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Years and years beyond the fringe

May 7, 2012

Mary Ann was my sister’s childhood best friend.  They were 8 or 9 years older than me.  I did not have a crush on Mary Ann.  Is that what you thought?  Shame on you.  No, just kidding.  She was a pretty girl.  You’d probably have had to not be in your right mind not to have a thing for her.  But I didn’t.  So just get that out of your head right this minute. 

Around the time I was nine, Mary Ann brought over to my house, for my sister to hear, a long playing vinyl recording  (the technology of the day) of Beyond the Fringe, a comedy revue from Great Britain starring Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller, that was taking Broadway by storm.  I think.  Actually, I don’t know if it took Broadway by storm or by drung, but it took me.  It took my hand and began an entire new chapter in my education.  Comedy.  I honor them for it.  Anyway she brought that record over around 1959.  Over 50 years later, I still have it.  I don’t remember swiping it.  I don’t remember her giving it to me, and I think I’d remember that.  At any rate, I have it, and it has been an enormous influence on my life. 

She also brought to my family’s attention a radio program called The Midnight Special that was on WFMT twice a week, originating on Saturday, from 10:15 p.m. to 1 a.m., and then that show being repeated on Wednesday afternoons.  WFMT referred to the program, affectionately, as their weekly aberration.  WFMT was otherwise an all classical music station inChicago.  I began listening to this radio program, this aberration, The Midnight Special, every week.  I was 9.  I wasn’t allowed to stay up ‘til 1 a.m.  Even on a Saturday.  Was I?  I don’t remember ever asking that question, not even of myself.  I don’t think I’d ever cared about staying up late before.  I’d move the radio from where it lived by the sink so my mother could listen to classical music while she did the dishes.  I’d move it from there to the kitchen table, at the end of the table by the door to the basement, with my back to the back porch and the backyard.  And why does back porch have a space between the two words, while backyard doesn’t.  Something a bit weird there.  Probably has something to do with the Estrucans.  Or that mystic society that uses the pyramid with the floating eye in it.  What’s that called?  Oingo Boingo or something, right? 

Anyway, I’d listen to The Midnight Special, with the volume low, every single Saturday night.  For.  Years.  For years and years.  I’d have the volume way down low because my parents went to bed every night at 10pm, and their room wasn’t far from the kitchen.  I’d close the kitchen door, in a house where the only interior door that ever got closed all the way was the bathroom door.  Even my parents’ bedroom door only got closed most of the way, never all the way.  And my dad, dressed in his pajamas, would wander out, every Saturday night, sometime between 11pm and midnight and stand blinking in the kitchen light, scratching his butt, and ask me what I was doing up so late.  I’d tell him I was listening to the Midnight Special.  We had this exchange every single Saturday night.  It wasn’t a ritual.  It didn’t seem like our little joke.  It seemed like this thing I did every single Saturday night – staying up late in a house where no one did that – was something of too little matter for him to remember.  Sad that.  He had so little interest in the activities of his youngest son that he wouldn’t bother to remember from week to week to week to week.  Years later, he managed to confirm this impression further.  I don’t if what anybody did made an impression on my pop, unless it effected his wallet. 

Most of the time I’d get to listen to the show again, on Wednesday afternoon, sometimes with my mother.  And it was neat to share that with her.  The show played folk music, comedy routines, show tunes and odds and ends.  I think they used that phrase, odds and ends.  They played Josh White, and Big Bill Broonzy, and Ledbelly, of course, and Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart, and Nichols and May, I think.  Probably Cook and Moore, because somehow my best friend George and I decided we needed to look to see if anyone from Beyond the Fringe had done anything else.  We were kids.  What did we know?  We found Once Moore with Cook and other similar, and similarly absolutely brilliantly hilarious albums.  Should we have it destroyed?  That’s a line from one of their bits.  Referring to a cat.  Beyond the Fringe, led to Cook and Moore, and eventually to Monty Python, but also led back in time to the Goon Show.  I’ll never understand what people find amusing about Benny Hill, the chubby British comic that used to be on TV here all the time.  Benny Hill.  I don’t get that.  But Cook and Moore and some of the others, they had it going on, for me.  

So Mary Ann leaves the Beyond the Fringe album behind, and leads me to The Midnight Special, and these two things have been of enormous meaning in my life.  I found community.  Other people of similar sensibilities.  

First record I ever had, even before Beyond the Fringe, was The Weavers at Carnegie Hall.  From my mom.  Aside from loving me, I believe she liked me.  And I liked her, aside from loving her.  I have a really nice photo of her from 1941.  Isn’t that amazing.  I’m like two hundred years old.  Hey, Truman was president when I was born..  I mean that’s like early 19th century, right?  Yes, I actually was born before there were covered wagons.  Hey, the wheel was still kind of new.  And walking upright.  Hey, breathing air.  Sex with another something.  That was new.  I mean, that was strange, right?  We go along, partenogenesis is just fine for generation after generation and then, all of a sudden, boom, sex is no longer really private.  You have to share it with someone else for it to work.  I mean the fun part is there either way, but now, if you want to hurl your DNA into the future, into the next generation, you have to do so via progeny.  Although cloning offers some intriguing possibilities.  At one extreme, we don’t allow the cloning of humans.  At the other extreme, everybody on earth could be me.  It’s an interesting thought. 

I don’t know that I saw Maryann after that brief period when she was probably a senior in high school.  I don’t know if my sister remained friends with her once they’d both gone to college.  Different colleges.  And I would bet my bottom dollar that Mary Ann never knew how big an influence she was on my life.  But she was.  I care about comedy a lot.  I’m an actor, and I’d rather do comedy than drama.  I’ve studied it, performed it as standup, improv, sketch comedy, tv sit coms, on film.  But I don’t know that any of that would have happened if not for Mary Ann.  Well, I did find Rocky and His Friends without her help, and that was another major influence on my sense of humor, but all the same, without Mary Ann, without Beyond the Fringe and the Midnight Special, I don’t know who I’d be.




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