[This piece was originally published in October, 2004. It’s re-posted here on the 10th anniversary of Phil DeGuere’s passing. ]
The first time I talked to my friend Phil DeGuere was on the phone. I was calling to interview with him. Someone had told me that he needed an assistant for a TV show he was working on. They’d already recommended me to him. So I called him on a Wednesday afternoon to introduce myself.
I can still remember that first phone call, seven years ago, because I was struck then, as I am today, by Phil’s deep, booming voice. It’s a voice of authority—a big, confident, deliberate voice. It’s also a voice that delivers sarcasm so flatly and calmly that one can’t help but take it literally. Even a proclamation as outrageous as “I tell my children ‘Don’t do drugs, give them to me’” simply seems matter-of-fact when delivered in that booming voice. And so Phil’s humor, like Phil himself, takes some getting used to.
On the day of that phone interview, I called Phil about the job and found myself swiftly becoming intimidated. He asked blunt, discouraging questions like, “Why should I hire you?” and “What makes you any better than the next person I interview?” But I do remember him asking if I knew Microsoft Word and Excel. In a moment of bravado, I said, “Come on, you insult me. Of course I do.” Ironically, and this provides a great inkling of just how smart Phil is, a few months later, he recalled that exact response of mine when I was having trouble working with Excel. I was talking to him on the phone one afternoon, explaining how I couldn’t format a show roster into Excel. Phil interrupted and said in his booming voice, “Look, you told me this sort of thing was no problem for you.” I apologized and somehow, after a bit more struggle, got the roster finished.
But on that first phone interview with Phil, he sounded so imposing and unsympathetic that I almost gave up on the whole thing. At a certain point I thought, “This guy doesn’t think I’m very smart…so…the heck with it.” But right at that moment, Phil asked, “Well, look, what do you want to be when you grow up?” According to Phil’s wife, Alison, it was just a flippant question Phil often asked people. But because I thought he wasn’t impressed with me, and that I wasn’t going to get hired, I simply answered, “Keith Richards.” It was an instantaneous, gut response—at least I was being true to myself.
Unbeknownst to me, though, it was the right answer. Phil loves the Stones and he loves the Grateful Dead. I couldn’t have answered better. At that point he said, “Well, look, why don’t you come by my house tomorrow at 4 pm. You can meet my wife and daughter and we’ll talk about the job.”
So the next day I spent the afternoon playing music in the Civic Center BART station with my friends, then carried my guitar on the bus to Phil’s house in Potrero. It was the first time I’d ever been that far out to Potrero, and I was struck by all the nice houses planted on the steep, sliding hills. I rang Phil’s door and he answered. I shook hands with him—this big, imposing dude with white hair and glasses. There was something nerve-wracking about the way he looked me in the eye, sizing me up. I suddenly felt as nervous as when I’d been on the phone with him during the preceding day’s conversation. But I walked into this beautiful, carpeted house, lugging my old acoustic guitar in its battered case. Phil walked me down to his basement office—crammed with tons of books and books and shelves and magazines and pictures and boxes—lit up a cigarette, leaned back in his chair, and started to talk to me about the TV world. He talked and I listened. And the thing I remember most clearly was him impressing on me the importance of one phrase: “I don’t know.”
“Look,” he said, taking a puff of his cigarette in its little black clip holder, “Everyone thinks they have this God-given right to work in TV. I don’t know exactly why that is. It may have something to do with everyone growing up watching TV and thinking they’re already trained to do it. But the problem is that they have no understanding of what really goes on. If I call you and I need something done, or I ask you a question and you don’t know the answer, tell me that you don’t know. Don’t waste my time. It’s more important that you say ‘I don’t know.’ Go ahead, let me hear you say it.”
I looked at him and said, “I don’t know.”
“Good.” He took a puff of his cigarette. “That can save me a lot of time. If you don’t know, don’t make excuses and tell me things I don’t need to know. Understood?”
So Phil talked and I listened. I didn’t necessarily like him. He just didn’t seem warm or encouraging. And I wasn’t interested in TV, anyway. But being new to San Francisco, I needed a job. So when Phil finally finished lecturing me for an hour and suggested he could hire me at $9 or $10 an hour, I said, “Okay, but there’s two things. One is that I don’t like TV and don’t watch it. But you’ve intrigued me, so now I’m curious to do this job. The other thing is that what you’re offering to pay is very little for someone with a college degree.”
Phil nodded. “I understand. But that’s all the studio is giving me. After you’re working for a while, we can try to do something about getting more money for you.”
A great window into Phil’s sense of humor, though, was his response months later when he learned that the studio had made a mistake in computing my pay. From the very first paycheck, they paid me a salary based on the much more generous rate of $26,000 per year. When I finally told Phil about the better-than-expected pay, he said, “I wish I’d known. I would’ve called and told them to lower it.”
So, the interview concluded and Phil walked me upstairs to meet Alison and his daughter, Dulcinee. I said hello to them and showed little Dulcie my guitar. I even strummed a quick riff of blues chords for her. Then I said goodbye and left.
I started working for Phil the next Monday. But the job only lasted four of five months before I was laid off. The studio was cutting expenses, and they decided that Phil didn’t deserve a San Francisco assistant. A few months later, they cut their biggest expense and downsized Phil as well.
Right after being laid-off, though, I sent Phil a card that said “Thanks for having me work for you.” I’d come to like and respect him, and it saddened me to lose the job. After Phil received my “Thank You” card, he called and said, “Well, listen, I was thinking that it’s been nice working with you. Stay in touch, all right?”
I did indeed stay in touch and it was then that I really became friends with the DeGuere’s. I started to have dinner at their house on Friday nights, Saturday nights, Tuesday nights, Wednesday nights… I went to concerts with them. Went to a July 4th barbecue with them and their friends. They just sort of became stuck with me. I’d call up Alison to say hello and she’d say, “What are you doing this Friday night? Can you come over for dinner?” And I’d take the bus out to Potrero that Friday evening and have a good meal of steak and potatoes and string beans, with good wine that Phil always insisted on pouring himself. Then Phil and I (and whoever else had come to dinner) would carry our glasses of wine out to the deck overlooking the San Francisco Bay and have a smoke, talk about politics, movies, or the latest Bret Easton Ellis book that Phil was reading. In the early days, I was still a bit intimidated when hanging out with Phil, though. He reminded me of my dad, and his big, booming voice instinctively transported me back to when I was an eight-year-old. So I always felt like a kid around Phil, and it took me a few years to realize that almost everything he said was simply dry sarcasm and not intended seriously. If he said, “Alison wanted you to come over for dinner tonight but I tried to dissuade her,” it was meant as a joke. It was also meant to connote that Phil had accepted me as a friend—the theory being that if he didn’t actually want me around, I wouldn’t have been there to begin with. Of course, that sort of subtlety sometimes escaped me in the early days. With that authoritative voice, I’d sometimes flinch nervously, not realizing that, in Phil’s own universe, almost everything was a joke.
But anyway, I somehow became a steady guest at Phil and Alison’s. They kind of adopted me. I’d come over for dinner and would stay after everyone else had departed. The guests would leave and Alison would go to bed. But I’d still be hanging out in the kitchen with Phil as he poured himself a final nightcap. (A side-note on Phil’s “nightcaps”: when Phil, Alison, Dulcie, and Milena came to Thanksgiving at my family’s house in New York a few years ago, my mom observed Phil restlessly poking around the kitchen at some point in the evening. Night-time had arrived and Phil felt like mixing himself a drink. He didn’t ask my mom where the vodka was, but he just sort of gradually drifted into the kitchen, started absentmindedly opening the refrigerator, the cupboards, poking around out of habit, looking for something to drink. And earlier, I’d told him that I’d bought Smirnoff specifically because I knew he was coming to dinner. In his mind, that Smirnoff had to be somewhere in the kitchen. And his hands wanted to mix that jigger of iced vodka. Eventually, I realized Phil was meandering in the kitchen and I showed him to the Smirnoff).
In hanging out with Phil and his family, I’ve always referred to him as “my boss.” I still do, even today, seven years later. It’s just the point at which I entered into a friendship with him. Of course, in the intervening years, he’s become a like a dad to me, and someone I call for advice about jobs, life, and politics. I’ve never been good on the phone with Phil, though. He’s generally not a “phone person,” and that booming voice somehow suggests that the phone call is distracting him from more important matters at hand. So, I’ll usually call quickly to ask what he thought of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, or if he, Alison, and the kids are still coming up to San Francisco for the weekend. But the inspiring conversations and advice he offers always come late in the evening, when I’m sitting out on the deck with him as we sip a final drink. A great summary of Phil’s whole philosophy of life, though, and of those late-night conversations, is encapsulated in one piece of advice he gave me a few years ago. We were sitting in his basement office in San Francisco, and I was discussing my troubles with a girl I was seeing. He suddenly looked at me as if he didn’t understand why I was so stressed. He squinted at me and said, “Why are you in such a hurry to find the right girl? If the universe wants you to procreate, it’ll see to it that it happens.”
Those late-night discussions help to explain some of the closeness I’ve built up with Phil. But it’s interesting to note that it was Alison who became an immediate friend. She seemed incredibly easy to talk to: bright, honest, vulnerable, sweet—the exact opposite of Phil. Probably the best summary of Alison was something my friend Tim once said to Phil: “You know what I like best about you, Phil? Your wife.” But it’s probably because Alison and I clicked so well that Phil simply got used to having me around. In becoming “family” to Phil and Alison and Dulcie and Milena, though, I became close with Phil’s oldest daughter, Adrienne, and her husband, Rey. And I met Phil and Alison’s friends: Paola and Steve, Zann and Lewis, Rose and Scurvy, and dozens of other great people. There were always these warm family dinners at the San Francisco house, like the times when we’d order 18 or 20 Chinese food dishes, and then split them among 14 people. I’d hang out with all of Phil and Alison’s friends, and Phil would be the big father sitting inscrutably at the head of the table. And that’s the one thing that has remained constant in all these years: Phil. He’s larger than life to me: funny, eccentric, fascinating. He’s intriguing—you want to know what he thinks about George Bush, what he thinks about ‘Seinfeld,’ how he likes his steak cooked, what books he’s reading. Only Phil could disagree with the classic status of U2’s early albums and declare, “On the contrary, U2 wasn’t worth listening to until they released ‘Achtung Baby,’” and make you think, “Hmm, maybe he’s right…” But what still chiefly defines Phil is that voice—that deep, kingly voice of his.
When I set out to write something about Phil, I simply thought of how much I can always hear his voice in my head, and how easy it is to picture the way he talks. I’ve often made Alison laugh by imitating Phil. It’s the best way I know of to deal with him—to not take him too seriously. And that’s exactly the way he prefers to be treated. That’s also why, during many of those great dinners at their San Francisco house, I’ve interrupted a discussion and turned to Alison to say, “Just let me know if I need to simplify this for Phil.” Which will prompt everyone at the table to laugh except Phil, who will purposefully reach for another helping of mashed potatoes.
The best way, then, for me to summarize Phil’s big voice is to recall a few of my favorite anecdotes—my list of Top Five Favorite Phil Soundbites.
One. Back in the early days, when I was first working for Phil, he called from his home office in Potrero to ask me to bring a certain script over to his house. I rummaged through the office filing cabinets of scripts, all stored according to the script’s author and color-coded to reflect various re-writes. I found the script and hopped on a bus to Potrero. Forty minutes later I rang Phil’s doorbell. When he answered the door, I handed him the script and we walked downstairs to his office to talk. After 20 minutes or so, it was time for me to head back to the office. As I got up to leave, Phil offered me a quick smoke for the road. I may have had a quick puff, then walked out to the bus and headed back downtown.
When I got back to the office, there was a message waiting for me on the office answering machine. I pressed PLAY and heard Phil’s booming voice say, “STEVEN, YOU BROUGHT ME THE WRONG SCRIPT.” Instantly, I felt a stomach-loosening surge of fear. I mustered up my courage and called Phil to apologize. Then I found the correct version of the script and raced back on a bus to Potrero to deliver it to him.
This incident has become famous, though because I’ve retold it so many times during dinners at Phil’s house. I can still hear the annoyance in Phil’s voice during that pithy answering machine message. And, because I can recall it so clearly, I’m able to do a pretty good impression of Phil saying it. So, Alison has often egged me on to repeat that line—“Steven, you brought me the wrong script”—at dinner. It makes her laugh, and it makes everyone else laugh. The irony is that, though I was the one who made the original mistake, it’s somehow remembered now as Phil’s faux pas for being such a taskmaster, or for being so irked by my simple mistake.
TWO. Anyone who’s ever spent any time in the DeGuere house has heard Phil calling to Alison when she’s in another room. Phil might be cooking in the kitchen, and Alison will be sitting with guests in the living room. But as Phil’s busy stirring the gravy, he’ll notice that Milena has just spilled milk on the kitchen floor. And so, already stressed by his cooking work, Phil will simply yell “AL…”
When Phil yells “Al,” what he’s really doing is loading three sentences of meaning into one word. The way he says “Al,” he gives it an almost two-syllable inflection. It sounds almost exactly like the word “owl” or the “oul” portion of the word “foul.” Or, sometimes it will sound like “Ow-luh.” What’s happening is that Phil is not only saying Alison’s name, but he’s asking it in question form. So when he’s cooking the gravy, the potatoes, the roast, and Milena suddenly spills her milk, the “AL???” that he shouts is actually him saying: “Alison, your little daughter has spilled her milk. I’m busy cooking. Can’t you get in here and clean it up?”
Because the “Al” line is so particular to the DeGuere household, I’ve found myself imitating it numerous times. Once on a Saturday afternoon, and just for the heck of it, I actually fooled Alison. I was sitting with Dulcie in the TV room and decided to do my best Phil impression. Alison was in the kitchen and I called to her, “AL…AL…” exactly as Phil will do. (Instead of finding her, or telling her what he needs, Phil will usually just keep repeating “AL…” till Alison either mind-reads what Phil wants, or comes hurrying into the room. It’s just Phil’s imperious method). In doing such a perfect imitation of Phil on that Saturday afternoon, though, I actually fooled Alison and got her to come into the room yelling, “WHAT, PHIL?”
A footnote to this business of Phil’s more imperious behavior is something Dulcie once said about Phil when she was only three or four years old. Phil was busy preparing dinner for a number of people one time, and was getting impatient about something. He finally came into the room and yelled something at Alison. After he finished yelling, he walked back into the kitchen. Dulcie looked at her mom and said, “When he be’s like that, just ignore him.”
But anyway, the “Al” name, pronounced like the two-syllable word “owl,” is one of Phil’s great soundbites. To me, it’s the domestic signature of the DeGuere house, and a good indicator of what mood Phil is in.
THREE. When I think of Phil’s humor, and how dry and sarcastic he can be, I also think of how pranksterish he is. Phil enjoys stories that have a dark humor. He’ll recount a prank someone pulled, or a bumper sticker he saw that said “After we eat the vegetables, what do we do with their wheelchairs?” and begin to chuckle to himself. It’s a mirthful “Huh-hee-hee-hee” laugh that shows Phil is delighted. The thing is, because of the way he chuckles this laugh, it always seems to tickle his lungs into a cough. It’s not even a huge, booming laugh, but he always ends up rasping because of the sheer up-and-down way that he cackles to himself.
The point, though, is the absolute and fiendish amusement that Phil finds in everyday life. A few days ago, I was talking to Phil. He mentioned a recent injury I suffered while trying to feed almonds to a neighborhood squirrel. Phil remarked, “I love the idea that some squirrel used your finger for sushi” and then broke into his mischievous cackle.
FOUR. More significantly, though, is Phil’s big laugh, which is just a flat-out booming explosion of HAH-HAH-HAH. No one erupts more volcanically into a big laugh than Phil. It’s simply that he’s a big guy, and he throws his whole body into a roaring laugh.
I remember my friend Tim telling Phil about a website that showed “autopsy” photos of an annoyingly popular kid’s doll. The battery-powered doll “cried” if it wasn’t given attention, and made noises if it wasn’t “fed.” Because the doll had become so inanely popular, a backlash developed. Someone had taken advantage of the doll’s notoriety to slice one open autopsy-style and photograph a cross-section of its mechanical innards. This struck Phil as so funny that he roared endlessly with laughter.
And I can remember showing Phil a photo I’d printed from the ‘Burt is Evil’ website. (The joke of the site is that Burt, of The Electric Company’s ‘Burt and Ernie,’ is involved in various sinister operations. There’s “hidden evidence” photos of Burt meeting with Osama bin Laden, Burt aiming a rifle at JFK’s motorcade, Burt guarding the Berlin Wall). The photo I showed Phil was of Burt serving as a general in the Third Reich. It’s a black-and-white photo of Hitler and Burt riding in a car, observing thousands of uniformed SS troops. Hitler and Burt sit in their open-roofed car, staring straight ahead, accepting the salute of all the soldiers in formation. I showed Phil the photo. He studied it for a moment then burst out laughing uncontrollably.
There’s nothing like making Phil crack up. It doesn’t happen all the time because he’s a tough critic, and by his very demeanor, he’s usually and assiduously low-key. But if you really think about it, Phil is just an overgrown kid. He likes silliness as much as anyone else—or maybe more. So when you get him to break up with laughter, it’s a great feeling.
FIVE. The final thing I want to point out, if I’m citing Phil’s greatest lines, quotes, and laughs, is actually something that Alison says. And I mention it here because it’s a great illustrator of the pure, unadulterated Phil DeGuere—his true, candid sense of humor when he’s at home with his family. In short, it’s simply Alison saying Phil’s name. But it’s not just her saying “Phil.” It’s the way she says it and the mix of emotions behind it.
Anyone who’s spent time with the DeGuere’s knows that Alison is the “better half.” She keeps Phil in line, makes certain he behaves tolerably, acts somewhat like a normal human being. Occasionally, though, she needs to lecture him, to point out that he’s misbehaving, that he’s stepping over the line. And so she yells at him, “PHIL…”
A great example is the aforementioned Thanksgiving dinner at my family’s house, several years ago. At the dinner table, my cousins and I were discussing politics. One of us mentioned our displeasure with a certain congresswoman from California. Phil, who’d been simply eating his turkey, and listening quietly, suddenly muttered, “They should kill her.” Instantly, everyone at the table cracked up. It was so unexpectedly droll and sinister. But at the same moment as we burst out laughing, Alison involuntarily swiveled to Phil and shouted, “PHIL…”
It should be noted that when Alison says “PHIL…,” it’s stated almost in the form of a question. Without meaning to, she’s almost asking: “Oh my God, did you really just say that?” But though Alison is watching over Phil in those moments, it’s almost an unconscious routine by now. What Phil has just said is funny in itself. But Alison’s “PHIL…” is the exclamation point. Her editorializing is almost funnier than what he’s said, just because we sympathize with her predicament.
This is all the more amusing when you consider the infamous phone conversation that my friend Bernie once had with Alison. Bernie’s wife, Missy, had frequently babysat for Milena and Dulcie, but on one afternoon, when Phil and Alison suddenly needed a babysitter, Missy was unavailable. Alison called Bernie to ask if he could possibly help out and watch Milena for two or three hours while she and Phil took care of an urgent matter. Bernie is not a practiced babysitter, though, and Alison had to take a moment to explain to Bernie what was involved—what food to give Milena, what toys she likes to play with, when she should nap. Phil was standing in the background for all of this, though, and as Alison was saying, “You’ll do fine, Bernie,” she suddenly turned and shouted, “PHIL…” Bernie says he couldn’t hear exactly what was happening, but he got the impression that Phil had been standing there muttering, “Don’t do it, Bernie…You’ll only regret it, Bernie…Run away now, Bernie…” which prompted Alison to spin around with the sudden “PHIL” exclamation.
And so I sit here, laughing about that incident and so many others. My friend Phil. He’s this big, tough guy, with the big tough voice. But, really, he’s nothing more than an overgrown kid. And how can that be? I know Phil’s an accomplished TV producer and all that sort of thing. But he’s also one of the most uniquely curious, and strangely fearless, people I’ve ever met. So when I try to tell people what he’s like, I usually find myself imitating that big voice of his, and the way he’ll hold forth on almost any subject, looking for the conspiracy in things, or the hand of the universe sweeping all of us across the big chessboard. I feel very lucky to know him, and to have become family with him, Alison, Dulcie, Milena, Rose, Adrienne, Rey, Joe, Fred, and Jackie.
So I conclude this piece by recalling something that happens to have been written about the Grateful Dead, but that applies equally well to my friend, Phil DeGuere. It’s often been said, “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.” It’s a remark that holds true even now, almost a decade after The Dead’s passing. No singer, no guitar player, no group of musicians ever managed to duplicate the beautiful weirdness that the Dead exuded. And the sentiment holds true with my friend Phil, too. Strong, august dragon presence that he is, there’s nothing like him. And it will be that way even many, many years from now.