David Carr: From Crackhead to Potato Head

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This morning on the subway I started reading The Night of the Gun, the gripping new drug memoir by New York Times reporter David Carr. It’s filled with great, memorable lines. Almost right away, this sentence on page 22 stopped me cold:

“Far from clinically handsome, I have a face that looks like it could have been carved out of mashed potatoes, and my idea of exercise was running the length of my body.”

Nice imagery! Carr can totally turn a phrase. But it sounded familiar… a face like potatoes. Where had I heard that line before? I felt certain I’d read it somewhere else recently, and so I went online to investigate.
Within seconds, I’d found it: In a July 7, 2008 article in the New York Times—by David Carr!

In a column about how Fox News had been presenting distorted images of New York Times reporters, Carr contemplated how his own face might fall victim to the Fox Photoshopping menace:

“….with a face made out of potatoes, the Photoshopped picture will have to go a long way to make me any uglier than I actually am.”

But wait, there’s more!

On June 16, 2008—just two weeks before the Fox News piece—the phrase turned up in another David Carr column, when he described the late NBC News correspondent Tim Russert this way:

“He had a face that seemed to be carved out of potatoes, but he worked on television by working harder than your average talking head…”

And three months before that—in the Times’ “Talk to the Newsroom” web feature that showcases interviews with New York Times reporters and editors—Carr answered a question about his television background with this now-familiar-sounding assessment of his looks:

“With a face that looks as if it were crafted out of mashed potatoes and a voice that sounds like a trash compactor that needs oil, I’m not a natural for television…”

Carr’s compulsion to characterize human faces as spud-like isn’t limited to himself and Russert—whose name, after all, might at least suggest such a comparison. Consider this description of debonair movie star Daniel Craig from Carr’s “Carpetbagger” blog on the New York Times website, from November 16, 2006:

“To the Bagger’s eye, [Craig] has a face made out of potatoes—although the rest of him seems to be made out of titanium…”

To be fair, sometimes Carr takes the metaphor in unexpected directions. For example, in the March 23, 2006 edition of the Times, Carr had this to say about actor Steve Buscemi’s resemblance to his favorite starch:

“Directors tend to focus on Mr. Buscemi’s visage, shooting his face so it looks something like what might happen to a bowl of mashed potatoes if it were sculptured [sic] by an ax.”

But in the end, Carr comes back to his stock phrase and its studied simplicity, much the way the rest of us return, with regularity, to a favored meal of meat and—let’s say—potatoes. Consider this comforting reference to NYPD Blue actor Dennis Franz from a David Carr profile of the former Detective Sipowicz on March 1, 2005:

“And Detective Sipowicz, with a face that looks as if it were carved out of potatoes and the body style of a greeter at Home Depot, was an unlikely hero.”

Lest one think that Carr limits this literary device to men with lumpy faces or craggy complexions, it’s worth noting this citation from a Carr profile of the square-jawed, white-haired author Joe McGinniss, published on July 28, 2004:

“[McGinniss] had an old cap set against the Sunday morning sun, a handsome Irish face that could have been carved out of potatoes, and a glint of tragedy in his eyes.”

Or was it just a glint of butter and a side of sour cream?

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