The Sponge and the Fury: Ira Kaplan on Yo La Tengo's 'Sitcom Theater'
Yo La Tengo, the Hoboken, N.J., rock trio, played the El Rey Theatre last week to end its winter tour, at each stop of which an opening set was determined by a spin of a Wheel of Fortune. Possibilities included songs beginning with the letter S, the Freewheeling Yo La Tengo (a question-and-answer session, with illustrative musical selections acoustically performed), and Sitcom Theater, wherein the band would perform an entire episode of a "classic sitcom." That is the result I hoped for, and got.
This happened just twice on the tour, here and in Chicago, where the group recreated "The Chinese Restaurant" episode of "Seinfeld" (see above), with guitarist Ira Kaplan as Jerry, bassist James McNew as George and drummer Georgia Hubley as Elaine. At the El Rey, it was an episode of "SpongeBob SquarePants": "As Seen on TV" (Season 3, Episode 5), in which SpongeBob (McNew), having gotten a taste of celebrity from starring in a commercial for the Krusty Krab, imagines himself a pop star. (Kaplan played Mr. Krabs; Hubley was Squidward; "Colbert Report" writer and "Onion News" reporter Laura Krafft guested as Pearl, with crew members rounding out the cast.) "The people want music," SpongeBob tells Krab, the irony of which was not lost on a few people behind me who called loudly for an end to this experiment. A low hum of chatter crept in from the bar at the back as the reading went on. But most of the room went with it.
In a way, it was just an extension of the band's love of cover songs, whole albums of which they have recorded in various guises. "Sitcom Theater" pushed this penchant for curatorial recycling into a new dimension -- and, as with any good cover, the performance made you appreciate the quality of the original, and not merely by comparison.
I spoke with Kaplan some days after the event.
Why a sitcom?
Ira Kaplan: There were lots of things on the wheel that most people would not have seen us do before. But we wanted something that nobody would have ever seen us do. I forget what other ideas were being thrown around, but when that one came around we had the laugh of, "Yup, that's it."
This was nothing you'd previously done for your own amusement.
IK: Nope, never.
How did you choose the shows?
IK: We thought long and hard about it. We wanted a show that people would know, which unfortunately ruled out most of our favorites. We talked a lot about doing "Get Smart!" or "Car 54, Where Are You?" or something like that. But [for a network to rerun those shows] would cut into the 50 showings a day of "Everybody Loves Raymond," so they're just not out there enough -- we wanted to recognize that not everybody in our audience is as old as we are. And then we wanted a show with a small enough principal cast that James, Georgia and I would do the bulk of it. And then it had to be a show we liked, which also ruled out a lot of the current offerings. But something like "30 Rock" or "The Office," the casts were just too big for us -- we thought it would be ridiculous in a bad way if we were playing multiple roles.
Did you have any other series up your sleeve?
IK: No. We went on tour only with "Seinfeld," and not thinking about it very hard. But once it happened, once we did it in Chicago, it seemed that so many people had written about it online, we just knew amongst ourselves that we wanted it to be something different the next time. People thought that "Sitcom Theater" meant we were doing "Seinfeld," so we would try to stay a move ahead of them.
How did you choose the episodes?
IK: James chose them both. "The Chinese Restaurant" was particularly good because that one doesn't have Kramer -- so that was perfect, just the three of them. We downloaded the scripts from fan sites and then watched the [original] episodes and corrected them. And especially with "SpongeBob" we added a lot of narration -- honestly, I don't know how many people in the audience are really hanging on the plot, but we wanted it to make it follow-able, should anybody care to.
You had to follow it. Or else start texting.
IK Well, in Chicago there was a third option, which was massive heckling. it got pretty loud.
How soon did it begin?
IK: It kind of grew. I'm not quite sure how well known it was that we might do something like this. All the publicity we did said that it was a possibility. But I think a lot of people may not have really believed that we meant it. When we started in Chicago, people were by and large -- but certainly not entirely -- laughing, including laughing at jokes, laughing at the idea but laughing at some of the laugh lines as well. But unrest was definitely growing. And by the end there was a very loud, organized chant of "Mu-sic, mu-sic, mu-sic."
When had you last elicited such a hostile reaction?
IK: Probably never. We've gotten people yelling at us during a show, but I don't remember anything like this.
The majority of people we talked to about it in advance said, "Oh, I hope it's that," and we kept saying, "Be careful, you may regret that decision." In fact, when we did it in Chicago it came up Spinner's Choice, so the person who spun the wheel chose it. But I think it was great -- and on both occasions we did it, we played longer than usual afterwards, so it didn't really mean that we played less music, it meant it came later. One of the reasons we took the break after the first set was we wanted the second set to in some way reflect and complement what had happened in the first set; so on the night we did the sitcom we kind of loaded it up with songs we might not have done otherwise.
Did that sort of performance, acting, feel different from what you usually do onstage? Did it give you a different set of thrills?
IK: I think that's why we do things like that. Even the introduction, just the spinning of the wheel, that little vignette, which we tried to make a little bit different every night. Something we tried to do consciously at one point in the band's life was find a way to -- at first we concentrated on not stopping between songs because we felt so awkward whenever we stopped. And then tried to not feel as awkward and to say something more entertaining than, "Here's a new one." In a lot of ways this is just a further pushing of that. It's a nice feeling to say something you hope is funny and hear somebody laugh.
I was rooting for "Sitcom Theater" myself.
IK: I have to say, the idea of doing it in L.A. just seemed so absurd that, if not there, where?
I don't think any of us walked away sorry it happened. And one of the things that I really did like about the whole tour, I thought we really did play differently. It always interests me how much changing one facet of what you're doing has a ripple effect on other things. I think we were playing looser - looser in a good way -- as a result of just not knowing what was going to happen until the moment we went onstage. There was something really exciting about that.
Next time out you can put on a feature film.
IK: Maybe. We were thinking of skipping that and going straight to a Jerry Lewis telethon, all 20 hours.
-- Robert Lloyd