Some guys on Facebook were talking about Harvey Pekar’s appearances on the David Letterman Show back in the late 1980s. That got me to thinking about ole’ Harvey . . .
I thought they were a good match, Harvey and Letterman. They both enjoyed the verbal jousting. And Harvey was always the instigator of the insults. So you could hardly blame Letterman for firing back in kind. And, to his credit, Letterman kept inviting Harvey back right to the end.
I think Letterman was genuinely amused AND genuinely repulsed by Harvey at the same time. I think it blew Letterman’s mind that Harvey was so UNIMPRESSED about being on television. Slouching in the guest chair like he was lounging in his living room. I think Letterman found it both refreshing and perverse. Since “television exposure” is the life-blood to most of the celebrity-whores in Letterman’s orbit. What could me more important than BEING ON TV?? It was almost sacreligious to Letterman how cavalier Harvey was about being on television. Harvey rightly saw TV as the exercise in greed, vanity and vacuity that it is.
I got a special kick out of Harvey’s Letterman appearances. Because I had known Harvey since 1979 when he started contributing literary reviews to my pal Duncan’s zine, TELE TIMES. At the time I had Harvey Pekar pegged as kind of a loser (shows you what I know). He wrote this obscure literary review column that almost nobody read, for a xeroxed zine. And self-published an equally-obscure comic book that sold about 30 copies (one of Harvey’s big complaints back then — and you know Harvey ALWAYS had complaints — was his storage locker full of boxes and boxes of unsold copies of AMERICAN SPLENDOR).
So when Harvey appeared on Letterman, it was stunning to me for two reasons: 1.) The kick of seeing “somebody I know” on television. And 2.) He absolutely KILLED. Harvey got more genuine belly-laughs than just about any professional comedian who ever appeared on Letterman.
I still got a VCR cassette tape (remember those?) stashed in my storage locker somewhere, that Harvey sent us of his first two Letterman appearances. Along with a bizarre interview he did with his friend Toby, who worked with him as a clerk at the VA hospital.
I never knew Harvey Pekar that well, personally. But, like I lot of people, I felt I knew Harvey Pekar, because he revealed so much of himself in his art and writing.
Near the end of his life, Harvey made one last appearance in Berkeley at some kind of promotional event. Duncan was in the audience. And Harvey called out from the stage to Duncan, asked him how he was doing, etc. That was pretty cool. That was just like Harvey. Wherever he was, he seemed to act like the whole world was his living room. Or should be. Ha ha.
But I always get this weird feeling. One minute it’s this dynamic thing with all these dynamic people. And then you blink your eyes and it’s all over. Harvey is dead, and Duncan is dead, and Letterman is retiring, and even VCR cassette tapes are a thing of the ancient past. And the whole thing seemed so full of life, and then in a blink of an eye it’s all gone, gone, gone. . . . As if it never even happened.
I remember one of the last stories Harvey wrote in AMERICAN SPLENDOR, about his mother and father. Near the end of the story he wondered if they had ever really been happy. Then he mused (words to the effect): “I guess it really doesn’t matter whether they were happy. This life is over so quickly I guess it really doesn’t matter if you’re happy or not.”