NEW YORK — Jeff Daniels tackles his life and career in an absorbing, unconventional way this month with a music- and skit-filled audio memoir from Audible that he calls “a little bit like a one-man musical.”
In the 12-episode season of “Alive and Well Enough,” the actor, musician and playwright explores his influences and opinions, offering thoughts on everything from fedoras to folk star Arlo Guthrie.
“Over the course of these episodic excursions, I’m going to let you peek under my hood. Frankly, I want to know what’s under there, too,” he says in the first episode.
We learn that writer Aaron Sorkin gave Daniels a chance at career rebirth with “The Newsroom,” we hear Daniels’ curtain speech on Broadway after his run ended in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and about the time he played golf with Clint Eastwood.
The Eastwood story leads to a fantasy sequence in which Daniels dreams up an Oscars telecast punctuated by a stream of all the actors shot on film by Eastwood, and then he sings the song “Dirty Harry Blues,” with the lyrics: “Well, if I had to guess/Off the top of my head/When all’s said and done/One of us is gonna be dead.”
Daniels, who has performed close to 600 small gigs with his guitar, was never interested in linear storytelling, preferring instead to use his songs to wrap stories around.
“I said, ‘Don’t expect Chapter One to be the day I was born and then move through my teen years and all that.’ I’m going to jump all over the place, which is kind of like a set list,” the multiple Emmy-winner said in an interview. “It just became this kind of perfect platform to kind of do all the things I do.”
Highlights include a song about a crazed Canadian pedestrian who Daniels almost hit with his car one day in Toronto — “Your eyes were wild/Your teeth were bared/Anatomical references filled the air” — and a story about his family renting an 28-foot RV and neglectfully leaving his wife behind at a truck stop.
There's an unpredictability to each episode and that's intentional. Daniels said he wanted to mix it up to keep listeners' attention.
“I know where I’m going. I just don’t know how I’m going to get there. And on the way there, I give myself the freedom as a writer to kind of explore and go down a side street.”
Episode Three opens surreally with Daniels being interviewed by Harry Dune, his clueless character in the movie “Dumb and Dumber.” Daniels, of course, also voices Dune, who wants to know what state Michigan is in, if an IQ of 8 is “good” and who stuffs a dangerous amount of Twinkies in his mouth at one time.
Daniels in the third episode recalls revering Al Kaline, who played right field for the Detroit Tigers and made everything look easy. “Effortless takes a lot of work,” notes Daniels, who then talks about integrity and honor and then performs his song about Kaline. (Fun fact, Daniels' handwritten lyrics are now in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.)
“If you can write funny and make them laugh, then you slip in the one about Al Kaline or something like that, they feel the ones that are more serious a little bit more if you loosen them up a little bit," he tells the AP. "It’s just set-list dynamics.”
Daniels, a proud Midwesterner, cut his stage teeth in New York City's now-defunct off-Broadway Circle Repertory Theater company. He created The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Michigan and has earned Tony Award nominations for each of the last three plays he's performed: “God of Carnage,” “Blackbird” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The series has a funny story about how Ryan Reynolds inspired the song “How ’Bout We Take Our Pants Off and Relax?,” audio of Daniels performing three characters from his play "Escanaba in da Moonlight” and him thinking out loud whether Jesus was a stoner. He celebrates New York City as a place where innocence gets lost quickly.
“If you want a crash course in how to accept others for who they are, New York City is as good a place as any for that kind of transformation,” the 68-year-old performer says in “Alive and Well Enough.”
Daniels' son, Ben, produced the audio memoir and said he got to learn a lot about his old man, like the stories of him in New York as a struggling actor.
“I got to hear some things that I just never heard before and look up the places or look up the people he’s talking about,” said Ben Daniels. “It was a pretty cool editing process to take me on a little journey myself.”
Each episode — which took about three days to write, rewrite and record, all by the father-and-son team — is between 20-30 minutes. A second series is already in the cards.
Jeff Daniels hopes listeners take away the lesson that anyone can be more than one thing. When he went out on the road to play his songs, he was sometimes told by musicians to stay in his lane. He rejects that.
“You can do more than one thing,” he said in the interview. “My argument is it all comes from the same place. It’s just the craft is different for writing a play versus writing a song versus acting a role in a show. It still comes from that same place of imagining,”