Saturday, July 14, 2012

Comedy icons in conversation: Bob Claster’s “Funny Stuff”

I have stated it before on this blog and on the Funhouse TV show, but the Internet is the perfect digital equivalent to that dark wood where trees are falling everywhere, and no one can hear the sound. Thus I like spotlighting websites that offer troves of rare interviews, as noted here and here. Like, in this instance, Bob Clasters’s archive of interviews from his 1980s KCRW show “Funny Stuff.”
Claster scored interviews with a number of comedy icons, a few of who have left this mortal coil. His interview style was mellow and informal as he moved through his subject’s career chronology. The interviews can be downloaded as MP3s for FREE (that does seem to make all the difference on the Net). A few of his longer chats are among the best interviews I’ve heard with those subjects.
In some cases it is obvious that the subject was there to flog their latest product and was thoroughly willing to review their past if the plug was delivered. Claster used his time with the subjects wisely, and in some cases he aired the interviews as a series of episodes, playing the subject’s “greatest hits” in between the interview segments.
As is the case with possibly the best of his interviews, an in-depth five-episode (!) talk with Stan Freberg. Freberg tends to lead his interviewers where he wants them to go, but Claster gets him to review most of his radio/single/LP work. Stan’s tale of how he was literally discovered by a Hollywood agent fresh off the bus from Pasadena is one of the neatest entry-into-show-biz tales you’re likely to hear, and Claster’s subsequent review of his musical spoofs, from the famous (“John and Mary,” “Day-O”) to the entirely obscure (“Bob Snake for President”), is impressive.
The series of episodes ends up being the single best “101” in Freberg’s work that you’re likely to encounter. As a bonus, Claster has posted a very wonderful bit of Freberg-iana, the August 31, 1956 episode of the CBS Radio Workshop that finds Freberg reflecting on what satire means by spotlighting some of his best bits and offering a stirring tribute to his fellow satirists at the end.
Equally impressive to me is Claster’s 1988 interview with one of the funniest gents that ever lived, Peter Cook. The talk starts with Cook speaking to Bob as his character Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling. Given that improvisation by Cook always yielded gold amidst the dross, and Chris Morris worked wonders with the aged Cook, I did wish Claster had kept speaking to “Sir Arthur,” but I can also relate to his wanting to ask Cook questions about his own accomplishments — although I’m glad Cook slipped into his “E.L. Wisty” character at one point and later turned back into Sir Arthur as he said goodbye.
Claster makes the three-episode Cook talk into a career retro that is almost as comprehensive as the Freberg series. Although Cook would clearly rather speak as his blustering alter-ego and seems dismissive of his unnatural talent (“I’m about the laziest person I know in the world”), he was always in rare form when set in front of a microphone.
Thus, you’ll hear him talking about things that were left out of most interviews: a segment on Not Only… But Also called “Poet’s Corner” that found celebrity guests competing with Cook and Moore to keep up a rhyming game, with the loser being (in modern parlance) “slimed.” None of these segments have been preserved, and I’ve never read about them in Cook biographies, but you can find mention of them in online discussions of “gunge” in British culture (supposedly two guests who may have been involved in these segments were John Lennon and Spike Milligan — and these tapes were “wiped”?).
Cook also discusses the very odd Paul Morrissey-directed Cook and Moore version of The Hound of the Baskervilles and his TV sitcom flop The Two of Us. Much more to the point is his discussion of the Derek and Clive sessions, with Cook summing it up as “we ad-libbed this filth…”
One of the biggest “scores” Claster got as an interviewer was the ever-elusive Tom Lehrer — in fact he got two interviews with one of the best humorous songwriters ever. The first talk from 1983 is a lengthy one, punctuated by some of Lehrer’s greatest songs. Claster does revert to fanboy mode (not that I blame him) when he repeatedly asks if Lehrer would ever consider coming back to songwriting and performance.
The rest of the chat is taken up with Lehrer offering opinions about his work and discussing the different versions of the material. I hadn’t realized until listening to Claster’s interview that Lehrer’s last record (minus the stray song or two on a CD collection or radio show) was released in 1965, thus making him, as Bob puts it, “the Salinger of comedy” (Salinger’s last story was published in ’65). Lehrer has continued to teach all these years, but he has steadfastly avoided returning to performance of any kind.
The second interview from 1989 is even more interesting because it occurred in conjunction with two new songs by Lehrer appearing on The Prairie Home Companion. Again, Lehrer shoots down any hopes that he will return to entertaining, and also firmly states his belief that satire can’t alter society: “Satire doesn’t have much effect, except on the already converted… I’ve always really felt that this kind of stuff is not even preaching to the converted, it’s titillating the converted. It makes them feel good, but I don’t think it changes any minds. But I may be wrong — I hope so, it would be nice to be wrong.”
One of Claster’s cheeriest interviews, and the one he recommends on his site as a starting point for newcomers, is his talk with John Cleese and Michael Palin. Recorded in 1988 in conjunction with the opening of A Fish Called Wanda, the pair do provide a number of Python-related anecdotes, some of which I’ve heard in other interviews, but a bunch of which were new to me.
The thing that makes the interview so special is that Cleese and Palin seem genuinely happy to be rehashing the Python era. I attended the 40th anniversary Python gathering in NYC and have seen nearly all the latterday interviews, and in most cases the Pythons seem pleasant but somewhat tired to be telling their tales of the group’s adventures. Claster got Big John and his friend “Mickey” (as he repeatedly calls him) when they were still happy to recount their tales of the (then-recent) past.
Thus they jog each other’s memories and supply stories of the best and worst moments of the Python years, while taking good-natured potshots at each other. A Fish Called Wanda gets its rightful due, as it does stand as one of the final blasts of great Python humor (although only one-third of the ensemble was present).
The two interviews that Claster did in NYC in 1989 are a study in contrasts. One is leisurely, in-depth, and very funny, whereas the other is informative and entertaining, but seems too short. The latter, his interview with Brother Theodore, finds Theodore discussing his monologues — which were humorous, but of a grim, morbid, intellectual, and maniacal kind.
Theodore’s background was indeed singular: he was the only comedian to appear here in the U.S. who had been an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp. I have read some print interviews where Theodore spoke of this and have seen the one documentary about him (thus far unreleased on DVD), but had never heard him speak at length about his experiences in Dachau (his family was wiped out).
Bob’s interview with him is thus not just an interesting talk with a comedy legend, it’s bona fide world history, as Theodore briefly sketches how he went from being the scion of a wealthy family to working as a janitor in America, before moving into show business. Unfortunately, Bob veers away from this part of the discussion and “jumps” the chronology to move him into show business.
This is the one Claster interview that I wished was a lot longer. Perhaps there was an external factor, some time constraint, limiting his discussion with Theodore. It’s still a fascinating chat, but it could easily have been twice as long — as it stands, it seems that the real-life darkness that Theodore matter-of-factly speaks about brings the conversation to a hastier end.
There are no problems with Claster’s interview of another “spoken word” legend who came from elsewhere to live with us here in Manhattan, Quentin Crisp. There are some pauses and lulls in the discussion, but they only serve to underscore the conversational quality of the interview and they also make Crisp’s deadpan punchlines a lot funnier.
The Quentin Crisp episode episode may not be filled with comedy history in the manner of the Cleese, Cook, or Freberg chats, but it turned out to be one of the most revelatory for me, as I’ve always respected Crisp but hadn’t bothered to check out his material.  He had a dark outlook on life and death that was similar to Brother Theodore's (who famously said “As long as there is death, there is hope”).
Crisp remarks to Claster, “I hope to die fairly soon. Because I’ve got to die before my clothes wear out or else I would have to buy some more, which would be worrying.” Responding to one of Bob’s chipper queries (what’s the best thing that could happen to him tomorrow), Crisp responds, “I suppose death would be the answer.”
The talk is also oddly “ambient,” since it was conducted in Crisp’s un-air-conditioned tenement apartment on a hot NYC night — the sound of an electric fan and the stickiness in the air seem to give the interview even more “atmosphere.”
It’s hard to improve on the interviews already mentioned, but several of the other Claster “Funny Stuff” chats are worth your time:
—the solo John Cleese interview finds Cleese discussing why the American adaptations of Fawlty Towers didn’t work (he and Bob discuss the one with Harvey Korman, but I believe there were at least two more, including one with Bea Arthur as a female Fawlty).
—as with the Cleese/Palin talk, Bob’s interview with Terry Jones finds the Welsh Python in a good mood and ready to discuss the history of the Flying Circus.
Billy Connolly, back when he was almost entirely unknown in the U.S.
— the delightful absurdist Douglas Adams, who runs through the whole history of Hitchhiker’s Guide with Bob and his cohost, but also reveals where he’d like to be sent in a time machine (who knew he was such a music freak?) and his stated desire “to be a better writer” (it’s hard to remember sometimes that the HGTTG books were the second version of the tale),
— a very good non-comedy-related interview is Claster’s talk with celebrated musician-producer-arranger-friend of everyone, Van Dyke Parks. The most interesting portion of the interview comes when “VDP” (as he calls himself) brings up a period of depression he suffered after his initial albums had floundered (they were critically acclaimed and are still fan favorites, but died upon arrival).
The single most interesting thing Parks brings up is his tenure as the “director of the audio/visual department” for Warner Bros. Records, making “publicity films” for the artists they had under contract at the time. I don’t know if these films have surfaced on bootlegs of the individual artists’ material, or if they are floating around YouTube, but the list he supplies of artists who were filmed — including Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman — makes the films sound fascinating.
Also noteworthy are Claster’s interviews with Mort Sahl, Barney Miller creator (and Martin and Lewis scripter) Danny Arnold , Emo Philips, Jo Stafford and Paul Weston as their comic alter-egos Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, and June Foray and Bill Scott, the voices of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Where else can you heard reminiscences of Edward Everett Horton and the inevitable Hans Conreid?
Thanks to comedy maven, expert, and all-around good guy Jim G. for introducing me to the Claster stash.


Claster said...

Dear Ed,

What a lovely surprise to wake up to this morning! I've been a fan of your site for a while now, which makes it all the nicer. Thank you for all the very kind words. A few random clarifications:

To varying degrees, these programs were all edited. Sometimes, as in the case of Cleese & Palin, very little was needed. In other cases, however, it was a major undertaking. It took quite a bit of work to keep Van Dyke Parks linear, for instance. He's a delightful man (we're still friends), but he is all over the place. It's part of his charm, but doesn't necessarily make for a good documentary radio show. Similarly, I would guess that there are at least 500 edits in the Peter Cook programs. Editing out his long pauses while still retaining his unique rhythm was a challenge. (By the way, I too would have enjoyed hearing him improvise more, but what little improvising I did with him was terrifying enough. WAY outside my comfort level!)

Getting Theodore to even go near the subject of his experiences during the Holocaust was quite difficult, and we basically could only talk about what he was willing to talk about. As it was, there are a number of areas that I, apparently, was the only person ever able to get him to talk about on tape, and much of the narration of the excellent documentary about him you referred to ("To My Great Chagrin," by Ted Sumerel, which is actually available on DVD here) came from my unedited interview, which I supplied to the director. Theodore was a very kind and sweet man, but also a bit paranoid and wary, and I was always aware that I might rub him the wrong way and he'd abruptly end the exercise.

You are quite correct in calling me out for my "fanboy" stance with Tom Lehrer, but I've already beaten myself up for that on my own site, and after all, it was my very first such interview and I learned quickly not to do that, I think.

Anyway, I'm quite honored to be listed among the greats in your right-hand column, and thank you sincerely for all your efforts.

Bob Claster

Media Funhouse said...

Thanks for the great response, Bob!

I really enjoyed the Theodore documentary (Bob noted to me subsequently that it's directed by Jeff Sumerel), so I'm glad it is available to the public.

It's great to have these interviews available -- these comedians are never gonna die anyway thanks to recordings, but it's interesting to hear them reflecting on their work.