Episode 319: Mary Lynn Rajskub, Charlie Hill, Golden Age of Animation

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
Charlie Hill
(C) Nasbah Hill Collection

Today, comedian Mary Lynn Rajskub on her wide-ranging career and innovative approach to performing in a pandemic. Also, the extraordinatry story of Wisconsin’s trailblazing Native American comedian, Charlie Hill. And author Reid Mitenbuler on the wild minds that created the Golden Age of animation.

Featured in this Show

  • Comedian Mary Lynn Rajskub Launches Garage-Style Stand-Up

    There’s something about a garage. In pop culture lore, “garage-style” stands in as shorthand for hope and innovation. Indie bands begin in their garage. Start-up companies — most famously Microsoft and Apple — launch their legacies in garages. The space has become synonymous with creativity.

    So it was in her garage that comedian and actor Mary Lynn Rajskub decided to set her innovating quarantine stand-up special, “Mary Lynn Rajskub: Live From the Pandemic.”

    Rajskub tells WPR’s “BETA” she was already prepping material for a new special when the pandemic hit and brought all live performance art to a standstill. Her producing partner Chelsea Mitchell (who also directed the special) encouraged her to prepare the material anyway and produce the special even without an audience.

    “So we lit it and made sure our sound was as tight as we could make it. And I did it in my garage with no audience so I could capture stuff that was happening in and around the pandemic in my life,” Rajskub said.

    Rajskub also used a scoring track to accompany her performance. She outsourced that to a friend of hers from The Comedy Store who is also a musician. Rajskub says the music wasn’t necessarily there to compensate for the lack of an audience, but to heighten her delivery.

    “I watched it without any sound and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool! I’m glad I did this!’ and gave myself a pat on the back. And then I handed it off to my friend, who’s brilliant,” Rajskub said. “But I’ll tell you, when I watched it after the score was on, it really accentuated my odd way of telling stories.”

    Rajskub admits her comedic stylings aren’t the typical call and response cadence most stand-ups use.

    “I certainly don’t have your typical rhythm that you would think comedians have,” Rajskub said. “And I think this was also a really good exercise in that it suits my personality and my voice really well.”

    Rajskub — who is probably best known for her stint as computer ace, Chloe, from Fox’s hit action drama “24” starring Kiefer Sutherland and stints with comedies like “Mr. Show with Bob and Dave” and “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” — tackles several themes in the special like fame, divorce, dating and life in a pandemic.

    While she still feels a bit “cringey” discussing her surprise fame from “24” and the specificity innate to it, she said there was a level of catharsis in discussing her recent divorce which is more relatable to an audience.

    In one of her stand-ups, she said:

    “I actually got divorced right before the pandemic so I could really be alone. My divorce started when my husband left me. He’s so quiet, I did not hear him leave. I just kept walking past the bathroom, and I was like, ‘Something is different. Something is different,’ and then I realized that one of the electric toothbrushes was missing.”

    This isn’t the first time Rajskub has taken an innovative and cathartic approach to a universal conversation. Over a decade ago, she released the one-woman show, “Mary Lynn Spreads Her Legs” which became a powerful statement on postpartum depression.

    “I think looking back on it, this was just part of my development as a writer and a performer,” Rajskub said. “I, again, took that kernel of a lot of truth in there and then found these ways to heighten it within being dramatic and funny for stage.”

    While Rajskub’s work on “24” doesn’t seem like it would naturally have much influence on her comedy work, she said there was a lot of fun on set as the show walked the line of heightened drama and satirical, and she appreciated the show’s ability to make you care about characters amongst the far-fetched plotting and pacing.

    “You’re at code red and that’s where the show starts out. So you find these levels, and it was a really special club to be in because we all kind of understood it without speaking about it,” she said. “That level where it’s a nuclear bomb is going to hit you and you’re the only one that can fix it? No, that’s not going to enter into my stand-up, but certainly many times in storytelling, which is primarily what I do, I always have act outs that require acting. But it is more fun.”

    Rajskub is also pretty prolific in the podcasting world and has plans to compile her solo podcast transcripts and fresh writing into a future “memoir-ish” essay project.

    “One of my favorite ones is just when I used to work at Denny’s,” she said. “But it’s a whole chapter of just, you know, me making the ranch dressing at a Denny’s. And I really enjoyed that one. And then the other ones are talking about the end of my marriage. So, yeah, it’s a similar approach to my comedy.”

  • How Wisconsin's Charlie Hill Influenced Native American Comedy

    Charlie Hill was a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. He was also the first Native American comedian to appear on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. Hill is a central figure in comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff’s book, “We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy.” — a title that comes from one of Hill’s most famous jokes.

    Hill was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1951. Nesteroff told WPR’s “BETA” that growing up, Hill was obsessed with television and one of his favorites was comedian Soupy Sales, host of the children’s TV show, “Lunch with Soupy Sales.” Many of the program’s sketches ended with Sales receiving a pie in the face.

    When Hill’s family returned to the Wisconsin Oneida reservation in 1962, Hill would often sneak out of his bedroom at night and peek through the door to see his mother watching “The Jack Paar Show.” One night, Hill saw a comedian named Dick Gregory on the show.

    “Dick Gregory was integral to the civil rights movement,” Nesteroff said. “He talked about the civil rights movement in a standup act. He was really the first comedian to do that. And eventually he would fuse comedy and activism.”

    “That was very inspiring to Charlie Hill,” Nesteroff said. “He really kind of wanted to do what Dick Gregory was doing, but from a Native American perspective.”

    But Hill was unable to see a path that could lead him to a comedy career. “He never had seen a Native American doing comedy on TV,” Nesteroff explained. “It was almost as if maybe indigenous people weren’t allowed. There was no example to follow. So it took a long time until he really figured that out.”

    After majoring in speech and comedy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he joined the American Indian Theatre Ensemble Company. He portrayed the Nez Perce trickster figure Coyote in a production called “Coyote Tracks.” The ensemble went on a six-week tour of Germany but infighting and an inability to receive regular payments led to the end of the troupe. When Hill returned to the United States, he began hanging out at new comedy clubs like Catch a Rising Star and the Improvisation in Greenwich Village.

    The Comedy Store opened up in Los Angeles in 1972. Two years later, Hill moved to Hollywood to pursue his standup comedy dreams. In the spring of 1975, a guy showed up driving a rusty red truck. It was David Letterman. Hill and Letterman quickly became friends. Hill also became friends with the other people at the Comedy Store, including Jimmie “J.J.” Walker, the star of the popular CBS television series, “Good Times,” and Michael Keaton, who was doing standup before he went on to his successful movie career. When Letterman became famous, he brought Hill on his late-night talk show several times.

    “People who were not famous yet, like Elayne Boosler and Larry David and Jay Leno, he saw them all before he started doing standup and before any of them were celebrities,” Nesteroff said.

    Mitzi Shore ran the Comedy Store for decades. Nesteroff describes her as “this larger-than-life figure. Some saw her as a mentor, others saw her as an adversary. But because she was originally from Green Bay, when she first met Charlie Hill and learned that he was from Oneida, she just was delighted. It was like a little piece of home.”

    So Hill and Shore hit it off immediately. The first time Hill went into Mitzi’s office at the Comedy Store, “he was stunned because her whole office was decorated with Green Bay Packers memorabilia. So they started talking about Wisconsin right away, and she granted him as much stage time as he needed and let him do whatever he wanted.”

    Shore was very aware that Hill was unique because there were so few Native Americans doing standup comedy back then.

    Richard Pryor occasionally tried out new material at the Comedy Store and one night, Pryor happened to catch Hill’s set.

    “He loved his (Hill’s) act because Charlie Hill would sort of talk about race relations between native peoples and white people and sort of ridicule white people in a very similar way to what Richard Pryor did from a Black perspective.”

    So as soon as Hill left the stage, Pryor approached him and told him how much he loved his act.

    “The quote that Charlie always said that Richard had said to him almost as soon as they met was, ‘Man, you talk to those white people like they’re dogs.’”

    And Pryor invited Hill to perform his standup material on his new NBC sketch comedy series, “The Richard Pryor Show.”

    Fifty million people saw Hill’s set on “The Richard Pryor Show.”

    “It was very, very important in furthering his career and a proud moment for not just indigenous peoples around the United States, but First Nations peoples in Canada who also saw that, said it was really a galvanizing moment that a lot of people did not forget. And the name Charlie Hill became famous in indigenous communities almost immediately,” Nesteroff explained.

    Hill appeared on many other television shows and performed standup around the world until his death in 2013 due to lymphoma. He was 62.

    Nesteroff says Hill served an inspiration for practically ever indigenous comedian who followed in his footsteps as well as for many non-Natives who don’t realize it.

    “And more than that, he was just important to all indigenous communities in North America as this incredible representative who never sold himself out, who never engaged in stereotypes, is true to himself, was proud of himself, always opened explaining that he was Oneida and was an inspiration to thousands of indigenous peoples,” Nesteroff said.

    In his book, Nesteroff makes a convincing case that Native Americans have influenced and advanced the art of comedy despite the entertainment industry’s continued denial of their representation. And that’s because Hill showed them that it was possible.

  • How 'Wild Minds' Created The New Medium Of Animation

    “Little hand grenades of social and political satire” — That’s how author Reid Mitenbuler describes the early animated cartoons he chronicles in his book “Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries that Inspired the Golden Age of Animation”.

    Before the advent of television, with its focus on children’s cartoons, Mitenbuler explains that animations often played before movies and were usually designed to appeal to adults.

    The history begins with the newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay. He was one of the first animators but his influence had been pretty much forgotten by the time hedied in 1934.

    “This was in the very early years of the movie industry,” Mitenbuler told WPR’s “BETA.” “A couple of people had taken pictures and made them move the same way that photographs moved.”

    As a newspaper cartoonist for the New York Herald, McCay was intrigued by the idea of making drawings move. “He had a vision that this could some day replace the art you’d see in museums, like people would go to museums and no longer look at paintings, but they’d actually look at these moving pictures. So he had these very lofty visions for what animation could be,” Mitenbuler explained.

    In 1914, McCay released his third animated cartoon, “Gertie the Dinosaur.” Mitenbuler describes it as “this watershed moment in the history of animation.” Gertie was a dinosaur but it was a dinosaur with personality. “The way it breathes. It seems to have a sense of humor. It’s graceful; it’s very lifelike.”

    McCay had a vaudeville show in which he would interact with the animated Gertie by asking her to perform tricks like raising her foot or bowing on command.

    “And that first generation of animators, including people like Walt Disney and the Fleischer brothers, they saw ‘Gertie’ and almost every single one of them later in life cited it as a major influence.

    In October 1927, a seismic shift revolutionized the movie industry when Warner Brothers released “The Jazz Singer.” It was the first feature-length movie with a synchronized, recorded music score and synchronized speech and singing. After seeing “The Jazz Singer,” Walt Disney was excited about the prospect of adding sound to his cartoons. The result was the first Disney cartoon to have synchronized sound and a full soundtrack recorded in post-production.

    Meanwhile, an animator named Max Fleischer and his younger brother Dave were running their own studio in New York City. In 1933, Fleischer Studios introduced “Popeye the Sailor”. Max Fleischer had licensed the character from a newspaper comic strip called “Thimble Theatre,” created by Elzie Segar. Popeye became even more popular than Disney’s Mickey Mouse.

    Mitenbuler says that the advent of sound really helped to save cartoons because many of the movie studios owned music catalogs and popular music. “And they were looking for a way to promote these songs and animation offered them a way to do that,” Mitenbuler explained. “Animators had a lot of freedom to kind of do whatever they wanted with the images, just as long as they got a couple of the songs in their cartoons, you know, to create ancillary income for the studios.”

    As we all know, Popeye was strong to the finish ‘cause he eats his spinach. As Mitenbuler writes in his book: “When Popeye ate his spinach, he typically did so by squeezing a can of it in his fist, squirting a clump of spinach into the air, and then catching it in his mouth. Sometimes, though, he sucked the spinach through his pipe.”

    As Mitenbuler points out, this rather strange way of consuming spinach led some people to speculate that spinach was not the only leafy green that Popeye was consuming. Was it possible that Popeye the Sailor Man was actually Popeye the Marijuana Smoking Sailor Man?

    “This is a funny story because none of the Fleischer animators ever admitted directly to using that as a stand-in for marijuana,” Mitenbuler said. “But you start seeing this idea that it is marijuana coming into play so that by the time you get to the 1950s, which at that point the studio wasn’t run by the Fleischers anymore, you see these references to pure Bolivian spinach, that kind of stuff. But at the time, spinach was also used as a kind of nickname sometimes for marijuana.”

    As Mitenbuler points out, this illustrates the fact that the people making these cartoons were creating something that was often intended for adults.

    “And when interviewed later, were adamant about that, like we made these cartoons for us, we made them for adults. We didn’t really make them for children. And if children happened to be entertained by them, that was great,” said Mitenbuler.

    In 1937, Walt Disney undertook a very ambitious project, the film “Fantasia” (released in 1940). This was a collaboration with Leopold Stokowski, the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Stokowski was interested in making classical music more accessible while Disney was interested in elevating animation to the status of a higher art. As Mitenbuler explained, Stokowski could be somewhat pretentious and a lot of the animators were annoyed when he was around.

    “One day, the beverage cart comes by while they’re working and they’re listening to records. And there’s a Coca-Cola on the beverage cart and Stokowski didn’t seem to know what it was. ‘Well, what’s this?’ And Walt Disney explained, ‘Well, you know, it’s Coca-Cola.’ Stokowski is drinking it like a fine wine. He’s like ‘Good, quite good.’ And all the animators are sitting around like ‘Oh, give me a break.’ And so when they go to make the movie, Walt Disney solicited the animators for possible titles before they decided on “Fantasia.’ And one of them was ‘Highbrowski by Stokowski.’”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Doug Gordon Interviewer
  • Mary Lynn Rajskub Guest
  • Kliph Nesteroff Guest
  • Reid Mitenbuler Guest

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