Christopher Null is a long-established writer and media critic based in Austin, Texas.
The alarm on my clock radio is sounded, and I'm already out of bed, excited. Today is my Big Day, the day when I get to interview Craig Shoemaker at the KLBJ radio station. Today is also a Big Day for Craig, because his new comedy movie, THE LOVEMASTER, has its World Premiere in Austin tonight.
I'm intently listening to the KLBJ morning show, partly because I'm a fan, and partly because it is rumored that Craig, or "Shoe," as his friends call him, is going to make a requisite appearance on the show. Being good friends with radio personalities Dale Dudley, Bob Fonseca, and Debra Cole (he liked them all enough to give them cameos in his film), Craig's on-air shtick with these three makes for some of the funniest comedy you can get.
The problem, it seems, is this: Craig isn't at the station yet, and no one seems to know where he might be.
The answer to this dilemma turns up: Craig is at his hotel, dead to the world. After sitting on the tarmac in Dallas (in the pouring rain) for five hours, the comedian took matters into his own hands and drove the three hours to Austin early this morning. He arrived at 5:00 am, and after three short hours of sleep, he isn't quite ready to face an onslaught of reporters, photographers, and fans -- people like me. Regardless, KLBJ dispatches a driver to pick him up and bring him to the radio station -- ready or not.
I get in my car to go to KLBJ myself. I know Craig won't be there for awhile, but I've been invited down to hang out in the control room, mainly because I mentioned the radio crew by name in my 3 1/2 star review of the film. Who am I to pass up an opportunity like that?
The KLBJ receptionist is very nice. She calls to Cordy, the intern, and says they'll be right out to get me. Cordy, too, is very nice, and she leads me back into the labyrinth of the radio station's offices, conference rooms, and broadcasting areas.
When we get to the actual control room -- the one with all the computers, control panels, flashing lights, knobs, dials, and levers -- I'm amazed at how small and cozy it is, as well as how freely people come and go. Like the sign says, they're On The Air, and I just waltz right in. I don't know what to say or do, so mostly I just stand in the corner and watch with my big brown eyes. It's simply fascinating.
During commercial breaks and songs I eventually meet the whole crew. Bob Fonseca, who has taken (or been given) the responsibility of managing Craig's schedule, says that Craig is on his way -- no need to worry. I'm happy as a clam, just watching these three go after each other. The best part is watching them read ad copy, which always sounds so very earnest when you listen to the radio, but is so uninteresting when you actually watch their faces. I'm amazed.
I use up 30 seconds of my 15 minutes of fame, when Dale Dudley refers to me as "movie review guy" to get my opinion on his performance (consisting of five words) in the film. I do my best to not sound like a goon.
The morning show is over, and Shoemaker is still nowhere in sight. Bob is kind to point me to the glacier-cold break room, where I wait for him.
Craig gets to KLBJ. You can't miss him, with 20-some hours of beard growth and a neo-grunge look inspired by his lack of sleep and wet luggage. He passes by the break room, and I meet him in person. He's very agreeable, considering the circumstances, and he asks, "Are you the guy that wrote that cool review?" We shake hands, and he's whisked away to do an interview with someone else.
Ursula Coyote, my photographer, is now here, and Craig is ready to talk to me. We are led into a scene reminiscent of a White House strategy session. Craig and some station executive are planning the logistics of tonight's Premiere at the Arbor Cinema. (Will there be a red carpet? How many limos? What time -- 7:00 or 7:15? Will the people be kept behind barricades like they are in L.A.? What about overbooking?) Bob's on the phone to a publicist. Ursula starts talking to Debra Cole about shoes and tights. I'm standing in the middle of all this with my tape recorder. How do people keep their cool?
In a few minutes, Craig and I are sat in one corner of the busy room "to do the interview," but Bob interjects, "We're supposed to be at KVUE at 11." "Where?" asks Craig, "Is that TV?" "Well, it's a television station," Bob replies. "OH! You're killing me!" moans Craig, unhappy with his appearance. "Ask if they have makeup."
Bob disappears for a minute, presumably to inquire as the makeup situation at KVUE, and Craig instantly launches into what he refers to as, "that plane episode." He relates the story, "I had a delay in Dallas, because you people here, in Hooterville, don't have a direct flight from L.A. So I had to go through Dallas, where it's pouring rain. You guys got prop planes out here at 'Austin International Airport' -- it's because of you! Then they take us out to the runway... for *five* hours. And the woman sitting next to me knew who I was, so we teamed up like in PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES. We took a shuttle -- I pleaded with this guy, bribed him, I just fed his whole family for a week -- to get out of the airport, and I might as well have driven to Waco, it was so far. It's pouring rain, and both of us are in suede -- this person I don't even know. But now we're together, now we're a team. Then we get the last Alamo car -- I almost had to take a gun from one of you Texans to get it, and we drove all the way. We got in at 5:00 am. I gotta check these bags... under my eyes."
I asked Craig if he knew that even in his misery, he was cracking jokes nonstop. "Really?" he asks. "I was? I had no clue. It's now instinctual, I suppose." And like that, Bob's back. It's time to go to the TV station. Craig's idea: "Why don't you come with me?"
So we're off on another adventure.
"Let's roll, baby!" yells Craig. Ursula snaps a few photos in the hallway. Then we're off through the maze of KLBJ to Bob's pickup truck, walking through parking lots and flower beds to get there. On the way, Craig offers, "This is what it was like making the movie -- guerrilla filming. No money. It was, 'Come on! We're on the fly!'"
We get to the truck, and Craig looks at it, saying, "They're not gonna fit."
Bob replies, "Yeah, they are."
Craig starts talking about this publicity tour and muses, "You know, I think I'm paying for this. The hotel was on MY Diner's Club! They've even got my damn credit cards!" The next crisis is whether Craig should button or unbutton his shirt, given that he's going to be on television.
We talk about Farrah Fawcett, because not only does she have a small role in THE LOVEMASTER, but she also was a Delta Delta Delta pledge at UT, along with my mother. Craig immediately launches into another sore spot, regarding Dale Dudley on the set of the film. The story goes, that after a couple of drinks, Dale approached Farrah with a microphone in hand and promptly asked, "Is it true you got kicked out of the Tri-Delts for having sex?" Then there were some, er, provocative comments about Farrah's famed swimsuit poster from about 20 years ago. Craig rants, "She's filming this thing for scale! We're already kissing her ass! And then this guy comes up to her... And then he gets mad at me for 'copping an attitude' because I'm trying to get him out of there. It was unbelievable. You know, people still e-mail me about that? They ask, 'Do you really hate Dale Dudley?' I say, 'It's for the act.'"
Then Bob says I probably shouldn't be taping this.
"I'm the Lovemaster, and I have nobody." Craig is complaining that he has no date to the premiere tonight. I comment that that's really what his movie is about -- being a loser no matter how hard you try otherwise -- and he thinks for a second. "True," he says, but I get the feeling that it doesn't really matter. He continues, "You know, my high school reunion's coming up. I got two weeks to get famous."
Which just MAY happen. Craig quotes my review of his film, saying, "'The Lovemaster makes Barry White look like a wuss!' You gotta love that review! You're got it, baby! You're going on the new poster!" He starts in on another review, saying that someone "was upset about the production values. That's what brought us down half a star, I figure... With Courtney [Thorne-Smith], we only had two angles!" Bob replies, "I thought they were gonna fix it in the mix." Craig makes a face and retorts, "How do you fix two angles in the mix?" Bob says, "Can't they morph something?" We laugh. "Yeah, we got 'morph money' set aside," replies Craig, rolling his eyes.
Craig blames, er, credits Bob for the creation of THE LOVEMASTER as a movie. He continues, "It started as a video, and we were talking about doing it here, at the Paramount [Theatre]." So why did he film in Arizona? "Because Hooterville doesn't have a damn airport that's direct to L.A.!" Then he's off in a seething rage about the airport again.
We get off on a tangent about how young I am (25), because Craig pokes fun at twentysomethings constantly in his act and in the film. "By the way, I didn't know it, but I do appeal to the college kids. I played to 70,000 college students at the Florida Gator Bowl and it was unbelievable." He says it: "UN-BE-lievable." He goes on, "That's another night the Lovemaster went 0 for 70,000. That's *not* a good ratio."
I try to get Craig to describe the Lovemaster to Ursula, who's never heard his act. "It's who I wish I was. That's pretty much the Lovemaster. It comes from growing up a geek. I used to think to myself, if they only knew what was behind this -- I'll love 'em so good, their neighbor will have a smoke! That's how the Lovemaster channels through. We all have a sexual side, plus I'm a Scorpio, so that makes me even more sexual."
Then Craig tells Amish sex jokes.
We arrive at KVUE. It turns out Craig isn't going to be on the air until 11:35 am, so everything's fine. Our chat is cut short by hellos and hugs with various KVUE staffers. Everyone gives us inquisitive looks as we pass through the newsroom, Craig in his dead-tired mode, me with microphone in hand, Ursula with camera gear. And we're all following some disc jockey.
Craig tells the airplane story again. I've heard it four times now. His appearance paranoia is back. He wants makeup again, or "spackle," as he's referring to it. I make a joke about buttoning his shirt, which sets off another round of fashion Q&A with all of us. He's freaking out, and I try to calm him down by asking, "Who's watching TV at 11:30 in the morning, anyway?"
Dolly Peters, the KVUE person who's trying to get a microphone on him, asks if he's going to joke around on the air. "No, I'm a comedian. I'm going to be really serious," he taunts.
Craig is visibly strained. "I don't even know where I am," he deadpans. "Austin, I think."
Waiting for the interview, Craig finally composes himself.
"So, are you in therapy?" I ask gently. "Yeah, three hours, every Wednesday. In a row. One hour of individual, two of group -- but that's still just me." We laugh at the joke, and I ask if he hams it up in group therapy. "Hell no," Craig replies. "They'd bust me on that in a second. 'Mr. Comedian: this isn't your stage.' I'm busted on that all the time.
"People invite me to weddings -- and I don't even know them. I'll go, 'Pass the salt.' And they'll look at me like, 'Oh here comes a little routine... the *salt* routine. Yeah, what about the salt, Craig?' Then they try to set me up. They come up with ideas for me: 'Did you ever notice that when people spill salt, they throw it over their shoulder?' Yeah, that's really funny pal, don't quit your day job. That's a riot. You're killing me." Sometimes, it seems, Craig really *hates* his job.
Then we talk about Barney Fife.
Craig's interview. He does a Barney Fife bit and tells the airplane story.
Time to go. I joke with Craig, saying that I have to throw out everything he's said because he managed to go over all the same material he used with me in that TV interview.
Then Craig has to go to the bathroom, and he won't let me follow him, "because then you'll see the *real* Lovemaster."
On the way back to KLBJ. Small talk in the truck, mainly about the evening's activities and how DJ's get everything for free. Then Craig turns to me and says what I think is the funniest thing he's said, "Okay, so let's do the interview." "We already did the interview," I say. The interview started when I woke up this morning, almost five hours ago.
Craig says his next project is "a TV show in development." And he's going to lose some Nike commercial because he's in Austin instead of L.A. during the callbacks.
Then Bob makes me turn off the recorder again.
We say our farewells back at the station, and I try to put everything together that I've experienced over the morning, try to figure out what I learned about Craig during the morning. "My life is my act," says Craig in the movie, and I believe that. You can tell that when Craig is in stride, like he is in his act, he's happy. But when something is out of place, Craig goes nuts, and comedy is his way of dealing with that. It's a defense mechanism, and in Craig's life, it seems to be needed quite a bit.
Craig told me earlier, "At the end of the film, I am truly born. I finally become myself." In the film, Craig lets his facades go, and comes back to reality.
But then I have to remind myself that it's just a movie. Maybe it's not all fun and games, and maybe it really isn't that easy to let go of your neuroses. Maybe there's something deeply troubling just under the surface of Craig's act, and we just miss it because we're too busy laughing at the exterior of it. Maybe THE LOVEMASTER isn't a comedy after all, and I've misjudged it from the start.
Or maybe not.