Monday, November 2, 2020

E-Dorm Life- You Never Know What You’re Going to Hear Next

With my abilities improved and Jesse having a half a year off to analyze things, senior year was unquestionably the peak of our on air comedy partnership.

One reason was that the station itself was moving more toward block programming and therefore we began to formally become "WRPI Guys."  We attended the staff meetings and performed the required “station service” that members had to do. Jesse hit upon the idea of alphabetizing the albums in the new acquisition room.  He augmented this by making signs using old woodcarvings of people being tortured, festooned with slogans like, “Alphabetize or Die.”   I followed suit in other areas, adding comic book inspired signs. Between the two of us, we got all the albums in the station’s vast library in order.

Luckily, nearly everyone ignored our signs, giving me "station service" projects for the rest of my tenure.

I moved past my “lame sidekick” performance by this point.  At the start, it had evolved to me sounding more like the Doctor's companion, but well before we reached our final semester on air together, it was closer to my being Arthur Dent to Jesse'e Ford Prefect. (This is the level our friendship normally functions at.)  That meant he clearly sounded like (and did) have way more experience in the situation, but if he mentally collapsed, like after he was awake for forty hours straight during finals week, I could drive the performance.

Throughout our midnight shows, there were multiple times where someone would be listed as following us at 1:30 in the morning.  Almost constantly, the listed folks would have a burst of sanity and not show up.  The exception our first semester back together was “Death and Danger.”  Two guys a year behind us who did their show almost every week.  We became friends, guested on each other’s programs and generally helped out on crazy ideas the other pair would have.

There was one “theoretical near altercation” due to a notification from station management.  Death and Danger got in trouble and almost lost their show completely, but were instead suspended a week.  We were told we might have to prevent them from entering the station. Normal people might have come up with ideas how the heck to do this.
When I said, "I think we can take them," Jesse said, "Trying hadn't occurred to me," and then we both laughed for a while.

Instead,  Jesse and I immediately started brainstorming sketches about a fake sound effects laden brawl to keep them out.  When we heard what happened, we originally sided with the station, then clarity and sanity prevailed.  It turned out they said a forbidden word about causing self pleasure to get in trouble, and did not engage in the stated act on the air.  We were quickly on their side again.

In addition to his on air personality, Danger was the lead singer of “First to Be Last.”  They were the band that was completely and totally robbed in the GM Week Battle of the Bands. As anyone who was in the Quad that day can attest, they were clearly the crowd favorites.  The powers that be knew it too, since it was they (and not the winner) who were invited back to perform in a non-battle manner at another official Quad gathering. 

For many semesters, the show before us was “Latin Lands.” We didn’t bond as strongly with those guys, but were amicable. We were also highly appreciative of the cultural lessons we obtained. Every week they would end with a completely different sounding and tempoed version of “Brazil" in varied musical styles.  Who knew?

Brian taped the shows for us, and would come down to the station after flipping the cassette over. (Google it youngsters.)  Then he’d sit in the back of the booth and make quiet, yet witty and insightful comments, frequently pointing out some variation of, “You guys…are idiots.” 

He’d occasionally drop into an impressive Paul Shaffer impression.  More often, he’d drop into a hysterically accurate Spike Jones impression. As this was silent and visual only, it served to make Jesse and I crack up and miss our cues.  His patented Fred Sanford walk, complete with a full rendition of the theme tune, to reference the whirlwind of clutter that accompanied us to the broadcast booth each week was equally helpful.

Randy would also join from time to time as our resident Sesame Street expert.  Scott graduated a year early, but would make a triumphant return the next year.

The greatest increase in show quality came from Jesse having a semester off to listen to the tapes and think about what worked. One aspect of his time away was him writing a bunch of sketches for us to try out.  I helped pick through and refine some when he returned.  By about half way through the fall semester I was writing my own as well.  What was far more fun was when we put the show together and collaborated on the comedy.  We probably laughed more in the preparations than most of our listeners did during even our best shows, which- he said with pride- was a significant amount.

The biggest realization he had was:
Normally when we messed up, we sounded clueless.  
However, when we blamed our screw-ups on the fault of imaginary complexities of the station, we seemed much more competent.

Therefore starting with the first show of his return, we began discussing how there were variably sized, shaped and and lit buttons, levers, switches and knobs all over the floors, walls and ceiling of the station.  We also both purchased piles of Sound Effect CDs to aid in our illusions.

In short, we became the personification of an often used, on-air mantra of Jesse's, 
"This is college radio, where anything can happen!"

Let it be known that the station was not all that complex.  Not counting the patch bay and giant receivers we didn't have to do anything with most of the time, there was one row of knobs with associated switches, manual controls for the playing equipment...and that's it. This was ages before digitized radio stations, because (again, as my daughter will gladly tell you) I am a fossil.  

On the main panel, the first two knobs were for the “carts.” They were kind of like Eight-Track-Tapes, for another fossily reference,  but with only one track. The station had a collection of them featuring public service announcements, station identifications and ads for other shows.  Since one could be thrown in and easily activated, they were great covers for problems.  

Frequently, one of us would break into dead air gaps announcing, 
“I think it’s time for an important message.” 
The other would inquire, 
“Oh, what kind of important message?”  
Between the sounds of various switches clicking and records spinning the answer would often be, 
“A very LONG important message.”

Aside- One cart was only four seconds long. It was not usable for gap filling but we probably played it the most.  A deep and powerful voice simply stated, "WRPI, TROY!"  We'd goof around, inserting it randomly into the show constantly.  It would frequently be interrupting a conversation in a completely non-sequiter manner with Jesse asking a guest in the booth, "Hey, you know what you're listening to?"  Then playing, "WRPI, TROY!"  Of course, since only Jesse and I had headphones, which often didn't work, ("I may as well plug these into a sponge," was his accurate assessment) no one in the booth could hear the cart and had no idea why we were laughing. It was an inside joke broadcast over a seventy-five mile radius.

The next knob was for the main microphone. Even we barely ever screwed that one up.

The two blue knobs were primarily for the turntables. One might think, as we got more experienced, it would be easy to recall which dial was for turntable one and which was for turntable two.  
HA HA!  
The issue was, at first there was only one CD player and later two, but they ran through the same knobs, requiring changing which switches were for which input on a regular basis as more and more of our and the station libraries moved to CD.

Jesse's complexity idea paid off greatly with these. Messing up playing something because the turntable knobs were set wrong made us sound like fools.  
But messing up playing something because they'd remounted the turntables and their controls in reverse on the ceiling made it sound like we were in a place far to strange to handle.

The rest of the knobs had multiple functions. We didn’t have to worry about outside feeds for sporting events.  When we had the early show we did have to transition in to the “Pacifica Nightly News” which was prerecorded and patched in.  One day the engineer missed the start, and we covered by stating we were joining it already in progress. 
Radio people stick together.

We did use one of the knobs regularly as the single tape deck was tied in through it.  
It was the Nineties,
Jesse had a collection of Doctor Demento and other comedy radio shows on tape, 
and I had (and have) a pathological need to listen to stuff while driving and tapes were the only way to do that in fossily times, 
We had a large amount of library material on cassette. 

The problem was, unlike CDs -with precise track starts- and records - which could be listened to in the booth to cue them up before playing them- we couldn’t hear what was on the tape before we broadcast it.  Therefore, we had to copy everything we wanted to play on cassette to one master tape on Jesse's stereo's dual tape deck, before the show each week.

Yes, a fossil.

The artificial confusion covered more than the controls.
When one of us didn't get back in time, we'd reference the infinite, possibly TARDIS inspired, maze like nature of the station, instead of the fact that we got distracted reading album liner notes in the library across the hall. (We did admit when we were reading the WRPI copy of National Lampoon, however.)  The complexity helped cover the strangeness that is our lives too.  The one episode where Jesse didn't know where I was on one set of introductions and then told listeners he found me buried under a pile of avalanched fiberglass ceiling tiles  in the library on the next one... 
That really happened.   

The first senior semester was a mix of regular items and one offs that greatly increased the quality of the show.

Repeating gags were:

Every week some other show or sketch would begin, and then end horribly, often with injury or death, (enhanced by our sound effects library) leading one of us to seriously state,*whatever foolishness we were pretending to be doing* “will not be broadcast tonight so we can bring you the following.”
Then we would introduce our show.

You’d think alternating statements of:
“It’s Wednesday!”
“It’s midnight!”
“This is Jesse”
“this is Jeff”
“And you’re listening to”
*in unison* “Laughter Hours on WRPI, Troy!”

Would be easy to pull off. 
Nevertheless, we blew it more times than not.

This was the semester of horoscopes, which we would create using the same method professional horoscopists use…we flat out made them up.  Then we’d throw in some insane description of the method at the end.  We tried other tunes briefly, but quickly settled on The Eagles’ “Journey of the Sorcerer,” famous for its use in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, a huge influence on both of us.

We also tried alternating reading the signs and / or horoscopes the first week. My voice was deeper, leading us to switch to me booming out the signs, and him reading each “prediction.”  Some weeks there was less of an echo effect, because I’d forget the paper towel tube I would speak through.

Jesse had some experience writing horoscopes from our tenure on the Valleyviewer, our Junior High newspaper.  Jesse would look up Tarot card reading descriptions and submit death and destruction filled predictions. Then the faculty advisor would change them to "Do your homework."  The Laughter Hours ones were far less censored and more fun.

While most sound effects were on CDs, Jesse owned an actual clown shoe squeaker horn, which we would use each week for a pressing of the “Banana Button.”  There are an amazingly large number of banana based comedy songs, and we worked through most of them.  As a gag for Christmas, we hit it and a different sound played, leading to the broadcast of Lorne Greene and company singing “Santa Got Lost in Texas.” 
You see, we’d accidentally hit the “Bonanza Button.”


Sometime before Jesse graduated, the station started giving us movie ticket giveaways again.  We had them regularly at the afternoon show; however, they weren’t usually scheduled for late nights.  Because we’d finally figured out how to work the phones and patch them onto the air, we wanted more interactions with listeners.  That is why we started buying things for a quarter in the vending machines at the supermarket and giving them away. One week we forgot to buy one, so we gave away a packet of oatmeal Jesse had in the room that had trivia questions printed on it.

Following our bit of marketing brilliance, and possibly concerned with the possibility of poisoning listeners, the station stared giving us late night movie ticket giveaways to the Spectrum theater in Albany.  Woo!

Our embellishments of the films' descriptions made it tough to get callers sometimes.  I was particularly bad when on my own later on.  Based on the write up of "Reservoir Dogs," I said it sounded like "Cannonball Run but with a bank heist."    

The most unnerving was tickets for The Lover, a "Fifteen year old travelling girl meets a twenty-six year old man in the far east" story.  I read it in a lascivious, dirty old man voice, and no one called.  Then I apologized and made a feeble attempt to say it sounded good. The phone rang and what sounded like a real dirty old man said, in a more gravelly and breathy voice than I used, "I'd reaaaaaaly like those tickets.  Heh heh heh."   I was ecstatic that we only had to take his address and he'd get the tickets when he showed up at the Spectrum.

Aside from the regular features, we did many of Jesse’s sketches, and eventually ours and a couple of mine.  Doing all the funny voices and accents for them, I believe I burned out any natural accent I had.  

I used to have an accent. In kindergarten, I came home irate, asking my mother what she was working on. She was confused and said, “A sewing machine?” I blasted back, “No, what kind?”  After living in the Bronx most of her life she said, “A singa.” Then I freaked out and yelled, “NO! It’s a sing-ER!!!”  

I was threatened with being sent to speech classes because of having an accent from the Bronx. 

Imagine if a school tried to pull that crap today?

Anyway, I got my speech up to acceptable New Jersey standards back then, but after college, I had many sales people visit our New Jersey headquarters building from around the country and world.  Most of those people view the entire tri-state area as "New York City." They would ask, “You’re not originally from this area of the country are you? You don’t have an accent.  How long have you lived here?”

I would naturally, drop into Beauregard’s voice from the Great Muppet Caper and reply, 
“Oh, all my life.”

To get back on track, we did a lot of sketches with a lot of voices.

Jesse’s ability to quickly ad lib would often have me chuckling through them but I covered it at least a bit of  the time.

I’d say the biggest influences in both of our writing styles led to the bits sounding like a mix of Monty Python and Bob and Ray. 

The one week where I finally felt like a seasoned performer was when the computer ate our script right before we had to leave.  Our script would normally consist of the playlist plus the horoscopes, the gag sketch beginnings and the fake sponsors we ended with.

We had all the records in order, so we had the framework of our playlist. Rewriting the horoscopes took the usual five minutes of effort all psychics put into them. (Less for us since Virgo was always, "Go out get drunk and raise a ruckus.")

We were due to open with Jesse's Mr. Wizard spoof called "Dictionary Dan." Jesse was Dan, the crotchety old man who gave the definitions, and I was his young helper Harold, stretching my voice up a couple of octaves to little kid squeakiness. Dan’s definitions were all horrible, gross and painful things he would do to Harold. We had no script...none. Jesse just grabbed the dictionary he found the definitions in and marked the pages as we ran to the station, which is also similar to the way he aced many assignments for the entirety of the time I've known him.

It was the first time I ad-libbed something with a character and intended structure like that. Granted, Jesse’s abilities in that area had me busting a gut a few times, but with the squeaky voice I was using, I could cover my giggles by shifting to a whimper and claiming, “I’m scared.”

One of my proudest performing moments was when I got Jesse to crack up on the air in one of his own sketches. The whole scenario was cool because it reminded me of behind the scenes stories of Monty Python, where one of them wrote a sketch they were not sure of, another member would love it, and it went on to be a classic.  The Cheese Shop comes to mind.

It was an interview sketch, and the whole premise ran off the early line, 
“I’m a blue bottle fly and I have the blue bottle to prove it.” *thunk*

Jesse wasn’t convinced we should do it, and I finally pressed and groveled enough to get it on our second to last show together.  He said it would only work if we had a bottle we could *thunk* on the counter at the right moment that SOUNDED blue.  We spent one of our very many strange afternoons experimenting until we found something with the proper auditory glass blueness.  Our conversations often wandered into the surreal, as Toothbrush Talk would highlight.  Remember, we are the same two individuals who had multiple day discussions to determine the funniest color Jell-O to juggle for Jesse’s coffee house talent show appearance.

It was green.

I said I wanted to be the interviewee. What I did not say is I knew exactly what my voice would sound like.  Jesse pictured it as a normal voice when he wrote it, so when I started in my nasally, fly whine with incessant buzzing, he lost it for a bit before recovering and continuing with the great bit he constructed.

I’m prouder today because my daughter said it’s the funniest thing we did, causing her to blow coffee out her nose.

We also had a crowning achievement in comedy in one of the early weeks of fall Senior semester.

There was a comic strip by a student in the school newspaper called Technically Speaking which tended to vary between “eh, ok,” and “that’s kinda humorous.” It featured multiple RPI students, one of which was a kangaroo.  (Yes...I know.)  On one particular Wednesday, there was a gag in the strip featuring the word, “Safety,” that we didn’t get.  In fact, no one we knew got it.

In fact…no one at IPAC, the school information phone number (a manual, phone based predecessor to Google) got it. 

In fact…no one on the staff of the Polytechnic Newspaper got it.

(We made many phone calls that day.)

Armed with a campus directory and the history of the WRPI/ Poly rivalry, we called the cartoon’s creator, Ed, and asked if he would be interviewed on the air.  He surprisingly and luckily agreed.

In spite of all of our combined comedy history, knowledge, experience and creativity, we could not have written a funnier interview if we started from scratch.

Ed eventually revealed that it was both a fart joke (which he did know) and an inside joke (which he seemed blissfully unaware of).

He set himself up perfectly for us, dovetailing from our mostly straight questions that led into goofs, gags and perfectly logical places to state, "Now suppose I'm in a room with a flatulent kangaroo..."

The interview ended when he said, “Scheming RPI woman is redundant,” and then he couldn’t hear us anymore over the group of female voices yelling and banging on his door.  Jesse stepped up the WRPI / Poly rivalry by pointing out the strip was likely printed without getting the joke because the Editor in Chief of the newspaper looked like he was twelve and probably didn’t get most of the jokes they printed.

However, the best part was the next week where Ed had a gag about the kangaroo (Nigel, as we learned in the interview) not believing he was studying chemistry on a Friday night and deciding to listen to “campus radio.” The radio in the strip then played, “That was Joe Smith cracking his knuckles to ‘You Light Up My Life’…” and the strip ended with Nigel going back to chemistry equations.  We read it, laughed, looked at each other and said:

‘We made Ed funny!  WE CAN DO ANYTHING!!!”

Then we worked the “Joe Smith cracking his knuckles to ‘You Light Up My Life'” line into our opening “Goomba Joe” variety show sketch, which ended with our two over the top bad Italian accented selves being eaten by a bear, to allow Laughter Hours to be presented in its place.

Most sketches were short, but there were also whole shows fall semester where we had overarching running gags throughout.

There was a bus ride to a Don Knotts lookalike contest, which Jesse and I realized Death could have won, striking us oddly speechless when they showed up.  It featured a reference to the song “Thirty Thousand Pounds of Bananas” WEEKS before we played it.  (Because most of the jokes on the show were for us.)

There was a whole show where we were the pilots of the Laughter Hours Flight, with odd destinations and other airplane gags worked in.

There was the episode where we made Albert Einstein/ Al Eisen (the inventor of 2000 Flushes) jokes.  Al Eisen cancelled his appearance because he was working on "2000 Flushes Brown."  Even after 10,000 flushes the water was still brown. (Hilarious.)  Jesse discovered the Al Eisen button that flushed the station toilet and kept a running count of the 2000 flushes to see if the water stayed blue between songs.  Naturally it led to two separate flooding the station gags, one by Jesse, and a final one by the nerdily voiced Melvin reading the ad for "Hooked on Physics"…also Jesse.  The station went off the air to the sound of everyone floating away, with Brian in the background helpfully chipping in burbling noises and calling for help.

Brian also featured in our Halloween spectacular, featuring a sound effects epic as we searched through the terrifying and weird bowels of  WRPI looking for the Phantom of the Station that was haunting us. The point in the show where the CD players both opened all by themselves (for real) and scared the hell out of us was a nice enhancement.  We eventually learned it was Brian haunting us, trying to get us to play "I'm a Mummy."  He started the close out in his normal quiet and low key voice saying he would have gotten away with it if it weren't for us meddling kids.  Then he finished with a much louder and maniacal, "But I scared you pretty good didn't I?"  reaching a crescendo of cackling laughter that caught Jesse and I off guard and once again put us in stitches on the air. 


longbow said...

I'm getting you an editor for Kwansa. This is very long! It's 2020 and I'm still struggling with 280 character tweets

Jeff McGinley said...

All the posts were "normal" size when I uploaded them, and put all the links in. Then as I proof read each one, the memories kept flooding back and I tended to add a paragraph each time I read it. I couldn't break them up after I uploaded the whole set because it would screw everything up. Plus sometimes the narrative carries it through a longer post, I hate breaking up the flow.
This is why I tend to avoid twitter.