If you attend the Madison Area Music Awards on May 9 at the Barrymore Theatre, you'll get to spend three hours being entertained by John Urban. He's hosted the MAMAs since the event began six years ago.
John Urban caught the show business bug on a summer day in 1977. He was 12 years old and went to see the original Star Wars movie at the Orpheum Theatre on State Street. Halfway through, he had an adolescent epiphany: People get paid to entertain.
Nine years later, Urban began to entertain Madison. In 1986 he started a six-year run doing improvisational skits at ComedySportz. He was hired as a part-time DJ at Triple M (105.5 FM) in 1992. He was promoted to Triple M's morning host in 1993.
Since 2002, Urban has hosted his own local variety show, called The Urban Theater. The show airs Fridays at 11 p.m. on My Madison TV.
All the while, the Madison native has maintained a photography business and dreamed big dreams of becoming the next Steven Spielberg.
Last year, acquiescing to what he described as the "emptiness" of chasing after fame and fortune, Urban began working with Interplast, a San Francisco nonprofit that provides free reconstructive surgeries for the poor in developing countries. He says the experience has changed him.
Recently, I spoke with Urban at Ancora on King Street. He frequently talked with his mouth full and suggested I had a "man crush" on him. Despite all that, I left with 12 vivid images of Madison's favorite host, relayed here in Urban's own words:
1. He wanted to be George Lucas when he grew up.
I went to see Star Wars at age 12 and realized someone got paid to make it. And I thought, "There can't be a better way in the world to make a living than making movies." You can make a movie about anything in the world. You never get bored. And someone will pay you.
2. No disrespect to UW-Madison, but he's outta there.
I'm a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and I never plan on going back. Nothing against UW. It's just that I can see how to take a picture or tell a story, but I can't always see how to do a math equation.
3. He bickered with Kitty Dunn. Then it turned into a show.
I started doing sound for ComedySportz, and people asked me if I worked at a radio station. So I thought maybe I should get a demo tape together. I started with a part-time shift at Triple M that began at 2 a.m. and ended when the morning show started at 5:30. It was the kind of job that doesn't exist in radio anymore.
I was very lucky to move up to the morning show in 1993. Kitty Dunn started doing the news during the morning show. Then she started hanging around. Then we started fighting, so it turned into a show. It lasted five and a half years. I left Triple M Dec. 31, 1998. I was doing radio and my photography business at the same time, and I decided one of them had to go.
4. He once placed his hand on John Popper's ass.
I had to go pick up Blues Traveler at their hotel. They were playing a concert in town and doing a "Live From Studio M" broadcast before the show.
John Popper was big back then. There's another word for it: fat. I actually put my hand on his ass to push him into the front seat of the van. He had just gotten knee or hip surgery and was walking with a cane back then.
So I got him into the van, and he said, "What do you do?" And I said, "Well, I host the morning show and also host 'Live From Studio M.'" He's like, "Oh, I thought you were a lackey."
They were great, probably one of the best "Studio M" bands we ever had. We got in the car to take him to the Barrymore. Ed Johnson was on the air, and he was saying that Blues Traveler was just in the studio. He started playing their song "Runaround." So Popper says, "Let's crank the radio and sing." So there I was, driving down the Beltline, singing at the top of my lungs with Blues Traveler.
5. He didn't know where Deerfield was until 1995.
One thing I should tell you is that I have the world's worst memory. I forget traumatic things. I forget the wonderful days. Kitty used to make fun of me. One day we had to go to Deerfield for a promotion. And I said, "Where is Deerfield?" And she said, "You've lived here in Madison all your life. How can you not know where Deerfield is?" And I said, "I only keep the most important things in my head, whereas you keep every bit of shit you ever learned in your life up there."
6. His television image keeps his mother up at night.
My mother doesn't always sleep at night. She complains that she falls in and out of sleep in front of the TV and keeps seeing me. She says, "You were on the middle of the night again last night." Maybe it keeps her from sleeping.
7. His filmmaking premiere never left town.
The 20-minute movie was officially called Sm*ll T*wn St*r F*cker. It premiered in town, at my studio, and that was the extent of it.
In Hollywood, sometimes people attempt to gain fame when they have no real talent by just "dating" celebrities - Star Fuckers. Well, what happens if you have a woman who lives in a small town and she wants to be famous but doesn't want to leave her small town? She "gets to know" the overnight DJ, the local weatherman and the deputy assistant mayor.
Everything is fine until ultra-famous rocker Cat Hirshowitz (imagine Steve Perry of Journey, without Journey) comes to town to play the Clip and Sip (coffee shop/hair salon). The current small-town star fucker then has to go toe-to-toe with her mentor, the retired small-town star fucker, to win his affections.
8. He says the MAMAs could get him in trouble.
I was flattered that they asked me to be the host. I think it's a great cause. I love doing it. Rick [Tvedt] is one of the hardest-working people I know.
Yes, sometimes the show is too long. Other than that, I can't say anything without getting in trouble. I'll get in trouble.
9. He "does nothing" on The Urban Theater.
What's my role with the show? I can't tell you that. This isn't Newsweek or Time. You don't have to delve into this. Okay - I do nothing. Jill Sommers books the guests. That protects me when I'm in a bar and a drunk guy comes up to me and wants to know why he can't be on the show. Al Barcheski does all the setup. I show up and say, "Hi, Harmonious Wail. How are you? Welcome to the show."
10. He's in negotiations to be in a relationship.
Myself and a woman are in ongoing negotiations. There are good days of negotiations. There are bad days of negotiations. And sometimes we take a week off. It keeps the weirdoes away. And if you print that, I will kill you.
11. He doesn't think people think he's that funny.
I was on the radio once, and an hour or two into the show someone called me and told me that I was the dumbest person they'd ever heard on the radio, that I was an idiot, that I shouldn't be on the radio. He was mad. Then an hour later some woman called in and told me she actually wet herself because she was laughing so hard. For every person who thinks you're funny, there's someone who thinks you're not.
12. He's serious about Interplast.
The last two years, I've made three trips to do still photography for a group called Interplast [interplast.org]. They send medical teams all around the world to do free surgeries for burns, cleft lips and cleft palates. I went to Vietnam with them last year and to Uganda and India this year. I document their work for promotional materials.
The trips have been the best moments of my life so far. We had a little girl in India who was 10. Her legs were burned so that her thighs were fused together. The team separated her legs and patched her up using abdominal skin. Hopefully, in a few months she'll be running. I still want to make movies and do comedy, but how do you top that?