Book Report: Stinker Lets Loose

I get to the bottom of the mystery that is Mike Sacks‘ latest book, Stinker Lets Loose. Is it in fact his latest book? Or is Stinker Lets Loose something more. Something more sinister? Or something wonderful? America needs to know.

Mentioned is my attempt at a re-novelization of the novelization of the original Ocean’s 11 movie starring the Rat Pack, Frank, Dino, Sammy, etc. One may find that effort here.

By all means, do check out Mike’s podcast, Doin’ It With Mike Sacks, interviews with comedy cognoscenti as well as original amusements.

Soul Man: Larry Kidwell, 1947-2017

lawrence and the arabians

Larry Kidwell has passed. Larry was the singer/piano player for the legendary D.C. band Lawrence & the Arabians. (That’s him in Jesus pose behind his bandmates, circa 1967.) Before the term blue-eyed soul, he was its embodiment. As Michael Dolan wrote about the band in Washingtonian in 1988, “They were the original soul rebels, white kids who grew up on black music and in turn played black music for other white kids to grow up on.” One of those kids was me.

Larry and the band get their own section in Mark Opsasnick‘s essential book, Capitol Rock, deservedly so. In the era of teen clubs and dances at the fire hall, before there was such a thing as a concert industry and professional music venues outside of classical halls, the band routinely drew 1,500 or more kids every weekend.

Lawrence and the arabians card

Of course, there were no Arabians in the band. As with many band names of the time, it was a play on something current, in this case the film. Yes, it was a more innocent time; please put your comments about “appropriation” aside, especially if you never heard the man sing. The few recordings that Larry and the band made don’t really do him justice. As with so much music, you really have to hear it live.

Larry generously gifted me with the original photo of the band after I interviewed him for City Paper. He wrote on the back:

“If this picture means anything good to you, please keep it that it would give me pleasure, too.”

Larry, this picture means the world to me. And I hope I thanked you enough.

Condolences to his family. This town lost a bit of its soul.

Bullshit Watch: Real Estate Edition

If you lived here, you'd be stuck in traffic still

If you lived here, you’d be stuck in traffic still

If you’ve been to Wheaton Plaza lately (excuse me, Westfields Wheaton), you might have noticed a small construction site. The sign out front boldly proclaims this new development as “Kensington Overlook.” The overlook part is definitely correct, as the couple rows of townhouses overlook Kensington by a good mile or more, that town being actually located so far down University Boulevard as to be invisible.

Yet, the builder’s website declares in no uncertain terms that Kensington Overlook is “a sophisticated enclave featuring 25 new townhomes…located just 4 miles north of D.C. in Kensington, MD.”

Very little is correct about that. This “sophisticated enclave” is literally a tiny triangle of scrub land at the entrance to a large shopping mall. Your backyard is the parking lot for Target, across the two-lane entranceway is the Giant grocery story, and your front yard is a busy six-lane commuter road. Of course, all builders use the word “luxury” to describe what are the usual stick-built structures, with Tyvek-thin walls and a facade of inch-thick brick or stone-like substance.

Montgomery County’s approved planning document [PDF] places this enclave squarely within the Wheaton Sector Plan. So, yeah, you can walk to Costco. And the Metro. That’s good “smart growth.” But put on your most comfortable hiking boots for the long, exhaust-filled trek to Kensington.

Of course, whoever buys these sad dwellings will probably overlook that.

For those who don’t care to read, here’s a video version:

(To be fair, real estate developers have been attaching fanciful names to their projects forever. In the real estate boom of the 1980s, Regardies, a business magazine which closely chronicled the industry’s movers and shakers, published a wheel that you could cut out and use to automate the naming process. Along one axis were words like “Orchard,” Forest,” “View,” etc.; another offered lofty-sounding, often British-inspired words to match, such as “Warwick,” “Manchester,” “Heights,” and, well, Kensington. Never mattered if there ever was an orchard or a view. One may do this now online, here: http://lewenberg.com/sng/)

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.

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.

Special to the Washington Post, “Mad Men” Edition

Don Draper

Have a piece on the Post’s Style Blog about the people who tweet as characters on Mad Men. As the show is now finished, I wondered what they would do.

It’s a fun piece, but I didn’t get to delve too far into the background of why some of these people are spending so much effort pretending to be imaginary people. Here, two of Don Draper‘s most significant love interests, Rachel Menken and Sylvia Rosen, discuss their reasons for creating online lives.

Rachel Menken (@RachelMenkenNY):

I started tweeting Rachel in February, 2013, at the request of @DonDraperSCP. It was a good fit for me as I’m Jewish and live in New York City. I even spent a few years in the fashion industry at the beginning of my career.

In any event, when I started tweeting—even though Rachel hadn’t been on the show since season 2, I found that fans remembered her and wanted to interact. So I tweeted about fashion, NYC, being Jewish and of course, “Mad Men.” I started with 30 followers (most were other “Mad Men” characters) and two years later I have over 2,000 followers. I enjoy tweeting her, but over the two years—at certain times I’ve tweeted more, but usually I don’t spend hours doing it.

I think fans are very invested in these characters and as long as there is streaming and AMC, people will always be discovering “Mad Men” and show an interest. I think there will be a high volume of tweeting tonight, tomorrow and for the rest of the week. But, it will probably calm down after that. But if you connect with followers on a regular basis, they will continue to tweet with the characters.

I personally have had the challenge of tweeting Rachel while fans know she’s dead! But that hasn’t stopped me—so I will continue to tweet and see where it goes.

I always see Twitter as a highway—you can get on and off as you like, but the traffic continues to flow.

Sylvia Rosen (@SylviaRosenNYC):

Syl is my only fake social media account. All my social media time is zapped between my “real” social media accounts and Syl. I tweeted with some of the characters during season 5 from my personal twitter account. When Syl debuted in the first episode of season 6, I was compelled by her character and what she had to offer Don and set up the account the night of the season 6 premiere. The show has touched me deeply because I can relate to Don’s crises of conscience and I’ve also related to Sylvia. The lens of Don and Sylvia truly crystallized my vision of the path I am traveling.

The Sterling Cooper Mouse was particularly helpful in unearthing crumbs of fan-tweeting lore. Here’s a piece about one of the original Mad Men tweeters, who snagged the @BettyDraper account.

And here’s a Wall Street Journal piece about the people behind Betty, @PeggyOlson, and @Roger_Sterling (A different Roger than the one I spoke with, who is still going strong—as many of the characters.

And a piece about how AMC wised up after falling asleep at the wheel and allowed the fans to play with their characters.

I will miss this show terribly. Somebody buy me a Coke .

That Was the Year That Was: 1995

Was going through my storage locker and found my datebook from 1995. I’m pretty sure I have datebooks from even farther back in history, all in boxes that I’ve been paying a monthly fee to keep safe and secure. Almost since 1995. Sigh.

Instead of doing the sensible thing and just tossing this relic out, I opened the pages to see what I was doing 20 years ago.

Rehearsals and gigs, mostly with my oldies band. Some visits to friends in New York City. I reviewed a lot of comedy shows for the Washington Post. And days and days — and a couple solid weeks worth — of video shoots for The Learning Channel show, Neat Stuff. Almost none of which was used. That’s another story.

Here are some highlights, as best I can tell from my horrible handwriting.

Jan. 7
“7:30 Ken Cen.”
I think this was some kind of Latino multi-culti performance art thing I was reviewing for the Post. There were songs about how the word “Hispanic” was insulting. Other than being mostly confused, I enjoyed the show.

Friday, Jan 13.
Jake Johannsen Comedy Cafe.”
For some reason, the Post really liked Jake Johannsen. I was sent to review him three times. I like Jake, too. But it’s no reflection on him to say that finding something fresh to write for that third review was pretty tough.

Jan 22
“Film Pat Rehearse”
My friends Pat, Jeff, and Dick sold a TV show to The Learning Channel, back when that network was actually about learning. I was offered an equity share, which I declined because I thought nobody is gonna buy a show about crazy toy collectors. I was wrong, but they were kind enough to bring me in as one of the players in various skits about collecting, which is how I came to ride in the Weinermobile. So my bucket list is pretty much complete.

Wednesday, Feb 1
“Improv 8:30”
No idea who. Back then, there were several comedy clubs, the Improv being one of the newer spots. And now basically the only comedy club in town.

Feb 10
Jeff Foxworthy Warner Theater”
I do not remember this.

Feb 17
Kevin Meaney Comedy Cafe.”
I do remember this show. Very funny fellow, Mr. Meaney. Whatever happened to him? I do remember the Comedy Cafe, which I kinda liked, even though the layout was ridiculous. Tiny, long, thin room on the third floor of a rowhouse on K Street. The stage was in the middle of the room, facing a mirror on the opposite wall, so performers would be staring at themselves all night. And the ceiling was low enough that acts could reach up and touch the acoustic tiles. The place was much like the Grog & Tankard. But a lot of good comics played there. And after the show, you go down one flight to the strip club. Or so I heard.

Sat March 4
Rich Hall Comedy Cafe.”
Another very funny fellow who dropped out of sight.

Friday March 24
Steven Wright Lisner.”
And yet another singular voice we don’t hear from enough anymore.

March 25
“Howard U”
Not sure what this was.

April 24
“MPAA film 10:30”
No idea what movie I was reviewing, but I will say that the Motion Picture Association of America screening room is a lousy place to watch motion pictures. Irony, eh? No popcorn, no ambiance. Plus, screenings are early in the morning. One reason critics hate so many movies is that they have to endure such crummy presentation.

May 13
“Headliners 8:30.”
Headliners was one of the other comedy clubs in the area. Was it at the Bethesda Holiday Inn? Greenbelt?

May 29 to April 7
“Pat shoot”
Pat is Pat Carroll, the noted cineaste, Travesty Films founder, and co-creator of Neat Stuff. We shot hours of comedy material for Neat Stuff and almost none of it was used. As I said, that’s another story.

August 3
Hoyt Curtin
Interviewed the man who wrote the Flintstones theme song, the Jetsons theme song, the Johnny Quest theme song — all of the great Hanna-Barbera music. Lovely man. Shame on me because I never got around to publishing it. Still have the cassette tape. Must transcribe.

Sept 1-3
“Neat Stuff.
Wasted time.

Sept 29
“Rosie 7pm KenCen.”
Rosie O’Donnell. I was reviewing for the Post and the pressure was on, as Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn were seated a few rows ahead of me.

October 8
“Write Chappelle”
The Post assigned me to interview Dave Chappelle as the once-local comic was starting to catch fire. Caught his show at the Comedy Cafe, the place where he first got onstage. His mother and grandmother were in the audience, which did not seem to impact his material. After the show, we had a rather rambling conversation in the stairwell. I’m not going to suggest that Mr. Chappelle was totally stoned, but, uh, yeah, Half-Baked.

The day after I turned my piece in, the Style section ran a full feature on the other black comic from D.C., Martin Lawrence, So my piece ran later in the week, trimmed extensively. A not uncommon occurrence when the paper was so large that one desk didn’t seem to know what the others were doing. Once I was assigned to review Lewis Black, another once-local funnyman. I spoke with him on the phone during the day, then found myself seated at the Improv next to a Post reporter who was doing a full profile of the man. As she was a staffer, I knew I was out-ranked. So I enjoyed the show — great seeing Black spew spittle at such close range — and gave her a ride home. My review never ran.

Oct. 27
Bill Maher Improv.”
I had recently read Maher’s funny book, True Story, which is a roman á clef about the comedy boom of the ’80s. After the show, I asked him if he was going to write another. He snorted, saying, “Too much work.”

Saturday, Nov. 4
“Cosby”
This may have been my second Bill Cosby review, at the Kennedy Center. The first was his appearance at GW, just as the first Iraq war began. The second was shortly after his son was killed. Both times, Cosby allowed those elephants in the room to slumber until the very last moment, when he finally offered some of his typical professorial, paternal, Cosby-esque comforting words.

And now…

And now saying his name brings no comfort. On Twitter, Judd Apatow has been leading the charge to bring Cos to justice. (Marc Maron talks with Apatow on his latest WTF podcast and it is absolutely worth a listen.) My former colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates penned a brutal essay about Cosby. Coates and my former editor David Carr also chimed in. Along with every damn person on social media.

And I keep getting madder and sadder, at the same time.

I get mad at the people who seem so eager to attack Cosby because unlike them I grew up with the comedian. I don’t feel that they know him like I do. They don’t have the right to judge. It’s easy outrage.

But, uh, thirty-three women….

But I knew Cosby long before he both saved NBC and restored the sitcom format with The Cosby Show. Back when Cosby was merely a comedian, though he was never “merely” a comedian. I go back to elementary school with Bill Cosby. I spent many an afternoon as a kid, sitting on the floor at Scott Miller‘s house, or Mickey Hager‘s house or my own living room, listening and laughing to “Noah,” or “Why Is There Air?” or “Wonderfulness.” Then came I, Spy, which was almost as cool as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Bill Cosby was not only one of the funniest people alive, but also the coolest. He hung around the Playboy Mansion, he dug jazz, he had style. He was a champion for the African-American cause, donating millions to Temple University and Spellman College. What’s not to love?

Cosby was a hero, a comedy hero, a role model. Watch him in Jerry Seinfeld‘s film Comedian. Toward the end of the film, Seinfeld makes a pilgrimage to the master and we see Cosby sitting, in very unflattering light, looking like both Buddha and Yoda. Which, in comedy circles, he was.

But apparently he was also a serial rapist of the worst sort. Not that there’s a best sort of rapist, but Cosby seems to have been particularly heinous.

And there is no excuse. Thirty-three women can’t all be wrong. And to admit that is to toss not only Cosby, but so many of my happy childhood memories under the bus. Deep under the bus. Is this how children of criminals feel? “I love you, dad, but you’re a horrible person so stay in jail?” Like I said, mad and sad, but mostly sad.

Anyway, let’s wrap up 1995.

Friday, Dec. 1
Richard Lewis 10:30.”
The late show Friday is notorious among standups as being just the worst. I won’t say Lewis was phoning it in at this Improv show, but he did have lots of legal note pads and kept checking and reading from them. I’ve always enjoyed Lewis and his hyper-neurotic performing style. In 1978, I was in the audience at the Improv in Los Angeles for the taping of Lewis’ cruelly forgotten late-night TV movie, Diary of a Young Comic. (Featuring a terrific theme song by Loudon Wainwright III.) It’s only available as part of a Richard Lewis box set, but I wish it were available on its own.

Writing the standup reviews was a trying task. The shows were usually enjoyable, but the deadlines came quickly after the lights came up. In addition to the pressure of trying to find a couple hundred intelligent words to type, I had to send copy to the desk using ancient dial-up technology. Maybe not even a 14.4 baud modem. The DOS text had to be formatted in a particular way, with indents and double carets at the end: >>. Or maybe: < <. I had a bulky Toshiba laptop and I'd unplug the telephone and plug the line into the computer and call up a strange telecom program, type some codes, and whisk my words away into the aether. The next morning, there was my byline in a great metropolitan daily.

Good times.

Free for All Watch, Week 2: Feeling Groovy

I get results!

Just one week after launching my Free for All Watch, dissecting the many gripes of the Washington Post‘s Grumpy Old Man page, the public has spoken. Or typed.

This week, Oct. 18, there were three — count them, three! — positive letters for the paper, an unheard of level of generosity in the two weeks I’ve been officially taking note. One letter saluting Michel Du Cille for his photograph, another lauding a front page map, and a third thanking writer Martin Weill for his light-hearted zoo story.

Now that’s three out of 13 letters, but this could be a trend. Or, to phrase it in current headline-writing fashion: Could this be a trend? (See also Twitter’s SavedYouAClick for a welcome antidote for such link-bait question-mark headlines.)

scott butterworth retweet

And speaking of Twitter, Post editorial page editor Scott Butterworth re-tweeted my inaugural Free for All Watch column, which I am taking as proof positive that my brave work is finally being heeded. While the editors did not choose to run any letter similar to the one I predicted would appear (and really, how could they?), I remain convinced that I am the power behind this week’s outpouring of love and good will for D.C.’s paper of record.

You’re welcome.