Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Laughter in the Night: Late Night Autobiographies

Given that I subtitled this blog "Things Best Viewed After Midnight," it should come as no surprise that I've been an insomniac since I was a kid. Late night television kept me company on many sleepless nights. A couple of books by late night TV icons drew me back in time, when the world after Midnight seemed deep and mysterious to a young kid.

We'll be Here for the Rest of Our Lives by Paul Shaffer

After 30-plus-years of being David Letterman's bandleader, some might not remember that Paul Shaffer was more than just a second banana. Grounded in musical theater and strip-joint gigs, Shaffer would later become a member of the original Saturday Night Live house band. He also had enough comedy improv training to appear on the show in sketches. He helped assemble the Blues Brothers band, only to be pushed out and off the Blue Brothers movie by John Belushi. Eventually recruited by Letterman to be musical director for Late Night, Shaffer would eventually come to be a late night television fixture.

Shaffer's book is an interesting, if unfocused, glimpse into a varied life. Enamored of the trappings of show biz, the "schmaltz" and "sleaze" of Vegas lounge acts and the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon, Shaffer would eventually take on a suitably faux-"hip" persona, with flashy suits and bizarre eyewear. While it is all interesting, Shaffer keeps the reader at arm's length for much of the book. I never quite felt like I was getting into his head. He does wax poetic about his love for music, and there is no doubt he is close to his friends - among whom are numbered Martin Short and Harry Shearer - and family, but there is not much depth plumbed here. Events come and go, and Shaffer reacts, but it all passes by in a blur, with the narrative jumping back and forth in time, much like listening to an interesting but slightly scatterbrained friend telling stories.

One common theme that keeps cropping up with Shaffer is the "pressure of time." Dealing with some of his boyhood idols - Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Junior - Shaffer finds himself caught between the fluid concept of time as adhered to by the artistic temperament, and the hard-stop scheduling of television programs. Shaffer seems to be casting himself as a lesser talent, one too concerned with precise timing, rather than letting the flow of the music go where it will. In this, he seems too hard on himself: these idols of his can come and go as their whims take them; he has to put together precisely-timed performances every night without fail.

Oddly, Letterman and his show only get occasional mention. There is clearly affection there, but Shaffer seems reluctant to delve into his Letterman show career. Whether this is due to simple respect for his "boss," as he calls Letterman, a pragmatic reluctance to infringe too much on his ongoing gig at the Late Show, or a combination of both, is left up to the reader to suss out.

Still, it's an engaging book, and a quick read. Shaffer is self-deprecating, yet confident in his abilities. His book helps fill in a little of the background of two TV shows - Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman - that helped define some of what I mean when I refer to things best viewed after Midnight.

Big Chuck! by Chuck Schodowski

Anyone living in the Cleveland area from the late 1960s until the 2000s would almost certainly know of local Friday night channel 8 mainstays Hoolihan and Big Chuck, and later, Big Chuck and Li'l John. Their combination of shoestring-budget skits and horror movies dominated the scene for decades. Eschewing the common trope of make-up-and-costumes that so many monster-movie hosts take on, Big Chuck and his successive co-hosts Hoolihan, who left the show in 1979, and Li'l John, who took over the co-hosting duties from 1979 on, somehow managed to endear themselves to generations of kids and adults. Big Chuck retired in 2007, but he still continues to host a Saturday-morning show with Li'l John.

Big Chuck! covers Chuck's life, of course, but especially the 47 years he spent in Cleveland television. He gained a good measure of fame in the region, but never aspired to anything more than that. He frankly admits to enjoying being a big fish in a small pond.

As a long-time fan, especially as a kid and a teen, this book gave a lot of depth to a show that even today informs my idea of what late night creature features should be like. It's all endearingly mundane, with Chuck and crew cobbling together shows and skits with spit and bailing wire, criss-crossing the state week-after-week with a traveling band of misfits for personal appearances and various softball, football, and basketball games, all the while fending off bosses determined to mess with or cancel the TV show. Chuck never seems jaded by any of it, and in fact retains a sense of humor and sense of duty to the fans across the decades. It adds up to what seems like a grueling, neverending schedule to me, but Chuck never seems fazed.

A good chunk of the book is devoted to something of a mini-biography of Ghoulardi, the late-night movie host that pre-dated Big Chuck's show. Chuck worked on the show, first as part of the TV crew, then drafted against his will as onscreen talent. Ghoulardi was a phenomenon in the early 1960s in Cleveland, and even today retains a cult following. Ernie Anderson was Ghoulardi's real name, and he would eventually become a successful voiceover announcer, the voice of ABC for decades. Anderson died in 1997. Notably, especially to younger readers, his son is Paul Thomas Anderson. Chuck's description of Ernie Anderson reveals a bigger-than-life personality, chaotic and iconoclastic, with the world as his stage.

Big Chuck's show was important to me for a few reasons. It created a sense of camaraderie among its viewers with its deeply local focus; Cleveland and the surrounding region became something of a character itself, which we didn't see on TV much at all. The skits were so threadbare and makeshift that they seemed relatable in a way that slickly-produced shows can't be. Perhaps most importantly, and something Chuck doesn't really go into at all, the show introduced me to a plethora of old horror, mystery, and science fiction movies, from Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes flicks and Charlie Chan movies, to Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, to The Hypnotic Eye and Cult of the Cobra, to W.C. Fields comedies, to Silent Running. Not knowing how TV stations do their programming, I'd always assumed that Big Chuck and his co-hosts chose the movies they showed. Now, I know that is almost certainly not the case; they were likely given packages of movies. Still, some movies did seem hand-picked, with Chuck praising W.C. Fields back when his show had My Little Chickadee scheduled. But, none of this is discussed in Chuck's book. It isn't a glaring omission, but it would have been nice to have some insight into that aspect of the show.

Big Chuck! was a satisfying book. Chockful of anecdotes and insights into being a local celebrity who also had to hold down a full-time job, the book is also charming in its direct, simple approach. Chuck seems like a nice, solid guy. His background working in a foundry in Cleveland of the 1950s provides insight into an era of Cleveland history which seems long gone now. He also has a bit of a gruff, pragmatic, yet profoundly open-minded take on political correctness. All in all, the book takes the reader into the trenches of local television production, and shows just how hands-on and human it all is.

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