"I Wouldn't Be Here If I Hadn't Been There."
By Dan Epstein

Gadfly: Earlier this month, you hosted a night of readings at Irving Plaza. What was it like being onstage with Eric Bogosian? Did you feel like you were doing performance art?

Jerry Stahl: I actually introduced Eric Bogosian and Karen Finley to the stage. It’s an honor. It’s intimidating, and it’s interesting, just being around great people like that.

Did you feel like you were doing performance art?

I don’t know exactly what performance art is. I just know that most readings are totally boring. I figure if someone takes the trouble to come out, you might as well give them a little something.

I know that the main characters in your new book, Plainclothes Naked, are trying to get a photo of George W. Bush with a smiley face tattoo on him.

Well, it’s George W. Bush’s testicles that have the smiley face on them.

Do you have or know of anyone who has a smiley face tattoo like George Bush in the book?

I heard you did, but I didn’t want to say anything.

How did you know?


It’s easy to mix George W. and me up. I saw you read in New York City at the bar The Half-King recently. During the Q and A, one person asked how your daughter was and it seemed to get silent. Is it weird for people to know so much about your life because of the film Permanent Midnight?

I think the question before that one was something completely heinous. I can’t remember what it was; it was just the juxtaposition of that and bringing my daughter into it. It just caught me off guard for a second, but I think I bounced back. They know what is in the movie, and they know what is in the book. They don’t know me.

You’ve mentioned that Anthony Bourdain (writer of A Cook's Tour and Kitchen Confidential) is one of your favorite writers—he wrote a blurb on the back of your book. What is that like, having someone you admire do such a thing for you?

He’s a great guy and a friend of mine.

It must be nice to have people that you admire know your work. Do you have many famous people approach you about your work?

Being assaulted by people has not been a problem. Oprah hasn’t called. I don’t know what my failure is in that regard.

When I spoke to Chuck Palahniuk about his book Choke, I asked him why everyone in his book had such major drug problems. The same can be said of Plainclothes Naked. He said it was because the main character had major drug problems and people like that seem to attract others of the same ilk. Would you say something similar about your new book?

I think that is true in life in general. If your hobby is collecting antique kitten dolls, you probably attract antique kitten doll people. If you’re a crackhead, you’re more likely to run into other crackheads. It’s a parallel universe I created, with many people with problems. As opposed to the real universe, where people have no problems whatsoever.

Once you first started in television, did you ever think about taking items from the sets or dressing rooms and selling them for drug money?

Like stealing Bruce Willis’ toupee? I guess I thought about it, but it’s pretty hard to get away with. They didn’t have E-bay back then, so what would I do with it? Who would believe me?

Recently when That’s My Bush went on Comedy Central, the creators were told to stay away from Bush’s two daughters in terms of jokes. Did you receive any kind of indication from any source to back away from the subject?

Nobody was too thrilled with it, particularly after he became America’s favorite low-IQ president. But the book was done. What are you going to do?

Would you rather have had this book come out six months from now or six months ago?

I’m totally fine with it right now. What I find in the media is that people will whisper, "This is great and cool, but we can’t say anything on television." It’s a weirdly conformist fear-based mentality. I don’t really find any problem with riding the wave in the wrong direction. I don’t know if it’s gotten more attention. My books never get that much attention. They never get reviewed in the New York Times. My last books were both bestsellers in the Los Angeles Times and not reviewed there. I’ve always been an under-the-radar guy. I don’t know if that is necessarily going to be changing now.

How consistently do you write for C.S.I.?

I’m what they call a consultant. I wrote an episode that aired on November 15; it’s a good gig for me. It’s a few scripts a year, but I’m not an office guy. So it allows me the freedom to write books and do other things.

How is it different writing for television this time around?

It’s a different thing. Usually they hire you, in spite of your voice. They know you’re this dark weirdo who writes about drugs and violence. They think that that’s interesting, but they ask if you could do this instead. This time I got the gig because of my books, so there’s a lot of freedom in that. Now they want my voice instead of asking me to hide it and be Beaver Cleaver.

They like cleavers in that show.

Apparently they do, and beavers for that matter.

How did you meet the star of that show, William Petersen?

Billy and I both go to the sort of Hollywood low-end YMCA, which is a very untrendy gym frequented by out-of-work, aging comedians and trucks drivers. We were just sitting in the sauna, and we just started talking about books. It turned out he knew mine, and I knew his work. Billy said, "I’ve never done TV, but I have this one show I might do and would you be interested in writing for it?" It was one of those fluky things where someone in Hollywood did what they said they were going to do—he got a show and he called. I wrote an episode last season. I guess they dug it.

It’s the original Hollywood dream about fifteen years late.

Well, I wasn’t exactly wearing a tight-fitting sweater and Schwab’s. It was an odd thing. Stuff comes when you’re not looking for it. I guessed I would have become an astronaut before I ever wrote TV again.

You were just in Ben Stiller’s latest, Zoolander. Do you like acting?

Well, you could hardly call shouting two lines acting. That would be pretentious, but it’s great being in movies. You work two hours a day. You get SAG minimum, which is a nice chunk of change, and you get all the food you could eat.

Here’s something funny you could help me with. The doctor you played in Permanent Midnight who told you that you would never get clean really existed, right?


In The People vs. Larry Flynt, the real Larry Flynt played the judge who sentenced him to prison. And you played the doctor who treated you like shit.

I guess it’s a trend. I never really thought about that.

It wasn’t like you wanted that role.

I didn’t really think about it at the time. They asked me if I wanted to do that role, and it seemed like a great role. What the hell. I think all junkies are inherently actors because they have been scamming so long. I once interviewed former junkie Samuel L. Jackson about how he learned to act. He explained that he had been a crackhead for many years. It’s not the traditional school of acting, but I think it’s an effective one.

Now you’re writing a film for Philip Kaufman (director of Quills and The Right Stuff). That must be amazing.

It is, but I’m not a scriptwriter. I never really wrote a script. I’ve written one screenplay with Ben [Stiller] called What Makes Sammy Run? It was one of those wild things again where because of my books I got a job writing in Hollywood. Kaufman is a literary guy, and he tracked me down.

Now you’re adapting someone else’s life for that film. Seeing your life portrayed onscreen, does it make you wary of what you want to show?

I’m really conscious of honoring this guy’s experience. This guy is doing time for manslaughter. He’s paid enough dues already. The last thing he needs is for some mook to come along and gussy up his life in some embarrassing way for purposes of entertainment. That would be a travesty.

You mentioned What Makes Sammy Run? Is that really going to happen?

Well, according to Variety magazine, Ben just got an overall deal with DreamWorks contingent upon them letting him star and direct in What Makes Sammy Run? They did indeed pay Warner Bros. two million dollars for the rights to it. That’s a lot of money on the table; I would imagine they’re serious.

Whatever happened to the animated cartoon you were supposed to do with Mark Mothersbaugh [Devo]?

That was something we wanted to do about five years ago. Mark’s an unbelievable artist.

In everything I read, there are multiple references to your liver. How’s it doing?

It writes me occasionally; it lives in an adjoining county. I dodged the big one, but I got Hepatitis C. But I can’t complain. There are a lot of people worse off than me.

What is it that you told the BBC when they asked to see your track marks?

Most of the good ones are on my penis. But thanks for asking.

You’ve said you’ve written about five or six other books that haven’t been published. Are they more extreme?

Two of them were partially published in Playboy magazine. Others appeared in different publications. A lot of it was written before I shook myself off smack. Maybe I lost some level of pretension or phoniness. By the time I got around to writing Permanent Midnight, I had nothing to lose and nobody to impress.

You used to write the letters page in Penthouse magazine.

I was that guy. I would sit on one side of the table and write Dear Penthouse. Then I would run to the other side and answer it. I had to find my emotional center.

Have the letters ever been real?

Well, I don’t want to slam the whole organization. But I would guess that maybe someone somewhere wrote a letter in once. It’s almost like being an apprentice. It wasn’t like I was one of those guys who went to Harvard and then got a book deal. I just wrote all kinds of stuff for many years.

How do you feel about drugs now?

I don’t do them, but hey, knock yourself out. I don’t preach.

Did the fact that so many of your heroes, like Lenny Bruce and William S. Burroughs, did drugs entice you to try them?

I don’t know about entice, but all my heroes were dope fiends. Some of them paid the price, and some didn’t. Burroughs was on methadone, god bless him, right up until the day he died.

What was the first thing you wrote after you kicked drugs?

It was the article that became Permanent Midnight. I wrote the article in a now defunct glossy called LA Style. It was called "Naked Brunch." Somehow an agent found it, and amazingly enough, I went from being penniless living in the basement of a crack house to a second chance with a book deal and the movie was going to be made. It was all very surreal.

I read that it was the story where ALF was scratching at the door coming to get you.

Well, when you did as much cocaine and heroin as I did at the time, ALF just might come to get you.

When something you wrote for television comes on, like Moonlighting or ALF, do you ever watch it?

I was such a pitiful TV writer that, if anything ever showed up with my name on it, I can guarantee you that the only thing left in it that I wrote was my name in the credits. I don’t spend a lot of time watching Moonlighting reruns. That would drive me to drugs.

The bizarre thing is that on the Internet Movie Database ( there are only two writers credited on ALF, and you are one of them.

Ouch. I guess the other ones have had their names exorcised. It’s like having your prison record wiped clean.

When I first saw Permanent Midnight, the scene that blew me away was where you and Peter Greene throw yourselves against the window in the high-rise building.

That wasn’t in the book. That’s actually an anecdote I told the screenwriter. In real life, me and the janitor had smoked PCP. Peter Greene is an amazing actor and really great with Ben.

In your TV days, Jack Klugman spit pea soup on you.

Yeah, he didn’t like something I wrote. He demonstrated his love of my talent. But I probably deserved it, I sucked. Is he still alive?

I saw him on an Odd Couple parody commercial. It was him and Tony Randall being Oscar and Felix.

Oh my God.

Klugman was all raspy because they removed part of his throat due to cancer.

They should just leave that poor man alone.

What’s it like living in Los Angeles and seeing all the places where you did your heaviest drugs?

If I was sitting in a room filled with people shooting up, I would definitely get squirrelly. People do what they do, and it doesn’t really freak me out.

David Veloz, the director of Permanent Midnight

The titles in Permanent Midnight were so cool—the way Stiller shot the blood from the hypodermic needle and it drew the titles.

I thought it was great. The director is a really talented guy. I haven’t stayed in touch with him. [Just a sidenote: the director of Permanent Midnight, David Veloz, recently had a writing credit on the Owen Wilson film Behind Enemy Lines.]

One last question: do you think you would have been the same kind of writer if you hadn’t been a junkie?

It’s hard to say; it’s like asking a dancer would you have been the same if you had been born with one leg. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been there.