Written by Russell Hehn
Photo by Beau Gustafson
Max Rykov—bespectacled and gangly, a self-described “shrimpy, wimpy, Jewish dude”—makes his entrance to a hip-hop jam. He’s doing a sort of soft-shoe-routine-meets-
This is the inaugural showing of Conundrum, an NPR-style quiz show that pits three teams against one another in a battle of wits. It’s the newest incarnation of Rykov’s game show/panel discussion series, Are We There Yet? In two years Rykov has manned the helm of 21 productions around Birmingham. This is number 22.
Driven by a mission of “community development through entertainment, education, and advocacy,” Rykov has used each of his productions to raise thousands of dollars for deserving organizations, from the music education program Girls Rock Birmingham to the Jefferson County Public Defender’s Community Law Office. Now he’s trying to make Are We There Yet? a viable business. “I want to create jobs for people,” says Rykov, sincere and excited. “To get it on TV. That kind of industry doesn’t exist here yet. I think it’s something that’s viable as an artistic economic industry. Videographers, sponsors giving money, employing writers, set designers…”
I ask him how he hopes to accomplish this.
“I think being moderately likeable helps.”
There are performers who turn “it” on when they get on stage. Peter Sellers, for instance, was notoriously boring when the cameras were off. Said Sellers, “When I look at myself, I just see a person who strangely lacks what I consider to be the ingredients for a personality.”
That’s not Rykov.
We met at Urban Standard at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday. Lots of people were coming in, grabbing coffee, saying hello to Rykov, heading out. People on the sidewalk approached the window to wave at their pal, Rykov. Some came in just to say hello. They were beaming, all with big smiles and saying things to him particular to their relationship—not like with normal acquaintances. You know, when you see somebody you sort-of know and say something vague and impersonal like, “How’s it goin’?” These interactions were more than niceties; they were part of a larger, more meaningful conversation. Somehow, Rykov makes people feel like they’re a part of something. When they left, he flashed them peace signs and that orange-wedge grin.
What’s striking is how he treats everything and everyone with equal reverence. Acquaintances are treated like old friends. Idle conversation is peppered with jokes and dramatic flourishes. He talks about the Crimson Tide with the same veneration he has for his Hasidic mentors. He’s as intellectually enflamed about Russian sketch comedy as he is about golf clubs.
It’s no wonder, then, that his vast experiences—especially vast for a 26-year-old—and his inability to take things lightly have shaped him into the person who, every month, volunteers himself for the logistical nightmare of organizing an off-the-cuff game show.
I could go on for pages about Rykov and all the experiences he’s had that have led him to where he is. I could tell you about how he’s the son of political refugees from Uzbekistan, how his mother built up the Russian-speaking community in Birmingham from nothing, how his photographer father has documented every performance and every game Rykov has participated in, how Rykov staged a high-school production of Eugène Ionesco’s French absurdist play, The Bald Soprano, which exposes, according to the critics, “the futility of meaningful communication in modern society,” and how the absence of his native culture may play some part in Rykov trying to build one himself.
I could tell you about his early days at the Jewish Day School, learning the traditions and tales of his maternal Jewish heritage, his reverence of Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, how at 8 years old he read about circumcision in the Torah and very nearly volunteered himself for the procedure, how he later went to Indian Springs School and found a diverse and nurturing cohort of classmates and instructors who broadened his mind and introduced him to a more serious and devout study of religious tradition, including Adidam and “crazy wisdom,” how that brought him to Alabama, where he majored in religious studies in human development, and how he moved to Lake County, California, where he lived and taught at the Mountain of Attention Sanctuary “in this blessed place where the air is thick, full of love,” how his mentor was the brother of the real-life basis for Jerry McGuire, and how he pursued a career in standup comedy by night while teaching religious studies classes by day.
I could tell you about how he found a busted golf club on the Inverness Country Club course and fell in love with the game, about his odd and early obsession with football, during which he would read biographies of players and write short stories from their perspectives, about his self-directed independent study of golf and spirituality, about his goal of beefing up and becoming “the most ripped game show host,” and about the important role he sees for athletic teams as a rallying point for communities, how they’re a common ground where everyone can stand firmly knowing they’re part of something larger than themselves.
I could tell you about those things, but you should ask him yourself. Then, you’d see the intellect, the passion, and the hope bubbling out of his pores. He’s got a vision of Birmingham as a community of thoughtful people participating in a culture of creativity and sharing, and all of those experiences play into that.
The basis for that vision is Barzovka, a small camp in Russia where, for the last 34 years, Russian and Ukranian writers, musicians, artists, and performers have come together to share what they do. For three weeks, three times a year, they live together, cook meals together, perform skits, write, worship, and sing. Rykov went for the first time in 2007, and he was blown away. He’s been five times since. “That camp is the example of what community should be: working together culturally,” says Rykov. “They have the spiritual community and the artistic community there, and I want to do that here. Building a community, making friends, realizing anything is possible. We can do great things together.”
Long-time Birmingham News columnist John Archibald has shared the stage with Rykov over the course of his 22 productions. “Birmingham needs more Maxes,” he says. “Or more of Max.”
Visit MaxRykov.com to find out more about Max and his mission.