Annabelle Gurwitch: 'Don't Treat Me Like Family'

Jun 16, 2017
Originally published on December 29, 2017 11:55 am

Actor and author Annabelle Gurwitch has had almost every job in entertainment. In high school, she started writing copy for the straight-to-VHS soft-core videos her father distributed. "I never actually saw these movies, I just saw the artwork," she told host Ophira Eisenberg. Writing descriptions of something you've never seen — how much does that pay? "Not enough for that kind of creativity."

Gurwitch has quite a few books under her belt now. Her latest, Wherever You Go, There They Are, is all about the inescapable bonds of family. She described her family of gamblers and get-rich-quick-schemers to the Ask Me Another crowd at the Bell House. "And what does that [instability] lead you to? A career in show business." Instead of seeking a conventional life, she embraced the feeling of chaos — "I'm used to the circus; I'm sticking with it." But Gurwitch cautioned, "No matter how hard you try to escape your crazy family, you always end up in another crazy family." For her, these chosen families are friends, theater communities, and in one particular instance, a UFO cult. "It was the 80s!" she reasoned.

Among Gurwitch's many credits is her stint hosting the TV series Dinner and a Movie on TBS. She, co-host Paul Gilmartin, and chef Claud Mann would watch a film from the TBS archives and cook a punny recipe related to the movie. For example, when they featured Ghostbusters, the recipe was called "I Ain't Afraid of No Roast." For her Ask Me Another challenge, we quizzed her on real and fake Dinner and a Movie recipies. Bon appetit!


On writing two episodes of Thundercats

That was like, my first job after being a mime on the street passing out flyers, and my friend was working for the company that produced Thundercats. There was maybe some weed-smoking involved when I thought: 'We could do this, we could write this stuff!' I had no idea what I was doing.

On being in a UFO cult

You know, it was the 1980s and everyone was meditating and doing new-agey stuff...I had watched a lot of sci-fi growing up, so when we were told [by a psychic] that we were this reincarnation of a pharaoh's family and that we were in communication with aliens...and that we were going to be taken back to the home planet, it all sounded really very reasonable.

Heard on Annabelle Gurwitch: 'Don't Treat Me Like Family'

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JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton here with puzzle guru Art Chung. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.



Thank you, Jonathan. Before the break our contestant Robbie won his way to the final round at the end of the show. We'll find out a little later who he will face off against. But first it's time to welcome our special guest. She's an actress, an author and one of the original hosts of TBS' "Dinner And A Movie." Her latest book is called "Wherever You Go, There They Are: Stories About My Family You Might Relate To." Please welcome Annabelle Gurwitch.


EISENBERG: Welcome, welcome.


EISENBERG: So, Annabelle, you have had...


EISENBERG: ...A lot of jobs in entertainment. As an actress you appeared, I mean, on "Seinfeld," "Murphy Brown." I was surprised, though, looking at all of your accomplishments that you also wrote two episodes of "Thundercats."


GURWITCH: I did. I did. I did. That was, like, my first job after being a mime on the street passing out fliers.

EISENBERG: Are you serious?

GURWITCH: So my friend was working for the company that produced "Thundercats." And I think there was maybe some weed smoking involved when I said, we could do this. I - we could write this stuff. And so we wrote these two scripts. I didn't - no idea what I was doing. No - I mean, just no idea. But we did...

EISENBERG: You just watched as much as you could...

GURWITCH: Exactly.

EISENBERG: ...Of the "Thundercats" oeuvre.

GURWITCH: That's right. That's right. That's exact - there is an oeuvre to it.


GURWITCH: See, the thing was the swords, they would say thun (ph) thun Thundercats, ho. And then their swords would grow. That was - like, and it was - you know. I mean, you know...


GURWITCH: ...That was - I didn't start writing again until many years later. Yes.



EISENBERG: And, well, this new book is really about the...


EISENBERG: It's the nitty-gritty of your family's roots.

GURWITCH: Well, yeah. So, you know, the premise was no matter how hard you try to escape your crazy family you just end up in another crazy family.

EISENBERG: That's true.

GURWITCH: No one from my family is speaking to me now...


GURWITCH: ...That I have written this book. So I only have chosen family now.

EISENBERG: Your dad was someone that was obsessed with get rich quick schemes.

GURWITCH: Yes, it's true. He had all these ideas for businesses, right? So he had insurance business. He was in real estate. He had art galleries, silver mines. At one point he was in the soft core porn business, distribution business. And in high school, I wrote the copy to the movies. That was, like, my job. There was - it wasn't like that. Not like...

EISENBERG: Preparing you for a future...


EISENBERG: ...Writer of "Thundercats."

GURWITCH: Exactly.


GURWITCH: But it was more like - the thing was they were really like exploitation movies. They really - they were - and they were very disappointing to people who came to see them. So I never actually saw these movies. I just saw the artwork, right? So the poster was, like, a woman and she had on, like, kind of, like, sexy chaps. And she had a riding crop. So I'm 17. And so I write the radio copy, which said, in the house she was a lady, but in the stable she was a (imitating neighing) animal.


GURWITCH: It was like, great, how does that sound, Dad? So that was that.

EISENBERG: And how much would you get paid?

GURWITCH: Not enough...


GURWITCH: ...For that kind of creativity.

EISENBERG: That's pretty - yeah, that's, like, got comedy in it, word play.

GURWITCH: Totally.

EISENBERG: And because of him owing money and being in...


EISENBERG: ...Shady deals you guys actually had to get up and move...

GURWITCH: Oh, yeah.

EISENBERG: ...From one part of the - you were in Alabama. You had to move to Delaware.

GURWITCH: Yes. You know, we were kind of like, you know, one day we're riding around in the Rolls-Royce with the mahogany pull-down trays and then the next we were homeless, living with my aunt and uncle. No, it was kind of an itinerant childhood. And, you know, what does that lead you to? A career in show business.

EISENBERG: Well, I was going to say you'd think you would seek stability, that - and become, you know, like some, I don't know, like...

GURWITCH: You would - well, my sister is an attorney. She became that person. And for some reason I was like, I'm used to the circus. I'm sticking with it. I don't know why.

EISENBERG: Now, you were saying that you also - you can't escape your family because you also will recreate them with new people.

GURWITCH: That's - yeah, that's right. I mean...

EISENBERG: And find your own tribe.

GURWITCH: That's right. So it's really about, you know, the narrative of the book. It's a collection of essays, but there is a narrative, which is leaving my family behind and going out and looking for, you know, my people, as you do. And of course, my first people were the theater tribe...


GURWITCH: ...People.

EISENBERG: And somewhere along the line you decided that it was a UFO cult.


EISENBERG: (Laughter).

GURWITCH: I'm trying to appear marginally intelligent here. But I was - when I was in the UFO cult, which I was in, you know, it was the 1980s and everybody was, like, meditating or doing this new-agey stuff. And I met this psychic who told this group of - I know, you're looking at me. You can't...

EISENBERG: Well, I love that that you're like, it was the '80s.

GURWITCH: It was the '80s.

EISENBERG: Everyone kind of had a UFO cult.

GURWITCH: I was - you know, I had watched a lot of sci-fi growing up. So when we were told that we were this reincarnation of a pharaoh's family, and that we were in communication with the aliens who were communicating through a computer buried under the poles, and that we were going to be part of the first contact and taken back to the home planet. You know, it sounded all very reasonable.


GURWITCH: But I actually suspect that I am not the reincarnation (laughter) of a princess from the 18th dynasty.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Another one of your books...


EISENBERG: ...Is called "Fired!," which is a collection of famous people's stories about getting fired.


EISENBERG: You were inspired to collect these stories after you were fired by Woody Allen.


EISENBERG: So what was it about that particular situation that was so traumatic or, I don't know...


EISENBERG: Was it traumatic?

GURWITCH: I would say traumatic and transformational. So the thing was I sucked in front of my comedy idol at the time. It was that thing, that moment of expectations meeting reality. Like, at that moment in time I thought he was, like, my comedy idol. And he thought that I was terrible. But I realized that, you know, my story about being fired by Woody Allen was really a great way of getting people to tell their stories.

When I said, you know, I was fired by Woody Allen, then people would tell me their stories. And so I did a sort of Studs Terkel kind of thing where I went around the country and I asked people their stories about being fired, like Paul Feig, who directed "Ghostbusters" and...

EISENBERG: "Bridesmaids."

GURWITCH: ..."Bridesmaids" and everything funny with women in it.


GURWITCH: And like, he was fired from being the Ronald McDonald because he was terrible at it. Or one of my favorite comedians, Dana Gould, was fired from "The Dana Gould Show"...


GURWITCH: ...Three times, pilots with his own name. He said by the end he had no character. He was playing a weather front.


GURWITCH: So I just love these stories. And what they were really about was about how you have to pick yourself up and go on after what you might consider to be a really big failure. And that's helped me to hone what I think is - if I have a voice. It's the idea of the dissonance between your expectations and the reality. And that's...


GURWITCH: ...The premise of that book. And then this book about family and - why? Why do we always think when people say, oh, it's such a great thing, they treat us like family - that's when we should run in the other direction.


GURWITCH: Well, because people should really say for business we'll treat you like friends.



EISENBERG: Yep. Are you ready to play an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?


EISENBERG: Yes, of course you are.

GURWITCH: Yes, I am, Ophira.

EISENBERG: OK. Annabelle Gurwitch, everybody, give her a round of applause.


EISENBERG: OK, so for many years you co-hosted TBS' "Dinner And A Movie."



EISENBERG: So that's where a movie played on basic cable while you cooked a recipe that was inspired by the movie. Did you watch all the movies beforehand to try to figure out the recipe?

GURWITCH: Yes. I saw, like, the worst movies of the '80s and '90s. See, the whole thing was TBS had this huge old library of movies that nobody cared about at this point. But they didn't even know what we were doing. They just gave us a studio, and then I would invite friends over like Janeane Garofalo or Jeff Garland or Bob Odenkirk, and people would just come. And then they caught on a couple of years into it.

EISENBERG: That they had a hit.


EISENBERG: So one of the things...


EISENBERG: ...That we loved with "Dinner And A Movie" is the punny recipe names. For example, for "Ghostbusters" the recipe was called I ain't afraid of no roast.


EISENBERG: So in this game we're going to give you the title of a film. You have to tell us the name of the real "Dinner And A Movie" recipe based on that film. And if you do well enough, listener Delfina Kopaki (ph) from Portland, Ore., will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.

GURWITCH: I'm going to try.

EISENBERG: I think it's going to be great.

GURWITCH: I sort of had to, like, excise those puns. I had a punectomy (ph) or something. It was...

EISENBERG: There you go.


EISENBERG: Guess what? It's multiple choice.

GURWITCH: Oh, yes.

EISENBERG: Yeah, look at that.

GURWITCH: Whoo (ph).

EISENBERG: Yeah, let's do it.


EISENBERG: OK, here's your first one.


EISENBERG: For "Basic Instinct," the recipe was called A, Sharon Stone crab cakes; B, the flash-fried psycho crab (laughter). It's fun to say.

GURWITCH: Oh, you're really making that sound good.

EISENBERG: And C, Michael Douglasparagus (ph) with bacon.


EISENBERG: Which one?

GURWITCH: I'm going to say it's Sharon Stone crab cakes.

EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right.



EISENBERG: That was the recipe. But I'm sure you considered uncrossed chicken thighs.


EISENBERG: I didn't write the movie.


EISENBERG: All right. For "9 To 5," was it Jane fondue?


EISENBERG: B, what a way to make a liver?


EISENBERG: Or C, male chauvinist pig?


GURWITCH: It was male chauvinist pig.

EISENBERG: It sure was.


EISENBERG: For "Road House," was it A, bar brawl bouillabaisse; B, I used to roast duck with guys like you in prison...


EISENBERG: ...Or C, Patrick Swayze's cracked ribs and black eyed peas?

GURWITCH: Patrick Swayze's cracked ribs and black eyed peas.

EISENBERG: Yum yum. Yeah.


EISENBERG: For "City Slickers," was it A, mad cowboy chili; B, the legend of Curly's fries; or C, I carp bigger than you?

GURWITCH: It was the mad cowboy chili.

EISENBERG: Yes, it was. Yeah.


GURWITCH: We were - for some reason, like, we really heavy on the beef back in those. I don't know why, but we just did a lot of beef eating back in that day.

EISENBERG: For the dinner.

GURWITCH: I'm getting hungry.

EISENBERG: Yeah, just thinking about it. Puzzle Guru Art Chung, how did our special guest do? How did our special guest do?

ART CHUNG: Congratulations, Annabelle, you and listener Delfina Kopaki both win ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.




EISENBERG: Annabelle's latest book is called "Wherever You Go, There They Are: Stories About My Family You Might Relate To." Give it up one more time for Annabelle Gurwitch.