Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Talking "Fridays" With Tom Kramer

As many of you know, I'm a big fan of the old ABC sketch comedy show "Fridays." I've posted several takes about the show and whatever clips I could find, but there's much more to be written and said about that now largely forgotten effort.

Recently, a friend in LA put me in touch with Tom Kramer, who directed the short films on "Fridays", as well as the filmed commercial and TV parodies. One of my favorite Tom Kramer filmed bits was "Assassin M.D.," about a sniper who shoots people, then rushes down to the street to medically treat them. It was written by Rod Ash and Mark Curtis, the latter of whom died of cancer in 2004. Tom shot an hour-long video about Mark Curtis' final months called "50 Things To Do Before I Die". In it, Tom and Mark go to a Neil Young concert, which they hate, travel to Vegas, meet up with some of Mark's closest high school friends (including former writing partner Rod Ash), go on a cruise, and at one point, reunite with several old "Fridays" writers, among them Larry David and Larry Charles, as well as Jack Burns, Bruce Kirschbaum, and Bruce Mahler.

Watching that assembled talent talking about their time on the show made me want to do a bigger project about "Fridays", either written or videotaped. Even though it used the same format as "Saturday Night Live", "Fridays" had its own flavor, and in many ways remains unique among the many sketch shows that have since come and gone. And of course it helped prepare the creative ground for "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm". So I asked Tom if I could interview him about his time on the show, and he graciously made time to do so. Consider this the first step toward realizing that larger project.

DP: Could you tell us a bit about your background and upbringing? When did you decide to become a filmmaker?

Tom Kramer: I was a good Catholic kid from a dry cleaner family in St. Louis, MO. I started making films in grade school, first by editing home movies to music, then by making my own scripted films.

DP: Which came first for you -- film or comedy?

TK: Actually, I liked making dramatic films until I showed one before a large crowd at Loyola University in New Orleans, and everyone laughed. I then realized I had an accidental knack for comedy.

DP: Tell us about how you got involved with "Fridays". What did the producers John Moffitt and Bill Lee tell you about the project, and how did they know of your work?

TK: I was a freshman at Loyola when Dick Clark did a special in New Orleans and hired some of us students as runners. I took the next Fall off from college to work as a runner on an NBC series, "Dick Clark's Live Wednesday" in Burbank. It was a dream come true, but the show got cancelled. So I went back to college the next Spring and made a documentary film parody in film class. The summer after my sophomore year I made a drastic decision and dropped out of college. I drove back to Hollywood and gave a copy of my film to Bill Lee and John Moffitt, who I met doing the Dick Clark series. I didn't know that they were just putting together a pilot for ABC to be called "Fridays". I got a call two days later telling me that they wanted to use the film in the pilot. I was so excited, I couldn't sit down. That film, "Nauseating Spasms," aired on Episode 9 of "Fridays", I think.

DP: What was planning the show like?

TK: We'd meet on Sunday to pitch our sketches and get assignments for the week. Blocking and rehearsals would go on during the week with a dress rehearsal and air on Friday. I would write sketches as well, but mostly concentrated on films, which I would pitch on Sunday. Monday would be casting and location scouting, Tuesday or Wednesday shooting, Thursday editing, Friday sound mixing and then air on Friday evening. I would also direct anything else on the show that needed to be shot on location.

DP: Early in its run, "Fridays" was slammed by critics and other comics as a rip-off of "Saturday Night Live". Did any of this criticism bother you guys or make you write in a different way?

TK: We were so happy for the opportunity that we didn't care. Besides, it was a "rip-off" of "SNL" and we tried to acknowledge that and have fun with it.

DP: What were your initial impressions of the cast?

TK: I was most impressed with John Roarke, because of his impressions, and Mark Blankfield's incredible physical comedy.

DP: What were your initial impressions of the writers?

TK: Genius.

DP: What was it like being one of the youngest people on staff?

TK: I was very impressionable, but I think I was also allowed time to grow because of my age. They really made a big deal out of it when introducing my films.

DP: That's true. I recently watched the parody of "A Chorus Line" you did with Billy Crystal, and he praised you to the heavens. What was your favorite piece?

TK: "Cons On Ice" was my favorite, about a new convict in prison who has to prove himself on the prison ice rink.

DP: In the early stages of the show, comedy veteran Jack Burns served as supervising producer, head writer, and on-air announcer. He certainly brought a lot of experience to "Fridays", having worked at Second City in the 1960s, and in comedy teams with George Carlin and Avery Schreiber. Tell us how Jack Burns helped to pull the show together.

TK: Jack staged and blocked the sketches, and worked a lot with the cast. He also inspired the edginess of the show with what he always referred to as "that 'Fridays' edge."

DP: At a certain point in the show's run, he seemed to just disappear.

TK: Jack stepped aside to spend more time working with the cast in staging the sketches. He recognized the talents of the writers he helped hire and encouraged all of us to have more say in the show. He was a big "protector" of me as well, being the "young filmmaker," and to this day is a great friend and Hollywood "father figure" of mine. He did have some problems [with other staffers] but never with me. I remember when he left the show about two-thirds of the way in. I'm not exactly sure whose decision it was at the time. But things were pretty crazy back then. You can only imagine.

DP: One part of "that 'Fridays' edge" was of course the show's drug humor. It's no secret that various chemicals were ingested on "Fridays", but what was the comedic thinking behind some of the drug sketches like the "Rasta Gourmet," the pill-popping Pharmacist, and the dope smoking 3 Stooges?

TK: "Fridays" aired during possibly the last time in America that drugs were at all acceptable. It was the early-80s, and drugs were open and everywhere in Hollywood. Some of the writers were veterans of the 60s drug culture, so drug humor, like that of Cheech and Chong, was popular. I personally had very little experience with drugs at the time and didn't seem to get the humor like most others. I guess I was very naive. I resisted [using drugs] at first, but eventually got pulled in and struggled for years to get sober. By the way, not everyone [on the show] did drugs.

DP: "Fridays" was also known for being very political -- much more political than "SNL" ever dared to be. You guys bashed the religious right at a time when most shows and networks feared people like Jerry Falwell. You never let up on the Reagan administration, and perhaps boldest of all, the staff wrote and performed hard core material about US involvement in El Salvador, setting sketches in refugee camps, torture centers, and the like. What was the general political bent of the writers and cast? Where there any political arguments or disagreements?

TK: Most of the writers and cast were antiwar and liberal in their views, so I don't remember many arguments on that. Reagan being in office became great fodder for humor. John Roarke, in make-up, did a hilarious Reagan. Draft registration was just reinstated and I was turning 21, so I did several antiwar films. One I remember was the "Draft Lottery Sweepstakes," which was a parody of the Publisher's Clearinghouse commercials, only here the grand prize was a trip to Afghanistan.

DP: You were about a quarter century ahead of the geopolitical curve on that one, though back then, we were on Osama Bin Laden's side against the Soviets.

TK: As far as that anti-draft film goes, my main political point of view was pacifism. I was a member of "The Fellowship of Reconciliation." It wasn't practical, real world thinking. I was just against war and killing in general except maybe in active self defense. I think how war comes full circle and how America sometimes changes sides depending on who has the oil or whatever is typical of politics. I'm still antiwar but still not quite as knowledgeable or active as everyone was back during "Fridays".

DP: What were the audiences like during air? Any incidents?

TK: The audiences were great and enthusiastic, but the only problem, if you want to call it that, is that they were sometimes too loud so that the sketches couldn't be heard.

DP: Give us a sense of what it was like during the infamous Andy Kaufman week in early '81.

TK: Andy lived in character most of the time. The famous on-air fight was kept secret and I only found out about it a few minutes before it happened. It was arranged by Andy and Jack Burns. The following show [hosted by Billy Crystal], Andy came on to apologize and feigned a nervous breakdown. He hosted the first show of the next season as a born again Christian, and a lot of people believed him.

TK: Andy told some of the writers that his ultimate plan was to fake his death. A few years later [1984], I was almost killed in a car wreck in St. Louis. I was in traction in my bed, and I remember watching the news that Andy Kaufman was dead. Since I was seriously near death myself, I actually resented this and called the news station to tell them not to fall for the joke. They were going to send a news crew to my hospital bed to interview me; but then I talked to Mark Blankfield, who had the same manager as Andy, and he confirmed it. Andy had died.

DP: When did you guys get the sense that the show might be doomed?

TK: After the Iranian hostage crisis, Ted Koppel started "Nightline", which pushed us back a half hour, which hurt our ratings. That was the beginning of the end.

DP: We all know the names Larry David and Michael Richards. Who are some of the people, writers or cast, we should also remember?

TK: You should remember Mark Blankfield for sure, a reincarnation of Buster Keaton. Also, Larry Charles, who directed "Borat" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm", was on the writing staff. I'm just amazed that you remember the show at all!

DP: I loved "Fridays". Like I said, it's the "forgotten" sketch show from that pre-comedy boom period. It should be remembered.

TK: People ask me all the time what "Fridays" was like. It was the most intense experience I could imagine, my dream gig. I had the opportunity to enjoy the adrenaline of a live show with a live audience, but at the same time, have the creative freedom and control to write, produce and direct my own short films each week, starring people I idolized, including Oscar winners, all before I was legally old enough to drink. This was right before cable hit, so our audience was enormous.

DP: At one point, larger than "SNL's".

TK: I knew how lucky I was. I remember going off alone at times and crying in gratitude. But still, it spoiled me rotten and didn't prepare me at all for how Hollywood worked. It took many years of humbling experiences to rebuild a life and career. Between then and now I've fought with addictions, serious accidents and homelessness. I got sober and made a transition into making reality and hidden camera shows. When I got word that Larry David was offering me a chance to direct an episode of "Curb" [for the upcoming season], I screamed and then cried again. The first day on the set, I asked Larry if he remembered the first film I directed him in. He didn't hesitate: "Underwear Beach." He then listed several more of his favorite "Tom Kramer Films." That was an honor.

DP: Finally, how would you define the legacy of "Fridays"?

TK: A once in a lifetime opportunity, and totally exhausting!