One Man Goofing: A visit with legendary Zen humorist Henry Jacobs

This article was originally published in Arthur No. 26 (2007), available now from the Arthur Store for $5, alongside an appreciation of Henry Jacobs’ The Fine Art of Goofing Off by artist/filmmaker Mike Mills. With the very welcome news that a) a new Henry Jacobs release is on the way (Around The World With Henry Jacobs), and b) the extremely highly recommended The Wide Weird World Of Henry Jacobs/The Fine Art Of Goofing Off cd/ & dvd set is finally back in print, we thought it was time to brush off the dust from this piece and offer it online for the first time. Here goes…

One Man Goofing: A visit with legendary Zen humorist Henry Jacobs
by Joel Rose

Once a week, Henry Jacobs drives to a community center near his house in Marin County, California to play ping-pong with his neighbors. But it’s ping-pong with a twist: Jacobs, a natural righty, insists on playing with his left hand. “I don’t know if I’m as good,” he says. “But I sure have a lot more fun, because I can surprise myself. With my right hand, I never surprise myself.”

The 82 year-old Jacobs has been playing left-handed ping-pong every Monday night for the last seven years. At first, he says, the neighbors were skeptical. But they’ve gradually come around and started playing with their off-hands, too. Jacobs recently started filming interviews with his fellow left-handed ping-pong players for a documentary. “I envision it mainly for the Third World,” he says, and for a second it’s hard to tell whether he’s joking or serious. “The motive is to try to clean up the rather ugly image [of Americans] in the last 50 years or so,” culminating with the present conflict in Iraq. Jacobs says he wants to offer an alternative view of American culture, and ping-pong is the perfect vehicle because of its popularity around the world. “The economics of it are pretty basic. A paddle which you could make out of banana leaf or whatever,” he deadpans. “It’s not about wiping out the planet. It’s about a simple activity called ping-pong.”

Jacobs sees the new documentary—which doesn’t yet have a title—as a kind of sequel to The Fine Art of Goofing Off, the series of animated television programs he worked on in the early 1970s. He says he’s filmed eight or nine interviews so far. Instead of shooting them head on, Jacobs had his subjects invent tasks to perform. (“One guy is fixing an electric lamp. Another guy is diddling around with some paintings.”) The point, says Jacobs, is they’re involved in what they’re doing, even while they’re talking out loud about ping-pong. “They’re not forced keep trying to remember all the points they wanted to make,” says Jacobs. “They can stop talking and get the screw-driver in the right place. It takes the pressure off to constantly be producing something useful and intelligent.”

And of course, “all this will be edited mercilessly. So you’ll only get little pieces of anything.” This, says Jacobs, was point of The Fine Art of Goofing Off: “Never do something so long as to bore someone.”

* * *

Henry Jacobs lives near the top of a winding road, on a hill overlooking Point Reyes National Seashore, about an hour north of San Francisco. A single concrete pillar holds up the roof of the house; wooden beams radiate off in various directions. Jacobs has lived on this spot for 30 years. Some of the present house is recycled from an earlier one that burned down in the 1990s, taking most of his possessions with it.

The hipster moustache Jacobs wore in the ‘50s and ‘60s is a full beard now. His long white hair is pulled back in a ponytail. On the day I dropped by, Jacobs was recuperating from a cold. He’d also been up late teaching himself how to use a new DVD burner. Still, Jacobs was a gracious host; he insisted that I stay for tea as he rambled through the high points of his five-decade career as a satirist, improviser, radio artist and filmmaker.

In a few days, Jacobs said, a crew would be coming over to shoot material for a documentary about him. “The filmmakers, they wanted to come up with a script. I said no way. I don’t do that. We just do things on tape. And if you like ‘em, we use ‘em. We’re not gonna redo them. My theory is that if you’re reading a script or thinking about a script, that cuts you off,” he told me. Jacobs prefers the spontaneity of improvisation: “just letting the energy out. Plans and scripts, they have nothing to do with that.”

It’s the same approach Jacobs brought to his radio skits more than 50 years ago. One of the funniest and most famous started with “absolutely no plan, no plan whatsoever.” Jacobs says he was sitting around one day with his friend and collaborator Woody Leafer. “I turned the tape recorder on. And Woody said something like, ‘We’re here talking to Shorty Petterstein, a jazz musician.’ And I just answered him.” After some artful editing by Jacobs, “Interview with Shorty Petterstein” found its way onto LP and 45 – and out into the hipster zeitgeist of the middle 1950s. “It became sort of, at that time part of the popular culture,” Jacobs remembers. “Lines in it that people liked: ‘I didn’t want to fall up here in the first place’ and ‘don’t bug me.'”

Jacobs started producing his radio show “Music and Folklore” in the early‘50s at the University of Illinois. He would record and edit the show in his spare time, and then ship the tapes to free-form station KPFA in Berkeley. At first Jacobs conducted straight-ahead interviews about what would now be called world music. But on occasions when Jacobs couldn’t find a real expert, he would sometimes invent one. “The most successful one I did,” Jacobs remembered, “was a Hebraic musicologist named Sholom Stein. He pretended to trace the origins of Calypso to ancient Hebraic texts.” The joke was so subtle that listeners called in to tell him he’d been duped.

“Music and Folklore” caught the ear of Moses Asch, the owner of Folkways records, who released some excerpts on the 1955 LP, Radio Programme No. 1. After the LP came out, Jacobs said he got offers to cross over into stand-up comedy, but he declined. “Much more fun to just do it in my little laboratory on tape and edit it forever,” he said. “Start studying the micro-temporal considerations of how long a pause… should… be….before you went on talking.”

* * *

By 1953, Jacobs had moved to San Francisco. And he struck up a friendship with comparative religion scholar Alan Watts, who also had a radio show on KFPA. Watts was already a hero to the Bay Area counter-culture. That didn’t stop Jacobs from making fun of him. “Say he walks into a room. And I say, ‘I want you to meet my friend, Albert Watts.’ And he loved it because everybody in his life was like, ‘Oh Mr. Watts, on page 82, you said this. And what did you mean?'”

It was Jacobs who first suggested that Watts record his lectures with a portable Nagra tape recorder, which was still a novelty at the time. And it was Watts who introduced Jacobs to his future wife, Sumire Hasegawa (the daughter of Watts’s colleague Saburo Hasegawa). “I tried courting her,” said Jacobs, “and it seemed like I was unsuccessful.” A few weeks later, Sumire surprised him with a gift: a tea set. “That’s a pretty far-out gift to get. A tea set? Like whoa, what does this mean? I was lost from that moment. I was just following orders. And I married her. And we had three kids.” (They were married for 17 years; today their oldest daughter is married to Watts’s son.) Jacobs, Watts and Hasegawa worked together on several recordings, including an LP of Haiku called This is IT!. Hasegawa reads the poems in the original and Watts reads in English translation, while Jacobs directs a bunch of drummers and instrumentalists.

Despite his close affiliation with Watts, Jacobs insists he’s never been very religious. Jacobs grew up in Chicago, where his father was a deacon in the Congregational Church. But Jacobs’s father quit the church when he was just five years old; as a results, “I went to Sunday school two times,” Jacobs said.

After college, he helped set up a TV station in Mexico City. Jacobs was back in Illinois when he got his first tape recorder in the late 1940s. Before long, he acquired another one, and started experimenting with rhythmic loops, feedback, and other kinds of musique concrete.

His experiments with audio tape would culminate in a series of sound and light concerts called the Vortex Experiments. Jacobs says the inspiration for the series came from avant-garde composer John Cage, who visited San Francisco in 1955. “‘He said, ‘Henry, I’ve heard about you,'” remembers Jacobs, breaking into an old-fashioned lisp. “‘I’m doing a concert. I don’t know anything about tape recorders. And can you help me?'” Cage wanted to record 12 different radio stations, and then play them back through a dozen loudspeakers. Jacobs managed to procure the necessary equipment through a well-placed friend at the Ampex company. “And that’s got to be what turned me on to the Vortex thing.”

The Vortex Experiments took place inside Golden Gate Park’s Morrison Planetarium. On Monday and Tuesday evenings—when the planetarium would otherwise have been closed—Jacobs and filmmaker Jordan Belson directed a 360 degree sound and light show. Jacobs recorded music for Vortex, and invited composers from all over the world to do the same, including Toru Takemitsu, Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stockhausen. By putting loudspeakers all around the room, Jacobs basically invented surround sound. Academy Award-winning sound designer Walter Murch credits him with inspiring the multi-track sound that’s now standard for big-budget films. “This idea of sound that moves all the way around in the theater—that’s linked to the kind of experiments Henry was doing in the Morrison Planetarium.” (Murch and a young director named George Lucas would later invite Jacobs to do an improvisation for the soundtrack to their 1971 sci-fi film, THX 1138. He doesn’t appear on camera, but you can hear his voice.)

After about two seasons of Vortex, the planetarium staff started to notice the “funny smell” outside during the concerts, said Jacobs, and asked the organizers to take their experiments elsewhere. By then, Jacobs was also tired of working with collaborator Jordan Belson. (Jacobs remembers Belson as a “prima donna” who liked to talk about “what a serious artist he was and all that shit”.)

The disintegration of Vortex —along with the emerging need to support a family—pushed Jacobs into the field of audio-visual consulting. For much of the 1960s, Jacobs “sold out,” as he puts it. He made ads for Japan Airlines. He filmed surgery at a San Francisco hospital using a mirror, camera and boom mic. And he helped wire Bank of America’s world headquarters for sound and video. In 1965, Jacobs began studying the sitar with Ali Akbar Khan, who had recently set up a school in Berkeley. Jacobs later compared this to “studying tennis with Tiger Woods”—because Khan plays sarod, not sitar—”but I hung in there for five years.”

Jacobs made some of his best work in the early 1970s. The Fine Art of Goofing Off was a three-part animated series for public television station KQED in San Francisco that Jacobs describes as “Sesame Street for grown-ups.”

“I had a group of very talented improvisational actors called the committee,” Jacobs said. “I’d just say come on over to the studio. We’re working on this series about leisure. They’d do some riff. But with some skillful editing, it could be perfect.” The series included fake TV commercials for such unlikely products as talking slowly and working overtime. In one on these, the voice-over urges the viewer not to give up after only 8 hours: “You still have a lot in you! A lot of the real drive and grit that makes America what it is. Don’t waste it at idle pass times! Log a few extra golden hours at the old grindstone.”

One of Jacobs’s favorite skits from the series is also one of the simplest: an announcer just repeats the question, “Can you hear me?” over and over and over again. “Bob McClay liked it,” said Jacobs. “He did a primitive visualization of a dog sitting in front of an old-fashioned radio. The two went together really well. That of all of this is the work I’m most proud of.”

* * *

The year 1973 was a difficult one for Jacobs: his wife divorced him, and his friend Alan Watts died. In 1976, Jacobs moved north to Inverness, California, living on land he’d bought with Watts’s son Mark. Jacobs is still the curator of the Alan Watts archives, which he says brings in a “steady trickle” of money. A fire tore through the valley in 1995, burning ten thousand acres and dozens of houses. The Watts tapes, which were stored elsewhere, survived; many of Jacobs’ tapes weren’t as lucky. Jacobs rebuilt with the help of some insurance money and architect Daniel Lieberman. Today he lives there with Susan Hyde, his companion of 10 years.

For a long time, Jacobs’ recordings were out of print. That began to change in 2003 when Locust Music reissued Radio Programme No. 1 and other titles from the 1950s. Some of Jacobs’ old master tapes were rediscovered under a house in Mill Valley in the late ’90s; a compilation of those is now out on CD from Important Records under the title The Wide, Weird World of Henry Jacobs.

That release also includes a DVD featuring three episodes of The Fine Art of Goofing Off, which has helped push Jacobs back into the public eye. He was invited to the 2006 Birmingham TV and Film Festival in the UK for a screening of Fine Art, but Jacobs didn’t go, sending in his place a 12-minute film by his neighbor and longtime friend, director John Veltri. That short is now the foundation for a full-length documentary. Jacobs says he’s flattered by the attention, but admits he does find it a bit awkward. “Veltri and his wife, they do kind of a slight hero worship on me,” he says, “where they say things like, ‘Alan Watts was just an old drunk blabbermouth, and you’re the real guy.’ And I’m wondering, what kind of con is this?”

Jacobs also declined an invitation to appear at ArthurFest in September of 2005, where episodes of Fine Art were screened on the main stage between bands. When pressed for a reason, Jacobs cited an unfavorable impression of Los Angeles –”the smog, the overall growth of the place” – as well as a dislike of airplanes and hotel rooms.

But mostly, Jacobs just seems to prefer staying home. There’s his Monday night ping-pong game, for one thing. And there’s another monthly ritual he doesn’t want to miss. On the full moon of each month, Jacobs leads an outing down to a sweat lodge on the beach near his house. He says the idea is to get very, very hot, and then jump directly into the chilly waters off Point Reyes, before running back up the beach to the sweat lodge. “Every time when I come out of the ocean,” Jacobs says, “I’m nude. And I have to get from here to there, and I usually do it running. And I always feel like I’m 8 years old when I do it. Every single time, I get this convincing feeling that hey, I’m eight years old. How about that shit?”

3 thoughts on “One Man Goofing: A visit with legendary Zen humorist Henry Jacobs

  1. Pingback: Red Goo, Paper Cut-Outs and Conscious Digressions: MIKE MILLS on Henry Jacobs’ handmade absurdism | ARTHUR MAGAZINE

  2. Pingback: ArtExplosion 2012 Opening Fine Art Show / Fort Lauderdale FL Flyer |

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