Being Mark S. Allen
People love him. Others love to hate him. How does MSA deal with life as Sacramento's top TV celebrity? Here's a window into the workaholic's world.
Sometimes Mark S. Allen forgets to pull out his in-ear monitor after shooting his early-morning TV show. It makes him even more recognizable, like during a recent lunch break at his favorite taco spot, La Rosa Taqueria in West Sacramento. Someone notices him while he’s talking to the owner near the cash register.
“You’re Mark S. Allen, from TV, right?”
“Hey, my wife loves watching you on, uh, that show.”
It’s a half-compliment, but Allen confirms: Yes, he’s that guy. Other times, when he’s out with co-workers, strangers will pull up a chair and start chatting with him like they already know him. That’s the good part about his “celebrity,” says Allen. He gets to make new friends in real life merely because of the sheer “power of the broadcast.”
On the flip side, there are the haters. The Now 100.5 FM deejay and Good Day Sacramento star already knows what they think of him—and he’s a step ahead of the game. Allen is quick to dish out self-deprecating zingers.
“My life’s been one big bad haircut choice after the other,” he says. “I’m both a has-been and a never-was all wrapped up into one.”
Joking aside, Allen’s neither of those things. He’s an Emmy Award winner. He’s hosted a handful of successful shows on national TV, including Mark at the Movies. He’s arguably Sacramento’s foremost local celebrity.
That’s why pretty much every week, he’s helping out at a fundraiser or charity event of some sort— for free. And that’s also why it was kind of a big deal the few times he did genuinely stupid things, his DUI arrest in 2006, for example. Then there was that 2007 interview with Janet Jackson and Tyler Perry, when Allen admits he acted like a jerk. Perry dissed Allen on his blog, it went viral, and the incident resulted in thousands of angry emails.
In person, however, the real Mark S. Allen is an authentically nice guy, a father of three with a heavy work addiction and serious love for his adopted home of Sacramento.
He’s even come to terms with the fact that people think he sucks.
“Who knows? If I hadn’t gone a lifetime with on occasion having someone shout out in public ’You suck!’ maybe I would be one of those guys shouting ’You suck!’” Allen says after quickly polishing off four carne asada tacos. “Maybe it made me a better person.
“I mean, I could be douchier.”The death of Mark S. Allen
Dressed in a sleek dark-gray suit and neat plaid shirt and tie, Allen sprints from his black Lexus toward the Good Day set in West Sacramento. Minutes ago, at 5 a.m. on a recent weekday morning, Allen was supposed to be live on-air. Instead, he was speeding from the Now 100.5 radio station, where he’d been recording promos since 4 in the morning.
Later in the afternoon, during the time he’s usually on the radio, he’ll instead be in Los Angeles interviewing Megan Fox for a future Mark at the Movies episode. On the flight, he’ll take a nap. He’s happy to take any sleep he can get. He’ll then begin his interview with the actress by making fun of himself, noting that his look over the years has alternated somewhere between Eminem, David Bowie and Annie Lennox.
But now, back at Good Day a few minutes after 5 a.m., Allen grabs a quick cup of coffee, his first of the day. Off camera, he jokes that the amount of coffee he consumes could probably kill a horse.
Most of Sacramento is probably still asleep, but Allen puts his earpiece in and a smile on. He makes his co-workers laugh, both on and off camera.
“I think he’s really funny. I think he’s totally cheesy. And I love it— I love every single part of it,” says Sacramento Comedy Spot owner and Mark at the Movies co-star Brian Crall. “He’s there to entertain, and he does a good job. He makes everybody he interviews look good all the time.”
At 8 a.m., after another coffee break (Starbucks), he drives to a house in Rio Linda, where a camera guy meets up with him, and he interviews an uncouth old man for a segment about the man’s extensive backyard model-train track. At first, this seems like a difficult live shot: The old man can’t remember his somewhat obscene Wi-Fi password, seven cats roaming around in the yard, and the trains actually move pretty slow—not really the type of action shot that makes for good live TV.
But with a quarterback’s quick thinking, Allen improvises and saves the segment. After figuring out the wireless password (it’s “twoboobs”), he duct tapes his iPhone to the front of a model train for an action shot, makes a joke about a cat that’s fallen asleep on the train track, and describes the man as simply a “fascinating” character.
Allen himself admits to being an awkward character.
He grew up in a Texas town obsessed with football—Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream was written about his high-school team—but the shy, young Allen didn’t play sports. He watched a lot of TV, mainly adult shows like The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Bob Newhart Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
“Growing up in a town like Odessa, Texas, when you have the magic of Hollywood coming in on this little box, feeling like an outcast, it was like my portal to another world,” he says.
Knowing he wanted to do some sort of entertaining when he grew up, he started working for a local radio station as a teenager and quickly made a name for himself—quite literally—in radio. He changed his name early on from Mark Allen Stell to Mark S. Allen, because “I didn’t want those guys in high-school football knowing that I was the guy on the radio.”
In college, he studied theater arts, transferring from Texas Wesleyan University to California State University, San Bernardino to UCLA and finally to Sacramento State University, where he finished his degree. All the while, he continued working radio jobs, hoping somehow to parlay that into television.
A big break came in 1988. Allen was a deejay at KSFM 102.5 FM. To raise awareness and funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, he agreed to live 24-seven on a billboard for a month.
Fast-forward to the third night. Local drunks come by to harass him at 2 in the morning.
“Hey, Mark Allen, you’re not really up there, are you?” he hears.
“Yeah, I am.”
“Well, come out,” says the voice.
Allen crawls out of a tent onto the billboard platform. The drunks yank on a rope attached to a donation bucket. Allen, who happens to be standing on the rope, tumbles down off the billboard. He breaks bones in both legs and feet and suffers a concussion.
The first people to come to his aid are members of the Encina High School football team. They happened to be driving by and see his gruesome fall. In his concussed stupor, Allen asks them to carry him back up on the billboard, crumpled legs and all, so he can keep the fundraiser alive.
But the next day, Allen says, word gets out to his employers that “he’s out there mangled.” That he’s going to die.Rebirth—and transgressions
On a recent weekday afternoon, Allen takes a seat in Now 100.5’s deejay booth. He grabs headphones, slides a volume dial on the soundboard, pulls a microphone toward his face. He’s here until 6 p.m. every day, three hours of answering phones, giving away tickets and reading the station’s promotions live on-air.
“Now 100.5, sending you to one of the biggest summer concerts. Who’s it going to be: Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran, Kings of Leon? Next shot to win, just before 7,” he says in his radio voice.
Off air, he puts down the headphones, responds to a text message and checks his email. Two years ago, he had the Good Day scheduling software installed on a computer at the radio station, so he can prep for the next day’s show during his radio downtime. The guy is on all the time, from at least 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. But he probably shouldn’t even be alive and working his ass off here in Sacramento.
The day after he fell off the billboard in ’88, the local American River Fire Department rushed out and took him to the hospital. But after getting casts, he still insisted upon returning to the top.
“I didn’t want this thing to fail, because we’d made a lot of noise about me living up there for a month,” he says. “I made them put me back up on there, not because I felt like a hero, but because I felt like an idiot for falling off.”
It was a slow news week, so local television stations started televising his stunt. CBS Evening News picked up the story. Then Allen got a call from a San Francisco-based producer who’d seen the news coverage. The producer asked if Allen had a radio segment that could translate to TV.
“I do a segment on the radio called ’Dateless and Desperate,’ where I set people up who call in and say they’ve had a crush on someone; and I make them confront that person,” Allen said.
Soon enough, Allen was shooting “Dateless and Desperate” for a teen show called Scratch, co-hosted by another Sacramento native, Lisa Ling. With Ling’s help, Allen hired an agent, who found him a gig on a nascent Comedy Central network show called Short Attention Span Theater, replacing comedians Jon Stewart and Patty Rosborough as host in 1993. He also relocated to New York and got married (he and his wife, Jennette, have been together ever since) during his years on the show.
The only problem was that the show’s writers kept telling Allen he sucked.
“Every stand-up comedian in New York wanted that gig,” he says. “And then when this yahoo that’s never done stand-up—who’s never done live TV before—gets the gig, they had every reason to hate me.”
After nearly two years, Allen agreed to leave the show and came back to Sacramento, where in 1996 a friend helped him get a job at Good Day. As the show’s entertainment anchor, Allen became the local CBS affiliate’s film critic, stuntman, and arts and entertainment reporter.
He became a household name in Sacramento over the next decade, until an “unfocused part of my life” turned into a pair of major public faux pas.
First, in 2006, he was arrested for a DUI after having a couple mid-afternoon glasses of wine, he says. Embarrassed, Allen quickly tried to make something positive out of the situation. He filmed a segment where he apologized and had his arresting officer pour glasses of wine and put them on the a hood of a car to show how much wine it takes to put someone over the limit.
But a few weeks later, The Sacramento Bee’s Sam McManis brought it up again. “[T]his is absolutely embarrassing,” McManis quotes Allen in the story.
“The thing that disappointed me the most about the Sam thing was that it wasn’t breaking news that he was sharing,” says Allen. “I had already apologized to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. I did a segment on the air where I had copped to all of it. That was a tough time. Sam couldn’t stand me. I don’t know why.”
Things got more difficult still in 2007. During an interview with Janet Jackson and Tyler Perry to promote the film Why Did I Get Married?, Allen asked about Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction,” which had occurred about three years earlier. Jackson didn’t want to talk about it, but he made another joke about it, and Jackson and Perry ended the interview noticeably pissed off. Perry then posted a video of the interview gone wrong on his website, and it went viral among his passionate fan base. In the week that followed, Allen and Good Day’s producers received thousands of hate emails.
“People were saying, ’He’s a racist,’ and that was really, really saddening,” said Allen. “I mean, it simply wasn’t true; I was just being goofy, and I wanted to ask about the Justin Timberlake thing.”
A week after the incident, he made an on-air apology (“I was a jerk,” he said, “and I apologize”). But the Mark S. Allen-hating bandwagon was set in motion, and a different type of bad publicity kept coming.
Around the same time as the Jackson interview, in an article titled “The Feel-Good Movie Blurb Credit of the Year,” Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi criticized Allen as a film critic whose reviews exist simply to be repurposed as advertisements. McManis followed that up with another Bee story carrying the headline “Mark S. Allen: Confirmed ’Blurb Whore.’” About a year later, someone wrote an article on the movie-review website eFilmCritic titled “Mark S. Allen – Don’t You Have A Soul?”
Meanwhile, Allen was on his way to winning multiple Emmy Awards.Redemption in self-deprecation
There is a tongue-in-cheek video montage of celebrities making fun of Allen. It’s a promo reel for Mark at the Movies.
“Hi, this is Matt Damon. I would never watch Mark at the Movies even if my life depended on it,” it starts.
“I don’t know Mark, and if I ever met him, I probably wouldn’t like him,” says Denzel Washington.
“Mark at the Movies is vile trash,” adds Robert Downey Jr.
A bit later on that day, he makes a crack himself:
“Mark at the Movies would be so much better with 90 percent less Mark,” he says.
Allen has been trying to make it less about him ever since the idea for the show came up back in 2009. Newsrooms and staff at local television stations were hit hard by the recession, he says. Kevin Walsh, vice president of CBS, asked him if he had any ideas on how to raise revenue during hours that the station wasn’t producing Good Day. He pitched the idea of creating a show about movies based on an old 1999 pilot he shot for Paramount Television. Walsh agreed, and Allen shot a new pilot.
Mark at the Movies first aired locally, but then executives from Reelz network saw it and bought the rights to run it. It won two Emmys in 2010 and a third in 2011. In its third year, Allen retooled the format, bringing in a panel to talk about and review movies.
That transition led to Sacramento Comedy Spot owner Crall being cast as a panelist earlier this year. Allen caught Crall performing at the Comedy Spot and “after seeing me onstage, that was like my audition for the show,” says Crall.
“He knows that I’m fast on my feet. I’m not as good as him at being able to turn nothing into something, but I think he relies on me to be there and observe what’s going on and comment on it,” he says. “It was really weird, because I used to listen to him on the radio.”
In fact, things have now come full circle for Allen, since he returned to radio in 2011.
That was when KZZO 100.5 FM, which is owned by CBS, changed formats from being marketed as “The Zone” to “Now 100.5.” Its new program director, Chad Rufer, organized a focus group to see how to improve the station. He invited about 20 women in. Allen’s name came up, so CBS just stuck him into an afternoon slot.
“His show is extremely popular—it’s certainly one of the top two afternoon-drive shows on the market with adult females,” says Rufer. “He’s been a big part of this radio station’s success. Together, as part of our team, we took a radio station that was 12th and moved it up to a No. 2 position for the last couple of years.”
“You know what, there is no harder working person in this business than Mark, and he deserves everything that he gets.”
Back in the deejay booth on a recent afternoon, Allen says that he’ll even sometimes get to make on-air quips at another celebrity deejay to whom he often gets compared: Ryan Seacrest.
“I always talk about him begrudgingly on the air, but truth be told, I have nothing but respect for him,” Allen says. “He’s one of the best businessmen in the industry; he’s good on the air, too. He’s consistent.”
And, Allen adds, he’s fun to poke fun at.