Smile Politely

The Viper returns…

For the audience who has no background, you could note that we were a fixture on the local scene in the 1990s, that we play in a skiffle street-jazz style, and that, musically, we fall somewhere between Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mel Brooks.

I am an opinion columnist. My editor expects me to turn in a few hundred words, regular. It makes me really happy when I can write about something I love which is good.

I love The Viper & His Famous Orchestra. It is good.

In fact, I’d argue TV & HFO is the best live act from the Champaign-Urbana scene since The Didjits. And that’s saying something.

“An acoustic musical comedy act with four-part vocal harmonies” is the pedantic way to describe The Viper on ukulele, Riley Broach on bass, Rob Henn on trombone and Edward Burch tapping an old travel accessory with a pair of whisk brooms.

But I’m not sure how to describe the act. Every useful adjective wants to be paired with its antonym. It’s whimsical, but it’s informative. It’s rehearsed, but extemporaneous. It’s old tyme, but it’s cutting edge. And for the kids who think you need to spend a thousand dollars on equipment before you can call yourselves a band, TV & HFO teaches this valuable lesson: Pick up whatever’s lying around, and tap it.

They return to Champaign-Urbana this weekend for two shows at the Mike and Molly. The first show (for big kids) is Friday evening at 8pm. The second show (for the little kids) is Sunday afternoon at 4pm.

Either way, you can count on some scary drunk old men in the audience. If we can’t count on Mike and Molly to provide a safe haven for grizzled old drunks, what’s the world coming to?

The children will also enjoy a mild socialist indoctrination. Although trombonist Rob Henn no longer leads the fight to unionize Illinois grad students, both shows will undoubtedly feature some degree of call and response explicating workers control of the means of production:




But TV & HFO is more than just Marxist theory. It’s also about booze.

[Rob Henn on lead trombone, The Viper on baritone ukulele and Riley Broach on triple bass.]

Photos from Millennium Park copyright Robert Loerzel, by permission.

Here’s what The Viper (in the guise of mild-mannered humanities professor Ryan Jerving) says of the upcoming reunion: We’ll be playing with an expanded orchestra that will also include Kenneth P.W. Rainey of Chicago’s Tangleweed on lap steel, electric mandolin, and nose flute and Victor Cortez of Champaign’s own Rectangle on toy piano, washboard, music stand, and second suitcase. We’re featuring a bunch of new material, including polkas, freylakhs, slow jams, sea chanteys, presidential marches, and songs from my McCarthyist musical Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been…Blue? Victor Cortez rocks the 88’s… er… 9’s.

Q: I’m writing you up, if you’d care to concoct some interesting lies, fantastical stories, intriguing anecdotes…

A: On Sunday, August 9, we’re playing a “family friendly” show at which we’ll pitch our marxist rants and double entendres at a level even a child can understand. That also gives us license on Friday night, August 7, to be really, really dirty. I also plan to take down the Duke of Uke and thrash him, ukulele-ly, to within an inch of his father-freaking life.


I’m in Milwaukee, after having been in the D.C. area for 5 years (teaching Writing at George Washington University), and in Ankara, Turkey for 2 years before that (teaching American Culture and Literature at Bilkent University). After 7 months of ungainful unemployment here in Wisconsin, I’ll be starting teaching in the English department at Marquette University in the fall. The course is “Themes of Loss and Disenchantment in the Later Works of Al McGuire.” (That’s a joke.) My most recent peer-reviewed publication is “An Experiment in Modern Vaudeville: Archiving the Wretched Refuse in John Howard Lawson’s Processional.” (Which reads like a joke, but it isn’t.) As of this minute (I’m writing this at 12:01 on August 4), Ann and I have been blissfully wedded for 9 years. We have a 5-year-old daughter named Irene who would like me to sing Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb” at the show.


Q: Is there anyone sexier than Riley Broach?

A: The only one sexier than Riley Broach is his brother, Chris. One polka with him at Madison’s Essen Haus earlier this past June, and I was a changed man. Riley teaches music and directs the Orchestra at Lake Zurich Middle School North and lives in the “Whipple House” (built in 1866) in Palatine, IL.

Q: Whatever happened with Rob Henn’s GEO campaign?

A: The Graduate Employees Organization was, ultimately, recognized by the university and now has a contract. Thanks to the Viper and His Famous Orchestra, Rob Henn has been a Staff organizer for the Teaching Assistants’ Association at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since May 2003.

Rob Henn, incognito sans beard, explains to Chancellor Herman Where To Stick It]Q: Does anyone like Edward?

A: The whole world loves Edward, and all the good stuff he bakes. Seriously — the guy can bake. He lives in Taylor, TX with the lovely and talented Rachel Leibowitz, who has not one, but two, sitcom jobs: architect and photographer.

If you do bring your young ones, The Viper’s charismatic showmanship will wow them. His personal charm and verve fills an entire stage and spills over to nearby unprotected structures. Part of the panache derives from its wholly unexpected source: Alter-ego Ryan Jerving makes Clark Kent seem dangerous. From a certain angle, in bad lighting, Jerving’s physique and features suggest the presence of an extra 21st chromosome. Do not be deceived by this façade. The Mike & Molly is a popular beer garden even without a long-awaited reunion. So come early if you want a seat. And bring your liver.

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