What does this photograph by Victor Keppler have to do with SCTV? They both make me smile is all.
What does this photograph by Victor Keppler have to do with SCTV? They both make me smile is all.
“I thoroughly disapprove of gambling,” actor Walter Matthau explains primly as he whooshes toward Hollywood Park racetrack in his bronze Mercedes at 80 mph. “But I’m too rich and it’s good for me to lose.” He chuckles wickedly, rolling his eyes like dice. “Actually, I wallow in the pain of it all. It’s like an expensive psychoanalysis.”
“Big Walts,” as he is known, is Hollywood’s most flamboyant loser—one way or another he drops about $75,000 a year. “He will bet on anything,” says a Walter-watcher. “Sunspot cycles, mouse races, toenail-growing contests.” But the nags get most of his action, and on rough days L.A. horse-players see some Oscar-worthy Matthau performances.
“There he is!” the gateman cheers when Matthau arrives, and the actor does a little ramble through the turnstile. Once upstairs at the Turf Club dining level, Matthau airily dopes the daily double, then goes off to plunge $200 on Perla in the first race (“a shoo-in”) and War Souvenir in the second. A waitress arrives at the table Matthau is sharing with the track physician, Robert Kerlan. Matthau inquires about the chow mein. “Any roaches in it, Velma? Don’t like roaches. Too many calories.”
Cee’s Flair wins the first race. Matthau groans and claws his dewlaps. “Jerk! Why do you come here?” he asks himself. “Wasn’t one coronary enough?” (Matthau is referring to his 1966 heart attack.) Lunch arrives. Matthau stares at it. “I don’t know what it is, but I’d rather eat it than step in it.” Leaning close to a table mate, he mutters earnestly, “Do you think [film critic] Pauline Kael has put a curse on me?” After he bets War Souvenir again, Swordville wins a 30-to-1 shot. As the horses parade before the third race, Matthau whips out his field glasses. “Look for one with a bowed neck!” he whispers fiercely. “A horse with a bowed neck is a horse with confidence!” Dropping his glasses, he leers. “Though what I really like is a horse with a shapely ass.”
Another week, more fun book reviews by Dwight Garner at the Times. I remember enjoying when Ruth Reichl wrote restaurant reviews for the paper. I wasn’t interested in going to fancy restaurants I just enjoyed reading her. I feel the same about Garner, although sometimes I do want to read what he’s reviewing–I just like reading him.
Here he is on pair of celebrity memoirs. The first, Yes, Please, comes from the comedienne Amy Poehler:
Amy Poehler’s memoirish book is titled “Yes Please,” as in Bring it on, but its tone is more “No, Really, Make This Stop,” as in Get me out of here.
Composing “Yes Please” was a burden, this gifted comic actress says, that she shouldn’t have shouldered. “I had no business agreeing to write this book,” she declares in a preface, pleading a hectic existence: young sons, new projects, a recent divorce, a new love. What’s it been like to write “Yes Please”? “It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.”
…Ms. Poehler’s slow drip of gripes (“Dear Lord, when will I finish this book?”) breaks Rule No. 1 about comedy and about writing: Never let them see you sweat. Her persecuted mood is airborne and contagious. Reading “Yes Please” is not like hacking away at a freezer. It’s like having the frosty and jagged contents dumped in your lap.
Ms. Barber’s interviews are prized because of her ability to seize on a telling detail, and to not let go even if clubbed with a stick.
“I do believe that detail is everything,“ she says. “Detail is evidence. When I interviewed the novelist Lionel Shriver, she obviously thought I was mad to keep asking about her central heating. But I was trying to nail my hunch that she was frugal and ascetic to the point of masochism, and I needed the evidence — which indeed she delivered. She told me that she prefers to wear a coat and gloves indoors rather than have the heating on, even though she suffers from Raynaud’s disease, which means her hands and feet are always cold, and she will only let her husband switch the heating on if it is actually freezing outside, but not until 7 p.m.”
I’ve watched about seven or eight episodes of Girls and I just can’t get with it. But I dig it’s creator Lena Dunham, anyway. There was a nice profile of her by Meghan Daum in the Times magazine last weekend:
Of course, there’s a very good argument to be made that there are too many people, young women especially, writing about their personal experiences these days and not enough willing to report from the battle lines that exist outside their own heads. And Dunham’s alter ego on “Girls,” Hannah Horvath, a pathologically solipsistic aspiring personal essayist, is a prime example. In making her so, Dunham uses her work on the screen to wink at the conceits of her work on the page.
But even if she doesn’t tackle the Big Issues for a few more years, the fact is that she’s still just 28. When Ephron was 28, she was a reporter for The New York Post, “specializing in froth,” as she once noted. When Didion was 28, she was editing at Vogue; she had quietly published her first novel and was nowhere near the sensation she would become. When Parker was 28, she had finished a stint as a drama critic for Vanity Fair, and she and her compatriots were still working out seating arrangements for the Algonquin Round Table. None of them at that point had totally found their way to the issues that would come to define them. And despite the monumental platform Dunham has been given, that’s probably true of her too. She’s everywhere, but she’s still not there yet. That might have a lot to do with why people find her at once so exciting and so exasperating.
To Dunham, the most useful reaction to this endless onslaught of reactions is to just keep working. These days she is editing the fourth season of “Girls” and is in the early stages of writing a novel “about a professional woman entering her 30s and her relationship with several complex father figures.” She does, admittedly, thrill in the sight of her name in The New Yorker — or, more precisely, take thrill in her parents’ thrill at seeing her name there. She has also learned to cope with the cognitive dissonance that comes from receiving more good fortune than seems right for one person.
“I’ve had a lot of moments in my career where I’ve had to just say, ‘I’m picking my jaw up off the floor and carrying on,’ ” she said, stroking Lamby as his self-allergies sent him into another hacking fit. “Because you don’t get much work done with your jaw on the floor.”
[Photo Credit: Jojo Whilden/HBO]
Put the Needle to the Groove…
[Disclaimer: This mix is rated R for "Dirty Words." Not safe for work. Or, as Richard Pryor once put it: "Fuck censorship and its Mama."]
I listened to a lot of rap records starting in the late ‘80s throughout the ‘90s. I bought vinyl, collected mixtapes, and stayed up late to record mix shows on WNYU (89.1) and WKCR (89.9). I’d put aside enough material to make a half-dozen mixes, and so when my old chum Alan (a/k/a illchemist) approached me last December about doing another full-length mix project (our last one, Borough to Borough, was made in 2000), I had plenty of material to choose from.
My idea for this one was to re-create the feeling you get listening to late night radio show featuring beats, rhymes, and scratching, movie dialogue and comedy sound bites. At the start I had only a rough idea of how I wanted it to go: light and bouncy to start, boom bap head-bangers in the middle, segueing into an extended cool-out section to wind out.
The way Alan and I work is that I bring all the records and a whole bunch of scenes from movies and comedy albums. We start building one track at a time and then begin to stitch a few songs together and get an idea of blocks and what the overall form will be. There are at least 6 or 7 songs that we had in early versions of the mix along the way—songs that I was begging to find a place for like Primo’s original version of “Memory Lane” or my friend Jared’s remix of Freeway’s “How We Do”—but had to be cut because they didn’t fit. One of the many nice things about collaborating with Alan, is that we’re cool with losing something if we agree that it is not working.
Alan’s approach to adding samples to a mix is like returning a serve. He doesn’t have anything particular in mind but picks up on whatever I send him and then goes from there.
“That way,” he says, “the mix really becomes a dialogue instead of a debate. It really is like volleying back and forth, because you never quite know where it is going.”
While I love lyrics and the flow and quality of different rappers’ voices, Alan hears records more as collections of frequencies, and how they add up to make the right vibe. He concentrates on the sonic content than anything else” he says. “A mix can contain anything. Music is only part of the spectrum. The vibe is the overall directive, made out of everything put together: frequencies, rhythm, and cadence. The sound of a record speaks it’s own language. Everybody knows what bass and treble are, and you know what happens when you turn one up. Get a good bassline, get a good drum part and it becomes its own mantra.”
“Once you have a foundation,” he continues, “adding bits of spoken word gives new context to the track as well as to the bits of dialogue you use. Making these bits fall in rhythm adds a weight to them, like a speech or a sermon, or a lyric.”
The samples and dialogue we like never strays too far from a basic core of funky records, old movies, cartoons and funny, cool shit of any variety. Some of it is stuff that we’ve had stuck in our heads for decades. A sound bite might be an in-joke to us—all of our samples are autobiographical, really—but we think everyone will get it (and if they don’t, whaddya gonna do?)
When we made Borough to Borough, I’d bring records and videotapes to Alan’s house (we both lived in Brooklyn at the time). We’d digitize the material in real time and go from there. We spent about 120 hours working together on it. This time around, I thought we might be able to make a full-length mix album in half the time. Turns out we spent just as many hours on it. The difference is the ease of the workflow. If Alan thinks of an idea he doesn’t have to get up, go hunt around for the record, find it, bring it back, put it on the turntable…by the time he’s done all that the idea is gone.
Now, we had the luxury of having more time to think of it instead of laboring to do it. It’s a different time warp. We had more time to live with it. We could have done it in a month but it wouldn’t have been nearly as good. We needed to hear it repeatedly—me listening on my iPhone on my subway commute to work, and Alan, seemingly, just hears it in his head all the time, and is always thinking about what to add or subtract—before we could really fill in all the blanks.
The technology freed us up to ponder it. We were able to float for days at times and let things come us instead of fretting over it. And we didn’t spent one minute together in the studio. We Skyped every week but mostly I’d send Alan an email with notes, he’d take a pass at it, put it in Dropbox. I’d listen, give more notes, and back and forth like that we’d go, volleying until we were satisfied.
So, there you have it. We’ll post three singles and a mini-mix–12 minutes of just the sound collage stuff–throughout the week.
We hope you dig it. Happy Spring.
Another Fine Mess
Maracas Beach (1978)–Grover Washington Jr.
The Emcee (1998)–MC Lyte with Milk D
Illusions (1993?)–Cypress Hill (Q-Tip Mix)
Devotion ’92–Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf
Behind Bars (1992)–Slick Rick (Prince Paul Remix)
Skinz-Yabba Dabba Do (1992)–Pete Rock, C.L. Smooth, Chubb Rock
Moon River (1985)–Fletch, Nelson Riddle
Meat Grinder (2001)–MF Doom and Madlib
Time’s Up (1994)–OC (Jared Boxx Mix)
Friend or Foe ’98–Jay Z (produced by DJ Premier)
B Ball Interlude (1998)–The Beastie Boys
New York Love (1996)–Sun Dullah, Doo Wop (Stretch blend)
’95 Wake Up Freestyle–Tha Alkaholiks with Xzibit
Rework the Angles (1999)–Dilated Peoples, AG, Defari
Fargo Silence (1996)–Steve Buscemi
Lemonade (1992)–Gangstarr and Madlib (Al and Ill Blend)
Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka (1996)–Heltah Skeltah
Day One (1997)–D.I.T.C.
Maracas Beach Reprise (’78)–Grover Washington Jr.
Can I Kick the Wild Side? (1989)–Lou Reed and A Tribe Called Quest (inspired by J Rocc)
Soul Flower (We Got) (1993)–The Pharcyde and Quest (Gummy Soul Mix)
On Wid Da Show Skit (1996)–Kardinal Offishall
When it Pours it Rains (1999)–Diamond D
I am Me (1994)–Common
Eye Patch Skit (1993)–De La Soul
Open Your Mouth (1997)–Prince Paul
Haagen-Daz (1998)–The Blvd Connection featuring Tame One
Animal Crackers–Chico and Groucho Marx
Sunrays (2001)–Yesterdays’ New Quintet/Madlib
Another Fine Mess (Track By Track)
Maracas Beach (Grover’s Theme). In 1996, Siah and Yeshua daPoED, a duo from New York, released their LP Visualz on Bobitto’s Fondle ‘Em label. The first cut on the album used this Grover Washington record. I could never find an instrumental version though I knew one existed because I heard it one night on DJ. Riz’s show on 89.1. It felt like the perfect late night groove for a hip hop radio show. A theme song. I’ve wanted to use it ever since and it was the first thing I talked about with Alan for this project. I knew I wanted to use it at least twice, maybe even three times (in the end, we used it just the two times). I downloaded a re-created version of the Siah instrumental that I found on You Tube a few years ago and that’s what we use here.
We tried a few different movie bits to start the mix. The first thing we came up with was Myrna Loy and William Powell from The Thin Man. For a long time we introduced that with Bill Murray from Stripes. It was fine but not inspired. Eventually, we tried Lauren Bacall’s famous bit from To Have and Have Not. It wasn’t just her line—“you just put your lips together and blow”—that makes the scene memorable, it’s all the other dialogue leading up to it. I was leery at first about using such a well-known quote because we don’t want to hit things too squarely on the head, but Alan knew exactly what to do with the clip and when he rearranged it in a new order he made it shine.
The Emcee. This is something I came across on Oliver Wang’s beautiful site Soul-Sides. He ran a series of posts a few years ago called “The Great Rap Purge” featuring some lesser-known but quality songs. Lyte is one of my favorite emcees and this record spoke to me with its re-working of the “Top Billin’” beat. We augmented it with: Audio Two – “Top Billin’”; Carmen Miranda – “Mama Equiero”; The Dramatics – “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get”; The Honeydrippers – “Impeach The President”; The Jacksons – “Blame It On The Boogie”; Public Enemy – “Bring The Noise”; Shirley Temple – “On The Good Ship Lollipop” and Shirley Temple – Poor Little Rich Girl.
Alan: On “The Emcee”, MC Lyte opens the track with the lyric “My my my ghetto” which is a twist on the song “Mama Equiero” which most people know as a signature Carmen Miranda song, often used in cartoons as well as a lip-sync routine that Jerry Lewis did at the beginning of his career. MC Lyte then quotes the melody from “The Girl From Ipanema” (coincidentally also Brazillian) but I didn’t want to cover all the vocals from the get-go. “Impeach The President” by The Honeydrippers has one of the most sampled beats in the hip hop lexicon and is at the root of where the MC Lyte track comes from.
Illusions. I first heard this on a compilation of Cypress remixes. Q-Tip did the production and the bounciness of it all always hit me right. I’d almost forgotten about this record but when we were first thinking about tracks for this mix I scoured my collection and was happy to find it again. The vocal is a clean edit so there are a few gaps that we filled in—with sound bites from Nina Simone, George Carlin, Chris Rock, and Bill Cosby, of all people, saying, “Titties” from his For Adults Only LP (Hard to find, but funny as hell.) The last bit is an uncredited actor and Woody Allen from Take The Money And Run.
Alan: Stitching MC Lyte and Cypress Hill together is “On The Good Ship Lollipop” by Shirley Temple, and “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” by The Dramatics, which has lyrics that are common in the first two songs (“Some people.. are up to no good). This record has been a favorite of mine forever.
Devotion ‘92. Charizma had passed away by the time his production partner Peanut Butter Wolf put out the LP Big Shots on his Stones Throw label in 2003. Wolf also released a 45 with two different mixes of “Devotion” in 2000. “Devotion ’92” had a 3rd Bass kind of vibe and “Devotion ’93” has a Pharcyde “Otha Fish” feel. When I brought up the idea of using it Alan found a place between the transition we already built between “Illusions” and “Behind Bars” so we just stuck the first verse in the middle.
Alan: The organ part in “Devotion” reminded me a lot of “Whap!” by Brother Jack McDuff, which, if I ever had a talk show, would be the theme song (if only the first 30 seconds).
Behind Bars. I met Prince Paul one day in the late ‘90s at the office/studio of my pal Steinski. Paul had put out a small mix tape cassette to promote his concept album A Prince Among Thieves. The first portion was a highlight reel of his finest production. Sandwiched somewhere in there was this beat for “Behind Bars”, a version that had never been released. When I e-mailed Paul about it he said maybe one day he’d put it out and then ended his email with, “Muh-huh-ha-ha.” More than a decade later he made good on his promise and posted the song on Spotify.
Alan: The chord progression on “Behind Bars” is a little bit of vaudeville, so adding Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” to it seemed just right. We had used Nilsson’s “Me And My Arrow” in “Borough To Borough” so there was a bit continuity, even if it was only me and Alex who noticed. Billy Eckstine’s “I Love The Rhythm Of A Riff” is in there toward the end. One of the first swing records I ever remembered seeing on a “soundie”, the precursor of the music video. That’s Jackson Beck at the end, from Take The Money And Run.
Skinz-Yabba Dabba Doo. I always dug “Skinz” the final track on Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s debut LP and for a long time thought it’d be cool to see if it could be blended with the Chubb Rock verse from “Yabba Dabba Doo.” We tried it and it fit seamlessly. In order to extend the beat some, we went to the original sample, “Down Home Girl” by the Coasters, and laid over a bit from Young Frankenstein featuring Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn. That’s Allan Lane from “Mr. Ed”. The bell sound is from De La Soul is Dead.
Alan: As “Down Home Girl” by the Coasters was the foundation of “Skinz” and “Yabba Dabba Doo”, I added some extra Coasters (“Little Egypt”), and some extra Flintstones bits, from the episode “Ten Little Flintstones” where aliens who look like Fred are walking around saying the only thing they know how.
Moon River. There’s a bunch of stuff I thought about pulling from Fletch but this exchange between M. Emmett Walsh and Chevy Chase stands out, don’t it? Originally we tried it in the clear but Alan thought we should lay some music behind it. And since we already were messing with a segment from Lolita later in the mix, we tried the movie’s “Ya Ya Theme” by Nelson Riddle and that worked for us. Also threw in the “comedy is not pretty” line from Steve Martin’s stand-up album of the same name.
Meat Grinder. I first heard the Madvillian collaboration between MF Doom and Madlib on a bootleg CD six months before the record was released. My pal Jared Boxx at the Sound Library gave it to me and I prefer the less polished demo to the final album. Doom’s cadence and the vibe of this record is just so murky and different I thought it’d be a perfect transition record to the tougher part of the mix. We’d tried the Steve Martin “Comedy is not pretty” line in the intro originally but found it’s natural home following the Fletch routine.Doom’s line about Rod Lavers/quad flavors is so fresh it just called us to add something. I thought of the line from Bill Cosby’s street football routine: “Stop on a dime and give you nine cents change.” Alan added a little echo and it worked like a charm.
Alan: I added a bit of old Hawaiian music (Nelstone’s Hawaiians - “Fatal Flower Garden”) to add to the guitar in the track. Adding “Tom Sawyer” by Rush seemed obvious but it took up too much space in the track.
Time’s Up. OC’s debut single in 1994 is masterful. The Queens-bred Emcee reportedly spent a year writing the rhyme and it stands as one of the most fully-realized rhymes—let alone debuts—ever put on vinyl. In the early 2000’s, Jared made a CD of remixes—laying accapella’s over beats—and this one always spoke to me. The music is an instrumental version of Latee’s “Brainstorm” which was produced by the 45 King. The sound bite at the beginning is Harold Peary from Arch Oboler’s “The Laughing Man” routine and Mel Blanc from “Chow Hound”.
Friend or Foe ’98. My favorite track on Jay Z’s sophomore album. Like the original “Friend or Foe” it was produced by DJ Premier. The driving beat, the cinematic nature of Jay’s rhyme, the economy of it all—the full track is under two-and-a-half-minutes long—make it a favorite. That’s Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schruete at the head. Yeah, the goofiness of the sound bite is incongruous with the mood of the record but I just had to use his “Those are the money beats” sample somewhere and it fit here. After Jay’s verse, that’s Gene Hackman from Mississippi Burning. Gene’s good at punctuating, you know?
Beasties Interlude. This is two different bits from the Beasties’ fourth record, Hello Nasty. Just things I always earmarked to use one day. Figure why not mash them together? This was another case of something finding it’s proper place. I originally tried using Marty Feldman saying “Bluecha” with a horse neighing from “Young Frankenstein” earlier in the mix but Alan found it’s proper shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits place here. It’s our big fart joke of the record. The cheapest, slap you in the head funny.
New York Love. Back when the East Coast/West Coast tension was at its height, Sun Dullah, formerly King Sun—whose “Blackberry Brandy” was an underground favorite—put out this Tupac diss record. Doo Wop did the beat. It’s a real head-nodder and I love the directness and common sense of the lyrics. It became a cult favorite around New York. I recall being in Fat Beats, the record store on 8th Street, the day Tupac died and the house DJ spun this record.
The first time I heard it was on Stretch Armstrong and Bobitto’s radio WKCR radio show. It was late May, 1996 and I happened to be up late listening to the show—which ran from 1-4 am—with my finger on the pause button of my cassette machine. I taped Stretch’s blend and last summer I went through a box of old tapes, found it and digitized it. It still sounds great. So we used Stretch’s blend here, with a few edits. The routine at the start pits Kevin Hart against Romany Malco, with a little bit of Steve Carrell, from The 40 Year Old Virgin. I was looking for something hard, dialogue from a gangster movie or something, for this song. But when I heard the fight in The 40 Year Old Virgin I thought, Nah, this is even better.
Alan: The guitar and grunt part from the bridge “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” (the hit version by Hugo Montenegro as opposed to the original soundtrack) seemed a good add to “NY Love”, wild west shootout drama and all that. To the mix we added, “Dr. Jerry” Carroll from a “Crazy Eddie” TV commercial, Jay Bird singing “Rockaparty” and Lee Dorsey’s “Get Out Of My Life Woman”.
’95 Wake Up Freestyle. I first heard The Wake Up Show on vinyl. They pressed a few records featuring freestyles from the show. This one features tha Alkaholiks right around the time their second album, Coast II Coast, was released. I love the stripped-down beat and just how these guys jumped on it with their rhymes. The sound bite at the head comes from a skit at the end of “Smoke Budda” from Redman’s third LP, Muddy Waters.
Alan: The samples added to “’95 Wake Up Freestyle” were some of the last things we put in. Bits of late ’40′s and ’50′s R&B: “Such a Night” by the Drifters, “Happy Feet” by Red Prysock, “(Get Your Kicks) on Route 66″ by the Nat “King” Cole Trio, and the original “In The Mood” by Edgar Hayes. Really brought a new context to this.
Rework the Angles. One of the last songs we added. I like all 5 verses on the record but we cut out the last two for economy not because they aren’t good. In fact, losing Rakaa’s verse (the fourth one) was one of the toughest cuts we had to make. I dig Xzibit’s final verse too but was able to live easier with cutting it because his verse ends the previous track. The spoken word at the start of the track is William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man.
Fargo Silence. We did a lot of work on this scene from Fargo featuring Steve Buscemi. A lot of cutting, rearranging, making sure the timing was just right. It was fun adding an old-timey Coen brothers kind of tune like “Will There Be Any Yodelin’ In Heaven” by the Girls of the Golden West in the background.
Lemonade Was a Popular Drink. I remember going to The Sound Library sometime in 2000-2001, and seeing a white label Madlib record. It was a compilation of beats and little sketches. This one, “Beat Number Ten” flattened me. A few years later, Alan and I were messing around and we blended Guru’s first from “Dwyck” with “Beat Number Ten.” We never did anything with it until now. After we came up with a name for the mix–”Another Fine Mess”–we figured we had to snake in a little Laurel and Hardy somewhere. So here they are, the dialogue is from Busy Bodies. And to close out, that’s Mel Blanc from 8 Ball Bunny.
Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka. This track was from Heltah Skeltah’s debut record during Boot Camp Click’s heyday in the mid-‘90s. The rhymes are fun but in this case we were looking for a transition beat from the more up-tempo songs that precede it and the more mellow beats that follow. That pitiful little “Yeah?” that we use at the beginning is Leo DiCaprio from The Wolf of Wall Street. And then Margot Robbie from the same movie (in a supporting role she stole the show). The come-on bit is Madeline Kahn from Blazing Saddles, followed-up by Frank Gallop’s “The Ballad Of Irving.”
Day One. Another mid-‘90s classic. A true head-nodder. This was the first single off the D.I.T.C album. It’s perfect backdrop for a sound collage sketch. I wanted to use the scene between Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston in Prizzi’s Honor when she invites him to screw on the rug—“the Oriental.” We added the Catherine Scorsese stuff from Italian American. It’s one of my favorite Scorsese movies, a short documentary featuring his parents in their apartment in Little Italy talking about their lives in New York. His mother is especially hilarious. I love way she speaks and the way she sounds. I could listen to her talk all day. And since food is right behind sex as a preoccupation I figured what better way to introduce the love-making between Jack and Anjelica than to have Scorsese’s mom talk about meatballs and sauce. We also snuck in Lily Tomlin.
Grover’s Theme Reprise. This time we lace our theme with Cary Grant & Mae West from I’m No Angel, Jackie Gleason from The Honeymooners (“The Safety Award”), Margot Robbie from Wolf of Wall Street, Richard Pryor (“Have Your Ass Home By 11″), and Lord Buckley’s “The Hip Gahn” off Euphoria, Volume ll.
Can I Kick it? We ripped off this blend of Tribe’s “Can I Kick it?” and its source record, “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed from a J Rocc mixtape. It was one of the first selections for this project and initially we used a whole block of songs from the J Rocc mix. But as we worked on it we decided we didn’t need to grab so much from J Rocc just use it as a starting point. So we used his stellar work as inspiration and added our own thing to it. The refrain we built when Tip first sings “Can I kick it?” features the voices of Jack Nicholson, William Powell and Gene Wilder. When Phife sings, “Can I kick it?” the voices belong to Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth.
Alan : Expanding on the elements already present in “Can I Kick The Wild Side”, Lou Reed, A Tribe Called Quest” and Lonnie Smith, who’s record of “Spinning Wheel” is where the drums come from. If you’ve ever seen the ATCQ documentary, there’s a scene where Q-Tip takes out the album and plays it, and shows his reaction when he first heard that beat. That’s the kind of moment you never forget if you spend a lot of hours placing a needle on a record expecting something magical to come out. I’m also a big Lord Buckley fan, and his use of the phrase “spinning wheel” made it mandatory to use in the track. That’s how it is with sampling. When you find something that good, you HAVE to use it, it’s the LAW.
Soul Flower. This is from Gummy’s Soul’s remix project that blending vocals from the Pharcyde’s first record over instrumentals by a Tribe Called Quest. Gummy Soul always does good work but this mix is my favorite. There were a couple of songs we considered using but this one seemed to work really well out of the previous track. So we expanded the idea and made an 8 minute Quest tribute. This one went through a lot of changes. In the end, Alan added a patch of the awesome beat of “Don’t Change Your Love” by the Five Stairsteps (more famous for the record “O-o-h Child”) and some Sun Ra (“Outer Spaceways Incorporated”). Then brought back the “If you find earth boring” over the chorus. Alan also found a way to sneak in Richard Pryor, “Shot him in the ass on the down stroke.”
On Wid Da Show. I worked in L.A. from November of 1996 to April of ’97. I used to drive to east Hollywood and buy records at the small Fat Beats outpost that occupied a cozy second-floor space in the Beastie Boys’ clothing shop. That’s where I bought this single by Cardinal Offishall. The rhyme was fine but not memorable on its own but the beat was infectious. Another one I’ve always wanted to put to good use. We augmented it with “Luv Is” by Bill Cosby, “Around the Way Girl” by LL Cool J.
The dialogue blends Gerry Bednob’s hilarious advice from The 40 Year Old Virgin with Shelley Winters and James Mason from Lolita (with a touch of Albert Brooks from the “Phone Calls From Americans” off his Star is Bought album).
Alan: A little bit of “Rapper’s Delight” and “Hikky-Burr”, a Quincy Jones piece that was also used as the theme song for the first Bill Cosby Show, leads into “Luv Is”, a track from one the odd music albums that Bill Cosby did.
When it Pours it Rains. This came from the second Rawkus Soundbombing album. I’ve always been a sucker for Diamond’s rhymes. He isn’t profound but I like his phrasing and the sound of his voice. Plus, he makes me smile. That’s Sue Lyon counting at the start from Lolita.
I Am Me. Common’s second album, Resurrection, came out in 1994 when he was still known as Common Sense. It quickly became one of my favorites, partly for the clever and sometimes penetrating wordplay and mostly for the production. This was the final track we selected and really it was because I wanted another rhyme at the end of the mix. The sound clips towards the end of the track come from Bill Murray and Roberta Leighton in Stripes.
Eye Patch Skit. I love being able to use a skit as a transition and this was always a favorite queue off De La’s third album. I like the sheep sound and the French. Again, that’s Bill Murray from Stripes. I wasn’t sure about having it back-to-back skits. The next track is also a skit, but they were both produced by Prince Paul so I figured we could fuse them together as one.
Open Your Mouth. A skit from Pyschoanalysis, Prince Paul’s self-released record. Figured it’d be fun to work some food dialogue to play against the “Open your mouth, I’m going to put something nice into it” refrain. So I turned to my favorite scene from Fatso, Ann Bancroft’s 1980 directorial debut starting Dom DelLuise. The other voices are from Ron Carey and Richard Karron. And the Homer Simpson line is from Dan Castellenetta, of course, from “The Principal and the Pauper” episode of The Simpsons.
Haagen-Daz. I got this EP in the late ‘90s down at the Sound Library and my man Jared used to spin the instrumental all the time. It’s long been one of my preferred late-night, hypnotic tracks. Plus, I love Tame’s verse so had to include that. As for the spoken word, it was natural to think of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a possible source for this project. He died just a few months ago and even when he was alive was a guy worth searching on You Tube just to enjoy his robust, sometimes hammy acting. I thought there might be a good quote relating to music from his turn as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. I found this scene with him on the phone. It is in the clear, meaning there isn’t music in the background (one of the biggest considerations when hunting for movie clips is to get dialogue in the clear). I love Hoffman’s sweetness and vulnerability. The intimacy of his voice complemented the music nicely.
Also figured this was as good a time as any to slide in some Jeff Bridges as the Dude from The Big Lebowski. I worked as an assistant film editor on that movie and one of Ethan’s favorite lines while they were editing was the Dude moaning, “Awww, man.” (we also used to say, “Yeah, I gotta rash, man” all the time, too). So that’s why I used it here. And we finish the track with Robert DeNiro, Charles Grodin and Joe Pantoliano from Midnight Run with a “Hello?” mixed in there from Albert Brooks.
Animal Crackers. Chico and Groucho Marx from their second movie, Animal Crackers (1930). This is part of a longer sequence where Chico annoys Groucho even longer playing “I’m Daffy Over You.” It’s one of the great smart ass musical comedy bits of them all. Always wanted to use it for a mix. Joining them is Catherine Scorcese from The King of Comedy. We ended up cutting Chico and Groucho’s final lines when Alan found a better transition from The Seven-Year Itch. It was one of those cases where both pieces worked but we thought The Seven-Year Itch stuff was fresher and also made more sense with the rest of the spoken word material on the final cut.
Sunrays. We were stuck for a finale. Tried a bunch of different songs and nothing worked. I couldn’t get it off my mind for days. It wouldn’t let me alone. I knew once I stopped pressing I’d find the right song and that’s just what happened when I came across “Sunrays” from Yesterday’s New Quintet’s ep, Elle’s Theme. My friend Steven used to manage a bistro on 22nd Street and 2nd Avenue. Thursday night was DJ night and I use to play a couple of times a month. “Sunrays” was always part of my rotation. Hearing it again I was struck by how ideal it is for being lacing with spoken word, especially for the last track on the mix which we wanted to have an ethereal, dreamy intimate feeling. So we added the following: Marilyn Monroe & Tom Ewell: The Seven Year Itch; Henry Winkler: Happy Days (“Mork Returns”); Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda:The Lady Eve; Walter Matthau: from a documentary on Billy Wilder; Mae West and Cary Grant: I’m No Angel; Humphrey Bogart: To Have And Have Not; Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin: All Of Me; Notorious B.I.G.: “It Was All A Dream”; Myrna Loy and William Powell: The Thin Man, and Marvin Hatley: “Dance Of The Cuckoos”.
Complete list of samples:
Lauren Bacall & Humphrey Bogart: To Have And Have Not.
Myrna Loy & William Powell: The Thin Man.
Audio Two: “Top Billin’”.
Carmen Miranda: “Mama Equiero”.
The Dramatics: “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get”.
The Honeydrippers: “Impeach The President”.
The Jacksons: “Blame It On The Boogie”.
Public Enemy: “Bring The Noise”.
Shirley Temple: “On The Good Ship Lollipop”.
Shirley Temple: Poor Little Rich Girl.
Nina Simone: Mississippi Goddamn”.
George Carlin: “Toledo Window Box”.
Cheech & Chong: “Pedro’s Request”.
Chris Rock: “Women”.
Bill Cosby: “Bill’s Two Daughters”.
(uncredited actor) & Woody Allen: Take The Money And Run.
Brother Jack McDuff: “Whap”.
Nilsson: “Gotta Get Up”.
Art Carney: The Honeymooners (“The Sleepwalker”)
Billy Eckstine: “I Love The Rhythm In A Riff”.
Jackson Beck: Take The Money And Run.
Allan Lane: Intro from Mr. Ed.
The Coasters: “Down Home Girl”.
Madeline Kahn and Gene Wilder:Young Frankenstein.
The Coasters: “Little Egypt”.
(uncredited voice) from The Flintstones (“Ten Little Flintstones”).
U-Roy: “Wake The Town And Tell The People”.
De La Soul: “De La Skit”.
M. Emmett Walsh and Chevy Chase: Fletch.
Steve Martin: “Comedy Is Not Pretty”.
Nelstone’s Hawaiians: “Fatal Flower Garden”.
Bill Cosby: “Sneakers”.
Harold Peary from Arch Oboler’s “The Laughing Man”.
Mel Blanc: Dialogue from “Chow Hound”.
Rainn Wilson: The Office (“Money”).
Gene Hackman: Mississippi Burning.
Marty Feldman: Young Frankenstein.
Kevin Hart, Romany Malco and Steve Carrell:The 40 Year Old Virgin.
Hugo Montenegro: Theme from The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.
“Dr. Jerry” Carroll: TV commercial for “Crazy Eddie”.
J. Bird: “Rockaparty”.
Lee Dorsey: “Get Out Of My Life Woman”.
Redman: “Smoke Budda”.
The Drifters: “Such A Night”.
Red Prysock: “Happy Feet”.
Nat “King” Cole Trio: “(Get Your Kicks) On Route 66″.
Edgar Hayes: “In The Mood”.
Yes: “Long Distance Runaround”.
Steve Buscemi: Fargo.
Girls Of The Golden West: “Will There Be Any Yodelin’ In Heaven”.
Laurel & Hardy: Busy Bodies.
Mel Blanc – Dialogue from “8 Ball Bunny”.
Margot Robbie and Leonardo DiCaprio: The Wolf Of Wall Street.
Madeline Kahn: Blazing Saddles.
Frank Gallop: “The Ballad Of Irving”.
Catherine Scorsese: Italian American.
Lily Tomlin – “This Is A Recording”.
Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston: Prizzi’s Honor.
Cary Grant and Mae West: I’m No Angel.
Jackie Gleason: The Honeymooners (“The Safety Award”).
Richard Pryor: “Have Your Ass Home By 11″.
Audience response from Lenny Bruce’s “How To Relax Your Colored Friends At Parties”.
Lord Buckley: “The Hip Gahn”.
Lonnie Smith: “Spinning Wheel”.
LaWanda Page: “Husbands And Whores”.
The Treniers w/ Willie Mays: “Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)”.
Jackie Robinson: “On The Eve Of The 1949 World Series”.
Babe Ruth: Fancy Curves.
Richard Pryor: “Eulogy”.
A Tribe Called Quest: “Pubic Enemy”.
Five Stairsteps: “Don’t Change Your Love”.
Sun Ra – “Outer Spaceways Incorporated”.
Sugar Hill Gang – “Rapper’s Delight”.
Quincy Jones and Bill Cosby: “Hikky Burr” (studio version).
Bill Cosby: “Luv Is”.
LL Cool J: “Around The Way Girl”.
Gerry Bednob – monologue from The 40 Year Old Virgin.
Shelley Winters and James Mason: Lolita.
(uncredited voice) from Albert Brooks: “Phone Calls From Americans”
Sue Lyon: Lolita.
Betty Wright: “I’m Gettin’ Tired, Baby”
Boogie Down Productions – “Build And Destroy”
Roberta Leighton & Bill Murray: Stripes.
De La Soul: “Eye Patch”.
Dom DeLuise, Ron Carey and Richard Karron: Fatso.
Dan Castellenetta: The Simpsons (“The Principal And The Pauper”).
Myrna Loy from Another Thin Man.
Del Close: “The Do-It-Yourself Psychoanalysis Kit”.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Patrick Fugit: Almost Famous.
Jeff Bridges: The Big Lebowski.
Robert DeNiro, Charles Grodin and Joe Pantoliano: Midnight Run.
Albert Brooks from A Star is Bought.
Groucho Marx: “Hooray For Captain Spaulding”.
Chico Marx and Groucho Marx – “I’m Daffy Over You” from Animal Crackers.
Catherine Scorsese: The King Of Comedy.
Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell: The Seven Year Itch.
Henry Winkler: Happy Days (“Mork Returns”).
Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda: The Lady Eve.
Walter Matthau: Dialogue from Documentary on Billy Wilder.
Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin: All Of Me.
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall: To Have and Have Not.
Myrna Loy and William Powell: The Thin Man.
Notorious B.I.G: “It Was All A Dream”.
Marvin Hatley: “Dance Of The Cuckoos”.
[All images by Alex Belth]
Here’s some comedy for you from Paul Slansky, a regular contributor to The New Yorker. His work has also appeared in, among dozens of publications, The New York Observer, Spy, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Newsweek, Esquire, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and The Soho News. He lives in Santa Monica, California.
This story on Martin Mull was originally published in The New Times, January 1978. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
By Paul Slanksy
Martin Mull’s manager has forgotten to make a reservation, so we stand in the entrance to the Universal commissary waiting for an empty table while stars like Lily Tomlin and Sly Stallone march past us to immediate seating. “I guess I’ll have to do some speed eating,” he says.” “Just run my fingers over the food.” Ten minutes into our wait, a departing couple approaches and hands Mull their lunch checks and a $10 bill. He politely explains that he is not the cashier. “When I met Martin Mull he was accepting cash and checks at the Universal commissary,” he says wryly. “There’s your opening line.”
Through six years as a singer of loony tunes that found inspiration in the mundane (“Dancing in the Nude,” “Noses Run in My Family”) and earned him a diminutive but devoted following, Martin Mull maintained a mighty sense of self. If no one showed up at his gigs, it was their loss, not his. Out of a combination of defensiveness and egomania, he created a stage persona that exuded a smug arrogance totally out of proportion to the degree of success he had achieved—a character superficially similar to, but significantly smarter than, the one Steve Martin is currently overexposing. So when he was offered a part in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a show that exalted the banal, he certainly wasn’t about to let his total lack of acting experience stand in the way.
In the role of wife-beating PR man Garth Gimble, Mull developed one of the most odious characters since Cagney smashed a grapefruit in Mae Clark’s face in Public Enemy. The damage Garth inflicted on his wife, Patty, was psychically as well as physically brutal: for Christmas he gave her a mop and pail—early, so she’d have plenty of time to use them. When a shirt button came off, Garth insisted that Patty fix it before she left for work. While she was sewing, he strolled out of the bedroom fully dressed. “You wore another shirt!” she said, to which he ad-libbed condescendingly, “A topless executive, Patty? I think that’s years away!” When Garth was impaled on an aluminum Christmas tree, he was mourned by no one but Mull fans.
Six months later Mull was back, hosting Norman Lear’s talk-show parody, Fernwood 2-Night, as twin brother Barth Gimble, a small-time hustler who had fled Miami on a morals charge, then pointed out that he has “a pretty darn good case of entrapment.” Barth Gimble was the perfect comic symbol for the seventies, a con man who revealed his ignorance even as he thought he was being incredibly hip. Here he is coming on to a nubile youngster who has been the spankee in a demonstration of corporeal punishment:
B: You have quite a talent there, Debbie. You know, we have “Rocket to Stardom” here on the show. Would you wanna be on that?
D: Well, the only thing I know how to do is sing our school song.
B: Sing! Perfect, you can come back and sing your school song. I love it.
D: It’s in Latin.
B: OK. Latin music. You guys know Latin music, huh? (The band goes into a samba.) That’s the stuff.
In the space of one year, Martin Mull brought to life two personalities who could be put into any situation and react true to character.
Martin Mull is almost famous. In the last few months he has done Merv, Dinah, Tom Snyder, the Rock Awards, Wonder Woman and Hollywood Squares. He is currently playing a disc jockey who gets laid on the air for in his first film, FM. (An appearance in Oh, God!, in which he briefly stepped in for John Denver—whom he has called “the Poland of music”—was cut from the final print.)
He is also finishing up work on his new album, I Haven’t the Vegas Idea, and a best-of collection, No Hits, Four Errors, has just been released. Next month he begins taping 13 more weeks of Fernwood 2-Night for an early-April air date. Time said he has the best sense of timing “since Jack Benny passed age 39.” Playboy wants him for the interview. So when, as he wolfed down his shrimp cocktail and beer before rushing back to the FM set, I told him that a random sample of 20 Californians turned up only five who knew who he was—plus one who thought he was “that guy who says ‘Excuse me,’ with the arrow in his head”— Martin Mull laughed. “That’s terrific,” he said. “When I walked into the house last night, everyone knew me.”
“Martin always had the demeanor of a star,” says his manager, Larry Bresner. “He’d go out and buy $200 shoes when he couldn’t pay the rent.”
“We don’t take on a lot of performances,” he continues. “You can only handle so much, and you’re really not interested in handling somebody who can’t go to the full limit of their potential, because it’s not fun. You book them into 50 dates a year and it’s boring. With Marty, there’s no such thing as boring. I’ve never met anybody that’s got a brain that’s full of more ideas. The man could be the number-one advertising executive in the country.” (When Earth Shoes recently asked him to do an ad for them, Mull came up with “Shoes: Fetish or Necessity?”)
“Martin is one of a kind,” says Al Burton, one of Norman Lear’s creative supervisors who caught Mull’s show at the Roxy in Los Angeles and signed him for Mary Hartman. “He has this unique hateful quality while still being an appealing performer.”
“Martin was a joy to work with,” he adds. “He is one of the quickest-thinking wits since the old days of wits. The nuances that he got out of those lines were incredible. I know very few actors who can make a written word sound as if it’s ad-libbed. I like Steve Martin, but I don’t think I would have gone after him the way I went after Martin Mull.”
In fact, Martin and Mull are good friends and have worked together on several projects. “There was a time when Martin and Steve seemed to osmose off of each other a little,” says comedy writer Harry Shearer, whose credits include Fernwood 2-Night. “I think Steve picked up a little of Martin’s arrogance, and I don’t know what Martin picked up from Steve—three or four good lines probably. With Steve it’s so obvious that he’s putting it on, but with Martin it’s a lot closer to home. You can never quite be sure whether he’s doing a character or whether that’s the guy, which is interesting.”
Eugenie Ross-Leming, co-producer of Forever Fernwood, is another Mull fan. “The Garth character was so grim that it was really hard on Martin,” she says. “The real tribute was that he carried it off.” How he did it, though, she’s not sure. “I don’t know, maybe Martin’s past is incredibly sordid and warped—we can hope.”
Martin Mull was born in Chicago in 1943 and grew up in Ohio towns not unlike Fernwood. “Up until the age of 16, I was the same as Taft,” he says. In 1959 the family moved to Connecticut, where Martin was the star place-kicker for the New Canaan High football team. He went on to become an honor student at the Rhode Island School of Design and receive a Master’s degree in painting in 1967. That same year, he made his acting debut before the Providence draft board.
Slicking his hair back with Vaseline and sporting a lumberjack shirt several sizes too small, Mull prepared a lunch of carrots, celery and a tuna fish sandwich. Each carrot stick and celery strip was individually wrapped in aluminum foil, as was the lump of tuna fish and each slice of bread. He carried it in an oversized grocery bag with his name scribbled all over. He claimed membership in every Communist group he’d ever heard of. After his hearing test, he pretended to be locked in the booth. When the psychiatrist asked him what he thought of the draft, Mull, chewing on his hand all the while, said, “Well, actually, I think it’s sort of chilly in here. Would you mind closing the window?” The Army brought on the hook.
By this time Mull’s interests were divided between art and music. He joined a conceptual-art group whose most notorious project was Flush with the Walls (Or, I’ll Be Art in a Minute), a 1971 exhibition in the men’s room of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
“We wanted to have a show at the museum,” he says. “But generally you had to be dead to be chosen. This was a price we didn’t really want to pay. So at 8 p.m. sharp, six of us, women as well as men, went in there and put up our work with masking tape while there were still people in there using it. In a matter of minutes we had over 300 people in the men’s room, including film crews for the 11 o’clock news. It was a terrific success.”
The following year, The Umbrellas of Pitchburg (mais oui serve vous) was sponsored by the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art. The show consisted of hors d’oeuvres in the shapes of great works of 20th-century art, such as “Picasso on Rye,” which were eaten by the guests. (One doggie bag remained for years in the Institute’s freezer.)
Mull continued to produce his Fantasia-esque paintings, and was making some money—”I priced them very much like merchandise,” he says. “It wouldn’t be $500, it would be $499.99.”—but his career as a musician began to take up more of his time. In his senior year at RISD, Mull had formed a group called Soup, a band remembered less for its musical abilities than for its demented stage show. Mull, in a chef’s hat, was Captain Soup; the other costumes ranged from pajamas to a giant cigarette carton. The group recorded one unmemorable album before disbanding.
After getting his degree, Mull moved to Boston, where he lived in a basement apartment while working at a small recording studio. He was writing songs and thinking seriously about performing. When he married artist Kristin Johnson in 1970 (they are currently getting a divorce), he quit his job, collected unemployment and hired a manager with a special talent for securing nonpaying bookings.
“We had no money,” Kristin recalls. “Martin had to take public transportation to the gigs carrying his guitar, and not get paid, and play to an empty house. But he has a very large ego, and that sustained him for a long time.”
His songs would take a bizarre premise (What if I married a midget?) and extrapolate the logical results (“Walking hand and ankle/she’s got her arm around my sock”). They were strange but basically sweet—when he poked fun at something, it was good-natured. But when he began performing, another character developed between the songs, a character from which Barth and Gimble is a direct descendent. “I first started making music during the folk music scare of the sixties,” he says, “and I always felt that messages should be sent by Western Union, not by music. I would get in front of the audience and try to play these little alternative songs, and they’d look at me like I was half-baked. So I realized I’d have to introduce the tunes, and my tongue sort of went into my cheek, because that’s who I am. And out of that, certain things got great laughs and cumulatively built into an act.”
The laughs came at the audience’s expense. If they couldn’t appreciate a song like “Partly Marion” (“She was only 17/when she cut them off in the washing machine/she just reached for the wringer/and zap went the fingers/it was no consolation that they come off so clean”), it was their fault.
“Initially it was defensive,” he says. “I’d been told for years by my folks that I could not sing, and that’s quite a lot, to go on stage doing something you’ve been told you cannot do.”
He signed a contract with Capricorn Records and was soon on the road more that he was home. Then came Martin Mull and his Fabulous Furniture. “Standing up there in front of a stack of amps wasn’t really satisfying,” he says. “And when I’d sit around my living room and play with some friends, that did seem satisfying. I thought, ‘Maybe the catalyst here is furniture,’ so I figured, why not try it? It made me feel more at home, which would make the audience feel more at home. So I brought my home. It was literally my real furniture.” When he couldn’t schlep his own things, he rented old tables, chairs and lamps from local Salvation Armies.
The Mulls were then living in New York on Riverside Drive, and Martin’s career began putting a strain on the marriage. “He demanded an audience no matter where he was,” says Kristin. “Even if it was just me and him. It was, ‘Listen to this, no, wait, listen to this, what do you think of this?’ If there were more people, eventually we’d just be sitting around listening to Martin’s tunes. At one point I told him, ‘Martin, we’re living in a two-bedroom apartment and you’ve got a six-bedroom ego. I feel crowded.’ But I think that’s why he’s where he is now, because he’s so proud of what he does.”
Mull recorded four albums for Capricorn, and although he became close to the president of the company, Phil Walden, Mull claims the label had no idea how to market them. (“They were putting them out in fields and hoping people would find them,” he says) He had one near-hit, a single called “Dueling Tubas,” the Deliverance theme hilariously rendered by out-of-tune tubas. He was working steadily at colleges and clubs like the Boarding House—San Francisco and Boston have always been his best markets. But he wasn’t making any money, until he signed with Rollins & Joffe, the firm which also manages Woody Allen and Robert Klein.
“At that time he was traveling around with tap-dancers, a band, horns, craziness,” recalls Larry Bresner. “We could always get him work, but if he was getting paid $2,000, it cost him $4,000 to do it. We insisted on getting rid of everybody in the band. That wasn’t Martin Mull. Martin Mull was what he did sitting in a chair. The whole key was being able to expose him on a mass level.”
Mass level equals television. Mull did a couple of Cher shows and was offered the position of band leader on Saturday Night. “At that point, I didn’t feel it was quite enough for me to do, to sit there and say two or three lines a night,” he says, and turned it down. That may be one reason he has never been asked to host the show; another is more obvious.
A few years ago, Mull went to see the National Lampoon Show in New York. He sat right up front and talked with his friend, Peter Boyle, throughout the performance. When he went backstage afterward to congratulate the cast (which included John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray), Murray went berserk. He grabbed Mull around the neck and tried to choke him, screaming, “I’LL KILL HIM, I’LL KILL THAT FUCKER, HE TALKED THROUGH THE WHOLE THING, I HATE HIM!”
“As I recall, Bill had to be restrained by John Belushi,” says Michael O’Donoghue, who worked with Mull on an aborted project titled Lincoln: The Man, the Car and the Tunnel. “When Martin left the dressing room, Billy kept screaming after him, ‘Medium talent! Medium talent!’ Of such things show business legends are made.”
“I feel very bad about that show,” says Mull. “I’d had a bit to drink” (he doesn’t smoke grass), “and quite frankly, it was more amusing at that point to talk to Peter, whom I hadn’t seen in a long time. I confess to having been extremely rude, though not quite as rude as Bill Murray trying to strangle me afterward.”
Then came Mary Hartman. “I thought they hired me because I was a comedian,” Mull says. “I was kind of surprised when all of a sudden we got all this Virginia Woolfish high drama. I didn’t like the character at all. I don’t care for violence, and wife beating is particularly repugnant to me, so it was quite hard.”
When Garth was killed off, the plan was to bring Mull back as a twin brother later in the season. But Al Burton saw him as the ideal host for Fernwood 2-Night. Norman Lear, however, had never seen Mull’s stage act, so a special night at the Roxy was arranged. In the middle of his act, Martin stopped and said, “Well, Norman, do I have the job?” He did.
Fernwood 2-Night was the perfect vehicle for Mull; he had been playing Barth Gimble since the first time he appeared on stage. The character incorporated some of the most basic comic schticks: the classic Gleason/Carney relationship between Barth and Jerry Hubbard (brilliantly played by Fred Willard, of the Ace Trucking Company), the exaggerated exasperation of Jack Benny, and the disgusted stare of Oliver Hardy, as lifted by Johnny Carson. (How long can it be before Mull is perceived as the obvious successor to Carson?)
“Martin was the one who realized that the show had to be more real,” says Harry Shearer, “as opposed to just raiding the files of topics taboo for TV. There was one meeting where one of Norman Lear’s vice-presidential flunkies said, ‘This reality shit is OK for Andy Warhol, but we’re doing TV.’ That was what he was up against.”
“What we didn’t do, that a lot of television does do,” says Mull proudly, “is we didn’t say to ourselves, ‘Whoops, we’re missing the dumb-belt contingent, we better make sure we have more tits and ass, or more fart jokes.’ Occasionally I thought I would get extremely antsy because I thought some of the acts were a little bit toward a Gong Show kind of thing, and to me, you don’t have to have a grandmother who plays the tuba and tap-dances at the same time—that’s not funny to me, because it’s a reach. To me, just having a grandmother, period, come on and talk about her grandchildren and show photos is much funnier. It’s not as obvious.”
What is obvious is the appeal of the concept to Mull. Like his songs, the show started with one absurd premise—what if the town of Fernwood decided to produce its own talk show—and took the idea to its limits.
So if you’ll beg my pardon
I’m goin’ out and start a garden
It’ll just be small potatoes
Just some lettuce and tomatoes
And if either one comes up, we’ll joint the Grange
What say you and I get normal for a change.
Martin Mull’s garden is a small sod lawn that cost only $38. (“It’s just back from the cleaners,” he says.) It is in back of the modest Malibu house he shares with his new love, Fernwood costume designer Sandra Baker, her two children and two dogs; the beach is a few hundred feet away. He clearly enjoys being normal for a change.
It’s 80 degrees out in the yard, but Martin is wearing brown pants, a green turtleneck and a tan jacket with a “Bah! Humbug!” button, in preparation for a photo shoot for the cover of the Christmas issue of Ampersand, a college monthly.
“Did you hear about the three Polacks who froze to death at a drive-in?” he asks. “They went to see Closed for the Season.”
His manager calls to discuss a possible book deal. “If it works out,” he says, “I’ll be limited to books, records, TV, movies, live performances and art.”
Martin is not above poking fun at himself—the cover of his latest album for ABC, I’m Everyone I’ve Ever Loved, shows him reclining on a couch gazing lovingly into a hand mirror, surrounded by signed photographs of himself. He is trying to get his stage persona more in sync with his private one, which he observes, “would not totally remove the smug arrogance.”
He is excited about the return of Fernwood 2-Night, mainly because the show allows him so much creative freedom. “I’m lucky,” he says. “The stuff that makes me happy has enough in common with enough people that it can become a commodity. There are a lot of people who, given compete license, can have the time of their life and have the communication of a rock.”
The Norman Lear organization is talking about a network sit-com after Fernwood runs its course. “I would have to have enough control over the thing that it wouldn’t compromise me,” he says. “I’m still very young, I’m still looking forward to making money, as opposed to trying to maintain some sort of lifestyle by selling out.” His managers want him to come up with a screenplay that he could direct and star in.
“What I really want to do with my life,” he says, “is take Sandra and the family to the south of France, fins a little château, set up the easel and paint.”
Martin Mull is a lucky man. He is getting paid for being funny, which is like a “normal” person getting paid for breathing. He is at last getting the recognition which, in his own words, he has so desperately deserved. He is unlikely to be spoiled by success—he’s been ready for it for too long.
Two women come by to shoot the photo. He walks over to the outdoor fireplace. “I could be hanging up a pair of panty hose and hoping that Santa fills ‘em with the proper item,” he suggests. They ask for a quote about Christmas. “I’m very hard to buy for,” Martin says. “Do you want a list of things? I think I should publish my sizes. Just a simple Christmas, and if all I receive is a Mercedes-Benz 280SL, hey, I was with my folks.
There is a lot of good stuff to be found in Andrew Corsello’s GQ profile of Louis C.K. (never mind the “genius” part if you can). I especially like this:
“All of that”—the death of the New York club scene in the early ’90s, the Pootie Tang debacle—”has helped me form what I call my 70 Percent Rule for decision-making.” C.K. then describes a practical application of a worldview laced into many of his best routines—that “everything is amazing and nobody is happy.” If we just wrest our eyes, literally and figuratively, from our digital gizmos and the shitty, spoiling impatience they instill, we’ll see that this life, this planet, is amazing. That it is something just to be in the world, seeing and hearing and smelling. That for trillions of miles in every direction from earth, life really is blood-boilingly, eye-explodingly horrific.
“These situations where I can’t make a choice because I’m too busy trying to envision the perfect one—that false perfectionism traps you in this painful ambivalence: If I do this, then that other thing I could have done becomes attractive. But if I go and choose the other one, the same thing happens again. It’s part of our consumer culture. People do this trying to get a DVD player or a service provider, but it also bleeds into big decisions. So my rule is that if you have someone or something that gets 70 percent approval, you just do it. ‘Cause here’s what happens. The fact that other options go away immediately brings your choice to 80. Because the pain of deciding is over.
“And,” he continues, “when you get to 80 percent, you work. You apply your knowledge, and that gets you to 85 percent! And the thing itself, especially if it’s a human being, will always reveal itself—100 percent of the time!—to be more than you thought. And that will get you to 90 percent. After that, you’re stuck at 90, but who the fuck do you think you are, a god? You got to 90 percent? It’s incredible!”
WEST: In looking at Krazy Kat, do you draw any strength from what Herriman did in terms of the relationships of his characters?
WATTERSON: Krazy Kat is a completely unique strip. I think it’s the best comic strip ever drawn. Ultimately, though, it’s such a peculiar and idiosyncratic vision that it has little to say to me directly. I marvel at it because it’s beyond duplication. It’s like trying to paint a sunrise — you’re better off not even trying. Peanuts and Pogo have been inspirations, too, but these strips are much more down to earth, and are much closer to my own way of thinking, and have had much more direct influence. Even so, I try to keep the instances of blatant plagiarism to a minimum. Looking back, you’ll see that some of the old strips are one-gag formulas, endlessly varied. Krazy Kat revolves around the tossing of the brick. Little Nemo was always a dream, and you know the kid is going to wake up in a heap at the bottom of his bed in every single strip. I find Herriman a lot more interesting than McCay, but both are working within a very limited construct. It’s a very different approach to cartooning that what we do now. I would go insane working with limited formulas like theirs, but on the other hand, Herriman and McCay gave us something better than gags. Back then, the fun was in the getting there. The destination of each strip was the same, but every day you went there by a different road. Today, we want the strip over as soon as possible — “Just hand me the punch line, please.” The fewer panels, words, and drawings, the better: I think Pogo was the last of the enjoy-the-ride strips. It’s a shame. We’ve really lost what comics do best.
WEST: Can’t you still do that with the Sundays?
WATTERSON: The Sundays are frustrating — you have to waste the entire top third of the strip so that the panels can be dropped or reconfigured for certain-sized newspapers. This really limits what I can do. Krazy Kat had a whole page to itself, as did Nemo. Even so, there’s more flexibility on Sundays than in the daily strips. I’ve always tried to make the strip animated, even when the characters aren’t moving, with expressions or perspectives or some sort of exaggeration. There’s great potential for that which has yet to be fully mined.
This is worth reading. Ben Smith on Tom Lehrer:
If you get hooked on Tom Lehrer as a kid, it’s not because you think he might be a sweet old man. It’s because beneath the cheerful tunes is an edge, a sheer nastiness and even sadism, that kids have always loved. It’s the same edge that makes Roald Dahl so appealing to children and disturbing to their parents.
Lehrer saw this Peter Pan in himself, joking about it before one of his last performances, in Copenhagen in 1967. “All of these songs were part of a huge scientific project to which I have devoted my entire life,” Lehrer said. “Namely, the attempt to prolong adolescence beyond all previous limits.”
But when Lehrer is the nostalgic music of your childhood, you want to like him. He always replies politely to his fans, no less when they are journalists seeking to profile him. Earlier this year, he put up with a brief telephone conversation with a BuzzFeed reporter, whom he referred to “Mr. Google” for further research. Told that search results concerning him are full of gaps and contradictions, he just laughed. “It doesn’t matter if the answer is correct — who cares?” he said. “And I lie a lot too.”
He then replied to our letter full of nostalgia and curiosity with a genial dismissal. “You seem to have devoted so much thought to the questions you ask that you should perhaps just write what you think is the truth, even if it’s just speculation, which — judging by today’s commentators on TV — is the easiest and therefore the most common form of punditry. I neither support nor encourage your efforts, but I shall not try to thwart them,” he wrote. And he was true to his word. He didn’t respond to a second letter, nor to a fact-checking email sent to his AOL email address; his email handle includes a phrase along the line of “living legend.” When we stopped by his Sparks Street house on a cold night in February, a light was on and a Prius was in the driveway, but nobody answered the door and Lehrer wrote that he had left town for California.
Albert Brooks’ second album, A Star is Bought, is the best comedy record most of you have probably never heart. It was never released on CD and it’s not available on ITunes. And that’s a shame because the record—which was made in collaboration with Harry Shearer—is one of the finest comedy albums ever made. Never mind that it was nominated for a Grammy or that it was in many ways a precursor to faux-documentary style of This Is Spinal Tap, it Albert in top form. You know, hilarious.
According to Paul Slansky, who wrote “Everybody Should Have an Albert” for The Village Voice in March 1979, Brooks owns the rights to A Star is Bought, he just isn’t motivated to re-release it. What would get Brooks to reconsider, I wonder?
C’mon, Albert: Please.
As for Slansky, his profiles, essays, and humor pieces have appeared in The New Yorker (where his political and cultural quizzes have been a frequent feature for the past dozen years), the legendary Spy magazine, and, among dozens of other publications, The New York Observer, The New York Times, Newsweek,The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Esquire (where he co-ordinated the annual Dubious Achievements Awards feature throughout the 1980s). He is the author of six books, including My Bad: The Apology Anthology (2006),Idiots, Hypocrites, Demagogues and More Idiots: Five Decades of Political Infamy (2008), Slansky also edited Carrie Fisher’s first book, Postcards From the Edge (1987), and her most recent, Shockaholic (2011). He is currently working with legendary producer Norman Lear on his memoir.
He knows funny when he sees it which is why he was a beauty fit to write about Albert. This story appears here with the author’s permission.
“Everybody Should Have an Albert”
By Paul Slansky
On February 4, 1974, Albert Brooks walked on the stage of the Tonight Show for the 22nd time. His past performances had included some of the funniest bits ever seen on the show: an impressionist whose imitation of various celebrities all sounded like Ed Sullivan; a mime who came out in whiteface and proceeded to describe, with a French accent, his every action (“Now I am walking down ze stairs, now I am petting ze dog”); and an elephant trainer whose elephant was sick, forcing him to substitute a frog.
But this time Brooks’s normally genial face wore a troubled expression. He explained that his appearance on the show was an unfortunate mistake, that he had only come because his manager insisted it was time to do another Carson show. “Let’s just talk philosophy for a minute,” he said earnestly. “A lot of us have a game plan. We don’t want to give too much of ourselves too quickly because, you know, then it’s all gone. Here I am, five years into my career, and my game plan is all off. I have no material left. While you folks were having turkey dinner last week, I was down to my last bit.”
This was no laughing matter, as the silent audience clearly recognized. There hadbeen those rumors of a recent breakdown on stage in a Boston nightclub, and didn’t Johnny always call him “Crazy Albert Brooks?” God, was the guy about to crack up on national television? A few uneasy coughs broke the silence.
He then went through a scornful recitation of all the things he could do if he wanted to settle for cheap laughs. Sure, he could get a laugh by dropping his pants, he said, dropping them and getting an enormous (and relieved) one. Sure, he could break people up smashing eggs on his head, but who couldn’t? Sure, he could draw a funny face on his chest…
A few minutes later, with his pants around his ankles, whipped cream and eggs dripping from his head, a cake on his face, and a face on his chest, he stared into the camera and said, “This isn’t the real me.” He pulled an 8×10 glossy out of his shorts, declared, “This is the real me!” and stalked offstage a la Jimmy Durante. The audience responded with a solid minute of applause.
So whatever happened to Albert Brooks? Three years ago it looked like he was going to make it big. His short films were appearing on Saturday Night Live. He made his motion picture debut as the pushy campaign worker in Taxi Driver. His second album, A Star is Bought, received a Grammy nomination, and Timecalled him “the smartest, most audacious comic talent since Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen.” Enormous success seemed within his grasp, if only he would reach for it. Instead, he dropped out of sight.
He has spent the past three years working on Real Life, his first feature film which Paramount is distributing. Real Life is the most original American comedy in recent memory. Brooks wrote the film, with comedy writers Harry Shearer and Monica Johnson. He raised the money for it—under $1 million—from a man who didn’t even read the script. He directed it and spent six months in the editing room with it, designed the print ad and created the TV and radio spots. In short, total control.
“When he was younger,” says Harry Shearer, “he really sat down and mapped out five-year plans—he was like a communist government. One of the ways Albert is smarter than most of the people in the business is that he’s held out for total control over the things that are important to him.”
Brooks called Real Life “a staged documentary comedy.“ In it, he plays a comedian named Albert Brooks, who joins forces with a scientific research institute and a major Hollywood studio to make a film about a year in the lives of a typical American family. (Remember the Louds?) Wall cameras sensitive to body heat, and portable devices worn over the heads of the film crew will capture every moment’s bit of activity.
The Yeagers of Phoenix, Arizona, are chosen: veterinarian Warren, his first wife Jeanette, and their two children. Unsurprisingly, their lives immediately begin to fall apart under the scrutiny. Their first dinner sets the mood, with Warren and Jeanette arguing about her menstrual cramps while cameramen diligently circle the table.
Things get worse. Jeanette visits her gynecologist, whom Albert recognizes as a baby broker exposed on 60 Minutes. Warren loses a patient—a horse. Jeanette’s grandmother dies, and Warren talks about the dead horse during her funeral service. Finally, an article about the family appears in a local newspaper, and they are besieged by TV cameras whenever they leave the house. Throughout the family’s ordeal Brooks reassures them, even as he manipulates them to ensure the success of the project. (When Jeanette says her children are afraid to go to school, Brooks counters, “That’s normal, trust me.”)
The Yeagers are victims, not villains. Their irrational desire for celebrity—and Brooks’s—is the result of society’s celebration of it as the only goal worth attaining. Real Life operates on so many levels and takes on so many subjects, with such attention to detail, that it demands to be seen more than once. Brooks’s cynicism is aimed at our affectations, not our aspirations, and he trusts his audience to join him in acknowledging—and enjoying—the utter silliness of it all.
“Albert is a national treasure,” says Charles Grodin, who plays Warren Yeager in the film. “I’m delighted that we’re alive at the same time. I’d like to see him have everything. He’s so damn good, you just have to feel that way.”
When I call Albert Brooks to set up a meeting for the following day, he suggests getting together immediately. Unfortunately, my tape recorder has a dead battery, and I don’t want to sit down with him without it.
“Maybe I should just jot down some of the things I might say,” he says. “Okay, I’ll tell you what. I’ll bring a tape recorder, I’ll bring batteries, I’ll even bring cassettes. What size shirt do you wear?” Twenty minutes later, he walks into the El Padrino Room of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel with a recorder and a cassette of Emmy Lou Harris’s Elite Hotel. “It’s the only tape I could find,” he says. “You’ve got 40 minutes.”
We begin by discussing the genesis of some of his early routines, including the out-of-material bit. “It was time to do another Carson show,” he says, “and I really didn’t have anything to do. So I thought, this is interesting, maybe I can get something out of this. Most of my bits come from what’s really there. You turn it into entertainment by making it a little more interesting.”
He points to a horse behind our table. “Sometimes I like to make up names for the horses of famous people,” he says. “Like if Burt Bachrach had a horse, what would he call it? Maybe, ‘Where’s Angie?’ If we stop now, you get the rest of Emmy Lou’s album, you know.”
The waiter brings my drink, and a chef’s salad and iced coffee for Albert, who says that he might be going to Hawaii for a vacation in a few days. “Maybe I shouldn’t see you again before you go,” I say. “Then I’ll have to go to Hawaii to finish the piece.”
“Will your editors pay for it?” he asks. “Because if they will, here’s what we’ll do. When you get to Hawaii, there’ll be a message waiting for you saying I’ve gone on to Japan. Then we’ll go to China, and…” He stops himself. “What am I talking about?” he practically moans. “I’ll never leave. I’ve been talking about a vacation for five years, I just never leave. It’s sick, it’s not healthy.” He suddenly brightens. “You know what I’ve always wanted to do? I’ve always wanted to put a lung in a suitcase and send it through an airport security check. In effect, the guard would be looking at an X-ray of a lung.
Aside from Albert’s comic instinct, the most striking thing about him is his confidence in it. His jokes are delivered as casually as they occur to him. It’s clear that if he thinks something is funny, he goes with it—getting a laugh is a pleasant but nonessential bonus.
“I‘ll leave the tip,” Albert says loudly when the check arrives. “Not really. That was just for the tape recorder.”
Two days later, I arrive at Albert’s Hollywood office intending to observe an average day in his real life, but he has other plans: a trip to Magic Mountain to ride Colossus, this year’s World’s Largest Roller Coaster.
Albert calls Magic Mountain, lowering his voice in an approximation of the sort of simpleton who doesn’t find the very notion of such hype ludicrous: “Hullo, uh, I’m not going to be coming up there, but if I were, what time does Colossus open? And how long is the wait? Thank you.” He hangs up and laughs. “She said, ‘It opens at 3 and there’s a two-hour wait. Let everybody go on and then it’ll clear out and you’ll go later in the evening.’ She’s planning our evening! ‘You’ll have dinner here, you’ll buy bumper stickers, we got a hotel room for you…’ Let’s go.”
An hour later, we pay $17 at the admission gate, stop to buy Sno-Cones, and join the line about a quarter-mile from the ride. “It’s amazing how this place generates absolutely no excitement of its own,” Albert says. “The frightening thing would be if they said we could never leave here. Aside from all the things you’d never be able to do again, you’d have to eat every meal here.”
Two young girls walk by wearing Fonzie T-shirts. “I bet half the kids in this park know the name Freddie Silverman,” Albert says. “What other era could you live in where kids know the name of a head of programming?
“But I can’t think of any time I’d rather be living in, because of the technology. It’s just amazing.” (Few of his friends understand his fascination with technology, which is much in evidence in Real Life. But Harry Shearer, who shares the obsession, has an explanation: “Albert is basically an optimist, and if you want to be optimistic about the future, technology is the only refuge you’ve got.”)
“Catalina was the last place in the country to get a phone system that didn’t need operators,” Albert continues. “Everyone in town used to know each other through the operator, and now that way of life is gone, just gone,” he says wistfully, then interrupts himself. “Who cares? I wanna go on Colossus!” He breaks into a Bob Hope parody: “Now I don’t wanna say that it was a long wait, but the kid in front of me learned to read on the line. I don’t wanna say I was scared, but… you finish it.”
An hour after getting on line, we pass under the Colossus sign, and Albert begins his countdown “Six minutes, six minutes! Four minutes!” Albert screams and waves his hands in the air as our car plunges along the tracks, but the ride is unworthy of its hype. “Weightless 11 times, they said—I only counted four,” he says as we walk down the ramp. “Three good drops, no good banks. If we’d waited two hours, I would have been disappointed.”
We stop at a souvenir stand to buy buttons that proclaim I RODE IT! “We rode it,” Albert says, “but only because you wanted to know what my average day was like. I do it every day. See what my button says, I RODE IT A MILLION TIMES!”
Looking for a place to get a salad, we pass a gift shop with a rack of dresses near the doorway. “Who buys clothes here?” Albert wonders. “Hey, that’s nice, where’d you get it?’ ‘Magic Mountain.’”
The salad hunt proves futile. “I didn’t really want one anyway,” Albert says as we leave the park. “I wanted to get the button that came with it—I ATE SALAD AT MAGIC MOUNTAIN.”
“Every kid should have an Albert,” says comedy writer Monica Johnson. “He’s the kind of person you’d want to be locked in jail with. You know, you don’t have a game, you don’t have any cigarettes, what could be better than having Albert Brooks in there?”
Harry Einstein (better known as Parkyakarkus, a Greek-dialect radio comedian), finally couldn’t resist the joke—he named his fourth son Albert. “My father was very sick around the time I was born,” says Albert, sitting in the living room of his rented Benedict Canyon home and leafing through a bound volume of Parkyakarkus’s radio scripts. “The doctors thought he wouldn’t live.
“He did recover, but I don’t remember him as very active. I do remember lots of schtick around the dinner table. Generally he and my brothers and I were all laughing at the same thing my mother did not find funny, whatever that was.
“I guess I was the class clown—with a name like Albert Einstein, you don’t hide in the back. I’d read the school bulletin to the class and I’d add activities and make stuff up. It was good, a good 10 minutes every morning.”
When Harry Einstein died in 1958, 11-year-old Albert, who had grown up around Hollywood comedians, already had a reputation among them as a budding comic genius. A few years later, when Johnny Carson asked Carl Reiner to name the funniest men he knew, Mel Brooks and a high school kid named Albert Einstein were the two that he mentioned.
In the summer of 1965, after graduating from Beverly Hills High, Albert went to Plymouth, Massachusetts, to perform in summer stock. “Albert wanted to be a serious actor,” says Rob Reiner, a close friend since high school. “He went to Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh for its drama department and he was talking about doing all this dramatic theater. We’d say, ‘Albert, you’re funny. What you do best is make people laugh.’ He fought that for the longest time, and finally he started doing it and liking it.” He left college after three years, took the name of Brooks (“It sounded good with Albert,” he says) and returned to Los Angeles to start his career.
The traditional comedy formats became his targets. The first bit he came up with was “Danny and Dave,” an inept ventriloquist act that he performed on the syndicated Steve Allen Show in 1968. The Dean Martin, Merv Griffin, and Ed Sullivan shows followed, and other offers were coming in, but even then Albert was wary of losing control of his life.
“If I’d wanted to be a big star, I could have done the dummy bit 40 times, and everyone in the country would have known me,” he says. “But I didn’t want to be known as the guy with the dummy, so I forced myself to keep coming up with new stuff.”
In February 1971 Esquire ran an article called “Albert Brook’s Famous School for Comedians,” a take-off on all those correspondence schools that promise to turn you into another Van Gogh if you can trace the outline of your hand. The article—which Albert later turned into a short film for PBS’s Great American Dream Machine—presented the faculty (Joe Garagiola and Totie Fields, among others), key campus sites (the Don DeFont Mall) and the curriculum, which included courses in dialect, the double take, and the importance of choosing a disease to help eradicate. At the end came a comedy talent test which the reader could to take to see if he qualified for enrollment. A sample question:
Take my wife ______.
A. for instance.
B. I’ll be along later.
The magazine received over 200 serious inquires about the school.
He did his first Tonight Show in mid-1972, and quickly became a Carson favorite. Instead of adopting bizarre, negative personae that would exploit the audience’s hostilities, Albert performed as himself, using his feelings rather than disguising them and talking as if the audience were sitting in his living room. So sure was he of his instincts that he didn’t even audition his new material for friends. “I tried out all my stuff on national television,” he says. “After doing two years of TV, I felt confident enough to put together a live bit.”
Albert spent three years on the road, headlining in small clubs and opening for rock stars like Neil Diamond in larger halls. The anxiety and boredom created by doing the same material night after night finally got to him during a tour to promote his first album, Comedy Minus One, and a gig at Paul’s Mall in Boston was literally the end of the road. “I was just real tired,” he says, “and the record wasn’t even in the stores. I remember doing an interview with a disc jockey who said to me, ‘Jonathan Winters went crazy, you think that’s ever gonna happen to you?’ I said, ‘I think it’s happening right now.’” In the middle of the one-week engagement, he flew back to L.A.
Around this time, he began going out with Linda Ronstadt, a relationship that lasted two years. “I was going with Linda just before big things started happening for her,” he says. “We lived together for almost a year. We liked each other because at that time we had the exact same fear of performing—whatever that fear was, we shared it.”
(Albert is reluctant to discuss his personal life, but Penelope Spheeris, who produced Real Life, says, “Albert’s women are usually real serious. His love affairs are always like The Tempest.”)
By the end of 1975, his films were appearing regularly on Saturday Night, ostensibly the ideal vehicle to catapult him to stardom. Unfortunately, the relationship was not a smooth one.
“Albert, to put it in its mildest form, is sometimes intolerant of other people’s problems,” says producer Lorne Michaels. “We couldn’t edit, we couldn’t have audience laughter on the soundtrack. He had complete creative control. I had asked him for three-to-five-minute films, he got me up to five-to-seven minutes, and eventually they came in at 10. And you couldn’t say they were too long, because he would say, ‘They’re brilliant.’”
Well, they were. “The Impossible Truth” featured an interview with a blind cab driver: “Damn right, I still drive. What should I do, sit home and collect welfare?” Another film had Albert fulfilling a lifelong dream—performing heart surgery. (“I pray it doesn’t hurt, I pray it doesn’t hurt,” says the patient as Albert, who has forgotten the anesthesia, prepares to make the first incision.)
But the best of the lot was “Super Season,” an elaborately filmed parody of network promotion spots previewing scenes from three “new” shows: Black Vet (a black Vietnam veteran takes up practice as a veterinarian in a small southern town); Medical Season (“But it’s unnecessary. This man does not need surgery,” a doctor says as a patient is wheeled into the operating room. Replies his colleague: “It’s too late. He’s already paid for it and we’ve already spent the money.”); andThe Three of Us, a sitcom about a man living with two women—a premise which apparently was not too ridiculous for ABC, which built a real series around it two years later.
When the six-film contract expired, neither party was inclined to renew. “Viewer mail rated my films the least popular part of the show,” says Albert. “The Muppets were the audience favorites.”
Instead of becoming a superstar, he went to work on Real Life. “The groundhog came out today, laughed, and scratched ‘See Real Life’ in the dirt,” he says. “That’s a good sign, isn’t it?”
“You rode the ride, now hear the commercial,” Albert says, as an ad for Colossus comes on the radio of his Honda Civic. A Mercedes with a RUNNERS MAKE BETTER LOVERS bumper sticker on its trunk moves in front of us as we drive to a Japanese restaurant for sushi, Albert’s favorite food.
“Wouldn’t it be great if cars came equipped with screens like that thing they have in Times Square that spells out the news? He asks. “You could punch out your own instant messages: WILL THE SMALL RED CAR WITH THE UGLY DRIVER PLEASE STAY A LITTLE FURTHER BEHIND?”
“Night Fever” comes on the radio. “A few months ago, you literally could not turn on the radio without hearing this,” he says. “If someone put a gun to your head and said, ‘Find the Bee Gees in 30 seconds,’ you could do it.”
What about his plans for the future? “I don’t know what I’m going to do next,” Albert says. “I haven’t started writing another film yet. I want to see what the climate is like for Real Life before I decide.
“It only makes me anxious when I think ahead. I mean, some things you have to plan, but if you think far enough ahead, you’re dead. Hey, that sounds like a slogan. Let’s put in on the bumper.”
Everything is material for Albert Brooks—a lawn sprinkler watering an area of grass the size of a paper plate, a squashed coyote on the side of the road that “might just be taking a nap,” the president of the United States saying that “as far as sovereignty goes, I have no hang-ups about it.” His comedic vision encompasses everything he sees. Nothing is wasted, not even a pit stop to buy cassettes for the drive up to Magic Mountain, as I realize days later while transcribing my tapes.
There’s Albert, talking about why he doesn’t smoke or drink, describing how uncomfortable he felt the time he leased a Cadillac, saying he’ll wait in the car while I get the cassettes.
And then there’s this: “You’re in the record store now, Paul, so this’ll be a surprise for you, because right now you’re buying tapes and we’re going to Magic Mountain. What’s going to happen is that I intend to kill you at Magic Mountain. This will happen right before we go on the ride. I’m only doing it to get new movie ideas, ‘cause, you know, I owe it to the people. Bye bye.”