Comic Rich Hall's Gags Are the Driving Force Behind Not Necessarily the News
Ever wonder if there was a word for the funny wrinkles that appear on your hands when you’ve stayed in the bathtub too long? Try “grackles.” Or what to call that annoying strand of cheese that stretches from a slice of pizza to your mouth? That’s a “stroodle.”
These and hundreds of other sniglets, newly coined words which will never appear in any self-respecting dictionary, are the inventions of Rich Hall, 29, the only writer-performer in the ensemble cast of Not Necessarily the News, the monthly HBO comedy series. Since its debut last January, NNTN has distinguished itself from other TV-news send-ups with wickedly edited film footage of newsmakers, sight gags and Hall’s silly sniglets. Although NNTN is not radically different from SCTV or Saturday Night Live, it offers a faster pace and a sprinkling of four-letter words. Viewers, who obviously approve of the show’s new language, have already sent in some 3,000 sniglets of their own (most of them, say the show’s producers, are too gross even for cable TV).
Hall fancies himself as the Everyman of the boob-tube comics. “I try to do humor in which you don’t have to be a young hipster or an old ethnic to get the joke,” he says. But observes NNTN producer John Moffitt, “Rich lives in the same world as we all do, but he has an eye for the goofy that most of us don’t have.” In one NNTN film sequence written by Hall, Speaker Tip O’Neill—through cleverly edited news footage—appears to supervise a takeout pizza order by the House of Representatives. And inevitably, on NNTN, President Reagan looks ridiculous in the edited tapes of his White House briefings. “Mixing film footage with our own in-studio sketches emphasizes the bizarre showbiz nature of politics in this country,” says Hall.
Comedian Hall comes from a completely unbizarre background. Born in rural Waxhaw, N.C., the son of a welder, Rich had “a nice, normal upbringing, with lots of affection.” But, as an only child, he learned to entertain himself at an early age. An avid outdoors-man, he transferred in 1975 from Western Carolina University to the more scenic Western Washington State College. “The campus was the last bastion of hippiedom, with lots of people named ‘Sunshine,’ ” Hall recalls. “I used to watch the street performers harangue the crowds and involve them.” After graduating with a degree in creative writing, Hall took up street performing himself. He traveled to college towns around the country and landed in New York, passing the hat at Lincoln Center. He moved his act indoors at the Improvisation comedy club and found a receptive audience, including David Letterman. Rich became a regular on Letterman’s 1980 daytime talk show, which won Hall a writing Emmy but not an audience.
About a year later Hall was hired to do regular guest shots on Fridays, ABC’s answer to Saturday Night Live. John Moffitt, who produced Fridays, snagged Rich for NNTN when HBO decided to create its first comedy series. “Cable is a relief from the prime-time mentality, where you spend most of your time dealing with censors,” says Hall. Rich hasn’t, however, completely forsaken network TV. He has appeared on The Tonight Show a half dozen times, with such bits as a folding chair that he plays like an accordion.
Much of Hall’s funny business is created in a one-room office apartment in the funky beachside community of Venice, Calif. He has no girlfriend and jokingly describes most Los Angeles women as the kind who say, “I’ve just had my third divorce. Let me have my nervous breakdown in your living room.” The kind of woman he’s looking for? “She has a Ph.D. in literature, knows the Dodgers’ lineup, looks like a Playboy foldout and can overhaul an engine,” he says.
Lacking such ideal companionship, Hall spends most of his time creating sketches for NNTN, which he hopes will go biweekly. “My life revolves around work,” confesses Rich. His idea of a vacation is a comedy club gig in a city he has never visited before. But, says Hall, “I can find lots of ways to amuse myself.” Anybody who can look at the crust on a ketchup bottle and see “flen” can find amusement anywhere.