Mike Albo: Hand Model Anxiety

Mike Albo

Writer and performer Mike Albo talks about enthusiasm as a gay survival strategy and the erotics of fermented food.

Mike Albo is a writer, performer, humorist and author. His novels include Hornito (HarperCollins) and The Underminer: The Best Friend Who Casually Destroys Your Life (BloomsburyUSA), co-written with Virginia Heffernan. His solo shows, Spermhood and The Junket, have been presented nationally. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter.

Neil Goldberg is an artist in NYC who makes work that The New York Times has described as “tender, moving and sad but also deeply funny.” His work is in the permanent collection of MoMA and other museums, he’s a Guggenheim Fellow, and teaches at the Yale School of Art. More information at neilgoldberg.com.

SHE’S A TALKER was the name of Neil’s first video project. “One night in the early 90s I was combing my roommate’s cat and found myself saying the words ‘She’s a talker.’ I wondered how many other other gay men in NYC might be doing the exact same thing at that very moment. With that, I set out on a project in which I videotaped over 80 gay men in their living room all over NYC, combing their cats and saying ‘She’s a talker.’” A similar spirit of NYC-centric curiosity and absurdity animates the podcast.

This series is made possible with generous support from Stillpoint Fund.
Producer: Devon Guinn
Creative Consultants: Stella Binion, Aaron Dalton, Molly Donahue
Assistant Producers: Itai Almor, Charlie Theobald
Editor: Andrew Litton
Visuals and Sounds: Joshua Graver
Theme Song: Jeff Hiller
Media: Justine Lee with help from Angela Liao and Alex Qiao
Thanks: Jennifer Callahan, Roger Kingsepp, Tod Lippy, Nick Rymer, Maddy Sinnock, Sue Simon, Shirin Mazdeyasna


NEIL GOLDBERG: Are you feeling comfortable and ready to-

MIKE ALBO: Totally. Totally.

NEIL: This isn’t your first sound booth after all.

MIKE: Exactly. I’m a sound booth whore.

NEIL: Yeah. This is kind of my… I wonder if there’s a fetish around-

MIKE: Sound booths?

NEIL: Sound booths.

MIKE: I’m sure right now someone in America is masturbating in a sound booth. There’s got… It just-

NEIL: Well, masturbating in a sound booth is what we’re about to do. So, oh my golly.

NEIL: Hello. I’m Neil Goldberg and this is my new podcast, SHE’S A TALKER. On today’s episode, I’ll be talking to writer and performer Mike Albo, but first I want to tell you a little bit about the podcast itself. I’m a visual artist, but for the last million or so years I’ve been writing down passing thoughts on index cards. I originally wrote the cards just for me or maybe to use on future art projects, but now here I’m using them as prompts for conversations with some of my favorite New Yorkers. These days, the cards often start as recordings I make into my phone throughout the day. Here are some recent ones.

NEIL: How people always mention the number of years they’ve been together, like it’s a prison term.

NEIL: The word delighted. Like on a panel someone will say, “I’m delighted to introduce”, or “We’re delighted to have with us.” Or a press release will say, “We’re delighted to announce.” How rarely anything close to genuine delight is involved.

NEIL: I love the sound of a hotel ice vending machine area.

NEIL: So much of straight men’s behavior seems like it’s based on a fear that they’re going to forget not to fuck each other.

NEIL: I am thrilled to have as my guest, Mike Albo, who is a novelist, a journalist, a performance artist, and an amazing dancer on and off the stage. Mike is an incisive satirist of the pretensions and idiosyncrasies of New York City. But his work can also be deeply reflective and self probing, but still hilariously funny. Like I remember in a recent performance piece, he describes himself in relationships as being kind of like when you see a toddler pushing their doll in a mini stroller. He’s also part of two legendary New York City performance collaboratives, The Dazzle Dancers and Unitard, whose work I’ve loved forever. I spoke to Mike in June at a recording studio at the New School near Union Square in New York City.

NEIL: Mike Albo, welcome to SHE’S A TALKER. What’s your elevator pitch to, “Hey, what do you do, Mike?”.

MIKE: Gosh, I say I’m a writer, and then sometimes I’ll say I’m a writer, performer. And then when people ask me what I write and they’re like, “What do you write?”. That’s always the second question.

NEIL: Yeah.

MIKE: I always say, “Anything for money except for I Love Nazis Magazine. I won’t write for them.” And then people get really confused when they look at me. And then I’m like, , “Okay, so you know, I’m weird.” So basically I’m just a weirdo. So then I’ll say like… And then, “Why did you move to New York?”. “I moved here to become weird”, you know?

NEIL: Yeah.

MIKE: But yeah, I say I’m a writer, performer, I suppose.

NEIL: When your grandparents were alive, how would they describe what you did?

MIKE: They would say, I’m a writer. And my grandma Hedy, who was this amazing woman, very opinionated, had her hair in Princess Leia buns before Princess Leia-

NEIL: Wow.

MIKE: I remember when I was like writing my weepy teenage poetry, she was like, “If you want to be a writer, you have to move to New York.”

NEIL: Wow. Cheers, Grandma Hedy.

MIKE: Yeah. Grandma Hedy is cool.

NEIL: Was she your mom or dad’s mom?

MIKE: Dad’s side. Mom’s side was Grandma Mildred who was British and swam across the river in Queens.

NEIL: Where the Throgs Neck Bridge is? All bets are off-

MIKE: Exactly.

NEIL: On that one.

MIKE: And she won a trophy for swimming across the… She was a swimmer.

NEIL: Yeah.

MIKE: Yeah.

NEIL: What is your, I would take a bad X over a good Y?

MIKE: I’m going right to the sexual with this.

NEIL: Yeah, please.

MIKE: I’m trying to think of what it would be. No, I’m going to not go sexual. My food always needs to pretend it’s healthy. So I would … Like, on the way over here, I had a Nature’s Valley granola bar, which has not changed in 50 years.

NEIL: Right. Exactly.

MIKE: And I would take one of those over a candy bar. You know what I mean? A bad, papery, stale “healthy” thing over a Snickers.

NEIL: Have you ever watched the Great British Baking Show?

MIKE: Once or twice, yes.

NEIL: Yeah. Because Mary Berry, in the original series, who I love, every now and then, she’ll be tasting some dessert and she says, in this kind of like upper crusty, dismissive way, “This tastes as if it’s rather good for you.” Something like that.

MIKE: I like it. I like it.

NEIL: Let us go to some of these cards. Our first card is, “People who say shut up or stop when you’re saying something funny.”

MIKE: Okay, yeah. “Shut up! Stop!”, yeah, that?

NEIL: Yeah.

MIKE: I have friends who do that.

NEIL: You do?

MIKE: Yeah. “Stop! Shut up.” I’m trying to think of-

NEIL: I know certain people who will, the intonation is different. I’m not a performer so I wouldn’t… It would be something like, “Shut up! Stop.” But it’s very much the fact that you are getting attention for having said something funny is objectionable to me and this is a way to pull it back to me.

MIKE: Right.

NEIL: It’s an attention pulling thing.

MIKE: Do you feel like they really, they want you to stop with a joke or whatever you’re saying? Do you feel like you are allowed to continue?

NEIL: I feel like I’m allowed to continue, but I feel what they just did was to take a little hit of attention.

MIKE: Right.

NEIL: And then reluctantly, I’ll have to either reclaim it or whatever.

MIKE: Right. “Shut up.” I think I have more narcissistic friends than that who just usurped the conversation. “I went to Prague!”. You know, that person.

NEIL: Right. Oh my God, yeah.

MIKE: This is a bit of a tangent, but-

NEIL: This whole thing is a bit of a tangent.

MIKE: My number one pet peeve is people who say, “Shit!”. “What?”. “I just hurt my nail.” And you’re like, “You just created so much tension in the air.”

NEIL: Oh my god.

MIKE: “For you’re stupid dumb problem.”

NEIL: Absolutely, yeah.

MIKE: My mom does that and I try to be like, “Mom, you just dropped something. It’s not, it does not merit a shit, exclamation point.”

NEIL: Exactly.

MIKE: “That creates tension for me. You just create tension in the world.”

NEIL: Yeah. I could not feel that anymore. Yeah.

MIKE: I don’t know what that is about, but it drives me nuts when people do that.

NEIL: I’m so with you. For me, first of all, it’s a visceral thing. It’s not… It’s a thoughtless thing of, yeah, instantly absorbing that stress or whatever, but also then going to like, “Am I going to have to call 9-1-1 now?”.

MIKE: Right, and then you’ve upped the ante. It’s a boy who cried wolf thing.

NEIL: Yeah.

MIKE: Now when you really do cut off your finger, I’m going to be like, “What is it?”.

NEIL: Right. Next card, Mike. In commercials, when they show hands reaching or searching inside a refrigerator, it’s from the POV of the inside the fridge, as an acting exercise.

MIKE: So it’s the actor has to… You’re not just the hand, but the actor’s face?

NEIL: Only the hands.

MIKE: Only the hands.

NEIL: Yeah.

MIKE: So it’s a hand model acting exercise?

NEIL: Yeah, because I feel like I would have even trouble with that.

MIKE: Right.

NEIL: The idea of performing searching for something in a fridge with my hands-

MIKE: Well, hand, I mean hand model work is… There is an article for you. I would love to talk to hand models. That’s definitely a line of work, right?

NEIL: Do you know, any hand models?

MIKE: I don’t.

NEIL: I would be so nervous around a hand model that… Not even like the classic shaking their hands, I would be like, it’s sort of that feeling… I don’t know if you get this, I’ve heard other people do and I certainly do, like remember as you stand by the edge of the subway, not to spontaneously jump in front of the subway.

MIKE: Right.

NEIL: I even feel it a lot around my food processor. Like, “Don’t put your hands in there.” I even once had the thought, “Don’t put your balls in there. Don’t. Just get that thought.”

MIKE: The thought… That’s, along with self-loathing, I definitely have thoughts all day like, “What if I did this? Oh no!”.

NEIL: Right.

MIKE: Like, “Why am I stressing myself out for something I would never do?”.

NEIL: The positive version of that is I had a straight friend who had to remind himself when he would go to kindergarten, “Don’t kiss the teacher.” So anyhow, but I guess that’s the positive side.

MIKE: So you’re constantly worried about the hand models’ hands?

NEIL: Yeah. Well I think I would be. I think I would be.

MIKE: I feel that way about my friend who is a pianist. I’m always worried about his hands, constantly.

NEIL: Horrible. I feel like I would, yeah, not even a shaking the hands. Would I accidentally, I don’t know, fall on their hands? Or would I accidentally grab a knife and accidentally slice them?

MIKE: Right, I’m so there with you.

NEIL: Okay. Mike, anachronistic worked out bodies as recurring spell breaker in live theater.

MIKE: I will say about good bodies on stage… I just was up in Provincetown performing my solo show and I remember, I forget how much people look at your body.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

MIKE: You’re kind of like… Because I’m not a professional actor, I think professional actors are so… To make it work, they’ve got to like be really up to speed on their six pack. Do you know what I mean?

NEIL: Right, yeah, yeah.

MIKE: Or you’re playing a fat guy, do you know what I mean?

NEIL: Exactly.

MIKE: It’s one or the other. You can’t go… You can’t be have a quote, unquote normal body. It’s got to be… You’ve got to make a choice about your whole thing you’re presenting.

NEIL: That’s interesting because that also kind of aligns with something that I used to really not like about actors is the way their faces, their haircuts all looked so-

MIKE: Zipped up.

NEIL: Yeah. You could read the aggressive choice-making in it, which I guess we’re all making choices. Even if you’re not making a choice, that’s a choice, but something about how their faces looked really and their haircuts, you know what I’m talking about?

MIKE: Totally. But good bodies on stage, I mean the only reason really to go… Well, one of the nine reasons to go to theater is to just see someone’s good body.

NEIL: That can be good if the show’s a dog, you know?

MIKE: Yeah.

NEIL: I’ve definitely gotten through some bad shows by just-

MIKE: I mean one of the other nine reasons to see a show is to think about the inner lives of the actors while you’re watching them.

NEIL: While they’re on stage or outside?

MIKE: Yeah, just thinking about their… Like looking at their bio’s, thinking about who they are, where do they live-

NEIL: Oh, interesting.

MIKE: Who you feel might get along and who hates each other backstage. I love thinking about all that stuff.

NEIL: I never do that. That’s so interesting. So do you kind of prep before the show starts? Like you do a brief summary of the bios, then if the show goes south you can focus on that? Or how does that live for you and your theater going experience?

MIKE: No, I’ll come in and go through the program and do a pretty good prep. Because otherwise, I’d have to like flip down and look at the program while I’m watching, which I don’t like to do.

NEIL: Yeah.

MIKE: Then afterwards, like going home after seeing Strange Loop, now I’m trying to go through the program and just match all the cast to the faces and stuff like that.

NEIL: That’s so interesting. Jeff does that. My husband Jeff does that. I don’t give a shit.

MIKE: It’s like looking at an album. It’s like looking at the back of your [inaudible 00:11:10] album just to see who did the production value. You know what I mean?

NEIL: Oh, exactly like that. Oh my God.

NEIL: Next card. Mike. Gayness and enthusiasm. This card, I’ll tell you where it comes from, which was as a closeted gay kid and elementary school and high school and probably… Well, college I was out. But I felt like the key to masking my gayness was all about tamping down and a predisposition towards enthusiasm. Like, “Don’t rub your hands together really fast or get really excited about that.”

NEIL: Do you relate to that? Do you have your own experience of that?

MIKE: The more unenthusiastic you are, the more masculine you are?

NEIL: Yeah.

MIKE: I do. I thought you were going to take a different approach to that. And then I was thinking about all the times that I was in love, people that I was in love with over my lifetime, including this guy I went to camp with in Colorado and who was straight.

MIKE: So it was just unrequited kind of stuff. But recently I saw him, I hadn’t seen him in 30 years, and he came to New York with his second wife. And I, at the time I’m not in love with him anymore, I’m not pining for him like I was when I was like writing letters to him on graph paper, but I found myself being enthusiastic to his second wife and making sure that I was so friendly to her and making sure she liked me and, and just being energetic.

MIKE: Because that’s what I do, I make sure people feel comfortable. That’s how I survived. And one of my best friends in high school, who is also gay, who came out a little bit later than me, won friendliest in high school as his superlative. Because it’s a way that we gay guys survived, by being friendly and nice.

MIKE: Well I feel like every year or two there’s always an article in The Times from some scientist who has said that dogs and cats have survived with humans and do cutesy things cause they know that we like it. You know what I mean?

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

MIKE: So they’ve learned how to be cute. It’s kind of a bit of a bummer because you’re just like, “Oh they’re just like learning it so that we don’t kill them and eat them.”

NEIL: I think genetically wolves and dogs are similar but dogs visually… Dogs look like baby wolves, if I understand correctly, so they’ve… Adult dogs look like juvenile wolves, so they’ve retained some of the baby like qualities.

MIKE: That’s called neoteny, neotenic. I’m neotenic. I survived from being… I survived by being the friendly little cherub person who’s just sprinkles my fairy dust everywhere, because that’s what you do when you think you’re going to get beat up.

NEIL: That went deep.

MIKE: Yeah, no one wants to beat up a nice person.

NEIL: Right.

MIKE: But that makes me sound like I mackinated this niceness. I don’t think I have? I think I’m pretty much a nice guy, but you amplify or perform that, or social evolution selected for that in a way that causes it to present maybe more powerfully. Gayness and enthusiasm to me is a survival skill. Another survival skill is to tamp it down and become super masculine. I don’t think I can quite get away with that cause I have a really strong gay accent, you know?

NEIL: Right.

MIKE: But sure, that’s another survival skill. To tamp it down.

NEIL: Yeah, that’s the route I went. But I don’t know if it was successful. As I say, as through my lisp.

MIKE: Successful.

NEIL: I don’t know if it was successful. God, you just reminded me of Mr. Rishka, the speech teacher from Jericho Junior High School, who had a cartoon of Sammy the Snake. And I’ll tell you, it was all the gay boys in there learning to get rid of their sibilant S’s.

MIKE: Did you see David Thorpe’s?

NEIL: I was in it.

MIKE: You were, that’s right.

NEIL: I think I was actually talking about Mr. Rishka, who of course died of AIDS.

MIKE: Oh, so sad.

NEIL: Yeah. Next card. Video project, home decorating or real estate TV shows where the episode features a gay couple, dub it over so that the conversations are entirely about anal sex.

MIKE: I love it. It reminds me of… Anderson Cooper had his short-lived talk show when he was thinking about becoming the next Oprah. And he had this one talk show. I didn’t even see this, but my friend called me up immediately after it happened. Where they were just like, “We’re going to se what germs we live with every day, you know?”. And so the person comes in just like, “Look at this banister, your house.” And then they got to his phone and it was just like, “There’s lots of feces on this phone.”

NEIL: “You should swab my lips.” Oh my God. Yeah, he’s the perfect test case or whatever. He’s someone I have in mind, which is there’s such a disavowal.

MIKE: Of of the gay, of the ness.

NEIL: Yeah, exactly.

MIKE: Yeah. And I’ve said this before so many times, but I think we all have our stereotypes that we’re trying to fight against, but the way that gay men succeed in media is by being married, super clean, and obedient. And you have to be those things if you’re going to succeed.

NEIL: Yeah.

MIKE: You can’t talk about your messy sex life.

NEIL: Exactly. I think the super clean is… I’ve always felt this. I remember coming into the city as a kid and seeing gay clones, and I felt their whole aesthetic was about the disavowal of anal sex.

MIKE: Yep. Totally.

NEIL: It’s like clean cut.

MIKE: Right.

NEIL: No shit, no shit here. You know?

MIKE: Nothing happening.

NEIL: Next card, book authors’ photos.

MIKE: Oh my God. Oh, I could talk about this forever.

NEIL: Please do.

MIKE: The famous woman who took many for… She had a big, long run and I want to say her name is Marian Williamson, but I know that’s not it. But it’s like Maryweather somebody or other.

NEIL: Maya Ettinger? Does that sound right?

MIKE: Yes, that sounds right.

NEIL: She has a studio in my studio building.

MIKE: And she took everybody’s author photos for awhile. And they’re black and white and they kind of look like Dagrow types a little bit, and the eyes are kind of extra glowing. Even David Rakoff, who you would think would be the opposite of that person, may he rest in peace… He got his photo taken and she did the same, just made him look like he had special powers from another planet, you know?

NEIL: Right, right.

MIKE: It was just definitely this trend for awhile. And now I feel like the trend is a little bit more, “My friend took this.” There’s a bit of a selfie thing, like the residue of selfies sort of coming, and now it’s just sort of like, “Hi, I’m on the beach.” That kind of thing. And that’s sort of happening. It’s a created… You want to look humble, you know?

NEIL: The performance of humbleness.

MIKE: Right now, we’re in this, “My friend took this. My wife took this. My husband took these photos.” That’s the trend. I don’t know about the future though. I feel like we’re going to lose, like we won’t have bodies by the next trend.

NEIL: May it come soon. Mike, one more question for you. What is something you find yourself thinking about today?

MIKE: I turn 50 this year and it was like something from inside my body came out. It was like, “Must ferment food.” I’m becoming that crazy uncle who makes beer in the garage. And I was just like, “I must do this.” I have no idea where it came from, but suddenly I started fermenting and so I’m super insanely into it. And so I’ve acquired a taste for fermented foods.

NEIL: Interesting. I feel, when I appreciate fermented foods, I feel so self-congratulatory somehow.

MIKE: Especially when you make it.

NEIL: Oh, I wouldn’t know.

MIKE: Yeah. It’s so much fun. It’s cheaper of course. But then I started making my own bread and butter and I’ve just been doing this whole-

NEIL: Wow, you’re making your own butter?

MIKE: Homesteader stuff. Yeah. Which, just side note, is not cost-effective.

NEIL: Oh, interesting.

MIKE: It’s really easy. You just take a Cuisinart and you pour some cream in it and then you just spin it until it’s butter. Then you have to squeeze out all the buttermilk. But you’ll get a little blob of butter. But you get about a quarter of what you get when you get your Land O’Lakes block.

NEIL: Right, but is it tastier?

MIKE: Yeah, it is sort of. But it’s like, “I made it.” So maybe that’s what’s tasty about it.

NEIL: Right, exactly.

MIKE: Yeah, anyways.

NEIL: That’s how people feel about their children.

MIKE: Late at night now instead of watching porn, I’ll watch fermenting videos-

NEIL: I love it. It’s very similar, I’m sure in a certain way. I love the idea that you’ve replaced fermentation videos, or porn with fermentation videos.

MIKE: Yeah, that and Bon Appetit videos. Yeah, those are super fun.

NEIL: Interesting. Personal question, have you ever jerked off to either a fermentation or Bon Appetit video?

MIKE: I think maybe on my way to watching the porn, I might have things in hand, but no, I’ve never really… Not to like-

NEIL: Not to climax.

MIKE: No, not to climax.

NEIL: Oh my. I was just thinking about how when I was a little gay kid, I used to love that moment in cooking shows where they take something and put it in the oven and then they’ve already prepared something else that is in the oven and they take it out. That to me ticks the same boxes that musical theater does for me or something. Do you know the moment I’m talking about?

MIKE: I absolutely know, and I would also say I love when they have all the stuff set up and measured out really well and my pal Virginia Heffernan, who we used to live together in the 1990’s and we both love that whole feeling. And so one time I came home, and she was like, “Hi, I’m making something in the kitchen.” And she had everything set up and we were laughing so hard. It was so cute and fun.

NEIL: Oh my god.

MIKE: That is bringing… You know you have a good friend when they take the joke that far, you know what I mean?

NEIL: Exactly.

MIKE: It was amazing.

NEIL: That’s commitment. I love it. I’ve never measured in advance in that way.

MIKE: But all the cups have to be clear-

NEIL: Exactly.

MIKE: And it has to be very, like the salt has to be in a little thing and-

NEIL: Oh right, right. When the salt is in its own little thing-

MIKE: They’re all the clean little cups. Nothing better.

NEIL: On that note, Mike Albo, I’m so grateful to have you on this episode of SHE’S A TALKER. Thank you so much.

NEIL: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of SHE’S A TALKER. I really hope you liked it. If you did, I would love it if you could help spread the word by rating and reviewing us on Apple podcasts or perhaps telling your friends. This series is made possible with generous support from Stillpoint Fund and with help from Devin Guinn, Aaron Dalton, Stella Binion, Charlie Theobald, Itai Almar, Andrew Lytton, Molly Donahue, Justine Lee, Angela Liao, Alex Qiao, Josh Graver, and my husband Jeff Hiller who sings the theme song you’re about to hear. Thank you to all of them and to my guest, Mike Albo and to you for listening.

JEFF HILLER: SHE’S A TALKER, with Neil Goldberg. SHE’S A TALKER, with fabulous guests. SHE’S A TALKER, it’s better than it sounds.