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Catch a ride on the ridiculous: Yacht Rock hits S.F. 

Wednesday, Aug 20 2008
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I can't scientifically prove it, but I swear the reason I hear so much Hall & Oates in neighborhood bars these days is Yacht Rock. The now cult-classic Web video series identified the innocuous Southern California-style pop of the late '70s and early '80s and gave it fresh comedic context. Most San Francisco dive bars are dens of harder-edged classic rock, and yet whenever I've saddled up at the Page, I hear goofy Yacht Rock tracks like "Rich Girl" or "You Make My Dreams" blaring from the speakers. Sure, there are now a host of smooth hits in rotation on various bar jukeboxes around the city, but I believe they wouldn't have reared their feathered heads before 2005 if it weren't for the infectious, hokey humor of Yacht Rock.

By now the cheeky Yacht Rock concept should be familiar to those who know their Donald Fagen from their Glenn Frey. The Los Angeles-based writing team of J.D. Ryznar (who plays Michael McDonald in the series) and Hunter Stair (who plays Kenny Loggins) dreamed it up for the Web comedy site Channel 101, which aired the humorous amateur skits for viewer approval. Winning segments stayed on, while losing ones were voted out. After bombing with ideas like a sitcom about biological warfare, Stair suggested to Hunter that they write about what they love: the buttery, earnest lite-rock tunes that blanketed suburbia between 1976 and 1984. So in 2005 the duo took a month to write and shoot their first faux-Behind the Music piece involving the Doobie Brothers, McDonald, Loggins, Jim Messina, and host "Hollywood" Steve Huey of All Music Guide. From there, a new chapter in cult history — and the beginnings of the phrase "California vagina sailors," one of the best disses in the series — began.

Yacht Rock grew to 11 episodes strong, involving cameos from Drew Carey and Jason Lee, and ranging as far as roping in gangsta rap and Van Halen. The last skit came out in January; the entire oeuvre is available at www.channel101.com.

Next week the series gets its official San Francisco party, as Ryznar and other regulars from Koko's Boathouse screen the Yacht Rock series at the Rickshaw Stop on Wednesday, Aug. 27. The party will also involve a set of "soft-rock classics" from the Guitar Zeros and related DJ cuts from Roscoe 2000.

In a recent phone call, Ryznar said it was appropriate that San Francisco holds a real Yacht Rock party, as people have been e-mailing requests for one since the show first aired — and this very publication helped elevate the show's visibility. He claims that after my predecessor Garrett Kamps praised the show in a Sept. 2005 column, "things just exploded. It was a really neat moment." Although he adds with a laugh, "It's been all downhill from there. But you still feel a slow build as more people discover it."

It's hard to believe that Yacht Rock isn't huge, as its deadpan extrapolations of smooth pop trivia and imaginary turf wars are witty and hilarious. The program's creators lifted from songwriting history music that had been demoted to soundtracks for dentists' offices and elevators and involved its makers in fistfights, kidnappings, and double-crossings. Ryznar and Stair took music as aggressive as a summer breeze and pushed its masterminds into battles so over the top they were instantly entertaining. But Ryznar, who earned his degree in film studies at University of Michigan before working "crappy PA jobs on reality TV production companies," says the show never became a gigantic Internet phenomenon. "Someone falling off their bike and farting can get a million hits, but Yacht Rock hasn't hit that," he says. He estimates that fewer than 300,000 people have seen the show.

Even if the numbers aren't there, though, the cultural cachet remains. Fans from London to Australia invite the creators to Yacht Rock parties. "For someone to say they like what you did is great," says Ryznar, "but when it actually creates a cultural shift, that's awesome." It's gotten to the point where he says he's worried that publicly listening to the music he spoofed would be "basking in the glory of my semipopular Internet show."

Even more importantly, the show has reached some of the songwriters it parodies. When I interviewed John Oates last year, he genially credited Yacht Rock for being the beginning of "this whole Hall and Oates resurrection." When Stair met Toto's Steve Porcaro at a party, he answered the keyboardist's question about why Yacht Rock apparently hated his band with an hour-long explanation of "how awesome Toto's Hydra album is." Ryznar says Michael McDonald's son is a huge fan (he adds that McDonald's record company even did its own Yacht Rock-inspired skit, but played things too close to the vest).

Through Yacht Rock, Ryznar has been signed by a Hollywood agency and recently wrote a script for a friend of Jason Lee's. The movie, still in the casting phase, is called Crater. It's about a St. Louis bar band in the late '70s that hires what its members think is a badass lead singer to help them get signed. "But it turns out the guy's a real fruitbag and only wants to write ballads," Ryznar says.

Ryznar also has one more Yacht Rock episode in mind, a finale that will show up whenever he gets around to finishing the script. But don't expect any feature-length versions of these margarita-and-rum–soaked skits. There's the issue of purchasing the rights for every song they single out, but the writers have deeper concerns about creative control. Ryznar is very protective of his project, telling me numerous times he won't give up his carte blanche for cash. When Channel 101 had a sketch comedy show on VH-1, Ryznar says he was invited to write a Yacht Rock skit about the music channel's history. The storyline described a yuppie MTV exec who gets fed up with the "punks" at MTV in 1985 and builds a shack in the parking lot. He discovers some Phil Collins videos in the dumpster, and VH-1 is born. The response? "We got so many notes, 'Don't make fun of VH-1 executives,' 'Don't make fun of MTV executives,'" Ryznar says. "We realized right then that it wasn't worth it because they beat the funny right out of it."

So maybe the silver lining to these smooth hit spoofs is that while the show remains underground, it retains a singular hold on pop culture's guilty pleasures. Yacht Rock's mockumentaries on these hitmakers are simultaneously informative (Toto's "Rosanna" was about Rosanna Arquette) and absurd (the Eagles beating up the Doobie Brothers on a baseball diamond; Kenny Loggins inventing the song "Footloose" after being chained to the ground by Jimmy Buffett). "I think Yacht Rock is attractive to people because the music is so clearly loved," Ryznar says, "and at the same time the characters are so ridiculous."

About The Author

Jennifer Maerz

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