Martin Mull on ‘Fernwood 2Night,’ the original ‘Anchorman’ and ‘Between Two Ferns’

Martin Mull
This week has brought us the remarkable phenomenon of the President of the United States appearing on Zach Galifianakis’ brilliant Funny or Die interview series “Between Two Ferns,” a delicious bit of anti-comedy that one would have thought would be too “out there” for the likes of Barack Obama (Refreshing to be proven wrong on that point.) The concept behind “Between Two Ferns” is that Galifianakis, trading on his new status as a bona fide movie star, interviews a big celebrity but without having the slightest notion of what he’s doing and, most often, revealing, eventually, some obscure animus towards his guest. (The Bradley Cooper episode, referenced by Obama, is a classic in this regard.) It’s the state-of-the-art of awkward “cringe” humor, wherein the mirth arises out of the show’s refusal to successfully ape the conventions of a properly run talk show, of which there are plenty if you like that sort of thing. The cringeworthiness of the proceedings seems pointless, but it’s inherently subversive, as it takes a functioning thing and breaks it to investigate the underlying premises. (The Eric Andre Show on Adult Swim, which is brilliant, is a high-energy, “mayhem” version of the same concept.)

I’ve been watching Galifianakis do his marvelously fractured and “aggressive” standup since 2006 or so, and his career trajectory from the basement of the UCB Theater to the Oval Office has been a gratifying one to see, for me at least. The concept of the “broken” talk show doesn’t start with him, of course, as he’d be the first to admit. It goes back at least as far as the demented antics of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, if not earlier. On this continent, we have SCTV and Saturday Night Live, of course—both produced countless fantastic talk show satires—but the most sustained precursor is certainly Norman Lear’s Fernwood 2Night, starring the unforgettable duo of Martin Mull as the egocentric host Barth Gimble and Fred Willard in the Ed McMahon slot as the winningly obtuse Jerry Hubbard.

Fernwood 2Night was a spinoff of Lear’s groundbreaking “anti-soap opera” Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a soap opera set in the ineffably American town of Fernwood, Ohio which ambitiously generated a whopping 325 episodes in its short run. (Richard has rhapsodized about the recently issued box set on DM before; you can buy the DVD set here.) Essentially, the idea behind Fernwood 2Night was of what we would today call a local cable-access talk show—except the host doesn’t seem to realize that he’s a penny-ante local idiot. As with Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, the humorous condescension towards small-town America was built in, but showed a lot of affection for it at the same time.

In addition to “Between Two Ferns,” another clear heir to Fernwood 2Night is Will Ferrell’s sleeper 2004 hit Anchorman. In Anchorman, Ferrell’s clueless and egotistical Ron Burgundy is the Barth Gimble figure, and instead of a single partner, is surrounded by a passel of sycophantic, over-confident idiots. However, it’s clear that the Jerry Hubbard slot is occupied by the impossibly stupid Brick Tamland, played by Steve Carell. And don’t forget: the acknowledgment of a debt to Fernwood 2Night is clear in the casting of Fred Willard to play station director Ed Harken. (Similarly, Galifianakis’s choice to do his show between two FERNS seems like an obvious shout-out, as well. Maybe not.)

The recent newsworthiness of “Between Two Ferns” reminded me of an appearance Martin Mull made on The Kevin Pollak Chat Show (itself a take on Charlie Rose) in 2010 in which he discussed the origins and concept of Fernwood 2Night (which in its second season became America 2Night to enable to allow Barth Gimble to make less contrived use of LA celebrity culture).

I’ve linked the video below: the relevant portion starts around the 42nd minute and lasts about 12 minutes. I’ve taken the trouble to transcribe a healthy portion of it for posterity’s sake. I’ve cleaned up the inevitably awkward nature of spoken communication slightly, as well as editing out most of host Pollak’s questions and comments. A few corners are cut in the name of readability, but nobody listening along could rightfully say I’ve misrepresented Mull anywhere. It’s very long but there’s actually quite a bit more in the video, so keep listening.

Well, first of all, acting with Fred Willard, it’s like following someone who refuses to use their turn signals. You have no idea where he’s going, ever, and that was fabulous. Was it heavily scripted? Yes. … There was one show, we were … two minutes short, and Norman Lear said, “Can you guys improvise something?” And Fred and I had just met on the set. This was after about the first two weeks, and he said “Can you improvise something?” and we said, “Sure.” And we said [conferring], “Why don’t you say that and I’ll say that—Okay.” And we ended up about 18 to 20 minutes over. And they liked it enough so that they cut back on some of the other stuff. So from then on, it was more, bullet points. That what I would know is, “Your guest today is Kevin Pollak, Kevin claims to have been abducted by people from Mars, he and his girlfriend. Apparently all they wanted to do was talk to the girlfriend, but not about her but about Kevin. That’s all you need to know.” … So we’d have that much information and then we could just go with that.

The chemistry was an absolute tangible commodity, too. We did a thing, it’s been 30 years, and [in the winter of 2008-09] we were asked to go to San Francisco to this comedy fest, to recreate [Fernwood 2Night] in a club, they said, “We’re just going to do 25 minutes of clips, and then you guys come out, and if you could do 10-15 minutes in character”—and I was like, Oh my god, I mean that was 30 years ago—“and then we’ll do Q&A.” … It took 90 seconds—tops—to fall right back into it. Fred and I were right there and we brought people up from the audience as our guests, etc., and then left the stage and came back five minutes later for Q&A, and I realized why we fell back right into it, is that there was no difference between the characters between who we really are and those characters. There was no acting involved! I am a pompous ass, and he’s an idiot! It’s a palpable thing.

I had never acted in anything, unless you want to count my draft physical, and I had been reading for things, when I decided that the road giveth and the road taketh away, I’m gonna try to be an actor or something. … and had been excused from most readings before even finishing the paragraph. And meanwhile I had gone to see Norman Lear about possibly writing on Mary Hartman, and we had a lovely meeting, I liked him a lot, and he said, “We don’t need any writers but it’s been nice meeting you.”

Six months later I’m in the middle of a mix on an album—and a bottle of Courvoisier—about halfway through both, and I get a call, “You’re gonna read for Mary Hartman tomorrow,” and I thought, well, I might as well finish the Courvoisier, because I’m not going to get it anyway—that’s my history, and lo and behold I got it. I was under development to NBC at the time, and they loaned me out to Mary Hartman for four months, so I worked on that show for four months. Playing the “hilarious” wife abuser! I was killed at the end of my four months with an aluminum sectional Christmas tree goes right through me, and so now I’m off that show. The next day NBC said, “You know, we’re really not going to do anything, you can go on and continue on”—but now I’m dead. So I said to Norman, “Has anybody ever asked to come back as their twin brother?” And Norman said, “Everyone asks to come back as their twin brother.” And so he said, “But I do have an idea, the only problem is I want to do it in front of a live audience,” and Mary Hartman was done as a studio shoot, no audience, and he said, “I just don’t know if you’re the one.” And I thought, well, talk about Br’er Rabbit in the Briar Patch, I’ve been doing live concerts for the last 15 years, so I put together a special evening at the Roxy on Sunset, with my band, a one-shot evening, and they were nice enough to give me the booking, and invited Norman, so he could see me in front of an audience.

Pollak: You set it up just for him.

Yeah. And it went surprisingly well. About half an hour into it, there was a really big laugh or something, at which point I completely broke everything [broke character], stood up and said, “Norman, do I have the fucking job or not?” Norman says, “You have the job, keep going!” And that is how the show came to be made.

Pollak: You’re going to do a nightly, half-hour talk show that, if I may, as others have described it, will be “purposely lame.”

Intuitively you don’t think, comedically lame, what you do is you say, I’d like to keep it very, very low-budget, I’d like to keep it extremely local, and we had been having success with Mary Hartman, which was basically sequestered in a very small town in Ohio. And we said, this show should come from there, and the host should be a guy who thinks he’s the Johnny Carson of Fernwood, Ohio. What would that be? “My first guest tonight’s the water commissioner, wonderful man, bring him on out. Lot of water out there.” And you bring him out. It’s the water commissioner! It’s nothing, it’s nobody. And that thought I just loved.

And occasionally, the writers later on would come up with guests, I’m not saying we did this without writers, we had writers… Alan Thicke was one of the writers, and he would come up and say, “We got this grandmother, who wears a mini-skirt, and tap dances, and yodels at the same time.” And I would say, “Okay, let’s get rid of the mini-skirt, the tap dancing, and the yodeling, but if you’ve got a grandmother, that sounds great.” That’s what we tried to do, was to try to bring it down to that small-town thing. Like one of our most successful things was, we had an episode where the segment was called “Talk to a Jew.” And what happened was, Mr. Rothschild from New York City was pulled over by the state trooper doing 65 in a 60 zone outside of Fernwood. Noticed the name on the license, we don’t get too many people like that here, and we thought, rather than pay the ticket, why not do something for you folks here at home, we can bring him on, open our mics up, anybody out there who’d like to actually talk to a real Jew, we actually have one here in Fernwood, Ohio. And he just sat there, just sat there. … Fred and I looked at each other and looked at him and we’d smile, and there was a live phone right there, never rang until finally just before commercial break, the phone did ring, and it was somebody trying to find out when Barbra Streisand’s new movie was coming out. And that was the extent of that. But it was such fun to take lowball things like that and expand them.


Here’s the inaugural episode of Fernwood 2Night, complete with that “Talk to a Jew” segment, which starts at the 18:28 mark:

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
Fred Willard meets Stalking Cat
12:06 pm


Fred Willard
Dennis Avner

On this episode of the VH1 documentary series Totally Obsessed, which I think ran in 2004, Fred Willard hosts a segment on Dennis Avner, self-styled “Stalking Cat”—he appears to have had his name legally changed—who underwent an ambitious series of body modifications (tattoos, implants, piercings) in a largely successful effort to become a feline-human hybrid. Avner passed away under mysterious circumstances in 2012. 

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Avner spent time in the Navy as a sonar technician. According to his obituary in Modblog, he “identified strongly with his feline totem animals and in what he told me was a Huron traditional of actually adopting the physical form of ones totem, he transformed himself not just into a tiger, but a female tiger at that, blurring and exploring the gender line as much as the species line.”

As the Seattle Times reported in 2005, “He has had all his teeth removed and replaced with tigerlike dentures and fangs. He has had his lip split to resemble the mouth of a cat. He has six stainless-steel mounts implanted on his forehead and 18 piercings above his lip to which he can attach whiskers. He has had nose and brow implants, and silicone cheek, chin and lip injections. The tips of his ears are pointed. And he has so many tattoos they almost cover his body.”

I confess that I find the segment difficult to watch. On the one hand, I’m glad that Avner/Stalking Cat was able to pursue the life he wanted—on the other hand, one has to wonder about the possibility of body dysmorphic disorder or some other form of mental illness and a chosen life of exclusion from most of life’s offerings. It appears that he did have close friends who supported him, including but not limited to the furry community and the body modification community. 

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
‘Ray’s Male Heterosexual Dance Hall’
09:22 am


Fred Willard
Bryan Gordon

Bryan Gordon’s metaphor-laden Oscar-winning 1987 comedy short, Ray’s Male Heterosexual Dance Hall, reflects the go-go Reagan 80s back to us, as perfect a time-capsule piece of “the era of style over substance” as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street was…

From Sabotage Times:

“A meditation of the manoeuvrings of the corporate world in the 1980′s, the film satirizes the lifestyles of the ostensible successful in a nation obsessed with Gordon Gecko-style business moguls. Full of brilliant lines that highlight the duplicitous nature of the board room and its meaningless double talk, all delivered whilst middle-aged men in suits dance hand in hand. Gordon has gone on to direct episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office but thanks to the wonders of the Internet its possible to view his only film project in full on YouTube. It also features a cameo from Fred Willard if you needed further convincing to go and watch it immediately.”

Stop, you had me at Fred Willard… You’ll see several other now-famous faces, too, in Ray’s Male Heterosexual Dance Hall.

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Fernwood 2Night: The Great Lost American Comedy

Fernwood 2Night was a talk show satire starring Martin Mull and Fred Willard. Preceding Alan Partridge and Larry Sanders by quite some years, Fernwood 2Night came on the air in 1977 when I was eleven years old and I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever seen. Where I lived, it was on a station called Channel 53, a low rent UHF channel in Pittsburgh that was like a junkyard of cheaply licensed television. Like a real life version of the fictional cheapo cable channel in SCTV, Channel 53 showed an insane low-budget mix of Marx Brothers, WC Fields, Aussie women in prison soaps, Monty Python, Flash Gordon serials, The Avengers, Hammer horror, Sgt. Bilko, My Favorite Martian, Jack Benny, Tom Baker-era Doctor Who shows, freakazoid televangelist, Dr. Gene Scott, Dave Allen at Large, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman five days a week. It was TV heaven for some, telly hell for others. Me, I loved it.

That’s where Fernwood 2Night comes in. Fernwood 2Night was the summer replacement series so that Mary Hartman’s cast and crew could take a much-needed break from pumping out five weekly episodes. It was my favorite TV show and I would throw a FIT if my parents wanted me to go someplace when it was on. Like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, it was on five nights a week, too, and I probably saw ALL of them.

Martin Mull was brilliant as Barth Gimble, the twin brother of Garth Gimble, a caddish wife-beater character Mull portrayed on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman who had come to a gruesome end (he was impaled on a Christmas tree!). It is implied that Barth has legal issues (which may or may not involve an underage girl in Miami) so after his brother’s death, he’s stuck working in the podunk town of Fernwood, where he feels smugly superior to everyone, especially his announcer/side-kick Jerry Hubbard. played by Fred Willard.

In a scene-stealing role that defined his entire career playing the clueless white guy—is there ANYONE more Caucasian that Fred Willard?—Willard portrays what is quite possibly the dumbest, most dense character in all of television history. I’ve always thought that Willard was a comedic genius—the obtuse angles of his observations, so off the cuff and spontaneous, so REAL—and he was never funnier than he is in this role. The core cast was rounded out by their dour band leader, “Happy” Kyne” (Frank De Vol) and his “Mirthmakers.”
The Fernwood 2Night writers overlapped somewhat with the Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman crew, but by and large (I think) Harry Shearer seemed to be the head writer, with other material provided by Mull and Willard and future rightwing shill Ben Stein. Alan Thicke—who must’ve been a hip, hip guy before Growing Pains, he even wrote for Richard Pryor—was the producer and the whole enchilada was, of course, executive produced by the great Norman Lear. Guest appearances included Dabney Coleman, Kenneth Mars, Jim Varney and even Tom Waits

In the second season—which was renamed America 2Night—the show “moved” out of small town Fernwood to the fictional town of Alta Coma, California, “the unfinished furniture capital of the world” (mainly so the writers could stop having to come up with contrivances for why a particular celebrity would happen to be in Fernwood, Ohio in the first place). The America 2Night series saw the likes of Gary Coleman, Vincent Price, Robin Williams, Peter Frampton, Steven Allen, Paul Lynde, Milton Berle, Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston and many others making guest appearances. America 2Night was shown on the United Broadcasting System, or UBS, “the network that puts U before the BS.”

Other than sporadic showings on TV Land in the early 90s, the 130 episodes of Fernwood 2Night and America 2Night have seldom been seen since they originally aired. It’s a comedy goldmine that’s remained untapped for a long time—as brilliant as the original SNL if you ask me. Back in my Disinformation days I tried to license the show for DVD release but even Norman Lear’s company had no idea who owned it (turns out it was Sony who still haven’t done anything with them). A couple of years ago, I was able to download the entire series of Fernwood 2Night from a rare TV torrent tracker and I was in absolute TV heaven again. 

Dr. Emanuel Kazinsky explains the differences between the races:

A spanking demonstration by Marshall Petty:

After the jump, more Fernwood 2Night and America 2Night clips…

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Original synthpunk pioneers The Units present ‘Unit Training Films’

The Units were one of the first “rock” bands in America to ditch guitars completely and focus their set-up on drums, vocals and synthesisers. Leaders of San Francisco’s post-punk synth-led music scene (a lot of which is now resurfacing with the current interest in “Minimal Wave”) the comparisons with Devo are clear, but still don’t detract from The Units’ cracking tunes and tangible influence on the new wave generation. Tracks like “High Pressure Days” and “I-Night” are still sought after by record collectors and forward thinking DJs alike, mainly because they still rock.

During live shows, The Units would perform to a video accompaniment of re-edited instructional shorts and found footage called the “Units Training Films”. Some of these films have been recreated and uploaded to Vimeo by founder member Scott Ryser. While still being very much of their time, they are excellent and definitely rank alongside similar efforts by the likes of Church of The Subgenius. Ryser has this to say about them:

The “Unit Training Film #1”, produced by Scott Ryser and Rachel Webber in 1980, was compiled from films that the band projected during their live performances. The films were satirical, instructional films critical of conformity and consumerism, compiled from found footage, home movies, and obsolete instructional shorts. In 1979 and 1980, Rick Prelinger was a frequent contributor and occasional projectionist at the bands live performances in San Francisco. The film was also shown sans band in movie theaters around the San Francisco Bay Area including the Roxie Cinema, Cinematheque, Intersection Theater and the Mill Valley Film Festival .

There was never a set length or definitive “finished version” of the original Unit Training Film. Just the current version. The film varied in length from about 10 to 45 minutes, depending on how long the Units set was on any particular night. Clips were constantly being added and others were deleted and discarded once their condition became too poor to project any longer. The film was constantly breaking, and the projectionists always kept a roll of Scotch Tape nearby for timely repairs.

This 5 minute version, compiled by Scott Ryser, includes some clips of the band playing along with a brief interview by a very young Fred Willard during the period 1980 - 1982.

Who’d have thought Fred Willard was a fan?!

Here is “Unit Training Film 1: Warm Moving Bodies”

After the jump, “Units Training FIlm 2: Cannibals” plus some more classics by The Units…
For a crash course in the awesome synth-punk sound of The Units, check out History Of The Units: The Early Years 1977 - 1983.

Posted by Niall O'Conghaile | Leave a comment
Teenage Mother: Nine months of Trouble!

Teenage Mother is one of a small handful of what could be called “quintessential” or even canonical, if you prefer, exploitation films of the 1960s. Which is not to say it’s all that “good,” either, but it does have a rather full quota of exploitation staples such as sleazy drug dealers, disapproving parents, gang violence, and of course, a lying slut!  (Film School Rejects called Teenage Mother a “grindhouse Juno”—I’m not sure how true that is, but it sounds good in theory, doesn’t it?)

It’s also a peculiar cultural marker of pre-“sexual revolution” American history. Beyond the scare tactics and corny drama, the film’s pièce de résistance (and the real reason for this otherwise merely “okay” movie becoming so notorious) was, of course, its full color live birth reel complete with speculum and very close close-ups. You have to marvel at the business genius of director Jerry Gross. His company Cinemation Industries—which would later release Fritz The Cat, The Cheerleaders, The Black Godfather and Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song—pioneered an unusual traveling roadshow presentation with this film that included a sex education lecture at each screening. Why? Because it would make it defensible in court. It wasn’t “obscene” it was educational! In a pre-porn era, this stuff was box office boffo. Gross just wanted to show a woman’s vagina on-screen, but the only way he was going to be able to do it legally back then was in the guise of a “sex education” film with a ham-fisted moral message —as if he gave a damn about anything other than collecting the box office receipts—and… medical footage.

The existence of Teenage Mother is a reminder, not of a more innocent age, in my opinion, but an era just more ignorant of sex in general. The film jumps through several odd hoops at once, but If you know the back story, it makes it an even more interesting cinematic curio… I guess! Incidentally according to IMDB, Gross paid a hospital just $50 for the birth footage.

The hottie in the lead role is actress Arlene Sue Farber—undoubtedly a grandmother by now—who a few years later starred (as “Arlene Tyger”) in Gross’s fake Italian sexploitation flick Female Animal (which god help me, I own the soundtrack for). Teenage Mother also has an unexpected cameo from a baby-faced Fred Willard as the gym teacher.

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Rent a White Guy
03:36 pm

Current Events

Fred Willard

This article, about a rather peculiar business practice in China, is quite amusing, I think you will agree. Hell, with my look, I would be in high demand there! From The Atlantic:

Not long ago, I was offered work as a quality-control expert with an American company in China I’d never heard of. No experience necessary—which was good, because I had none. I’d be paid $1,000 for a week, put up in a fancy hotel, and wined and dined in Dongying, an industrial city in Shandong province I’d also never heard of. The only requirements were a fair complexion and a suit.

“I call these things ‘White Guy in a Tie’ events,” a Canadian friend of a friend named Jake told me during the recruitment pitch he gave me in Beijing, where I live. “Basically, you put on a suit, shake some hands, and make some money. We’ll be in ‘quality control,’ but nobody’s gonna be doing any quality control. You in?”

I was.

And so I became a fake businessman in China, an often lucrative gig for underworked expatriates here. One friend, an American who works in film, was paid to represent a Canadian company and give a speech espousing a low-carbon future. Another was flown to Shanghai to act as a seasonal-gifts buyer. Recruiting fake businessmen is one way to create the image—particularly, the image of connection—that Chinese companies crave. My Chinese-language tutor, at first aghast about how much we were getting paid, put it this way: “Having foreigners in nice suits gives the company face.”

I just have one question: What KIND of racism is this? Positive racism? Lucrative racism? Self-loathing Chinese racism? It’s clearly racism of one stripe or another, seemingly positive, at least for white males who look like business men, but still, it’s a bit confusing, isn’t it?

Rent a White Guy: Confessions of a fake businessman from Beijing (The Atlantic)

Via Steve Silberman’s always interesting Twitter feed

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment