Famous for More than Fifteen Minutes: Harvey Pekar.

Photo by Angie Naron

As friends of Harvey Pekar and his wife and frequent writing partner Joyce Brabner, my wife and I have been gratified to see the attention Harvey’s death has received in the printed press and all over the web. But in addition to being gratified, we’ve been surprised. The attention is deserved. But she and I agree that Harvey would have been stunned by the amount of it. Make no mistake, Harvey was no shrinking violet; he wasn’t one of those writers who was “only about the work,” to the exclusion of caring how his work was received and by how many. He derived pleasure from the attention his work brought him; he thrived on the crowds that showed up for his lectures, readings and book signings; he enjoyed that the movie American Splendor opened up new audiences to him. But I don’t think he dreamt that as many people cared about him as actually did, or that his impact on the culture was as large as the sheer number of obituaries and other commentaries about his passing testify to.

When Harvey appeared on David Letterman’s show several times twenty-some years ago, he and Joyce would ask us to call them in their New York hotel room that night to give them the view from out there in televisionland. I confess that on the night he confronted Letterman with the war-making sins of General Electric (parent of NBC, Letterman’s network at the time), I cringed. I knew he had burned his bridges, and that most of the viewing audience along with the studio audience and Letterman had turned on him. I suppose I said something fairly anodyne to him that night, along the lines of “wow, that was gutsy,” but I thought Harvey hadn’t been wise. Now, watching the video of that appearance on YouTube in the light of Harvey’s passing, I see it differently. I see it as an amazing act of courage. The fact that that sort of thing still doesn’t happen on television only makes it more heroic in retrospect. It stands out as a singular moment of bravery in broadcast history.

The New York Times has a good obituary on Harvey. It’s sort of ironic, because he was always trying to get pieces into that paper. He succeeded once or twice, but I remember lots of conversations with him telling me how they were jerking him around, delaying publication on something of his or canceling it altogether, not paying him on time, not returning his phone calls, etc. I don’t think he would find any particular revenge-gratification in how they’re honoring him now, I think he would simply be pleased. “Hey man, The New York Times. Not bad, huh?,” I can hear him say. He knew he was somewhat famous, he knew he had fans, but I don’t think he knew just how much he meant to people and to the culture. I would like to believe that wherever he is, he knows it now.

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One Comment on “Famous for More than Fifteen Minutes: Harvey Pekar.”

  1. I learned about Harvey Pekar from the movie, then went back and read the comics it had been based on, along with all the other stuff I could find.

    I never met him, and only knew him through his work, but he seemed to be a keen observer of human nature, and his honesty and grumpiness made me like him instantly. He had real feelings, real opinions, and he was real serious about getting them out there!

    I think most of us tend to cover up our negative feelings, and the way he made art from his frustrations was impressive. And the way he kept it up for decades despite the difficulties is an inspiration. His death is a real loss, and my sympathies go out to you, your wife and Harvey’s family.


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