Monday, March 29, 2010

UNCLE FLOYD VIVINO: How to Laugh in 60 Easy Minutes

Text by Ira Seigel, 1980
Intro and photos (in studio and at the Bottom Line) by Robert Barry Francos, 2010
© FFanzeen 1980, 2010

The following interview with cult idol, television host and musician Floyd Vivino, who for years led The Uncle Floyd Show on both UHF and VHF at various times, appeared in FFanzeen, Number 5, which was issued May/June 1980.

The Uncle Floyd Show was a pseudo-children show that was geared more towards adults, a la Soupy Sales. The jokes were borderline questionable (an actual joke from the show: Q: What’s the difference between roast beef and pea soup? A: Anyone can roast beef), but more importantly, they showcased many then up-coming bands, but Ira will talk about that more later. It was definitely a favorite among the pre-, present- and post-punk crowd.

The day Ira interviewed Uncle Floyd, myself and our managing editor found ourselves at the television studio in West Orange, New Jersey (I drove, of course), and we had the opportunity to see the taping of a couple of episodes of the show, with Jan and Dean as the musical guest! Floyd opened up to us in his dressing room, and was as cordial as could be.

Over the next few years, we would all watch the show, and go see some live versions of it performed at the late/great Bottom Line (now an NYU dorm).

The format for this interview is a bit different, so just as an FYI, starting below, Uncle Floyd comments will be in plain type, and Ira’s questions and commentary will be in italics.

[Looney Skip Rooney and Uncle Floyd]

Yeah, I know. You’re asking, “Why is a rock’n’roll newspaper wasting space on a kid show? Why not an article on the Ramones or somebody important?

Not only is his show the only one on commercial television that regularly features groups like the Ramones, Ronnie and the Jitters, the Rattlers, Shrapnel, and many more (even the legendary Jan and Dean have appeared), but it’s probably the funniest show on the air right now. If you love rock’n’roll, you’ll love Uncle Floyd.

Now, about the children show thing. If anything,
The Uncle Floyd Show is a satire on kids shows. There are pictures on the wall (sent in by viewers), and he used to announce birthdays (until there were just too many), but that’s it. From that point on, it becomes a totally manic half-hour of outrageous humor. One of the bits on the show is, in itself, a send-up of real kiddy shows: Floyd the TV clown, with Floyd in a clown suit and members of the cast playing kids. A large part of the laughs in the sketchy comes from the truth in it, the empty phoniness in the usual TV kid show host. But this is a digression, and you can argue every point I’ve made. So, the final word on the subject goes to Floyd himself. Is The Uncle Floyd Show for kids?

Uncle Floyd Vivino:: The first show was January 29, 1974… We started out as a kid show the first year, and in the second year, it started out to be a legitimate show aimed for 3-6 year-olds. I just found out like any other person that tried it at the time, that Sesame Street was just too overwhelming. That was the standard for a kid’s show; the puppets, everything, is so superior. I just said, well, that’s the end, this show’s not going to last if I keep this up. But there was something about it, that we always had older people, even from, like, the first show. By the summer of ’76, we started changing it around for an older group, which were high school kids. Somehow, we passed them up and we hit a little bit of an older group, more like 18. Right now, almost everyone watching the show is over 18 and under 30. That’s the dominant age group. Second flank is from 30-35, and then lower is 12-16 year olds. We could count the kids who watch the show because their parents do. That’s unfortunate; a lot of kids 2 years old watch the show, their mother’s 22 or 24, or whatever.

So, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. There’s proof of that, also. The sponsors of the show include the Capitol Theatre, a tattoo parlor, various clubs and bars, and even radio stations, none of which anybody under 18 would really care about. Besides that, back in December of last year, The Uncle Floyd Show sold out all four shows at the Bottom Line in New York City. It’s a pretty nice accomplishment for a local show from New Jersey, although Floyd is more realistic about it.

Well, it’s a small place, don’t forget, it only holds 400 people. We do so many shows out here in New Jersey. We play these tank houses and school gyms that hold 2000 people and only 1000 people show up, so people say, “He couldn’t sell out.” We only had to sell 1600 tickets in New York to sell out. They did that fast because in New Jersey, we always draw 5-600, even at a flea market. We do these theaters too, like the Franklin Theatre in Nutley, 1500 seats. So 700 people show up and the place looked empty, but in the Bottom Line it would look impressive. So that’s deceiving, the Bottom Line selling out. We would have been very disappointed if it didn’t.

As you can see, there’s an amazing dedication to the show by its fans – and there’s a wide range of them.

[Uncle Floyd and Oogie, live and in the mirror]

We’ve taken surveys. We have a little newspaper we put out every month, and we got a 400 sample survey on our viewers. Then again, when they have to fill these surveys out, you’re leaving out the little kids. The ones who are over 18, I think the demographics lie to that area. A lot of them are white-collar bankers or work for IBM and big companies. A lot are construction workers. It seems to be every group as far as that goes. Where it differs is in the intellect. There’s two levels of audience: the highly intellectual and the sub-human. Let me explain it to you this way: we do a lot of shows in high schools. In an average high school, the staff of the school newspaper watches the show, the drama club watches, the debating society does. Football and basketball teams never heard of it. The cheerleaders, they don’t even know what UHF is, they’re beyond reaching. So we leave out football and that crowd and then go from the honor society right down to the class troublemakers, the guys who major in lunch and shop, you know. It seems to be that way at every personal appearance. The audience, as an audience, is very sharp, or very like animals. Totally, like baboons – especially Netto’s fans. When we did a show at William Patterson College, we had motorcycle gangs sitting right next to the honor students. We didn’t have the C students; we had the dummies and the brains. Strange.

The loyalty to the show is so great that occasionally “wars” are declared on anybody or anything that’s anti-Uncle Floyd. The most legendary and bitter of these are the Star Trek wars.

The wars are legit, and what it means is the viewers are allowed to make fun of whoever it is, in full view of everyone, on the pictures on the wall. The only reason they’re allowed to do that is ‘cause whoever we’re going to war with is doing the same with us. The Trekkies were real wars because of the big Star Trek convention in New York. We had a whole fan club go with Uncle Floyd T-shirts and badges, and one guy was really beaten up by a bunch of Trekkies, ‘cause we were both on at 6:00. So we had a debate on the show whether we should declare war on the Trekkies, ‘cause it was a serious thing. Then we decided, well, how are we going to realize who’s going to win the war? So we said, the first show to be dumped by the station or have their timeslot changed loses the war. And we hung in there. Channel 11 [WPIX-TV] dropped Star Trek, and about three weeks later, they moved us from 6:00 to, I think we went to 5:30, I don’t know. They had some strange times there for a while, but we beat them a few weeks.

There’s a lot to be said about the time slot of the show. Right now, it’s sandwiched between reruns of the Lone Ranger and Green Acres. Are there people who sit through Floyd just to see Arnold the pig?

That’s always happened. We used to lead into Time Tunnel, we had Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea for a long time – for almost two years – and that was a big lead-in show. And the intro was Dobie Gillis for a long time. A lot of people said they used to watch that. So we’ve had our share. We used to be followed by a Chinese program at 6:30, and we followed a religious show for a while. In ’74, it was on from 5:00-6:00 live, and we did a country-western show after at 6:00. So you always run into people saying that.

As much as Floyd is loved by fans, he cares about them. He is very serious about the show, even though it’s obviously a lot of fun. Actually, if it wasn’t, there probably wouldn’t be a show. Nobody gets paid, and the studio itself is about the size of a large elevator. It adds new dimensions to the term “low budget.” None of that matters or perhaps it helps, because there’s a remarkable flow and interplay between the cast of the show. It’s all for the love of it, and it’s definitely a group effort.

Everybody just writes; we write it and get ideas. A script for five shows is one page. We use a formula called comedia del’art. We know how it’s going to begin, we know how it’s going to end. All the work has been done, now we just go in and have a party. The guys have worked with me so long; we know how we work together, so there’s no need to rehearse – no purpose in it. There’s no time or money for it. We’ve just been around working together so long it’s easy. It’s like five musicians getting together. They know the song they’re going to play, say they never played it before, but they know how it begins and how it ends, and that’s what we do. Same principle. It’s about half improvised. Everything is planned out, even the ad-libs. You’ve got to be an idiot to go up there cold, or you’ve got to be a genius. If I was a genius, I wouldn’t be here.

A lot of talented people are on the show and deserve credit. Of course, there’s Floyd – and his puppets; the most popular of which is Oogie, literally Floyd’s right-hand man. By his own admission, and on-air jokes, he is a very bad ventriloquist. To offset this, the camera is always on the puppet in a skit. This seems to make the puppet quite human.

(Oogie)’ll like it when I tell him that tonight. That’s the whole purpose of doing that. I mean, ventriloquism is one thing as an art, but to do it on a television you’ve got to be crazy. Shari Lewis is the best, she’s phenomenal, but even guys like Edgar Bergen and other famous ventriloquists had a hard time on TV; that camera’s so sensitive, even if you’re not talking, it looks like your lips are moving. When I do a live show, especially if it’s in a school or a big gym or something, people think I’m great. Put the mike in front of you, talk like this [he covers his mouth], and they can’t even see your face, let along your lips moving, from like the 15th row, and I love that. Then people say, “Wow, you’re really great on TV, you know, but you’re better in person as a ventriloquist.” They don’t know. To tell you the truth, I can’t stand ventriloquist acts that just treat the puppet like a dummy. The guy gets up and all they do is jokes, so I tried to make Oogie not like a puppet.

Oogie is even a recording star now. Records? There are two out, and a third is planned. So far, they’re only available in New Jersey or at live appearances. The records are great, and you can even dance to them. Floyd wrote all the songs, plays piano…

Every one of my relatives plays at least one instrument. I play three chords on the guitar. I used to play the trumpet pretty good, but you’ve got to work at it, keep that embouchure up. I’ve played an accordion on my show. Piano’s really it. I had lessons from when I was about 7 until 12; a classical background. Jimmy Durante had a big influence on me; I used to get a kick out of the way he played, so I stared fooling around with that style.

And sings, although in puppet or character. Oogie has two songs and a familiar sounding voice. I think he sounds like Frankie Valli (the Four Seasons period) myself.

Well, that’s what happens. No matter what you do, somebody traces it and says you took it from here. Frankie Valli, and before him Curly of the Three Stooges had a high falsetto and before him bobby Clark in vaudeville, and so on. I didn’t have that in mind, just a high-pitched voice. The little noises he makes, I mean Frankie Valli, he would be very insulted if he heard this, that I took that from him.

Okay, so I’m wrong. Floyd knows his music pretty well. What does he listen to?

I don’t call them, these bands on my show now, I don’t know. It’s very interesting, I don’t know what the… rock’n’roll, New Wave, I don’t know how to classify anything anymore, but for me, rock’n’roll was Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, you know, Elvis Presley. That, to me, is rock’n’roll, not the Beatles. And I like rock’n’roll from ’55-’64. I really love Rhythm and Blues from ’48 to about ’55; early, like the Five Redcaps. I’ve got B.B. King. I’ve got 30,000 records, not all 78s. I’ve got extensive stuff. I’ve sold, and I’ve been a pretty good dealer. Vin Scelsa [DJ on WNEW-FM and Floyd fan – IS] wants some of my Beatle stuff that I have from the Iron Curtain: Beatle postcard records which are like worth about 300-400 bucks apiece. I found them in a stack of postcards – postcard records from Poland – and I almost had a heart attack when I saw the stack. I knew what I was looking at, and I said to the guy, “How much to you want for the whole stack?” and he said, “Give me a buck.” I started shaking; I had the shakes. And I got out of there and I said, “I’m going to wake up any minute, this is a dream, this isn’t true,” and I take it out and I show it to guys on my show, Scott [Gordon] and them. But I like jazz too; a lot.

So he doesn’t really care for new rock’n’roll that much. How does a band go about getting on his show, then?

First of all, they have to have a record. They have to contact David Burd, he handles that, he schedules them and puts them on. Now, anyway.

There’s some good news, though,

Disco I never liked, and that’s probably the only form of music I can honestly say I just can’t relate to. I don’t think it’s because of the music. It’s the attitude of the disco fans; it just drives me up a wall. I mean they just make me sick, the whole thing. John Scher [Capitol Theatre] said it best: he said these are just the people who can’t relate to rock. It’s dying anyway, right? Finally, thank God. I hate it. Well, everybody in the business hates it. Even the people making the disco records hate it. It’s a total, complete turnabout from… anybody from the ‘60s generation is anti-disco. Plus, they would never watch my show, disco people. The only thing they look at is a mirror.

[Uncle Floyd, Artie Delmar, Looney Skip Rooney]

Let’s introduce the cast now. There’s Looney Skip Rooney, a living tribute to the Golden Age of baggy-pants comedy. Dressed in a plaid suit, huge polka-dot bowtie, and crushed top hat, he tells the corniest jokes imaginable, but somehow he makes them work;

David Burd, famous (?) as Artie Delmar, proprietor of the Artie Delmar School of Rock’n’roll Violin Playing (including such all-time hits as “Louie Louie,” “Satisfaction,” and “Secret Agent Man”). It’s a very visual act, with fright-wig hair, foot-high platforms attached to his shoes, and a pair of glasses with what seem to be large reinforcements for eyes. And that’s just one of many characters he does;

Scott Gordon, often the straight man for some of the best bits on the show, but a great talent – particularly in the many slapstick segments, including a very good imitation of Oliver Hardy to Floyd’s Stan Laurel;

Mugsy [d. 2005], the teen heartthrob, who specializes in often hilarious song parodies, by such luminaries as Neil Yuck, Bruce Stringbean (“The Bum”), and Peter Punk, who looks like a reject from a KISS fan club, but sings some solid numbers. At the Bottom Line, where the show was backed by a full band, he sounded excellent;

Netto, apparently the resident burn-out (or at least the subject of jokes on that line), whose main character is Prof. Bizzie Martinez, with highly useless but funny theories on almost everything. That’s another visual experience, with an even more outrageous mane of hair, and bulging eyes. He’s also a fine mandolin and guitar player (as Jerry Garsweata); and

Finally, and only because he’s been on the show the shortest time, Charlie Stoddard, who plays aspiring rock’n’roll singer Sid Kreplack, who makes “Pinhead” sound like a bar-mitzvah. He also plays Deacon Jim in Floyd’s evangelist satire, Brother Billy Bobby Booper, singing a hysterically bizarre gospel parody comprised entirely of bass rumblings, accompanying himself on piano.

These guys, most of them have been with me now about four-five years. Some have come and gone. People have used this show to get on to bigger and better things, too. Oogie’s the only one that’ll stay with me forever.

And now just a small list of Floyd’s own characters. There are lots more of them, all just as good: besides Brother Billy, there’s Eddie Slobbo, a good-natured and often riotously funny pig; Julia Stepchild, a cooking instructor featuring Floyd in garish drag, including smeared lipstick and what appears to be basketballs (that size anyway) as a chest; Joe Frankfutter (sponsored by Martian Paints, among others), probably his most accurate satire, and one of his most popular; and then there’s Mr. Frogers (“It’s a beautiful day in the ghetto”), a brilliant character, with an apparent shoe fetish and a remarkable repertoire of double-entendre jokes, one of the best (not to mention bluntest) being a sequence on measuring objects. The intent is so obvious; I had to ask about them. Were there any censorship problems?

[Artie Delmar]

It’s the way things are done. I mean, he had a ruler that was six inches, and obviously we were going to start measuring things. We had a display thing underneath. We didn’t get one complaint about that. I think it’s because of the way it was handled. I didn’t say, “Do you have anything six inches long?” I just looked at the camera and I said, “Do you have anything that’s six inches?” I think it’s the way things are said and done that would offend people. We did have a complaint come here once. The letter was on file, from some parent who felt that the show had no educational value, or something like that. But what’s the educational value of Mr. Ed, or Mike Douglas for that matter? I’ll still match up my audience; I bet every one of my audience knows the difference between Queens, Staten Island, and Netcong. They know their geography anyway, from the show – that’s one thing. We have more people just seeing the pictures on the wall, and hearing these towns, and wondering where it is. They get that, anyway. But no matter what any TV station puts on the air, somebody’s going to get offended. You can’t do anything anymore; you never could. You tell a joke about a fat person, right away you’ve got problems. If I say my nose is big, someone else will complain and say, you shouldn’t make fun. You should be lucky you have a nose. What about the people who don’t have noses, right? Now, okay, there are people without a nose, but what are you going to do? Where do you draw the line? It does become kind of strange after a while. And what goes on, on the networks, that offends people because it’s just so blatant. But I think people, they’re not even going to get uptight anymore.

Finally, what about Floyd Vivino? There had to be something before Uncle Floyd. It’s something you always hear – what was he doing before he started doing this?

I was working carnivals. Right after high school, I started working with a couple of circuses as a side show barker, real carnie. And I worked a lot of tab shows in Brooklyn: Club 802, the Lisa Terrance on Strickland Avenue, and the El Caribe, the Airport Lounge, Gil Hodges’ Grand Slam Lounge. Fifteen-20 bucks a night, with a cast of, like, eight; little tab shows. I’d play the piano, be the MC; really horrible stuff. They still have stuff like that; like on Friday or Saturday night, all old people would go, real little shows, in tuxedo, atrocious. Now they call them “Gong Shows.” It was the same basic thing. You get these agencies, guys who book acts, get guys like 18-19 years old, just starting to get in the business. It was a lot of fun.

Everybody has inspirations in what they do. What are Floyd’s?

Norman Vincent Peale would probably be close [the FFanzeen group breaks up laughing]. He’s a funny guy. I’m serious. He’s a funny guy. I would say Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, everybody. I love everybody, every comedian, from the eccentrics to the characters to the comic actors, I love them all. Like a baseball player would like another baseball player. The only one I don’t like is Benny Hill, and there’s not a comedian in the country who likes him. He’s been big in England on American acts. He takes our stuff, acts from American TV from years ago, and he goes and does them. He ripped off an awful lot of our stuff, and comedians are funny that way. They don’t care if you do a gag or two, but he’s taken complete routines, say a comedy sketch seen on The Dick Van Dyke Show 12 years ago; he’ll do it over there in England.

Obviously, Floyd has very strong opinions on comedy and comedians. Having feelings like that is a sign of a true artist, this caring about the purity of the art form.

Lately, Floyd has been getting a lot of publicity. He’s been on
Tomorrow (with Tom Snyder), WPIX-FM’s Radio, Radio, in New York magazine, and the Sunday Daily News. A lot of people are beginning to take notice of him and the show. It makes you wonder if he’s ever going to get too big for the local scene.

[Uncle Floyd as Cowboy Charie]

That will never happen, because we have that structured out, that I won’t give up this market for syndication. In other words, we’ll keep the show local here as our base, and if we ever got big enough to, say, go on in other cities, we’d make a different show for out of town. I won’t leave this area of the country for nothing. I can’t even think of it. I’m just… I’m New Jersey, and I don’t want to do anything else. I just want to be “Uncle Floyd” and that’s it, just keep it going. If syndication came, this kind of a show wouldn’t work in Milwaukee, ‘cause everything’s here. We built up our own little world out here with our viewers and us, and that’s okay and fine. It won’t work in Phoenix, Arizona, so when that comes, we’ll put together a real slick, super-slick show with the whole bit, and it’ll probably run 26 weeks and die, like everything else, and we’d still have this here. [Note that in 1980, a nationally syndicated version of the show made it to NBC-TV in New York and 16 other national markets, shown in NY after SNL, for a short time, before being yanked for being too subversive – RBF, 2010]

So there’s nothing to worry about. Uccle Floyd is going to be around for a long time. Even if Paul Simon did put him in his movie, One Trick Pony.

It’s a dramatic role; tough guy nightclub owner in Ashtabula, Ohio, of a punk rock place. I’ll come across as pretty tough, as a touch guy, wise. I give Paul Simon a little hard time. I don’t want to pay him, I threaten to shoot myself with a gun, then I make believe I kill myself. I play the piano, I introduce the acts myself. They got me smoking a cigar in it, too, blowing smoke in everybody’s face. [Note: the scene was deleted from the final film – RBF, 2010]

Strange. It doesn’t sound like a very serious role. Anyway, Floyd Vivino has broken into another medium. It’s great, thinking of him on the silver screen, but television is where he wants to be. He always wanted to.

[Jan & Dean, on the show]

I was with a carnival traveling around; I must have been on like 30 TV stations, all over the country, on the Eastern Seaboard and Midwest. And I finally said, you know, this is what I want to do; I love being on these TV stations. And I knew I’d never get on Channel 5 {WNEW], 9 [WOR] or 11 in New York, at 22 years old. A cable station, UA-Columbia, had just started a local station up there. This station (WWHT-68) wasn’t on the air in January of ’74. It went on in September, and I got hooked up with them when they first went on the air. I had my cable show going. They were horrible. In the beginning, I had little segments on bicycle safety, and Oogie would be up there for 10 minutes, which is a long time. Then I’d take a guitar and sing a song straight, then we’d have a little crafts and hobby thing, and I’d teach the kids how to make a paper puppet. It was pretty brutal. We have no tapes of the real old shows either. They were live.

You’ve got to give him credit. Anybody who would put up with that is either crazy or super-dedicated.

I just always loved TV. Like when I was 12 years old, or whatever, guys learned every car that goes by and all that. Well, I knew the TV Guide word for word.

Loose ends department – The address [no longer valid – RBF, 2010]. The show is [was] on Monday-Friday from 6:00-7:00 PM, on channels 60 and 68. Channel 60 is usually clearer in New York City, but unfortunately, on most sets, there’s so much snow on the screen, it looks like a night at Studio 54. If you’ve got, or know someone with Wometco Home Theater (pay-TV), watch it on that, but try to catch it at least once. It’s like potato chips – watch one and you won’t be able to stop.

Some of the fans who I know have seen, like, every show. The groupies – what they call the cult following. We’re just like a big gang.

Join the gang, the devoted Uncle Floyd fans. It’s worth it. Floyd Vivino is a magician, and The Uncle Floyd Show is just a taste of magic.

A Taste of Uncle Floyd’s character, Cowboy Charlie:


  1. David Johansen turned me on to Uncle Floyd in the 70s. I took Rat Scabies down to the show also. Johansen interviewed Floyd for Punk magazine, I still have the tape - 5 hours of crazy! Roberta Bayley

  2. Thanks, Roberta. It's always a pleasure to hear from a fellow Blank Generation-er, especially one as talented a photographer as you!