By Alex Distefano
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Seth Herzog is a pack rat. The 32-year-old comedian, known to his friends as "the Zog," lives by himself in a jam-packed 12.5-by-5-foot studio on the fifth floor of the Breslin, a building now enjoying its third century in the middle of Manhattan's Koreatown.
Despite the illusion of utter chaos, and the musty odora compound of male pheromones and aging newsprintthat rises in his trapezoidal space, Herzog is basically an orderly guy. Neat piles of clean towels are stacked in the closet (his suite has a sink, and the shared bathroom is down the hall), and a plastic bag of discarded paper hangs on the doorknob, heading for the recycling bin.
The biggest decorating hurdle Herzog faces is that his apartment is also his office, and local print mediathe New York Post, the Voice, New York magazineare prime fodder for his act, so he cohabits with heaps of back issues. ("I have to write all new stuff for every show, and it has to be good," he says.) In the closet are lots of costumes, including a huge green disc sled he bought to use as a turtle outfit. Scattered everywhere are stuffed animals, all of them either gifts or found on the street (he runs them through the washer). Over the door is an electronic spider. On a high shelf, next to the shoeboxes full of photographs he says are his most precious possessions, is a pirate hat he recently wore in a Purim skit. He's actually planning to get more shelves, when he figures out what to do with the stuff they'd displace.
Thankfully, his ceilings are nine feet high. Over the saggy, earth-tone plaid sofa there's a loft platform just big enough for a single-bed mattress and the beige Princess phone he carries up at night, so he doesn't have to rappel down furniture and boxes if it rings. Over the sink is the "medicine cabinet"a freebie insulated Microsoft lunch bag, hanging from a shelf. Next to it, a stack of gray milk crates holds clothing. There's a broken toaster and a toaster oven that works, and an assortment of wigs. Still wrapped in florist's paper is a huge sprig of cotton bolls. Piled where a coffee table might go are a small wood-grain-finish fridge, a laptop computer, a TV, and a VCR. Facing an air shaft is a single window, which he hasn't been able to open since he had the air conditioner installed. There's a sprinkler head in the center of the ceiling; he might survive a fire, only to be squashed to death by sodden, swelling newsprint.
"The Zog" in his sleeping loft
photo: Cary Conover
A nook under the loft provides file space for his carefully organized stack of takeout menus, sorted by cuisine, and a drift of paper napkins, as well as a small boombox. On the floor beside the sofa is a plastic carafe filled with both real and fake flowers. A microwave oven is still in its box"It works better as a shelf," says Herzog. The dresser that holds his socks and underwear serves as a platform for a couple of disposable cameras, bowls of neatly sorted coins, and a family of tiny figurines, as well as a huge green comb and a whisk. The room, he thinks, used to be a janitor's closet, and when he got it nine years ago, it was home to a friend who'd shared it with a girlfriend before moving to Prague. Herzog's had the occasional date come up, and even managed to get busy in the loft without breaking anything, but, he says, "professional women are not looking for a guy who lives like this. They want a guy who has a loft in Tribeca."
He's not crazy about his situation, though he jokes about it: "There's another way?" If he could go out and change it, he says, "rent a $4,000-a-month apartment," he would. But he succeeds at something that defeats most New Yorkers: He lives within his means. His housing costscurrently barely $400 a month, including utilitiesare less than a quarter of what he earns as a denizen of the alternative comedy circuit, doing stand-up and physical comedy at underground venues like Chetty Red's, Rififi, the Slipper Room, and the Red Room. Some weeks he appears in as many as four shows. He's also been featured in 10 commercials, on Conan, and in a pilot for Fox.
Director Toby Miller, who met Herzog when both were first-graders in Princeton, New Jersey ("We started going to thrift shops together in the ninth grade," says the comedian), and cinematographer William Doble last year completed a 13-minute color documentary, Zog's Place, about this domicile. It's won several prizes, and screened last weekend at a Hoboken festival. (You can view the trailer and keep up with the flick's progress in the indie world at zogsplace.com.) The film could help Herzog prepare new friends for what they'll find when he opens his door.