Laughing Matters — Stereo 105

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

Harry Shearer is one of the only people who had two separate stints as a Saturday Night Live cast member. He’s also one of the only people who claim to have decisively quit the show because of his fierce dissatisfaction with the experience. The perpetual conflict is best characterized by the commonly shared assessment when he left in the middle of the 1984-1985 season. It was creative differences: Shearer wanted to be creative, and the producers wanted something different. More specifically, Shearer was incredibly particular about what his sketches required to be successful, and he wasn’t willing to compromise a millimeter.

Years later, Shearer cited a radio station sketch from his first tenure with the late-night staple as a prime example of where he ran up against what he felt was a culture of unnecessary shortcuts. In “Stereo 105,” Shearer plays a morning disc jockey named Steve Marvin. As he’s juggling all his other usual tasks, he plays to host to Howard Hesseman, on the interview circuit to promote a timeslot change for his sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. Hesseman does an expert slow burn as he grows increasingly frustrated with the DJ’s distracted indifference, but the sketch mostly hinges on the difference between the fictionalized experience in broadcast booth on WKRP in Cincinnati and the real-life bustle of juggling carted commercials, cueing up records, and fitting in news breaks. (As as aside, Steve Marvin probably wouldn’t be running so far behind if he weren’t playing eight-minute Led Zeppelin songs on the busy morning show. That’s an unforced DJ error right there.)

According to Shearer, he spent the whole week fighting with the Saturday Night Live producers about the set dressing for the “Stereo 105” sketch, with particularly heated arguments about the main microphone used by the DJ. Producers and the set designers argued — accurately, to be fair — that the proper positioning of the microphone would problematically obscure Shearer in the main shot. Shearer countered — accurately, to be fair — that the sketch’s very premise was dependent on the verisimilitude of the studio setting. The conflict never really abated. By showtime, “the one with Harry’s fucking microphone” was more or less the accepted vernacular when discussing the sketch in studio.

On air, the sketch plays to almost dead silence. It’s always stuck with me, though. Years before my own toes crossed the threshold of a radio station broadcast booth, I somehow recognized and appreciated the contrasts in the piece. Now that I have plenty of hours logged in air chairs, the precision of this sketch looks even better. I guess I’m on Harry’s side when it comes to importance of getting the fucking microphone right.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

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