"If it was just sort of weird, campy stuff to be snarky about, I don't think it would be worth all this trouble. But just the layers and depths of the talent and the surprising poignancy in personal stories and a glimpse of history, that to me is what makes it all worthwhile."
– Steve Young
Guy MacPherson: Hello, Steve?
Steve Young: Hello, Guy.
GM: How did you know it was me?
SY: Well, I don't get many calls from British Columbia, quite frankly. I'm hoping to turn that around but right now I think you're the only one I've ever received. And you called right on time.
GM: That's the least I could do. Are you working now?
SY: Yes. We're kind of finishing up. This is the last week of production for this Maya & Marty Show I'm working on at NBC. A little six-episode miniature run of a variety show. It's part of Lorne Michael's empire.
GM: This is where we see Jiminy Glick.
SY: Oh, yeah, that kind of made a resurgence on that show. That and a lot of other guests. A lot of SNL people have been working on it so it feels like SNL summer camp at times.
GM: Is it Maya Rudolph?
SY: That's right, yeah.
GM: She's the only Maya in show business I've heard of.
SY: There's Maya Angelou, who is passed away, and curiously enough Maya Rudolph has done a Maya Angelou character.
GM: On the show?
SY: No, I think it was more like a few years ago on Saturday Night Live.
GM: You're coming to Vancouver. Have you been before?
SY: I have not. I was in Portland, Oregon, once for about 36 hours and that's the extent of my northwest explorations. But I've got four shows that I'm doing out there next month. First stop is Vancouver.
GM: You know, technically we're in the southwest of Canada.
SY: You right! I never thought of that.
GM: People here say Pacific Northwest and I always say, come on, that would be Alaska if we're talking North America.
SY: You've refreshed my perspective on things.
GM: So this show. It's a movie that you're bringing to the Rio Theatre?
SY: It's a selection of vintage clips. About ten different clips in all.
GM: So you'll be hosting.
SY: Yeah, I get up and I explain the genre and how I accidentally stumbled into it through my work on the Letterman show. Early on in my Letterman career in the early '90s I was asked to head up a segment that had already been going for quite a few years called Dave's Record Collection. I was the one who had to go out to thrift shops and used record stores and see what I could find for real unintentionally funny record albums that we could put on the show and hear a little sample of, and Dave Letterman would have a joke. So I was going out to buy the material. We'd run through a lot of bad singing celebrities early on. That was kind of the meat and potatoes for a while. William Shatner and so on. But there were a lot of weird instructional records and just oddballs of every description. But I started coming back from my shopping trips with an occasional souvenir record album from a company convention or sales meeting. What conceptually thrilled and shocked me was that there were entire custom-written musicals about working for General Electric or Coca-Cola or Westinghouse or Ford tractors. Musicals that felt in many ways like Broadway shows but they were all for company insiders. They were sort of infotainment about here's the new model you'll be selling and here's why you should be excited about the coming year. And I just loved this stuff. First of all, I thought, great, we can get some cheap jokes out of it – and we did put some of these on the air – but I just loved the fact that it was this juxtaposition of things that did not seem to belong together at all, which were peppy show tunes and lyrics about selling lawn mowers or light bulbs or silicone products or what have you. I just thought this seems like something comedy writers must have made up but it was real.
GM: And earnest.
SY: Some of it was tongue-in-cheek. It was all over the map. I mean, some of it was terrible, quite frankly – just cheap and slapped together. But the better stuff often commissioned by the really big successful companies in the fifties, sixties and seveties was just dripping with production value and talent and money and they were hiring top level professionals to do these things and I was amazed to find myself walking around weeks after that record collection piece was over and I was still singing to myself songs from the diesel engine musical or the insurance musical or whatever. And I just thought, something very strange is happening here. This stuff is way better than it should have been. What is it, how much more is there, who did these things, why, how did they feel about it? So it was the beginning of a collecting and research odyssey which culminated in 2013 with a book co-written with my friend Sport Murphy. A book called Everything's Coming Up Profit: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals. That, by the way – Everything's Coming Up Profit – is the actual name of a miserable little show for a floor tile company in 1969, but it really does encapsulate Broadway and business all in one title. And that would have been fine if that was the end of it, but then I started finding films. They floated in from film collectors, they came in from cast members of these shows who'd had things stashed away in their basement. I realized that film was really the new frontier of this. And I've got a 90-minute show in which I explain who am I, why did I find, how did it happen, and then we plunge into a real smorgasbord of truly surreal and wonderful material on film from the sixties and seventies.
GM: So people are at once laughing at it and also enjoying it.
SY: Yeah. Some of it really does not get the laughs any more that it was trying for; it just feels like we're looking at other-wordly material and we're just amazed at how did they ever think, number 1, this was a good idea; number 2, why did they film it? Some of the crazier things just stand out as train wrecks in some ways but at the same time some of them, the quality level is so good either in the music or the film production or both that you find yourself saying this makes no sense that this exists but boy is this a well-done work of bizarre work we were never supposed to see because these things were just for the company insiders. The public could never come to these events, were not supposed to see this privileged insider information. That any of it has survived is kind of remarkable.
GM: Did the conventions or sales meetings sometimes have a live production and other times it was on film so it could be shown around the country?
SY: Some of it's very unclear to me. One or two things were definitely close-circuit television recordings that someone shot a kinescope of. A couple things like that. But sometimes it was, alright, here's the live recording of what happened on stage that night at the so-and-so convention. Sometimes a stage show was apparently so beloved by the company, they said, 'We have to redo this for film.' And some of them seemed to be that. I have probably the most outstanding piece in my evening's rundown called The Bathrooms are Coming. This was an American standard musical from 1969 for distributors of bathroom fixtures, basically. I had the record album for a long time. It's one of the blue chip record albums in my collection. The music is insanely well done. I always wondered what's happening in all these scenes on the cover and then the main vocalist from the project, who I finally tracked down, said she had a 16mm colour film in her basement. For me, this was like finding the Dead Sea Scrolls. All the mysteries would be revealed. And it was different from the stage show, I've now learned. As a film, it's really crazy and semi-incoherent but I love it because it's a train wreck of a film with music that's gonna stick in your head and I feel so attached to these people now after I've tracked them down and interviewed them and gotten to know them. So anyway, all over the map. I have one that's an animated project that was done by Hanna-Barbera for a Hamm's Beer sales meeting. So that clearly was never really a live show but it has elements of a musical that's just animated, so that's a bizarre curiosity.
GM: When you found these films, were they feature length or were they 15 minutes? What were they?
SY: Very variable. Like The Bathrooms are Coming, I have a 20-minute segment that I show. It's not complete. It was edited down at some point by the late husband of the woman who gave it to me. I guess they thought, number 1, no one's ever going to look at this again except us so we should cut out all the parts that we are not in and all the boring product demonstration shots, so enough remains that we kinda get the idea. But I have some things that are only like a minute or two minutes long. The Hamm's Beer thing I mentioned I bought off eBay. That's a 30-minute film and I'm just showing like a 3.5-minute excerpt. The strongest-willed person in the world probably is not ready to watch many of these things in their entirety so I've curated some clips because we need to cover a lot of time and as much as you might enjoy Hamm's beer and their marketing plans for 1970, you really only need about 3.5 minutes.
GM: Hey, we had bathrooms before 1969.
SY: We did.
GM: What do they mean they were coming?
SY: First of all, I found out years later that the original stage show, some of the characters were doing numbers in sort of revolutionary war-era costumes so I think the title was a play on The British are Coming. But that's never explained; that's just a theory I've come by later. But American Standard, like any decent well-meaning company, has to create demand for new products. They had this study saying that so many bathrooms are out-moded and inconvenient and women are fed up and women need a bathroom revolution. Well, the new products are coming in the seventies that are going to bring you bathroom satisfaction. All sorts of new tubs and shower units and everything you could want. So yes, we had bathrooms before but they just weren't good enough.
GM: You said you interviewed a bunch of the performers and creators associated with them. Are they in any of the clips or was that more for the book?
SY: I have interviewed several people from The Bathrooms are Coming film and show, and some people from the G.E. Silicones movie, the composer an 89-year-old gentleman who I've been friends with. So I'm showing these films and talking about the people I've met and then toward the end of the show I will show a 4-minute sample of the documentary film which is now in production, which I'm involved with, and you get to see some of these people 45 or 50 years later, after their shows they did that they thought no one would ever ask them about.
GM: Is Letterman helping produce that?
SY: Yeah, Dave Letterman, former boss of mine, since the project really came out of my work for his show, I've always kept him updated on what's happening and when the book came out I got to be on the show a few times. He really took great pleasure in how this was unfolding. He's interviewed for the documentary as well and the clip I'll show has him in it. So Dave Letterman's an executive producer on this thing now. It's a great pleasure and honour to have him on the team so I'll be excited to show a little sample of what we're doing with the documentary film.
GM: When is that coming out?
SY: Well, I've found that documentary films have long lead times and I could not predict at this point. We're making great progress. Also I'll say I am not the film maker; I'm the blow-dried pretty boy talent in the film which follows me as I go around and meet my heroes. industrialmusicalsmovie.com is the website for that project, and you can see a little sample there and read about it. I don't dare to predict when it'll be done because every time I do, I'm told it's not a thing you can predict, though.
GM: I guess the next stage is on the stage – a musical on Broadway.
SY: Well, that does come up. That's an excellent instinct you've got there. Right now that's kind of in a holding pattern but the book that I co-wrote has been optioned by a producer who wants to do a scripted project and I believe, for now anyway, holding onto theatrical rights. So we'll all have to stay tuned and see if anything comes out of that particular deal. Right now I'm optimistic but nothing to report really.
GM: It's amazing that this little interest of yours, through your work but seems to have really taken hold of you... I imagine it started as just your personal obsession without thinking it would lead to anything.
SY: It does have this beautiful arc to it of just finding this stuff initially to try to make fun of something and then the curiosity as I realized how much of a hidden world it was, and then the respect and interest as I tracked people down and learned about their lives and their work. Something about this field resonated with me, I think, because for so many years working on the Letterman show, I was a writer there for 25 years, I generated huge amounts of material, most of which either wasn't used or was used and very quickly forgotten. So all these writers and performers who did industrials, they knew that their work was, by its very nature, ephemeral and probably not going to be remembered beyond a few days or a week because it was just for this very one-time specific purpose. So I like tracking these people down and saying, 'Guess what? Your thing from 50 years ago has not been forgotten and I want to tell you how much I like it because I think you did great work on it.' So there's this personal satisfaction for me and that's part of I think the story that people like and that's part of the documentary as well, my sort of journey along this road. But I do find I share this stuff with people and the combination of the music and the films and the visuals and just the scope of this world, people do get interested in it because it's a chapter of American history. And I will also mention Canadian. There were some Canadian companies that did do this stuff. It's a vast part of the 20th century that was really hidden from public view.
GM: My dad was a professional musician. Maybe he played on some of them.
SY: It's very possible. I found if you, especially creative people in New York or other big cities, if you talk to them, they either did this stuff or they knew people who did it. It's never more than one or two degrees of separation away from creative people.
GM: When you go to some people and say you've unearthed this stuff, do you ever have anyone go, 'Oh, don't. Please. Don't release that.'
SY: Once in a while. Some people just haven't ever responded so maybe they don't want to revisit that, but I've talked to some people who have not a particularly nostalgic feeling and they just said, 'Well, it was a good way to make money and I guess it was all right but I don't have a deep emotional feeling about it.' Some people, like Sheldon Harnick, a lyricist who's famous for Fiddler on the Roof, he and his late partner Jerry Bock were doing industrials in New York in the fifties when they were just starting out and he said to me in the interview I did with him that he came to love industrials so much because they were fun and they were challenging and the money was good – if you're not a Broadway star the money was very good – and when he started to get success in Broadway, he felt this tug of, 'Oh gosh, I hope this doesn't mean I won't have time for industrial shows anymore.' That I found very revealing because it is a particular weird kind of craft but I think people do take great pride in it oftentimes. This other gentleman I spoke to, Hank Beebe, whose GE Silicone film is in my show, said when he came to New York in the mid-fifties and was trying to establish himself as a songwriter pounding the pavement and trying to get in wherever he could, he realized being a salesman is difficult and when he was writing material for salesmen's musicals later, he felt empathy for the people who were going to be in the audience. He said, 'I know what these guys are going through. I've tried to do it and if there's anything I can do to help them, I should try to do that.'
GM: It seems that all the elements are the same whether you're writing a legit musical or an industrial musical. You need the hook, you need the melody, you need lyrics. And often in real musicals, they could be singing about some mundane aspect of life as well.
SY: Yeah, I think there's a huge overlap. I think probably serious theatre critics would say the part that's missing, no matter how well done an industrial is, the part that's missing is the human drama and the human story. And I would say that is often true but not always true. I think the very best of these actually did really hit people very hard emotionally. Composers have told me about standing off to the side during a show and watching the audience watch one of these shows that tells a story of the importance of what they do and the nobility of their work and seeing tears stream down the faces of salesmen and managers because it really said what you do is not only for your own sake and your family, it's helping America, it's helping mankind. So if it was done properly, it really could hit all that and at the same time many of the better ones did have stories about characters who were going through a crisis. Maybe it was a Plymouth salesman who was having a crisis of faith and do I have the fire anymore? And then he could find a way to feel fired up again. There was this Detroit Diesel show that I love. I was on Fresh Air with Terry Gross on NPR and she had listened to some of the songs and she said, 'There's this one song that actually made me choke up.' I said, 'I think know exactly the one you mean. The woman singing about how her overworked, diesel enging dealer, used to never have time to come home and be with the family, and now he's reorganized his business and it's more efficient and he spends time with the family. And it sounds hilarious because it's about a diesel engine salesman, and it is hilarious, it will always be hilarious to me, but at the same time, if you just listen to it honestly, you might say, Wow, I get it and I'm choked up.
GM: These are like elongated jingles. Or maybe something like Schoolhouse Rock, which used great jazz performers and singers to compose these songs about grammar or math or history or civics.
SY: Yeah, there's an overlap there about the power of music being harnessed to deliver a message which at times could be very technical. And certainly jingles are something that people love and respond to. But all the things you're mentioning about jingles and even Schoolhouse Rock, that was aimed at the general public. I think what I loved about this stuff, the sort of perverse comedy sensibility that I had was I knew that this was specifically not for me to listen to. Not for you or not for any of us. So of course that made it all the more alluring, that I want to pull back the curtain and go into this area that I'm not supposed to be in.
GM: Did you have to get permission for the clips?
SY: The show is as much me and my commentary as it is anything about the films, but generally we believe we're in good shape for something like this because the companies are either out of business or the production companies are out of business or it was something that was either never copyrighted or the copyright was so old that it hasn't been renewed. So I feel pretty confident for now about the show that I bring around. But when the documentary film is further along, that will be actual legal clearances. And we've had some early discussions with lawyers about that and we think we're going to be okay in that realm.
GM: Pre-Letterman, what were you doing?
SY: Well, I did spend 25 years at Letterman so most of my career was tied to that. I had a couple jobs before that: Not Necessarily the News, the HBO fake news show, I worked there briefly. Before there was Comedy Central there was a thing called the Comedy Channel. I worked there for a few months in the late-eighties/early-nineties in New York City. But I was hired by the Letterman show in early 1990 and pretty much rode that roller coaster all the way to the end of 2015. May 20th was the last show. I did do a Simpsons episode back in the mid-nineties. Friends of mine who were working at The Simpsons said, 'Oh yeah, you should do a freelance episode.' So I got to go and hang out in The Simpsons writers room for a couple days and work on starting to put together an episode, which does have my name on it but they're all very collaborative all these shows so they may have one writer's name on them but generally it's got many, many authors.
GM: Were you ever a performer?
SY: I did do a little bit of improv when I was out of college up in Boston and then tried standup a couple times but it's really in the last couple with the show that I'm bringing around that I find that I've got my latent performer tendencies coming out. A couple of these shows, I've even been up on stage with a guitar and done live musical performances. I don't think that's in the offing for Vancouver but in Chicago last year I did sing live on stage with one of the original cast members of The Bathrooms are Coming. So 40 or 50 years after the fact he got to come up and sit in the spotlight and do this song from the show that he thought was great but that the world never will know about it. Well guess what? Now the world is in on it.
GM: In 1986, Vancouver had the world expo, Expo '86. And they had musicals. I'm not sure if you'd call them industrial musicals but they were informational musicals. And, of course, they were for visitors to Expo so it's unlike what you're saying about these in-house things.
SY: Yeah, that's a definitely related field. In fact, one of the New York-based composers who I got to know, a man named Michael Brown – he did a lot for DuPont and JC Penny – he did the 1964-65 New York World's Fair show for DuPont, which was very much like an industrial musical extravaganza that the public could go to. So I know that that's often got a similar vibe and many times it was companies and organizations that were presenting themselves to the public through this sort of fun way. So yeah, definitely a related field.
GM: I've got lots here.
SY: I tend to go on and on about this stuff but I do find if it was just sort of weird, campy stuff to be snarky about, I don't think it would be worth all this trouble. But just the layers and depths of the talent and the surprising poignancy in personal stories and a glimpse of history, that to me is what makes it all worthwhile. But the film show, ultimately, I think will just leave people breathless from laughter and surprise because it is so weird and funny and unexpected.
GM: It seems you could draw from a wide section of people: the hipsters who love to laugh at old times, history buffs, musical buffs and all that.
SY: Yeah, it really does branch out in a lot of directions at once. I've sometimes thought that this may be the last chunk of 20th century American-slash-Canadian culture that had never really been explored before just because it was so large but it was so far off the radar screen of the public.
GM: It kind of reminds me of North Korean propaganda films.
SY: Yeah, and Japanese company songs. That has largely gone away in the modern era. But there is something about the power of music and drama and theatre that when it's done right, it absolutely brings people together and makes them feel like they're part of a team and part of a noble project. And like any other weapon or technique, you can use it for good or ill, and we can of course debate individual companies and whether they were doing good or bad things but I mostly have focussed on the creative people who did these gigs and wrote and performed and directed and so on, and I find them very admirable generally.
GM: Okay, Steve, thank you very much.
SY: Well, it was my pleasure, Guy.