Episode 224: The Excruciating Minutiae

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toothpicks stuck in voodoo doll
Juha-Matti Herrala via: flickr  CC

Comedian Steven Wright reflects on more than 40 years of deadpan standup comedy. Also, we look at the lasting legacy of D’Angelo’s masterpiece, “Voodoo.” And biographer Patrick McGilligan takes us behind the curtain of Mel Brooks’s debut film, “The Producers.”

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  • The Mosaic View Of Comedian Steven Wright

    Comedian Steven Wright has been delighting fans with his deadpan, one-liner brand of stand-up for more than four decades. While the punchlines might be economical, the creation of each carefully constructed joke is not.

    Wright caught up with WPR’s “BETA” in advance of his appearance at The Barrymore Theater in Madison later this month. He talked about his numerous creative outlets like music, filmmaking, painting and, of course, joke writing.

    I see the world like a mosaic painting. The world is made up of just tiny fragments of information,” he said. “I mean, from the moment you wake up ’til you go to sleep, thousands of things pass your mind and that’s where the comedy comes from, from noticing pieces that aren’t usually connected together.”

    The Boston, Massachusetts native and avid New England sports fan got his love of comedy from Boston radio when he was a teen scrolling the dial for Bruins updates. He stumbled onto a station that aired a pair of comedy albums every Sunday night.

    “I had already been watching Johnny Carson all the time, and I had it in my head that my dream would be to be a stand-up comedian. So I heard all these albums. I tuned in every week for years, and I was like studying it by accident,” he recalled.

    Wright paid close attention to how influences like George Carlin or Woody Allen would structure a joke and how they could mine comedy out of the mundane. He would then apply his trademarked deadpan style to it.

    “Everyone’s head is like a soup. It’s like made up of different influences over the years, no matter if you’re gonna be creative or not,” Wright said. “It’s like everything is a combination in your own head. So then, when I went to do standup, it was just observational stuff in the structure of a joke. I learned from those albums.”

    Wright’s observational style can border on the philosophical. He sidesteps easy pop culture references and vulgarity in his set, although he argues some of his personal rules for comedy are steeped in pragmatism.

    “I didn’t want to pile up material that I could never really do on television. So that’s one reason my material was always clean,” he said. “And then also, it was timeless, like gravity is not going to go out of style.”

    Wright said he developed his humor from his lifelong love of drawing and painting. He said that when you work hard to realistically depict something in a painting or drawing, you begin to notice the nuance of the details.

    “When you paint something real, you really notice things in detail that you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t trying to recreate it,” Wright said. “Like if there was a wine bottle on a table and then beside it was a glass, you’d see the shape of the bottle and you’d see the shape of the glass. But then you’d also notice the shape in between the glass and the bottle was its own shape. And then that would help you make it accurate. So now you’re seeing three shapes: the bottle, the space in between and the glass. So accidentally I was exercising my noticing part of my mind, like noticing details from the drawing. And then that’s what comedy is, noticing.”

    And although Wright jokes he can break his famous monotone intonation, usually during a Boston championship run, he developed his iconic delivery onstage due to an intense focus on his routine.

    “I’m trying to remember how the joke goes and remembering what the next joke is,” Wright said. “I was on stage, it’s so intense. I was afraid at first. I’m not afraid anymore. But I’m very focused. So my deadpan is there because I’m concentrating.”

    Wright would realize his dream and earn his big break in 1982 with a set on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” He continues to be a bastion of late night comedy with appearances across shows like Conan and his improv sessions with The Late Late Show’s former host, Craig Ferguson.

    In 1985, Wright would release his own comedy record, “I Have A Pony” which would earn him a Grammy nomination. It would be more than 20 years before he’d release another one with the 2006 Grammy-nominated, “When Leaves Blow Away.”

    He says he doesn’t commit a lot of his material to record because he wants his audience to be met with fresh material and with his style of humor, compiling that much for a set can be tough.

    “Plus I don’t know how much stuff I can think of,” quipped Wright. “For every three I write, or four I write, only one of them gets a big enough laugh to stay in the act … So it’s like a batting average of like one in three. Like a baseball player. Like if he’s batting 300, that’s good. But that means he got out seven times out of those 10.”

    In addition to being a Grammy-nominated performer, Wright has won an Academy Award. In 1989, he paired with director Dean Parisot on the Oscar-winning short, “The Appointments of Dennis Jennings” starring himself and Rowan Atkinson. The film was a hilarious adaptation of his comedy to the medium.

    While working on the film, Wright befriended Parisot’s wife, the late Sally Menke. She was editing a film for a then unknown director named Quentin Tarantino and needed someone to voice the part of a radio DJ. Wright would introduce himself into a brand new legion of fandom when he became the voice of Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.”

    “I’m happy to be in there,” said Wright. “There’s a lot of people who know me from that movie who didn’t even know I did stand-up.”

    Even though Wright is perilously close to completing an EGOT nomination cycle (he’d tack on an Emmy nod for his work producing FX’s “Louie”) he doesn’t have plans to chase the Tony. Wright does consider maybe someday trying his hand at a full-length movie, but seems incredibly content doing what he’s doing.

    “I feel very lucky because this is how my mind works and this is how I write jokes,” said Wright. “And I’m glad there’s an audience that still likes it. Because if there wasn’t, I don’t have a different way of doing it.”

  • 20 Years Later, D'Angelo's 'Voodoo' Still Casts A Spell

    In late January of 2000, Michael Eugene Archer — better known to the world as R&B singer D’Angelo — released his highly anticipated sophomore album “Voodoo.” It had been five years since his debut effort “Brown Sugar” had been welcomed by critics and fans alike.

    While “Brown Sugar” had produced its fair share of singles that found their way into consistent radio play, “Voodoo” was constructed as a concept and throwback R&B record. In fact, its most transcendent moment from pop culture was a music video that contemporaneously eclipsed the album’s brilliance.

    Twenty years later, “Voodoo” stands as an epoch in music and pop history. Filmmaker and writer Faith A. Pennick has penned the 33 1/3 series book on D’Angelo’s masterpiece called, “D’Angelo’s Voodoo.”

    She writes that “Voodoo” was “a gumbo of rock, soul, gospel, hip-hop, jazz, and indigenous African and Caribbean music, exploring the pitfalls of fame, love found and lost, carnal desires, and the blessing of a child.”

    Pennick tells WPR’s “BETA” that as someone who was pretty agnostic to “Brown Sugar,” “Voodoo” cast its spell on her immediately.

    “I just felt it in my bones, and I was mesmerized pretty much from the second I pressed play,” she said.

    Pennick said she, “listened to the whole album and just stood there and stared at my stereo and I just was like, ‘This is the guy that did Brown Sugar?’”

    Born in Richmond, Virginia to a Baptist minister, D’Angelo forged his musical beginnings singing and playing instruments in church. Forbidden to listen to secular music in their home, D’Angelo’s older brother Luther would sneak Prince albums into the house. Quickly becoming a devotee of Prince and other R&B and funk giants, D’Angelo would blend this mix of gospel and secular music beautifully on “Voodoo.”

    “Gospel is in every note that he plays and particularly when you listen to him sing,” Pennick said. “D’Angelo never walked away from that. And I think in a way, ‘Voodoo’ was him walking more toward it and really embracing it. You can’t take gospel away. It’s just as important as funk, as R&B and as rock is.”

    The seeds of “Voodoo” were born during D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar” sessions when he met engineer and producer Russell Elevado. Pennick describes their introduction as an event “that would end up shaking the foundation of R&B music for years to come.”

    Elevado and D’Angelo were a musical soul connection, literally. They shared a passion for classic R&B and a desire to recreate it. Elevado convinced D’Angelo to record the album on analog tapes. In an era of digital samples and synth recreations, “Voodoo” had a “sheen of authenticity” with all the recording imperfections that add flavor to an analog recording preserved on the final cut, Pennick said.

    “When they started talking about ‘Voodoo’ and D’Angelo sharing with him that he wanted it to be more raw and more dirtier and Elevado got into that,” said Pennick. “I think he understood what he needed to do as an engineer to help him get there.”

    The rawer sound and improvisational conceit was benefited and boosted by another significant and history-altering collaboration. D’Angelo put together a Who’s Who of musicians for the record and tapped Ahmir Thompson, aka Questlove of The Roots, to drum on it.

    “With D’Angelo and Questlove, you have two eclectic, iconoclastic musicians, both talented in their own right, really coming together and just saying, ‘You know what? Let’s throw stuff against a wall and see what happens.’ A lot of this album came out of just them jamming and messing around,” said Pennick.

    A perfect encapsulation of this loose, jam-session style was the track, “Chicken Grease.”

    “Even though it has that P-Funk feel and was sort of a tribute to ‘Flashlight,’ it actually came out of them jamming to a Curtis Mayfield song called ‘Mother’s Son,’” said Pennick.

    D’Angelo’s position on hyper-masculinity within the rap and hip-hop community was an outlier at the time. With the exception of the track, “Left and Right,” “Voodoo” embraces femininity. The album is strongly influenced by his former partner and mother of his child, Angie Stone and his partner at the time, singer Gina Figueroa.

    Perhaps no other song captured this willing vulnerability better than “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” But, it would be the music video for the song that would turn heads. The slow pan from D’Angelo singing soulfully to the camera left little to the imagination and made D’Angelo’s abs a piece of American pop history.

    Pennick simply refers to the video as “THE video” writing, “‘Untitled (How Does It Feel)’ became a cultural sensation, especially among African American women. ‘The Video’ (as it came to be known among black folks) was a tsunami of lubricious imagery and metaphorical longing that literally left many a woman speechless.”

    D’Angelo’s status as a sex symbol in the wake of the video’s heavy rotation on MTV overshadowed the craftsmanship of “Voodoo” and created an image D’Angelo never wanted to live up to.

    “He really got angry because first and foremost, he is an artist, he’s a musician, he is a singer, he’s a songwriter. He’s a producer. And no one was talking about that. Everyone was talking about his abs, you know, and his cornrows and how sexy he was,” said Pennick. “I think that broke him on a certain level. And I think he lost his way.”

    The misinterpreted reception to the record ignited a downward spiral for D’Angelo and triggered a self-imposed exile from music. He wouldn’t resurface with another album until 2014’s “Black Messiah.”

    It also likely delayed the appreciation for “Voodoo” which Pennick argues is a landmark album that today’s artists use as inspiration.

    “I think younger artists look back to him the way he looked back to Sly Stone and Al Green and Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield and Prince as the people for him to look up to. I think he is now that gold standard for younger generations,” she said.

  • Milwaukee’s Patrick McGilligan Takes Us Behind The Scenes of 'The Producers'

    Mel Brooks is a comedy legend.

    He’s made many hit comedy films, including his 1967 directorial debut, “The Producers.”

    But before he took action, Brooks spent a lot of time pondering the idea for the movie, Patrick McGilligan wrote in his book, “Funny Man: Mel Brooks.” McGilligan told WPR’s “BETA” that Brooks spent about 10 years thinking about “The Producers.”

    “During the last days of his first marriage, he woke his wife up one night and showed her a yellow pad with the first scribbled words of what was then going to be in its early stages, a novel set in England about producers,” McGilligan said. “And then a long period of time went by, during which he began to think of it as a Broadway play, ironically, because it becomes a Broadway play in the third act of his life.”

    But it really took a collaborator to come along to help Brooks put together the screenplay for “The Producers.”

    The collaborator was a woman named Alfa-Betty Olsen who also served as the casting director of the film.

    “There is an Alfa-Betty Olsen behind most of Mel’s films, meaning there are unsung collaborators and very important contributors who, in the case of Alpha-Betty, don’t get credited,” McGilligan said.

    Olsen thought Brooks was hilarious, and she was just happy to work with him on “The Producers,” McGilligan said. She was in love with show business and became friends with Brooks at a house party during the 1960s.

    Olsen was a “very funny, smart, serious writer who had not really the same drive and ambition to blaze her name in the sky the way Mel does, and was happy to serve for a while as his muse and as his typist and as his secret helper,” McGilligan said.

    “The Producers” is about a theater producer named Max Bialystock, played by Zero Mostel, and an accountant named Leopold Bloom, played by Milwaukee’s Gene Wilder, who come up with an idea to stage the worst possible musical. They can oversell shares and make a profit because nobody will bother auditing the books of a show that lost money. Then Bialystock and Bloom can fly off to Rio de Janeiro with the profits. However, the musical, “Springtime for Hitler,” becomes a huge hit.

    So how did Brooks come up with these two characters?

    “Some people would say it was two sides of the ego, the one outsized, flamboyant, acting out the extrovert and the other the introvert,” McGilligan explained. “And Mel would sometimes say they were both sides of him. So Gene plays the kind of sheepish, reticent, shy, bookwormish accountant and Zero Mostel is the lecherous, scheming, greedy producer.”

    It took Brooks a while to find his comfort level while directing his first film, McGilligan said.

    “He would be very upset if people followed the script without improvising sometimes and vice versa, very upset if they improvised without following the script,” he explained.

    Brooks liked improvisation because he usually cast the kind of actors who would bring a little something extra to the scenes that he had written. McGilligan said there was a story that might have been apocryphal about Brooks being so nervous that during the first take of shooting, he called out “cut” instead of “action.”

    “There were a lot of nerves on that production,” McGilligan said. “And there are a lot of showdowns between Brooks and Zero Mostel. Brooks and his producer. That energy, that sort of frenetic energy, the sort of lack of conventional approach in both the camera work and the staging, really makes the film stand out.”

    As McGilligan writes in his book, spontaneous decisions resulted in some of the most fondly remembered highlights in “The Producers.”

    For example, Brooks wanted to use one of the songs from “My Fair Lady” for the Hitler audition scene. Unfortunately, they couldn’t afford the rights. So Olsen went to Lincoln Center to research other music options, and she saw the fountain spurting up into the air as it does every so often. She realized that this fountain would serve as the perfect location for the film’s climax.

    “She killed two birds with one stone by having this idea,” McGilligan said.

    Olsen took Brooks there, and he agreed it was the perfect location for the climax where Bloom agrees to participate in the scheme with Bialystock.

    “And that led to this marvelous sequence, which was pretty improvised of all these actors that they brought in from around Broadway who tried out for Hitler in the movie,” McGilligan said. “And it’s kind of a montage of auditions, which is very, very funny.”

    How was original film received by the public and critics when it was released in 1967?

    McGilligan said Brooks always claimed there was some dissension among the critics because sometimes the dissension was in the same review.

    “Critics would say this movie really, really made me laugh, except for the really tasteless parts that made me cringe,” McGilligan said. “Even the reviews that were bad usually said, ‘But I laughed really hard.’”

    Decades later, in 2001, Brooks and playwright Thomas Meehan created a musical version of “The Producers.”

    Brooks wrote and composed the music and lyrics. The original Broadway production starred Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick and won 12 Tony Awards. This led to a successful London production and other productions around the world, culminating in a 2005 film version.

    So what does McGilligan think of the musical version of “The Producers”?

    “The problem with ‘The Producers,’ the film, and the property as you watch it today is that so much Nazi humor has gone by the boards, including so many Hitler imitations. And Nazis and Hitler are very, very important to Mel’s sense of humor,” McGilligan said. “By the time it turns up on Broadway in the early 2000s, it’s tasteful in our culture and it’s becomes kind of a smooth return to oldies that you loved. As such, it’s great and was a tremendous hit.”

    Mel Brooks, producer of
    Mel Brooks, producer of “The Producers,” accepts the award for best musical during the 55th annual Tony Awards on Sunday, June 3, 2001, at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. “The Producers” won a record 12 Tony Awards, topping the 10 won by “Hello, Dolly!” in 1964. Suzanne Plunkett/AP Photo

    “The Producers” is widely considered to be one of Brooks’ finest films and one of the great screen comedies of all time.

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Doug Gordon Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Steven Wright Guest
  • Faith A Pennick Guest
  • Patrick McGilligan Guest

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