SF Sketchfest: Blown seal and ‘Wheels Off’ with Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s

Old 97's

Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s performs at The Fillmore in San Francisco on March 24, 2017. Photo: Alessio Neri.

Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller may be a master storyteller. Just don’t ask him to tell jokes. That might make his appearance at SF Sketchfest comedy festival Sunday seem like a bit of a head-scratcher. Miller will perform his acoustic variety show, “Wheels Off,” with a few friends from the comedy and performance arts worlds.

SF Sketchfest: Wheels Off! with Rhett Miller and friends
10 p.m., Sunday
Swedish American Hall
Tickets: $45 (including fees). Partially seated shows. Come early to get a seat.

Chatting on the phone, the 48-year-old Miller instantly remembers the worst joke he’s ever told, which took place, as clear as day to him, on the day Michael Jackson died, when the Old 97’s were playing a beach show in Delaware. The windup begins with Miller explaining that:

Even though he’s more than three years sober, he didn’t used to be.

That a couple of the men in his indie rock and alt-country band are marijuana aficionados.

That this particular concert had casual bar-hoppers rather than diehard fans.

That he’d just met now-close friend Lonny Ross, of 30 Rock fame, earlier that day and really wanted to impress him.

“I don’t know if Michael Jackson’s death precipitated it, but everybody in our band ate way too many brownies the day of the show,” Miller winds up. “So we go on stage that night, and we’re all just out of our minds.”

Here, he clarifies: Old 97’s may sing songs about being wasted, but they don’t go up on stage wasted. They wouldn’t have been able to have successful careers for 25 years if they did. But on this day, they do. Comedic man-crush Lonny Ross is in the audience when guitarist Ken Bethea, who uses a complicated pedal rig, loses track of what’s happening with his pedals. The concert comes to a screeching halt.

“So I decide, ‘Oh, I’ll tell a joke to fill the gap,’” Miller says, matter-of-factly. “There’s an old joke about a penguin that’s driving down the road in a sports car, and all of a sudden smoke starts to pour out from under the hood. The penguin is eating an ice cream sandwich. … He calls AAA.

“The joke that I’m telling you should take about this long—30 seconds,” Miller explains. “I’m telling it on stage, and it’s running like five, seven minutes long. I’m really drawing it out.

“So the AAA guy shows up, finally, looks under the hood, and he tells the penguin, the way I tell the joke that night, ‘Oh, it looks like you blew a gasket.’

“And it’s really quiet, and my friend Lonny yells out, ‘It’s a seal, dummy!’

“The joke is, ‘You blew a seal,’ and the penguin says, ‘No, it’s the ice cream sandwich.’

“I’m so far from being able to tell a joke in real life—forget about that day, which was my most ‘wheels off’ day.”

The Sketchfest performance is one of the many things Rhett Miller has been up to in recent months. He’s also juggled an Old 97’s Christmas album, a personal, inward-looking solo album (that talked in-depth about his suicide attempt as a 14-year-old), a forthcoming children’s poetry compilation and a novel-in-progress.

“Wheels Off” is named for a song on Old 97’s 2014 album, Most Messed Up.

“It’s a phrase that my friends in Dallas and I have used for years to reference that feeling when you’re out of control,” he says.

He’s uses the name to describe his solo performances that feature lots of special guests. He’s performed the show at Sketchfest, as well as at Largo in Los Angeles. It could include a comedy act, or even actors or playwrights reading from a script. At Sketchfest this year, comedian Dave Hill (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Inside Amy Schumer) and writer-comedian Ben Acker (Thrilling Adventure Hour) will be making appearances, among others. Acker will read some short written monologues.

All of the “friends” making appearances are actual friends Miller has picked up over the last 15 years, many of them from his days of playing at Largo (Elliott Smith was a regular), a hub for musicians and other artists.

“One reason I love music is it’s so collaborative, and the world of music and musicians is such a friendly world,” he says. “I found that comedy is kind of the same thing. Maybe it’s easier for me because I’m not a comedian. … There’s just something really open about the world of comedy and writers, and the way it intersects with musicians is a really marvelous thing, which is why I think my show ends up working pretty well.”

Rhett Miller, Old 97's

Rhett Miller performs at Slim’s in San Francisco on March 23, 2018. Photo: Joaquin Cabello.

His penchant for comedic storytelling notwithstanding (his comedic timing is spot-on, if you’re wondering), Rhett Miller is a true storyteller at heart. That’s why he’s constantly busy creating. And his next project is the children’s poetry complication No More Poems.

The project stemmed from Miller trying to capture the attention of his children, 12 and 15 years old.

“Over the last number of years, they’ve never thought that I what I do is really impressive,” he says. “If they have a request, it’s like, ‘Oh, dad, please be quiet.’”

It’s especially difficult because Miller spends so much time on the road. Even with the magic of Skype and FaceTime, he was having a hard time reaching his children when Old 97’s were on tour.

But they have been able to connect over their shared interest for the stories of Shel Silverstein, Edward Gorey and Roald Dahl. They would read together and then dissect the various parts of the stories, trying to determine what was happening beneath the surface.

Eventually, Miller started writing his own poems in the same style when he was on the road, and then call his kids to ask for opinions and critiques.

“Any time they have to criticize something I’ve done, they’re all over that,” he says. “I would read them these poems, the first drafts, and they would have a lot to say about them—really helpful stuff. Because they were trying super hard not to hold back, they would pick flaws with what I’d done in my first draft, and they really helped make the poems a lot better.”

Before, he didn’t think that poems had the same connective currency as songs, which he compares as self-driving cars that could take care of themselves after he released them. But after seeing the way his children reacted to them, he was inspired to show them to some friends.

“In order to share them, I had to group them together in what suddenly looked like a poetry collection, or a book, even,” he says.

His original goal was to connect with his kids, and he had no idea that he would release them publicly. Once he had 30 finished poems, his longtime literary agent convinced him to shop them around to publishers. That’s how he found himself signed to Little, Brown.

“I was in San Francisco the day I got the call … I was staying in Berkeley with my family at Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman’s home,” he says. “I thought, ‘How auspicious is this?’

The publisher found California illustrator Dan Santat, a Caldecott medal winner, to illustrate the poems.

The characters in the poems were inspired by his children, but less kind and less sweet versions. Miller started enjoying playing with the reliability of his poems’ narrators. No More Poems, which will be released in March, is more complicated and subversive than traditional children’s poetry, he says.

His publisher even had him tone down some violence on a couple of the poems.

One of those is called “How to Play Baseball.” The story, told by an outfielder on the team, is about the pitcher, whose dad is the coach.

“He’s one of those coaches who yells at the team,” Miller says. “The whole time he’s angry. At the end of the [original] poem, the pitcher throws a pitch at his dad’s face, and … it’s like a fastball that goes right between the dad’s eyes.”

It turned out the publisher’s library division had some concerns about the violence and asked him to scale it back.

Another poem he was asked to remove from the book altogether, but he plans to release as a literary version of a B-side. The poem, titled “The Way That I Am,” is told from the perspective of a narrator recounting everything about himself he finds unattractive:

“One of my toes is shaped like a shrimp/ That’s why I never wear sandals/ I always wear shirts when I go to the beach/ Because of my jiggly love handles.”

But because the character isn’t your typical narrator, there’s a bait and switch at the end: “If I could find someone who would see past these things, I’d probably tell them to scram/ I don’t want anyone desperate enough to love me the way that I am.”

“You don’t expect him to be a jerk, but like a lot of the narrators in my poems, he’s either unreliable, or just kind of unlikeable,” Miller says. “I find that kids like these poems that are about these narrators that aren’t nice or likeable because they’re able to separate themselves from it and say, ‘I can see what about this guy is distasteful. I’m not like that.’ I think that’s pretty cool.”

Rhett Miller, Old 97's

Rhett Miller performs at Slim’s in San Francisco on March 23, 2018. Photo: Joaquin Cabello.

It’s a safe bet that an unreliable character might make an appearance in Rhett Miller’s next literary work, a debut pulp thriller set in the early aughts music industry. Miller is about 200 pages into his first draft, for which he’s giving himself permission to be flawed.

The story takes place at a time when the music industry was on the brink of collapse (think Napster). It’s Miller’s attempt to write about what he knows and fix what he sees as the incorrect way the industry has been portrayed in film over the years.

“I thought I could do a good job of giving it a more accurate portrayal, which is a lot less glamorizing and a lot more normalizing,” he said.

He’s an avowed fan of genre fiction like mysteries and crime thrillers—the type of novels that would never get confused for the Great American Novel.

“I’ve always felt embarrassed about that, but over the years I’ve realized that the differentiation between genre fiction and literary fiction is kind of baloney.”

Miller describes the book as a cross between the writing of Nick Hornby and Elmore Leonard, the latter of whom he ended up corresponding with by mail after he name-checked Leonard in an Old 97’s song, only to discover that Leonard’s daughter was an Old 97’s fan.

“Those [letters] are my most cherished possession,” he says.

Old 97's

Old 97’s perform at The Fillmore in San Francisco on March 24, 2017. Photo: Alessio Neri.

As Rhett Miller continues to work on this novel, he’s also thinking ahead to the next proper Old 97’s album, the follow-up to 2017’s Graveyard Whistling. It will likely be fall by the time he, Bethea, bassist Murry Hammond and drummer Philip Peeples make it back to the studio (with a planned 2020 release), but songwriting is already in progress.

“I’ve really just started thinking about the stack of songs that I’m going to bring to the band,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of ideas about different people we would like to work with as far as producers, and places we’d like to go.

“As we’ve gotten older, there’s less of the impatience that I felt as a young artist. I’m willing to let things breathe and not fear that my career will be cancelled. I won’t get a phone call saying that it’s all over.”

Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter

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