When I first met radio hunk Joe Frank a few years ago, I had the same reaction as everyone: I found myself saying, "He seems like a pretty normal guy," as if the characters and scenarios he created for his groundbreaking public radio show—plague victims, stolen children, angry Chinese waiters who say, "Oh, we have it, but we no have"—were really him. It happens.
"Yeah, I know," he said by phone from his Santa Monica home. "I'm actually rather gun-shy of meeting people. At parties, I only give my first name because I don't want to be compared against myself on the radio. People are very surprised by the disparity between what they anticipate—this dark, brooding, interesting man on the radio and the rather bland unintelligent guy standing in front of them."
"Unintelligent" is way over the top because Frank's not only smart, funny and humble to fault—really—but also someone who anguishes over the right word, the right inflection, whether it's in his plays or his answers to a reporter's questions. I remember him saying something to me, rethinking it, saying it a different way and then calling me back an hour or so later to ask if he came off as a pretentious twit.
As for "bland," I remember that in the time I spent with him—preparing a profile for LA Weekly—we spent a good deal at one of those joints where women dance with men for money. He'd discovered the place through a fan who danced there and, we found out, was also looking at jail time. That was also the time when, several times, I was mistaken for a lady—I am all man, mostly—but that really has nothing to do with the business at hand.
In that piece, I tried to describe Frank's s radio programs and fell as ridiculously short as everyone else—including Frank. They were, I wrote, dreamlike, surreal, strange, somber, funny—very funny—and can still be heard for free on joefrank.com. Now they're over—"It was just time to move on," he says—and Frank has written a play (with the working title Always) and is preparing a one-man show he'll perform Friday on South Coast Repertory's Julianne Argyros Stage.
He hasn't performed live in more than two years, when he did a gig at UCLA's Wadsworth Theater with the drummer from REM and a guy from Beck's band and four dancers. "There was a smoke machine and special lighting," he recalls. "I liked everyone in it but me." In that piece, he had just decided to leave public radio for the first time and was looking for something to do. He thought about plays, TV and movies and was preparing for a live performance at the Viper Room, where he had no idea what he was going to do. Today, he's off the air, written a play but wondering if he'll ever write another, and is preparing for the SCR gig without really knowing what he's going to do or where.
"The only work that ever grounded me was radio because I was under deadline. Every Sunday, I had to have a show. The station was waiting; the audience was waiting. That provided a lot of motivation and anxiety to produce. When you're working by yourself, nobody expects anything from you, and it's harder to generate the energy. That's why I accepted this offer from . . . what is it called?"
South Coast Repertory.
He laughs. "Yes, yes. They called me a little more than two weeks ago. It's all falling together rapidly, which is good; it's a deadline of sorts, and that makes it work."
The folks at SCR have little doubt about that. Annie Weisman, 2003-2004's playwright-in-residence, suggested Frank join this weekend's Pacific Playwrights Festival because they wanted someone "who would come in and mix things up, bring a different energy," said SCR's Jerry Patch. "Joe was the first person Annie thought of."
Though he wasn't exactly sure about specifics, Frank said the SCR performance will be "recognizable to people who know me from the radio. The character in the performance is typical of my work in that its focus is sex and death and darkly humorous, I hope." As for, you know, the rest of his life after Friday, well, that's not so clear. There's the play that has been well-received by a couple of agents but not yet produced. Years ago, he wrote a collection of short stories (Queen of Puerto Rico) but didn't like the process or the result. He does some voice-over work now to pay the bills. He was the voice of the computer in Galaxy Quest and is the voice of Animal Planet's Wild Rescues—"I'm so out-of-character in that. I have this excited, life-affirming voice. It's so not me."
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Funny, he doesn't mention radio as an option, which is exactly what he didn't mention the first time I interviewed him. That is, he doesn't mention radio until I mention the post-Sept. 11 world we live in.
"After Sept. 11, and especially when the war started, I really regretted leaving radio because I thought, 'Now you can't turn your back on the contemporary world,'" he says. "Up until then, I always took pride in the fact that you could take a program of mine from 15 years ago, put it on the air, and nobody would know because the stories weren't tied to current events; they were out of time. But in this world, it's impossible to do that. I find myself watching these cable-news talk programs and getting furious and wishing I had a vehicle to comment on it. I really regretted not having the radio show. I worked so hard before in creating my own kinda-bizarre world, you know. Now, it's just handed to you. It's ready-made."
Nice guy. Called me back an hour later to ask me if he said anything stupid, but nice.
Joe Frank's One Night Stand at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Fri., 10:30 p.m. $15.