Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Wendie Jo Sperber, RIP

Actress Wendie Jo Sperber has died. She was only 46.

Sperber is best known for her role on "Bosom Buddies". That very underrated show had one of the best ensemble casts of its era, and she was one of the best members of that great cast; always funny, and always projecting great warmth and likability, 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. She also had funny roles in a number of movies written and/or directed by Robert Zemeckis, including I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Used Cars and Back To the Future III.

A very funny and lovable performer, and a very sad loss.

"You're Never Out of ICE"

Gary Tooze at DVD Beaver has the first review of the complete Matt Helm set. The transfers are nothing special, but cheesy-looking, slightly substandard but cheap DVDs are probably in line with the inherent value of the films. Still, I won't be able to resist picking up this set, not when it features lines like these:

NANCY KOVACK: Just drop my clothes anywhere. I won't be needing them till morning.
MATT: Don't you think we should be introduced first?
MATT: That's good enough for me.

MATT: We have a long wait ahead of us, so let's get comfortable.
JANICE RULE (wondering why she's in this movie when she was the star of the original production of Picnic): Oh? How comfortable?
MATT: Hey, it's broad daylight!
JANICE RULE: What's the matter with a broad in the daylight?

STELLA STEVENS: You're really a good sport about this. I'm surprised you didn't take umbrage.
MATT: Oh, I take a belt now and then.

And, of course, the lyrics of the theme song of The Wrecking Crew are pure gold:

On the street of many pleasures
Stands the House of Seven Joys.
Like you see it in the movies,
It's for groovy girls and boys.
In this Oriental pad,
You are welcome night and day.
Recommended by Matt Helm,
And by the A.A.A.
Ah, so
Ah, so
Very, very nice!

Matt Helm movies -- not to be confused with the badass Matt Helm books that were thrown out the window when making these movies -- embody all the worst, cheesiest, just plain wrong-est things about the '60s and wrap them all up in a brightly-lit, clumsily-shot, inanely-costumed package. Where else can you find Dean Martin stopping Ann-Margret's go-go dance, ripping off her explosive dress, and throwing it in the direction of a photograph of Frank Sinatra? ("Sorry, Frank!") God bless you, Dino.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Best Dickens Name Ever?

The success of the new BBC "Bleak House" miniseries has reminded the world once again of the most important thing about Charles Dickens: the man really knew how to come up with a name for a character.

For the most part, names of characters in fiction tend to be a) chosen at random; b) chosen for some very obvious symbolic significance; or c) shout-outs to the writer's friends. Dickens was not averse to any of those reasons -- names like "Dedlock" or "Krook" are obviously supposed to tell us something about the characters they're attached to, and occasionally he'll disappoint us all with a conventional name, like "Mary Graham" (a bland name for the bland heroine of "Martin Chuzzlewit"). But the most memorable Dickensian names are the ones that don't have any particular meaning, but shape our reactions to the characters just by the way they sound. A good Dickens name is like a musical theme: it has no literal meaning, but it has all sorts of connotations.

Some examples from "Bleak House": Tulkinghorn, Jarndyce, Chadband, Rouncewell, Turveydrop, Skimpole, Hawdon. You can analyze why these names have the effects they do. "Tulkinghorn" sounds sinister because "tulk" mostly rhymes with mean-sounding words (bulk, hulk) and "horn" has several unpleasant connotations; "Skimpole" sounds like a perversion of "simple," and that's what the character's behavior amounts to. But analysis is almost beside the point: it's the pure sound that works. These names resonate in a way that more conventional names never could.

What's your choice for best Dickens name ever, or, beyond Dickens, the best name in fiction? My choice for best Dickensian name might well be the conventional choice, "Ebenezer Scrooge." I don't think the story could even work if he were called anything else; the name just seems to tell us exactly what he is without ever meaning anything specific. I'm also very partial to "Podsnap" ("Our Mutual Friend"), which Dickens liked enough that he tried to turn it into a catchphrase within the novel itself (sub-titling one of the chapters "Podsnappery").

Monday, November 28, 2005

T Time

An in-depth analysis of the history, rules and significance of the Mr. T webcomic.

Late-'90s/early-'00s internet fads already seem so remote that they're ripe for nostalgic pieces (I write nostalgically about the Good Old Days of usenet slang and "all your base are belong to us") and rigorous analysis. Maybe we'll be seeing university courses on "classic" internet culture before the decade is out.

Those Dastardly Sony Guys

From USA Today:

Cary Grant classics in time for 'Holiday'

Just in time for Valentine's Day, five classic Cary Grant films will be available Feb. 7 in the Cary Grant Box Set (Sony, $60), including the DVD debut of 1938's Holiday, starring Katharine Hepburn. The collection - which also contains Only Angel Have Wings, The Talk of the Town, His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth - features new bonus material on each disc and a set of collectible postcards.

So those who already have the other four films on DVD but want Holiday will be obliged to get the box. Oh, well. It's still probably worth it, because Holiday was one of the most-needed titles among the unreleased "classic" movies: made by the same director (George Cukor), writers (Donald Ogden Stewart adapting a Philip Barry play) and stars (Grant and Hepburn) as The Philadelphia Story two years later, it's a much better movie. It's also continually relevant in its story of a young man who wants to drop out of the corporate rat race and explore the world while he's still young enough to enjoy it. The plight of the bored white-collar worker is a cliché now, but in 1938 it was an unusual subject.

Holiday also has great performances from everyone in the cast, especially Grant as the wannabe bohemian and Lew Ayres as the heroine's brother. This is also one of only two movies where Katharine Hepburn played a character I find sympathetic. The other is Stage Door. (Usually she either played characters who were basically unsympathetic people -- Bringing Up Baby, Philadelphia Story -- or else she was so annoying that I wound up hating the character anyway, as in every performance she gave after 1950 or so.)

Hopefully the new box will have a new transfer for The Awful Truth, which looked rather sub-par in its last (overpriced) DVD outing.

Hey, That's Not Bad!

You find the strangest things when you look through the Usenet archives, and one thing I found was a copy of one of my favorite pieces from the early, funny years of the National Lampoon. (The good years of the publication were roughly 1970 to 1975, or perhaps even 1974 when Michael O'Donoghue left.)

This is "Chums in the Dark," written by Hugo Fleisch and Lampoon co-founder Henry Beard, a great parody of the Hardy Boys that captures all the gee-whiz-gosh narrative style of the books. Apart from the accuracy of the parody, most of the fun of the piece comes from forcing poor Frank and Joe Hardy to deal with subjects, like sex and drugs, that they've literally never heard of before in any of their many adventures, and consistently fail to understand.

Chapter 1 * Chapter 2 * Chapter 3 * Chapter 4 * Chapter 5 * Chapter 6

If you want a "legit" copy of the piece, try to get a used copy of the excellent This Side of Parodies, a collection of parodic material from the 1970-1974 Lampoon.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

I Am Just a Simple Paperboy, No Romance Do I Seek

For those who are interested in sweaty atmospherics, as well as a case study of what had to be changed in order to bring an "adult" play to the screen in the '50s, there's a Tennessee Williams Film Collection coming next March. The films are The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Night of the Iguana, and two-disc special editions of A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Baby Doll.

Baby Doll would have to be my favorite of the bunch; the sheer trashiness of it is exhilarating, because it's not often you see such trashy material brought off with such style and skill in all departments. It's a great companion piece to Elia Kazan's similarly over-the-top, unsubtle movie of the following year, A Face in the Crowd, which also used a mostly unknown cast, and which also flopped. I think I like Kazan's flops a lot better than his hits.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

That's Kleinzach!

I wish I liked the movie The Tales of Hoffmann better. When I say I wish I liked it, I don't mean that I feel it's my duty to like it; I mean that there's so much I admire about the film that I really want it to add up to an enjoyable experience, and it just doesn't.

The admirable things about the film have been much-remarked-upon by people wiser than I am (like Martin Scorsese and George Romero in special features on the new Criterion DVD). The magnificent use of Technicolor; the revolutionary "multimedia" concept behind the combination of song, dance, stylized sets and special effects; the utterly unique look of the film; the constant flow of new and unique visual ideas in every shot. Michael Powell had a visual imagination comparable to the early Disney animated features, and Tales of Hoffmann is Powell and Pressburger's Fantasia: an attempt to exploit all the possibilities of cinema, and a celebration of cinema as a combination of all the arts that have come before it.

But unlike Fantasia, The Tales of Hoffmann is based on a single work (albeit a work that consists of three or four only semi-related stories), and there's supposed to be a story somewhere in there. And that's what keeps me from liking the movie: it's awesomely beautiful and imaginative, but emotionally it's the coldest of cold fish. The opera Offenbach and Jules Barbier wrote, or mostly wrote (Offenbach died before the premiere, and people have been arguing for 125 years over what form the opera was intended to take), is also somewhat emotionally cool, as befits a somewhat cynical fantasy which concludes that an artist is better off concentrating on art and giving up romance. But it does have its moments of warmth, and something to say about love and art and the dangers inherent of devoting oneself to art (a theme, in one way or another, of all the stories). The movie puts so much distance between itself and the story that there's never any question of emotional involvement: when Hoffmann first becomes openly emotional, in the middle section of the Kleinzach ballad, the movie cuts away from him to a ballet-pantomime with a couple of dolls on the shelf.

It is, ultimately, a movie about nothing except itself; it ironically exemplifies the self-absorbed kind of artistry that Offenbach and Barbier make fun of in the original opera. Hoffmann in the Olympia story is mocked for being someone so cut off from reality that he can't tell the difference between a woman and a robot; Powell and Pressburger, who drain all the humor out of this sequence and reduce all the characters to automatons, are more like Hoffmann than they perhaps would like to admit.

On the upside, though, the choice of Robert Rounseville to play Hoffmann -- one of the few performers in the film who does his own singing; most of the others are dubbed -- was ideal. Rounseville was a wonderful singer who went back and forth between opera and musical theatre without ever making an issue of whether he was "crossing over"; he was Stravinsky's original Tom Rakewell, Bernstein's original Candide, the Padre in the original production of Man of La Mancha, and his Enoch Snow is one of the few highlights of the movie version of Carousel.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Still Not On DVD, Sorry

Thanksgiving (the American version, I mean) is never complete without the "Turkeys Away" episode of "WKRP in Cincinnati." But due to music rights issues, that show will probably never be on DVD -- as I've lamented many times before -- and it isn't in syndication anywhere as far as I know, so if you want to see that episode, you're kind of out of luck.

"Turkeys Away" was only the seventh episode of "WKRP in Cincinnati," and while it's the most famous episode of that show, it's not necessarily one of the very best. Hugh Wilson (the creator of the show) had the idea for the turkey drop from the beginning. The story of a radio station that dropped turkeys out of a helicopter was a radio-industry urban legend; it's likely that it never actually happened, but instead was a composite of a number of disastrous promotional stunts at various U.S. stations. Wilson presumably assigned the writer of the episode, Bill Dial, the task of writing up an episode based on this idea.

Because main idea of the episode doesn't kick in until the last three or four minutes, the episode consists almost entirely of buildup to that big scene, and for that reason it can feel a little slow in spots, especially if you know what's coming and are waiting for them to get on with it. So it's not one of my upper-echelon WKRP episodes, but that's only because when the show was at its very best -- in episodes like "God Talks to Johnny," "Real Families," "Frog Story" and "Changes," to name only a few -- it was as good as any situation comedy ever made, a rich mixture of smart stories, perfectly in-character lines that never sounded like jokes, and great characters who interacted beautifully and really grew and developed.

The characters were in their TV infancy in "Turkeys Away," so when you watch the episode you can get a sense of where they started as opposed to what they finally became. The premise of "WKRP" as Wilson pitched it to the network was "The suits vs. the dungarees" (he actually incorporated the line into an episode). The fault lines at the station would be between the older employees left over from WKRP's first incarnation as an easy-listening station (Mr. Carlson, Herb Tarlek and Les Nessman) and the hipper employees who turn the station into a rock station (Andy, Venus, Dr. Johnny Fever). The central relationship on the show was supposed to be between the head of the Suits, Mr. Carlson, and the head of the Dungarees, tight-pants-wearing Andy; they would learn how to bridge the generation gap.

"Turkeys Away" is one of the few episodes of the show that actually used this formula: Mr. Carlson is feeling left out at the station, so he decides to take charge, and with Herb and Les (who also feel left out because they have had less power at the station since Andy showed up), undertakes a disastrous promotion without consulting anybody who could warn him what a disaster it will be. The generation-gap stuff doesn't really work, especially since Andy never was able to establish himself as the central character of the show (his role would soon be very effectively switched from the hero to the once-normal guy being driven slowly insane by his employees). But the episode is very effective at establishing Carlson as something other than a fuddy-duddy buffoon, which he might have been on any other show: he is a nice guy who wants to run a successful station and give the staff the freedom they need to make the new format work, but feels genuinely hurt at the fact that no one seems to think he's useful. That's why the episode isn't just a crazy farce.

Several characters, at this point in the series, had really not come into being at all except in name. That's especially the case with Venus (Tim Reid), who essentially had no character for most of the first season. As Reid said, "my character would come in, flash his clothes, and leave." It wasn't until the last produced episode of the first season, "Who is Gordon Sims?" (in which Venus turns out to be a fugitive who, strangely, deserted from the army after coming back from combat in Vietnam) that Wilson and co. hit on the idea of making Venus a serious-minded guy who is the exact opposite of the "hip" wardrobe he adopts as a gimmick. By that time, all the characters had been pretty much fleshed out, so that by the end of the second season, Jennifer (Loni Anderson) could concisely sum up each member of the workplace "family":

There's Mr Carlson, the occasionally confused but always concerned father; Andy, the success-oriented, competent, tight-panted son; Les, the consistently strange bookish brother; Herb, the semi-loveable troublemaker and general jackass; Johnny, the weather-beaten uncle who always wanted to be a sailor - no, that's not right, I never could nail you down... Venus, the spiritual, loving brother; and Bailey, the beautiful shy sister with the brains.

Also by that time, "WKRP" had established its greatest strength, which is that as a true ensemble show, all the characters could interact with each other in different ways. The producers of "NewsRadio" have pointed out that "every character had different chemistry with every other character," and that's true of "WKRP" too: you could put any two characters together in a scene and they'd be funny together in a unique way, because not only were the characters well-defined, but their relationships were well-defined too. (So you not only know that Andy is annoyed by Les, Herb, Mr. Carlson, Johnny: you also know that each one annoys him for a different reason, and those reasons play out in any scene between them.) Instead of a show about a down-the-middle split between two groups of characters, it became a show about the diverse and funny interactions between individual characters.

Some quotes from the Thanksgiving episode, to bring this back on topic (mostly taken from the WKRP Quotes Page:

Mr. Carlson: Young lady, I've done thousands of promotions in my time. Now tell me, what's the problem?
Bailey: We don't know whether to give away Boston T-shirts or Foreigner T-shirts.
Mr. Carlson: Boston. Foreign stuff shrinks.

Johnny: Look, man, I took this job because I thought Carlson was like me. A guy who doesn't quite know what's going on around him, and he likes it that way.

Herb: Andy, I've got to complain to you about Mr. Carlson.
Andy: Well, get in line.
Herb: Okay.
(Herb gets in line behind Johnny and Venus)
Andy: Herb, I was kidding.
Herb: I knew that.

Herb: When that farmer asked me what I wanted with twenty live turkeys, I had to do some pretty fast talking, let me tell you.
Les: What did you tell him?
Herb: I told him it was a secret.
Andy: That's pretty fast, Herb.

Venus: Les! Are you okay?
Les: I don't know. A man and his two children tried to kill me. After the turkeys hit the pavement, the crowd kind of scattered, but some of them tried to attack me! I had to jam myself into a phone booth! Then Mr Carlson had the helicopter land in the middle of the parking lot. I guess he thought he could save the day by turning the rest of the turkeys loose. It gets pretty strange after that.
Andy: Les, c'mon now, tell us the rest.
Les: I really don't know how to describe it. It was like the turkeys mounted a counterattack! It was almost as if they were ... organized!!

Ira Levin, You Old Softie

The lyrics I feel like quoting today are some very sweet, sentimental lyrics from an unexpected source: Ira Levin, of "Rosemary's Baby" fame and "A Kiss Before Dying" acclaim.

This is a song from Levin's musical Drat! The Cat! It's a song called "She's Roses," sung by the innocent, almost childlike hero of the show, Patrolman Bob Purefoy, after falling in love with the heroine (at this point he doesn't know that she's the notorious thief, the Cat, whom he has vowed to capture). The sweet list song, about all the things that his beloved means to him, is obviously inspired by "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music, but I actually like this one better, especially for the mention of "the automobile" as a thing of wonder and beauty (the show is set near the end of the 19th century) and the line about " Marbles, the clear ones." Mr. Levin, you should've written more musicals.

She's roses, she's snowflakes, she's barrels of apples,
And ice cream and velvet and bells when they ring.
She's birthdays and New Year's, the night before Christmas,
The last day of school and the first day of spring.
Other girls, other girls borrow and buy
Cosmetics and feathers and fur.
Other girls, other girls hopelessly try
To change from themselves into her.
She's bluebirds and baseball and hitting a long one,
And laughing and dreaming and Central Park Lake.
She's marbles (the clear ones) and milk when you're thirsty,
She's five kinds of candy and six kinds of cake.
Other girls, other girls, ain't it a shame,
They're seaweed and splinters and glue.
Other girls, other girls, no one's to blame,
Pray God the poor creatures pull through.
She's all of the stars and the moon when it's rising,
And music and peace and the automobile.
And how can I live till the next time I see her?
She touched me right here, and she's really real.

Hi, This is Jim Rockford...

This review indicates that the first season set of "The Rockford Files" isn't all we could have hoped for: not only are the discs apparently poorly produced (a constant problem with TV DVDs from Universal, which likes to squeeze as many episodes as possible onto as few discs as possible), but it's missing the two-hour pilot, where Rockford's father was played by Robert Donley (Noah Beery took over, memorably, for the series).

So, caveat emptor, and all that, but still, I mean, it's "The Rockford Files." It would take a lot to stop me from recommending "The Rockford Files." Maybe if they digitally replaced Noah Beery Jr. with Jar-Jar Binks. And even then, I might suggest you buy it just for James Garner, Angel, and that angry cop guy.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Lyrics On My Mind

The songs going through my head lately are mostly songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, especially their out-of-left-field love songs. No one was better than Hart at writing a love song that didn't sound like the typical gooey ballad; indeed, some of his love songs can be downright dark. Here are some examples:

From On Your Toes:

It's got to be love,
It couldn't be tonsilitis,
It feels like neuritis,
But nevertheless it's love.
Don't tell me the pickles and pie a la mode they served me
Unnerved me
And made my heart a broken-down pump:
It's got to be love,
It isn't the morning after
That makes ev'ry rafter
Go spinning around above.
I'm sure that it's fatal, or why do I get that sinking feeling?
I think that I'm dead,
But nevertheless it's only love.

From Higher and Higher (which also produced the greatest Rodgers and Hart song, "It Never Entered My Mind"), the love duet "I'm Afraid":

I'm afraid of snow and ice,
I'm afraid of rats and mice,
I'm afraid of reading scary tales,
Even of fairy tales.
I'm afraid of rain and fogs,
I'm afraid of touching frogs,
I'm afraid of counting sheep at night,
'Cause sheep can scare me too.
Afraid of cops,
Afraid of crooks,
Afraid of germs,
Afraid of worms
You put on hooks.
I'm afraid of Fu Manchu,
And of tigers in the zoo,
But most of all
I'm afraid I'll fall
For a horrible thing like you.

Or for something less dark, "Morning is Midnight," a love song (with a gorgeous, classical-sounding tune) celebrating shared slackerdom:

Morning is midnight
And the sun's the moon.
My break of day
Doesn't start, let us say,
Until half-past noon.
Later to bed
And later still to rise,
Who cares for health
Just as long as he's wealthy
And wise?
They say that the early
Bird will catch the worm;
I prefer a girlie,
If she doesn't squirm.
Morning will come,
But must it come so soon?
My break of day
Doesn't start, let us say,
Until noon.

Hart's way with a love song was certainly the quirkiest of any popular songwriter; he just seemed to want to find the strangest angle on the subject. When he did write a conventional-sounding love lyric with all the usual love-song phrases, he subverted it by subjecting it to a little pronoun trouble (tm Daffy Duck) in the song "If I Were You":

If I were you,
Here's what I'd do:
I'd tell me that I really loved me.
I wouldn't hide it,
I'd just confide it,
I'd pet me and let me pet you.
I'd be oh so tender
Sitting on my knee,
Then, with sweet surrender
I'd give in to me.
Gosh, you ought to see,
I'd hold me closer,
I'd kiss me too,
I'd do that if I were you.

"Morning is Midnight" and "I'm Afraid" were recorded by Ben Bagley for his "Rodgers and Hart Revisited" series (Dorothy Loudon sang a fine "Morning is Midnight" on the first and best of those albums); "If I Were You" was recorded by Frederica Von Stade for her "My Funny Valentine: A Rodgers and Hart Anthology"; "It's Got to Be Love" is on the 1983 cast recording of On Your Toes.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A Couple of Travelling Guys

Just a brief addendum to my post on Martin and Lewis: Jerry Lewis has reportedly been telling audiences that the Martin and Lewis movies are going to be released on DVD by Paramount, and a poster at Home Theater Forum has semi-confirmed this, saying that the following double-feature DVDs are slated for August 2006:

Living It Up/ Three Ring Circus
You're Never Too Young / Artists and Models
Pardners/ Hollywood or Bust

Those are the late Martin/Lewis movies, including some duds (Three Ring Circus, Pardners), but also the cream of the crop, the two films with Frank Tashlin, Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust. If that information is correct, then hopefully the earlier Martin and Lewis movies will appear in the first few months of 2006.

I'm Not Even a Little Bit Country

I haven't seen Walk the Line yet (though I am one of the few people who has managed to sit through even a portion of I Walk the Line, a movie known only for the title song and for Gregory Peck looking ridiculous as Tuesday Weld's love interest). It did get me to thinking, though: have we reached the end of the era of universally-popular country singers? I'm not saying everybody likes Johnny Cash, but I don't think I ever met anyone who didn't like Johnny Cash. He's a performer like Elvis or Louis Armstrong or Sinatra whose work transcends his genre and appeals to everybody, even people who aren't into "that kind of music."

Now, even beyond Cash, I can think of plenty of country singers who are popular performers and/or personalities even with people like me, who aren't country-music buffs. But they're either dead (the first and best Hank Williams; Waylon Jennings) or elder statesmen of one kind or another (Loretta Lynn; and, yes, Dolly Parton, who is cool for every possible reason). Are there any current country performers who have that kind of "crossover" appeal? I wouldn't be surprised if there are some and I've missed them -- I miss a lot of stuff that's contemporary -- but most of the contemporary country musicians I hear, or hear of, are clearly "niche" performers, as much as any other type of specialized musical performer.

Now, I know there are a bunch of obvious explanations for the disappearance of the universally-loved country performer. Start with the obvious point that country stars are stars, building their careers and images like any other kind of star, and therefore they can't have the kind of authenticity that Johnny Cash projected; even if they have colorful biographies (and a colorful biography probably helps someone get signed up by a recording company), they just don't feel "real" once they get on the stage in their carefully-chosen wardrobe and those damn hats. (I really don't know what it takes to look "authentic" wearing a cowboy hat indoors, but I know most people don't have it.) Dolly Parton created a persona for herself, but the persona is unique and funny. Some guy with a beard and a cowboy hat is not playing a part that I find particularly entertaining.

The music, or what I've heard of it, tends to be more obviously market-driven and to shy away from anything really dark or potentially controversial, so there goes the chance to hear another "(Mama's Got) the Pill." (Though the point of a song like that is not the "controversial" aspect of it but the realism of it; it's a celebration of a real-world fact that nobody had mentioned, let alone celebrated, in song.) The appeal of a good country song is that more than any kind of popular music -- more even than the folk-rock style of Cash's friend Bob Dylan -- it sounds like one man or woman talking directly to us through song, telling us what he or she has been through. It may be simple, it's sometimes crude, but it's direct and sounds like it hasn't been filtered through the formulas of popular songwriting or the demands of the marketing people. (Of course country songs have their formulas and their marketing strategies, like any other kind of song; the point is that a good country song sounds unfiltered and direct.) It seems to me, again, speaking from a position of less-than-complete familiarity with today's country music, that country songs now sound like any other commercial pop music.

Probably a simpler way of saying this is that Johnny Cash could kick the ass of any living country star with one hand tied behind his back and the other hand strumming a guitar. And he'd make them take off those hats.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Gotta Jump Down, Spin Around, Pick A Dress Of Cotton, Gotta Jump Down, Spin Around, Pick A Dress Of Wool...

Finally, after all these years, Allan Sherman's recordings are finally out on CD, in a rather pricey limited edition. Here is Sherman expert Mark Evanier's review.

The New Boy In The Neighborhood

My heart leapt up when I saw that "Charles In Charge" will be on DVD. Then I realized that this is the first season, when "Charles in Charge" was not the horror of awfulness that it became when it went to first-run syndication. In its first season, it was on CBS, was produced by the underrated Michael Jacobs (one of those showrunners whose shows, like "Boy Meets World," tended to have far better writing and craftsmanship than their premises or time-slots would suggest), and really wsn't all that bad. Not really worth a DVD purchase, but not bad. Hopefully the first season will sell well enough to get us to the first-run syndication years, because those episodes were made for drunken late-night viewings and Rocky Horror-style group catcalls.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

It's Official....

....The worst audio-commentary commentators in the world are Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. Their commentaries on the "Seinfeld" DVD sets set a new low standard for DVD commentaries that should be an inspiration to all. Any Seinfeld-David commentary consists of the following things:

a) Lots of dead space. I estimate that some of their commentaries include as much dead space as actual talking.
b) Lots of laughing at jokes or "Oh, I love that" type of lines.
c) Occasional confusion as to what episode they're watching.
d) Almost no actual information whatsoever, and any information they actually do give is repeated in the "inside look" featurettes.

Now, you might plausibly point out that most of the "Seinfeld" DVD commentaries share these features: the commentaries with Jason Alexander, Michael Richards and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are the same way, and so are the commentaries with the "other Larry," writer Larry Charles (who's sort of a hippie version of Larry David, both in appearance and in writing style). But something like the Seinfeld/David commentary on "The Opposite," on the upcoming Season 5 set, is truly a masterpiece of vapidity. Sample lines from this commentary:

LARRY: What show is this? This is the end of season what?

JERRY: The funny way he prounounces "parents."
LARRY: Yeah.
JERRY: "Pa-rents."
LARRY: "Pa-rents."
(Long pause)
JERRY: That's one of my favorite lines.
LARRY: Mine too.
JERRY: It makes sense to him.
LARRY: Makes sense to me too.

LARRY: Boy, that was a great show.
JERRY: Yeah.

The sad thing is that I think I've just transcribed the bulk of the commentary.

Admittedly, a lot of TV-on-DVD commentaries are a little like this; there's not a lot of time to talk over them, and TV production is so fast that it's hard for the participants to remember what went on in a specific episodes. (One of the reasons why a show like "The Simpsons" lends itself to audio commentary is that an episode takes nine months to produce, which perhaps means that the participants can recall more details of the production.) Still, the Seinfeld/David commentaries are kind of in a class by themselves: they sound like two guys who have been locked in a room with a bunch of episodes and are just watching the show and making occasional small talk until they can get out again. Which might, for all I know, be the case.

By the way, the season 5 set -- I haven't seen season 6 yet -- is excellent, as long as you stay away from the commentaries; the "inside looks" provide more information than the average commentary anyway. I particularly like the collection of promos for the show's move to the time slot previously occupied by "Cheers," which are relaxed little scenes done in the style of the show, instead of the high-pressure promos we'd expect from a major network today.

Grudge Matches I'd Like To See: Elmer Fudd vs. Ranger Smith

SCENE: Jellystone National Park.

A hunter tiptoes through the park with his gun, looking for rabbits. What he finds instead is the park ranger, who takes his gun and throws it in the river.

RANGER SMITH: I'm sorry, sir, but we don't allow hunting in Jellystone National Park.

ELMER FUDD: Why, you wascawwy wanger! You've wuined my twusty wifle! Pwepare to be eviscewated!


Who wins a knock-out, drag-down brawl, without weapons, between the two most pathetic humans in cartoondom: ELMER FUDD, the foil of a wisecracking rabbit, or RANGER SMITH, the foil of a wisecracking bear?

Saturday, November 19, 2005

J.C. Melendez

Bill Melendez Productions is the excellent homepage of animator José Cuauhtemoc "Bill" Melendez. It gives a nice overview, in pictures and words, of the life and work of one of the great living animators.

As the bio on the site mentions, Melendez started animating for Disney, and then moved to Warner Brothers, where he stayed for the better part of a decade (minus a stint in the army during WWII). He animated for director Bob Clampett, then for Clampett's successor, Art Davis. When Davis's unit was shut down, Melendez moved to Bob McKimson's unit, but he wasn't happy animating for McKimson; like a number of animators, he felt that McKimson had overly rigid ideas about what constituted good animated "acting," and wouldn't allow animators enough freedom. (McKimson and Davis, promoted to director at WB within a few months of each other, had sort of complimentary strengths and weaknesses: Davis was good with animators and kept a consistently strong animation team, but displayed a lack of confidence when it came to stories and had trouble keeping a story man; McKimson was arguably better with stories and certainly better at creating recurring characters, but had trouble holding on to animators.)

Melendez left Warner Brothers about 1950, and moved to UPA, where he animated on some of that studio's early successes, including "Gerald McBoing-Boing." His subsequent work, as a producer-director of commercials and television specials, often showed the influence of the UPA studio style in its use of stylized backgrounds, character designs, and movement, and the conscious adoption of drawing styles that wouldn't normally be considered animation-friendly.

His ability to adapt other cartoonists' drawing styles to animation made him the perfect choice to direct "A Charlie Brown Christmas," where he solved the problems of animating characters who were hard to animate: in the strip, Charlie Brown is usually seen only from two angles -- front and side -- so Melendez and his team had to work out all the details of what Charlie Brown and co. would look like when they turned their heads, how they should move, and so on. They did it so well that people often mix up the way the characters are drawn in the TV shows with the way they're drawn in the strip; the adaptation is seamless enough that it seems a natural extension of Schulz's drawing style. Melendez went on to direct most of the "Peanuts" specials and movies, and produce the ones he didn't direct; he also did the same for the "Garfield" specials.

His style as an animator was of the loose, fluid variety, showing his Disney training (like Emery Hawkins, with whom he worked in the Davis and McKimson units). He had an interesting way of making the characters hold up both of their arms while the rest of their bodies move freely and fluidly. It's not wild, broad gesturing; it's more something to focus on amidst the more-or-less free movement:

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("Falling Hare," Clampett)

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("Baby Bottleneck," Clampett)

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("Bowery Bugs," Davis)

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("An Egg Scramble," McKimson)

Melendez turns up in several featurettes and audio commentaries on the Looney Tunes DVDs, which are also where I got the screencaps. Unfortunately the DVDs of the Charlie Brown specials don't have any special features, so there's no chance to hear from Melendez on the subject of his biggest successes.

P.G. Wodehouse on Hollywood

I thought I'd type up a quote from the story "The Castaways," about a man who goes to Hollywood and is more or less kidnapped by a Hollywood studio and forced to work on a script that has been in development for years. The situation of writers in Hollywood, always a sore point with Wodehouse, is explicitly compared to the "press gang" which would force people into military service.

Here's the scene where the hero, Bulstrode Mulliner, goes to the studio to get back a hat he lost, only to discover that they won't give him his hat but will force him to stay there forever:

The motion picture magnate took a quick look at Bulstrode and thrust a paper and a fountain pen towards him.

"Sign here," he said.

A receipt for the hat, no doubt, thought Bulstrode. He scribbled his name at the bottom of the document, and Mr. Schnellenhamer pressed the bell.

"Miss Stern," he said, addressing his secretary, "what vacant offices have we on the lot?"

"There is Room 40 in the Leper Colony."

"I thought there was a songwriter there."

"He passed away Tuesday."

"Has the body been removed?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then Mr. Mulliner will occupy the room, starting from today. He has just signed a contract to write dialogue for us."

Bulstrode would have spoken, but Mr. Schnellenhamer silenced him with a gesture.

"Who are working on Scented Sinners now?" he asked.

The secretary consulted a list.

"Mr. Doakes, Mr. Noakes, Miss Faversham, Miss Wilson, Mr. Fotheringay, Mr. Mendelsohn, Mr. Markey, Mrs. Cooper, Mr. Lennox and Mr. Dabney."

"That all?"

"There was a missionary who came in Thursday, wanting to convert the extra girls. He started a treatment, but he has escaped to Canada."

"Tchah!" said Mr. Schnellenhamer, annoyed. "We must have more vigilance, more vigilance. Give Mr. Mulliner a script of Scented Sinners before he goes."

The secretary left the room. He turned to Bulstrode.

"Did you ever see Scented Sinners?"

Bulstrode said he had not.

"Powerful drama of life as it is lived by the jazz-crazed, gin-crazed Younger Generation whose hollow laugter is but the mask for an aching heart," said Mr. Schnellenhamer. "It ran for a week in New York and lost a hundred thousand dollars, so we bought it. It has the mucus of a good story. See what you can do with it."

"But I don't want to write for the pictures," said Bulstrode.

"You've got to write for the pictures," said Mr. Schnellenhamer. "You've signed the contract."

"I want my hat."

"In the Perfecto-Zizzbaum Motion Picture Corporation," said Mr. Schnellenhamer coldly, "our slogan is Cooperation, not Hats."

Bulstrode and the other writers are finally set free when the studio head is informed that the studio never actually bought the rights to Scented Sinners.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Back to the '70s

According to message board posts (I haven't found the original article), USA Today reports that next February will bring two-disc special editions of scenery-chewing '70s favorites Dog Day Afternoon and Network, both with audio commentaries by the director, Sidney Lumet, renowned specialist in scenery-chewing movies set in New York City.

The New York Daily News mentions that George Clooney is planning a live TV remake of Network. That actually strikes me as a good idea, given that Network is essentially the lament of two veterans of '50s TV -- Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky for what was considered the "Golden Age" of TV.

Chayefsky's script for Network is a stream of invective against everyone who ever pissed him off -- mostly young people, women, young women, executives, and young women executives. But in between the apocalyptic ranting (as well as the moments of real insight, like the famous speech about globalization and multi-national corporations making nation-states irrelevant), there's a note of fuzzy nostalgia for a time when socially-conscious New Yorkers ruled the airwaves. Clooney, whose movie Good Night and Good Luck displays a similar albeit less strident nostalgia, should do very well with the remake; and it would be a nice touch to remake Network as exactly the kind of live, socially-conscious TV drama that Chayefsky was nostalgic for.

There's also a special edition of '70s favorite All the President's Men, but while I like the movie, it's become hobbled (for me anyway) by the whole Bob Woodward thing. It might be interesting to make a movie about that, though -- the reporter who becomes famous by breaking a political scandal and then coasts on his fame, disappointing the reporters who looked up to him. Redford would be right for the part, too.

Oscar Hammerstein vs. Rhyme

My previous post mentioned the Rodgers and Hammerstein song "Isn't it Kind of Fun." One arcane thing I didn't mention is that Hammerstein's lyric for that song was an early example of a technique that he came to favor in his songwriting, namely, using as few rhymes as possible and not rhyming lines that would normally be rhymed. The typical Hammerstein lyric from about 1945 onwards tends to consist of a lot of unrhymed words placed on the ends of musical phrases, with only a token rhyme or two at the very end of a section. Example:

Maybe you'll never be
The love of my life,
Maybe I'm not the boy of your dreams.
But isn't it kind of fun
To look in each other's eyes,
Swapping romantic gleams?
("Isn't it Kind of Fun")

It takes all kinds of people
To make up a world,
All kinds of people and things.
They crawl on the earth,
They swim in the sea,
And they fly through the sky on wings.
("All Kinds of People," Pipe Dream)

And of course, more famous under-rhymed songs like:

Some enchanted evening,
When you find your true love,
When you feel her call you
Across a crowded room,
Then fly to her side
And make her your own,
Or all through your life
You may dream all alone.

Hammerstein's early lyrics often had a lot of rhymes, but he never felt completely comfortable with lots of rhyming, and felt that too many rhymes were distracting. Some of his early lyrics, like "Ol' Man River," put this theory into practice by using as few rhymes as possible, but it was in his work with Rodgers, writing the lyrics before the music and therefore essentially free to structure a lyric any way he wanted, that he started to show a really strong preference for the sparsely-rhymed lyric.

Sometimes he'd make up for the lack of rhyme by using "balance" words, repeating the same word twice instead of rhyming it. Sometimes he'd balance an under-rhymed lyric by taking a whole phrase and repeating it twice:

A fellow needs a girl
To sit by his side
At the end of a weary day,
To sit by his side
And listen to him talk
And agree with the things he'll say.

A fellow needs a girl
To hold in his arms
When the rest of the world goes wrong,
To hold in his arms
And know that she believes
That her fellow is wise and strong.

A related strategy for the lyricist who doesn't want to write a lot of rhymes is to match similar vowel sounds or consonants at the ends of lines, so there's a slight "chime" without anything that really sounds like an attempted rhyme:

Shall we still be together
With our arms around each other,
And will you be my new romance?
On the clear understanding
That this kind of thing can happen,
Shall we dance? Shall we dance? Shall we dance?

Hammerstein's very sparse use of rhyme, along with his use of those self-conscious repetition and balance techniques, plus his oddly formal language ("I am starry-eyed and vaguely discontented"), gives his lyrics a rather stilted quality, almost as if he thinks he's writing poetry rather than theatre lyrics. Since Hammerstein thought of himself as a poet, and reportedly sometimes considered giving up theatre writing for poetry, that's not surprising.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

I Tell Ya, She's WRECKED

As I implied in a previous post, one of the best "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" sites is Boils and Blinding Torment. It's a tough-love fan site, with snarky comments about the weak episodes, incomprehensible plot twists, sappy love plots ("Buffy and Angel: What the Hell") and clothes. Unlike Television Without Pity or Fametracker, where the authors often affect a snarky tone but pull their punches about really criticizing anything, the authors of "Boils and Blinding Torment" apply a real satirical scalpel to the weaker moments of the show. Typical of the site is their summary of the entirety of the fifth season of "Buffy":

Once upon a time there was this evil hellgod who was banished from her kingdom and imprisoned within a human boy, in the human realm. This angered the evil hellgod, although she made the most of it by wearing really sexy dresses and high heels. Also, she sucked out people's brains for fun. Far and wide, she searched for the key back to her world that would open the portal between dimensions.

But there were those on earth who opposed the hellgod, and fought to keep her from creating a rift between the realms. Sadly for the earthly realm, her foes consisted of weak, foolish monks and dumb knights with magic horses. Quite naturally, they realized they were no match for her, depsite hundreds of years of preparation. The knights and the hellgod searched for the key: the knights hoped to destroy it, the hellgod hoped to use it. Unfortunately for both the knights and the hellgod, it was the dumb weak monks who had actual possession of the key. Unwilling to destroy it, they instead transformed it into a little sister for Buffy, to teach her a lesson about sharing. I mean, so she would protect it.

Unfortunately for said key, this turned a very small object that was easy to hide into a large teenage girl, and placed her in the same town as the hellgod. Ultimately, the hellgod tracked down the key and used her to open the door, letting in lots of flying dragons. Buffy, tired of all this newfound "sharing", jumped off a tower to make it stop.

My favorite post on that site is their elaborate, play-by-play evisceration of the worst "Buffy" episode ever, "Wrecked." This is the one that used Willow's "magic addiction" as a barely-metaphorical metaphor for a hideously preachy and awful don't-do-drugs lecture. Boils and Blinding Torment's recap takes the whole thing apart and exposes every preachy moment, every plot hole, every heavy-handed moral. My favorite line from the recap: "Willow, you summoned me with your floaty stoner magic."

Other great articles from the site: "The Idiot's Guide to Continuity" and "The Post-Season 7 FAQ."

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Downside of Canada: Bilingual Covers

I am very fond of Canada. And since Montreal was my favorite city to live in, I have great affection and admiration for French-Canadian culture and the French language. I was living in Montreal the last time there was a referendum on Quebec separation, and my most vivid memory is of a guy on a soapbox on St. Catharine Street, telling Quebeckers why they shouldn't separate: "I have come here, even though I do not speak your language, to tell you that you Quebeckers should stay in Canada. You Quebeckers don't realize the contributions you have made to Canada. Some of the best hockey players...." So I don't want to be that guy; I like the French language and I don't have a major problem with official bilingualism, even though I once got turned down for a job for not being fully bilingual. I am a happy-go-lucky guy.

But. Ah, but. There's one problem. Official bilingualism requires, apparently, that a DVD that includes a French soundtrack (as many DVDs do) must have a cover both in English and French. And this leads to Canadian versions of DVDs having ugly-looking covers with so much text that the cover art is obscured. Just look at the Canadian cover art for The First Season of "Hill Street Blues." Great that there's a French soundtrack, but do we really need to know that the French title of the show is "Capitaine Furillo?" It just doesn't work. I know some people who just order all their DVDs from the States to avoid the ugly bilingual cover.

It could be worse, though: we could have a law mandating that movies in Paris French be translated into Quebecois French. It's already happened in the other direction. I once saw a Quebec-made show, "Lance et Compte, on a French television station, and there were subtitles translating the heavily Anglicized Quebecois French into correct Paris French. The line "J'ai coaché ma dernière game" became, in the subtitles, "J'ai dirigé mon dernièr match."

Isn't It Kind Of Stupid

In a previous post, I wrote that in pop culture of the late '50s and '60s you'd often get "absurdly sexualized material within what was supposed to be a "wholesome" piece of family entertainment." Nothing better exemplifies this bizarre type of G-rated sleaze -- as well as how truly clueless the American movie industry was in the early '60s -- than a number in the 1962 remake of State Fair, now on DVD with a commentary by (heaven help us) Pat Boone.

This is the infamous "Isn't it Kind of Fun," a song from the 1945 State Fair re-conceived as a solo showcase for the young, and obviously destined for stardom, Ann-Margret. (There's a story that the following year, at the wrap party for Bye Bye Birdie, Maureen Stapleton got up and said: "I guess I'm the only person in this room who doesn't want to fuck Ann-Margret." Whether Paul Lynde was in the room at the time is not recorded for posterity.)

The number is, first of all, just terrible: poorly staged, cheesily designed, choreography that consists of nothing but walking back and forth. Even the song is all wrong for Ann-Margret's vocal range, so she sounds bad singing it. Musicals were dying out by 1962, except for the occasional pre-packaged blockbuster like West Side Story; and you can see why: nobody knew how to film a musical number any more.

But the thing that makes the number so perversely memorable is that it is so sleazy and trashy within the context of what presents itself as a wholesome family film. What exactly is an audience, settling down for a nice piece of Rodgers and Hammerstein Americana, based on a very wholesome 1945 film, to make of a musical number that goes from this:

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To this....

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And finally to this:

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It's a tasteless, garish, leering striptease number -- but the producer, Charles Brackett (at one time the producer and writing partner for Billy Wilder; after he and Wilder broke up, he spent the rest of his career producing glossy schlock and being a Republican party activist, and whether those things are connected I couldn't say), thinks he's making a family-friendly movie. The weird hybrid a number like this embodies, the combination of hypocrisy and sheer obliviousness, is characteristic of a lot of '60s entertainment, and explains why people were on so many drugs in that decade; how else can you make sense of an Ann-Margret movie?

By the way, and I think I've mentioned this before: despite its sheer awfulness, I still enjoy the 1962 State Fair more than the bland 1945 version, just because, a, the 1962 version is insanely stupid rather than bland, and b, the 1962 version has the glorious accomplishment of featuring the young Ann-Margret and the young Pamela Tiffin in the same movie, a feat matched only by the even more insane The Pleasure Seekers. The best version of State Fair is the still DVD-less 1933 nonmusical version with Will Rogers.

No DVD For You

The Hollywood Reporter has an excellent article about music clearances for TV shows on DVD, or "why WKRP in Cincinnati will never come to DVD."

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

How Could You Love an Umpire?

On the occasion of the release of a big "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" boxed set, I would like to disinter a quote from Nicholas Brendon (Xander), talking to about the development of his character over the course of the series:

(After the actor Bradley Cooper mentions that he left "Alias" because he wasn't happy with his part)

That really is admirable. Because after about Season Five on [Buffy], or the end of Season Four, I was that guy. Joss [Whedon] actually said Xander was done--that there was no more. I was just kind of relegated to the background. It was one of those things that, where I was at in my life, the money was more important than my pride or taking care of myself. [Leaving], especially as the show's just starting to take off...

People who watched "Buffy" had differing reactions to the increasingly decreased role of Xander as the show went on. Some people didn't much care, or at least felt that he'd been de-emphasized in favor of other, darker characters who could carry more grown-up storylines. And some of us thought that Xander was the best character on the show and had been screwed over in favor of various boring romantic storylines and Fonzie-like vampires.

In my experience, people who started watching "Buffy" in the first or second season usually, not always but usually, share my frustration with the de-Xanderization of the show. It was a symptom of a number of things that choked off and diminished "Buffy" as it went on: the increased emphasis on the soapy romance element, the increasingly absolute division of all episodes into "serious" and "comic relief" moments (instead of being funny and serious at the same time, as the best episodes usually were), and a glut of dull new characters.

The show would probably have developed differently if Xander had been given the big storyline in the fourth season; I don't know that it's ever been officially confirmed, but there's a general consensus that the story about "The Initiative," and a character who gets recruited by that shadowy organization, was supposed to be about Xander. Instead it was given to a new character, Riley, introduced as a new love interest for Buffy; Xander therefore spent most of the fourth season without anything to do except make wisecracks and have a dull romantic storyline of his own, and this continued for the duration of the series.

"Buffy" was probably done in -- creatively, at least -- by the "'shipper" mentality, the idea that the most important thing about a show is pairing off each character with a romantic partner and focusing as much attention as possible on the question of who would get together with who. By far the worst thing about "Buffy" in its first (and best) three seasons was the Buffy/Angel romance; it may have been a godsend to fanfic writers, back before slash became the fanfic style of choice, but it mostly produced goopy, treacly, mopey, dopey episodes. (Except for the "Angel goes evil" storyline in the second season, because that was an appropriately "Buffy"-esque combination of angst and humor.) Boils and Blinding Torment has a funny redux of one of those interminable Buffy/Angel scenes:

Buffy: A date! You're asking me on a date!
Angel: Hello? No, I am after all a vampire. I'm merely being confusing and obtuse.
Buffy: Since I'm been all lovey-dovey already in this conversation, I guess it's time for BitchyBuffy. I like to mix things up by going back and forth. So get the hell away from me.
Angel: Fine! After all, we have coffee, next thing you know, it'll be sex, and who knows, you could cause me to lose my soul or something.
Buffy: Great. Well, you are such a terrible kisser than when you kiss me I wish I were dead. Watch out or I might stab you and send you to hell.

So Angel leaves to headline his own spinoff and actually be interesting, given that he now has the opportunity to do something other than teenybopper romance (well, until that show gets taken over by who-loves-who plots, but I digress), and what does "Buffy" do? Concentrate on the interesting stories about friendship and fitting in and using monster stories as serio-comic metaphors for the everyday problems and decisions that young people face? No: introduce more boring love interests, male (Riley) and female (Tara), and reduce all the characters' lives to the question of who they are or are not sleeping with at the moment. One of the refreshing things about early "Buffy" was that it was one of the few high school shows that acknowledged that there are, in fact, other aspects of a teenager's life than who he or she is romantically involved with: there's also the pressure to conform (Xander in "The Pack"); the pressure of trying to combine school, extracurricular activities, and having some fun on the side ("Reptile Boy," but, more generally, Buffy's whole life is about trying to combine school with a crushing after-school training program); trying to change your image to be cooler (Willow in "Doppelgangerland"), and so on, all realistic teenage problems that happen to be played out as monster stories. Once a show spends too much time on romance, it's cut itself off from the really interesting stories.

Xander was hit the hardest because he had literally nothing to do on the show except be another supporting character's romantic partner, and it's a long way to fall from being one of the funniest and most interesting characters on TV for the first three years.

Incidentally, I wish someone would release a better DVD of the original "Buffy" movie. I know the Whedon fanatics despise it because it Wasn't True To Joss's Vision, but vision or no vision, the way it took a nutty concept and played it almost (but not quite) straight was something of a revelation at the time, and it anticipated the strengths of the series by finding the reality in its subject: it's ridiculous, but underneath the ridiculousness is a real story about a shallow girl who realizes that there's more to life than what she's been getting by with. Lots of memorable lines, too ("Kill him a lot!"). I'd a lot rather see the movie again than most of the episodes from the last two or even three seasons of the "Buffy" series, which are considerably less true to the original comic/dramatic vision of the series than the movie ever was.

"They All Stole From Me"

I occasionally (not too often, thankfully) use this blog as a dumping-ground for stuff I wrote and will never get to use anywhere else. Latest case in point: a song lyric I wrote a couple years back called "They All Stole From Me." The idea was that it was to be sung by a cranky elderly comedian, explaining that the reason his jokes seem stale is that he did everything first, and was stolen from by younger, more famous comedians. Like most song lyrics, it doesn't make much sense without a tune, but I might as well post it anyway, in lieu of fresh content:


I'm a comedy legend who's played ev'ry club
From this joint to... well, just here.
I remember the shoulders I once used to rub
With the greats of yesteryear.
Let me mention a few of them,
And the main thing I knew of them:

Refrain 1

They all stole from me,
They all stole from me,
From the highbrow guys
To the throwers of pies,
They all stole from me.
They all saw my act,
And they grabbed the jokes for free.
From the Catskill kvetch
To the SNL sketch,
They all stole from me.
From Ben n' Jerry Stiller
To that menace Dennis Miller,
I provided all the filler
That was killer.
Well, that's how it goes,
And my act ain't fun to see.
All the jokes I do
Sound familiar to you,
But they used to be new,
So if now I'm a bust,
Well, it's just
'Cause they all stole from me.


You're looking right now, all you lucky folks,
At the unsung inventor of lightbulb jokes.
I dropped comedy gold into others' laps
When I found out that men never look at maps.
The work that consumed me for half my life
Was finding two meanings for "Take my wife."
I got Richard Pryor's career on track
By telling him: "Take my advice, be black!"
But Seinfeld, that bum, was by far the worst:
Whatever he noticed, I noticed first.
My leastest-known triumph of all occurred
When I taught Lenny Bruce his favorite word.

Refrain 2

They all stole from me,
They all stole from me,
Even sour young hags
With their PMS gags,
They all stole from me.
They all paid me squat,
Not a single royal-tee.
At the improv club,
Ev'ry movie they dub
They all stole from me.
From hopeless Hope and Crosby
To that silly Billy Cosby,
They would hasten to me, view me,
Then they'd screw me.
Well, that's how it goes,
Now I think I gotta pee.
I'm a tired old coot
With a moth-eaten suit,
I missed out on the loot,
And if now I should fail,
If my schtick is all stale,
Just think back on my tale
And recall
That they all
Stole from me.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Frank Doyle, "Archie"'s Comic

Like many people, I grew up reading "Archie" comics, and I have a residual affection for those comics. I also outgrew them, and I know that a lot of them weren't very good, that Archie is never, ever going to choose between Betty and Veronica, and so on. I know perfectly well the difference between thinking something is really good and just seeing it through the haze of nostalgia.

So when I say that "Archie" writer Frank Doyle was really good, you know I mean it, and I'm not just being nostalgic. Frank Doyle may well have been one of the best comic-book writers of all time.

I don't know much about Doyle except what's mentioned at the link above; he came from Brooklyn, was originally a penciller and inker in the last years of the Fiction House company, gave up drawing in favor of writing (though he continued to submit his scripts in storyboard form), joined "Archie" in the 1950s and stayed on until his death in 1996. He was head writer of the company from the early '50s until the mid-'80s, though I don't know if he had the official title of head writer, or if he was just the de facto because he turned out so many stories: he wrote over 10,000 stories for the Archie company.

He wrote for just about every Archie title; he also wrote the early, funny "Josie" comics (before it was re-tooled as "Josie and the Pussycats"). I don't know much about him, as I say; I do know that his stories were consistently funny, and very different from the other stuff being turned out by "Archie" comics -- the other most prolific "Archie" writer, George Gladir, was more conventional -- so much so that it's possible to identify a Doyle story even if, as often happens, the writer is not credited. Here's what Dan DeCarlo said about him when asked who his favorite writer was:

I like Frank Doyle. When I first started to work on Archie, I got his stories. I think he’s the best. He has a way of writing that I’m able to illustrate humorously. He’s got a nice pacing that’s never boring. He’s an old pro, and knows how to handle the situations.

I have no idea whether Doyle had any particular theory of how to write a kids' comic. In practice, his stories usually reflect the idea that since "Archie" stories are very short (five-six pages, usually) and restricted in the types of stories they can do, the best way to approach it is to de-emphasize story and plot and concentrate instead on funny dialogue and the characters' reactions to everyday, mundane situations. Many of Doyle's stories have no plot, really, except maybe a minor twist at the end; instead they set up a situation and have the characters talk about it, crack wise about it, and just generally hang out and interact. It's a comic book about nothing.

And yes, I'm going where you think I'm going with this: I am comparing his work to "Seinfeld." Look at the beginning of this Doyle story from 1986, where Archie realizes that he overslept and forgot what day it is:

ARCHIE: You know what they say about Saturday night, old buddy. Saturday night is the loneliest night of the week.

JUGHEAD: I'll worry about that when it gets here. Right now I'm still working on Friday, of which today is a prime example.

ARCHIE: Say what? Today is not Saturday?

JUGHEAD: I assure you, it's been Friday all day.

ARCHIE: Wow. I fell asleep after dinner. I guess I woke up all confused. It really felt like it was Saturday night.

JUGHEAD: How could you forget? You put in a day of miserable tests.

ARCHIE: Ah, tests... school.

JUGHEAD: That's the trouble with school. All that stuff goes to your head.

ARCHIE: Hey, you know what this means?

REGGIE: Sure. You not only don't know what time it is, you don't even know what day it is.

ARCHIE: I have an extra night! One that no one else has.

BETTY: How do you figure? It's just as much Friday night for us as it is for you.

ARCHIE: Sure, sure. But you knew all the time that it was Friday. It wasn't the least bit unexpected.

BETTY: So? That just means we're brighter than you.

ARCHIE: No, no, no. When you get something unexpected, it is a gift of the Gods, a windfall, a new beginning, a touch of a magic wand.

VERONICA: You're making an awful lot of the fact that you overslept.

REGGIE: And forgot what day it was.

ARCHIE: Right. To me it's Saturday. So the fact that it's really Friday... don't you see? My mind, my whole being, is set on this being Saturday. And it's not. So tonight is like a free night to me. A treasure. A reward. A bonus.

JUGHEAD: You're bonkers. It's your Friday, it's my Friday, it's Ronnie's Friday, it's Betty's Friday, it's everybody's Friday.

REGGIE: Wake up and smell the burgers, Arch. It's Friday night, you're at Pop's, and this is your life.

Another example is this story, from a few years earlier, which is just five pages of discussion about a story that never quite gets going:

Doyle's stuff is extremely talky and often makes use of words, phrases and references that kids might not recognize; the "Archie" audience is young, but Doyle doesn't talk down to them:

VERONICA: Ah, Reggie, Reggie, Reggie! How could you? As dear Willie Shakespeare once said, "These words are razors to my wounded heart!" You all remember, of course.

ARCHIE: Yeah, sure.

JUGHEAD: I never forget anything ol' Willie said.

You see, instead of concentrating on how to get from story point A from story point B, Doyle concentrates on the stuff in-between, and makes the characters articulate, smart and funny. And of course, when it came to basic storytelling mechanics, he knew more than anyone in comics about structuring and pacing a typical Archie story, which is exceptionally hard (you've got only five-six pages and you've got to tell the whole story without making it simplistic or static). A lot of Doyle's tricks for structure, pace, and where to put plot information without making it seem clunky can be seen all over the work of non-superhero comics writers then and now.

He also sometimes liked to throw in elaborate introductory captions that were as much fun as the story itself.

And he could sometimes throw in things that you wouldn't expect to find in an "Archie" comic. There was a Sabrina the Teenage Witch one-panel gag where Sabrina and her Aunt Hilda are decorating a Christmas tree; Sabrina puts an angel on top of the tree, but Aunt Hilda objects: "An angel offends my sense of witchery, somehow." Aunt Hilda transforms the angel into a devil, complete with horns: "Now, that's my kind of angel." This placement of a Satanic figure on a Christmas tree, as well as the acknowledgement of the Satanic side of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, was of course written by Frank Doyle. How this squared with the conservative and sometimes openly religious content of the rest of "Archie," I don't know.

Even when Doyle wrote a longer or plot-heavy story, something to fit in with whatever trend the publishers were trying to cash in on at the time, he often threw in some unique line of dialogue or funny observation that could only come from Frank Doyle. And I'm pretty sure, despite the lack of credits, that Doyle wrote the long and almost totally insane story where Jughead is mistaken for a diplomat and kidnapped by a gang of "banditos" in Honduras. The only thing that saves him and his friends from being killed is that Jughead earns the protection of the head bandito's fearsome mother, based on the fact that he's the only one who likes her cooking. Finally Veronica convinces the banditos to give up being banditos and go work for her father's corporation, whose cafeteria can give them better food than they'll get at home.

My feelings about Frank Doyle's work can be summed up this way: anybody (well, anybody who's capable of it) can do good work where good work is expected of them. What's especially impressive is someone who does consistently good work where he could easily get away with less. Frank Doyle could have had a forty-five year career with Archie Comics by writing stories that were not particularly funny or particularly unique; instead he was a truly funny and unique writer, and I'll always be grateful to him for subconsciously showing me, as a kid, the difference between run-of-the-mill work and something with a real creative spark.

To close my little tribute to Frank Doyle, here's a transcript of the complete text of a Jughead story called "In Search of Sanity." The artwork is by "Archie"'s best artist at that time, Samm Schwartz, and while the script is uncredited, I'm almost certain it's by Doyle; if it's not, it's a terrific imitation of his style. Here's the whole story:

(Jughead appears at Betty's door, with a Steve Martin arrow through his head and strumming a ukulele.)

JUGHEAD: How do you do, Ma'am? I am a wild and crazy troubadour, searching for the Bluebird of Happiness.

BETTY: Of course you are. Mom, has the Bluebird of Happiness come by this morning?

BETTY'S MOTHER: No, dear, I haven't seen him. Or is it "her?"

(Betty and Jughead leave the house together.)

BETTY: Let me go with you, troubie-baby. We'll look for the cheerful chirper together.

JUGHEAD: Glad to have you aboard.

BETTY: Ah, here's Veronica. Let's ask her. Ron, this is a wild and crazy troubadour who's searching for the Bluebird of Happiness.

VERONICA: Any luck, Wild and Crazy?

JUGHEAD: Not yet. I did see three sad chickadees and a rather depressed owl. The closest thing to a happy bird was a snickering sparrow.

VERONICA: Well, at least it's an improvement in mood.

BETTY: Exactly how would one find a Bluebird of Happiness?

JUGHEAD: Delicious!

VERONICA: What do you do when you're not bird hunting, Bubbi?

JUGHEAD: What do I do when I'm not bird hunting?

BETTY: She asked you first.

VERONICA: That's right, I did.

JUGHEAD: I try to find the answer to the universal question.

BETTY: "What is the true meaning of life?"

JUGHEAD: People really ask that? The universal question I had in mind was, "What's for dinner?"

BETTY: Ah, that I can help you with.

JUGHEAD: Verily?

BETTY: Also in truth. Are you ready for this?

JUGHEAD: Oh, yes, yes!

BETTY: The answer to the universal question is....

JUGHEAD: Yes? Yes?

BETTY: Meatloaf!!

JUGHEAD: Wow! Ohh, wow!! Golly gee!! That's deep!

BETTY: Not really. About so high. But very tasty.

JUGHEAD: Am I invited?

BETTY: You're a wild and crazy troubadour -- do your thing.

JUGHEAD: You mean sing for my supper?

BETTY: That's it, Troubie! Make with the music.

JUGHEAD: Okay, let me tune up my zither.

VERONICA: They just don't make zithers like they used to.

JUGHEAD: Cough! Cough! Ahem! Hack! Mi mi mi! Do do do!
(sings, accompanying himself very badly on the ukulele)
Oh, they hanged ol' Ned from the ol' pine tree,
And his hound dawg howled till the clock struck three,
An' he pined away 'neath the ol' pine tree,
An' at dawn ol' Dawg wuz as dead as Ned!

BETTY: I'll throw in a hot apple pie for dessert if you don't sing anymore.

JUGHEAD: Now, that is music to my ears.

VERONICA: Sometimes I have the feeling I'm the only sane person left in the world.

The End

Operation Re-Syndication

This New York Times article outlines an interesting development for those of us who can't get enough of old TV shows:

Warner Brothers is preparing a major new Internet service that will let fans watch full episodes from more than 100 old television series. The service, called In2TV, will be free, supported by advertising, and will start early next year. More than 4,800 episodes will be made available online in the first year.

The move will give Warner a way to reap new advertising revenue from a huge trove of old programming that is not widely syndicated.

Programs on In2TV will have one to two minutes of commercials for each half-hour episode, compared with eight minutes in a standard broadcast. The Internet commercials cannot be skipped.

America Online, which is making a broad push into Internet video, will distribute the service on its Web portal. Both it and Warner Brothers are Time Warner units. An enhanced version of the service will use peer-to-peer file-sharing technology to get the video data to viewers.

Warner, with 800 television programs in its library, says it is the largest TV syndicator. It wants to use the Internet to reach viewers rather than depend on the whims of cable networks and local TV stations, said Eric Frankel, the president of Warner Brothers' domestic cable distribution division.

This actually does sound far superior to traditional syndication, for the simple reason that the lower number of commercials will (at least, I hope) allow the episodes to be presented uncut. And at a time when most older shows are not shown on TV, and some of them can't profitably be released on DVD, putting them on the internet seems like a good use of the material, as well as a way to make the stuff accessible again.

How good the service turns out to be will depend in part on which shows are available and how many episodes of each are made available through the service. If WB offers all the episodes of these series, it'll be a tremendously valuable service. Even the Museum of Television and Radio only has four or five episodes of most series; for somebody trying to write, say, a long-winded blog post on an old TV show, being able to access every episode online would be a nice development. Hopefully this will turn out to be a useful service, and other studios will follow suit.

And I still remember only a few years back I was writing to VHS collectors asking them if they could send me their tapes of cancelled series X so I could write about it. Though I will miss some of the commercials that turned up on those tapes -- you'd never guess what depraved lives some used-car dealers lead....

Update: This article in "Information Week" lists some of the series that will initially be available.