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Humor of the Beast

Humor of the Beast: Jim Florentine on Growing Up with BLACK SABBATH

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Welcome to “Humor of the Beast,” a recurring series where we interview the funniest people about their favorite band, as well as the impact heavy music has had on their lives and in comedy.

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It’s no surprise that Jim Florentine loves metal. His time hosting That Metal Show on VH1 Classic, plus his current radio show on Sirius XM’s Ozzy’s Boneyard channel, make that a pretty obvious fact. But it’s quite special to hear the comedian talk so passionately about Black Sabbath – from recalling the times he’d blast Master Of Reality with his brothers to describing intricate details about the band’s stage setup that others overlook.

We had a chance to speak with Jim in between his own standup performances and upcoming shows on the Kreeps with Kids Tour. Read highlights from our chat below, where in addition to going in-depth about all things Black Sabbath – including how proud he was to get Tony Iommi to dispel a myth on That Metal Show – Jim recalled the great lengths That Metal Show went through to interview Axl Rose, shared why he’s in no rush to open for Slayer again, and explained what metal musicians and comedians truly have in common.

When did you first discover Black Sabbath?

I had two older brothers that were into hard rock and metal. I shared a room with them, and all we did was crank Black Sabbath. They were pretty much the first band I got introduced to. I was around 11 or 12 years old [and my brothers were 5 and 6 years older], so I had no choice but to listen to it. And we would be driving around, and they’d be cranking Black Sabbath while I was sitting in the back seat as a kid.

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Which Black Sabbath song in particular brings back a specific (good or bad) memory as soon as you hear it?

I think “Snowblind” was the first song of theirs that I heard, but I remember driving around with my brothers listening to Master of Reality all the time. Whenever I hear those songs, especially “After Forever” and “Lord of This World,” I just remember sitting in the back of my brothers’ Plymouth Duster with the = equalizer being cranked. And now I do that with my son – with him in the backseat while we blast metal.

Is Master of Reality your favorite Black Sabbath album?

No, Sabotage is because it was so angry [sounding]. And it’s not a fan-favorite either … but they were going through a lot of legal stuff at the time. Basically, after five albums and touring everywhere for years, they came home and realized they had no money – they were getting ripped off and had no clue. It took them two years to do that record, and they just really let the venom out on that.

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What is it about Black Sabbath that you continue to resonate with?

Well, none of their stuff sounds dated. You play the first album and song they ever wrote, and it still sounds fresh. A lot of ‘70s bands, especially their studio albums, I don’t know if it was the production but it sounds a little dated. But the Sabbath records were always great, dark and heavy. And just to hear how heavy those riffs were, even back then, nobody was doing that stuff.

It always amazed me how if it wasn’t for Tony Iommi losing the tips of his two fingers, we may never have gotten that iconic heavy sound.

Yeah, I mean they started off as a blues band … The story goes that they were in the studio just jamming on blues stuff, and Geezer Butler looked out the window and saw a huge line outside of a movie theater playing “Black Sabbath.” He went “Wow, look at all of those people just waiting to be scared… we should make scary, heavy music!”

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Do you see any sort of connection between how Black Sabbath approached making music to how comedians approach doing stand-up?

I mean, a comic is always looking for something that he went through in life – something tragic or shit that they went through – to talk about. On Sabotage especially, Sabbath wrote lyrics that were really personable. For some reason that record really struck a nerve with me.

As a comic, when we go through some shit, it’s like “Good! At some point, I’m going to turn this into material and it’s going to be gold! It’s going suck for a while, but I’m going to figure it out and turn this pain into some comedy.” And it goes the same way [for bands]. Whether it’s a divorce or a bad breakup, they’re going to write a whole album about it. They got material now!

I know you’ve seen Black Sabbath in concert many times, but when was the first time you saw them live?

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1978 on the Never Say Die! tour. My older brother took me to Madison Square Garden. Van Halen was opening.

What do you remember most from that show?

Well, I remember getting high [laughs]. I remember getting stoned because people would just pass joints down the row and people would just take hits. I looked at my brother, and he was like “Eh… yeah, alright you can have a hit.” I was thirteen at the time, so I was like “Oh man!”

There’s always this myth that Van Halen blew Sabbath off the stage on that whole tour, and that was NOT going on. I think “Running with the Devil” or “You Really Got Me” was playing on the radio at that time, the album had only been out for like 6 months, but they weren’t that big. Everyone’s stoned, you’ve got 70,000 people stoned out of their minds, and this opening band comes on and they might know one song. I mean maybe 500 people [at the show] had their record, it took a little while for that record to catch on.

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I even asked Iommi when we had him on That Metal Show, “Were people leaving when you went on after Van Halen?” and he said “Nope, didn’t see any of that.” I love Van Halen, but it just didn’t happen.

I was actually about to mention how you got to ask Tony about that tour, as well as interview a few members of Black Sabbath on That Metal Show. Would you say getting Tony on the record clarifying that myth was a highlight moment from those interviews?

I would, because I would always have to defend that for years. Van Halen might have [blown them off stage] later in the tour, I think they toured together over in England a few months later. So maybe they were more popular by then, and they’re obviously more energetic on stage [than Sabbath]. But yeah, I was happy I got that question in.

 

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Was there a question you wish you got to ask any member of Black Sabbath on That Metal Show?

You know, I would’ve liked to asked either Ozzy or Iommi about … if you look at footage from ’75 to ’78, Iommi was standing in the center of the stage where the lead singer [typically] stands, and then Ozzy was stage left. Like Ozzy would be singing on the side while Iommi was right in the spotlight… it’s just weird if you watch those old Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert performances and even on that ’78 tour…

I mean, Iommi pretty much did those last two records [Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die!] himself. Everybody else was all fucked up. They even had another singer [Dave Walker] lined up for Never Say Die!, but then Ozzy came back and finished the record. So he wasn’t around for much of Never Say Die!, and he hated that record.

Going back to That Metal Show for a second – I know that initially VH1 Classic limited the show to having “classic” hard rock and metal guests, but you were eventually able to get some more modern acts on-air which I know a lot of metal fans enjoyed and appreciated.

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Well it’s like a relationship – you got to keep pounding away until you get your way. Like, “Ah, she’s gonna give in eventually!” So right from the beginning [of the show], we went “Look, we’re going to run out of these ‘80s acts really quick. If this show ends up on the air for a while, we need to bring in some new blood too!”

We’d go to an Avenged Sevenfold show, and it’s the same people you’d see at a Judas Priest show. We kept saying that the middle-aged guy at home watching liked that newer stuff too! So eventually they came around by like Season 3 or so. I was like “Look, we can’t have Slash on every week!” and I think they finally realized that.

It also speaks volumes that the show interviewed Axl Rose in the middle of his 2011 Chinese Democracy tour!

And that was Axl’s first interview in many years … Somebody, maybe Axl’s manager at the time, tricked him and said “Hey, VH1 Classic is going to come down to Miami and film your version of Guns N’ Roses performing to promote the North American tour. And they might interview some of the guys in the band for a whole special.” And he was like, “Yeah, I don’t care…”

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So, then the manager tells us, “Axl will do the interview with you guys!” And we’re like, “Holy shit, we’re going to Miami! For Axl? Absolutely!” When we got there and asked if it was going to happen before the show, the manager said “Nah, it’ll probably be after.” So, the manager was just dicking us around thinking “Alright, I got them here, and Axl’s probably not going to show up.”

And then, when the show ended at like 3 a.m., Axl was like, “Wait they want to interview me?! I didn’t even know! Nobody told me! Well, then let me go shower.” So then by 5 a.m. we interviewed him… it might have been 5:20 a.m. [laughs]

Oh wow, I forgot that the interview didn’t actually take place until early in the morning!

Yeah, I remember they went onstage at midnight and they didn’t get off until 3 a.m. I remember all of these workers from the arena backstage, they had no idea about Guns N’ Roses or Axl Rose, and they were like “When is this motherfucker getting offstage?! This is bullshit!” They were miserable!

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At what point did you realize after waiting for so long it was finally going to happen?

As soon as Axl found out [that we were there] from Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal [who played guitar in GN’R at the time] …  I’m pretty sure it was him who told Axl we were there because we had interviewed him earlier [that day]. We’re friends with him, he actually did the theme music for That Metal Show, so he went to Axl and said “Listen man, these guys are waiting for you!” and Axl just asked for a little time to clean up. He wasn’t a pain in the ass, he wasn’t a diva, none of that shit.

What was going through your head once you were actually sitting with him?

I was like, “Oh man, I cannot believe it. I just can’t fuck this up!” And I knew one question I wasn’t going to ask – was the original lineup ever getting back together? – because everyone had asked Slash and Duff for years, and I knew he wasn’t going to break it on our show. At that point they still hated each other. So, I wasn’t going to ask some dumb question like that.

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I do remember loving the moment Axl essentially pointed out how awkward it was that DJ Ashba barely said anything during this long interview.

DJ’s a good dude, and he was like “Listen man, I know who you’re here to interview. I’m not going to take it personally if you ask me one question and Axl 25.”

It was definitely a highlight, interviewing Axl and him being nice. I figured he would, I always heard good things about him. He always [unfairly] got bad stuff in the press. Even in the interview he said “I get so much bad press that I don’t even acknowledge it! There’s no reason to!”

As big of a metal fan as you are, your standup routine barely has anything to do with metal, or music in general.

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That’s because I know most of the crowd is just not going to “get” it. I have a weird fanbase – there’s fans who know me from my appearances on Opie & Anthony, fans of my characters from Crank Yankers, fans of That Metal Show, and then fans of standup comedy in general. So, I can’t just play to the three guys in Iron Maiden shirts sitting up front. If I do a joke about AC/DC in New York City, the crowd would just stare at me and go “Wait, I think I know that band…” and by then, the joke’s already over.

You are, though, one of the few comedians who can attest to how difficult it is to perform in front of both hecklers AND Slayer fans. Do you think doing standup while opening for Slayer’s tour (with Megadeth and Anthrax in 2010) made you a stronger performer?

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No, definitely not. You’d think it might, and maybe [it would make you better] at handling hecklers and a big crowd, but a comic really shouldn’t be playing those places to begin with. I just did it as a challenge. I figured I had never played in an arena opening for a band, and I probably would’ve been at that show anyways [as a fan], so why not try it. But I didn’t like it that much, it was tough. Every night was rough for me. I mean, I pulled it off because 80% of the crowd knew me from That Metal Show, so that gave me a break for a couple of minutes. Otherwise they would’ve booed me off the stage pretty quick.

Look, comedy barely works at a comedy club with people paying to see a guy with a microphone and a stool onstage. Now you’re bringing [comedy] to a whole different arena. It was still fun to do… but I probably wouldn’t do it again. It’s not worth it – it’s too nerve-racking, and it doesn’t really help you as a comic.

Do you see any other ways metal and comedy intertwine with each other?

Well, every musician wants to be a comedian, and every comedian wants to be a musician. When I meet guys in a band, they always go, “Oh man, I would LOVE to do comedy!” They’re fascinated by it. And then as a comic, we’re like, “Oh man, that would be cool to be on a tour bus with a bunch of your friends, doing a show where everyone sings along to shit you wrote 20 years ago!” We’re both jealous of each other.

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Why do you think being a comedian appeals to musicians so much?  

I think musicians are socially awkward like comedians. [As kids] they just stayed in their rooms practicing on Friday and Saturday nights. They weren’t really the popular kids in school, so they can relate [to the social awkwardness of comedians].

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