“Twitter is the best source of political humor now. It’s better than any show on TV. It’s hard to compete with a million writers.”
Comedy writer, journalist and screenwriter Ben Schwartz joins the show to talk serious laughs. We discuss his work on American humor between the wars, writing for Billy Crystal on the Oscars and his contributions to David Letterman’s monologues, the profundity of Jack Benny and the importance of Bob Hope, his amazing (but unproduced) screenplay about Bob Hope and Larry Gelbart in Korea, how Jaime Hernandez’ comics prepared him to move to LA, his take on Charlie Hebdo, and what it’s like having the same name as the actor who played Jean-Ralphio on Parks & Rec! Give it a listen!
“Part of being able to sell stories is having an idea that other people don’t have, having a point of view or knowledge that other people don’t have.”
About our Guest
Ben Schwartz is a comedy writer and journalist whose work began appearing at Suck.com (as Bertolt Blecht) and has appeared since in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Letterman monologues, the 84th Oscars, The Baffler, The New York Times, on the radio show Wits, and with comics collaborators like Ivan Brunetti, Peter Bagge, and Drew Friedman. To what degree the work is considered journalism or satire depends on the legal circumstances of the moment and how serious your libel suit looks. He is currently on assignment for Vanity Fair and working on a history of American humor set between the two world wars, set to come out from Fantagraphics. He’s on Twitter as @benschwartzy.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Schwartz’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on the same equipment in a hotel room in Quincy, MA. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Mr. Schwartz by me. It’s on my instagram.
“I’m trying to create music that’s pretty enough to listen to but not interesting enough to pay attention to.”
Ben Model has made a career for himself as a silent-film accompanist, playing for audiences throughout the US (and a city in Norway!). I was thrilled to have him on the show and ask him how he got his start and how he reached the top of his field. We talk about the not-exactly-secret society of his peers, the challenge of reading and adapting to audience and movie simultaneously, the importance of audience preservation, the differences between playing live and recording a score for a movie, the reasons young and old audiences get engaged by silent movies, why you need to city Chaplin’s City Lights with a live orchestra, and more! Give it a listen!
“No film collector is going to hold up a 4tb hard drive and say, ‘Look at all the movies I have!'”
Ben & I also discuss the difference between digital and “real” instruments, the way his style has evolved, the Kickstarter revolution and how it funds his DVD label, the Stan Laurel comedy that makes little kids lose their minds, his love for Ernie Kovacs, the awful and sometimes incomprehensible stereotypes of century-old comedy, his theory of Undercranking, where the next generation of accompanists is coming from, the multi-decade dearth of comedic filmmakers with distinct vision, the lost comic genius of Marcel Perez, and what it’s like to create “music of momentary significance” (as his mentor described it). Go listen!
“Bringing the silent movie experience to a place where it doesn’t usually get to happen is great fun for me.”
About our Guest
Ben Model is one of the nation’s leading silent film accompanists, and performs on both piano and theatre organ. Ben works full-time presenting and accompanying silent films in a wide variety of venues around the USA and internationally, carrying on a tradition he learned from silent film organist Lee Erwin (1919-2000). Over the past 30+ years Ben has created and performed live scores for several hundred silent films, films lasting anywhere from one minute to five hours. Ben is a resident film accompanist at the Museum of Modern Art (NY) and at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus Theatre. His recorded scores can be heard on numerous DVD/Blu-Ray releases, on TCM and on his YouTube channel. His indie DVD label Undercrank Productions has released several discs of rare/lost silent films, including films preserved by the Library of Congress. Ben is a regular accompanist at classic film festivals around the U.S.A. and in Norway, and performs at universities, museums, and historic theaters. Ben is the producer and co-founder of The Silent Clowns Film Series, now in its 19th season in NYC. Ben has composed film scores for both orchestra and concert band for accompaniment to films by Chaplin and Keaton. These scores are performed around the U.S. every year by both professional and school ensembles. In his work as a programmer, Ben has co-curated a film series for MoMA, and co-programs a monthly silent film series at the Cinema Arts Center. As archivist of the Ernie Kovacs/Edie Adams collection, he also curated two recent DVD box sets of Ernie Kovacs television shows for Shout! Factory. He is currently a Visiting Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University.
Credits: This episode’s music is Ben noodling on my friend’s Steinway. The conversation was recorded at my friend’s place in Manhattan on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. B/W photo of Mr. Model by me; no attribution for the color photo.
“I was a Henry Morgan authority at the age of 24.”
Kliph Nesteroff joins the show to talk about his new book, The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy (Grove Press). We discuss the evolution of comedy over the century (from vaudeville to comedy podcasters) and how he got started chronicling it, American comedy’s twin themes of struggle and influence, the connect-the-dots game of comedic lineage, the stories that didn’t make it into the book, comedy’s role in the civil rights struggle, Kliph’s autodidactic background and how it shapes his pursuit of history, the story of how he got kicked out of high school, and more! Give it a listen! And go buy Kliph’s book, The Comedians! (NOTE: Kliph’s section starts at 17:15, if you wanna skip right to that)
“I’m just as deeply immersed in the history of film, the history of music, of TV, of pop culture. . . . But Leonard Maltin already exists; he’s got it cornered. Jerry Beck is the world’s foremost animation historian; he’s got that market covered. There’s a million people who write about music; I don’t need to be one of those guys. But there’s no other comedy historian. I’m happy to pick up that mantle.”
Plus, I give Liz Hand a call on the occasion of the publication of her new book, Hard Light: A Cass Neary Crime Novel! We explore how her nihilistic, burned-out, drug-addicted post-punk-scene photographer-protagonist has grown over the course of three books of increasing mayhem and murder. (Hint: she doesn’t decide to become a nurturing mom and validate herself with a rich husband.) Go listen! And buy Hard Light! (NOTE: Liz’s section starts around 3:30)
About our Guest
Kliph Nesteroff is a former stand-up comic turned writer. A longtime contributor to WFMU, writing about the history of comedy, Nesteroff’s latest project is hosting the Classic Showbiz Talk Show, a live series in Los Angeles that has welcomed comedy luminaries like Mel Brooks, Fred Willard and Laugh-In creator George Schlatter.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at an undisclosed location in Manhattan on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on the same setup. The conversation with Liz Hand was recorded using Call Recorder on Face Time Audio; I was using a Blue Yeti USB mic. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Kliph by me.
“[Reading Mein Kampf] I expected to find something totally crazy and full of poison, so disgusting you couldn’t stand reading it. And what I found was something you could bear: sometimes pragmatic, sometimes logical. I was expecting a “wrong Hitler”, as most people in Germany would expect: a monster, yelling at the reader. Not someone it would be easy to follow. That’s what I found out: it was easy to go along with him.”
Is it okay to make fun of Hitler? On May 6, 2015, the Goethe-Institut New York and the German Book Office brought in Timur Vermes, Gavriel Rosenfeld and Liesl Schillinger to discuss “Satirical Representations of Hitler in Contemporary Culture,” and they invited me to moderate the panel! Timur Vermes’ new satiric novel, Look Who’s Back (Maclehose Press), imagines Hitler mysteriously awakening in modern Berlin and trying to make sense of the world since 1945, and prompts us to explore what it means to laugh at Hitler (and laugh with him)! Give it a listen!
“If you have too many funny Hitlers, you don’t think there’s anything to be afraid of.”
The panel discusses whether Germany will ever be “normal”, the perils of using Hitler as the symbol of anything we don’t like, whether it’s okay for some ethnic groups (okay, Jews) to make fun of Hitler but not for other ethnic groups to do so, what Timur Vermes learned in the process of writing a novel in Hitler’s voice, whether Mein Kampf should be published freely in Germany, and more!
From left: me, Timur Vermes, Gavriel Rosenfeld, Liesl Schillinger.
Photo © Goethe-Institut New York / Jacobia Dahm
About our Guests
The son of a German mother and a Hungarian father who fled that country in 1956. Timur Vermes was born in Nuremberg in 1967. He studied history and politics and went on to become a journalist. He was written for the Abendzeitung and the Cologne Express and worked for various magazines. He has ghostwritten several books since 2009. Look Who’s Back (Maclehose Press) is his first novel. It has been translated into 42 languages and a film version will be released in Germany this fall.
Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based critic, translator, and moderator. She grew up in Midwestern college towns, studied comparative literature at Yale, worked at The New Yorker for more than a decade and became a regular critic for The New York Times Book Review in 2004. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York, The New Republic, The Washington Post, Vogue, Foreign Policy, The London Independent on Sunday, and many other publications. Her recent translations include the novels Every Day, Every Hour, by Natasa Dragnic, and The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas, fils. Wordbirds: An Irreverent Lexicon for the 21st Century, came out in 2013.
Gavriel D. Rosenfeld is Professor of History and Director of the Undergraduate Program in Judaic Studies at Fairfield University. He received his B.A. in History and Judaic Studies from Brown University in 1989 and his Ph.D. in History from UCLA in 1996. His area of specialization is the history and memory of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. He has written a wide range of books, including the newly released monograph, Hi Hitler!: How the Nazi Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015) and the forthcoming edited collection, “If Only We Had Died in Egypt!” What Ifs of Jewish History From Abraham to Zionism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015). He has also written numerous articles, is a frequent contributor to the Forward newspaper, and runs the blog, The Counterfactual History Review.
Credits: This episode’s music is O Just Suppose by Ute Lemper. The conversation was recorded at the Goethe-Institut New York on what looked like wireless Shure M-58s. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of the panel © Goethe-Institut New York / Jacobia Dahm.
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