A Talk Show Disaster

My days are filled with the sensation that I am always five minutes away from a terrible mistake.

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The UG! Quarantine Show is one of NYC-based actor/director/stand-up Todd Montesi’s many, many ongoing projects. Live on Instagram, he and his fellow stand-ups discuss life and comedy in our pandemic era. He won me as a fan just because he pronounces the name of the show as it is written: “Ugh! Quarantine,” and not as I had pronounced it in my head when I first saw it: “U. G. Quarantine,” like the name of a long-ago college president.

He also sometimes says, “U. G.,” but it is his show, so he can.

In May, I started to work with a friend, Meghan Jenkins, an actor/comedian/director/creator/writer whose work and personality have started to attract notice from those whose notice might be desired. I assisted others more talented than I am in some of the work required to launch her website, and she has allowed me to publish a couple articles for her there. She also asked me to contribute a monologue to be read each week on her online improv comedy show, The The Ding Wrong Show.

My friend, Ms. Jenkins, landed an appearance on the UG! Quarantine show on October 10, and, not to get all show-bizzy on you, she slayed, as anyone who knows her might expect she would. (Video after the fold.) What was unexpected by your correspondent—me—was the fact that she spoke my name at all during her appearance, more than once. To judge from her discussion, one could be forgiven to think that I might be an individual worth an interview. Thus, I made my own appearance on Mr. Montesi’s program on October 12, and based on the video, it is clear that I am not that individual. (Shakes head vigorously, like a restaurant patron with regrets about that request for “extra parmesan.”)

Here is Ms. Jenkins’ appearance on the UG! Quarantine of October 10 (she makes her appearance at 8:09 into the show):
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30 Years with the Magnificent Glass Pelican

Perhaps the radar that the Magnificent Glass Pelican has flown under for many years had never been turned on. We escaped detection for so long because no one was looking.

My association with the longest-running unknown radio campus comedy show dates back to around this date in 1990. Before I met my friends (now lifelong friends), several had written skits and started to record them in a home recording studio.

One day, the friend with the recording studio (and the home!) asked to play me some of those tapes. I was a graduate student who had just started to study English Lit. and he had just finished his degree and was now an instructor in the English department. This was at SUNY (State University of New York) New Paltz.

I had just experienced a non-triumphant summer in which two college friends and I attracted enough attention to one of our theatrical productions to earn a negative review in the local daily newspaper. Compared to some, that made me an impresario.
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Goodnight, Sweet Prince

Even in his later years, hunched over a cane, age did not appear to de-fang him. Don Rickles was still quick with his quips, even if the quips came quickly to him because he shot them out every day for six decades, quick with his many facial expressions of disgust and disappointment.

His reactions to audience reactions often brought his jokes from the barely memorable to the legendary. Rarely has a performer conveyed so much with the mere flicker of a expression change.

Don Rickles died today. The stand-up comic was 90, a month shy of his 91st birthday, but he was rarely shy. (I’ll be here all night folks, thanks.)

His stand-up act, till his last days, was remarkable, for someone past age 90 or not even 19, really: it was always unscripted. Yes, he knew what “insults” he was most likely going to deploy “against” audience members, and he knew that somehow he was going to convey that he was on the audience member’s side and not punching down at them. That was the extent of the notes he carried on stage with him. It was a tightrope act.

“If I were to insult people and mean it, that wouldn’t be funny. There is a difference between an actual insult” and doing that, he often stated.
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Peter Cook: An Appreciation

John Cleese has said that for him it often took hours of “grinding” work to write several minutes of comedy, but that Peter Cook could write three minutes of top-quality material in just over three minutes. It appeared to come to him that easily early in his career.

But Cook did work hard. As a writer and performer, Cook worked hard at avoiding politeness for politeness’ sake if a laugh was available instead. When the Prime Minister of England, Harold Macmillan, wanted to attend a performance of the hot new West End show, Beyond the Fringe, either no one told him that one part of the show was the performance of a monologue by Peter Cook as Macmillan and that Cook made Macmillan sound like a sluggish dolt, or it was expected that Cook would simply skip that section of the performance in deference to the nation’s leader. He didn’t.

In the monologue, Cook’s Prime Minister Macmillan reports on a visit with President Kennedy: “We talked of many things, including Great Britain’s position in the world as some kind of honest broker. I agreed with him when he said no nation could be more honest, and he agreed with me when I said no nation could be broker.”
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Insert Important Words Here to Attract Attention

“Son. May I call you that? No? Complete stranger, they say ‘you must give it away to keep it,’ and while I do not know what they mean by ‘it’ or even who ‘they’ might be, I just know that they keep telling me this. Again and again and again. But what do I have to give away? Pray tell, what? My wisdom, that’s what. My easy-won wisdom. And my encouragement.

“They also tell me that life should be worn like a loose Garmin, which I do not pretend to understand. Is it loose on the dashboard? That might be dangerous. You have to keep your GPS on a mount of some kind. You should wear your life like a fully charged GPS or phone—don’t want to get too hung up on terms and technology, because it is the philosophy I am getting at here that is important—wear your life like a portable device that you keep charged up and then hide in the glove compartment when you leave your car in a public parking lot. So don’t wear it at all. Carry your life like an electronic device that requires a two-year contract for you to use it, one that you would consider purchasing a protection plan for, but you ultimately do not, and you chance it.
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How to Be a Live TV Audience

Comedy Central’s two main franchise shows are both recorded in a part of New York City called “Hell’s Kitchen,” a section of Manhattan that extends about 25 blocks south and west of Central Park and west of Midtown over to the Hudson River. Most of the buildings in the neighborhood are former walk-ups and townhouses that are now offices for media companies; “The Colbert Report’s” studio looks like it was a house or storefront once upon a time.

The Thursday, September 18, 2014, broadcast of “The Colbert Report” was a very special one because I was in the audience, as I wrote yesterday, in “Four Minutes and 24 Years.” Terry Gilliam, the legendary film and theater director (the list is epic and includes: “Time Bandits,” “Brazil,” “The Fisher King,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “The Zero Theorem”) and Monty Python animator and cast member, was the guest.

The studio is on the same level as the street outside, but it takes a lifetime to get there. Sorry, that was a sentence from a television ad for a college course in broadcasting that I am working on. We should go back outside.

The tickets for live-on-tape broadcasts are free, because these shows need a full and loudly enthusiastic house for each and every show and the producers do not want people who feel that sense of hostile proprietorship that can come with a ticket purchase. (They do not want an audience of people with crossed arms and an attitude of, “Entertain me.”) A theatrical performance in front of an empty house could nonetheless be great but a television show performed to silence and a performer feeding off the silence could be horrifying to watch unfold. (Only Johnny Carson seemed to be able to work with a not-yet-impressed audience.)

The producers also do not want an audience of people off the street, happy to receive free things, but not aware of how to be an audience. Talk with a stage actor sometime. He or she will tell you stories of the weirdest things that have happened during performances: cell phones going off, of course, but also people taking the phone call; people walking across the stage (especially in theaters with the stage and seats on the same level) looking for a restroom; audience members yelling at or asking questions of the characters as if they are in their easy chair yelling at a TV screen; babies crying. The audience is supposed to be separate from the performance, with some exceptions. A live television show audience is not at a stage show; the audience is a part of the show: the audience is the soundtrack.

Thus, the audience is coached on this point by producers before the taping begins. And then re-coached. The performance at first felt like a pop quiz to gauge how well we had absorbed the coaching. It also felt like if we were insufficiently enthusiastic, we would be escorted back out to 54th Street.

The process of acquiring these free tickets varies from show to show but all of the shows use the method to establish that the audience is made up of fans. (Willing to be loud. Happy to pretend to not be faking enthusiasm.) Some shows use online trivia contests to winnow out the casual fans. My method was the easiest for me: I have a friend who has done this before (he attended “The Daily Show”) and wanted to do it again and invited me.

(Would that we had attended “The Daily Show” last Thursday; former President Clinton was there that day.)

The tickets one receives for registering online for a television taping are not tickets as one usually thinks of them. They do not guarantee a seat. They guarantee a spot on line, in a covered alleyway where one waits for the doors to open. We arrived early, chatted with the show assistants, and waited some more. The assistants are talented at a particular task: they quickly learn who is with whom, names, who has special needs. My friend’s wife sat with me at a coffeeshop for a few minutes while he held our group spot on line, then they traded: she went back and he sat with me. When he and I rejoined the line we found that we could not see her; one of the assistants got our attention (not vice versa, They. Ran. Us. Down), gave us our seat tickets, and ushered us into a room in the building, where she already was.

My thumb.

My thumb.

In that room, one goes through a security checkpoint and then waits. For over an hour. It is a square room, maybe 25 X 25 feet, extraordinarily air conditioned. Several monitors play old Colbert shows on a “Best of” loop. The walls are plastered with Colbert memorabilia. Over the next few minutes, the entire audience-to-be was herded into this room, which made clear the need for extreme air conditioning. Seeing I walk with a cane, one assistant walked me through the crowd to a bench.

Twice an assistant addressed the crowd. Both times the message was: “This is very special. Stephen is going to chat with you before the show, so have some questions ready.” (Perhaps he does this every show and they tell the audience it is special.) “When you’re watching the show at home, you only chuckle at the jokes because you’re thinking about your own life and you hear the audience in your TV laughing uproariously. You’re the audience in someone’s TV now. Whatever you’re going to laugh at, laugh loudly.”

The doors to the set were opened and people were ushered in by ticket number but in small groups; my group of four friends went in together. The bleachers do not have banisters, something which I was anxious about as a person with spinal muscular atrophy and thus almost no balance on stairs, even with a death grip on a railing. One of the assistants saw my cane and the four of us were thus seated in the front, over by the interview table. The stage manager and then the warm-up act coached us some more in the finer points of yelling our laughter. (Since all of you have heard my voice in an earlier post, you should be able to hear me clearly if you watch the show. Of course.)

Contrary to what I thought, the show is not taped in real time; Colbert made one verbal typo and they recorded a do-over, the commercial breaks were over ten minutes each, the interview with Terry Gilliam was over 15 minutes, of which about not quite 10 made the show. The affection between Colbert and his staff was obvious: at one point, while a hairdresser was combing his hair, he started pretending to comb hers. He indeed took questions before the show and again after. All told, we were in the studio for a bit over an hour for a 21-minute show.

The broadcast will be available for free on the website for the rest of this week, so here is the link: The Colbert Report with Terry Gilliam. And here is the 60 second edit:

It was a fun day and night in NYC, thanks to Gerry, Theresa, Ron, Bob and Kevin, and all of New York City. Even the panhandler on the train from Secaucus.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for April 9 asks, “If you could learn a trade—say carpentry, electrical work, roofing, landscaping, plumbing, flooring, drywall—you name it—what skill(s) would you love to have in your back pocket?” TV host. I am heading to NYC today with my one and only, Jen, to view tonight’s taping of “The Nightly Show,” starring Larry Wilmore. It is in the same theater as “The Colbert Report” was recorded each night. That is the reason for re-running this column from September. Tune in tonight at 11:30 EST on Comedy Central to see if you catch a glimpse of me and my love. Full updates tomorrow.

Vivian Stanshall: Not an Eccentric

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band played the role of jester in the court of the Beatles in the late 1960s, and Vivian Stanshall was the charismatic, curious leader of the leaderless and leader-resistant Bonzos. The missing link between the Beatles and Monty Python (if one was needed), in 1967 the Bonzos appeared in both “Magical Mystery Tour” (partially entertaining the Beatles with a performance of “Death Cab for Cutie”) and in the pre-Python but mostly Python-staffed afternoon television show, “Do Not Adjust Your Set.”

Here, Michael Palin of the Pythons introduces the Bonzos, and Stanshall does his best worst Elvis in “Death Cab for Cutie.”

 
Stanshall, a writer for whom no declarative statement could be too perplexing (“I’ve never met a man I didn’t mutilate”), was paired up with Neil Innes, a songwriter whose Beatles-esque melodies led not only to to the Bonzos being produced by Paul McCartney (the minor hit “I’m the Urban Spaceman”) but also to a Beatles lawsuit after music for his parody group, “The Rutles,” was thought to be too reminiscent for comfort. (Further cementing the Beatles-Python link, “The Rutles” was an Eric Idle project.)

Their collaboration “Mr. Apollo” combines an almost-too-catchy Innes tune with Stanshall’s absurdly deep baritone and lengthy fake sales pitch for an exercise gimmick: “Five years ago, I was a four-stone apology. Today, I am two separate gorillas. No tiresome exercises. No tricks. No unpleasant bending.” It also features a heavy metal guitar lick invented about six months before heavy metal.

 
Vivian Stanshall was born 71 years ago tomorrow, March 21; few people have spent their lives (his ended in a house fire in 1995, a sadly Stanshall-esque end if anyone did not deserve one) confounding more people and delighting in the resulting stares than he. After the Bonzos disbanded, if they ever truly did—the group’s set lineup varied in name and number whimsically and reunited a number of times, so it could be said that its members simply wandered away—Stanshall became known as a presence. He was a person about whom wild anecdotes proliferated, usually starring Stanshall, his friend Keith Moon, and their friend, alcohol; whose voice was heard on overnight radio talk shows that had no set sign-off time except daybreak; and who semi-occasionally emerged with enormously creative, incredibly language-saturated audio theater pieces, usually concerning the fictional family of Sir Henry Rawlinson. (In one of the oddest of all possible odd coincidences, Stanshall and the real Sir Henry share a death date, precisely one century apart, March 5, 1895 and 1995.)

Joycean in its surreal ambitions, Stanshall’s “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End” always opts for the obscure joke and invented pun over the profound statement, which resembles Joyce in many of his Joycean ambitions, too. The recorded piece was made into a film starring Trevor Howard and Stanshall that may as well have been a rumor until its DVD release a few years ago. One can piece together the hour-long film from clips on YouTube. The Rawlinson family saga offers an English Addams Family whose adventures take place in a landscape of long-standing family games with long, obscure, histories behind them and traditions that must be celebrated by exploding them. It is aristocracy viewed through the eyes of an alien, not just to these traditions, but to the idea of tradition.

The opening sentence: “English as tuppence, changing yet changeless as canal-water, nestling in green nowhere, armored and effete, bold flag-bearer, lotus-fed Miss Havishambling, opsimath and eremite, feudal-still reactionary Rawlinson End. The story so far.”

 
According to radio legend John Peel, the friend on whose programs the Rawlinson stories were first dictated, Stanshall’s appetite for drink and tranquilizers hindered his career. “Unreliability and prevarication, on an epic scale,” is how Peel mournfully described his friend’s habits of work, in a comment about how working with Stanshall could yet be extraordinary and worth the effort.

In most articles, Stanshall is described as an eccentric, a member of the famous English eccentric class. No other country is said to celebrate its eccentrics more than England, or to reflect more on the idea of having a group of people called “eccentrics,” and Stanshall offered plenty of material to draw from: living on a houseboat, showing up in a Nazi officer’s uniform for photo sessions with Keith Moon, cultivating an epic beard. He dressed the part, alternating between hobo-chic and carnival barker classy.

 
But for those who insisted he was an eccentric in the classic, “English” sense, Stanshall had a reply:

A few years ago a woman from the Daily Mail phoned to inform me they were doing a piece on Sir John Betjeman and they would like me to companion him in the article, I being representative of the younger English eccentric. She wanted to know if was still doing it. Well, I don’t do it, I’m merely myself, … I’m whatever you like, just don’t expect me to join in. I do like games, though. You see, I’m not different for the sake of being different, only for the desperate sake of being myself. I can’t join your gang: you’d think I was a phony—and I’d know it.

“For the desperate sake of being myself.” That is as true and good a personal code as any statement one could come up with towards having a worthwhile life.

Around the time of the “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End” film, 1980, Stanshall provided his friend Steve Winwood, one of the least cynical or eccentric of performers, with a lyric that is confident in its obscurity (“my rock and roll is putting on weight”) and yet sweet and plain in its sentiment (“This time to the sky I’ll sing, if clouds don’t hear me/To the sun I’ll cry, and even if I’m blinded/I’ll try moon gazer…because with you I’m stronger”). “Arc of a Diver” does not seem like a Vivian Stanshall lyric because it is.

 

She bathes me in sweetness, I cannot reveal
For sharing dreams I need my woman
This humble expression…meagerly dressed
My eyes so mean it has no meaning
But jealous night and all her secret chords
I must be deaf…on the telephone…I need my love to translate
 
I play the piano, no more running honey
This time to the sky I’ll sing if clouds don’t hear me
To the sun I’ll cry and even if I’m blinded
I’ll try moon gazer, because with you I’m stronger…I’m stronger…I’m stronger
 
Arc of a diver…effortlessly…my mind in sky and when I wake up
In daytime or nighttime…I feel you near
Warm water breathing…she helps me hear
But jealous night and all her secret chords
I must be deaf…on the telephone…I need my love to translate
 
This time to the sky I’ll sing if clouds don’t hear me
To the sun I’ll cry and even if I’m blinded
I’ll try moon gazer…because with you I’m stronger
 
But jealous night and all her secret chords
I must be deaf…on the telephone…I’ll need my love to translate
 
This time to the sky I’ll sing if clouds don’t hear me
To the sun I’ll cry and even if I’m blinded
I’ll try moon gazer…because with you I’m stronger
 
Lean streaky music…spawned on the streets…I hear it but with you I have to go
Cause my rock ‘n’ roll…is putting on weight…and the beat. it goes on
Arc of a diver…effortlessly…my mind in sky and when I wake up, woah-oh-oh
Daytime and nighttime…I feel you near
Warm water breathing…she helps me hear
 
But jealous night and all her secret chords
I must be deaf…on the telephone…I’ll need my love to translate
 
With you my love we’re going to…raid the future
With you my love we’re going to stick up the past
We’ll hold today to ransom…’til our quartz clock stop…until yesterday
Woah, until yesterday
Until yesterday
Til our quartz clock stop

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The Mag. Glass Pelican & You

The Magnificent Glass Pelican (MGP) is a live half-hour radio comedy show that my friends and I have written, produced, and acted in for over two decades. Lately, it has been an improvised half-hour, produced by us and scripted live on-air.

It is broadcast from a college FM radio station during the school year, and even though none of us has had any connection with the school as an educational institution for many many years, no one seems to have noticed our graying hair and lack of school books, so the station keeps inviting us back. Or we bribed them when we could not help ourselves. This current season is our twenty-second.

That’s a lot of comedy.

Some of the members, “Pelicans” we call ourselves, have had long careers in the creative arts, some have gone on to careers in technical writing. Myself, I am retired. Among our influences are the usual suspects: Monty Python, Firesign Theater, Del Close. The late Matt Coleman, a beloved friend and eternally a Pelican, once declared to a newspaper interviewer that we “separate the wheat from the chaff and keep the chaff!”

Each Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. (tonight), the MGP half-hour is broadcast on 88.7 FM WFNP (“The Edge”) in the Rosendale-New Paltz, New York, area or is streaming live here at this link. This is at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, and the broadcasts are not archived, so if you can check us out live tonight, thank you.

Here are two samples of our work, via my friend John’s SoundCloud stream; he is a founder of the Magnificent Glass Pelican and of the great rock/pop group, the Sweet Clementines. The first skit, “My Mother,” was written for us by our friend Brian Scolaro, who once upon a time shared a studio with us. I play the jury foreman. “We find the defendant guilty.”

And “Radio Pirates” is a personal favorite.

Again and always, thank you for listening.