Josh Kornbluth and the art of self-deprecation

Josh Kornbluth in his new film Love and Taxes

By Eve Kushner

“I’m a mess,” says Josh Kornbluth in “Citizen Josh,” a self-deprecating one-man show that emerged from his disappointment about the 2004 election that kept George W. Bush in office. In 2007, that piece had a run at Berkeley Rep, and Kornbluth resurrected it last month at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists as a benefit for Indivisible Berkeley.

In his first movie, Haiku Tunnel, which was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001 and directed by his brother, Jacob, a character named Josh Kornbluth (played by Josh Kornbluth) can’t motivate himself to do what his boss has requested, which is simply to mail 85 very important letters. The protagonist spends the rest of the film trying to cover up what he has done (or rather, not done), as he wrestles with self-loathing, overshares, and sinks further and further into a swamp of his own making.

In Love and Taxes, his newest movie (also directed by Jacob), Kornbluth again puts the spotlight on neuroses and failures as his character confronts the enormous tax problem he has created by refusing to pay taxes for seven years. The crisis entangles his personal life because his pregnant girlfriend, Sara, insists that he clean up the mess before they marry so that she, too, won’t become legally embroiled in his problems. As if there weren’t enough challenges, Kornbluth’s character has (like the real Kornbluth) been raised to hate “the man” and “the system,” so meeting his civic duties seems like another kind of failure.


One option is to declare bankruptcy, and the idea grows on him because it reeks of failure: “When you think about it, me and bankruptcy — that’s like a match made in heaven. I’m surprised no one came up with it before.”

It’s imperative to him to stay with Sara. He fell in love the moment he realized that when she drives, she feels incapable of taking left turns, so she keeps taking rights. Kornbluth’s character joyfully says, “Clearly she’s neurotic. But her neuroses seem to be different from my neuroses. Perhaps we even have complementary neuroses!”

Just as his inert characters are far from being typical heroes, Kornbluth himself has none of the physical features of classic leading men. At 57, he looks more like a squishy Ben Franklin than Brad Pitt. In fact, when Kornbluth spotted this resemblance in a steamy bathroom mirror while shaving, he felt compelled to create a show about Ben Franklin, despite knowing nothing about the man at the time. After pitching the half-baked idea to two big-shots, Kornbluth pulled it off, and “Ben Franklin: Unplugged” opened in 1998. He resurrected it at the Z Space Studio in Fort Mason in 2004 to enthusiastic reviews.

“I’ve done a lot of basements”

Kornbluth hasn’t always performed in impressive arenas. “I’ve done a lot of basements,” says the self-described monologuist, who grew up in Manhattan and has lived in Berkeley for 20 years. As a performer, he cut his teeth on comedy gigs at La Val’s Subterranean Theatre in the basement of La Val’s Pizza on Euclid Avenue, regularly having his monologues interrupted as the staff shouted “24!” to indicate that an order was ready. He was paid in pizzas and wonders if there’s a correlation between that form of currency and the cholesterol problem he now treats with medication.

If his career has sometimes lacked prestige, his talents haven’t escaped the notice of locals, who regularly fill the seats at indie venues in San Francisco to see him perform. (His wife Sara was one of his fans, as Love and Taxes shows.) Audiences have been key because Kornbluth develops all his material by doing improvisation and seeing how audiences respond. That was the genesis of Haiku Tunnel, which was filmed in San Francisco.

From 2005 to 2007, he was also a local television luminary, hosting “The Josh Kornbluth Show” on KQED. In that capacity he interviewed actors Alan Alda and Helen Mirren, Senator Barbara Boxer, photographer Annie Leibowitz, and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, among others.

With Love and Taxes, Kornbluth reaches a new level of success in that he convinced former U.S. labor secretary Robert Reich to take a small role. The crazy idea to include Reich in the movie “was just instinctual,” says Kornbluth. As it turns out, Reich loves to act, and filmmaker Jacob Kornbluth (Josh’s brother) has made multiple movies involving Reich. “He’s so wonderful on economics and equality and inequality and social justice,” says Josh of Reich. “I felt that the message of the film would resonate with him.”

They shot Reich’s scene at The Marsh Berkeley Arts Center, though Reich is supposed to be in a fancy law firm in Washington, D.C. He plays Sheldon S. Cohen, the former commissioner of the IRS.

Before the scene, Sara (who teaches in East Bay public schools) hastily did Reich’s makeup and tamed his unruly hair with a comb. She and Josh now keep that comb in a jar in their bathroom. A label on the jar says, “This comb was used by Robert Reich.”

In Love and Taxes, Robert Reich plays Sheldon S. Cohen, the former commissioner of the IRS

Notes on failure

Despite these achievements, Kornbluth puts on no airs. Noting that he’s “not a person who has done great things,” he acknowledges that it takes chutzpah to invite people to a theater to hear him talk exclusively about himself. He doesn’t just do light riffs, either. Instead, he stands before audiences and rolls out his greatest failures, his most cringeworthy moments, and the very depths of his fractured psyche.

In “Citizen Josh” he says, “I’ve noticed something. People persist at things and they succeed. What’s up with that?” At another point in that show, he announces, “I can’t even fold my socks.”

Although some might brag about having attended Princeton, Kornbluth has created two shows to focus on what didn’t work out for him there. He flunked calculus (the subject of the solo theater piece “The Mathematics of Change”), and left without a diploma after failing to write the required thesis. “Citizen Josh” depicts his efforts to secure a diploma 25 years later by tackling a thesis — only to meet with failure.

All these plots match his life. Actually, he’s still working on that thesis, only now it’s been 35 years.

A sleight of hand

In reviewing “The Mathematics of Change,” the New York Times referred to Kornbluth’s act as “pained self-examination.” But is his auto-flagellation truly as excruciating for Kornbluth as one might imagine?

It’s important not to mix up the two Josh Kornbluths. The real one speaks with a deep, strong voice, whereas the invented Kornbluth persona is a schlemiel whose voice tends to be high and constricted for comedic effect. The real Kornbluth loves wrestling with complex questions, whereas the schlemiel version is constantly surprised by the world’s realities. The Love and Taxes character is under the impression that someone is giving him tax advice for free, only to discover later on that she’s been running the meter since he walked in her door and that he now owes her a staggering $15,000.

Josh Kornbluth in schlemiel mode as he consults with an intimidating tax expert in Love and Taxes

Actor Josh Kornbluth is very clear that he is not the Josh Kornbluth persona: “I feel like when I’m performing, I’m a character. I happen to use Josh Kornbluth as my character.” He adds with a chortle, “That just happens to be the character that I can play.”

To be sure, the schlemiel characters are based on the actual Kornbluth and his failings. “I really have so much evidence in my life for being disorganized and out of control,” he says. “Those things really happened to me.”

Nevertheless, he notes, “In doing my part in telling the story, if I’m doing it at all successfully, I can’t be absolutely disorganized because I wrote, co-produced, and starred in this movie that was really hard to make! It’s really hard to make an independent film. The saving grace for me is that even though I am so disorganized and neurotic, I’m able to tell stories about it. And when you tell stories, you have gained a measure of control over that chaos.”

As he notes, when the on-screen Kornbluth tells you he’s a fuck-up, he’s entertaining you, so he has succeeded, and the whole set-up is a deft “sleight of hand.” You’ve paid to see him, and as the storyteller, he’s holding the reins. He’s a lot more in control than audiences might realize. “I feel like a winner because, the fact that I’m in a theater telling stories — that’s a win,” says Kornbluth, laughing.

He delights in subverting expectations. With the title Love and Taxes, he took the phrase “death and taxes” and “turned it on its head. That was very appealing to me,” he says.

He also surprises his audiences by choosing dull-sounding topics and showing how emotional they are at base. For instance, he has observed that math elicits dread. “Dread is really good for stories,” he observes.

Saying that taxes represent “the exaction of money that you perhaps thought you possessed,” he says he has learned that taxes are also an unexpectedly intense and upsetting topic for people. After all, “The authorities that enforce the tax laws can seem very implacable.”

“I tend to be intuitive about what will work,” he says in regard to the subjects he chooses for shows, such as death and dementia.

With the failure theme, Kornbluth aligns himself with the long list of comedians who have portrayed themselves as screw-ups. For example, Woody Allen, invented this “nearsighted, schleppy Jewish guy who was also weirdly aggressive.”

Aside from Allen, Kornbluth’s comedic heroes include Mel Brooks, Spalding Gray, Carl Reiner, Richard Pryor, and Oliver Platt. He also reveres Pete Seeger.

Identifying closely and proudly with his own Jewishness, Kornbluth is particularly aware of the Jewish comedians who performed in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York starting in the 1920s: “I feel like I have a lot of the Catskills in me.”

Josh Kornbluth in Love and Taxes

The border between pain and humor

Despite all the control Kornbluth professes to have as the entertainer, he hardly has solid self-esteem. For a while during childhood, he thought he was the “bee’s knees” because he was a top-notch student. But, he notes, his view of himself has “always been mixed. Certainly now I feel there are many ways in which I feel I’m a real fuck-up. I don’t know how many of us are heroes to ourselves.”

He hit a particularly low spot in his mid-20s: “My father had died a couple of years before, and I’d been searching for what to do with my life and as a career. At the time I was a copyeditor, and I was trying to be a writer, but I never met deadlines, and I didn’t like writing. And I was just kind of floating because I was mourning. I was unmoored.”

During that period, he says, “I felt like such a fuck-up. I fucked up so much. Not going in to work or going to work late. I quit my job, but I would have lost it.” He lived in a closet at MIT and used the shower at the animal research lab.

For those with a shaky sense of self-worth, performing for audiences and making them focus on one’s weaknesses might seem like torture, but Kornbluth revels in doing just that. He finds it liberating, and he recognizes how unusual this is: “It’s literally the last place you would expect someone to open up about their thoughts, hopes, and fears, and I have a compulsion to do it. It releases me.”

Being in front of an audience makes his ideas flow in a way that can’t happen when he’s alone with his computer and the delete key. On stage, as he develops material, he refuses to censor himself for fear of leaving out something that belongs in the show. He frequently tells audiences stories that he’s never told his closest friends or relatives.

“I’m following the energy that is going on between me and the audience. And that’s what inspires me to create the stories. And then I over-create,” he says, noting that he later collaborates with people to edit out whatever isn’t landing.

With such a set-up, there’s little to prevent him from telling too much about himself. That’s an enormous danger of the form, he notes, particularly because success in his genre requires him to go to an uncomfortable place. There are definitely times when he has taken it too far: “I’ve overshared and then I feel bad about it for a few reasons. Sometimes it makes it yucky for the audience. The other part is that I feel like I’ve exposed myself in some unpleasant way. The stuff that works is at the edge of that. It’s just before oversharing. And the edited result is something that I hope doesn’t make the audience uncomfortable in a bad way. I hope I’m comfortable telling it, as well.”

Another edge that Kornbluth finds crucial is the border between pain and humor. When it comes to that, he takes his cue from the late comedian Richard Pryor, who (as Kornbluth explains) talked about extremely heavy, difficult stuff while making it incredibly funny. “Richard Pryor said the place he was going for in his comedy was the place where tragedy just was able to go over the edge into comedy. So close that it’s right on the edge of the pain.”

“I don’t even primarily want people to like me”

Kornbluth isn’t after a laugh a minute from the audience, but he hates when they don’t laugh at all: “My goals are very serious,” he says, adding that he wants people to experience his work as both funny and serious, both entertaining and cathartic.

In doing improv, he says, “I don’t even primarily want people to like me or to feel that they’ve been told a great yarn. What I’m aiming for is, what I’m prospecting for, is what is the spine of the piece? What is the real impulse behind my trying to tell this story? I’m looking for that more than anything else.” He feels he never knows that at the outset.

He asks himself, “What is the deep thing in this subject that connects me to audiences?” And he looks for the part in a show where both he and the audience are intensely tuned in to something. “My relationship with audiences is such a beautiful and profound thing,” he says. “Sometimes an audience’s energy will pull me to a place I wouldn’t have gone.”

His brother Jacob says, “I have always admired that, as theatrical monologues, Josh’s stories possess the wonderful combination of being intensely personal to him and deeply relatable to others at the same time.”

Josh solicits audience feedback after a show, and people let him know which story really hit them. Having heard about his most embarrassing moments and failures, they often share just as openly about their lives. A woman recently wrote to him about a comically unsettling gynecological exam she had undergone. Kornbluth isn’t fazed by hearing such things. “People share a lot of stuff with me, and I appreciate it. I can take it.”

Because his creative process depends on interplay with a live audience, Kornbluth finds it extremely challenging to turn his shows into movies. “I want the film to have the same immediacy as the show,” he explains. Early in the process of making “Love and Taxes, Josh and Jacob (the director) realized that the film was falling short in that respect: “There was kind of a pane of glass. There was a distance, like an unwelcome buffer zone that kept the movie from reaching people.”

The solution was to mix in real footage of performances of the live show. As Josh explains, his persona in “Love and Taxes” is quite passive, and the story is about his inaction as he shirks responsibilities. The most dynamic thing going on is the neurosis and tension within the character. That works on stage but somehow didn’t provide enough drama to carry the movie.

By contrast, the live footage crackles with energy because, Josh feels, he is at his best in that role: “I am a monologuist. The kind of animal I am is a live performer. And when you see me performing in front of an audience, you’re seeing more of the full me.”

Jacob Kornbluth (left) lives in Berkeley, where he works as a screenwriter and director. Currently, he is co-director, with Robert Reich (center), of The Economic Inequality Media Project, a nonprofit that makes short videos to explain economic issues in understandable ways. Photo: Mark Altenberg

Aside from his desire to connect with audiences around deep truths, Kornbluth is driven by strong feelings about his father: “If my dad hadn’t died, I’m certain I wouldn’t have become a performer. I want some way to keep his memory alive.” His dad shaped Josh on every level: “He communicated this vision of how the world could be, and how beautiful the world already was, in some magical secret way.”

Kornbluth has made multiple pieces about his dad, including the 2004 piece “Red Diaper Baby,” which showed what it was like to grow up as with Communist parents. Josh’s father would rouse Josh in the morning by singing The Internationale, the international Communist anthem.

Love and Taxes is again about Kornbluth’s father and about Josh’s gradually relinquishing the role of being that godlike person’s child and growing into his own adult self as a husband, father, and taxpaying citizen.

Love and Taxes flashes back to Josh as a child with his father in Manhattan

Above all, Kornbluth wants to tell a story well and authentically. And that doesn’t mean adhering to what actually happened in life.

In recent years, he has taught autobiographical storytelling at Stanford, and he implores his students, “Please don’t try to tell the literal, factual truth because the emotional truth is what’s important.”

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