John O'Hurley

John O'Hurley is perhaps most recognizable as his character J. Peterman on Seinfeld, but in addition to his long and successful career as an actor, he is also the author of the New York Times bestseller It's Okay to Miss the Bed on the First Jump: And Other Life Lessons I Learned from Dogs. His follow-up book is Before Your Dog Can Eat Your Homework, First You Have to Do It. He talked to City Pages from the first stop on his book tour, New York City.

CP: You now have two books about dogs. Why the fascination with canines?

John O'Hurley: I knew a lot about dogs and I thought it would be an interesting viewpoint that everything I needed to learn in life, I really learned from them, to really kind of celebrate their presence in our lives. They are kind of silent companions, but if you’re quiet with your observations, they can teach you an awful lot. And that was the first book. And then the second was based on my observations of the relationship that one of my dogs established with my newborn son and in my observation, I thought it might be fun to write a book that was kind of based on what was going through his mind as he sat at the base of the feeding chair.

CP: Can you describe your writing process? When you write, do you put the rest of your life on hold or do you write in bits and pieces when you have free time?

JO: I wish it were as whimsical as that. Unfortunately, it’s a very stressful thing for me because I always have tight deadlines for these books. And I’m the lead in Monty Python’s Spamalot out in Las Vegas. I was in that show when I agreed to do the book. I was rehearsing for two months for that show and the second we opened, I had to dig into the book. So I had from March 1 until July 15 to write this book. So it was four to five hours a day of kind of sitting down and disciplining myself. But even more importantly, as I began to do it, I realized what I was doing was actually writing a letter to my son that would be there for posterity that he would pass on to his son and possibly generations after that. So it became an extraordinarily important and personal work for me even though I was writing through the eyes of my dog.

CP: You have a busy life already, and now your son is almost one. How has having a child changed your life?

JO: As I wrote in my first book, I'm a better person with a dog in my lap. I think I'm a deeper and more thoughtful and caring person with a child in my lap. The combination of the two makes me a fairly decent human being. How has it changed me? In the positive way, it's kind of rounded out my life. I find that I need less from the outside world and more from my family in terms of stimulation and satisfaction. Everything I need revolves around my wife, my child, myself, and my dogs. I have a sense of family that I never had before. The other side is that having a child makes you less tolerant and more vigilant of the world around you. The things that I could accept with disinterest because I was single or a married man, I can no longer tolerate because I have a child and I have a responsibility now to that child to kind of clear the path in the world for him. In one respect, it's a joy, but it's a very serious responsibility.

CP: Is there an example of something that you would have tolerated previously and now you can’t?

JO: I look at my own business in terms of entertainment. I think we’re heading down a terrible path of reality television, with video games. We’ve kind of loss our sense of authenticity in terms of the cultural crisis we have by kind of giving away our sense of creativity and imagination. I think there are things that I don’t appreciate anymore and I don’t tolerate anymore. I don’t support video games. I don’t support the X Boxes. I support reading and imagination.

CP: You mention reality TV as being one the things you can’t tolerate. Do you consider Dancing with the Stars to be a reality TV show?

JO: Not at all. Absolutely not. It’s done in a real format. What I’m talking about is where you are rewarding ambition. I’m talking about things like Big Brother and these shows like--these so called mock social experiments with children. It has no place as entertainment. There’s no conscience. We do them without conscience of what the repercussions are and what we’re actually training our children to do. We’re not breeding writers anymore. We’re breeding social voyeurism and it’s a very, very--it’s a terrible road to be going down because once you go there, you don’t come back.

CP: I have to admit that when I was reading your books, it was really hard to not hear them in J. Peterman's voice. Has it been hard to get away from such an iconic character?

JO: Gosh, not at all. I do so many different things from hosting and writing to composing and there are so many other things. I enjoy that character. I enjoy the caricature of him that I use as a figure in advertising and commercials now, and occasionally a character will pop up, like I'm doing King Arthur in Monty Python's Spamalot, and I see a lot of similarities between J. Peterman and King Arthur, and they're both raving lunatics but in kind of a Mr. Magoo kind of way.

CP: You’re both obviously a writer and an actor among many other things. How do those two art forms specifically--writing and acting--speak to each other or not speak to each other?

JO: I enjoy both because I enjoy great words so I enjoy interpreting great words, great writing. I enjoy that and being able to put it in a palatable sense, to use my speaking voice and my abilities as an actor, but it’s not original, which makes writing so much more enjoyable to me because I truly am creating something that’s intensely personal. When someone has written something and they give it to me, it is really their ideas that I’m bringing to life using what I have. So they’re two completely different experiences, both very affecting. I enjoy the writing in terms of how deeply it affects me because it’s my view of things and it draws the line that you actually have to have an opinion on things. You have to have a worldview on things to write.

CP: You are currently the host of Family Feud. Even though there have been a number of hosts between you and Richard Dawson, was it difficult to fill his shoes?

JO: Not at all. I don't really think about who's done it before. I really just kind of take my stride. I just kind of enjoy it. To me it's a big cocktail party, and it's like I'm hosting two families in my home and let's play a game. That's the only way I look at it. I was actually a contestant on Family Feud when Richard Dawson was hosting it back in 1987. What I remember mostly about it was looking at him and thinking to myself, "This is a pretty good gig." And then here I am, 20 years later, and the show is mine now.

CP: How did you do when you were a contestant on the show?

JO: It was the male soap stars against the female soap stars. I think we won and it went to a charity. As I say, I don’t remember much about the game other than watching him and thinking it was a pretty good gig.

CP: Were you a dancer before you did Dancing With the Star?

JO: Never. Charlotte Jorgensen my partner had to tie my shoes the first time we went on.

CP: Now do you still find time to dance?

JO: I do. I certainly do remember a lot of what I did, especially the smoother styles. I am in Spamalot and I am dancing in that show, albeit as King Arthur.

CP: Do you go dancing with your wife?

JO: We haven’t had much of a chance to. I’ve worked pretty much every single night since Dancing With the Stars doing something. We live in an airplane 300 days a year.

CP: So, your family gets to travel with you?

JO: They do travel with me. I’m in New York right now standing outside of FAO Schwartz and my son has just gone inside for the first time and is seeing the worlds of toys for the first time.

CP: Does your dog get to travel with you also?

JO: When, there are two dogs--Betty and Scoshi--they were actually the subject of my first book. Scoshi was the author of the second book. They do not. He’s 16 and a half years old right now and will probably not make it through the rest of the year. He’s not in great health. They’re just too old to travel.

John O'Hurley will be discussing his book at the Barnes and Noble at the Mall of America.


Thu., Nov. 8, 6 p.m., 2007
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