I think that there might be a cranky person inside all of us.
My telephone rings, and a most familiar voice is on the line. Merle Kessler, aka Ian Shoales, is talking about Ian’s upcoming concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music on Saturday–the first comedy concert, according to school director Jim Hirsch, in the school’s history. Lucky for me, Merle speaks at a more normal clip than his persona, the manic, cynical, gloriously negative Ian, whose stated goal in life is “tearing down without building up.” Such cynicism has led Ian to regular appearances on ABC’s Nightline, National Public Radio’s All Things and MTV; to a cassette named for Ian’s tag line, “I Gotta Go”; and now to a comic fiction, Ian Shoales’ Perfect World, a trade paperback newly published by Viking/Penguin.
The 38-year-old Kessler is no stranger to the midwest. “I was born in South Dakota, grew up in North Dakota, went to high school in Minnesota and graduate school in Iowa–the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I drifted from the Writers’ Workshop into the Playwrights Workshop”–Kessler holds an MFA from each–“which is where I hooked up with the other guys from Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre. We were out of school with no job, so we decided to start a comedy theater until a job turned up–and a job didn’t turn up.”
Duck’s Breath, now based in San Francisco, has created some memorable characters: Dr. Science, based on the didactic Mr. Science and featured on the Fox Broadcasting Network; Randee of the Redwoods, the consummate hippie, seen on MTV; and the hard-boiled Ian Shoales, who was inspired by New Journalism and tough guys like Philip Marlowe. “There was a Rolling Stone interview with Bob Dylan that was just crammed full of esoteric information,” Kessler explains. “Talking about the cabala and stuff, really odd, an extremely pretentious approach to pop music. I wanted to get a character that was like, these Esquire and Rolling Stone writers that were always parading their own erudition or experience in the guise of the album [review]–talking about themselves instead of what they were supposed to be talking about. People really responded to it.
“The fact that Ian is made up and exaggerated takes the edge off the negativity. People say, ‘Oh, that’s Ian.’ And I try to avoid blatant character assassination, unless it’s a cheap shot, like Sylvester Stallone.”
How does Ian measure up to real-life assassin-critics like Rex Reed?
“Well, Reed’s the king of that stuff. He doesn’t even see half the stuff he’s supposed to review–he’s got a staff that does it for him (I guess that guy’s called ‘the man from Rex Reed’). So I’d say that he’s more cynical than Ian is.
“Plus, he weeps. I remember one movie, he said, ‘I wept honorable tears.’ I can’t think of what the movie was. So he’s got a sentimental heart, and Ian doesn’t, unless you’re talking about Elvis or something.”
Despite being quite different from Shoales, Kessler isn’t too worried about occasionally feeling trapped in Ian’s body. “It’s a character that allows me to do things that I probably wouldn’t do myself. It’s nice, too, that when I’m done with the show, I can go off and be myself.
“One of the things that I don’t like about stand-up comedy is the idea that you go onstage and pretend to be yourself, or an exaggeration of yourself. Ian is just a character that I write for, which makes things easier and, in a weird way, frees me up. Ian is a parody of the urban guy–the guy I would have wanted to be as a 15-year-old in North Dakota, but with a dose of reality.” Shoales’s manic delivery had to be somewhat altered, according to Kessler, to sustain the character through an entire concert. “I do monologues interspersed with comedy songs, most of which I have written with my composer friend J. Raoul Brody. Because Ian Shoales talks so fast, after about three minutes you stop paying attention. So I alternate monologues and songs.
“To get psyched, I go through the bits I’m going to do. We do a sound check. Once I get into the rhythm of the thing–Ian talks, like, a zillion miles an hour–it’s sort of a snap. The voice pulls everything along with it. I run the bits even faster than I would do them onstage, a trick I use to get ready.
“There are no props, though I do take off my shoe at one point–that’s my biggie. It’s sort of like stand-up comedy, though I don’t do stand-up comedy clubs because I don’t think that I’d go over that well in them–the sense of humor is very different. The big difference between Ian and stand-ups is that he doesn’t wait for laughs [Kessler laughs]. He doesn’t ask, ‘Anybody out there raised Catholic?’ But the show is very similar, except that it’s broken up by songs. I try to vary it; I start out slow, and have four or five rapid-fire moments. Overall, it’s slower onstage than it is on radio.”
The tunes aren’t exactly easy listening music. Kessler names them: “‘I’m an Old Folksinger’; ‘Taboo,’ about watching television; ‘Name and Address Withheld by Request,’ about letters to Penthouse; ‘Surf Polka,’ about a North Dakota kid dreaming about California; ‘The Ballad of Ronald McDonald,’ an unaccompanied Scottish ballad about the origin of today’s fast-food chains; and ‘Truckers’ Star,’ a Red Sovine type of tune about a trucker who claims that when he’s asleep, Jesus drives his truck. Then there’s ‘Call My Face Dave,’ about a guy shaving. Some of the songs are completely mine, but on the others I tend to write the lyrics and J. Raoul does the music.”
When I ask why so much of the humor on National Public Radio is antiurban, Kessler responds with one of Ian Shoales’s most quoted lines: “If the city were a nice place to live, nobody would want to live there. People in the city like to think that their life is harder than it really is. In cities like New York, there’s an element of self-dramatization. They talk about, ‘It took me three months to get my plumbing fixed. It’s a job just to get out of bed in the morning.’ And the rural people like to hear that stuff to convince themselves that they’re better off in the country.”
If Shoales has his prejudices, Kessler thinks that we’re all better off because of them. “If you have a person whose prejudices are known by everyone, you almost get more truth or honesty out of that than if you’re William Buckley or George Will. Guys like that just review each other’s books. For example, in the Washington Times, the Moonie newspaper, they had a column by Patrick Buchanan about the guy who was reviewing Patrick Buchanan’s book in the same edition–sort of a circle jerk.”
Buckley and Will make appearances in Ian Shoales’ Perfect World, along with the likes of Socrates and Randee of the Redwoods. Considering that Ian’s forte is the one-minute commentary, a 204-page Shoales rap is definitely ambitious. In its more controlled moments, the novel is reminiscent of west coast writers like Tom Robbins and Richard Brautigan; the rest of it is closer to Mel Brooks–a torrent that shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the protagonist’s “I gotta go.”
Ian Shoales assaults the Old Town School of Folk Music at 7:30 PM Saturday, July 16. Tickets are $8, $6 for members, $5 for seniors and kids, and are available through Ticketron or at the school, 909 W. Armitage (phone 525-FOLK).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Karen Meyers.