Mark Gruenwald More Remembering Part Two
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Not-So Cheap Laffs
Mark’s childhood friend Dave visits Cheap Laffs. L-R: Mike Carlin, Dave Lofver up top, Mark Gruenwald and Eliot Brown. June, 1984. What gets me angry with myself is that, of all places and events, I was unable to take pictures. Mark made us up shirts and you can see a cue card on the floor behind me. We had better eyes back then!
The Federal Communication Commission decided that part of the deal with getting cable-TV all over the place in NYC, was that service providers had to serve the public good. How, you ask? By letting clowns like us have “public access” to these public channels. That’s all Mark needed to know! Truly a Judy Garland/Micky Rooney moment: “I’ve a TV camera… I’ve got a room… I’ve got some lights… let’s put on a show!” Yep, anybody could walk in with a “show” of some kind and they would put it on the air… er, cable. Even >shhh< risqué sexy stuff! Only a couple of shows made any money in return, which were sex oriented shows. Anyone alive at that time in NYC might remember Robin Byrd. The rest of it was a mind-boggling clutch of weird and awful “talk shows,” memory lane stuff, I remember a psychic and soon there was to be the brief meteoric rise (and fall) of Cheap Laffs!
Mark was making money writing a couple of books per month. It’s hard to describe the influence on one’s life that freelance money could have. That’s probably a philosophical exercise that I’ll not pursue here. But Mark was making money. We went across Park Avenue South to an electronics house and Mike and Mark and I figured out which “cam-corder” to buy. I know… ‘you kids’ with your full-feature phones (feebly shake fist in air…). This was a monstrosity by any measure. The power supply and channel tuner side was the same size as the VHS tape recorder/playback unit. Then there was the camera—quite separate and only the size of small dog. About as easy to hold up too. As I recall this cam-corder set-up was about $2400 in late 83 dollars!
We needed to edit. In the pre-anything-easy time of the last century, we all three took a video shooting and editing course. Just a few blocks south of Marvel was legendary musician, Moogy Klingman, who offered an audio/video workshop and class. Moogy was a super accomplished session man who I had heard of because of his work with Todd Rundgren (even bigger legendary musician guy!). Moogy had a bunch of beat-up ¾-inch tape U-Matic format machines that we all three learned to edit with. Sadly, the ½-inch VHS tapes we shot on had to be copied ‘up’ and edited in that ¾-inch size and then copied back ‘down’ to ½-inch for delivery to the local Manhattan Cable office (which I think was down on 14 St. –all very convenient). Each transfer rendered up a generational loss which accounts for the truly crappy version of what can be seen on YouTube… We rented time to edit all 8 shows.
Mike Carlin was the bachelor of the three of us. His apartment was far-off in Brooklyn (a borough of New York City) and made the ideal production facilty. Of course, he took the subway in day-to-day but we generally took Mark’s Dodge Dart—that’s a whole ‘nother story— or Jack’s Buick Riviera, because we usually shot our sketches on weekends. Mike’s place had a wacky painted plaid wall finish which he did not paint over and did well for us. We built a “set”—shown above. Lettering stalwart, Jack Morelli, designed and executed the logo you see. Jack was really a fourth, but he had an even greater trip to get home and couldn’t join us every time.
Who did what? Mark and Mike did most of the writing—there was an advantage to having an office full of typewriters. Jack and I had ideas but didn’t really get them down in any timely fashion. Jack was a natural actor, ranging from light comedy to stunt work. I was the only one with any – strictly amateur – stage experience at all. I mostly did all the techie stuff. I made a – noisy, buzzy—mixer for the microphones, contributed all my “hot” photographic lighting and wired up the whole set each time. We took very few chances with script and dialog and Mike and Mark wrote up cue cards for every bit.
Mark as actor… when addressing the camera as a commentator, he mostly did a dead perfect imitation of comedian Martin Mull. Mr. Mull was a pseudo talk-show host on a very funny send-up of all talk-shows Fernwood Tonight. I recommend you check it out. When Mark was himself, he was his usual loose-jointed comedic self.
Mike already sounds exactly like Orson Bean. I know… might as well say someone who recorded on Edison cylinders. But look him up, listen to the guy and you’ll hear who I mean. Mike Carlin was already one of the driest funny men I’ve ever met. Getting him to “act” was not really necessary. His normal delivery was pretty funny. Mike was a natural comic actor with that rarest of “perfect timing” instinct.
Jack Morelli, aside from still being one of my closest friends, is a comedic genius. I use the word ‘genius’ because he doesn’t seem to know it. He was game to do all sorts of dumb things and he made them all work without trying. For example, the sketch where Jack is playing a kid whose mom warns him not to watch the violent Three Stooges, and when he sneaks a look, she whacks him like a rag doll. That was done with Nancy Golden as the mom and Mike Carlin doing Stooge sound track and “punch” noises—both off-camera—we just see Nancy’s arm as she beats her child. Jack is on his knees, playing a child. All he is doing is reacting – all done in one take, all done with minimal scripting. Also, Mike could generate entire Three Stooges sound effects and random dialog at will, perfectly. He still can.
If you manage to find one of the chunks of Cheap Laffs on YouTube, the bit where Mike applies Shave-O to his face and begins to shave gets me helplessly laughing to this day. Where Mark is literally pulling a nose-hair-as-a-tarantula out of his nose, is shot in Marvel’s 387 Park Ave Men’s Room! During the opening credits the three main guys are making cutesy faces over the floral display that was part of Marvel’s reception area. I bit and pulled up some plants—we all hated the idea that money was being spent on maintaining those things—but I carefully put it back later.
CL is a narrow glimpse into Marvel Comics’ people at the time. Editorial members, Danny Fingeroth, Bob Budianski, Howard Mackie, Bob Harris, Annie Nocenti, Nancy “No Relation” Brown (a standard Gru disclaimer), Mike Higgins put up with indignities second only to dealing with freelancers. (For the record, Jack and I were not in Editorial, we were part of the Bullpen Production Staff– like Paul Becton who jumped in to play a security guard.) On occasion, we hoodwinked other staffers to join in, upstairs executive suite “babes” like Nancy Golden and Deb Highly were very good sports. Other comic pros were lured in by the siren call of obscurity and no financial compensation—John Byrne! Best described here as a serious hambone actor. I don’t mean to over-praise John just because I like him, but he managed to breath life into a very silly character. Peter Sanderson who only had to read material out loud to make it funny (okay, another name from the misty past: Alistaire Cooke, who America came to know as the host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater in the 70s. Peter sounded just like him).
Then there were our very own, very dear wives and fiances who made the ultimate sacrifice and appeared on camera. Belinda, Mark’s first wife made a couple of appearances displaying a good sportsmanlike side no matter how degrading the scene, Arlene Puentes my own dear one, affianced and who married me despite this horrendous embarrassment and Pat Powers, who was Mike’s fiancé and who had real theatrical experience, displayed professionalism under fire but who decided not to marry Mike. Jack was not affianced to Lisa Hachadoorian but she was a big part of the backstage crew.
Dr. Dread’s Laughter House: (if you never get to see the show online, the visual gag is “Slaughter House.”) THE gauntlet of all the shows. A couple of years prior, Mark had made a joke video to his pal, Dave Lofler. The gag was, I was dressed up in a ridiculous outfit, covered from head to toe in black, with a cape and a full-head cold-weather mask. Mark would supply the off-camera voice and I would pantomime speaking and react with whatever was on the desk in front of me. At the end, I pulled off the outfit to reveal a completely different person than was expected. I know… not exactly a knee-slapper. But it put together this crazy character that Mark had in his mind. When we did a spoof of a low-budget kids’ show, we had the costume all ready. I built the set out of 1”-thick cardboard, a specialty model-making material from Charrette (an artists supply house I loved). I painted up all the rocky texture in the background. It was a big job considering we built the set and shot on the set within a couple of days.
Two worst parts: it was hot. This was June or July down in Brooklyn, I don’t know if Mike even had an air-conditioner—which we couldn’t have run anyway for the noise. The other was that I could not properly wear one of the Lavalier-type microphones. We had to use the mic that was mounted on the camera and I “raised my voice.” Now, why I felt the character needed such a raucous crow-squawk of a voice is now beyond me. At the time, it seemed that as the character had to wear his full-body suit to help with his terrible itching, that it might affect his voice… I know, kind’a weak thinking. Especially because it made those scenes—hard fought for and barely won—hard to understand. We later thought we should run a whole new soundtrack in over the video. As time went on, Mark considered sub-titles.
But—three of those miserable takes taught us that “editing is our friend.” For no known reason we had convinced ourselves that we could get this scene in one take. Turns out we could not!
Of that Dr. Dread material, there’s lots of clever Gruenwaldian material that still gets a chuckle out of me. Mrs. Grue, the Mortician’s Beautician was based on Mark’s own mother! Well, we often called Mark every diminutive of “Gruenwald” that can be imagined and “Grue” was obvious. But his mom was a beautician who would apply more “natural” makeup to the deceased at a local funeral home. In the show, Mrs. Grue was brought in to help Zeke the Zombie ably played by the extra-thin and rubber-limbed Mike. Mrs. Grue herself was played by Nancy Golden—who bravely came out to Brooklyn to be a part of that sweltering hot set.
The segment of the Dr. Dread show that I can see over and over and laugh just as hard each time is when the Dr. goes to ask a question of the Sphinx. Jack seemed like the perfect choice to play the Sphinx himself. Jack and I gathered in the Mike/Mark office during lunch. The night before, I had quickly sketched up an angle on the Sphinx on a piece of foam core I had and used an office watercolor set to finish it off. I crudely measured Jack’s head and chopped out a hole that came pretty close. Mark had given me a Darth Vader figure (original!!!) and I quickly wired it to a stick and figured out a gimmick to move its arm up and down. I set up the angle in camera, stuffed the picture over Jack’s head and we got it in one take. The idea was to ask the Sphinx a big, mysterious question and to offer a bribe of a “Mummy Pellet.” Which in this case was a cough drop. When I flipped it at Jack’s head he jumped but recovered quickly. I just cannot watch without laughing. Stick with the on-line appearance till you find the scene and see if you find it funny.
As we edited that whole “show” we discovered that we could run the soundtrack backwards. This made the closing credits of Dr. Dread’s show run backwards along with the music! That was a delight to us all as it sounded almost scary. Mark found a “sound effects” record from Halloween, which had a moaning wind which sounded great for the theme music and the Sphinx scene. It also had some yowling cat noises which I thought added to the daffiness.
Speaking of music, Mark wrote the Cheap Laffs theme song which all three of us recorded in Mike’s apartment. Oddly Mark didn’t want us to join him in three-part harmony. I say oddly because when we three tried it, we were perfect together. I would not have thought Carlin had such a good ear—me, I had an okay voice but was never certain of pitch. For some reason Mark’s music was in all our ranges and Mike and I could follow his phrasing as tightly as Mambo Band. Together we sounded great. But Mark thought otherwise. Mike and I just rolled our eyes at each other and moved on. Mark recorded the Dr. Dread theme back in his apartment with Belinda supplying screams as musical counterpoints. It should be noted that Belinda trained as an opera singer. Other “public domain” music was suggested and found by long-standing office comrade and writer, Roger Stern.
One weekend during Cheap Laffs, I had to go off to see an old friend get married. I rented a tuxedo. I came in on a Friday and said, guys, I’m going to have this tux until Tuesday, come up with a bit! What happened was me reading “poems.” The poems were lyrics from TV-show songs. Gilligan’s Island, F-Troop, etc. It was Roger who produced the texts on demand! Of note during that other hot and demanding shoot, was that at the very end of shooting perhaps a dozen takes I began coughing. It seemed that could be made funnier. It was then I realized I wanted a prop, a cigarette. I didn’t smoke, but anything for the camera… We re-shot them all and that’s what was chopped up and dropped in through the series.
When we started doing Cheap Laffs, we wondered how hard could it be? Mike, Mark and I, had put together an entire edition of Omniverse (the third edition of Mark’s comic reality magazine) right in the middle of the office moving downtown. All done after-hours and me with my almost-new position as typesetter. Then immediately after that, we started producing OHOTMU in earnest. For the next 15 months we three, for the most part, labored mightily putting together the entire first volume. (Now, sure other people were involved, finely talented inker Joe Rubinstein inked all the figures, polygon Peter Sanderson contributed a huge amount of research and text. But it was us three, with our day jobs and who remained in the office, who did the physical labor of assembling version after version until it was right for all that time.) After that, we reasoned, doing something like a TV show would be a stroll in the park.
Not quite. Cheap Laffs was different from Omniverse or OHOTMU because all of the creatives had a desire to say something. When we realized that our effort was organized along the lines of (highly influential) Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the idea of everyone getting equal credit regardless of input. You were on the team, period.
Finally… how cheap was Cheap Laffs? Mark reckoned it wound up about $800 bucks per show.
Coda: For Mark’s Bachelor Party for his second marriage, we put together a Cheap Laffs reunion of sorts. We videoed the whole thing, doing silly and decidedly non-traditional bachelor party stuff. No dancing girls, no alcohol as such just a bunch of us doing silly things. For high hilarity we called it “Cheap Laffs III” – of course there was no “II”. Of course this was some time after the show, Marvel had grown a lot, changed a lot. Many new people were involved and were good friends. So, visible and doing ad-lib antics are Don Hudson, Kevin Tang, Rob Tokar, Mike Higgins, David Wohl, Karl Bollers in addition to Jack Morelli, Mike and myself. I ran across the tape a few years ago and could not get further than 3 minutes in. Considering how happy Mark and Catherine would be, were and had been it was far too much for me. I suppose I should transfer it to DVD if only for posterity’s sake.
End Part The Second