Monday, July 12, 2010

Harvey Pekar

There are friends of mine who knew Harvey Pekar much better than I did. Yet whenever I've mentioned Harvey to them, we usually shared the same information. Harvey seemed the same to everyone, regardless of proximity. Of course, certain personal attributes are not widely shared, but in general, Harvey appeared to my friends the way he appeared to me: honest, funny, down-to-earth intelligent. And now he's gone.

I knew Harvey for a brief time toward the end of my stint with FAIR. His wife Joyce was working on a project with a FAIR staffer, so Harvey hung around the office, browsing the political magazine rack. I immediately recognized him from his Letterman spots, where Harvey subverted Letterman's "weirdo" guest segment while still engaging the audience. I told him how much I enjoyed his appearances, as well as his comic, American Splendor. Harvey grumbled that national TV exposure did little to sell his comic.

"But Harvey," I replied, "If it wasn't for Letterman, I wouldn't have known about American Splendor."

Harvey smiled and shrugged.

We later walked around Chelsea, talking about comedy and politics. Harvey was direct and unpretentious. He had an encyclopedic mind, riffing off facts and memories like the jazz musicians he wrote about in Evergreen Review. Harvey didn't know me at all, yet he was extremely generous and encouraging. When we discussed Letterman, I told Harvey that I too was from Indianapolis, and had grown up watching Letterman do the local weather. I'd also been submitted as a writer to his NBC show, and had one of my pieces used on-air without payment or credit.

"You should write about him," suggested Harvey.


Harvey put me in touch with a friend of his at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. I pitched an op-ed article about Letterman's corporate comedy and relationship with NBC's parent company, GE. It was bought. Just like that. The Plain-Dealer published it with little revision. Doubtless it was read in Letterman's offices, all thanks to Harvey.

We didn't speak much after that. When I heard he got cancer, I wanted to phone him, but for some reason didn't. I learned about Harvey's recovery through mutual friends, enjoyed the film made about him, and followed him online. I'm sorry we never spoke again, but remain happy that we once shared ideas and laughter.

You were a true artist, Harvey. You will be missed.

IN DAVE'S CRAW: Here's Harvey grilling Letterman over GE, unhinging him in the process. This might have been a regular feature, Piss Dave Off, though I doubt few could've matched Harvey on that front. He knew Dave's pressure points.

ALSO: Lou Proyect shares his memories of Harvey.

AND: Barry Crimmins adds his insights.