Interview - Bob Pagani aka Cranky Media Guy


I/V: Cranky Media Guy, Publisher, Author & Announcer - 5th July 2003


For the first time in Greg Tingle's media career, he gets a repeat guest! (just kidding).

Bob Pagani join's Mr Tingle once again, to give the full story on his Andy Kaufman interview, wrestling, whistle blowing, media hoaxes and more.

How did the Andy Kaufman gig come about and has there ever been any trouble form the TV station, regarding you having the segment available on your website?

I wouldn't have the guts to tell this story, even though it's true, if I didn't have witnesses, because it's so unbelievable. Back in 1981, I was doing a "public access" show on local cable TV in Manhattan ("public access" is a deal where, by law, anyone who wants to can have a show on a local cable channel). It was called The Slycraft Hour (even though it was a half-hour long), after an imaginary company my friend, Albin Sadar, and I had come up with.

The premise was that we worked for this company and were assigned to New York City to demonstrate the products that the company made. (In 1984, we wrote and got published a book based on the concept, Slycraft's Catalog of Stuff). We did the show live on Thursday at 11 PM from a cheesey studio on 23rd St. in Manhattan. Because we couldn't afford the more expensive colour studio (the airtime was free, but you had to pay for the studio), we did the show in black and white (two cameras).

I knew that the worst thing you could do was try to pretend that the show wasn't low-budget; that just comes off looking like you're in denial or something. I thought it would be great if we could get someone who had an actual "name" in show business to come on the show because it would be such a great contrast to the overall cheapness of the show.

I was a very big fan of Andy Kaufman's and I thought that he was the kind of person who might actually be willing to do a cheap-ass show like ours. (weird coincidence: I'm watching George Carlin on HBO and he just mentioned Andy Kaufman!) I sent Andy a letter, mailed to the only address I could find for him, ABC television in Los Angeles. I mailed it on a Wednesday, the day before we did the show. Thursday came and we had lined up a couple of friends of Albin's to be guests on the show that night. Rick and his girlfriend were supposed to be a married couple who belonged to a group called Americans for Moral Decency. If I recall, we were going to be playing miniature golf in the studio. Exactly how that was going to work, I don't know, but that's what we were going to do.

The four of us entered the building the studio was in and took the elevator to the second floor. Rick said to me, "Did you see who was getting out of the cab outside? Andy Kaufman."

I looked at him. "You think I'm gonna fall for that?" He said, "What are you talking about?" "Albin must have told you about the letter I mailed to him yesterday."

Rick and Albin both denied having talked about my letter. "Okay," I said, "wait here. I'll go look." I went back down in the elevator. When the door opened, standing there were Andy and his parents. "Andy!" I exclaimed, "what are you doing here? I just sent you a letter!"

"About what?" he asked me. As it turned out, Andy had been walking down Broadway earlier that day and had run into the guy who did the show immediately before us, which was a martial arts program. They got to talking and the guy invited Andy to come down to the studio and be on his show. Andy told the guy that he would if he could, but he was on vacation and his plans were somewhat flexible, so the guy shouldn't count on him showing up. Naturally, the guy figured that Andy was just being polite so he went and booked some Kung-Fu types to be on the show.

Now it was 10:15 and Andy and his parents show up, expecting to be on a show at 10:30. The guy isn't quite sure what to do with him at this point as it throws his carefully-laid plans out the window. I turned to my friends and said, "This is a one in a million opportunity. This will never happen again in my lifetime. I'm not going to let him leave here without being on the show with us."

I went over to Andy and explained the premise of our show and who the guests were supposed to be. I told him that I was a big fan of his and that it would be fantastic if he came on the show with us. Andy said, "Can my parents come on, too?" Duh. Of course they could come on!

We threw the "miniature golf" premise out the window (no big loss) and made up a new concept on the spot. At 11 PM, 45 minutes after I first spoke to him, I was doing a live TV show with Andy Kaufman (and his parents). From there on, we were friends. Andy was one of the very few people in show business I cared to meet and, more than 20 years after the fact, I can still hardly believe how it came about.

What do you like and dislike about pro wrestling?

I think, at its best, wrestling is as visceral and valid as any other form of drama. When it's done right (which is far too infrequently, unfortunately), it can take a crowd through a whole range of emotions, from laughter to anger.

Andy always said that he just wanted to get an honest emotion out of an audience; well-executed professional wrestling does exactly that. There was a group a few years back called ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling) out of Philadelphia. I used to say that their weekly show was the best thing on television and I wasn't being ironic or funny. They drew the most rabid fans I've ever seen. A friend of mine said that watching ECW was like witnessing a riot. I thought it was fantastic!

Every one of the 1500 or so people in their arena was perfectly aware that wrestling is "pre-arranged", shall we say and yet the shows were so good that they could completely suspend their disbelief and get totally caught up in the story. What could any form of theater possibly achieve that's better than that?

What I HATE about pro wrestling is when they cancel storylines in the middle, change a character suddenly with no explanation, do things that completely insult the intelligence of the audience or in other ways violate the rules of storytelling. Those kinds of things are a big part of the reason that so many people look down on wrestling. God knows it's never going to be considered anything other than low-brow by most people, but they don't have to rub it in.

When wrestling is good, it's great and when it's bad, it's painful to watch, even for fans. Right now, the best wrestling on television (at least here in the States. I don't really know about overseas) is Lucha Libre wrestling out of Mexico. I have a satellite dish so I get to see Mexican wrestling every weekend. It's interesting to see the differences between the American audiences (half of who's motivation to go to the show is to get on camera, it seems) and the Mexicans who take the characters and the matches very seriously. It's also interesting to see the cross-section of society, from rich to poor, young to old, that Mexican wrestling attracts. It isn't a novelty down there, it's a legitimate part of their culture.

In Mexico, wrestlers are respected (as they should be for the risks they take and the lengths they go to entertain). I think that's neat. I even own a couple of Mexican wrestling masks. Want me to send you a picture of me wearing one of them? (I'm attaching the picture to this e-mail)

Who would you like to interview, but haven't?

I'm a huge Frank Zappa fan. If I could interview any one person, he'd be it. Actually, I'd settle for just having him still alive. I wish Andy was alive too, as I'd love to do the definitive interview with him. He was an extremely interesting and complex guy. It's hard to think of anyone in contemporary show business who can hold a candle to either of them. One was my idol and the other was my friend. I wish they were still here; I think the world was a much more interesting place when they were around.

Have you, or where have you, been blackballed?

Well, I don't know if I've ever been formally blackballed, but I sure suspect there are a couple of people who would never hire me again. I never intentionally "burned any bridges," but I know that I left a few radio stations under something resembling a cloud. I guess I'm just too weird for their way of doing business.

I don't know if you've ever heard of Clear Channel. They're a big company that now owns over 1200 radio stations (and a bunch of other stuff too), more than any other company has ever owned in the history of the world. A former boss of mine is now a Vice-President with the company. I'm on good terms with him and he tried to get me hired by one of their stations a year or so ago. The program director there took a walk through my website and sent him an e-mail that said (paraphrasing), "I don't see why we should hire a guy who is so critical of corporate radio," referring to things I said on crankymediaguy.com about modern radio in general and Clear Channel specifically. Jim passed the comment on to me and said, "Keep your opinions to yourself."

That's the last I heard from Clear Channel. I not sure you could call that a "blackball" exactly, but I don't think I should wait to get hired by them any time soon.

Has the media become "smarter" towards hoaxes?

Using your own experience Hell no, they haven't. If anything, journalistic standards are lower than ever. As I mentioned earlier, I just came back from New York City where I managed to get myself on not one, but TWO, local TV news shows. Want a hint about what I was doing?

Take a look at http://slycraft.com/PUFF.htm . By the way, this is the second time I've fooled one of the two stations in question.

The bottom line is if you give them a story that's too good to ignore, they'll eat it up. I've told the most outrageous stories and I've always been able to get past the "journalists" who have interviewed me.

To be fair, I have a lot of experience and I'm good at pulling this sort of thing off, but still, I really shouldn't be able to get away with it. It keeps me on my toes; in a way, it's the ultimate form of improvisation as I'm working to an "audience" that doesn't KNOW it's an audience and is supposed to be skeptical.

Once, back in the early 80's, I decided that my birthday gift to myself was going to be getting in at least one of the two local newspapers (this was in the Allentown, PA area). I also decided that I wouldn't spend much money on the attempt. The story I "sold" them ended up on the front page of the local section...and it ran on my birthday! My total cost? Two postage stamps and the time it took to write two identical letters to the editors of the papers.

That was 20 years ago and I wouldn't say I'm any less able to get in the press. I have the strange ability to know instantly when an idea of mine is the kind of thing that will generate national attention. When it comes to physical work, I'm pretty lazy, but if I get a good idea, I'm fanatical about trying to get it going. I've seen people with all sorts of hobbies and I certainly wish them happiness, but I don't really understand what they get out of sticking stamps in a book or what-not. I'd much rather think up something absurd and work at getting it in the papers and on TV and radio so that millions of other people hear about it. Reality hacking is the best hobby I can think of.

On what scale do you consider yourself a "whistle blower"?

Hmm, good question. I don't know that I've "blown the whistle" on any specific thing, necessarily. What I'd like to do is to get people to think more critically about things in general. If they could develop that skill, they might not NEED whistle blowers; they could see through bullshit on their own. I'd really like to see Critical Thinking and Media Literacy taught in the schools in this country. I think they're incredibly important to living as a non-stupid person in today's society.

A lot of people think that wrestling fans are "marks". Then they turn on the Fox News Channel and unquestioningly believe everything the Bush administration tells them. As far as I'm concerned, you can't BE a bigger mark than that. If you can't intelligently question the things you see, read and hear, how can you make decisions? How could I NOT think that it's important to be skeptical about media when I've done the kinds of things I've done?

Have you ever received a death threat?

Well, when I was a disc jockey, on more than one occasion, I got calls from listeners claiming they were about to plant a bomb at the station building. It's probably an incredibly stupid thing to do, but because I didn't take the threats seriously, I told the callers where they should put the bomb so as to do the most damage. I told them where the door to the transmitter room was and that putting the bomb in front of the main entrance would only damage the lobby and not knock us off the air!

What sort of correspondence have your received from "Selected Weasels"?

Hmm, I seem to recall getting a letter from someone in the office of one of the politicians we selected. Why should I take the word of some paid sycophant seriously, though? Screw them!

What is the criteria to be selected as a "selected weasel"?

Oh, just about any politician can be a "Weasel of the Week". Without realizing it, they're all in the running. I think you could take all the sincerity in Washington, stick it in your navel and still have room for a finger. The more they have to pander to corporate interests, the more they move away from anything resembling PUBLIC interest. Power corrupts and arrogance makes it even uglier. I wish people would walk right up to politicians when they encounter them in public settings and say, "Fuck you for not listening to the public and making my country worse."

Realistically, though, that kind of behavior, if it became popular, would probably just make politicians less accessible. It would be great to see the reactions of the first few "public servants" who had to endure it, though. I'd LOVE to see people stop treating them as celebrities and start treating them as the hired hands they are.

What other important info did you not mention in our last interview?

Well, if you don't mind me "plugging" something, I would like to mention that I'm available to come up with publicity and promotional campaigns for individuals and responsible companies. Decent work in American radio that pays more than minimum wage has pretty much dried up and I'm very good at coming up with ways to get publicity. If someone wants to be in show biz and they want to make a name for themselves (and they're not afraid to stir things up), tell 'em to get in touch with me: bob@crankymediaguy.com

Bob, thanks again mate. I very much appreciate your no holds barred approach. If you ever want to interview an "out there" Aussie, pick me, pick me : ) You got it, Greg. Let me know when you want to do it. :)

Thanks for getting in touch with me. I'd love to do an interview with you. Say where and when.

...end.

Editors note: One of the most out there, revealing and entertaining interviews I have done to date.

If you haven't done so already, check out the first interview with Bob from 23rd June 2003.

Links:

Cranky Media Guy

Cranky Media Guy: video and audio page

http://slycraft.com/PUFF.htm

Andy Kaufman tribute by Greg Tingle