Jack Gray went from local news guy to hotshot producer for Anderson Cooper 360. Now he hangs out with the likes of Larry King and Kathy Griffin and has more than a million followers on Twitter. He chronicles all of that and much more in his hilarious and poignant collection of essays Pigeon in a Crosswalk: Tales of Anxiety and Accidental Glamour (out now), which calls to mind other humor essayists like David Sedaris and Sloane Crosley. He took the time to talk to EW about his famous silver-haired boss, his love for the Olive Garden, and his coming out story.
How did you go from CNN producer to CNN producer-slash-author?
I’d dabbled in blogging a little a few years ago for the now defunct AC360 blog website that doesn’t really exist anymore, and one day I was with Anderson in an SUV at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, and as I have joked to him before and joked on his show today, small talk is my specialty. He eventually very kindly threw me a bone and said he liked a blog post I’d written and encouraged me to keep doing it. So I did, and he was super-supportive and encouraging, and that’s kind of how it happened.
In parts of the book you show Anderson Cooper as a diva-like horrible boss who wears a silver wig. Obviously, you’re joking, and you have a great relationship, but he must be a great sport about being depicted as a Devil Wears … what does he wear?
I think it’d be The Devil Wears Ralph Lauren Black Label … Those are your words, not mine! But Anderson has a wonderful sense of humor. I joke that eye contact with him at work is a privilege, not a right. Of course he knows I’m joking. I’ve hung out with him socially a lot, Kathy and I have spent a weekend at his house — he’s great. I wouldn’t have a book if it weren’t for him. You look for people in your life to encourage you. I’m not from New York — I worked in local news before I got here, so I didn’t have this support system built in to encourage me to do something like this, so he’s been crucial.
You were initially offered a job on Glenn Beck’s show instead, right?
It wasn’t a full offer, but the recruiter was trying to sell me on the Glenn Beck job. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know who he was. This was before he took off, like late 2006. I submitted my resume to what I thought was a black hole, where you submit it online. Who ever gets a job that way? But they called me, so I ended up in the recruiting office. It was a general interview, there was no specific job. She was like, “You know, there’s this guy named Glenn Beck.” Like I write in the book, she said, “He’s a little bit to the right.” But I’d seen this posting for the job at Anderson’s show, but she said, “This job is really competitive, it’s the most popular show on the network,” so I knew my chances probably weren’t great, but I wanted to try. It ended up working out really well.
You’ve become friends with a number of celebrities through your job and through Twitter, including Larry King and Nia Vardalos and Kathy Griffin. What’s hanging out with Kathy Griffin like?
She has made me take some really, really long walks, which I enjoy. She stays downtown, I live uptown, and I mean it’s like a solid 80-90 blocks, and these walks are always at 3 a.m. or something. We go to the Donut Pub on 14th and 7th, and we’ve ended up there so many times. Donuts aren’t really good for us, but we walk them off.
You were there first hand to see her bangin’ bikini bod transformation.
I’ve seen Kathy buck-naked so I’ve seen all of it. She loves her donuts, but she exercises a lot. I tried to hike with her in L.A. in the hills and in the canyon and I can’t keep up. She’s a machine. I was flagging down some guy on a bicycle to send a message ahead while she was already at home, sitting by the pool.
Are you nervous about anything you say about celebrities or politicians in the book?
I wasn’t nervous about anything with Anderson, because he’s so great and willing to let me have fun, and same with Kathy. My joke is that celebrities don’t know how to read, so I’m not worried about that. In terms of essays that back me into a corner, I had to tell my dad that I was gay because I wrote about it in the book, so I did that a few weeks ago and he had a great response and was very supportive. And right away he was like, “How bout that NHL lockout?” I didn’t write that essay for any reason other than to express myself, but if it inspires anyone to e-mail their parents, and that works out well, that makes me really happy.
So it’s not exactly a job qualification for a news producer to be funny, but your book is very funny. How did you you realize you could make people laugh?
Not to get all introspective, but as someone who was closeted until I was 26, which is late for most people, it was part of my way of coping. I was working in Boston at the time, and I was like, “I’m really gay, and I need to freaking deal with this.” I grew up outside of Boston and it felt like a small city, so I didn’t feel like I had the freedom to come out. I write about my friend and mentor in Boston named Chet Curtis and he gave me a lot of freedom to try things out. Once I started producing interviews and realized how many interesting people there are out there — you meet straight people, gay people, actors, authors, and politicians — I don’t know, you just realize that there are a lot of voices out there, and I started to find mine. Making jokes was in some ways a way of trying to feel comfortable with myself. It’s one way I tried to adjust to who I was – who I really was.
The thing I liked most about the book was that you’re so self-effacing and honest and not trying to come across as overly image-conscious or cool, which can be rare, especially for people who work in TV and media, and there can be added pressure for gay men, too.
I’m the first person to admit that I’m the least cool person in the world. I’ll never be the ripped guy in Chelsea. That’ll never be me. I don’t find exercise to be all that pleasurable. I don’t want to do it three hours a day and drink crazy protein shakes. There’s a nice sense of freedom in saying, “Well, this is me, take it or leave it.” I’d love to find someone I can go to the Olive Garden and the movies with and eat those little junior Mints. That sounds kind of dreamy.
I’m sorry, but as interesting as you, Anderson, and Barney Frank are, the most compelling character in your book had to be your black lab, Sammy. How is she?
Sammy spends most of her days sniffing the marijuana smoke from across the hall from my actor neighbors who I can’t identify because they’ll get in trouble — or more likely, I’ll get in trouble. So she basically gets contact-high from them all day because the smoke comes under the door. I know it’s cheesy, but as a single person, to have the unconditional love of a dog … Look, I’ll take it. I’ll take interest in me wherever I can find it. From my dog, in the gutter, the coat check at Splash, wherever I can find it.
Who would play you in a movie?
Tyne Daly, circa Cagney and Lacy.
As fun as your book is, there are still some very real moments. In fact, one of the most poignant moments led to your non-serious-sounding title.
Yeah, that was actually very organic. You know, I’m off and on with depression, and I’m open about that, but I was having one of those lazy, crappy days when I could barely get out of bed and barely get my pants on. I had to let the dog out, and I felt like I couldn’t accomplish anything in the world that day, and ended up standing next to a pigeon in a crosswalk who was waiting for the goddamn light and hauled his ass across the street right within the lines. I was like, “That’s where the bar has been set today.” The pigeon in the crosswalk.
Did you play with any other titles?
The original title Simon and Schuster wanted was Openly Gray, which I objected to on multiple levels, not the least of which is that somewhere out there, there is a 65-year-old lesbian basketball coach going gray, and that is the book she was born to write when she retires.
Do you plan on writing another book?
I have a lot of ideas for a second book. I have lots of stuff I want to explore, probably less of the cable news stuff. I feel like I’ve done that. I like essays, I like making people laugh. Cable news is a lot of doom and gloom, a lot of bad news, so if I can write a book that people can take on a plane or to the beach and just laugh for while, that would make me really happy.
Jack Gray will be appearing at Book Soup in West Hollywood on March 5th for a discussion and signing. Oh yeah, Kathy Griffin will be there too.
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Pigeon in a Crosswalk