Friday, January 18, 2019

In the writers’ room: the late 1980s Steve Allen radio show, with Bob Einstein and others

Mitch O'Connell's great drawing
of Steve Allen
Hearing really smart people being really silly is a rare delight. One of the smartest and silliest comedians in American TV history was Steve Allen, who (like the equally sublime Sid Caesar) was keen to surround himself with really funny writers. So it came as no surprise that when he returned to radio at the end of the Eighties he invited on his show not only standups and singers (he hosted each show with a piano in the studio) but also an ample amount of comedy writers.

I have incredibly fond memories of this radio stint by Steverino, which began in 1986 on local WNEW-AM (the one-time home of “the Make-Believe Ballroom” and “the Milkman’s Matinee,” of William B. and the wonderfully versatile Gene Klavan). I had a tedious data-entry job at the time and was laughing out loud from the flow of one-liners and puns — thankfully that job allowed Walkmans (I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now). It later was syndicated on the NBC radio network and sadly became less listenable, since the long stretches of silly conversation between Steve and his friends was broken up by many, many commercials and Steve himself seemed bored by the process.

That’s my memory of the show, but that memory has been challenged by a generous YT poster’s uploading of several episodes from the syndicated show. Said uploader had access to the satellite feed for the program and has woven the off-air breaks in where the commercials used to be. So instead of the agony of endless commercials we now can hear Steve gabbing with his guests and indicating what really fascinated him (or just noodling on the piano when it’s clear he’s bored that day).

The program was initially done in NYC with Steve and his cohost Mark Simone (now a right-wing talk-radio host, his earlier radio comedy on local stations like WPIX-FM predated the “shock” of Stern and his successors). Then Steve did the show in L.A. via satellite with Simone holding down the fort back in NYC – this was the formula later used by Air America: a comedian assisted by a radio person who could keep the show running on time and let the host know when he or she was about to hit a “hard break.”

At its best, this was the natural precursor to today’s comedy podcasts in that it was really a “show about nothing” that just consisted of Steve riffing with whatever guest came by that day. If no celebrity guest was booked, it was just Steve chatting about random topics with his comedy writer friends. Among those who came on with the most regularity were: Herb Sargent (SNL mainstay and the scripter of Funhouse favorite Bye Bye Braverman), Sheldon Keller, Larry Gelbart, and the recently departed “Super Dave Osborne,” aka Bob Einstein. When the mood was right, and Steve’s mind was cooking, it was indeed like listening in to a writer’s room of comic greats.

Bob Einstein (left) on Steve's TV show.
The best segment hands-down was “the Sleazy News,” in which Simone would read utterly ridiculous stories from supermarket tabloids to allow Steve and company to make up lines as they went along (and do some very nice call-backs later in the show). Sargent was deadpan as hell and spoke the least of the group, but could usually top whatever was said before him. Einstein was in peak form on the show, mostly because he kept the conversation on the edge, an edge that sometimes went into “adult areas.”

At this time Steve, a renowned liberal for decades, had not yet slipped into his final depressing identity as an advocate of “clean humor” and right-wing values. But he was already in his “clean that up!” mode, so his infamous teacher’s bell was rung quite often in reaction to Einstein’s jokes, which Steve considered somewhat risque. 

As a listener I believed this was a bit Steve was doing, but in the off-air moments edited into these tapes by the YT poster it becomes clear that he really was concerned about Einstein’s “questionable” jokes. (Although Einstein’s “bad boy” persona on the show kept Steve alert and vital, which resulted in some very funny moments.)

This was also the period where what a friend called Steve’s “professorial” mode truly came to the fore. The comedy writers and Simone had to keep the mood light because Steve, an inveterate research-addict, would suddenly stop the flow of comedy to look up a word that had been used or try to seriously discuss a topic that had been joked about.

These interludes, along with the fact that Steve is audibly heard yawning and conducting business with his secretary (including signing checks on-air), makes one wonder what was really going on with him at this point – he was only 65 but sounded at points like he was heading toward retirement (but he wasn’t, since he continued to make TV appearances and do live speaking gigs until the time of his death at 78).

Perhaps he had become so dispersed in his fascinations that he had a mild form of ADHD, since he could be so easily distracted from the show’s conversational threads — a major pace-killer was when he would stop the proceedings to play through a new melody he had thought of, in hopes it would be his next song. It might just be that Steve, a comedian whose mind was razor sharp, couldn’t constantly be functioning at full tilt, deconstructing the language and playing with ideas and expressions.

But let’s not dwell on the odder aspects of Steve’s hosting skills in the late Eighties. He was one of the greatest natural wits to ever grace the airwaves (ample evidence can be found in his books Bigger Than a Breadbox and Schmock-Schmock!). So when his short-lived radio show (from ’86 to ’88) was at its finest, it was unabashedly silly and delightfully amusing.

The 16 segments that have been posted on YT contain different sublime moments of brilliant, quick humor and all seemingly come from the last week of new episodes. I will point out some highlights and let you check out the rest yourself.

The poster has put these segments up in the order in which they aired. The first one I must highlight is this, in which (at 29:15) Bob Einstein goes that extra mile — doing an impression of Jayne Meadows, Steve’s longtime wife, who seemed to be a real-life Margaret Dumont, existing in a sphere that was prim and proper and miles away from the intellectual and silly worlds that Steve inhabited in his work.

Einstein-as-Jayne is waking up late and trying on different clothing, including a scuba suit. (When he brings the character back later in the show, she asks, “Do you think the shower cap should go under the derby?”)

A prime example of the “Sleazy News” segment, again with Einstein on the phone. Among the topics discussed are stupid things said in courtrooms and a wild Jamaican party that wrecked a Manhattan hotel.

Steve was indeed a modern intellectual, but he also harkened from a different era of show business. So when he decided that he would like to “reason out” what was the problem with Jimmy the Greek’s famous statements about why blacks were so good in sports, everyone in the L.A. and NYC studios kept trying to stop him. It makes for some great swerves, since Einstein, Simone, and Sargent have to keep moving the conversation away from Jimmy the Greek.

A nice “introduction” to Steve Allen (and his many credits) is delivered by Einstein at 13:46.

More discussion of Jimmy the Greek’s remarks, this time with guest Jack Carter. Carter tells an old joke about African-Americans (which isn’t openly racist but is certainly a groaner) and discusses his TV career, which included a late Forties network show that featured performers in blackface!

A fun roundtable discussion and listener phone-in segment, about games the gents played as kids.

A packed house on this episode, as comedy writers Iles and Stein, and the great standup-actor Steve Landesberg join Steve, Mark, Herb, and (of course) Bob Einstein. The last-mentioned gets an “inappropriate” Irish joke in because it’s St. Paddy’s day (at 17:40).

Very interesting discussion off-air with Steve Landesberg about off-color jokes Landesberg used to do in his act (so Steverino *could* listen to jokes with dirty words in ’em; he just got crazy about anything even moderately saucy being said on-air by the Eighties). At that point Allen tells Landesberg he believes Bob is doing more questionable jokes “to bug me.” (Meaning, again, that it wasn’t just shtick when Steve disapproved of what Bob had said).

More of the Iles and Stein/Landesberg episode. Steve does a priest character (“Father Mulcahy”) with a few good lines — Steve’s tossed-off remarks on the radio show were far funnier than the scripted sketches. Einstein does his excellent “Jaynie-bird” impression again at 15:00.

In this part of the same episode, the conversation turns to gag writers for U.S. presidents (of course, Reagan was in office when this show aired).

Even more of the Iles and Stein/Landesberg show. Bob is “warned” about his bad boy behavior by Steve around 3:00 of the next video. For some reason, Steve did let Einstein go anywhere comedically. (Btw, the mentions of picketing have to do with a writer’s strike that was going on at the time.) Iles and Stein contribute to the conversation at 30:00.

A great “Sleazy News” segment around 43:00, but also interesting to hear Einstein asking Steve about the end of the radio show at 26:00. Steve felt it was taking up too much of his time and slowing down his book projects and other engagements. If the show hadn’t become as riddled with commercial breaks as it did on the NBC Network, I would’ve disagreed with his decision.

More group insanity in this segment, including a discussion about gorilla women and alligator men at the beginning. Also, talk of UFO landings and Paul Winchell. Jim and Henny Backus show up as the clip continues and Steve discusses game shows and how they are massive moneymakers (since they cost so little to produce).

One of the most interesting segments here is an off-mic chat in which Steve and Bob Einstein discuss the investments of Merv Griffin.

The final segment features Jim and Henny Backus going over Jim’s career in some detail. Steve notes how the hour they’re in was the final original hour of the program but reruns would be run for several weeks afterward — if I remember correctly these were tapes of the earlier WNEW shows that were wonderfully funny (but were, of course, cut to the NBC Network standard, with the maximum amount of long commercial breaks).

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Her own person: Deceased Artiste Sondra Locke

Sometimes artists and entertainers are defined by their choice of romantic partners when they pass. Such was the case with actress and director Sondra Locke, who in all too many obits that appeared last week after the revelation of her death at 74 (she died in early November) was referred to primarily as the “ex of Clint Eastwood.”

Considering the nasty-ass way that Eastwood ended their relationship, and the salient fact that Locke’s career was more interesting in the years before and after they were together, this was a sad injustice to her life and work.

She began her professional acting career by winning a contest to star in Robert Ellis Miller’s 1968 adaptation of Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The film is a heartbreaker, thanks to its script and direction, and its wonderful cast (led by Alan Arkin and featuring Chuck McCann). It is not easily forgotten because it captures both the awkwardness of youth and the fraternity of outsiders.

In the years immediately following Heart, Locke starred in a number of truly unusual low-budget features. This was a result of both the oft-commented-upon (in this blog, and everywhere else) unusually experimental nature of filmmaking in the early Seventies and Locke’s own somewhat otherworldly presence onscreen.

She had a featured supporting role in Willard (1971) and the unpleasant character study Cover Me Babe (1970). The latter stars Robert Forster as an egomaniacal playboy filmmaker who makes suitably surreal films and is willing to emotionally manipulate his friends to see how they will respond.

Locke’s role in the film isn’t very large, but she suits the atmosphere of the piece, as she plays an adventurous free spirit who is temporarily involved with Forster’s self-obsessed filmmaker. She also participates in one of his hidden camera shoots, in which she wears a fake chest to grab the eyes of male passersby (at 12:23):

The film that defines how Hollywood saw her at this time is the odd drama Suzanne (1974, aka “The Second Coming of Suzanne”). Directed by the son of actor Gene Barry, who costars as a Joe Pine-like arch-rightwing newspaper and TV personality, Suzanne is the story of a young filmmaker who devises a picture about a female Christ. Locke is the hippie girl who gets the role because of her beautiful – and, again, otherworldly — presence.

The actress suffers a real crucifixion in the film’s “what the fuck was that?” finale. At this point, as the director hammers the nails into her hands, we hear Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” on the soundtrack. The film is available in various public domain prints, presumably cut for TV; there are several minutes missing in these prints, as well as key images from the crucifixion scene, so the Cohen song “jumps” at various points. 

Suzanne is one of those films that could only have been made in the “maverick” era of American moviemaking. While it ultimately winds up as a derivative, directionless mess, Locke is impressively ethereal in the role.

While Suzanne is the single strangest film Locke starred in, a horror film called Death Game (1977, shot in ’74) definitely rates as the second weirdest Locke performance. A male fantasy that quickly degenerates into a suspense thriller, the film concerns a husband (Seymour Cassell) left on his own who is visited by two blondes (Locke, Colleen Camp) who are out to cause trouble.

The film reflects two paranoid fears of middle-aged men in the early Seventies: the fear that “women’s libbers” would taunt men with sex (but not deliver) and that another Manson family was out there, waiting to kill people in the suburbs. Director Peter Traynor plays with both of these notions and also adds humor and kinkiness into the stew.

The three leads lend their roles an eerie verisimilitude, especially Cassell, who had starred in two Cassavetes films by the mid-Seventies and was thus the New York Jewish aspect of Cassavetes’ middle-aged male protagonists. Seymour was not pleased with Death Game, though — to the extent that he didn’t dub his character and so his familiar scratchy tones are heard nowhere in the film.

Locke and Camp were adult age when they played the leads, who are a teenager and her “jailbait” friend (or they claim to be – nothing can be taken on faith in this deranged pic). They are both very sexy and very menacing, although Traynor undercuts the menace at points by including a playful song sung by a chorus of British children on the soundtrack (and the film’s finale is one of the best shaggy dog endings ever devised).

The vintage Seventies trailer (the Tarantino-led group of current-day, would-be exploitation auteurs can never achieve *this* kind of Seventies-sleaze):

Before exploring Locke as a director, let’s briefly visit the films she did with Clint Eastwood. As noted above, she always had an unusual presence onscreen. The characters she played ran the gamut from ethereal and fragile to able to survive catastrophic weirdness. The last quality was one that appeared in her films with Eastwood.

It's definitely worth noting that in her films with Clint she most often played women who were harassed, molested, or raped. Even in Bronco Billy (1980), the lightest and most pleasant movie she made with him, she is accosted, so that Eastwood can come along and help her out. In the grotesque Dirty Harry outing Sudden Impact (1983) Locke getting raped is the “engine” for the entire movie.

A lighter moment amidst the victimization:

The most valuable thing that came about as a result of her much-chronicled relationship with Eastwood (filled as it was with him playing the alpha male offscreen as well as on) was that she got the chance to direct twice. She was supposed to continue her directorial career (a TV-movie and an indie film appeared, years later) but, her court case against Eastwood alleged, she was screwed over by Warner Brothers, where she was contractually employed to direct, but the thirty projects she pitched to the studio were all turned down.

While her relationship with Eastwood was (seemingly) stable, she made her directorial debut with one of the strangest movies to come from a major studio in the Eighties (and given the bizarre array of things that were produced in the Eighties, that’s saying something). Ratboy (1986) is an odd mixture of allegory, comedy, and drama that revolves around a reporter (Locke) who finds a rodent-like humanoid creature whom she helps to exploit in the media, and then begins to sympathize with. 

Ratboy thus starts out as both a Frankenstein/Phantom of the Opera “freak with a broken heart” horror tale and A Face in the Crowd-like statement about the star-making side of the media. It then becomes a very broad comedy and finally ends up as a tearjerker wth moments of suspense where the “Ratboy” is in jeopardy.

The comedic aspect stays with one the longest, most likely because Locke cast a number of comic actors and standups in key supporting roles. Funhouse favorite Gerritt Graham, Louie Anderson, Robert Townsend, Bill Maher, Jon Lovitz, Tim Thomerson, and others wander by, making Ratboy of a piece with the sorry sketch-comedy films that played on cable over and over in the Eighties.

The most fascinating piece of casting in the film is the Ratboy himself — or rather Ratgirl. Sharon Baird, a little person who had been a child star on “The Mickey Mouse Club,” plays the lead role, with a rodent headpiece designed by Rick Baker. Thus Ratboy’s crush on the reporter character does seem to be a lesbian infatuation. Baird’s character is intended to be fully sympathetic, but her costume and makeup look like the outfits worn by little people in the Krofft shows.

While watching the film, one wonders exactly which of its many “sides” was supposed to be the one that would attract a potential audience. One assumes the “tragic hero” aspect, but that is hardly believable at any point. The downright outrĂ© nature of the film earned it a cult following among French audiences and some fantasy fans. It’s by no means a good film, but it remains a fascinating film.

Locke’s second film was a much better, more easily digested work. Impulse (1990) stars Theresa Russell as an undercover cop who works vice and is conflicted about her job and the brief relationships she is having with other cops.

Russell is a fearless performer willing to take roles that most mainstream actresses would turn down (especially the “Oscar ladies,” who are looking to build a career of sympathetic performance tailored to lead the way to awards and the A-list). By the time of Impulse she had done terrific work with her partner at the time on and off-screen, Nicolas Roeg, and had been in a surprise box office hit (Black Widow, directed by Bob Rafelson). In Locke’s film, she gives a mature performance as a character who lives in constant danger and seemingly thrives on the play-acting entailed in her job.

Jeff Fahey is less impressive as the pretty boy attorney working on a big drug case who becomes Russell’s lover. His blandness is counterpointed with the casual sexism of Russell’s boss (George Dzundza), a condescending veteran who harasses her on a regular basis, including showing up inside her apartment unannounced.

The only fly in the ointment here is a coincidence that occurs about midway— the “impulse” in the title, which is just too pat to taken seriously. This one bit of clunky happenstance aside, Impulse is a well-crafted noir that has a compelling low-key quality.

After her legal battles with Eastwood, Locke retired from acting and directing. Thankfully, Funhouse interview subject Alan Rudolph convinced her to take a role that was initially to be played by Lesley Ann Warren in his wonderfully “personal” character study Ray Meets Helen (2018).

Locke was absolutely perfect for the part of Helen, a single and very neurotic woman who assumes the identify (and nicely affluent lifestyle) of a dead woman (Samantha Mathis). One of the best scenes finds Helen in a posh restaurant where she has no idea how to behave — again, Sondra’s otherworldly quality fleshes out a rather unusual character.

Rudolph’s personal films have always been a brilliant mixture of film noir and screwball comedy, with a focus on romantic relationships that are heart-wrenchingly real (in milieus that are tinged with little touches of fantasy).

The triumph of Ray — besides the fact that it was made on a shoestring — is that it is a “senior romance” without even overtly mentioning that aspect. Locke seems shaky in her part (we now know she had been battling cancer for some time) but that benefits the role. Her costar Keith Carradine looks terrific for his 69 years but the” seasoned” nature of the characters becomes clear in a beautifully comic flirtatious scene between the two in the posh restaurant.

Carradine’s Ray is clearly smitten with Helen, but she is wary as hell. A lingering shot of the two holding hands across the table communicates all we need to know about their burgeoning interest in each other — and their age.

Hopefully Ray Meets Helen, which was shuttled out on DVD without any fanfare and can be found online legally, will serve as an epitaph of sorts for Locke, as opposed to the unpleasant headlines that adorned some of her obits — the worst being the reductive (and insulting) Hollywood Reporter header “Actress Sondra Locke, Embittered Ex of Clint Eastwood, Dies at 74.”

Locke deserved better, and got it from cult movie fans and those whose interest in movies goes far beyond the films she made with her ex. Now... what was that old man’s name again?