Mike Sacks Is Doin’ It

The story goes that in the ’90s a TV reporter in Los Angeles took to the street and asked random people, “How’s your screenplay going?” And almost everyone was ready with the answer that, yes, their screenplays were going just fine, thank you.

Today, of course, the question would be, “How’s your podcast going?”

Doin It With Mike Sacks

Doin it with Mike Sacks

One of the latest to jump onto the podwagon is Mike Sacks, host of Doin’ It With Mike Sacks. Despite the title, this is not a smarmy guide to the porn industry. While there is occasional smarm and even some light smuttiness, Doin’ It is at heart something of a literary variety show for the ears. Which is as it should be, as Sacks is himself an author, of two indispensable volumes of interviews with comedy writers, And Here’s the Kicker and Poking a Dead Frog, as well as the extremely witty collection of original humor, Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason. (My review of the latter is here.)

And so Sacks brings an authorial seriousness to the task of hosting, with a dry, low-key delivery, reminiscent of Jean Shepherd or maybe Jack Paar. But seriousness is not really on the menu. Instead, Sacks, a former college DJ, offers a pastiche of found-sound oddities and music from his collection and scripted comedy interludes. Some of the interludes are taken from Your Wildest Dreams, others are original for the podcast. (Like the series Gettin’ In Touch With Old Girlfriends, and the horrifyingly vivid NPR Fan Fiction, which totally should become a thing — or more of a thing, or maybe stop being a thing.) I’m guessing one impulse to start a podcast was to give audio voice to some of his written bits. (Who reads anymore?) It’s adult conversation, with a bit of childish foolishness.

But the crux of each episode is an interview with a notable from the comedy world. Guests so far have included Bill Hader, sitcom writer and author of Science…For Her! Megan Amram, Dan Powell, executive producer of Inside Amy Schumer, Beth Newell of Reductress, and Neal Pollack. Sacks even interviewed his own agent, who is also the agent for the infamous Twitter joke thief @FatJew. (To his credit, more or less, the agent stands by his client, more or less.)

All of the interviews are both casual and insightful. As in his books, Sacks draws out his subjects on the finer details of crafting comedy. Especially fascinating is Sacks’ lengthy interview with David Sedaris, which seems almost like we’re eavesdropping — partly because the audio sounds like it was recorded surreptitiously. But that doesn’t matter. As Sacks likes to bring advice to aspiring humor writers, here’s some advice for future podcasters, based on Sacks’ show: don’t worry about sound and gear. Much of Doin’ It is phone conversations, and some of the connections are downright lousy. Even Sacks’ intros feature a plethora of plosives, generally anathema in professional broadcasting. But as always, content in king. That Bill Hader had low bars for his chat doesn’t matter; he said interesting things.

Sacks grew up in Montgomery County and, as in his written humor, local listeners will find many shouts-outs on the podcast: Hammerjacks, Hagerstown, and Rockville, Md., among them. I suspect some character names may be personal friends.

So subscribe on iTunes, like him on Facebook, hashtag on Instagram, whatever the hell one does nowadays. But do tune in because Doin’ It With Mike Sacks is a great way to get through the week.

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:


Source: https://instagram.com/nic_ferazzoli


Source: https://instagram.com/gabrielqueirox


Source: http://twitter.com/ceepascual


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


“@ohsnapitsgingee” seems to have disappeared from Twitter.


Source: https://twitter.com/JohnnyCrua


Source: https://instagram.com/kms_fotografie


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


Source: https://twitter.com/TriangleSpidey


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.