Category Archives: Repeat Posts

Smart Enough to Figure

Here’s a reboot of a post from 2006 about a series of events that took place in November and December of 1994.

On the first working day of 1994, I got fired from my full-time radio gig. I spent that year working part-time in radio, looking for a job in (or, preferably, out) of the broadcasting industry. In November, I answered a blind-box ad in a trade magazine for a jock job that matched my qualifications—and got it. They’d advertised it as being “in the Milwaukee area,” although it turned out to be in Racine, Wisconsin, which is about 30 miles south of Milwaukee, far enough to be its own radio market with nearby Kenosha. But it was close enough for The Mrs. and me, so we made plans to move.

The general manager and I decided that I would start in January, but he asked if I’d consider coming to town on a couple of weekends in December to do some client remotes. Sure, I said. The first weekend, the program director and I did a remote broadcast at a jewelry store. Between segments, the PD—we will call him Chuck because that is not his real name—shared with me a few tales that sounded pretty far out of school, about the incompetence of the owner, the ineptitude of the staff, and the station’s lousy equipment, none of which had been apparent to me when I interviewed. I didn’t say much, but I kept careful mental notes.

The next weekend, the general manager invited me to his house for dinner. “There are a couple of things you need to know,” he told me as he handed me a beer. “First, there was a little problem with your remote last weekend.” It turns out the client had been very dissatisfied with my performance. He apparently didn’t like what I said on the air or how I was dressed, despite the fact I said and wore the same things I’d said at and worn for every remote I’d done in my life—and despite the fact that the store was full of listeners spending money the whole time I was there. The general manager downplayed the objections, although he did let slip that the station’s absentee owner had parachuted into town from his suburban-Chicago home for the sole purpose of assuaging the client.

“The other thing you need to know,” said the GM as he handed me a second beer, “is that Chuck gave his notice this week.” He had been the station’s third PD in the last eight months. During the interview process, I had vehemently insisted that I had no interest in being program director of the station, ever. Now the job was looking me right in the face, on top of the other stuff I’d learned about the station since I took the job.

It made for a long and sleepless night at the Super 8.

The next day, Chuck and I did our remote. We talked more about the station and about his decision to leave. I asked a lot more questions this time. As we were pulling into the station’s parking lot afterward, I said to him: “You don’t have to answer this question if you don’t want to, but if you were me, would you take this job?” Chuck, without pausing for a second (and to his eternal credit), said, “No.”

Monday morning, back home in Iowa, I called the general manager and told him I wouldn’t be coming to work for him after all. I felt bad about it, because he was a decent guy, but I’m sure he was smart enough to figure out the reason why.

Otis

(Pictured: Otis Redding with the Bar-Kays, 1967.)

Here’s a post that first appeared at this blog 10 years ago today, about something that happened 48 years ago today. It’s been edited a bit, because anything that old is gonna need some.

Early in the new millennium, our ABC-TV affiliate here in Madison celebrated its 50th anniversary with a special on its history, featuring lots of clips and stories from people who worked both in front of the cameras and behind them. Among the many news clips was footage of debris from Otis Redding’s airplane being removed from Lake Monona following the crash that killed him and all but one member of his band. What the cameraman remembered most was what the station couldn’t show, then or now: he filmed crews pulling up Redding’s seat, with Otis’ body still strapped into it.

It happened on December 10, 1967. It was a foggy and miserable Sunday in the Madison area. Commercial flights were grounded because the weather was so bad, but that’s why Redding had his own plane—an up-and-coming star couldn’t stay on the rise if he was going to miss gigs. He and his band, the Bar-Kays, were coming into town from Cleveland for a show at the Factory, a downtown club on Gorham Street (a location that’s a bookstore today).

Many stories about Redding’s death erroneously claim the crash happened after the concert, a la Buddy Holly, but the twin-engine Beechcraft was on final approach to Truax Field around 3:00 in the afternoon for the show that night. Due to the weather, it apparently had to make a second approach, and circled out over Lake Monona. Nobody’s quite sure what happened next—not even the National Transportation Safety Board—but just before 3:30, the plane crashed into Lake Monona, not far from where the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center stands today.

Three days before the Madison crash, Redding had recorded a new song. The recording wasn’t finished yet—Otis had whistled one part of the song and intended to write another verse later. The song was “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” and it became a classic almost instantly upon its release, but it’s also had the effect of skewing the way people think about Otis. It was quiet and introspective, and made it easy to picture a wistful troubadour strumming a guitar at the edge of the water. (Ironic, given how he died.) “The Dock of the Bay” was utterly unlike anything he’d recorded before—far different than the deep Southern soul tunes for which he was known, and so different that record company officials didn’t want to release it. But because it’s one of the few Otis tunes that endured in the oldies-radio pantheon, it’s all many folks know about him.

Redding wasn’t a legend on December 10, 1967—that would come only after “The Dock of the Bay.” The direction his career might have taken after 1967 is one of music’s most intriguing what-ifs.

(Further recommended reading: this 2007 piece about the crash from our local alt-weekly.)

Take Me to the Mardi Gras

(Pictured: Mardi Gras revelers in New Orleans in the 70s. Saturday Night Live entered this maelstrom in 1977 and the result became a lost episode.) 

In the flush of success during the show’s second season, NBC and Lorne Michaels decided to take SNL on the road to New Orleans for Mardi Gras—and the result was a near-disaster. The show aired in prime time on Sunday, February 20, 1977. Sketches were to be broadcast from various locations around the city, but security was minimal, and crazed crowds put the actors at risk; a parade that was intended to make up a major part of the the broadcast never arrived at the designated location. The show ran hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget and was never repeated. (It’s an extra on the Season 2 DVD set, however.)

The seams of Saturday Night Live, which were often visible during the early years, never stuck out more than they do in this episode. You can hear performers talking to people off-camera, and at one point, guest Penny Marshall gets put on the air before she’s ready, panicked, without a clear idea of what she’s supposed to do. In the show’s opening, the Meters are billed as a musical guest, but they never appear. The centerpiece of the show was supposed to be Buck Henry and Jane Curtin covering the annual Bacchus parade, but they find themselves having to fill time as the parade fails to arrive; at one point late in the broadcast, they’re seen reading “Weekend Update” stories off 3-by-5 cards, which were apparently being handwritten by a couple of writers just out of camera range. They’re also frequently startled by flying Mardi Gras beads, although they do a masterful job of keeping their composure.

I must have watched this episode when it was originally broadcast; by the spring of 1977, Saturday Night Live was something nobody my age dared to miss. It was never part of the post-NBC syndication package. In the intervening years, reporters seeking tapes of it have been rebuffed, and few cast members would even comment on it. It had gone as far down the memory hole as anything in SNL‘s history—but that’s as much for the generally poor quality as for the visible chaos. Apart from a few Buck-and-Jane wisecracks, nothing is very funny.

The show does contain one interesting bit of comedic history, however. In one sketch, Dan Aykroyd as Tom Snyder interviews a guy outside a topless bar who is played by Murray, and who is clearly Carl Spackler, the groundskeeper in Caddyshack. It’s widely believed this character’s first appearance on SNL came in 1978 (in “Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber”), but there’s no mistaking him a year earlier.

An excellent recent retrospective on SNL‘s New Orleans episode is here.

(This post concludes our series of Saturday Night Live reboots for the 40th anniversary of the first show, which was yesterday.)

Finding the Look

(Pictured: Lorne Michaels and Paul Simon on a 1976 episode of Saturday Night Live. Partially hidden behind Michaels: George Harrison.)

In advance of the 40th anniversary of the premiere of Saturday Night Live this Sunday, I’m rebooting some of the posts I’ve written about the show over the years. Here’s one from 2012.

It often takes television programs a while to figure out what they’re going to be—for the producers to find the feel, the writers to find their rhythm, the actors to find their characters, the technicians to find the look. As a result, the early episodes of many long-running shows look fairly strange in retrospect. None are stranger than Saturday Night Live. Most everybody knows that George Carlin hosted the first episode, on October 11, 1975. Although its pace and timing is odd, it’s at least recognizable as Saturday Night Live. But the second episode is much different, and unlike anything the show would present in any of its succeeding seasons.

The episode, which aired on October 18, 1975, was hosted by Paul Simon, who was a close friend of SNL producer Lorne Michaels. His appearance cut two ways: he would attract viewers to the new show, and the new show would help him plug his new album, Still Crazy After All These Years. Simon brought along several of the performers who guested on the album: Phoebe Snow, the Jessy Dixon Singers, and most important, Art Garfunkel, with whom Simon hadn’t appeared in six years.

Simon and Garfunkel sang “The Boxer” and “Scarborough Fair,” accompanied only by Simon on guitar. They also performed their new single, “My Little Town,” singing live to the record’s backing track. Simon sang “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “Marie,” “Loves Me Like a Rock,” and “American Tune,” and sang “Gone at Last” with Snow. Snow and Randy Newman each got solo numbers.

With so much musical talent, the show featured only a handful of sketches. The Not Ready for Prime Time Players, who had been heavily utilized in the premiere because Carlin didn’t appear in any sketches, got almost no work in the second episode. Chevy Chase opened the show and did Weekend Update, but the rest of the company appeared only in a single, 30-second bit (and were not happy about being largely excluded). Simon appeared with sportscaster Marv Albert and NBA star Connie Hawkins in a too-long-and-not-very-funny film, 60s radical Jerry Rubin turned up in a parody commercial, and the show featured its regular spots for the Muppets and Albert Brooks.

The lack of comedy elements was partly by design: to give the writers a break after the first show, and to counteract the tendency of many shows to fall flat on episode 2 after a strong premiere. But Lorne Michaels had also told NBC executives before the show premiered that he knew what the ingredients would be but not the proportions, so the second show was a necessary step in deciding what SNL should ultimately become.

Coming in the next installment: the lost episode of Saturday Night Live.

A Show Trying to Figure Out What It Would Be

Although Saturday Night Live celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special show last winter, the actual 40th anniversary of the show’s premiere is on Sunday, October 11. This is the first installment in a series of reboots of stuff I’ve written about the early SNL over the years.

Most people watching old SNLs today see the sketches on best-of discs devoted to various performers, from Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi to Will Ferrell and Alec Baldwin, where most of the material is reasonably strong. Before that, the show was syndicated for several years in edited half-hours, which made it seem like a continuous parade of genius moments. The 2006 DVD release of Season 1 permitted viewers to see the series as it really was in its infancy. As such, it provided a valuable reminder for students of TV history. Yes, SNL was always innovative, and it was always a showcase for the sorts of acts that didn’t usually find a home on network TV. But it was also hit-and-miss, veering from comedic brilliance on one side of a commercial break to stultifying stupidity on the other, prone to repeating itself, and frequently failing to be entertaining for long stretches of time.

The early episodes depict a show trying to figure out what it would be and how it would work, and they look strange and primitive now. George Carlin hosts the premiere (October 11, 1975), but he appears only in a couple of monologues, allegedly because he was too coked-up to appear in sketches. The second episode, hosted by Paul Simon, features 11 musical performances and only a couple of sketches. Not until the third episode, hosted by Rob Reiner, does it looking like the SNL we know. Candice Bergen hosts the fourth one. She was known primarily as a movie star and photojournalist at that point, not a TV personality—and she looks like she’s frightened out of her mind. (She’s better in the Christmas show just a few weeks later.) It’s not until the sixth episode, hosted by Lily Tomlin, that a truly classic sketch appears—the one in which Belushi as Beethoven writes “My Girl” and “What’d I Say.” At that point, there’s generally at least one fondly remembered sketch per episode, and at least one other one that works fairly well. The episode hosted by Madeline Kahn, which aired in March 1976, is strong from start to finish, and is not just the best show of the season but one of the best of all time.

(The Season 1 DVD set also includes the infamous July 1976 episode hosted by Louise Lasser. Her monologues at the beginning and end of the show, and the interminable film she directs in the middle, weren’t the first time SNL broadcast something pointless or painful. But Lasser brought an extra degree of incoherence and self-indulgence that doesn’t look like an act. She became the first guest host banned from future appearances, although by the time she appeared, her 15 minutes were nearly up anyhow.)

The Not Ready for Prime Time Players were billed as a group until January 1976, when they were finally introduced individually. Chevy Chase was the breakout star, and the writers—one of which was Chase himself—didn’t take very long to realize it. Chase gets more face time in some episodes than all the other cast members combined, even in appearing in sketches where another cast member might have served just as well. His traditional “fall” to open the show is incorporated in various clever ways, but most of the time, he plays variations on a single character—a non-sequitur-spouting doofus—whether he’s anchoring Weekend Update or doing Gerald Ford. Aykroyd and Belushi are more versatile actors and clearly superior talents, as is Gilda Radner.

It’s been well-documented that SNL was a boys’ club, and that the women of the cast had a hard time getting on the air, or being treated with much respect. The best evidence is the under-utilization of Gilda, who’s clearly game for anything and almost always funny doing it. More damning evidence of the writers’ attitude toward women is found in sketches where the laughs are intended to come from the physical abuse of Gilda’s characters by male characters, which seemed funny in 1975, but not so much now. Toward the end of the first season, the female cast members are better served, especially in sketches by female writers, such as “Slumber Party” in the Madeline Kahn episode.

Coming in the next installment: the Saturday Night smorgasbord.

Music of the Days Gone By

(Pictured: Willie Nelson in the Stardust days, 1979.)

“September Song” has an interesting history. With music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, it first appeared a musical called Knickerbocker Holiday, which premiered on Broadway in 1938. The musical, a political allegory set in 17th century New Amsterdam and comparing the New Deal to fascism, ran for about five months, closing early in 1939. “September Song” was sung in the original production by Walter Huston (father of director John and grandfather of actress Anjelica). In 1946, Frank Sinatra scored a more substantial hit with it. In 1950, the song was featured in a movie called September Affair; it seems a better fit for a sentimental love story than for political commentary. After that, Stan Kenton, Liberace, Dean Martin, and Sarah Vaughan cut popular versions of it. It’s been recorded by lots of jazz players, but also by country singers Eddy Arnold and Faron Young, James Brown, Lindsey Buckingham, Fats Domino, Bryan Ferry, Jeff Lynne, and the Platters. Lou Reed cut a highly unique version, one of the better ones you’ll ever hear, for a Kurt Weill tribute album in 1985.

But Willie Nelson’s version of “September Song” is unmatched. He changed Huston’s reading of the lyric, making it more sentimental, but also more timeless. Producer Booker T. Jones outdid himself, contributing a gorgeous arrangement and providing sensitive and brilliant keyboards. Part of the appeal of Huston’s recording is the age in his voice, although he was only 55 when he recorded it. It accentuates the difference between May and December. But when 45-year-old Willie sings about how “the days dwindle down to a precious few,” it feels powerfully urgent, urgency that can’t be fully grasped by the younger girl he’s singing to.

Willie’s “September Song” is from Stardust, a 1978 album of pop standards that, at the height of the outlaw country movement, twanged barely a whit. The album’s signature sound was not so much Willie’s distinctive guitar—although it was there—but the distinctive keyboard textures of Booker T. It was one of the first instances of a contemporary star dipping into the Great American Songbook, a career move that every aging star makes nowadays. Stardust is filled with songs made famous on Broadway, in the movies, and to a lesser extent on radio, songs that were interpreted and re-interpreted over the years by dozens, if not hundreds, of performers. They encompass a shared experience of mid-century American popular music that no longer exists in our fragmented culture.

“Stardust” itself is on many short lists of the greatest American popular songs. Willie’s version is fine, but my favorite is the one recorded by Nat King Cole in 1957. It opens with a verse not included on many versions:

And now the purple dusk of twilight time
Steals across the meadows of my heart
High up in the sky the little stars climb
Always reminding me that we’re apart

You wander down the lane and far away
Leaving me a song that will not die
Love is now the stardust of yesterday
The music of the days gone by

If you can’t appreciate the emotional power of Mitchell Parish’s words, you and I probably shouldn’t have lunch together anytime soon. And if you can’t dig Cole’s performance (and the beautiful melody written by Hoagy Carmichael), you might want to think about giving up music altogether. Under the proper circumstances—the coming of autumn, for example—Nat’s reading of “Stardust” has staggering mojo.

(Rebooted from a couple of 2009 posts.)

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