk with me, and never cracked it.)

There’s a reason everyone refers to her as the heart of Star Wars, as well as George Lucas’s secret weapon. Apart from being a terrific editor, Marcia had an uncanny ability to see any film they were working on from the point of view of an audience. That sounds like it should be obvious, but it’s actually an often overlooked superpower of seeing the forest for the trees.

It was Marcia, for example, who, during the trench run sequence in Star Wars, used recycled footage to insert the ‘ticking clock’ of the Death Star moving into position to destroy the rebel base. It was a plot point that was NOT in the original script, but Marcia understood it made the stakes much higher–and therefore that much more exciting for the audience. She also told George Lucas, just before the film’s first showing to a real audience (SPOILER, I GUESS): “If the crowd doesn’t cheer when the Millennium Falcon comes back at the end, the film doesn’t work.” And boy, was she right (and yes, the audience cheered).

It was also Marcia who, after watching the first cut of Raiders of the Lost Ark, pointed out that the audience needed to see Indy with Marion again after their experience with the Ark–and Steven Spielberg, realizing she was right, brought Harrison Ford and Karen Allen back to film the two of them together on the steps of the local courthouse, giving the audience a sigh of relief and a bit of closure.

Anyway, we’re long overdue to hear her story in her words (I did the best I could to get her voice into George Lucas: A Life, but there’s nothing like the real thing). You can find this five-part docuseries on the VICE channel. I watched it using Sling, but as they say, YMMV.

Oh yeah — while I’m not in this particular episode, you’ll see plenty of footage of me running my mouth as the series progresses. Hang in to the end, and you may even see me doing my impression of the infamous Darth Vader “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” Maybe.

Talking Muppets with the Great Gonzo

Well, not quite; I actually had the privilege of appearing with legendary Muppet performer Dave Goelz as we talked on San Francisco NPR with Heidi Rabben, curator at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which is hosting the Jim Henson: Imagination Unlimited touring exhibit. Stick around for the entire conversation, and you’ll hear Dave Goelz absolutely make a young Muppet fan’s year.

You can hear our discussion in its entirety here. It runs about 51 minutes.

Talking the 1980s Top Ten

This is a fun one: I’ll be one of several cultural historians providing commentary for the Nat Geo docuseries, The ’80s: Top Ten, which is now available to stream in all six parts on Disney+. It was a genuine thrill to be asked to participate in this series, and I’m humbled to appear alongside folks like Rob Lowe, Kevin Smith, Ridley Scott, Tony Hawk, and tons of others.

While I’m not sure exactly what you’ll get to hear me talk about — I spent several hours on camera last December talking about a lot of stuff — I’ve had a peek at the first episode and I was beyond delighted to see that I got the final word on the last episode of M*A*S*H, one of my favorite television shows pretty much ever.

The Greening of the Grinch

Quick! Pencils up, everyone, for a quick one question Christmas Pop Quiz.


What color is The Grinch in Dr. Seuss’s 1957 classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas!?

Did you say green?

You’re wrong.

Confused? Let me explain.

Let’s start by looking at the secret origin of the Grinch–at least in print–and trace the trajectory of his color.

Seuss first coined the word “Grinch” in his 1953 book Scrambled Eggs Super! as one of the birds having its eggs pilfered for use in the title food. That’s him over there at the right.

Here it was called a “Beagle-Beaked Bald Headed Grinch,” and it looked like a paunchy bird with a perpetual scowl. It wasn’t really what we think of as the Grinch, but this is the first time Seuss ever used the word in print.

And as you can see, he’s also yellow.

A character closer to the Grinch as we know him made his first appearance in a 1955 issue of Redbook magazine, in which Seuss published a 32-line poem called “The Hoobub and the Grinch.”

Here he’s a catlike snake-oil salesman, selling a short length of string to a sunbathing Hoobub who has absolutely no use for it. It’s a slick personality somewhat closer to the Grinch we know and love, though Seuss still hasn’t quite stuck the landing.

Oh, and one more thing: this Grinch is colorless.

Two years later, the Grinch would show up again in the pages of Redbook, this time in the December 1957 issue, which printed How the Grinch Stole Christmas! in its entirety, more than a month before the book was published. If you’re a collector, *this* is FIRST APP. GRINCH.

The Redbook printing *is* in color, though the Grinch himself is usually blended into the background, making it difficult to get a bead on exactly what color *he* might be. Take a look:

Now, here’s where it gets interesting.

When How the Grinch Stole Christmas! was published in December 1957, it used shades of only one color. This was actually typical of most Seuss books, which relied on variations of a single color to create highlights and points of interest.

What was the color used in Grinch, then?

That’s right: red.

Yup. Throughout the book, Seuss uses shades of red for the Grinch’s Santa suit, Christmas decorations, the sled, and even the Grinch’s eyes.

But the Grinch himself?

Still colorless.

Dr. Seuss and Chuck Jones

Fast forward now to 1966, when Seuss was approached by an old friend, animator and director Chuck Jones, with whom Seuss had worked eyeball-to-eyeball producing the Private Snafu animated training films during WWII. Jones, who went on to direct pretty much every Looney Tunes cartoon you know and love, had just been given his walking papers by Warner Bros., and was looking for new projects. After some discussion, Jones convinced Seuss to let him bring an animated Grinch to television in time for Christmas 1966.

For months, Jones would rent a car and drive from Los Angeles to La Jolla to meet with Seuss at his home. One of the first issues that needed to be resolved was the physicality of the Grinch — how to bring the image off the page and determine how he walked, or smiled, or frowned on the TV screen.

The other pressing issue: What color was the Grinch?

After much discussion and some disagreement, the two finally agreed on the color of the Grinch. It was the color of every rental car Chuck Jones had driven in the summer of 1966, as he made his trips to visit Dr. Seuss in La Jolla.


With that decision made, the Grinch has been green since 1966 — translated that way across every medium, from animation to live action.

Today, if you’re asked what color the Grinch is . . . naturally, you’re gonna answer “green” — and you’d be right.

But he didn’t start out that way — and as you carve your Christmas roast beast, you can thank Chuck Jones’s rental car for our beloved green Grinch.

Talking Shop on CRAFT

Coming up on Monday, I’ll be sitting down with the brilliant Denise Kiernan on her CRAFT: Authors in Conversation podcast, where we’ll talk over (virtual) cocktails about research, writing, and the general dark art of telling stories through histories and biography. Drinking may also be discussed. 

The fun begins on Monday, October 25, at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET. Tune in! It’ll be good! We promise.

Book Five

It’s official: I have a subject for my next biography of an iconic American character. Let me show you a childhood photo of them, and see if you can guess who it is:


Let’s see if their high school yearbook photo is any more helpful:

Got it yet? Here they are all grown-up:

To say I’m excited about writing the story of the U.S. Capitol would be an understatement. It’s a subject very dear to me; for nearly a decade, I worked in the building as a U.S. Senate staffer. It’s also a pivotal character in our own story as a nation, as a culture, and as citizens–and suffice it to say, after watching the events of the last eight months unfold, it’s a character I thought was worthy of its first-ever biography.

And now . . . to work.

New Looks at Old Books

Over on Twitter, someone recently asked me the really fun question, “What are the oldest books in your collection?” I’m don’t really have many old books, but those I do have tend to be associated with — c’mon, do I really have to say it? — Washington Irving.

Let me talk about three in particular, going from newest (a relative term) to oldest — which also means saving the best for last.

The first, and most recent, is an 1864 “Artist’s Edition” of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., in which Irving’s short stories were illustrated “with 120 engravings on wood from original designs” by some of the most noted artists of the day.

What’s missing on the title page? Why, Washington Irving’s name, of course; “Geoffrey Crayon” was just one of many pseudonyms Irving would publish under during his long life. Not to worry, though — Irving’s authorship was one of the world’s worst-kept secrets on both sides of the Atlantic.

The signature you see here for Mr. Crayon is part of the book — it’s not an actual signature, in ink, inscribed on the page — but the handwriting is definitely Irving’s. The artwork in the book is gorgeous, and printed with care. Above, for example, you’ll see an illustration for the Sketch Book‘s first show stopper, “Rip Van Winkle.”

The book is also full of what we might today call Easter eggs — little in jokes, or sly nods at the reader. Take, for example, this illustration for Irving’s “The Voyage,” in which Crayon reflects on his ocean voyage from the United States to England, and warns travelers of the dangers of sea trips. The illustration features four gentlemen in conversation around a table during their voyage across the Atlantic — and the figure in the middle is Washington Irving himself, based on a popular engraving of Irving from the era (the equivalent of a modern author’s headshot).

Later, in the Sketch Book‘s gangbuster’s closing number, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” an illustration is meant to convey the charming nature of the quaint old Dutch houses in the village of Sleepy Hollow. The picturesque home in the engraving is clearly “Sunnyside,” Irving’s beloved home in Tarrytown, NY — just down the road from Sleepy Hollow — which he had built in the Dutch style (and other elements, including the Spanish-influenced tower) in the 1840s.

The next oldest book in my collection is one of the first I bought when I began researching Washington Irving in the late 1990s: a four-volume biography of Irving — the first one, in fact — written by his nephew Pierre M. Irving, and published in 1862, just three years after Irving’s death.

The true gem in my collection, though, dates back to 1819 (I nearly added, “….which makes it more than a hundred years old” and then realized it’s actually more than two hundred years old. And it’s just sitting there on my desk like it’s no big deal). It’s a first printing of the fifth American installment of The Sketch Book, which Irving was publishing serially and simultaneously in the United States, where it would eventually run to six volumes, and in England (publishing on both sides of the ocean at the same time prevented his work from being poached by publishing pirates — the 19th century equivalent of copyright infringement).

This particular volume has a special place on my desk, and in my heart. If I could have only one installment of The Sketch Book, it would be this one — because it’s the volume in which Irving’s five influential Christmas stories first appeared. (They would later be bundled as “Old Christmas.”) If you’re wondering why we associate Christmas with yule logs and wassail, carols and gifts, sleigh rides and family parties . . . blame Washington Irving. He made it all up, and then told us it had always been that way.

Anyway, it was my fascination with Irving’s Christmas stories that originally got me started on my journey as a biographer. That makes a first printing of his Christmas stories pretty special.

Oh, and if you’re a collector of old books who’s wincing at the bookseller’s sticker on the cover, you can relax — Moses Thomas was one of Irving’s handpicked U.S. booksellers, selling The Sketch Book out of his shop in Philadelphia; it was Thomas himself who stuck it there.

Also, I do love that the printer is serendipitously named . . . Van Winkle

75 cents was considered almost insanely expensive for a book — it’s about 15 bucks today — especially because this was just one book in a series. When some American readers objected, Irving brushed them off. “If the American public wish to have literature of their own,” he wrote, “they must consent to pay for the support of authors.”

Amen, brother.

Celebrating The Rainbow Connection

Behind the scenes of the making of an iconic moment in The Muppet Movie.

It’s a great privilege to be in this NPR piece on “The Rainbow Connection,” celebrating its recent preservation by the Library of Congress as a “culturally significant” recording. You’ll hear me alongside Cheryl Henson, songwriter Paul Williams, the amazing Frank Oz, and Muppet performer Matt Vogel doing the voice of Kermit.

Oh, and we were NOT all in the same room together. I wish. I recorded my part at a local NPR affiliate here in Albuquerque — and fun fact: I had to do it TWICE. The first time, a power problem covered the entire recording with a loud buzzing, so I had to go back downtown and be interviewed AGAIN.

But it all came out all right. As you can tell if you listen.