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 BovĂ©?), 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.

1 comment:

Ruki444 said...

Very nice write-up on Joe Franklin. I'm hoping that WOR or whomever will make a deal with Rhino and start releasing dvd's of his complete shows.