Live from Keystone – it’s Kevin Nealon
December 29, 2003
KEYSTONE – And now, it’s time for the Weekend Update News.
Kevin Nealon – a.k.a. Hanz, the Austrian bodybuilder on Saturday Night Live (SNL) –wants to “pump you up” on New Year’s Eve.
Though he won’t appear with cohort Dana Carvey (who portrayed the equally well-built Franz in their SNL skit), Nealon will headline after comedian and star of Animal Planet’s “Emergency Vets” Kevin Fitzgerald and Muddy Waters’ son, Big Bill Morganfield take the stage at “The Last Soiree” Wednesday at Keystone Conference Center.
From 1986-95, Nealon anchored the Weekend Update News and played characters on SNL like Mr. Subliminal, who said the politically correct thing then busted out his real thoughts.
The nine seasons he spent on the show gave him the distinction of being one of the longest players on SNL, along with actor Tim Meadows.
He first scored a spot on SNL when his friend, Carvey, recommended him for the show.
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Before that, he had never done character skits, but his dry wit and friendly demeanor set him apart early in his career.
After moving to Los Angeles from his hometown in Connecticut and pursuing what he calls “a career in part-time jobs” and stand-up gigs, he landed a spot on the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” in 1984.
His routine amuzed Carson, leading the host to pass over his final guest that night and feature Nealon instead.
The attention affirmed Nealon made the right decision as a teenager when he chose between being a musician– his original dream – and being a comedian.
“Being a musician didn’t seem as accessible as comedy,” Nealon said. “I was too afraid to sing in front of people. It seemed too personal, and telling jokes seemed like more of a façade. I didn’t have to show people who I really was.”
He grew up in a family who loved joking around, so it came naturally.
“We were all clowns,” he said. “My brothers, my father – we were the worst at restaurants. You’ve never seen a table of more corniness.”
Early in his career, Nealon incorporated the zaniness of Steve Martin, Andy Coffman and Albert Brooks into his routine. He further developed his comedy by working with some of his heroes who appeared on SNL, such as Bill Murry, Tom Hanks and Glen Close.
“It was exciting, having a live show and working with different people every week,” he said about his years on SNL. “We were a big family. I hadn’t done characters or skits, so I had to change gears from stand-up.”
In 1998, he was nominated for an Emmy Award as part of the SNL writing team.
These days, Nealon treats audiences to a potpourri of absurdity. He plays some of his favorite SNL characters people can relate to and spools out crazy observations on everyday life.
And, his comedy helps him with everyday life.
“When you’re depressed, you can think of how fun it is to get on stage,” he said. “Comedy is a great escape. It lets you step away, and you don’t have to think about it. Once you step off the stage, you’re in your own dark, dismal world.”
Nealon will spend about a week in Summit County skiing, so if you see a 6-foot, 4-inch man who’s frantically looking to rent a size 15 ski boot, help him out.
Blues in the blood
Muddy Waters always wanted one of his children to follow in his footsteps and play the blues. But his wish didn’t come true until he died.
A few years after Muddy Waters died in 1983, his son, “Big” Bill Morganfield bought a guitar and started playing. As a kid, Morganfield had fiddled around with the guitar, but he never took lessons.
“In my mind, I said, “I want to do a tribute to him,'” Morganfield said. “(His death) gave me such an empty feeling, like someone had pulled the bones out of my body, like something was missing. I never sat down and asked all the questions I had for him. Now I feel like I get a chance to talk to him through my music.”
You might think Muddy Water’s son would have had plenty of blues masters to learn from, but that wasn’t the case. He spent six years alone, teaching himself to play the blues by listening to old records.
“I would go to New Orleans, sit around the Mississippi River, (then I realized) ain’t no one going to teach me this or that,” he said. “It wasn’t like that movie “Crossroads’ with the Karate Kid –going out and hanging with the old blues players. With me, it was pulling out those old records and images. I was there and trying to see what they were doing, just like my daddy. He was self taught. But he went to juke joints, sat in the front row and watched players like Robert Johnson. I didn’t have that experience. Mine was an urban experience.”
Morganfield’s first contemporary blues band lasted three months before he decided his level of musicianship wasn’t high enough. So, he retreated back to his room to methodically study, rip apart and reconstruct songs to perfect his guitar playing. In the meantime, he taught English.
He cut his debut recording, “Rising Son,” in 1999 in Chicago with three former members of the Muddy Waters Blues Band.
“My dream was to put a record out in memory of him,” he said. “It took me a little longer to get myself together. (When we recorded), it was almost like having him there. I felt what I heard all those years behind me. I felt his spirit.”
A year later, he won the W.C. Handy Award for best new blues artist, the blues equivalent of a Grammy Award.
In 2001, he teamed up with Taj Mahal on two tracks and released “Ramblin’ Mind.”
His latest album, “Blues in the Blood,” features his slide guitar and distinctive, window-rattling voice. It showcases him as a songwriter –he wrote them all, except for one Muddy Waters cover.
He continues to develop his craft, not to live up to his father’s reputation, but to create his own style, which Muddy Waters influenced.
“It’s a journey,” he said. “It’s almost like trying to be a doctor. There’s intense training about all kinds of things. It takes them a long time before they get it, and even after the classroom study and internship, they still have a lot to learn.”
Along with the challenge of developing musically comes the challenge of supporting himself through music.
“My siblings were smarter than I was,” he said. “They got real jobs. I’m the little ambitious one. I call it a chance taken. To tell you the truth, it’s not easy. It’s a challenge trying to justify staying with it. My goal is to make a living at it.”
A more difficult goal these days, when singing the blues doesn’t promise much in the way of fame.
“It’s tough, and especially now,” he said. “It’s tougher than it’s been. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the blues. How many great blues players are we missing because they refuse to come in because they’re not going to make any money? Then it puts a strain on it because what you have going on in the music is you have a lot of mediocrity.”
Despite the future of the blues, Morganfield shows his commitment and love of the genre on stage.
“I try my best to put a show on,” he said. “I tell the guys we can sit here and be a juke box and we can play songs, or we can try to be entertaining and put on a show. I get into it. I can’t quite do the Michael Jackson steps and all that, but I do as best as I can.”
Morganfield performs after 9 p.m. fireworks as part of the New Year’s Eve Last Soiree at the Keystone Conference Center.
Ticket prices start at $49 and may be purchased by calling (970) 496-4FUN.
Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 245, or by e-mail at email@example.com.