These Michael Caine impressions are funny.
These Michael Caine impressions are funny.
When David Letterman enters a small club, other young comics make way for him, and although he moves among them, he is separate. They haven’t hosted The Tonight Show and he has. The other young comics have to beg audiences for their attention at lonelier clubs, on later nights, attacking them, splaying their personalities onstage. They do imitations of Bigfoot in different dialects, they imagine the Elephant Man doing ads for the Chrysler K-car, they evoke and torture their parents’ domestic intimacies before a high, dark room full of people in Westwood or Santa Monica or Hollywood. Blinded by a spotlight, a young comic stands on a stage and calls jokes into the night, waiting for the laughter, hearing his own voice in its terrifying clarity—a sound garnished by a few low coughing chuckles from the crowd. “So you hate me,” the young man says with sweaty anger. “What do I care? Anyone got a cigarette?” He is given one. “So you hate me… so I’ll talk to my dick.” He pulls his waistband and talks down into his crotch. “Hello, Poky!” he says. “How are you Poky? Jump, Poky. Please?” There’s a silence, and the young man glares out into the black. “I always get best when I feel mean,” he says, and resumes talking to his crotch. The audience turns its head and coughs.
No such quiet fills a room when David Letterman comes through a curtain; quiet skitters away like many fleeing waiters. People yell, “Hey-yo!” and they yell, “How hot was it!” They seem to feel very close to Letterman indeed, and he stands and laughs in his white sweater and blue jeans and swings the microphone around like the old pro he’s practicing to be. “Hey-yo!” a straggler calls. “What a fine crowd,” Letterman says, and that gets the laughs it seeks. The audience is all in favor of allowing Letterman to make them laugh; they know he’s funny. He just has to talk, and they work so that he’ll acknowledge them. “This is more fun,” Letterman tells the crowd, “than humans should be allowed to have.” They laugh and clap. “Hey-yo!” someone yells.
Other young comedians come and go. They work the rooms and they yearn for their moment under the television lights—the moment that can turn them into paradigms of our age, the names cut into the marble walls of our culture halls: BRENNER. CHASE. KLEIN. Some can do dialect humor, others can simulate young people on drugs for an audience’s satisfaction, others can insult their wives. None of them will do anything that really hurts because that would keep them off television and push them into selling aluminum siding (which DANGERFIELD almost had to do).
The comedian who can make it on television is the one who can preside over the talk show landscape. He’s the comedian who can keep things going and react to the traffic of guests sitting down on and leaving a couch; he’s the comedian who represents security and durability to a network. Who knows, who even cares anymore, whether Johnny Carson is actually funny? We know that we like to laugh with him, but who knows whether he actually pushes the catch lever that leads to the joy-pain spasm? He is, more than anything, a triumphant and reassuring habit; he can react and act with the flow of the society, and because of that he’s worth more than any eight sitcoms.
David Letterman is that sort of good horse, the good choice in the morning lineup to provide thirty or forty or fifty years of solid, non-scalding comedy for national consumption. Like Carson, he knows that the long run is left to those who know to hold off and save it for the stretch. He’s not the one to wing it up toward the sun or to kill the audience a thousand times and himself last. When he works an audience, Letterman works at half speed so that he can generate while he goes; it’s the broadcast tradition of the talker. He goes on and on when he works, sending tendrils out into an audience, practicing. Just a funny guy is David L., just a firm hand who keeps his hostility in check, unsheathing, like Carson, a measured fury, and this restraint is what entitles him to the right to endure in a television age. Someone’s yelling “Hey-yo!” at Letterman, and because of that, all of that, NBC is paying him one million dollars a year. Letterman will inherit the air and the cables, gather his resources, and almost never reach for the emergency weapon—the lethal anger behind the sheet of glass—that the smartest ones keep in reserve for the moment of crisis when they doubt, and so need to demonstrate, that they are unchallengeably in charge of their audience.
[Photo Credit: Bettmann/Corbis]
If you dig Richard Pryor, go get Scott Saul’s Becoming Richard Pryor and David and Joe Henry’s Furious Cool. Listen to Pryor’s best albums–”Craps”, “That Nigger’s Crazy”, “Is It Something I Said?” and “Wanted: Live in Concert”. (If you’ve never seen it you should watch “Live in Concert”–perhaps the finest filmed stand up performance of them all–or any number of his better movies: Blue Collar, The Mack, Greased Lightning, Which Way is Up?, Lady Sings the Blues, Stir Crazy.
In the meantime, check out “Richard Pryor Is the Blackest Comic Of Them All” by our pal Mark Jacobson. Originally published in New West, August 30, 1976, it is re-printed here with the author’s permission.
The zooty mobiles are rolling slow and sweet up the Strip. In front of the Roxy there’s style a block long. Hats, satin, dudes with their names rhinestoned on their eyeglass lenses, jumpsuits emblazoned with the word “coke,” denim cut every which way: an impressive preen of edgy cool. Inside his rose-decked dressing room, Richard Pryor feels the electric vibes. His leg is stiffed up like the beginnings of a really good nut, his back creaks, and maybe he’ll throw up. A bad case of the comic’s hazard: fear of not being funny.
Tonight, however, Richard is sweating double; his underwear is a mess. Tonight he’s going to record his new album, “Bicentennial Nigger.” A good title. For Richard, who once was accorded an honorary degree from San Jose State in “black street history,” has an unwavering eye for the doings of the past 200 years. He is also the man who took the word “nigger” — once feared like Godzilla by the liberal black and white communities, but always legal tender in street language — and made it his trademark.
Even so, Richard thinks about the people in line and gets sicker. He knows niggers don’t let you fudge; every space you leave they’re bound to fill it up with some sort of rap to make you cringe. And outside everyone knows the scene, too. They’ll be looking extra hard to see if this Pryor nigger is as crazy as ever.
Crazy. Hustlers who never got to die of natural causes and sharks floating around the pool halls of Peoria, Illinois, screamed, “Nigger, you crazy!” at Richard years ago. It was the old story; Richard couldn’t fight so he was funny. Fell on the floor, did impersonations, a regular ghetto jester. The name stuck. Now you find plenty of housewives bounding into the black middle-class calling Richard Pryor a crazy nigger. Mostly they say it when they hear Richard’s albums. And get an earful of Pryor’s “characters” — crazy niggers all. There are cats like Oilwell: six feet, five inches, 242 pounds of man, a police-punching-type nigger who’d bite a dude’s privates to keep from being fooled with. And the junkie, the kid who used to be the smartest nigger in town — he could book numbers without the aid of paper or pencil — but now he can’t even remember his name. No mistake that Richard’s most famous record is called “That Nigger’s Crazy”: After all, who ever heard a nigger talk like a nigger and get away with it?
“That Nigger’s Crazy,” despite a little X-rated sticker on the cellophane, became the first comedy record in recent years to break into the top twenty on the charts. Sold a million pieces — enough to “go platinum” — a precious metal indeed. Pryor’s next, “Is It Something I Said?” — the one with a picture of Richard being burned at the stake by men in hoods — did as well. Richard now might be sweating in his dressing room, but “Bicentennial Nigger” is already assured of “shipping gold” — $1 million worth. Stats like that make Pryor the largest selling comedy artist in America.
But all that is doodly-squat compared to what’s coming. Sometime last year, Richard decided that being a crazy nigger on vinyl wasn’t enough. He turned down more than a million smackers worth of concert gigs to become a movie star. People around him said, “But Richard, we don’t have any movie offers.” Pryor, one of those vision-seeing niggers, told them to cool it, the pictures would come. He was right, of course. If you spend any time at all watching movies in the next year, you should be able to trace Richard Pryor’s mellow face from memory. Right now, you can see him as a barnstorming baseball player in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. He just wrapped Silver Streak, in which he played opposite Gene Wilder. Before that he was a Reverend Ike type in Car Wash. Now he’s off making Greased Lightning with Michael Schultz in Georgia. At the end of the year he’ll do — get this — the Giancarlo Giannini part in Which Way Is Up? a semi-remake of Lina Wertmüller’s Seduction of Mimi. Next year, Pryor has already blocked time for the lead in Paul Schrader’s new depresso opus, Blue Collar, the story of assembly line workers in Detroit.
Check those names: Schrader, Wertmüller, Wilder. These aren’t Superfly projects. This crazy nigger has broken into the big leagues. And more scripts come in all the time. Not that Richard can accept any for a while. A couple of weeks ago, Universal, tossing around phrases like “uniquely talented” and “bankable,” signed Richard to a six-picture, multi-million-dollar deal. Pryor will offer his services as both screenwriter and actor. Company officials say It is the first such contract in the studio’s history.
All of which makes Richard Pryor one hell of a potential corporate nigger. Being the biggest-selling comedy artist in America and a movie star too is quite a parlay. And Richard’s got the accessories to prove It. A demure Mercedes, a classy brown and gold office for Richard Pryor Productions complete with a fishbowl full of exotic underwater plants, a lawyer who used to be partners with Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, a full staff of frontmen and go-fers to shield him from prying eyes and push his T-shirts, and a brand new house in the Valley. Richard is especially fond of the Northridge house, which he is currently redecorating. After years of hotel rooms and rented cottages, at last he’s got a safe place. Stability is strange to Richard: The first month or so after moving in, he had dreams of men carrying briefcases coming to the door and saying, “You mean you own this house, Mr. Pryor?” But now that dream doesn’t recur. Richard says, “I feel secure, more than ever, maybe for the first time.”
Until tonight, that is. Being a star is terrific, but when you’ve got to go out on stage to face 500 niggers, knees get weak. Especially curious niggers. Tonight they’ll be asking a reasonable question: Can perhaps the hottest personality in Hollywood — white, black, or polka dot, as the old civil rights marcher used to say — be a crazy street nigger, too?
No doubt Richard used to be crazy. It seems as if everyone hoisting a tequila sunrise at Hollywood parties has at least one Richard Pryor horror story. There are tales of how Richard stabbed his landlord with a fork, jeers about Pryor’s supposed predilection for smashing women about his apartment, knowing smiles about his fabled Hoover-suck intake of cocaine. Pryor’s failures to show up for appointments, even dates to tell jokes on the Ed Sullivan Show, are the stuff of showbiz folklore. After all, who could be crazy enough to forget to show up for a Sullivan shot?
But then again, what do you expect of someone who claims to have been born in a Peoria whorehouse, says his father died in the saddle, and speaks of being kicked out of school for hitting teachers? Not to mention knowing all the bad news “characters” that Richard talks about on his records. That kind of background inspires gossip. But a little investigation reveals certain facts. Pryor did indeed miss a few Sullivan shows, once choosing instead to stay home to try out his new 16mm movie equipment. He did snort enough coke to “buy Peru” — sometimes $100 worth a day. He collects guns. He was sued for wife-beating. Also for knocking around a hotel clerk. Did a turn in the slams for not paying taxes on yearly earnings of nearly a quarter of a million.
Last week, however, around the Silver Streak set, you could see the difference a few years make. Pryor sat in an old XKE mounted on a platform and acted a scene with Gene Wilder in front of a process screen. Studio hotshots hovered. All of them seemed to be talking about how Richard hadn’t missed a day of shooting, how he’s never forgotten a line, how he “hasn’t been a problem of any kind.” They sounded relieved. In Hollywood, everyone knows the Pryor legend.
As for Richard himself, the man is looking good. No more dissipation or benders for this cat. Now Pryor is into health foods. Vitamins, too. “I’m through actively messing with my body,” Richard says like a born-again Californian. It’s paying off in many ways; a nice-looking lady in a perfect jumpsuit just told Richard how much weight he’s lost. From the smile on Pryor’s face, you figure lettuce means more to him today than a good freeze. About the old days, Pryor gets a little more solemn. Just thinking about that lunacy makes his body literally quake, like the first jolt from the Quentin death house. Looking at the ceiling, he says, “I was just a kid then. That was before I changed.”
Whether Richard has actually changed is hard to tell, but there was a night when he started to go in another direction. It was an evening in 1970 when Pryor — then 30 — was telling jokes at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. Richard was doing a typical show for him in those days: fairytale parodies, army jokes, talk show routines. It was the way Richard had worked since coming out of Peoria in the early sixties, except that he had dropped his second-rate Sammy Davis Jr. impression. That was the way Richard thought he had to work. People who knew told him if you were a black man who liked to play for $5,000 poker pots like Pryor did, then you should tell jokes like Bill Cosby, because the I Spy black man was the kind of Negro white folks wouldn’t mind coming to their door to sell encyclopedias. So it went for Pryor; renowned as the baddest dude in the desert, he played it harmless for the tourists. It helped him pick up a couple of movie roles, like the fifteen-year-old drummer in Chris Jones’s Wild in the Streets rock band, but something told Richard he was heading for insanity.
The craziness built inside of him until that night at the Aladdin when Richard blew it, or so it seemed. What happened is the pith of Pryor legend, a great Richard story, better because it’s true. Someday, after Pryor becomes a major movie star, someone will paint it as part of a series entitled “Showbiz Nightmares.” The picture will have Pryor reeling around the stage in his evening clothes, asking himself aloud, “What the fuck am I doing here?” and then walking off in the wrong direction. The tourists, all wearing corsages in the shape of cabbages, will look confused and horrified. The cigar-chomping owners will be screaming, telling Richard he’ll never work Vegas again.
Pryor missed that six grand a week, sure, but he didn’t care if he ever played Vegas again. He made an artist’s choice, and an artist he was going to be. That meant being “himself” and extending his act past the usual boundaries of stand-up. The last few years in Vegas, Pryor had begun to think in terms of “characters,” or assuming the personas of people he thought made meaningful statements about what it meant to be black in a white world: For Richard, these were winos, preachers, tough guys, and fakers. The typical black street scene, one he knew well. Vegas wasn’t buying that. So Pryor packed his coke spoon and went off to a place where the rules were slightly more bent: Berkeley. He took a little pad by the freeway — a $110 special — and “woodshedded” for nearly a year to bring together his new vision. For Pryor, it was a wonderful time. “It was when I got naked; I just sat in my house and didn’t come out until I was ready.”
When he finally did work again, Richard was a different sort of comic. Not only was he black, but he was real. Also real dirty. His first “new” album, some funky baggage called “Craps After Dark” (still in many ways his funniest), recorded for the fly-by-night Laff label, had Pryor saying things like, “Winos, winos know Jesus Christ…. They say ‘Yeah, nigger runs the elevator down the Jefferson Hotel.’ ” This was weird stuff, no lie. He talked about niggers at police lineups. Niggers who get caught with their pants down by irate fathers. He introduced several “characters,” including Black Bertha, “the 300-pound woman with the 280-pound-ass.” Richard said all the words you weren’t supposed to. No way to hide the teeth of it, either; this was black comedy for a black audience, and Whitey came in for his lumps. Example: “They don’t give a nigger a chance. Jackson Five be singing their ass off, they be talking about The Osmond Brothers… motherfuckin’ Osmond Brothers.” Forget Vegas now; TV too. Pryor burned up all the bridges. Just to make sure, he ended the record with a bit about how he took off all his clothes and ran around the casino, jumping on the gambling tables to scream, “BLACK, JACK!”
Defiance, to be sure. And who would have figured it would have worked out so sweet for Pryor? A few years ago, Richard could have wound up going back to Peoria to sit on the stoop and tell kids about how he was a great rebel who got crushed. Credit the black middle-class with changing the scenario. They had the money to spend and weren’t so deep into bedroom sets that they couldn’t relate to what Richard was putting down. No coincidence that Pryor’s big break came in that all-time great black middle-class movie, Lady Sings the Blues. Ostensibly a screen bio of Billie Holiday, the picture was the phoniest thing to come down the pike since Sal Mineo got addicted to grass in The Gene Krupa Story. But Pryor, in the role of Diana Ross’s hophead piano player and armed with firsthand knowledge, gave perhaps the most convincing portrayal ever of being stoned on the screen. People said he stole the show; you don’t grow up one generation out of the ghetto and not know when someone’s smashed or when they’re just acting silly. Seeing a black man acting real on the screen was so unusual at the time that most audiences pronounced it “crazy.” All of which neatly paved the way for Richard’s “That Nigger’s Crazy” album.
Crazy like a fox, maybe. Because when you compare Pryor’s success to that of the other big-time black comics, it tells an interesting story. Cosby, Pryor’s old idol-adversary, is cuter than ever; even if he’s got a hokey variety show coming up this fall, he seems to have reached his natural metier doing peachy-keen Del Monte commercials. Redd Foxx, the classic black X-rated comic, has made his big killing. But now he’s more Fred Sanford than Redd Foxx, and people say Foxx gets pissed when they won’t let him get dirty in Vegas. Dick Gregory did the honorable thing by running back and forth for peace, but it makes you wonder if he wouldn’t have more effect had he stood up on television more often. As for Godfrey Cambridge and Slappy White, where are they?
There was probably just a small opening for all that talent anyway. Pryor found it. And most likely it all comes back to Richard’s willingness to call a spade a spade, so to speak. While the TV dials have been full of watered-down black street life since the “ethnic shows” got on the air, Pryor has remained hard. Too hard for TV, a medium he doesn’t do well anyhow, except for rare shots like Lily Tomlin specials. Using the word “nigger” was the masterstroke. It aced him out of the mainstream, plus it made it quite clear where his racial allegiance lay. Everyone knows white people are not allowed to say that word. But, mostly, he was good. His “characters” are the essence of hanging-out humor. They’re languid, more improvisatory, with more emphasis on performance than the punch line. And in the characters, Pryor found a basic difference between black humor and Jewish humor. Which is why he is the first comic to make meaningful strides past the humor of Lenny Bruce.
* * * * *
Add all that up. The legend and the success. And it prints out into one dynamite image: the crazy nigger who had the courage to say no to bullcrap and come back bigger than ever on his own terms. It should be bottled and sold to politicians.
All the ingredients for a hero. And the other night at the Comedy Store, the showcase for young ha-ha merchants on Sunset, you could witness the worship. Not one of the several black comics didn’t use the word nigger. Every comic, all races, including even American Indian, did Pryor-like characters. But the show really began when Richard himself made an unscheduled appearance. Most everything Richard does is unscheduled: Change or no change, many of his activities still tend to have a fluid quality. Still, the word passes fast in the Hollywood Hills, and a half-hour before Pryor pulled up, scores of fly-looking people poured in. Big-shots, too. Redd Foxx peeked through the curtain; Freddie Prinze sat by the bar. Freddie is a special Pryor fan. Once he said he really felt like he was happening because he was staying in the same room Pryor once had. And as soon as Richard pops on stage wearing a white gangster hat (Richard: “Hats are good for your attitude; niggers love hats; when you ain’t got no money, you gotta get yourself an attitude”), Freddie starts punching people in the arm, screaming, “He’s the best, he’s the goddamn best…. Man, Pryor knows what’s right; he’s paid all the dues. If I could get five minutes like any of his stuff, I’d come for months.”
Pryor, who says he really likes Jonathan Winters, digs the admiration, but he’s wary. “Nice that they say they love me, but I see it like the Western movies, just the young gunfighters waiting for the old man to slow up.” But then again, Richard Pryor is always wary. The horror seasons in Vegas and the exile that followed did more than turn him into a gun collector; they hurt his heart, too. Richard is not the trusting sort. Every once in a while he’ll chill you with a statement like, “You know me; I’m cool until you lie to me, then I get bad.”
Pryor is probably a poor choice to cross. The other day Mel Brooks came by the Silver Streak set. Mel and Richard once had business dealings. Pryor wrote a script called Black Bart that Brooks eventually made into Blazing Saddles. Richard is not anxious to talk about it, but the story goes that Pryor expected to get the lead part in the film. Then Brooks supposedly got cold feet when Warner Brothers contended that Pryor’s coke rep made him too unsavory a character to be a star. Cleavon Little copped the role. Richard was further depressed when Mel garnered all the applause for the picture (especially after the movie was a tremendous smash with blacks who related to many of Pryor’s joke lines). It made Richard cry. But today he’s doing his best to keep a stiff upper. Mel is playing his Yid imp around the set, paling around with Gene Wilder. Richard is polite. Polite even when Mel cuffs him around the neck, saying that Richard is “wonderful and talented” even if he isn’t Jewish. Richard arranges his face into smiling position and even manages a Sammy Davis-style breakup for one of Mel’s funnies. But as soon as Wilder and Brooks disappear, Pryor makes a sneer and collapses sourly on his dressing room bed.
For Pryor, the Blazing Saddles number had racial overtones. In Richard’s world, everything has racial overtones. On the “That Nigger’s Crazy” album, Pryor’s wino tries to rally the spaced junkie back to this planet by saying, “Boy, you know what your problem is? You don’t know how to deal with the white man. I do, that’s why I’m in the position I am in today.” That’s Richard at his best, applying the touching irony. A combination of hip and poetry — a guy who knows every street word and still wants to discuss John Hersey books about Hiroshima. But ironic, too, that the more Pryor becomes a mainstream success, the more dealings he’ll have with the white man. By now a large segment of his audience has to be white. In that there are problems. Much of his white-black comparison routine is tiresome. Pryor will do seemingly endless portrayals of blacks as vital, hip, and honorable under fire while whites are all stewardess-sterile and have the style of accountants. A common harp, but a white person would have to be terribly guilty to accept much of it. Pryor shrugs off such criticism, saying, “It’s just characters.”
No doubt, however, that Pryor’s crazy nigger legend comes in handy. It helps him frighten press agents and other unwanted types away from his door. Tough attitudizing is old-hat for Pryor; he knows he only has to squint to send Beverly Hills souls running.
But there’s a more subtle, poignant side to Pryor’s relationship with the white world. There should be for a man with an obvious capacity for great love who’s twice been married to white women. You can see it in Pryor’s acting in Bingo Long. Richard plays Charlie Snow, a black ballplayer in the pre-Jackie Robinson days who desperately wants to make “El Bigtime,” the white leagues. He figures if he pretends he’s Cuban, no one will notice that he’s black, so he goes around talking like Ricardo Montalban. The ruse succeeds in getting Richard battered about by a passel of baddies. The moral could be easy, but Pryor’s sensitivity to the issues of power longing and self-doubt in his character make for bittersweet moments.
Very complicated and painful stuff. Let’s say Pryor is easier to hang out with than to ask questions of. “I hate interviews,” Pryor says. “Let’s hang out.” So we hang out at Denny’s while Richard eats chef’s salads and breaks up at the way David Banks, his record producer, gently pulls an old waitress’s leg by asking her what she’s doing after work. No one laughs as picturesquely as Pryor when he’s hanging out. If you make a funny, Pryor’s on it in a second. Immediately, he’s gagging from the bottom of his throat, his hands are shaking, his eyes tumbling. If he’s standing up, his feet stamp and he bends from the waist. If he’s sitting down, he lets his butt slip off the chair until his chin rests against the table top. Genuflecting for the jokes. But the man is thinking all the time; picking up rap. The other day he quizzed me about a story I once did about rough kids in Chinatown. A few nights later the whole spiel was in his Comedy Store routine.
The best hanging out we did was the night of the Ali-Inoki fight. Some cats on the Silver Streak set told Pryor that this could be the night Muhammad finally had his ass whipped. The idea threw Pryor into a cold sweat so he bought sixteen $25 tickets so that the champ would have a solid rooting section at the Hollywood Palladium where the closed-circuit was showing. After a bunch of phone calls, people like Jim Brown — looking more massive than ever — showed up to watch the battle. The fight was a total dog. The wrestler lay on the canvas all fifteen rounds, hoping to kick Ali in the kneecap. The lack of action was getting Jim and Richard pissed off. “What the champ gonna do?” Richard said, “Jump on him and screw him?” There was one great moment. Yelling at his corner, Ali blurted, “Shut up, motherfucker!” into an open mike. That mangled Richard’s brain cells. His feet started moving, his mouth was gagging, and he couldn’t sit down for five minutes. Later it was agreed that this was the first time such a word had been said on an outerspace satellite.
This week, Richard is too antsy even to hang out. It seems strange that a comic who’s been on the boards for fifteen years should be as nervous before a performance as Pryor is tonight, but there are solid reasons. Right now, Richard is in the middle of his “transition.” Last year, before cutting “Is It Something I Said?” Pryor worked the Comedy Store every night for six weeks. He polished the characters until they were perfect — so perfect that he could throw away the original stories, improvise madly, and still have it come out right every time. But that was before the movies hit — when Pryor only had one career to worry about.
Now, for “Bicentennial Nigger,” Pryor has done the Store a total of three times. He couldn’t help it; he was shooting Silver Streak until a few days ago. The Roxy gig has already been rescheduled twice so Richard could have more time to “get his head ready.” He hopes it comes out right the first time, too, because three days after the show he’s leaving to do another movie. Preparation is a comic fallback, good to have when the gags muff, even for someone like Pryor. His major new character — a preacher who gives a sermon entitled “How Long Will This Bullshit Go On?” — is not nearly worked out. But Richard is loath to spend more time. For him, life as a stand-up could be drawing to a close.
“Can’t do this forever,” Richard says. “I don’t really want to go around the country playing clubs, seeing cities. I did that already. I have this new house. I want to stay put and do films.” It was inevitable. Anyone who sees Richard’s theatrics on stage can tell that stand-up is restricting for him. That’s what the Vegas beef was partly about. Richard’s imagination is too big for the one-man-show shtick: Besides, Pryor has always been a tremendous movie fan. Asked what he sees, he says, “Whatever’s advertised.” Comic Jimmie Walker, another Pryor disciple, remembers hanging out with Richard. All they did was go to grind houses. Richard has been translating his passions into film scripts for years. And now, with the Universal deal, he’ll be free to do what he wants. More to it than that: Pryor says, “Hey Jack, saw Logan’s Run the other day; twenty-third century, but there wasn’t no niggers in it. Guess they’re not planning for us to be around. That’s why we got to make our own movies.”
Quite a ways from the twenty-third century to the Roxy tonight. Well, maybe not that far. Black Hollywood is out for Pryor, and space-age outfits abound. Minnie Riperton has a Martian hairdo; Smokey Robinson is dressed like a Sunset Cossack. White people look sharp too; record industry types really lay on the turquoise bracelets when they know they’re going to party with blacks. And as soon as Richard ambles on stage, rather timidly, he acknowledges the Caucasian presence. “WHITE PEOPLE!” he shouts in mock horror. The scream must be primal, because it seems to loosen him up. It’s a hip crowd; they all know the Pryor legend. They titter when Pryor mentions white women, applaud when he talks about coke. Richard is doing well, especially with a bit based on Jim Brown’s version of the Ali-Inoki fight. But so far it’s all fairly sedate.
The audience knows what it wants: Pryor can act in Lina Wertmüller movies next week, but tonight they’re looking for a crazy nigger. Cheers are heard when a guy shouts, “Get crazy, man!” Pryor looks at the heckler with a sly smile, then stamps his feet and screams, “What you talking, nigger, want to fight?” The challenge has been voiced and met. But Pryor really sticks it when he introduces black actress Rosalind Cash with a standard laudatory show biz patter and tops it with, “Wish I could get some of that pussy!” That’s gall. Rosalind giggles. And the heckler surrenders in stitches: “Richard, goddamn!”
The place breaks up; Pryor, too. Now people are calling for Mudbone. If Richard creates any lovable characters, Mudbone has got to be the one. One of those history-knowing niggers, Mudbone is full of old stories about how he came up from Tupelo, Mississippi, way back when. He’s one of those cats who’re lying all the time, but looking at their faces tells you they’re authentic, as if just “being around” imbues them with a certain trust.
A typical Mudbone story is the one about the two dudes boasting about the size of their respective organs. They decide to settle it with a dangling contest off the Golden Gate Bridge. “Man, that water’s cold!” says the first. “Yeah,” agrees the second. “And it’s deep. too!”
Tonight there’s a special Bicentennial Mudbone. Except for the two opening lines, the whole routine is different. Richard makes the whole thing up on the spot. Lines like, “Jimmy Carter! I ain’t votin’ for anybody that owns a plantation!” The crowd goes mad and gives him a standing ovation.
Later, Richard says, “See, I can’t do the same thing over and over again. Even Mudbone changes.” After which he drives away in his spanky Mercedes, heading for the movies.
[Photo Credits: via various Tumblr sites and Wikipedia; Ali and Inoki, Tim Wehr ©Stars and Stripes]
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.