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Citizen Kafka's Greatest Contribution? Himself


Finally today, a tribute to Citizen Kafka. That's how Richard Shulberg was known to the fans of his New York radio show, a comic enterprise that helped launch the career of John Goodman, among others.

Shulberg was also a musician and by all accounts, an unrepentant comedic force in the lives of just about anyone who knew him. He died last weekend at the age 61 after a series of illnesses.

Jon Kalish has this appreciation.

JON KALISH: One of Richard Shulberg's employers once described his resume as one of the most entertaining documents he'd ever read. Shulberg worked as a miner, a projectionist, a teacher and a professional musician.

Mr. RICHARD SHULBERG (Musician): I was the only union (unintelligible) player in New York for years.

(Soundbite of humming)

Mr. SHULBERG: Yeah, that sound.

KALISH: Shulberg was also a fiddler in the Wretched Refuse String Band.

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: Its alumni include such standouts as Tony Trischka and Andy Statman. But Shulberg will likely be remembered by most people for his work in a different medium.

(Soundbite of radio program, "The Citizen Kafka Show")

Unidentified People: (Singing) It's "The Citizen Kafka Show."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified People: (Singing) It's time to have fun today.

Mr. SHULBERG: I'm Scary Doody.

KALISH: "The Citizen Kafka Show" went on the air in 1980 on non-commercial WBAI FM in New York. The highly produced, multitrack routines featured original music, and improvised zaniness that ranged from sophomoric to brilliant.

Kenny Kosek, a fiddler who played with Shulberg in Wretched Refuse, was part of the deliberately politically incorrect trio that inspired protests to the FCC and a fiercely loyal following.

Mr. KENNY KOSEK (Fiddler): When we did "The Citizen Kafka Show," we'd laugh until we had cramps, and we'd be on the floor weeping.

KALISH: Kosek and Shulberg were joined in early 1981 by a then-unknown actor named John Goodman, who still remembers Shulberg fondly.

Mr. JOHN GOODMAN (Actor): I can't think of him without laughing or smiling. He was always beaming at people, just great, manic energy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOODMAN: It just reminds me of, you know, when he'd break into spontaneous dance or song, always at the top of his lungs.

KALISH: Goodman continued to contribute to the show even after moving to Hollywood and becoming a star.

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: John Goodman's voice introduced Shulberg's other radio series, which debuted in 1992.

(Soundbite of radio program, "Secret Museum of the Air")

Mr. GOODMAN: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the "Secret Museum of the Air," a weekly broadcast of the world's music, historic landmarks from the dawn of recording for the golden age of the gramophone.

KALISH: The show was co-hosted by Shulberg and Pat Conte, both of them avid collectors of 78s. Ed Haber(ph) is a recording engineer and close friend of Shulberg's.

Mr. ED HABER (Recording Engineer): What he was doing with the "Secret Museum," to present these rare, old 78s, this music that people had forgotten or never knew about. And I thought that was a real important contribution to the world.

KALISH: Many people might say Shulberg's most important contribution was himself. A short, bespectacled man with a shaved head, his antics were the grist for countless stories. One of the most famous involves the time that members of the Wretched Refuse String Band were hired to play in a Broadway show directed by John Houseman.

Shulberg was fired after he played "Donkey Serenade" on his fiddle as Houseman took the stage at a public event. Shulberg remembered the incident in a 2000 NPR interview.

Mr. SHULBERG: I regret not having the money, but I don't regret doing it. I did a lot of funny things and got in trouble for them. And when I get together with people, all the time, they come up with stories and anecdotes of crazy, crazy things that I have done.

KALISH: Richard Shulberg's friends will be online and on the radio in the coming months, telling stories about the man his wife, Annie(ph), calls this wonderful, generous, exasperating and entertaining individual. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Our Parting Words tonight come in song form courtesy of Citizen Kafka.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #9: (Singing) (Unintelligible) go round and round. Sometimes you're (unintelligible) sometimes you're down. (Unintelligible) can make you dance. If you're not good here, you'll come back (unintelligible).

LYDEN: I don't know about you, I'm coming back as a bird of paradise. That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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