In his standup routine, Tom Wilson skillfully defuses the Biff Bomb with a song about how he gets asked the same Back to the Future questions over and over and over again. (It's hilarious and has garnered nearly three million views on YouTube.) So when I met Tom for lunch recently, I was determined not to go there.
I went there.
Good lord, I tried not to. We started off talking about standup comedy. Richard Pryor. Robin Williams. Steve Martin. Bill Hicks. Tom was more than just patient with me and my questions, he was generous. We even talked at length about the life of Sam Kinison, a particular fascination of mine and a man Tom knew well.
Here I was, talking comedy with someone who has been in the middle of the comic scene for more than thirty years. I was in my element. I was focused. Then, it happened.
"Johnny B. Goode" came over the restaurant sound system.
Seriously, what are the chances? My brain reeled a little bit. I tried to push through and pretend that I didn't notice. I couldn't. I decided to pause and acknowledge the weirdness to myself. Then my mouth got into the action. Tom smiled, patiently.
I recovered nicely, however. Our conversation veered into a wide-ranging discussion about art and culture, touching upon such diverse subjects as social media and religious iconography. Tom, you should know, is also a painter. And very smart. It's obvious that thirty years of traveling around to comic clubs involved more than a fair share of side trips to museums and bookstores. We decided to leave the restaurant and continue talking over coffee.
Settling into a booth at a coffee shop adjacent to the comedy club he would be performing at later that evening, our conversation about culture naturally evolved into an exploration of pop culture. And, yes, Tom's role as a pop culture icon. Against my better instincts and self-imposed instructions heading into the day, the 800-pound gorilla with the crew cut was being addressed.
Spend any amount of time with Tom and you'll realize he's a thinker. And over the last 25 years or so, he's spent his fair share of time thinking about the weirdness of pop culture and his small but indelible role in it. He used to love that role. Then he didn't. And now he's indifferent. It is what it is. But it's not who he is.
You've recently seen Tom on Freaks and Geeks and Big Love. Your kids have heard him voice various characters on SpongeBob SquarePants and (my family's personal favorite) Adventure Time. If you're lucky enough to have him come to your local comedy club, you should rush at the opportunity to see him perform live. But there's a reason he carries a Sharpie with him wherever he goes.
So he talked about it. Openly and honestly. In a way only a well-grounded person can. He knows that he might never fully escape Biff's headlock. Or maybe someday he will. He's realistic, but not defeatist. Even if he might be tired of having movie lines shouted to him on the street.
Eventually, I gave over to my worst possible instincts. For some reason, I started to explain my detailed theory as to why Biff is such a hard character to forget. Tom's heard a million of these theories, of course. But as I droned on, I notice him staring off into the distance. Perhaps I've touched a nerve, or gone too far. Perhaps my theory is new and profound. Then, he turns to me. With an emotionless face, but the timing of a skilled comic, he points to the wall. "Tim, my gift to you."
I think you can guess what was playing on the television. Again, what are the chances?
This time, my brain didn't just reel. It left my physical body. It squirted out my nose and floated up to Pop Culture Heaven, where it gave Adam West, dressed in full Batman costume, a brain/fist bump that went KAPOW. Which is especially weird since Adam West is still alive. But my brain wasn't thinking; it was drifting. Drifting in a state of weirdness and ecstasy. I was in weirdstasy.
I'm not sure what a lesser man would have done next. But I know what Tom Wilson did. He recognized the absurd moment for what it was. And he knew what I was experiencing. He told me to pull out my phone.
"Crispin is about to point at me," he said with a mischievous smile, sliding out of the booth and scrambling into position in front of the television. It was the school cafeteria scene, and sure enough, George McFly was about to point out the school bully to Marty. "Quick, take a picture."