Thursday, January 31, 2008

Jumping the Shark vs. Riding the Bull

Important question for the ages: which Happy Days daredevil gimmick episode is worse?

The infamous Jumping the Shark episode?

Or the episode they did the year after, where Fonzie rode a killer bull?

I'm actually leaning toward the latter. Jumping the shark is really stupid, but at least it's a decent stunt. The bull-riding is just the standard intercutting of a guy riding a bull with close-ups of Henry Winkler rocking up and down.

What amazes me is that they actually did an episode that was almost identical to the JTS episode. That must mean that at the time, Jumping the Shark was actually popular with the public; shows don't repeat stuff like this unless it's popular.

Also, this allows me to bring up one of the long-standing TV rules that I just made up a minute ago: any episode set on a dude ranch is a weak episode. Maybe there are exceptions, but it seems to me like every time any show does an episode where the characters "go to a dude ranch" or "save a dude ranch" or do anything related to the intersection of dudes and ranches, that episode will not be worth watching. (City Slickers wasn't bad, but that was a movie.) Happy Days went to a dude ranch and the Simpsons went to a dude ranch and Malcolm in the Middle went to a dude ranch and Father Knows best went to a dude ranch and even Duckman went to a dude ranch and I don't recall any of these episodes being very interesting.

I think this is because a dude ranch is impossible to care about -- no offence to all the dude ranch fans out there, but in the context of a TV episode, it's just a place where city people go to play-act at being cowboys, like that ranch in Crawford. The only place whose fate I could care less about is that sanitarium for rich hypochondriacs that Maureen O'Sullivan ran in A Day at the Races. (Who else was secretly rooting for the bad guys to turn that place into a gambling casino?)

Update: Two corrections from comments:

1) The ranch in City Slickers was not of the dude variety.
2) The dude ranch episode of Malcolm in the Middle was actually one of the better episodes from the show's famously uneven later years. So there's an exception to the rule right there.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Music For Two Old Men Arguing About Politics

I was in a record store the other day arguing with an ardent Wagner worshipper who was dismissive of Verdi (don't ask why, or how, I get into arguments like that). Challenged to come up with some examples of why I think Verdi was the greatest musical dramatist of all time -- greater even than the guy who felt it necessary to point out that his operas were "music dramas" -- I cited my favorite Verdi scene, the scene that also happens to be my favorite operatic scene of all time and the scene that made me a fan of Verdi: the scene in Don Carlos for King Philip II (bass) and the old, blind Grand Inquisitor (another bass).

The text of the scene is a very condensed version of the scene in Schiller's original play (the librettists actually did a very good job of shortening and rearranging it while keeping many of Schiller's lines). King Philip is considering having his son, Carlos, killed for insurrection; the Inquisitor assures him that the Church will absolve him for this since, after all, God sacrificed his son for the greater good. Then the Inquisitor tells Philip that there's a worse traitor and a bigger threat to the regime: Carlos's and Philip's mutual friend Rodrigue, who is crusading for Flemish independence (and recruited Carlos to his cause). Philip initially refuses to turn his friend over to the Inquisition; the Grand Inquisitor threatens him and then leaves, and Philip ruefully admits that he has to do what the Church says.

This scene, which lasts almost ten minutes, breaks most of the rules of opera as mass entertainment: it has few "tunes," is almost uninterruptedly slow and gloomy, involves two bass voices (adding to the constant flow of dark, grim sound), and, most importantly, it's a political argument set to music. Two old guys arguing about politics, religion, friendship, duty, fatherhood and power, and how all these things intersect -- that's what you get in a straight play, but it's normally the sort of thing that gets cut in the transfer to an opera, which is supposed to be about the expression of basic emotions.

Verdi kept this and made it a centerpiece of the whole evening, because he was one of the few great opera composers who ever found a way to make political issues into compelling music. (Wagner was another, obviously.) I can't really describe how he does it, but the music turns what could be a dry argument into a gripping piece of theatre: Verdi seized on the conflicts in this scene -- especially Philip's conflicts between his feelings as a father and a friend, and his role as the puppet of the Inquisition -- and makes us feel them. Music is not about intellect, it's about emotion, and we can feel Philip's weakness, his self-loathing and the confident, fearsome fanaticism of the Grand Inquisitor. And when the Inquisitor finally threatens Philip, it is -- or should be, if the performance is any good -- really scary, in a way that it never could be in a straight non-musical version of the play.

This isn't at all like Wagner, because Wagner, good as he is, isn't as character-specific in the way he writes; beause he gives a lot of the work to the orchestra and the leitmotif system, the voices, and therefore the characters, seem a little generalized. Verdi's genius was dealing with big issues while creating very specific, vivid characters; and while the voices carry the scene, the orchestra fills us in on other things about them. (The woodwind theme when the Inquisitor tries to cajole Philip to come back to the path of righteousness is exactly right; it sounds a little off, a little strange, like a man who is trying to be nice and doesn't know how.) And Verdi is a master theatre man, so he finds all sorts of ways to keep the scene from becoming boring; most importantly, within the overall dark mood, he manages to differentiate between the two men (Philip's music, like Philip, is pleading and uncertain; the Grand Inquisitor makes stern, confident pronouncements) so that even if you had two basses who sounded exactly alike, you'd always know who was singing. He also shows an understanding of the limits of a singer: this comes right after Philip's big aria, so Philip's music here is much less difficult than the Inquisitor's.

I've always been looking for the "perfect" version of this scene, and I haven't found it yet. Partly because the "perfect" version would be one in the original French libretto, and most performances use the Italian translation. (Verdi wrote the opera for Paris and set the music to French words, and the opera just works better in French.) There is a DVD of the French version with Jose Van Dam as Philip, but his voice is too light for the part and the Grand Inquisitor is too unsteady. (The part is really, really difficult to cast, because it's essentially a one-scene part, but requires a big, deep voice that can handle the climax where he threatens the King.) The best Italian version I've heard is probably on the old Solti recording from 1966 which has the young Nicolai Ghiaurov as Philip and the young Martti Talvela as the Inquisitor; neither of them are very subtle and they don't have great Italian pronunciation, but they are two huge, beautiful voices that can blow you away at the climax.

The best version I found online, and the only one with subtitles -- which are important, because the scene doesn't work unless you know what's being said -- is this one from the Metropolitan opera in 1980 with Paul Plishka as Philip and Jerome Hines as the Grand Inquisitor. Plishka is known to all Met-goers as Guy Who's In Every Production, and he's reliable but not brilliant, and doesn't really have the low note at the end. Hines, who was known as a great Philip in his prime, made a specialty of the Inquisitor later in life; he has a great bass voice that's maybe just a little past the point of being able to fully handle the threat music. But still, you have two good singers in a good production -- which the Met has apparently been using virtually unchanged ever since then -- well conducted (the young James Levine), and it's certainly the best introduction to the scene that can be had online.

And here, as a supplement, are two others I found on YouTube, both without English subtitles:

This performance is from La Scala in 1978; the Inquisitor is Luigi Roni (a guy who was usually heard in small-but-difficult bass parts like the Commendatore in Don Giovanni) and Philip is Evgeny Nesterenko, a Russian bass who had a big international reputation for a few years, went through some vocal difficulty, and then went back to appearing mostly in Russia.

Then there's this one, from Tokyo in 1967, sung by two Italian basses of the second rank, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (Philip) and Antonio Zerbini (who did mostly comprimario roles, small parts that need a good singer). It's OK, but it might be better with better conducting: Olivero De Fabritiis, in the pit, makes the Inquisitor's theme sound kind of drab and un-menacing, and the performance has the lack of rhythmic control that is typical of a lot of Italian performances of the era (there's even one moment where Philip completely misses his entrance).

And finally, someone found an audio-only performance from 1956 with Cesare Siepi -- who specialized in the part of Philip but never got to record it commercially -- and Giulio Neri, a promising bass who died young. It doesn't have the intensity I'm looking for in this scene, but hearing two big, dark, beautiful voices is certainly a pleasure (as it is on the Ghiaurov/Talvela version).


Eddie Fitzgerald recently asked "Why did '60s films look so bad?" This is a subject dear to my heart, since I've frequently stated that I think the '60s were the worst era for American studio films, at least from a technical standpoint.

As to why this was so, here are a few things I'll suggest as possibilities:

1) The collapse of the studio system, which started in the late '40s, finally became complete around this time. The days when every movie, even B-movies, could count on having great technicians in every department, were gone.

2) Studios became increasingly dependent on technical short cuts as they struggled to keep afloat. And these technical short cuts then became common practice even in big-budget movies. This isn't exactly related to the look of the film, but in the late '50s and early '60s many studios stopped recording dialogue on location: instead of sending out microphones and recording the lines as the actors spoke, they'd just dub in everything later. Robert Altman was appalled to find that at Universal in the '60s, the studio had a blanket policy of doing ADR dubbing on any scene that wasn't an interior. The studios were applying similar short cuts to lighting, camera setups, set design -- little things, but the essence of a great-looking movie is that it goes all out to get the best possible result even in the little things. This wasn't really happening any more.

3) And along with the short cuts, a new wastefulness in the sense that movies were free (and in the case of roadshow pictures, encouraged) to be longer and slower than ever before. In part there may have been an aesthetic decision that movies didn't need to be as tight and fast as they'd once been; Howard Hawks, whose movies slowed to a crawl around this time, said that he decided that in the age of television, audiences wanted to take their time and spend time with characters, rather than see a closely-argued story. The pace of movies, including movie comedies, became very slow and stodgy around this time.

4) The influx of live television people, many of whom were very good but most of whom didn't have the "painterly" conception of movies that the old guard had. Live television is a great training ground for working with actors and under pressure, not so much for lighting and composition. The end of the '60s and the early '70s saw a new influx of people who had been trained in movie-making -- either film school or, even better, working for low-budget guys like Roger Corman -- and that's one explanation of how '70s movies were a bit better-composed and more interestingly lit even though U.S. studio technical standards were still pretty low.

5) Increased consciousness of the fact that movies were going to be shown on television, which might have had something to do with some of the more drab choices of composition and lighting, especially for movies that weren't in widescreen.

In terms of color, lighting, composition and special effects, England and Italy were way ahead of America in the '60s, although they weren't fully able to turn this to the advantage of their own film industries. Instead English and Italian studios provided their technical expertise to American-made or American-financed movies; films like The Pink Panther -- shot in Rome -- or Dr. Strangelove -- shot in England -- looked much better than the stuff being turned out by U.S. production factories.

Monday, January 28, 2008

I Am 70% Addicted To Blogging

At least according to the results of the blog addition test. How much more or less addicted are you?

70%How Addicted to Blogging Are You?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Grudge Match: Rupert Giles vs. Obi-Wan Kenobi - Exposition Competition

The great Exposition Competition of 2008 is on (oh, it's on!). It's Rupert Giles (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) vs. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars). Each contestant is asked to deliver exposition about villains, monsters, and other obscure issues to a young, dumb but powerful listener. But to shake things up, they trade listeners: Obi-Wan has to deliver the exposition to Buffy, while Giles has to deliver the same exposition to Luke Skywalker.

The competition has two criteria for judging:

1) Who can deliver the most exposition in the shortest time?
2) Who can make the exposition the most comprehensible to doofuses like Buffy and Luke?

I'm inclined to side with Giles, as he's been better able to deliver tremendous amounts of exposition without saying something that turns out to be wrong in the very next episode. But on the other hand, having to explain this stuff to Luke, he may be sorely tempted to kill him in cold blood and claim it was for the good of the world.

Friday, January 25, 2008

WKRP Episodes: "Patter of Little Feet"

Continuing with episodes from the first half of season 2, this episode features what is now the typical sitcom pregnancy storyline. It introduced Allyn McLerie as Mr. Carlson's wife. (McLerie had been a regular on The Tony Randall Show, where Hugh Wilson was one of the producers.) The writer, Blake Hunter, was a friend of Hugh Wilson's from more or less the same background -- Southerner, former advertising man. He appears to have done a lot to make Mr. Carlson's mother a more sympathetic character than she was in the pilot.

The cold opening or "teaser" of this episode does a very skilful job of introducing a new character and providing a ton of information/exposition in about two minutes.

Music: "Still" by Lionel Ritchie, one song (near the end) that I'm not sure about, and, most importantly, "Thank Heaven For Little Girls" by Maurice Chevalier. This was replaced soon after the show went into syndication, ruining the ending of the episode. This is the original version.

Cold Opening and Act 1:

Act 2:

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Clarence Brown

Did anyone else see Intruder in the Dust on TCM earlier this week? I had never seen this movie before, though I had read about it in several books (this was one of those late '40s/early '50s MGM movies that pissed off Louis B. Mayer with his studio's new, unexpected forays into gritty subject matter and style).

I don't think I liked it quite as much as others do, mostly because of the balance of screen time: the structure of William Faulkner's novel dictates that the best character, the proud elderly black man falsely accused of murder (Juano Hernandez) doesn't actually get a whole lot of screen time, since he spends most of the story in jail. The biggest part, and the major character arc, is that of the lawyer, Gavin Stevens, played by David Brian, but Brian, a fine actor, comes off to me as a little wooden. Also, the movie has a problem that's not of its own making, which is that Faulkner's story has been copied so many times since then (To Kill a Mockingbird has virtually the same story) that it's become very familiar.

But the movie deserves its high reputation, especially for the work of Clarence Brown, the MGM veteran who produced and directed this film and got it made over Mayer's objections. Brown also somehow talked his way into shooting the film in Faulkner's home town of Oxford, Mississippi (how exactly do you convince a town to let you portray it in such a creepy way, even if it's technically under a different name?). It's of a piece with some of the other "modern" films MGM was doing in that period, rebelling against all those years of being the studio of artifice and extravagance: there are a bunch of movies from about 1947 to 1953 that have location shooting, lots of natural light, violent plots, controversial topics, minimal use of music.

What makes Brown's film different from most other "issue" movies is its incredible lack of sentimentality or self-congratulation. He doesn't sentimentalize any of the characters, not even the falsely-accused Lucas, who is easy to respect but difficult to like. He doesn't sensationalize the portrayal of racism and it has all the more impact that way, because racism and violence is portrayed as something that is just part of the accepted fabric of society instead of something that only exists in over-the-top cartoon characters. The location shooting and shot setups are beautiful but not in a self-conscious John Ford kind of way, and the picture moves like a jackrabbit: you expect "issue" movies to be slow, long, and talky -- Stanley Kramer movies, that is -- but this movie is 87 minutes and gets many of its best moments with few or no words.

Brown had an odd career and I've sometimes been close to thinking that he was a great director who just didn't happen to work under the right conditions to make a lot of great movies. He was one of Mayer's favorite directors and also one of Greta Garbo's favorites (he directed her in Flesh and the Devil, her first talkie Anna Christie, and several others); he also worked a lot with Joan Crawford and was generally considered one of the best directors for MGM's big female stars. A lot of these movies from his prime are not really my cup of tea, so I can't really evaluate them well, though his movies are always well-acted and well-made. But starting in the mid-'40s he made a bunch of movies that really should have been sentimental treacle and instead were quite beautiful and touching, movies like National Velvet, The Yearling, The White Cliffs of Dover. Maybe even Angels in the Outfield. And his '30s movies include some similar pictures -- movies that are warm and human instead of just pure MGM gloss. I would have to think that nobody could have as much as he did with some of the material he handled, and working with sharper scripts and material, he'd have made some amazing movies. (Not that I think he had any problem with the scripts he handled at MGM, just that, again, MGM style isn't to my personal taste.) He also retired fairly early, so we never got to see if he would try anything like Intruder in the Dust again.

(Update: in the original version of this post I absent-mindedly mixed up the names of two characters and actors. I have corrected the mistake. I really, truly did see the movie, honest.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Totally Freaky

The first season of Freakazoid!, which will be released sometime this summer, will have interviews (already recorded) and also three audio commentaries (still to be recorded). John McCann, one of the writer-producers, calls the interviews "a whopping bit of fun."

The rationale behind releasing only the first season is that it will be a cheaper-priced (two-disc) set and hopefully sell better than a four-disc set of the complete series. I just hope it sells well enough for a set of the second (and only other) season. The two short seasons are actually kind of different in approach, because season 1 was mostly random shorts and interstitials and included a number of shorts with non-Freakazoid characters. (Including, of course, "Toby Danger," which Tom Minton originally wrote for Animaniacs and which many people consider the best thing ever produced by the '90s WB animation department.) The second season was re-formatted to be mostly full-length half-hour stories, and had a little more of a story/character spine mixed in with the craziness. At the time I was disappointed with the change in format; now I think it worked well -- even a show as nutty as this works better when there's some semblance of a story -- but there's hilarious stuff in all 24 episodes and I don't want to settle for just the first batch.

I don't know if any directors/animators will be interviewed for this set; they should be, but probably not. (Mitch Schauer was the animation producer for the first season, Rich Arons for the second.) On the other hand, as I've mentioned in another post, the first season of Freakazoid! had the odd distinction of being mostly directed by people who didn't want to be there: the directing staff -- including prolific Batman/Superman director Dan Riba, who was caricatured at least twice on F! -- was largely assembled from directors or board artists from Batman, when it was still being planned as a comic action-adventure show from Bruce Timm; when the show was revamped into a wacky comedy, and Timm withdrew from the project, the directors had to keep doing the show, and Ronnie Del Carmen was openly shocked when he wound up getting an Emmy for it. A strange, strange show with a strange gestation -- I loved it, and I hope enough people will agree to make all the episodes some out.

One thing that may help it is that the second episode includes the cartoon "Candle Jack," which people will recognize as the source of the online Candle Jack meme, where people say the name and then they suddenl

Doctor Faustus, the Musical

I was thinking about what books might make good musicals, and I thought of one that I'm surprised to find hasn't been musicalized already: Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann. (Alex Ross refers extensively to this novel in "The Rest is Noise, since it's about the combined crises of music and politics in the 20th century.) As a novel about a composer who may or may not have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for creative brilliance, it is a "novel of music" and certainly has a lot of opportunities for ambitious music. Maybe, being about a serious and advanced composer who writes difficult music, it would be more appropriate as an opera -- but I can't help thinking that it could be a musical. After all, Cabaret already proved there's a market for musicals about the warning signs of Naziism in pre-Nazi Germany, which is part of what Faustus is about.

After I thought of that, I tried writing a lyric for a scene in Doctor Faustus as a writing exercise, specifically, looking for a moment in the novel that could be a comedy song (musicals, especially dark/serious musicals, need comedy songs to lighten the mood in spots). I decided to write something for "Esmeralda," the prostitute that the main character, Adrian Leverkuhn, sleeps with specifically because she has syphillis (believing that the disease will make him brilliant before it finally makes him insane). We don't see the scene first-hand in the novel, but I thought it would be funny to have the character of Esmeralda react as a real person might react to such a request -- namely, bafflement.

Of course a real, faithful musical adaptation of Faustus wouldn't have room for such a goofy song, but I wasn't necessarily talking about a faithful adaptation. Anyway when I write one of these exercises I'm always inclined to make it a very loose adaptation of the source material.

I maybe shoudln't post this here, but I liked some of the lines I came up with, so I will post it here as part of my irregular "stuff I wrote and can't use anywhere else" series.


There Are Other Girls


You'd risk your health,
Even after you've heard me confess?
You'd trade your health
For an hour or possibly less?
I tell you "no"
And you tell me it's got to be "yes?"
Well, then, let's go,
If I'm all that you long to possess.
But can't you tell me why?
Or help me guess?

Refrain 1

There are other girls
With better complexions.
There are other girls
With better connections.
There are other girls
With fewer infections.
If you prefer me,
I have to disagree.

Find some Russian girls
And pretty Parisians.
Maybe Prussian girls,
Perhaps Polynesians.
All those other girls
Won't leave you with lesions.
So if I'm your pick,
Which one of us is sick?

You're an artsy type
And your tastes are odd,
You don't talk about fun,
Only bar-lines and God.
But before this is done --
And don't call me a cynic --
You won't look for God,
You'll just look for a clinic.

I should scoff at you
And tell you to shove it.
But I cough at you
And somehow you love it.
There are other girls
Who have less to give.
There are other girls
Who will let you live,
You'd be better off
With a relative.
There are other girls.
Any other girls.


If you read "The Sick Rose" by William Blake,
My reasons will be divined.

The sick what? William who?

Never mind.

I don't know if I should trust you.
I've the feeling I disgust you.
Maybe it's just me.


It's just you.

May I mention something?


Must you?

Refrain 2

There are other girls.
I've got to remind you
There are other girls
Who'd just love to find you,
There are other girls
Less likely to blind you,
And plenty of whores
Who haven't any sores.

Every time I point
To another splotch,
You just hum a strange song
And you look at your watch.
Then you say: come along,
What I said hasn't mattered.
You're crazy, you're wrong,
You're a fool, and I'm flattered.

Your request of me,
So weird and outrageous,
Gets the best of me,
You're kind of contagious.
Still, there's other girls,
And I do mean lots,
There are other girls
Who have not got spots,
There are other girls
Who have had their shots.

It is getting late.
Kindly cease debate.

I suppose we will.
I suppose it's fate.
Well, if you fall ill,
There's a discount rate.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Hit n' Run Speedy Gonzales Comment

After watching some of the cartoons on the Speedy Gonzales DVD: Does anybody agree that Sylvester was a poor choice as an adversary for Speedy?

It seems like when Friz Freleng picked up the Speedy character and turned him into a viable series character, it almost seems like he picked Sylvester out of habit, because that's the cat character he always used. (Jones and McKimson would alternate between using Sylvester and other, original cats, but Freleng brought in Sylvester any time he needed a cat, in almost any context.) But there were still some cartoons after that where Speedy went up against new adversaries, and these are almost always better: the big Mexican cat in "Tabasco Road" (McKimson), the vulture in "Tortilla Flaps" (McKimson again) and Jose and Manuel in "Mexicali Schmoes" (Freleng recycling his "Two Crows From Tacos" characters, whom he would eventually turn into the Tijuana toads). These characters actually add to the humor with their fractured Pepe Le Pew-ish English and their exchanges with Speedy; by comparison, Sylvester seems out of place in the Mexican setting and not very funny.

And yet after "Mexicali Schmoes" Sylvester was more or less Speedy's permanent adversary until they replaced him with the even-more-inappropriate Daffy Duck. (As usual, McKimson appears to have started out doing something different and finally going along with what Freleng was doing; McKimson didn't make a Speedy-vs-Sylvester cartoon for several years.) Speedy was never a great character, but pairing him up with a villain with whom he has nothing in common and no real chemistry -- whether it's Sylvester or Daffy -- makes his cartoons much duller than they might have been.

On the other hand, the choice of the "gringo pussycat" as a villain may have contributed to the series' popularity in Mexico, since instead of a Mexican equivalent of the Pepe Le Pew cartoons, the series became the story of a heroic Mexican constantly defeating a villainous American. It probably helped deflect charges of racism and helps explain why the Speedy cartoons haven't been as controversial as other racial-stereotype cartoons (except for that period when Cartoon Network decided they needed to ban him).

Monday, January 21, 2008

"Bob, what I'm trying to say is, I just never went for those big good-looking guys like Stan. That's why I married you."

I can't say much more about the late Suzanne Pleshette than Ken Levine does, but there's a good website devoted to Pleshette, appropriately titled "More Than Emily Hartley, which includes a large image gallery for one of the great screen beauties of the '60s and '70s.

Pleshette probably should be on the list of "Lost Starlets of the '60s," beautiful and talented actresses who would have been movie stars in an era that offered more and better parts for women. She got a whole bunch of lead or near-lead parts from 1962 to 1965 (along with a publicity boost from her relationship with, and marriage to, Troy Donahue), culminating in a big leading part in the John O'Hara melodrama A Rage to Live. But most of those parts were in soapy melodramas, in which she didn't seem like much more than a very pretty and competent performer. It took TV to bring out her comedy abilities.

Even on The Bob Newhart Show I don't think she got used as fully as she might have been; she was, after all, not the star of the show, and her character suffered from having no regular friends or companions of her own. (The show originally had a best friend/neighbor for Emily, the "Margaret Hoover" character, but she was droppped after a few episodes.) Also it sometimes seemed to me that the show was playing down her sex appeal, dressing her unflatteringly. (Maybe to make her more plausible as a woman who would find Bob Newhart attractive, I don't know.) What she really needed was a show of her own, but CBS's attempt to give her one -- the comedy "Maggie Briggs" -- wasn't the answer.

Friday, January 18, 2008

WKRP Episode: "Mike Fright"

The next episode in what is becoming something like a weekly feature of this blog is from the second season, and is about a strike that seems to be going on for a long time. No, not that one. This is "Mike Fright," where, during a protracted garbage strike, Johnny suggests that his listeners take their garbage down to City Hall in protest. What ensues includes Johnny becoming too nervous to talk on the air, Les Nessman's best news bulletin ever, and "little tiny lawyers running all over the place."

This is one of the strongest episodes of the second season, I think; every character gets something funny to do, and Johnny's final scene in the booth contains at least two of the show's best punchlines. This was also one of the first episodes to bring in the idea that WKRP was becoming marginally more successful than it had been in the first season; the idea behind the episode is that Johnny gets a certain security from knowing that nobody listens to the station or cares what he says, and he becomes flustered to realize that he's developing a real -- and fanatical -- fan following. Note: Jerry Springer was the Mayor of Cincinnati at the time but, alas, he's not mentioned by name in the episode.

This was one of the earliest episodes to suffer a music change: the final scene of Act 1 uses a lot of Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody," but it was removed from reruns in the late '80s (I guess separate music and dialogue tracks must have existed for that particular scnene); fortunately a collector sent me the original version, which is included here. Other music includes: "Who Listens to the Radio?" by the Sports, "Rock n' Roll Music" by Chuck Berry, "Nowhere to Run" by Martha and the Vandellas, "Remember Who You Are" by Sly and the Family Stone and the theme from Rocky. Plus some songs in the scene in the bar that I can't identify.

WKRP s02e07 Mike Fright by carpalton

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bolling For Dollars

News to make Scott Shaw! happy and also to make me feel pretty darn good: A second volume of classic "Little Archie" stories by Bob Bolling, including a new Bolling story featuring his classic villain Mad Doctor Doom.

It doesn't say what the selection of stories will be; the first volume focused entirely on the action-adventure stories to the exclusion of all other types of Bolling story, and I have a feeling the second volume will be the same way. (When he started the Little Archie series, Bolling did light comedy stories in the vein of the parent comic, except with situations that younger children might get into; as the series went on, he sort of split the stories into three modes -- action/adventure, light comedy, and sentimental stories -- modifying his drawing style depending on what kind of story it was.) I hope they at least found room for Bolling's own favorite, "The Long Walk."

It would also be nice to see my personal favorite, "Caramel Has a Tale", a story in which Little Archie himself doesn't appear, and which focuses on one of the characters Bolling created, Betty's cat Caramel. (For whatever reason, Bolling was given more freedom than almost any artist on any "Archie" title -- he was even allowed to sign his stories, which none of the other artists got to do at the time -- and he took advantage of that freedom to populate "Little Archie" with many characters who had no counterpart in the original comic, like Little Ambrose, "Fangs" Fogarty, Betty's sister Polly and her brother Chic, who appears in Bolling's new story.) It's a realistic story with a fantasy hook: when Betty and Veronica comment on Caramel's laziness, Caramel suddenly begins to speak to them, and tells of her experiences as a stray cat trying to find homes for her children. It's got drama, comedy, tearjerking pathos and even political satire: Caramel finds one of her kids, the "longwinded" one, a home at the White House Capitol. No kids' comics artist ever pulled off quite the range of emotion -- often within the same story -- that Bolling did.

The press release also says that the new volume will contain some stories by Dexter Taylor, the other Little Archie artist. His contributions to the early issues are basically imitation Bolling (following Bolling's lead in comedy and action/adventure stories), pretty good, sometimes very good, without being on the same level. After Bolling left, Taylor took over the title and was ordered to make it more like the parent comic, which led to the artwork and stories becoming very bland.

Because You Just Can't Get Enough...

...I have now managed to put together "Rabbit's Kin" with all of the little rabbit's dialogue slowed down to its original speed (and with the picture slowed down to match the slower audio). "I hope he comes back so we can do some more to him!"

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

H-B's Pencils

The publication of Jerry Beck's The Hanna-Barbera Treasury has touched off some debates over whether Hanna and Barbera helped or hurt TV animation. (Artistically, I mean; everybody agrees that they helped TV animation in the sense that they made it commercially viable and kept a lot of artists employed.) Mark Mayerson makes a pretty good case that they were all too willing to settle for the lowest possible quality. He points out that whereas the pioneers in theatrical animation, like Disney, kept working to improve the quality of animation and the amount of money available to animated films, H-B did the opposite: whereas production companies would traditionally increase their budgets after they had a success, H-B seemed to use each success as an excuse to make the cartoons cheaper or at least cheaper-looking. Most prime-time shows start to spend more money and look better after they have a successful season (at least until their ratings start to tank and the budget gets cut); The Flintstones looked a little worse every year. Or as Mark puts it:

Rather than attempt to reform or beat a system that was clearly stacked against the production of good work, Hanna-Barbera embraced that system and milked it for their own personal gain. They expanded the number of shows they produced and with each expansion, the quality of the product suffered. They opened studios overseas in order to take advantage of cheaper labour. The savings went into their pockets, not onto the screen. After their initial decade, when they had the opportunity to work in prime time or in features where budgets were better, the projects were only marginally better than the low-budget work they turned out for Saturday mornings. The thinking and procedures behind their Saturday morning shows infected the entire company. In their hands, the art of animation (and here I'm talking about the entire process from writing to post-production), was degraded and debased without apology.

Hanna himself gave an interview in the '70s -- reprinted in Danny Peary's American Animated Cartoons -- where he admitted openly that Hanna-Barbera's product had gotten steadily worse since they set up their studio: "Our new shows," he said simply, "are not as good." He explained that this was because of rising costs and shrinking budgets, and that's true as far as it goes. But, again, he and Barbera didn't really try to fight that. Maybe they were right, from a financial point of view: as a commenter on Mark's blog points out, Disney brought his studio to the point of near-bankruptcy every time he increased budgets or took chances, and with that kind of precedent, it's not surprising that H-B would not want to take financial or artistic risks.

The other thing I think we need to remember about Hanna-Barbera is that, as people who came late to television (the medium was long-established by the time they were kicked out of theatrical films and emigrated to TV), they always saw it as important to do whatever was popular in television at the time. They were in a much riskier position than they'd ever been in when they did theatrical shorts; not just because they owned the product, but because their shows actually had to carry a half-hour and sell commercial time on their own, whereas for twenty years they'd been used to making cartoons that played second fiddle to the feature film. (That creates less recognition but also creates a sort of cushion: a theatrical cartoon doesn't need to succeed on its own.) Nobody had ever been able to make cartoons for their own sake, as the main attraction, consistently successful, on TV or in theatres; Disney had had some monster hits, but an equal or greater number of movies that didn't make back their cost.

So H-B not only had to invent TV animation, they had to invent a way to make cartoons that could succeed on a regular basis; they couldn't just make shorts and put them out there like they'd done for years, and they couldn't afford to do things the Disney way (be satisfied with one hit followed by one expensive flop). The solution they arrived at was to leech off non-animated television and pop culture, making a cartoon series based on whatever trend was popular in TV that year. I found an interview with Hanna and Barbera from United Press International (November 15, 1959), where they explained to reporter Ron Burton that they were looking to make animated shows that would parody the live-action shows people were watching:

Barbera said using parody and imposing human-like situations on animal groups are two of the main devices used in their TV cartoons. Viewers can see without too much trouble who or what is being kidded gently in H-B cartoons -- and this season it's TV westerns [Quick Draw McGraw] and private eyes [Snooper and Blabber].

And so they made the decision to base every show on prime-time TV trends (something they would continue for decades thereafter, finally culminating in those '80s cartoons that were actually based on prime-time shows) and give every character a voice/personality based on a famous movie or TV person. Maybe that wasn't a great decision, but they were making that decision in a vacuum: Disney may have shown how a cartoon feature could be a big hit, but nobody, not even Disney, had figured out how to make cartoons that would consistently make more than they cost.

And I'll say one thing for H-B: at least they did actually care, at least initially, about making TV cartoons that would appeal to more than just children. In that same interview, Barbera was very proud that the pop-culture references had given their shows an adult following:

"This makes it possible for our stuff to be enjoyed by adults as well as children," Barbera said. "And we know adults are in our audience, because a friend told us there's a bar in Seattle with a sign over the TV set. It's brought out during our shows. The sign reads: 'No loud talking. No tinkling of glasses. We are watching Huckleberry Hound.'"

It was by no means universally believed at the time that television cartoons should aspire to an adult audience; some cartoonists believed that TV cartoons should ignore the adults, tone down the references to live-action prime-time shows, and be more like live-action kiddie shows. One of the people who believed that was the sainted Bob Clampett. In an interview to promote the Beany and Cecil cartoon (I found this in the Mansfield, OH News-Journal, March 4, 1962), he proclaimed that the show would be successful because he was aiming it exclusively at kids, and criticized other cartoon-makers -- including H-B -- for trying too hard to appeal to adults:

In other words, the chit-chat for grownups has disappeared. This cartoon series is strictly for kids. And that's why Clampett, a man who looks like he'd just gotten out of bed, isn't worried about the series' success. "Top Cat, Calvin and the Colonel" (Bob has other names for them) "were aimed too high," he says.

Bob is going to ignore the adult class and concentrate on the population explosion of unending youngsters. "We'll have a whole new audience every year," he says, meaning an audience range of from six to 11. It can go lower. Clampett's year-and-a-half-old daughter, Baby Ruthie, can sit through five cartoons without wandering, and his five year-old boy Bobbie can say all the names of the Clampett characters.

At least H-B established the idea that cartoons could and should be plugged into the larger world of television as a whole, which would pay off in the better prime-time cartoons (mostly not H-B's own) and some of the better '80s and '90s Saturday morning cartoons.


Incidentally, that 1962 interview with Clampett only mentions his Warner Brothers experience in one paragraph. In view of how much time he later spent taking credit for everything that happened at the studio, it's interesting that in 1962 -- when the studio was still open, and when having worked there was a much less prestigious credit for him -- he's more modest (the article only gives him credit for sole creation of Tweety, which is a character he actually did create) and more dismissive:

During this time Clampett dreamed up "Tweetie" and thought about Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd during working hours. "I tried every gag that came into my head," said Bob. "Most of them were terrible, but it was the only way to learn."

Update: Thanks to Michael Barrier for the link and, yes, I should have remembered to mention that the newspaper quotes above were found via Newspaper Archive (whose slogan is: "Our search engine will drive you insane").

Monday, January 14, 2008

Mel Blanc Slowed Down

You know how in the the cartoon "Rabbit's Kin" (aka "The One With Pete Puma") Bugs meets a little rabbit who talks in an almost incomprehensibly high-pitched voice? Most of you probably know that it's just Mel Blanc's voice sped up even more than usual. (The closed captions even indicate what he's actually saying.) But I thought I'd try slowing the dialogue down until it was back to more or less Blanc's real voice, and then dub it back into the cartoon.

I couldn't slow the picture down as well as the audio, so I mostly had to repeat the same footage twice. But at least you can hear where they took a line of dialogue that was supposed to occur earlier ("And all of a sudden, just as I was passing the big old oak tree") and put it in near the end of the scene, figuring nobody would notice. And I just think it's fun to hear Blanc's real voice (more or less) coming out of this cute little Scribner-animated rabbit.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Bicycle Bob'll Eat a Bucket of Scorpions If He Doesn't Give You the Business

This toonzone post from Ron "Keeper" O'Dell offers some details on the upcoming (later this year) DVD release of Tiny Toon Adventures:

Warner seems to be committed to producing at least two sets of TTA. The staff are being interviewed currently for the first two sets in one go.

The first set's extras will cover the development of the series and characters. The second set's will focus on the creative team.

I don't know who will be interviewed for the set but I'm willing to bet we'll hear from Tom Ruegger (producer), Paul Dini (writer). Bruce Timm was a storyboard artist on the show so he might pop up somewhere. Hopefully we'll hear from the staff directors who included Art Leonardi, Rich Arons and Eddie Fitzgerald among others.

Since Animaniacs volume 4 is currently on hold I'm a little pessimistic that we'll get to the final episodes of TTA, which are my favorites, but one can hope. There's also the question of what to do with the specials -- the very good "Night Ghoulery" and the not-very-good "Spring Break Special" -- and the direct-to-video movie How I Spent My Vacation, which was one of the best things TTA ever did (in its interweaving of many different, seemingly unconnected plots, it was like a wacky cartoon version of Nashville and anticipated the style Simpsons episode "22 Short Films About Springfield" by several years). I guess we'll see.

The early Tiny Toons episodes -- the first 65 that ran in syndication -- are interesting because you can see different styles of writing and cartooning butt up against each other as the show, and the newly-formed WB TV animation department, tries to find a style. There are episodes that are influenced by classic cartoon comedy, others that are more in the mold of '80s Saturday morning cartoons, others that are more like Duck Tales, and these styles sometimes co-exist in the same episode. The episode "Hare-Raising Night," where the characters meet a mad scientist and a Gossamer-like creatre named Melvin, has elements of "Hair-Raising Hare" (the title, the mad scientist gags, the fourth wall breaking) mashed together with straightforward adventure storytelling and a bit of the socially-conscious messaging that '80s cartoons all had to have (the characters are trying to stop the mad scientist's experiments on animals).

Even if you're not that into the '90s Warner TV cartoons, it'll be interesting to watch as a snapshot of an important time in animation history, when TV cartoons, which had been getting progressively worse for decades, suddenly had the opportunity to get good again and were finding their way by trial and error.

Oh, and from the TAG blog, here's Bruce Timm's 1990 caricature of some of the WB artists, including his director, Art Vitello, and animation veteran Norm McCabe.

Little Tin Box

Will this song (from the musical Fiorello!) ever go out of fashion? It's a song from the '50s about politics in the '20s, but it always works perfectly. I and others were thinking about it because of recent hearings here in Canada, but really it's applicable to any situation anywhere in the world.

Incidentally, this was a song that was added on the road; needing a new comedy song to lighten the mood of the second act, lyricist Sheldon Harnick remembered a previously-unused melody by composer Jerry Bock and started to write a song where characters make fun of the testimony at the hearings on Tammany Hall corruption.

One of the reasons Fiorello! is one of my favorite musicals (it beat Gypsy for the Tony and the Pulitzer, and deserved to) is that it's the ultimate "serious musical comedy." Instead of the book being relatively lightweight and the songs adding weight, it's almost the opposite approach: the book deals with very serious issues and the music adds comedy.

Friday, January 11, 2008

WKRP Episode: "Bailey's Big Break"

Note: I'm uploading episodes more or less at random (I should probably be doing them in order, but it's too late for that). If anyone has any requests for episodes they'd like to see, let me know.

(Again, see here for my explanation of why I'm posting WKRP in Cincinnati episodes.)

This one is from the second season and called "Bailey's Big Break," in which Bailey is promoted to assistant newscaster and Les doesn't like it. The writer, Steve Marshall, originally wrote the story as a spec script, but MTM bought the idea and hired him to write the new script. It's a solid "regular" episode with some good lines (my favorite is Mr. Carlson's "the center cannot hold" speech at the beginning of act 2).

I can't remember the name of the song Venus plays in Act 1 but I recall that it was a contemporary hit from that year (1979).

Also, watching it again I noticed that a few people in the audience try to applaud when Loni Anderson (then the most popular person on the show) enters, but nobody joins in. MTM seemed to impose a semi-ban on its audiences applauding for individual characters ("special guest stars" could get applause, but no regular could be singled out). The MTM refugees who did Taxi also enforced this rule. MTM finally abandoned this when they allowed the audience to whoop and cheer for Larry, Darryl and Darryl on Newhart.

Teaser and Act 1:

Act 2:

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Comedy Tonight, If By "Tonight" You Mean "April 22"

The Digital Bits takes time out from its Blu-Ray victory lap to report that Universal will be releasing four much-requested Paramount comedies on April 22:

- The Major and the Minor (1942), Billy Wilder's first and in some ways funniest movie as a director;

- Midnight (1939), written by Wilder and Charles Brackett and directed by Mitchell Leisen, with Don Ameche, Claudette Colbert and John Barrymore, a movie that is fondly-remembered enough that it recently spawned remake rumors;

- Easy Living, directed by Leisen and written by Preston Sturges, starring Jean Arthur, Ray Milland, and Edward Arnold. Often thought of as a sort of embryonic Sturges movie; he didn't direct it, but it's the sort of movie he would later direct.

- She Done Him Wrong with Mae West and Cary Grant.

(For some reason Sturges and Wilder never had much good to say about Leisen, though by any normal standards he was one of the best directors at Paramount; maybe they just happened to feel they would have done these scripts differently, but his direction has a lot of charm, which is not something that Wilder or Sturges were particularly good at creating.)

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Michael Kidd

I should have said something about the great choreographer-dancer-director Michael Kidd, who died December 23 at the age of 92.

Kidd is best known for his movie work, but he was probably even more important and influential on stage. As you can see from the obituary, he is often linked with Jerome Robbins, in that they were both young, brilliant, innovative ballet choreographers who made an easy transition to Broadway choreography and eventually to directing. There had been other ballet people who did well on Broadway, like George Balanchine, Agnes De Mille and Kidd's mentor Eugene Loring. But they were limited to being choreographers; De Mille tried to break into directing but didn't really succeed. (She was credited as the director as well as the choreographer of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Allegro, but Hammerstein took over directing many of the book scenes himself.) Robbins and Kidd became directors and not only became fully successful and authoritative directors, they made a case for the advantages of having one person in charge of the whole production, including dancing.

You could argue that Kidd's Li'l Abner was the first show to really make a case for one man having full control over a musical. Robbins had already done Peter Pan with Mary Martin, but it wasn't really a hit at the time; and while Robbins directed Bells Are Ringing the same year as Kidd did Li'l Abner, Robbins split the dance duties with Bob Fosse. Li'l Abner was Kidd's show all the way: not only did he direct it and choreograph it, he was one of the producers. Kidd selected the composer and lyricist (bringing over the same people who had done the songs for Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, which he choreographed). Traditionally, the staging of a Broadway musical was a mix of at least two people's ideas; it had to be, because a regular stage director was equipped to approve the dances but not to create them. Li'l Abner, which would never have worked if the larger-than-life tone had let up for even a second, showed what could happen if one person was staging all the scenes himself; it had been done on film to some extent (like in the movies directed and choreographed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen) but not really on stage, and that paved the way for super-director productions like West Side Story, Gypsy, Fiddler On the Roof (Robbins) or Sweet Charity and Chicago (Bob Fosse), or even A Chorus Line (Michael Bennett) shows that were all part of one vision from beginning to end.

Kidd also had a big influence, on film and stage, on choreography: his famous athletic moves were copied all over the place. For example, the "Step In Time" sequence from Mary Poppins was choreographed by Kidd's former assistants, Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood (who re-created Kidd's choreography when Kidd didn't do the film of Li'l Abner), and is essentially imitation Kidd.

For some real Michael Kidd, here's the big number from the only movie he directed, Merry Andrew with Danny Kaye. The song is "Salud" by Johnny Mercer (Kidd's favorite lyricist, and for good reason) and Saul Chaplin (who had arranged the music for Seven Brides), led by Kaye and Salvatore Baccaloni; the dancers doing Kidd's trademark death-defying steps in his equally trademark color-co-ordinated costumes include Tommy Rall.

And from the original cast of Destry Rides Again (1959), directed and choreographed by Kidd:

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Storyboard Now

I see there's yet another controversy about whether cartoons had scripts which is going on at various websites. This is not a favorite topic of mine, since the argument follows the exact same pattern and the division is always the same, into the following three groups:

Group One: "Cartoons shouldn't have scripts."
Group Two: "Cartoons in the Golden Age did so have scripts."
Group Three: "Can't we all just get along and agree that what matters is good storytelling?"
Group One: "But in order to have good storytelling, cartoons shouldn't have scripts."
Group Two: "But Golden Age cartoons had good storytelling and they did so have scripts..."

Repeat cycle.

But though I don't enjoy the argument, I think there is a point to it. Most animation (especially 2-D animation) is done for television and in television, the process is extremely important: when you don't have a lot of time to make episodes, every episode will be made more or less the same way, and the question of how to do them -- at the storyboard, in script form, or whatever -- becomes extremely important.

You'll notice that for animated feature films, the argument over scripting is much less contentious than for television or short cartoons; all but the most hard-core anti-script partisans accept that Brad Bird's movies are visual and "real cartoons" even though they have written scripts. But movies take a long time to make, and the script will be modified and expanded many times, so that the final result won't (or shouldn't) feel like a script translated to the screen. In TV or shorts, there's no time for that. Whatever the "blueprint" is for the story, whether it's the script or the story sketches, will be much closer to the final result than a movie script at that same stage of production.

The reason for the storyboard-vs-script battle is, I think, partly a result of the understanding that in TV, if you're working from a script, the finished product will often be just pictures illustrating the script. Whereas if the storyboarding starts earlier in the process, then the cartoon will develop in a looser and more visual way. That's the theory, anyway, and I think it's often true in practice. Even though I unabashedly love some TV cartoons that were completely scripted by writers who couldn't draw a line, I don't think that's the most efficient process for making a cartoon. And TV cartoons and seven-minute shorts have to be as efficiently-made as possible if they're going to deliver consistent results.

Also, in television, the script is the final blueprint that gets approved by the network or the executives. With a more informal production process, it's easier to sneak things by them. There's a legitimate, proven-to-be-true fear that if you start with a formal script, the higher-ups (producers, executives, whoever) will get mad if something new has been added (tm).

But even on shows that use the storyboard-first process, you really can't compare that process to the Golden Age (just as for the most part the cartoons don't compare). Why? Because in the Golden Age, doing cartoons at the storyboard was not primarily something that was done to exclude formal scripting. It was just the way these things were made, a process that had its roots in non-animated silent comedy. (A lot of silent films, obviously, went forward with more of a scenario than a fully-written script. And silent comedy movies were by far the biggest influence on sound comedy cartoons.) But of course they'd sometimes write stuff out in words, and of course there were some story men who couldn't draw much, like -- according to Barrier -- Bill Cottrell. Nobody would have objected to such things because there was never a formal decision that scripting was against the law and that non-drawing writers had nothing to contribute to animation. Non-scripted cartoons written by story artists were the rule, but that was just the process being used.

What has always bugged me about the post-Ren and Stimpy non-scripted cartoon is that the lack of scripting was not just a process decision but, really, a political decision: it wasn't just about adopting the older, more efficient, more cartoony process but about excluding certain kinds of jokes and ideas as not "cartoony" enough. Which might be how a lot of the R&S clones wound up with such weak dialogue, storytelling and characterization.

And yet maybe this kind of exclusionary way of doing things is the only way to go; it could be. In the Golden Age, Disney cartoons could be done with some non-drawing writing because, again, everyone was secure in the basic process. But today, a cartoon that starts using any scripting at all will soon find itself facing network/studio demands to do the whole thing with a script. (You can see this with the Disney features of the '90s, how the perfectly sensible idea of using some outside screenwriters got out of hand, to the point that the studio was bringing in three or four people to rewrite everything before the animators even came into the process.) But that's why it's not useful to talk about bringing back the Golden Age process. If a cartoon is boarded by people who are consciously excluding scripts, and consciously trying not to do anything "scripted," that's not the way things were done. There were many reasons why cartoons were produced the way they were; rebellion against scriptwriter tyranny was not really one of them.

Election Grudge Match: Mr. T vs. Chuck Norris

After all the candidates are forced to drop out of the race under mysterious circumstances, someone has to run for President of the United States. So America calls upon its two most admired and feared citizens to run as independent candidates for President.

On Election day, America can choose Chuck Norris or Mr. T. Who will become President? And who will they choose for their running mates?

I suspect that Chuck Norris is slightly more electable. His background as a Texas Ranger will get him an easy win in that state. While Mr. T doesn't have an obvious lock on a state: he'll be hated in Pennsylvania for having tried to beat their beloved Rocky, while California may be split between people he and the A-Team have helped and people whose homes or businesses have been trashed in the crossfire.

However, Mr. T's populist platform -- encouraging kids to stay in school, promoting healthy dietary habits (lots of milk) and promising to take down any and all crazy fools -- may prove more broadly appealing than Chuck Norris's interventionist foreign policy. He'll want to go around the world shooting at everybody, and Mr. T can point out that this is a fiscally irresponsible policy, while offering to sell his gold to pay down the national debt.

But I think in the end it comes down to attack ads. Both have extensive military experience, but Mr. T will be the target of attack ads from an organization funded by Colonel Decker. The ads will point out that T's combat experience ended when he was thrown in jail for allegedly robbing the bank of Hanoi. Plus he can be attacked by environmentalists for driving that gas-guzzling van. Chuck Norris, on the other hand, won't have any enemies running attack ads against him, because all his enemies are dead. So it's Chuck Norris, with Mr. T given the position of Secretary For Throwing People Helluva Far.

Finally, as to running mates, I think Chuck Norris should pick M. Emmet Walsh, while Mr. T should definitely select Murdock. (You might make a case for Face, but really, you don't want his seven zillion ex-girlfriends coming forward during the campaign.)

Who do you think will win the Toughest Election Ever?

Saturday, January 05, 2008

"Either You're Babbling, Or You Just Told Me in Cherokee That My Scrotum is Many-Colored."

Duckman to DVD? Really? Truly? Hopefully. The linked article by Susanne Ault says among other things that this is a response to heavy fan demand and that "it’s possible that multiple seasons will be released within one package next year."

The first two seasons of Duckman were both 13 episodes, so the first two seasons would make a much better package than the first season alone.

Update: Everett Peck, creator of the Duckman comic, says that there will be some special features on the DVD but he doesn't know what as yet. I hope they talk to the showrunners, Reno and Osborn (rather than to Klasky and Csupo, who apparently didn't like the show).

Also I was wrong about the episode count: season 1 was 13 episodes but season 2 was only 9, so the first set will have 22 episodes.

Of all the Simpsons-wannabe cartoons that proliferated between The Simpsons and King of the Hill ("Simpsons-wannabe," by the way, is an accusation that Cornfed once leveled at Duckman), this is my favorite. It had its flaws; it could be too preachy, some of the jokes had a punchline-y rhythm more appropriate for a multi-camera sitcom, and the design style of the show was not particularly pleasant to look at. But the virtues it had were much more important: a great voice cast, wordy, funny scripts from a team of writers led by Jeff Reno and Ron Osborn (as writer-producers on Moonlighting, they brought a similar style of mile-a-minute dialogue to this other show about detectives), and an ability to tell the most insane and tasteless stories without losing sight of plot or characterization. There's never been a show quite like it; lots of animated half-hour sitcoms have done crazy plots, but this one had a certain internal logic to its craziness -- it was like no matter how crazy it got, the writers were still kind of committed to the stories they were telling, and the craziest episodes could be surprisingly touching in spots.

This being CBS/Paramount, I assume there will be music cuts, though I don't recall this show using a lot of music. The first season credited Frank Zappa with some of the scoring (his son Dweezil was a voice on the show, and Zappa worked on some of the music before he died), so that might or might not be a problem.

Footnote # 1: a few of the early Duckman plots were recycled from other shows. Specifically: in the first season, one episode is based on the episode of Taxi where Alex falls in love with a sensitive-sounding phone operator, and in the second season, an episode lifts its plot setup from the episode of Moonlighting where Whoopi Goldberg became a national hero for accidentally foiling a political assassination.

Footnote # 2: Duckman ran on the USA Network in a block with two similarly-constituted seasons of Weird Science; as you know, I like both series, but the shows had almost nothing in common and were probably the most incompatible comedy block of the era; Duckman's second season finale had King Chicken trying to kill the casts of both shows together, explaining that "USA won't allow one show to do anything without the other, so I'll just kill you all and we'll rerun Silk Stalkings."

The clip show, from season 2 with Ben Stiller as the guest voice, serves as a decent introduction to the show:

WKRP Episode: "Bad Risk"

(the original post for an explanation of why I'm sometimes going to be uploading WKRP in Cincinnati episodes and embedding them at this blog.)


This episode is "Bad Risk," the fourth episode broadcast in the second season. It was written by two freelancers, Gene Fournier and Tom Joachim. But I think that some of the episode, especially Herb's dialogue, has a bunch of rewriting by Steven Kampmann and Peter Torokvei, two Toronto Second City writer-performers who got hired for WKRP on the basis of the "Cisco Kid" redubbed video they did with Martin Short. Their "voices" as writers were distinctive enough that their contributions could sometimes stand out in an episode, and they did a lot to develop the character of Herb, a character they kind of fell in love with. Starting in the second season, Herb starts to take on some of Kampmann's mannerisms; if you've seen Kampmann on the first two seasons of Newhart, you might think he was doing Herb from WKRP but it's just as likely that Herb was mimicking Kampmann.

This is also the last episode of the show that is without one of the eight regulars; after this, all eight characters had to appear even if it was only for one line.

This is one of the episodes that the Comedy Network only showed in a 22-minute cut version but someone kindly sent me a copy of a CBS broadcast (again, if anyone out there has copies of original-length CBS versions please let me know and we can work out a trade). So the upload below sometimes cuts back and forth between one copy and another, but it's better than not having two-and-a-half minutes' worth of the episode.

Music: "Good Girls Don't" by The Knack, "Lonesome Loser" by Little River Band, and "Bitch" by the Rolling Stones.

Cold opening and Act 1:

Act 2, tag and credits:

Friday, January 04, 2008

Cartoon Violence

Some comments in my last post have gotten me thinking about the question of when cartoon violence crosses the line: what makes cartoon violence horrific rather than funny?

Many of the violent acts in Tom and Jerry cartoons and most of the violence in Famous Studios cartoons are famous for provoking disgust instead of laughter; the violence in The Simpsons "Itchy and Scratchy" cartoons is a parody of that kind of violence (they were inspired in part by Herman and Katnip), violence that is so horrible and painful that feels real, and therefore sickening. Warner Brothers, Tex Avery at MGM, and to some extent even Woody Woodpecker were better able to do violent gags without making them feel like real, painful violence. But what's the difference, and where's the line that bad violent gags cross?

As I said, I think that T&J's success helped make cartoons more violent at every studio; the Warners directors were doing more violent gags, both in terms of number and the degree of violence, after 1945 or so. But while the stuff that happens to Daffy Duck in "Rabbit Fire" is probably the most extreme violence that Chuck Jones had done up to that point, I think most people would agree that it doesn't cross that line. (The one possible exception is when he gets scalped by a bullet and we see the bullet hanging from his ripped-off scalp; when I saw that gag with an audience, the audience laughed, but there was some audible discomfort in the laughter.) So why is it funny rather than horrible to see Daffy get a part of his body blown off?

I don't know if there are any immutable rules about when a violent gag is funny and when it isn't; it's all about context and timing and many other things. For example, one of the few Warners gags that is truly horrible rather than funny is in "Sahara Hare" when Sam gets split in half. That's really not funny at all, at least for me and other people I've watched it with. But there are plenty of other cartoons where characters get scratched in half by cats' claws, cut in half by accident, and it's funny. There's just something about that particular moment that doesn't work.

Still, if there is any rule at all, it's probably that the most important issue in cartoon violence is how the character reacts. If a character reacts as if he's in agonizing pain, it's hard to laugh. The more realistic his pain, the more we associate the gag with what would happen to us if we were in that situation (namely, that we'd be in pain). Warners was famous for taking the edge off cartoon violence by placing the emphasis on the character's reactions, which were not reactions of pain but of humiliation or irritation. Daffy is always just pissed-off when he gets shot; he's not in pain, he's just angry that Bugs tricked him again. We instinctively understand that the shooting isn't a "real" shooting, just a punchline to the real point of the scene -- Bugs one-ups Daffy again. To get back to that "Sahara Hare" gag, one of the reasons it doesn't work is that Sam has his back to the camera when it happens and the scene blacks out immediately, so we never see Sam's reaction to the incident and we don't see him reconstituting himself. So the scene isn't about him getting outwitted by Bugs, it's just about a guy getting chopped in two, which isn't very funny at all.

Tex Avery's way of doing cartoon violence was a bit different at MGM, I think: he'd have characters act like they're in pain, but make their reactions so over-the-top that it, again, doesn't seem like real pain. I think the most crucial thing for a violent cartoon gag is that we should not relate it to anything that could happen to us (or worse, anything that has happened) to us.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

How Tom & Jerry Changed Cartoons

Reading Thad's thoughts on Hanna and Barbera (I know he makes fun of me for posting about what I've just seen on TV, but he forgets that I just as often post about what I've just read on someone else's blog!), I was reminded that the success of Tom and Jerry series had a sort of ripple effect on the cartoon industry. I can't prove this, but it seems to me that a lot of the other cartoon studios changed their approach and even certain elements of their production process based on the huge popularity and prestige (all those Oscars) of the cat and mouse series.

For one thing, I think Tom and Jerry helped establish the idea that one director, or team of directors, should be exclusive to a particular series. Obviously there had been other characters who were handled exclusively by one director, either because the studio only had one director or because only one director wanted to use him (nobody else was fighting to borrow Sniffles from Chuck Jones). But in general it seems like characters belonged more to studios than to particular units within a studio. At Warners, the star characters the studio came up with up to 1940 were shared by all the directors at the studio: each director was expected to make cartoons with Porky, Daffy and Bugs. (Even if, as in the case of Frank Tashlin and Porky, they hated that character.) Fred Quimby's decision to assign Hanna-Barbera exclusively to Tom and Jerry was different. Normally if a studio was going to give a big push to a character or series, they'd assign the series to all the directors; perhaps because MGM's other unit was headed by Tex Avery, who wasn't right for T&J and who Quimby didn't really trust anyway, the idea was to make the push for these characters by freeing up their creators to focus completely on that series.

It worked, obviously, and from that point on, cartoon studios were clearly more aware of the advantages of having a character handled by one unit exclusively. What's more, there was increased pressure on cartoon directors to come up with new star characters; that was a part of their job in a way that it hadn't been earlier, when character development was piecemeal and no one unit really "created" Bugs or Porky. At Warners, every unit started scrambling to come up with its own exclusive characters. Bob Clampett left just as the T&J craze was starting to take hold, but he was obviously thinking about the need to start up his own series: he was apparently getting ready to do more with Tweety (according to some accounts including his own -- which can't necessarily be trusted -- he'd already decided that Tweety should be teamed up with Sylvester), and he was doing pre-production on "The Goofy Gophers" (which was directed by Art Davis after Clampett left), an obvious attempt at a "pilot" cartoon for a potential T&J-ish series, albeit with a Clampett twist. Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng and Bob McKimson were all looking around for series ideas. Warners also followed the T&J lead when it came to submitting and promoting cartoons for Oscar consideration: the first three theatrical WB cartoons to win Oscars were all "series pilots" that took previously-existing characters and re-launched them as the stars of rigidly-formatted T&J type series. ("Tweety Pie," "For Scent-imental Reasons," and "Speedy Gonzales.") Except for the Speedy Gonzales series, which was shared between two units because it was a McKimson character developed by Freleng, there wasn't really much sharing of characters between units.

The advantage of this approach was that a character looked the same in all his cartoons, and all his cartoons shared the same approach. The disadvantage is that without multi-unit work on a character, they tended to be a little one-dimensional. Tom and especially Jerry are not very interesting characters to me; Avery's MGM characters, to the extent that he could come up with any, are like parodies of one-dimensional cartoon characters (literally so in the case of Screwy Squirrel). The single-unit, post-1945 WB characters don't have the depth or variety of Bugs, Daffy, Porky and Sylvester; you couldn't do as many things with them. Hanna-Barbera and Quimby sort of reduced cartoon-making to its essence: have one or two characters, have a formula, have a good unit working on that series. (Again, this had been done before -- Popeye, for example -- but almost by accident. And Popeye cartoons had more variety in terms of setting and plot.) But that approach helped make post-1945 cartoon-making a bit more predictable than it had been.

The other thing T&J may have done was to help increase the violence quotient in postwar cartoons. Hanna-Barbera, of course, sort of learned cartoon violence from Tex Avery; but Avery's cartoons weren't very influential at the time (MGM didn't promote them for Oscars and Avery's characters, if you could call them that, didn't hit it big), not compared to T&J. The extreme, outrageous violence in the T&J cartoons helped change the perception of how violent a cartoon could get without alienating the audience or losing Oscar-worthy respectability. (Again, the violence in Popeye cartoons is a bit different, as a lot of it is really just broad slapstick fistfighting that you could find in live-action comedies too.) And suddenly every cartoon studio was amping up the violence and pain. Even Warners. If you look at Warners cartoons from before 1945, what's surprising is how little actual violence there is. There are some violent gags, of course, anvils and mallets and such, but a gag is just as likely to have a non-violent punchline as a violent one, and very often, gags that seem like they're building up to violence are not building up to anything of the kind. (Two examples: in "The Big Snooze," Elmer walks off a cliff, looks down, sees that he's walking on air -- and rushes back to solid ground without falling. And in "The Unruly Hare," the entire last section of the cartoon involves Elmer and Bugs handing off a lit stick of dynamite to each other -- but they get rid of the dynamite before it explodes, and instead of blowing Elmer up it automatically lays the train tracks.) By the late '40s, every other gag in every studio's cartoon involves somebody being blown up or falling from a great height, and you'll almost never see a stick of TNT or an anvil without the violent payoff. Hanna-Barbera sort of rewrote the rules of how much damage you could inflict on characters' bodies and how much of a cartoon could be devoted to cartoony violence.