In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
John Larroquette made his name as the amoral, unabashedly sleazy attorney Dan Fielding on Night Court, a role that earned him a then-record four Emmys in a row—and one that, aside from a shared wicked sense of humor, bore little resemblance to the thoughtful, genteel actor with a passion for rare books. Larroquette’s gotten closer since then by playing the Thomas Pynchon-loving main character on The John Larroquette Show and more recently as the nigh-omniscient researcher on TNT’s The Librarians (whose third season wraps January 22). But those who only know him from sitcoms or movie roles like Stripes or Meatballs 2 likely know little of the man with a zeal for Samuel Beckett. So we put Larroquette to our 11 Questions in order to bring him out.
John Larroquette: A Hard Day’s Night. To be one of The Beatles’ roadies, helping with their guitars, getting the extra girls that they couldn’t have time for, running around. When I was a boy in New Orleans—it was something even before The Beatles—I was, for some reason, an Anglophile. I don’t know why. I remember as a child, Prince Valiant was a cartoon strip in the newspapers, and I just loved the idea of England. Strange that I would wind up marrying one—an English girl. Or, I guess, not so strange. But anyway… A Hard Day’s Night, because it’s certainly so different than my world of the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Wearing little suits and being touted about, driven around in nice cars and being treated royally.
The A.V. Club: Was there ever a period in your career where you were chased by schoolgirls?
JL: [Laughs.] Yes, usually they were carrying axes and hammers. No, never. That’s not my lot in life at all.
JL: “Fuckwad,” I think. I don’t use it that often, but it’s always to describe an idiot. I do curse, I know that. I mean, I look at my vocabulary and there’s a lot of “shit,” “damn,” “fuck” in it. But fuckwad is probably my two favorite words together. For a while though, it was “fuckmook,” which was actually a line that Johnny Depp had in Once Upon A Time In Mexico. He called someone a fuckmook, and I liked that. But fuckwad is my favorite.
When I was a boy—not to get too deep into psychology here—I was a really devout Catholic and I went to Catholic boys’ school, so I didn’t curse. The only invective I ever used anywhere for that kind of exclamation of anger or frustration was “Judas Priest,” which I learned from the Franciscans and the Jesuits who taught me. That’s sort of their use of any kind of curse word. I have no idea where it comes from. The ridiculousness of Judas being a priest? So in the ’60s, when I discovered “fuck” and “asshole” and stuff, I reveled in it.
AVC: What do you think the nuns would say if they could hear you now?
JL: The tips of my fingers would be sore and bloody from their rulers.
AVC: Obviously not your last birthday, but your most recent birthday.
JL: [Laughs.] I wouldn’t be talking to you if it was the ultimate birthday, right? I don’t celebrate birthdays much, except for decade-wise. It’s not a really big thing. Samuel Beckett once said, “Your birthday is only proof that you’ve made it through one more excruciation.” My wife is very kind to me, and my children are as well. But there’s no big deal. I think the last big one was when I was 60, which was what, eight years ago now. And I happened to be on the road at the time traveling, my wife and I. But it’s not that big of a deal for me.
AVC: Isn’t your 70th coming up?
JL: Next year, yeah. I just turned 69 this past November. So yeah, I think there will be some celebration of some kind. But again, I think, quiet. It’s like, “Woohoo, I’m almost dead!” I don’t necessarily see that as a time to wear party hats and things. Certainly, it’s a milestone for anyone to reach seven decades of life, yes. But you know, I don’t plan on any big, huge celebrations. The last big one, I guess, was 50, and I did a party with friends. And 40 was big, too. I was doing Night Court at the time. That was a big one just because of the success, and life treating one well for awhile. I guess some people, they have their birthday week. Friends of mine are like, “Ooh, it’s my birthday this week!” “It’s one day.” “No, it’s a whole week! Birthday week.” I don’t get that excited about it.
Again, I don’t know how much I should talk about my life anymore, but as a boy in New Orleans… My birthday is always around Thanksgiving, and every seven or eight years, it’s on Thanksgiving Day. When I was a boy, everybody was sort of out of school, so I didn’t have a lot of friends around. So we got into the habit of going to the circus. I would pick a couple of friends, and my mother would take me to the circus—which, I’ve lived long enough to where it no longer exists! They just went out of business last week. But it was never a huge time for celebrations. It was getting closer to Christmas, so we were involved in preparations for that, and then a month or two later it was Mardi Gras, so that’s really what you’re getting ready to celebrate.
JL: Luckily, I didn’t follow it. It was “Don’t buy Apple stock” back when it was $10 a share. A bookkeeper I had at the time, I was starting to make money on television and stuff, and they said, “No, no, that company is going under. You shouldn’t do that.” But I was using Apple products even then in the late ’80s, and I did it anyway. Glad I did.
AVC: Sounds like a real fuckwad.
JL: [Laughs.] Yeah, you’re right. That’s right: Dr. Fuckwad, business realtor. Oh, and I would say it’s not the worst, because it’s, in essence, really true, but Jimmy Burrows, director—who actually directed the pilot of the series that I did for those nine or 10 years, Night Court, but never directed another episode because he went on to Cheers—he once told me, “Remember that less is more.” The character I played on Night Court certainly was not subtle in his humor. So I didn’t follow that. And four Emmys in a row later, Jimmy came up to me at the Emmys and said, “You didn’t listen to me. And if you win again tonight, I’m going to kill you.” And I did. He’s a great director and knows comedy, but that always stuck in my mind: Less is more.
I’ve never been of that school of acting. Bigger the choice, the better. There wasn’t a big choice I’ve ever met that I didn’t like. Like Jackie Gleason. I’m not comparing myself to Jackie Gleason, but he’s the same way. I’ve always described [Dan Fielding] as a combination of Barney Fife and Basil Fawlty. Actually, now that I say that… We were talking about the worst professional advice? It was when I decided to try to do an American version of Fawlty Towers on CBS. That was a bad idea.
AVC: Someone suggested that to you?
JL: No, I think that was my own stupid idea. I think at the time, after The John Larroquette Show, I had a standing deal with CBS with Les Moonves to come over there and do something. I was sitting around talking to my manager at the time, Bernie Brillstein—my late manager, Bernie Brillstein—and I said, “What about [Fawlty Towers]?” And he said, “Nah.” It wasn’t a great idea. A lot of it is because of the way American television works, I think. John [Cleese] did, what, 12 episodes of that show? He didn’t have to worry about syndication or worry about arc or worry about real, empathetic, sympathetic characters in the long run. With American television, you want that. You want people to stick around for 100 episodes—at least in those days, when it was the networks and you wanted 100 for syndication. So trying to take the really sharp corners off that was stupid. Why would I do that?
AVC: It definitely seems like they’d want Basil Fawlty to “grow as a person” or whatever.
JL: And you can’t. It was a bad idea. Hubris on my part.
JL: I think I would be an orthopedic surgeon, because ankles and joints and bones and stuff are very important. I’m 6’5”, and my bones have been very important to me. I think helping people to relieve themselves of pain and be able to walk and play ball again and whatever they do—golf again—would be a nice service. And it seems like you would have to have less knowledge to fix joints than you would to fix brains and hearts and stuff. Maybe. Weekend medical school would be sufficient.
AVC: Well, you’d have to learn about the spine, right?
JL: This is true. That’s a tricky bastard, that spine thing.
AVC: One wrong move and you’d paralyze a guy.
AVC: I’m not trying to talk you out of it.
JL: Yeah, in that case, forget it. I’ll just be a vitamin doctor.
AVC: There you go. A homeopathic doctor.
JL: Yeah. Here, take this valerian and this aloe and call me in the morning.
AVC: A little Doctor Robert.
JL: Thank you. Right. Electric Larry.
JL: Well, it would be usually in winter, snow outside, fire, a good book in my hand, and silence. My wife and I were once living in Idaho in the mountains in the snow, when my sons and daughter were still younger, and Elizabeth once said she thought my perfect world would be sitting in the driver’s seat, her sitting next to me, the children sitting in the back of the Suburban, and 2,000 miles of silence. I know they’re safe because they’re with me, and I can just drive. We’re a driving family, this family. We drive a lot. But the original is big chair, good book, tea, and silence.
AVC: Have you gotten to a place where you get more of those days than not?
JL: Yeah, I guess. But you know, I’m always at least inside my head, I’m always running. But yes, Sundays I just try to turn off. I turn off the world, as it were. The news—except for The New York Times, but most of that’s the Arts & Leisure section. I’m not a huge sports fan, except I do watch my home team, the New Orleans Saints, when they play. Sundays are, historically in my family, quiet. In my previous life, being in church on Sunday, Sunday morning mass, then to Café Du Monde for beignets, then usually some sort of animal killed and eaten at lunch.
AVC: You’d actually kill your own lunch?
JL: For a while I did. I had a rather strange childhood in that respect. We lived in the middle of New Orleans in the Ninth Ward, as I said, and next to the house we lived in was an empty lot. And in that lot, my grandfather decided to raise animals—chickens and ducks and rabbits. I would go get our eggs in the morning, and my grandmother would send me out on Sundays to pick the chicken that she was going to stew that day. It sounds like I was living in the 1800s, but this is mid- to late-’50s in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the middle of the city.
AVC: So you got an unusually up-close relationship with your food early on.
JL: Indeed. And I never looked at them as pets. The dogs and cats were pets, but everything else was a commodity. It was to be utilized. To be treated well, and then utilized.
AVC: Do you think that affected your general personal philosophy at all, to be raised in a place where death is part of your everyday life from childhood on?
JL: I’m not sure. I certainly don’t take life lightly. To respect the product that you’re using, I think, is very important. I think it does connect you a little bit more. Where do chickens come from? They don’t come from the refrigerator section of Gelson’s. They come from somewhere else.
AVC: Yeah, as a suburban kid, you know, animals were always sort of an abstract. Then they were on your dinner table.
JL: Right, exactly. Again, it’s amazing being a member of perhaps the last analog generation—being born in the late ’40s, growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, when it was still a very analog world. And in New Orleans those days, the country was just next door, as it were. You didn’t have to travel miles and miles to get out in the woods. There’s tons of fishing, obviously, in New Orleans, and tons of hunting. That was part of the cycle of life, to get fresh meat from the butcher or go duck hunting and get it yourself. It wasn’t malicious or insensitive. It was just there, and you used it.
JL: I would say my taste in literature. I don’t know if “snobby” is the right word. There’s certain things I won’t read, that I just don’t read. But when I started collecting—when I was actually able to collect—I started collecting the men and women that I enjoyed reading. Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Faulkner. More literature than just stories, I suppose.
AVC: You’re choosy, not necessarily snobby.
JL: I guess I am. Basically, it’s fiction. Unfortunately, I’m not a history buff. I don’t read biographies, except of some of those writers whom I’ve collected over the years—particularly Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller, people like Charles Bukowski and John Fante and David Foster Wallace. I was taught whatever I know about collecting from a book dealer in Hollywood, back in the early ’80s when I started making money and was able to do that. I found this little bookstore in Hollywood on Los Palmas called Baroque Books. The book dealer was a fellow named Sholom Stodolsky—Brooklyn Red, they called him. Red was this fellow that really didn’t care if he sold anything. I walked in one day and bought a Henry Miller and sat and talked to him, and he sort of taught me about collecting.
This is a long way around saying that the ideal, the grail—for people like me, anyway, who collect 20th-century fiction—is to find a pristine trade edition. Those were taken from the publisher, they were put in book stores, they were handled, they were bought, they lived their lives. The copies of The Catcher In The Rye or To Kill A Mockingbird that I own look like they were printed yesterday, and there’s not a nick, not a blur, there’s not any fading on the jacket at all, because they were taken and protected. A limited edition, by nature, is limited, and also probably more protected because of that. I’d rather have a first trade edition than a special one of 25 that was made years later, even if it’s signed by the author. The trade edition is the Holy Grail.
AVC: How do you feel about audiobooks?
JL: I don’t have anything against them. I actually did a couple of them—but not many. I just never got into it, timing-wise. I don’t listen to them, if that’s any indication of my feelings about them. I’d rather read. I would listen to, I think, Mark Halperin, Game Change. I don’t read many political books, but for a long drive… For a long time, we were driving between L.A. and Idaho. It’s 1,000 miles, and it takes you a day and a half or so. I would listen to that sort of book on tape. But not fiction. I wouldn’t listen to The Grapes Of Wrath.
AVC: I have a couple bibliophile friends who insist that, if you’ve only heard the audiobook, you haven’t actually read it.
JL: Specifically, that’s absolutely true. You haven’t read the book. You’ve listened to someone reading the book.
AVC. Yes, they are technically correct.
JL: And I do think that the imagination you create yourself when you’re reading, to create the tone and the accent of the world, is an individual accomplishment that someone is imposing upon you by listening to them read it. Because you’re listening to their interpretation, and their emphasis would probably be different from the one that your brain makes while you’re reading it. So it’s different. But I certainly don’t condemn anyone who listens to audiobooks. It seems to me that any way we get good literature in our brain is worthwhile.
JL: It’s actually three, but they’re considered one, and that’s Samuel Beckett’s trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. There’s no getting done with them for me. I’ll read them and start again. Samuel Beckett is the person that I read the most of—certainly the person whose books I own the most of. Probably 800 or 900, maybe 1,000 books of just Samuel Beckett. By him, about him, in different languages, etc. etc. Notebooks of his, letters of his that I own, personal letters—not to me, but I bought a bunch of correspondence of his. I love his humor, and I’m always blown away by his syntax and his ideas. So I keep reading those.
AVC: What about those books in particular keeps bringing you back?
JL: Well, they were the first novels he wrote, and he wrote them over a period of four or five years. It’s that disintegration of the individual that he goes through in those three books, up to the end of The Unnamable. The idea of being trapped. I’ve always thought—I’m not a deep man, I don’t think—but that idea that you are trapped behind your eyes. You really are. What is real? Who are “they”? That way Molloy opens with him being, “I don’t know where I am. I’m in my mother’s room. She was here, but now I’m here. Did she die after I came? I don’t know. I’m in her bed. A man comes and gives me money and takes the pages away.” It just puts you in this space without a floor, without a ceiling, without walls. You’re just floating with these sensations, and I just find them fascinating and enlightening for my own brain.
JL: Possums. I remember walking into a shed when I was a boy in a house we owned by the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, and there was a possum in it with its babies, and it hissed at me, as possums can. And it opened its mouth. They live around here, near Venice Beach where I live now. They kind of scurry around. They’re just ugly, mean-looking things. And the idea of being bitten by a possum just… ugh, God. I’m not afraid of snakes. Alligators I saw as a boy growing up in New Orleans. Possums and fuckwads.
AVC: Possums are fuckwads.
JL: Possums are definitely fuckwads.
JL: I don’t know who would surprise you. I’m certainly a big fan of David Byrne. Tom Waits, for sure.
AVC: They’re both fairly bookish. Tom Waits has the New Orleans jazz connection.
JL: Yeah, and Charles Bukowski. As a young man, I actually had a huge collection of Charles Bukowski’s work. I actually knew Charles.
AVC: You knew Charles Bukowski?
JL: I did, yeah. I mean, very, very superficially. There was a show where they tried to fool celebrities or whatever, and they set me up through my wife to go to a fake book auction. I bought it hook, line, and sinker. The object was to sell books that I knew and that they would just go for thousands and thousands of dollars more than they were worth. So I started bidding on them, and I realized, “These people are stupid. They’re paying far too much money for these books.” There were a lot of fuckwads in that episode. And then Bukowski was part of the books, which they had borrowed from Ralph’s Super in Santa Barbara. I deal a lot with them. And later Bukowski wrote me a letter about it, and we met when I was filming a movie in San Pedro and we talked a bit and exchanged letters here and there. Long story. Stupid story. But yeah, Tom Waits, because of that sort of gritty stuff.
But I don’t know who in the world I’m a fan of that would surprise you. I had a crush on Pink for a while. My wife used to go, “Your girlfriend’s singing again.” I do remember that. I haven’t followed her over the years, but when she first hit, I liked her voice and her energy. So I found myself listening to Pink songs from iTunes.
JL: Write more. That’s the advice I would give myself. Write more. I guess we all have some sort of Rubicon that we haven’t crossed in our lives and we’ve thought about for who knows how long. And for me, it’s writing. I hate that I’m not disciplined enough—certainly not talented enough—but I would have told myself that at a young age. Because I wrote as a teenager, and once I started acting, you know, you’re learning lines, you’re doing other people’s words, it takes up a lot of time. Especially if you’re dedicated to what you’re doing, you’re trying to do a decent job at it. But I would have said to myself, “Write more, please.”
AVC: Is there a Great American Novel inside you you’ve always wanted to get out?
JL: No, I don’t think so. Maybe that’s the problem, that I don’t really have anything important enough to say. To myself, not important to the world. I wrote a couple of movies that were bought but never made. I have an odd obsession with blank books—sort of like Mel Gibson in that movie [Conspiracy Theory] where he kept buying The Catcher In The Rye. I can’t pass up a blank book when I see it in a bookstore. And I write a sentence in it, and then I put it away.
AVC: Maybe if you compile enough of those, you’ll have a book.
JL: Well, yeah, but with the same sentence. It’d be like The Shining, Jack Nicholson in the Overlook.
AVC: Do you have an autobiography in you? You’ve had a pretty colorful life.
JL: I’ve toyed with that idea, but I think the only way I could do that is if I could sort of massage it into a fiction. Like, this is a true story, and some of it actually happened. I don’t reveal myself a lot, I don’t think. But certainly, taking elements of my upbringing in New Orleans—and particularly after Katrina, it had an enormous amount of attention that it needed, and a lot of help that it desperately needed came to it. And it sort of got put back on the map in my world, with celebrities, good-hearted and totally dedicated people helping revive it. But the city that I grew up in, you really haven’t seen much about that. You know, if you read The Moviegoer by Walker Percy or certainly A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, it’s a city that is remarkable. I’d like to write something about it, I know that.
Books that I think that anybody who loves New Orleans or thinks about New Orleans should read are Walker Percy’s, A Confederacy Of Dunces, and Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter. It’s a thin book, and a beautiful book that I actually tried to buy. Before The English Patient, before he sold anything to Hollywood, I talked to him for a long time trying to buy the rights to Coming Through Slaughter to make a film of it, but I didn’t succeed. Time passes. Again, it’s a long story. Again, I always veer back to books, it seems. But I would like to write something about New Orleans. What I did actually write that was sold was a story about radio in New Orleans, the early days of FM underground radio that I was part of in New Orleans between ’66 and ’69. I’d like to write more about that. As I said, I don’t seem to get very far on those things.
AVC: Well, there’s still time.
JL: Indeed! You’re right. Thank you.
12. This question comes to you from our previous interview subject. Are you familiar with Jim Gaffigan?
JL: Yes, of course. Funny man.
AVC: Funny man with a very not-funny question: “How would you fix the divisiveness that exists in this country?”
JL: I’d turn off the internet for a month and make us actually talk to each other, and be responsible for your opinions and not be able to hide behind the anonymity of the cyber-wall to speak your mind. To actually have to face people and see their reactions and discuss it—actually discuss it. It won’t happen. Unless the grid goes down.
AVC: Certainly not now that Twitter is the official White House press corps.
JL: Interesting times. That’s the Chinese curse, right? “May you live in interesting times.”
AVC: What do you want to ask the next person?
JL: Who’s the one person that you’ve met that you regret not becoming better acquainted with?
AVC: Do you have an answer for that one?
JL: Walker Percy, actually. I met him very briefly, then after his death, his nephew wrote me a letter. He said, “By the way, my uncle, as he got older, would watch television—which he really didn’t do before very much at all. When I was talking to him, he said that he thought that if anybody played Binx, the character in The Moviegoer, if they ever made a movie of it, that it should be you.” Had I known that, I would have been very persistent in trying to get the rights to that and make it a film. But obviously, all that stuff is far too old, because Binx is only in his 30s during The Moviegoer. But anyway, Walker Percy. That’s who I’d like to have known better. He’s from my neck of the woods, although he lived in Covington most of his life, which is across the lake from New Orleans. But a real Southern gentleman and New Orleanian. Like myself.