On episode 472 of the popular radio show and podcast “This American Life,” host Ira Glass recalled the life of his friend and associate, David Rakoff. The episode, which originally aired on August 17, 2012, was a tribute to Rakoff who had died a week earlier at the age of 47. His death was attributed to a post-radiation sarcoma that presumably developed as the result of his battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 22.
“One of the first times I met David Rakoff — this is before he started writing stories for the radio — he invited me to sit in the window of a department store with him,” Glass said in opening the episode. “He was playing Sigmund Freud in a Christmas display window at Barney’s, and he was seeing patients in the window.
“David sat in a chair. I lay on a couch.”
The details of that very public psychoanalysis became the subject of “Christmas Freud,” a story Rakoff shared on “This American Life” in 1996. A Thurber Award winner, Rakoff was known for his cutting wit and also for his work with humorist David Sedaris, who first introduced him to Glass. From 1996 until just a few weeks before his death, Rakoff appeared on “This American Life” 25 times. In addition to being an actor, writer and storyteller, Rakoff was also a faculty member in Stony Brook University’s MFA in Creative Writing and Literature program.
On Saturday, November 9, Stony Brook Southampton will celebrate Rakoff’s life and work by dedicating its new podcast recording studio in his honor. The Rakoff Studio, which is on the second floor of Chancellors Hall, also has a black box theater space and will be used to support the wide range of creative endeavors for which Rakoff was known — including audio recording and performance.
Hosted by Glass, the Stony Brook event begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Avram Theater on the Southampton campus and features authors, actors, colleagues and friends who will share memories of Rakoff and read from his extensive body of work. The evening is presented in association with “Selected Shorts,” the weekly public radio show produced by the Symphony Space in New York City in which actors read fiction in front of a live audience (Rakoff made appearances on that show as well). In addition to Glass, among the participants taking part in the Southampton tribute will be writers Melissa Bank, Rachel Dratch, Matthew Klam, Simon Doonan, Patricia Marx and others.
Bank, who lives in Sag Harbor, was instrumental in bringing Rakoff into the Stony Brook creative writing fold back in 2005. During a recent interview in Sag Harbor she talked about their long friendship, explaining that she first met Rakoff when he asked her to write a blurb for his 2001 book “Fraud.”
“I just loved his work and was happy to do it,” Bank recalled. “We went to dinner and he was a wonderful person. He was so smart, which scared me a little, he was hilarious and he was a natural actor.
“He could mimic people and was the most entertaining friend I ever had. I just loved being in his company,” she added. “He was a really good person too. People with rapier wit who warrant that kind of cliché don’t often have kindness. But he was a silent do-gooder.”
Some might be tempted to say that Rakoff’s kindness could be attributed to the fact that he had been born a Canadian. Though truth be told, by all accounts, including his own, Rakoff was a true New Yorker at heart.
“He did a piece for The Moth about being a small child where he compared himself to Stuart Little, saying ‘the city is where I belong,’” Bank recalled. “There’s a line from one of his pieces about being a New Yorker. He said, ‘If you want greenery, order the spinach.’”
Though Rakoff taught primarily at Stony Brook’s Manhattan campus, on occasion, he ventured out to teach at Southampton as well.
“He was not someone who was an outdoors person,” confided Bank, who joined the Stony Brook writing program in 2002. “I knew if he was coming out, my AC would have to be working — which was never a sure thing.”
Though Rakoff was admittedly not an outdoorsy sort, beyond writing he and Bank had something else in common.
“We both had cancer, so it was a bonding thing. I was 33, he was 22 when we had it. So we understood that,” said Bank. “He did describe Hodgkin’s as ‘cancer light,’ not that it came back, but the treatment used to treat the cancer later on did.”
Bank notes that though Rakoff described himself as “beloved by all, loved by none” he was never self-pitying.
“He had more friends than anyone,” she said. “We had Thanksgiving together every year and he was an incredible cook. He had a lot of fancy friends and at a certain point, he stopped inviting the real fancy people because it wasn’t as much fun. So a couple of his best friends would stop by after their family gatherings.”
Bank recalls her final Thanksgiving with Rakoff as a small, quiet affair that they both knew would be their last. Despite having lost the use of one of his arms, she adds that he still managed to create a lovely holiday meal.
Rakoff may have joked in his writing about not being particularly adept at romantic relationships, teaching at Stony Brook likely provided him with a strong sense of camaraderie.
“It’s hard to belong to anything as a writer, and it’s really great to have a sense of community,” said Bank. “I think David might have gotten something of that. I know I have.”
When asked if she believes Rakoff would like the idea of the new recording studio being named for him, she replied, “He would be shocked … but I think he’d be pleased. It’s hard to tell, he was such a modest person.”
Still, the appropriateness of such an honor cannot be denied.
“It’s an amazing thing to love somebody who leaves behind so much of themselves, especially his voice,” Bank said. “There’s something about the voice and his voice in particular. It’s like he lives on a little bit and that’s why the studio is such a great thing.”
In a recent interview at his office in Chancellor’s Hall, Robert Reeves, who founded the Stony Brook Southampton MFA in Creative Writing and Literature program in 2005, explained that the new Rakoff Studio will be a versatile teaching space offering things like the Writers Speak series and audio podcast production.
“We also want to present original work and gather resources to offer a Rakoff prize for a promising podcast, essay or monologue or a small performance or two person play,” said Reeves, who is now Associate Provost, Southampton Graduate Arts Campus. “As in everything we do, it’s training — not specifically a presenting space, but one that’s flexible and reflects how the lines between disciplines are blurring in the creative world.
“It will be organic,” he added. “We want to support original work. We have a lot of important artists in our literary, film and food lab programs. We want to get them in to record and give a good audio account. Artists are like small business owners. We want to uproot people with advanced training so they can accomplish what they want to accomplish.”
And in naming the new studio, Reeves notes that Rakoff ultimately represents the perfect artistic presence to represent the many disciplines it hopes to encompass.
“He was a podcaster, an actor, and an amazing literary presence, so that’s what we want for the space.
“We really miss him … I’m sure he would’ve been pleased that people cared.”
“A Tribute to David Rakoff with ‘Selected Shorts’” will take place on Saturday, November 9, from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at the Avram Family Theater on the Stony Brook Southampton campus. General admission is $30 ($15 students). Limited VIP tickets are $250 which includes a 5:30 p.m. cocktail reception with Ira Glass in the Rakoff Studio prior to the event. For information visit stonybrook.edu/southampton/.