Talking to Strangers

Ted Clark's live talk show is a subversion and celebration of the art form

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alk shows used to be about talk. Conversation was cultivated, not cut off. Like much of our overly orchestrated, politically correct contemporary culture, talk shows are now places where spontaneity goes to die. Even our “reality” shows are anything but real.

Ted Clark is here to reverse that trend with Ted Clark After Dark, a local talk show that could — and often does — go anywhere at any time. Taking place the final Sunday of each month at MOTR Pub in Over-the-Rhine, Clark’s show is a freewheeling, often off-the-cuff affair guided by its garrulous, unpredictable host. It’s as if Rupert Pupkin — the hapless protagonist (brilliantly played by Robert DeNiro) in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy — has gone legit, armed with wit and a sense of surreal humor instead of a terrible mustache and misplaced ambition.

Ted Clark After Dark is at once a subversion of typical talk shows, a serious attempt at the form and a sort of performance art. For After Dark virgins, it’s a “show” that, so far, has never been captured for broadcast; one must witness its peculiar pleasures live and in person. 

The first incarnation of the show began almost exactly two years ago at Mayday, the Northside bar not far from where Clark currently resides. 

“It was a joke between me and another guy sitting at a bar,” Clark says while recently discussing the show’s origins over beers at MOTR. “Because I’ve been known to drink a little bit too much and talk, the guy was like, ‘You should have your own talk show.’ Then we just went back and forth talking about what a talk show would be like and where we would do it. And then the bar (specifically Mayday proprietor Vanessa Barber) called me a couple days later and said, ‘Hey, remember that thing you were talking about, would you really want to do that?’ ”

The Mayday version of the show — which was originally a weekly affair and which Clark eventually ended when he found it too mentally taxing — was less organized than its current MOTR incarnation, which typically features two guests interviewed separately over the course of three hours.

“Before, I would have to have a conversation with the guests (which were mostly his friends and neighborhood acquaintances) the day before the show and say, “Look, I don’t know how else to do this but to get really fucked up, and I’m going to say things that will probably piss you off except you know right now that I’m going to say them, so please don’t take offense,’ ” Clark says. “ ‘These are going to be jokes, but the audience won’t know.’ In the beginning that’s all it was. That’s how I saw it — as performance art in the same way I saw the band as performance art.”

The band is 20th Century Tokyo Princess, a lovingly lo-fi “raging Pop music” outfit that features Clark on guitar and vocals and whose current status its frontman describes as “not exactly defunct, just marinating.” Long a culture junkie, the now-37-year-old saw music as a way to escape his tough upbringing in tiny Flat River, Mo., which is about 80 miles south of St. Louis. 

“I grew up in a really weird household where I was not allowed to be seen,” Clark says. “I was expected to not be there. I had this terrible stepfather. The very sight of me sent him into a rage.”

Clark waited until his stepfather went to sleep each night to get his TV fix: “So all of my exposure was very late-night, and I watched a ton of it. Before the high-stress part of my life started, at 6 or 7, my mother and I would watch Dick Cavett. I have very warm memories of that stuff. People are sitting there smoking and talking as if they know each other.”

The Dick Cavett Show, which ran on TV in one form or another from 1968-1982, is an apt reference for anyone who has witnessed Ted Clark After Dark — from Clark’s approach to conversation to the slightly nostalgic, low-key set dressing (check those white, 2001

-esque plastic chairs).

Clark — amid an avalanche of mostly musical influences as well as an acute interest in freemasonry — mentions another key talk-show touchstone.

“Tom Snyder would interview Paul Weller from The Jam — it was tense,” he says. “Paul Weller seems like he doesn’t want to be there. I liked that tension. It’s real.” 

The memory of The Tomorrow Show, which Snyder hosted in the 1970s and ’80s, triggers one of Clark’s signature digressions — semi-poetic ruminations that can often, depending on the guest and the amount of his alcohol intake, throw things off kilter when delivered during a show: “It’s probably a silly fantasy to think that, ‘Oh, in some way we can go back in time when everyone was a little browner and more muted and everything didn’t have to be high-definition, and electronics, when you put your hand next to them, they were warm and smelled like that smell,’ ” he says. “Yeah, that’s probably all fantasy, but that’s a lot of what I wanted to do.”

The laid-back, late-night bar setting — things typically start around 10 p.m. — gives the show a totally different feel than the highly produced stuff one sees on television. And alcohol is an obvious X factor — guests are welcome, if not encouraged, to imbibe alongside their host.

“I think it is primarily a prop or device I use to cover up my unpreparedness or inability to ask a cohesive question,” Clark says. “Also, it makes non-sequitur conversation seem funnier and less awkward for the audience. Obviously, it helps with the jitters a bit, too.”

The slightly more conventional talk-show approach at MOTR, where After Dark has appeared for the last eight months, has produced an interesting array of local “celebrity” guests, among them comedian Drew Hastings; Pop-star-turned-political-rabble-rouser Justin Jeffre; former city councilman Jim Tarbell; noted photographer Michael Wilson; WLW personality Scott Sloan; Bunbury founder Bill Donabedian; Cincinnati Magazine editor Jay Stowe; musician Brian Olive; and current city councilwoman Laure Quinlivan.

Not sure what to expect of the show before he was a guest, Wilson is now a fan.

“He sort walks a tightrope of irreverence, but I think the bottom line is that it works because Ted is interested in people,” Wilson says in a recent phone conversation. “I was worried that he was going to be somebody who just wanted to make fun at someone else’s expense, and it was fun, but it was not mean-hearted. He genuinely likes people and is not doing it to just get attention.

“It’s almost like watching Jazz where you’re not sure what they’re doing and then all the sudden it starts to make sense,” Wilson says of Clark’s approach. “It was cool when those moments happen.”

Recent guest John Morris Russell, conductor of the Cincinnati Pops, had a similar experience.

“I had no idea what to expect from Ted’s Sunday night serendipity, but what I discovered was an eclectic and fun-loving group of folks bound together with Ted’s lovingly sarcastic wit,” Russell wrote in a recent email.

Clark does research guests beforehand, writing questions on note cards, but the goal is to keep it loose and spontaneous.

“I do all my research and write my questions that day (of the show) so I don’t have much time to think about it, so it doesn’t get overly serious and I don’t dwell on one thing,” he says.

He’s also not shy about injecting his own personal life into the proceedings: Clark often mentions his unconventional, almost serendipitous route to Cincinnati, a place he’s called home since 1998.

“I said, ‘Well, I’m going to ride this motorcycle somewhere within 350 miles of St. Louis, and that will be my next stop,’ ” he says. “I’d lived in every place I was interested in within that radius, so it came down to Davenport, Iowa, and Cincinnati, Ohio.

“I looked up online facts about both cities, and Davenport had no facts and no pictures, but I liked the name; I thought Davenport was a very classy name,” he continues. “And Cincinnati had one picture and a bunch of facts, but they weren’t even true. It was like somebody visited here in the 1920s and wrote this Internet article that I read at the time. It also said the whole town was divided in half by Vine Street, so I was imagining this one street running down the middle and everything being gross on this side, and great on this side. There were bands from here that I had heard of, and of course WKRP and all that stuff. If Davenport had had a picture and at least one band that I had heard of I probably would have gone north to Iowa.”

His nomadic ways ended when he fathered a daughter (“She is 11 and is my very best friend and means everything to me”) and he found steady employment at a liquor store on Short Vine in Clifton, where he’s worked for more than a decade.

Two years into an endeavor he never intended to last this long, Clark has learned a thing or two about how context informs the way in which people present themselves — and about audience expectations. His goal is to deflate pretension, to have a real conversation.

“I’ve learned that people are very, very cautious — even people who are not celebrities,” he says. “People are very cautious about what they say. There are lines that people don’t want to cross. A lot of people don’t want to talk about their families. 

“Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned is that an audience believes everything they see,” he continues. “Before the show they can see me standing there, and they can see the guest standing there, just two people in a bar, but once there is a stage and a microphone, a lot of people’s whole thing changes. No longer is that just two people up there talking: Now there is a person up there with a microphone, and they want to be entertained and they expect the same format (they’re used to seeing). The person in the audience will listen to whatever a person with a microphone has to say 90 percent of the time. When they see chairs and microphones, it’s serious business to an audience, and they expect NBC-quality stuff.”

The NBC reference leads to an obvious question: What’s the next step for Ted Clark After Dark?

“Not that I don’t enjoy this as it is, but this is going to wear itself out eventually,” Clark says. “There are television stations in this town; certainly they can see I’m more engaging than these androids that you have on TV.”

But wouldn’t the constraints of conventional television make it almost impossible to capture what makes the show so singular?

“I think if you edited it in such an extreme way it would only gain charm,” he says, not quite revealing if he’s completely serious or not. “With extreme editing — sort of mid-sentence cuts — you could do it. This is how you have to do one of those old shows if you did it today — just completely butchered.”

The next TED CLARK AFTER DARK occurs at MOTR Pub in Over-the-Rhine Sunday, when local musicians Mia Carruthers, Kelly Fine and Molly Sullivan will be Ted’s guests.

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