The Comedy Innovations of Michael Nesmith
To me, as a kid watching The Monkees, it was all about Michael Nesmith. Sure, the others all had their appeal: Davy Jones was the pretty boy teen idol, Micky Dolenz was the funny one, and even Peter Tork had his own dimwitted charm. But none could compare to Nez.
With his string bean physique, slight Texas drawl and his twelve string Gretsch, he was the unspoken leader of the band, oscillating between acting as straight man and ringleader to group’s cartoon antics. His sense of humor was a little bit smarter, a little dryer, a little more adult. And it goes without saying that he is the only person in the history of the Earth to pull off the “wool cap” look.
When the group broke up in the early ’70s, Nesmith would be the only member to consistently record and release music. Not content to simply churn out the folk-country-rock music he was so adept at writing, Nesmith experimented not only with different sounds and musical styles, but also with musical forms, questioning what an album or a song could be, a curiosity that would outline the rest of his career when he transitioned to video.
In 1974, he released an instrumental album titled The Prison. It came with a novella that was to be read at the same time as the album played. In 1994, he released a sequel called The Garden, which included a CD-ROM, at a time when most people (including a baby-faced Greg Kinnear), didn’t really know what that was.
In the ’80s, Nesmith produced the films Tapeheads, Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann, and the cult masterpiece Repo Man. In 1998, he wrote his first novel, The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora a magical realist Americana journey about a musician named “Nez” on a quest to find the titular Neftoon Zamora, a mysterious singer who may be a half-Martian trickster goddess. In 2009, his second novel, The America Gene, which he dedicated to his friend Douglas Adams, was released as an e-book that could only be downloaded through his website Videoranch.com.
And he invented MTV.
Okay, the genesis of MTV is a little convoluted, but simply put it goes like this: Michael Nesmith made his first music video, “Rio,” in 1977. Excited by the potential of the form, he created the music video TV series PopClips for Nickelodeon, which was a huge hit. Producer John Lacks decided that the series could be expanded into an entire network, and when he offered Nesmith to join the new station, Nez politely declined.
And of course, there’s the comedy. The Monkees were as much a comedy team as they were a rock band, and just as Nesmith would have the biggest influence on music, he also had the biggest influence on comedy, bringing his experimental sensibility to video. In 1981, Nesmith used some of his recently inherited liquid paper money to finance Elephants Parts, a home video compilation of comedy sketches and music videos.
Elephant Parts begins with a sketch that sets the tone for the next hour. We open on a close-up of Nesmith, strumming out the chords to “Joanne,” his biggest post-Monkees hit. Only instead of the usual lyrics, he sings “Her name was Rodan, and she lived in the ocean off Japan.” As the camera tilts down to his legs, we see that he’s dressed like Godzilla from the waist down. As he stomps through a miniature city, we hear people screaming and Godzilla’s trademark roar, as Nesmith hams it up. Elephant Parts is a love letter to music, comedy, film and kitsch, with a strong streak of self-parody and outright silliness.
Nesmith’s welcoming monologue further reenforces his commitment to experimentation. As crew members strike the set behind him, Nez goes on a rant about gas prices, speaking directly to the camera. It’s funny, unusual and insightful, before he’s stopped by director Bill Dear, who tells him that people are only looking for music and comedy from him, not social issues.
But the scene also features a very brief moment that upsets the audience, even if they don’t quite understand why. As Nesmith talks, two crew members carrying a mirror walk in front of him. The audience is shown the reflection of a cameraman and a few other crew members, a strangely jarring sensation. We’re trained, as audience members, on an unconscious level, to forget that the camera recording the action exists. To be reminded of its presence, is oddly daring.
For a “video record,” Elephant Parts is actually pretty light on the music, favoring comedy sketches instead. Although some of it is dated, many of the sketches are remarkably current, and some surprisingly dark. The sketches are kept brief, usually just a single joke without much, if any, escalation.
Like all of Nesmith’s work, the special was as interested, maybe even more so, in playing with form as well as content, culminating in the closing video “Tonite,” a part-celebration, part-deconstruction of television as a medium.
In 1986, Nesmith followed Elephant Parts with Television Parts, an NBC summer series that was less successful, but involved a much higher comedy pedigree. The series features a pre-EGOT Whoopi Goldberg, a pre-auteur Bobcat Goldthwait, a pre-Tonight Show Jay Leno, a pre-Seinfeld Jerry Seinfeld, a pre-Gene Parmesan Martin Mull and the original comedy nerd himself, Dick Cavett. But most impressively, it directly led to Garry Shandling’s genre-busting It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Shandling’s segment features the neurotic comic on a date, the whole evening narrating his experiences to the camera. It echoes Annie Hall, but it also echoes Nesmith himself.
Television Parts was also the first time “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey” was ever shown on television, having previously been printed in National Lampoon and George Meyer’s Army Man. Handey would later write for SNL, where “Deep Thoughts” would on to deeper fame. Television Parts was released on a home video, for somer reason under the title Dr. Duck’s Super Secret All Purpose Sauce.
Since the Monkees split, Nesmith has reunited with his old bandmates only very rarely. In 1996, Nez shocked the Monkee-loving world by announcing that he was reuniting for not only a tour, but a new album as well. Although Justus ended up a critical and commercial failure, it was accompanied by a Monkees TV special, called Hey, Hey, It’s the Monkees, written and directed by Michael Nesmith.
Hey, Hey, It’s the Monkees is the nexus point between Monkee Nesmith and post-Monkee Nesmith. Rather than featuring the band reuniting after years apart, the episode operates under the conceit that old TV shows, even if they’re off the air, never really end. It opens with the Monkees right where we left them, still living in that house on the beach together, still waiting for that big break. The only difference is that they’re beginning to look more like The Monkees’ parents than that motley group of “typical teenagers” dreaming of being the next Beatles.
The special plays up the fourth wall gags the original series flirted with, commenting on an out of sync laugh track, the stock footage edited in when episodes’ running time came up short, and the whole story’s lack of a plot. Throughout the special, the Monkees are presented with a number of Joseph Campbellian “Calls to Adventure,” each time turning them down because they were too similar to some old episode or they simply don’t feel like having a plot just for the sake of having a plot.
It’s unclear when, if ever, Nez will return to comedy, or even to music. His most recent album was Rays in 2005, featuring cover art from Drew Friedman, author of Old Jewish Comedians and Even More Old Jewish Comedians. In 2010, Nez was awarded the Warren Skaaren Lifetime Achievement Award at the Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards. It included a montage of videos that do a succinct job of summing up his career.
Like all of Nesmith’s work, his acceptance speech was surprisingly, but not inaccessibly, deep, with a subtlety and a clear and precise understanding of his art. He’s certainly come a long way since his days as a struggling singer-songwriter/part-time failure.
Anthony Scibelli (www.twitter.com/AnthonyScibelli) is a handsome stand-up comedian and comedy writer. He is sometimes known as the fifth Monkee.