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Failure is an option

Despite his best efforts to sabotage himself, Sam Seder is finding success on Air America

NEW YORK -- Clutching a stack of papers streaked with yellow highlighter, Sam Seder hurries into the studio and takes a seat at the microphone. The Air America Radio host will talk nearly nonstop for three hours, and he's eager to get going.

A minute later, a light flashes and Seder's on the air. Or is he? As he begins yammering away about the Supreme Court and ``Coke-can Clarence Thomas," the control room can't hear him, and neither, it turns out, can any of the network's listeners across the country.

Most talk show hosts would get angry or embarrassed, but Seder seems pleased with the awkward silence. While techs work frantically to restore sound, he leans back in his chair and smiles.

``Sam's always had a strong impulse to alienate people, to make the audience unhappy," says his longtime friend, comedian Jon Benjamin. ``As a result, he's incredibly adept at failure."

That's no joke. Seder, a onetime actor and comedian from Worcester, has a knack for not succeeding. He's turned down TV roles that would have made him a millionaire and taken jobs others would run from. If he's not as well known as his comedian friends Sarah Silverman and David Cross -- and he's not -- Seder bears much of the blame. Still, at 39, he's famous to a few: Seder's movie ``Who's the Caboose" is a cult favorite; TV executives say they'd love to work with him; and his Air America show, ``The Majority Report," a mix of lefty politics and loopy humor, is one of the most popular on the fledgling network.

``This is the first time I've had a steady, infinite-horizon job," Seder says, standing outside Air America's New York headquarters. ``But I'm sure I'll [mess] it up."

Seder, whose mother, Mari, is an artist and whose father, J. Robert, is a prominent Worcester attorney, considered becoming a lawyer. But, to the dismay of his dad, he dropped out of Boston University Law School to pursue a career in comedy.

``Sam said to me, `I think I want to be a comedian,' " recalls Seder's father. ``And I said, `Oh, Jesus.' "

Seder stayed in Boston to do sketch comedy and stand-up. His oddball bits were reminiscent of Andy Kaufman and included such characters as an avant-garde French philosopher and Cindy Brady. Some of it worked. A lot of it didn't.

He was among a crowd of young comics honing their skills in Boston during the late '80s and early '90s: Benjamin, Cross, Louis C.K., Janeane Garofalo, Marc Maron, Laura Kightlinger, Laura Silverman, and David Waterman were all performing regularly at clubs in Cambridge. When he wasn't on stage, Seder was waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant in Inman Square, and living in a decrepit rooming house -- a ``three-quarters house," he calls it -- in Central Square.

``He made a long stick with a knob at the end," recalls Sarah Silverman, Seder's former girlfriend. ``It was a long, make shift, taped-together channel changer so he didn't have to get up. Sam would sit in his one chair and wait for Charlie Rose to come on."

By his own admission, Seder was obsessed with Rose and would take photos of the talk show host while watching his TV show. He also took pictures of his television during the Anita Hill hearings and the 1991 Gulf War.

``I put pictures of, like, [Senator] Orrin Hatch on refrigerator magnets and sold them to my friends," says Seder. ``Every day, I'd sit in front of my TV and take photos. I still have over 500 of those pictures."

His stand-up was not overtly political, but Seder, who served on a city charter commission in high school and was class president his senior year in college, did pay attention to the news.

``I found him immediately intelligent, verbal, and funny," says Garofalo, who moved to Boston after graduating from Providence College. ``I was interested in politics, too, but I was too embarrassed to speak about it."


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Seder eventually left Cambridge for New York, and in 1997 he co-wrote, directed, and starred in ``Who's the Caboose," a mockumentary about a film crew following a young actress auditioning for TV shows in Los Angeles. Co starring Sarah Silverman, Cross, Benjamin, and Waterman, the film was well received but played only at select film festivals.

Seder seemed to be on a roll. Not long after ``Caboose" came out, John Lahr of The New Yorker was assigned to write a piece naming Seder the next Albert Brooks.

``I remember saying to myself, `This is great. This can only be positive,' " says Seder.

Or not. At their initial meeting, Seder sneered at Lahr's first question -- ``How does it feel to be hot?" -- and the interview went downhill from there. Lahr went to see Seder perform but was so unimpressed that he pronounced him the ``worst stand-up comedian ever" and decided not to write the piece.

An enfant terrible
That would not be the last time Seder sabotaged himself. He says he was offered a lead role on ``Ally McBeal" -- Billy, the lawyer who is Ally's ex-boyfriend -- but turned it down. Later he was picked to play Courtney Thorne-Smith's brother on the pilot for ``According to Jim."

``I don't look anything like Courtney Thorne-Smith; she's blonde and good-looking," says Seder, who's Jewish and has dark curly hair. ``I did my character in a Jackie Mason voice, and put `If I Were a Rich Man' as my ring tone, and got all my friends to call me on the set."

ABC picked up the pilot, but Seder was not asked to be on the show, which is now in syndication.

Instead, he did his own thing, taking occasional acting parts and writing a promising pilot called ``Beat Cops," about two neurotic New York City police officers. The show wasn't picked up, but the Trio network, a division of NBC Universal, did sign Seder to make a sequel to ``Who's the Caboose " called ``Pilot Season."

``We believed in Sam, and the final product was exactly what he said it'd be," says Andrew Cohen, a former Trio executive who's now head of production and development at Bravo. ``Usually, when someone promises Sarah Silverman and David Cross, you get Natalie from `Facts of Life' and Emmanuel Lewis. But Sam delivered. `Pilot Season' is funnier than 90 percent of the crap that's out there."

That may be true, but virtually no one saw it, and NBC soon yanked Trio off the air.

``Sam's a bit of an enfant terrible for the networks," says his friend and TV producer Jim Biederman. ``They all want to be in business with him, but they're all a little afraid of him."

Combining his interests in comedy and politics, Seder then wrote, directed, and starred in a movie about Senator Joe Lieberman's fictional son, a guy so agitated about the 2000 presidential election that he tries to blow up a building. The film, whose cast also included Silverman, Benjamin, Cross, Maron, and Garofalo, was just a few weeks shy of being finished when 9/11 came.

``On Sept. 10, the notion of a zealot orchestrating a terrorist attack because he's frustrated that his voice isn't being heard was kind of funny," says Seder. ``On Sept. 11, it wasn't."

Political commitment
In the aftermath of the attacks, Seder didn't get the money to finish the film, and the project was shelved. Five years later, there is still no plan to release it.

Seder says he became more committed politically after 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq. When Garofalo asked whether he'd like to cohost a show on a new liberal radio network, Seder said sure. The idea of a national platform from which to poke fun at the Bush administration seemed appealing.

Just before it launched in March 2004, Air America hosted a party in New York to introduce its on-air talent. Several of the speakers wound up the crowd by bashing the Bush administration, but when it was Seder's turn to talk, he pretended to have laryngitis.

``Al Franken was the MC, and it took him a second to get that it was a joke," says Maron. ``It was brilliant."

Franken was Air America's marquee name. Most listeners had never heard of Seder, whose ``Majority Report" was promoted this week to the midmorning slot -- 9 a.m. to noon -- on more than 70 stations across the country, including New York and Los Angeles. (Inexplicably, Air America's Boston affiliate broadcasts the show from 1-4 a.m.)

Seder attracted his audience with inane riffs on the news, chats with prominent bloggers, and interviews with upstart Democratic candidates, including Ned Lamont, whom Seder had on long before his campaign against Lieberman was taken seriously.

``When Sam started, he was kind of an asterisk," says Markos Moulitsas Zuniga , creator of the popular Daily Kos website. ``But he's in capital letters now. He's good at finding life's absurdities, and politics is a target-rich environment."

The secret to Seder's success is his preparation. He arrives at his office -- a cramped space with bookshelves lined with works by Noam Chomsky, Stanley Greenberg, and Bob Hope -- several hours early to scour the Web for stories. He and his producer then prioritize the day's news, leading with the items likeliest to outrage conservatives -- or, as Seder calls them, ``the forces of anti democracy."

``Sam works his butt off and does his homework," says Franken. ``The guy's the future of the network."

That is, if it has a future. Air America Radio has not caught on as some predicted, and in many markets, including Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, its signal is weak. A number of network executives have left in recent months, and Jon Sinton, Air America's head of programming and affiliates, did not return repeated phone calls for this story.

Seder , who's married and has a 2-year-old daughter, is hoping Air America succeeds, of course, but the prospect of its failure doesn't phase him.

``I'll just go back into entertainment," he says. ``I still have a career there. I think."