STEVE YOUNG spent two decades writing jokes for David Letterman, so it follows that his sense of humor skews somewhere between "dry understatement" and "bizarre Americana." He’s in town to present The Lost World of Industrial Musicals, his 90-minute tour through the strange, mid-century period when America’s love of musical theater met America’s love of internal marketing. With clips and commentary, Young introduces viewers to productions meant to be seen only at business meetings and professional conventions—among others, there’s a "1967 Purina dog food song and dance stage show" and a "1970 Hamm’s beer sales meeting film animated by Hanna-Barbera." We talked to Young—the self-described "world’s expert in corporate musical theater"—to find out more.
MERCURY: How did you get from late-night TV to this?
STEVE YOUNG: I used to be the writer on [Late Night with David Letterman] for a bit called “Dave’s Record Collection” that consisted of me going out to record stores and thrift shops looking for strange, unintentionally funny records we could put on the show and make fun of. So we did a lot of singing celebrities and instructional records and things like that.
But I started coming back from my hunting expeditions occasionally with a souvenir record album from some sort of company convention or sales meeting. You had a full original musical about selling insurance, or a full musical about selling and servicing diesel engines.
Many of them were not... great. A lot of them borrowed familiar tunes and melodies and just put new lyrics to them. But the ones at the top echelon, I found myself weeks after we’d done the bit on the Letterman show, I was still singing to myself songs about diesel engines, or Westinghouse nuclear power. And you’d get people who later would become very famous. I had a Ford tractor show, and I showed it to a friend of mine and he turned it over and his eyes widened and he said, “Do you realize who these people are?” Well, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock wrote Fiddler on the Roof years after they wrote this tractor show. So this was kind of a training ground for a lot of up-and-coming Broadway people.
Some of these lyrics seem extremely complex.
I think a lot of the assignments that lyricists and composers got were very detailed: “Here’s our problem in the marketing department, and people think this is something to object to and we’ve got to, in a fun way, overcome their objections.” And you’ve also get the songs that are just loaded with technical data and specifications, and that’s definitely a hard assignment for a lyricist. In the better shows you sort of have an acknowledgement that “This is weird that we’re even doing this, but let’s try to have fun with it.” And by the end, a good show can really get everybody fired up and on the same side.
What's the appeal to you, as a longtime comedy writer?
As a comedy writer, I just loved the fact that this stuff existed at all. I spent so many years working for the Letterman show and generating a lot of material that wouldn’t be used or would never be seen, and I sympathized with the people who were doing these shows who worked mostly with the understanding that this would be seen once and forgotten instantly. So little of it has survived. But there was a lot of humor and intelligence put into these shows. The Purina one still fascinates me, because I’m not sure even now after all the times I’ve watched it, if some really twisted genius is doing all this tongue and cheek, or whether it was just some weird cluelessness plowing ahead very earnestly. It’s one of those mysterious works of art that can be read both ways.