Friday, March 26, 2010

The twilight of all-night radio: goodbye to "The Joey Reynolds Show"

An era in New York radio is about to end. The last refuge for old-fashioned entertainment on a commercial NYC station will disappear next Friday, April 2nd, when the Joey Reynolds Show is taken off WOR-AM, so we can have yet another outta town syndicated program running in the late evening hours.

Joey’s show is impossible to describe if you haven’t heard it, but let me make a vague attempt: it’s a four-hour talk show that runs from 1:00-5:00 a.m. (it was five hours long until recently) five nights a week, featuring an eclectic mix of guests (no phone calls!) that ranges from serious authors who’ve written tomes about dire subjects to, well, the “naked clown” depicted above. About two years ago I had some situations that had me down, and I can say without qualification that Joey’s presence on the radio dial late at night talking to cabaret singers, show-biz one-offs (like the clown or this “Miss Liberty” lady who wore her Statue of Liberty outfit, on the radio!), and, most importantly, old and classic comedians, was an instant pick-me-up. It was and is, simply, put old-fashioned entertainment that could be put down as corny (as was done in this snarky New York Times article). That it is sometimes, but this kind of unique, personality-driven radio needs to be preserved in this era of “telescoped,” scarily formulaic celebrity culture.

The Reynolds show is both a talk show and a radio variety program, where guests display their talents and occasionally wander off on glorious verbal tangents. Joey presides over it all with a chuckle in his voice that disappears only when the specter of politics comes up — the only time I haven’t enjoyed the program are when fringe Right-Wing authors speak in an uncontested fashion (whereas those on the Left usually are grilled summarily). That said, Joey has been surprisingly liberal on certain issues, especially in light of the fact that the station he’s on has gone from being a home of radio giants like Jean Shepherd and Bob and Ray to showcasing the hate speech of Glenn Beck and the now thankfully eclipsed bile-meister Michael Savage.

But, back to the variety: Joey presides over themed hours that range from the “Italian hour” (where one could hear master-actor Ben Gazzara in the company of Joe Piscopo and the hour’s staple, a Little Italy restaurateur and character actor nicknamed Cha-Cha) to the “gay hour” (where disco is played and quite a few penis jokes are made) to the gloriously shticky “Jewish hour,” wherein joke-machine Mickey Freeman holds forth, and the names of great entertainers (including Reynolds' friend, the recently departed Funhouse interview subject Soupy Sales) are mentioned with the reverence they deserve.

Sometimes, the singers are top-flight talents, sometimes they aren’t someone you’d pay to see — no matter, Joey moves the whole caravan onward, and who knows what the hell will be around the corner after the hourly newscast. It sometimes may seem like the radio cousin of the old Joe Franklin TV show, but there’s a greater intimacy about radio that Reynolds exploits to its fullest. He is indeed talking to the listener, not at him/her, and the eclectic guest roster is a joy in an era when the only, only, only radio talk shows worth hearing are on listener-sponsored NPR stations that strike me as oddly antiseptic. I doubt I would have ever rediscovered the fast and smart comedy of Chris Rush on Terry Gross' terrific but oh-so-very-staid "Fresh Air". (Great clips of Chris on Joey can be found here).

Reynolds’ five-decade career in radio has been pretty amazing — from his hometown in Buffalo, N.Y., to stints in numerous cities, including Syracuse, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Detroit, Miami, Albany, and Wheeling, W.V. And, oh yeah, he was brought to WNBC-AM in 1986 to replace Howard Stern when he was pitched off the station long, long ago. Here is a rare recording of Joey at his Top 40 radio frantic best, on WKBW in Buffalo way back in ’64. And here are some equally rare airchecks, including the full version of the Reynolds theme song done by the Four Seasons.

Not many of the videos on YouTube convey the conviviality of the Reynolds show, but a few give a vague impression of it. There’s this visual recording of the “gay hour”:

And this bit of behind-the-scenes footage for the “Jewish hour,” which will be sorely missed when the show leaves us on April 2nd:

Two of the greatest icons to appear on the Reynolds show died last year. One was, as previously noted, Soupy; the other was the legendary Les Paul, who holds forth on Joey here:

The best resource for hearing Joey’s brand of classic radio talk is on the WOR site for the next week, an extensive archive of hours from his show going back to 2006. The archive doesn’t include the themed hours, but it contains many of the interviews that define the show, including Les and Soupy, frequent guest (and 95-year-old stand-up icon) Professor Irwin Corey, Ronnie Spector, Tommy James, Keely Smith, Pat Cooper, Tommy Smothers, Frank Gorshin, Tommy Chong, Larry King, Joe Frankin, and Funhouse deity Steve Allen.

Visit here before it’s gone forever.

1 comment:

gene said...

I loved listening to Joey Reynolds on WFIL as a kid in Philadelphia. Then he got fired for some vague FCC infraction (I think he impersonated a rival morning personality claiming he was giving away cash prizes to a woman whose husband was in the studio at the time. Just a dumb prank that backfired). I only learned a few months ago that he was on the air in New York, so I've been listening regularly (on iTunes).

He's still great. Truly the last of his breed. I thought he was going to continue doing the show on WOR and have it syndicated from there. Guess I was wrong. Thanks for the heads up.