A conversation with Murray Horwitz

"There are no boring things; there are only bored people."

by Kate Rarey

Murray Horwitz, 71, claims that he doesn’t know everything. But after a 50-year career as a Tony Award-winning playwright, a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster, a lyricist, and the co-host of the "Question of the Day with Murray and Tamika" podcast (to name a few), it seems there is nowhere that Murray’s pursuit of knowledge hasn’t taken him.

In late January, I was lucky enough to virtually sit down with Murray to hear more than a few of his stories – from his upbringing in the Midwest, to his time spent at Kenyon College, to his time in the circus. At the beginning of the interview, I admitted I sought a particular angle. "I want to get inside the mind of someone who pursues their own interests in life, unabashedly." Laughing, he responded, "Believe it or not, I’ve given this some thought."

Murray Horwitz was born in Dayton, Ohio, to a middle-class household with good taste. Jazz, theater, dance, and reading were just a few of the many artistic pursuits encouraged by his parents – his childhood was decorated with trips to New York to see shows and time spent scouring the public library for Fats Waller records. Murray describes, "I found everything interesting. I think when I was young, even when I was little, I just noticed stuff that other people didn’t." He continues, launching into a story:

"There was a character in a play I wrote, a 19 year-old kid who says, 'Yeah, most things are boring.' An older musician says to him: 'You’re 19 years old, your father and mother make a good living, you’ve probably been to Europe twice, you’re probably getting laid, you know, at least once a month (and trying more often than that), and you’re bored. There are no boring things; there are only bored people."

Murray himself, it seems, is hardly ever bored. At the backbone of his interests is the spirit of inquiry. From a young age, Murray interested himself in a wide array of subjects – history, current events, and performing arts were all parts of the same whole. "[Comedian and Rat Pack member] Joey Bishop," he confides, "once said that the key to comedy was curiosity. And I think he’s absolutely right." Without missing a step, Murray’s curiosity serves a great purpose: for as long as he can remember, he's known how to make people laugh.

"Within the context of knowing I was loved, and never wanting for anything, I had a pretty miserable childhood. I was younger than everyone else, I was smaller than everyone else, I was this pudgy little Jewish kid with glasses – my name was Murray Horwitz in Dayton, Ohio in the 50s. I mean, all I wanted to be was like, Rick. Doug. Something. People used to make fun of me, but I somehow had this impetus to make myself get over, socially. So I guess I got funny."

Throughout the course of our hour and a half conversation, Murray’s resounding laugh would interrupt his story before he could reach the end, or a new thought would appear and he would change gears entirely. I became quite certain, after a certain point, that Murray had more stories to tell than time in the day. And yet, the widely accomplished entertainer laid claim to a peculiarly-fitting ideal: he is a self-proclaimed underachiever.

"Why Kenyon College, then?" I wondered, somewhat implying a curious "how?" as well. "Did you know Kenyon was the answer to all your interests?" I was met with a laugh. "Spoken like a true daughter of Kenyon," he replied, noting my own affiliation to the school. "I had a guidance counselor who suggested Kenyon. My mom and I went and visited, and I fell in love with it." As an Ohio native, the scope of collegiate options fell within a 500-mile radius – a scope which included Kenyon. Placing his bets on the school, Murray was drawn to its English and drama departments, eventually going on to declare both as majors.

Senior year at Kenyon College, 1970.

"I realized, by the end of the sophomore year, that I was better at English than I was at other subjects. I inherently knew what was going on. I understood what poets were doing. I remember, I had to write a paper, I went into my professor’s office and said 'I don’t know what I’m doing.' It was British literature, 18th century, and I had to do a paper on Jonathan Swift’s 'A Modest Proposal.' My professor was so encouraging, so I wrote it up and got, like, an A-plus. So I’m like 'sh*t.' I realized I understood what Swift was doing – it was comedy, it was satire, and I was able to break it down. So I declared my English major.”

For Murray, declaring a major was no more than recognizing his many interests could coalesce into a strength within a single discipline. English, he realized early on, was a skill which he could call on reliably, and without hesitation. Drama came next. Murray realized in his junior year at Kenyon that he needed one more course to fulfill the drama major – a feat which he, of course, immediately capitalized on (he notes, with a hint of pride, that the double major is "to this day my only academic distinction"). However, Murray was well-known in the drama department long before declaring his major. He describes, in mild reverence, the influence of his professor, Jim Michael:

"The sainted Jim Michael, James Elder Michael, who ran the drama department, was the man who copped the beer-guzzling football player named Paul Newman and said, 'You know, you ought to try the theater.' Jim Michael was, to this day, the best teacher I’ve ever had, seen or observed."

It was Professor Michael who encouraged Murray to pursue his love for acting. And, in the form of a one-man show, Murray did just that – drawing from Shakespeare, famous Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem, and much more, Murray’s senior thesis ultimately went on to win him the Paul Newman Award For Excellence In Acting. Most curious, however, was his preparation:

"I went to clown school as part of preparation for my one-man show. That’s a whole 'nother story, that’s a great Kenyon story – you should get me to tell it to you over some beers sometime, you’d love this story."

Tauntingly, Murray reminds me that preparation for his one-man show included time-off from his senior year for a stint in clown school. What’s more: it was there that Murray gathered both life skill and knowledge of his art form. "The great thing about the circus was that’s where I learned discipline," Murray notes, without a trace of irony.

Throughout our conversation, Murray remained concretely convinced that first-hand experience in your given field is where the grand majority of learning occurs in the performing arts. And while it seemed disparate from his pursuits as an English major, it’s clear that writing, acting, and clowning are of apiece to Murray.

"I will never be Molière. But every time I sit down and start typing, writing a play, that’s what’s in the back of my head. That’s what you have to get to, Murray. You’ve gotta get to that. And if you don’t try to get to that, the highest standard that you know, two things will happen. One, you’ll never know how good you can really be, and two, if you try and fail, you may have failed just a little bit and you may still come up with something that’s really terrific. Writing is the through-line, and the Kenyon education had a whole lot to do with that."

"And by the way," he reminds me, "when I say the 'Kenyon education' I’m talking about my friends and fraternity brothers. I’m talking about tending bar at faculty parties. You learn as much outside of class as you do inside of class." It seems that sometimes "outside of class" means conversations with professors over beers, and sometimes it means clown school. C’est la vie.

Backstage with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, 1972.

After "underachieving" his way through Kenyon, Murray became a full-time clown for three years with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Afterward, he moved to New York and worked an odd-ball assortment of jobs, including acting in a soap opera, writing and producing another one-man show, becoming a "clown producer" (don’t ask), and writing the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Ain't Misbehavin'. With each pursuit so different from the last, I had to ask: "Were you following a path? How did you know what to pursue next?" At this, Murray laughed, incredulously.

"No!"

After a pause, he continued:

"My dad used to say, 'You get on your horse and ride off in five different directions.' And it turns out that’s how I made a living. About ten years ago, I took some clickbait online and I came to a website: 'How to guarantee you’ll make a lot of money.' And basically what it said was find out – of the many things that you may do – find out the one thing you do better than other people do and just do that. Concentrate on that one thing and you’ll do well financially. And I told [my wife], 'Sorry, I should have done that, we would have had a lot more bread,' and she said, 'Yeah but you wouldn’t have been you.'"

Quite beautifully, Murray’s pursuits are unapologetically him. Beyond striving to be the most authentic version of himself, Murray strives to be great at it, too – in whatever form that may take.

I asked him, finally, how the "Question of the Day with Murray and Tamika" podcast fit into the colorful amalgamation that is Murray Horwitz’s life. The daily trivia conversation is fun, but is there more to it? In the same way the interview began, he admitted it was something he had been thinking about. As a performer, he acknowledged that his job was to deliver, and to entertain. However, Question of the Day stands to achieve what he believes is a necessary bond, a cultural currency, which today's climate largely lacks.

Recording a podcast episode in his home studio, 2021.

"When I’m listening back to the podcast, that’s when I think about the fact that there’s someone listening to this with whom I deeply disagree politically. Most of the people listening to this are of a different religion than I. There are people listening to this who aren’t native English speakers. I think about that all the time. Without pandering, without shrinking from the truth, we try to be as inclusive as possible. And, there’s another aspect to it. One of the things that we’re seeing in the divisions of this country are the failures of education. And what we’re doing has an educative function. If we can give people a shared body of knowledge, familiarize them with some stuff with which they may not have been familiar before, make them go, 'Huh, I never thought about that before,' then there may be a little progress there."

Day-by-day, one question at a time, progress forges on with Murray and Tamika at the helm. Constructing a shared experience is no easy feat in 2021, but with willing curiosity, may we each allow our interests to bring us together.

Thanks very much to Murray Horwitz, Tamika Smith, and the entire Matchbox.io team for keeping cultural currency on its toes. To learn more, visit askQOTD.com.

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Marian Anderson
The Nebula
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