Joe Frank (August 19, 1938 - January 15, 2018) was a French-born American writer, teacher, and radio performer known best for his often philosophical, humorous, surrealist, and sometimes absurdmonologues and radio dramas he recorded often in collaboration with friends, actors, and family members.
Frank was born Joseph Langermann in Strasbourg, France, near the border of Germany, to father Meier Langermann (then aged 51, a Polish-born shoe manufacturer) and mother Friederike "Fritzi" Langermann (née Passweg) (then aged 27). Frank was born months before the family fled from Nazi Germany's persecution of Jewish people in their native Poland. Legislation to allow the family and others into the country was passed by the US Congress twice, the first having been vetoed by President Roosevelt. His father (identified as 'Meyer Langerman' in New York City's death records) died of kidney failure on October 8 1943 when Joe was five years old. On April 28 1945 his mother married Theodore Frank (whom Joe called Freddy in his show, and in the article 'Joe Frank is off the air' in the 'LA Weekly' in 1997) and changed Joe's last name.
In his twenties, Frank studied at Hofstra University in New York and later at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. In 1964, he taught five grades of English at the Sands Point Academy for Gifted Children in Sands Point, NY. From 1965-1975, Joe taught English and Russian literature and philosophy at the Dalton School in Manhattan and later, while working as a music promoter (1976-1977), became interested in the power of radio.
In 1977, Frank started volunteering at Pacifica Network stationWBAI in New York, performing experimental radio involving monologues, improvisational actors, and live music during late-night, free-form hours. In 1978, he moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as a co-anchor for the weekend edition of National Public Radio's All Things Considered, his first paying radio job, which lasted two weeks. At the end of each segment, he was given five minutes to create and narrate his creative fictional essays.
In 1978-1984, Joe performed in, and produced 18 dramas for the "NPR Playhouse," which won several awards. His 1982 monologue "Lies" was used, without permission, as the inspiration for the Martin Scorsese movie After Hours. (He later settled out of court for a modest settlement.)
In 1986, on the invitation of Ruth Hirschman Seymour, the general manager of NPR's Santa Monica, California affiliate KCRW, Frank moved to Santa Monica, where he wrote, produced, and performed in his own weekly hour-long radio program, "Joe Frank: Work In Progress."
While at KCRW, Frank received several accolades.
Joe Frank continued to work at KCRW until 2002, and his work evolved, as evidenced by the diverse series he produced. The first was "Work in Progress," then "In The Dark," followed by "Somewhere out There", and finally "The Other Side."
Beginning in 2004, Frank began creating full-length shows for subscribers to his web site.
In 2012, Frank started producing periodic half-hour shows for KCRW's "UnFictional" series. He continued to produce all-new shows for the series until months before his death.
His 230-hour body of work continues to be re-aired on WNYC New York, and many NPR stations including the radio station at the University of California at Davis, KDVS, Savannah, Georgia WRUU, Cabool, Missouri KZGM, Carson City, Nevada KNVC, and others with new stations being added.
In early 2005, Frank suffered complete kidney failure. He received a second cousin's kidney in 2006, which continued to function normally (with the help of multiple immunosuppressant drugs) until his death.
In 2012, Frank returned to KCRW for episodes of the station's "UnFictional" program.
In May 2014, Frank had surgery to treat colon cancer, which was successful. In December 2015, Frank was hospitalized due to a gastrointestinal perforation following a routine medical procedure. This led to heart and kidney issues and Joe's complete recovery took a full year. His colon cancer returned in July 2017; he had surgery in October 2017 to excise a tumor in his colon. He died on January 15, 2018, after multiple reversals following the surgery, including an occurrence of sepsis, which was the final blow.
Radio program style
Frank's radio programs are often dark and ironic and employ a dry sense of humor and the sincere delivery of ideas or stories that are patently absurd. Subject matter often includes religion, life's meaning, death, and Frank's relationships with women.
Frank's voice is distinctive, resonant, authoritative, and, because of his occasional voice-over work, often oddly familiar. At the 2003 Third Coast Festival, he explained that he was recording in Dolby and playing back without it, which created Joe's now familiar intimate and gritty sound. A 1987 Los Angeles Times article described it as a voice "like dirty honey" and "rich as chocolate."
The repetitive cadence of the music, drones and Frank's dry, announcer-like delivery are sometimes mixed with recorded phone calls with actor/friends such as Larry Block, Debi Mae West and Arthur Miller (not the playwright), broken into segments over the course of each hour-long program.
Frank's series "The Other Side" included excerpts from Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield's Dharma talks at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. In an interview on KPFA's "Morning Show," Kornfield was asked about working with Joe Frank. Kornfield explained that, although he had never met or talked to Joe Frank or heard his show, he didn't mind Frank using the lectures and that many of his meditation students had found Kornfield through the show.
Joe Frank is credited in the titles of the 1999 cult movie Galaxy Quest as the voice of the on board computer of spaceship The Protector.
The Decline of Spengler stage play, New Directions 48, New York City
A Tour of the City stage play (Tanam Press, New York City), produced by Theatre Anima at Hangar #9 in the Old Port, Montreal, Canada, in 1990, directed by Jordan Deitcher.
The Queen of Puerto Rico and Other Stories. (William Morrow, New York City, 1993). A collection of short stories: Tell me what to do--Fat man--Night--Date--Walter--The queen of Puerto Rico--The decline of Spengler. ISBN0-688-08765-5 Out of print.
Four short films for television based on his radio shows were written by Joe Frank, directed by Paul Rachman and produced by Propaganda Films in Los Angeles. "Memories by Joe Frank" in 1992 for CBS Television as a pilot, "The Hitchhiker", "The Perfect Woman", and "Jilted Lover" in 1993 for the series "Inside Out" on a cable network.
Filmmaker Chel White created three short films based on segments from Joe Frank's radio shows, two of which include his voice. The films are Dirt (1998) and "Magda" (2004) from Frank's show "The Dictator", and "Soulmate" (2000) from "Emerald Isle".
Short film: "Coma" produced and directed by Todd Downing. Based on the radio show of the same title by Joe Frank.
A feature-length film, Joe Frank: Somewhere Out There, about Frank's life and work, is scheduled for release in 2018. The film was completed prior to Frank's death and includes interviews with collaborators and other personalities.
Influence and legacy
Frank's body of work has inspired a variety of other artists including:
Jeff Crouse, artist and technologist, created "Interactive Frank," which uses content from the Web to dynamically create a Joe Frank Show. "The user types in a sentence, and Interactive Frank takes over, scouring the Web for another sentence that follows a sentence with the last three words. Frank can also find streaming audio to accompany the generated narrative based on a word analysis, and it can read the narrative using an online text-to-speech generator."
Blue Jam, a late-1990s series made by British comedian Chris Morris broadcast on BBC Radio 1 in the UK, shares parallels with early editions of mid-1980s Work in Progress shows.
Comedian Dana Gould credits Joe Frank as the inspiration for the format of his podcast, The Dana Gould Hour. After Frank's death he dedicated an episode of the podcast entirely to his work and legacy.
^Congressional Record on 1940 May 2 (86 Congressional Record 5425 (1940), page 5469): By Mrs. O'DAY [Caroline Love Goodwin, congresswoman from New York]:
H.R. 9651: A bill for the relief of Meier Langermann, his wife Friederike, and son Joseph; to the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization.
^The Senate passed the bill on 1940 June 22 (86 Congressional Record 8909 (1940), page 8974). President Roosevelt vetoed the bill on 1940 July 2 (86 Congressional Record 9142 (1940), page 9146). Quoth his message: 'Meier Langermann, his wife and son, formerly of Germany, although citizens of Poland'
^Congresswoman O'Day submitted an identical bill the next day (86 Congressional Record 9231 (1940), page 9244) A reading of the bill on 1940 September 30 (86 Congressional Record 12842 (1940), page 12870) noted: "Meier Langermann, his wife Friederike, and son Joseph, as of April 12, 1939, the date on which they were admitted temporarily to the United States." Congress passed it on March 6, 1941 (87 Congressional Record 1902 (1941), page 1906).