Detroit News columnist Neal Rubin will be in Traverse City, March 5, to host the next National Writers Series event, an evening with Buzz Bissinger, a bestselling author whose book, “Friday Night Lights” was turned into a movie and an NBC television series. Although Bissinger takes the spotlight next month, we wanted to shine it on Rubin and find out more about this great columnist from the Detroit News.
Northern Express: How did you come to be the host of the Buzz Bissinger event? Have you run into him previously in your reporting career?
Neal Rubin: I have not met him. I’m pretty sure I know people who know him and I’m going to be consulting with them on things that might help move the conversation along. (NWS founder) Doug Stanton and I have talked for a couple of years about getting me to Traverse City to moderate one of these, which I’ve been hugely excited about.
Buzz Bissinger, he’s a terrific writer and somebody I’ve read at least since “Friday Night Lights.” I’m enthused about being part of the program. Frankly, I’m also just pretty geeked about getting to meet him.
NE: You are a columnist for the Detroit News and you write the nationally syndicated
comic strip, Gil Thorp. Which one of those jobs do you enjoy more?
Rubin: I love the column. I love it every day. There are days with Gil Thorp when I get home and it’s another deadline, where I kind of wish I could get Gil into a fiery car wreck and be done with him. At the same time, it’s huge fun to create this Gil Thorp world. It’s certainly as close to being Zeus as I’m ever going to get. So there are times where it’s huge fun but there are other times where I think, why did I agree to do this?
NE: You’ve had a long and storied newspaper career. Are you a news guy or a sports guy at heart?
Rubin: Really I’m in between. I’m a features guy. I’m certainly at this point more of a news guy than a sports guy. You get to a point where you can’t ask any more sweaty 19-year-olds how it feels to win the big game. While I still enjoy sports, I certainly read that section, I left it behind a long time ago.
When I got into newspapers, sports was the one place in the paper where you could really have fun with words. The news sections were very serious and the features sections, in a lot of cases, were still photos of ladies having lunch. So sports had the most interesting pallet. Now we’re telling stories in a lot of different ways and you can bring color and insight and personality to a lot of different sorts of writing.
NE: Your column in the Detroit News is described as “seemingly humorous.” How do you strike a balance between humor and seriousness when you handle subject matter that is both sad and absurd, like the debacle of what’s happened between the city of Detroit and the state over the future of Belle Isle?
Rubin: It’s sort of case by case, but overall I try to keep at least a light-hearted tone. Now there are some subjects so deadly serious that you have to approach them that way. It would be disrespectful not to. But otherwise, if you look closely you can find absurdity in almost any situation. I certainly find it in myself often enough. In fact, I’m writing a followup for tomorrow on the Belle Isle situation and it talks about unicorns. The city council’s outlook on this is so farfetched they must think that’s what they’re going to have bounding across the lawns. Happy unicorns being hand-fed sugar plums by Manti Te’o’s girlfriend.
NE: Your bio at the Detroit News website lists as your career distinction, “Banned by the World Wrestling Foundation.” Please tell me about that.
Rubin: That goes back to 1987, when they held Wrestlemania 3 at the Pontiac Silverdome. I was a feature writer then here in Detroit. We didn’t care about it as a sporting event, but as a lifestyle event. If you’re going to get 93,000 people packed into a stadium, at up to a hundred dollars a ticket, to watch this thing, then, hey, now we’re interested. And it was just sort of the first wave of Hulk-mania with Hulk Hogan.
I got curious. Basically, I knew his momma didn’t name him Hulk and he wasn’t born weighing 300 pounds. So I called the publicist for what was then the World Wrestling Federation, and said, ‘I just want to find out who he was before he was Hulk Hogan,’ and the publicist got very snotty and said, ‘You can’t talk to him at all. Hulk is Hulk and no one else.’ Can you think of a more certain way to activate a reporter’s ‘bite me’ mechanism?
So I just started digging into it and this was pre-Internet. I found a reference in a Candaian magazine that gave his real name and another reference that said he was from Tampa, Florida. So I called the Tampa Tribune and got ahold of the librarian there, and she told me where he went to high school, so I called the high school and got his old guidance counselor on the phone. Anyway, I tracked him all the way back to his old little league coach. It was very benign; he was a good guy all this time. But I wrote this big profile and the World Wrestling Federation was furious and they called the editor and they said, ‘If Neal Rubin comes to Wrestlemania, we’re revoking all your credentials.’ Which was no big loss since I wasn’t planning to be there in the first place.