R.A.P. Interview: The Real Bob James

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R.A.P.: Was ACN actually the first comedy service of its type?
Bob: I think we were the first syndicated service that called ourselves a network, and that was just to distinguish ourselves from the others out there. I think Stevens and Grdnic were out there, but again, I don't think they were making comment on what was happening in the world during that time, although they're doing that now. They have their own comedy service. We're good friends, and they're wonderful, talented people. They also did a morning show in New York for a while, and they worked in St. Louis. They've been all over. They have comedy albums out, and they're very funny people. But back when we started, I don't think they were doing the contemporary stuff.

At that point, Ronald Reagan was still in the White House. So if Ronald Reagan did a stupid thing one week, then the next week, or even faster than that, there would be a bit on his stupid thing. The baseball strike was on, so we had our baseball strike song done and ready to go. Whatever was happening in the news that had some shelf life, we would comment on. There were things going on in South Africa. We did this big thing called The South African White Sale, and got Sears real pissed off at us. Do you remember the jingle they had? "America Shops at Sears...." Well, our version went, "South Africa Lives in Fear...." I think we had an affiliate in Chicago, and that funny jingle we sent them was broadcast over the air. And, of course, that's where Sears is located. Well, they heard it and sent a cease and desist order and threatened to sue us for one million dollars if we didn't destroy that parody because it inaccurately, in their opinion, would make an average listener think that Sears somehow was keeping down the Blacks in South Africa, and that was the last thing we were thinking of. We just used a contemporary song that was in everybody's mind and set it to parody something else. We were a little company. We might have won the lawsuit but lost everything else. So, discretion being the better part of valor, we pulled the spot and told our affiliates to pull the spot. Whether they did or not I couldn't tell you, but that's what we told them to do. There was a lot of stuff like that. A lot of people got mad at us, so we knew we were doing our job.

R.A.P.: Did you find yourselves getting a lot of calls from lawyers?
Bob: In the beginning we did, and then later on we didn't. I think we ran the same track that Saturday Night Live ran when they first started. There were a lot of people who were so shocked that somebody would say anything like that. You know, we would make comment on people who smoke cigarettes and the cigarette companies. We'd make comments about the airlines. There were just three of us doing the writing, me, Andy and Dale. One of us might come back from a vacation which involved an airplane ride, and we'd be pissed off about that. So, we'd write a bit on that. We would make a comment that, from our perspective anyway, was true, and we'd have those people calling us.

We did a thing on Whitney Houston called "Don't My Songs All Sound the Same." It was to the tune of one of her big hits. We noticed that all she was doing was very formulaic songs -- she would come out, she would sing, she would scream. It was like a situation comedy. There was a formula they were following to make hit songs for Whitney Houston. So, we said that, and that got Arista Records, or whatever label she was on, kind of ticked off.

R.A.P.: Did you ever have to settle?
Bob: No, although there were threats. There were always calls saying they were very angry and wouldn't let this happen and that we'd pay for this and that. The only company that really served us with papers was the Sears Corporation. I was there when the sheriff came in with the papers. We eventually put together a little tape called "ACN's Most Famous Lawsuits" although there were really no lawsuits. It was a collection of all the things that made people mad at us. I had a seven-year run there with ACN, eight years, actually, and it was a lot of fun.

R.A.P.: Prior to ACN, you had been a morning man for several years at several stations. Were you using this "ACN style" of comedy on the air at these stations?
Bob: I was doing the ACN type stuff basically, but not exactly. When you're a morning personality, you get up at three o'clock in the morning, and you only have limited amounts of time to think about things and write things down. I'd go in and do a show, then go out and do an appearance and what have you. So it's difficult to really put together some high quality stuff. On the other hand, when your job is nothing but reading the paper, paying attention to television, writing comedy material and producing it, then the level of quality comes up.

We had our own studios at ACN, and we did all the writing and all the production. I shepherded the production, but I was in on the writing sessions, too. We'd write it then cast it. We'd bring people in, and I was there trying to make the words have some life. When you write something on a piece of paper, it doesn't necessarily mean it's funny. You have to make it funny in the studio. You've got to catch that lightening in a bottle in the studio. So, even though I did the ACN stuff when I was working on the air, I think the quality of it got a hell of a lot better when I was off the air and turning all my attention to writing and producing comedy material.

R.A.P.: Were you producing song parodies as a morning personality?
Bob: Yea, I did parodies, but I sang them myself and sucked. And back then, there was no such thing as a MIDI. Nobody sat around interfacing with their little Casio. I would get songs that had instrumental segments and put those together, adding them on to each other to make it work. It was like dark ages kind of stuff.

R.A.P.: While you were doing mornings, before ACN, did you get into much trouble with your comedy material? Did you get the attention of any lawyers back then?
Bob: Well, I got into some trouble when I was in Akron. I did a thing called The Barberton Report where I would make fun of people in this goofy city of Barberton. It wasn't really goofy, but I portrayed it as a funny suburb with unusual people. I got in trouble for that -- phone calls and what have you.

And when I was in Cleveland I did Cleveland Crimebusters. Cleveland is a funny town, or was when I was there, and is the butt of a lot of jokes because the river caught on fire and people were throwing baseballs off the top of the terminal tower at one time. I mean, nutty things happened in Cleveland. If you have a warped outlook anyway, you can kind of screw with what's going on and do something funny with it.

R.A.P.: Looking back, how would you say ACN affected the way morning shows were presented?
Bob: One thing that happened is that ACN turned into a tool for managers. It was supposed to help morning personalities do a better job, but something else happened in some markets. You had managers in some cases who saw the personality on the air as a light bulb. It really didn't matter what person you screwed in or screwed out, if you know what I mean. You could screw in a new light bulb every time you needed a new one, and ACN would always be there. You would always have that consistency. The character would still be there even though the disk jockey got fired or left. Another guy who knew how to use ACN could come in and make a smooth transition.

I think we changed the way some morning shows are done around the country, but I think we stifled a lot of creativity, too. We stopped the young people. There's maybe a five or six year generational span there that never learned how to be good radio personalities because they had ACN. They didn't have to think. They didn't have to write. Other people were thinking and writing for them. You had some General Managers and programmers saying to their air personalities, "Do you think you're better than that song? Play the song and shut up! The song cost a hell of a lot more to produce than what you could come up with. It's much better quality material." Well, that's the way ACN was being used, too.

So you've got all these young people who probably had a lot of things to say and had a lot of magic in their souls who were told just to do the shtick about Reagan on the ACN thing, play the fake commercial, and don't say anything. Keep playing the music. I feel bad about that, but at least I had a chance to put a few bucks in the bank.

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