Gag Man Tosses Schtick by Fax : Comedy Writer Links Up With N.Y. Radio Station Electronically
If he were sleepwalking, Mark Shipper could easily stumble into the Pacific Ocean. But at 1:07 in the morning, his fax machine is whirring and his apartment is as Manhattan as Fifth Avenue.
The TV is tuned to a New York news channel. The wall clock is set three hours ahead--to Eastern Daylight Time. The fax is bringing in New York’s top morning news stories.
All the while, Shipper’s specially modified telephone is playing a New York radio station over a speaker phone. With the touch of a few buttons, he can listen to any of 14 Manhattan-area stations, including 95.5 WPLJ-FM, “Mojo Radio,” a rock station for which he is the No. 1 early morning comedy writer.
“For six hours every night,” Shipper says proudly, “this little apartment in Marina del Rey becomes New York City.”
From 3,000 miles away, Shipper is expected to feel the pulse of the Big Apple and to write biting and breezy news items, gags and promos for America’s largest radio market. While a formidable number of modern careerists now divide time between two coasts, the 40-year-old Shipper may be the true prototype of the high-tech 1990s: He manages to work every weeknight with the radio crew in a New York skyscraper, sans the taxicabs or the jet lag.
“At 7 in the morning--10 their time--I’m done,” Shipper says. “I walk outside, and that’s when I realize I’m not in New York. I say, ‘Hey, I’m at the beach!’ ”
Tonight, however, Shipper has a problem--too little news. New York’s major stories, according to the early fax from the station’s newsroom, involve Donald Trump’s new lady friend and President Bush’s visit to Manhattan, which is causing traffic conditions described as “Bush-lock.”
A few other items deal with rock bands, movies and the results of a wild New York Jets pro football game--usable stuff, but hardly the type of wacky, fall-off-your-chair material that can power a rock station through the ratings wars.
Undaunted, Shipper sets the faxes aside and moves to a coffee table strewn with copies of New York Magazine, Billboard and The Village Voice. He picks up several newspaper tabloids and starts flipping pages.
Soon he has found several items of interest. A story in the National Enquirer reports that singer Michael Jackson keeps a human brain in a jar. Another story recounts actor Burt Reynolds’ “terrifying ordeal as his toupee catches fire” during a television stunt.
Shipper uses a legal pad to take notes. In less than two hours, the morning radio show will air, and he will be responsible for providing an introduction as well as several provocative news and sports summaries.
At 1:20, his telephone rings. The caller is disc jockey Scott Shannon, who is in a car on his way from New Jersey to Manhattan. Every night at this hour, Shannon calls via car phone to discuss the upcoming show.
“Nothing’s happening,” Shipper reports miserably.
They talk about the Jets’ football loss and the previous night’s promotional event, in which 500 guests of Mojo Radio took a three-hour boat tour around Manhattan Island with cast members of “Gilligan’s Island.” That will be one necessary topic of discussion on the air.
Shipper mentions the tabloids.
“Greasy sleaze!” Shannon comments.
“The stuff I saw that was interesting was Michael Jackson keeping a brain in a jar,” Shipper says.
Shannon is lukewarm.
“What about Sally Jessy Raphael’s face blowing up after plastic surgery?” Shipper is referring to a story in The Star. He is laughing.
“We buy this stuff so our listeners won’t have to,” Shannon says, warming up.
The call lasts nearly 20 minutes. Shannon, who once worked with Shipper at “Pirate Radio,” 100.3 FM in Los Angeles, moved to New York’s new-format Mojo Radio five months ago. When Shipper balked at joining him there as a writer, they worked out the unusual bicoastal arrangement, which started three months ago.
Several times during the night, Shannon and Shipper confer by phone about news and comedy bits--either before the show or at moments when Shannon is off the air. Now, as their first talk ends, Shipper moves to his computer. In shorts and a baseball cap, balancing the legal pad on his knee, he tries to work both the “Gilligan’s Island” cruise and the presidential visit into the intro.
“Good morning, everybody.” With dancing fingers, Shipper mutters as he types, trying for a conversational sound. Eventually, he’s got the flow he wants: “It’s a body-bruisin’, hootchie-cruisin’, hot-rockin’, Bush-lockin’, tittilatin’ Tuesday. . . . You’re on the new 95.5, and here’s what’s going on. . . .”
Shipper faxes it to New York along with a “punch list"--a checklist of news stories and other topics to be talked about during the four-hour show. He also faxes in a page-long sports report.
Meanwhile, more faxes are arriving from New York--bulletins that Shipper must review. A few will be written into radio-style news copy.
As the show hits the air at 3 a.m. California time, Shipper is revising the sports report, paring it down. He slaps a new version on the fax machine as the station plays an Elton John tune. Hurriedly, he phones producer Bruce Maiman. “There’s something coming over now,” Shipper tells him. "(Shannon’s) going to need it before this song ends.”
The night proceeds busily.
While listening to the show, Shipper frequently talks on the phone, trying out comedy bits, editing copy. One member of the New York crew wants to go over a gag involving a fictional caller named Arnold Putz, who claims to be from Teaneck, N.J.
A young Mojo promotions man named Mike Roberts--aka “Gnarly Charley"--wants to tell Shipper about an upcoming street event. Radio listeners will be asked to suck helium out of balloons and sing “Kung Fu Fighting.”
Shipper is delighted. Hanging up, he boasts that Roberts once invented a promotional contest called “Slot Machine in Your Pants.” Participants were required to fill their underwear with slices of fruit and jump up and down. If three matching slices fell to the ground, they won.
“He thinks of these things,” Shipper says incredulously.
Moving back to his computer, Shipper writes up the tabloid items under a suggested intro, “Sleazy, Greazy Tabloid Trash.”
“A Mojo public service,” he writes. “We waste the money on these rags so you don’t have to. Headline in the Enquirer: ‘Bald Burt Reynolds Almost Blinded as Toupee Catches Fire.’ And the headline in The Star: ‘Sally Jessy Raphael’s Face Blows Up After Plastic Surgery.’ ”
When the blurb hits the air, Shipper is laughing hysterically. “I love this job,” he says.
Before long, the sky in Marina del Rey is brightening. Already it is midmorning in rainy New York, where it is 57 degrees. Once again, Shipper is on deadline, writing the show’s “closer.” He has only three minutes--the length of a song--to complete it and fax it to Manhattan.
Muttering intensely, he stares at his computer screen, fingers flying. “So until tomorrow morning at 6 a.m., these are your pronouncers reminding you: Tomorrow’s the day, Staten Island’s the place. The incredible ‘Suck Helium and Sing Kung Fu Fighting’ contest. . . . ‘Bye, buckaroos!”