Writer Brian McConnachie Sells Two Tickets to Paradise with \"Big Ship Radio\"

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Artist Feature,   From Issue 658   By: Mark Leffler

10th April, 2008     0

As we continue to rocket into the 21st century, awash in digital miracles and witnessing the evolution of the Internet, it's worth noting that the latest brilliantly hilarious creation of veteran comedy writer Brian McConnachie (National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live and SCTV) is a radio variety show.

That's right. Radio comedy variety - like the kind you grew up listening to when you were a kid. Or rather, like the kind you grew up listening to if you were a kid during World War II, since television essentially killed that art form in the 1950's when they found there was more money having Groucho Marx host "You Bet Your Life" on TV rather than radio.

Radio comedy/variety's Golden Age was brief and beautiful, like the blooming of a cherry blossom. Masters of the medium like Fred Allen, Jack Benny and Groucho Marx starred in some of the most popular shows of the day.

Non-musical radio entertainment flourished again briefly in the 1970s with the CBS Radio Mystery Playhouse, which featured some top stars, and syndicated programs like The National Lampoon Radio Hour.

Since that was one of the last times anyone put much time and energy into radio comedy/variety, it is worth noting that one of the major writer/performers on the Lampoon Radio Hour was, you guessed it, Brian McConnachie.

After leaving National Lampoon magazine in the 1977 to write for Saturday Night Live, McConnachie later migrated to SCTV, appeared in several Woody Allen movies, wrote for public television children's shows, and authored several books.

While gardening recently, he began getting ideas for a radio show.

He started hearing certain voices of friends (many who he worked with at the Lampoon Radio Hour) as the characters. Sketch ideas came. Radio was perfect. It didn't have the production costs of a magazine or a television show or movie. It would take some time and effort to produce well, but with the computer audio production capabilities of today, it would be relatively inexpensive to produce.

McConnachie had once attempted to start a magazine of his own, The American Bystander, which never got off the ground mostly because of the formidable start up costs and always rising cost of paper. Plus, most young aspiring professional wiseasses these days go straight to television rather than write for the relative pauper's pay of magazine work.

They are drawn to lucrative writing gigs on Fox comedies like The Simpsons and Family Guy or they prefer more permissive environment of cable, where savage topical satire and bathroom humor can co-exist on a show like South Park, working in a form rarely seen, well, since the heyday of the Lampoon, which just happened to correspond with McConnachie's editorial tenure.

Magazine humor in the Lampoon vein doesn't exist today, with all the really young funny writers migrating to The Onion, which is a single form parody, similar to but more limited in many ways than the Lampoon at it's peak, or television and movie work.

Lampoon Days

McConnachie's path on the Golden Road of Comedy Entertainment began when his mother read James Thurber to him as a lad. He recalls the rhythms of Thurber's prose, hearing it read aloud. McConnachie later displayed his mastery of first person narrative essays and parodies during his time at the Lampoon magazine, where his only equal was founder Doug Kenney, who also adored whimsical surrealism.

Born in December 1942 in Forrest Hill, New York, former site of the tennis championships, McConnachie is in the long tradition of urban and urbane New York humorists like James Thurber, Robert Benchley, S. J. Perelman, George S. Kauffman, George Plimpton, and Woody Allen.

He could have easily ended up writing for The New Yorker, had it been a hipper and funnier magazine in the 1970's. But at that time it was, as his Lampoon colleague P.J. O'Rourke once observed "like a trade magazine for the porcelain industry". Stuffy and a bit snobbish.

 "They say if you want to be a novelist, get a job on a newspaper. But I think Faulkner said if you want to be a novelist, get a job playing piano in a whorehouse, " McConnachie recalled in a recent telephone interview from his home in New York State.

That work led to a job in advertising, which is where he found himself languishing unsuccessfully when he discovered the new National Lampoon magazine in 1970, and knew he had to be a part of it. There was a bitter generational divide at the agency. "It broke down by age and over Vietnam. We had the Jeep account. There were enough old guys to make the young guys scared."

McConnachie was an odd fit in the world of "Mad Men".

He was given the task of reviewing television shows the agency's clients advertised on. He initially disliked forced viewing of the mostly bland world of 1960's sitcoms. Then he scared his co-workers with the increasing detail and lavish praise for the comedic brilliance of shows like "The Andy Griffith Show" and "The Beverly Hillbillies".

"They were just so sweet and nice and funny and dry. The one I thought was really brilliant was The Beverly Hillbillies. They had wonderful little gags. They'd come back from the country club and say, "those little lockers were so hard to change your clothes in."

"There was another which was just like the old Warner Brothers Bugs Bunny cartoon. Ellie May brings home a boxing kangaroo and Granny thinks it's a jackrabbit. When they box the jackrabbit is just kicking the shit out of her."

The reports led to McConnachie being sent to the Floor of Lost Men, given a desk and a chair but no work to do. It was considered rude to fire anyone. Eventually they would leave, having nothing to do.

McConnachie saw the Lampoon as his parachute.

"I had to be there. I was like some kid from Kansas going to New York to get the part in the show, but I did it from New York. I started going there with cartoons. Seeing Henry Beard, co-founder and editor).

 McConnachie wasn't writing yet for the magazine. He approached them with cartoons, which Beard bought; continuing to encourage the obviously brilliant but also obviously bent and skewed McConnachie.

The Irishman was fascinated and amused the staff of the nascent magazine, most of who engaged in blood feuds and casual slander as hobbies. Finally Beard asked him for some print copy, being none too impressed with the genial humorists cartoon skills, but recognizing the unique voice evident in cartoons like the one with lady telling the frog "I'm a nun. I can't change you into anything."

McConnachie's first piece was a parody, standard fare for the Lampoon. He produced a parody of the best seller "Papillion" which he'd read recently.  After that he notes, "I began contributing to every issue."

The National Lampoon has just been made available in DVD-ROM format, with every regular issue of the magazine from it's debut 1970 until it's demise in the late 1990's reduced to a shabbily produced collection of reprints and vulgarity masquerading as hard hitting satire, only published as a legal requirement to retain the Lampoon name as a property, to be whored out to an endless procession of direct to DVD sewage.

Still, big props to the people who produced the DVD-ROM, available through Amazon.com for under forty bucks. The collection has made it possible to access every piece

McConnachie wrote for the magazine from the first 1972 Escape issue, which featured a cover with an Adolf Hitler look-alike sitting in a tropical setting, in a whicker chair with a fruity cocktail in his hand. McConnachie left the magazine after about five years, partly due to tensions with Publisher Matty Simmons over missed deadlines on "The Naked and the Nude" a special edition about Hollywood, a favorite subject of McConnachie's.

"Everyone was doing special editions. It was my turn to go off and do one." McConnachie says. He points out that like a utility player in baseball, Lampoon writers were encouraged to "play all the positions on the team."

The regular monthly publication demanded a variety of humor, and a steady supply of it. McConnachie wrote comics, book parodies, magazine parodies, songs, and sketches for the Radio Hour. Gossip columns. Letters to the Editor. News features. Essays. Photo essay captions. Special editions such as O'Donoghue's Encyclopedia of Humor and Kenney and O'Rourke's 1964 High School Yearbook parody had been successful and promoted the brand. McConnachie wrote and edited paperbacks, producing several anthologies and an especially brilliant parody of the bestselling liberal bible "The Joy of Sex."

The Lampoon edition McConnachie edited was titled "The Job of Sex".
The special edition McConnachie created and edited, "The Naked and the Nude", is a savagely skewed but equally loving tribute to lavish show biz glamour and tradition. While suffering from stiff art direction, genius Art Director Michael Gross having left to pursue other opportunities in movies, the wonderfully silly trade paperback features work by Bruce McCall, Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi, and even, weirdly enough, Whitley Striber, who would later become internationally famous as the victim of alien abductors in his novel "Communion".

Streiber had moved into the apartment vacated by McConnachie and a friend. He remembers Streiber always had outrageous stories he appeared to be auditioning, filled with fantastic detail and ever increasing embellishments. He once told McConnachie how Steiber's father had planned the Kennedy assassination in their home.

Theatre of the Air

Recently PRX (Public Radio Exchange) Internet radio launched Big Ship Radio, a half-hour pilot of a proposed regular series for public radio or some similar host. McConnachie, in collaboration with performers like Lampoon veterans Emily Prager and Ed Subitzk, SNL writers Tom Shiller and Jack Handy, and many others, has delivered some of the most originally creative and exciting radio comedy produced in thirty years.

Peter Bochan, it should be noted, handled the production chores with a deft hand and a sharp ear. McConnachie wrote the pilot and assembled the cast. The genial lanky 6'5" Irishman plays the ship's genial, lanky 6'5" Irish captain, "Brian".

What it appears McConnachie and his crew are aiming at is at once a parody of 40's radio as a genre, and also creating an ongoing Screwball Romantic Comedy On The High Seas like Fred Astaire or Alice Faye would have starred in for MGM with cameos by Caesar Romero and Carmen Miranda.

When National Lampoon editor Michael O'Donoghue created the National Lampoon Radio Hour in 1973, he noted in an interview that "you can have 10,000 Etruscans charging on horseback into Troy, or wherever the hell they charged into," Having grown up with the medium, he realized that creativity and some technical skills could create what would take a cast of thousands and a budget of millions. Want to have elephants dancing on the wings of an airplane? No problem. Nuns playing ice hockey in front of the Intergalactic Council of Elders on Pluto? Piece of cake.
For Big Ship Radio, Producer Bochan uses an array of sound effects and skilled mixing to present the listener with a unique auditory experience. Careful listeners will hear John Lennon calling out "full speed ahead, which is from "Yellow Submarine".

McConnachie says hours were spent editing some pieces, but is clearly happy with the results. Theatre of the air has rarely delivered so well, and the results are as meticulously produced and deftly written as during the first episodes of the densely written and produced Radio Hour in the Seventies.

Recently McConnachie appeared at a Chicago event with Lampoon writers Anne Beatts and Chris Miller where he entertained the audience with a tape of Belushi singing The Unhappiest Man in the Sea, lamenting his crew forgetting his birthday, among other complaints.

McConnachie's blend of nostalgic fondness and quirky absurdity seen in "The Naked and the Nude" is on display in the crew of Big Ship Radio, from Margot Campion, ship Social Director and former Miss Delaware runner-up to Mrs. Chin (played by former soap opera actress and Lampoon contributor Emily Prager, her part recorded via satellite from Shanghai where she lives and teaches English), the tiny yet domineering owner of the ship.

The show is also filled with whacky Hollywood antics like the live rounds stuck in the ships gun barrels, which means children have to be kept away. The gun lobbyists Mrs. Chin has booked get drunk on whiskey and start shooting the ships dinner plates as skeet. Through it all McConnachie's Captain remains blissfully calm, like The Love Boat's Captain Stubbing on mushrooms.

McConnachie's odd view of the world is unique and his influence on younger writers can be seen in the popularity of fellow SNL writer Jack Handy's "Deep Thoughts", which is a first cousin of McConnachie pieces like the Public Disservice Messages and his wicked advice column parody "Tell Debby" where the columnist responds to each cry of personal misery with "How terribly sad." or "You've certainly seen more than your share of rainy days, haven't you."

The writers of The Simpsons have acknowledged his influence in one of the shows most enduring and brilliant elements.

Another significant McConnachie creation at the Lampoon was the comic "Kit and Kaboodle" which featured the graphically violent battles of a cartoon cat and mouse. Published in the 1973, it was given a special double copyright by editor Michael O'Donoghue at the time. O'Donoghue obviously recognized that McConnachie's original take on the absurd violence in Tom and Jerry could be ripped off commercially.

The comic, widely seen by millions of magazine readers of the Lampoon, which had legendary pass-along readership, obviously was the model for "Itchy and Scratchy" on The Simpsons.
McConnachie never sued, but says the show's producers have acknowledged the comic's role in the creation of the show's parody.

While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery to some, it is the sincerest form of theft to others (as fellow Lampoon writer and master parodist Ellis Weiner observed). McConnachie seems to care (to the extent he could be noticed to care at all) only that the right people know.

Which is a definite reflection of the kind, polite, well-mannered persona McConnachie is so well known for that he was featured in a series of Lampoon magazine promotional ads and has been seen in over a dozen major motion pictures, including "Caddyshack" and a couple of Woody Allen films.

McConnachie recalls one Allen role where he played the husband of Blythe Danner and the father of Juliette Lewis. He notes that he went from playing the husband of one of the sexiest actresses on the planet in a lavish New York apartment that would cost the GNP of a small Indonesian nation to buy, in a major motion picture directed by one of the greatest living directors and a little while later he was taking the garbage out at home. Sic Trasit Gloria Vanderbilt.

McConnachie's subtle and almost other worldly wit led some at the Lampoon like Doug Kenney to theorize that he was not human at all, but actually an alien from another planet sent to observe and report back.

One feels after speaking with McConnachie that the idea doesn't at all displease him. Like Andy Kaufman, Kenney, and other humor surrealists, McConnachie builds and lives in his own worlds with limitless possibilities where ballerinas can have trading cards and sell alcohol ("Drink Budweiser, the beer of ballerinas!") in his Lampoon piece "The Wide World of Ballet", and a gun magazine merges with a food magazine resulting in "Guns and Sandwiches Magazine" a parody he did in 1975.

One of his favorite sketches that made it to broadcast was "Name That Bat" which featured Gilda Radner and Belushi, both friends of McConnachie's from the Radio Hour.
In the show, contestants are put into a barn filled with bats. It's explained to the panicked contestants that they aren't expected to name the species of the bat. They have to give the animal a name.

"And it can't be something simple like Bob" he laughs.

His relentlessly applied reasoning is on display in something he wrote for the Radio Hour, which appears on "Gold Turkey" the greatest hits collection culled from the series, still available on CD.
"A Public Disservice Message" is one of a series of radio PSA parodies he wrote and performed.
"Don't send CARE packages to the so-called starving thousands in Europe. Because they're not starving at all. Can you afford to live in Europe? No! You can't even afford to visit Europe. And you know what they do with the CARE packages you send? They whack them with their polo mallets and kick them into their swimming pools, and have a good laugh at your expense."

After collecting three Emmy awards for his television comedy writing, he landed on Public Television's children's shows like "Shining Time Station" and "Noddy".

While McConnachie was certainly dismayed by the drug use at SNL, he wasn't shocked and outraged. He was an affable drinker, had certainly enjoyed the usual set of recreational substances that made the rounds in the Hunter S. Thompson era, and even observed the private celebration dance his friend O'Donoghue used to do when his cocaine dealer showed up.
"It seems that it wasn't that people did drugs. People did drugs like people drank. Some did it well, some didn't. You tried to avoid those that didn't but sometimes one had brilliant friends with reckless lifestyles and flat out death wishes, something dangerous and lethal when combined with drugs, alcohol and the jet fuel of money and fame. Some got strange. Some got stupid. Some got buried in funerals attended by the funniest people in the world on days when almost no one laughed and everyone cried. Some wailed," reflects McConnachie.

Kenney died almost certainly in part because of his excesses.

Belushi, a close friend and collaborator, died more publicly but certainly no less tragically than Kenney. Chevy became a depressed and pain pill addicted mess with a mean streak. Some snorted, some shot up, some ended up face down in the pool at the end of the party. McConnachie often disapproved of some of his friend's behaviors and the generally mean atmosphere at SNL made it easy to leave, largely due to the urging of Dave Thomas of SCTV.

McConnachie performed in Caddyshack, but avoided most of the rest, save for his appearances in the Allen films and a few others. He appears to have no interest in living in Los Angeles and writing screenplays that languish unproduced with unpredictable paydays at best. He remained in residence in New York, working for the children's television shows produced there. He eventually left the city, which he and his wife loved, for a more rural setting, more suited perhaps to a character in a Salinger short story.

McConnachie's second published prose piece for the Lampoon was Next Year's Best Science Fiction, which deserves an award just for the title. The piece is a parody of several well-known SF and other writers, including a SF parody of Salinger's classic "A Perfect Day for Bananafish."

In McConnachie's version, the main character meets a little girl and tells her the story of the banana fish and when she says she doesn't see them he goes back to his hotel room, retrieves a Martian blaster gun and points it at the little girl's head. "Now do you see them."

She does.

Brian McConnachie on:

* His attempt to start the magazine The American Bystander:
" It never raised the money it needed. It was coming at a time when paper was expensive. I didn't play it right. I shouldn't be the person trying to start a business. When I was at SNL there was the money to start it and to do a TV special and we could have raised the money. Every magazine has its story."

* His move from SNL to SCTV: "They (SCTV) called and asked me to come aboard. They knew me from my reputation. Harold (Ramis) knew me and Brian (Doyle-Murray). But the person who was influential in getting me up there was Dave Thomas. SNL had   become too big. Drug dealers were getting the floor seats. Most creative ventures have a cycle of five years. They need to refresh. At SCTV what they had seen was everyone on a train going to Hollywood and they didn't want to not be on it. They bought the deal from NBS to do a longer show with music in case SNL tanked. They all knew it was a mistake, but they never stood up to NBC. That was the 1981-82 cycle."

* Writing comedy: It goes with what you think is amusing. I have found that it's a bit of a leg up on stuff. I love playing with the language so much. Some words will come together and you work backwards. At SNL I had a phrase "Name that Bat". It was a game show where people go in a big barn and you have to name them. You have to have a twist. They don't have to name the species; they have to actually give them names. Gilda and Belushi were the contestants. "Cochise at Oxford" was a name I came up with making up movie names for "The Naked and the Nude". "


* The difference between writing for magazines and writing for television: "It's a cadence that you want. I'm pretty good at dialogue. I can throw it anywhere. There were a number of tricks at SNL that they'd use to get a piece on the air. Part of it is casting. Having Belushi just brought an energy level. At SCTV they were great at putting two things together. "Miracle on Mean Streets. Rick Moranis was playing Jimmy Stewart. There was very little internal politics there. They had their fangs but you never saw them.

* Working as an actor on Caddyshack: That was real nice. Initially it felt that with Doug in charge it was like an elaborate comic book. I was just an actor and I think I was a little jealous I was just performing. I didn't see the humor of it at the time. Rodney (Dangerfield) seemed obnoxious. But they knew what they were doing. A lot of it was improvisation with Harold (Ramis) directing.

* Acting for Woody Allen: Casting Director Juliet Taylor is an early morning walking partner with Bruce McCall's wife and she called me up and asked me if I would audition for "Husbands and Wives". I'm living in New York and I'm in a movie, stinking rich, beautiful apartment, married to Blythe Danner, and then I'm back home taking out the garbage. You're warned not to talk to Woody. Don't ask him questions. During the scene I gave Blythe a little kiss on the nose and Woody stuck his head around the corner and gave me the "okay" sign, which he never does. That was a thrill.

* Moving from advertising to the Lampoon: I was a cashier and a maitre d' at a saloon and the people I knew didn't know or care about the Lampoon. But then it started having a life of it's own. We'd go to the racetrack together, have drinks together. There was that point where the age thirty looms large and you want to have accomplished something.

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