Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A word edgewise: “All Night With Joey Reynolds” (part two)

A few weeks back I wrote about one of the most unusual talk shows to ever appear on commercial TV, All Night with Joey Reynolds. A few weeks after I wrote that piece, the show suddenly disappeared, gone on a Wednesday evening in late April, never to return.

Since my blog post was literally the only lengthy piece written about the show, I thought I’d do a follow-up discussing the show’s biggest obstacle, namely its host. It’s been publicly stated by the show’s announcer and by Joey himself that All Night is on “hiatus” (initially a “vacation”) and will return. Since that is highly doubtful for several reasons, I herewith offer a “post-mortem” on the program. Most reading this will wonder why I watched a show that was so bizarre on a nightly basis. Well, there was the odd “hallucinatory” quality of the show that I mentioned in my last post, but there was also a “runaway train” aspect that made it compulsively watchable (as in “can this get any weirder?”). And yes, a viewer’s tolerance for the show would vary greatly depending on their preferred consumption of kitsch — as noted in my past entries, I have a nearly addictive taste for the stuff.

Before I discuss the eccentricities of one Joey Reynolds, let me link to the only Internet acknowledgement of how bizarre the show really was, on a local radio message board. Several Reynolds supporters said that All Night was a “breath of fresh air,” which reminded them of The Uncle Floyd Show or Soupy Sales’ 1960s Metromedia show.

However, one particularly disillusioned gent who apparently knew Reynolds from his radio days wrote a detailed and annoyed post talking about what he saw as the worst aspects of the show. His post reads like a screed, but I kinda know what he felt like — during the show’s three-month run, the chief topic of discussion between myself and the two gents I knew who watched the show regularly (my dad and an artist friend) was how self-indulgent and wildly unprofessional Joey’s behavior was getting. And yet… we kept watching! You can’t look away from a runaway train, and why should you?

So what made Joey such an off-kilter TV host? Firstly it was the fact that he began each show with a “monologue” that was basically him just standing on the set talking about random topics in a random fashion. Joey’s voice is *incredibly* friendly (thus his long career in radio). He chuckles as he speaks, and sometimes that chuckle is at odds with his angry, sarcastic, or un-p.c. comments. During these opening segments he would often get angrier and angrier about some person or situation, but he would laugh between nearly every other word. The only way out would be to cut to his man-on-the-street segment (detailed in my last blog post).

It’s hard to pick a best-ever episode of All Night, but my nomination would definitely be the show that spun wildly out of control because Joey’s monologue, which concerned his annoyance at Charlie Sheen, ate up a full-half hour of the two-hour program. He went on at such length that a crew member obviously told him that they should bring out a guest. Joey defiantly responded, “Thirty minutes in and we didn't bring out a guest? SO WHAT! What does it matter if I stand here for two hours and don't bring out a guest... is there a rule here?" He then started to invite out his guests for the evening. His green room had apparently been filled to capacity, and so in short order he brought out:

—comedian Dave Konig, who was seemingly the only guest allowed to rib Joey about his inability to stop talking
—a troup of self-described “disco yogis” (right), whose singer sang in Bengali as the dancers struck yoga poses to a "house" beat (one of the best things ever to appear on All Night — for all the wrong reasons)
—a psychologist brought on to discuss… Charlie Sheen (thus, all Joey had to say earlier could have been placed very neatly in this segment)
—an attractive cabaret singer whom Joey decided he simply had to sit next to and grin at as she sang. He smiled at her on-camera throughout her song, making the girl slightly unsettled. (Yes, it was creepy.)
—a Sinatra impersonator who attempted a very difficult song and was slightly off-key
—three magicians who did the kind of tricks you’d see at a children’s party
—and finally, a Barbados theater troupe did a musical number and presented Joey with a gift basket. Joey then turned around and gave the basket to one of his crew, who was celebrating a birthday. End of show.

If the above has confused or amused you, imagine the response of those few of us who were watching — especially when Joey revealed he couldn't get out of the chair he sat in backwards to watch the attractive cabaret singer (hey, the dude is 71...). It was supremely weird to watch a television show that was running completely off the rails because its host kept a total of seven acts waiting while he delivered an unscripted, directionless diatribe that basically no one wanted to hear. (And, given that the show is now gone, apparently no one did hear.)

Joey’s introductions to his musician guests were also astonishing. A group would be ready to play on the raised platform that served as a “stage” in the NASDAQ-window-studio in which the show was shot. Joey would go over to the platform to make the introduction — and then proceed to tell the group stories about his accomplishments in show business, his acquaintances, his beliefs, and just what he thought of the clothing they wore or the instruments they played. (Again, the lack of a studio audience and Joey’s not being a professional comedian made the silence in these segments mind-boggling.)

The musician would stand there with his guitar in his hand or a keyboard in front of him, and Joey would start to reminisce… and keep on talking until the musician’s forced smirk and “oh, really?” response turned into a “what is this guy talking about?” look. The only musical act that figured out a solution to this dilemma was a band that performs in the NYC subway system. As Joey did his intro and wandered conversationally further and further off, one of the guitarists just began to play, to sort of provide a musical “bed” for Joey’s remarks. As he did so, Joey angrily told him with a chuckle that he should stop “noodling”… and then went right back to complaining about how his daughter’s conversations with him on Skype always end up costing him money!

NYC talk show legend Joe Franklin was often mocked for asking his guests about long-dead show-biz figures out of the blue (“…and do you have any thoughts on the late Eddie Cantor?” went both Billy Crystal and Uncle Floyd’s Franklin impressions). Joey did the same thing, and it was equally surreal. Frankie Valli, an old Reynolds chum (Joey’s place in Four Seasons mythology is much spoken about — by Joey!)) and perhaps the biggest name to appear on All Night, was on the show answering a question about the changes that have taken place in show biz over the past half-century. He responded with a thoughtful answer about the closing of numerous nightclubs and how entertainment is not the central industry in Las Vegas anymore… when Joey swerved and hit him with a question about what he thought of the uprising in Egypt. Valli answered that question somberly and reasonably but, let’s be honest, who really cares what Frankie Valli thinks about populist uprisings overseas?

There were several examples on the show of how Joey liked to “wing” his interviews, something he had done on his radio show, as mentioned in this New York Times article; what worked on radio, though, fell very flat on TV. For example, when actor Maxwell Caulfield guested to promote the Broadway revival of Cactus Flower, he came on with his wife, Juliet Mills.

Mills hadn’t been announced in the show’s opening guest roster, which was almost invariably wrong, but she was willing to answer any question, especially when Joey brought up his having attended a memorial service for Sir John Mills. He went on and on about how great John Mills was, then paused for a second, and asked her point-blank, “and he was… what, to you?” The fact that Joey had no idea she was John’s daughter made him look like the laziest TV host there had ever been (why research when you can ask the guest to tell you who they are?), and also rendered his preceding discussion of the man nothing short of insane.

Perhaps the best example of a “winged” interview occurred when actor Michael Imperioli appeared as a guest. Joey made sure we knew that Imperioli was a “good friend” of the Reynolds radio show and thanked him for having been kind enough to appear as a guest on the pilot for All Night that “sold” the show to the channel that aired it, the digital NY-area NBC Nonstop.

On this last point, it should be noted that the more one watched All Night, the more it became apparent that the show seemed to be on NBC Nonstop as a paid program, an informercial-type item that was “brokered,” a la the various Byron Allen comedy and press-junket-interview shows that appear all over America in late-night hours on local affiliates and are paid for by Allen’s production company. Joey often griped about meetings with an NBC executive at 30 Rock that hadn’t gone well (as if he was a functioning part of the NBC TV family), yet Nonstop never aired commercials for his show at any time during the week when its other shows were on.

But back to the Imperioli appearance: Joey rhapsodized about how great an actor Imperioli is, but then it became apparent he hadn’t taken the time to watch Imperioli’s ABC primetime show Detroit 1-8-7. He also misnamed the program, didn’t know what network it was on, and wasn't sure if he was supposed to show a clip from it. The crew then came up with a clip in short order — and, in perfect can-this-show-be-for-real? fashion, the clip that was shown didn’t feature Imperioli. Joey topped this bit of absolutely sublime interview incompetence with an exhortation to Imperioli to star in more movies.

At 71 Joey has obviously absorbed a lot of interesting show business lore and has interacted with many interesting celebrities. After a certain point (one week in?), viewers of All Night became familiar with the oft-repeated stories that he wanted to impart to his guests, as he lectured them on topics that had nothing to do with their area of expertise.

My favorite examples of this kind of conversational “swerve” (wherein Joey sounded like an old relative holding forth at Thanksgiving dinner): he rambled on about Phil Spector to a woman who does a Dusty Springfield tribute act (even after she mentioned that Phil never produced Dusty); he told an author of a book about the Black Panthers in NYC about Patty Hearst (even after being reminded that Patty Hearst was in California and was never involved with the Panthers); and he provided a fairly disinterested Greenwich Village hatmaker (sometimes a Reynolds guest would lose their “oh, really?” expression) with a detailed pocket-history of Murray the K for no particular reason, other than the fact that he thought he looked like Murray in one of her hats (see below). In each instance the brief glimpses of the guest’s face would become more and more amusing as Joey went right on moving the conversation into outer space….

I should make it clear that All Night did feature some very talented guests in performance — perhaps if the guests had indeed been the focus of the show, it might still be on. The most mind-boggling “runaway train” moments occurred, though, when Joey was onscreen alone and decided to gift us with his idea of “honest TV” — not the kind of “scripted” stuff (Leno, Letterman, Conan) that he railed against on a nightly basis. These honest moments included Joey making and receiving cellphone calls while hosting the show, texting his daughter on-air before conducting an interview (the daughter whose substance-abuse problem he felt compelled to discuss in a public forum — there is no "anonymous" for Joey), and, my personal fave, his self-destructive jokes about how pointless and meandering All Night was. (Yes, he did go for the Seinfeld reference — “we’re really doing a show about nothing!”)

Part of Joey’s personal mythology is how he was a rebel “shock jock” on AM radio and used to clash frequently with his bosses. On All Night he was pretty much left to his own devices (for some reason, the show had very flexible boundaries as to where the commercial breaks would go), and his old self-destructive impulse would assert itself at least once an evening, which is why I feel it’s so important to chronicle the show. How many times can you watch a host self-destruct in front of your eyes?

Thus, it was “I don’t know if anyone likes what we’re doing” one night, “Can you imagine if someone sponsored this crap?” another. I was recording the show on a regular basis (again, to verify that it wasn’t a hallucination), but on the sole night that my DVD-r recorder conked out, I missed a moment my dad and friend spoke about with a mixture of amusement and amazement — in an odd, most likely unintentional, echo of the film Network, Joey jokingly said he’d off himself on-air if the show didn’t start to get good ratings.

On the nights when Joey seemed particularly peeved at someone or something, he let loose with casual ethnic jokes that sank like a stone; on others, he flirted awkwardly with female guests. In closing, I can only repeat Joey’s public statement that the show is on hiatus and will be retooled. I can only hope that it does come back — either as the streamlined, incredibly valuable survey of unknown NYC talent that it could have been all along, or else so we can see more supremely absurd moments like this one:

When the above occurred, I immediately thought of one of my favorite moments from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, wherein crooked politican Merle Jeeter (Dabney Coleman) decided during a television appearance to convince the citizens of Fernwood he was honest by letting them look in his eyes. Thus, throughout the rest of that particular episode of MH, MH, no matter where a character went, there was a TV on with Jeeter staring at them. It was a brilliant, underplayed joke that I was stunned to see played out by Joey as a moment of profundity. (What I assume he was trying for was the calming tone of a relaxation therapist or a yoga teacher — instead he conducted this “experiment” while pissed off, and it was, well, you decide….)

All Night was the strangest, most unpredictable thing I’ve ever seen on television outside of public access. The superior quality of some of its musical moments and a few of its comedic ones indicated that it could have been a fascinating slice of local NYC color. One element of the program hastened and secured its downfall: its host.


zeldafitz1 said...

A great blog about Joey Reynolds and right on target.

However, despite Joey's self-demise, we believe his "backers" were only able to go so far. He had no real advertisers. How could these people (whoever they were) keep putting money into something that would bring them no return?

There was, and is, no program on TV with the likes of All Night with Joey Reynolds. He had a fantastic eclectic group of guests - people we'd never get to see and know otherwise. We looked forward to each night's show and never missed one.

The show was indeed amateurish and not professionally done - but in a way, that's what made it so "real" and likeable. There's no doubt, however, that it needed to be honed up and that Joey needed to keep his mouth closed more often than not. The show was definitely a "breath of fresh air" and a throwback to shows that were done "live." Joey messed up, his backers got fed up, and his loyal viewers are now up the stream without a paddle.

Lisa H. said...

I wish I had had the moral fortitude (and the television apparatus, and the disinterest for sleep)to stomach watching his precarious circus act beyond a few clips, if only so I could say I witnessed an incredible moment in broadcast history (and I mean incredible literally).