CULTURE SCHLOCK — By Darren Garnick
“Squiggy’s Secret: Even Pop Culture Icons Can Get MS”
Originally published in The Telegraph
May 18, 2001
One of the Golden Rules of Journalism is “Thou Shalt Not Ask an Interview Subject For an Autograph.” The rationale makes sense. Reporters who giddily ask for autographs are unlikely to ask tough questions. Editors also resent the idea of their publications being confused with fan club magazines. Lacking self-control, I broke that sacred rule last week. I broke it for “Squiggy.”
David L. Lander, who played the quirky character in the 1970s sitcom “Laverne & Shirley,” was in town to discuss his 17-year battle with Multiple Sclerosis and why he hid his condition from the public until 1999. I was working behind the scenes for a TV network doing the typical “Celebrity Disease of the Week” feature. President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) on “The West Wing” revealed he had the same illness this month, giving MS enough temporary status to merit media coverage.
Our day began at Squiggy’s hotel and wrapped up at Fenway Park, where we shot footage of him watching the Red Sox and Mariners during batting practice. Lander’s publicist shared Squiggy stories to kill some time. Earlier that morning, at the Philadelphia airport, a fan rushed up to him with a baseball and blurted, “David Lander? I have autographs of every ‘Laverne & Shirley’ cast member except for you!” Lander signed the ball, not bothering to ask why the fan happened to have a baseball at the airport. The publicist suspected there might be a Squiggy stalker on the loose.
At the end of our assignment, we were in the Red Sox press box with Lander as he filled out his scorecard. I pulled a baseball out of my pocket and said in an ultra-serious tone, “David, at home I have autographed baseballs of every cast member of ‘Laverne and Shirley’ except for you. Would you please sign my baseball?”
He nodded without hesitation, but neither he nor his publicist picked up on the joke. “I was kidding,” I said. “I was referring to the psycho you met today at the airport… But I still would like to get it signed.” Lander smiled, thinking it was a strange coincidence, but was too polite to compare me to his stalker.
The conversational banter continued to flow naturally until I said I wanted the autograph because I was a “big pop culture buff.”
“Oh, is that what I am?” Lander replied.
Following an awkward moment of silence, I felt instant guilt. From Squiggy’s perspective, I had just reduced him to Archie Bunker’s chair or Dorothy’s ruby slippers. I may as well have built a glass display case around him. But it was true: I would have been far less gung-ho about meeting a non-celebrity struggling with MS.
The whole time I was with Lander, most of our small talk was about baseball. He seemed ecstatic that I not only had heard of the Portland Beavers (the AAA minor league Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate), but mentioned Luis Tiant’s comeback there. Turns out that Lander had paid some of Tiant’s salary when the team couldn’t afford it, making him a five-percent owner. It was genuine sports talk, but for me it was sports talk with Squiggy.
I wasn’t the only one. At the ballgame, a few fans recognized Lander and asked him to sign their Red Sox programs, insisting that “Squiggy” be written in addition to “David.” Perhaps unaware that “Laverne & Shirley” was scripted, one guy said, “You always seemed to enter at the right time!”
Lenny (Michael McKean) and Squiggy were the forefathers of characters like Kramer on “Seinfeld.” The socially awkward best friends would enter a room unannounced whenever Laverne and Shirley would daydream about their missing Romeos. Squiggy had the honor of triggering the laugh track. “Hello!” he’d say in a nerdy voice, which is simply not as funny on paper.
What happened to Lenny after that show is well known. Part of the Rob Reiner-Christopher Guest-Harry Shearer collaborative team, he’s been churning out clever comedies (“This is Spinal Tap,” “Best In Show.”) ever since. What happened to Squiggy is outlined in “Fall Down Laughing: How Squiggy Caught Multiple Sclerosis and Didn’t Tell Nobody,” his autobiography released last fall.
MS first strikes people in their 20s and 30s and gets progressively worse with age. It is a particularly scary disease because it causes muscle weakness and extreme fatigue without warning. Some people first lose strength in an arm or leg; others later feel numb in all four extremities. MS wreaks havoc with the central nervous system, stripping people of their balance and eventually, their freedom to walk.
For 15 years, Lander let people think he was an alcoholic every time he stumbled at an inopportune moment. That image was more preferable than being known as a victim of MS, a stigma he feared would make him unemployable in Hollywood.
Watching Lander limp around the batting cage at Fenway Park, his balance preserved for now with the help of MS drugs, made me a little less cynical about “Celebrity Disease of the Week” stories. Squiggy was still smiling.
In Lander’s eyes, I saw him as a walking, talking 1970s relic to be auctioned on eBay. Sure, I devoted more brain time to Laverne & Shirley in a few hours than I had in my entire life. But I also spent much of the day thinking about Multiple Sclerosis. For that alone, Lander’s post-Squiggy role is a huge success.