November 22, 2013 will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This post is part of a series that will run throughout this year focusing on songs that address the JFK assassination.
“Conspiracy Rock” is a parody of the popular Schoolhouse Rock series that aired on ABC Saturday morning children’s programming from 1973 to 1985, and was revived in the 1990s. “Conspiracy Rock” was produced by students at Emerson College in 1992.
I recently corresponded with Scott Rosann, who directed “Conspiracy Rock”. As Scott Rosann explains on the “Conspiracy Rock” YouTube page,
This video debuted at Emerson College in 1992, as part of a live show by the Emerson comedy troupe This Is Pathetic. After making the rounds at several broadcast outlets (including SNL, where it is rumored that Al Franken personally savaged it as unfaithful to conspiracy theory canon), the bit finally aired multiple times on Comedy Central during the week of November 22, 1993.
Four and a half years later, Robert Smigel aired a similarly titled bit on SNL’s “Saturday TV Funhouse.” (The producers are content to view this as a coincidence and not a conspiracy.) A remixed version of the film also appeared as an Official Selection in the 2000 Sundance Film Festival.
This silly little film would never have been possible without the brilliance and talent of animator Jason Scott Sadofsky, and of co-writers Michael D’Alonzo, Stephen Johnson, and Eric Drysdale. Thanks also to vocalists Shannon Hart Cleary and Carolyn Forno, and to the cast members (past and present) and supportive audiences of This Is Pathetic.
Turn Me On, Dead Man: What gave you the idea to make this video? It’s a dead-on parody of the Schoolhouse Rock videos.
Scott Rosann: Thanks. From 1989-1992 I was a writer and performer in an Emerson College sketch group called “This Is Pathetic.” The troupe would put up a big show each semester that would run for two or three nights, with a few smaller shows mixed in during the school year.
I’m sure Pathetic had been making videos to play in between live sketches for years (Emerson had really active film & TV programs, with lots of equipment you could steal and talent you could tap)…but when I got in with my writing partner, Mike D’Alonzo, the filmed bits were the main thing *I* wanted to focus on. I was a so-so performer, but I was crazy about SNL-style parodies, so I put most of my obsessive energy into producing those.
We’d just done a really big 10th anniversary show in 1991, and we’d made some pretty ambitious videos for that. Roughly two-thirds of the troupe were set to graduate, and so we wanted to top ourselves for our last show.
Turn Me On, Dead Man: Quite a few JFK-related songs came out in the wake of Oliver Stone’s movie JFK (1991). Were you at all influenced by JFK?
Scott Rosann: Almost definitely, yes. At the time, people were reacting to that movie like it was a documentary; it really inflamed people’s passions. So it certainly would have fit our high opinions of ourselves to tap into that for a comedy show.
I want to say I was the one who said, “Let’s make a Schoolhouse Rock of that.” I’d been wanting to do a Schoolhouse Rock about SOMETHING, so I may have sprung the idea…but Mike and the others were on it so quickly and brought so much to it that I hardly think it matters.
Two quick things:
- One of our housemates at the time, Jason Scott Sadofsky (now Jason Scott)—who was a preternaturally talented animator and is now a preternaturally talented historian, documentarian, and raconteur—was our one-man animation army on that sketch, and he’s written beautifully on how the film was made: http://ascii.textfiles.com/
- Three guys who are MUCH funnier and much more musical than I am wrote the song: the aforementioned Mike D’Alonzo, Steve Johnson, and Eric Drysdale. All three are geniuses, all three work professionally in entertainment to this day. I probably helped. Two marvelous singers, Shannon Hart Cleary and Carolyn Forno, sang our lyrics to the completely unchanged tune of “A Noun is a Person, Place, or Thing” by Lynn Ahrens. The seven of them are “Conspiracy Rock.”
Turn Me On, Dead Man: Were all of the people involved in making this video college students or were others involved?
Scott Rosann: Yes. Everyone involved (except for Ahrens, from whom we stole outright) was an Emerson student.
The sketch first played during our spring 1992 show, entitled “The Concourse of Humanity.” (It had a loose—very loose—theme centered around a Hall of Presidents-style museum ride.) There were some really good sketches in that show…and some clunkers that I KNOW I was partially responsible for…and “Conspiracy Rock.” Which that audience really, really responded to.
Schoolhouse Rock hadn’t been on the air for almost 10 years at that point. There were these shabby VHS tapes of it that you could buy, or that would get copied and passed around. (We had one, which we used to accurately copy the look and feel.) But you had to be a real nerd to have been watching those. But EVERYONE had grown up with it, so I guess the mixture of that childhood memory and all that bloated Oliver Stone nonsense really clicked. (That part I will take some credit for: I figured it would work, and it worked. And I was really relieved and grateful for that response. That was a nice way to go out, sketch group-wise.)
A year after that, in 1993, ABC put Schoolhouse Rock back on the air, and so that rejoined the zeitgeist. But that was also the year of the 30th anniversary of the JFK assassination. All the “Conspiracy Rock” creators had graduated and were pursuing fitful careers in comedy and entertainment…and a tape of some of that Pathetic material made its way to comedy agent Barry Katz. I don’t remember who passed it to Katz, but after a very weird meeting that I DO remember, that tape was sent over to SNL. There was talk of their buying it to air close to the 30th anniversary.
Here’s where it gets hazy for me; I didn’t hear it from Katz, so he must have told somebody who told me. Folks at SNL liked it. Tom Schiller stands out in my mind as someone who went to bat for it. But the crank-di-tutti-cranks around SNL, Al Franken, HATED it. (Turns out he’s a huge conspiracy buff, and the sketch was too loose with the historical “facts” as he understood them. He’s not wrong, exactly…but we all figured accuracy was hardly the point of the bit. BUT…no shoddy conspiracy cartoon was going to get on his SNL, so down it went.)
The other bidder for “Conspiracy Rock” was the still-fairly-new Comedy Central network. They had significantly less money and a smaller audience than SNL, but they were extremely willing. So we agreed they’d air the sketch a handful of times during the anniversary week, in a deal I like to describe as “a couple hundred dollars and some hats…and we never got the hats.” (I do still have an air check of one of those broadcasts, though. God love old-timey Comedy Central.)
There wasn’t really enough money to split between so many dedicated participants, so we threw a party in Times Square on New Years Eve, 1994, with those proceeds. Many, many Emerson comedians reunited in that cramped Best Western hotel room. A very large sandwich was ordered, much of which probably wound up on the sidewalk, whole or partially digested. If any of your readers have photos of that night, I’ll gladly pay them a lot of money—and some hats—to see them.
Turn Me On, Dead Man: I’m curious to know if you’ve ever had any correspondence with Robert Smigel
Scott Rosann: I assume you’re asking because in 1998, he produced an SNL sketch under the TV Funhouse banner called “Conspiracy Theory Rock.” It aired once and was pulled from circulation because it dared to suggest that GE unduly influences NBC’s entertainment and news output, up to and including the wrongful firing of comedian Norm Macdonald. (It’s NOT about the JFK assassination…although that gets a mention.) It is a fact that Smigel was at SNL when our tape was there.
I’ve never spoken with Smigel. My pal Eric Drysdale (who, as I noted earlier, is a co-creator of “Conspiracy Rock”) went on to work closely with Smigel, and I’m sure they’re still friends. I’ve never asked Eric whether Smigel was aware of our sketch; I’m sure he never asked Smigel. To me, it doesn’t matter even a little whether Smigel had seen it or not. His bit is really, really funny. I just watched it on YouTube and laughed out loud; you can ask my wife. It had its (brief, interesting) time, and ours had a (brief, interesting) time of its own.
“Conspiracy Rock” did have another pleasant audience experience in 2000, when it was selected for the shorts program at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. I was allowed to represent it and enjoyed a gratuitous director credit…but as I said, it’s really the work and property of the people I’ve mentioned. And now it lives on YouTube, and is fortunate to be remembered on Turn Me On, Dead Man and elsewhere. It’s a silly little bit, from a silly little time, but it meant a lot to the people involved—much like the things and events it parodies.