This is not about the Joel Siegel you knew from TV, or that his New York friends knew. This is about the Joel Siegel that I knew: the pre-moustache Joel.
He walked into my office at the UCLA Daily Bruin early in my sophomore year, when I was editing what would now be called the op-ed pages of the student paper. I was looking for columnists, he was looking for a column. He had been, I found out, a prominent and controversial figure on the campus of Hamilton High School, and he wanted to continue in that tradition: he called his column "The Iconoclast". One icon he went after with particular gusto was the then-Dean of Students, Adolph (Dean) Brugger. Time has obliterated any memory of what the issue was between them, but there was a memorable confrontation in one of the corridors of Kerckhoff Hall, the neo Gothic building that housed the newspaper's offices. There was, I recall, a demand to ax Joel's column. I'd like to think I resisted that demand, but the old bound copies that would prove or disprove that boast are in some storage building somewhere, so I'll just bask in my preferred recollection.
Both commuter students, we spent hours together (usually at Joel's house) after the campus day ended. Long before Trivial Pursuit became a zillion-dollar enterprise, Joel and I would spend hours quizzing each other on the minutest details of popular culture. Each of us thought we were the king of such mental garbage, and the competition was fierce. But always fun.
Joel, my age-mate and similar to me in many ways, was something I never was: a joiner. So he signed up with a campus organization, mainly comprised of frat members, the Kelps, whose mandate loosely rendered was to screw around. He got years worth of laughs out of his stories of Kelps trips to Tijuana.
At the end of my sophomore year, I went for a summer to write advertising at Young & Rubicam in New York. It was such a ridiculously enjoyable adventure that I returned the next year, and brought Joel along. That second summer was the end of my dalliance with the ad biz, and it was the beginning of Joel's -- shortly after graduation, he got what became a five-year gig with the LA agency Carson/Roberts, and our conversations now centered on brainstorming ideas for new Baskin-Robbins flavor names.
One day while I was living in Silver Lake (a community near downtown Los Angeles, beautiful but for the smog), Joel called with a proposition: he'd found a gorgeous little cottage on the other side of town -- would I want to share it? We were housemates for a couple of momentous years in a popular culture no longer so trivial. We celebrated together the night that Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek a second term, his hangdog image flickering in our living room as we raised what we thought was a victory toast. Then there was a June night the same year. While I was about to enter the world of political satire, Joel had entered the world of politics. So he was calling me from the Ambassador Hotel, where Bobby Kennedy was celebrating his victory in the California primary, while I watched the festivities from that same living room. You know what happened next.
Within a couple of years, Joel had moved to Laurel Canyon, beginning his long march East, and I had a weekly radio show. I had him on as a guest to do a jokey hot dog taste test, and then when my comedy cohorts in the Credibility Gap got some shows on another local station, Joel got to know the station's manager. Thus began his second, enduring career, in broadcasting. He did comedically tinged news on that station for several years before television, and New York, beckoned.
So I helped get him two jobs, he helped get me my home. And he lent me his production-music records, which I kept promising to dub and return.
Joel was funny and smart. He was a history major and a history buff. Perennially fighting a weight problem, his humor was frequently self-deprecating, maybe even self-hating, but, if so, he was the only one who felt that way about him. Time and distance separated us, but he kept me current on his long, agonizing struggle. Even so, it startles me to see his name on the obit page.
Life, John F. Kennedy kept trying to remind us, is not fair.