In the summer of 1990, just a few months after moving from Texas, the second-largest state, to Delaware, the second smallest, I attended an annual musical-comedy fundraiser performed at the Kent County Theatre Guild, a tiny 90-seat community theater in Dover. The show featured a roster of local performers singing popular songs and show tunes, with original comedy bits thrown in between and during the numbers. I thought it was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen. I had to be in it the next time.
By the time I was cast in the next year’s fundraiser, I had gone through a divorce and gotten heavily involved in the local theater scene. By then, I’d been cast in one show opposite a guy named Bruce Leister, and worked with a first-time director named Mike Polo. I had no inkling then that I’d marry Mike, Bruce would become one of my best friends, and that we’d all still be hanging around together 30 years later.
What brought me, Mike and Bruce together was comedy. We LOVE funny. And those early fundraisers at the Guild were definitely funny. When Sug Adlam, who had created the Club Bimbo fundraisers, became too ill to take them on anymore, Mike’s mom, Jane Polo, stepped in, putting on a new series of fundraisers in the same vein. My first fundraiser was the third of her Westward series.
Mike and Bruce became the emcees for the Westward shows when the original hosts were unavailable, and when they took the stage together, a comedy team was born. Eventually, because Mike, Bruce and I constantly crack ourselves and each other up and consequently think we’re funny, we were also asked to step in as Jane’s “brain trust,” charged with thinking up funny shit to throw at the songs and the performers. HOT damn, NOW we’re talkin’! This is the REAL deal here — all the fun, none of the responsibility!
Until Jane also stepped down due to illness, and somebody had to take over. In true show biz fashion, the show had to go on. Not out of any loyalty to show business truisms or a sense of professionalism, though — these productions raised money that the theater needed to operate. If somebody didn’t raise the necessary fundage with a summer show, we ran the risk of losing our favorite playground.
Just as an aside at this point in the narrative — for years, Mike and Bruce have been telling me to cut it short and get to the point. Now you know what they were talking about.
Anyway, with a sense of utter invincibility and total faith in our funniness born completely of youthful hubris, along with our ignorance of the fact that we really didn’t know what we were doing, Mike, Bruce, and I decided to write and produce our own summer fundraiser entitled Falling In Love Again… And Again. While Club Bimbo had been a random collection of songs, we preferred the Westward shows’ idea of building a show around a single time or place (the Wild West, Hollywood, New York, the 60s), but with a difference: we wanted not only a theme, but a basic story to go with it. And so Act I was about falling in love, Act II was about living in a relationship, and Act III – always where we placed our funniest stuff — would be all about the break-up.
While we knew what we were aiming for, the cast certainly didn’t. All they knew was that we’d selected a bunch of songs, and they were going to sing them. The week before we opened, we finally put all the songs in order and added the comedy bits and jokes in between. That night, one of our singers went home and told her husband, “They changed it — it’s going to be a comedy now.” We also pushed the envelope with that show by introducing the word “shit” to our little stage — that doesn’t sound so drastic now, but in the late 90s in a small town in Delaware, it was a major deal. Dover not only didn’t come after us with with pitchforks and torches, they laughed, bought tickets, and told their friends.
As we talked about a follow-up to Falling In Love the next year, I bent Mike’s and Bruce’s ears hard about creating a musical revue that poked fun at my adopted state. (Delaware is Bruce’s adopted state also — Mike is the only native Delaweenie among the three of us.) I’m firmly convinced that people laugh loudest when you’re making fun of where they live, and tiny Delaware’s idiosyncrasies were comic gold, in my opinion. They eventually gave in to my nagging, and Delaware Unleashed was born.
Unleashed definitely upped the ante. We’d been approached by some folks who wrote song parodies with offers to use them in our show, but the styles of the parodied songs didn’t match our baby boomer sensibilities. With our usual overconfidence in our own abilities, we decided we’d just write our own. Songwriting sessions involved heavy use of both a rhyming dictionary and alcohol, with Bruce and I getting more and more outrageous as we got more and more toasted, and Mike trying to rein us in. After several hours, Bruce would toss the rhyming dictionary entirely and try to make everything rhyme with “duck,” at which point we’d call it a night.
But it worked. About half the songs in that first show were original parodies about life in Delaware; along with running jokes and comedy bits between songs, we put together three hilarious acts about our home state, and the audience loved it. Six more wildly popular Delaware Unleashed fundraisers followed; eventually it got to the point where people were camping out overnight at the theater to be assured of getting tickets when the box office opened. The last one, Delaware Unleashed – Be Careful What You Ask For, was performed in 2011.
By that point, the internet was busy killing off local newspapers, and neither the public nor I really knew what was happening around the state, which eventually made it hard to find things to write about. For an entire decade, I’d spent 6 months of almost every year writing 30+ songs for the show. My role as head lyricist and comedy writer put me behind the scenes, which could be rather thankless; most people, including the cast, had no idea what I did, and by the time we put on Be Careful What You Ask For, I was tired. As fun a ride as it had been, for me, it was time to put this one to bed.
Mike and Bruce have periodically introduced the idea of doing another Unleashed, but as I’ve pointed out ever since we closed it down, you can only write so many songs about the DMV. I’m also no longer sold on the idea of creating a live theater production, particularly not one that takes half a year of writing and two months of rehearsing with 30-plus performers, each one equipped with their own likes, dislikes and egos, for just six performances. I was glad for the break and for not having to work so hard.
Then podcasting happened.
I started listening to podcasts, beginning with Welcome to Nightvale. Tanis, Wooden Overcoats, and many of the excellent true crime series from Wondery followed. Although I wasn’t interested in reviving Unleashed, the desire to be creative and the urge to write never went away, and thanks to this new medium, gradually the idea of doing a scripted comedy podcast began to take hold.
I began writing Muckey Landing in 2017 mostly as a vehicle to showcase Mike and Bruce, who to their credit have pushed me to continue on this journey instead of running for their lives. Bruce even pitched in with some writing in what at the time was the second episode, which of course made the whole thing take a sharp left turn into audio pornography, but still. I’m so, so grateful for their amazing support.
And I’ve found that the podcast format truly allows me to feel unleashed once again. This time around, I can create not just funny songs, but a whole Delaware town and everybody in it, and push it all to new heights of absurdity that couldn’t actually exist in real life. I love my little town of Muckey Landing and all its quirky residents — Virgil and Harmon, Myrtle Myrkle, Mable Sprout, Chief Cheefe, and all the others who either already live and breathe in my head or will in the future — and I hope you do, too.
I finish by dedicating this latest iteration of a fictional funny side of life in a small state to all the fans of Delaware Unleashed, with the fervent hope that in the town of Muckey Landing, they’ll find at least a little of what they were asking for.