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I'd Rather Eat Pants
A Five-Part Radio Comedy by Peter Ackerman
Reviewed by Charlie Summers
Before I begin reviewing this self-proclamed "radio comedy," let me take a moment to talk directly to the executives at National Public Radio. The rest of you, please hang on a second.
As a long-time listener to NPR, one who literally listens hours every day, Morning Edition, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and many other programs (my personal favorite contemporary radio program is Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, even though laughing at the show darned near got me killed on the New Jersey Turnpike once), I think I speak for the vast majority of your listeners when I tell you:
We don't care that you're opening a "West Coast Multimedia Production Center."
No, really, we don't. I understand you're proud of having unnecessarily spent a bunch of money building studios out in Los Angeles when you have the same resources available to you at any of the hundreds of Public Radio stations around the country, and that's fine. But knock it off with the sending hosts out there for no good reason...you're starting to look like the local TV stations who send a reporter LIVE to the site of an accident that was cleaned up hours ago. ("Traffic is now flowing smoothly, Dan, but this morning was snarled due to the overturned chicken transport...") I mean, no serious political decisions are made in La-La Land or HollyWeird, and if we wanted to know how Winona Ryder is doing with her community service, we'd be listening to Howard Stern. So stop "touting" it as an accomplishment...we don't care if you record under Oscar's trash-can lid as long as what you produce is interesting and informative.
Ok, I'm finished with the NPR execs...everyone else can come back now. To celebrate the opening of their, "West Coast Multimedia Production Center," NPR is airing a five-part radio comedy which was recorded...er...somewhere else. (I know, I know; try to think of it as irony instead of just silly.) "I'd Rather Eat Pants," written by Peter Ackerman, is so befuddled and unfunny that I'm reluctant to refer to it as a, "radio comedy."
Certainly, this production suffers from most of the same problems as almost all contemporary audio drama. There's no "training ground" for radio drama anymore, and actors used to "techniques," when limited only to their voices, tend to work so hard they sound like ac-TORS instead of characters. And since I've watched and listened to true professionals of the art ply their craft in an almost effortless fashion (they work hard, but it doesn't show), I'm obviously expecting much more from contemporary performers than they are usually able to provide.
But in this case, I honestly don't know where to start. An excellent cast, made up of professionals I have tremendous respect for, are saddled by a script that is about as funny as watching pants dry. There is a terribly loose plot "fleshed out" by bad puns, silly one-liners, and useless "running gags" that don't even walk. Even the audience seems strained to laugh at anything the actors deliver (except for the two women sitting down front the producers apparently had the sense to "liquor up" - they'd have to be inebriated to snort and guffaw at things like, "It brings out your...er..." "Nose."). According to the NPR website, "It's the first time [Mr. Ackerman has] written for radio." Dear lord, please let it be the last.
Ed Asner stars as Abe Pepperstein, one of the heroes of the piece. Mr. Asner is probably best-known as "Lou Grant," but he has tremendous amounts of experience at voice-over work, and is probably the best of the actors here. His character is saddled with having to growl most of the time, but he handles the role with the best frustrated grumblings he can muster. Yeah, ok, it's casting to type (think of Mary Richards sitting in Lou Grant's office), but he's good. And in most cases, he remembers a little mic technique.
Wish I could say that for the rest of the cast. Anne Meara, one of my long-time favorite sketch comediennes starring as Mabel Pepperstein, is constantly projecting to the back of the house. Um...certainly comedy (when it's available, which it isn't here) works best before a live audience, but it's a really bad idea to forget you're doing radio comedy. I've watched a lot of legitimate radio actors work before audiences, and even though they play to the house they never lose sight of the microphone. Don't misunderstand me, Mabel is a loud character...but Ms. Meara is projecting even in intimate scenes. It's...unnerving.
The guy I feel sorriest for is Derick Cecil, late of Push, Nevada. First his show gets cancelled, then he gets saddled with a muddied character (named, "Wisdom," apparently as an example of subtle satire, or at least as close as this script gets) who's drives the Peppersteins to Los Angeles. Hopefully, casting agents won't be listening to this...based on his work in the oddly fun Push, he's a whole lot better than this.
The cast is filled out by other accomplished actors and actresses, but after a few minutes you're more embarassed for them than interested in anything they have to say. There are scheduled cameos (as yet unaired as I write this) by both Bob Edwards, host of Morning Edition, and Susan Stamberg, Special Correspondent for NPR. Mr. Edwards is an excellent newscaster and a wonderful interviewer, but having heard his attempts at comedy performance in the past, he should keep his morning job. Ms. Stamberg, the "Rhea Feikin" of NPR who has stayed around far past her prime and is now neither of those things, has a voice that affects me in the same way as fingernails on a chalkboard, so I'm really not looking forward to this.
It's been suggested to me by more than a few people that I should stiffle my criticism...after all, they say, shouldn't we be encouraging NPR to do more audio theater, both comedy and drama? Isn't the fault more that there isn't the training ground for writing and acting this dying artform than this specific example? Shouldn't we all write and tell NPR how much we loved their ramble into audio theater, even if it fell a little short of expectation?
Horsepucky. There's no point encouraging incompetent drivel like this; we want to foster new listeners to radio theater, not drive them away in horror. I realize that NPR execs will use this as an excuse...er...reason to assume radio theater doesn't work any more, and will blind themselves to the simple fact that lousy radio theater never did work. If this is the best that NPR can produce, I respectfully suggest they get out of the business now, and let the people who actually know how to do this...do this.
There's another complaint; contemporary organizations who "do this" nowadays mostly refuse to learn from those who actually made a living at it; one prominent person suggested once that there was no interest in listening to the voices of the past, better to "learn" from those doing it today. That kind of hubris by those struggling in the darkness, who ignore the very people who could guide them into the...well, less dark, is one of the biggest causes of the sad state of audio theater today...but alas, that's also a complaint for another time and isn't applicable here, since it's painfully apparent the producers of "Pants" never bothered to ask anyone.
The cause of modern radio theater has been set back at least another twenty years with this embarassing attempt. I urge you, however, to listen to the production on the NPR website and make up your own mind. Just don't say I haven't warned you.
Charlie Summers, who since his early 20s has been practicing to be the best curmudgeon possible and by now has it down pat, is a long-time Old-Time Radio program collector who currently maintains the most popular OTR discussion mailing list on the Internet, the Internet OTR Digest, publishes The Nostalgia Pages, and takes instructions from his four year old daughter, Katherine. His reviews prove once again that those who can, do; and those who cannot, criticize those who do...his commentaries only prove that he's cranky. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.