Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Short and Sweet: Talking Spinal Tap for Two-Plus Hours

For those who can’t get enough of my inexcusably verbose essays on pop-cultural arcana, you’re in for a special treat:  Now you can listen to me wax esoteric for four half-hour segments!

I recently sat in on the podcast Spinal Tap Minute, moderated by Heidi Bennett and Sean German, which deconstructs Rob Reiner’s classic 1984 comedy This Is Spinal Tap minute by minute.  Coincidentally, I’ve written previously about Spinal Tap on this blog, demonstrating how the band seamlessly emerged from the contained narrative framework of the movie—in the absence of precedent for such a fourth-wall traversal—to evolve into the longest-running instance of reality-blurring performance art in the history of contemporary pop culture.  (And the joke is still ongoing:  Harry Shearer is currently prepping the Derek Smalls solo album Smalls Change.)  Tap’s influence on comedic storytelling—from the “mockumentary” format so prevalent in our sitcoms (The Office, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family) to the fictional-character-who-walks-among-us pasquinade of The Colbert Report—can’t fully be quantified.

Michael McKean (as David St. Hubbins), Harry Shearer (as Derek Smalls), and Christopher Guest (as Nigel Tufnel)

But it can be more deeply appreciated, and that’s what I attempted to bring to the table during the four episodes to which I contributed.  These are my first-ever podcasts, so your feedback—should you take the time to listen—would be most welcome.  (Who’s gonna be the first to offer up that dreaded two-word review:  “shit sandwich”?)  Here’s a content rundown (with links to each episode):

Minute 68—“Become This Larger Cultural Metafictional Commentary”:  In which I talk about how I became a Taphead in junior high school, why bands break up at the height of their fame and fortune, and what I learned from Extreme’s Pornograffitti Live 25.

Minute 69—“It Makes No Sense, but for Whatever Reason, It Sounds So Cool”:  In which we discuss Mendocino rocket fuel (you’ll have to listen to find out what the hell that is), Spinal Tap at Carnegie Hall (they really played it, because I was there to see the show), and how an obscure 21 Jump Street spin-off fits into all this.

Minute 80—“Two Seans, One Heidi, and a Pizza Place”:  Topics include the Folksmen from A Mighty Wind, Norman’s Rare Guitars in Tarzana, and Nigel’s 1992 interview with Guitar World magazine.

Minute 81—“Highly Academic Discussions of Really Dumb Shit”:  It doesn’t get any more academically dumb than The Groove Tube, the career of Richard Belzer, and Tap drummer Mick Shrimpton’s little-known twin brother.

The shows are also available free on iTunes.

8 Comments

  1. shit sandwich

    (Now, to actually go and listen …)

    😉

    • Haha! They may very well be shit: Much as I like to hear myself talk, I haven’t been able to work up the nerve to listen to any of my four episodes! I know you recently recorded an audiobook version of The Best Advice So Far, but I just can’t bring myself to listen to a playback of my own voice! The experience is too weird and uncomfortable!

  2. “Have a good time–ALL the time. That’s my philosophy, Marty.” 🙂

    • Ol’ Viv certainly looks like a guy who lives that philosophy, with those glassy, bloodshot eyes and that gap-toothed grin of his! And for as long as I’ve been a fan of Spinal Tap — since 1990, thereabouts — I’ve certainly had only good times watching their videos, listening to their albums, attending their concerts, and reading the books and articles that have been published about them. The band itself might be a goof, but the good times it’s inspired are the real deal — some of the happiest and most laughter-filled of my life. Looks like you and I are in the same secret club, Dana! Drop by to talk Tap anytime

  3. Oh my, Sean. How fun in that. I had to tune in just to hear a tidbit of your voice. You seem so relaxed and professional – great job. I’ve never seen the movie (it’s a movie, right? Is it a band too?) Ha ha. Are you shocked and rolling your eyes? 1984 – hmmm – I was parenting a 1 year old – that might explain it. 😀

    • In fairness, Diana, no one saw This Is Spinal Tap when it was released theatrically in 1984: Hard to imagine a “documentary” about a band no one had ever heard of didn’t light up the box office — wink, wink — but such was the case. (With its cinéma vérité camerawork and totally unscripted, improvised dialogue, the film was too avant-garde to sell to mainstream moviegoers, and the studio — quite understandably — didn’t know how to promote it.) It found an audience a few years later, on the then-burgeoning format of VHS, and became a cult phenomenon. Had the film been produced, say, ten years earlier, before the advent of home video, it may’ve very well gotten “lost” to pop-cultural history and never discovered at all, so its release in 1984 was something of a case of fortuitous timing, even if its success was post-theatrical.

      This Is Spinal Tap is a mockumentary — one of the first of the subgenre — about a British heavy metal band, fifteen years past its prime, on a disastrous North American tour. At no point does the movie tip its hat that it’s a comedy; it’s all played very straight and believably, like actual rockumentaries Don’t Look Back and The Last Waltz. And because it was a pseudo-documentary (as opposed to a more conventional fictional narrative in which the presence of the camera goes unaddressed), the band was able to credibly transition in the years that followed into the real world — as if they were a real band, and as if the movie about them had been a real documentary — appearing (in character) on talk shows, playing concerts, and even releasing subsequent albums (the most recent of which, the Grammy-nominated Back from the Dead, in 2009).

      Are they a real band? Well, let’s put it this way: They made their first (non-fictional) appearance on a 1979 sketch comedy pilot, which would mean Guest, McKean, and Shearer have been playing together as Spinal Tap nearly forty years. That’s a hell of a lot longer than most bands, real or fictitious. So I say they’ve earned their place in rock-and-roll history regardless! And the fun of the parody is that the audience gets to be a part of the whole meta-performance: We pretend to be Spinal Tap fans just as they pretend to be Spinal Tap, and no one openly acknowledges the joke.

      And thanks for having a nice word to say about my speaking voice! It’s always an enlightening experience to see video and/or hear audio of someone you’ve gotten to know exclusively through writing (like a blog). You get a much deeper impression of who they are based on how they come across when they’re speaking extemporaneously. I thought it might be nice, for any followers of this blog so inclined, to listen to at least a few minutes of it and experience a different dimension of Sean P. Carlin, you know? Either way, I think it’s clear I speak on these matters with an excess of passion and verbiage…

      Sean

  4. Thanks for explaining. That’s actually fascinating how the fictional touring band became a real retired band. Fantasy and reality getting all mixed up. I’m all for that. I believe that happens far more than we realize. What’s funny about this was that a lot of people were in on the fun. Now when I see the movie, I’ll know the “secret” which should make it more enjoyable.

    • That’s something I discuss at length in the first two podcasts: that Spinal Tap became more than just a movie, more than just a band — it became the first long-running instance of reality-blurring performance art in the history of contemporary pop culture. Now, here in our era of reality TV and Choose Your Own News, the line between reality and fantasy has never been more nebulous, but back in 1984, this was something new: fictional characters that existed outside a narrative framework, but rather “walked among us.”

      You look at what Stephen Colbert did on The Colbert Report, and there’s no question that was built on the back of what Tap pioneered: “Stephen Colbert” (the character, not the performer) was a fictional creation who existed outside of a conventional narrative — he lived here, in the real world, along with us; he commented on and participated in and even affected reality (he certainly helped shape public opinion), and yet he was a complete put-on (for a character analysis of “Colbert,” see this article). And every night he appeared on TV pretending to be a conservative pundit, and we pretended to be conservative viewers; the joke only worked because we the audience were willingly and tacitly complicit in it. (Unlike, say, the performance art of Sacha Baron Cohen, the genius prankster whose act depends on unwitting participants. Tap and Colbert, on the other hand, required both our approval and, ultimately, our cooperation in order for the shtick to work.)

      And when you consider that there was really no precedent for such a thing back in the early ’80s — for fictitious creations to be treated like real people — I think it only deepens your appreciation for a movie that’s remarkable in its own right, notwithstanding the tremendous influence it had on popular culture. Truth be told, I’ve yet to see a funnier movie than This Is Spinal Tap, and that’s saying something. If you do wind up watching it, Diana, be sure to let me know how you enjoyed it! (By the way: The joke is played so straight that a lot of people did not get it upon the film’s release — they did not understand it was satirical — hence the reason the movie bombed: Who wants to watch a documentary about a questionably talented heavy metal band that no one’s ever heard of? Of course, nowadays, we watch lots of fake documentaries — a.k.a. reality shows — about questionably talented people we’ve never heard of, so isn’t it funny how the world has changed just in the lifetime of your own child?)

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