I knew I’d get some flak for not having watched Friends, and I was glad to get it. I’m not a TV snob, and Friends is a cultural touchstone that I somehow completely missed, and yet its cancellation inspired one of the goofiest things I’ve ever done, although friends may argue that I’ve done much goofier things. Anyway it’s a thing that’s just kind of stuck with me.
It was May of 2004 and I read something about the NBC network having a crisis because its two most popular shows, Frasier and Friends, which had boosted its ratings for most of a decade, were ending. And for reasons that are now lost to the mists of time I called up a couple of friends and got their answering machine.
So naturally I started making up promos for NBC’s fall season. Hey, who hasn’t done that?
It all started with a generic announcer voice:
You may have heard that Frasier and Friends, two of the NBC network’s biggest shows, are coming to their end. But don’t worry! Stay tuned! Keep watching NBC! We’ve got big things planned for the fall! Or we will, anyway. Seriously, we’re going to figure out something you’ll want to watch. Hey, Frasier was a spinoff. What if we did a spinoff of it? You know, ‘Marty’s Place’ or something like that, about Frasier’s dad opening his own bar. Coming this fall to NBC, because we’ve got to find some way to fill all this space.
It wasn’t great, but it seemed to contain the germ of an idea, so about half an hour later I called my friends again and, luckily—or not—they still weren’t home. Cue Mr. Generic Announcer again.
Coming this fall to NBC: If you like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart you’ll love NBC’s new take on the news of the world: The World Today With Paul Reiser.
There was a brief pause and then I launched into my Paul Reiser impersonation:
So I’m riding the subway and reading about this thing going on in Sudan, trying to wrap my head around it, and this guy across from me starts coughing. He doesn’t put his hand over his mouth or anything and then a thing…it’s like an almond, but it’s soft, and it comes flyin’ outta his mouth, across the subway car, it bounces off the window next to me, flies all the way back, hits the opposite window, and sticks to the back of his head. And he doesn’t even notice. So anyway that’s how my day started.
Then back to Mr. Generic Announcer:
Yes, that’s In The News With Paul Reiser, coming this fall to NBC…because we’re dying over here.
Fifteen minutes later I had another idea, and my friends were still not home. Mr. Generic Announcer led the way.
Coming this fall to NBC: a very special tribute to one of the most beloved movies of all time. NBC will be presenting an all new musical remake of The Wizard of Oz. Starring Natalie Portman as Dorothy, Drew Carey as the Cowardly Lion, Hugh Laurie as The Tin Woodman, and Snoop Dogg as The Scarecrow.
There was a brief pause and then singing:
Oh I’d be feelin’ fizzle
And that’d be fo’shizzle
If I only had a brizzle!
And then back to Mr. Generic Announcer:
Yes, coming this fall to NBC, because…you think you can do better? Well? Do you?
The problem is this joke was out of date almost before my friends could listen to their messages, which is the problem. George Carlin said he didn’t do topical political humor “because I hate to throw anything away”.
That was neither the first nor last time I left multiple bizarre messages on friends’ answering machines. It’s a habit I’ve since outgrown, mostly because voicemail is so much more personal and comes with caller ID. With an answering machine people had no idea what was coming when they pressed the button. With voicemail people get a preview of their messages and they’ll say, “Oh, look, Chris called and I bet he’s doing his Gilbert Gottfried impersonation, so I’m just gonna delete that without listening.”
Even at the time I knew the bits had a shorter shelf-life than homemade mayonnaise, but I hate to throw anything away.