Tuesday, June 06, 2023

The Loop Files: Jeff Hoover


 I'm working on a special project this year about a certain radio station, so I've been going back into my files and pulling out some old interviews with former Loop colleagues and pals. I'll feature one a week here on the blog. This week, it's Jeff Hoover. Hoover is now a producer/performer on the WGN-TV Morning News, but he got his start in the media working for Johnny B as a producer/perfomer/writer. This interview is from 2007.

Rick: You made your name in town as a writer/performer on the Johnny B Showgram. How did you get your foot in the door there?

Hoover: First of all, I was (and still am) an avid fan of Johnny's for many years before I ever worked for him. I could hear the Loop on my boom box in Michigan.

Anyway, I moved to Chicago in 1991 and didn't get the idea to call in to his show until he had a Jerry Lewis impersonation contest in 1993. Johnny had tickets to see Jerry at the Drury Lane in Oakbrook. I was working at a marketing company and heard this and thought this was my chance to play. I asked the HR manager if I could use her office for a minute and closed the door and made the call. I had never tried to say anything more than "LADY" in the Jerry voice so I was nervous and anxious. Luckily, some of the Second City improv training kicked in when it came to my turn. After riffing about my colostomy bag looking like a Steakum, I won the tickets. Now, this is going to sound really dorky, but the greatest feeling during that first call was making Johnny laugh. I still have the tape and it is great to hear Johnny, Buzz and Robin together. And, to this day, the best thing that I can ever hope to do, is to make people laugh. Jesus, I really sound like Jerry Lewis now.

Since that day, anytime Jerry Lewis came up in the news, they would call me and see if Jerry was available. Soon, they'd call for Jerry even if he wasn't in the news. I was invited to remote broadcasts, too.

(I even got to sit on stage next to Andy the Clown and Jack Brickhouse at the Danny Bonaduce/Donny Osmond fight. One of them smelled like pee.)

One day, I thought that I should try and see if I could work on the show full-time. It was a long shot, but why not. I called his office and spoke with his Executive Producer, Carol "Lamb Lady" Harmon. She advised me that she didn't think that there was any position open at the time, but if I was serious, I should approach it like it was a business. Johnny is "just having fun" on the air, but off the air, he is a solid businessman. I sent a cover letter and resume. A few days later, he sent me a handwritten note on his letterhead that said "Timing is everything!"

Several months later, we talked on the phone. I decided to dump the suit and tie and 401K and get up at 2am to work for the funniest man in radio. My first day there, I was on the air doing a bit as James Mason in Hell. That was huge for me because Johnny hired me on nothing but my Jerry impression, Second City skills, marketing degree, and I was hungry. Johnny gave me my break to go nuts and drive the clown car.

Rick: Pretty soon you were doing all kinds of voices. You also did Bobby Brown, Bob Hope, Christopher Walken and many, many others. Have you always had a knack for mimickry, and has that gotten you in trouble over the years?

Hoover: First of all, you should know that I was a fat kid with a soup bowl haircut who circled the new Saturday Morning Cartoons that I planned to watch each Fall out of the TV Guide. I watched all of the old Abbott & Costello movies and the classic kids' shows on Channel 9. I watched Svengoolie and The Three Stooges. I watched so much television, my eyes were shaped like rectangles. So, I guess you could say that I was like a Mynah bird soaking in the sounds in front of the TV.

I never really got into trouble doing the voices. But, I did fool some "celebs" into thinking they were talking to Jerry Lewis (Bruce Willis, Bea Arthur, Charlie Daniels, Carol Channing, The Smothers Brothers, etc.)

I only felt bad one time. There was a story of this retired couple that live in Mud Lake, Minnesota and they were battling the city officials because they wanted to change the name of the lake from Mud Lake to Golden Pond, which happened to be their favorite movie. So, Johnny calls them up as Katharine Hepburn's caregiver and I am on the phone as Katie. The husband bought it, even though I was working a tad blue. Katie said that she would come and visit and help their campaign. Johnny was saying that I needed a parachute harness to be lifted around and Katie was saying that her diet consists of eating toothpaste and she wanted to bring her 37 cats, etc. They were excited. They were even contacted by their local CBS television news station and arranged for an interview with Katie.

We did the interview with the reporter and they all bought into it. Well, some listener ended up calling them and told them that Katie was a fake. Unfortunately, we didn't realize this until Johnny called them up to hear the audio from the television interview. The wife answered the phone and told us how ashamed we should be, especially since her brother had died during all of the excitement of Miss Hepburn's visit. The husband knew days earlier but didn't want to spoil things. Oopsy daisey.

Rick: Those aren't the only people you offended. I'm German, pal, and we weren't too thrilled with your Wilhelm the Stormtrooper character either.

Hoover: (laughs) I know nuthzing! The Stormtroopers were born out of the "mass firings" that were happening at the Loop when it was bought by the Mormons (Bonneville) and we suddenly became "the Best Music on the Planet." (Turns out that listeners didn't want to live on a planet where the song "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is played every quarter hour either.)

Wilhelm and Helmut (very funny Showgram Player Brendan Sullivan) would interrogate various people and fire them. We played it safe like "Hogan's Heroes." Johnny played audio of jackboots marching up and down the hallway. It was all fun and games until we started making bar appearances and some schweinhund sales guy booked us at a place in Skokie. Hello? Is this mic on?

Rick: How did it work on Brandmeier's show? Did you and Brendan come up with ideas and pitch them to Johnny or did he come to you guys and say..."Hey, I need Jerry Lewis to call Charo!"...or was it a little of both?

Hoover: Brendan (photo) was there before me. He was actually one of the writers that worked on Johnny's television show. Johnny liked his stuff and hired him to work on the radio show. He was a one-man band. Jimmy Mac was doing the wacky edits and Artie Kennedy was doing Mike Tyson and showing off his dead-on Demi Moore pregnant pose. But, Brendan was alone in the creative department. When I came onboard, it could have been very awkward or competitive, but we clicked very well and we knew right away that the best way to get the job done was to work together and bounce ideas off one another as a team. Some ideas were Johnny's, some were ours, and some were listeners. It didn't matter as long as it was funny. As Johnny would say, bake the cake, find the meat, keep your head down and stay focused. Johnny likes to keep it real. Real is funny. A guy who invented a machine that sucks up prairie dogs is more entertaining than the best comedian or biggest star in his mind. That's the meat to him. The rest is frosting. So, frost the meat. Huh? Nevermind.

Next week: Jeff Schwartz