“Is your name Dave?”
“It is!” Dave “Gruber” Allen replied. He has the same friendly demeanor as Jeff Rosso, the high school counselor he played on the beloved canceled-too-soon series Freaks & Geeks. When life imitates art like that, any geek will be tickled. We all want our favorite actors to be like they are on TV. That rarely happens—there’s a reason they call it acting. But this time, it did.
After Allen posed for a picture, I discovered we were on the same flight. Did he have a gig in Salt Lake City? A Naked Trucker show? Nope. “I live there!” he said. We were boarding, so there wasn’t much time to chat. But Allen waited for me after the flight to talk some more and give me a signed Cinematic Titanic postcard—replete with a self-caricature.
Allen was returning to SLC (where he’d moved 18 months prior for “family stuff”) after a Cinematic Titanic show in North Carolina. CT is a splinter faction of another freak-and-geek favorite, Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s pretty much the same deal, only Joel Hodgson and crew also rip on movies before a live audience. Allen flies around doing other gigs, like Adult Swim’s NTSF:SD:SUV, and sometimes, as with the upcoming Fox animated series Axe Cop, records his dialogue here in SLC.
Allen’s been opening the live CT shows, doing a special sort of act, which he told me about months later as we scrutinized his iPod’s contents. “I have a vague idea to create an opening act for opening acts,” Allen says. “Working title: The Pre-Op—with a long O.” As an English-language cover of Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66’s popular hit “Waters of March (Aguas de Março)” plays, he gets up to demonstrate. He does a sort of interpretive dance that consists of “poorly executed ASL signing and lip-synching.”
It’s alternative comedy straight out of the Tim & Eric school. But with a key difference: You get caught up in Allen’s dance, and you want to participate. It’s joyous and weird and funny, and a side of “Gruber” you haven’t seen before. “So far I’ve got [a dance worked out for] the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” and I’m working on Santigold, Ace of Base, Sara Watkins and Dolly Parton,” he says.
A Santigold song, incidentally, was the first that popped up on Allen’s shuffled iPod. He immediately credits an acquaintance with turning him on to her. “The only way I find out about music is through recommendations,” he says. “Like The Black Keys. They’ve been around forever and I just barely heard about them. They’re great. You know the expression ‘I came late to the party’? That’s me. I’ve been late to every musical trend.”
That’s surprising, considering how Allen—and a lot of his characters—are musicians. Rosso related to teen freaks by playing Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen.” On the just-canceled Fox series Ben & Kate, he played the titular figure in the cover band ZZ Scott. And there’s that erudite, nude country-and-western troubadour, a popular character that appeared on Comedy Central’s The Naked Trucker & T-Bones Show—which also, sadly and unjustly, was canceled. You’d think the guy would be a full-on music geek.
And he is, just in a more casual way. Word-of-mouth is simply Allen’s preferred method of discovering music; he’s definitely a geek about connecting with people.
He engages people, whether they’ve recognized him on the street or they’re simply taking his coffee order. Eventually, he knows—and remembers—a lot about them. Like at his favorite coffee haunt. He introduced every member of the staff to City Weekly, using their names and relating a bit about them. They’re all happy to see him, too, because that’s the kind of guy he is. Caring like Jeff Rosso, smart like the Naked Trucker—but really just pure Gruber.
Dave on his iPod picks:
Evangelical Lutheran Worship, “Setting Six: Glory to God,” Liturgies
Allen sings in a Lutheran church choir. “I’m more of a half-a-man-with-a-halfassed-faith!” he jokes. “But! I am also a Pollyanna-style optimist, so I’d like to think I’m a ‘half-full-man’ with at least a microscopic part of a mustard seed planted in the dirt of my sin, guilt, shame and fear … This is where I get my love of music. From church. As a little baby, goin’ with my parents to church. It’s where I learned four-part harmony.”
Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 feat. Ledisi, “Waters of March (Aguas de Março),” Encanto
This studio-crafted remix of Mendes’ popular song captures the placid, liquid essence of the original. “It’s probably my favorite song of all time, so it’s my bad-day-good-day-and-every-day song,” Allen says. “My favorite version is the famous Elis Regina and Tom Jobim duet, which is haunting and beautiful and matches my angst and ADHD even though I do not even know the words. Yeah, that’s how deep it is!”
The Black Keys, “Heavy Soul,” The Big Come Up
As Allen says, this stomper came to him through word-of-mouth. “My friend McKenzie told me about them,” he says. “We were talking one day and I asked her, ‘What are you reading these days? What are you listening to? What are you watching?’ She told me about Santigold, too. She loves soul music. Old-timey soul, good-timey soul.”
Foreigner, “Cold as Ice,” Foreigner
The only time Gruber said anything remotely negative was when this song came on. “Don’t get me wrong, because I still live in the 1970s in my head; I still like classic rock,” he says. “It’s just the repetitious narrowness of the radio playlist that bugs me. For example, I think Pink Floyd had other songs than ‘Money’ and the one about the kids not needing education. And as far as the lady in the Foreigner song goes … she is, apparently, very cold. Freezing, I guess. Noted. Got it. Moving on.”
Ed Cash, “Uncloudy Day,” I’ll Fly Away: Country Hymns & Songs of Faith
Gruber doesn’t like this version of the song. “Nothin’ against Ed Cash, who I don’t know, but Willie Nelson’s version is better,” he says. “It’s more straightforward. Plus, it’s a better song, in my mind, than ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken?’ If you like that song, I suggest taking a break and listening to this instead. Swap it out on the set list of the Southern-fried rock band that lives in your brain. I love this album.”