Back in the late 90’s a wonderful book series came into being that has since spawned many offspring including nine or so book sequels, multiple stage shows, a film, and even school curriculums. That book series, “Letters From a Nut by Ted L. Nancy” chronicled the results of the weirdest letter writing campaign in comedy history. The book collected ludicrous prank letters sent to addresses on the back of every product sold anywhere- and the responses that followed. Ted L. Nancy was not a real person, but the man behind those letters- like one complaining to a grocery store chain that the sponge he bought was haunted- is real and his name is Barry Marder. He wrote to companies like Nordstroms and Fritos and a Stadium seating company asking ludicrous and remarkably specific questions. Could he purchase a mannequin from the store that resembled a dead neighbor? What is the polite way to face when shuffling through a row of stadium seats? Could he bring his own ice machine to a hotel- it measured about 5 feet by 3 feet? Could another hotel accommodate 300 hamsters he would be traveling with? And on and on. And they answered his letters, with answers as ridiculous as the questions.
Last year the hilarious book series was adapted for the stage with a 50 show run at the Geffen Theater starring the book series true author. Marder and a small team performed his correspondence to such rave reviews that they turned it into a film, about the stage production, that was in turn about the books (which was in turn, about the letters).
Marder is a maniac to be sure (and I mean that in the most complimentary way), but he’s the nicest, sweetest, most polite and funniest maniac and I had the absolutely pleasure of speaking with him about his books, his series, and his unusual friendship with Jerry Seinfeld. Marder confirms that the phenomenon of Letters From a Nut was inspired by a simple bag of Fritos enjoyed the way all snacks should be enjoyed- in bed with a loved one- his long time girlfriend Phyllis Murphy. “We are still together,” he says. “Fantastic. She does not consider me a fiance, I’m now considered a person of interest. She was sitting there and I opened up a bag of Fritos and you know the bag at the back of the Fritos it said you got any issues? Any questions? Write Fritos. We want to hear from you. And I was just kind of thinking out loud, thinking who would write Fritos? I mean who wants to unload on a corn chip company and tell them your problems?”
So he wrote to them, with a ridiculous letter that you would not expect would merit an answer. But the Frito-Lay company did answer. He wrote another company. They answered too. “We could get the head of Nordstroms, who actually wrote us. When I wrote to the stadium seating people, you know when I wrote to them and I asked them a question about stadium seating, you know the question was… when going down the aisle, I leave my seat many times during the game. What’s the best way to go down the aisle? Do you face your buttocks at someone or your crotch at someone?”
And as the phenomenon continued, he realized he had something interesting. He shared his first 12 letters with his good friend Jerry Seinfeld. He says Jerry responded just laughing and said “this is going to be a book.” Jerry took Barry and his 12 letters to his literary agent, and suddenly Barry was writing books. “We started off with a book and we didn’t know that this was going to be a show or a play or anything like that. It just kind of built. Jerry said “let me write the blurb. Let me put my name on the front.” Very gracious to do that. Then he took it on… I think it was Letterman and that kind of opened it up.” The book became a bestseller, and everyone thought Jerry had written the books. “Because there was no Barry. There was nobody else, it was just Jerry the face of it. We didn’t … This was all birthed organically. Nobody tried to say, “Let’s do this and let’s promote it this way.” At the time the book came out, nobody knew who Ted L. Nancy was, (which makes sense since it was a pseudonym), and since forwards to all the books were written by Seinfeld, and he was the one promoting them, people naturally assumed that Jerry was the true author of the letters.
And now it’s a play and a filmed special, and it’s beautifully put together, and hilariously laugh-out-loud funny. The letters themselves are so funny, and Marder’s pin straight serious delivery is just perfect. Performing isn’t new to him, he was a stand up for 20 years before embarking on a writing career. He was at the Improv and the Store in it’s most golden years, and would go on the road with giants like Seinfeld, and George Carlin, eventually working on Seinfeld and co-writing Bee Movie.
He talked about how he and Jerry met, and it runs into an incredible story about being at the Improv and the Comedy Store long before he would write for Seinfeld and Bee Movie.
“The first time actually I ever saw Jerry Seinfeld and heard of him was in 19, I’m going to date myself here, 1981. I had just pretty much started comedy and I was over at the comedy store of Mitzi Shore and she had just introduced me to Gabe Kaplan. It was 1981 and I was sitting with Mitzi in the back of the Comedy Store in the original room. Just started comedy and I was sitting, it was myself, Mitzi and Robin Williams. I said do you know Robin, he just got himself a series, you know and we met … and these are the people that I saw that night working out on the Comedy Store auditioning for Mitzy. I saw Jim Carrey. I saw Andrew Dice Clay. I saw Yakov Smirnoff and then Jerry came and he did his set and they’re all just normal guys. There was no Jim Carrey fame, there was no Jerry fame. All very funny, talented, hugely talented people and I believe Jerry even got passed on by Mitzy. She did not want to book him, you know. So then I could see him from up close in the ’80s. You know I would see him, he was being handled by George Shapiro, still is. And George was handling Gabe Kaplan. George handled, at that time, Andy Kaufman and Dave Kempler and Steve Gordon, who wrote that movie Arthur. George had Marty Feldman, he was a huge, huge manager. Still is, and he had Jerry. So I would see Jerry around in the hall over at Shapiro West in Beverly Hills. And I’d see him around the clubs. And then I was friendlier with Larry Miller, who’s a hilarious actor, comic. He was very good with Jerry, so little by little I got towards working with Jerry and then it started with Jerry and I working together in ’90 or ’91. And I ran into him at Jeff Hoffman’s house, another funny comedian. And he was there for a barbecue and he just said he got this show now. Seinfeld said to me, “I got this show now called Seinfeld, have you seen it?” I said, “No. He said he had three or four episodes. Dawn, and he and Larry, Miller and myself went over to his house to watch the episodes and that’s how I started writing jokes for him.
And they’ve been friends ever since.
“I was writing the stuff with him on Seinfeld. And he used to do three stand-up pieces on each show and he and I would knock the stuff off together. I’d go to his house and we would knock this stuff out. I always felt like a cleaning woman over there because afterwards he would feed me and I always thought, well maybe he wants me to hang my clothes up in the back there and put on some of the maid’s clothing because you know…I would do what I had to do there and then he would give me lunch. So I always felt like some domestic that was part of a domestic agency.”
He continued, “Listen this was not the Jerry Seinfeld that you see today as far as what this man has built for himself. This was Jerry in a small little condo on Kings Road in West Hollywood. And just a nice, normal, he was just a successful working comic. There was a place next door to his condo in West Hollywood. It was in a little mini mall and it was a place called Chicken on Fire. And I used to walk up there with him and I’d think, “Gee, I wonder what that chicken thinks when he drives by this sign. He would take me in there and we would get some chicken sandwiches and then we’d be off, I’d be on my way.”
Barry stressed that “Letters From a Nut” is only one part of his comedy life and joked that it had become like a fungus on his life. “I mean it’s like what is that thing on my plate? I can’t … That’s all anybody wants to talk about,” he joked. He’s also working with Jerry on Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, a project that he has been a part of since jump. “I shot the pilot, the original pilot on Comedians in Cars with Jerry, when there was no Comedians in Cars. It’s up online on Netflix now.”
He remembered shooting the very first one. “[Jerry] was in a terrible mood that day. He’s very precise. He was supposed to pick me up at nine o’clock in the morning. I had a meeting at ICM in New York at nine in the morning. And he was going to swing by and pick me up because the person that was doing the thing, there was a lot of miscalculations. So anyway, to make a long story short, he didn’t get to pick me up ’till four o’clock in the afternoon and he was in a kind of a crazy mood. Justifiably so. All I had to eat was a mint. So by the time we got to the diner— and you watch any of these Comedians in Cars since that, everyone is very gentle and they’re picking at salads. And oh, I’m fine. I’ll just have just a little cup of fruit. I had chowed down like, you know. It was like in 12 minutes you’ll be executed. And I was eating, you see it like a maniac. A maniac.” He steps back from his own self deprecation to point out that when you have a meal you eat. “That’s what you go to a restaurant for. To eat. And so the whole thing is me eating and you look at the table and that one, and there’s soup. There’s pie. There’s heavy sandwiches. There was scotch tape left on the table. It was very weird.”
He thinks he did better in a more recent appearance, coming out this summer. “A little more civil on this one, you know. We did it in the morning and he’s got this show running like a Mercedes Benz factory. It’s that terrific over there, you know what I mean, the way that he’s got this show.”
“I remember him telling me this idea.,” he told me. “This Comedians in Cars idea in, I would say in the early ’90s when he and I were just driving around in the car. We were working on Seinfeld and driving around. He would say to me, “This is the show.” And I go “what show, ” he goes “driving around with me is the show.” And he goes “driving around with comedians is a show.” I think it’s very interesting. So he goes way back on this thing. In fact, we took a road trip when Seinfeld ended in ’98. Jerry and I in a ’67 Volkswagen. We took it across the country. We left from Albuquerque where he picked up the car and we drove across the country. And I actually filmed this thing, which I have all this footage. We used some of it in that show comedian he did. He had that and we used some of the film of him and I, I would have to say that’s about as rudimentary of a Comedians in Cars episode, it’s like watching a Henry Ford before the Ford going, ‘I’ve got a wagon here, you think I can make this thing run?’ And you know that’s the way that thing started years and years ago.'”
Letters from a Nut, the movie is now available on Amazon.com, iTunes and the Comedy Dynamics platform. It’s a phenomenally funny movie, and great commentary on commentary, particularly the evolution of commenting before the internet turned commenting into an epidemic. “Now everybody has comments,” Barry said. “You can’t do anything. Just tell us how we did. We all talk, do you like me? Do you like me? I like you. Give me a pat on the head. Rub me under the chin, I like. Everybody is trying to get a like out of somebody there. Give me a comment. Tell us. You can’t walk out of the store without hearing, give me a comment. So that was in it’s really infancy, I would imagine. I don’t think in the 1940s were people walking around going, “Like me. I like you.”