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Can You Repeat That?
Written September 15, 2007

 

As students in the master's degree program in radio and television at Syracuse University, we were stereotyped by our previous life experiences, meager as they may have been.

Edie McClurg was perceived as a public radio administrator, because that's what she had done back in Missouri.  We didn't consider her an actress.  She didn't consider herself an actress.  We had no idea that Edie would go on to a multi-decade Hollywood career portraying comic characters.  And as far as I know, we didn't give her any roles in our student productions. 

I was perceived as a slightly goofy scientist, because I had been a physics major as an undergraduate.  So, when two different comedy productions in the summer of 1970 called for a laboratory researcher, I was typecast to fill both parts.

In a two-minute television sketch spoofing Hai Karate after-shave lotion, I played Dr. Loren Phippsley, the developer of a new version of "Jiu Jitsu" that would repel Women's Liberation types while still attracting normal females.  I explained to an interviewer (probably played by Vin Ialenti) that we men in the lab had gauged the scent's effect on women by wearing it ourselves and observing the interest it aroused in "some of the secretaries and laboratory assistants here at Jiu Jitsu."  I added a small piece of business.  As I spoke the word "secretaries" I briefly glanced away from the interviewer and smiled and nodded at an unseen person off-camera, apparently acknowledging a pretty co-worker who happened to be in the room.  Without a pause, I turned back to the interviewer and delivered the rest of the line.  Then I looked back at the unseen female, a little lower this time, and slightly licked my lips.  The director (probably Mike Watt) held my closeup until I had finished the delayed double-take.  My subtle leer got a big laugh every time we played the tape, as the "serious scientist" betrayed his lust.

And in a couple of vignettes for Vin's Fantastic Fred Legend radio show, I played Dr. Wendell Mettinger, audio analyst of Annette Funicello's recordings.  If you go to this article about Fantastic Fred, you can listen to several excerpts from that show, including one of my bits.  In the other bit, I claimed that in a certain song, Annette had hit a previously unknown note when she sang the word "suit."  I raised my pitch when I said "suit," but my voice cracked at the same time, and the result truly was an unrecognizable pitch.  Here, listen to it yourself. 

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1:07

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Recorded July 16, 1970, at WAER-FM.

Notice that when I spoke the word "suit" again three seconds later, I failed to repeat the effect.

It's not unusual for performers to be unable to duplicate their vocal feats.

One example is Natalie Merchant.  The hit of her MTV Unplugged appearance with her band 10,000 Maniacs was the song "Because the Night."  She nailed this performance, as they say, and you can still hear it on radio sometimes.  Listen to the climax and the thrice-sung "take me now," Natalie's voice breaking on the second "take," followed by a glorious upward glissando.

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0:47

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Recorded April 19, 1993, with a live audience.

Then Natalie announced she was leaving the band to become a solo artist.  That's how she performed the song later that year on Late Night with David Letterman.

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0:51

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Recorded November 4, 1993, from CBS-TV.

When she had finished, there was a slight pause.  Then the audience dutifully applauded wildly and Dave came over as usual to say "that was wonderful."  However, an embarrased Natalie hung her head after the compliment; she knew she had done it better.  (YouTube videos of these two performances are here and here, but the difference is less obvious when you're distracted by pictures.)

Finally, I wonder whether Stevie Nicks could repeat the effect she achieved in the audio excerpt below.  It's from her rather autobiographical cover of "Just Like a Woman," with Bob Dylan himself playing harmonica and guitar.  The highlight for me, besides Stevie's substitution of pills for pearls, is the falling croak of despair on "I just don't fit."

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2:17

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Recorded in 1994.

Some performances may truly be once in a lifetime.

 

TBT

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