That Biz Called Show(biz)

An arts writer, a keyboardist, and a filmmaker walk into a book deal. The result is Jason Anderson’s comedic debut novel.

Christmas, 2005 / No. 15
Art by Mark Lyall
Mark Lyall

While most of his classmates were at home in their basements shouting at the devil along with Mötley Crüe, a fourteen-year-old Jason Anderson was debating the band’s merits in Vox, a magazine published by CJSW, the University of Calgary’s radio station. At Vox, Anderson received an early education in both writing and pop culture, while managing to avoid becoming precocious, cocky, or fawning. Today, at the age of thirty-three, Anderson is still none of those things. As his success as a journalist shows, he learned his lessons well.

Best known for his music and film writing in Eye Weekly, Toronto Life, Toro, and the Globe and Mail—and as a talking head on MuchMoreMusic’s ever-increasing number of “list” shows—Anderson has also been pursuing a career in fiction for the past ten years. His short stories have appeared in This Magazine (and this magazine), and in the 2001 anthology The IV Lounge Reader. In September, ECW Press released his first novel, Showbiz, a comedic thriller filled with enough film, music, and general pop-culture references to keep even the biggest arts geek happy. “I sort of planned it so that it would fit in all this showbiz, entertainment stuff that I was interested in,” says Anderson.

Showbiz follows Nathan Grant, a Canadian journalist living in New York, in his attempt to track down Jimmy Wynn, a fictional comedian not-so-loosely based on Vaughn Meader, a little-remembered comic from the nineteen-sixties, best known for his impersonation of John F. Kennedy. Like the real-life Meader, Wynn’s career took a turn for the worse following the assassination of Anderson’s fictional U.S. President Theodore Cannon. Grant becomes obsessed with finding the long-vanished comedian after stumbling across a used copy of Wynn’s famous record album, leading the struggling journalist from New York to Las Vegas to California, and finally to a Niagara Falls dinner theatre. Showbiz’s world is part real, part alternate reality. While some of the book’s characters are fictionalized versions of real-life celebrities (a Lenny Bruce who didn’t die in 1966, but remains bitterly alive in a nursing home, for one), others are more-veiled homages, and part of the book’s fun is in guessing who’s who. The book also references such disparate cultural elements as, in Anderson’s words, “crappy punk rock and illusioneering.”

“It was really fun to build a plot like that,” he says. “That basic mystery thriller thing, where you make the reader feel like they’re not three steps behind, but like a step and a half maybe, where they’re just kind of getting a little bit.”

Anderson identifies himself more as an arts writer than as a journalist, but his years of experience in the press more than qualify him to write a story from a reporter’s point of view, and have served him well in his ability to tackle a novel. Nathan Grant is, as Anderson describes, “somebody who doesn’t have a great deal of confidence about what he’s doing, but does have that tenacity to keep moving forward.” This juxtaposition of fear and doggedness allowed Anderson to use the character to keep moving the story ahead, either through Grant’s actions, or those of people around him. This constant forward motion was integral to the success of the story, Anderson says. “I’d been writing things that were much more minimalist and static before….The whole thing was to have a lot of story, and a lot of dialogue, and a continual momentum.” The decision to make his lead character a journalist came from Anderson’s initial conception of the book as a mix of the films Citizen Kane and Melvin and Howard—a road story with an interview structure.

“Having a journalist was not so much because I was interested in writing about a journalist’s perspective,” he says. “It was about using a journalist instead of a detective. They’re both trying to do the same thing, which is discover the mystery.”

Showbiz is more than a litany of Anderson’s far-reaching fascinations, it’s an attempt to do something the author says few Canadian writers do these days—entertain. “I read and review a lot of CanLit where there really isn’t a plot,” he says. “A lot of character, a lot of theme, but there’s really not a ripping-yarn story element to it.” To buck this trend in the modern Canadian canon, Anderson decided that his book had to have a U.K. flavour, and he looked to the writing of authors like Northern Ireland’s Colin Bateman and Scotland’s Christopher Brookmyre, whose work he sees as “fast-paced, with a lot of plot—satirical and fun,” to create a book closer in spirit to a Mike Hammer mystery than your typical Canadian fare.

Anderson began writing for the Toronto weekly Eye almost immediately after moving to Toronto from Calgary, in 1991, when he was nineteen. One of his Vox editors, Bill Reynolds, had moved to Toronto before Anderson and was already writing for the newly launched paper (he would eventually become its editor). Today, aside from being a prolific freelance writer for a number of publications, Anderson is still a frequent contributor to Eye, has been its music editor, and writes a regular film column, Medium Cool. It was through Eye that Anderson—who had written and published poetry as a teenager—made the jump from criticism to fiction, when an assignment brought him into the novelist Paul Quarrington’s workshop, at the Humber School for Writers, in the summer of 1995. Of his former pupil, Quarrington, the author of Whale Music, among other books, says, “[Anderson’s] writing muscle is so well developed that he can use this tool to accomplish whatever he needs….At the same time, he doesn’t need to impress you with how he’s writing, so he can get to the more important work, like the characterization, or the voice, or imbuing the book with some kind of subtext or tone.”

What also makes Anderson’s work unique is his ability to convey his enthusiasm for the things he loves—film, literature, and books—to the reader. “Whenever he is making an entertainment or a pop-cultural reference, it never seems forced,” says Jennifer Hale, Showbiz’s editor. “It’s just sort of in there because that’s the way he talks, and that’s the way he writes.” Comfort with subject matter is one thing, but those he works with regularly also appreciate his ability to hit the right tone. “He’s really funny,” says Kieran Grant, Eye’s film editor, a former Toronto Sun music writer, and a longtime friend of Anderson’s. “There’s a certain irreverence that coexists with his knowledgeability that is just so tricky.” Anderson’s Eye column on the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival exhibits this quality, conveyed with pathos: “According to the early buzz, Walk the Line will be this fall’s Ray, American Gun will be Crash, Shooting Dogs will be Hotel Rwanda, Shopgirl will be Sideways and Capote will be Kinsey. No word on what poor movie gets to be Beyond the Sea.” Says Grant, “Traditionally, music writers alienate people, but Jason has this warm way of conveying humour. And he loves Kylie Minogue. What can I say? ”

Jannie McInnes

The Two Koreas: Kieran Grant, Jason Anderson, Stuart Berman, David Gee, and Ian Worang.

Just as most actors long to direct, it’s safe to assume most music critics long to be rock stars—another lesson Anderson has learned and accepted, but, thankfully, with a level head. “There was this unique situation for a while in the nineties where it seemed like there was a handful of rock critics at each paper who became good friends,” says Grant. That gang of critics—Grant, Matt Galloway (Now), Stuart Berman (Eye), Ben Rayner (Toronto Star), and, occasionally, Anderson—soon started to d.j. together around town. In 2003, three of them formed a band, the Two Koreas, featuring Berman on vocals, Grant on guitar, Anderson on keyboards, the musician Ian Worang on bass, and the advertising writer (and Showbiz’s cover designer) David Gee on drums. “Cheekiness run amok” is how Grant describes the band, which proudly wears influences like the Fall, the Modern Lovers, and Can on its sleeve. The Two Koreas played its first show in February, 2004, at the Drake Hotel, on Queen Street West. “My favourite comment about that show was that when we started playing, at the back of the room there was this palpable wave of relief, where it was like, ‘Oh, thank God they don’t totally suck,’” says Anderson. “It would have been this uncomfortable thing for everyone.” While the band does want to achieve some measure of success, it is not looking for a record deal (the band’s first album, Main Plates & Classic Pies, was self-released in early 2005), nor is it interested in touring. The project, Anderson says, is more for fun: “[Like] having a band, but you get to take off all of the stressful stuff.”

And directing, it seems, is not the dream of actors alone. Anderson has also tackled the film genre, having completed two short movies, one for an art show organized by the writer and artist R. M. Vaughan, the other made at a workshop led by the filmmaker and professor Philip Hoffman.

Anderson’s broad palate is often on display. In conversation, as in his writing, he can jump easily from heavy metal to avant-garde film to why Tom Green’s 2001 critical and box office bomb, Freddy Got Fingered, may not be that funny, but is important in terms of its commentary on comedy movies. Anderson isn’t one to rip a movie to shreds just because he doesn’t care for the subject matter. “It really bugs me when I read people who have made no effort to understand what the context is. You see that a lot with horror movies and lowbrow comedies,” he says. “It’s completely useless as a review. To me, what’s interesting is, what exactly are the gross jokes about? Or what kind of gross jokes are they? ”

With Showbiz, Anderson hopes critics will extend him the same professional courtesy he tries to offer his subjects. “I kinda felt one thing that might come up is that the book seems kind of commercial,” he says. “Although there are some parts of it that are a little more gonzo, I didn’t want to make it obviously literary. I wanted it to have lots of jokes, and things that people are going to enjoy, and then bring in some of the themes about masochistic elements of art making.” Anderson feels the world of comedy is the best place to explore these elements. “It’s just so deadly to go out on the stage and weather that kind of abuse,” he says. “There’s a kind of sadness in the life of somebody like Jimmy Wynn.” Sadder still, Anderson points out, is the fact that Wynn’s real-life counterpart, Vaughn Meader—whose 1962 comedy album, The First Family, was the fast-selling album of its day—is now probably best known for the line supposedly delivered by Lenny Bruce following Kennedy’s assassination: “Vaughn Meader is screwed.”

Unlike Meader—and Wynn—Anderson’s career has endured for nearly twenty years. Showbiz represents just the beginning of his literary career. The music his one-time classmates listen to has most likely changed, but Anderson’s drive and enthusiasm haven’t. Readers should only applaud that.