Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The talk show as hallucination: "All Night With Joey Reynolds" (part one)

We’ve all experienced something like it. You’re up late, you catch something unusual on television, and the next morning you’re not sure whether what you saw was real or a hallucination. I’ve been having that feeling for the past two months, and the hallucination in question definitely exists, and it is definitely called All Night with Joey Reynolds.

First, some background for those who’ve started reading this blog in the last few weeks or months. In March 2010 I wrote a post lamenting the cancellation by local radio station WOR of Joey Reynolds’ all-night talk show. In that post I mentioned Reynolds’ background — that he has been in the radio business about close to five decades and that his show was essential to the late night radio “scene” in NYC, as it was the very last talk/variety program on a commercial station at that hour (or basically any hour). When the show went off the air, Joey promised us he’d be back with a TV show that would be on “all night,” that would feature the same eclectic (and sometimes bizarre) mix of guests, and that would air live in Times Square.

Well, aside from the live aspect (All Night is taped an evening ahead of time), Joey has made good on that promise. The result is the most invigoratingly eccentric talk show to be seen on NYC TV since the departure of Joe Franklin and of cable-access staples Beyond Vaudeville and The Coca Crystal Show.

I’ve been watching All Night since its third night on the air, and the show is incredibly difficult to describe without offering a vigorously assembled montage of the many kinds of acts that have been featured on it thus far, and the various moments in which Joey has conversationally “tangented” wildly off from whatever he’s supposed to be discussing (perhaps that will appear on a future episode of the Funhouse TV show — yes, I’ve been recording All Night….). In the meantime, since NO ONE on the Net is chronicling what’s taking place on the show, and the webmasters of Joey’s own sites have put nothing new up for weeks now, I hereby tender a review of, and commentary on, the proceedings.

The show airs only in the NY tristate metro area on NBC, Channel 4.2 (that’s on the digital-converter-box lineup that few people are aware exists) and on pretty much every cable system on the channel known as “NBC Nonstop” (it’s tucked away neatly on Ch. 161 on my Time Warner lineup). Thus, you have to really know the channel exists to catch Reynolds’ show.

All Night actually lasts from midnight-2 a.m. five nights a week, meaning Reynolds and company come up with TEN HOURS (!) of new programming every week, ensuring that one can never be sure what is coming up next, even if you’ve seen the opening guest roster, which has often been inaccurate in the past few weeks — and now the staff has taken to sending out two guests when Joey introduces one, so even the host is taken aback by who walks out onto the set (!).

Thus far, I, my dad — who is the target demo for the show, a senior who stays up late — and an artist friend are the only ones I know monitoring the show on a nightly basis, just to see what’s on next and also to assure ourselves we didn’t hallucinate the weirdness that went down the night before. (“Did you see that Disco-yogi act?”, “Did I dream that a man in an Octopus costume and a ‘scream queen’ were interviewed about their comedy-horror access program??”, “Did a guy really eat a light bulb on-air last night???”, “Did Joey really spend 10 full minutes telling us how his car got repossessed the other day????”). All Night could *definitely* become a cult favorite, a la The Joe Franklin Show, if only anyone knew it was on the air…..

So what exactly happens on the show? Its first cornerstone is its eclectic, and again often bizarre, guest roster. NYC is filled with performers who never get a break on TV, and so it’s terrific to see Reynolds and his producers showcasing local cabaret performers, unsigned rock bands, standup comedians, authors, and various specialty acts you never see on TV anymore — and will most likely never see, now that the MDA Association is cutting back the Jerry Lewis telethon to a mere six hours.

The guests sometimes appear in odd succession — thus, my favorite nights have had bizarre juxtapositions, like the night that the “Jewish hour” (see below) was followed by a mixed-martial arts demonstration (punctuated by an inappropriate queer joke by Joey — he is prone to un-p.c. utterances that fall flat, very flat), only to be trumped by a country singer who brought Joey several gifts from local area merchants. Joey chose to dote on a gift basket of cheese and its aroma — “it smells like feet,” Joey complained, at length, to the gift-giver before actually munching on the damned cheese and finding out it tasted okay (you won’t get those moments on the network talk shows, I guarantee you).

Joey has noted that he’s taking a leaf from the old Ed Sullivan Show, but then again he’s also expressed an admiration for Funhouse deity Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Carson, and Dick Cavett. All Night is thus a combination of both variety and talk, to very strange effect. Two particularly crammed-to-capacity shows had the following line-ups:

-celebrity impressionist Marilyn Michaels
-a group of All Night investors signed a contract with Joey on-air to solidify their involvement in the show (huh?)
-impressionist Bob Greenberg, who specializes in vintage comedians
-an impersonator known as “Carole Channing,” who solely does Miss Carol (and who discussed Funhouse favorite Skidoo with Greenberg!)
-comedian “Shecky Beagleman” (see below)
-a young singer/songwriter woman
-a sleight-of-hand master who performed con-artist card tricks
-a musician-songwriter and singer who got crammed in as the credits rolled

-hangdog-looking standup Phil Selman
-a gent with an impressively weird hairdo who is a comedy writer and spoke about stuttering (in reference to The King’s Speech)
-his cohort, a young woman who makes Lady Gaga parody videos
-a pretty good pop-rock band performed live
-an off-Broadway revue belter, who did a parody of Christina Aguilera fucking up the National Anthem
-the owners of a French restaurant
-a rabbi, who discussed recent international tumult, including Libya
-a singer-songwriter who came on to promote both his music and his starring role in a serial-killer drama that more than likely will be going the “DVD Premiere” route

Making All Night seem even more like a late-night fever dream that couldn’t possibly be on commercial TV are the very serious topics that are occasionally tackled by Joey, including his favorite, the 12-step program and various rehab facilities and their approaches to sobriety. Reynolds openly speaks about his own struggles with past addictions, which I respect (although when he discusses the struggles of one family member, it’s cringeworthy TV — one can’t help but think that it’s her private dilemma and none of our damned business….). These and other self-help discussions clash wildly with the singers, comedians, magicians, sports figures, and authors who’ve written celebrity bios or history tomes. All Night works well when it’s light (providing the guests are allowed to steer the conversation — which does happen occasionally), but runs aground when serious topics are explored.

For sheer conversational “swerves,” there is also nothing as powerful on the Joey program as mentions of the Las Vegas electronics show that he attends on an annual basis. He has derailed really interesting conversations — as with the brilliant comedian Paul Mooney and road-warrior standup Bob Altman (aka “Uncle Dirty") — just to talk about an electronics show that few, if any, folks at home are interested in. I’ll probe Joey’s odd conversational swerves and unusual interview approach in the upcoming second part of this blog post.

Now that I’ve raised the specter of Joey’s unwelcome verbal disruptions, let me sing the praises of segments on All Night that I thought were exemplary. It will come as no shock to those who read this blog regularly or watch the Funhouse TV show, but I’d point to two very touching obituary segments, and one senior-birthday one, that Joey hosted. The first instance was part of the one “Jewish hour” that aired on the TV show. For those who were not familiar with Reynolds’ WOR radio show, each week he hosted hours of the show he good-naturedly called “the Italian hour,” “the Jewish hour,” “the gay hour,” etc., featuring groups of his friends.

He did two Italian hours and one Jewish hour on All Night, and then declared to his announcer that putting the Jewish hour on TV had been a “big mistake,” since it had only worked on radio. (Given that this has been the ONLY thing I’ve heard him refer to in two months as a “mistake,” that’s quite an admission — but regular viewers and listeners will know he’s often not the best arbiter of what works or doesn’t on his own show.) All Night is a local show that works best with an emphasis on all things NYC — and the ethnic and gay hours definitely lived up to that, in spades.

In any case, the first and only TV Jewish hour featured a heartfelt tribute to Mickey Freeman, the Borscht Belt comedian and Bilko cast member whom I first found out about on Reynolds’ radio show. The second, equally emotional and well-handled item was a farewell to Charlie Callas. In this segment, Joey interviewed Callas’ close friend Albert Wunsch about Charlie’s sad final year, in which he experienced the tragic death of his wife and then slowly succumbed to depression. As I write this blog post, he’s doing a very entertaining series of segments paying tribute to the work of songwriter Ervin Drake (“It Was a Very Good Year”), who turned 92 this week. Despite Joey's protestations that All Night has “cross-generational” appeal, it’s clear that all the best aspects of the program have to do with nostalgia of one kind or another.

The show’s other hallmark besides its guest roster is its location, the NASDAQ building on the Southeast corner of 43rd Street in Times Square. The studio doubles as a financial news center during the day, and for two months now it’s been apparent that the odd decision to shoot the show *towards * the window adds nothing to the proceedings, and in fact is distracting and entertaining as hell in all the wrong ways. For instance, a guest will be offering a very serious thought on the Holocaust, America’s military commitment in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, or their own health crisis, and suddenly your attention will be diverted by a teenage idiot doing jumping jacks in the window behind the person speaking.

This aspect has become something I wait for. When the show is simply being “radio on the TV” as it often is — with very little visual activity going on, except for the stray ventriloquist, magician, or dance acts — you instantly turn back to the TV the minute something deeply serious is introduced, because it’s absolutely certain that a passerby is going to be vaulting in the air, or pressing their face to the glass (it should be dynamite when summer hits the Square — can mooning be far behind?). Joey frequently tells his cameramen to get a shot of “our audience,” but as is usually the case with any local newscast, the idiots leaping up and down in the window don’t know, or care, what is actually happening in the TV studio in front of them.

Two weeks ago it appeared as if Joey and his producers had figured out the ultimate way to attract an audience of passersby to their street-level studio window: have sexy burlesque girls do dance numbers. In classic Joey-show fashion, though, in between the three burly-Q dancers, there was a performance by a local NYC Gilbert & Sullivan light operetta troupe, as well as a discussion with a self-help author. So a hula girl performed, then there was a discussion of the burlesque show, then a girl in a small sexy outfit twirled a baton (and kept dropping it — but who noticed?), and then a Gilbert & Sullivan song, some self-help talk (very heavy), and back to a chick in fishnets, dancing up a storm under the credits. To paraphrase Cindy Adams’ famous closing line: Only on Joey, kids, only on Joey!

The Times Square location has also spawned a rather awkward nightly man-in-the-street segment called “Reynolds’ Rap.” Teens and inebriated people can sometimes be seen chanting Joey’s name because a young, very exuberant comic named Frankie Hudak has gotten them to do so, but they have no idea who in the hell Joey is. But, hey, they’re on TV! During these segments, Joey corrals anyone walking by on Broadway to talk to him, resulting in one of two options: either he gets ridiculously frustrated because the people he’s speaking to don’t speak English (now, who exactly is walking through Times Square after 9 p.m. on a weekday work-night but tourists?). Or, Joey asks the interview subject to read the sign for his show in the window of the NASDAQ building, and tells them that he’s doing a TV show and they’ll be on it that very night (although, as noted, the show is currently being taped a day in advance).

In the second part of my review of Joey’s “incredibly strange” television show, I will probe how Joey’s runaway “talkaholism” makes the show even more hallucinatory and unlike anything you’ve ever seen on commercial TV. In the meantime, although he keeps mentioning that the show will be “triple-platformed” soon — on TV, the radio, and on the Internet — there are currently no updates being made to the show's website. A few (very few) clips from the first two weeks (primarily the first two shows) were put up on the show's YT channel, including this slice of Jackie “the Jokeman” Martling and local comic Dave Konig. Where else in the goddamned world will you hear Wheeler and Woolsey being namechecked?

The most interesting clips, however, have been put up by the guests themselves. Here is a musical performance by downtown NYC legend Phoebe Legere:

Russian entertainer Oleg Frisch puts his own spin on the evergreen “Goody Goody.” If you’ve taken the time read this far, oh, please do fast-forward to 8:00. Hey now!

Another, very special warbler, called the “singing CPA,” updated a Rolf Harris/Johnny Cash song “I’ve Been Everywhere,” to suit his chosen profession. Again, please take the time to fast-forward to 4:10 on this one:

Perhaps this one bit of comedy shtick best exemplifies many of the stranger guests that Joey has had on. Here, concept comedian “Shecky Beagleman” (it’s a she) guests as “Mrs. Bin Laden.” The lack of laughter in the studio (no audience!) makes this bit even more bizarre than it would be in another context. Sample this and know what it is like to hallucinate without the benefit of chemicals, chum:


Unknown said...

Here's some more Joey Reynolds clips for your hallucinatory entertainment! Thanks for appreciating the Wheeler & Woolsey reference!

dave Konig

Dave Konig on Joey Reynolds: Dave Reacts To Joey's Long Monolog

Dave Konig on Joey Reynolds: How To Fill Time On A Talk Show

The Amazing Kreskin Makes Dave Konig nervous on The Joey Reynolds Show

Lisa H. said...

simply astounding.