An oral history of how an author from Greensboro got "Booger" from Revenge of the Nerds to narrate his audio book
James Tate Hill grew up with '80s movies like Risky Business and One Crazy Summer. Decades later, he got the most memorable actor from those films to provide the voice for his memoir. How?
I know James Tate Hill because he’s a writer in Greensboro, a lovely town where, in general, there are not many writers. We haven’t met face-to-face, but we follow each other on Twitter, and last year, I was excited to hear that he’d written a memoir. Then, earlier his summer, my excitement turned to genuine glee when Hill announced that the audio version of his book would be read by Curtis Armstrong, a longtime actor who I am very familiar with. Armstrong was in Revenge of the Nerds. He was in One Crazy Summer. He was in Risky Business. RISKY BUSINESS! These are all movies that were in heavy rotation on TV during my childhood. I can’t remember where I left my keys five minutes ago, but I can close my eyes and, with frightening recall, hear Armstrong saying “He’s skiing on one ski!” from Better Off Dead.
I called up Hill, who teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T, to ask him how the hell he pulled that one off. After all, Armstrong is still very busy with acting work, and does not typically narrate audio books. Then I tweeted at Armstrong himself. He, unlike Mick Jagger, slid into my DMs, and a few weeks later, we talked by phone, after he’d wrapped up a recording session for American Dad!
What follows is a conversation with both men about how this audio book came to be, but also about the strong connections we have with popular culture from our childhoods, and what it’s like, for Armstrong, to be on the other side of that. This oral history has been edited and condensed for clarity.
James Tate Hill, author: Growing up in the 80s in West Virginia, we didn't have cable until 1989. So in the summers, my cousins and I were just popping tape after tape into the VCR, just watching movies over and over again. And two of the ones that were in the heaviest rotation for a couple years were of course Revenge of the Nerds and One Crazy Summer, and Curtis Armstrong was in both of those. It wasn't until we got cable that I saw him in Risky Business. He’s just one of these characters who is so memorable in fairly small roles. My best friend and I have matching T-shirts that Curtis Armstrong's character wore in Revenge of the Nerds. It's got those red baseball sleeves and in the center it says “High on Stress.” We definitely rocked those regularly during the pandemic.
Curtis Armstrong, actor: Those movies were coming out at a time when cable television was becoming ubiquitous, shortly before home video started to come in. Those movies could have been done in the ’70s and nobody would remember them now. Plus, the nerd culture in general was happening. Conventions and that sort of thing. All of that was happening at the same time. At the time, this movie Revenge of the Nerds comes out, and these other movies come out, and then all of a sudden, a lot of people are watching them on a Friday night eating pizza.
Flash forward to 2021: Hill has just completed “Blind Man’s Bluff,” a memoir of Hill’s upbringing, his rather sudden loss of eyesight, and the lengths he went to in order to hide his blindness from others. It’s an enlightening, humorous, and sometimes raw story infused with some of the ’80s nostalgia of his childhood. But when it came time to produce the audio book version, a challenge emerged.
James Tate Hill: I can’t read out loud in a traditional way. So what I’m doing is what my friend calls the Cyrano method. My earbuds are in. I’m reciting out loud what’s coming into my ear, so there’s that extra step of practice. When I’m getting ready for like a public reading or something, I’ll practice dozens of times and really prepare so that I almost have the rhythms and the content memorized. Whereas, you know, this is a 250 page book that was going to be pretty formidable.
Audio books are super important to me, and I can tell you as somebody that covers audio books, memoirs are frequently narrated by the author. I think they're just seen as this extra cachet, where even even if the author isn't a great reader of their work, at least you're getting the the sort of raw emotion or the unmediated narration without without a third party.
But, I really did not want to record my own narration. I was like, I don't want to hear my own voice. But people had sort of told me, oh you should totally do it. I felt pressure to try it. So I recorded my three minute sample. You also get paid when you record your own narration, usually a thousand or two thousand bucks. I’m like, well, that’s not nothing. Let’s give it a whirl. So, I emailed my audio clip, and heard back within two days: We really think a professional narrator could break out the humor and emotion of the book effectively. And my first thought was: I couldn't agree more. Instead of disappointment I was immediately relieved. I was like, all right, I’m going to have my own audio book that's professionally produced.
Hill wrote back to the company that was producing the audio book version, telling them that he was okay with someone else recording in his place. But when it came time for him to suggest the type of narrator he might want, Hill wrote back with a very specific person in mind.
James Tate Hill: The gist of my email was: This was probably the longest of long shots but I just wanted to throw out that my dream narrator is the actor Curtis Armstrong. He's only done two audio books. One of them is his own memoir, “Revenge of the Nerd.” The other was a book called “Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the 1980s Changed Hollywood Forever.” It was a non-fiction book about Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, and John Candy. That whole cohort. And his narration in this book was just like: this voice sounds familiar … oh my god, it's Curtis Armstrong from Risky Business and One Crazy Summer and, of course, Booger from Revenge of the Nerds.
It was the nostalgia of hearing his voice, but much more than that, he just had this amazing elocution. And by that I mean he was able—without any vocal pyrotechnics or without calling attention to himself—to find the rhythms of every sentence. And, I mean, it’s a book about comedians and comic movies, but he finds the contemplative moments. It’s just rare to find a narrator who can navigate between emotion and humor while totally getting the book.
And so I said, I don’t even know if it’s possible to reach out to Mr. Armstrong, or if his fees or availability would prohibit that. But if it's at all possible, he would be my dream narrator. If nothing else, this at least gives you a sense of what I would like in a narrator. And I expected to hear back with some, you know, all right, thanks, here’s your three narrators to choose from. That’s usually what they do. And I got an email, I think it was about two, maybe three weeks later, and they said they were able to get Curtis!
Curtis Armstrong: They had first approached me last spring. It was months before. That was when my agent was talking to them. They came to an agreement on the deal and that was it. I never heard from them again. I wrote it off. It was weird because they’d already come to an agreement. But of course, what we do in our business, especially jobs that require going into sound stages or studios, all of that has gotten very slow.
James Tate Hill: I have no idea, I would assume they sent him a digital copy of the book or an advanced reader's copy. I can't imagine he would agree to do it without without having read portions of the book, if not the whole book.
Curtis Armstrong: When it’s first proposed, it’s just a job. I don’t think about it any way other than that. But I don’t know what the book is. Until I read it, I don’t know if it’s a good book or not. Same thing as accepting a TV or movie. It’s not your job to make that determination. It’s your job to do your best as an actor with what you have. I entered into it without having any idea whether it was good or bad.
James Tate Hill: As a writer, I'm always expecting good news to be taken away. I’m neurotic like that. I’d go, like, two months without hearing anything, and I’m like, uh, he’s probably backed out or something.
Curtis Armstrong: [After a few months of silence, the audio book producers] got back in touch and were like, can you do it next week? I was like wait, I haven't read the book yet! I figured a certain number of chapters I’d be able to get done every day. I’d work on those, go in, do at least that many, go home that night and work on the chapters the next day. It’s an intense amount of book once you get started. But I hadn’t had the luxury of reading the book over time or talking to him. It was like, let’s go. Once you’re set up, you start recording. It took about four or five days.
James Tate Hill: When it did finally come to fruition, it was such a thrill. And then interacting with him on Twitter was wild.
And him saying he was “loving every minute of recording this book”? It’s perfect.
Curtis Armstrong: They sent me the book. I started going through it. I found that it’s written so gracefully. It’s a very natural way of writing that he has. I found that it was relatively easy, in fact easier than the “Wild and Crazy Guys” book. That book has an enormous amount of facts in it. It’s a history, not a memoir. The style that he wrote with is a very accessible one. Even if you’ve never been exposed to something that he’s gone through, it’s relatively easy to speak it. Which is the same as acting in anything. In film or TV for example, if I have a shitty script, I find it hard to memorize or get a handle on it. If I have a well written script, it’s sort of a breeze. I think “Blind Man’s Bluff” felt completely in that category. It takes a while to do, naturally, but I found it relatively easy to do.
James Tate Hill: I’m sure it’s the closest I’ll ever have my work become a movie. It was very similar to what I imagine it’s like when an actor is playing you, or your screenplay is being produced on the big screen. And I’m like, I wrote that, but it’s not my voice. Which is why, I think, so many voice actors are audio book narrators. Because theory can bring up that emotion, and inhabit a role, inhabit the rhythms of somebody else’s sentences. And, it’s not them. It’s not my literal voice, but it’s definitely my voice on the page, and it’s this perfect melding of an actor and role, or sentences.
Curtis Armstrong: I approached the book the same way I approached anything. I’m looking for the reality in the moment when I am speaking. I’m playing a part that isn’t me. You can’t think “What is he going to think of it?” That way madness lies. I’ve played living people before. When I played Ahmet Ertegun in Ray, Ahmet Ertegun was still alive. I had talked to him on the phone and got some questions answered. But when I did it, I approached it in the same way I would approach any fictional part. That was the same way I did James's book. I tried to find reality in the moment, and I did it. I saw humor in it. You have a sense of the person. I wouldn’t try to imitate someone.
James Tate Hill: I was so happy because, apart from the talent that I knew he was going to bring to it, just tonally I knew he would work. That character he plays in Risky Business? In which he has so few lines? Every single one of them is memorable. He’s telling Tom Cruise's character: “Sometimes Joel, you just gotta say ‘what the f***? Make your move,” and and that voice is just constantly echoing in my head.
Curtis Armstrong: This was a curious thing, because [recording audio books] is not a thing I do a lot of. It totally surprised me that he ever had a thought that he’d ever think of me to do this. But then he makes reference to Tom Cruise. Hey, I would not have thought of me. I’m glad he did.
James Tate Hill: I’m following him on Twitter. I know he’s a really thoughtful guy. He’s a very sweet guy. And he’s also a bit of a bibliophile. He collects Washington Irving books and Sherlock Holmes. He’s an exceedingly literary guy. But I don’t have any contact information for Curtis.
Curtis Armstrong: I’ve never talked to him. That’s the extent of our relationship. Twitter is the only communication we’ve had. But I never spoke to the author of “Wild and Crazy Guys.” Unless they reach out, you’re just doing a job.
James Tate Hill: One of the thing he writes about in his memoir is how he, for years, was ashamed of the fact that he was known as Booger. He didn't originally want to do that role. And it became sort of a career-defining role, and later he eventually owned it. He acknowledges in the book that parts of that movie probably haven't aged well, but that the ethos of the movie has. Nerds have totally become mainstream.
Curtis Armstrong: People have grown up with this movie and TV stuff I’ve done. But at the time, with Revenge of the Nerds, it wasn’t like I was thinking that this is something someone’s going to be watching throughout their childhoods. None of us wanted to be doing it. The script wasn’t great. But then it winds up getting into the popular culture. As far as I’m concerned, all of it is tremendously gratifying. The fact that I did this book? It happened basically because I did Revenge of the Nerds and Risky Business. However they turned out, they were the foundation of my entire career. You can’t say boo to that.
Great story. Terrific hearing positive stories about good people doing good things. PS. "Better Off Dead" is one of my favorite movies. Oddly, it's also one movie that is not available for streaming! Not Curtis's quote, but: "I want my Two Dollars!!!"
Interesting and informative. Thank you!