Monday, October 26, 2020

E-Dorm Life- Insane Songs for an Insane World

It has been commonly stated that college years define you. What really defined the most of the “me” of me during that time, far more than ANY of the classes or other activities was seven semesters of “Laughter Hours on WRPI, Troy.”

Jesse and I had known each other and been friends since first grade.  This has continued and his gifting of the digital copies of the show for my fiftieth birthday earlier this year unleashed much of the material needed to write these musings from the storage banks of my bucket like head.  Trying to write a "short" introduction led to the flooding back of great memories that fueled all the other E-Dorm posts, and made this detail oriented thank you late for his fiftieth.  Then again, they only published the book I promised him for his thirtieth two years ago, putting me relatively ahead of the curve.

Both of our families had introduced us to a great deal various comedy and novelty recordings from very early on, and there was a great deal of sharing along the way.

The first “45”s I took out of my Mom’s collection were “Alley Oop, “”Mr. Custer,” “My Ding-a-ling,” and “The Battle of New Orleans.”  The first album I bought with my own money was Steve Martin’s Let’s Get Small for a dollar out of the "cut out bin."  

Jesse had access to a bunch of old time radio show recordings, and introduced me to them, and others like Tom Lehrer (singing "Irish Ballad" while we walked through the woods between our homes.  At first I thought he made it up.)  We both followed a lot of stand up, and would have marathon Intellivision gaming sessions in middle school while listening to Weird Al.  After Dad took us to see The Meaning of Life, we immediately came home and typed the lyrics of "The Galaxy Song" into our original IBM PC, so we wouldn't forget them.  Mom thought we wrote it until the HBO airing of that film.    In high school, Jesse lived in Massachusetts where he could get the Doctor Demento show, and our vacation meetings would involve a great deal of sharing recorded and purchased funny stuff.

Buying comedy became an obsession.  Though most weird stuff was "cut out bin" discounts, it wasn't always.  In high school I got in trouble once for buying four albums at full price (a whopping $9.99 each) on one trip to the Rockaway Mall, and was banned from buying records for over six months.  Given that two of them were Henny Youngman and Dickie Goodman, I think I got off easy.

By the time we reached RPI we had each amassed large comedy libraries, and often talked about using our collections and knowledge on the air.  

Let’s face it, we also talked about things like bringing a pinball machine into our dorm room, therefore I initially didn’t expect much to come of this. In fact, at the earliest stages, we talked about wiring up a pirate radio station in the freshman dorm through the heating units to accomplish the task. (Thank you to Brian for reminding me of that fantastic one.)   One of the key reasons for my doubt about us getting real air time was- unless you had a long established show- WRPI required DJs to play “Format.”  "Format" consisted of a mix of punk, alternative, jazz, classical, and a bunch of other styles mixed into every hour of the show.  There’s no way two untried students would be allowed a block of consistent material.

Enter Atul - a mostly brilliant, but easily worried neighbor of ours freshman year.  He’s the guy who had never seen a syllabus before, and believed it was the first week’s homework instead of the whole semester.  Once he came back from the library after no one saw him for seven days, we became friends. He had time for us as he never had calculus homework to do.

He finished the pre-med program in three years (or less, I think), and introduced the phrase, ”Oh my head,” into our vocabulary.

Atul was also a reporter for the school paper, the Polytechnic. For reasons likely to do with the fact that the “Poly” would constantly point out that “Format” led to low listener numbers -insuring no one would hear two songs in a row that they liked- there was a huge feud between the newspaper and the radio station.

This came to a head in a cross group meeting where the Poly staff kept pointing out no one wanted to listen to Format, and the WRPI gang focused on them not understanding how difficult it was to do a show.

The end of the first semester of sophomore year Atul burst into our bowling alley  room in full, “Oh my head” mode.  The output of that battling meeting was WRPI saying, “If you think it’s so easy, then we’ll give one of your reporters a radio show and then they’ll see how hard it is.”

The show was given to Atul and he came to us in a total panic about what to do.

Do you know that “terrible awful idea” grin the Grinch got?
Jesse and I looked even more deviously pleased than that.

Having been granted the show sideways, we weren’t bound by Format, and spring semester we both brought our entire record and tape libraries into the E-Dorms.  Back in the “Cave man times” as my daughter calls them, I owned exactly two CDs (Little Richard- a gift from Mom, and KISS's The Elder- only available in that format).  Jesse had a few more and, more importantly, had a player in his stereo.  

This listing is not from that first semester. It was thirty years ago, be happy there are photos at all.

Starting on an unassuming Tuesday afternoon at Five, the first episode of "Laughter Hours," broadcast. (I feel Jesse had this name in waiting for years in case he ever had a show.) 

Jesse, Atul and I read extremely stiltedly from fully typed out scripts.  In later years we talked about the first (of many to come) screw-ups was where we played the “Jetsons Theme” B side instead of the “TV Tunes Master Mix” as the first song.  In actuality, we started with Jesse introducing “Insane Songs for an Insane World,” and led with “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Haaaaaaa!” across a 75 mile radius, over into Connecticut and Vermont, and down to New York City if the air was right.

Many college stations are hard wired, or low power...or both.  However, WRPIs range came because a local television station built a full sized a valley.  They realized the silliness of this in short order, built another one on a mountain, and donated the first one to the college.

Revisiting that first season, it is borderline amazing how many of the show's traditions started almost immediately.

The first intentional spoken segue was on that initial episode, to Black Flag’s “TV Party.”  We stated two years later that we never found a theme song for Laughter Hours, but we did play that song at least four times in the first two semesters.

The first intentionally bad segue, with us commenting how bad it was-
"You know what vegetables always make me think of?...America!"
Followed quickly in episode three.

In addition, the first reference to the station having way more confusing buttons and knobs than it really did (which became hugely important a year later) occurred in Episode Eight.

Any time we played a Stan Freberg song or sketch, one of us would mention a bit of trivia about him, prompting the other to reply with one of his own, and the one upsmanship would continue. This was never scripted or planned, it just happened.  Considering we'd immediately say, "Come on, what?" and break into a duet of "A Man Cant Be Too Careful What He Signs These Days," any time either of us would say, "Come on..." from years before we had a show, it was probably our lifelong fandom at work.

The first snow of the semester was always greeted by Frank Zappa's suite of "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," "Nanook Rubs It," and "Saint Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast" from his 1974 album Apostrophe.  That album, paired with Overnight Sensation was one of Jesse's first CDs, and my introduction to Mr. Zappa. 

In what would become a tradition only for that year, Jesse and I came back to our room after the show, ate our boxed sandwich dinners from the dining hall, reviewed how it went, and where to go with it next.  This is where I learned a soggy sandwich can be enhanced by throwing a few potato chips in it.  See, college can teach life skills.

Atul's participation would most decidedly not be part of the tradition. His ability to deal with our combined lunacy evaporated after only two episodes and we were on our own.  That is, not counting Dean the Vampire from the E-Dorms who graciously agreed to be our engineer that first semester.

Jesse got his station engineer certification first allowing us to run on our own the beginning of Junior year  This was important as we shifted to a midnight show, where Laughter Hours would remain for the rest of its run. Due to some strange FCC ruling, because we were a non-commercial station language restrictions vanished for WRPI after Ten PM. This made selecting comedy a lot easier.  We personally however, were still bound by the profanity rules.  That is, if it was prerecorded it counted as art.  One of our late night conversations (equally likely to be a feature of Toothbrush Talk, or a "You guys...are idiots" moment) that remained untested was: if we recorded ourselves swearing and then played it, would that be acceptable?

Our new air time was after the program director, Frieder, the WRPIest of the WRPI guys. His show was called “Scuba Flies Fry on a Neon Duck.” It always led into our show with something eclectic or flat out strange.  The title I’ll never forget was the one that preceded our Christmas extravaganza- Natraj, “The Goat Also Gallops.”  Although it is possible I have the song and artist reversed.  

In general, due to the "Format" issue  (and the "our not following Format" issue), most of the time we sort of pretended the rest of the station didn’t exist and they did the same with us, to the mutual benefit of both parties.

With a semester under our belts, and play list development easier, we had moved off of being fully scripted.  This was fine for Jesse who had years of juggling, puppet and high school drama performances under his belt. I, on the other hand, still froze up completely when presenting information I had studied and written about in front of a class. 

Aside- It wasn’t the radio show that cured me of that issue. It was realizing, in full panic mode before an oral report, that the previous weekend I juggled fire for seventy kids who spoke no English.  After that, I let “Jeff the Juggler” take the wheel for any in class (and now in business) engineering or other presentations.

On air, I became an extremely lame version of Ed McMahon, Mostly laughing at Jesse’s stuff and saying little more than, “That’s right,” throughout the early shows.  I did use that time the first two seasons to get familiar with all the technical aspects of the broadcast booth: learning the switch and knob combinations, making certain the items were cued up properly, writing them in the log, and keeping the behind the scenes part of the show chugging along. 

This was important because the second semester of junior year Jesse went off on a co-op assignment.  I had enough fun that I wanted to continue the show solo until he came back.  What I did not have enough of was experience. 

I was cleared as a station engineer.  This provided me with a very pride inducing, if circuitous, piece of paper proclaiming I could operate any station that this piece of paper allowed one to operate.

I wasn’t totally lost on the air, but once again, a lack of confidence was the issue. I’d invite friends to come down to the show to help fill performance space.  Brian, Randy and Scott (who introduced Jesse and I, and the Laughter Hours audience to "The Bobs") would always have my back, but some of the younger E-Dorm residents would get a little rambunctious on air.  It wasn’t as bad as it sounded, but the show ended up more “morning zoo” like than I was shooting for.  By the end of the semester, I hadn’t quite made it my own, but I did gain the ability to run the show the way I wanted to, and reduced the invitations to folks that would help the atmosphere the way I was steering it.

My technical skills still weren’t perfect, and I got a call one night telling me to turn the station back on once after forgetting to do a legal ID before signing off.  Still I had improved immensely in my on air persona, my confidence, my control, and my choosing who to bring into the booth. 

I also didn’t only get in trouble when I was alone.  We got a call from station officers after one of our radio plays the next year, because of making too many jokes about the notice stating the FCC was in town.  It’s remarkable that we never got in trouble for endorsements, since any store, food or drink establishment, record or event we liked we would plug endlessly on our commercial free show.  I guess since we were never paid for any of them, it didn’t count. Either that or it was Jesse frequently yelling into the microphone, “AND THIS IS NOT AN AD!” that saved us.

Ben was one of the newer E-Dorm guys becoming a semi regular, often bringing a copy of the Village Voice to point out entertaining personal ads, and supplying the occasional weird song or weird guest, like his roommate Lucas who would bring material sometimes too.  Oddly, the first full original sketch on “Laughter Hours” wasn’t penned by Jesse or I, but Linda, who Ben also brought in that semester.  She provided a Pythonesque routine she and Ben read through about bureaucracy declaring a man dead.  She also became my go to source for funny Broadway tunes. 


longbow said...

I'd completely forgotten about Natraj, “The Goat Also Gallops.”
You guys were like "Did you hear it? did you listen to our show?"
I was "When is it?"
"It's on at 5pm"
"Oh..... I usually listen to All Things Considered while I make dinner"
oh , the stares. Jesse thereafter referred to it as "All Things Regurgitated"

BTW, neither of these embedded links work.

Jeff McGinley said...

And unless you came to the midnight show, you were asleep. But we appreciated the effort when you showed up.

Weird name, very catch though.

The index link works for me. The other link will go live when next week's post goes up. Thanx for reading.

longbow said...

I came half to hang with you guys and half for the Bawdy Ballads album cover

Jeff McGinley said...

Ah, a true classic. I don't think we played any of them, but the "Stag Party" album of drunken Irish rugby players more than made up for it.