Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Evening, Morning and Afternoon At the Improv

Ken Levine wonders whether improvisation is really all it's cracked up to be.

Even the same TV critics who hail this new form admit in their reviews that the shows are quiet, amusing in spots, the tone is more naturalistic, the actors are likeable, but there are very few big laughs. And that’s understandable because unless your cast includes Robin Williams, Sasha Cohen, Elaine May, Will Ferrell, or the Christopher Guest road company you are putting too much comedy burden on the actors. It’s not their job. It’s not their gift.

I think that's a terrific observation. There are a lot of great things about improvisation, but very few of them have to do with getting the big laughs. Think back to the comedy troupes that helped establish the importance of improv in comedy, like Second City. The point of improv in the Second City stuff was not, primarily, to make the sketches funnier; it's not like conventional sketch comedy was so short on big laughs or funny jokes that the younger performers thought they could do better by making stuff up on the spot. What improv lent to sketch comedy was a sense of depth and characterization; by acting more naturally, by forcing performers to really watch each other (because neither knows exactly what the other is going to do next), by incorporating awkward pauses and stammering and backtracking just like in real life, characters in sketches became more like real people than joke machines.

That's largely the point of the improvisation on a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm. That is actually a heavily scripted show; Larry David writes out what's going to happen in every scene, all the plot points, the subject of each conversation, all the big gags. The only thing that he doesn't write out are the actual words that the characters say, but those aren't the source of the biggest laughs, at least not directly. The improvisation helps give the show a naturalistic feel and it's also necessary to the theme of the show, because the show is about awkwardness and embarrassment. You can't write out and rehearse awkwardness and embarrassment; that, as Irving Berlin said, comes nat'rally. But when it comes to comedy, the actual choice of words is almost the least important part; the success of a show with improvised dialogue is perhaps a rebuke to joke writers who spend hours crafting the sound of each line (add more "K" sounds, quick!"), but it doesn't change the fact that good comedy needs a good writer. It just means that good comedy writing is about more than just funny dialogue.

If you go back even farther than that, some of my favorite movie directors of the Good Old Days (which I still call GOD for short) used improvisation that way: they'd plan out the scene and they'd write out the big jokes, but let the actors improvise the peripheral things. Leo McCarey did it that way; he didn't like to use a finished written script, but that didn't mean he relied on the actors to come up with the jokes. The biggest laughs in a movie like The Awful Truth come from things that were clearly planned and rehearsed in advance, like Cary Grant leaning back and falling off his chair. What the improv does is to give the performances a sense of naturalism that more tightly-scripted movies don't have, but it's still the responsibility of the writer and director to come up with the actual jokes.

Same with Gregory La Cava, whose film Stage Door is heavily improvised but still filled with great scripted punchlines ("Could you possibly see an older woman in the part?"). Improvisation is great in these movies, but they're not funny because of the improvisation; the best jokes are scripted, and the improv provides the depth and context for those jokes.

This post has gotten a little rambling and repetitive, but my point is this: I love improvisation in TV and film comedy. But what's good about it has very little to do with what makes those TV shows and movies funny. The funniest stuff tends to be planned out, which is why you need writers like Larry David or directors like Leo McCarey. But a good comedy needs more than laughs; it needs a sense that these are actual people, with lives and feelings and responsiveness to one another. And that's the element that improv can add.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Best Movie Theme Ever?

Random question to encourage reader participation: what's your favorite instrumental/orchestral theme from a movie (that is, non-vocal music)? Some movie scores don't have one big tune that's recognizable as the "theme," but it's fair to say that many if not most movie composers try to include one big melody that will define the picture. The themes for Star Wars or Kings Row or Superman (wait, they're all basically the same theme) stand for those movies in our heads; they are much more important to the image of the movies than, say, poster logos, which can change many times and be forgotten rather quickly.

I think I would pick David Raksin's theme from The Bad and the Beautiful. A long melody (it really just keeps going and going without a clear resolution, like musical perpetual motion) that's hauntingly beautiful but has that slightly unsettling edge that all Raksin's music has, it's the stand-in for the character of Jonathan Shields and the movie's attitude to Hollywood: tough but ultimately rewarding. Here is the final statement of the theme, from the closing scene -- as usual with Vincente Minnelli, all in one take -- and the closing credits (note that John Houseman, the producer, who'd worked on Citizen Kane, does something similar to Kane by showing clips of all the main actors at the end).

Monday, November 27, 2006

Don't Touch That Dial!

Somebody's uploaded a bunch of segments from the cult flop show that helped revive funny cartoons: The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse. Produced by Ralph Bakshi and involving the talents of John Kricfalusi, Eddie Fitzgerald, and many other now-familiar names, it revolutionized what a Saturday morning kids' cartoon could do in terms of experiments with design, adult-oriented humor, cartoony animation, and all the other stuff you hardly ever saw in the '80s. The show didn't succeed, but its influence is all over Ren and Stimpy and Tiny Toons and any other early-'90s comedy cartoon you can name.

This is one of the best cartoons from the show, "Don't Touch That Dial." It was written by Tom Minton, who went on to write a number of similar cartoons for Warner Brothers (like the great "Toby Danger" segment from Freakazoid); it's a rather vicious parody of television animation, taking shots at not only the obvious targets of Saturday Morning TV (Scooby-Doo) but also more respected shows like Rocky and Bullwinkle. It also mocks the kids in the audience, and even The Adventures of Mighty Mouse itself.

Betty Comden

Betty Comden, of Comden and Green, died a few days ago. Here's the New York Times obituary.

I'm just taking my time,
I'm just strolling along
While the world's on the run.
Once went hurrying by,
Never hearing a song,
Never seeing the sun.
What a surprise,
When I opened my eyes,
There was sunlight and skies,
And beginning that day
I discovered a world,
Such a wonderful world,
Every day is Thanksgiving
Now that I'm living
My way.

-- Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Subways Are For Sleeping (1962)

Friday, November 24, 2006

Paul Harrison's Prescience

Here's something else I posted on a message board earlier but am only getting around to reproducing here. I searched to see if there was any press coverage of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies while they were still in production; as expected, there wasn't much. But I did find one entertainment journalist who was singing the praises of these cartoons before anyone else. This would be Paul Harrison, whose syndicated entertainment column (for "XEA Service Inc.") appeared in some of the smaller newspapers. I know nothing else about the guy; I don't know how well-known he was or if he was considered particlarly good. All I know is that in 1937, before Daffy Duck was known to anyone, before Bugs Bunny, he was writing an article about how good the Leon Schlesinger/Warner Brothers cartoons were. The article, dated July 3, 1937, also goes into various details about how animated cartoons are made. Plus it features Schlesinger predicting doom for Walt Disney's crazy idea of making an animated feature -- a common view at the time.

An animated cartoon factory is a much quieter place, and more efficient, than an ordinary movie studio. Without bellowing assistant directors and bleating players, life is pleasanter, if more purposeful.

It didn't take long for the animators to introduce machine-like efficiency into their realm of pure fantasy. I used to think that all such films were turned out painstakingly, picture by picture, by a lot of busy little gnomes named Disney, sitting cross-legged in a grotto somewhere.

Instead of that, the pen-and-ink and water-color epics represent just about the highest development of the unit system of production in Hollywood.

There are budgets and shooting schedules and production charts. There are producers and directors and art directors and story departments. From inception to preview, each picture has its own full staff of executives and technicians.

The man who makes the most animated pictures is Leon Schlesinger, a veteran showman who has been in practically all branches of the stage and movie business, but who can't draw a straight line.

In 1930, when he had a prosperous little studio turning out titles and trailer ads and such, Jack Warner suggested making cartoon films.

So Schlesinger started "Merry Melodies [sic]" with a staff of 36 people. Now he has two studios, a staff of 170 workers, and a payroll of nearly a third of a million dollars a year.

This year he will make 20 Merry Melodies in color and 16 Looney Tunes in black and white. That's twice the number of cartoon shorts issued annually by Disney.

Schlesinger is a pleasant, solid man who reminds you a little of Hal Roach. He likes his work and gets a kick out of his own pictures, although with a modesty that is particularly non-Hollywood he says he's just a businessman, and acclaims the artistry of Disney.

As a businessman, though, he doubts that full-length cartoon features ever will make money. Disney has 575 employees and will spend nearly $1,000,000 producing "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

Schlesinger's current pride is Porky, a pig that stutters.

"I discovered Porky two years ago," he said. "We had a picture about a schoolroom, and the pupils were a cat, a turtle, an owl, and all sorts of animals, including a pig. Well, the minute we saw that pig we knew we had something. It was just like spotting a promising personality among the extras or bit players in a regular movie. So we got busy and gave Porky screen tests and changed him a little in developing his character. And now he stars in 16 pictures a year, the 'Looney Tunes.'

A stuttering character actor does the Porky dialog for a recording; then the record is speeded up so that the voice is about an octave higher when it reaches the film. Before they attained acting prominence, Rochelle Hudson and Jane Withers worked for Schlesinger, dubbing in their voices for those of cartoon characters.

Hollywood has scores of people capable of imitating voices, and the producer never has any trouble finding talent for impersonating, in sound, the Crosbys, Stepin Fetchits, Garbos and other celebrities whom he frequently satirizes in "Merry Melodies."

If you saw "Coocoonut Grove" you'll recall that Katharine Hepburn was caricatured as a horse. Schlesinger has heard that she was delighted with the impudence and went to see the picture three times.

In cartoon shorts, he explained, the animators are the real actors. They're the artists who sketch the action and the expressions of the characters, and they work from complicated scripts, or charts, plotted by the directors.

On these charts the notion of each scene is minutely described and a certain number of "frames," or individual pictures, is allotted for each bit of action. On the screen you see 24 of these frames a second.

Also on the animator's chart is written the dialog, divided into syllables and each syllable indicated for a certain group of pictures so that the characters' lip movements will synchronize perfectly, as though they're actually speaking.

In fact, the animators actually try to reproduce the true lip movements; they use themselves as models, looking into mirrors to see how certain sounds are formed.

After writing that column, Harrison didn't stop plugging the Schlesinger cartoons; two years later he wrote a short item on Schlesinger's attempt at a serious patriotic cartoon, "Old Glory," and in 1940 he raved about the Schlesinger studio's mix of live-action and animation in "You Ought to Be in Pictures."

With Walt Disney devoting his talents to features and allowing his short subjects to sag under artistic emphasis which neglects story values, I'm becoming still more of a fan for the Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies of Leon Schlesinger. The producer is one who believes that cartoons should be made just for laughs.

I've just previewed a Porky Pig and Daffy Duck vehicle called "You Ought to Be in Pictures" which is the first film in more than 20 years, as far as I know, to combine cartoon characters with real people. Of course the effects are many times better and different than away back in the days of the "Out of the Inkwell" series.

This isn't a series, anyway. Schlesinger never does a stunt more than once. It deals with the ambitions of Porky, who decides he'll quit cartoons for higher dramatic art -- maybe as Bette Davis's leading man.

He trots into Schlesinger's office, gets a release from his contract, drives to Warner's studio, eludes the gateman, crashes a busy sound stage, is tossed out on his ear and after some further disillusionments finds himself back at his old job and glad to be there.

All these things happen with the hand-drawn characters of Porky and Daffy mingling with normally photographed people and backgrounds. The process is too tricky for description.

Notice that bit at the beginning where Harrison says that he prefers WB's short subjects to Disney's. This is a normal enough sentiment nowadays, but it was close to blasphemy in 1940 to say that Schlesinger's factory was making better animated cartoons than Disney. It's often said that Manny Farber of The New Republic was the first "mainstream" journalist to make such claims for the WB shorts, but Harrison beat him to it by at least two years. Of course he attributes the cartoons to the producer, Schlesinger, rather than the directors; this was inevitable, because Schlesinger's name was more prominent on the cartoons than anyone. Still, Paul Harrison, whoever he was and whatever else he did, seems to have been ahead of the curve when it came to cartoons.

Flip Your Wings And Fly To Daddy

Because I'm just in another one of those Bob Fosse kinda moods:

Grudge Matches I'd Like To See: Apollo Creed vs. Clubber Lang

In honor of the upcoming Rocky Balboa, here's another Grudge Match I'd Like To See:

APOLLO CREED (Carl Weathers) vs. CLUBBER LANG (Mr. T). Rocky's most formidable opponents. Both of them beat Rocky once and got beaten by him once. (This is Apollo in his prime, not the wimpy Apollo who got killed by that Russian dude.) Who wins this battle of the Rocky also-rans?

Note On Comments

Haloscan for some reason stopped working with my blog, so I've switched back to regular Blogger comments. Note, however, that you don't have to sign in to a blogger account to comment; anonymous/pseudonymous commenting is fine and encouraged (I've done it, you've done it, go nuts).

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Sonny, Sonny, Sonny, Sonny

Ah, that's more like it: Bosom Buddies, the complete first season, on DVD.

I have said my say about why I love Bosom Buddies in an earlier post. Shorter version:

a) Chris Thompson, the creator, was one of the most original and interesting sitcom writers to come out of the Paramount factory in that period; he came up with very strange and funny stories and off-kilter lines. He's never had a successful show -- his most recent creation was the memorably nasty cult series Action -- but his stuff is always worth seeing.

b) Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari were brilliant, improvising and ad-libbing like crazy and playing off each other impeccably; you don't often see great comedy teams on sitcoms -- usually everybody just kind of does their own thing -- but they were a true team.

c) The late Wendie Jo Sperber, as I wrote earlier, was successful in "turning what could have been a degrading, stereotypical role (the young overweight woman with an unrequited crush on the Peter Scolari character) into a very human and attractive character."

d) Holland Taylor is never less than great.

I actually think the second season was better than the first, because the dressing in women's clothes was de-emphasized. The original idea may have been to do a sitcom version of Some Like It Hot, but it quickly became apparent that Hanks and Scolari were funnier just doing their own thing in regular clothes; the drag gimmick actually detracted from what made them funny. But there's a lot of good stuff in the first season too.

One other thing about the show is that the pilot was shot on film, like all the other Paramount sitcoms of the era, but the series was shot on videotape. I don't know if they were trying to save money or if they decided that tape suited the series better -- but it did, in fact, suit the series better; tape made the show look looser, rougher and less cute than the other sitcoms from the Miller/Milkis/Boyett factory, making it a little more apparent that this wasn't Laverne and Shirley with guys.

No word on whether the DVD will use the original theme song, a cover version of "My Life" by Billy Joel, or the alternate theme song (with lyrics by Thompson) that was used in some syndication versions. Here's the original song, with the season 2 title sequence.

Update: I might as well re-post some of the Bosom Buddies quotes that someone else assembled on a message board. Few shows have had so many lines that make no sense out of context but are completely hilarious when you're watching:

"I was quite the bohemian at Vassar."

"It was a perfectly normal day at the Susan B. Anthony Hotel, except everyone had become the undead."

A bird with a hat - a very powerful aphrodisiac."

"I'll cherish this gift long as it lasts. Does anyone have 15 'D' batteries?"

"But we were gonna live on Cheetos and develop respiratory infections!"

"What do you think of this piece here?'s the flag of Japan!!!"

"I ate my albino snake."

"Sven, you crazy Viking!"

"Mint donut?"

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


You've probably heard that Robert Altman died.

In his honor, the memorial service will feature three eulogists, all delivering their eulogies simultaneously.

One thing I admire about Altman is that even though he was an acclaimed auteur, he was an auteur who actually liked to work. A lot of directors, once they get famous, start getting so picky about projects that they let several years go between films, and wind up taking years to create a disappointing movie. Altman made a movie (sometimes two) every year; some of them were great, some of them were OK, some of them were terrible, but the upshot of it was that he wound up making more great/good movies than the directors who treat every project as the challenge of a lifetime. Moviemakers make movies; Altman didn't develop projects or shepherd properties through the production process -- he made movies. Lots of 'em.

Another thing I like about Altman is that, compared to the other directors who became famous in the '70s, he didn't seem to have the same kind of extravagance, either with budget (M*A*S*H isn't a favorite movie of mine, but it's impressive that it looks as good as it does as a low-budget movie shot entirely on the Fox backlot) or technique. He'd worked in episodic TV for years before he broke into features, and he sort of retained the lessons of episodic TV filmmaking: don't over-think things, don't take too long. When he does go for a really extravagant shot, it's sort of a joke, like the opening shot of The Player -- a parody of the way Hollywood movies will spend immense amounts of time and money on over-elaborate shots that nobody will notice, while neglecting the importance of a good story.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

1946 Article on Friz Freleng

Probably the best special feature on the fourth Looney Tunes Golden Collection is a new documentary on Friz Freleng, which includes lots of archival interview footage of Freleng (as well as one of his top animators, Virgil Ross). In honor of that, I'd like to re-post something I already posted on a message board a while back: while searching through, I found a 1946 article on Freleng in his hometown newspaper, the Kansas City Star. It doesn't say a whole lot that you wouldn't know from watching the documentary, but it's just interesting and surprising that it exists at all, since the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies directors didn't usually get press coverage at the time they were making these cartoons.

Spelling mistakes or factual mistakes are from the original:

Kansas City Star, August 20, 1946


Isadore Freleng, Cartoon Creator, Returns “Home.”

A Director, for Warner Bros. Studio, the Master of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck Renews Friendship Here.

One of a half-dozen cartoonists who left Kansas City in the early '20s to become animators and producers of pen and ink motion pictures, Isadore (Fritz [sic]) Freleng, returned to his “home town” this week for a visit.

As a director in the Warner Brothers cartoon studio, Freleng created the popular “Looney Tune” series and now controls the antics of such “Merry Melodies” characters and Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck.

When Freleng lived here at 4543 Mercier street, he attended Westport high school. Some of his cartoons appeared in school publications during his 1919 to 1923 high school career. To earn pocket money he caddied at the Kansas City Country club and recalls that one of his fellow mashie-toters was now-famous professional golfer Jug McSpaden.

“After school I worked at Armour & Co. as a visitor's guide for a while, then went out to United Film Service, Inc., at 2449 Charlotte street as an animator.”

It was here that Freleng became acquainted with Walt Disney, creator of Mickey Mouse; U.B. Iwerks, creator of “Flip the Frog”; Fred Harmon, originator of the “Red Ryder” strip; Hugh Harmon, his brother, who, with Rudy Ising, another United man, later made the “Harmon-Ising” musical cartoons.

Disney was the first of the Kansas City group to strike out for Hollywood. Later, the others followed, all becoming Disney animators. In 1931, Freleng became associated with Warner Brothers, where he has been ever since.

Another Kansas Citian in the Warner office is Carl Stalling, musical director of the animated cartoon section, who formerly played the organ at the Isis theater here.

“Bugs Bunny, the most popular character of 'Merry Melodies,' was created as a combined result of several directors and artists,” Freleng said. “I began Porky Pig in a 'bit' part in my third picture. He's jumped to stardom since.”

Musicals, of the “Rhapsody in Rivets” and “Three Pigs in a Polka” type, whre the action of the characters is timed to the exact note of some well-known piece of music instead of to a set rhythmic tempo, are a Freleng innovation.

Friends at the Warner studio term Freleng the original “worry wart” because of his pessimistic view of each new picture. The slightly-built, balding, blue-eyed man assures everyone that “this is my worst, and probably last, cartoon.” So far, the strips happily have proved Freleng wrong.

Friday, November 17, 2006


While I try to come up with an animation-related post for the weekend, you can check out my post about How I Met Your Mother. I speculate -- even more ramblingly than usual -- about the possibility that young, pretty people are over-represented in today's sitcoms.

Also, here's the ultimate video clip for moments when you don't have any new material to offer, the "Signing off the air forever" message from Joe Dante's masterpiece, Gremlins 2.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

In a Dicky and a Collar and a Tie

I've been trying to get through the films in Fox's Rodgers and Hammerstein Collection, but while Fox has done a commendable job in packaging these films -- lots of special features, commentaries, TV excerpts and other interesting bits -- it's just hard for me to be very enthusiastic about these movies. The '50s were the start of a new approach to filming Broadway musicals; whereas once they were used as very loose source material (it was standard practice for every studio, except possibly Warner Brothers, to replace most of the songs when they filmed a Broadway show), by the '50s there was an increasing sense of reverence for the original material. The good side of that is that you don't have to sit through inferior replacement songs like you got with the film version of, say, On the Town. The bad side of it is that these movies are stiff, slow and static.

Which is too bad, because a lot of these shows had real cinematic possibilities. Imagine an Oklahoma! movie that felt more like a movie Western, or a film of Carousel that had some of the spirit of Fritz Lang's non-musical version of the source material (which, happily, is included as a DVD extra), or a shorter, tougher, more war-movie-ish South Pacific. If The Sound of Music works better than most of the R&H movies -- I may not like what it's doing, but it certainly works -- it may be partly because the movie possibilities of the material were a little more exploited, with more ideas that were specific to moviemaking (and actually good ideas, not something stupid like those color filters in South Pacific). That might have had something to do with Roger Edens, the MGM Musicals veteran, who helped shape Ernest Lehman's script and came up, uncredited, with some of the most famous ideas in the movie, like the opening shot (this is according to the book The Fox That Got Away).

I also have a problem with some of the musical arrangements in these movies; Alfred Newman was a very talented arranger, conductor and composer, but he always made everything as big, loud and overblown as possible. (No man has ever loved wordless "aahhh" choruses as much as Newman did.) And Rodgers and Hammerstein's songs work better when given less syrupy arrangements; that's why the most musically satisfying of these movies is Oklahoma! because it used the original Broadway orchestrations (Robert Russell Bennett) and the conductor of the original Broadway production (Jay Blackton, who also created the famous vocal arrangement for the title song). A song like If I Loved You from Carousel -- the most ambitious and longest musical scene that Rodgers and Hammerstein ever undertook, and possibly the best scene in the history of Broadway musicals -- works a lot better with a less bombastic orchestra. You can get a sense of that in these mid-'50s clips from "The Ed Sullivan Show," which reunites the two stars of the original 1945 production, John Raitt and Jan Clayton.

Update: A commenter offers these corrections:

Robert Russell Bennett wrote the orchestrations for the film version of Oklahoma (and won an Oscar® for them), but they weren't the same as the original stage version. Unlike most movie-musical orchestrations, they are tasteful, restrained, colorful, and stylistically faithful to the original.

Per his autobiography, Bennett (not Blackton) is also responsible for the "second special chorus" vocal arrangement of the "Oklahoma" title song.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Odd But Endearing

Here's a weird YouTube find: somebody put up a clip from an episode of Dinah Shore's talk show ("Dinah!") where Shore and guest Jane Russell sing "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Stephen Sondheim's Company. Russell actually played this part in the show after Elaine Stritch left, and she's just right for the song; the weird part is that Shore, who is totally wrong for this song, also participates in it, and seems to have no idea that it's supposed to be ironic.

There are other clips from "Dinah!" on YouTube, and interviews from her show occasionally turn up as DVD extras; her interview with Paddy Chayefsky is on the Network DVD. I have to say that it seems like it must have been an enjoyable show -- totally without any attempt to be hip or ironic or make fun of her guests, it's a show for people who just unabashedly love showbiz and celebrities, and don't we all?

One other thing: growing up after Shore's talk show was off the air, I first heard of her as a singer, and only many years later discovered that she'd had a talk show. But a commenter at YouTube, apparently older than I am and therefore with some experience of her talk show, writes: "I never knew Dinah Shore's voice was so pretty."

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

One-Season Wonders That Lasted More Than One Season

Can you think of any long-running TV shows that, in your opinion, were only really good for one season?

My pick is, and long has been, "Sabrina, The Teenage Witch," whose first season is finally going to get a DVD release. This show premiered in the 1996-7 season, the same season that saw the premiere of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," and I honestly couldn't tell you which one was better at the time.

No one really expected it to be good; the comics were never any good (except for the few that Bob Bolling did in the early '80s), and the Filmation TV cartoon was, well, a Filmation TV cartoon. But Disney/ABC made a really smart hire for the live-action TV sitcom version: Nell Scovell, a veteran TV comedy writer who'd worked on shows like "Late Night With David Letterman," "Newhart," and "The Simpsons." Scovell took the basic premise and some of the character names from the comic, but for the most part she made up the whole show from scratch, re-imagining some characters -- Sabrina's aunts, Hilda and Zelda, became a couple of hip, attractive 40-ish women -- and inventing some new characters; she got a "created by" credit for the show, and deserved it.

The setup of the show was your typical fantasy-sitcom setup: every week, Sabrina tries to solve some problem using magic, gets into trouble, and learns some kind of lesson about friendship or responsibility. What made it special was that Scovell's writing was extremely smart and funny -- she and her staff didn't for a moment write down to the young audience, instead doing the same kind of humor that they'd use on "grown-up" shows -- and that the guest casting was highly imaginative and quirky, like a recurring guest role for Scovell's friends Penn and Teller:

Penn Jillette: Very simple story: The producer the first year, the year that it was stunningly good, was Nell Scovell, who's one of the funniest people alive. She wanted us in the show, and she was willing to really work for it, which means she was willing to look at our schedule—we're all over the place—and work with our office to find out what days we could shoot, and then write the whole script based around that. It was really a great deal, because she's a close friend, and she was very conscientious to try and write no lines for the character that she had not heard me say in day-to-day life. Which was really funny, considering that I was playing Satan and there were no line changes from my day-to-day life. [Laughs.] Al Pacino cannot say the same thing.

So what happened in the second season? Scovell left the show. In the wake of Scovell's departure, there were some cast changes: Sabrina's friend Jenny was replaced with a new character, Valerie (who didn't last all that long herself), and Paul Feig -- whom you know as creator of "Freaks and Geeks" -- lost his role as Sabrina's teacher, being replaced by a sullen Martin Mull as a sullen Vice-Principal. Feig wrote about this on his web page:

Yes, you heard correctly, friends. Mr. Pool received a little phone call after the end of the first season from the executive producer of "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" and was informed that the new producers felt that kids wouldn't follow the same teacher for two years in a row and so they gave Mr. Pool and Paul Feig (rumored to be the same guy) his marching orders.

I guess they're right, you know. I remember how boring it got watching that same Mr. Kotter year in and year out. And all that same old group of teachers on "Room 222" season after season. And that dern White Shadow himself, Ken Howard. Oy, if I had to watch him coach those inner-city kids for one more year, I think I might have gone insane. But what did I know?

All I can say is, thank God they changed Darrens halfway through the run of "Bewitched."

There's not much of an ending for this story: "Sabrina" continued to do well for several years, anchoring ABC's TGIF lineup (which, quite honestly, I miss: it was a surprisingly relaxing way to kill a Friday night after a tough week). But it was never anywhere near as good as it had been in that first season with Scovell running it.

Monday, November 13, 2006

A Lost Starlet Before the '60s

I'm always making list of '60s actresses who should have become stars, but why limit myself to the '60s? A starlet of the '40s and '50s whom I always thought should have had a bigger career was Janis Paige. (It seems a bit random for me to be talking about her, but I was just re-watching Silk Stockings, where she plays a supporting part and almost steals the movie from Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.) She was a likable performer and exceptionally good-looking; she could be a heroine, a vamp, or a wisecracking best friend. She also had an adequate singing voice (though she suffered from pitch problems sometimes) that allowed her to do well in musicals, like the original Broadway production of The Pajama Game. For some reason she never made the leap to leading-lady status on the screen, maybe because her versatility worked against her -- she could play heroines, but she didn't have to, and when an actress doesn't clearly fit into one particular category, the studios don't always know how to cast her.

This page has a good biographical piece on Paige.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Is "Tortilla Flaps" a Better Speedy Gonzales Cartoon Than "Here Today, Gone Tamale?"

Don't forget that this Tuesday brings the release of the fourth Looney Tunes Golden Collection, which is very much worth getting despite the overabundance of Speedy Gonzales. Consulting Producer Jerry Beck has a preview of the set, including a screenshot of the restored opening titles to Chuck Jones's first cartoon, "The Night Watchman."

Thursday, November 09, 2006


If Fox has really made a "multimillion dollar pact" to distribute DIC animated titles, that can mean only one thing:


The article explains something that had confused me: I'd been seeing a bunch of "Strawberry Shortcake" DVDs from Fox and wondering who the heck remembered Strawberry Shortcake (except people like me who remember every bad '80s cartoon). It turns out that DIC and Fox have revived the character -- in computer-animated form -- for a market I wouldn't have expected:

Fox's success with Strawberry Shortcake at Christian outlets particularly impressed DIC, and DIC hopes the studio can break its Madeline property into the Christian market as well.

To be honest, I never thought there was much religious content in Strawberry Shortcake, but what do I know? It's entirely possible that I was missing the religious undertones in Rainbow Brite, too. Seriously, though, with most "kids" cartoons today being far from wholesome -- good or bad -- it might make sense to reach back to some of those innocent '80s properties for parents who want to show their kids something less nudge-nudge-y than, say, Shrek.

Here's what those of us who grew up with the original Strawberry Shortcake had to go through:

Update: Thanks to a commenter for pointing out that I originally wrote "DC" instead of "DIC."

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Pointless James Bond Notes

I had a chance to look at the new James Bond DVDs -- the special features are mostly duplicated from the earlier releases (though there is some new stuff, like uninformative but charming audio commentaries by Roger Moore), but unfortunately it's still worth replacing the old DVDs with these, because the picture quality is much better than before, especially for the earlier films.

The one thing that jumps out at you when you watch a bunch of James Bond movies is how few of them really can be called good movies as a whole. Most of them have some memorable scenes, or memorable stunts, or something. (Even a turkey like Diamonds Are Forever has the justly-celebrated scene of Bond getting his ass kicked by women named Bambi and Thumper.) But because Bond movies are entirely a collection of set pieces, with just a hint of plot to get from one set piece to another, most of the movies don't really have any individual identity. It's like a variety show; you remember individual sketches, not whole episodes. The only movies that have some kind of cohesion are the ones that are actually based on the Fleming books, like Goldfinger (which is in this set) and Dr. No, From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (which aren't).

Thunderball is sort of an in-between film -- a little more cohesive than most Bond movies, less cohesive than the first three or OHMSS -- but despite the weakish head villain (Adolfo Celi), I kind of like it, as it was one of the first Bonds I saw, and it was probably the last film to preserve some degree of Spillane-esque nastiness in Bond. (On Her Majesty's Secret Service is great but George Lazenby isn't exactly menacing.)

But the other thing that jumps out at you when watching a '60s Bond film like Goldfinger or Thunderball is how well-dubbed they are. Many movies, especially big productions with international casts, were at this point shooting many scenes without sound and re-dubbing actors who couldn't speak English. (Or, as in the case of Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger, didn't have the voice the producers wanted for the character: so they combine her body with a different voice to get the composite character they were looking for.) A lot of this dubbing, especially in American movies, was very obvious and distracting, but the dubbing in the early Bonds -- mostly supervised, I think, by the editor, Peter Hunt -- mostly sounds like it's taking place in the right acoustic for the scene and sounds natural coming out of these characters; even when Sean Connery post-dubs his own lines, as he frequently does, it doesn't sound like ADR unless you're really listening for it.

Finally, I put the question to you: which Thunderball song do you think is better: the original, "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," or the title song that the producers made John Barry write and record as a replacement? I have no problem in saying that I prefer "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," mostly because of the lyrics: the lyric of "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is one of Leslie Bricusse's better efforts, whereas the lyric of "Thunderball," by Britain's worst lyricist, Don Black, makes absolutely no sense.

Version # 1 ("Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang")

Version # 2 ("Thunderball")

Update: A commenter asks why the song was replaced. John Barry explained in an interview:

The Bond team had even chosen the singer - Dionne Warwick, who sang her own arrangement, after Shirley Bassey's original version had failed to impress. Barry takes up the story: "Dionne's was a marvellous song and she did a great arrangement for it. It was a really strange song. I had about twelve cow bells on it with different rhythms, along with a large orchestra, and thought it a very original piece. Then, at the last minute they got cold feet and decided to have a song called 'Thunderball'." The official reason for the change of mind was that the original song-title may have been considered to have sexual connotations in conservative America, but rumour has it that there may have been a threat of court action from Bassey following her replacement by Warwick. Obviously if the song wasn't used at all, there could be no case to answer!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Going Audio-Visual

For some reason, one of my old posts that gets linked to the most after all these years is my post on The Stan Daniels Turn -- a joke that depends on someone instantaneously, and unwittingly, contradicting what he has just said. I've finally been able to update it with an actual example of a Stan Daniels Turn, but here it is in this post too -- a joke from the Mary Tyler Moore episode "Chuckles Bites the Dust":

Grudge Matches I'd Like to See: Buffy vs. The Count

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV Version) meets The Count (Sesame Street). Since he is a vampire, and not hot, she takes it upon herself to slay him.

Can Buffy beat the Count, or will the Count rain thunder and lightning upon Buffy?

"Despite the Easy Jack Webb Comparison, I Always Considered Jack Lord My Spiritual Forbear."

Hawaii 5-0 coming to DVD; season 1 comes out in February.

The quote above is from Cornfed the Pig on Duckman (which, frankly, I wish Paramount/CBS had put on DVD before 5-0).

The Keatons Revisited

Yes, sorry, I am obsessed with the U.S. mid-term elections and suffused with nagging fears that vice will be rewarded (Tradesports says differently, but Tradesports can be wrong too). But instead of making pessimistic predictions, I want to revisit something I wrote two years ago in explaining why Ohio was a Republican state. Noting that Family Ties took place in Columbus, I did my own poll of the Keatons and came up with this:

Stephen: Democrats
Elyse: Democrats
Alex: Republicans
Mallory: Didn't want to vote, but she decided to go to the polls to meet a cute guy, and while she was there, she voted Republican because they were promising to lift restrictions on imports of foreign makeup
Jennifer: Democrats
Andrew (who would by now be old enough to vote): Republicans

That makes it a 3-3 split. Who cast the tiebreaking vote? NICK. He went Republican at the last minute because Laura Bush said something nice about his art. When Stephen finds out, he chases Nick around the state with a baseball bat with a nail in it.

And Skippy? Skippy's vote wasn't counted. As if you had any doubt.

But this year, Ohio is widely favored to go in a different direction, with both the Governor's and Senator's races heavily Tradesported to go Democratic. If this turns out to happen, what changed? Whose votes changed?

Well, obviously, Stephen and Elyse stayed the same. I think Jennifer would stay the same too. Andrew would continue voting Republican because, well, he's Andrew and I've always thought he would wind up to the right of Alex. Mallory could go either way depending on which candidate she thought was cuter; she's what we call a "swing voter." And Nick, another swing voter, could also go either way depending on what he was on at the time. Finally, as you know, Alex is a Democrat now.

And Skippy? There's still not a single county around that would count Skippy's vote.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Just-Us League of Supertoons

I haven't done an animation-related post in a while, for which I apologize; meanwhile here's my take on "Justice League" and "Justice League Unlimited".

The subject heading is the title of an episode of "Tiny Toon Adventures" written by Paul Dini, around the same time "Batman: the Animated Series" was starting up.

WB Strikes Again

Wow, that was fast -- the two Busby Berkeley numbers found on YouTube have now been un-found because Warner Brothers pulled them off the net. Apparently they've been so energized by their quest to get every single Looney Tunes clip off YouTube that they're now going after clips of musicals as well.

So forget about those clips (or get the DVD set and watch them there); here, from the more live-and-let live (so far) 20th Century-Fox, is another Berkeley freak-out from The Gang's All Here -- "The Polka Dot Polka."

Saturday, November 04, 2006

More Busby Berkeley

You know, when I was a younger movie-musical buff, I had kind of a snobbish attitude to Busby Berkeley. I thought of him as kind of a one-trick pony -- put a bunch of chorus girls on an enormous stage with some bizarre gimmick like neon violins or giant rocking chairs -- and was over-conscious of the fact that he wasn't a very good choreographer (he couldn't dance all that well himself, and his choreography tended to consist of having people do the same step over and over). I thought of him as kind of a camp icon rather than a genius.

Now I am older, and I am wiser, and I have the Busby Berkeley Collection on DVD, and I know I was wrong: Berkeley really was a genius. For one thing I've come to realize just what an incredible imagination the guy had, what an ability to make art out of visual ideas that no one else would try; "The Shadow Waltz" may sound kind of goofy in description, but when you see the lights go down and reveal the line of glowing violins, it's magical. I've also come to better appreciate his technical sophistication; his use of the camera and of special effects was beyond a lot of directors today, never mind in 1933. And I've come to appreciate his outlandish sense of humor, the fact that he's being intentionally funny a lot of the time. And of course I appreciate that he had the good sense to work with Harry Warren and Al Dubin and get great work out of them.

(An aside: the only studio for which Harry Warren didn't do great work, oddly enough, was MGM; he gave them one hit, "On the Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe," but most of Warren's songs for Arthur Freed musicals are not up to his usual standards before and after his stint at MGM. I suspect this might have had something to do with Freed's generally less-than-optimal taste in songs; his biggest flaw as a producer of musicals was that he often picked songs that were pleasant but bland.)

Here are two Berkeley numbers from his WB prime, both to songs by Warren and Dubin. "Pettin' in the Park" from Gold Diggers of 1933, with Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, cops on roller-skates, women in iron dresses, and Berkeley's favorite horny midget, Billy Barty:

And from Gold Diggers of 1937, "All's Fair in Love and War," with Dick Powell and Joan Blondell leading opposing armies of guys and gals:

Friday, November 03, 2006

Cancelled Though Not Necessarily Brilliant

Denis McGrath has a great post about the four crime shows on a "Brilliant But Cancelled" disc (sort of tying in with the series of reruns of obscure shows on the Bravo network in the U.S.). I basically agree with his observations about all four shows, especially that "Johnny Staccato" is the only one of the four that is really totally watchable.

More On Bass vs. Binder

Michael Sporn has some good comments on my Bass vs. Binder post:

Bass started designing titles earlier than Binder, and he made an art of it.
Binder's work was always lightweight in comparison. The graphics weren't as gemane to the film; they were pretty pictures.

Check out Bass's idea of funny in That's Entertainment. He parodies movie titles of the past.

Pablo Ferro was also brilliant. His titles for Dr. Strangelove are classic.

My problem with Ferro's Strangelove titles is that while the visuals are great -- funny and subversive just like the movie -- the credits are kind of ugly and sometimes hard to read, and I think that a good title sequence needs to have legible credits.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Finally, Family Ties!

What took them so long?

This is another one of those shows where the first season wasn't as good as the others but we still have to buy it ('cause if we don't buy season 1, we don't get the better seasons). The first season wasn't bad, but it was too tied to the basic high-concept premise -- ex-hippie parents vs. soon-to-be-yuppie kids -- and didn't take full advantage of its two biggest assets: Michael J. Fox's charisma and the great comic timing of Michael Gross. In the first season, Gross was playing the part more as the slightly goofy ex-hippie who has to deal with the fact that he's grown-up now. In the second season, he grew a beard, gained a little more dignity, and became one of the best, funniest sitcom dads: able to get the most out of any line ("There was a kangaroo in my living room") without trying to hog the scenes. Meredith Baxter[-Birney] never seemed to adjust quite as well to the fact that Fox's Alex became the show's central character; whereas Gross adapted and learned to get big laughs by playing off Alex, Baxter always seemed a little sullen about not being the star of the show, and always seemed to be trying a little too hard to dominate a scene, especially when she was in a scene with Fox.

The one thing I always wondered about this version of the title sequence (season 3, I think) is why it looked like Meredith Baxter was slapping somebody, and if so, who she was slapping. And yes, "There ain't no nothing we can't love each other through" is one of the worst lines in the history of lyric writing, and probably is single-handedly responsible for bad grammar in people of my generation.