‘Fame is fun,’ says she, ‘but I want to see a little of the fortune’
Until very recently the résumés of John Monteith and Suzanne Rand made for very quick reading. His went something like: out-of-work actor, ex-radical. Hers listed more addresses (nine) in the past six years than jobs. All that was before they teamed up to become the most refreshing young comedy couple since Mike Nichols and Elaine May. (And certainly the hottest since Stiller and Meara decided to try to become Lunt & Fontanne.)
Monteith & Rand first began to land steady work last January in New York nightclubs, culminating with a four-week, $6,000 midsummer stint off-Broadway. Gaga reviews led to an appearance (co-starring with Diana Ross) at President Carter’s $1,000-a-plate birthday fund raiser last month. Along the way came overtures from TV heavies like Norman Lear and Fred Silverman—and a Johnny Carson gig this month. Later this fall they’ll crash the last threshold: Broadway.
“It’s no fluke,” insists the sandy-haired, gap-toothed Rand. “It wasn’t just a case of sitting around and getting high.” She pauses, emits a throaty laugh. “Or was it?” Both 29, they draw a lot of their humor from the drug culture. “We find it easy to write about drugs,” explains Monteith, “the way other people write about bars.” Topic A, though, is men and women (not to mention gays and transsexuals). Offstage Monteith and Rand are lovers but not, as the country song goes, of each other.
In the tradition of Nichols and May (a comparison they eschew but find highly complimentary), they use no props, write their own material and devote a goodly portion of their 90-minute show to improvisation. Audiences have asked the two to imagine themselves in such disparate locales as the White House, the Taj Mahal, the Garden of Eden and, nothing being sacred, Studio 54. “If I were to get in there,” figures Suzanne, “the janitor would try to pick me up.”
It was not so very long ago that Broadway was nothing but a chimera, a well-lit street in another town. Monteith and Rand have survived periods that are more fun to look back on than live through. Take Christmas 1972 in Cambridge, Mass. “We stole a tree,” recalls Suzanne, “used a washing machine as a stand, made stars out of Q-Tips and lived on Swiss Miss.” The big present was a boar bristle toothbrush.
Poverty has been a way of life for both halves of the act, as well as for their paramours. For the past six years Suzanne (née Eckmann) has been living with bass player/restaurant manager Spider Rand and his 8-year-old son, Reuben. She believes in monogamy but not marriage, and as for her use of Spider’s surname, she explains, “It sounded better.” Adds Spider, “It’s handy to have an alias when you’re broke.” Suzanne claims pre-restaurant she used to “wake up and shake her fist at the sky like Scarlett O’Hara and say, ‘As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again.’ ” About his hard times, Monteith cracks, “I wanted to go into armed robbery, but didn’t have the props.” Last month he set up housekeeping with his lady of two and a half years, struggling songstress Linda Langford.
The comics met in 1972 when Monteith was a long-haired, bearded revolutionary (“I looked like Grizzly Adams”) skipping performances at the Proposition in Cambridge to stage demonstrations. “Right away she knew I was cool,” he remembers. “And my first impression was, ‘Hey, here’s a foxy chick.’ On second thought, I didn’t use the word ‘foxy.’ I was too enlightened.” Four years later, when she got an offer to open (for $100 a night) for Lang-ford’s jazz/rock group, Jade and Sarsaparilla, on Cape Cod, Suzanne immediately recruited John. The act was thrown together in three days. They knew that they had meshed only the following summer when they were fired. Huh? The crowds were so attentive they weren’t buying enough drinks. “Also,” adds John, “most of them got high before they came in.”
Suzanne credits her father, who once sold circus tents, with developing her sense of humor. She began in showbiz as a torch singer in Waukegan, Ill. and, after majoring in theater at Missouri’s Stephens College, performed with Chicago’s Second City until meeting Monteith. He had been raised outside of Philadelphia, which was “just like growing up anywhere else except not as nice,” and wanted to be a song-and-dance man. As a theater major at Boston U, however, he was encouraged to be more serious.
Monteith and Rand are all-night people, seldom rising before noon and leaving the details of everyday existence to their respective live-ins. “We like to think it’s our overriding artistic natures,” ventures John. “Actually, we’re just lazy.” When the Broadway dough starts rolling in, Rand plans to “be like the good fairy and get things for people who have always been nice to me.” A longtime pinball freak, she hopes to treat herself to a rare and wonderful “Paul Bunyan” machine. For Monteith, the first splurge will be a tropical getaway. “We have no idea where all this will lead,” says Suzanne, “but it sure is a trip finding out.”