April 09, 2024

Joe Flaherty

Joe Flaherty

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yes, for those who are asking, Elon nuked me from Twitter. Perma-ban—irreversible.

Yes, it involved the Holocaust. But let’s talk about that next week, okay?

Because a great man died last week, and I’d like to honor him.

And recall the time I stalked him.

Joe Flaherty was improv comedy. As Dan Aykroyd stated in a tribute following Flaherty’s death last week at age 82, Flaherty was the instructor for Aykroyd, Belushi, Radner, Candy, Murray—the greats. Ironically, one of the reasons Flaherty didn’t get recruited by Lorne Michaels for SNL’s first season is that he was traversing North America starting new Second City franchises because nobody knew how to do the work better.

When the SCTV TV show started, Flaherty was its heart and soul. The cast changed—Candy came and went, Catherine O’Hara came and went, Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis came, went, and came, Martin Short came once (an unfortunate medical problem), but Flaherty remained.

He was my childhood icon. More than anyone at SNL, more than anyone at Monty Python.

As a teen actor touring with an Anglo-American theater company in 1985, I aped Flaherty mercilessly. Every comedic take I did was swiped from him. That’s why I never went into acting as a profession—I’ve nothing original to offer. But damn I got loads of laughs copying Flaherty. Nobody could do a better double take. It was vastly different from Jack Benny’s “gentle” double take. A Flaherty double take was harsh, swift, and impossibly funny.

Long before it became fashionable to speak of entertainment “universes”—the “MCU,” the “DCU”—SCTV established a “universe,” a show-within-a-show: the fictional SCTV network, owned and operated by Guy Caballero, portrayed by Flaherty. Although each episode consisted of sketches, as an anchor there was always a story arc about Caballero. One man trying to keep a terrible TV network running, surrounded by terrible people.

But the thing is, Caballero was terrible himself. And this is what I hope to convey about a character that’s meant so much to me in my life. Indeed, a character that, to an extent, has defined me.

Guy Caballero was a flawed man, and that’s putting it mildly. He pretended to be crippled just to get “respect.” I’ll never see anything funnier than the moment, early in the show’s history, when we first witness Caballero wheel up to some stairs, get out of his wheelchair, carry the chair up the stairs, and get back in. Time and again, he’d do the same thing, always explaining to onlookers that the wheelchair was a necessary ruse to force his staff to respect him, because you have to respect a cripple.

“Flaherty was the instructor for Aykroyd, Belushi, Radner, Candy, Murray—the greats.”

And that wasn’t even Caballero’s worst quality (believe it or not). He was an embezzler, a cheat, a slippery, cruel employer. But also, he was endearingly childlike. It was such a great, multilayered character. And by God it stuck with me, and struck a chord with me. And just as Flaherty’s double take came to define me as a young comedic actor, the Guy Caballero character came to define me as an adult.

And then one day in 2002 I had the opportunity to speak to Flaherty one-on-one.

My girlfriend from 2001 to 2003—I won’t say her name because she’s a “civilian” but also because she stabbed me once and I’m still really fucking afraid of her (you never forget your first kiss or your first slashed artery), so I’ll call her Bewbs McManus—was a stunning tall busty blonde from Michigan, in L.A. to be an actress (what, you expected her to be here to attend electrician school?). Bewbs’ first L.A. acting gig was a role opposite Gary Busey that included a Jacuzzi scene. And on the day he first laid eyes on her Marilyn-in-her-prime body, Busey screamed “yeeeee-haw” and galloped around the room joyfully slapping his ass with an imaginary riding crop.

But of course he’s always been a class act that way.

Bewbs was manager of the Hollywood Video store in Westwood Village, an upscale area adjacent to UCLA on L.A.’s Westside.

For those of you who can’t remember (i.e., Zoomers), Hollywood Video was Blockbuster’s main competitor. In the late 1990s/early 2000s, it was dominant, owing in part to the fact that corporate hired managers like Bewbs McManus. Everyone wanted to be on the corner of Gayley and Wilshire Boulevard Friday night as Bewbs manned the counter wearing the cheap (and thus very revealing) Forever 21 tops I’d buy her, giving out candy and “winks” to male customers to make them think that if they just keep coming back, they might score more than a copy of the Bobcat Goldthwait direct-to-video talking-horse film.

Celebrity customers would always announce themselves to Bewbs (yes, back then even celebrities had to rent videos. Rather reminiscent of when Pee-wee Hermans had to physically visit porn theaters. The internet spoiled so much of our world’s natural order…). Bewbs would excitedly tell me about her celebrity customers. It would’ve made a good high-concept TV show: a sexy covert agent working as a video store manager. Because think about it—you had everybody’s ID (ID wasn’t racist yet; it was okay to demand a driver’s license to rent Bobcat Goldthwait’s talking-horse film), and you knew when the celeb would have to be back at the store to return the video.

Video store managers were like private eyes. They knew when and where the big names would be. “Paul Schrader has to return his copy of Barney’s Great Adventure by 9 p.m. tonight or he’ll face a $3 late fee.”

Too bad there wasn’t a TMZ back then; Bewbs could’ve made a bundle on celebrity spotting tips.

True story: One time Bewbs told me that some pervy old customer had been chatting her up, and he’d given her his card: Glenn Stevens.

Holy shit, the former deputy district attorney who blew the whistle on the McMartin School satanic panic abuse scandal, got prosecutorial immunity, and made a movie with James Woods? THAT Glenn Stevens?

Please don’t stab him, Bewbs. I really want to interview this guy! Keep him alive just long enough for that.

Bewbs and I plotted that I could stake out the store the night Stevens was supposed to return his latest video (yes, the Bobcat Goldthwait talking-horse film). As it was, she always wanted me to hang out at the store with her anyway, because it kept me at knife’s distance. But I treasured those peaceful hours at home when she’d be at work. Yet that night, there I was, waiting for Stevens to show up.

He never did.

I don’t know how much money former L.A. deputy district attorneys make, but I can tell you this: It’s enough to afford a $3 late fee.

So another of Bewbs’ regular customers was Joe Flaherty. To be clear, he never perved on her; he was never anything but a gentleman. But once he found out she was an actress (she never hid that fact, not that she had to—you live in this town long enough you can spot actresses like an Appalachian can spot Ned Beatty’s supple ass), he very helpfully gave her career pointers. And once I found out he was a regular, I told her I’d do anything to meet the guy.

So here’s where the stalking comes in: She informed me when his latest video was due back, and I staked out the store…for five hours, waiting for him. Like an assassin. A tiny Jew assassin. Lee Harvey Oyswald.

When Flaherty showed up to return his video, Bewbs introduced us.

It’s the only time in my life I felt starstruck—I was in the presence of a legend. But he was so down-to-earth, so friendly, I felt at ease.

I didn’t even speak first; Bewbs did. “My fiancé based his entire life on Guy Caballero,” she blurted out.

I nearly lost my concentration because she said “fiancé.” Uh, I’m not sure we agreed on that, babe. Maybe we need a chat.

But I was snapped back to reality when Flaherty replied, laughing hysterically, “You based your life on him? That’s horrifying!”

Now, keep in mind I’m recounting a 22-year-old conversation. I’ve played it over in my mind so many times, though, that I think I still have it accurate (as accurate as any memory can be). I told him, “You created something on a deeper level than other comedic characters. Guy Caballero understands that respect is illusory. Does the violent thug get respect, or fear? And doesn’t fear sow resentment? Maybe the better way to manipulate people is not by puffing yourself out, not via violence or threats of violence, but by playing the cripple. By playing weak while, under the surface, being a viper. Nature makes scary snakes look scary because animals announce themselves. Human snakes don’t. They sneak up on you, and I’ve used that lesson as a guard against snakes and, at times, to be one. And it’s a lesson that’s never let me down.”

Flaherty laughed and nodded, which I really appreciated. He said he’d never known someone to overthink Guy Caballero, and I told him, “I’m not even done yet.”

I explained that Caballero also represents something endearing. Yeah, he was a snake. Yeah, he hated SCTV Network and all the idiots who worked there. But every episode was him trying to make the network succeed. He hated the place, hated everything about it, but he wouldn’t give up on it. Sure, every new scheme would fail. But he could never walk away. It was hell, but it was his hell.

And isn’t that me today? Yeah, I’m a dick. Also yeah, I’m stuck on the political right, and every week I try to pound a little sense into our nuttiest of nuts, and I never succeed. I keep getting banned even as way worse people get championed. But I don’t give up.

I’m still Guy Caballero. I’ve always been Guy Caballero. The faux-crippled snake who, at heart, actually does kinda care, which makes his weekly failures funnier, because what’s funnier than a morally gray character who decides, “Maybe I can actually do good in the world,” and then gets repeatedly kicked in the nuts?

That’s comedy. And Joe Flaherty got it, better than anyone who ever lived. You have to know twenty different cultural touchstones to understand his picture-perfect satire of Thicke of the Night, and again, just like with Caballero, the core of the joke is a man sincerely trying to do something good but failing. And if you get it, it’s the funniest thing ever.

I’ll never forget the night that Joe Flaherty was just trying to return a video but ended up giving me twenty minutes of his time to talk about Guy Caballero.

Joe, God bless you. No one was better.

Okay, next week, back to politics, Elon, and the Holocaust.

Like Guy Caballero, I’m still stuck in hell.

But it’s my hell.


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