Sunday, January 11, 2015

Comedy Horror Show: Barry Sedelmen

I still remember the first time I met Barry Sedelman. I was nineteen years old, and he was booking comedians for the radio. At the time, I was only starting to perform ventriloquism in comedy clubs, something nearly unheard of in NYC. Aside from Otto and George and many one or two that would wander in, there were not that many of us. Barry discovered me via a craigslist post and began booking me as a mock caller for shows. This was because in addition to performing ventriloquism, I can also do distinct things with my voice. Often it has been called my trademark. Of course I was earning money from comedy. To say I was stoked was an understatement.

Barry was a fascinating character. He had spent  a lot of time in LA, and even had some success out there. At the time, Barry was also developing a project for children and wanted a puppeteer, a perfect opportunity for yours truly. As a comedian, Barry had performed regularly at The Comedy Store and had also supplemented his income not only by booking for shock jocks but also smut talk shows like Jerry Springer and the like. In the early 90s, Barry had also recorded a rap parody that had become a hit and even gotten some traffic on MTV. Then something happened and his career kind of fizzled in that vein. Either way, I was intrigued.

Barry’s office was in a building in Lower Midtown off of 5th Avenue. Anytime I went there, it seemed no one was in the building. I took into account the first few times I visited were late at night. This seemed to be the case in the day. In the room he called an office there was a computer, a chair, a fold out table, and old food scraps. I knew he booked folks on the radio, but what he did specifically boggled my mind. As in it wasn’t quite clear. Still, Barry was a friend.

He showed me his children’s book. The title escapes my mind, but I remember the story was about as child appropriate as The Brother’s Grimm. It was a tale of three birds on a quest, where one bird ate poison berries and began to have hallucinations. This bird flipped out, killed a bunch of other birds, and then got really sick. I was appalled by how graphic this was, and he asked for my input. I told him perhaps we could soften the plotline and he seemed receptive. Maybe the shock jock world had gotten to his mind. Either way, this scared the crap out of me and I was an adult. Then Barry mention his friend Melinda was helping, but she was jealous of other women and I should just be aware. The whole thing was strange, but this is show business. Everyone is strange.

Barry’s family was somewhat eccentric as well. His father was a world famous concert piano player who had performed live at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. As a kid, Barry would travel the world and lived in NYC during the summer. All the men in his family apparently attended this military school as well. Barry also had a brother Bart, who was an inventor and had a patent on a sock of some sort. However, Bart often travelled the world and would call him from strange places and random time zones. His sister and mother were mere housewives. The whole family attended Northwestern University where Barry’s father was a generous with alumni giving, Barry included. His father had encouraged him to go to his alma mater for theatre, but Barry chose English Lit instead. He and his father had a contentious relationship, mostly because Barry was the familial screw up.

Right away, Barry’s creepy side began to surface. At nineteen, you don’t have the radar for these things so the events that follow are always quite interesting. Because of my desire to hit the stage with my puppets, Barry decided to show me the ropes. Plus it gave us an opportunity to talk shop about ventriloquism because this was an interest of his. Anyway, Barry took me to a club that is now closed and plied me with drinks. I was underaged, but figured getting trashed would make me look adult. Of course the fact he was buying a person not legal to drink alcohol didn’t phase Barry in the least at all.

Then again, in show business age is just a number in some respects. People of all ages work together on a production, and the youngest to the oldest are expected to have the same level of professionalism. The fact Barry and I were hanging out and becoming drinking buddies didn’t strike me as odd. Looking back though, Barry was a good 18 years older than I was. His so called friends were all about my age. Now this would strike me not only as weird, but worthy of running in the other direction like I saw Godzilla.

Our drinking adventures were strange. Once, during a comedy show the emcee thought we were a couple and Barry talked me into pretending to make out with him. He shoved his tongue down my throat, not slimy in the least. Another time, we went to a show at the UCB where Barry spoke in a Middle Eastern accent the entire time and got us free falafels after the show from the cart man. Then of course there was the time Barry played me messages that various shock jocks left him and we had a gas over that. Sometimes, Barry would even prank call people we knew as we sat there with a bottle of Vodka. Sure, it was not normal and now I would pull myself away from this friend. At the time it was fun though.

Barry’s interest in puppets deepened, and he wanted a puppet made. Once, during our massive drinking adventures Barry and I were at the local bar. He confided in me that his father could be quite abusive sometimes and would tell him that he was worthless. Barry said he developed low self-esteem and even spent time in a mental hospital. Sure, this should have been another red flag but this underaged drinker and her sense were being muted by the glass of Jack straight that she held in her hand. Barry told me that this low self-esteem often appeared on his shoulder in the form of a lizard, and that is the puppet Barry wanted made. So I referred him to a man I knew in Canada that could do the job.

While Jack Daniels muted my judgment, I would soon be struck sober when Barry began to turn on me out of the blue and for no reason whatsoever. One day, Barry called me and I was unable to pick up my phone because I was showering. So he left me not one but five messages threatening to kill me. To say I was scared was an understatement. When Barry spoke, it was in a slow, calculating tone. In one message, he even threatened to put me in the trunk of a car with duct tape on my mouth. However when he saw I wasn’t picking up Barry left me a long message apologizing. I chose not to answer. Then he left me a message promising me radio work. Money changes everything, so I called back.

Barry and I dreamed up a bit for my next appearance where I would insult a rival show. While it was my brainchild, he helped me tweak it. Barry thought I was brilliant and even said so himself. To celebrate, we got a bottle of Jack Daniels, my pick this time, and listened to old comedy albums in his office. We also smoked cigars. Of course I tumbled home smelling like an old drunk Irishman but oh well. Ya only live once, right?

Two days later I was on the radio. The host didn’t think it was brilliant, and neither did the producer. As a matter of fact, the producer screamed at me, saying that now I was costing the network money. I was appalled and aghast. Barry had okayed this bit. Minutes later Barry called to chew me out. I informed him he okayed the bit. Barry told me this had never happened. I knew it had, and was there when he worked with me on it. I even wrote it down line for line. That fucking liar! Barry then told me it was okay, he wasn’t worried. That is when he invited me to meet his brother Bart the inventor.

I went to Barry’s office, but he was out and about doing God only knows what. Bart was there waiting. I still remember Bart as being a freaky human being, more freaky than his brother if possible. Bart had jet black hair, yellowish brown skin, and deep set eyes with circles under them. He barely moved and spoke in a monotone, almost as if he spent all of his time in a funeral home. Bart informed me Barry had given him an air freshener because I had “stunk up the show.” This angered me, especially since it wasn’t my fault, and by all evidence Barry had set me up to fail.

I told myself to stop being so paranoid, Barry was my friend. Minutes later, Barry called. I overheard his voice on the phone and laughed at what he said. As I did this, Bart smacked me on the arm hard enough to leave a bruise. I was stunned for a minute, shocked at what had just happened.

 “What the hell was that?” I asked him.

“You laughed out of turn.” Bart seethed with distain. Now this was just plain creepy. The Sedelman’s were giving the Munster’s a run for their money. I made an excuse for having an appointment I forgot about and bolted out of there.

Later I found out these people would spook the Munsters out of the ballpark and even made the Addams Family look mainstream. Barry’s father was an eccentric who loved the outdoors so much he actually lived in the woods for five months out of the year in their native Wisconsin. However, his mother was petrified of the outside world and never left the house. There were times she wasn’t seen for extended periods of time and newspapers would pile up on the front porch, and the neighbors would call the police concerned she was dead. Then it would be found she was alive and well. Bart, the brother I met, would disappear for years at a time only to pop up on the other side of the world near death or in a foreign jail in need of legal assistance. Once he felt he had been poisoned by a terrorist organization for information they felt he harbored. The only normal one was his sister Joanne, who was a housewife that had no contact with the rest of the family. They all visited once a year at Christmas, and she kicked them all out the next day.

I got updates on Barry here and there, but managed to avoid all contact. It was to the point where he became a mere memory until one night I got a phone call. Barry had managed to connect with my friend Jake, a sometimes comedian and videographer who has worked with some big time people. The two were cruising on the West Side Highway in a car they rented. Barry had just gotten back from visiting his family in Wisconsin. He said he knew our last encounter had been terrible and apologized. Barry admitted that he was bipolar and was off his medication at the time. While this should have made me weary, I have had my share of issues. So I told him it was alright. Maybe he had changed.

Three months later, Jake called me along with Barry again. After a hiatus because of mental health issues, Barry had decided to record music again and even wanted to produce shows in New York. I knew over the years I had grown and changed, and maybe Barry had as well. Barry said he had recorded a song and a major label was behind it. While I was still reticent about spending time with Barry, he was well connected. Sure, the opportunity was unpaid but it could get major exposure as Barry promised. So I went for it.

When I saw Barry again, it was as he was before he went crazy. We chatted and caught up. I figured at the least the shoot could be fun. It was far from. While I like to have fun on set, I am also there to work. Barry was not. In between goofing around and being off task, he didn’t know the words to his own song. What should have taken an hour took two or three. As an added setback, Barry had married a Spanish woman, Carmen, in order to get her into the country. While they were only man and wife on paper, Carmen insisted on controlling Barry’s life. In between takes she called to yell at him. When she wasn’t harassing him, Carmen was calling Elena, another girl in the video, to yell at her. According to Carmen, Barry was just sleeping with everyone in the video. As the day wore on, it occurred to me there was no major label behind this.

To top it off, it was the beginning of winter and I was already under the weather. Barry insisted Elena and I dance in bikinis for his video. I told him no, I was working for free and had no health care at the time. Elena was a little more willing but not much. Finally, they wanted to go back to Jake’s to shoot another scene, and Barry had an errand to run. In the meantime I got a call from a friend and told her what was up. “Get the fuck out of there.” She advised.

I made my apologies and left. Barry took it upon himself to call me and harass me into working for free some more. By that time, the adventure left me so drained I was asleep. However, I found out from friends that stuck around that I did the right thing by leaving. When I left, someone had come and brought a bunch of drugs. Thus the substance use took over the evening and no one did a lick of work.

I told myself I was avoiding Barry, but this would only last for a week. A friend of mine was making a film, and Barry had somehow wormed his way into Tom’s life as well. In the film, Barry was Barack Obama and I was Sarah Palin. As usual, we both had our puppets. When I saw him, it was as if the music video debacle had never happened. Barry, if anything, was eager to show me the puppet he had made all those years ago. He named his puppet Herman: The Lizard of Low Self Worth. Of course Barry told me not to bother with my puppet Officer E, one of us was enough. I figured I would let him win this one. 

As we waited to shoot another low budget masterpiece, and trust me I did plenty in those days, Barry told me he was producing a show at a flagship club in the city. While this meant dealing with Barry, I knew this was legit because the club manager Chad had emailed me two days before. From all appearances, it seemed Barry was not in the pilot’s seat and thank goodness for small miracles. So Barry invited me to the corner store to talk. I figured what could possibly happen.

As usual, I had underestimated Barry. When he got into the corner store, Barry pulled Herman out from his backpack and began harassing patrons with his puppet. While my public puppetry is fun, Barry was just plain obnoxious and abusive. At first they laughed nervously in hopes he would go away, but this only kept egging Barry on. Then he purchased a bottle of water, and Herman tried to drink it. Instead of ending it there, he purposely spilled it and the store clerk had to clean it up. Then Herman the Lizard of Low Self-Worth began making racist, anti-Semitic jokes. The store owner threatened to call the cops, and I took Barry by his shirt and pulled him out of there.

When we left, Barry hit the sidewalk laughing. “They thought it was real!” Barry said nearly falling over from giggling.

“Barry, they were appalled.” I said unafraid to be honest at this point.

“No, they knew it was a joke.”

“He wanted to call the cops you idiot.” I said turning the corner to where we were filming.

Shortly after, we filmed our scene. I was Sarah Palin and Barry was Barack Obama. We were supposed to have a confrontation. Most film fights are staged, and the goal is not to hurt your acting partner for real. Barry however, had other plans. At 6’3”, 250 pounds he charged in on me hitting me in the face. Not expecting this I screamed. Barry went to hit me again. This time I blocked him. Then he hit me in the stomach nearly knocking me down. Blood ran down my face from where he hit me in the nose originally. When the scene was finished I was in so much pain I was crying.

“We made that look realistic.” Barry said helping me up.

“No, you are psychotic!” I screamed and ran away.

Days later, I was contacted with a definite date for Barry’s show not by Barry but by the then club manager Chad. In the email, Chad made sure to clarify that while Barry technically created and produced the show, Chad was in charge of operations. This could only be good. The less anyone had to deal with Barry the better. While I didn’t want to deal with Barry at all, this was a chance to be a regular at a flagship club in the city, a place where any comedian dreams of getting passed, if all went well. So I bit the bullet and took my chances.

The show was a musical comedy competition. While this was not my forte, it was a chance to show off my puppetry and skills as a singing telegrammer. Not to mention I had a closet full of costumes and ideas. I am not musical per se, but have a treasure trove of ideas. I lasted on the show for three weeks before I was eliminated for no reason whatsoever. It was the producers vote.

I had no idea why I was scratched. One other contestant had forgotten her song lyrics, and another had given a performance to a crowd that barely tolerated him. Afterwards, Barry tried to comfort me. My friends that came told me I got robbed and even the audience members agreed. There was a part of me that was upset, but another part of me was relieved. This was my chance to get away from Barry and cut the ties for good. At the same time, Chad, the club manager, had liked me. I knew Barry would burn this bridge, and maybe this was my way of getting in at this A List Palace.

But Barry didn’t want to get away from me. He called me repeatedly to ask me to be a judge on the show. I ignored his calls. Barry called me several times, I believe 30 and emailed me about 100 times. The emails came so frequently that I soon blocked them. I had no interest in working with Barry in any capacity ever again. Maybe he was on psych meds, but a shitload of good they were doing him. During that period, I made a friend of Chad, the club manager who was a huge fan of mine. So I sent Chad a package to see about getting regular spots.

Chad called me and we talked. He invited me to be a part of the show I was dismissed from as a judge. Believing what happened was as reprehensible as everyone else did, Chad divulged the full story. Apparently the audience and Chad had pulled for me, but a contestant needed to be eliminated. Rachael Donaldson, the girl that forgot her lyrics, had just had a viral hit. However, I was musically weaker and will admit that I am. Barry pushed for my elimination because Rachael had a lead at a major label. Chad didn’t fold, but the other club manager Chris, a bit of a milquetoast, did.

I told Chad there was no way in hell that I could work with Barry ever again in any capacity, and told him the truth about Barry in the calmest way possible. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Barry had proven to be a headache and problem for Chad. His antics were tiresome, but also had been costing Chad money. That is when Chad decided that despite the fact Barry was creator of the show, it was more important to have me on as a judge. So Chad informed Barry he was no longer welcome at the club in the event that I was going to be there, thus banning Barry from his own show.

For the next three months, the show went smoothly and my Monday nights were fun filled. I rubbed elbows, made friends, and was VIP at perhaps the best room in the city. Barry was no where to be found and thank goodness. Chad departed from the club a few months later and the show folded, but my experience had been good. During that period, I met more people who had Barry Sedelmen horror stories. Many had been harassed by Barry, his quasi-wife Carmen, or had a run in with his creepy brother. Some had even gone so far as to take legal action. Soon Barry’s antics became so he couldn’t show his face in NYC. Apparently, his behavior had followed the same pattern on the West Coast hence his having to leave LA.

The last development I got on Barry was that his quasi-wife tried to stab him and he ended up in the ER. Then he decided to leave NYC and now is living in Wisconsin with his mother. This past Christmas, Barry dropped me a Christmas card telling me he had been reading about my adventures as a ventriloquist and wanted to manage me. Apparently, he has a lead at several clubs in the Midwest and has “big plans” for me.

Taking a deep breath, I said to myself, “Barry, I love you from far away. That is, a galaxy far, far away. And even that is not far enough.” Then I pressed the block button. While the stories are funny now, I think my days of Barry adventuring are over.

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