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Davis recruited ASU pal Rob Izenberg, who had a spiffy Yamaha electronic keyboard and a high Joe Pesci voice that sounded naturally comic paired with Davis' Harry Shearer-like baritone. The two friends set about making comedy for Kelly's show. Davis and Izenberg, who was by now going by the nickname "The Iceman," wound up cranking out oodles of Weird Al-style song parodies for Kelly's show, most taking aim at the day's local news stories. "I think we were instrumental in getting Ev Mecham recalled," Davis says proudly.
Realizing there was an entire nation of unfunny morning DJs starving for ready-made comedy bits to play, Davis and Izenberg left the fertile Phoenix comedy mill that had developed at KZZP (KROQ's Kevin & Bean and ABC-TV's Jimmy Kimmel shared the same launch pad) and took off for L.A. in 1990, eventually going to work as parody songwriters for Premiere Radio Networks, a top syndicator of radio programs.
While Izenberg quickly settled into what would become his dream job (he's still at Premiere today, where his jokey songs are distributed to stations reaching more than 190 million listeners a week), Davis remained restless, returning to the role of morning-show fourth banana on top-rated L.A. station KROQ, then moving to New York to create promo jingles for Nick at Nite and later, back in L.A., for NBC, where he became the loungy singing voice of the animated peacock mascot Johnny Chimes, a feathered precursor to Richard Cheese.
For a while, Davis' clever work as "jingle boy" for Nick at Nite and NBC earned him industry cred as the New Voice of the Snarky Generation. Bill Clinton bought a political joke from him. Disney hired him to come up with snappy names for the rides and restaurants in its California Adventure theme park (sample nomenclature: Pizza Oom Mow Mow; Sam Andreas' Shakes -- "Delicious to a fault!").
The Richard Cheese character was at first just another in a series of wacky comedy detours by Davis, taking the character of a senior rock radio intern he'd developed at KROQ and expanding it for an album-length bit.
This time, though, Davis struck gold -- or at least cheesy imitation gold. His 2000 debut album, Lounge Against the Machine, became a word-of-mouth smash with the college hipsters, quickly landing him a gig on MTV as the bandleader on the momentarily hot Say What Karaoke show. That led to a three-night stint leading the house band on NBC's Last Call With Carson Daly, international tour dates opening for the likes of Blink-182 and Lit, and a soundtrack appearance in the horror flick Dawn of the Dead.
All told, the first three Cheese albums wound up pulling in combined sales topping 56,000 units -- "really impressive" for a one-man marketing machine, according to Keith Emrick of California's Surfdog Records, which recently signed Davis to its quirky roster anchored by the similarly swingin' Brian Setzer Orchestra.
Izenberg, who played keyboards on the first Cheese album but later parted ways with his old pal for reasons he'd rather not discuss ("Mark is a guy who does not take 'No' for an answer, and he's an expert at promoting himself," is all he'll say), remains happy for his former partner in yuks.
"I give Mark all the credit in the world for making this happen," Izenberg says. "For years, he had wanted to put together a character like this and do lounge versions of rock songs. He's not the first one who's ever done it -- Bill Murray and Joe Piscopo had done things like this years before on Saturday Night Live" -- influences Davis openly acknowledges. "But he really made this character come to life."
Though Izenberg hasn't spoken to Davis in some time, he worries Richard Cheese may ultimately trap the comedic jack-of-all-trades in a confining role, something the Mark he knew always seemed to dodge.
"I think anybody who creates a popular character can begin to feel typecast by that character," Izenberg says. "I mean, even Robin Williams had trouble shaking Mork for a while.
"I get the e-mails, and I know Richard Cheese has really become a personal success for him," he adds. "But whether or not it's making his life better, I really have no idea."
Top five reasons Mark Davis is no Richard Cheese -- Number 5: Unlike Cheese, who is obsessed with the curdled milk byproduct of his namesake and insists on giving his band members stage names of various cheese classes (Bobby Ricotta on piano! Gordon Brie on the bass! Frank Feta on drums!), Mark Davis is a cautious eater who steadfastly avoids all processed cheeses, not to mention any food containing MSG or other neurotoxic food additives, or NTXAs. Kraft macaroni and cheese is really his Kryptonite.
Number 4: While Richard Cheese seems so at home playing the Vegas casinos that you'd think he was conceived during a Dean Martin set at the Copa Room, Mark Davis hates the smell of cigarette smoke and booze ground into the gaudy casino carpets, almost as much as the sight of so many desperate people chained to the one-armed bandits. "It just makes me sad," he says, sadly, as the crowd from his show filters back into the rows of slot machines.