Monday, June 19, 2023

Hot Hero Sandwich — Off-Script with Writer Andy Breckman

by G. Jack Urso 

I was a bit nervous waiting to hear back from Andy Breckman about whether he would be interested in answering some questions for the Hot Hero Sandwich Project. Creator, executive producer, and writer for Monk, and writer for David Letterman, Saturday Night Live, TV Funhouse, Rat Race, etc., Breckman’s credentials speak for himself. While I could interview him for hours on his career, I was actually only interested in one thing he did at the very start of his career that was cancelled after eleven episodes. No matter what field we work in, usually, these are things we like to forget.

Being outside the industry, I sometimes have to try a hit-or-miss approach to contacting individuals from the show. Andy proved elusive and all of my attempts went nowhere. In these circumstances, however, as with everyone I contact in regards to the series, I was worried if he thought I was invading his privacy. I had just about given up, but a little creative research paid off. As with my other emails, I thought this one disappeared into the electronic aether, but about a half-hour later, I got a response:

"Hey Jack — Hope you're groovy — Sure, I'd love to help”

Soon, we were talking on the phone, though at first Andy was interviewing me. His interest in who I was, what the project was about, and what his fellow Hot Hero alumni were up to immediately put me at ease. He was serious about Hot Hero Sandwich and seemed to appreciate we shared the same motivation, to bring more attention to this innovative TV show which played an important part in his career, earning him an Emmy with his first professional TV writing job.

(Left to right) HHS Film Editor/Assoc. Producer Patrick McMahon,
Andy Breckman as the Puberty Fairy, and fellow writer Sherry Coben.
Andy Breckman as the Puberty Fairy (created for Andy by fellow series writer Sherry Coben) is one of the most bizarre and surrealistic elements of Hot Hero Sandwich, including the tormented poor Stanley Dipstyck. A manifestation of the Freudian id, the Puberty Fairy anthropomorphizes the primitive and instinctual side of the hormonally-driven adolescent brain. Rather than a snarky deus ex machina plot device, the Puberty Fairy is almost like a tour guide for kids for the series — sort of a not-so-decent docent giving us a wink and a nod not to take ourselves too seriously.

While the conversation had its humorous moments, and he immediately put me at ease, Andy is thoughtful in his responses, takes his work seriously, and shared an insider’s look at the series, Bruce and Carole Hart, how he got started, and lessons learned for the next generation.

The Puberty Fairy Cometh

Ae13U: What were you up to just before Hot Hero Sandwich?

Andy Breckman: I was living in New York City in the East Village. I was performing funny, original songs in the style of . . . I was hoping Randy Newman. [Later chosen to do the theme music for Monk]

On March, 28, 1979, a writer for Variety magazine named Fred Kirby wrote a review of me. He came to see me and wrote a positive review of me in Variety. They used to have a column called, “New Acts,” and also around the same time I secured my first manager, Herb Gart. Anyway, that review was published and then a very short time later Bruce and Carole Hart, and maybe their manager . . . what was his name?

Ae13U: Larry Weiss. [Note: Scott Shukat and Larry Weiss were both managers for the Harts and many others – including Alan Mencken and Marvin Hamlisch, to name a few.]
circa 1979/1980      
Andy Breckman: Right. They probably reached out to the club . . . Folk City [a legendary music club in the West Village from 1960-1987] . . . I’m friends with the owner, or they might have reached out to my manager, and they asked if they could come and see me play . . . they wanted to see me so I did an audition of it — I have no memory of it or what I did — and then they must have invited me to their apartment. They had a big apartment.

[Note: According to Sherry Coben, “The Hart’s apartment was a two bedroom penthouse in a pre-war building on West 86th Street; it seemed especially large to those of us just starting out and struggling to afford any place at all in the city. Elevator, doorman, north and south facing views, high ceilings, a piano in the dining room, a fireplace in the living room, floor to ceiling windows leading to a terrace, enough room to invite fancy friends over and entertain which they did frequently. That whole generation of show business professionals who lived on the Upper West Side had apartments later arrivals could only dream of. New York Real Estate was not welcoming to newcomers in the 1970’s and beyond. We were all shuttled into neighborhoods and apartments that were dicey at best – unsafe and decidedly unimpressive.”]

Andy Breckman, Herb Gart Management PR photo.

Ae13U: Yes, Michael Longfield [Hot Hero cast member] talks about it. He said it was pretty impressive.

Andy Breckman: Yeah, I remember it being pretty impressive. They invited me up. All I remember about that meeting was they told me about their plan for the show . . . they already done Free to be You and Me [the groundbreaking children’s TV special produced by the Harts with Marlo Thomas as executive producer].  I'm sure they talked about that, but one memory I have from that meeting is they offered me a job as a singer-songwriter and a songwriter on the show. Of course, you can imagine I was thrilled at that. I said, “Don't worry about money, anything you offer will be fine with me.”

I remember Bruce Hart laughing, saying, “Andy, don't ever say that. Let me give you some career advice.”

Behind-the-Scene photo of Breckman, Adam Ross, and the Hot Hero Band
performing “Tommy Two” (photo courtesy Sherry Coben).

And then I was hired for the show and at some point, maybe through my manager, or maybe I had the chutzpah when I met them, but at some point, I said I'd also like to be in the writers’ room writing sketches because comedy writing was very important to me. I spent my childhood deconstructing comedy and studying comedy and trying to write comedy. I guess Saturday Night Live was already a big thing and I knew that I could do that. I was a fan of Saturday Night Live and I thought that was in my wheelhouse, so I asked if I could also be in the writers’ room. 
I don't remember if I had to audition for that or send them examples . . . but they hired me in the writers’ room as well. So, I was doing double duty.  I was writing those little thoughts. I think the deal was I wrote a song every other show. I must have written five songs. That's how this all came together.

Ae13U: That sounds like it was in April. Maybe you started on the show in May. Filming started in June. That didn’t give you a lot of time to get your act together, so to speak.

Andy Breckman: I have no memory of that. I’m sure you’re right. I'll tell you a couple of memories I do have [from the start of the series]. I was scheduled to appear in the show, singing a song, in the first episode and at the last minute they edited me out of the first episode. And then, I remember I came to work a couple days later after the episode aired, and Bruce and Carole called me into their office. They were very amused. They received three or four letters from New Jersey and Philadelphia . . . and all these people said basically the same thing, how they enjoyed the show, and they particularly enjoyed Andy Breckman. I was not in the show, and I realized very quickly that my mother, when she heard I was scheduled to before the show aired, she wrote and posted three or four fan letters.

Ae13U: [Laughter] Too funny! There’s nothing like a mother’s love. 

Andy Breckman promotional notice circa 1979. Note reference to, “one delightful ditty about a man who is either a mass murderer or just clumsy.”

In the Writers’ Room

Ae13U: You mentioned other memories?

Andy Breckman: I was doing double duty in the writers’ room, of course I remember Sherry [Coben] — who was adorable — and then I also remember there was a writer named David Axlerod. I believe he has passed.

Ae13U: That is correct.

Andy Breckman: David Axlerod, I admired him. He had movie credits. He was like the veteran writer. He was like the Dostoyevsky of the writers’ group. He was the guy with all the experience, you know. I was very impressed with him. Making him laugh . . .  I did make him laugh really hard once, and that meant a lot to me. 

[Note: David Axlerod had a long career prior to Hot Hero Sandwich, writing for Captain Kangaroo, Alan King, Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, Dean Martin, Howard Cosell, and Mary Tyler Moore’s 1979 series co-starring David Letterman and Michael Keaton. Axlerod passed away Dec. 13, 2021.]

Behind-the-Scene photo of Breckman and the Persuasions singing
"Everything Will Be OK [Puberty]." (photo courtesy Sherry Coben).

I also remember [writer] Marianne Meyer . . .  she was the youngest . . .she was a big Bruce Springsteen fan and I ended up going to a Bruce Springsteen concert with in her . . .  she was a big rock and roll fan . . . I have a copy of that book. [Note: Meyer wrote a biography of Bruce Springsteen in 1984] 

Ae13U: OK, now let’s turn to the Puberty Fairy. Apart from your musical performances, that seems to be your signature role on the series.

Andy Breckman: Yes, the Puberty Fairy made me the household name that I am today . . .

Ae13U: [laughter] How did you end up playing the Puberty Fairy? Sherry Coben said she wrote the Puberty Fairy expressly for you, but [actor] Michael Longfield also recalls an early session where some recurring rolls were being assigned, such as Michael as “Tapedeck” and Paul O‘Keefe as “Stanley Dipstyck,” and when it came time for who would play the Puberty Fairy everybody shouted in unison, “ANDY BRECKMAN!” Maybe the truth is somewhere between the two . . . can you help put this part of the puzzle together?

Andy Breckman: 
Well, I remember it was a Sherry Coben creation. My recollection is that she always thought I would be playing the Puberty Fairy, but maybe it had to be ratified and confirmed by the group.

[Note: Coben confirmed The Puberty Fairy was written specifically for Andy Breckman.]

I was an early adopter of VHS technology and I had a VHS player and I didn’t tape entire shows. I taped some, but not all, of my sketches and songs . . . and I did have those digitized. I remember three sketches I wrote. One when the Black family realizes they’re Black.

Breckman’s ”Black Family Epiphany” Sketch.

Ae13U: Yes, in episode 5. I wonder if a young Dave Chappelle ever saw that one!

Andy Breckman: It just never occurred to them they had any [skin] pigmentation. And then there was one with the Hartford Insurance guy . . .

Ae13U: Matt McCoy.

Andy Breckman: Matt McCoy played a son at the dinner table who was stoned . . .

Ae13U: Yes, the “Marijuana Sketch” in episode 11! That’s one of the sketches I remember after all these years. It almost figures you were the one to write that.

Andy Breckman: I have that digitized, and one or two more.

Breckman’s Marijuana Sketch for Hot Hero sandwich.

Ae13U: What I liked about the “Marijuana Sketch,” and I touched on this in my interview with Marianne Meyer because she brought it up as well  yes, the sketch is about teens smoking weed, but the subtext about how the parents thought the child who was smoking pot could do no wrong but criticized their other kids who weren’t was, and remains, something a lot of kids can relate to, even if marijuana was not involved.

The Andy Beckman Songbook

Ae13U: Michael Longfield also noted in his interview with me that you appeared in the 1979 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as part of something to do with Hot Hero Sandwich. Is this true?

Andy Breckman: I think NBC, which aired the parade, gave Bruce and Carole Hart two and half minutes of time in the parade to promote the show and the Harts thought that I should sing a song in the parade. I do have a copy of that as well.

Ae13U: You do! Well, you’re going to have to share that!

[Note: And he did! See Breckman perform his original song, “I’m Thankful,” below. In typical NBC fashion, however, they fail to actually name the series Beckman appears in during their “promotion” of the show.]

Andy Breckman performing for the 1979 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Andy Breckman: I remember saying to my then-girlfriend, soon my wife, Mary, the morning, or the day before, I remember saying . . .  “Honey, this is going to change our lives. This is going to change everything.  I'll don’t think I’ll be able to walk down the street, you know, anymore. I’m just going to become so fucking famous.” That was my prediction. Of course, it changed nothing.

Ae13U: Two songs of yours, “Tommy Two” (episode 4) and “My Friend Bernie” (episode 6), both funny and enjoyable “ear worm” songs, but underneath both there is a bit of sadness. “Tommy Two” is about a lonely boy who builds a robot friend and “My Friend Bernie” is about a boy who plays hide-and-seek but is never found. I have to wonder, without getting psychological, was any of that based upon your own experiences as child?

See the “Tommy Two” article for notes and lyrics.

Andy Breckman: I had a very stable and traditional suburban childhood, suburban New Jersey, but I was always an outlier — you know, socially. I was a reader. I was reading mystery stories. You know, I wasn’t a party-goer. I didn't drink or get high. So, I was straight-edge. It might have been inspired by a feeling.

Ae13U: I was something of an outlier myself. In retrospect, it gave me the chance to observe others and later write about what I saw, so I kind of zeroed in on that aspect of the songs. Getting back to the show, were there any other experiences you look back at fondly? I’m guessing the writers’ room was probably a big part of that.

See the “My Friend Bernie” article for notes and lyrics.

Andy Breckman: Well, I wasn't kidding when I said my memory is notoriously awful. I really have a neurological disorder of some kind. I’ve always had it, because of that I don't remember faces or names very well.

Ae13U: Well, the distance of 43 years doesn’t help much either, but you shared a lot today, so no complaints! Let’s turn to another aspect of the Hot Hero Sandwich Project, and that is lessons learned for the next generation of performers. I see you as sort of a “triple threat.” You can sing, write, play an instrument, so it seems as though one of the things you might suggest would be having a multiple skill set, you know, not just being a one-trick pony.

Andy Breckman: Well, I have five kids, and my two youngest are interested in the business, and I try to tell them that performing is a very smart way to move your career forward . . . because people don't want to read your stuff. It's very hard to get people to read something, but if you're performing something . . . something that you wrote . . . that could really have a lot of exposure, especially these days on social media. So, that strategy apparently worked for me.

You know, I’m not naturally musical, in fact I’m tone deaf. So, what I was doing performing was beyond me, I don’t know how that happened. I remember having a very difficult time finding the right key with the Persuasions [see below]. I remember being very anxious on stage trying to get that song going. They were very, very patient.

Breckman as the Puberty Fairy with the Persuasions.

Back in 1979, 1980, I was hired because I was performing my stuff and everything, everything good came out of that — everything good in my life and my career came out of me performing my own stuff. So, that would be my advice. If that’s an option you have, if that’s a skill set you possess, I would lean into performing as well as writing.

My other advice to young people is to be as lucky as you can possibly be. Just be very lucky

Ae13U: That is something I picked up on in my interviews with your fellow writer Marianne Meyer, and actors Michael Longfield and Jarett Smithwrick. Yes, you’ve got to have talent, you have to work at your craft, but there is also this element of luck that is as important a component, if not more so, than talent and skill. Though in one sense, one can improve their luck by going where the industry is, like New York or L.A., or now by getting on social media no matter where you are to heighten your profile.

Mudd Management Corp. publicity notice for Andy Breckman, circa 1982. Note reference to the Harts commissioning Breckman to write an Off-Broadway play about himself. 

Concluding Thoughts

I’m not sure what a second season of Hot Hero Sandwich would have held for Andy Breckman, but I can certainly see his songs, like Tommy Two” and “My Friend Bernie,” getting Jerry Lieberman’s psychedelic touch. In fact, setting Lieberman’s animation to a song was already established in several episodes such as “Yakety Yak" by the Coasters, and “Stork Deliveries” set to "Rollin' Rig" by Dave Dudley. Not only are they perfect subjects for animation, but it would also save the show expensive royalty fees.

Frankly, I don’t think Andy is quite done yet with some of his songs. Given the rise of the Internet, affordable high-powered computers, robotics, and artificial intelligence, I think a “Tommy 2.0” might be timely. Also, wouldn’t it be nice for Bernie to find his way back home after all these years? Like a visitor from the past, I wonder what Bernie would think of the world today? He may well wish to go back into hiding, and, frankly, I might join him.

One thing that continually surprises me about Hot Hero Sandwich is the effect it had on the fans. Despite the show only lasting eleven episodes and never having seen a DVD release, and sustained by only four or five clips of the show, we remembered the sketches and songs. Almost immediately after posting my original article on Hot Hero Sandwich in 2020 (Hot Hero Sandwich: The Late 70s TV Teen Scene), I got an inquiry about the last song Andy performed, and the last song of the series, “Here We Come and There We Go.” Then again, when I started the YouTube channel Hot Hero Sandwich Central, one of the first comments was when I was going to post that song.

Now consider, due to preemptions, Episode 11 was only seen in four or five markets, and there has been no DVD release, nor has the song ever been released in any capacity, it is a singularly remarkable achievement in songwriting.

Breckman with the Hot Hero Band singing, “Here We Come and There We Go.”

Andy won a well-deserved Emmy for his writing on Hot Hero Sandwich, but despite his long and successful career, or maybe because of it, his sense of humor has a self-deprecating quality to it. 

Along that line, just after posting the clip of Andy at the 1979 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, it received two very positive comments from viewers asking, not for more Andy Breckman songs, but if I had any more footage of the 1979 parade.

It was almost as if Andy wrote it himself as a sketch for Hot Hero Sandwich.
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  1. Thanks to Andy Breckman for his inspiring songs and sketches for us kids - when we entering the "puberty" zone - and for us older kids now as we look back on our lives. Love the show. Thanks to G. Jack Urso for a great interview and insight. HHS has a special place, I believe, in a lot of peoples' lives.

  2. Love the bands participating with HHS performers and artists as well as the kids in the audience.

  3. Andy's "Black Epiphany" sketch reminds me of the man who, when asked by someone what needs to be done to stop racism, said, "You stop calling me Black, and I'll stop calling you White."