The Sound of Our Town

Red Fox Inn Bethesda Md Nuttycombe Archives

C&O Canal
Eric Brace & Peter Cooper
Red Beet Records

Hometown tunes from the 1970s and ’80s are the unifying theme of Eric Brace and Peter Cooper‘s heartfelt and nostalgic new album, C&O Canal. A love letter to the musicians who inspired the D.C.-raised duo, C&O Canal is a set of cover tunes penned the likes of the Seldom Scene‘s John Starling, Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joe Triplett, Karl Straub, and more; it’s an ode to a particularly fecund era for the local music scene.

C&O Canal Eric Brace Peter Cooper

The liner notes connect the many dots tying these D.C.-area musicians together, and hearing the songs filtered through the mesmerizing harmonies of Brace’s mournful baritone and Cooper’s high-lonesome tenor reveals the depth of craftsmanship and artistry this area has produced. “Washington history is as rich with genius-level roots music as it is tricky politics,” Brace writes, correctly. The album is dedicated to, among lots of inspirations, many of the D.C. clubs that hosted live music every week: The Birchmere where the Scene had its residency for so many years, Bethesda’s Red Fox Inn, where Emmylou started (pictured; I played there, too!), Gallagher‘s on Connecticut Ave., where Carpenter hosted an open mic (pretty sure I played there in the late ’60s when it was called Sam’s Place), the fabled Cellar Door (so many nights there; so much magic).

Almost every week in the ’70s, you could hear the Rossyln Mountain Boys‘ Joe Triplett sing his lament, “Been Awhile.” B&C bring it back with just enough reverence, while putting their own stamp on the song.

Likewise, if Cooper’s plaintive version of “Boulder to Birmingham” won’t make you forget either Emmylou’s definitive original or the nearly-definitive version by co-writer Bill Danoff‘s Starland Vocal Band, he acquits himself well.

I’d somehow missed Carpenter’s “John Wilkes Booth,” and so thought at first that the song was taken from some 1870s tract. But this recitation of historical perfidy manages to be both haunting and jaunty. Jauntily haunting? Is that a thing? On this album, yes.

From the opening title track, John Starling’s “C&O Canal,” B&C establish a consistent tone and mood, a celebration not only of this particular town, but of honest music made by and about real people. In this age of individual downloads, C&O Canal is one of those too-rare releases that work as a unified whole. The result is a listening experience to be savored at length, even on shuffle-repeat.

Brace and Cooper bring their Americana goodness to Jammin Java on Friday, June 3, for the official record release party.

All the News That Fills

unicorn times filler ad

Filler ad from the Unicorn Times.

The best job I ever had, certainly the best job title, was Filler Editor for the Unicorn Times. Whenever an ad fell out, which was often — and often on deadline — I was tasked with filling the space. Which I gleefully did with the help of some spiffy clip art and the photo archives of ’70s rock bands.

The Unicorn Times was a monthly arts and entertainment tabloid that published from the early 1970s into the early 1980s, when the much better organized Washington City Paper came to town and finally squeezed it out of business. Unicorn was the brainchild of a jovial Irishman who started the paper largely as a way to get free drinks. In exchange, he offered to print the entertainment schedule of various nightclubs and when he had enough bars lined up, voila, a newspaper.

Unicorn grew into much more than that, launching some actual journalists. I never wrote for the paper. I was nominally the production manager, in charge of pasting up the ads, though I also delivered the papers once they came back from the printer in West Virginia. (Once, I got to deliver the “boards” as they were called to Morgantown, which was an exciting day trip.)

Many of the fake ads were blatant come-ons for ridiculous products and included what I thought was the obvious gag of demanding money for a “free” catalog. And the address was always my father’s post office box: Box 602, Rockville, Md. Dad was a traveling salesman and I guess he thought he needed a PO Box as the mark of a serious businessman. I was fascinated by the idea and used it as my address for the comic books I subscribed to.

Some of my jokes were apparently too subtle. I created a fake record company whose entire catalog was devoted to songs of the humpback whales, which was a thing at the time. Such supposedly spurious titles as Reggae Songs of the Humpback Whales, featuring Bob Marley and John Denver did not seem at all insane to the Library of Congress, a representative of which wrote a letter asking that I send over my catalog.

The above filler ad is but one example of my publishing outrage recently unearthed from the Nuttycombe Archives. The rest are on my Tumblr site. Enjoy.

Batman v Superman v Bullshit

The film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was so scorned by critics (a lousy 28% on Rotten Tomatoes) that the Warner Bros. marketing team has been reduced to dredging up what positive quotes they can find from the most random people on social media: a guy from Pakistan, an Irish dude who mostly tweets about football (i.e., soccer), and even a grandmother on Facebook.

In the time-honored movie-marketing ploy of plucking a few words out of context from a review to suggest that the critic actually enjoyed the movie, the Warners team has been posting the following graphics to Twitter. To be fair, the fans seem to have actually enjoyed the movie (the Rotten Tomatoes audience score is an inexplicable 69%). But is the opinion of someone with less than 200 followers on Twitter of any use? Yeah, yeah, democratization of the Internet, end of the gatekeepers, blah blah. But seriously, Twitter user @ceepascual‘s money quote, “Literally every scene with @galgadot in it took my breath away,” is just a guy ogling a pretty lady. Progress!

I have been retweeting these desperate memes right back at Warners, with snarky comments, to no effect.

There is an entire wing of the Nuttycombe Archives filled with Silver Age Superman and Batman comic books, a treasure trove that I adore. I was such a Batman purist that when I watched the Adam West Batman show on TV in the ’60s, I despised it. Why so unserious? As a kid, I did not understand camp. I’ve evolved.

But the approach to adapting comic book characters for film and television (and, indeed, in comic books) has swung so far in the other direction that I was about to write my own screed against this current climate of morose, sociopathic superhero movies, filled with what Wesley Morris in the New York Times termed “lugubrious solemnity and generic philosophizing.” But here’s the Austin American-Statesman‘s Joe Gross summing up better than I the problem with BvSDoJ. Spoiler alert: He compares it, unfavorably, to a garbage fire.

Here are some of the film studio’s sad attempts to lure you into the theater, and the new social media cineastes who inspired them:

bvs1

Source: https://instagram.com/nic_ferazzoli

bvs2

Source: https://instagram.com/gabrielqueirox

bvs3

Source: http://twitter.com/ceepascual

bvs4

Source: https://www.facebook.com/SuniyehNabeel

bvs5

“@ohsnapitsgingee” seems to have disappeared from Twitter.

bvs7

Source: https://twitter.com/JohnnyCrua

bvs8

Source: https://instagram.com/kms_fotografie

bvs9

Source: https://www.facebook.com/kathy.gummere.1

bvs10

Source: https://twitter.com/TriangleSpidey

bvs13

Source: https://twitter.com/Themysciran

Simpsons In-Joke Explained

danny simon comedy writing degree

On tonight’s Simpsons episode, Lisa and Marge go to see a musical version of Bad News Bears at the “Danny Simon Theater.” Danny was Neil Simon‘s brother. Neil, of course, does have a theater on Broadway named after him. His older brother does not. But Neil always credited Danny with teaching him the art of comedy writing. (So does Woody Allen; they all wrote on the Sid Caesar show.) In fact, the idea for The Odd Couple was Danny’s — it was his life. He and another recently-divorced TV writer were sharing a house. One day they started riffing a husband-and-wife bit between them. Danny realized there was a good idea somewhere. He started writing, but got tired and gave the idea to younger brother Neil. I know this because it’s one of many anecdotes Danny shared while teaching a comedy writing course at UMd. As you can see, he autographed my diploma, which remains one of my cherished possessions and the only degree that I deem worthy.

Bob and Ray and Martin and Dave



The great Bob Elliott has died. That’s “Bob” from the comedy team of Bob & Ray (with Ray Goulding). Please read Adam Bernstein‘s wonderful obituary, if those two words can be used together. (Extra points to Bernstein for mentioning Tom Koch, the little-known and under-appreciated writer of many of the duo’s most hysterical routines.)

One of the great moments of my life was writing a script for Bob & Ray, and then watching them perform it. The project was an industrial film, How to Lobby Your Congressperson, a bit of stealth marketing by Philip Morris, which was interested in heading off some anti-tobacco legislation and thought that a little humor might be needed. Or something like that. I heard the words Bob & Ray and eagerly sold my soul. And I’d do it again.

That the video also featured Martin Mull was a double dream come true. I’d been ripping off both Mull and B&R for years, memorizing and reciting their bits, playing Mull’s songs in bands, generally internalizing their rhythms, patterns, bone-dry wit so that I could annoy people at parties.

So I think I had their voices down, if I do say so myself. The shoot was two days, one for Mull as host — doing a lot of the expositional grunt work, but in his signature, smarmy style — and a second day for Bob & Ray. All were utter professionals, no drama that I was privy to. B&R were concerned about making the flight back to NYC and so raced out after the taping. I did get to hang a bit with Mull, who told wonderful stories about Fred Willard. Here’s a picture, with my co-writer, Tom Welsh. (Yeah, a lot of Mull in this appreciation of Bob Elliott.)

martin mull

This might have been Ray’s last performance. Shortly after the shoot, I called B&R’s agent to pitch a script where the pair would play the Hardy Boys, all grown up, but still childishly naive, in that Bob and Ray way. The agent, who was the widow of their original agent and also near death’s door, quickly informed me that Ray had retired. I thought fast and pitched an idea for Bob and his son Chris to play Tom Swift and Tom Swift, Jr. She said, sure, send the script. So then I had to actually write it.

A month or so later, I sent my half-hour script to Bob’s agent and Chris’ manager, Laurie Lennard, who would become the future ex-wife of Larry David and Oscar-winning producer of An Inconvenient Truth. Had a spooky moment with Larry when he came to my house and I showed him Heavy Metal Parking Lot. (It disturbed him.) As we were blathering, I mentioned I was working on a Chris Elliott project with this woman Laurie Lennard. Larry did a double-take. “I’m seeing her tomorrow night.” What are the chances?

Anyway, the agent said that both Bob and Chris liked my script. And then she asked what the budget was. Budget? Uh…oh, right — I was supposed to pay them money to be in my movie. Hahaha! This had not occurred to me.

So I had to get the rights to the Tom Swift books. Turned out that the guy who owned the then-70-year-old character also owned Babar the Elephant and was planning a huuuge film around that. He wanted $250,000.

As I was contemplating various heists, Bob and Chris got the offer to do Get a Life. Laurie was kind enough to send me the pilot script and promise to send anything of mine to the producers. So Tom and I wrote a Get a Life spec, which was not as good as How to Lobby Your Congressperson, and we did not get hired.

A “Hardy Boys as grown-ups” movie was in the works, starring Ben Stiller and Tom Cruise, but famously imploded. As wonderful as that film surely would have been, I still prefer the idea of Bob & Ray as Frank and Joe. And Bob and Chris as boy inventors.

As one of Bob & Ray’s biggest fans liked to say, So it goes.

The Real Richard Nixon is the Fake Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon

An addendum of sorts to my Washington Post piece on the many faux Mad Men characters of Twitter. One of the most fascinating and always insightful fake Twitter accounts is that of Richard Nixon (@dick_nixon), still alive at 102 and offering witheringly wonderful commentary on any and everything. Though calling it “fake” is missing the point.

The man behind the Twitter feed has written a surprisingly moving account of why he started pretending to be a dead president. Interestingly, an original inspiration was the many Mad Men role-players.

Please give “The Confessions of @dick_nixon” a read. For America, goddammit.

The Greatest Radio Spot Ever Produced

I say so because I remember it vividly some 35 years later. It’s a vivid ad, but the fact that it was a promotion for a one-time concert that probably ran only over the course of a few weeks, at most, makes it all the more remarkable that I could recall every sensationalized second. (Sadly, I did not go to the show.)

This airing was recorded from Steve Lorber‘s infamous Mystic Eyes show on WHFS, which I was in the habit of taping because one never knew what to expect from Lorber. Insistently unprofessional, Lorber flaunted both his lack of a “DJ voice” and his enthusiasm for and encyclopedic knowledge of the then-current punk/new wave/weirdo music scene. I’ve left some of Steve’s back-announcing at the end of this transfer so that you can get a taste of his refined taste. Eventually, I’ll transfer the entire tape, and several more filed away in the Nuttycombe Archives.

You have been warned.

Sit Down, Already! Grading the Glut of Stand-up Comedy

Reprinted from the Washington Post

[NOTE: I’m re-posting this piece I wrote for the Washington Post in the early ’90s after reading funny and poignant excerpts from Ritch Shydner‘s forthcoming book, Kicking Through The Ashes: My Life as a Stand-up in the 1980s Comedy Explosion. I wrote about Ritch’s last book — and its local controversy — here..]

NO ONE CAN PINPOINT THE EXACT MOMENT, but at some time between 1989 and ’91 the inevitable happened: there were more stand-up comedians in the world than there were jokes. Today, even as the humor supply continues to dwindle (despite valiant efforts from the Bobbitt, Jackson and Harding camps), it seems as if every time you turn on the television there’s yet another anxious, annoyed young guy standing in front of a brick wall venting spleen, eking out subsistence laughter from an increasingly shell-shocked audience.

richard jenni

This is not your imagination. The current count of stand-up shows has reached double digits–twenty-two different offerings, from established mainstream fare like A&E’s Evening at the Improv, to obscure, low-budget efforts like Grins on Montgomery County cable access. With options as diverse and ubiquitous as HBO’s raunchy and influential Def Comedy Jam to Comedy Central’s politically correct, homocentric Out There, remote control jockeys risk carpel tunnel syndrome if they try to avoid all contact with the genre.

But if one is “lucky” enough to be a cable TV subscriber and amenable to this abundance of amusement opportunities, one may spend up to 72 hours each week on the couch watching nothing but stand-up. And these figures do not include the eight million sitcoms currently airing, 7.9 million of which star former stand-up comedians.

This comedy glut would seem to lend credence to social critic Neil Postman‘s suggestion that we are “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” To test his theory, I decided to Amuse Myself to Sleep by spending an entire evening glued to the tube, willingly–perhaps dangerously?–exposing myself to nothing but jokes.

Though the quips are flying 24-7-365, Saturday is the laffo di tutti laffo. Date Night Number Two offers a continuous gagfest from 9:30 p.m. to 4 in the morning. Bravely foreswearing the chance for romance, I opened a bag of chips, flexed my channel-switching muscles and settled in for my affair d’comedie. In a distressing early warning of what was in store, as soon as I turned on the set, at 9:24, the jests were already underway: Comedian Jeff Foxworthy was telling redneck jokes on a country music special.

I have put myself to this kind of pointless exercise before. In 1978, at the onset of the comedy boom, I found myself in Los Angeles and stopped by the Comedy Store for the spectacle of Open Mike Night. This democratic tradition allows anyone with the nerve or lack of shame to hop onstage for a guaranteed five minutes under the spotlight. I arrived at 8 p.m. I left at 2 a.m. when the club closed–5 into 60 times 6 equals a lot of comics. I left laughing. Maybe “giddy” is a better description.

THERE IS AN ENERGY TO A LIVE PERFORMANCE, even–or perhaps especially–a bad one, that keeps one from nodding off. Six and a half hours of relentless televised attempts at merry-making do take a toll. There is no single narrative or character to focus one’s attention. Indeed, on Comedy Central there is a show called Short Attention Span Theater. The clever irony of the title is quickly becoming moot.

ritch shydner

The evening’s low point came early at 11 p.m. with the syndicated Comedy On the Road. Hosted by the justifiably sad-faced John Byner, this program is so generic that two of the comics this night are named Scott. They were both forgettable except for the unpleasantness of their material.

I did manage to stay clear-headed enough through the jokeathon to glean this bit of comic insight: Fat is funny. On every show, the subject of obesity was raised, the number of fat jokes far outweighing (ahem) gags about airlines, television, people from other lands and the supposedly interesting differences between New York and Los Angeles, the next most-employed topics.

But I survived. Though the marathon was punctuated by genuine, if intermittent, laughter, more often there were only silent smiles and much sneaking a peek to check the time on the VCR clock. After a while, the steady parade of comedians blend into one blurred image: a rumpled, late-20s/early-30s male with an indelible smirk on his face, gesturing accusingly at the viewer. If all the comics seem the same, it’s because in many ways they are. The depressing fact is that Richard Pryor is sick at home, Steve Martin only appears on movie screens and all the fresh new comics have been sucked into the lucrative (for them) but largely insulting (for us) world of situation comedies.

What is left is mostly pointed exaggeration without a point; smug attitude with little comment, insight or significance.

How did the honorable and profound institution that is American television become captive to so much silliness?

“Naked greed,” exclaims William Morris agent Mike August with a hearty agent’s chuckle. August represents a variety of comedians and, as he views it, the swift rise of Robin Williams in the late ’70s gave many the impression that if he “can be funny and make a million so can I.” In the early ’70s, the number of stand-ups working in Los Angeles was estimated at no more than 15. Then came a white-suited man named Martin. Then came Mork. Then came the deluge….Stand-up comedy became a hot–and accepted–career path.

Tim Rankin, who joined that humor horde and now leads a triple life as stand-up, actor, and a manager at the D.C. Improv club, remembers the time when “if you could get ten or fifteen minutes worth of material you could work nationwide.” So, many wild-and-crazy-wannabes became “Road Warriors,” driving 42 weeks a year, from Improv to Laugh Factory to Funny Bone to Earl’s Strip-O-Rama.

bobby slayton

The smell of loot was so pervasive that, says August, “every bar in every podunk town stopped having dwarf-tossing and strippers and tried comedy.” All a bar owner had to do was set up a mike in a corner and “hire any bozo who could survive.” A particularly American endeavor, requiring little effort and less money. By the early ’80s operating a comedy club, says the agent, “was a license to print money.”

And that same economy of less-than-scale could be translated easily to the world of TV production: Bring a camera to the comedy club and hit “record.” No elaborate staging necessary, no whining writers, co-producers, costumers, etc. Just a long line of overly-eager jokers. Tape three comics and you have a show. Repeat the process a few times and you’ve got a series to syndicate for years.

So, notes Rankin, where once the television options for a stand-up were encapsulated in the single word, “Carson,” suddenly, “there was Comedy USA, then Carolines, then A&E’s Evening at the Improv, then came Sunday Night Comics…” At first these shows featured the top-draw, recognizable talents. As the name acts either burned out or moved into sitcomland and movies, they were replaced by, as Rankin puts it, “everybody who ever told a joke.”

THE SITUATION DEGENERATED to the point where clever actors in need of sample videotape for their resumes were jumping onstage, “acting” like comedians. The sad result, says Rankin, was that “you started seeing people bombing on TV. Omigod! It was scary.”

And while it may still be scary, this thematic excess is hardly new. During the 1958-59 television season, seven of the top ten shows were Westerns. (And there was no cable or PBS alternative.)

tommy davidson

The shoot-em-up has just been succeeded by the laugh-it-up.

Two trends are evolving that may affect the stand-up surplus. The One Man Show and the “Def Comedy Jam” type of comedy.

HBO’s Def Comedy Jam was created by rap music guru Russell Simmons and, like rap, it is marked by exceedingly frank language and topics and has become a lightning rod for outraged sensibilities. It is also, like rap, largely the province of young African-American males. Still, the TV shows and concerts are wildly successful and more and more black faces are being seen. Black Entertainment Television produces a “cleaned up” version, Comicview.

The other comedy trend is the one-man show, comedians wishing to separate themselves from the pack by eliminating the pack. Alone on the stage, they riff on a single theme which, they hope, has more resonance than “Take my wife, please.” The format may have begun with Jackie Mason‘s career-reviving Broadway show, but it was the runaway success of Rob Becker‘s gender examination, “In Search of the Caveman,” that has sparked the flood of “me-too” acts: Rick Reynold‘s “Only the Truth is Funny,” Ritch Shydner‘s “The Romantic Adventures of Canyon Man,” and so on. No less a figure than David Mamet is currently involved in the production of the New York one-man show, Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants.

ellen degeneris

Agent August, who happens to represent Becker, dismisses the pretenders as “What’s My Dysfunction” acts. But these are dysfunctional times and, to take ex-stand-up Roseanne Arnold’s career as but one example, dysfunction sells.

Early in my Night of a Million Comics, Bob Zmuda, president of the Comic Relief organization said, in a different context: “Where there’s comedy, there’s hope.” Let it be noted for those hoping for a reprieve from stand-up saturation that the nature of Def Jam comedy limits it’s broadcast to adult-oriented pay channels. And, except for a pre-Caveman appearance in 1988, Rob Becker has done absolutely no television.