David Rakoff at the 2006 Texas Book Festival
|Born||David Benjamin Rakoff|
November 27, 1964
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
|Died||August 9, 2012 (aged 47)|
New York City, U.S.
|Alma mater||Columbia University|
|Relatives||Simon Rakoff (brother)|
David Benjamin Rakoff (November 27, 1964 – August 9, 2012) was a Canadian-born American writer based in New York City, who was noted for his humorous and sometimes autobiographical non-fiction essays. Rakoff was an essayist, journalist, and actor, and a regular contributor to WBEZ's This American Life. Rakoff described himself as a "New York writer" who also happened to be a "Canadian writer", a "mega Jewish writer", a "gay writer", and an "East Asian Studies major who has forgotten most of his Japanese" writer.
- 1 Early life and education
- 2 Writing
- 3 Acting and voice work
- 4 Personal life
- 5 References
- 6 External links
Early life and education
David Rakoff was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the youngest of three children. His brother, the comedian Simon Rakoff, is four years older than David. Their sister, Ruth Rakoff, author of the cancer memoir When My World Was Very Small, is the middle child. Rakoff has said that he and his siblings were close as children. Rakoff's mother, Gina Shochat-Rakoff, is a doctor who has practised psychotherapy and his father, Vivian Rakoff, is a psychiatrist. Rakoff has written that almost every generation of his family fled from one place to another. Rakoff's grandparents, who were Jewish, fled Latvia and Lithuania at the turn of the 20th century and settled in South Africa. The Rakoff family left South Africa in 1961, for political reasons, and moved to Montreal for seven years. In 1967, when he was three, Rakoff's family relocated to Toronto. As an adult, he said that he identified as Jewish.
Rakoff attended high school at the Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, and graduated in 1982. That year, he moved to New York City to attend Columbia University, where he majored in East Asian Studies and studied dance. Rakoff spent his third year of college at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and graduated in 1986. He worked in Japan as a translator with a fine arts publisher. His work was interrupted after four months when, at age 22, he became ill with Hodgkin's disease, a form of lymphatic cancer which he has referred to as "a touch of cancer". He returned to Toronto for 18 months of treatment, including chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.
Before becoming a full-time writer, Rakoff worked for 13 years in the publishing industry, including as a publishing assistant and a publicist. He worked at a literary agency for 3 years and then as an editor and communications manager for HarperCollins, where he worked for 9 years. For a period starting when he was 25, Rakoff wrote as a freelance while working in the publishing industry. Eventually he was able to earn a living from his writing, becoming a full-time writer in 1998. While Rakoff was working in publishing, he wrote Q and A interviews entitled "The Way We Live Now", which appeared in The New York Times Magazine from 1999 to 2002.
Role of David Sedaris and Ira Glass in Rakoff's career
Rakoff said that he owed David Sedaris and Sedaris' producer, Ira Glass, his entire career. Rakoff wrote to Sedaris in 1992, after hearing him read on the radio his essay, Santaland Diaries, about being a Christmas elf, which was to make him famous. That day, Rakoff wrote to Sedaris immediately to ask if he could publish Sedaris' works (which he later confessed he had no intention of doing, since he was desperate to leave publishing). They became friends, with Rakoff doing work in the theatre with Sedaris, first directing a play written by Sedaris and his sister Amy Sedaris, and later acting in their plays. Through Sedaris, Rakoff met Ira Glass, who was then a junior reporter on the NPR radio program Morning Edition. When Glass began This American Life, Rakoff became involved with the new show at its inception. Sedaris encouraged Rakoff to go on public radio, where Sedaris himself had achieved fame: at his urging Rakoff took work to This American Life, starting with "Christmas Freud", an account of Rakoff's job impersonating Sigmund Freud in the window of Barneys department store during the holidays.
Rakoff was a prolific freelance writer and a regular contributor to Conde Nast Traveler, GQ, Outside Magazine and The New York Times Magazine. His writing also appeared in Business 2.0, Details, Harper's Bazaar, Nerve, New York Magazine, Salon, Seed, Slate, Spin, The New York Observer, Vogue, Wired and other publications. He wrote on a wide and eclectic range of topics.
Published books of essays
Rakoff published three bestselling collections of essays, which include his own illustrations. Both Fraud (Doubleday 2001) and Don't Get Too Comfortable (Doubleday 2005) were awarded a Lambda literary award (which recognises excellence among LGBT writers who use their work to explore LGBT lives), both times in the "Humor" category. Half-Empty (2010) won the 2011 Thurber Prize for American Humor.
Fraud includes essays that are largely autobiographical and humorous. Rakoff stated, in relation to the theme of the book, "The central drama of my life is about being a fraud, alas." He went on to say "That's a complete lie, really; the central drama of my life is about being lonely, and staying thin, but fraudulence gets a fair amount of play." He has said that he thought of other titles for Fraud, like "Smart mouth" and "The jig is up". Rakoff described the first-person essays that comprise the collection as more inwardly focused than his later work. The work contains material from public radio's This American Life and from Outside and Salon, which was significantly lengthened and re-written, as well as a few new pieces.
The book received praise from many critics, garnering near-unanimous acclaim. In a review Publishers Weekly wrote that "a talented new humorist springs onto the scene: Rakoff has a rapier wit, slashing in all directions with slice-of-life insights and cutting remarks, sometimes nicking himself with self-deprecation in his dexterous duel with the American experience." Kevin Cowherd said that in the book, Rakoff "makes a strong bid for the title of Most Neurotic Man on the Planet, and the results are absolutely hilarious – when they're not achingly revealing and tinged with sadness." Max Magee called the collection a "meta-article in which he talks about the particulars and relative merits of his assignment as he embarks on that assignment" and that "the reader feels invited in for a behind the scenes look at what it is like to be a disaffected, overly-qualified, under-ambitious journalist as he takes on his fluffy assignments." David Bahr calls Fraud "witty, insightful and typically bittersweet."
Other reviews of the book and audio-book were mixed. The reviewer in The New York Times mentioned (by way of criticism) that Sophocles and Freud had pursued the same idea that forms the book's focus, that is, that we are defined by our fears. Greil Marcus said Rakoff's stories are not as funny as those he read on the radio.
Don't Get Too Comfortable
Don't Get Too Comfortable, which is subtitled "The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems" was published in 2005 and also consists of comical autobiographical essays. Some of the essays were originally published in shorter form elsewhere and some original. The over-riding theme of the articles is the absurdity and excessiveness in American life: the book is about luxuries and privileges being treated as deserved rights. Rakoff said that the moral of the book is that there should be "a little more guilt out there" and "we could all, myself included, count our blessings, acknowledge our privileges." The book was generally praised by critics. The New York Times said, "Rarely have greed, vanity, selfishness, and vapidity been so mercilessly and wittily portrayed". Emily Gordon says that in his "bursts of pure enthusiasm, he's a delectable Cole Porter, Nicholson Baker and Sarah Vowell smoothie". However, Rakoff was criticised in the Washington Post for misusing the word "like", with the reviewer suggesting that Rakoff's prose could use tightening. In The New York Times, Jennifer 8. Lee said the book was "no more than a collection of vaguely related magazine pieces" rather than "a coherent seriocomic manifesto", that some essays were off-theme, and not about narcissism and excess.
A third book of essays, Half Empty was published in September 2010. Rakoff said the book is "essentially about pessimism and melancholy: all the other less than pleasant to feel emotions that because they are less than pleasant to feel have been more or less stricken from the public discourse but in fact have their uses and even a certain beauty to them". The book won the 2011 Thurber Prize for American Humor.
Contributions to anthologies
Rakoff contributed essays to the following anthologies of non-fiction published by other writers:
- "My first New York" in My First New York: Early Adventures in the Big City (As Remembered by Actors, Artists, Athletes, Chefs, Comedians, Filmmakers, Mayors, Models, Moguls, Porn Stars, Rockers, Writers, and Others) (2010) (edited by New York Magazine) (2008) (See extract here )
- "Utah" in State by State: a panoramic portrait of America (2008) (edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey) (See extract here )
- "Streets of sorrow" in The Best American Travel Writing 2007 (2007) (edited by Susan Orlean) (See extract here )
- "Love it or Leave it" in The Best American Non-required Reading 2006 (2006) (edited by Dave Eggers) (See extract here )
- "Barbra's farewell: A city Verklempt" in Da Capo Best Music Writing 2001 (edited by Nick Hornby and Ben Schafer) (See original article here )
- "My sister of perpetual mercy" in A Member of the Family: gay men write about their families (1992) (edited by John Preston)
- "Christmas Freud" in The Dreaded Feast: writers on enduring the holidays (2009) (edited by Michele Clarke and Taylor Plimpton)
- The Autobiographer's Handbook: The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir (edited by Jennifer Traig and Dave Eggers)
Rakoff contributed fiction pieces to the following anthologies:
- "Sagrada family" in Men on men 5: best new gay fiction (1994) (edited by David Bergman)
- Interview as a child prodigy in The infant mind transcript/The infinite mind (published by Lichtenstein Creative Media).
On July 16, 2013, Rakoff's novel in verse "Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel" was published by Doubleday. However, shortly before his death he recorded it as an audio-book with the help of Ira Glass in the studio of This American Life
Rakoff was a regular contributor to the radio program This American Life on Public Radio International, in which each week writers and performers contribute pieces (some documentary, some fiction) on a chosen topic, usually in the first person. The first was "Christmas Freud", an account of Rakoff's impersonating Sigmund Freud in the window of Barneys department store during the holidays. The piece appears in Fraud, his first collection published in 2001. He says that This American Life let him have his own take on things and break the bounds of just being a journalist. Most of his radio performances were recorded in the studio, but some were performed live. Rakoff was the first person to host a This American Life episode in place of Ira Glass (the episode being "Like It Or Not"), followed only by Nancy Updike. He appeared in This American Life: Live! (2008) but was cut from 2009 version (the video with Dave Hill is available on the internet. Rakoff was featured on This American Life's live broadcast, "Invisible Made Visible" on May 10, 2012, from the Skirball Theater, NYU.. He returned to the Canadian airwaves with his regular appearances on CBC Radio's Talking Books, hosted by Ian Brown. After that, Rakoff was also frequently heard on the CBC radio program WireTap. The August 17, 2012 episode of This American Life, titled "Our Friend David," was dedicated entirely to his essays on the program.
Rakoff adapted the screenplay for the Academy Award winning short film The New Tenants, originally written by Anders Thomas Jensen. The director Joachim Back described Rakoff's role as having "helped me with the dialogue" and having "collaborated a lot on the dialogue". He also appears in the film. The film won the 2010 Oscar for best live action short film. Rakoff sold what he called a "meta screenplay", written with Dave Hill, based on a fictitious tour to publicize the book Don't Get Too Comfortable. In a short film based on the same story, Rakoff played a high-maintenance author opposite Dave Hill's patient, accommodating publicist.
Acting and voice work
Rakoff said that his first career choice was to be an actor: he wrote, "like generations of other misfits before me, be they morphological, sexual or otherwise, I decided that I would make theatre my refuge". Rakoff performed in the theatre at university and acted while working full-time in the publishing industry and later while freelancing as a writer. For instance, he performed at the first US Comedy Arts Festival in 1995 in a play written by a friend. He has said that he likes acting because it involves other people, unlike writing. However, his self-assessment of his acting ability was "as it turns out, I'm a deeply uncompelling camera presence".
Despite his ambitions as a child, he said that he only pursued acting half-heartedly, partly because his family was against him being an actor and partly because of the stereotyping that unimaginative casting agents engage in. Rakoff has characterised most of the roles that he auditioned for as "Fudgy McPacker" or "Jewy McHebrew" (to which he later added "Classy McSophisticate"). Fudgy McPacker is a stereotypically gay character, who is either supercilious or the loveable queen and Jewy McHebrew is the prototypical Jewish part, involving a careworn, inquiring, furrowed browed, bookish type. Rakoff said that he has continued with his theatre work, since such acting stereotypes are not so prevalent in stage work, because audiences are more sophisticated, and there is not as much money at stake, meaning that there is not such risk-averse casting. He has also noted that, as a writer, being gay and being Jewish does not limit his readership or the subjects he can write about in the way it limits his acting roles.
Rakoff appeared in several films, although he noted that almost invariably his part is left on the cutting room floor: "I've been cut out of some very august projects." For instance, he worked on The First Wives' Club (1996), but his scenes were deleted in favour of Bronson Pinchot's. Rakoff's first major film role was in A cloud in trousers, a short film by Gregg Bordowitz (1995) which appeared on public television, with Rakoff playing Vladimir Mayakovsky on whose poetry the film was based. His subsequent film appearances include performances as a librarian in Cheryl Dunyé's film The Watermelon Woman (1996), an appearance by the back of his head as Ben Baron, who is dismissive to Harper Lee, in Bennett Miller's Capote (2005), a non-speaking role as Boswell in Paul Dinello's Strangers with Candy (2005) (which was co-written by Amy Sedaris), and roles as a publishing boss in Bad Bosses Go to Hell (1997) and as a duplicitous director in Alison MacLean's film Intolerable.
Rakoff can be seen in the Academy Award winning short film The New Tenants (2009). In the film he plays Frank, half of a gay couple who move into an apartment that was vacated unexpectedly. The film begins with Rakoff delivering a bitter, humorous but pessimistic monologue on life and death. Rakoff also adapted the screenplay for the film.
Rakoff appeared as himself in the documentary Florent: Queen of the Meat Market (2009) about a local restaurant and in a film about the book State by State (2008), in which one of his essays is published.
Rakoff appeared as modelling agent Rich Tuchman in As the World Turns, a television soap opera. He wrote about that experience in the essay "Lather, Rinse, Repeat", published in the collection Fraud. He also appeared as Todd in Cosby (1996–2000) and as Frank in the TV show Snake 'n' Bacon (2009).
Rakoff acted in the theater, including off-Broadway, notably in plays written by The Talent Family (David and Amy Sedaris). Those plays included the Obie award-winning One Woman Shoe 1995), in relation to which a critic writing in Newsday said that Rakoff "exuded quirky appeal", The New York Times said both that Rakoff was "hilarious" and that he delivered "a droll, impeccably sustained performance providing the necessary anchor". Rakoff also appeared in the Sedaris's The Little Freida Mysteries at La Mama (1997), of which The New York Times said Rakoff was part of a "deft ensemble", and which received a good review in Newsday. and in The Book of Liz (2001), in which he played various characters, including Nathaniel Brightbee, a member of a crypto-Amish order called "The Squeamish", who takes over Amy Sedaris's cheese ball operation. His performances were highly regarded by some critics. Rakoff portrayed Lance Loud on stage and appeared in other plays including "David & Jodi & David and Jackie", inspired by the 1960s classic Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, alongside Jackie Hoffman, David Ilku and Jodi Lennon and "The Cartells". He also delivered a monologue about being fired in the stage show Fired!.
The Canadian-born Rakoff voiced the part of the US President Thomas Jefferson for the audio book of Jon Stewart's America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction and provided the voice of Polish-American Leon Czolgosz (the assassin of US President William McKinley) in the audio book version of Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation.
Rakoff was in the voice cast of the 2009 Williams Street animated pilot Snake 'n' Bacon. Based on the creations of American cartoonist and illustrator Michael Kupperman, it aired on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim channel.
In 1994, Rakoff directed Stitches, by David and Amy Sedaris. His direction was described as "clearly focused" by The New York Times and "brisk" by Newsday. He also directed Jail Babes starring The Duelling Bankheads (David Ilku and Clark Render) at La Mama, E.T.C. in 1996, and Mike Albo's one-man show, Spray, at P.S. 122 in New York City.
Green card and citizenship
From 1982, Rakoff lived in the United States (minus his four-month stay in Japan in 1986), first as a student, then as a resident alien. In the early 1990s he was issued a green card, a subject about which he wrote in one of his early newspaper articles. After living in the United States for 21 years, Rakoff was motivated by a desire to participate in the political process and applied for U.S. citizenship. Rakoff chronicled the experience of becoming an American citizen in an essay published in Don't Get Too Comfortable. He became a U.S. citizen in 2003, while at the same time retaining his Canadian citizenship.
Illness and death
In 2010, while writing the book Half Empty, Rakoff was diagnosed with a malignant tumor and Hodgkin's lymphoma, and later developed a post-radiation sarcoma behind his left collarbone and began chemotherapy. He died in Manhattan on August 9, 2012.
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- Hamson, Sarah. "David Rakoff: Canada's Big Apple Peeler". Globe and Mail, October 22, 2005. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
- Rakoff, David, "My sister of perpetual mercy" in A member of the family: gay men write about their families (1992) (edited by John Preston)
- "Luxuries are getting the better of us", canadaeast.com –TT Life, October 27, 2005. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
- Rakoff, David, "About men: extraordinary alien", The New York Times, October 9, 1994. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
- Zimmer, Elizabeth, "The hungry eye", The Australian, August 16, 2008. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
- Rakoff, David, "About men: extraordinary alien", The New York Times, October 9, 1994. Retrieved January 20, 2010. See also Walters, Juliet, "Just for Laughs: just for lunch: writer David Rakoff on Schwartz's, ethics, and comedy" Archived October 14, 2008, at the Wayback Machine., Montreal Mirror, 2007. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
- NPR Interview with Terry Gross, May 14, 2001. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
- This American Life, Episode 208: "Office Politics; Act Two: Sheet cakes in the conference room, whiskey after dark", March 15, 2002. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
- "Publishers Stormin' Norman for rights to his memoirs", Miami Herald May 11, 1991. Retrieved March 10, 2010.
- See for example, "The Way We Live Now: 3-17-02: Questions for Barry Manilow; Hip to Be Square", The New York Times, March 17, 2002. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
- Interview with Megan Sukys and Dave Beck on kuow.org Archived June 11, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
- Terzian, Peter "Talking with David Rakoff", Newsday May 13, 2001. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
- Dowling, Brendan, "The limits of my paltry imagination"[permanent dead link], Public Librarians May/June 2008. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
- Salazar-Rubio, Sofia, "Author David Rakoff on the Charmed Life of a Writer", The Daily Californian, February 2, 2008. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
- The piece appears in Fraud, his first collection published in 2001. (October 27, 2005).
- Lambda Awards home page Archived February 4, 2010, at the Wayback Machine..
- Rakoff, David, "In New England, Everyone Calls You Dave" in Fraud: essays (2001), p 17.
- Richards, Linda, "David Rakoff", January Magazine, November, 2001. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
- Seven of the stories ("In New England Everyone Calls You Dave", "Arise, Ye Wretched of the Earth", "Before & After Science", "Hidden People", "Christmas Freud", "We Call it Australia" and "I Used to Bank Here, but That Was Long, Long Ago") first appeared on Public Radio International's This American Life, "Including One Called Hell" and "The Best Medicine" first appeared in GQ, "Extraordinary Alien" appeared in The New York Times Magazine, "Back to the Garden" in Outside and "Tokyo Story" in Conde Nast Traveler.
- Extract from Publishers Weekly review.
- Cowherd, Kevin, "Rakoff's essays could win him the title of Most Neurotic Man on the Planet, The Baltimore Sun, May 26, 2001.
- Magee, Max, "Fraud: review", themillions.com, May 10, 2005. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
- Bahr, David, "The great indoors man", The Advocate, July 3, 2001. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
- Spineless review Archived January 19, 2010, at the Wayback Machine..
- Review of audio book of Fraud.
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- Marcus, Greil, "Review: Fraud" Archived August 30, 2008, at the Wayback Machine., Salon, August 20, 2001. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
- "Sesion Privada" was published in Details, "Wildman" in Seed, "As It Is in Heaven," "Beat Me, Daddy," "Whatsizface" and "Off We're Gonna Shuffle" in GQ; "JDV, MIA, "Martha, My Dear" and "Faster" on This American Life and "I Can't Get It For You Wholesale" in Harper's Bazaar.
- See, for example, "Review by Kevin Clark", "readings"; "Book review: Don't get Too Comfortable", Llliterarty. Com; "Biblioaddict review of 'Don't Get Too Comfortable'", April 18, 2007; "Review of 'Don't Get Too Comfortable" Archived April 10, 2009, at the Wayback Machine., CTV.ca website, October 7, 2005. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
- Gordon, Emily, "Living in a material world", Newsday, September 18, 2005.
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- "Excerpted From 'My First New York,' Nora Ephron, Ashley Dupré, and Others Share Their Early Days - New York Magazine". Nymag.com. March 29, 2010. Retrieved August 10, 2012.
- Yglesias, Matthew. "Utah and the Insane Optimism of Westward Expansion - Slate Magazine". Slate.com. Retrieved August 10, 2012.
- Rakoff, David (August 5, 2012). "Streets of Sorrow : News & Features : Condé Nast Traveler". Concierge.com. Retrieved August 10, 2012.
- "Excerpt: "Love It or Leave It" - Newsweek and The Daily Beast". Newsweek.com. January 19, 2008. Retrieved August 10, 2012.
-  Archived December 5, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
- "Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff | PenguinRandomHouse.com". knopfdoubleday.com. Retrieved March 12, 2017.
- "Our Friend David", anthology of Rakoff's radio stories for This American Life
- Silverman, Erin, "NPR radio entertainer reads selections of book"[permanent dead link], "Johns Hopkins Newsletter, 2003. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
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- "Law and Order: BFD".
- "472: Our Friend David". This American Life. August 17, 2012. Missing or empty
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- "Restaurant road test: BLT burger: Comedian Dave Hill bites into the beef" Archived February 11, 2009, at the Wayback Machine., psychPEDIA Retrieved January 20, 2010.
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- Rakoff, David, "The Best Medicine" in Fraud: essays (2001), p. 102.
- Leveridge, Brett, "David Rakoff: the author of 'Fraud' talks about being Gene Kelly, tiny, tiny writing and the boom in humorous essays" Archived February 14, 2011, at the Wayback Machine., Salon.com, June 11, 2001. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
- "Between the lines" Archived September 26, 2010, at the Wayback Machine., Outside Magazine, August, 1998. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
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- Rakoff, David"Lather, Rinse, Repeat" in Fraud: essays (2001), p 20.
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- "David Rakoff - About This Person - Movies & TV". The New York Times. January 18, 2007. Retrieved August 10, 2012.
- "The Music of Regret and Intolerable – Calendar – Walker Art Center". Calendar.walkerart.org. Archived from the original on September 27, 2011. Retrieved August 10, 2012.
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- "The Johns-Hopkins Newsletter"[permanent dead link], April 11, 2003. See also Rakoff, David, "If the starr report were a novel, work of history, subject of moral philosophy, psychiatric case study or soap opera, WHAT KIND OF FOOTPRINT WOULD IT LEAVE?".
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- Smith, Ethan, "In The Book of Liz: Sibling ribaldry", The Village Voice, March 27, 2001. Retrieved January 20, 2010. See also "Theatre Guide", The New York Times, April 6, 2001, and "Review: The courage to accept that life is a cheese ball", The New York Times, March 28, 2001 (January 20, 2010).
- Van Gelder, Lawrence, "Arts, Briefly", The New York Times, June 14, 2005. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
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- Minovitz, Ethan (August 11, 2012). "Essayist and journalist David Rakoff dies at 47". Big Cartoon News. Archived from the original on December 2, 2012. Retrieved August 11, 2012.
- Brantley, Ben, "Review/Theatre: Stitches; Of stardom and the tyranny of images", The New York Times, January 11, 1994. Retrieved January 20, 2010.
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- Interview on the Daily Show, October 14, 2010
- Rakoff. "David Rakoff in "This American Life: The Invisible Made Visible"". Retrieved August 19, 2012.
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