Counter Culture Ep. 12
Join host Grover Silcox and guests Dennis Blair, Song Parodist; Sam Katz, President of History-Making Productions; and Mark Riccadonna, Comedian.
Welcome the Counter Culture, a talk show
normally in a diner.
On tonight's show,
I welcome the man
I call the singing comic,
- ♪ I wish I didn't have that sauerkraut ♪
♪ I did a one cheek sneak
♪ And they all passed out.
- The founder of History Making Productions,
Mr Sam Katz.
- When I went deep and did
a dive through the history
of the city, much of what I thought I knew
was not the truth.
- And the comic storyteller, actor and writer
Any time something happens to you
and you just go, "Oh, my God, this is horrible.
"I bet there's a joke in there."
All right here on Counter Culture.
Hi, folks, I'm your host,
Grover Silcox, coming to you
from Lehigh Valley Public Media Studio B
while we wait for the go-ahead
to return to our original home at
Daddypops Diner in little old Hatboro, PA.
- ♪ I hate everybody
♪ And it's so much fun.
- One of the first comics I ever met
outside of Philadelphia
happens to be my first guest.
Just thinking about him, as I've said, makes me laugh.
He opened for the late, great comedian George Carlin
for 18 years.
He's a headline performer in his own right,
bringing laughter and merriment
with his song parodies
and comic shenanigans
across the country.
Please welcome hysterically funny Dennis Blair!
- Oh, funny. You got the wrong guy.
I'm so sorry.
Hi, how are you doing? How's everything?
- I'm good.
Are you a song parodist, are you Episcopalian?
I mean, how do you define yourself?
- I'm a song...
I'm a song Lutheran. Let's put it at that.
I don't even know what that means.
Song parodist. Yes. Let's go with that.
That was how I started in the business.
Taking songs that you love,
taking songs that you love the words to
and the lyrics to
and ruining their memories forever by changing them
and making them stupid.
- You actually started out as a serious singer, right?
- Yes, I did.
I was going to be a rock star,
cos look at me.
- I was wondering.
- Rock star and a famous singer songwriter,
kind of like James Taylor,
but without the, back then, heroin addiction,
And that didn't go well.
That didn't come out.
So I got so (BLEEP)
I decided to take people's songs and make fun of them
because I'm mature.
- This is back in your hometown of New York, correct?
- Yes. Back in the... I lived in Manhattan
and auditioned at Dangerfield's,
which I don't know if you've heard, but it's closing.
- I did. A little sad. A little sad note there.
- And I went to an open mic night and auditioned.
And they hired me to be the opening act
for all of their headliners.
And the first week was Jackie Mason.
And the week after that was Rodney Dangerfield.
And it went on from there.
I think the beginning of 1980...
And Rodney's in Caddyshack...
I think made him huge.
And we got along really well. And he liked my show.
And yeah, within three months he was touring the country
with like theaters
and he said, "Hey, you want to come with me?"
I said, "Let me think about it. Yeah.
So, yeah. So, within three months,
I mean, I went from being a guy
playing bars in Long Island
to like opening for the biggest comic in America.
- He was very fatherly.
- Yes, he did.
Yes. He really was.
And he took me under his wing.
And, you know, he... I mean, all the people that I opened,
all the big people that I opened for,
I got huge benefits from
because Rodney's big thing was just get to the joke,
you know, don't...
"Get to the meat, cut away the fat, OK, kid?"
And then later it was Joan Rivers
and Carlin, of course.
How could you watch that guy for one night
and not get something out of...
..not get a lesson in comedy from that guy?
So, yes, all of these people were mentors in a way.
- Was it after Caddyshack that Rodney said,
"Hey, have you got an idea for another movie?"
And you wrote...?
- Yes. - Easy Money, right?
- Yes. Easy Money. We were in his dressing room.
I believe he was putting his pants back on
because he had just gotten... just done a second show.
And I seem to remember he was like bent over,
and went, "Hey, they want to do a movie starring me.
"So if you come up with an idea, let me know."
Now, understand, I'm doing comedy at this point, maybe
- three, four months. - Right.
- And Rodney Dangerfield says,
"If you come up with a movie idea for my next film,
"let me know."
Yeah, I ran home and came up with the idea.
An hour later I ran back to the club, and after his show
I said, "I got an idea for a movie," and came up
with the basic premise for Easy Money.
That's how that happened.
- Joan Rivers...
I've always heard good things about Joan,
like comics really enjoyed playing with her.
but she was kind of a practical joker.
- Here's the thing about Joan that was interesting.
She always used for some reason two opening acts,
not one, but two.
She always had to have two.
But, you know, you get a call in the morning
from Joan, like at 10:00 in the morning waking you up,
going, "We're all going on the boat.
"We're going to Lake Tahoe, we're going on the boat.
"Be downstairs in ten minutes."
And you'd have to get dressed.
So she was that kind of a person,
sort of like an organizer, you know,
like a Scout leader.
She was fun. Those were fun days.
- It sounds like fun.
Then, of course, George Carlin.
- 18 years with Mr Carlin.
It started as a three-month gig and apparently it went
well enough for George at the end of that to say,
"so you wanna stay?"
And I said, "I have nothing planned."
I was visiting you in your dressing room
at one of the casinos down there.
You were opening for George.
And as I was sitting there, George stuck his head in,
I think, two seconds, and said,
"Hi. Don't eat too much on the dessert tray. Bye."
I don't know if he said to you.
- Yeah, George is a man of many words
except in the dressing room, you know.
He saved it all for the stage.
It was an hour and 15 minutes show
and, you know, he was reserving his energy, I guess.
That was George. That's how we met -
in the dressing room for the first time in Omaha, Nebraska.
He comes down, he steals half of my deli tray
from my backstage allotment and says,
"OK, well, nice to meet you. Don't screw up.
"I'm going to be watching you."
And apparently it went well enough.
So they kept me.
- You know, your calling card
has been your song parodies
and people, you know, beg to hear them.
I love your James Taylor.
Could you do a little James Taylor for us?
- Well, the one the big thing I used to do on James Taylor
is I would combine that with radio DJs who would always
talk over the beginning,
and Fire And Rain
had a really long intro.
And the DJ on the radio would talk
all the way through that intro
right up until where James started singing.
So it'd be like...
This is WKBC.
It's going to be 79 degrees today.
And watch out for the traffic.
There's a tie-up on exit 17.
Enjoy your day.
Here's James Taylor. Fire And Rain.
♪ Hope you enjoy it.
♪ Just yesterday morning
♪ They let me know you were gone. ♪
That was the James Taylor bit, that was the big one.
- You do any Springsteen?
- Let's see. Springsteen?
I'm trying to remember.
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
I've haven't worked in, like,
eight months, obviously,
so I'm a little rusty.
Please forgive me.
- You seem...
- ♪ Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack ♪
♪ Well, I rented a car and they got in the back ♪
♪ Wish I didn't have that sauerkraut ♪
♪ I did a one cheek sneak
♪ And they all passed out
♪ Everybody sneaks a silent fart... ♪
It's really... My act is
just in case you didn't realize that.
Nothing but the most high-brow,
- I see. Yes.
You know, you're from New York,
but I can now hear,
you know, the one-armed bandits going,
because you live in Nevada now.
- I am a Las Vegas native as of seven years, I believe.
I think it's almost exactly seven years ago we moved here.
Yes. Because I was living in California at the time.
And as soon as my kids grew up and left the nest,
we looked at our property tax bill and said,
"Let's move to Vegas."
And we sold our house in California and moved here.
And before the pandemic, everything was going great.
I was doing... I was still doing the clubs and opening
for people occasionally.
And they would call me in to do, you know,
to fill in for people at the comedy clubs
and to headline there.
And also I started my music career again.
I'm playing with a band on Fridays.
- Right, full circle.
- Back to where I once belonged.
- Is it country music?
- I just finished recording my album.
- Which is?
- Songs From Captivity, appropriately enough.
- Oh, very appropriate. Very appropriate.
Wow. Well, you're a triple threat.
I'm not sure what the third thing is, but I'm sure
you'll come up with it.
- I'm like a... I'm like a half single threat,
I think, is what I am.
- Take care of yourself.
Stay safe, stay funny.
And we'll see you on the road, buddy.
- I'll try. - All right.
- Thank you. Good to see you.
- Yeah, same here. - Bye-bye.
- Dennis Blair.
When you close your eyes and you hear him sing
like Mick Jagger, you'll say,
"Wow, who's that guy singing like Mick Jagger?"
I kid, but I kid you not.
If you get a chance to see him go for it.
You'll thank me later.
My next guest didn't put Philadelphia on the map,
but rather he celebrates its place in history.
He and his talented film-makers have produced
award-winning historical documentaries
on topics such as William Penn's Great Experiment
to the heroism of 19th-century civil rights leader
These stories inspire, inform
and reassure us as Americans
that the Great Experiment started by William Penn
continues even now,
Please welcome Sam Katz to the counter.
Sam, welcome. Good to see you.
- I wish I could crack jokes like your previous guest,
like Dennis, but it's great to be with you, Grover.
Thank you for having me.
- Well, it really is.
And you have really played
such an important role
in your hometown of Philadelphia. Mine as well.
I know you're a Central High School graduate.
I should have one of your old campaign buttons.
You ran for mayor in 1999 and 2003.
- I have several thousand of them in the basement.
I can send you one. I'd be happy to.
- That's great.
Well, you obviously take pride in your native city, as I do.
Part of that, of course, is the history.
I mean, it is called the Cradle of Liberty for a reason.
- (WOMAN) Ideas can get a foothold here.
They can flower.
- (MAN) Philadelphia was
the workshop of the world.
- GLOVER: Your documentaries,
I mean, the team you have are so talented
and you see it, you know, right on the screen.
- SAM: I wanted to acquire an audience
and recognized that entertaining the audience
was as important as informing them.
- Tell me how you started History Making Productions
in 2008, I believe.
- Well, after accomplishing my perfect record in politics
I decided that perhaps
taking on a job
in which no-one was going
to produce 30-second advertisements to stop me
might be a good new strategy.
And I had long made comments
or speeches or whatever
about the history of Philadelphia
or Philadelphia things
only to discover that when I went deep
and did a dive through the history of the city,
much of what I thought I knew was not, in fact, the truth.
And of course, that's what history is - an opportunity
for all of us to take a look at, to find out
what really happened.
History is more fun
when it's the truth as opposed
to when it's mythology.
There's a lot of wonderful things about William Penn,
and we've put him on a pedestal and stuck him
on the top of City Hall.
- No city in America has done that.
And... But there's more to it.
He owned slaves. Quakers owned slaves.
He set aside thousands of acres of property
for himself and his family.
He needed to sell land
in order to monetize the debt
the King of England had to his father.
And after his stay, Pennsylvania, Quakers
and his children turned very vicious and violent
against the Native American Lenape who were here.
Those are not stories I learned in high school
and grade school.
And I think telling people
the true stories or at least
the interpretation that we've made
really gives people
some balance and perspective
and also entertains them.
- The re-enactors
and the way you film them,
again, setting the scene,
showing what life was like
is really artfully done.
- Our director is a guy named Andrew Ferrett,
Bucks County born,
and has been with me for eight years.
So he's 35 years old today.
When he first started, he was probably not the same director
he is today, and on a set or location,
his ability to get out of re-enactors...
They're not actors, they're not being voice recorded,
not engaging in script.
They may look like they're talking,
and they are, but we're not recording it.
But his ability to capture the mood and to make you feel
as an audience that you're there,
I think has really added a lot to the watchability
and digestibility of these stories.
And touching on so many important issues
to resonate, continue to be challenging,
like Sisters In Freedom.
- This is our home.
We're not leaving.
- Sisters In Freedom is a very, very important story
because a group of women,
Lucretia Mott being the name
most people might recognize,
but the Grimke sisters from South Carolina
and the Forten sisters.
It was an amalgamation of African-American
and white women denied access to the Anti Slavery Society
because they were women, and they formed
the Philadelphia Female Anti Slavery Society,
built their own building,
and within three days of opening,
it was burned down by a mob, angry not just because
they were against slavery,
which would surprise people in Philadelphia,
but also because they were comingling black and white.
And this was considered to be just off the charts
in terms of socially unacceptable.
And the violence perpetrated against these women
was rather startling.
So, you know, we think about the City of brotherly love...
We've had moments of less than brotherly love.
So the nature of our films is pretty fast paced,
very character driven.
We tell some wonderful stories.
We only have a limited amount of time to do it.
We make decisions about whose stories we want to tell,
and we want to make sure that we diversify those stories
so we can acquire an audience across a broad cross-section.
One way we could acquire an audience was to train
teachers and provide them with the educational resources
to make this material usable in a classroom
and to let kids see the wonder of discovery of history.
- And we've tried to make sure
that we tell stories in a way
that people can digest them and appreciate them.
And based on the audience reaction, the Nielsen ratings
and all the awards, it certainly has been fulfilling.
- Right. They have been...
They have been shown on broadcast television
and also, of course, are always available online.
- They have been on 6 ABC in Philadelphia,
which is the dominant station in our market.
They take Wheel Of Fortune off, which oftentimes causes
the operator at the station
to get a lot of angry phone calls.
"Where is Wheel?"
And we think that
we have about 90 seconds
before we would lose an audience
if the first 90 seconds of each episode didn't grab them.
We got a lot of philanthropic support
in Greater Philadelphia to produce these films.
But the history of Philadelphia is not
the history of America.
It's its own history.
The 19th century is so fascinating
and so much of what Philadelphia is today
was laid out in the 19th century.
And, you know, even the story of Society Hill...
- A source of great pride
about what it looks like and how beautiful it is
and how livable it is.
But it was once a neighborhood that other people lived in
and they were pushed out in order to make room
for the residents of Society Hill.
Good thing - yes. Bad thing - also.
And so there's a lot to... There are two sides
to every story and we try to cover both.
- And the other thing that I think
sets your documentaries apart -
there are quite a few things -
but the music.
That music is powerful.
- Music and sound mixing help to create and support
the emotion and the storytelling.
And may I tell you, we're about to have an event
on December 16th,
a virtual event to which everyone in your audience
where we will be presenting our latest film,
Beethoven In Beijing,
which is also a musical story,
about the rise of classical music in China
and the role that the Philadelphia Orchestra
has played in that rise,
commencing in 1973,
when many in your audience will remember
that Richard Nixon reopened diplomatic relations
and sent the Philadelphia Orchestra
to China, led by Eugene Ormandy.
2020 is the year in which Ludwig van Beethoven's birth
will celebrate its 255th anniversary.
And December 16th is his birthday.
- Wow, perfect timing.
- Well, you know, we could go on for hours talking
about your documentaries
and how important they are,
not only to Philadelphians,
but to the whole nation,
because what happened in Philadelphia
and in some of the other areas
that you cover
affected everybody and continues to impact all of us.
And thanks for joining us, Sam.
We really appreciate it.
- Grover, thank you for having me.
And thank you for the nice comments.
And I urge your audience to get to Ludwig250.com
and join us on December 16th
for Ludwig van Beethoven's 250th birthday party.
- You got it. You got it.
Sam Katz, a man who has made history
with his History Making Productions.
- We have dog people in the crowd,
Oh, I wanted a man dog,
the kind of dog I could take out to the park,
do man stuff with.
I got a shih-tzu.
But he's from the Bronx, so he got street cred.
- If you're a veteran who served in the States
or overseas, you might recognize my next guest.
He's a stand-up comic and storyteller
who has entertained America's troops worldwide.
He's sort of the modern-day Bob Hope.
He left home in Youngstown, Ohio,
bound for New York City
and the chance to become a professional comedian.
Since then, he's been seen
on AXS TV's Live At Gotham Comedy Club.
He's a contributing writer for Weekend Update on SNL.
And he's got a new book coming out called Domestic Nomad.
It's a pleasure to welcome Mark Riccadonna to the counter.
Hi, Mark. How are you?
- How are you? - Good.
I was bummed that we didn't get to go to a diner
and have coffee, so I came to the only thing open,
which was a brewery.
And I'm having a coffee stout.
I am. And it's really good.
- I can imagine! Unfortunately, this isn't
quite as potent as what you're drinking.
Oh, boy. Well, I'm surprised we caught you,
although I don't know how much anyone is doing
at this particular time.
But I know you've been to
how many different
armed services entertainment shows?
- So I've done 22 tours overseas
with Armed Forces Entertainment in the US.
It changes your outlook on life
when you see people who give up so much, you know,
to help defend our country
and I have nothing but respect.
And you show up and they treat you so well
and they can't stop thanking you for coming.
And it's like, "I'm only going to be here for one night
"telling jokes. You're here for a year
"fighting in a war or, you know, defending
"our country, being attacked."
Like, you really realize
that we have a...
..I guess you call them a warrior class
that just is so amazing.
And I can't give enough.
I wish I could do it all year round.
And it's funny you had Sam on.
And he and he was talking about the re-enactors.
I actually saw re-enactors down south
re-enacting the Civil War.
And I saw... The comic and we wanted to come out
and run out and be like, "wait, I'm from the future.
"I know how this ends!"
Angie you and I are having our second child.
I got to be honest with you guys, I feel really weird
saying "our second child",
because I really didn't do that much.
- I saw a video of you at Gotham City Comedy Club
in New York City.
I guess it was hosted by Elayne Boosler,
a very funny comic.
- She's a complete legend.
We had such a great bond overseas.
We went over to the Middle East together.
I actually wasn't booked on the show
for the Live At Gotham.
And somebody canceled.
And Elayne was like, "Please give my friend Mark a shot."
And that's what got me on the show.
I feel like I'm so lucky.
I've had such great encounters with people
I've looked up to my whole life like, you know,
Elayne Boosler, Paul Provenza,
Rick Overton, these people that I looked up to
and thought, "Oh, my God, they're like gods."
And next thing I know, I'm hanging out.
I have always been like the kid. You know, they always...
I started so young.
Everybody referred to me as the kid.
But, you know, I'm in my late 30s and not the kid any more.
- It wasn't something you were thinking of
from the day you were born that you were going
to be a stand-up comic?
- No, I actually...
I love sports. I was a big jock.
I loved football and wrestling.
And when I graduated,
I really didn't have a plan.
I moved to New York.
- You were only 17, right?
And I just fell in love
with New York, the theater.
I wasn't well versed in any kind of theater
or anything like that.
And I felt like I did a lot of catch-up, you know,
and it was a lot of work.
But I loved it...
- You went... - I started doing...
- American Academy of Performing Arts,
which is one of the primo schools for actors.
- I fell in love with theater
and I started waiting tables at a comedy club.
All I did all day, no matter what I was doing,
was thinking, "Could I do comedy while I do this?"
And I was getting in theater,
I was doing plays.
And I would think, like, "If I get cast in this,
"will I still be able to get up at night and do comedy?"
And it took over my life.
And I hit a point where
I realized I think I could actually make a run at this
and really do it for a living.
The rush of... This was stuff I wrote,
I then produced on stage and I acted it out
and now it's being in front of an audience that quickly...
It wasn't months of rehearsal,
and so I got this quick fix and I thought,
"Oh, my God, everything's amazing, I'm going to do this."
And then I bombed for like six months.
Because I didn't have the excitement
that I did my first time.
And I realized I actually have to write good stuff.
- Energy and happy and excitement
isn't going to fly any more.
- Yeah. You have to work...
- Yeah. And it's a lot of work
and a lot of people think
the life of a comic is pretty easy.
You can wake up whenever you want and you can do
whatever and you just have to go up and be funny.
But they don't know the amount of time you sit
and have to write, the amount of time you have to call clubs
to get bookings.
So you're putting in hours and hours and hours
to make it look really easy and seamless and...
- Exactly. Yeah, exactly.
Now, how did you wend your way
into a gig with Saturday Night Live
writing for Weekend Update?
- So I was super fortunate.
I had a really good friend
who was asked to write for one of the news guys,
and he brought me on with him.
His name's Kevin Brennan.
He's an amazing comedian.
And he brought me and another guy, Stan Stankos, on.
And we got to what's called contributing.
You're not on staff, but you get the right.
And I had a couple of jokes make it there.
And that feeling is just amazing
to see something that you wrote
make it on television,
that it was good enough for the person,
the anchor, to read
and then for an audience to think it was funny enough
to make it to the show was just... It was as good
as being on stage and doing a joke.
- Can you give us a little taste of some of the things
that you cover and your routine?
- Yeah, I mean, so I am married
and I have two kids
and I absolutely adore my kids.
My older one, he's a spitting image of me,
like, you know, he's got the big poufy hair and a beard.
And then my younger one,
he's just like my wife, you know?
And... - Make sure...
My wife's a Philly girl, She's tough.
- Yeah, she's from Philly.
- We moved down here when we had kids.
We wanted to be close to family.
- Right. - My family's in Ohio.
Hers is in Philly.
So Philly was the natural spot
because it's so close to New York
and it's busy in its own right.
It's a wonderful city for comedy.
Another thing is that the pandemic, you know,
we got out of New York in time.
We moved out before it got cool to move out of New York.
The pandemic was a lot like Thanksgiving, you know,
because all I did is like eat, drink, watch TV
and fall asleep.
You know, it was just like...
Thanksgiving is my favorite time of year.
You know, Thanksgiving's that one time of year -
you get your whole family under one roof and realize
why you moved out.
- Yeah, right.
What we do with our family
and marriage and kids and parenting, I mean,
that gives us material.
That's the great thing about being a comedian.
- Any time something happens to you and you just go,
"Oh, my God, this is horrible.
"I bet there's a joke in it."
- Yeah. Yeah.
Well, Mark, I want to thank you for joining us tonight.
Thanks so much.
- Thanks so much.
And we'll have to be in touch,
if you're in Hatboro.
- There you go.
I'll be standing out in front of the diner.
Take care, my friend.
Mark Riccadonna, a comic who makes each person
in his audience feel like they've known him
their whole lives.
Well, that's it for this episode of Counter Culture.
I want to thank my guests...
Ty buddy the hilarious comic songster and parody master,
The founder of the award-winning
History Making Productions, Sam Katz.
And the hilarious comic writer and performer Mark Riccadonna.
And thank you for joining us tonight.
Don't forget to stop by next week for more amazing guests
and terrific conversation
right here at the counter.