Rob Bartlett is a comedian, voice artist, and radio personality who is heard daily by millions of people every weekday morning through his performances on the nationally syndicated radio program IMUS In The Morning, also broadcast on TV via MSNBC. He was interviewed by Firezine backstage at the MD Theatre in Hagerstown during one of his many personal appearances on November 11, 1996.
FIREZINE: Were you influenced by the Firesign Theatre?
Rob Bartlett: Yes, yes, from my many, many college years, of trying to do some kind of similar style of radio stuff for the college radio station WALF, at Alfred University. The way I got a job as a DJ is that I convinced them, the general manager of the station, that we could put together kind of a radio version of Saturday Night Live. Fortunately for me, he had never heard of The National Lampoon Radio Hour. So I was able to convince him to do that and we created the Back Alley Radio Funny Farm, the BARF Show, as we called it. And we had two yuck filled episodes. I'm sorry, three. We had the first, The Premiere Episode, The Thanksgiving Episode, and the third was The Greatest Hits Episode. We actually went three shows before it just kind of fell apart.
The general manager was huge Firesign fan. At that time all that kind of Dada stuff was really kind of hip, and cool. I was not as familiar with them as he was. We were playing some of their stuff and we thought this was the way we should kind of go. That was one of the reasons why we only went three episodes. Ha, Ha, Ha. We weren't able to capture the same kind of magic.... on the budgets we were working on at least.
FZ: Were you doing voices back then too?
RB: Yeah, but they were mostly voices of the people from the school. You know? I made fun of the guy who was the head of food service, and you know, stuff like that. We did some really weirdo stuff in there. I wish I could remember some of the sketches we did. There was a news parody in it as I recall. There were commercial parodies, and game show parodies, and it escapes me. It's all in that fog filled haze of college. This is going 20, 21 years ago, back in the 1970s. (Sigh) It's so weird to think that it was that long ago. It's so bizarre.
But I thought that anyone that could put John Lennon and Groucho Marx on a cover of an album, to me, could not be all bad. That was a ... you know Lennon & Marx, that was such a, you know, where you kick yourself, "I should have thought of that one." That was such a great... you know. A lot of their stuff was stuff that you could segue between album sides. We were patterned after kind of a forgotten radio format which was adult oriented, album oriented. Where you could play 9 songs in a row without having to do a break. When you track whole sides of an album, you know, we were always looking for something to separate between different styles of music. OK, you do the folk set, you know, somewhere in the show and you need something to segue before you started doing some of the other stuff so you would slip in a little Georgie Tirebiter or what was the sketch of the address at the high school. "Eat It Raw!" "Rah, Rah Rah!"
FZ: Principal Poop
RB: Right, right, right, right! That stuff was just great. Just slip those in-between, just so you could change gears. We were an educational station. You didn't have to play real spots, we played PSAs.
FZ: What were some of your other influences?
RB: Carlin, obviously. I'm a huge Jonathan Winters fan. Marx Bros., Martin & Lewis, Abbott & Costello, stand-ups, a lot of the Catskill guys only because to me they really kind of personify the whole art form of what it's really like to be standing with a microphone. And then the people of course who took that, like Carlin and Pryor of course who took that to the next level. Lenny Bruce, naturally, and I'm also a big fan of comic actors. I'm a big Alan Arkin fan. Some of the stuff that he's done has really been brilliant. I could watch "The In-Laws" every day of my life. That is such a great, great movie. And also Peter Sellers. Peter Sellers was just so gifted. It's been one of my dreams to do one of those types of movies where you could play 19 parts. Although a big influence in terms of stand-up, and one of my earliest influences, was Pat Cooper - who was some guy I imitated in Kindergarten. His style of delivery, very cut short, very hammer it home.
FZ: Now this show is very different from your regular format of radio work.
RB: The show we're doing tonight is... if I had to choose something to compare it to, it really is more like one of those old style Vegas revues. You've got music and girl singers, and they open the show, they do little opening act. There's usually an intermission when we work the theaters, where normally in a smaller venue, we would just go right into my segment, more like a Las Vegas style revue. But then I bring them back later to do "Big Butted Woman" with me. They help to introduce Sal Manella, one of my characters, and then Sal, in turn does his tribute to James Brown which is of course "Big Butted Woman". There's a lot of music in this show, which is one of the things that kind of sets me apart from a lot of other guys that are out there with the vests and the microphones.
After the intermission I come out in the first half of my show and it's basically strictly stand-up. Basically the usual things but approached from a different way. One of the things I seem to do best, and I don't know why, is to take things that have been done to death and just find one way that it hasn't been turned yet. So in doing a thing on a McDonald's drive-thru, I think, I hope, I've been able to come up with something that has a little extra to it. Airline safety turns into a little pantomime. I do the stewardess showing how to operate a Seat belt.
FZ: Comedic character sketches, you're saying?
RB: Yeah, the characters that we do in this show is somewhat of a nod towards the stuff we do on the radio. But for the most part, I find, that if they see you doing something that you do on the radio, it doesn't quite translate, because they have that picture in their head. In their mind they picture Rush Limbaugh or whatever they think your Rush Limbaugh sounds like. But when you do Rush Limbaugh live it just somehow...
FZ: It doesn't quite make it.
RB: I don't know why. If I shave off my mustache I can get the look.
FZ: The Firesign kind of had that same problem transferring to the visual.
RB: Transferring to the visual is really, really, difficult. Python, another influence obviously, took the TV show and transferred it to record, very well. The other way around man, there's something about that, and I don't know why. Some of the stuff does work. Some of the Rush songs have worked in the past when we've them done . Last weekend I did a thing with Greenfield and Al Franken, where we did one Rush song and one Bill Clinton song parody. They worked OK, but see then we had the girls and whatever, and it was a musical number and it's different. But I've tried to do Scott Muni live, and it has never worked. Some of the stuff that has worked is just the kind of stuff that lends itself to this kind of a venue. Which would be the Pakistani stuff with the comic Sheki Yaboota. Even Buddy Meavi which is the Japanese stuff. There's a little theme there, stand-up comics of the world. But for the most part it really is difficult. So I try to take the flavor of things and incorporate into the show. Sal is a character which is one of the first characters I did with Imus, but one of those that just kind of went by the wayside with other characters in favor of other characters or whatever, which is just kind of the natural progression of things, the evolution. The only time I bring Sal back on the radio is during the best of, when I play "Sal Monella's The Night Before Christmas In Brooklyn".
FZ: So you don't depend on your radio personalities for your show?
RB: Yeah, I mean for a large part of that is the translation. You'll hear a lot of different voices. Actually when the girls are on, I heckle them from back stage, as Beavis and Bubba. So I do it as though Beavis and Bubba are in the audience making comments on the girls. That works because they don't see me.
FZ: They sound pretty good.
RB: They're the strongest collection of Bartletts we've had in the 6 years we've been using them. We've been through about 10, 12, separate incarnations.
FZ: Like Toto in THE WIZARD OF OZ?
RB: Yeah basically. It's like the Platters. There's been so many different versions they're like white guys now.
FZ: Now that the presidential campaign is over, has that wiped out a lot of your material?
RB: Jesus yeah, we're screwed. I don't know what the hell I'm gonna come in with on Monday. That was just so much a part of it. But hopefully the fact that the Republicans have maintained Congress, and Clinton got in, they'll still be enough backbiting and in-fighting, providing there's not too many Republicans in the cabinet. Which is what I've heard is rumored. Clinton's going to try to play nice.
I'm for putting Al Damato in for Commerce. Obviously for Commerce Al Damato will work. You can't get any worse with Mickey Kantor with the Japanese. You know how much the Japanese love Al Damato. So there's no reason why you can't get him cooking in there. Or Bob Dole, stick Bob Dole in for Secretary of Defense. Make the war hero thing finally work for him, or possibly put him in for Secretary of State. What could be better representing the United States in a foreign country than somebody who lives in his own world, as it is.
FZ: Toward the end of the campaign I saw Bob Dole doing the Soda Jerk bit and it looked like he was in training for his old job?
RB: That was really sad. I had seen him on the 60 Minutes interview, and I was so impressed with him. To hear anyone who knows him talk about him, they all said the same thing, which is that he was not able to translate. He was not able to bring out who he really was to the American people. It was really sad. I felt for him. When he fell off the platform, it was almost like it was a metaphor for the whole campaign. He had this cloud that followed him everywhere. It was really, really sad, and I felt bad for him because he really should have had a better shot at it than he did.
He broke a cardinal rule which is, "You never use the same joke twice to the same crowd." That's like one of those times when I've done three or four shows back in the days of the comedy clubs, and by the fourth show you're thinking, "Did I do this joke already?" And you're so used to saying the same joke show after show after show, that you begin to repeat yourself in the same show.
FZ: You must churn through a lot of material being on the air every day like that.
RB: Oh yeah, but fortunately, you know, the show is current events driven. So the source, the wellspring is always there. It's just a question of what is hotter than what else is hot. I mean the focus shifts from OJ to whatever, and back and forth and here and there. Hopefully, maybe this OJ thing will start boiling up again. He's hitting on these 18 year old interns. Who knows what he's going to be doing. You know, nothing surprises me in that whole deal. It really doesn't. I mean I don't think we've seen as strange as that thing's going to get. I really think it's going to get out of hand.
FZ: Where do you think it's going to go?
RB: I don't know. I don't know. I just don't know why Fred Goldman doesn't just, you know, blow him away. Just blow him away. He can do it now. They're not televising the trial, there'll be no witnesses. I can guarantee you that nobody in the court will testify against him, you know? I mean just having to sit through Kato and all this stuff again is just.....
FZ: I really enjoy your web page www.robshow.com.
RB: Oh thanks. We're still testing out some new ideas and stuff. I have a really good guy, a programmer who's doing the planning, and he just added support for frames now. There's some video things we're thinking of sticking in there, and I've got an idea for a do it yourself answering machine message page. Just trying to get the technology to work for you.
FZ: What I like is that you can do a lot of your work from home. You call in to the IMUS show, and you can do a lot of your cyber stuff, etc.
RB: Oh absolutely! The computer has become a huge part of the whole creative process. It's amazing to me. It became clear to me a couple of years ago when I first joined an on-line service... I was bouncing between Compuserve and AOL, and back and forth and back and forth, you know, through the test period and I'd get the discs out of the magazines for the next one and do the test period for that one, and bounce back and forth... ahh, how many people are out there and how connected you get. I've made quite a few friends across the Internet. It's kind of strange in a weird way that we've found a new way to get together by being separate. By separating ourselves as far as we possibly can, we brought ourselves together. It's the greatest irony to me. But as a matter of fact a couple of people from the Imus newsgroup will be here tonight, friends that I've corresponded with by e-mail, because they can contact me through the web page directly. I always write everybody back. I get 8 to 10 pieces of e-mail a day. Just a little note, thanks for writing, whatever, answer a question, send it back, and I just started corresponding. It's like pen pals or whatever.
FZ: It means a lot to me and the fans to be able to communicate.
RB: It's weird, it's really strange and it's become part of the day. E-mail gets checked four or five times a day. You know I belong just so I can use the news services. Pull down the latest whatever, see what's on the wire services. Bounce over to pathfinder and see if there's anything coming through over there. There are 10 or 20 different places you can get these news sources.
FZ: You don't have to buy the paper anymore.
RB: I know, if you want to check facts and stuff. Actually it's almost too much information. You can handle all this information and they're all off, three or four or whatever, so you can find nine or ten different versions. So how do I know?
FZ: You can take a joke from each one.
FZ: I like how you introduce your characters on the IMUS show. When you do say Mike Tyson you always start out with a belch.
RB: It's establishing a character. You're painting a portrait in the mind for people listening. Radio of the mind is what Imus likes to portray. That's why he has Richard Nixon do that, "Imus in the Morning" (Nixon voice) thing, because that is something that does that. Because if you don't, especially with Charles' bits, they're formatted and they're patterned specifically. There's a specific format to them so that it works. There's new material around that frame work. It's like within the confines of a sit-com. It's like a little play. It's really hard to do. I mean I've attempted to do it with my characters. Charles has really got it down to where he's got it. You know? He knows format to the beginning, middle and an end.
FZ: That cues the listener's mind.
RB: Yeah. You've got to remember that Imus has always said, "55 miles and hour. 55 miles an hour." Whenever we try something else that's just too little subtle... "55 miles and hour." Which means: it may sound like it's subtle, but if you don't make it larger somebody who's driving to work at 55 miles an hour is not going to pick it up. It's like the kind of thing where we're sitting back in the production studio and we're actually listening with both ears. It's sometimes something will be a little too subtle or something will be not developed enough or whatever. Whatever it is, then it's off, being different. So he would say, "55 miles and hour." So that's how those things help. It tunes people in, It's almost like theme music to introduce something.
FZ: You enhance that with sound effects. Like when Perot comes on, you have all these springs bouncing around.
RB: That's all Imus' input. I've been writing a long time but it's not anything that would have occurred to me. That is something definitely that "I-Man" prepared.
FZ: He has his hand on the board?
RB: He's not touching the buttons, but he knows the way he wants something to sound. Joey Defazio is our production engineer, and Imus will say he wants a specific sound effect. He wants glass breaking, we'll say, for Larry King's Patton. Charles writes in every Patton, taking out the lights for a slide show with a gun, a machine gun, whatever it is. He wants a specific sound. And it's also timing too. That's the other thing that really amazes me. He did a thing way back at NBC, a thing called Robo Comic, where we needed a gun shot and a sound effect of a robot falling apart in pieces. We spent 20 minutes trying to get the timing right, and we did. And we're talking fractions of seconds. This was using tape and not the digital workstation the way we do now. And we're talking fractions, about a 16th of a second from funny to not funny. And that's what Imus has got. You know we kid him about being deaf and all the rest of it, but when he's got those headphones on and he shuts his eyes, he knows. He knows exactly the kind of sound he's looking for; levels, mixes, even the song parodies. He approves every single mix. "Well this is wrong, this needs this." I said, "This is what I did on 'OJ Simpson doing 'Searching'." He said, "It's not enough. You need to do a harmony vocal along with him. So that's two, it's double tracked." So I said, "OK." I did it, played it back, "That son of a bitch, he's right." You know what I mean.
FZ: That's what a radio background does.
RB: Right. He's spent 20 or 30 years doing it. He knows! It's funny because he's also got a great eye for visual stuff. The way stuff is on a page. He can look at an ad in a magazine and say, "What is this? This sucks! This should be here, this should be there." He's right! You should see some of the photographs he takes out in the Midwest. He's amazing.
FZ: He's like an instant editor.
RB: Yeah, he really is. He can do it visually in terms of looking at a script, and he hears it. That is definitely one of his strengths. Something which is, you know, I'd love to learn more about. But I think it's one of those things that either have the ability or you don't.
FZ: The IMUS show is going out over television as well?
RB: Yes, on MSNBC.
FZ: How do you feel about that?
RB: I was one of the first people who thought it was kind of a stupid idea. Although we'd done CSPAN a number of times, that was one camera, there were no breaks. It really was a kind of voyeuristic kind of thing. There were no camera moves, it was one guy with a camera. But I was shocked at how many people saw it. I mean shocked. All of a sudden MSNBC came along and I hate to do a radio show on television and blah blah blah. Well they did such a great job in terms of the production values, making that studio look good. And the way that there going in and out now, they've really got it down to a science. I mean it's great. I'm shocked. I'm shocked at how good it is.
FZ: Has that changed your comedic way of thinking?
RB: Not really, it doesn't effect me as much as I think it effects them. It's much more difficult for Imus to try and format his stuff. For the most part I'm still doing the bits, so I don't have to think as visually as they do. But they've really done a great job on it, I've got to say. I was very pleasantly surprised when I saw it. You know it kind of took a while to gain speed but it did. I'm real impressed.
FZ: Where do you want to take your comedy in the future?
RB: Hopefully the radio will have me for a couple more years then we'll do whatever we need to do with that, and keep doing these live things and maybe segue into TV or film. I do commercials. I do very few voice over stuff. I do a couple of TV commercials. I have a Wendy's commercial comin' out.
FZ: How about a video of you show or something like that?
RB: Well I did a special for Connecticut Public Television. We did a satire of their fundraisers, and satires of all their little programs, and won two regional Emmys. We had fun. We had fun. Maybe some of that stuff will turn up on the Internet, clips of that. Rush Limbaugh as the Conservative Gourmet. We cooked roast Spotted Owl as our endangered entree. They actually got a Spotted Owl from a museum, and they got a chicken with the feet on it somewhere, I don't know.
FZ: How about recordings, have you put out any CDs at all?
RB: We've got a CD of some stuff from the show and some little sketch kind of things that I did just for the CD.
FZ: Any final thoughts?
RB: Semper Fi!
FZ: Anything you want to say about Firesign?
RB: Thanks for paving the way. Some of this subversive material that we can do now, you kind of broke the ground for us.