The following is an excerpt from H. Jon Benjamin’s new memoir, Failure Is an Option, out today. These days Benjamin is best known for voicing the titular characters on FXX’s Archer and Fox’s Bob’s Burgers, but not everything he’s worked on has been a success. Below, Benjamin looks back on the spectacular disaster that was Midnight Pajama Jam, the perfect example of how one project —whether it’s a late-night talk show for kids, a weekly UCB show, or a recorded DVD — can fail on every level.
Not everything in my career has been successful. But sometimes failed endeavors hold the best memories. In comedy, as with everything, there is so much out there, unheeded, left aside, millions of moments just drawn and forgotten. Every piece of comedy, a stand‑up set, a homemade sketch, a cartoon drawing, or a notebook of ideas — all that which lives on some abandoned corner of the internet or in some cardboard box, it will probably never be seen. It’s what makes it special. It’s a piece of personal history.
Back in the early 2000s, I was in a bit of a rut. I had just had a kid (the shit eater), and I was essentially out of work, except for a few acting roles here and there. At this point, with Amy’s help, I came up with a concept for a TV show: a late‑night talk show for kids called Midnight Pajama Jam. The goal would be to air the show around eight thirty or nine, around the time young kids go to bed, and make it like their version of The Tonight Show, except with absurdist guests.
An artist friend made two puppets, a purple octopus and an eagle, and I tapped comedian Jon Glaser to play the sidekicks — except instead of any puppeteering, he would just hold the two puppets up on his fingers and do the voices for both, unconcealed to the audience. The eagle, named Lumpy, had a gravelly tough voice and said “Raaaaaaaahr” a lot, and on the index finger of the other hand was the octopus named Scott Fellers, who had an effete accent, like Gore Vidal if he were an interior decorator.
The dynamic was that Lumpy and Scott Fellers disliked each other very much and would openly bicker all the time. As far as guests, we would come up with characters, a mix of random oddballs who would do traditional interview segments, but improvised based on an outline of some particular comedy conceit. It was a bit Pee-wee’s Playhouse–ish, in that it completely ripped off Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
We first set out to do a live test of the show in a small theater in Midtown in the afternoon to cater to an audience of mostly kids. We had a house band and three guests. One of the guests was a character called Pit Stain. He was a fictional “neighbor” who would drop by the show uninvited and tell mundane stories, with his hands always raised behind the back of his head, exposing the namesake pit stains. Next was a segment called “Vanity Plate,” in which two guests who ostensibly had the same vanity plates on their respective cars come on. The plates read hot‑stf; the man had it because he thought he was attractive, and the woman had it because she owned a bakery.
Everything in the show went fairly smooth until we presented a guest called Wyatt Trash, which was a bit where the actor Matt Walsh, dressed in overalls, sang a song with a Southern twang, with lyrics that went as follows . . .
I’m Wyatt Trash, I’ll kick
your ass I fucked your best
Eat a can of beans, drive to New
Orleans, Now I’ll try and suck my
Then, he dove on the floor, and, awkwardly and with great effort, tried to contort his body to give himself oral sex. I don’t know how we felt that this was okay, but it was, in retrospect, a glaring oversight, bordering on child abuse.
The upside was that most or all of the kids were too young to decipher what was happening and just laughed hard at a man writhing wildly on a floor without context. The problem was that the parents were not children and understood very clearly the context. So it was a bit of a moral conundrum. In hindsight, it was a show that adults and kids could enjoy together, as long as the kids didn’t understand auto‑fellatio.
As we developed the show, we phased out the kid angle and adapted it to be more strictly for adults but kept the puppets and the loose, wacky concept. This involved losing the full band and replacing it with my friend Gary behind a keyboard in a C‑3PO mask, who’d mimic playing John Williams’s theme from Star Wars as the CD was played over the sound system. We would still bring out fake guests with different comedy concepts and kept the improvisational nature of the show.
The odd thing about a failed venture is that, while you’re working on it, you have no idea it’s failing. I think we all thought at the time that we were on the cusp of something. At the onset, the show was exciting to do, despite audiences that topped off at about ten. When there are more people in the cast than in the audience, it makes for an odd dynamic.
We initially performed the show at midnight at the original UCB Theatre in New York City. The first show there had about eight people in the audience, and our guest musical act was the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, who were a real family musical group (mother, father, and daughter) who wrote songs based on slides they found at estate sales, which they projected behind them when they sang. The daughter, who played drums, was around eight. Gary, our C‑3PO‑masked bandleader, had taken acid that first night and got it in his head that the mother and the father were holding the daughter captive and making her play drums against her will, so during their performance, he tried to stop them by sticking his head through the curtain and trying to get the daughter’s attention so he could free her from playing. Fortunately, he never ran out and grabbed her. I guess even on acid, he was respectful of boundaries.
When we started to do the show weekly, we performed it at the UCB Theatre in Chelsea, right around the time it moved there from its original location. That theater had about one hundred seats and had taken over the space from a small repertory theater. The most interesting shows were the ones where the audience (for our show) was split between a smattering of friends and then a few older couples who thought they’d be seeing a show staged by the previous repertory theater and never checked that the theater had changed to an improv comedy venue. I’m not certain which I enjoyed more: the disdain from children’s parents or the disdain from confused old folks wondering why they were seeing Wyatt Trash and not Hedda Gabler. Although there were parallel Freudian themes.
As we kept doing the show, our audience didn’t exactly swell. It more just smoldered. Typically, with this kind of project, you see some returns for your efforts, as word of mouth would start to spread and audiences would start growing in size. And I’m not saying there wasn’t incremental progress, but on the whole, most shows were not well attended. But this wasn’t exactly unfamiliar territory. Once, when I was in a sketch troupe in Boston called Cross Comedy, we came to New York City to do a run at a small theater in a Midtown black box theater, and the first show’s audience consisted solely of my aunt. Literally, only my very Jewish aunt Marion, sitting at a front‑row table basically touching the stage. The rest of the room was empty.
We noticed this only moments before the show because we were all in the green room, and then one of the members of the group went to check out the crowd and returned to say, “You all will want to see this.” When we discovered the empty theater but for the older woman in the front, and I recognized that older woman as my aunt Marion, I begged them to consider canceling, but we were rehearsing for an industry show (to present to television executives) so the rest of the group insisted on doing it. The comedian Dave Attell was the warm‑up act, and he had to go out and do ten minutes of stand‑up exclusively for my aunt, who, by the time we started our show, was eating a Reuben sandwich with a glass of red wine at her table.
After the show, she said stolidly, in her very Jewish voice, “I liked the comedian.” So not only did we just per‑ form only for my aunt, but she ended up not even liking it. So yes: I’d had some experience with dismally attended shows.
Sometimes, in comedy or any other endeavor self‑ promoted and self‑sustained, just sticking around is half the battle. So many unbelievably funny people dropped out of doing comedy, simply because it’s a zero‑sum game at a certain point. I just happened to be lazy enough to not get out of it. Basically, I hung around long enough.
But Midnight Pajama Jam was wearing out its welcome, so Jon Glaser and I did the natural thing and decided to gather enough money to make a DVD despite strong public disinterest. It was like the Producers scheme except everybody, including us, would lose money. I got donations from friends and family, and we staged a show taped at a small theater called the Marquis in downtown NYC. The show went well. We had Matt Walsh back as Wyatt Trash. The comedy duo Slovin and Allen came on portraying two fundamentalist pastors who travel the country warning kids of the evils of pornography from the back of a van. Also, Eugene Mirman came on dressed in period costume as a “gayhunter,” in the spirit of Van Helsing, but instead of vampires, he hunted gay people. Also, comedian Sam Seder, who happened to have really huge and muscular calves in real life, held up a curtain, with his back to the audience, and set a spotlight toward the bottom of it and, as music came on, raised the curtain to reveal his oiled‑down calves, like some fetish striptease. If nothing else, we finally captured the essence of a show that we had worked on for the better part of three years. It was a bit of a mess, but it was a creative, ambitious mess. And the taping gave us hope that we could sell the show to television so we could get a bigger audience on board. That would pay back our small investors (my sister, Jodi) and put us in a position to achieve bigger goals.
We couldn’t wait to get to editing the footage we had.
In fact, our editor Bill Buckendorf called the next day and told me to come over to his apartment as soon as I could. Apparently, he was as excited as I was to get this show together. Bill did all the videos for Midnight Pajama Jam. He lived in the East Village on St. Mark’s in a six‑ story walk‑up, so I was never excited to go over there to edit, but knowing we had done a good show overshadowed my hatred of climbing six flights of stairs.
I got there and sat down at his desk in his small bed‑ room, where he edited. He looked a bit sheepish, as if something was wrong. I asked if he was all right. He gestured to the monitor and said that I “should see for myself.” He played down the raw footage of the show’s opening and there was no sound, so I told him to turn it up.
He said, “It is up. There’s no sound.”
“On the whole thing?”
“No, not the whole thing.”
“Oh, thank God.”
“The sound kicks in at the very end.”
“At the very end of all the footage?!”
“I think the sound guy forgot to press record until the very end of the show.”
After all this, our record of the Midnight Pajama Jam show is basically a silent movie until I come out to say good night to the audience. I suppose it was a poetic climax to a show that maybe was never meant to be, and a testament to the idea that some of the best memories are the times leading up to the grandest failures. I’m sure that’s how the guys at Enron felt, but, in our case, all we did along the way was lose money. We were poor but happy. Well, not exactly happy.
From FAILURE IS AN OPTION by H. Jon Benjamin, published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Hosenfef, Inc.