Weekly Movie-Making Moments In Film: Joe Frank Theater
The ongoing work of avant-garde monologist Joe Frank….
During the 1980’s while listening to NPR Radio, I came across the incredible surrealist work of monologist Joe Frank. His dark story of angst and misplaced reality quickly fascinated me. His work over the years has been a strong influence on my writing and my visual art. I am very pleased to introduce to you, my readers, to the beautiful work of Joe Frank. – Walter Smith
Joe Frank (born August 19, 1938) is an American radio personality, known best for his often philosophical, humorous, surrealist, and sometimes absurd monologues and radio dramas.
Joe Frank was born Joseph Langermann in August 1938 in Strasbourg, France near the border of Germany to Meier Langermann (then 51) and his wife Friederike (then 27), while in transit from Germany (where they were living, although they were Polish citizens). Being Jewish, his family was fleeing Nazi Germany and moving to New York City, where they arrived on April 12, 1939. Bills to allow the family into the country were passed in the U.S. Congress twice, the first having been vetoed by President Roosevelt. Joe’s father died when he was 5 years old. The next year his mother married Freddy Frank and changed Joe’s last name. In his twenties, Frank studied at Hofstra University in New York and later at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Frank taught English literature at the Dalton School in Manhattan when he became interested in the power of radio.
In 1977 Frank started volunteering at Pacifica Network station WBAI in New York, doing experimental radio involving monologues, improvisational actors, and live music during late night free-form hours. In 1978 he moved to Washington DC to serve as a co-anchor for the weekend edition of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, his first paying radio job.
During this period he wrote, performed in, and produced 18 dramas for NPR Playhouse, which won several awards. His 1982 monologue “Lies” was used as the inspiration for the Martin Scorsese movie After Hours, without permission.(He later settled out of court for a “handsome” settlement.)
In 1986, on the invitation of Ruth Hirschman [Seymour] the general manager of NPR’s Santa Monica affiliate KCRW, Frank moved to Santa Monica, California where he wrote, produced and performed in his own weekly hour-long radio program, “Joe Frank: Work In Progress.”
While at KCRW, Frank received several awards, including a Peabody Award and two Corporation for Public Broadcasting Awards, one for his acclaimed three-part series “Rent-a-Family.” Frank was also a Guggenheim Fellow.
Joe Frank continued to work at KCRW until 2002, and his work evolved, as evidenced by the diverse series he produced: first Work in Progress, then In The Dark, followed by Somewhere Out There, and finally The Other Side.
Frank’s radio programs are often dark and ironic, and employ a dry sense of humor and the sincere delivery of ideas or stories that are patently absurd. Subject matter often includes religion, life’s meaning, death, and Frank’s relationships with women.
Frank’s voice is distinctive, resonant, authoritative, and—because of his occasional voice-over work—often oddly familiar. At the 2003 Third Coast Festival he explained that he was “recording in Dolby and playing back without it—which created Joe’s now familiar intimate and gritty sound.”
Adding to the atmosphere of Frank’s monologues are edited loops of instrumental music from sources as diverse as Miles Davis, Steve Reich, Tangerine Dream, Can, Air and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
The repetitive music and Frank’s dry, announcer-like delivery are sometimes mixed with recorded phone calls with actor/friends such as Larry Block, Debi Mae West and Arthur Miller, broken into “acts” over the course of each hourlong program.
Frank’s series The Other Side included excerpts from Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield’s Dharma talks at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. In an interview on KPFA’s the Morning Show, Kornfield was asked about working with Joe Frank. Kornfield explained that although he had never met or talked to Joe Frank or heard his show, he didn’t mind Frank using the lectures and that many of his meditation students had found Kornfield through the show.
- He can be heard on the song ‘Montok Point’ on William Orbit’s album Strange Cargo Hinterland.
- “The Decline Of Spengler” Stage Play (New Directions 48, New York)
- “A Tour Of The City” Stage Play (Tanam Press, New York) was produced by Theatre Anima at Hangar #9 in the Old Port of Montreal in 1990, and was directed by Jordan Deitcher.
- The Queen of Puerto Rico and Other Stories,, William Morrow and Co, New York, 1993. ISBN 0-688-08765-5 a collection of short stories: Tell me what to do—Fat man—Night—Date—Walter—The queen of Puerto Rico—The decline of Spengler
Since 2002, Frank has performed on stage in Chicago at the Art Institute of Chicago and Steppenwolf Theatre, in San Francisco at the Great American Music Hall and in Los Angeles at the Hammer Museum and Largo at the Coronet, as well as other venues.
In 2003, Joe Frank was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival.
His body of work (over 230 hours) continues to be aired on the Pacifica Radio affiliate station KPFA in Berkeley, California and many NPR stations including WNYC New York, KCRW Santa Monica and WBEZ Chicago. The entire archives, Joe Frank film shorts and other extras, are available by subscription to his web site. Show CDs, downloads, and iPods are also available through his website.
Frank’s new web site launch in August 2010 now includes free daily downloads of stories excerpted from his radio shows.
Frank continues to write new work for the stage and his website, and posts frequently on Facebook.
Inspiration to other artists
Frank’s body of work has inspired a variety of other artists including:
- Ira Glass of This American Life: “Ira Glass worked under Frank as one of his first jobs in public radio, and credits him as his greatest inspiration.”
- David Sedaris, writer
- Troy Schulze, a theater artist in Houston who created the show Jerry’s World (2003) for the Houston, Tx.-based theater group Infernal Bridegroom Productions. Utilizing material from several Frank shows, the piece was deemed “Best Original Show” in Houston that year, by the Houston Press.
- Jeff Crouse, artist and technologist, created Interactive Frank, which uses content from the web to dynamically create a Joe Frank Show. “The user types in a sentence, and Interactive Frank takes over, scouring the web for another sentence that follows a sentence with the last three words. Frank can also find streaming audio to accompany the generated narrative based on a word analysis, and it can read the narrative using an online text-to-speech generator.”
- Filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Mann, David Fincher and Ivan Reitman have optioned or bought stories from Joe Frank’s radio shows.
Voiceover and acting work
Joe Frank has done voice over work for commercials including Zima, and Saturn Corporation. He was the voice of the computer in Galaxy Quest and provides voiceover for:
- “Wild Rescues” on Animal Planet
- “Conspiracies” on A&E
- “Ends of the Earth” on the Learning Channel
- “Hurricane X” on the Discovery channel
- “Sexy Beast” film: narrator on trailer. This trailer was nominated for best film trailer in 2004.
He also had a small acting role in The Game.
- Third Coast International Audio Festival Lifetime Achievement Award
During NPR Playhouse
- Broadcast Media Award
- Radio Program Award from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting
- Gold Award from the International Radio Festival of New York
- Gold Award from the International Radio Festival of New York (second)
- American Nomination to the Prix Italia
- Special Commendation from the Berlin Prix Futura
During Work In Progress
- Major Armstrong Award
- Corporation For Public Broadcasting Program Award
- Peabody Award
- Guggenheim Fellowship for Radio Art