Sunday, April 29, 2007

Jeff Hoover

Jeff Hoover made his name in Chicago radio as one of the hilarious writer/performers of Jonathon Brandmeier's show in the 90s. He is now one of the producers of the highly rated WGN Morning News on Channel 9 in Chicago. A show Hoover helped produce for WGN-TV in 2005, "Bozo, Gar & Ray: WGN TV Classics," won three Telly Awards in entertainment, variety and documentary categories. The awards honor excellence in local, regional and cable commercials and programming.

Jeff Hoover with Bob Saget


News/Talk 1400 WSJM & Magic 107 WIRX
(St. Joseph-Benton Harbor) A Mid-West Family Broadcasting Station is very approximate - I would say it was probably 1984 - 1988

Jonathon Brandmeier Showgram WLUP/AM1000/WCKG 105.9FM. I was a contributor from '93 to '95 and hired as a creative producer in 1996 to 2001

Was a free-lance producer in 2002, and joined WGN Morning News as a producer in 2003.

Rick: I know you got your radio start in your hometown of St. Joe's in Michigan. Tell us a story or two about what it's like working at a small market station like that--compared to working in a market like Chicago.

Hoover: I worked at WSJM/WIRX during my summer breaks from attending Business School at Western Michigan University. I had a sweet lisp back then. I must have picked it from doing too much musical theater in high school. Anyway, the station tag line was "the Spirit of the Southwest." I have the airchecks and if you heard them, you'd swear that it was Garry Meier doing one of his Cliff Mansavage bits. We played soft rock music on reel-to-reels and I would read the weather forecast, blood drive information and let the elderly know what parking lot the Bookmobile was going to visit next.

Yes, I saved many lives in those days.

Rick: You made your name in town as a writer/performer on the Johnny B Showgram. How did you get your foot in the door there?

Hoover: First of all, I was (and still am) an avid fan of Johnny's for many years before I ever worked for him. I could hear the Loop on my boom box in Michigan.

Anyway, I moved to Chicago in 1991 and didn't get the idea to call in to his show until he had a Jerry Lewis impersonation contest in 1993. Johnny had tickets to see Jerry at the Drury Lane in Oakbrook. I was working at a marketing company and heard this and thought this was my chance to play. I asked the HR manager if I could use her office for a minute and closed the door and made the call. I had never tried to say anything more than "LADY" in the Jerry voice so I was nervous and anxious. Luckily, some of the Second City improv training kicked in when it came to my turn. After riffing about my colostomy bag looking like a Steakum, I won the tickets. Now, this is going to sound really dorky, but the greatest feeling during that first call was making Johnny laugh. I still have the tape and it is great to hear Johnny, Buzz and Robin together. And, to this day, the best thing that I can ever hope to do, is to make people laugh. Jesus, I really sound like Jerry Lewis now.

Since that day, anytime Jerry Lewis came up in the news, they would call me and see if Jerry was available. Soon, they'd call for Jerry even if he wasn't in the news. I was invited to remote broadcasts, too.

(I even got to sit on stage next to Andy the Clown and Jack Brickhouse at the Danny Bonaduce/Donny Osmond fight. One of them smelled like pee.)

One day, I thought that I should try and see if I could work on the show full-time. It was a long shot, but why not. I called his office and spoke with his Executive Producer, Carol "Lamb Lady" Harmon. She advised me that she didn't think that there was any position open at the time, but if I was serious, I should approach it like it was a business. Johnny is "just having fun" on the air, but off the air, he is a solid businessman. I sent a cover letter and resume. A few days later, he sent me a handwritten note on his letterhead that said "Timing is everything!"

Several months later, we talked on the phone. I decided to dump the suit and tie and 401K and get up at 2am to work for the funniest man in radio. My first day there, I was on the air doing a bit as James Mason in Hell. That was huge for me because Johnny hired me on nothing but my Jerry impression, Second City skills, marketing degree, and I was hungry. Johnny gave me my break to go nuts and drive the clown car.

Rick: Pretty soon you were doing all kinds of voices. You also did Bobby Brown, Bob Hope, Christopher Walken and many, many others. Have you always had a knack for mimickry, and has that gotten you in trouble over the years?

Hoover: First of all, you should know that I was a fat kid with a soup bowl haircut who circled the new Saturday Morning Cartoons that I planned to watch each Fall out of the TV Guide. I watched all of the old Abbott & Costello movies and the classic kids' shows on Channel 9. I watched Svengoolie and The Three Stooges. I watched so much television, my eyes were shaped like rectangles. So, I guess you could say that I was like a Mynah bird soaking in the sounds in front of the TV.

I never really got into trouble doing the voices. But, I did fool some "celebs" into thinking they were talking to Jerry Lewis (Bruce Willis, Bea Arthur, Charlie Daniels, Carol Channing, The Smothers Brothers, etc.)

I only felt bad one time. There was a story of this retired couple that live in Mud Lake, Minnesota and they were battling the city officials because they wanted to change the name of the lake from Mud Lake to Golden Pond, which happened to be their favorite movie. So, Johnny calls them up as Katharine Hepburn's caregiver and I am on the phone as Katie. The husband bought it, even though I was working a tad blue. Katie said that she would come and visit and help their campaign. Johnny was saying that I needed a parachute harness to be lifted around and Katie was saying that her diet consists of eating toothpaste and she wanted to bring her 37 cats, etc. They were excited. They were even contacted by their local CBS television news station and arranged for an interview with Katie.

We did the interview with the reporter and they all bought into it. Well, some listener ended up calling them and told them that Katie was a fake. Unfortunately, we didn't realize this until Johnny called them up to hear the audio from the television interview. The wife answered the phone and told us how ashamed we should be, especially since her brother had died during all of the excitement of Miss Hepburn's visit. The husband knew days earlier but didn't want to spoil things. Oopsy daisey.

Rick: Those aren't the only people you offended. I'm German, pal, and we weren't too thrilled with your Wilhelm the Stormtrooper character either.

Hoover: (laughs) I know nuthzing! The Stormtroopers were born out of the "mass firings" that were happening at the Loop when it was bought by the Mormons (Bonneville) and we suddenly became "the Best Music on the Planet." (Turns out that listeners didn't want to live on a planet where the song "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is played every quarter hour either.)

Wilhelm and Helmut (very funny Showgram Player Brendan Sullivan) would interrogate various people and fire them. We played it safe like "Hogan's Heroes." Johnny played audio of jackboots marching up and down the hallway. It was all fun and games until we started making bar appearances and some schweinhund sales guy booked us at a place in Skokie. Hello? Is this mic on?

Rick: How did it work on Brandmeier's show? Did you and Brendan come up with ideas and pitch them to Johnny or did he come to you guys and say..."Hey, I need Jerry Lewis to call Charo!"...or was it a little of both?

Hoover: Brendan (photo) was there before me. He was actually one of the writers that worked on Johnny's television show. Johnny liked his stuff and hired him to work on the radio show. He was a one-man band. Jimmy Mac was doing the wacky edits and Artie Kennedy was doing Mike Tyson and showing off his dead-on Demi Moore pregnant pose. But, Brendan was alone in the creative department. When I came onboard, it could have been very awkward or competitive, but we clicked very well and we knew right away that the best way to get the job done was to work together and bounce ideas off one another as a team. Some ideas were Johnny's, some were ours, and some were listeners. It didn't matter as long as it was funny. As Johnny would say, bake the cake, find the meat, keep your head down and stay focused. Johnny likes to keep it real. Real is funny. A guy who invented a machine that sucks up prairie dogs is more entertaining than the best comedian or biggest star in his mind. That's the meat to him. The rest is frosting. So, frost the meat. Huh? Nevermind.

Rick: After the Johnny B show ended at WCKG, you had a hard time finding something else in Chicago radio. I tried to convince my bosses at the time to hire you and they just didn't have it in the budget. Do you think that says something about the kind of radio being done now in Chicago, or was it just one of those cases of bad timing?

Hoover: I think some radio people didn't know what to do with me. Hell, I had Johnny's hand comfortably up my puppet pooper so long, I think that most Chicago radio shows didn't know what else I could do. So, I sent out my resume and tape to other dream job long shots like Letterman and Conan.

The only callback I received was from the producer of The Howard Stern Show. Gary Dell'Abate (photo) said that Howard loved my stuff and wanted to know how I worked. It was perfect timing because Jackie the Jokeman had left in a huff over money and they were looking at rotating in different comedians, writers, voice guys, etc. The Labor Day Telethon was a week away so I suggested that we try a "Jerry Lewis" bit with Howard and see what happens from there. We did it. It went great and even nominated for an F Emmy later that year.

However, I think Gary probably saw me as a threat since I did more than write bits and do voices. I booked some guests and came up with giveaway ideas, too. So, I sat around drinking way too much coffee in the morning and started watching WGN Morning News. It was like a great radio show ensemble, but on television. Me likey.

Rick: I know you're too modest to admit this, but you've really made your mark on the WGN Morning News. This is just my personal opinion, but I think that show took it to another level when you came aboard. Tell us a little bit about what you do on the show.

Hoover: Wowie-wow-wow. That is way too kind. This show was fast, fun and funny before I ever showed up here. In my opinion, no other station in town can pull off what the talent does on this show. I fell in love all over again watching this show. I never thought there could possibly be anything close to the experience I had with Brandmeier. I was wrong.

One moment, Larry Potash is doing a hard news story about Iraq and by the time the next Victory Auto Wreckers commercial is on, he is up on the desk doing the Fred Sanford shuffle. He's the only anchor in town that can pull that off. Although I think I saw Ron Magers do the Macarena once.

So, I started emailing and leaving goofy voicemails. They started using my ideas and playing my messages. After several months, Larry said that he wanted to try and get me an interview with the news director. It was a perfect opportunity to show that the skills I had learned working in radio were transferable in many ways to producing for television. Breaking the sameness barrier is important. Finding ways to do old things and make them new again. I think that the one thing we do better than anyone else is to be real people. No fake small talk tosses to weather and traffic. They are quick to break each others hump and aren't afraid to let viewers see all of the wheels come off the show. I also believe that between Larry, Robin Baumgarten, Paul Konrad, Ana Belaval, Dean Richards, Pat Tomasulo and Valerie Warner, we have the best morning news team in town, and it's reflected in the show's ratings.

Granted, our show is not for everyone. But, hopefully Sam Zell likes it.

Rick: Talk about the differences between working in radio and television.

Hoover: Radio is more spontaneous. To appear to be spontaneous on television sometimes requires 29 people to know what you are going to do ahead of time. But that is also why television is more exciting. Everything is there to be seen and there is so much more that can go wrong. And some of the best stuff happens by accident.

Rick: Tell us the dirty dark secrets about Paul, Larry and Robin.

Hoover: Well, it's not that dirty or dark, but it's stuff you probably wouldn't guess about them.

Paul Konrad is one of the most naturally funny men I have ever worked with in my life. He is quick-witted and his sense of humor is effortless. What you don't know is that in our post-show meetings, he actually has a great news brain. He offers a lot of suggestions in the meetings about newsmakers and story angles that we might have missed. He also has a third testical under his left armpit.

Larry Potash is the best all around talent in television morning news. He can do it all. He can hold down the fort and find the funny in the same breath. What you don't know is that he is a workaholic. He works late after the show and from home. He also works during his sleep which is also when we are on the air.

Robin Baumgarten is the real deal. She is South Side. She likes to knock back a few beers and smoke a heater. She's not afraid to speak her mind. She kinda reminds me of my Dad when I'd have my friends over to the house and he'd be in the garage working on the car and his ass crack would be showing, and I'd ask him to pull up his pants and he'd say "if you don't like it, don't look at it."

What you don't know about her is that she is really sweet underneath it all. She also will probably kill me for comparing her to my Dad's crack.