Frazer Smith Hurts Himself
Radio / Charlie Haas
New West, January 15, 1979, page 11
HE CAN’T BE serious. (You know how people are always saying that? “Oh, come on, you can’t be, serious”? He can’t.) Tries, though: After telling a large Southern California radio audience that Lakers coach’ Jerry West is being held for questioning in connection with the recent canyon fires (“Yes, friends, it appears that Mr. Clutch is also Mr. Torch”), he switches off his microphone, lowers the studio volume on Devo’s “Jacko Homo,” turns away from the console with an expression of deep thoughtfulness on his face and speaks in a voice made chaste by reason and sincerity.
“What I feel is that it’s real healthy for a person to be into a lot of different things, you know? I mean, health … music … sports. Drugs. Shark strangling. Puerto Rican cocktail waitresses with huge breasts and high-heel shoes. Throwing up on federal judges. You know. Kind of a variety. Here, wait a minute —” He wheels around in his chair to face the turntables, starts Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives,” turns his mike up and shouts at his unseen audience over the transition:
“Smoke that spliff! Have to call in a private dick! Yes, it’s Lieutenant Mike Curb coming your way in Police Blow Job, a dangerous show about people from another generation! Look out! Gotta go! Can’t hang out! Love to stay, but gotta go and you know on a Friday night this is your number-one boy with the joy toy, the kinda guy that says shake it three times and you’re shakin’ it three times and that’s … not … all on your Frazer Smith show, comin’ through your mailbox like a giant rattler sayin’ don’t sit still, jump up and down, scratch glass, turn blue, cut yo’ furniture in half with a chainsaw an’ remember my main motto: Don’t get caught!”
Frazer Smith comes on the radio sounding like a motorized sociopath, which makes him at once the bearer of a noble tradition and a member of an endangered species — endangered in part by the market-researched “formatting” that has rendered most FM rock radio stations mellow to the point of narcolepsy. KROQ (106.7 FM), the small Pasadena outlet where Smith has been working weekends for the past two years, is itself an aberrant holdout. Rather than hewing to the playlist orthodoxy of KMET, KLOS, KWST and the others, KROQ chances angry anti-hits such as Patti Smith’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger” and the Sex Pistols’ “Bodies.” It does not have a strong signal, a polished air sound or a wealth of stereo and waterbed advertising, but it does have Frazer Smith. There now exists in Los Angeles a sizable Frazer Smith cult, each of whose members can recall playing with the FM dial on a Friday or Saturday night between seven and twelve and hearing, for the first time, what sounded like a real radio announcer — a nice deep voice like they have for weather or sports — but pouring out this manic double-time torrent of words and saying’ the most irregular things — “Wanna remind you all about Dogbrau Beer, the beer for people who have no idea where they’re going and … are in a hurry. So if you’re in a big rush, driving real fast, and you don’t know where or in whose car, then you oughtta be drinking Dogbrau Beer, or our newest product, Doggy Style Malt Liquor. Just go into your nearest liquor store and say, “Gimme that Dogbrau, Daddy.” That’s for me. I need it.’ And you all need this. What are you gonna do when I’m gone, that’s what I wanna know. Some of you poor saps’ll probably go right over the edge and stick a pair of scissors in your leg. Oww! Oh! Aaoww! No. I don’t know if I can trust you with my back turned, that’s the whole thing — on a Friday night on the Roch-kuh! of Los Angeles let’s face it this is —”
Frazer Smith, 28, is tall and solidly built; his face — sharp-featured, with rough skin — is framed by straight, neck-length brown hair. He grew up in the Detroit area and began doing radio and standup comedy while a student at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. With a friend, known professionally as “Daddy Wags,” he formed a stand up act called The Professionals, which toured the Midwest with the Firesign Theater’s [Phil] Proctor and [Peter] Bergman for a while before breaking up (“We had a good show — a real good show, real good, but two-man shows are … they’re not it. They don’t make it, you know what I mean?”). In 1976 Smith moved to Los Angeles and scuffled for a while, submitting audition tapes to every FM rock station in town before KROQ gave him a chance to start Hollywood Niteshift, a group comedy show that also featured ex-Firesigner Phil Austin and actor Michael C. Gwynne [IMDB], and subsequently gave Smith his own spot.
These days, Smith is declaring himself ready for stardom as a standup and television comedian — so intensely ready, in fact, that he talks nervously and not quite jokingly about visiting guts punishment on anyone misguided enough to stand in his way. Success is his comic preoccupation and his serious obsession. On the air, he pretends to be an unknown poor guy pretending to be a famous rich guy and thus flambés the whole notion of showbiz celebrity — schizily describing himself in the third person as a Vegas lounge comic worth millions and, in the next breath, claiming to live in his car. Off the air, he anxiously speaks the rhetoric of success — things are breaking, building, opening up; more connections; soon now.
He doesn’t really live in his car, but in a succession of “little girls’ houses.” He’s single (“Very single. Love playing the field. Any field. That’s the thing about this town, I mean, L.A. is full of women who are … trying to kill me. I mean it. They’re just wearing me out. I’ve never seen a town like this for groupies. It wasn’t this way in Detroit, anyway.”)
What he mostly hopes, though, is to break into a new league, where he won’t need KROQ. “It’s so small-time,” he complains. “I don’t want to say anything about the people there, but — well, if they ran it right, they could make a lot of money. I mean, I believe I feel some hostility toward them. Ha.”
In L.A., people apologize for their jobs almost as a matter of form: everybody you meet is doing what he’s doing only until he makes enough money to do what he really wants to do, Still, it’s strange to hear someone wanting out when he’s in — in this case, to hear the hottest property on local radio, who has made such agile use of the medium’s possibilities to create a perfect fantasy character for himself, say that he doesn’t want to be on the radio,
“I can handle radio, but it’s not real exciting for me, and since radio management seems to like to harass me, I‘m always on thin ice in the radio business, because I’m hard to control — the radio show becomes less and less of a necessary item. But it’s real good for hyping my live shows, getting my fans out and letting them know that I’ll be at the Improv or the Whisky or the Golden Bear or whatever. I’m trying to get more of a steady thing going with live shows, trying to find good management. I think it’s gonna break, I know it is, but the audience has built up so slowly” — he catches himself getting plaintive and switches into his Vegas voice, a little tighter, a little faster, to recover — “and I don’t mind tellin’ ya, I’m a little upset about that. I think people shoulda just recognized my talent immediately and said, ‘Hey, he’s a genius, he’s a star’, but okay, it’s a dues-paying thing, and the people who have gotten behind me, they’ve been just wonderful — sold their homes and their furniture, stuck by me, given me dope …”
The Frazer Smith on the radio is a man of lethal extremes — boundless sexual, alcoholic, and pharmaceutical appetites; international fame (or total obscurity); obscene wealth (or abject poverty) — anything, in other words, but the in-betweenhood, the almost-stardom that is making him so nervous in real life. His radio rap is not an original; rather, it’s an of-the-moment composite, a synthesis of such inputs as Johnny Carson, Wolfman Jack (and other screamer DJs from radio’s better days), Hunter Thompson’s character in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Firesign Theatre, TV cop shows, radio car-race commercials, silly names, funny voices, animal sounds and protracted howls. He plies all these resources into a disjointed continuum of cynicism and self-parody, longer on left turns and digressions than on punch lines, with a malevolent edge to it, a tendency to invoke self-destructive excess and oblivion so that the humor is actually mean enough to be in synch with his mostly New Wave music programming. His voice, with its insinuating pauses, its suggestive elongations of syllables, churns up speed over the course of a two-minute monologue, pushing past free association to obsessive-compulsive association, and by the end of a sequence he is not so much speaking words as sweating them: “Now about these Frazer Smith Hurt Yourself T-shirts — they not only have the dagger through the heart and the familiar ‘Hurt Yourself’ banner on ‘em, but they carry that Must Get Laid Guarantee, which makes ‘em an even more dangerous item than we first anticipated — they’ll make you feel cool, you know what we’re talkin’ about a real cool person, you’re walkin’ around on the street goin’ ‘I’m … so … cool,’ and you take a step out of your car and fall flat on your face in front of a bar and people say, ‘Yeah, that’s, uh, great, there,’ and you don’t care, it doesn’t make ‘any difference at all to you — you’re bouncing off mobile homes and RV units, crashing through the parking lot smashing windshields as you go, so — these T-shirts. It could be you in one of the brand-new shrew-lined Frazer Smith Hurt Yourself T-shirts, and of course girls all over town are sayin’, ‘Frazer we’re dyin’ to meet you!’ Well, I’d like to, but I can’t hang out. No appointments, no disappointments, you know what I’m talkin’ about? No friends, just … acquaintances. So send that six dollars to me-no, you can’t send it to me, I live in my car. Unless you got a real good arm, know what I mean — Tommy John for example, but he’s leaving town. So long, Tom. And be sure and catch my show at the Improv in Hollywood Tuesday [car-race voice] — Be there be there be there! You won’t believe it! He’s got a 427-cubic-inch engine mounted inside the comedian! He revs it up to 2,700 rpm, pops the clutch, and goes 24 feet in the air! It’s unreal! Be there! And yes, it’s true, it’s your Friday-night Frazer Smith Shrew, big one, huge, giant rodent, oh, God it’s on your doorstep, little girls it’s in your panties, think about its sharp plastic teeth comin’ up next to you!”
“At one time,” Smith says, “I lived the character that I portray on the radio. I used to drink ungodly amounts of Jack Daniels, and drive real fast, and not eat — just basically an alcoholic. Although, at the same time, I was running four miles a day, staying in shape. But drinking, eating speed every day, staying up all night and going crazy — I realized I was burning myself out, and I stopped. Still, that character and I are … close. Very close. Because … I’m crazy. Ha. But I’m commercially crazy. I can do any thing — TV, standup … I’m a real crossover. I don’t say that to brag, I really can do anything. My best talents haven’t been seen. And that kinda frustrates me, I start getting pissed off — I mean, there’s people in this town I’d like to kill. Just as soon put a knife to their throat as look at ‘em, you know … for stopping me from moving along the way I should, giving me that New Boy in Town rap — I won’t kill them, of course, but … I’m a hostile person, basically. I’m more of an angry person than a humorous person. I get angrier than the normal man. But I’m very good at being humorous, so I make a living being humorous. I’m in a business where you have to play the game, so I’m constantly called upon to subjugate my anger, and then it comes out in my material.
“You can be what you want on the radio, but you can be what you want in real life, too — you have to pay a lot of dues, but you can do it. For me, the basic get-off of being wacky isn’t being stupid, or clownish, but being wacky for the sake of keeping your own sanity, being what you want. I like to push it to extremes, and that way I figure I’m alive. And I like to portray that image, because I think people should live that way, but with some kind of restraint and alertness. Not some sloppy drunk life … but they can say, ‘This guy is crazy,’ and then vent some of their craziness by jumping around in their living room or their car, screaming, tearing some furniture apart. Most people have moments of hostility, anger, frustration — it’s a Ritalin world, especially in a big city. Some of them have releases like goin’ down to a bar or gettin’ in fights, or ramming their car into a bridge. I’d like to think they can listen to me and just go, ‘Hey, that’s wacky,’ and have a release from that … they may do that other stuff anyway, but they’ll be that much better at driving into a bridge. Ha. I mean, these are the kind of people — they jump around on their own. If you walk by their house and they’re alone, they’re likely to have the stereo cranked way up and a beer in their hand and they’re jumping around and screaming when nobody else is home. So they’ve got it in their personality anyway, and I seem to tap into it.
“Actually, the fans tend to bother me. I mean, I love ‘em to come to the shows and I hope they keep coming and tell their sisters, but — well, almost every male fan expects me to be hitting myself over the head with a Jack Daniels bottle, and every female fan wants me to take her home right now, even though there may be two others behind her that I’d rather take home. It’s hard to carry on a normal conversation with them, because they’re not talkin’ to me, they’re talkin’ to the character. I’ll do a live show and I’ll go outside afterwards to smoke a joint and suddenly there’ll be all these kids around me, going, ‘Frazer, Frazer, Frazer, are you really that crazy, what kinda drugs —’ They want me to run their car into a wall or something.
“But what people mostly want — it’s that Johnny Carson character. I mean — I make jokes about him constantly, but he’s my favorite entertainer, I think he’s the greatest, and there’s a lot of the Carsonesque character in me, even though I come from a different standpoint. And people want that Carsonesque character. They’ve always wanted to have somebody around that they can’t quite explain, that gets out of a car and he’s dressed differently from anybody else, and he struts up there and has no particular tools that anybody can see, and he starts controlling a situation, or an audience. They want that special person, I think, because it fortifies their belief that somebody can always come along and show them something they haven’t seen before. The trick is to hone your character so that they recognize that — like Johnny Carson has done. Or Hunter Thompson. And once you establish that, you’re off and running. You know what I’m talking about?”