Monday, November 9, 2020

E-Dorm Life- This is WRPI Troy Signing Off the Air

Spring of 1992, Jesse and my final semester on air together was much freer flowing.

We continued writing sketches and fake ads, plus we always had crazy button and sound effects gags.

Because we had done so many bits previously, we could pull the characters back for scripted or unscripted returns.  Dictionary Dan and poor Harold made a few explanatory appearances.  We also used our super nerdy voiced, “Melvin and Marvin”  (Melvin appearing originally on Jesse's "Hooked on Physics" and "Calculator Fun" sketches)  to read any information on upcoming gaming or science fiction gatherings. ("Go West!")

As the station stayed on block formatting, we also interacted more with other DJs.  We were back to shutting the station down at night, since the scheduled show after ours usually didn’t exist.  We did maintain a connection with Death and Danger, who moved to Thursday afternoon.  In addition, Erika was usually in the studio during our set, planning for her morning show the next day.

We would occasionally joke that she’d be staying on all night and try to get a reaction through the soundproof glass into the “new stuff” library.  The best response was when we once more brought it up and asked her to give us the OK signal.  There was a brief pause followed by the two of us shouting, “Whoah!”  Which I followed up with, “That’s not the OK signal,” and Jesse continued, “No…the OK signal has a lot more fingers than that.”

Normally we did do at least one all request show per semester, where we would drive over both of our libraries to add to the station's considerable collection.  We’d also start with something long enough, like a stand up album side, to allow the requests to pile up to a sustainable point. The requests were frequently supplemented with,
 “Someone always wanted to hear this song…I think it was me.”

We joked about an all-night show often enough that we started talking seriously about it, and it led to one of the most fun evenings I’ve ever had in my life.  On April Fool's day, appropriately,  we not only brought in the libraries, but food supplies, a coffee maker and whatever else we could think of.  We had done a combined all request night with Death and Danger in the fall, and Danger came down to help for a good chunk of time.  Death might have been there later on, I don't recall and the tape ran out after ninety minutes.  Death was, interestingly, the most likely of our group to skip out of radio time due to studying or homework needs.  Erika got her show ready and then reclined on a couch in the new library for a large part of the night, sort of holding court and making suggestions for the playlist if the phones died down.  Brian, coming down after he flipped the tape that preserved the beginning of it for posterity, was part of our merry band as well.  Considering he drove us to his house one weekend after three consecutive all-night study sessions (something he thankfully didn’t tell us until we reached Vermont) he was probably best suited for this adventure.

Aside- Recording the show was not only important for posterity. While I was in college, my sister was in high school and attending track meets all over the state.  In those pre-GPS days with both my parents paranoid about getting lost, listening to our radio shows on those trips may have saved their marriage.  The explains the large percentage of Robert Klein. I felt his normally calm tone and familiar accent from the Bronx would help.

The amazing part of the request show was the phones kept ringing most of the night.  This is not amazing because people were awake, since all-night work at a technical school is the natural state of being for many students. However, the station usually went off the air after us, which meant we had enough people who followed along from the start to sustain the show.

We did know we had regularly listeners, like Chuck from SUNY A, who would ask for Rusty Warren's "Bounce Your Boobies" every week.  Sadly we could never find it in the station.  This was likely because we left it in our room. Sorry, Chuck. 

Jesse and I were alone when the Nine AM DJ came in the next morning, as everyone else either had earlier classes, or more sanity.  We excitedly proclaimed, “We did it!” and planned to get out of the station, “Like a Bat out of Hell!”   What we failed to realize was that very appropriate song was ten minutes long. Since we used Jesse’s album for it, our rapid departure was significantly slower than we hoped.

Sure, when I tried to do some work later, all the technical diagrams in my textbook started to animate on their own…

Overall- Still totally worth it.

The other “never did it before” I owe to Jesse that helped define my personality came from a book of Marx Brothers' radio scripts both of us had.  Due to Chico’s gambling debts, he pulled Groucho into many radio shows and other performances between and after the films.  “Flywheel Shyster and Flywheel” was a lawyer based series that was never recorded. However, the scripts were available and published.  The first episodes were titled “Beagle Shyster and Beagle” but a lawyer named Beagle complained.  No one named Shyster ever spoke up. 

It had to be Jesse’s idea to begin with, given his background of juggling shows and high school drama, and more importantly not being terrified by the idea of performing like I was. He suggested we put a couple of them on during Laughter Hours.  Doing a weekly radio show does wonders for the confidence, and I got excited about it as well.

We went through the list and picked possibilities that had limited cast, and locations we had the sound effects to cover.  We found one that was entirely in the law office and contained routines we both knew from the films. 

As soon as we started down this path, we both obviously knew who should be Groucho…

The other one.

Jesse’s obviousness shone through a little clearer, I took the Chico part, and we started practicing. There were a couple of large issues-
Such as the exchanges we NEVER got through in practice without collapsing into hysterics.  
(“How much do you get for rehoising?…” etc. being the worst offender) 

We decided fairly late we were going to do the performance that evening, and Erika, who initially agreed to take the female role, didn’t come in to the station to get her show ready that night.

Emily from juggling club agreed to fill in at the last minute, tripling our studio audience by being escorted by two guys from her freshman dorm. Previously, Randy was there as our audience of one. That worked out well, since he and Danger took lead on the “philosophy and changing roles of Sesame Street” discussion we had before the play began.  Danger was there to be the client, the other part in the play, and Brian took over sound effects so we could focus on the script.

It was a ridiculous amount of fun. Jesse’s ad-libs covered a couple of fluffs. (See? Told you he should be Groucho.)  During one of the musical breaks between acts we already knew we were doing a second show the next week.

The next one was a little more ambitious, borrowing sections from the stolen painting plot of Animal Crackers. It had more locations and characters.  Emily came back as the secretary for one line at the beginning and then took the Margaret Dumont role. We’re still not quite sure what accent she was using, but it worked.  Jesse and I were the brothers again.  Danger was going to play the butler and we had offered pulling in someone else for a short bit with a reporter.  However, he got almost disturbingly excited about playing both parts, especially since there was a scene of a conversation between the two of them.  He nailed it.

Note for non-fossils.  He really nailed it, as in he did it well, not the ironic, "I made a disaster and didn't notice and/ or care" version of "nailed it" in use today.  Aging is a pain sometimes.

We got through more ridiculous dialogue than the first time, and swapped out the year appropriate music we’d used the week before for slightly off, but funnier and shorter Spike Jones pieces to keep it moving.

It was an outstanding feeling finishing it up, and the cheers of our little band felt just as good as a full audience.

Jesse was a little disturbed by the endings.  This came from the Marx’s tradition of singing “Good Night Ladies” at the close of each show after a pathetic, lame pun filled bit of shilling for Esso gasoline. (Which was also not an ad, since they switched to using Exxon in the U.S. in 1972, if anyone asks.)   He compared my switching abruptly from my upward pitched, faux Italian; high-speed Ravelli voice to singing (abysmally) in my normal register to instantaneously swapping between standing next to a small trumpet and a bassoon. 

We finished out the season with many more guest stars, bad segues and unscripted comedy team interactions that I would have never been able to pull off before working with Jesse over those semesters. 

There was one truly surreal moment near the end.  The younger guys listed for the show after us actually showed up!  That was surreal enough, but then they started telling us over and over again how they were going to play Metallica as if they expected us to be upset.  We said, “um…ok whatever,” and went back to the dorm.  While we were filing our records, Jesse sussed it.  He asked if I knew what happened, and then explained when I didn’t.
“Remember when we first started and there was Frieder and Dean and the guys playing music we’d never heard of before,  avoiding anything mainstream, and showing us they were weirder than we could hope to be?   Now WE’RE the weird WRPI guys!”

Jesse went off to Carnegie Mellon for graduate school and I stayed at RPI for further study.  Instilled with what I learned from him over the past five semesters, I also stayed on “Laughter Hours” on WRPI, Troy.  There was some consideration to a “Laughter Danger” show, since Death had been claimed by devotion to school work. While we worked well together, Danger was focusing more on his own music than playing other people's tracks and I stayed by myself.

I had totally blocked out what happened on my first show the next year until hearing myself thank my RA on the recording a short time ago. I went to do my first solo show in over a year, still unsure if it was a good idea. It being “fill in week” before the final schedule was set up, the station was locked since there was no one on the air before midnight.  Ken (the Resident Associate who enjoyed my swearing) also did a show, and when I got back to the dorm he heard me complaining and let me know he had a key.  I have had many radio show dreams where I couldn’t get into the station, but had forgotten the actual event for over twenty years.  Weird…yeah that’s what I’d call it…weird.

At the opening of the next two semesters of Laughter Hours shows, I always felt like there was a gap in the, “Its Wednesday, its midnight, this is Jeff…” introductions. Oddly the ones that sounded the smoothest were the times I screwed up and said, "It's Monday," since that was when I did the shows during Jesse's co-op.   I did however learn from the best and did quality performances.  There were not as many full sketches anymore without anyone to play off, but I certainly wasn’t going to let over five hundred sound effects on CD go to waste.  The button jokes, fake ads, list comedy and further destroying of any natural accent I had progressed over the next two semesters. 

Also, There were three things I brought to Laughter Hours that had never been played before.

One was finally tracking down the soundtrack to Cabaret to play "Money Makes the World Go Around" which Jesse and I would hunt for at least once a semester. It featured on the Broadway tribute, which was heavily supplied by Linda, and featured a fake ad with gags that only folks who caught the recent SUNY Albany drama production would get.

Another "first timer" came from sitting next to the television over Thanksgiving with my little boom box, recording songs from the famous Christmas specials ("Mr. Grinch," "We're a Couple of Misfits," "Put One Foot in Front of the Other," and the Miser Brothers' songs) to play on the final Laughter Hours Christmas show.

I kept getting phone calls for requests, including psychic requests from Denise over at the College of Saint Rose.  Inevitably, whenever she would call and ask for a song, it was already cued up. 

Honestly, that probably came from my obsession with making themed three song groups, and getting better and having tighter themes.  Jesse and my senses of humor are similar, but we programmed the show a little differently.  He was more likely to choose full album sides of stand up, longer Firesign Theater bits or classic era radio shows.  Growing up on Laugh In I tended to like a rapid change ups, with clumps of short but similar themed bits and songs. 

It worked both ways. The faster pace helped me keep my energy up while alone, and the longer selections gave us time to put more preparation into sketches and other interactions.

Brian had graduated, and Ben took over recording the show and stopping by in the later half. Sometimes Phil, my former partner in ergonomic juggling design would do the taping.  He stopped by fairly often to learn the technical side as well.  Other times, Carl would fill in recording, as well as supplying an odd mix of Alice Cooper and Ray Stevens.  That started on one of our marathon X-Wing sessions on his computer (which led to multiple mouse burns on our hands before he got a joystick).  I was complaining I only had two necrophilia songs (alas) and he pulled out "Cold Ethyl." He introduced me to most of what I knew about Alice at the time and started my path to full blown fandom.  He also introduced me to a bunch of information and history of NASCAR. I still find the races themselves dull as dirt of the extra dull variety, but it greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the Cars franchise Since he additionally introduced me to someone that led to a large number of goldfish in the closet moments, we'll call it even.

My sister had started college at that point and would call in occasionally for the “Trenton State Update.”  That always consisted of her wishing a happy whatever holiday it was but it was cool having her share the airtime, especially with my folks still listening to the tapes when they went to her college track meets.  It took until Episode 12 to get it right and not have to hold the phone up to the microphone since they rewired the patch bay over the summer.  Ben was instrumental in making "test calls" to get that to work, preventing me from continuing multiple instances of saying, "Hello caller?  This should work," every Wednesday night.  

Figuring out the rewired phones, I also learned how to patch a turntable into the tape recorder in "Studio B." This led to the other "First Time" thing for Laugher Hours. Jesse and I constantly referenced the Eric Idle and Neil Innes "Rutland Weekend Songbook" album the station had but never listened to it or played any on the air.  After averting a disastrous surprise believing anything by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore must be good and hearing the bits from a "Derek and Clive" album right before almost playing them, we were against trying out stuff on the air without screening.  With the new technology, I made a tape in the other studio during my show so I could sample it. This time it was as good as we expected and I played most of it my final year.

Scott had graduated a year before us but got a job that returned him to the Capital District.  He guested on and off, bringing songs and random jokes, through the year, and was there for the final show of my radio career. Having Jesse call in to the show occasionally from Pittsburgh, and make me laugh again beyond the point of speaking, meant a great deal.

Much like the second semester with the two of us, in the springtime final season of Laughter Hours I'd gotten it together enough to trust myself on air more. I went from fully scripted fake ads and list jokes, to the sound effect CD track numbers and general notes to myself.

Since juggling club was on Wednesdays and I only had classes Tuesday and Thursday, I tried to switch the show to Tuesday night.  It didn't happen, and after two fill in weeks the third episode (the infamous "Doity Show" highlighting a debate about pornography going on in the Polytechnic for my entire stay at RPI) was back. I introduced it with, "Like an elephant seeking its place of death, Laughter Hours has returned to  Wednesdays at Midnight here on WRPI Troy and it will be here until its extinction later in this semester."  This line got the biggest laugh I remember from Scott from anything on shows he wasn't attending in person.  Wednesday felt right anyway, and it helped drum up "guest appearances" from my fellow jugglers.  In fact, several of the underclassmen went on to their own shows.

I guess I did well making it my own. My parent’s marriage survived driving to all of my sister’s collegiate interstate track meets, and my daughter insists on listening to my Christmas show every December.  Mom still keeps several shows in her car all the time.  They are the one's focused on Bad Movies, Death, Religion and Pornography*...which is probably more than anyone needs to know about my family.

*  In "The Doity Show," I finally played the Rusty Warren song, with the appropriate intro,


longbow said...

I remember chuck from Suny A. His regular call was comforting and a little scary. The kind of guy you'd only want to know through the radio

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx for joining in. That pretty much described all our fans.