By Turns Hilarious and Bizarre, Talk Radio's Eric Bogosian Finds the Real Voice of America
08/17/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT
One night several years ago in a dimly lit dive in lower Manhattan, a grizzled patron took a swig and pronounced, "Life is a fried-egg deal. It's just a fried-egg deal." That unique piece of barroom philosophy could have been lost to posterity if Eric Bogosian had not been sitting on an adjacent stool. Bogosian, a swarthy man with attentive green eyes, makes a habit of listening to people in forgotten corners of the city. Last year the barfly's words were repeated—with the same flutter of hands, the same morbid intonation—but this time the speaker was Bogosian and the setting an uptown theater. "Life is a fried-egg deal," he growled, expanding upon the original thought, "because when you fry an egg, no matter which way you get flipped, you still get eaten."
Presenting the often strange speeches he has heard or imagined, Bogosian, 34, now ranks as a master of the monologue. He doesn't just pick up other people's lines; he gets inside their characters so convincingly that in a few years he has risen from avant-garde obscurity to wide-ranging fame. This week, starting Aug. 10, PBS stations will air Bogosian's Funhouse, a collage of sketches in which he plays an unscrupulous life-insurance salesman, a slick CIA type who teaches torture methods in a few easy lessons and a gang of other gloomy characters. Bogosian's Talk Radio, an off-Broadway play he created with visual artist Tad Savinar, is sold out through its August run and will be made into a movie. Drinking in America, a book of monologues, was published this summer, and he was seen this past season as a biker on Miami Vice, a crooked lawyer on Crime Story and a healer on The Twilight Zone. "Fear, that's what most of the characters I play have in common," he says. "They get pushed around by the world. I think we can all identify with that on our worst days."
Bogosian's gritty style has induced some critics to dub him the Lenny Bruce of the 1980s. But Bogosian, a longtime Bruce fan, sees himself differently. "For one thing, I'm an actor, not a comic," he says. "I'm not going to get up in front of 2,000 people and talk about my doodoo and my weewee and my psychiatrist and what it's like to take LSD. What I want to do is attract an audience with humor and then suddenly change speeds to something harrowing or scary." That goal also puts Bogosian's work in sharp contrast to the monologues of Lily Tomlin. "Lily doesn't like to go into a theater and bring people down," he says. "But I can't put street people onstage and make them lovable and cheerful. They're not. They're scared, helpless people. I like to remind you of that."
Talk Radio marks a major change in Bogosian's career. For the first time he stays in just one role—Barry Champlain, a talk-show host based on several voices Bogosian studied over the airwaves. "He's a bully, a baby," says Bogosian. "If he doesn't like what you're saying, he hangs up on you." When a listener calls in to denounce nuclear energy, Champlain replies, "I got news for you, pal—we all gotta die. Did I hurt your feelings, pal? Go tell it to your shrink." This jittery performance inspired the usually dour New York magazine critic John Simon to exclaim, "Bogosian has mastered all the tricks of this godless trade." Audiences also leave the theater convinced that Bogosian is, in his own words, "a real hard-ass. But I'm not that way at all. I expend all my lunacy onstage, and I don't have much left afterward."
It wasn't always so. At one point in Bogosian's life, the offstage lunacy nearly destroyed him. Eric, whose father is an accountant and whose mother is a cosmetologist, grew up in suburban Woburn, Mass., "fantasizing about being one of the tough guys because they were beating me up all the time." After studying acting at Oberlin College, he came to New York City in 1975 and started acting out those fantasies. Supporting himself with odd jobs—including producing shows at The Kitchen, a performance art theater—Bogosian began hanging out in punk clubs, where he adopted the persona of a repulsive lounge lizard named Ricky Paul and mouthed off from the same stages where rock bands cavorted. "I was worse than insulting," he says. "I said patently offensive things that liberals don't like to hear. People used to throw bottles at me and fight me. And that's what I wanted: to get everything up to the same level of total frenzy as rock 'n' roll music." So immersed was he in role-playing that he began to pick fights offstage, his bitter mood exaggerated by alcohol and drugs.
As a matter of survival, Bogosian tamed his life-style by the early '80s and developed toned-down shows for off Broadway. Family life helped to calm him. In 1980 Bogosian was hired for $75 by graphic designer JoAnne Bonney to read a voice-over for a short film. Married nine weeks later, the couple now live in a rural New Jersey home with their son, Harriss. "Eric still storms around after a show," says JoAnne, 34, "but it gets too exhausting to do that all the time. Now we like to putter around the house, pulling out weeds, killing bugs, stuff like that."
Not that the domesticated Bogosian is going to pass for Bill Cosby. He hasn't lost all the rough edges. Uncomfortable as the center of attention, Bogosian fidgeted throughout a recent interview, nervously clipping his nails till one flew into the reporter's lap. "Pretty disgusting, huh?" he said, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, that's me."
It's only on the streets that Bogosian relaxes, losing himself in those around him. One morning, he studies the hand motions of junkies near Times Square, then he eavesdrops on garbage pickers riding the subway. Sometime later, he'll retreat to his office in a rundown storefront. Bouncing around the room, he'll turn on a tape recorder and act out a jazzlike improvisation based on the words he overheard. All by himself, Eric Bogosian will become someone else.