I wait for Carl Arnheiter at Russell Square tube station. I’m going to ride the underground train to Heathrow with him. He has short brown hair and looks a bit the sad clown. Probably because he’s hungover. Once through the barriers, he produces a Cornetto from somewhere and offers it to me. It’s 9.15am. I laugh.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer and a comedian. I write for an ad agency. I write comedy. It’s a very exciting life.”
“Why are you in London?”
“We came to London to do those two shows for Fancy Meeting You Here (comedy tours of museums & galleries) – at your fun cultural institutions. My partner Dave and I thought it’d be good.”
“My partner in comedy… and in life,” Dave Hill.
“How long have you been doing Fancy Meeting You Here?” I ask.
“Two years in March.”
“The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.”
“Every six weeks, it’s been a really interesting show to do. I think the turn out was really great here.”
“Are you going to do it in other places too?”
“Yeah that’s the goal. I’d love to come back here. We want to do other museums in New York too – the Met is probably getting tired of us… I mean they tolerate us but… we’ve also organised to do show at a college back home in April. We’re writing that now.”
“How long does it take to put together?”
“Not long… I mean it helps if we can see the artwork beforehand. You can do a formulaic piece – but it’s really fun when you write site-specific stuff. And it’s great for comedians because they have to flex that muscle they have but don’t necessarily often get to flex.”
“How did you get into comedy?”
“I started doing improv – believe it or not because of the British Whose Line is it Anyway? My tastes have changed now, it’s too gamey for me, and I always…I always… I dunno that’s gonna sound terrible… but I always liked making people laugh. I realised I’d been doing it for a while but I didn’t have any direction with it. So I started doing shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. It’s an amazing theatre in the basement of a supermarket and you can go there and any show is five dollars and it’s guaranteed to be great. It’s been a launching ground for a lot of people. Ed Helms, Ellie Kemper, Zac Woods from the office… Amy founded it – you used to be able to catch Amy and Tina there when they had their show there. And I do a show called Inside Joke there, which is a talk show about the craft of comedy. All the greats have done shows there. It’s you and 140-150 other people for five dollars you might catch Mike Myers. So it’s a great place and that’s where I started.”
“How long ago was that?” I ask.
“I started improv in 2001. So I’ve gotten almost nowhere in ten years. Which is fine.”
“It’s not too bad though – I mean you get paid to do it?”
“Well we don’t get paid at the Upright Citizens Brigade – nobody does. But that’s not why we do it. I do get paid to go and do shows elsewhere but it’s not my sole source of income.”
“Where do you get your money then?”
“So before 2001 what were you doing?”
“I was a journalist. I was a music journalist among other journalists – I wrote features and reviews. Writing is such a whorish business, as you know, you just write for whoever is willing to pay you, and it felt like that for a long time – going from place to place writing.”
“Who did you write for?”
“I wrote for CMJ (College Music Journal) I was on staff at CMJ. There was a great magazine I wrote for here in the UK – a very small sort of underground thing called Thalamic Terrascope and I really loved them. But that was the great thing about being a music journalist – you could write for who you wanted to write for and you were writing for a like voice and a like mind which I really liked. Thalamic Terrascope really liked obscure 60s bands before those Nuggets Box Sets really took off. Thalamic Terrascope was running interviews with bands like The Mumps or in New York, there was this thing called The Big Take Over – written by this guy Jack Rabid, who was music obsessive. His apartment was like a record store it was incredible… The magazine is like 300 pages long and it comes out once a quarter. And in those 300 pages there’ll be like 1500 reviews and painfully extensive interviews with bands, in incredibly small print. It was great to write for those two magazines. It didn’t pay any money but it didn’t matter, because I was writing for who I wanted to write for and I was a part of what I thought were really great magazines. I learned how to do what I did from working with musicians. And that was the point of meeting people here, you know, really interesting people who I’d wanted to meet for a while.”
“When I was a journalist I wrote some stuff for ABC news, when they did something called The Century Project. I wanted to sit down and chat with Kurt Vonnegut because I loved him. I had to call him. That was a weird experience – we were on the phone and I was like,
‘Er, I’m sorry Mr. Vonnegut, did I catch you at a bad time?’
And he says, ‘A little, but I’ll call you back at 9 O’clock tomorrow morning.’
Sure enough, right on the dot at 9 O’clock the next day he calls and says, ‘Hey Carl, this is Kurt Vonnegut…’
I lost my mind. He invited me over the next day and made me lunch – a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – and we sat in his living room and we talked about everything. He had stopped talking about his books by then, because he said everything there was to say about them had already been said. And that was a great relief.
So I had a regular conversation with Kurt Vonnegut about things Kurt Vonnegut wanted to talk about. We talked about World War II and being of German descent.
I said, ‘What was it like going back? To the Germans who had done these terrible things but were really your people,’
And… and he used to be a car salesman – Saabs I think, but they would explode, the engines would essentially melt to the body and Kurt had to sell these pieces of s***t. And I just remember those stories. He had this great laugh, infectious laugh with just a touch of emphasyma to it – and I just wanted to hear Kurt Vonnegut laugh. That was ‘99 before I even started doing comedy but even then I thought – I gotta get this guy to laugh. And I have the tapes from that conversation and he actually laughs a lot. That to me is a great memory. And then when I left – there was one flight of stairs up from the ground floor to the entry of his townhouse and I’d put on this suit because I thought it would be disrespectful not to. And there’s a great movie adaptation of his book Mother Night with Nick Nolte as Howard Campbell W. Junior, the last free American, and it’s an amazing book but the movie is really well done too – it’s by Keith Gordon and Bob Weide – Robert Weide – and there’s a scene where Howard Campbell freezes – he doesn’t know where to go – and he stops and he’s just standing amongst this crowd of people and it’s a beautiful shot, with people walking by in very slow motion, and he’s standing there for hours then Kurt Vonnegut comes into frame and they sort of lock eyes and then Kurt just turns around and walks away.
So I leave – and there’s another scene in the movie where we had the exact same exchange of dialogue – Kurt’s at the top of the stairs, I’m at the bottom of the stairs and I turn around to say goodbye and there are people weaving between us – he’s still at the top of the stairs with his little dog and he just raises his hand and says, ‘aufwiedersehen Mr. Arnheiter.’
And I just say, ‘Aufweidersehen, Mr. Vonnegut,’ as these people are passing by, and we’ve got this staircase between us and Kurt just turns around, walks inside and then his little dog runs inside and then he closes the door. And I must have stood there for a good five minutes just staring at the door thinking, ‘Oh my God we just had that Mother Night scene. It was incredible.’ And it was those moments, that although very few and far between, kept me really wanting to talk to interesting people.”
Carl’s website is: www.inside-joke.com
Sophie Collard on Google+