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Even after 16 years, Chris Morris’ ‘Jam’ is still the sickest, darkest, bleakest TV comedy EVER made
03:19 pm


Chris Morris

It’s quite something that what was undoubtedly the oddest, most extreme and certainly the most sinister “comedy” series of the year 2000 would still be all of those same things when revisited over a decade and a half later, but this was the conclusion that I invariably came to last week when I re-watched Chris Morris’ legendarily fucked-up Channel Four series Jam. Nothing’s come even close to dethroning it in the intervening years.

Based on audio material that had initially been worked out for a late night radio show called Blue Jam that was broadcast from 1997 through 1999 on BBC1, Jam often had the actors who’d done the original radio work lipsync those same bits for the camera, giving the show an organically disturbing element that was difficult to pinpoint. Indeed, from the very first seconds of Jam, it’s patently obvious that the viewer is about to witness something that’s not only meant to fuck with their heads, but that’s going to accomplish this goal quite successfully. I first caught an episode of Jam in a London hotel room (I was there doing publicity for the second series of my own Channel Four show) and I was utterly flabbergasted by not only what I was seeing before my astonished eyes, I was also gobsmacked (as the Brits are fond of saying) that something like this, something this post-post-post modern, this forward-thinking, this incredibly bleak, moody and just plain fucked-up had made it to television in the first place, having been green-lighted by the very same people who foolishly allowed little me to have a TV show around the same time.

Someone I knew at C4 mailed me VHS tapes of Jam back in New York, and I became an evangelist for it, forcing joints into mouths and making all of my friends watch it. Some of them even thanked me. (One person I’ve not heard from since…)

But enough of these… words, it’s not like one can “explain” Jam, so let’s take a break now and roll tape. Here’s the first episode of Jam. I know you’re busy, we all are, but for your sake—I’m not doing this for me—watch at least the incredibly brilliant opening sequence and the first sketch, where a worried couple at their wits end (Amelia Bullmore and Mark Heap) lay something quite dark and heavy about their son on his godfather (Kevin Eldon) and ask for a rather big favor.

Breathtaking, is it not?

Much more ‘Jam’ after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
‘Hologram’ of George Carlin to perform at national comedy museum starting next year
11:42 am

Pop Culture

George Carlin
Kliph Nesteroff

Shortly after running this post we received the following message from Kliph Nesteroff:

A retraction was submitted this morning regarding the hologram. Kelly Carlin has not endorsed the hologram idea. I took a leap of logic. Kelly has been working closely to integrate her father into the museum, and the builders of the museum have been working closely with Hologram USA, however the hologram plans (of which Redd Foxx is one), does not involve Carlin. The comedy center recently put on a tribute to Carlin’s legacy at the Paley Center and announced the enormous donation of Carlin’s archives to the center. George Carlin is a key point for the Comedy Center, but not part of the Hologram USA project as I mistakenly stated.

Nesteroff also directed me to this now-updated post from Rolling Stone which has accurate information about the musuem’s plans.

Here is the post in its original form:

It’s no secret that we at Dangerous Minds have long been admirers of George Carlin. I know that Richard Metzger is a big fan, and as for me, let’s just say that watching Carlin at Carnegie on HBO (without my parents’ knowledge, of course) at the age of about 13 was a life-changing event.

On top of that, one of the coolest things DM did in 2015 was run an exclusive excerpt of Kliph Nesteroff’s fantastic book The Comedians, which is chock full of information about Carlin’s career. We love the guy.

The history of the use of so-called “holograms” in the news and entertainment business has seen mixed success, to put it mildly. On Election Night in 2008 CNN broadcast an interaction between Wolf Blitzer and a holographic image of correspondent Jessica Yellin, who was reporting from Chicago, in an inadvertent nod to Princess Leia in a similar scene in the first Star Wars movie. In 2008 a hologram of Tupac Shakur sang “Hail Mary” and “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” at Coachella.

In neither case was the projected image actually a hologram—it’s similar to the artistic license that allows the makers of a certain kind of self-balancing scooter to call it a “hoverboard.”

So ordinarily we’d want to make fun of news that an entity known the National Comedy Center, scheduled to open in Jamestown, New York, in 2017, announced that a “hologram” of George Carlin will “perform stand-up sets” at the museum. But the fact of it being Carlin admittedly has me interested. Recently Carlin’s family donated a massive trove of the comedian’s archives to the museum, which will make these “holographic” renditions of his comedy act possible.

Almost as newsworthy is the information that the aforementioned Kliph Nesteroff is the chief curator of the National Comedy Center. There is nobody else in the world better qualified for such a position, and we congratulate Nesteroff on the good news.

Nesteroff commented recently that the Carlin family was a major sponsor of the museum and told the Hollywood Reporter that the comedian would serve as the center’s main attraction:

The main gimmick to bring people to Jamestown—which you may imagine is not an easy thing to convince people to do—is the George Carlin hologram. So they’re building this fake comedy club in one corner and George will be onstage, performing like old times ... He’s the credibility here. People have tried to do comedy museums before and failed. When you hear “comedy museum” and you’re a comedian, your first thought isn’t, “Oh, that’s cool,” it’s “Oh, that sounds terrible.” But in the comedy community, there are very few who would say that weren’t influenced by George Carlin. It helps.

The comedian’s daughter, Kelly Carlin, has donated eight trunks full of script drafts, eight-track tapes, performance videos, and photographs. One fascinating artifact promises to be the report from Carlin’s arrest on charges of obscenity from a 1972 show in Milwaukee.

I first learned about Nesteroff in 2008 after reading a lengthy and engrossing account of Carlin’s early years (1956-1970) on a blog hosted by the WFMU radio station. Nesteroff demonstrated his talent for excavating fascinating information that sheds light on some obscure corners of the comedy world, and he hasn’t let up since. This new position at the library represents some kind of closing of the circle for the energetic researcher, who has conducted countless interviews with many nearly-forgotten comedians whose heyday was several decades ago. 
Much more after the jump…....

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
Six degrees of Marty Feldman
10:41 am


Marty Feldman

Marty Feldman said his distinctive looks were “the product of a thyroid condition caused by an accident when somebody stuck a pencil in my eye when I was a boy.” Whether true or not, it made Feldman instantly recognizable and in a way led to his breakthrough role in America as the scene stealing Igor in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. Feldman later quipped he was the only man to appear in a horror film without make-up.

Feldman was a hero, a rebel, a maverick. A comedy genius who co-wrote with Barry Took some of the best British TV and radio comedy during the 1960s. When he moved to Hollywood in the 1970s, his movie career started brightly and ended dismally—he died during the making of his last feature Yellowbeard.

Born to Jewish immigrant parents in Canning Town, London in 1934, Feldman was a wild and rebellious child, constantly in trouble and expelled from several schools. He later claimed he had a lot of violence which he eventually exorcised through performing in shows.

He was anti-authoritarian. His attitude was “ya-boo-sucks.” England, he claimed, was a country that had “produced a great number of passionless mass murderers” or “little bank clerks, the neighbourhood doctor. They all have the sort of bald, bony heads and wear pebble dash lenses and raincoats.” When considering this, one has to ask, what he made of West Coast America with its serial killers and shopwindow sincerity?
A tip of the hat to Marty’s comedy hero Buster Keaton.
He left school with no prospects but a great desire, a burning desire to do something creative—anything creative. He followed the beatnik trail to Paris. Feldman loved jazz. He played trumpet. He was apparently so bad he was once described as the “world’s worst trumpet player.” Whether true or not, jazz was the first avenue Feldman tried to map. He met his idol Charlie Parker in Paris. But the great jazz legend could only talk about snooker much to Feldman’s chagrin.

He adopted the jazz life—smoking weed, eating bennies and shooting junk. It wasn’t for him. He returned to England and worked in fairgrounds. He then started working in repertory theater where he met his future writing partner Barry Took.

Feldman and Took were among the most significant comedy writers in England during the 1950s and 1960s. Together they wrote classic comedy sitcoms like The Army Game and Bootsie and Snudge. While for radio, the world will be eternally grateful for Round the Horne and the creation of two Polari-speaking omi-palones Julian and Sandy.

Feldman also co-wrote two of British TV’s best known comedy routines—the “Class Sketch” for David Frost’s show (which starred a young John Cleese) and “The Four Yorkshiremen Sketch”—which is now best known as being part of Monty Python’s oeuvre. It was inevitable that Feldman would one day make the transition from being a much sought after writer to a much-loved performer. He joined John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Tim Brooke-Taylor for At Last, The 1948 Show before having his own award-winning series Marty in 1967.

Keep reading after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Moms Mabley, the original wise old black lesbian comedian: ‘Comedy ain’ pretty’
06:31 am


Moms Mabley


“He said, ‘Now what would you do if I died?’ And I said ‘Laugh.’”

If you have the opportunity to see the 2014 HBO documentary Whoopi Goldberg presents Moms Mabley, don’t pass it up. Clearly a labor of love, Goldberg recreated Mabley’s act as a young performer at Berkeley in the ‘80s and was obviously very inspired by her work. The doc was originally called Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ To Tell You and was supported by Kickstarter donations. Then HBO bought it and no doubt asked for a title change to include Goldberg’s household name due to the relative obscurity of its eponymous subject some forty years after her death in 1975.


“What’s she got that I ain’t had thirty years longer?”

Unless you’re a real comedy nerd or over the age of, say, 55-60, you probably have little direct experience of Jackie “Moms” Mabley or remember seeing her on television. She could be seen mostly on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, maybe Laugh-In and various talk shows doing a toned-down version of her “blue” stage act. She was billed as “the funniest woman in the world” and was one of the first female stand-up comics, black or white, if not the very first. (Even Phyllis Diller claimed to be indebted to Moms Mabley.) I only really knew of her via seeing her albums in the comedy album cut-out bins of the late 1970s or hearing snippets of her stand-up on a long-running radio show called The Comedy Hour that used to air after The Dr. Demento Show back then. Her act was that of a straight-talking, dirty-minded, toothless old black lady who made jokes about chasing young men around. I had but a vague awareness of her at best, so I can be forgiven for assuming that her comic persona was something akin to the way she might be in real life, but exaggerated a bit, like say Minnie Pearl.


“Did you know I was on President Nixon’s enemies list? Yes darlin’, I told Tricia that if the Pilgrims had shot bobcats instead of turkeys for food, we’d be eating pussy for Thanksgiving.”

Nothing apparently could be further from the truth: The mismatched old lady clothes and the Gilligan hat merely clothed a character that Jackie Mabley had developed—and aged into—from the late 1920s onwards on the black vaudeville touring circuit, or the “Chitlin circuit” as it was called, including the big rooms of Harlem, like the Apollo Theater. “Moms” had a costume, the character’s “look” completed when she took her false teeth out. In real life Jackie Mabley was a proud and defiantly out butch black lesbian woman, at a time when the very concept of such a person would probably not have computed even to people who worked with her on a day-to-day basis. Offstage the dresses she claimed to buy from the S&H green stamps catalog were exchanged for the sort of smartly cut men’s suit that Janelle Monáe might favor. (She can be seen in a man’s suit in 1933’s Emperor Jones.)

Moms Mabley was one of the great 20th-century comedians, up there with any of them, although she’s little recalled today. She’s also someone who figures into the civil rights movement and the nascent gay liberation movement, too. (Even if few actually knew it at the time. It’s not like she was trying to hide her sexuality from the world, because she obviously wasn’t.)


“That man so old… he’s older than his birthday.”

As Goldberg states at the beginning of the doc, the reality is that not all that much is truly and factually known about Moms Mabley’s life. One can surmise certain things, or know what sort of money she made ($10,000 a week, which was a fortune then and not too bad by today’s standards either) or find posters of her on a bill at the Apollo and YouTube clips of her TV performances, but the details of her life are quite scarce and ephemeral at this point. Most people who would have known her or worked with her in her heyday would be long dead. Goldberg deserves thanks for rescuing this fascinating woman’s life story and helping restore her rightful place in comedy history, not to mention her role in helping white TV viewers and nightclub audiences of the 1960s to understand the POV of a wise old dirty-minded black woman. Had she been a few years younger, it’s easy to imagine Moms Mabley in a Norman Lear-produced sitcom of the ‘70s and as well-remembered today as say, Redd Foxx is, another risque black comic who was lucky enough, for posterity’s sake, to be born 26 years later.
Continues after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Roommates: Potheads from two different generations navigate life in NY’s East Village

My pal Greg Barris, a New York City-based stand-up comic and actor, has a new web series that he’s doing with Bridey Elliott, former SNL castmate, daughter of funnyman Chris Elliott, and granddaughter of the great Bob Elliott of “Bob and Ray” fame. (I am a huge Bob and Ray fan. That there are three generations of Elliots performing comedy, to my mind is a very, very good thing)

The premise for the show, titled Roommates, is somewhat autobiographical, based on Greg’s real-life roommate Fiona who was just 18 when she moved into his place:

Greg and Fiona are unlikely roommates who, despite their generational differences, work together to navigate the ins and outs of life in an East Village apartment.


Barris told AV Club that he and Elliott “smoked mostly real marijuana every day throughout the taping of each episode. And during the down time. And usually right after we woke up, even though this made shooting sometimes very difficult.”

Here’s episode 3, “Baptism”:

So far each episode of Roommates has been shot and set inside Greg’s East Village walk-up apartment. Amusing to me—and probably to me alone, admittedly—is that I’ve actually stayed in this very apartment myself. (It looks like Greg has cleaned up a bit since then. He had lots of different gourmet coffees and a stash of excellent kief that I smoked a shit ton of while I stayed with him back in 2010). If you pay attention to what’s on the walls you’ll see the work of one of my favorite artists, Dima Drjuchin, who we’ve blogged about a few times here on Dangerous Minds. It was via staying with Greg that I was first exposed to Dima’s work and now I’ve got three amazing paintings by him in my home in places of prominence.

Roommates was written by by Greg Barris, Michael Pomranz & Bridey Elliott. Filmed and edited by Jeremy Morris-Burke. Titles by Dima Drjuchin.

Below, Greg and Fiona turn their couch into an annoying “full-service” hotel to raise some cash…

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Comedians on Acid: Hippie madness at the end of the 60s

Last week we posted our interview with Kliph Nesteroff about his marvelous new book The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy, which is now available for purchase.

It’s a winner, folks. Simply put, Kliph has carved out an area of research and made it almost entirely his own—I refer to the development of the world of professional stand-up comedy in the decades before Richard Pryor, George Carlin, or even Lenny Bruce. (Not to worry, he also covers everything up to Louis CK too.) Kliph has made it his business to acquaint himself personally with many of the surviving old-school stand ups from the 1950s and also with the bounties of Variety’s archives.

The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy is about the Chitlin Circuit and vaudeville and the Mob and drugs and everything else, in other words, the seamy underbelly of the comedy world. This book will be a staple of comedy book lists for decades to come and is a must for every comedy nerd.

Here’s an exclusive exceprt from The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy.

Chapter Nine: Hippie Madness at Decade’s End

Marijuana and LSD were huge influences on comedy at the end of the 1960s. It was not uncommon for talk show guests to show up high. George Carlin said he took “a perverse delight in knowing that I never did a television show without being stoned.” Paul Krassner dropped acid before a Tonight Show appearance with guest host Orson Bean. Krassner was immersed in his trip when he walked through the curtain. “I kept staring at Ed McMahon because his face was melting into his chest. Orson asked me, ‘Have you taken LSD?’ He meant in a general sense, but I had this thought, ‘Oh, no, he can tell!’”

Phyllis Diller encapsulated the older generation’s ignorance of counterculture elements when a reporter asked her if she would remarry. She responded, “What kind of LSD have you been smoking?” Such cluelessness was common as Hollywood’s gatekeepers struggled to relate to the new hippie demographic. Television shows like Dragnet and My Three Sons portrayed counterculture protestors as morons. Carl Reiner’s son Rob was cast in several sitcoms play-ing such roles. “I did three Gomer Pyles, played a hippie in a couple of them. Did a Beverly Hillbillies, played a hippie in that. I was like the resident Hollywood hippie at the time. I had long hair and they needed somebody. In one of the Gomer Pyle episodes I actually sang ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ with Gomer.”

Veteran filmmaker Otto Preminger gave LSD the Hollywood treatment in 1968 with a motion picture called Skidoo. Preminger contacted Rob Reiner to help write dialogue for the hippie characters in his film. “Preminger was a very interesting, liberal guy and he took acid early on,” says Carl Gottlieb. “He wanted to meet The Committee. So we all trooped down to his offices with Rob Reiner.” Reiner said, “I went in and turned out some pages for hippies so that they would say ‘groovy’ in the right place.”

Groucho Marx was cast in Skidoo as an LSD dealer named God. It was surprising he agreed to it, as he was contemptuous of the new social mores (“That Midnight Cowboy. It’s about a stud and a pimp. I hated that movie”). Marx may have hated the counterculture, but he was hip to many of its elements. He subscribed to Paul Krassner’s paper The Realist, which featured articles about the drug culture. Krassner says, “Groucho was concerned about the script of Skidoo because it pretty much advocated LSD, which he had never tried but he was curious. Moreover, he felt a certain responsibility to his young audience not to steer them wrong, so could I possibly get him some pure stuff and would I care to accompany him on a trip.”

Groucho Marx high on LSD? Some who knew Groucho question the story. “It’s a fucking lie,” says producer George Schlatter. “Groucho never took acid. He didn’t need acid. Everyone else needed acid!” Carl Gottlieb agrees. “I doubt that story, because my contact with Groucho was around the same time. He was pretty infirm. The acid that was around in those days was the Owsley acid—Windowpane. It was brain-breaking.”

“Well, that was the reason Groucho asked me,” Krassner responds. “I have a letter from Lionel Olay, a popular magazine writer. He had interviewed Groucho and Groucho told him he was very curious about LSD. He read The Realist and about my taking trips. Bill Targ, my editor at Putnam, was a friend of Groucho. The writer of the movie Skidoo, Bill Cannon, introduced me to him. Groucho and I had lunch. He asked me if I could get him some LSD. Groucho was not going to go around boasting about this. It was just to prepare for the movie Skidoo. I accompanied him on his trip. We used the home of an actress in Beverly Hills. Phil Ochs drove me there. It was Owsley acid. Three hundred micrograms.”

Skidoo entered production with a cast that seemed plucked from Hollywood Squares. It included Frankie Avalon, Carol Channing, Frank Gorshin, Peter Lawford, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Arnold Stang and Jackie Gleason. It had a soundtrack by Harry Nilsson and an unforgettable scene in which Gleason, high on psychedelics, is haunted by the disembodied head of Groucho Marx.

Robert Evans, the head of Paramount, was not happy with it. “It was a zero on every level,” said Evans after the screening. “The guy [Preminger] cost us a fuckin’ fortune. His new entry belongs in the sewer, not on the screen. He’s such a prick; he gets his nuts off seeing us sink.”

Cheech and Chong’s best-selling ‘Big Bambu’ album came with a gigantic rolling paper. For obvious reasons, these rolling papers are rare today…

Several comedians considered their psychedelic trips important, life-changing experiences. “Pot fueled Cheech & Chong during our heyday,” said Tommy Chong. “Pot and to some extent acid. It had changed our world and it put me on a path to artistic and financial success. The spiritual effects and the revelations never leave. The secrets that LSD revealed to me changed my life forever.”

George Carlin felt the same. “I know exactly when I first did acid—it was in October 1969 while I was playing a major, now long-defunct jazz club in Chicago called Mister Kelly’s. Next to my [note-book] record of that booking, which was otherwise uneventful, is written in a trembling hand the word ‘acid.’ Actually in the course of a two-week gig I did acid multiple times, maybe five, maybe ten. Fuck the drug war. Dropping acid was a profound turning point for me, a seminal experience. I make no apologies for it. More people should do acid.”

Chris Rush was another comedian who came into being with the counterculture. Psychedelics informed his act. “When I took lysergic acid diethylamide I started rapping comedy: full, polished conceptual chunks. It just flowed through me, and I was a stream-of-consciousness comedian. I started doing it for fun in loft buildings and I started doing some clubs. This guy Mark Meyers from Atlantic Records came to see me. He said, ‘This guy talks like George Carlin.’ Bingo, I had a record deal.” His album First Rush sold half a million copies in the early 1970s, mostly to pot-smoking college kids. “They’d get high with twenty of their friends and put the album on.”

Comedy and the counterculture coupled with the new technology of FM radio. During the early 1960s FM radio was mostly used to simulcast aurally superior versions of AM sister stations. In 1967 the FCC passed an ordinance that ended such simulcasts. It forced FM to devise original programming. In order to fill mass spaces of airtime in a pinch, young disc jockeys turned to playing entire sides of LPs rather than just one song. Soon FM was a place where hippie rawkers and their long jams received maximum exposure. Likewise, comedians who aligned themselves with the counterculture found entire sides of their comedy records being played on FM. College-aged kids tuning in to hear their favorite hippie music were turned on to the comedians being played on the same stations—and those comics saw their ticket sales increase enormously.

Amid the FM scene emerged an audio comedy troupe called the Firesign Theatre. Phil Austin, David Ossman, Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman met at the newly minted Los Angeles FM station KPFK. They worked in various executive positions and eventually left for KRLA and improvised drug-influenced comedy on the show Radio Free Oz. Surf music producer and KRLA employee Gary Usher used his industry connections to secure the boys a deal with Columbia Records. “I’d see The Byrds at Columbia Studios when we were all recording,” said Phil Proctor. “We didn’t realize how much history we were observing or even making. There was very easy access. People were very friendly and the music brought everybody together. Pot brought everybody together. It was a very sociable scene, you know, hot and cold running girls all the time…We were using the Columbia studio where The Byrds recorded, [but] also the radio studio where Fred Allen had been.”

The Firesign Theatre, George Carlin and Cheech & Chong owed their vast success to FM. The radio stations were listened to by thousands of impressionable college students. “FM radio helped expose the records, and that led to our ability to headline shows on college campuses,” said Proctor. “We were asked to go on the road with the Maharishi.”

Comedian Jimmie Walker says FM radio was a platform for comedians who never would have been accepted in traditional circles. “They would never have gotten on Carson or anything like that. Lou Adler from A&M Records came up with these guys from Vancouver—Cheech & Chong. There was a new thing called FM and Lou said, ‘I’m going to make an album with these guys.’ These guys started selling out colleges, and we were stunned. Nobody was doing that. FM changed everything. It changed the face of comedy.”

Jack Margolis, a comedy writer who once wrote for Jay Ward cartoons, composed the seminal counterculture comedy record of the time. A Child’s Garden of Grass was based on his satirical paperback of the same name, the first in-depth comedic look at the effects of marijuana. Released by Elektra, the same label that had Jim Morrison and the Doors, A Child’s Garden of Grass had its advertising turned down by every major magazine, was denied a spot on the shelves of Wallichs Music City in Hollywood and was banned in Washington State. An FCC ruling that forbade “drug lyrics” kept program managers from playing it. Despite the kibosh, it sold four hundred thousand copies. Its only real advertising came from a large billboard on Sunset Boulevard across from the Whisky a Go Go. It is impossible to calculate the number of joints that were rolled on its gatefold surface.

The longhairs dominated radio. Cinema was maturing rapidly. Battles against censorship were being won on both literary and nightclub fronts. But television, beyond its odd spontaneous talk show moment, appeared unaffected by the times. “There was a real revolution happening in other media,” said comedy writer Rosie Shuster. “There were all these Jack Nicholson movies coming out that reflected that sensibility of the sixties. In music there was Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, the Stones and the Beatles. But television was still stuck in some time warp that was more like the fifties.

”Comedians appearing on The Tonight Show still had to adhere to a traditional dress code. “For a long time the rule on Johnny Carson was tie and jacket,” says Robert Klein. “I came on without one once and Johnny didn’t say anything, but it came down through [Tonight Show producer] Freddy de Cordova: ‘Tie and jacket!’ ”

THE COMEDIANS copyright © 2015 by Kliph Nesteroff; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc.

Below, the extended trailer for Otto Preminger’s ‘Skidoo’ featuring Dr. Timothy Leary, Sammy Davis Jr. and more…

Previously on Dangerous Minds:
The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy
10:36 am


Flip Wilson
Kliph Nesteroff

I’ve been aware of Kliph Nesteroff’s singular erudition for a number of years now. Sometime in 2008 WFMU’s incredible Beware of the Blog (which sadly stopped operating earlier this year) ran a loooong article about the early years of George Carlin—which is to say, focusing on the years before the 1967 release of Carlin’s first solo album Take-Offs and Put-Ons, an era that most readers probably had hardly any notion about. After a while came similar articles dedicated to the early years of Woody Allen and David Letterman, both of which were similarly informative. All of these articles carried the cryptic byline “Listener Kliph Nesteroff,” which seemed random enough and lent the impression that the author was perhaps a housebound retiree, former Navy during the Korean War, something like that.

How happy for us readers—as the news may portend further publications down the road—to learn that Kliph is far from a grouchy old obsessive, but rather a charming young obsessive (well, maybe a little grouchy), who for some reason has acquired a taste for unearthing and preserving invaluable scuttlebutt from the early days of comedy. For years he has run an essential blog called Classic Television Showbiz and an amusing Tumblr called Showbiz Imagery and Chicanery. The former houses his long-form interviews with some of the important figures of midcentury comedy (many on the verge of being forgotten today), including Orson Bean, George Schlatter, Peter Marshall, a category that also includes an incredible eight-part interview with Jack Carter. Showbiz Imagery and Chicanery is every bit as entrancing, consisting mostly of context-free screen shots of puzzling images and text culled from the hours Kliph spends with the inexhaustible (and expensive! do donate!) resource known as the archives.

Suffice to say, in a few short years Kliph has put together a knowledge base on the roots of stand-up comedy that dwarfs that of anyone younger than, say, 50. By dint of curiosity and hard work, Kliph put himself into a position where he could see the linkages between the present and the past, could isolate the ways in which the patterns that structure the industry of professional comedy found their origins not necessarily in the ersatz “comedy boom” of the 1980s but in practices that stretch much further back.

It was incumbent upon Kliph, then, to write a book about all of this, and thank goodness, that’s precisely what he’s done. Next week sees the publication of The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy, and I can say with confidence that this book will be an invaluable resource for decades to come, for anyone who wants to know about the full history of comedy, stuff that predates the days when Robin Williams was saying “Nanu Nanu” on national TV. Something very similar happened in baseball a generation or two ago, when a writer named Lawrence Ritter decided to hunt down as many players as he could find from the early days of baseball (around 1900)—those interviews eventually became a book called The Glory of Our Times, which was published in 1966 and had a massive impact on the way the sport’s fans regarded the heroes of prior generations. The highest compliment I can pay Kliph’s new book The Comedians (which is available for pre-order right now) is that I think he may just have written comedy’s analogue to The Glory of Our Times, the book that—if you have not absorbed its contents—all but demands that you hold your tongue on the subject of old-time comedy.

Kliph graciously set aside some time to answer some questions from DM.

You’ve discovered a whole new area of research to mine, at least for people of our generation. Soon it will just be called “Kliphland.” How did you get started investigating the midcentury era of comedians?

Kliph Nesteroff: As a teenager I was your typical hipster scum, collecting vinyl records and raiding local thrift stores. I collected soul music, garage rock, surf music - and comedy records. The comedy LPs were by far the most worthless. I would see the same comedy records in every junk pile: Rusty Warren, Woody Woodbury, The First Family featuring Vaughn Meader.

I was already interested in comedy but had never heard of these people. Why were they in every thrift store but never on TV or in movies? They must have been super popular at one point if their records were everywhere, right? So that made me sort of curious. Then I learned that after Vaughn Meader had the best-selling record of all time (not just comedy, but any LP period) he went crazy, schizophrenic, destitution, eating out of dumpsters, eventually wandering the desert on peyote before turning Christian and reinventing himself as a local country and western performer in Maine. Clearly there was a worthwhile story there.

I was already a writer and started stand-up at the age of 18. So, I guess the subject matter was just a natural combination of interests. The creative freedom Ken Freedman provided at WFMU allowed me to experiment and write on any topic of my choosing.

The kids in the audience at the UCB Theater probably have no idea that they’re enthused about an art form that was more or less invented by the Mob. You write that pretty much all comedians after Prohibition were working by the grace of one or another group of gangsters. That must have been hard!

Kliph Nesteroff: No, I wouldn’t say the Mafia invented the art form. In my book I have an anecdote from a 90-year-old comedian who argues they coined the phrase “stand-up comic,” because the Mob managed boxers they called “stand-up fighters” and called people they could rely on “stand-up guys.” But no, the Mob had nothing to do with inventing it. They simply owned 90% of the venues where comedians performed from the 1930s through the mid-1960s. So, you know, make the wrong wisecrack and you might suffer a broken limb.

You’ve spent a lot of time lately hanging out with some of the now-forgotten stand ups of the 1950s, who are now getting pretty old and crotchety too. They’ve been treating you pretty well, but they’ve probably been difficult at times too. Any stories to pass along?

Kliph Nesteroff: I don’t know. Old people get angry sometimes. I guess we would too if we had trouble peeing. Carl Reiner is considered the epitome of clean comedy, a guy who can write divinely funny scripts without cussing. I was at a Dick Van Dyke tribute once. I went to the bathroom and was at the second urinal when someone came in and went to the first urinal right beside me. It was a 90-year-old Carl Reiner. He braced himself with his left hand against the wall and the whole time he was at the urinal grumbling, “Goddamit Fuck! Come on! Go! Go! Just go! Jesus fucking bullshit, come on! Fucking goddamn fuck!”

You’ve unearthed so much valuable information about pioneers who helped forge comedy archetypes we all take for granted now, like Frank Fay and Jerry Lester. It must have been fun to spot and explain connections between, say, Bert Williams and Jim Gaffigan.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, mapping the connections that haven’t been connected before is a little bit like playing God. Based on the reviews coming in, it sounds like I’ve laid down some kind of masterwork, a sacrosanct history of comedy, and that’s extremely flattering and gratifying - but wasn’t my intention at all. I was just writing whatever I felt was interesting. Comparing Jim Gaffigan’s under-the-breath comments to a similar gimmick the vaudeville comic Bert Williams utilized is just an easy point of reference to help the reader get it. Sort of the way lazy film critics explain new movies: “It’s Revenge of the Nerds meets Schindler’s List!”

It was interesting to read about Carlin’s drug use in such detail. I didn’t realize how central LSD was to his reinvention in the late ‘60s.

Kliph Nesteroff: George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin are considered the three revolutionary figures of comedy from that time. All three were primarily into cocaine in the 1970s, but before that Carlin and Pryor used LSD to positive effect. I think we as a society, y’know, as we hear The Beatles piped through at the local grocery store… we forget just how valuable psychedelics have been to expanding the artist’s inherent ability. Carlin and Pryor would have been fine talents regardless, they were born with that. But it’s because of their 1960s LSD use that their perspectives were forever altered, and why so many today consider them comic geniuses. LSD and other psychedelics can help our latent talents fuse new, uncharted neuro pathways and in turn create an original artistic temperament, unique perspective, prolific output. Groundbreaking revelations come from these experiences and they don’t wear off like a hallucination. Instead you possess new insight that will further your existing artistic ability. I mean, it’s hardly news that LSD is responsible for countless Aphrodites in music, illustration, filmmaking… But maybe the new news, as I argue in my book, is that it had the same important effect on comedy. If such theories are accepted, it’s usually in reference to the 1960s. Let’s not forget that it can still be used with the same revelatory intent today. To quote George Carlin: “More people should do acid.”

Flip Wilson was a huge deal in the 1970s, but he’s practically forgotten now. Can you describe his importance to the comedy counterculture?

Kliph Nesteroff: It’s mostly tangential. He was an early employer for Richard Pryor and George Carlin, using them as writers, and bankrolled Carlin’s best-selling comedy LPs. Flip Wilson’s significance was less on the counterculture than the mainstream. He was the very first African-American with a major network success of his own. You could argue Cosby with I Spy, but Cosby only costarred. Flip Wilson was the star of his own show… an African-American cokehead who had the number one comedy program in America. Think about that. Ten years earlier, Sammy Davis Jr, a guy who loved Sinatra’s racist jokes and endorsed Richard Nixon, could not get a sponsor for his own variety show because he was Black. Just a few years later and Flip Wilson was on the cover of every conceivable magazine. It’s incredible how quickly America changed. And despite the lunatics saying abhorrent things on cable news today, I think we’re experiencing another rapid paradigm shift akin to that era. Never in my lifetime did I expect to see gay marriage, marijuana legalization or a Black president. Nor could I ever imagine that Bernie Sanders would be a household name. Jerry Seinfeld kvetching about political correctness is not too far from Bob Hope complaining about hippie protestors. America is changing, brother. Sure, everything could dissipate like Jerry Rubin turning into a Wall Street powerbroker, but I think we’re only entering the Abbie Hoffman phase of this new era.

Order Kliph Nesteroff’s The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy from Amazon.

Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Hitler’s home movies, starring Mel Brooks (with a young David Letterman), 1978
Short-haired George Carlin on ‘What’s My Line?’ in 1969

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
‘The Richard Pryor Show’: All four episodes of the short-lived series are online
11:12 am


Richard Pryor
Richard Pryor Show

Richard Pryor was famously ill-adapted to “popular” audiences. For example, he was originally slated to play Sheriff Bart in Blazing Saddles, but no studio would fund the film with him in the role, fearing his drug habits, erratic behavior and reputation would sink the film. Mel Brooks actually fought for Pryor, but admitted he understood studio hesitation when Pryor casually offered him a bump during a meeting (Brooks response? “Never before dinner, thanks.”). Regardless, Pryor’s acting and character work was always superb and inspired, as you can see from The Richard Pryor Show, which sadly flopped after just four episodes in 1977.

It’s an odd departure for Pryor of course—parodies and lighter sketches, but the show is funny, and slyly references his reputation from time to time. At the beginning of the third episode, Pryor’s “monologue” is “interrupted,” by an unseen suit who dubs him over with “network-approved” material, while Pryor gesticulates furiously on mute.There are stand-up segments of course, and interestingly, the live audience appears to be mostly black. The show was toast before it had a chance of course, running opposite ABC’s Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days during “family hour” on Tuesdays, but it remains a big part of TV history, making TV Guide’s 2013 “Cancelled Too Soon” list.

Episodes two, three and four.

Via Network Awesome

Posted by Amber Frost | Leave a comment
Tom Scharpling Interview: ‘The Best Show,’ death, comedy and radio (not necessarily in that order)
05:43 pm

Pop Culture

Mike Sacks
Tom Scharpling

Jon Wurster and Tom Scharpling, collectively Scharpling & Wurster

This is a guest post from New York-based writer Mike Sacks. Mike’s latest book is Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers from Viking Penguin.

The long-form radio comedy and music program The Best Show ran on Jersey City, New Jersey’s WFMU from 2000 to 2013. This past year, The Best Show segued into the podcast-only realm, where it streams live every Tuesday night at 9:00 PM EST at Past radio shows, dating back to 2000, can be found at

In May, the Chicago-based label Numero released a glorious boxed set containing 75 incredibly nuanced radio comedic bits from The Best Show (spread over 16 CDs) between Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster that should be a primer for anyone interested in comedy. Fifty of these bits are previously unreleased or unaired.

For those not familiar, a typical episode of The Best Show consists of music culled by Tom, call-ins from listeners, some of whom are regulars, and phone conversations between comedy-writer Tom and comedian and professional drummer Jon Wurster. Over the years, the pair have created a virtual, three-dimensional world out of a proud, imaginary town called Newbridge, New Jersey. It’s Lake Wobegon without the nose whistling.

The boxed set, called The Best of the Best Show, contains a 108-page hardcover book, featuring essays by comedians Patton Oswalt and Julie Klausner, and a 22-page interview with Tom and Jon conducted by Jake Fogelnest.

Beyond even that, there are temporary tattoos, postcards, and four hours of bonus material, including the classic bit “The Bruce Willis Saga.” This boxed set will keep you occupied this summer—and beyond. I’ve been listening non-stop for the past few weeks. It has the comedic density of an imploded star. It’s the most impressive comedy album/CD/USB drive I’ve ever heard. The consistency and variety are amazing.

The Best Show is comedy in its purest form. It’s not possible that this show could be improved upon in a different format, whether it be television, movies or print. Or whether the show included a team of writers or a cast or performers. Long-form radio is the perfect medium for The Best Show, and if it has taken mainstream audiences awhile to find it (years after the comedy intelligentsia fell in love), then so be it.

I spoke with Tom one Friday afternoon at a noisy bar in the World Trade Center area about the new boxed set, the recent death of his father, and many other subjects. Much thanks must go out to my friend Michal Addady for her helpful assistance.

You’re now working as a writer on the new HBO show Divorce which will air this fall. Who else is in the writing room?

[Irish writer and director] Sharon Horgan [Pulling, Catastrophe] created the show, and she’s running it with Paul Simms. Sharon is incredibly funny and Paul’s never worked on a bad show. He’s written for Flight of the Conchords, Late Night with David Letterman, The Larry Sanders Show, NewsRadio. He runs a great room.

Another writer is Adam Resnick [Late Night with David Letterman, Get a Life, Cabin Boy].

I’m a huge fan of Adam’s work. It’s been great to see the recent uptick in interest and appreciation for Get a Life and Cabin Boy. It’s well deserved.

It’s funny. It’s almost had to reach the lowest possible level for Get a Life and Cabin Boy to bounce back to where they’ve always belonged. I have a lot of theories on why and how everything bad happened with Get a Life and Cabin Boy. People like to think they’re smarter than dumb Hollywood products, and these two got misinterpreted as being dumb comedies. Audiences wanted to be like, “How dare you push dumb things on us!” The difference is that Cabin Boy knows what it is. It’s not just a crass movie by Pauly Shore that’s trying to convince you that it’s smart but it’s also dumb. No, this was a smart movie made by smart people who were fascinated with the parameters of—who were so deep into comedy . . .

I sometimes wonder if one can be too deep into comedy when making a show or a movie intended to be a financial and popular success.

I don’t know. I think Get a Life and Cabin Boy have been vindicated.

It took a long time.

Sometimes it takes a long time, Mike. Sometimes you start doing a radio show when Bill Clinton is president and then you start finally getting attention when Obama is about to stop being president.

Well, let’s talk about your show and the attention it’s recently been receiving. And national attention. I saw your and Jon’s appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers [on May 15, 2015] to promote The Best of the Best Show. That must have been fun.

I don’t know if it was fun. I mean, that’s not fun, it’s terrifying.

It’s a strange thing to be on a show like that. It’s a fake conversation in a way. You’re taking a thing and you’re reducing it to two sentences. Our show is not an easy thing to talk about. It doesn’t necessarily translate that quickly, but we tried. It was great and Seth was great. I was excited about the whole thing. But I was also feeling like, This is not natural.

I recently attended my first-ever broadcast of a late-night show, in this case Letterman’s. It was fascinating to watch the behind-the-scenes machinations. It’s anything but natural. At one point, Reese Witherspoon, who was promoting her new movie, Hot Pursuit, showed a clip from the movie. I kept watching Reese, off camera, who was staring ahead, stony-faced. No expression. And it was only when she knew the cameras were about to go live again that she lit up and started laughing, as if she found the clip hilarious and hadn’t already seen it a hundred times.

It’s presentation. It’s just all a giant illusion, right? All of it.

Not your show.

Sure it is. It’s all presentational.

It’s presentational, but it’s not an illusion.

No, it’s replicating a call-in show, in a way.

It is a call-in show.

Yeah, but it’s also a version of a call-in show. I mean, do I care about the answers to the topics half the time? Not necessarily.

But you do obviously care greatly about the details. I’ve also been lucky enough to attend a live taping of your show. I remember that you were in the middle of a bit with Jon—who was in character at the time—and, as part of the bit, he told you to climb beneath your desk. Instead of pretending to do so, you actually got beneath your desk and asked, “Okay, now what?”

Well, I wanted it to sound good. To get that sound across, that’s what that was all about. I didn’t need to do it for performance sake, but I wanted it to sound like I was actually under the table.

That sense of detail is what makes your new boxed set so amazing. It’s an entire, very believable world you’ve created. It’s like a comedic version of Westeros or Narnia. There’s everything in this town: factories, mountains, lakes, even a jungle. Scores of characters, many of whom are related. I’m almost surprised there aren’t Newbridge Larpers.

As a performer, Jon is fully formed. He’s as talented as it gets. He’s working on two different levels: he’s one of the best drummers going [for Superchunk, Mountain Goats, Bob Mould and others], but that’s just one half of who he is. The other half is that he’s one of the best comedians going. This never happens.

Ringo did okay.

Jon’s funnier than Ringo. And a better drummer.

Continues after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
‘Nick Danger’ RIP: Firesign Theatre’s Phil Austin, 1941-2015
03:42 pm


Firesign Theatre
Phillip Austin

Oh man. Some very bad, very sad news just crossed my desk in the form of this short email from Taylor Jessen, archivist extraordinaire, of the Firesign Theatre:

I’m very sorry to report that Phil Austin died last night at his home in Fox Island, Washington. Phil had been suffering from multiple cancers and had chosen to keep his condition private, so this was a sad and terrible surprise for us all. At his request, no memorial service is being planned.

Born in Denver, Colorado in 1941, but raised in Fresno, CA, Phil Austin went to Bowdoin College and then UCLA, before joining the staff of KPFK radio in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. It was at KPFK’s North Hollywood studio where he met his future partners in “the Beatles of comedy,” David Ossman and Peter Bergman, and later Phil Proctor, who’d been a friend of Bergman’s at Yale. Together as the Firesign Theatre (each of the troupe was an astrological “fire” sign), they recorded around thirty albums, including their Library of Congress recognized masterpiece, Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, and other classics like Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, Everything You Know is Wrong and I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus. He is survived by his lovely wife Oona and their menagerie of pets.

Below, Phil Austin stars as “Happy” Harry Cox, a trailer-dwelling New Agey conspiracy theorist that Art Bell seems to have based his entire career on in the Firesign Theatre short Everything You Know is Wrong (This will be on the upcoming Firesign Theatre DVD in much better quality. Keep checking their website for the release date.)

Continues after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
‘Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video’: The man who made comedy dangerous

“A six-inch steel spike..”

Michael O’Donoghue, AKA Mr. Mike, the demented head writer and performer from the “original cast” era of Saturday Night Live (back when it was simply known as Saturday Night) was the man who made comedy dangerous. His writing was feral, sharp, blasphemous, morbid, sardonic and taboo-breaking. It was O’Donoghue seated in a chair reading a newspaper who viewers first saw in the very first cold-opening of that long-running show. He was often seen on SNL doing imitations of famous showbiz personalities (nice-guy talk show host Mike Douglas, singer Tony Orlando) after they’d had six-inch metal spikes shoved into their eyes, and telling his creepy “Least Loved Bedtime Tales” (Sample title: “The Little Train That Died”).

Before SNL, O’Donoghue had a celebrated tenure at National Lampoon, where he co-wrote (with Tony Hendra) the classic Radio Dinner comedy album and published things like “The Vietnamese Baby Book” and “The Churchill Wit,” a portion from which is quoted below:

Churchill was known to drain a glass or two and, after one particularly convivial evening, he chanced to encounter Miss Bessie Braddock, a Socialist member of the House of Commons, who, upon seeing his condition, said, “Winston, you’re drunk.” Mustering all his dignity, Churchill drew himself up to his full height, cocked an eyebrow and rejoined, “Shove it up your ass, you ugly cunt.”

When the noted playwright George Bernard Shaw sent him two tickets to the opening night of his new play with a note that read: “Bring a friend, if you have one,” Churchill, not to be outdone, promptly wired back: “You and your play can go fuck yourselves.”

At an elegant dinner party, Lady Astor once leaned across the table to remark, “If you were my husband, Winston, I’d poison your coffee.”

“And if you were my wife, I’d beat the shit out of you,” came Churchill’s unhesitating retort.

You get the idea. I recall falling out of my chair laughing, when I first read this. In my defense, I was probably ten or eleven years old.

Mr. Mike and “friend”

In 1979 O’Donoghue directed Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video (the title, logo and theme music—even the overall loose format—was meant to conjure up Prosperi and Jacopetti’s notorious Mondo Cane documentary). It was originally made for NBC to air as a “special” during one of Saturday Night‘s hiatuses, but when the network brass actually saw it they blanched and shelved it. Eventually it was licensed by New Line Cinema, who transferred it to 35mm film and added some “Mr. Bill” segments to pad out the running time for theatrical release of “the TV show you can’t see on TV!”

Admittedly, after hearing about this legendary film and wanting to see it for years, I saw Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video when it was released on VHS in the 80s and aside from a few very good laughs, I was generally pretty disappointed. Comedy often ages poorly, but in actual fact, I don’t really think Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video was all that funny to begin with. It’s interesting because of what it is and who is involved (Tom Schiller, O’Donoghue’s writing partner Mitch Glazer, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Bill Murray, Don “Father Guido Sarducci” Novello, Gilda Radner, Carrie Fisher, Root Boy Slim, Margot Kidder, Teri Garr, Paul Shaffer, Debbie Harry). It’s an odd curio with some odd stuff in it (Dan Aykroyd probing his (actual) webbed toes with a screwdriver and declaring “I am proud to say that I am an actual genetic mutant”; an appearance by Klaus Nomi; Sid Vicious performing “My Way”; Jo Jo the Human Hot Plate, etc.) but it’s just not… that funny for the most part.

Nevertheless, take a gander at certainly one of the strangest things ever produced with the intention/assumption that a TV network would air it and try to imagine what NBC’s execs were thinking when they watched this for the first time.

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Merrill Markoe: Unsung heroine of ‘Late Night with David Letterman’
01:35 pm


David Letterman
Merrill Markoe

With the imminent retirement of the great David Letterman nigh upon us Dangerous Minds pal Mike Sacks, author of And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers and Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers, the two best books ever published on the creative process of writing comedy, has generously allowed us to publish his extended interview with Late Night‘s original head writer, Merrill Markoe.

It was the Emmy award-winning Markoe, arguably as much as Letterman himself, who set the silly, ironic, smart and absurd tone of the show. This in-depth exploration of what made Late Night such amazing and precedent-shattering television during her tenure is an absolute pleasure to read.

Born in New York and raised in New Jersey, Miami, and the San Francisco Bay area, Merrill Markoe spent her youth reading Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker, as well as watching W.C. Fields for his “bizarre word choices.” She attended Berkeley and, after receiving a Master’s in Arts in 1973, she tried teaching art at the University of Southern California for a year but found herself restless. Instead, she audited a few scriptwriting and filmmaking classes and, in 1977, landed a writing job for The New Laugh-In, sans Rowan and Martin. The show, to the surprise of nobody, was a disaster, even with (or because of) cast members such as Robin Williams and former child evangelist Marjoe Gortner. (Not familiar with him? Rent the 1972 documentary Marjoe—please.)

When TV proved frustrating, Markoe tried her luck on the stand-up circuit in Los Angeles, mostly at The Comedy Store and the Improv, where she became friends with such promising (if still unknown) comics as Andy Kaufman and David Letterman. After a few wildly successful appearances on The Tonight Show, Letterman was given his own daytime talk show on NBC in 1980, and he brought in Markoe (whom he’d been dating since 1978) as his head writer. The show didn’t last long, partly because Letterman and Markoe’s humor didn’t translate to an early-morning crowd, and partly because they nearly burned the studio down (more on that later). Within four months, the show was canceled.

But, in 1982, NBC gave Letterman another chance, and, more important, a better time slot. Late Night with David Letterman—which came on just after The Tonight Show, hosted by Letterman’s idol, Johnny Carson—was a perfect fit, and, thanks largely to Markoe’s indispensable collaboration, it became a unique and inimitable comic creation.

Six years later, in 1988, Markoe abruptly left the show. As she’s written on her website, she’d “plumbed the depths of [her] ability to invent off-beat, comedic ideas for acerbic witty white male hosts in suits.”

Markoe moved back west, to Los Angeles, where she had little problem finding work. She wrote for TV shows as diverse as Newhart (1988), Moonlighting (1989) and Sex and the City (1999), and appeared as a writer/reporter on HBO’s Not Necessarily the News (1990) and Michael Moore’s political-satire TV Nation (1994). She also discovered a writing life outside of TV, contributing comedic essays and columns for Esquire, Glamour, People, Rolling Stone, Time, U.S. News & World Report, as well as The New York Times and the Huffington Post. She probably made the biggest impact, however, with her humor books, which have included such critical and fan favorites as What the Dogs Have Taught Me (1992), How to Be Hap-Hap-Happy Like Me! (1994), Merrill Markoe’s Guide to Love (1997), It’s My F—-ing Birthday (2002), The Psycho Ex Game (2004), Walking in Circles Before Lying Down (2006), Nose Down, Eyes Up (2008), Cool, Calm & Contentious: Essays (2011).

Mike Sacks: You once described yourself as “one of those 1960s art-student types.” Were you in any way a radical?

Merrill Markoe: I was certainly against the war in Vietnam. And I attended a Black Panther rally once—by myself, I might add. I was one of the few white people there. What I was doing there I cannot exactly explain, except that I attended almost every event that was within walking distance at the time. But, me being me, I always left early. I left every important cultural event of the sixties and seventies early. Name any one. Altamont? I left before the killing. I felt compelled to attend these events, but I never really liked big, angry crowds, or drugs, or the smell of patchouli. By the way, everything smelled like patchouli back then! Even sweaty, knife-wielding bikers who drank Ripple.

One of the few events I did not attend was Woodstock. I wouldn’t have enjoyed being a part of that big, happy, muddy, mellow community. I probably would have been standing off on the sidelines somewhere, in my beloved paint-splattered clothes, complaining about the weather and the sound system, and making snide remarks about all the embarrassing free-form naked dancing. Talk about a place that probably reeked of patchouli. No question I would have definitely left early.

So it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that you felt like an outsider in the sixties?

I’m very consistent; I’ve felt like an outsider every single decade. Some of it is because I struggle to control my tendency toward contrarianism. If I know there is something I am supposed to be doing or saying or wearing, I feel compelled to resist—particularly with creative endeavors, like writing. If I see an obvious punch line or plotline driving toward me, I can’t help but make a sharp left turn into the unexpected. I don’t like to replicate what I’ve seen done before—I don’t like to give people what they expect. I think it’s my job to come up with a surprising angle or to add some personal twist.

You first met David Letterman when you were doing stand-up in Los Angeles in the late seventies. Would you say that one of his strengths as a stand-up, even at the beginning of his career, was the degree to which the audience felt a strong rapport with him—that they always felt they were in on the joke?

Yes, correct. He was always a crowd pleaser. Plus, he always had Johnny Carson in mind as his model. Dave always knew how to connect with an audience, even from the very beginning.

Both you and Letterman started in the trenches of showbiz. Can you tell me about the first TV show you worked on together?

Dave and I worked on a 1978 CBS variety show called Mary, starring Mary Tyler Moore and featuring Michael Keaton. I don’t know if it qualifies as the “trenches” of show business, but I do know it was canceled after three or four episodes, even though 60 Minutes was the lead-in and Mary Tyler Moore was America’s sweetheart. The show was an uncomfortable combination of old showbiz style variety, mixed with a miscalculated attempt to include some of that wacky, absurdist comic sensibility that the kids liked so much from that new program Saturday Night Live.

For example, the Mary show did a parody of the Village People song “Macho Man” that had Dave and Michael Keaton dressed in L.L.Bean catalog outfits, in a setting that was made to look like a scene from Deliverance. I forget where the comedy was supposed to be in all this. I do know the powers-that-be didn’t realize that “Macho Man” was a gay anthem. I also remember vividly that Dave was in real agony about this bit of levity.

What was the second TV show you both worked on?

Leave It to Dave. It was a 1978 pilot for Dave’s own talk show, which never actually made it to air.

From what I’ve read, this is a notorious show. The set resembled a pyramid, and Letterman sat on a throne.

Because this was at the very beginning of Dave’s talk show career, he was sort of afraid to assert his point of view. There were people he hired and put in charge who supposedly knew all about the right way to execute a talk show. Unfortunately, one of their goofy ideas was to have a pyramid-shape on the set that contained built-in benches covered with shag carpeting for Dave and his guests to sit on. No boring old-school desk and chairs for us! Better to look like the interviews were taking places at a “carpeteria” trade show at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas.

The set was not even the worst idea that came down that particular pike. I remember that one of Dave’s managers wanted the guests to make their entrances by sliding down a chute and then landing on a sea of throw pillows. But even more vivid, is the memory of how little blood there was in Dave’s face when he was presenting the news to me. Somehow we succeeded in getting that idea shit-canned.

How did your next project, The David Letterman Show, come about? This morning show, a precursor to Late Night, was on NBC for only a short period in the summer and fall of 1980, but it became very influential with comedians and humor writers.

Around this time, Dave began appearing on The Tonight Show, and I was helping him come up with comedy material for those appearances.

Do you remember any of the jokes you wrote for him?

Here’s one: “The commercial for Alpo dog food boasts that Alpo is superior because it contains ‘All beef and not a speck of cereal.’ My dog spends his days going through the garbage and drinking out of the toilet. Something tells me he might not mind a speck of cereal.”

So Dave was getting a very good response from his Tonight Show appearances, and it didn’t take long for NBC to offer him his own morning talk show. Ninety minutes a day. Live. At 10:00 A.M. This prospect seemed less appealing to me than it did to Dave, but by now I was in over my head with regard to both of Freud’s two big areas: work and love. So, I just kept playing along.


Steve O’Donnell—a longtime writer for Letterman—once described the show’s staff as those who really liked television but also kind of hated television. Was this true for you?

Yes, absolutely. I was particularly sick of seeing everyone on television doing that bigger-than-life, fraudulent, full of shit television persona—which was mainly how the shows all worked then. I welcomed the idea of a host being caught having real reactions to odd situations.

A lot of the segments on the morning show later showed up on Late Night. Can you tell me how “Stupid Pet Tricks” began? Was it meant to be a one-time deal only?

One immediate task—when we were determining how to construct a daily format—was to create segments that could be repeated. Since there was a horizon of future shows spreading out in front of us that seemed to stretch into infinity, it seemed to call for free-form thinking. Dave and I had two dogs and we wanted to do something with animals besides just having the guy from the zoo bring on the pygmy marmosets. I remembered how in college my friends and I would be hanging around in the evenings, talking and drinking. One form of constant entertainment was to put socks on this one dog. Everyone I knew did some version of a silly thing like that with their pets, so we ran an ad to see if we could pull a segment together like that.

When it succeeded, we mutated that idea into “Stupid Human Tricks.” We also considered “Stupid Baby Tricks,” but pulled the plug because—based on what we were seeing in the other two categories—we were afraid it would encourage child endangerment.

Were you responsible for “Viewer Mail”?

More or less. When we started “Viewer Mail” on the morning show, originally the idea was meant as a kind of parody of something 60 Minutes was doing, where they’d show a mailbox and a magnified fragment of a letter. Their letters always commented on something of importance: “Regarding your piece on nuclear disarmament, I just wanted to say …”

I thought it would be funny to show the mail we were receiving, which was mostly pages full of scrawled non sequiturs from deranged people. By the time the show re-appeared at night, this had evolved into little sketches that played off the content.

Do any other particular moments stand out from the morning show?

It was pretty much nonstop bizarre particular moments. One highlight was when we decided to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of a couple from Long Island named Sam and Betty Kotinoff. We selected them from a group of people who wrote in and volunteered. Our plan was to show snippets of this big party throughout the regular broadcast, and we would check in with them to see how everything was going.

For music, we hired the Harve Mann Trio, a wedding band dressed in tuxes. We also hired a very flamboyant decorator and party planner to do the catering. He not only brought in ice sculptures, but he also staged a lovely finale, where synthetic rose petals would float down from the ceiling while all the revelers held sparklers and swayed in contented delight. So it came to pass that as Dave signed off, the rose petals floated down and met the sparklers and created a number of small fires. As the credits rolled, the show ended with the Kotinoff family stomping out flames, as stage hands rushed in with fire extinguishers. Wafting from behind the clouds of smoke was Harve Mann still singing his closing song, “Can’t Smile Without You.”

Dave and I were really mortified until we saw the tapes. Then we couldn’t stop laughing.

What did you hope to achieve with this morning show? Did you feel that it was time for a talk show that reflected your own sensibility?

Yeah, both Dave and I felt that way. But Dave had more respect and passion for the history of TV talk shows than I did. Besides his love for The Tonight Show, Dave’s favorite role model was always the old Steve Allen Westinghouse Show [1962-1964], which had elements of stunts, character pieces, and audience interaction. I liked some of Steve Allen’s work as well, such as when he would jump into a vat of Jell-O, or had himself covered with tea bags so he could be dunked up and down inside a giant aquarium by a crane to make an enormous container of tea.

But to be honest, I never much liked The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Dave used to say that Johnny Carson seemed like the hip uncle whom he wanted to please. But to me, that show was a place where they never booked any smart women. I couldn’t help but view it through the prism of my U.C. Berkeley Art School experiences, which boiled down to a simple “fuck that plastic showbiz shit.”

What smart women in particular were missing from The Tonight Show?

Any smart women, of any stripe. Writers, reporters, producers, filmmakers, artists, scientists, eccentrics. No comediennes ever appeared on that show besides Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller. Certainly none of the comediennes my own age appeared on the show.

On The Tonight Show, women were either amazingly glamorous actresses or they were booked to create cleavage-related humor and flirt with Johnny. I guess there must have been exceptions I am not remembering—the opera singer Beverly Sills, for example, or Carol Burnett.

But, as a whole, there never seemed to be any cerebrally oriented female content. I thought of it as one more example of the old showbiz sensibility that I was so sick of. Johnny reminded me of Hef in Playboy After Dark. Dave could look at Johnny and see a guy with whom he could joke and communicate. I would only see the kind of guy who would want no part of me and my kind.

More Merrill Markoe after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
‘Pattern Behavior’: The funniest site you’ll see on the Internet today
09:28 am



Chicago comedian Natalie Kossar’s Pattern Behavior is the current hot-shit Tumblr blowing up the Twitterverse, and for good reason. Go there right now and laugh your ass off at her cleverly détourned sewing pattern packages.

According to Kossar:

After my mother insisted that I help her “use Google” to find a particular sewing pattern from 1989, I became fascinated and inspired by McCall’s vintage sewing patterns. Only instead of using them to make clothes, I decided to make these cartoons.

Kossar’s captioning style plays on the inherent dated tackiness of the painted models, creating modern “truthful” scenarios that apply snarky realism to the absurdity of the poses and positions—which are virtually crying out for explanation. She manages to do this without taking cheap, obvious shots. The results are hilarious, as you will see.

We dare you to find anything funnier on the Internet today.


More after the jump…

Posted by Christopher Bickel | Leave a comment
Pearls before swine: The worst stand-up comic on YouTube
01:16 pm


Pearl Gross

OMFG is this funny.

Meet “comedian” Pearl Gross. This clip was culled from a cable access show and then embellished with sound effects, laughter and some famous faces in the audience (including Ringo Starr and Robbie Coltrane).

I laughed until I cried. She jokes around about her brother Bob and even sings a terrible ditty in his honor.

It’s…rather remarkable…Blobs,” (aka Johnny) the YouTuber who made this video described it like so:

Pearl Gross performs her world-renowned stand-up act in front of a live, and at times fickle, audience.



Here’s the original clip, also funny, but in a different way…


Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
‘Hello Arthur? This is your mother. Do you remember me?’: The comedy genius of Nichols & May
02:25 pm


Mike Nichols
Elaine May
Nichols & May

Something from the Dangerous Minds archives to commemorate the passing of Mike Nichols. This was originally posted on January 31, 2011.  

“Sometimes each of us would be thinking “Oh god, I know where we’re going,” and both of us would race to get there first.”—Mike Nichols

Over the weekend, Tara and I watched a 15-year-old PBS America Masters documentary on the incredibly brilliant 50s/60s comedy duo of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Titled Nichols & May: Take Two, it features thoughtful discussions of the pair’s work by the likes of Steve Martin, Jules Feiffer and Tom Browkaw. What made the hour-long piece so especially exciting to watch was, well, finally getting to watch them do these great routines that I have listened to over and over and over again on records. Most of it was new to me (visually speaking, that is) and I was just ecstatically happy to see it. (Not to mention how absolutely stunning Elaine May was! Wow! What a fox!)

When I was a kid I absolutely adored Nichols & May. As Steve Martin remarked about their albums, there was really something quite musical about their comedy that leant it to repeated listens. Robin Williams compares the dance of their wit to a beautiful ballet. What they created together wasn’t really like anything else, either before or since. Their comedy albums weren’t stand-up comedy at all, of course. Nichols & May were actors and writers performing their own material, often the result of improvisations (a hallmark of their live act). Both of them have really great, expressive voices and their classic routines are absolute perfection, as honed and as precise as language can be used. Much of their material begins with seemingly random, meandering or nervous conversation that eventually comes into sharp focus. They were great at portraying pompous idiots with nothing to say and no qualms whatsoever about saying it. Although hardly risque, Nichols & May were “grown up” and probably the first satirists to include riffs on post-coital pillow talk and adultery in their repertoire during the Eisenhower administration.

A large part of the appeal for ardent Nichols and May fans was the cultural signifiers they—well, their stuffy, insecure characters—would casually drop into their routines. College-educated, upscale fans who made the high IQ duo such a success on Broadway would feel a part of the “in crowd” when presented with material referencing Béla Bartók or Nietzsche, although no one was exactly excluded by their brainy comedy, either. Routines about phone calls from foreign countries, getting ripped off by funeral homes and psychotically nagging mothers could be enjoyed by anyone, but the high falutin’ grad school references were the dog whistles that garnered them their staunchest fans. Amusing to consider that these “sophisticates” were usually the very people skewered most savagely by the double-edged sword of Nichols & May’s humor.

Often, it was Elaine May’s characters who set about psychologically torturing the hapless male creations of straight-man Nichols. Gerald Nachman relates several examples of May’s emasculating wit in a pre-feminist era in his book Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. One tale is told of May getting wolf whistles and noisy kisses from two guys who followed her down the street. “What’s the matter? Tired of each other?” she asked. One of them yelled back, “Fuck you!” and she fired back, “With WHAT?


In their famous “Telephone” sketch, Nichols plays a hapless man, stranded and down to his final dime, trying to use a pay phone with disastrous results. May plays three different telephone operators, none about to give him his “alleged die-yum” back. To SEE them do this&8230; Ah! I was in heaven:

Plenty more Nichols & May after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
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