WAS JANEANE GAROFALO HERE?

30Apr07

Wakefield Tonight, 20 Years Later
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I know what got me thinking about “Wakefield Tonight,” the weekly live cable TV comedy/variety show that I produced on Wakefield Public Access Television twenty years ago, from late 1985 through the end of 1986.

Last week, I watched on DVD Fran Solomita’s 2005 film about the Boston comedy scene in the 1980s. The award-winning documentary features dozens of local standup comedians from the period, including many who would go on to national fame and fortune, like Lenny Clarke, Steven Wright, Denis Leary, Jimmy Tingle, Paula Poundstone and Kevin Meaney.

The documentary also features other professional Boston comics, some of whom actually trekked out to Wakefield back in 1986 to be on Wakefield Tonight, including Tony V., Chance Langton, Bob Lazarus, Rich Ceisler, and Bob Seibel. And there’s a very real possibility that a then unknown open mike comic named Janeane Garofalo also appeared on Wakefield Tonight. More on that later.

Every Monday night at 7 p.m., Wakefield Tonight host Charlie Brooks welcomed a bizarre assortment of Boston comedy club open-mikers, professional comedians, and whatever odd acts or characters that Charlie ran into during the previous week and schmoozed into coming on the show. Interspersed with all this loosely reigned-in madness, Charlie would interview a Wakefield person with something to sell or plug. It was public access television in its newest, crudest and purest form.

We did Wakefield Tonight out of the 37 Water Street studio that Warner-Amex Cable built as part of Wakefield’s very first cable contract. This was before the days of WCAT. We’re talking about the Dark Ages of public access television, when the local studio was owned and operated by Warner-Amex, the short-lived cable TV partnership between the twin empires of Warner Communications and American Express.

However grudgingly, the company was contactually obligated to let us local residents use the studio to produce our shows, which we recorded on Betamax videotape.

Almost every Monday night for over a year, we put out a live, 90-minute local television show and called it Wakefield Tonight. This kind of thing was all brand new, to the viewers at home and to those of us producing the shows. Some people loved the show. Some hated it. Most people didn’t watch. But many did, as every Wakefield viewer with a primitive cable box and a remote control inevitably ran across our show at some point while scanning channels.

It was my very first experience producing and directing a live TV show in the studio. I had recently completed the TV production training course that Warner-Amex was contractually bound to provide for interested local residents. One day, a middle-aged, bald-headed guy from Boston, Charlie Golub, walked into the Wakefield studio and announced that he wanted to do a show. Since he wasn’t a Wakefield resident, he had to be paired with a local producer with studio privileges, and that turned out to be me.

Charlie Golub was a 54 year-old office manager who lived on Beacon Hill. He also had dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, and in his mind, Wakefield Tonight was a stepping stone to fame and fortune. To further indulge his fantasy, he even took a stage name, “Charlie Brooks.” Charlie hung out at Boston comedy clubs during the early ‘80s comedy boom, performing at open mike nights and otherwise shooting the bull with anyone who would talk to him, including the professional comedians.

We had no budget for the show, other than our own pockets, but Charlie saw a ready-made source of free talent in the pool of would-be comedians who worked the open mike nights at Boston comedy clubs. Back then, Boston was considered a flashpoint for the national standup comedy explosion. Comedy clubs replaced discos, and standup was all the rage. Everybody wanted to be a comedian.

I’m not sure how many of the comics realized that the show only went out to Wakefield. Charlie wound just say “Warner Cable,” and these hungry comedians would show up.

The open-mikers represented a wide range of comedic talent, but some would go on to find a measure of success, however modest. This group of regular Wakefield Tonight guests included Jon Rubin, Stu Wiley, Linda Franklin, Steve Faria, Gary Stewart, Carl Yarde, Elaine Gold, Tony Morewood and too many more to list here.

We got some big names too. Charlie had a way of annoying important people until they agreed to come on the show. The aforementioned professional Boston comedians– Tony V., Chance Langton, Bob Lazarus, Rich Ceisler and Bob Seibel– all appeared on Wakefield tonight, as well as Comedy Connection co-founder and owner Bill Downes.
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But mostly, we got the open mike comedians—the comics eager for a shot at fame, who back in the early days of cable, imagined any television appearance as their potential big break. Once word of our cable show got around to the Boston open mike comedians, they started showing up in groups at the local studio every week—often unannounced—asking to be on the show that night.

Several years ago, one of the many volunteers who helped me with Wakefield Tonight casually mentioned to a woman he had just met that he was originally from Wakefield. She told him that the only time she was ever in Wakefield was in the ‘80s when she was trying to make it as a comedian. She recalled that she and Janeane Garofalo drove up to Wakefield one night to appear on a cable show.

I don’t know for sure if Garofalo ever appeared on Wakefield Tonight. I can’t say that I remember her. I’m sure I’ve forgotten all but a few of the amateur comics who showed up at the studio in the chaos of those days in 1986. But circumstantial evidence lends credibility to this story.

In Solomita’s documentary, Garofalo is interviewed about her days as an unknown open mike comedian in Boston in the mid-‘80s.

“If I wasn’t doing it, I was watching it,” Garofalo says in the film. “I would be at standup comedy clubs every single night, eating it, sleeping it, drinking it, dreaming it. Everything–my whole life was geared toward being a successful standup comedian.”

The young Garofalo was also no stranger to cable TV. While still a student at Providence College, Garofalo entered a cable talent search looking for “The Funniest Person in Rhode Island,” and won.

An online biography of Garofalo says that in 1985, while still an undergraduate, she began appearing at open mike nights at comedy clubs in Boston. In another recent interview, Garofalo recalled her college days. “Luckily, I was near Boston, which at that time was an amazing music and comedy city.” Garofalo moved to Boston after college graduation, according to another online bio, and “spent her evenings at any microphone she could find.”

The timing was certainly right, Garofalo was an open mike fixture at the Boston comedy clubs in 1985-86–the same time as Wakefield Tonight was on the air. She would grab at any chance that might possibly advance her career. It’s not a huge leap that, on the promise of a cable TV appearance, she would have shared a ride to Wakefield with another open mike comic.

I still have some of the old Wakefield Tonight tapes. One day, I’ll review them and maybe I’ll find positive proof. But some of the tapes are missing, so we can never know for sure, and that might be just as well.

After twenty years, it’s almost more fun to simply entertain the possibility that a now world-famous comedian, a future star of movies and television, once appeared on a local cable show that I produced in Wakefield back when she was a nobody, perched on the cusp of stardom.

[This story originally appeared in the Wakefield Daily Item.]

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One Response to “WAS JANEANE GAROFALO HERE?”

  1. 1 Steve Burstein

    I was an Open Miker back then and I remember all these people. I was a kind of ersatz Andy Kaufman with Monty Python thrown in. Everybody I asked from those days was really surprised that Jeanene made it big. They hadn’t thought that she was funny, and she wasn’t a working pro until after she left Boston.(Granted, peole were pretty envious, too, myself included). I wonder how one breaks in in Boston now. Most of the open mikes are in non-comedy clubs where there’s no ladder to climb. You’ll only ever be open miker.


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