Monday, May 30, 2005

Moonlighting Warning - Withdrawn

UPDATE: This thread at Home Theater Forum is doing ongoing discussion of the cut-episode issue, and they just had a post by someone who discovered that at least two of the shorter episodes have running times identical to the original broadcast versions. So it's possible that Lion's Gate may not, in fact, have used syndicated versions in releasing the first two seasons of Moonlighting on DVD. If that turns out to be the case, I won't apologize for assuming they did, since the same company has used syndication prints in the past, and since this review from a reliable source indicated that some of the episodes might be cut prints, but it will certainly be good news to those buying the set.

I'm still undecided on whether to pick up Moonlighting; it's the kind of show I like, but there's something a little off-putting about the smug self-satisfied tone it can sometimes have, like everybody thinks it's so wonderful and liberating to be able to talk to the camera. I like it in spite of that, but I do think the first season of Remington Steele, which Moonlighting creator Glenn Caron wrote for, did the same comedy-mystery-romance thing with better stars and less cutesiness.



Friday, May 27, 2005

The Korman Invasion, Cont.

Why did Gordon Korman lose his touch?

This question is probably not hugely important to you unless you were a kid in Ontario in the mid-to-late 1980s. But for those of us who answered to that description, Gordon Korman was huge -- the biggest, best name in funny, non-preachy, funny, crazy, and just damn FUNNY novels. When I was in fifth grade, the kids in my English class were given a chance to vote on which authors should be assigned for a reading project; the winners were Gordon Korman and Roald Dahl (the latter choice influenced in part by a teacher who kept reading us "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar" over and over). In 1988, when Korman came to the Arts Alive festival in Ottawa to promote his new Bruno and Boots book, The Zucchini Warriors, kids were so tightly packed into the room where he was speaking that there was serious talk of seating a few of us on the ceiling. It was the first time I ever lined up to get an autograph, and I was so proud to have a new book signed by my favorite author.

Korman was one of the few kids' writers who knew what kids really liked to read -- in part because he started writing when he was a kid himself. His first novel, This Can't Be Happening at MacDonald Hall, was written for a school creative writing project when he was thirteen years old; Scholastic Books bought it, and the legend of Korman was born. When he appeared at the Arts Alive festival, he'd been writing successful novels for ten years, yet he was still in his early twenties.

Except that was the beginning of the end of the cult of Korman. We didn't know it that day, though perhaps we might have suspected a little something when we actually read The Zucchini Warriors; it was probably Korman's weakest book up to that point, a bunch of only moderately-funny scenes built around a very weak, and very standard, plot. The craziness and sheer fun of the earlier Bruno and Boots books wasn't there. But we thought of it as a little blip on Korman's way up the ladder; he hadn't written a Bruno and Boots book in some years, and the problem with The Zucchini Warriors seemed to be that he had grown beyond the characters who made his name. At that point he was writing books about older characters, for a slightly older audience; his last three books had all been about high school kids, and they were longer and more ambitious than his earlier work.

We figured that as he got older and more mature, he would write better and better novels. His first ten years' worth of novels had their flaws. They were more a series of comedy vignettes than full-fledged stories, they had their moments of awkward prose, and they all contained the same basic characters under different names: Bruno, the wacky schemer (he also became Rudy Miller in I Want to Go Home, Bugs Potter, and Raymond Jardine in A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag), and Boots, the wet blanket (Mike in I Want to Go Home, Adam in Who is Bugs Potter, Sean in Garbage Bag). But these were the flaws of youth and inexperience, and they were outweighed by the tremendous imagination and comic energy of his work. It seemed like once he got more experience to go with that imagination and comic energy, he would be unstoppable.

What happened instead was that Korman lost the imagination and comic energy. His next young adult novel, Losing Joe's Place, was pretty drab. He subsequently left the young-adult market and went back to writing books about younger kids, but they, too, seemed drained of the truly mad characters and laugh-out loud invention of his early novels. The prose was a little more polished, but it was supporting stories that seemed mechanical and conventional. At the moment when he should have been getting better, he seemed to have lost his touch. And he never really got it back. He recently returned to young-adult novels, but with unimpressive results; he recently wrote a book called Jake Re-Invented that is a semi-serious retelling of The Great Gatsby set in high school. Apart from the disappointment that the man who gave us Emile Querada is now getting all solemn on us, it's a regression: what is Gatsby but literature's greatest Bruno, and what is Nick but the blandest Boots? So he's back to mining the Bruno-Boots dynamic again, except without the laughs.

I could speculate on all kinds of reasons why Korman lost it, and there would be some truth to all of them. His comic young-adult books didn't sell all that much; the readers who had devoured his work in the '80s grew up and stopped reading him (or as his mother told an interviewer "Gordon didn't abandon you. You abandoned him"); the shrinking of his audience meant that he needed to aim his new books at younger children and tone down some of his more insane ideas. Simultaneously, he probably wanted to move beyond the wacky comedy stuff he'd been writing and get a little more serious. Hence we get Nose Pickers from Outer Space on the one hand, and Jake Re-Invented on the other.

But I also get the impression that as Korman matured, he was no longer giving free rein to his wildest ideas. His early books are so much fun because they are the work of a young writer who never censors his own story ideas, no matter how crazy they may be. These novels abounded in scenes and running gags that were so ridiculous that most "mature" writers would have abandoned them as being too silly.

The most memorable running gag in Son of Interflux is about a painting student who insists on putting a camel in every picture he paints: he creates a perfectly realistic Central Park scene, except there's a hansom cab being pulled by a camel. Finally he agrees not to paint any more camels, and paints a contest entry with no camels at all -- but he's dissatisfied with it; he just can't get the creative spark without camels. So he revises it, replacing everybody and everything in the painting with camels. And wins a special prize for originality.

Korman was just a little over twenty when he wrote that. An older, wiser writer would have looked at this idea rationally and rejected it as being completely nuts, totally implausible, and a very strange character trait for an important character (he's one of the hero's two best friends). Korman, with the confidence of youth, put it in, and it's hilarious. Same with No Coins, Please, written in his teen years, about a mild-mannered kid who signs up for a tour across the United States, and sneaks off at various points to put on a tuxedo and make thousands of dollars selling "Attack Jelly" to New Yorkers or turning an abandoned pretzel factory into a discotheque. (Korman clearly wrote the book in hopes of a movie sale, and there have been fairly constant rumors that somebody's going to turn it into a movie, but it hasn't happened -- in part, I think, because it's just too crazy for today's movie producers, who want everything to make sense.) This stuff is so completely implausible that a "grown-up" writer would hesitate to think it up, let alone write it. Gordon Korman thought it, and he wrote it, but I doubt if the grown-up, sensible Gordon Korman would be able to write something so wild. Korman was a Peter Pan among writers, but unlike Peter Pan, he grew up, and Jake Re-Invented was the sad result.

Some excerpts from Korman novels can be found at the links above. Here's one of my favorites, also from Son of Interflux, which takes place at a private high school for the arts; it's a conversation between the hero, painting student Simon Irving, and his lab partner in chemistry class, music student and rock guitarist Johnny Zull:

"I can't stand the sight of Long Island!" Johnny announced with much emphasis as he and Simon gathered equipment for their first experiment. "What a hole!"

Stunned that Johnny should feel moved to make such a statement, apropos of nothing, Simon could only manage a weak, "Huh?"

Johnny pointed out the window. "Look at that. It makes me sick. A plastic civilization with paper dolls for people. They're all dead out there. They think they're alive, but they're dead. The only thing that's real on Long Island is the boredom. That's it. Nothing else."

"Uh - uh - is there somewhere - better?"

The sheer absurdity of this question caused Johnny to squeeze his eyedropper, spraying vicious red liquid on Simon's shoes. "The city, man! New York! That's what life is about. But not the city they show in the tourist booklets; the real city! Tenement housing -cockroaches - rats! That's real! To freeze all winter and sweat all summer, and write great songs by the light of a bare bulb in an eight-by-eight cold-water walk-up with crumbling plaster and bad plumbing! That's living!"

Simon was sure it wasn't, but said nothing and concentrated on applying the liquid to the leaf on his slide. There was no reaction from the leaf, but his shoes where beginning to steam.

"In the city, if you've got something to say, you go right ahead and say it - in five-foot letters on the subway wall. On Long Island you don't say anything. You sit at home worrying because you didn't buy your kid a personal computer when he was three, so he won't get into the college of his choice, and he'll end up stupid and have to wear plaid shirts forever. In the city, you wake up because they're breaking pavement outside, or because somebody heaved a brick through the front window of the delicatessen you live over. On Long Island, you sleep through the alarm on your fifteen-hundred dollar Piaget watch, but some poor dog half a block away is driven crazy by the sound and smashes his head against a fence until his brains are scrambled. I hate Long Island!"

Simon, weary of the speech, and more then a little nervous about his shoes, said, "If you hate it here so much, why don't you move to the city?"

"Because my mother says if I move out before I graduate, no one's going to feed my fish."

"Oh." It was going to be a long semester.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

It Sours the Milk

Commenting on my post on Bock and Harnick's The Apple Tree, a reader pointed out that a key line in the closing speech of the first story, "The Diary of Adam and Eve," is taken directly from the last line of the Mark Twain story it's based on. (Actually, it's two stories, written several years apart; the first one, "Adam's Diary," was written in 1893 and is here, while the more serious "Eve's Diary" dates from 1905 and is here.)

To follow up on that, I wanted to note that the lyric of the show's best-known song, "What Makes Me Love Him?" is almost word-for-word based on Twain's story; I don't think I've ever seen a song lyric so faithfully based on prose, without actually being prose. Here are the relevant excerpts from a much longer passage from Eve's diary, where she tries to analyze why she loves Adam:


If I ask myself why I love him, I find I do not know, and do not really much care to know... I love certain birds because of their song; but I do not love Adam on account of his singing--no, it is not that... It sours the milk, but it doesn`t matter; I can get used to that kind of milk...

It is not on account of his education that I love him--no, it is not that. He is self-educated, and does really know a multitude of things, but they are not so...

Then why is it that I love him? MERELY BECAUSE HE IS MASCULINE, I think.

At bottom he is good, and I love him for that, but I could love him without it. If he should beat me and abuse me, I should go on loving him. I know it. It is a matter of sex, I think.

He is strong and handsome, and I love him for that, and I admire him and am proud of him, but I could love him without those qualities. He he were plain, I should love him; if he were a wreck, I should love him; and I would work for him, and slave over him, and pray for him, and watch by his bedside until I died.

Yes, I think I love him merely because he is MINE and is MASCULINE. There is no other reason, I suppose. And so I think it is as I first said: that this kind of love is not a product of reasonings and statistics. It just COMES--none knows whence--and cannot explain itself. And doesn`t need to.


And here's Harnick's lyric (though he has since revised it to take out the "if he abused me" part):

What makes me love him? It's not his singing;
I've heard his singing; it sours the milk.
And yet it's gotten to the point
Where I prefer that kind of milk.

What makes me love him? It's not his learning;
He's learned so slowly his whole life long,
And though he really knows a multitude of things,
They're mostly wrong.

He is a good man, but I would love him
If he abused me or used me ill.
And though he's handsome, I know inside me,
Were he a plain man, I'd love him still.

What makes me love him? It's quite beyond me;
It must be something I can't define,
Unless it's merely that he's masculine
And that he's mine.


And yet despite all this fidelity to Twain's words, the effect is different. The passage from Twain's story is, like the rest of the story, simultaneously touching and satirical in its portrayal of what it might be like to be the first people in the world, and go through everything for the first time without any pre-conceived notions. "What Makes Me Love Him?" is a good song, but comes off as a fairly conventional song, very similar to "(He's Just My) Bill," which is based on exactly the same idea, a woman who loves a man for reasons she can't figure out. Proving, I suppose, that when you turn something into a song, it makes things different, even if the words are almost the same as they were on the page.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

A Filigreed Samovar Owned by the Tsars

Thurl Ravenscroft died Sunday at age 91. He had one of the most unforgettable voices of all time, a deep bass voice that was simultaneously beautiful and funny; it was a great deep, sonorous voice, but he could also use it as a sly parody of the stereotypical deep, sonorous voices of movie narrators and the like. As a terrific singer, he was much in demand on movie soundtracks; the title of this post comes from the one line he sings in the "Portobello Road" number from Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Or in Stan Freberg's parody of "Sh-Boom," Ravenscroft is the one R&B singer who insists on singing the lyrics comprehensibly ("Whatsamatter, man, don't you dig gibberish?"). Of course his most famous singing credit is "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," and his most famous speaking credit is Tony the Tiger, but his voice was everywhere, and will continue to be for as long as these films, shows and records are available.

NewsRadio Addendum

The commentary tracks on the new NewsRadio DVD set -- and there are twenty of them, out of twenty-nine episodes -- are really good. Commentaries on TV shows usually consist of people recapping the plot as they watch it, laughing at the jokes, or just silently watching. Paul Simms, who created the show and organized the commentaries, has clearly done his best to avoid that, and the commentaries I've listened to have very few longeurs and a lot of really interesting information. Plus he got the whole cast (except for the late Phil Hartman) and the whole writing staff (except for the late Drake Sather) to participate. Good stuff for one of the best sitcoms of its era (and one of the last good NBC sitcoms of its era).

I'm Jimmy James, Bitch!

Don't forget that the first 29 episodes of NewsRadio are out on DVD today.

Monday, May 23, 2005

OT: Busholatry

This is not a political blog and I apologize in advance for wading into the political swamps, but I have a question I haven't seen answered, at least not directly, by any of the blogs out there. The question is this:

What is the stupidest quote by a pundit giving absurdly inflated praise of President Bush, or comparing him to some great leader of the past?

I don't consider this a partisan question, by the way (I'm not very good at partisanship, anyway, and given that my own country's government has kleptocratic tendencies, I shouldn't really be going too far in mocking other countries' governments). Even sensible people who like Bush would acknowledge that comparing him to Churchill or calling him one of the great men of history is a bit much. Yet that's the kind of thing we've heard from quite a few conservative pundits in the last four years.

The quote that wins the prize for me in the realm of Busholatry or "Bush Love" (the opposite of "Bush Hatred") is this quote from Jay Nordlinger, managing editor of National Review and music critic for The New Criterion:

I have called George W. Bush a Rushmore-level president. I believe history will bear that out; and if it doesn't, history will be wrong. I think that Bush's reelection is crucial not only to this country but to the world at large. I not only think that Bush is the right man for the job; I have a deep fondness — love, really — for the man, though I don't know him.


But there are other choice ones. Like Norman Podhoretz:

Which is why I think (to say it one last time) that the amazing leader this President has amazingly turned out to be will — like the comparably amazing Harry Truman before him when he took on the Communist world — have the wind at his back as he continues the struggle against Islamist radicalism and its vicious terrorist armory.


Or this one from Mark Steyn, the right's answer to Frank Rich (except, instead of writing the same column once a week, he writes the same column three times a week), this from his National Post column of October 3, 2002:

The modest regular guy is a seductive lure in a democracy, but most politicians are posing at it. Major and Chr├ętien were. I don't think Bush is. He's wholly without personal vanity. He wouldn't care where you sat him in Westminster Abbey.


It's the hyperbole that makes it; to say that someone is "without personal vanity," you're already describing someone who doesn't exist, but he has to make sure to tell us that he's "wholly without personal vanity," i.e. without any non-saintly attributes whatsoever.

There must be others, in Fox News and Coulter country; those are just the quotes I came across. Any others?

I don't think there's been an American president who got this much adulation from his side's pundits since John F. Kennedy. At least, not during his presidency; there's a big Reagan cult now, but the stuff conservative pundits wrote about him at the time was often quite critical; for example, Podhoretz liked to rip Reagan for being, yes, too soft on Communism. This goes a long way toward explaining why conservative commentary was interesting to read in the '80s and mostly sucks nowadays.

It probably has something to do with the fact that Bush, like Kennedy, goes out of his way to hire, honor, and cultivate the acquaintance of ideologically-friendly intellectuals. But at least it took several decades for the writings of Kennedy-praising pundits to look ridiculous. Busholaters are jumping the gun and looking ridiculous right now.

Du Hast Geschpritzt On a General?

Mark Evanier has some really good posts on actor/comedian/director Howard Morris, who died recently.

"The German General," a sketch from "Caesar's Hour" (not "Your Show of Shows), with Morris as a dresser for Teutonic General Sid Caesar, and done entirely in pidgin German, is one of the funniest sketches on that or any other sketch show.

But What's the 101th Greatest Movie?

I thought it was a good idea for Time's movie critics to present their Top 100 movies list unranked. These lists are always a little pointless, but what's far more pointless is trying to arrange them into some kind of ranking order; what exactly is the difference between the 91st and 92nd best film of all time?

I don't have any big problems with Schickel and Corliss's list; we'd all have chosen differently, of course, but most of the great moviemakers and important genres are properly represented. More problematic are the reader rankings, which put Star Wars and Lord of the Rings at the very top of the list of all-time greats. It was inevitable, of course, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

As to how the list breaks down by decade, there are 5 picks from the current decade, 10 from the '90s, 12 from the '80s, 9 from the '70s, 15 from the '60s, 16 from the '50s, 15 from the '40s, 12 from the '30s, and 6 from the '20s. Surprised to see the '70s so underrepresented on this list, though I'm more annoyed with the under-representation of the silent era. (And of course, leaving of The Rules of the Game was almost certainly done just to piss people off. Don't take the bait.)

Anyway, any all-time greats list that leaves off Annie Hall must be doing something right.

Forbidden Fruit

I was sorry that I wasn't able to see Encores! production of Bock and Harnick's The Apple Tree. While Kristen Chenoweth is no Barbara Harris -- something that was all too clear when I saw her in the Encores! production of Harris's other musical, On a Clear Day -- she can do what's needed in the three roles, and the show itself is a delight. It never really took off because it was so whimsical in an era when most hit Broadway shows were either big and splashy or big and serious, but at any rate big. The three one-act musicals of The Apple Tree are all very small-scale in style and in ambition: a bittersweet comedy-romance (the Adam and Eve segment, generally agreed upon on the best) followed by a campy mock-operetta ("The Lady or the Tiger"), and ending with a wispy little Jules Feiffer sendup of celebrity ("Passionella").

Perhaps the show would have been better off in an off-Broadway production, rather than in a Broadway production with the super-slick staging of Mike Nichols, but an off-Broadway production couldn't have offered Harris, Alan Alda, or Eddie Sauter's terrific orchestrations (which are preserved intact at Encores!, as original orchestrations usually are). And I've read that Nichols -- whose work I don't usually care for -- did a great job on this show, wowing the audience with staging tricks like having stage action play backwards as though in "rewind" mode.

Bock and Harnick wrote their own scripts for The Apple Tree, though Jerome Coopersmith is credited with additional dialogue. Whoever wrote Adam's closing speech from the first segment, many people consider it one of the most touching speeches ever written for a musical. I agree:

ADAM: Eve died today. I knew she would, of course. Well, at least her prayer was answered - she went first. Now that she's gone, I realize something I didn't realize before. I used to think it was a terrible tragedy when Eve and I had to leave the Garden. Now I know it really didn't matter. Because, wheresoever she was, there was Eden. And now, I have to go water her flowers. She loved them, you know.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Looney Songs

Here's another trivial question I'm interested in trying to answer: what was the last Warner Brothers cartoon to feature a contemporary, or at least recent, song?

First some background: Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies began, in part, as an excuse to plug songs from WB movies and WB-owned publishing companies. Even after the cartoons stopped being built around songs, the WB-owned song catalogue was still very important to the scores of the cartoons. Composer Carl Stalling said that when he moved from Disney to WB, the biggest advantage of working at WB was that he could use popular songs, whereas at Disney he could only quote public-domain music. Stalling built up a huge catalogue of song quotes which he would use at appropriate moments -- "The Lady in Red" for any lady in red; "Powerhouse" for factory scenes; "A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich and You" for any scene involving food -- but he would also work in songs that had just been published or recorded at the time he was writing the scores. So "Little Red Riding Rabbit," a cartoon released in 1944, uses "Lady in Red," "Cup of Coffee," "Powerhouse" and other Stalling staples, but it also uses at least two songs from a WB musical called Thank Your Lucky Stars, which was released just before the cartoon went into production. The songs, by Arthur Schwartz and Frank Loesser, are "I'm Ridin' For a Fall" (heard when Bugs first meets the Wolf) and "They're Either Too Young or Too Old" (which accompanies a chase scene with the famous "Friz Freleng Door Gag"). Unlike most of the songs Stalling quotes, the subjects or titles of these contemporary songs don't have any direct relationship to the onscreen action; they're just there to give the score a contemporary, up-to-date feel. And it works; part of what gave the Stalling scores their special kick was the sense that they were in tune (no pun intended) with the musical style of the time, more than any cartoon scores since those of the early '30s Fleischer cartoons.

But eventually, while the cartoon scores remained great, they sounded less contemporary. There were various reasons for this: Stalling was getting older; WB was making fewer musicals and selling off its music-publishing holdings; there was a longer time lag between the production and release of the cartoons; musical styles were changing in directions that weren't compatible with the Stalling cartoon-music style. (When Friz Freleng wanted a distinctively late '50s musical sound for "Three Little Bops," he turned to an outside musician, Shorty Rogers, to do a score in a decidedly non-Stalling style.) So the WB cartoon music after 1951 or so doesn't use a lot of contemporary music, and doesn't have a sound that anchors it in its time the way the sound of the "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves" score screams early '40s, or the way Bugs' rendition of "It's Magic" (in 1951's "Rabbit Every Monday") tells us we're in the era of Doris Day. By 1962, which was the last year of cartoons scored by Stalling's lieutenant Milt Franklyn, the Stalling song library was starting to sound a bit anachronistic: it's the '60s and the cartoon scores are still quoting Raymond Scott and Billy Rose. This might be one of the reasons why, after Franklyn's death, the directors brought in Bill Lava, a veteran composer who tried to give the cartoon scores a sound more in synch with the film music of the era. It was a bad choice, but to be fair to Lava and the people who hired him, the importance of Stalling and his style to those cartoons wasn't really fully understood until some years later. At the time, that style was looked down on as obvious and unoriginal (because of all the song-quoting). Chuck Jones, talking about Stalling in the '70s, said that Stalling quoted songs because that was "the easiest way" for him to come up with a score in a week; it wasn't until later that cartoon directors -- including Jones -- came to realize that clever song-quoting is part of the fun of cartoon music.

Anyway, to answer my question, I believe the last WB cartoon to quote a recent song was "Rabbitson Crusoe," released in 1956 but probably begun in 1954; in it, Bugs Bunny sings "Secret Love," from the 1953 musical Calamity Jane.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Let Other Pens Dwell On Guilt and Misery

I'm re-reading Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, and even though it deserves its reputation as a problematic book, I always find it something of a relief to come back to it. Why a relief? Because this is the one Austen novel that is resistent to the attempt to view Austen as a writer of cutesy romantic comedies. As this page points out, a lot of Austen cultists don't like the book. Its romantic plot is almost an afterthought. It is almost impossible to turn into a movie (the most recent version didn't even try to adapt the book; instead it adapted dumbass post-colonial interpretations of the book). It's morally judgmental and condemns anyone who doesn't share the author's values. It takes some of the themes that were peripheral in Pride and Prejudice -- like the bad influence that the degraded values of the metropolis are having on the country -- and moves them to the forefront. It gives us a finger-wagging, angry Jane Austen who cannot be mistaken for a good-natured chronicler of the ins and outs of courtship.

She never was very good-natured, of course. Pride and Prejudice has elements that would recur in Mansfield Park: it features a father who is condemned by Austen for not spending enough time on the moral education of his children, a flighty mother, a heroine who sees the danger of young women being exposed to bad influences, and a climactic elopement and disgrace that proves that young women shouldn't be allowed to hang around Regency Rakes (tm). But that's all a subplot within a romantic comedy. And Pride and Prejudice features a hero and heroine who are kind of fantasy figures: Elizabeth is the perfect version of ourselves (with just a few faults that prevent the story from ending in Volume 1), and Darcy is the dream-man who just needs a good woman to help him be less pompous. Fanny and Edmund in Mansfield Park are dull, priggish people, and the theme of the novel is that it's better to be dull, priggish and uprightly moral than to be sophisticated and filled with bad, bad city values.

What one thinks of Austen's moral judgments is a question for a longer analysis; it seems to me that in her own way she's guilty of over-idealizing "old-fashioned values" and of undue suspicion of anyone from outside her own narrow circle. But whatever one thinks of it, it's certainly a bitter pill to swallow for any reader who comes to Mansfield Park thinking of Austen as basically nice, pleasant and non-judgmental. Even her portrayal of play-acting, as an excuse to act out their improper fantasies without being scolded for it, is kind of a rebuke to anyone who has ever fantasized about a romance with literary characters -- including hers.

But, as I said, all that makes Mansfield Park kind of a relief to read, because it's the Jane Austen novel that doesn't have all that rom-com baggage associated with it. It's very serious. And it makes me feel like a creep for living in the city. But at least Gwyneth Paltrow will never appear in a movie version.

Seinfeld & Self-Congratulation

The DVD extras on the fourth season of Seinfeld are, as extras tend to be, mostly self-congratulatory. (Even Larry David is, behind the neurotic veneer, pretty darn pleased with himself and his work.) I was hoping that, amidst all the talk of the show's "breakthrough season" and Larry David's idea of giving the season a story arc, someone would point out what I think is obvious: the NBC story arc was a bad idea. Most of the material dealing with that story arc, apart from the famous "show about nothing" scene, is pretty dull. What's worse, it's so inside-jokey that it loses track of what the show was supposed to be about, namely taking everyday annoyances and obsessions (the things that found their way into Seinfeld's standup comedy) and turning them into stories. It was a relief that even though it was about the life of a standup comedian, it wasn't one of those inside-showbiz stories that could be of no possible interest to anyone outside of showbiz. And then, in the show's fourth season, the writers decided to devote a huge chunk of time to jokes about show business and their own experiences in show business -- experiences that the average viewer couldn't relate to and didn't want to relate to. It must have worked, because the show became a breakout hit in the middle of this story arc. But it was pretty dreary compared to the stories about life, as opposed to show business.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Mohawkish

Sarah has a post on the new series of Mr. T Comics. Not the crazy Photoshopped webcomics that were so popular a few years back, but real comics, by Chris Bunting.

Bunting is British and AP Comics is a British comic book publisher, which brings up something I've noticed: the Mr. T cult is as big in England as it is in the U.S., possibly bigger. A lot of the Mr. T webcomics were from England; a lot of the A-Team fanfics (and there were a lot of them, for various reasons including the rampant "slash" possibilities) were by British writers, etc. The A-Team apparently was and still is hugely popular in the U.K. -- it came out on DVD there before it came out on DVD in North America.

I'm not really quite sure what accounts for The A-Team's appeal to British viewers. The A-Team seems about as purely American as a show could get; it was inspired in part by ads in Soldier of Fortune Magazine, for Pete's sake. And as the New Statesman pointed out at the time, in an insightful (albeit humorless and scolding) review, the show's politics didn't really travel:

This is classic right-wing American populism -- patriotic, macho, anti-authority -- and is unlikely to be understood in Britain, where to be right-wing implies an obsequiousness towards officers and the status quo.


But whether or not it was "understood in Britain," it sure became popular in Britain. Heck, even that New Statesman review comes from a British site.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Half-Tom and Sorta-Jerry

Remember last year when Warner Home Video released a slapdash two-disc collection of Tom and Jerry cartoons that, despite advertising that trumpeted the cartoons as "uncut," included several edited-for-TV versions (edited to remove blackface gags and such)? There was talk of the time of issuing a replacement disc, but WB decided not to do so. Which is annoying, of course, but what's more annoying is their "official" statement on the issue, as conveyed to a moderator on the Home Theater Forum:

The Spotlight Collection contains a variety of original animated shorts produced between 1943-1956, including uncut versions of some early cartoons that were first shown in theaters, along with some versions edited for television. The DVD packaging correctly refers to the cartoon shorts as "remastered"; it does not state that all the shorts are uncut.


This statement evades about a zillion questions, such as, how and why were the cut cartoons included, why did they include the word "uncut" in their advertising, etc. The recourse to semantics (but we didn't say it on the box!) is pretty infuriating.

However, it's pretty clear what happened here. Originally, WB planned to release the complete Tom and Jerry cartoons in chronological order (they even did an advertisement for this, included on some other DVDs). The executives got cold feet about releasing the cartoons with Mammy Two-Shoes and other targets of "controversy," and instead put out a set with 40 "uncontroversial" cartoons, most of which had been released on earlier DVD collections, using the old DVD masters. Except they didn't know that some of those DVD masters were from edited versions of those cartoons. If they'd known that those cartoons originally contained "offensive" material, I presume they'd just have left them off the set entirely.

A thing that has to be understood here is that for the most part WB's animation releases are not handled by the same division that handles the classic-film releases. As film restoration expert Robert Harris put it in another post at the Home Theater Forum:

As I understand the situation, which is most unfortunate for both the studio and the consumer, the animated shorts are handled as a different product line [from WB's classic features], by different technical people and via different means.

These seem to be treated as "ugly stepchildren," the dregs of WB product, and seem to be considered as virtually disposable kiddy fare...

While those responsible for the classic feature library seem to have some input, this does not seem to be inclusive of either final decision making or quality control.

Hopefully, we'll be seeing more involvment from the folks who have made WB the top studio for home video, and less from those who have been behind the problematic releases under discussion.


The Looney Tunes Golden Collection sets are, for the most part, an exception to this rule, because George Feltenstein (Warner Home Video's VP of Classics), fought to get the cartoons treated as they would treat a classic film -- packed with extras, marketed to adults. And even there, the rather random, haphazard selection and arrangement of cartoons (especially on the first set) signifies the lack of care that often goes into putting together WB's animation releases. But at least those cartoons were lucky. The rest of the WB-owned animation library has not been so lucky, and it doesn't bode well for those of us who are hoping for a complete Tex Avery DVD set or even some Animaniacs DVD releases (why would WB release that show when there's no movie or Cartoon Network promotion to tie it into)?

Uninformed Consent

Geez, I do one Advise and Consent post, and a couple of days later the same novel and film become the subject of an article by one of the New York Times' most repetitive columnists, and a follow-up post by the worst blog in the history of mankind. I know I had nothing to do with this, but I almost feel like I should apologize anyway for raising the subject 'cause now it seems so hackneyed already.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Gilbertian Sci-Fi

My flood of posts about Gilbert and Sullivan the other week prompted me to go and look again at some of Gilbert's solo works. Fortunately many of his poems and plays are available online at this page.

Though a lot of Gilbert's nonmusical plays are hobbled by the problems that intermittently become problems even in his musical ones (over-written dialogue, mechanical characters, "topsy-turvy" plot twists), reading his work is fascinating, because he seems to have done so many things before anyone else did. Time and time again you'll find ideas and devices in Gilbert's plays that would be taken up by later writers, especially Wilde and Shaw. They did it better, usually; Gilbert's Engaged is a very good play that is still effective today, but Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, so greatly influenced by Gilbert, is, I think, better-written, especially the dialogue, which makes Gilbert's seem rather flat by comparison. Still, Gilbert did it first.

On the evidence of the play Foggerty's Fairy, Gilbert was even a pioneer when it came to science-fiction plot devices. The play deals with Foggerty, a young man who finds himself plagued on his wedding day by Delia Spiff, an elderly woman to whom he once proposed, who is suing him for breach of promise. A good fairy, Rebecca, offers to help him -- but, being a good fairy, she is bound (in one of those legalisms that always pops up in a Gilbert play) not to do anything actively harmful to his ex-girlfriend. What she can do is give Foggerty a way to alter the past so that he never met Delia Spiff. Which is exactly what he does, and the rest of the play deals with Foggerty's life in the "alternate universe" created by the consequences of changing one incident from the past. Of course it turns out that he's actually made things worse.

The whole alternate-universe concept, and a story dealing with the consequences of changing the past, is very common now but was considered extremely novel at the time, as indeed it was. Probably the best dialogue sequence in the play comes when Rebecca explains, in detail, how each event in our lives depends on all kinds of seemingly unrelated incidents, at the same time throwing in a Gilbertian swipe at the stupidity of family and class pride:

REBECCA. Don't be in a hurry. Think what you're about. If you blot Delia Spiff out of your career, you blot out at the same time all the consequences that came of having known her.

FOGGERTY. But, my good girl, that's exactly what I want to do!

REBECCA. Take care. The consequences of an act are often much more numerous and important than people have any idea of. Take your own case: you come of a good family, and you are proud of it.

FOGGERTY. We are the Lancashire Foggertys.

REBECCA. No doubt. You didn't do much towards it, and I don't see what you've got to be proud of; but still, proud you are. Now you would never have been born if your father had never met your mother.

FOGGERTY. I suppose not.

REBECCA. And your father met your mother in this wise. Some thirty-six years ago, as he was walking down Regent Street, his attentions were directed to a sculptor's shop, in which was a remarkable monument to a Colonel Culpepper, who died of a cold caught in going into the Ganges to rescue a favourite dog which had fallen into it. An old schoolfellow passed by, and, touching your father on the shoulder, asked him to dinner. Your father went, and at the dinner met your mother, whom he eventually married. And that's how you came about.

FOGGERTY. I see. If my father hadn't had that invitation to dinner I should never have been born.

REBECCA. No doubt; but your existence is primarily due to a much more remote cause. If your father hadn't loitered opposite the sculptor's shop, his schoolfellow would never have met him. If Colonel Culpepper hadn't died, your father would never have stopped to look at his monument. If Colonel Culpepper's favourite dog had never tumbled into the Ganges, the Colonel would never have caught the cold that led to his death. If that favourite dog's father had never met that favourite dog's mother that favourite dog would never have been born, neither would you. And yet you're proud of your origin!

FOGGERTY. I see. I never looked at it in that light. It's humiliating, for a Lancashire Foggerty.


The play even ends with Foggerty providing the first-ever criticism of the logical problems inherent in all changing-the-past stories:

FOGGERTY. Let's understand one another. When I took the draught all the consequences of my having known Spiff were obliterated.

REBECCA. Utterly.

FOGGERTY. But if I had never known Spiff I should never have got into a difficulty on account of Spiff, and if I had never got into that difficulty I should never have applied to you to get me out of it, and if I had never applied to you to get me out of it you would never have given me that infernal draught, which has been the cause of all the miseries with which I'm threatened.

REBECCA. Dear me, I never thought of that.

FOGGERTY. In point of fact, I've been saddled with consequences from which, according to the terms of my contract, I ought to have been entirely free.


In other words, if the past has been changed by something that happened in the present, and that in turn has changed the present, then how could the past have been changed? It's the kind of argument you might have about a Back to the Future movie -- 100 years before Back to the Future.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Senior Senator From South Carolina

I found an interesting page called "The Fictional Senate of Allen Drury's Advise and Consent", by David Bratman. It goes through the novel Advise and Consent and sets out the names of all the Senators in the novel, their state and party affiliations; it then explains some of the real-life sources for the novel, and summarizes Drury's increasingly unfortunate sequels.

I was thinking about Advise and Consent because the movie came out on DVD this week, and like the book, it's one of those things that is far more engrossing than it has any right to be. I sat down expecting to notice its flaws, and I did notice its flaws, all the way through -- but I couldn't stop watching until the credits rolled. With Otto Preminger's canny pacing and his astoundingly good use of the Panavision frame, the great cast (except for Don Murray, out of his depth), and the basic strength of Drury's dishy/affectionate portrait of the Senate, it goes by very quickly for a very long, talky movie with a dated central plot twist.

One of the fascinations of the movie is that it is an adaptation of a politically conservative book by a politically liberal director. Signs of this can be seen in the downplaying of Orrin Knox, who is downgraded from a hero to a very minor, slightly toadyish character, the more sympathetic portrayal of the President, and the choice of heroic Henry Fonda to play Robert Leffingwell. And yet Preminger hasn't completely thrown out the book's viewpoint, which produces an ambiguity that actually serves the film very well. With Fonda as Leffingwell and Charles Laughton as Seab Cooley, you expect Fonda to be the good guy and you root for him to win -- except that, as the film goes on, Leffingwell not only seems like kind of a self-righteous jerk, convinced that his moral superiority makes lying okay, but he turns out to be a rather minor character who disappears from the film altogether just as the plot starts to heat up. Whereas Cooley is finally allowed to be a good guy, and a more interesting character, in the end, than Leffingwell. So what starts out looking like a Stanley Krameresque message picture winds up with a much more humble message: beware of people who, like Leffingwell, Fred Van Ackerman, or the President, are too certain they're right about everything. The hero of the movie, if there is one, turns out to be the good-natured, humble Vice President played by Lew Ayres, who is sort of a symbol for the Kennedy era's can't-we-all-just-get-along culture.

An interesting question is whether you could remake it today. I think you could; if Brig Anderson were re-imagined as a very conservative Republican, elected on a "values" platform, you could even carry over his "secret" almost unchanged (or at least it would explain why he wouldn't want it to be known). I'm not sure how you would re-imagine Van Ackerman, though, given that he is already a rather convoluted creation: Joe McCarthy re-imagined as a fanatical peacenik? That really shouldn't work as well as it does. But the problem is that in today's political culture, a Robert Leffingwell would be unlikely to be nominated for anything (even by a Democratic president), so a Fred Van Ackerman of today would probably have to be supporting a more conservative nominee and a more conservative cause. Yet that would lose the fun of the character and the whole concept of reverse McCarthyism. So I'm a bit stumped on that one.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Simonized

Playbill's recap of the career of John Simon, on the occasion of his dumpage from New York magazine (and his replacement by a writer 52 years younger) is pretty funny. I feel a certain sympathy for Simon on the basis that there must be some good in any critic who stands accused of being insufficiently encouraging to theatre people. Critics who try to be encouraging to theatre people usually wind up giving good reviews to promising but bad plays on the basis of wanting to see the good in them, or be "constructive." I think the first duty of a reviewer should be to the reader who wants to know whether this play is worth the investment of money and time, and that means that if a play is overall a failure, he should say so.

That said, Edward Albee's evaluation of him, that "There is no excuse for John Simon, except his own need to create a John Simon," seems about right. Simon's theatre reviews have dated badly because they're all about him; unlike, say, Walter Kerr, who had an idea of what he wanted theatre to be (a controversially show-bizzy, commercial idea, but an idea), Simon didn't seem to have any particular ideas about theatre other than that he likes good plays better than bad ones. He was still more entertaining than most critics -- as a theatre critic, anyway.

He was about the worst movie critic of his era, though, a walking self-parody of the type of movie "fan" that sprung up in the late '50s and early '60s, the type who didn't actually like movies but liked the possibility of what movies could become if they could be turned into Art. Or, as Pauline Kael summed it up in 1963: "In the last few years there has appeared a new kind of filmgoer: he isn’t interested in movies but in cinema." Simon, who worshipped all the late-'50s arthouse gods (his idol was Ingmar Bergman and he compared all other filmmakers unfavorably to Ingmar), proclaimed that America had produced "much cinematic entertainment but very little cinematic art," didn't care for Renoir even though he grudgingly acknowledged that The Rules of the Game was good, and seemed upset to hear Bergman speak with respect of Alfred Hitchcock, was like the real-life equivalent of those two guest characters in that Dick Van Dyke Show episode who start a conversation about moviegoing with the question "Don't you just love foreign movies?"

And, as I usually do in posts about criticism, I'll quote these lines from Elmer Rice's play Dream Girl:

GEORGINA: I don't call that an opinion. Just a nasty, insulting --

CLARK: I see! You only wanted a favorable opinion.

GEORGINA: Nobody wants criticism that's just destructive. I say if a critic can't be constructive --

CLARK: You mean you want the critic to do the creative job that you failed to do? If that's his function, we might as well dispense with the writer in the first place.

Garbo On DVD

According to a post at the Home Theater Forum, we can expect two DVD sets of Greta Garbo movies in September, to celebrate the centenary of her birth. The first set will have three of her silent films, The Temptress, Flesh and the Devil and The Mysterious Lady, while the other boxed set will have the sound films Anna Christie, Mata Hari, Queen Christina, Anna Karenina, Camille and Ninotchka.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Oy

Everybody's offering up their opinions on the super-sized celebrity blog at The Huffington Post. Since I'm mostly interested in the stuff these celebrities do for a living -- arts n' entertainment -- I thought I'd go through the ten zillion posts and see if there's any arts content there.

Conclusion: Not much. David Frum's wife Danielle Crittenden, one of that weird generation of blonde conservatives who rose to prominence in the '90s -- for the uninitiated, she's sort of like Ann Coulter, except she's a woman -- has a couple of typically lame pieces about Hollywood liberals. Richard Bradley gives us the shocking news that movies aren't very good these days. Larry Gelbart reminds me again of why I think he's an overrated joke writer. Tina Brown is, well, the Tina Browniest. And the Thirtysomething guy writes a post that I think I already read some years earlier, when they had that flap over the sanitized videos of Titanic.

As a clearing-house for famous and semi-famous people to give their thoughts on politics, frankly, it's not all that bad (superficial, yes, but not bad) and once they figure out how to give people a way to track new posts from their favorite writers (instead of having to wade through the aforementioned ten zillion posts), it might even be semi-successful. But they need some art/culture stuff in there, if only because culture is part of the political conversation.

Also, here's a question that occurs to me: when did the term "Hollywood liberal" become common? I would assume that at any particular point in time, a majority of Hollywood movie actors would have been fairly liberal, but it seems like it's not until fairly recently that the idea that Hollywood celebrities = liberal has become a common topic of conversation. Personally I don't see why the term "Hollywood liberal" should be more of a pejorative term than "Wall Street convervative" (a wealthy stockbroker might not know any less about foreign policy than a movie actor, but he undoubtedly doesn't know any more).

I'm Consumed With Apathy

Bad Day at Black Rock is finally out on DVD (unfortunately, without the superb John Sturges commentary from the Criterion laserdisc, which WB was unable to license; the commentary by critic Dana Polan isn't bad, though). DVD Journal's review of the disc and the film says much of what I wanted to say, including a nod to the superb use of CinemaScope by director John Sturges and cinematographer William Mellor.

When Black Rock was made, CinemaScope had been around for only a couple of years, and while almost every studio jumped on the widescreen bandwagon -- except Paramount, which developed the non-wide VistaVision process instead -- few directors had figured out a sensible way to compose for that big, wide frame, which was even wider then than it is now (Black Rock's aspect ratio is 2.55:1, almost twice as wide as the pre-1953 movie screens). The solution of most directors was either to fill the screen with as many people as possible, as in the big historical epics, or to compose the way they always did, which is why some scenes in early 'Scope films feature characters bunched together in the middle of the frame with acres of space on either side of them. Compositions in most early 'Scope films are flat and dull; imaginative camera angles and camera movements were almost lost.

And then there's Bad Day at Black Rock. Sturges seemed to sense something that most filmmakers hadn't realized: even though CinemaScope was billed as a spectacular, eye-popping format, best suited for epic subjects and images, it could actually be used to achieve greater intimacy and greater psychological insight. When filming a single character, Sturges doesn't waste the rest of the screen space; he uses props, sets and camera angles to place the character in the context of the setting, so that a character can look comfortable with the setting or dwarfed by his surroundings depending on what the mood of the scene is. And when more than one character is in the frame, the placement of the characters within the 'Scope frame helps to emphasize how they relate to each other: unlike other early 'Scope directors, who just had characters talking to each other from opposite ends of the frame or huddled together in the middle, Sturges puts the characters close together or far apart depending on what suits the mood of the scene. An obvious example is the scene in the restaurant, with the famous karate fight. When Ernest Borgnine starts needling Spencer Tracy, it's in a long uninterrupted shot, with Tracy surrounded on all ends of the frame by hostile characters. After Tracy socks Borgnine, we cut to Tracy framed against the counter, dominating the shot, in charge; the only other person in the frame is the owner of the restaurant, in the back, looking insignificant by comparison.

At a time when 'Scope was making movies look bloated and heavy, John Sturges showed how the 'Scope format could actually increase the tension and suspense in a movie; I don't think the scenes between Tracy and Robert Ryan would have the tension they do if it weren't for Sturges' manipulation of the 'Scope frame and the shifting distance between the characters within that frame. It's a brilliant piece of moviemaking, and a real lesson in the effective use of the wide screen.

The other 'Scope movie in the new "Controversial Classics" set, Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent, is also one of the classic examples of how to use 'Scope effectively, though Preminger uses it more for the ability to show many characters in a scene without having to cut.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Why I Sort of Still Love Raymond

I don't usually go out of my way to watch Everybody Loves Raymond. I enjoy it when I see it -- and it's in syndication approximately 25.7 hours of the day, so I can't help seeing it sometimes -- but I don't have a clear sense of which season is which, or how the show has developed, or which are the best and worst episodes. Still, I appreciate what the show brought to TV, or more specifically, what it brought back to TV.

Premiering at a time when most sitcoms were striving to imitate Seinfeld, its fast pace and its urban sensibility, Everybody Loves Raymond was a deliberate stylistic throwback to earlier shows, like The Honeymooners or All in the Family. At a time when sitcoms were getting faster and faster, with many short scenes in the Seinfeld style, Raymond told its stories in the old theatre-based sitcom style, with long scenes, few sets, and a deliberately theatrical style, with long pauses and a lot of playing off the audience, "riding" the audience laughter with double-takes and stares designed to make the studio audience laugh louder and longer. At a time when sitcoms were getting heavy with B stories, Raymond returned to the pre-1980s style of having only one story per episode, with all the main characters reacting to the main problem of the week instead of going off on their own story tangents. This is a throwback to the earliest form of the TV and radio sitcom: the sitcom as miniature stage play.

What's a bit surprising is that this style hasn't had more imitators. In particular, now that sitcoms' running times have been slashed to something like 20 minutes to fit in more commercials, it would seem sensible to go back to having just one story a week, instead of trying to write a "B" story in shows that barely have room for an "A" story. And some of the problems that sitcom casts have today, like the poor interaction of many of these casts (if you look at Raymond's inferior replacement Two and a Half Men, a key problem is that the performers hardly seem to react to each other's words or movements in a plausible way; they're in the same script, but on different wavelengths), might be helped by slowing down the pace a little and allowing for more reaction time. Instead, those who would save the sitcom keep going off into mockumentaries and quirk-coms and dramedies and other things that never seem to become hits (I love Arrested Development, but it will never be a hit), and the only signs of the influence of Raymond have been a bunch of loudmouthed domestic comedies that try to ape Raymond's subject-matter but not its retro style.

So, yeah, almost every episode of Raymond is what Roger Ebert called the "idiot plot," the idiot in this case being Ray: most problems could be averted if he'd just keep his big mouth shut. But it's the last old-school sitcom, and I'm sad to see it go, since it has no obvious replacement.

Joe Rogan, who got a part on NewsRadio after Ray Romano was fired from the pilot, did an interview a few years ago where he did a good job of summing up the reasons for Romano's success:

The show is great, and in my opinion it's added new life to the traditional sitcom genre.

People always have it in their head that there's a trend, that this is in and this is out. And for a while it was being bandied around that the traditional sitcom was dead, that people were tired of it. But what they were really tired of was shitty shows. What people like are things to laugh at. Funny shows. It's all in the execution, the writing and the characters, not the setting. And the writing and the execution and the characters are GREAT on [Everybody Loves Raymond].

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Noel Coward: Not Funny

Recently, on a message board, I expressed the somewhat quirky opinion that Noel Coward was at his best as a writer of sentimental operettas. His nonmusical plays have, I think, dated rather badly; his serious plays, like Cavalcade, are kind of appalling, and his comedies, while cleverly written to provide an effective vehicle for the right performers (usually himself and Gertrude Lawrence) come off to me as thin. His favorite trick, having characters talk about trivial things while trying to conceal the way they really feel (a trick brilliantly parodied by Nichols and May in the English segment of their "Adultery" routine), is repeated way too often, and he can be unpleasantly mean-spirited and cruel toward any character not played by himself or Gertrude Lawrence, e.g. Victor and Sybil in Private Lives, nearly everybody in Blithe Spirit.

As a songwriter, Coward was most celebrated for his comedy songs; he became a successful cabaret performer in the '50s by performing his comedy songs to happy, chuckling audiences. But here's the thing -- in my opinion, Coward's comedy songs aren't very funny. At all. I know this is personal taste, and that a lot of people find his songs funny; the audience on the above-linked album certainly seems to find them hilarious. But in comparison to the best comedy songs, Coward's always strike me as very thin on jokes. Even "Don't Put Your Daughter On the Stage, Mrs. Worthington" has almost no real jokes between its initial premise and the last, often-omitted refrain where the singer completely loses it ("In addition to which/The son of a bitch/Can neither sing nor dance"). Aside from that it just repeats the premise over and over again. Same with "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," which features intricate rhymes and some clever images, but keeps saying the same thing over again. If you compare "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun," by Irving Berlin -- a writer not normally considered a laugh riot -- you're on a different level of comedy songwriting entirely; every section introduces a new, complete joke that builds on the premise, and every refrain leads up to a final big, boffo laugh ("You can't shoot a male/in the tail/like a quail"). Compared to that, I don't see why the Vegas audience goes into hysterics when Coward sings the words "Goosed her."

Now, there are some Coward songs that I do find genuinely funny. He was funniest when he stopped trying to be witty and just settled for being nasty; Coward had a mean, bitter streak, and that bitterness served him well in such truly funny songs as "There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner," "Don't Let's Be Beastly To the Germans," and "Regency Rakes" (CONVERSATION PIECE), an enjoyably revisionist look at the popular figure of the "dashing" Regency rake: "Though we wonder, as we blunder/Into this or that bordel,/Whom we know there, why we go there,/But we're far too drunk to tell."

But Coward's sentimental songs are generally much better, as far as I'm concerned: when he was openly emotional, without the layer of reticence that attaches to most of his prose and songwriting, he could be very touching and even thrilling: "Tokay" from Bitter Sweet is as good an operetta drinking song as any ever written, and "If Love Were All," from the same show, is Coward in sincere mode, without the fake small talk, and communicating in a direct way that his usual style does not. Other favorite Coward songs:

- "Half-Caste Woman" (COCHRAN'S REVUE OF 1931). One of the most un-PC songs around, but also a wonderful, bluesy mixture of sadness and irony.

- "Play, Orchestra, Play" (TONIGHT AT 8:30)

- "Where Are the Songs We Sung?" (OPERETTE). I'm still trying to figure out whether or not the title is grammatically correct, but it's one of Coward's most beautiful waltz songs--a lovely, melancholy, reflective piece.

- "Sail Away" (ACE OF CLUBS, but such a good song that Coward used it in another, epynomous musical ten years later).

- "Mad About the Boy" (WORDS AND MUSIC). Especially in the original version, which presented the viewpoints of four different characters--a society lady, a little girl, a cockney, and a prostitute--on the "boy" of the title (a film star).

So my hope is that instead of another revival of Private Lives, someone might stage a revival of some of Coward's lesser-known operettas, like Pacific 1860 and his operetta version of Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, which he called After the Ball. Both these shows suffered from the lack of public taste for operetta in the post-WWII era, from a dearth of really first-rate "legit" singers in the casts, and from Coward's insistence in casting Graham Payn in everything. (Pacific 1860 starred Mary Martin, who, while a wonderful singer, was the wrong singer for music that needed a really operatic voice.) After the Ball got a concert performance around 1999 for the Coward centenary, but I don't think it was recorded.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Johnny Mercer, Bioethicist

I was posting about the musical Li'l Abner the other day; one of the songs that was cut from the movie, "Oh, Happy Day," is a pretty remarkable satirical song -- Johnny Mercer's lyric, in which a group of scientists exults over the possibility of making mankind "look, act, think feel, hope, desire, dream, buy and sell, inhale and exhale, exactly alike," is more relevant today, in the age when everybody's debating these issues as a reality, than it was almost 50 years ago, when much of this was still a fantasy:

Oh, happy day, when miracles take place
And scientists control the human race,
When we assume authority of human chromosomes,
And assembly-line women,
Conveyor-belt men,
Settle down in push-button homes.

Oh, happy day, when all the cells conform
And the exceptional become the norm,
When from a test-tube we produce gargantuas or gnomes,
And assembly-line women,
Conveyor-belt men,
Settle down in push-button homes.

So much of this, so much of that for the ears and eyes,
So much of that, so much of this for the toes and thighs.
Pour in a pot, stir up the lot, that's the basic plan,
What have we got? I'll tell you what: We've got man-made man!

Oh, happy day, when all the world can see
A healthy, hearty, hale humanity.
When even tired businessmen have hair upon their domes,
Slenderella-type mothers
And muscle-beach dads
Living in gymnasium homes.

Oh, happy day, when boys and girls on dates
Can tell electrically if they are mates.
If he goes for her kilowatts and she enjoys his omes,
You can bet your magnetic
Combustible shirt
They'll wind up in high-voltage homes.

The Wisdom of Hendrie

Phil Hendrie, the Los Angeles radio personality who does a lot of guest-voicing on King of the Hill (and, previously, Futurama), had a great rant on his show the other week about why Fox is very likely about to stop production on the show (though they'll have about a season's worth of unaired episodes left, so as with Futurama, we'll be seeing new episodes for some time after it stops production). Here's my attempt at a transcription:

So what happens with a show like King of the Hill? Here it is in a nutshell:

"Okay, we've gone ten seasons with it?"

"Yes, we have."

"Okay, is it in syndication?"

"Yes, sir."

"Okay, we've maximized the dollar value of the syndication?"

"Yes."

"Okay, have the ratings flattened? Are they going up?"

"Well, they're still steady, sir. We're getting the same audience."

"Hm. So we're not really pulling down bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger numbers?"

"No, sir, we're holding the audience that we have, and it's one of the biggest audiences that we have on this otherwise putrid network."

"I see. Well, because we're not really making more money than we could, and we've maximized the syndication rerun value, let's see if we can't just take that half-hour on Sunday night and squeeze it as if we're wringing the neck of a chicken, to see if we can't get one freakin' drop of blood out of it."

"Okay, but, sir, if we take that show off and put on some piece of dung like American Dad, and then pull it off in two episodes, and 'retool' it, won't that really be like a money-loser?"

"Don't tell me my business."

And there you've got the TV business in a nutshell.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Impetuous! Homeric!

Here's a several-years-old, great article from Written By magazine: "The Pathological Hero's Conscience", by Joseph McBride. It's about Frank Nugent, the New York Times movie critic who left the paper to become a screenwriter, and wound up writing the scripts for many of John Ford's finest postwar films: the Cavalry trilogy, Wagonmaster, The Quiet Man, The Searchers. As a movie critic who actually got creatively involved in the making of movies, he preceded Paul Schrader, Peter Bogdanovich, and the whole Cahiers Du Cinema crowd.

On the downside, when Nugent left the Times he was replaced by Bosley Crowther, thus condemning Times readers to twenty-plus years of bad prose and boring middlebrow tastes. Not that that could ever happen in a major newspaper today.

Over the Sledge

Update: I'm told that the message board post I was responding to was not by the real Alan Spencer, but a cyber-impersonator.

An old and not-particularly-good post of mine, on why I wasn't fond of the show Sledge Hammer, has inspired a message board discussion in which I got to participate, yay!

The creator of the show, Alan Spencer, who apparently makes P.O.'d posts about bad customer reviews at Amazon, corrected a mistake in my post (a correction I have added) and then settled my hash with such brilliant gems as:

Anyhow, Jaimie... you of the rather un-masculine name: Put a condom on your tiny member, stick it in the appropriate hole and move it slowly in and out.

That's called f**king.

Now... do it to yourself.


The fact that Wee Willy Weinman is content to criticize and not create, not even professing an aspiration to show us pros a thing or two, says that he's basically a coward. He actually isn't worth the amount of time spent discussing his prattle, but it's fun to work out one's demons on an insignificant blogger than unjustly targeting a friend, family member or small cur.


He even threw in a reference to the fact that he makes better money than I do. If he had only broken Godwin's law, he'd be batting 1.000.

Spencer on message boards, in other words, is very much like the Spencer who turns up on the Sledge Hammer! commentaries: not exactly unfunny, but the type of guy who considers himself hipper and edgier than he actually is, while mouthing dull cliches (is there any older, sillier cliche than the cliche that to "criticize and not create" makes criticism invalid). I'm not picking on him particularly; I've known this type elsewhere, and I think we all have. But it seems to be a particularly prevalent type in the TV writing business, where you'll often find people who will talk about escaping the tyranny of the network execs and challenging the audience with their dream project, only it turns out that their dream project is a collection of cliches (see Ball, Alan, or alternatively Beauty, American). Chuck Lorre, with his endless stream-of-consciousness protestations of genius contrasting with the by-the-numbers shows he actually creates (Two and a Half Men, Dharma and Greg) is perhaps the best-known example of the type.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Re Orso, Ti Schermi

I found a homepage for Arrigo Boito, poet, playwright, philosopher, composer, librettist -- a man who could do just about everything better than anybody, but never quite became the best at anything, except perhaps the underappreciated art of libretto writing (his librettos for his own operas are diffuse and often frankly weird, but his librettos for Verdi -- Otello and Falstaff -- are rightly considered classics).

The site is mostly in Italian, and even with a healthy dose of Babelfish we Anglophones are not going to get a lot out of it, but the excerpts from his poems (such as the epic Re Orso) and librettos do convey his most interesting quality as a writer: his incredibly florid use of sounds and rhymes and images, giving his verse a quality of sensory overload. His librettos for Verdi use so many obscure allusions and archaic words that, for an Italian audience, it must be a strange listening experience. Even an English-speaking audience can be rather worn out by all the sonic and rhyming trickery of:

Scrolliam crepitacoli,
Scarandole e nacchere!
Di schizzi e di zacchere
Quell'otre si macoli.
Meniam scorribandole,
Danziamo la tresca,
Treschiam le farandole
Sull'ampia ventresca.
Zanzare ed assilli,
Volate alla lizza
Coi dardi e gli spilli!
Ch'ei crepi di stizza!


Several of those rhymes are three-syllable rhymes, which by some rules of Italian versification aren't even supposed to exist. Or, from La Gioconda, the over-the-top ripeness of:

LAURA
L’amo come il fulgor del creato,
Come l’aura che avviva il respir!
Come il sogno celeste e beato
Da cui venne il mio primo sospir.

GIOCONDA
Ed io l’amo siccome il leone
Ama il sangue ed il turbine il vol
E la folgor le vette e l’alcione
Le voragini, e l’aquila il sol!


[Laura: "I love him like the splendor of creation, like the breath of life, like the source of my blessed heavenly dreams and my first sigh!" Gioconda: "And I love him the way a lion loves blood, the whirlwind loves flight, the lightning loves the mountaintop, the halycon loves the whirlpool, and the eagle loves the sun!"]

A short English bio of Boito is here.

The title of the post comes from the refrain of Re Orso, which is (as usual with Boito, heavily rhymed):

Re Orso,
Ti schermi
Dal morso
De' vermi.


Roughly, "King Bear, shield yourself from the bite of the worms." Not sure what that's supposed to mean, but then, even the Altavista version of Babelfish can only help so much, as opposed to the actual Babelfish.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Last G&S Post, I Promise...

...But I thought you might want to see what happens when a website pits Mr. T vs. a Gilbert and Sullivan Society. I pity the genius tutelary!

Never Gonna Dance

For the DVDholics among you, here's the cover art for the first DVD set of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, comprising Top Hat, Swing Time, Follow the Fleet, Shall We Dance and The Barkleys of Broadway. The other five will follow in a box set to be issued later. It seems to me that Warner Home Video is kind of shooting itself in the collective corporate foot by issuing the two most popular titles (Top Hat and Swing Time) in the first collection, but maybe volume 2 will appeal to the many fans of Dolores Del Rio vehicles and Vernon and Irene Castle biopics.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Were I Thy Bride

To follow up my Gilbert and Sullivan post: Jessie Bond, one of the members of the original D'Oyly Carte company -- she created a part in every G&S opera from H.M.S. Pinafore through The Gondoliers wrote her memoirs in 1930, and in Chapter 14 she writes disparagingly about the style of G&S performance that had sprung up after Gilbert's death, and in particular the tendency to ham it up and add overly broad gags. To a certain extent, of course, it's just another example of an actress telling the world that acting was better in her day, but it does go to suggest that G&S performance in the original productions was much more restrained than we would nowadays expect, and what's more, more thought went into the behaviour of the characters -- having them dress and act according in a realistic way, despite the wackiness of the plots -- than we would expect. (She goes into a surprising amount of detail about which characters would curtsey and which would not, or what Mad Margaret should wear in Ruddigore.) One passage that should be heeded by most would-be directors of G&S is:

Then there is the case of Phoebe in "The Yeomen of the Guard." What I hate is that senseless "business" in "Were I thy bride." You know what I mean, the scratching of the jailer's chin, the ruffling of his hair, the ogling of the eyes, and all those other "comic" antics which, goodness knows why, are supposed to be "funny."

I think it is wicked that there should be this vulgarity in one of the loveliest of all the songs in the operas. Sir William Gilbert would not have endured it for a moment. He intended that the audience should hear his most beautiful lyric-and they never hear it to-day. Sir Arthur Sullivan would not have stood it either. The air he had written was far too sweet to be drowned beneath silly laughter .

During the rehearsals I remember that Gilbert asked me - he was only a man, and perhaps didn't know !- how I would wheedle Wilfred Shadbolt. "Well, Mr. Gilbert," I answered, "I might just gently stroke his chin, and I might. .. " He stopped me. "That will do!" he exclaimed, "that will be splendid!" You see what he meant! He wanted the wheedling suggested, but he did not want a lot of low comedy introduced, and still less did he want the action to mar the effect of the song.

I remember something else. W. H. Denny was too good an artist to take any licence, but as he was seated on the floor, he once looked up slightly in a rather humorous way. "Mr. Denny," I said sharply, "I won't have any movement while I'm singing my song." And Shadbolt never did sway about or do any of that dreadful ogling-at the Savoy. Why should he? We knew well enough in those days that this so-called broad humour added nothing to a really beautiful song.


The movie Topsy-Turvy did a good job of capturing the relatively restrained, careful style of the original G&S productions, though whether audiences today would sit still for so little action during musical numbers is another question (even grand opera directors feel the need to have something going on during the numbers).

Jessie Bond herself must have been a very charming performer. She started in very small parts -- the part of Cousin Hebe in Pinafore was cut way down because she felt she couldn't handle the dialogue, having been trained as a singer and not an actress. But as time went on, Gilbert, who was fond of her (and comes off in some accounts as having had a bit of a crush on her), started writing bigger roles for her, and she became a key member of the company for acting and singing alike. Most of Gilbert's characters tend to be "stick figures," characters without much personality; there are exceptions, though, and many of them are roles that were written for Jessie Bond: Iolanthe, Mad Margaret, Phoebe. And Bond would often be given the touching, melancholy songs: "He Loves" in Iolanthe, "Only Roses" in Ruddigore, the happy-yet-wistful "When a Merry Maiden Marries" in The Gondoliers. Her parts are definitely more fun and interesting than the nominal heroines of these works.

Ban Gilbert and Sullivan!

I sometimes think that the only way to save Gilbert and Sullivan would be to ban all amateur and semi-professional productions of their works. This would include a ban on Gilbert and Sullivan societies, Gilbert and Sullivan workshops, and Gilbert and Sullivan kiddie productions. (I once came across a book with scripts and scores of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas condensed and re-written for children; the most memorable change, as I recall, was changing the climactic line of Iolanthe from "Iolanthe! Thou livest?" to "Iolanthe! You're not dead -- you're alive!")

Look, I know why Gilbert and Sullivan are so popular with schools and societies all throughout the Anglosphere (tm). Because G&S wrote their works for a stock company, there are no "star" parts; instead there are a lot of parts that get roughly equal time and equal opportunities to shine. There's a fair balance between male and female roles, and lots of work for the chorus. Each act requires only one set. The music is fun and relatively easy to sing. There are few complicated scenic or special effects beyond the occasional requirement for Peers to sprout wings. They are fun and easy to put on.

But the insane overexposure of these relatively few works has created the familiarity that breeds contempt: the cliches of G&S, and of G&S performance, are so familiar now that it would be hard to find an audience for a fresh musical or dramatic approach to any of these works. If G&S performance was once defined by the musty traditions of the D'Oyly Carte company, it's now defined by the broad mugging and musical compromises of the typical semi-pro performance. But how can you do a really well-sung, well-staged version of H.M.S. Pinafore when everybody has already seen it, or even done it, a million times? The only answer is to let these works sit on the shelf for a while, so they can be "rediscovered" later and re-evaluated for the excellent works they are.

The question then becomes, however: what would a re-thought, well-staged version of a G&S operetta be like? It's not like people haven't tried to breathe some new life into G&S. Before Gilbert's copyright expired in 1961, G&S performances were controlled by the D'Oyly Carte company, which used mechanical, predictable blocking and hoary old bits of schtick that had been around for decades (but probably weren't around in Gilbert's time). Flanders and Swann hilariously satirized this in their song "In the D'Oyly Cart":

Dear little town of Nanki-Poo
(Smile, turn, pace to the right),
Canst thou believe my heart is true?
(Terrible house tonight!)
One that with tender passion fired
(Turn, pace, hand over heart),
Woe to the day that we were hired
By D'Oyly Carte!
Why is it so admired,
This business first inspired
By former artists long retired
From D'Oyly Carte?


With the expiry of the copyright, various directors and companies jumped in and started trying to find a fresh spin on these works. Some of the more successful attempts were Tyrone Guthrie's productions of Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance at the Stratford Festival in Ontario and City Center in New York, the Sadler's Wells (now English National Opera) productions of Iolanthe and The Mikado (the latter, with Clive Revill as Ko-Ko, produced an excellent recording, and EMI's series of recordings with prominent opera and oratorio singers. And later, of course, there was Joseph Papp's hit production of Pirates with Kevin Kline as the Pirate King and Linda Ronstadt as Mabel. The D'Oyly Carte company, sticking as it did to the old mechanical stage business, faded into irrelevance and eventually folded; it re-constituted again in the '90s and has since more or less folded again.

Most of the "new look" G&S productions mostly consisted of clearing away all the old gags and business, or enforcing higher vocal standards than the D'Oyly Carte used to tolerate. That can still be done today: take out all the familiar schtick from semi-pro productions, and make sure the singers and orchestra are up to snuff. The problem was, and still is, that once a director has gotten through taking out all the bad habits that have affixed themselves to G&S, there's not a lot he can add to make the works fresh and new. G&S operas are essentially director-proof. There is no depth to the characters; any stage action you can add during a song just detracts from the song (which is why I think any G&S director should keep movement during a song to a minimum and not, repeat not, introduce physical gags in the middle of a song); all the social commentary is right there on the surface. Once you've done the now-traditional rewriting of patter songs to add lame topical references, you've just about done everything you can do.

The best bet with G&S, then, is at the musical end: cast really good singers, do lots of musical rehearsal, emphasize the grace of Sullivan's music and orchestration, give the works the same amount of musical respect that is given to Offenbach and Johann Strauss. You may lose some of the fun that way, but people will discover things they hadn't known about the works -- specifically, how good, really good, the music is. The act I finale to Iolanthe is as good a finale as has ever been written, telling a lot of story in music, shifting from mood to mood and style to style with ease, a parody of grand opera that also manages to be truly operatic in scope. Taking the whole thing "straight" rather than hamming it up would help to reveal that. But ultimately, I think the future of G&S is limited by the fact that there's just not much left to discover in them: we all know the words, we all know the tunes, we all know the best lines, and there is not much left to find out about these pieces.

When it comes to G&S themselves, it's interesting that these two men, whose lives really weren't all that interesting, continue to fascinate so many, even to the point that directors take time off from making hard-hitting working-class dramas and make movies about Gilbert and Sullivan instead. I think the fascination of G&S is that they embody the mysteries and frustrations of the collaborative process. Here were two men, exceptionally gifted in their respective fields. They didn't like each other all that much, wrote together mostly because producers put them together, had very little in common in terms of artistic personality. And yet they discovered that for some ridiculous reason (to which, however, I've no desire to be disloyal), they could only produce their very best work in collaboration with each other; working apart, with more seemingly compatible collaborators, never produced the same results. Where does the magic come from? Why should two mismatched talents match up so well? These questions apply to more than just the arts -- they apply to any situation where people do good work together even though by rights they shouldn't -- and that's the fascination of the story of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Gilbert produced some excellent work on his own; the "Bab Ballads" are wonderfully gruesome comic poems, Engaged is a comedy that heavily influenced Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest, and His Excellency is almost as good a comic-opera libretto as Gilbert's work for Sullivan (unfortunately, Gilbert gave it to another composer to set, and it flopped). Sullivan's non-Gilbert efforts don't hold up as well, being too closely tied to Victorian ideas of what good serious music should be -- that academic, fussy style that creeps into some of Sullivan's operetta scores, like The Yeomen of the Guard. On the other hand, Sullivan's contributions in the operas were more consistently good; Gilbert could be wildly uneven, falling in love with bad ideas (the idea of a lozenge that turned hypocrites into whatever they pretended to be, which he finally turned into the nearly-incomprehensible The Mountebanks) and re-working his old ideas (Princess Ida's libretto is taken from Gilbert's early blank verse play based on Tennyson's The Princess, and the relative unpopularity of the work was almost entirely the fault of the leaden plot and dialogue that Gilbert had carried over from the earlier play).

Someone -- I think it was Ken Furie in High Fidelity magazine -- once said that the key to the success of G&S is that Sullivan actually believed in the humanity of Gilbert's stick-figure characters. He has a point. Gilbert didn't seem to like people very much. His poems brim with cruelty and violence; unlike the dismally boring Edward Lear, he wrote light verse not as an escape into nonsense but as a window into a nightmarish version of our own world. (See the great ballad "Etiquette", or "The Yarn of the Nancy Bell," which makes South Park look like a paragon of good taste.) His taste for cruelty carries over into the operas, in a watered-down version; his "serious" libretto for Sullivan, The Yeomen of the Guard, is an incredibly nasty piece of work where jerks get rewarded and all the nice characters either are forced to marry horrible people or wind up lonely and depressed.

As a poet and as a playwright, Gilbert was obsessed with the idea that people live their life according to stupid, pointless rules. This may have come from his unhappy years as a lawyer, or his observation of Victorian society, or both, but the plots of most of the G&S operettas revolve around stupid rules that the characters follow, and never question, even if it nearly brings them to ruin. Fredric in Pirates of Penzance believes that doing his "duty" is more important than any demands of sense, logic, or morality; Iolanthe is about the harm wrought on people's lives by the necessity to follow the law (both mortal law and fairy law); Ruddigore is about characters who live according to etiquette books and the laws governing dramatic stereotypes (if you are designated as the villain, you have to act like one, period). It's all a fascinating perspective on law, morality, and the parallels between social convention and stage convention. (To Gilbert, we are like stage characters: acting a certain way because that's our designated role, not because it makes sense.) But it doesn't make for very interesting characters, because Gilbert sees everyone as an automaton, a puppet of convention and rules. His view of human nature is best summed up by a song from The Mountebanks, sung by characters who have been transformed into clockwork figures, and sing directly to the audience:

If our action's stiff and crude,
Do not laugh, because it's rude.
If our gestures promise larks,
Do not make unkind remarks.
Clockwork figures may be found
Everywhere and all around.
Ten to one, if we but knew,
You are clockwork figures too.
And the motto of the lot,
"Put a penny in the slot!"


Sullivan, with his cheerful tunes and good-hearted sentimentality, wrote for these clockwork-figure characters as though they were three-dimensional human beings. Some of this is a problem; Sullivan almost totally neglects the dark and ironic stuff in the libretto of Yeomen, producing a lovely score but one that treats the story as if it were far less unpleasant than it actually is. But on the whole, it's effective because it leavens Gilbert's unique nastiness with heart, and the music allows for more scope in the acting (you can't act Gilbert's characters by doing much more than the kind of simple gestures that Gilbert wrote into his prompt-books; but you can give the characters some shading by your way of delivering the music). And on the rare occasion that Gilbert provides a story with a little depth -- the title character of Iolanthe seems almost real and human, even though she's a fairy -- Sullivan can be truly moving. As Conrad L. Osborne remarked, the genius of the sentimental songs in G&S is that they are both sending up sentimentality and giving in to it: "Is it funny or touching? It's both."

So if Astaire gave Rogers class, and she gave him sex, I guess you could say that Sullivan tempered Gilbert's misanthropy, and Gilbert tempered Sullivan's treacliness. Gilbert's cruelty is as much a part of Victorian culture as Sullivan's sentimentality; it's the genius of combining the two strands of Victorian culture -- the nasty and the nice -- that makes these works so special, and so good.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

In Honor of the Return of Family Guy...

...Might as well drag out my best-known, or at least most-commented-upon post:

"Why I Hate Family Guy"


Since Family Guy is essentially ratings-proof (it's on Fox, which only cares about ratings among young viewers; it's relatively cheap, so it can make back its cost with DVD sales and cable runs), I would expect new episodes to clog up the airwaves with high-larious '80s pop-culture references and dull Sound of Music tributes for some years to come.

Incidentally, the hoopla over the return of Family Guy obscures the fact that Fox has all but dumped a much better animated show, King of the Hill; the next season will primarily be made up of episodes that were produced for, but weren't aired, this past season. Oh, well. It's not necessarily an "evil network executives" thing; no doubt Family Guy's bland, cookie-cutter jokes are the kind of things network executives tend to like, but more importantly, it's still relatively new and therefore probably much cheaper to produce than a long-running show like King of the Hill or a special-effects-laden show like Futurama.