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.
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.)
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.
My latest hit song, decades in the making. I finally came up with the chorus while driving on I-95. So, authenticity! Please to enjoy.
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.
Another in the acclaimed series, “Verbatim Readings,” from works in the Nuttycombe Archives. Today’s book covers a topic of vital interest to today’s youth. Do not look away! Watch and learn.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Here’s the new commercial I produced, shot, and edited for Middle C Music, D.C.’s only full-service music store. (Also played the swingin’ hi-hat cymbals.) The spot is running on Me-TV, the channel that airs all of the TV shows that were broadcast in the years before cable.
Which means not widescreen hi-def. So, I got out my trusty Panasonic AG-DVC30 miniDV camera, which was expensive state-of-the-art before inexpensive widescreen hi-def became the state-of-the-art. The Panasonic shoots in the same nearly-square aspect ratio (4:3) as the programs that air on Me-TV. So it was a good fit.
The downside production-wise is that the camera records to tape, which has to be transferred in real time for editing. I shot an hour-and-a-half of footage, so had to sit staring at the computer for an hour-and-a-half while the tapes played back.
But I finally used my last two DV tapes. So the camera is now for sale.
The song, or jingle, was created almost instantly by Middle C staffer Michael Sweeney, who is the fellow singing in the video. Darn catchy. I cut 60- and 30-second audio versions of the jingle and I’m trying to convince the store to run radio spots as well. I think this jingle will give Mattress Discounters a run for its money.
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.
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 .
In recapping my movie-going for 2010, I wrote this:
This year saw the appearance of a new movie outlet, the West End Cinema. Well, sorta new. It’s a fresh venue in a tired old location. When it was the Circle West End 5-7 in the ’70s and ’80s, I purposefully avoided the place. I loved the original West End, which offered a real moviegoing experience. (Saw Repo Man there. Also, John Cusack riding up to the box office on a bicycle.) But the 5-7 was in the basement of an office building and had all the charms that implies. And, though the new West End still has the same tiny theaters and tinier screens (see image above), the new owners are making interesting programming choices that mitigate the less-than-Cinerama experience. And they’re cleverly taking advantage of modern technology. Before a screening of the hysterical and disturbing Four Lions, they played a video that the director made specifically for this screening — and e-mailed to the theater. I think more films should start this way.
Indeed, the big difference between the West End Cinema and when it was under Circle management was the programming. (And please note, I loved most of the Circle Theaters; the Pedas brothers also ran a great operation. In this instance, they went a theater too far.) There was little point in watching a first-run Hollywood feature on a tiny screen when you could catch it at the Uptown, Avalon, or even a multiplex. And while West End also programmed first-run A pictures, more often it showcased indies, obscure indies, and even local films.
So I came off my high horse and added the West End to my regular filmgoing spots. The new relationship was not not without issues.
When the West End screened a documentary about L.A.’s famed Troubadour nightclub, I was first into the theater — only to be greeted by the menu screen for a Sony Blu-ray player. The screen itself was not all that much larger than the TVs of many of my friends. But I wanted to see the movie in a theater and the West End was the only place to see it.
And the film wasn’t great — I was expecting more on the Troubadour’s legendary owner Doug Weston rather than a tarted up James Taylor/Carole King concert film. But you can’t complain too much about spending time with James Taylor and Carole King.
When the film showed up on PBS two weeks later, I still wasn’t upset. Yes, I could have saved my money, especially as the Troub doc is exactly the type of PBS show you watch on your couch before bedtime. But so what? I got out of the house, had some tasty snacks, and shared an experience with strangers in a darkened room. That last bit sounds kinda dicey. But the West End was always a class joint. And I’ll miss the place.
I knew the end was near when the Oscar-nominated documentary The Square premiered at the West End — and at the same time on Netflix. Hard competing with that.
Fare thee well, Josh Levin and the West End staff.