We're With Eugene

The scene: The Riverside Theater in Milwaukee on May 2, after the Flight of the Conchords concert (their second sold-out show that night). Ryan and I are waiting for the crowd to clear out, waiting for the autograph seekers to be hustled outside so we can make our way backstage. We have a friend back there, you see, and we'd like to buy him a drink.

No, it wasn't a Kiwi friend. We already have two friends from New Zealand (the fantastic Pavla and James), and due to strict immigration quotas, we're not allowed to take on any more until at least 2012. Bret and Jemaine will have to wait.

Our man backstage is Eugene Mirman, the absurdist comedian, author, and official Delta Airlines spokesman who has a recurring role on the HBO series Flight of the Conchords. Here is a photo of Eugene about to be engulfed by a fireball on top of a roof. He's a man who waves fish in the face of danger. That's just how Eugene rolls.

We first met Eugene three weeks earlier in Madison when he appeared at the High Noon Saloon for Wes & Eugene's Cabinet of Wonders. (This was the show for which Ryan designed a limited edition poster, shown at right. Eugene is the one on the unicycle.) We met up with Eugene, Wes (a.k.a. John Wesley Harding, and Chicago writer Mark Bazer before the Cabinet show for soundcheck, poster signing (I love the smell of paint pens in the evening!) and dinner at Jolly Bob's, our favorite Caribbean jerk joint.

Despite the amazingly strong rum-based beverages that kept arriving at the table as if by magic, I still had sufficient control of my faculties to perform basic arithmetic, and I calculated that I have known Wes for 17 years -- roughly half my life! That's right -- I first met Wes when I was 16, after one of his concerts in Detroit. I'd seen him perform a number of times since then, and had the distinct honor of inviting him to appear at the Wisconsin Book Festival in 2003 to give his first literary appearance, in advance of the publication of his debut novel, Misfortune. Since that time, Wes has released a few more records, played gigs around the world, published another novel, and become a father (twice!). As for me, well...I moved to Milwaukee, got married, and started this blog. Oh yeah, and I planted some stuff in the yard. I keep trying to tell Wes he has nothing to be ashamed of, that it's not a competition. It's OK: Most people are just not destined for the kind of greatness I have achieved.

But I digress.

Dinner before the Cabinet of Wonders was a lovely opportunity to catch up with an old friend and make two new ones, in Eugene and Mark. Eugene mentioned that he would be coming back through Wisconsin in a few weeks' time, opening for the Flight of the Conchords. "Fantastic!" I cried. "We've got tickets to the show! You'll have to let us cook you a proper dinner that night."

As soon as the words tumbled from my lips, there was an instant in which I observed Ryan roll his eyes and Eugene cast a tentative glance in Wes's direction as if to ask, "Is it safe?" Meanwhile, Mark furrowed his brow almost imperceptibly, wondering, "Damn, where's my dinner invitation?" (Mark: It's in the email I haven't sent you yet. But you'll be cheered to note that you're not the only friend whom I've been neglecting via email.)

Ryan's eye roll had nothing to do with my cooking ability (which is superb, by the way; Ryan is a very lucky man). And it also had nothing to do with the whole "inviting near strangers into our home" thing. He was just fast-forwarding in his mind to the scene that would inevitably play out in our dining room that night: Eugene and Ryan staring silently at their dessert forks during my third 20-minute disappearance into the kitchen (this time to plate the cake course). My repeated departure from the table would prompt this exchange:

Eugene: Does she cook like this every night?

Ryan: No...THANK GOD.

You see, it's not as if I cook an elaborate dinner (or, frankly, even a proper dinner) every night. Most nights it's sandwiches or salads or cereal, or, when they're in season, Girl Scout Cookies. But on the nights when we have company, something comes over me and I transform into a mise-en-place mastering, sauté pan pwning (yeah, you heard me), and wildly inventive yet non-bitchy Top Chef favorite. Typically you have to be a long-time friend to coax this kind of cooking out of me, because I'll be honest: It's messy, time-consuming, and expensive. But occasionally I'll meet someone new who hasn't known me long enough to discover my lazy cooking habits on the other 364 days of the year, and they haven't even been around enough to make it to the Tilney Dinner A-List, but I immediately feel compelled to invite them over for dinner. A really elaborate dinner. The kind that requires precisely timed deglazing and other forms of kitchen-based oversight that prevent me from sitting at the table the whole time. So I'll leave Ryan with our guests, and he'll feel guilty, thinking I'm not enjoying myself. But I am! I adore whisking until the right consistency is achieved! And I don't hear anyone complaining when I reappear with those spicy redskin and sweet potato pyramids...

Where were we?

Oh yes, Jolly Bob's in April. Inviting Eugene over to dinner in May. As it turns out, dinner was not in the cards, as Eugene and the Flight of the Conchords boys had to play two shows in Milwaukee that night (7 and 10PM), and my dinners are not really early-bird material. But we arranged to meet up after the show for a drink, before Eugene had to hop the tour bus to Minneapolis.

And so, meet up we did! After the show Eugene led us backstage, along with one of his old Milwaukee friends (I don't mean an Old Milwaukee friend...I think he was more of a Miller man). It was my first time backstage at the Riverside. As far as I could see, there were no hookers or groupies off of whose bare midriffs lines of coke were being snorted. It was all very wholesome, except for the booze and the swearing. Eugene is a lovely, whip-smart, and hilariously funny guy, and we were happy to spend more time with him that night. Next time he comes through town, perhaps he'll have room in his schedule for dinner. Because I have a feeling that there wouldn't be any silent fork-staring with Eugene at our table!

* * *

Photos: (1) HBO; (2) Melissa Horn / NYmag.com; (3) MAN vs. GEORGE DESIGN


Jean said...

Wow. Not only do I envy your relationships with famous people, but I want to merit this kind of dinner invite!

tilney said...

Oh Jean, you ARE famous people! You should Google yourself sometime.

As for the dinner invitation, as soon as you give up being a vegetarian, you're in! :-)

Jean said...

Ah, you found the author of children's books on google! Not me, sadly.

About dinner: I eat fish and shellfish. They're not vegetables!