Friday, February 27, 2015

‘Restless’ hosts and the current state of late-night comedy (Part 1 of two)

The last year has seen several late-night hosts flee their shows and others fly into the slots. One can quickly see the result of the hundreds of staff meetings that were held to decide how the new shows should make a splash:

— Don't worry about the “flow” of a particular episode, just assemble the shows out of a series of “viral” segments. To put it simpler: book an A-list guest and make certain to get them to either tell a short tale that works well as a YouTube video, or involve them in a “stupid human trick” (the kind of thing your local bar might find too stupid even for a trivia or talent night).

The goofier the A-lister is willing to be (dress up, dance stupidly, sing badly, do a moronic physical stunt), the higher the recognition and the stronger the “brand” will become. (Conceiving of a show as a 30- or 60-minute entity is so 20th century — just forget it!) Getting an A-lister to act like an idiot = ratings gold.

— Make certain to repeat segments that the audience likes. In some cases, it's possible the audience can made to like anything, so just repeat the segment until the audience becomes so familiar with it that they begin to look forward to it.

Viewers like myself who dread segments that are run into the ground (Larry Wilmore, no more “Keepin' It 100” please!) are not the demographic these producers want — it's those who will devote time to something they don't quite enjoy; hey, people have been watching the walking corpse called SNL for decades after it last exhibited any originality or innovation.

— When a host exits, make sure to ramp up the sentiment as he prepares to say goodbye. Make certain the publicists issue lists of their “last-ever” guests, as if it actually means something. Evoke the specter of Johnny Carson's last shows (Bette Midler singing to him; Johnny alone on the stool; the low-key, homespun farewell). 

Make sure you replace your white, middle-aged, straight male host with another white, middle-aged, straight male host. If somehow a woman or a person of color gets a show, kill it the instant the ratings dip – if a white guy's ratings start to slide, make certain to keep him on the air for-fuckin'-ever. He is an institution, he has some kind of fan-base, we can save his show.

The women hosts, the black/Latino/Asian hosts (oh right, there never was an Asian host) must hit the scrap heap if there's any question of stability. I know, I know — Chelsea Handler was doing wonderfully at the time she quit; what she did, brilliantly, to attract an audience was move daytime gossip-talk into the late-evening hours... and she got big ratings for a cable network. But not enough for CBS or NBC to want her....

LCD, LCD, LCD. There is no such thing as too much LCD-thinking. And don't worry about the viewership suspecting this – they'll eventually come around and get used to the host and his (always his!) way of doing things. In fact most of them won't even know that LCD stands for lowest common denominator....

The late-night changes in the last few months have all revolved around three networks: NBC, CBS, and Comedy Central. In the case of NBC, the less said the better — I was never a big Leno fan, but his being edged out because of age was ugly, as was the handing over of all late-night slots to Comedy Criminal No. 1 (tm), Lorne Michaels.

Michaels has been single-handedly responsible for more bad comedy in the last three decades than any other individual, thus earning him that sobriquet. He's now the “realtor” issuing placement on the late-night NBC schedule. His encroachment into weeknights began, of course, with the plucking of Conan out of the writer's room. Conan is pretty self-effacing and did have comedy talent; he's also, natch, a middle-aged, straight white guy.

Jimmy Fallon, on the other hand, is a habitual giggler, and giggling is rrrrreally annoying in comedy (see: Skelton, Red). One can only hope we'll someday discover that he's either drunk or high on the show, because dammit, the shit he's laughing at isn't at all funny. (He's the Harvey Korman of the 21st century, splitting his sides over things that aren't amusing.)

Fallon's version of The Tonight Show took the Jimmy Kimmel formula of fabricating episodes out of “viral videos” (“celebs read their mean tweets – people will love that!”) and ran with it, so that it now can't be classified as a talk show. It is “stupid human tricks” with some sit-down promotional chatter. For his part, Kimmel is now fast on his way to becoming an eminence grise in the late-night world; he's the “guy who next door” whose standup skill has improved somewhat, but whose sketch-acting talent is non-existent.

The peacock network handing the keys to late-night to Comedy Criminal No. 1 (tm) has had nothing on the mess that is CBS late night. Letterman “decided” he would retire shortly after Leno was booted out (gray hair is a no-no in late night now; the latter-day Carson wouldn't last a day). Colbert was chosen as a replacement for him, which makes sense (and, again, adheres to the straight/white/middle-aged formula for late-night). I loved Colbert's character when it began and he was bold, obnoxious, and, on occasion, really mean. He was willing to not get laughs for a while in order to be funny, the true sign of a master comedian:

The interesting thing is that Colbert will be himself, not his beloved conservative blowhard character, on his CBS late-night show. Since the character had indeed jumped several sharks in the last few years (that good old Archie Bunker cuddliness is one of the central problems with American TV comedy), it will be a relief to see him not try to keep that persona up any longer — but will his new “real” persona be based entirely around snark?

The more interesting slot, though, is the one after Letterman, the one which Craig Ferguson recently abandoned (and which was carved out by the always erratic and very watchable Tom Snyder — a straight, white, middle-aged guy, but one who was very much off the conventional charts, as he still valued conversation above all).

The strangest thing about Ferguson was that he was, in my opinion, the most compulsively watchable of the half-dozen-plus late-night hosts (do we count the unkillable Carson Daly?), simply because he made it all look so easy. He also was able to do something none of the others can do: be serious without mawkishness:

He is a standup comic by trade, so his opening monologue flowed beautifully. Of course it was scripted, but he was one of the few late-night hosts who was able to make it look like he was just ad-libbing the whole thing. The ridiculously cheap nature of his talk show made it all the more endearing — no in-house band, a cohost robot (voiced by Josh Robert Thompson), goofy segments involving puppets, and the hoariest of all showbiz clichés: a pantomime horse.

The thing that Ferguson did not excel at was interviewing. He was loose and informal, but he also seemed competitive with his comedian guests — not for him the classic straight-man role inhabited so beautifully by Steve Allen and Carson. He did ask the guests about their current projects and recent activities, but it was pretty much all trite talk inspired by the Carson show-biz model; once Johnny had settled in L.A. and The Tonight Show needed to be “souped up” for the Seventies, the seeds had been planted for today’s “non-interview interviews” (thanks to Robert Klein's “no-news news”) on late-night talk shows.

The single oddest thing about Craig's very low-key last episode was that he had as his sole guest Jay Leno, and the two pretty much admitted they had never really enjoyed conducting interviews. It not only seemed as if they burned out on it, it clearly sounded like they hadn’t *ever* liked doing it. This kind of explained why Craig had been so off-the-cuff while talking to guests (he didn’t care much about what they were saying), but it also sadly undercut the wonderful experiments he had conducted on the show, which included taking it to other countries (something which had been generally avoided since the heyday of Jack Paar and his former writer, Dick Cavett).

He also took a chance at doing a one-guest show, something that been done brilliantly in the b&w days of the medium and later, again, by Cavett. Ferguson’s choice for a sole guest in a show that aired in May of 2013 was the incredibly eloquent and funny Stephen Fry:

Now that Craig has ditched his late-night show (to go back to standup, something he clearly does like to do and does beautifully, and to host a rrrrrreally bad syndicated game show), the Late Late Show slot remains one of the few really interesting things on late-night TV, simply because CBS clearly wants to dump their Ferguson reruns forever and instead is offering a succession of different hosts, from all of the categories that are constantly overlooked for permanent late-night slots: women, people of color, gay entertainers, etc etc.

As a result, you can never be certain what you’ll see in that slot these days: it could be the mundane sight of someone who is under CBS contract (as so many of these hosts are — either because they have an upcoming CBS series coming on, or their older series was cancelled) simply hyping their new show (as Thomas Lennon did), or it could be a more “unconventional” host (like Sean Hayes) interviewing a guest you might usually see only in passing on a late-night show (as with Marion Cotillard, whom he spoke to for two full segments; her film clip was also [gasp] in French with English subtitles!).

So currently the Late Late Show is worth a look-see, if only to see different kinds of hosts doing the late-night thing, and witness their interaction with an oddly unpredictable group of guests. For viewers like myself who prefer an “edge” to their comedy, the late-night shows will never have that ever again. It's too costly for the networks to do anything unpredictable in such valuable “real estate” — thus the involvement of Comedy Criminal No. 1 (tm).

Seeing a revolving group of hosts take on a low-budget late-night show is far more interesting, though, than watching someone who is bored with his job and/or just aiming for the LCD. (Is there any greater way to measure a host's disinterest or tendency towards both LCD-thinking *and* OCD-behavior than to count the giggle-breaks?)

The late-night talk show should serve as both an arena for guests of different stripes (but it never is), and it should also have longer segments that are not purely motivated by a new film/series/book/CD (but it never is). What we can know with the utmost certainty is that The Late Late Show will soon be where it has to be, given the tunnel-visioned network mindset: helmed by yet another straight, white guy who's nearly middle-aged (36), British comic actor James Corden.

Corden may be an unknown commodity here in the U.S., but it's for sure that nothing too radical will occur on his show. It can't — it's late-night network TV....

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Joe Frankin’s Five Craziest Yarns

In his final years, Joe Franklin had a lot in common with the great American directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Like Howard Hawks, Edgar G. Ulmer, and especially Orson Welles, Joe wasn’t content to be saluted for his very real, very impressive, achievement in show business — the fact that he had a talk show on for 40 years in one of the biggest markets in America (his local station later becoming a “super station” on cable) and that he had been involved with the format before the concept was crystallized by Steve Allen on The Tonight Show in 1954.

No, for Joe that wasn’t enough. And so, like the aforementioned Hollywood giants (and others from their era), he began to “touch up” his legacy in nearly all of his later interviews to include new names in his roster of A-list guests (for the most part, Joe's guests were indeed nobodies — which is what made his show the odd viewing experience that it was). Some of these stars never appeared on TV on any talk show ever, others had their careers followed with eagle eyes by their fan communities, yet Joe decided that he would say he had them on his local NYC talk show. (And in most cases, he didn’t just have them on, he had them on “four or five times,” “he cohosted a week of shows”).

Thus there is a problem: who exactly did Joe have on his show? Since he stated that the first two decades of the program were wiped by the two stations he was on (WJZ/WABC and WOR), it becomes harder to track the recognizable names he did have on. As far as actual footage, the only name star for which there is a kinescope is Sessue Hayakawa:

Barring footage, the best source of verification are the on-set photos that Joe had taken of his major guests – he and his producers recognized that it was important to have shots of these guests for his archive (also, obviously, for newspaper articles), so we have some great pictures of Joe with A-listers. Many of them are contained in this opening credits sequence from 1977:

In his book Up Late with Joe Franklin (Scribner, 1995), the original source of a bunch of his “yarns,” you can also see pics of Joe with these celebs: Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Ethel Waters, Paul Whiteman, Mike Douglas, Guy Lombardo, Mitchell Parrish, Leopold Stokowski, Rodney Dangerfield, Georgie Jessel, Myrna Loy, John Houseman, Mickey Rooney, Phyllis Diller, Stiller and Meara, Dyan Cannon, Dick Shawn, Tony Curtis, Joan Rivers, Howard Stern, Tiny Tim, Shari Lewis, Joe Louis, Jerry Lewis, Bill Cosby, and Dan Aykroyd. So evidently Joe had a photographer on-set ready to document the guests on the show, except for the “many times” he had Chaplin on....

The question is: why the hell did Joe begin fabricating highly unlikely/utterly impossible guest stars as the years went on? It's a puzzle, but perhaps it's the same thing that motivated the directors I mentioned above. Director Edgar G. Ulmer's tendency to lie about his past is discussed in Michael Palm's great documentary Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen (2004).

It is posited that he simply wanted to be involved in all of the seminal moments of German cinema (as it was, he was involved in the production of a few Murnau classics and Menschen am Sonntag with Wilder, Zinneman, and Siodmak, which in itself should be enough). In this instance, one can see that his “disputed” credits (read: his tall tales and yarns) have made it into his IMDB filmography, but his Wikipedia entry notes that they are unsubstantiated.

The extremely thorough, nearly 800-page long, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood by Todd McCarthy also faces this brick wall of old-guy lying: Hawks had an astounding life, in which he hunted with Hemingway, counted Faulkner as a close friend and colleague, and gave the first significant roles to many, many iconic actors and actresses. So why did he perpetually lie to interviewers in his dotage, claiming involvement in things that he had no hand in? Perhaps it was that he had “run out” of stories – his known stories (read: the true ones) had been revealed in prior interviews, and he was trying to supply “new copy” to the latest set of interviewers. McCarthy explores this in the book's lengthy foreword.

As for Welles, making up tall tales was part of his charm, and a big part of his legend. He was aware that people knew he was fabricating some stories and inflating the triumphs in others. He in fact made a cinematic essay that is one of the most profound statements on truth and lying ever. Orson was a proud liar, a man who was able to make art from his un-checkable yarns:

Perhaps a key element in Franklin's compulsion to make stuff up was the fact that the public's memory is extremely short, and never so much as in this lazy era when — as Chris Marker posited — your memory sits inside your computer. Thus, if you're going to impress today's viewers with your having encountered 1950s celebrities, it's not that news-making to mention Mineo, Mitchum, and the others. The current public perception of the Fifties is represented by a small group of icons who adorn tchotchkes in stores everywhere: Marilyn, James Dean, Brando, Sinatra, Gleason, Lucy, and of course Elvis. If you want to get in the news, saying you interviewed Tony Curtis is nowhere near as impressive as saying you fucked Marilyn, even if you barely had contact with her.

This has become the case with Jerry Lewis as well. Jerry *was* there, he did without doubt know and work with all these people, he is the last living A-list member of the extended Rat Pack “community,” and yet his stories about them change from telling to telling (and even autobiography to autobiography). Like Tony Curtis and Joe Franklin, he also put in a claim to having slept with Marilyn many decades on.

That's also a key to the old-guy yarn-spinning business: if someone died tragically and became a legend decades ago, why is it that only *now* that you're revealing your immortal meeting or sordid tryst with them? Tony Curtis spent years saying his time with Marilyn on the set of Some Like It Hot was hell on earth but then maintained late in his life that he fucked her; when Jerry makes this claim – along with a similar story about hunting for babes with JFK – he often evokes laughter, because it's coming out of a clear blue sky.

A similar case existed with Grandpa Al Lewis. He claimed to have encountered many great historical figures in both show-biz and politics, and to have been present at a lot of important events. The New York Times ended up doing a whole article discussing his“Zelig”-like claims, and how difficult it was to substantiate any of them. 

What it comes down to is that Joe took on the role of a modern-day Munchausen. People are entertained by seniors and like to hear their stories. If their stories involve people that the public is unaware of, you will only attract the fanboys, geeks, and true believers; if suddenly you fucked Marilyn Monroe, you are part of some kind of historic chain of important men — you join the Holy Trinity of guys who “passed around dames,” namely Sinatra, Sam Giancana, and JFK.

Thus, Joe began somewhere in the Nineties (a few years before his hoarding compulsion got really, really overwhelming in his office) to lie in every single interview. Big lies, small lies, odd lies, incredibly colorful lies, lies worthy of Mark Twain or Damon Runyon, and lies that just made you think “c'mon...”

Why is this important? Well, on a certain level it isn't. Joe was just an older gent, an incredibly fun character on the scene in Manhattan, a NYC show-biz institution (that he was, there is no denying or diminishing that). But I guess for someone like myself who really loves to research things about cultural history, Joe's pervasive lies moved beyond cute stories and became things that people quoted as being actual events.

The worst instance of this when he died was a sloppy Daily News obit that lifted the list of Franklin show guests from his Wikipedia entry, which contains a bunch of Joe's yarns, repeated as if they were truth. Thus the News obit contains a list of completely unsubstantiated celebrities, including two celebs who never did talk shows (Chaplin and “Gary Grant” — nice!).

There is also the kind of lie that is injurious. As I noted in my last blog entry on Joe, he frequently lied about the legal outcomes of his “character defamation” cases, saying he won cases he lost or never even filed. He also created wildly insulting lies about performers he was angry at. His book Up Late contains two paragraphs of slanderous lies about Uncle Floyd, all of them 100% untrue (see Floyd's response to Joe's bizarre, libelous storytelling at 1:15 here).

So, while it became part of Joe's charm to assume that everything he was saying was an adorable made-up lie, there were stories of his that are somehow being turned into entertainment fact via the unreliable institution that is Wikipedia. And there are others (like the lies about Floyd) that were simply petty and mean-spirited.

With that in mind, I hereby assemble a “listicle” (I don't do 'em often, but sometimes a topic cries out for the list formula) of Joe's most outlandish show-biz-related yarns: 

Bonus yarn: Joe claimed he slept with not one but two blonde bombshells of the Fifties. The lesser of the two (but still an amazing icon) was Jayne Mansfield. Joe writes in his book Up Late that she was on his show “twenty times” (no pics, not a one!). He had a drink with her once:

(p. 121) “She and I were having a drink alone together near my office when I felt her smoldering touch, sensed her eyes filling with longing. I let the alcoholic glow silence my resistance. What happened next is a blaze of Toscanini — as I say, Jayne Mansfield was a brilliant violinist. At about seven forty-five, at eight o'clock, there were frantic calls all over town from the theater [where she was acting in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?], from the stagehands, director, the producer, until Jayne showed up, a half hour late for her curtain. If someone asks, I didn't tell you this. You heard it from someone else.”

It's hard to top that torrid bit of trash prose, but here goes. If anyone does have evidence that any of these interviews took place on Joe's show, I will be happy to update, say I was wrong in that instance, and post the stated evidence. 

5. James Dean/Al Pacino. In one of his last interviews, possibly his last ever, Joe told Gilbert Gottfried and cohost Frank Santopadre on the “Amazing Colossal Podcast” that he had many amazing combinations of guests. He announced one of these interesting pairings for the first time ever on the 'cast (hear it here at 11:10). He noted that, back in the Fifties, he had James Dean on his show along with a newcomer named Al Pacino. Gilbert and Frank were quite polite listening to this odd revelation. 

“C'mon...” factor: He has no picture, never mentioned it before, and James Dean was famous for about a year, from '54-'55; at the time Al was 14-15 and not acting professionally.

4. John Lennon. This one is a tangled mess — Joe introduced this to my knowledge for the first time on Later with Bob Costas in the Nineties. He claimed that he had a deal with John: put Yoko on a few times and then John would appear on his TV show. He thus added that he had Yoko on many times on his TV show, but John was only on a few times. The only evidence that he interacted with Yoko is a photo of her guesting on his radio show, and his only interaction with John appears to have been a letter Lennon wrote to him “explaining” Yoko's music and oddly sorta asking Joe to give it a shot. (John namechecks avant-garde jazz musicians Joe would've had no knowledge of or interest in, given his musical preferences.) 

“C'mon...” factor: Here there is no greater “you shittin' me?” element than the fact that no photos exist. John had already been a Beatle, may not have been selling records as much as he used to, but remained an A-lister who was photographed in various locations when he moved to NYC. Presumably Joe's steadfast on-set photographer called in sick each time John was on the Joe show. Curiously, Joe also never mentioned these appearances when John was killed in 1980. There's also the fact that pretty much every single day in the Beatles existence has been chronicled in detailed books, none of which mention appearances on the Franklin show. 

3. Charlie Chaplin. Joe began to tout Chaplin's name as a frequent guest on his TV show in the last decade or so. If I remember correctly, Chaplin used to rank with Garbo as one of the people on his “wish list” (he had a story about a friend of Garbo calling him about his radio show but never did quite bother to lie about Greta being on his TV program — most likely because younger folk don't know/care who she was). Suddenly, though, Charlie had been on his program “four or five times.” 

“C'mon...” factor: Again, no on-set photo of Charlie Chaplin, one of the most famous performers on the planet. The only fact that needs repeating is that Chaplin left the U.S. for good in September 1952 because of political problems. Joe went on the air in Jan. 8, 1951, so there's a very small window for Charlie to have shown up on the show. And surely, if you're the biggest star on Earth, you're certainly going to make your TV debut on a local, no-budget talk show with a nostalgia theme, right?

2. Marilyn Monroe: Joe was irresistible to blonde bombshells, we've already seen that with Jayne (did Joe dally with Mamie as well? one wonders). Joe's story, as told in Up Late, the nexus for many of the Franklin yarns, is that Marilyn's press agent set up a meeting between she and Joe because he wanted her to get on the TV show Luncheon at Sardi's. The two struck it off immediately (of course), and Joe suggested to a publisher, Rudolph Field, that he write a book with Marilyn about her life (this is when, Joe claims, she had brunette hair, which does run counter to her chronology in the early Fifties when the story is taking place — Niagara made her a saleable commodity, and she was a blonde from that point on).

Joe did say in interviews he had her on his TV show many times. But the piece de resistance is his account of their having sex. They were working on her autobiography (which, incidentally, did get written in 1956 as an item called My Story, ghosted by none other than Ben Hecht!). He remembered:

(p. 119) “One night we were working late on the manuscript. I was astonished to feel her hand on my knee. I stammered a weak protest. The rest is a fog of Chinese food and Garry Moore [the two were presumably watching TV; Garry was not in the room]. She had a very severe biological need, a strong biological urge. I would characterize her as straight-ahead, unemotional, businesslike. Not kinky. Neither dominant nor submissive — neuter. A man could get her in the sack, and he would think that he was the conqueror when actually she made the conquest....” 

“C'mon...” factor: That damned on-set photographer, he kept calling in sick! Given the frequency with which Joe says he met her, there might've been one photograph of the two together, but none has surfaced (time will only tell if there is any pertinent documentation anywhere in his cluttered office or storage space). The book did materialize, but isn't touted as an autobiography (strange, given that the other ghost written book was touted as such). It is credited to Joe and writer Laurie Palmer. As with the Beatles, there have been countless tomes about Marilyn, none of which has seen fit to include l'affaire Franklin.

1. John F. Kennedy/Richard M. Nixon. There is nothing that approaches this story for its sheer levels of comic invention and/or insanity. I never heard Joe tell it in an interview, but there it is, tucked away in that same urtext of true stories and bizarrely fabricated fakes, Up Late. He's discussing how a local restaurateur had a heart attack on the show, live, and...

(pp. 106-107) “He slipped under the table, the camera got off him, and we called for help. We did have a doctor at ABC, but he was busy reading the racing form. Nixon and Kennedy were in the next room rehearsing for their debate, and they ran in to help revive the guy. I had no choice but to keep on going, to talk to another guest, the camera in close, while they worked on the restaurant owner. It was already too late; he was dead.”

This little inclusion from Joe, the fact that Tricky Dick and Jack the Zipper were there to help him out with a dead man, creates an image that deserves to be in a deranged short story or most certainly a cartoon (perhaps a missing panel from "The Joe Franklin Story" by Drew Friedman and Josh Alan Friedman?). It's not even surreal, it's something like a stroke of lying-genius. It's reaching out to grab any two celebrity names and slapping them into your story. After Joe's death, someone posted to the Net about their friend who did camerawork for Joe's daytime ABC show. He noted that someone did die on the air and the show kept going. No mention of Jack or Dick. 

“C'mon...” factor: C'mon.

The single best piece of writing about Joe appeared in the Village Voice at the time that his TV show left the airwaves. Nick Tosches wrote a sublime piece on the man he called “the Lorenzo de' Medici of divine mediocrity.” It can be found in its entirety here, as reprinted in the terrific collection The Nick Tosches Reader.

Nick declares (in a piece that was lovingly illustrated by expert Franklin caricaturist Drew Friedman), “I had seen Dracula rise from his coffin, I had seen the Wolfman howl, the Invisible Man unravel, the Mummy walk. But Joe and his baby hands and his shining forehead were a weirdness unto themselves.”

He notes he left off watching Joe at one point because he was unsettled by Joe’s “shoddy carnival of nihilism.” He returned years later, though, for while under the influence of Ronsonol, he began to understand Joe, “still living, still beaming, still shrinking, still talking with zero conviction about what he called, as if alluding to some dark Zoroastrian duality, ‘the good nostalgia.’ ” Nick proceeds to outline Joe’s career, supplying real, verified dates (one of many things Tosches does brilliantly is research his topics) for the many transitional moments in Joe’s TV show.

On to the video: Perhaps the best example of Joe’s show is this representative episode from 1976, which starts off in the middle of things with Joe errantly bringing up Lee J. Cobb out of the blue to his panel.

Another example of the oddness of the Joe show offers us in the first minute alone the topics of bounty hunting, ham radio, and vaudeville. This is followed by some trivia questions from Franklin “anchor man” Richie Ornstein (when Joe couldn’t answer, he'd just snap out “I don’t know,” indicating that Richie should move on). Joe prefigured a lot of current reality shows by probing all of the details of the bounty hunter’s life (and if you don’t care, as I don’t, you’ll be bored to tears — just imagine you’re up at 1:00 a.m. watching it with bleary eyes and nothing on the other channels….)

The most interesting moments were when Joe met up with old comedians. Here, from his 40th Anniversary special, is Joe hosting a panel of old Jewish comics: Joey Adams, Henny Youngman, Freddie Roman, Mickey Freeman, and Bob Melvin.

Friday, February 6, 2015

When Joe Franklin threatened my life

Photo by Jim Herrington
Joe Franklin was a NYC TV treasure, an unusual-looking little man who became a local legend by hosting a talk show for 40 years, being a maven of nostalgia in an era ('60s/'70s) when it still mattered and another ('80s/'90s) when it was completely negated, and for being a colorfully eccentric Manhattan character. Check out the obits and a recent New York Times story that centered on nothing but the insane conglomeration of clutter in his office, and you can see the fond feelings that Joe engendered.

But there was another side to Joe, one which found his easy-going, eternally-nonplussed demeanor disappear: this was when anyone attempted to spoof his eminently spoof-able TV show or a joke was made (of any kind) about him. In some cases, he set into motion ridiculous lawsuits claiming slander and libel – the better to gain cheap, quick publicity in the local and even national press. In other cases he simply threatened said reporter/humorist with dire circumstances – equally ridiculous, but simply odd, given that this was friendly, seemingly oblivious talk show host Joe Franklin.

On with the tale: I was amused at college in the mid-Eighties when people from out of state would watch Joe's show and not know what the hell to make of it. A friend of mine had her French boyfriend living with her in her dorm room, and he was set even further adrift by the Joe-show weirdness – what did this show mean, who was this man asking odd questions of the wrong people, why was he having on seemingly random individuals who came from hundreds of different fields, was this meant to be informative, entertaining, funny?

To explain to the reader who never saw the Franklin show: the utter randomness of Joe's talk show was its strength for those seeing it in the late evening hours. You could be stoned or sober but slightly loopy from the late hour and the result was still the same. The Franklin show was a mixture of randomness, fascination, tedium, utter ridiculousness, the odd truly touching moment, and sublime, superb insincerity.

The last-mentioned element always came up when trying to explain Joe to newcomers – did he honestly believe all the superlatives he would sling around? It's possible he did, or he was just being pleasant – one of his favorite adages was “it's nice to be nice,” certainly something to keep in mind when reading the items below.

So I set about writing a “101” introduction to Joe for my college newspaper (the school I attended, Sarah Lawrence College, went through about three different names for the paper in the four years I attended – the best was “The Tribune,” the worst was “Fred”). The article I wrote, entitled “Joe Franklin... my friends!” was me trying to explain the utter lack of linearity of any sort on Joe's show for a lay-audience of young people whom I thought could be enticed into watching the show by emphasizing its oddball, cult aspects and how its host's unusual appearance (tacky-looking suits, a sleepy facial expression, his “ever-changing hair color”) made it the perfect late-night viewing for stoners and insomniacs alike.

So proud was I of the piece that I sent a copy of the article to Joe's office, assuming he'd discern the affection with which the piece was written and find it a good “pitch” to the youth audience. I never heard back from him, but I assumed that Joe was a very busy guy.

Flash forward to the late Eighties. I'm now out of school and am working for a firm called “TV Key” at which I am editing the book Movies on TV and also writing columns for the “TV Key” TV-review column, syndicated by King Features. I figured I would write about Joe, offering a more adult “101” to his show, which by this time had been spoofed on Saturday Night Live in memorable pieces enacted by Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Martin Short, et al.

The added layer of legitimacy here was that the “TV Key” column was so well-established that I could interview Joe one-on-one for the piece and question him about some of the more entertaining aspects of his show. I got some good quotes from him, the best centering around his unusual interview style – I asked him how he had developed it, and why he would ask each guest about the other's specialty.

He responded that his guests wanted to talk about things other than their specialty. He cited a specific example: whenever he had Dizzy Gillespie on, he never asked him about jazz or music in general. He would get Dizzy to discuss “women's rights, air pollution, penal reform,” the things (that Joe claimed) Diz really wanted to talk about. This was exactly what made Joe's shows so bizarre, so I was delighted he decided to discuss his “method,” as it were.

As the conversation was ending, I noted in a fanboy bow of deference that I'd of course been watching his show for my whole life. I also added that I'd written about him once before, in the Sarah Lawrence College newspaper. Joe's voice suddenly got grim.

He then quickly said he remembered the article and it wasn't funny (was it the “ever-changing hair color” remark?). He then told me that “the men with the gravelly voices” told him they read my piece (again, in a college newspaper that might or might not have been named “Fred”) and they were disturbed. Joe further informed me that “four people have written articles like yours, and three of them are dead.”

I was flabbergasted – and, yes, oddly amused. I told Joe that the college-paper piece was written in affection, I was doing an introduction to his show for my schoolmates, it was intended in a positive way. Joe then asked me if I was writing “another piece like that one,” and I noted that, no, I was doing a different kind of intro where I would be making him “into a Damon Runyon sort of New Yorker” and be discussing his blankety-blank years on the air (by that point it was over 35 years on the air on a five-day-a-week basis).

He seemed calmed by this reassurance but was still audibly disturbed at me for something he claimed to remember in vivid terms. I myself had to break out the piece and reread it back then to see what I'd said, and I found the “ever-changing hair color” remark to be the only potentially offensive remark – the rest was along the lines of saying how Joe would have a nuclear physicist next to an aerobics instructor on his panel, and proceed to interview each person about the other's specialty. Which he did, on a nightly basis!

The final step in the interview project was getting a picture of Joe from Joe himself (don’t ask me why we didn’t have one on file — perhaps it’s because Joe was a local host and had never been written about before this column). When I came to the office, I was greeted by a grim Joe who, once again, had me swear that I was not writing “that kind of article” again. He then told me how “you could make big money writing about me — there’s a young man doing a book with me now, you can make big money.”

He then asked me to swear on my mother’s life (my mom is still with us, thankfully) that I was not writing “that kind of article.” Joe said again that he did want me to make fun of him — and then he handed me a picture of himself wearing a tuxedo and carrying a cane in Astaire style. (The top hat was off in this shot, one shouldn’t overdo it….).

I have an audio cassette of the phone call wherein I was told that the “men with the gravelly voices” were very dissatisfied with me and would play it for various friends through the years. One suggested that Joe could have me hurt — that he would recruit the Gabor sisters to chase me down Broadway hitting me with their purses.

There are two post-scripts to this story. The first is that I met Joe a few other times in later years and, even though I said my name, he was quite nice to me (I guess I didn’t use the odd trigger-phrase “Sarah Lawrence College newspaper”). In fact the nicest and oddest of these meetings had me asking him if there was any information available about an old singer he kept having as a guest by phone on his WOR late-night radio show.

Joe claimed this man, Beauvais Fox (or was it spelled Bové?), was a MASSIVELY famous singer in the early Thirties, that he outsold Russ Columbo, Vallee, and Crosby. This was hard to believe — and harder still when there is no mention of this man’s name anywhere on the Net (the sole person with that name in show-biz was a theater critic who died in 1955) or in Billboard-style “greatest selling records of all time” reference books. Joe would receive a call from this aged Fox gentleman every week at some ungodly hour (around 4:00 a.m. usually), and he would have this incredibly “famous” singer sing him a song from his apartment, over the phone, while playing piano.

Each of these segments made me wonder where the hell Beauvais lived — unless he resided in a townhouse or a very well-insulated apartment, it’s hard to imagine a person living in central Manhattan who can play piano at 4:00 in the morning and not piss off his neighbors. Thus, I asked Joe if he could play us some of Fox’s best-selling songs on his show (see, we never heard these best-selling records, just the old man singing over the phone), or give us some background on Fox so we could situate him against the crooners of his era.

Joe’s response was to tell Beauvais that night that many people in NYC loved him a lot — “Ed Grant from Media Funhouse loves your singing.” Thus, I never learned a single thing about Fox and probably never will, unless some kind Franklin associate would like to comment on this piece and offer some context as to who this mysterious singer was.

The other post-script to my tale of Joe and his “three out of four” dead men was that I have carried this story around with me for years, thinking that I was oddly special, since the only other people Joe got furious at were sued for big money they didn’t have (all suits lost or dropped).

I then heard from my friend Rich Brown just a few weeks back. It turns out that he called Joe up after he sent him a copy of the NYU humor magazine “The Plague” (Joe was featured on the cover, a standard picture of him smiling superimposed onto a pic of the fjords in the Netherlands) in the mid-Eighties. Joe was not pleased and adopted a low tone to warn Rich that he’d better watch out and be “verrrry careful” about what he said about him.

This of course made me feel not as “special” as a potential Franklin murder-victim, but it did reinforce that Joe’s skin wasn’t just thin, it was transparent.

Now, to those who are familiar with Joe, it is obvious that both Rich and I (and those other wise-ass college writers who found *anything* humorous about Joe’s program) got off easy. Joe had two very famous lawsuits against humorists whom he felt “mocked” him, and he was intent on suing two others.

The first person was Uncle Floyd and the show was (natch) The Uncle Floyd Show, at that time a local program that aired on a UHF station. It had a very large cult audience (that included, no shit, David Bowie, John Lennon, and the Ramones), but it was still a local show.

What Floyd and his colleagues did in their “Joe Frankfurter” sketches was to simply distill the essence of Joe's program and make it seem even kookier than it was, while still keeping the same straight face that Joe always maintained about his bizarrely composed panels of guests.

So Floyd and his cast did a spot-on satire of Joe's show, starting with a spoof of his presentation of old movies he had in his collection, then onto showing some personal memorabilia, and then onto the panel, comprised of people from wildly different fields who were asked to comment on each other's specialties and then queried for their feelings about show-biz figures who were long dead.

Floyd did this long before the Saturday Night Live sketches where Billy Crystal played Joe with an “upscale” group of great comedic actors (Christopher Guest, Martin Short, et al) as the crazy roster of guests.

Joe did not take kindly to the spoof of his show (perhaps it was indeed all too accurate?). He sued Floyd for defamation of character for $35 million dollars. Floyd used to joke about the lawsuit during his act at the long-defunct and much-missed Bottom Line here in Manhattan; he liked to recount how he was served with the subpoena for the lawsuit while performing at a TV telethon for charity.

Joe lost the lawsuit because his case was insubstantial — what Floyd and his cast were doing is called satire (even on a no-budget UHF show in New Jersey), and the 35 million figure was insane for the kind of show Floyd was doing (and the kind of “coverage” he had at the time — I watched him through snow in Queens). In the process, Joe got publicity, which seemed in the end result to be what he had desired all along. In later years he lied and claimed he won the suit, which became a pattern for him.

The second lawsuit is perhaps Joe’s most famous: in Oct. 1984 he sued cartoonist Drew Friedman for a piece he wrote and illustrated called “The Incredible Shrinking Joe Franklin.” Joe asked for $40 million dollars for libel; Friedman was named, along with the magazine the comic appeared in, Heavy Metal, and National Lampoon, Inc., the owners of HM at that time.

Another ridiculous lawsuit, intended presumably to garner publicity and frighten away any other humorists who chose to make fun of him. The interesting thing about this suit is that this was the third piece Friedman had done on Joe; the other two were the incredibly funny (and indubitably nasty) “The Joe Franklin Story” (written by Josh Alan Friedman) and Drew’s great solo “Joe Franklin is a Dream Walking.” The “Shrinking” piece evidently was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Joe.

Joe lost the suit — you can read about the verdict in a New York Times article here. He eventually became friends with both Drew (see pic on right) and Josh Alan as the years went by. But humorists weren’t deterred from spoofing his show. In the ’84-’85 season of Saturday Night Live, the Billy Crystal sketches began appearing.

They were along the same lines, although not as brutally funny as, the Uncle Floyd sketches; the “SNL” sketches also, of course benefited from having a budget big enough to recreate Joe’s set and the ability to get real celebrities to play themselves, as when Liberace appeared as a Franklin guest. Joe had a running gag about the Crystal sketches (which he did grow to love and talk about endlessly, even though there were only a handful in that one season) — he claimed he had told Billy, “I saw your impression, and one of us is lousy!”

It’s thus very interesting to see in a blog entry on the Thunder Child blog about WOR executive Chris Steinbrunner, in which the writer notes that Joe “was furious [about the Crystal sketches], and deeply hurt. He stepped into Steinbrunner’s WOR sanctum, wondering what actions he should take.” Steinbrunner calmed Franklin down by noting that SNL spoofing him “was one of the best things that could have happened to Joe.” I'm willing to bet the combover that Crystal sported was what pissed Joe off the most.

[After I posted this piece, Drew Friedman noted to me on Facebook that Joe speculated on a lawsuit against Crystal on his show: "I clearly remember that during the year Billy Crystal was doing his Joe Franklin segments on SNL, a guest of Joe's brought it up on the show and said how funny it was. Joe reacted (with a smile on his face) by saying " He's very funny. Do you think I should sue him, do you think I should sue him?" Stunning!]

So Joe didn’t sue Lorne Michaels and Billy Crystal and co., but he again threatened to take comedians to court when Sarah Silverman, in her segment in the documentary The Aristocrats (2005), did a version of the titular joke in which she was on the Franklin show with her family doing the obscene act and Joe raped her.

Now that joke was just awful — not because no one should make fun of Joe (read above!), but because Silverman’s stock in trade of saying outlandish things in a deadpan way (made more “shocking” by the fact that she’s an attractive young woman) has gotten pretty tired over the years. It was also a rather “in” reference, because by the time the film came out, Joe was remembered mostly in NYC nostalgia circles.

In any case, Joe was again livid — one of my later meetings with him was in an elevator on the way to the most bizarre/absurd thing he ever did, a no-budget recreation of his talk show in a very West Side loft space (I wish I had photographed and videotaped the event, since it seems to have gone undocumented). In the elevator I asked him about the “news” that he would sue Sarah Silverman. His answer to me was that he was still considering it — and, he assured me, he hadn’t touched her. (I, of course, nodded my assent.)

As he aged, it’s assumed Joe mellowed and gave up suing people. What he did give up was the actual suing, but he didn’t give up the publicity-seeking that went with the earlier suits. He would announce the lawsuit in the press (as happened with the Sarah Silverman deal), then not file the suit, and then, according to Penn Jillette on his podcast (episode 152), claim he won the lawsuit that he never filed. He also rewrote history and claimed he won against Uncle Floyd, but that’s a story for another time….

As for an intro to Joe that was approved by Joe, I advise you to check out the documentary 50,000,000 Joe Franklin Fans Can’t Be Wrong. The film was independently produced, is quite good, and represented Joe’s only prolonged appearance on PBS (it aired on WNET in NYC).

Thanks to John W., Joe D., Anthony V., and other Facebook friends who exhumed and spotlighted materials presented here.