Friday, May 16, 2008

Clowntime Is Over

Comedy geeks like yours truly experienced a nice rush this week with the release of SNL's third season DVD box set. While not as mesmerizing to me as the show's second season, there's still a lot of great material and performances to enjoy and appreciate here. And like SNL's second year, the third season brings back many memories, not all happy, but formative to the kind of writer I eventually became, and who dances for your amusement.

In the summer of 1977, just before the third season premiered, I hooked up with my first comedy partner of sorts, a tall kid named Steve. We met in my last weeks of high school, each of us isolated and scorned for being weird, nerdy, and related teen crimes. Turned out that Steve was a Monty Python fan, so we'd sit in his bedroom and listen to Python records until we memorized each bit, then we'd perform them for each other. It was around this time that I bought my first National Lampoon album, "The Missing White House Tapes," which savaged Nixon, Ford, the Senate, and the media, and featured the pre-SNL Chevy Chase and John Belushi. Steve and I wore that record out, though many of the political references and jokes sailed over our young heads. No matter. It was cutting-edge comedy at a time when Carol Burnett was still considered the acme of the sketch form, and we absorbed as much of it as we could.

But a rift eventually emerged, when another local kid, Randy Clayton, told me that a teen sketch comedy show, "Beyond Our Control," was holding auditions for the upcoming season. "BOC" aired on WNDU in South Bend, Indiana, early Saturday nights, and was a regional comedy staple. Randy was in the previous season's cast, which made him instantly cool in our high school drama department, an elevated status that Randy did not reject. What 18-year-old kid would? Randy's on the far left, playing a host of a talk show which, if memory serves, dissected clips from "Gilligan's Island" for hidden meanings and dark symbolism.

I had performed some original comedy bits in drama class, and read some Weekend Update-ish news reports on the school radio station (one of which, where I stated that First Daughter Amy Carter had been raped by the family dog was expecting a White House litter, got me suspended from the air), and Randy thought I'd be perfect for "BOC." When I told this to Steve, he naturally wanted to audition as well, and so we worked on material in preparation for the big day.

I loved "BOC." I still remember two of my favorite bits, both commercial parodies. The first advertised The O'Possum Plant, which grew in your front yard, blossomed, then ran out into the road, freezing in a car's headlights before being run over. The second was a take on a then-ubiquitous PSA about respecting one's family heritage. A man comes home from work to discover that his mother is telling his children about the old country, which mortifies him as he's assimilated into the WASP community and doesn't want anyone to know his ethnicity. But his wife calms him down, and he begins to see the positive side to being proud of his past. "BOC" played this exactly the same way, until the shot of the man's mother, which reveals her to be a giant ant, emitting insect squeaks as the human children smile and nod along. That still makes me laugh, and I stole that image for my first book, "Love Gravy," which mercifully went unpublished.

The "BOC" auditions took place on a Saturday afternoon in large rehearsal hall in South Bend. It was a mob scene, with strange accents and funny voices coming from various corners and small rooms. Steve and I were steered in different directions, so I never saw him audition. I was taken to a room and sat in front of a long table where several "BOC" regulars quizzed me about my comic tastes. For some reason, they were playing "The Album Of The Soundtrack Of The Trailer Of The Film Of Monty Python And The Holy Grail," so I confessed my love for the Pythons, as well as for SNL and the Lampoon. They gave me a script to read. I can't remember what it was, but I belted it out, perhaps a bit too much, yet they laughed, which was all that mattered. They then asked if I had any original material, which I did -- a few of the fake news bits from the school radio show (sans the Amy Carter joke), and a commercial parody for ON, a new bug spray.

Two men are sitting in a boat, fishing.

1ST MAN: This is terrible. I haven't had a bite all day.

2ND MAN: I know. This lake must be fished out.

1ST MAN: No -- I mean, I haven't had a mosquito bite all day. This bug repellent is too effective. What's fishing without the bug bites?!

Then a pitchman in a suit wades out to the boat and sprays the men with a can of ON, which attracts mosquitoes while facilitating a tan. In the next shot, the men are covered by clouds of mosquitoes, welts on their faces, as the first man yells over the buzzing din, "Now this is more like it!"

Hey, I was 17. But then, so were most of the "BOC" gang, and they loved the bit. One of them took several pictures of me, then dismissed me, saying that they would soon be in touch.

I was walking on air. Problem was, I discovered that in order to be on "BOC," you had to still be in high school, a requirement of Junior Achievement which sponsored the show. Having just graduated, I was of course ineligible, but I wasn't about to tell them that, especially when I learned that I was hired as a writer and cast member for the upcoming season. I wanted that gig so badly that lying about my school status was a no-brainer, in every sense of the word. I thought I'd gotten away with it, too, when I received a letter inviting me to the first staff dinner to discuss ideas for the show. But the day of the dinner, I got the inevitable phone call from a very pissed off man who lectured me about deceit. And that was that. No "BOC" for me.

As for my friend Steve, who had another year of school and was eligible, his audition didn't go very well; and when he heard that I'd gotten hired, he was glum and bitchy, and our friendship wasn't the same. Even after I was dumped, Steve held "BOC" against me, and before long, we ceased being pals. I never saw him again.

We did watch the first five or six shows of SNL's third season together before our split, and viewing those installments now takes me back to his small living room in North Webster, Indiana, his incredibly conservative father sneering at our geekiness. I don't know what happened to Steve, or even if he's still alive, but I retain a fondness for our friendship, the first time I met someone who was as crazy about comedy as was I. It was nice to be weird with another weirdo, especially at such an insecure stage.

With all this talk about comedy geeks, I cannot let you face the weekend without some visual delights. Here's the first five minutes of "Mr. Mike's Mondo Video," an uneven effort, but as pure as O'Donoghue would ever get creatively. NBC, which commissioned "Mondo," rejected it upon delivery, and it was transferred to film and released in theaters, where it tanked. One of the things that appalled the network was the cat swimming segment, featuring "Mondo" writer Dirk Wittenborn as the coach. Definitely not PETA-friendly. Neither, I'm sure, is the image of Michael holding a gun in a room full of rabbits, but it pleases me, as do the two masked figures walking toward the camera in the opening credits. There's not enough comedy with masks these days.