Monthly Archives: March 2014

Alias Smith and… Smith

Source: Mark Smith Comedy
Photo: Mark Smith Comedy

Have you ever felt “a bit short changed in terms of life” or that you’re one step away from getting “found out” as an imposter? Mark Smith understands. I knew there was a reason that I liked him. That and he’s also darn funny. Since starting in comedy a few years back while at University, Mark’s been living the life of a working comic gigging all over the U.K. Since 2010, he and pal Max Dickins have recorded their podcast, Dregs, a name coined by Mark’s father. The pair had been a part of sketch revue group, The Leeds Tealights, and dregs are, after all, the remnants of tealights. A few months back Mark debuted his solo Edinburgh Fringe show, The Most Astonishing Name in Comedy. Russell Howard introduced him as “One of the best new comics around”. I agree (as if Russell needs my approval).

In this chat, Mark tells me about all sorts of things: from comedy writing, gigging in intimate settings (not what you think) and the Edinburgh Fringe, to how he navigates expectations at parties and how he might like to while away some years.


Adam: When I was young, I wanted to be a doctor like the ones portrayed in the Australian TV serial A Country Practice. Then I realised I didn’t like the sight of blood (or stethoscopes for that matter) and so I thought maybe I could just star in A Country Practice. Those dreams of dramatic stardom didn’t pan out. What did you want to be and when did you decide that you wanted to get into comedy?
Mark: When I was little I very vividly remember that I wanted to be a doctor, but as I grew up I realised I wasn’t good enough with any of the scientific subjects at school. So that was that I guess. I didn’t ever really think about getting into comedy until I was about 21. I was always a huge fan of comedy but never saw it as a thing I was ‘allowed’ to do I suppose. Then my best friend started getting into it and I was like ‘hey, this is for us’.

Adam: Tell me about some of your first gigs.
Mark: My first gig was for the Chortle Student comedy competition. It was incredibly nerve wracking as you’d imagine. And I was rubbish, as you’d imagine. But there was something about it that I enjoyed and so I thought I’d give it another go. I’m still doing that really. Giving it one more go, every gig, until someone says that I mustn’t keep doing this.

Adam: After you’d started in comedy you didn’t pursue it intensely straight away?
Mark: I probably did about five gigs in the first six months. So no, not intensely at all. I was a student up in Leeds and there were a few really good comedy nights but nothing that was exclusively for the students. Bear in mind that this is a huge university with a massive student population, and there was no comedy for them whatsoever. So I decided to start a night at the [Leeds University] Union and MC that. It was ideal really, I got to get some stage time and the students got to see some excellent comedy for £4.

Adam: Comedians devise material in various ways and settings. In her book, Nat Luurtsema said that she dresses up to write even when she’s at home, and the choices may be a ball gown or silk and stilettos. She did acknowledge that some of her choices led her neighbour to suspect that she was a rather unsuccessful (given she was always home) sex worker. You’ve said before that you’re not the kind of comedian who begins with a blank page and starts writing. What is your process?
Mark: I basically write anything that I find funny in the notes in my phone. It could be anything, a turn of phrase, an idea or sometimes a fully formed joke. Then when my phone is filled up with those I’ll sit down and try and write about each of those ideas. Most of the time you look back on your phone notes and realise that what you’ve written is either impenetrable or just shit. Like I’ll often wake up in the middle of the night, write something down and think it’s brilliant. Then look at it in the morning and realise I’ve just written something like ‘dongboots’ in my phone. Nonsense. Other times though I find it’s a good jump off point. After that it’s a case of writing and testing it. And doing that until it works and is good enough for a paying audience to see.

Adam: Phyllis Diller invented her husband, “Fang”, for her routine. I think she said other comics used their real husband’s names, which was fine…until they died and they had to change the act. How do you decide how far to go with using real people or situations in your life?
Mark: Ha! I tend to use real names for real events because otherwise I’ll get all confused mid-routine. If ever I use a made-up event I go with the name Kelvin who is a friend of mine from back home and he doesn’t mind me doing that because he doesn’t exist.

Adam: Some of your standup deals with your dissatisfaction with a monosyllabic name. You have the opposite problem to say a Ben Kingsley (Krishna Pandit Bhanji), Alan Alda (Alphonso Joseph D’Abruzzo), Fred Astaire (Frederick Austerlitz), or even Benny Hill (whose original name, Alfred Hawthorne Hill, could have led to a life as a museum curator). You did go by the name Winston Smith for a while. How does having a simple name impact you (how do you ever know what you’re getting up to on Google?), and when changing it the first time why didn’t you experiment with the whole thing?
Mark: I think when I first started I worried about stupid shit like that. I thought Mark Smith was too boring a name and that people would forget it immediately but it turns out that no-one cares what your name is as long as you are good. If people want to Google me they can just bang the word comedy on the end of Mark Smith. EASY!

Adam: When I tell people at parties that my background is in psychology they usually ask, “Oh, are you going to analyse me?” Occasionally they’ll also want to know whether I can see their future. I have to then explain that, “No, I’m not a fucking fortune teller” (note: psychology, being the pseudoscience that it is, I do make use of crystal balls from time to time). Do people you meet expect you to always be ‘on’?
Mark: I think a lot of people do yeah. But generally it’s not too much of a problem. To be honest most of my friends now are in the same job or something similar and so it’s cool to not have that pressure. I never really liked it so when I first started I would tell people on a night out that I was an accountant or a delivery man or something else that never really needed any more explanation. Just a good, solid job that would cut any expectation. Now I’m fine with it.

Adam: You first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007 as part of an ensemble. You then went on to direct and write shows in subsequent years, appear with your Dregs podcast partner Max Dickins, and as part of The Comedy Zone showcase. Just a few months ago you debuted your solo show. How do you prepare for the Edinburgh Fringe and what’s it like for the performers once you’re there?
Mark: Edinburgh is an enormous, grizzly beast with huge blood-stained fangs and terrifying claws and a weird sort of grin on its face which has also got six eyes. Imagine that! I’m sorry what was the question? Yes Edinburgh, I have a love-hate relationship with it really. I love it when I’m not there but when I am, like most performers, it becomes all encompassing and engulfing. You start to think that the world revolves around this little bubble you create. I think it’s really unhealthy. Having said that, it is a wonderful place, the city is beautiful and it’s full of great comedy. I just wish it wasn’t seen as the biggest thing of the year. So many comics, including myself, see it as the focal point of the year whereas I think it should be seen as just a thing that happens. A really good, but horrendously gruelling thing that happens.

2013 Ed Fringe show poster. Photo: Mark Smith Comedy
2013 Ed Fringe show poster. Photo: Mark Smith Comedy

Adam: On one of your podcast episodes, you and Max were discussing playing to almost empty rooms.
Mark: Four’s quite good though, isn’t it?
Max: Well, it’s good in the context of having sold no tickets.
Mark: Yeah better than no. I can’t remember what I sold.
Max: What you sold.
Mark: I know sellout was used a lot. The word ‘sellout, total sellout.
I’ve lectured to rooms with a capacity of 500 before that only had four students. How do you deal with that sort of thing?
Mark: It can be quite demoralising but that is the nature of Edinburgh, and gigs in general. As a new comic you learnt to play those tiny numbers so it’s not such a problem to be honest. Obviously it’s not ideal, but it’s fine. Sometimes it’s nice to have a small audience because you can literally get to know your entire audience. My favourite show of my last Edinburgh run was on the last night. I had seven people in and they were glorious. We had a proper laugh and everyone (I think) thoroughly enjoyed it. Obviously it’s a different sort of satisfaction to having a particularly good gig in a packed house but it’s still cool.

Adam: You’ve been recording Dregs since 2010. What do you enjoy most about the podcast?
Mark: I enjoy talking shit nonstop for a while and then letting our producer pick the bones out of it. We’ve been so lucky to always have a good producer. We had Joe Thomas for a couple of years and he is basically a genius. He’s now the youngest station controller in the entire country at a station in Oxford. Now we have Will who somehow manages to make even Max sound amusing at times. And that takes a lot. I like working with Max though, he’s a funny little shit.

Adam: I particularly like your ribbing of Max in his attempts to be a ‘Renaissance man’. And how almost in the same breath you guys can go from discussing ‘gravitas’ or ‘hyperbole’ to more “blue” humour.
Mark: Yeah, it’s pretty stupid most of the time. To be honest a lot of the time I feel like I black out and then only realise what’s been said when we hear the edit. I have a feeling that’s down to Max drugging me etc.

Max and Mark. Photo: Dregs Facebook page
Max and Mark. Photo: Dregs Facebook page

Adam: On Dregs you mention a lot of the travel you’ve done. Where is your favourite place so far and have you/will you gig overseas?
Mark: I love America. I go there as often as time permits and plan to drive all around someday. I love everything about it but particularly baseball. For some reason baseball has really got under my skin. It’s something I can absolutely get onboard with and given that that’s about the most American thing in the world it make sense to move there and watch it every day for the entirety of my life until I die of baseball.

In terms of gigging I haven’t done that much overseas. I went to do a couple of nights in the Middle East in Bahrain. That was cool. I’d like to a lot more though. Specifically Australia. I’d love to do Adelaide and Melbourne. I visited Oz when I was about 22 and did that whole student thing of going up the east coast. It was fucking amazing.

Adam: A lot of people would have become familiar with you through Russell Howards Good News. It’s quite popular here in Australia. How important is a show like that to building your profile? Do you like performing for TV?
Mark: I think it is very important, or at least it’s been very important for me. I don’t know if I like performing for TV because I’ve only really done it the once. Obviously it’s cool though and I’d like to do loads more of it.

Adam: What are your plans for 2014?
Mark: I’m currently co-writing a TV series with Nick Helm that is going to be filmed in June. On top of that I’m writing my new stand up show and trying to develop a couple of other TV things, so I guess we’ll just see what happens.

Adam: Anything else that you’d like to mention?
Mark: Yeah, get me on Twitter. Ha! What a shallow thing to say. But seriously, do. Like one in twenty of my tweets are reasonably funny.


Mark’s Twitter home he speaks of is found here. He also has a website (I knew I should have gotten something besides dot com. The looks so pretty on his…). The Dregs podcast can be listened to here (via SoundCloud) or downloaded through iTunes.

Happy birthday!

The Are the Good Times

Today, March 7, is my friend Donna Loren’s birthday. Yes this post will be dated March 8, but stateside she will still (a late dinner by now) be blowing out the candles. Now Sounds also used the occasion to officially announce Donna’s new CD, These Are the Good Times: The Complete Capitol Recordings, which will be released April 14. The CD is a compilation of Donna’s time at Capitol. During her tenure there she recorded the classic Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) album. Donna also released five singles from 1964-66, including the Northern Soul classics “Blowing Out the Candles” (the reference in the second sentence was only semi-deliberate) b/w “Just a Little Girl” and “Ninety Day Guarantee” b/w “Ten Good Reasons”. The singles also included Steven Van Zandt’s favourite Donna song “So, Do the Zonk”, which he regularly plays on his radio show; one of Donna’s favourites, the Tony Hatch-penned “Call Me”; and one of my favourites, “I Believe”. Elvis released that last one in 1957 – one of the many connections Donna has with Elvis, but that’s for another day.

Making their debut for the first time are eight unreleased tracks that have sat in the Capitol vaults all these years. Donna and I have known each other for over a decade. It is a friendship that I treasure. When I was visiting L.A., I stayed with Donna and her husband, Jered. One afternoon, after a visit to the Getty Villas and a very slow trek back home in mid-afternoon traffic (and they told me the traffic was excessive, even by L.A. standards!), Donna set about making us all dinner and Jered played me the rediscovered gems. Boy are you in for a treat. While at Capitol, Donna was produced by David Axelrod, Steve Douglas, and Al De Lory, and arranged/conducted by H. B. Barnum, Billy Strange, Jack Nitzsche, and Gene Page. The new material will delight Douglas-Nitzsche fans. And, she was backed by the Wrecking Crew, musicians she knew from her early recording days. Donna reunited with one of those musicians, Carol Kaye, on her 2010 album Love It Away.

Donna’s fans who visit her website and Facebook pages (Official Facebook Page, Official Facebook Profile Page) are used to rare photos. Her adopted dad/manager was a professional photographer (in addition to once having been a cartoonist for Disney and Hanna-Barbera). The new CD package will feature never-before-seen photos.

So a happy birthday to Donna! These Are the Good Times will be available in the usual places, including at Donna’s website.

The Road to Glory

Fredric March A Consummate ActorSometimes it is easy to forget that the production and release of music, films and books are driven by the supposed tastes of the masses. After all, you can put on your iPod in the morning on the way to work instead of listening to commercial radio, contribute to Kickstarter campaigns to fund small film and music projects, and track down with increasing frequency (and in respectful restorations) the most obscure of old movie titles. In the case of books, smaller and more specialized publishers often take the chance on works that are considered not mainstream enough by large publishers. And yet, we still see multiple biographies and documentaries produced about many of the same people. This doesn’t necessarily bother me, as again I can navigate towards other tastes. However, it can be hard to find really good treatments of the people that I (and I believe many others) would like to see.

Author Charles Tranberg is up to the challenge. He has previously written six books: biographies of Agnes Moorehead, Marie Wilson, Fred MacMurray, and Robert Taylor, as well as considerations of The Thin Man films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy and the Disney studios from 1955-1980. In his seventh and latest book, Fredric March: A Consummate Actor, Charles shines a light on the achievements of this actor who, unlike a Bogart or Wayne, was not a personality actor and has had trouble surviving “the test of time” in the public memory. I’m sure glad he did. Tranberg’s work in general, and his latest subject in particular, demonstrate a couple of pertinent things. First, that an author can find a champion for such works, with the supportive and astute BearManor Media publishing Charles’ entire bibliography. Second, that in the hands of an author like Tranberg, there is an outlet for an actor such as Fredric March and a career that is just dying to be remembered.

There are ample reasons to remember March: his Academy-award winning roles in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Tony Cavendish in that parody on the Barrymores, The Royal Family of Broadway (1930), ‘Death’ in Death Takes a Holiday (1934), Jean Valjean in Les Misérables (1935), Norman Maine in A Star is Born (1937), and the man himself in The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944). He worked with the iconic actresses of the early days of Hollywood sound films, in elaborate costume dramas, sophisticated comedies, and later turns in Executive Suite, Middle of the Night, Inherit the Wind, and Seven Days in May. He was in equal measure screen and stage star, winning two Tony awards for Years Ago and Long Day’s Journey into Night, and often appearing in both with his wife, Florence Eldridge.

As a researcher, I especially appreciated the detailed exploration of Fredric March and his career in this new book. I had a chance to speak with Charles about his latest work, how he approaches writing, and the consummate actor that was Mr. March.


Adam: Why Fredric March?
Charles: Well, for one thing he was born in Wisconsin and two of my prior subjects had Wisconsin ties as well—Fred MacMurray and Agnes Moorehead. Another reason was because March has some of his papers readily available at the Wisconsin State Historical Society in Madison, where I live, so it was easy for me to go and do research. The papers of several of his theatrical producers and many of the plays he appeared in also are at the State Historical Society. These are great resources and I used a lot of the information I got from these papers in the book. Finally, and perhaps the main reason, is because I thought March has become a somewhat forgotten figure and is rarely counted among the classic stars of that era when they are discussed. The truth is that he was one of the most important film stars of the 30’s and an important star on both stage and screen thereafter. I like to select subjects who have not had a ton of books already written about. For instance, I did the first full-length biography of Agnes Moorehead, the first book on Fred MacMurray and Marie Wilson. There is a previous biography of March but that was several years in the past, and it’s very good, but I also include a lot of information about March that isn’t in that book.

Adam: What is your approach to research and writing? Do you spend a lot of time researching and then attempt to write linearly, for example, or do you write chunks of text as you research a particular area?
Charles: I do write as I’m going along. For instance, I will do a lot of research about March and the play “The Skin of Our Teeth” including reading biographies of Tallulah Bankhead, Thornton Wilder, Elia Kazan and going through the papers of the producer of that play, Michael Myerberg as well as any information there is in the March papers regarding the play. I’ll then, once I’m satisfied that I’ve researched that subject well begin writing about it—at least a first draft—and then incorporating it into the book. I thought this play and events surrounding it were so interesting that I devoted an entire chapter of the book to it.

Adam: You’ve become a rather prolific writer on classic Hollywood since your first book in 2005, and have now written seven books. Readers might be surprised to find that you’re not a full-time writer. I also engage with projects outside of my psychology career and am interested in how you think this influences your writing.
Charles: It makes it rather difficult at times. Many times I’m very tired after working all day that I would rather do something other than write or research, and sometimes I do. But I have to force myself to devote a certain portion of the week and weekend to do it. Sometimes it is very easy to do so because it is such an interesting subject. But at other times you have to make time for friends, family, recreation and other projects as well. It can be a difficult balancing act. I wish I would win the lottery and could devote my full time to writing. It is what I love doing most of all.

Charles Tranberg has written seven books. Photo: Amazon author page.
Charles Tranberg has written seven books. Photo: Amazon author page

Adam: You try to provide a balanced portrait of a subject in your books. For example, one anecdote you relate is of the long and happily-married Freddie having a roving eye (or, indeed, hand) on the sets of his films with Claudette Colbert.
I think that writing a considered analysis of a public person’s personality and life is a difficult task. Borrowing from psychology, I think that people’s perceptions of public figures particularly suffer from the fundamental attribution error or the actor-observer effect: mainly, that we stress dispositions or traits for these people’s behaviours and underplay the significance of situations. For example, an actor who is less than cordial to a fan or has a difficult relationship with a co-star is a “bad” person; while, if we were less than friendly, we can think of a dozen reasons (“I was running late” or “I had received some bad news”).
When you come across information about a subject that may cast them in a negative light, how do you handle it?
Charles: I always attempt to be fair and balanced towards my subjects. Everybody I’ve written about I found myself liking or at least admiring their body of work. If you find something that may be a bit negative you can’t suppress it but you have to try and understand it and hopefully seek the reason for some of their actions. March was basically an admirable guy. I truly think he loved his wife and children. He was a great actor who made time for family life and also for good causes, but apparently he had this roving eye and sometimes hands or as Colbert called him “Twenty-fingers Freddie.” The fact is that when she confronted him about his behaviour he should have backed off and respected her, but he really didn’t. His wife and many of his friends thought he had very much a childlike love of life and outlook and sense of humour—in some ways it could be childish. Now on the other hand, some of his female co-stars called him the best husband in Hollywood and said he was devoted to Florence (Eldridge, his wife)—and that he never came on to them. Well maybe they weren’t his type. But truly the stories that Colbert and Evelyn Keyes told about him are disturbing. Despite my liking for him it is my duty as a biographer to write about such things as well as balance it out with those who say he just flirted a bit but never went over the line.

Adam: Which performances do you consider Fredric March’s best?
Charles: I think his performance as Norman Maine in the original A Star Is Born is one of his best and one of the best performances any actor has given. He was really the focus of that film and he played this alcoholic actor on the skids who truly loves the woman truthfully and from what he observed from friends such as Jack Barrymore. The wonderful sequel with Judy Garland makes the woman the main focus where it really should be the man, as good as James Mason is in the sequel he pales in comparison to March’s Maine. His big break with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a tour-de-force, but he is also aided immeasurably in that film by Rouben Mamoulian’s direction, Karl Struss’s photography and Miriam Hopkins’ performance. The Best Years of Our Lives is probably the one film he made that is the best remembered to film fans to this day (the only one of his films to make the AFI list of the 100 Greatest Films). He hasn’t got the biggest role in the film (Dana Andrews does) but he makes all his scenes count especially the ones he shares with Myrna Loy. He gives a deeply poignant performance as ‘Death’ in Death Takes a Holiday.
What might shock some is that he was a wonderful light comedy actor in films like Nothing Sacred, Laughter and I Married a Witch. There are lesser known films in which he shines as well: The Eagle and the Hawk (agonizing over the killing that results from war), One Foot in Heaven (a lovely piece of Americana), The Adventures of Mark Twain and an interesting film about euthanasia An Act of Murder. I also like him in Inherit the Wind with Spencer Tracy, but do think director Stanley Kramer lets him ham it up a bit too much at times.
One performance which may have been his very best, we can only go from contemporary accounts about and that was his work as James Tyrone in the original Broadway production of Long Day’s Journey into Night. I wish he had done the 1962 movie with Katharine Hepburn.

Elizabeth Jenns and Fredric March in a production still from "A Star is Born" (Adam Gerace private collection).
Elizabeth Jenns and Fredric March in a production still from “A Star is Born”. Photo: Adam Gerace private collection

Adam: Looking at his work, Fredric started in early Paramount films and was often second fiddle to a number of dynamic actresses before his success with The Royal Family of Broadway and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and then a string of important and successful film and theatre projects. Success was not always guaranteed, however, and there were flops and career setbacks. Most notable were accusations of Communist sympathies that affected his career in the early ‘50s. Through it all, he seemed to work constantly and, perhaps, exhaustingly. How would you describe March’s approach to his career?
Charles: I think he viewed himself as a working actor—never a star. I also think he saw himself more as the years went by as less a leading man and more a character actor—a leading character actor. His craft was what was important and developing a real believable character. That may be one of the reasons why he is not as recalled today because unlike contemporaries like Gary Cooper, James Stewart or Cary Grant—who are fondly and frequently recalled—March never developed a strong screen persona that he carried from film to film that audiences could identify with. As a working actor he worked. When film roles dried up, perhaps due to accusations of being soft on Communism, he worked on the stage. He went into television, one of the first major stars to appear in that medium. I should also note that March was one of the actors who when accused of being soft on Communism or even a Communist he fought back and even won a retraction from one of the rags that made the accusations.

The Road to Glory 2013 DVD release. Photo: Amazon.
“The Road to Glory” 2013 DVD release. Photo: Amazon

Adam: For some of your other books you were able to interview co-stars, family, friends and others. With Fredric March, being born 1897 and having passed some 40 years ago, this involved mainly co-stars from his later years. Did this influence your research and writing process?
Charles: Well, it makes it more difficult and will continue to be more difficult as the years go by and more people die off. Luckily with March I did have many recollections from people who worked with him who have died off from published and unpublished sources, but more importantly I was able to use wonderful sources including his own papers and papers of those who worked with him to help fill in the holes. Many of those materials never utilized before.

Adam: I feel that anything I ever write influences me. What did you take away from writing a biography of Fredric March?
Charles: For me, March and most of my other subjects grew up in relatively modest circumstances in small towns in the heartland of America (March, Robert Taylor, Fred MacMurray—and to a certain extent, though she was born in the East but grew up in the heartland—Agnes Moorehead), and through incredible will, luck, tenacity and talent transcended their beginnings and in doing so never really forgot their roots. I think that says a great deal about them as people.


Fredric March: A Consummate Actor is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and The Book Depository. Information on Charles Tranberg’s other books can be found on his Amazon author page. He also has a Facebook page.