As Barry Marder tells it, the veteran stand-up comic was “mindlessly eating Fritos” one night when he spotted an interesting offer on the side of the bag: “Got a problem? Write to us here at Fritos.”
“Who would write to Fritos?” Marder wondered aloud to his girlfriend. “A nut, that’s who,” she replied.
And so was born Marder’s best-selling 1997 book, Letters From a Nut, authored by his pseudonymous alter ego, Ted L. Nancy. Then came six more books in the series, all containing Marder’s warped, time-wasting requests to unsuspecting customer service departments worldwide — and the so-serious-they’re-sidesplitting real-life corporate responses that followed.
Marder has now turned the best of these contretemps into a merry 80-minute live show, produced by longtime friend and collaborator Jerry Seinfeld, which makes its premiere on the Geffen Playhouse’s smaller Skirball stage.
Not quite a play, not quite Marder’s stand-up act, Letters From a Nut is a fun comic reading with terrific punchlines. But it’s not without some fine acting, too. Co-star Beth Kennedy portrays all 25-or-so (I lost count) customer-service reps, and in doing so, runs what could serve as a sketch-comedy clinic.
“Dear Degree Deodorant…” begins one of Marder’s classic ‘90s letters. With his underarms “finally back to normal,” our writer has a few ludicrous questions, namely about where he should store his parmesan cheese. “The package says store in a cool, dry place.” Now that his underarms are “cool and dry,” Marder wants the Degree people to weigh in on cheese storage. And shockingly, they do.
If you sense there are touches of George Costanza here, there are — but it’s more like George’s unhinged cousin, twice removed. Nor is Marder trying to right the world’s wrongs as George’s inspiration Larry David does so perfectly. Rather, he reverse-engineers that comic process — creating wrongs, and then getting his victims on board.
Born in a gentler pre-Punk’d, pre-Jackass era, Marder’s pranks are quaint by comparison, more similar in spirit to Jimmy Kimmel’s old Crank Yankers phony phone call series than to anything the internet might invent today.
Marder asks former Czech Republic President Václav Havel to join the Thousand Oaks Vacuum Club; he begs Embassy Suites to allow him to bring his own ice machine; he berates the Taj Mahal (falsely) for entering into a naming rights deal with Staples. He harasses Armour lunch meats, Ziploc bags and a Denmark amusement park. All respond, hilariously.
While some of this material could use updating, Marder does cast an Office-style light on the bleak world of corporate drones and the scripted jargon they pass off as “communication.” Yet his marks are often also quite human — and kind — among them Bruce A. Nordstrom, former chairman of his family’s department store empire, whose heartening response to Marder’s request to buy a mannequin (because it resembled a deceased neighbor) is something of a revelation.
Imaginative music, cartoons and projections employed by director “Pierre Balloon” (a pseudonym for whom we’re not quite sure) also propel the action along, as do a couple of priceless short videos, the best of which features a farcical quest to get Mickey Mantle’s toenail clippings into Cooperstown.
A running gag with a Pagliacci-style clown (Sam Kwasman) isn’t quite as successful and could probably use some tweaking before this show hits the road, which is reportedly the plan.
Back in the day, Marder’s books (all with forwards by Seinfeld) seemed so absurd they were for years thought to be the work of Seinfeld or some other high-profile mystery comedian. In 2010 the duo came out on The Today Show — Seinfeld explaining that Ted L. Nancy was purely Marder’s creation, and he wanted to make sure his friend received proper credit. Better late than never for the Letters From a Nut live show as well.
Venue: Geffen Playhouse Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, Los Angeles
Cast: Barry Marder, Beth Kennedy, Sam Kwasman
Director: “Pierre Balloon”
Writer: Barry Marder
Set and lighting designer: Daniel Ionazzi
Dramaturg: Phyllis Murphy
Illustrator: Alan Marder
Video designer: Carolla Digital
Presented by Jerry Seinfeld, The Geffen Playhouse