Justin Schlegel’s got 99 problems, but arrogance ain’t one.
The Cape St. Claire resident and his 98 Rock morning show companions bare all flaws on the air.
“I think people want to laugh but they also want to identify,” Schlegel said. “They want to hear that someone is screwed up from their childhood because of something somebody said to them in the classroom or that their kids are being nightmares or that one of us has some health issue or we wear a CPAP on our face.
“We are flawed people who bare and celebrate those flaws to let everyone know this is who we are,” he added.
So who is Justin Schlegel?
STOLEN ORGANS AND A RUINED CAREER
A Waldorf native, Schlegel spent much of his childhood accompanying his father on long drives while the two listened to WMZQ, a country station based in Washington D.C.
“I don’t work in country radio, but country radio DJs are some of the best in the country as far as being able to tell a little bit of a story prior to introducing a song,” Schlegel said. “‘This next guy grew up never knowing his dad and was bit in the face by a Rottweiler during a pie-eating competition. Here’s Garth Brooks, the Thunder Rolls.’”
Schlegel’s mom, who favored rock and roll, introduced him to 99.1 and DC101. Those impressions would stay with him until he graduated from Maurice J. McDonough High School in Pomfret, Maryland, in 1997. He skateboarded and worked at a Borders bookstore, but he lacked direction until he heard a commercial for the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland and stopped his car to pencil the address on an envelope.
Situated in a rowhouse on Harford Road in Parkville, the institute — formerly a funeral home — didn’t give Schlegel the best first impression when he attended an open house with his dad.
What exactly was he thinking? “I’m like, ‘We’re going to be inside, we’re going to have an organ stolen, dad is going to get shanghaied and I’m going to get stabbed in the ribs or sold into the human flesh trade. No one is ever going to hear from us again.’”
Schlegel left the building intact, although uncertain about the trade school’s prospects. Two months later, he gave it a try. “I rented a room from this insane old woman up the street who, I’m positive, used to pin broches not just to her clothes but to her skin,” he said.
Former Broadcasting Institute of Maryland radio director Bill Riley remembers Schlegel as an exceptional student.
“His energy and creativity were noticeable early on,” Riley said. “At the end of the course, he got his demo done and passed by the audition board ahead of everyone and then spent his spare time helping people in his class that were struggling.”
Schlegel later got hired at WYCR and WHVR in Hanover, Pennsylvania — a long drive for little joy. Next, he did board operations for a company that ultimately switched formats five times in his five years there.
“You’d leave work on a Friday working for a hip-hop station, come in on Monday and your key card wouldn’t work,” he said. “‘Oh, we’re a sports talk station now. Got it, thanks for the heads up.’”
The night he quit, he went to Frazier’s On the Avenue in Hampden and got inebriated.
“I was distraught,” he recalled. “My radio career, what skeletal remains of it, were gone.”
Schlegel used his karaoke time to scream about how the company wronged him. An irate employee told Schlegel to save his comedy for Sunday.
“I came back on Sunday, sober, making a couple of people laugh,” Schlegel said. “There were 18 people in the audience, seven of which were comics, three of which were drunk, two were lost, and maybe there were some people from the neighborhood that knew they could watch a train wreck on Sundays.”
He started doing comedy regularly, but, he said adamantly, he was not a comic.
“Just because you have stood in front of a microphone before and tried to tell jokes doesn’t make you a comic,” Schlegel said. “If you own a camera, you’re not a photographer. If you drive a car, you’re not a racecar driver. There’s a lot more to it than standing behind a microphone. I didn’t realize that for years.”
JUST FOR LAUGHS
Over the course of a year or two, Schlegel started doing larger open mic events, chastising himself when he fell short of 15 performances in a given month.
Eventually, he befriended 98 Rock juggernauts Kirk McEwen and Mickey Cucchiella, both of whom invited Schlegel to appear on air.
“My first love was radio,” Schlegel said. “Comedy I got into because it was something to do and I fell into it.”
After Joe Robinson left 98 Rock’s “Irresponsible Radio with Theo & Joe” show, Schlegel was offered the position opposite Todd “Theo” Theodoro. After one night of that format, Theodoro quit, and Schlegel was stuck paying his bills as a court stenographer.
He continued to focus on comedy. For the seventh time, he auditioned for the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal. “What the combine is to college athletes, Montreal is to young comics,” Schlegel said.
This time, he got the gig, and landed an agent and manager who later suggested he move to Los Angeles. After consulting Dave Hill, 98 Rock’s program manager at the time, he was afforded the chance to record segments from the West Coast using a Comrex unit. That lasted over a year, but 98 Rock needed someone local for appearances and events, so he lost the gig.
When he learned in 2012 that 98 Rock needed a replacement for Stephen Smith, known as Stash, Schlegel interviewed for the job. Once he got it, he drove cross country to Maryland and broke a lease.
Afternoons were difficult at first.
“Baltimore does not care for change very much,” Schlegel observed. “You have to really earn your way into their hearts.”
Nine months in, in 2013, he learned that Mickey Cucchiella was leaving the station and Amelia Ryerse was moving to the mid-day shift. Josh Spiegel was staying on the morning show. Scott Reardon was being moved from producer to on-air talent. Mike Anderson was the new producer. Schlegel was promoted to mornings.
Schlegel said, “Scott went from being a producer to being an on-air talent, I went from being solo to having to figure out how to work with people and to hear multiple ideas and inputs, and sometimes these ideas would contrast with mine.
“It was a rough birth but a good one in hindsight.”
JUSTIN, SCOTT AND SPIEGEL
Just like his other bumpy transitions, the jump to mornings became smoother, especially once the guys learned each other’s idiosyncrasies.
“I am going to control all of the sound effects that get played outside of news, the bed music,” Schlegel said. “I can add the accoutrements of sound behind us. Mike is the mad genius that helps organize it all and present it.”
On weekdays, the show is on from 5:00am to 10:00am, with the first 30 minutes being a recap of the day prior. Spiegel delivers the news.
“Josh’s news is the rock of our show because there is so much original programming and so many great concepts inside of it,” Schlegel said. “Josh is a genius.”
Everything outside of the news is the product of collaboration. Of the four topic breaks each hour, one is news and the other is sports with Keith Mills. The other two are topic breaks when they discuss current events, pop culture, stuff that happened to them, contests or any number of subjects.
Although the show may side like chaos, Schlegel said it’s organized thanks to a “show clock,” which serves as an outline.
Schlegel credited Reardon, “an amazing producer with ‘Mickey and Amelia’” who never left his producer’s ear behind when transitioning to on-air talent.
Listeners have come to know Schlegel as the comic with an affinity for cats, wrestling and transformers. As for his distinctive humor, Schlegel attributes his style to an amalgamation of three influences: the improvisational skill of 98 Rock’s Kirk McEwen, Doug “The Greaseman” Tracht’s affinity for sound effects, and the character work of Mike O'Meara of “The Don and Mike Show.”
As the comedian of the show, Schlegel is “hilarious, very smart and laser focused,” according to his cohort Josh Spiegel.
“If you listen to the show, you know I'm not the most social person, but when we're off the air, Justin engages me and shows an interest in what I do,” Spiegel said. “That means a lot to me. On the air, he is unbelievably quick with his wit and sound effects. He rarely focuses on himself — he always is ‘talking up’ the people around him and making them feel good about themselves.”
In the five years since the inception of “Justin, Scott and Spiegel,” many memorable moments ensued, but a few bizarre ones stand out. Schlegel recalled one time when Anderson accidentally hired a man who was supposed to be a massage therapist but actually engaged in activities of the illegal variety.
“This guy comes just shy of 65 years old,” Schlegel said. “He has a thong on, a lone ranger mask, the tightest shirt, and he’s rubbing corn starch all over my body and his hands are wandering places I wish his hands wouldn’t go.”
Schlegel said those unexpected forays lead to material the guys can discuss for days.
“Mike leaves little time bombs,” Schlegel said. “He is as intelligent and as entertaining as he is unpredictable.”
While Anderson offers the insight of a renaissance man interested in bodybuilding and handheld weaponry, associate producer Sam Nash provides her wisdom as a young millennial.
“Sam is very socially conscious while still being funny,” Schlegel said. “She helps keep us kind of young and in tune with what’s going on.”
In 2015, standup comedians and radio personalities Rob Maher and Joe Robinson recruited Schlegel to join their murder mystery company, Die Laughing Productions.
“It only took one show for all of us to realize we were on to something,” Maher said. “We sold over 200 tickets to Magooby's in April of 2015. Justin was amazing. He took everything we wrote and made it better. He's excellent at having improvisational moments with the crowd, going off on hilarious tangents and then getting right back into the murder mystery.”
That show was titled “The Last Laugh.” The company now has eight themed shows, and the comedians have performed everywhere from Syracuse, New York, to Virginia Beach to the Middle East, where they entertained the U.S. Army.
“Whatever our murder mystery becomes … Justin deserves more credit than anyone for making it into something that has never been seen before,” Robinson said.
The newest show, “Smooth Criminal,” comes to Magooby’s Joke House in Timonium on May 20 at 7:00pm.
“There’s a Michael Jackson cover band lead singer competition,” Schlegel said. “The singer gets killed, there’s a bunch of people in the audience from a rival Prince cover band and we don’t know why they’re there.”
LIVING IN CAPE
Schlegel lives in Cape St. Claire with his girlfriend and three children. He knew he was part of a special community when he saw a 10-member search party roaming the neighborhood at night in search of a bike.
“In an era where community has sort of dissipated as everyone nationwide seems to worship at the altar of me, it seems like everybody in this neighborhood is so tightly knit without being invasive,” he said.
Working unpredictable hours and missing family time are drawbacks of the job. So is waking up early. That aside, Schlegel said he’s doing what he’s always dreamed of.
He doesn’t see a future beyond 98 Rock, which is owned by Hearst, because he’s blessed to have his dream job and work with Scott Reardon, Josh Spiegel, Mike Anderson, Sam Nash and a host of others.
In summing up his career and downplaying his 99 problems, Schlegel again chose not to be arrogant.
“I like to call myself 98 Rock’s plan B,” Schlegel said. “They seek me when someone leaves suddenly, is let go or quits. I am 98 Rock’s, ‘Oh my God, why did I hook up with this guy at the Foghat concert?’”
Schlegel will perform at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis on May 12 and during the murder mystery dinner at Magooby’s Joke House on May 20. Follow 98 Rock at www.98online.com and Die Laughing Productions at www.dielaughingproductions.com.