Day 999: Buh-Bye, So Long And Hallelujah

originally published September 25, 2014

It’s a completely valid question.

For the past 50 or so days I have been fielding one question more often than most: what am I going to do for Day 1000? Will the final kilograph reflect upon the 999 that came before, like some extended clip show of my greatest guffaws and most aww-rending moments? Will I spend my final entry in closing-credits mode, thanking those who have made this all possible and put up with my considerable dearth of free time over the last 2 years and almost 9 months?

In short… no. While my original intent was to meander down that self-serving footpath for my final article, I decided that I would only do so if I could cite the Wikipedia page that had been created about me – as it turns out, that doesn’t exist yet.

In order to figure out my final missive, I felt I should turn to the moulder of my wisdom, the sage oracle who has helped to shape my morality, my perception, and even my understanding of the world: television. I have experienced the highs and lows of series finales – certainly at least one of them could illuminate the road to a poignant, entertaining, and (most of all) worthy coda to this monstrous undertaking.

My first option is the beloved trope of bringing back a classic character for the finale. In my case I could introduce a surprise cameo by Yoko Ono, Craig David, Mary Nissenson, or if I really want to stretch to my roots, Phineas Gage. I could style the entire piece in a blend of haiku, musical theatre and secret code (did anyone ever figure that one out?). It sounds trite and cliché, but that’s always a place to start, isn’t it?

Shelley Long nearly stole Sam Malone right out of Cheers in the show’s final episode. Ron Howard opted to remind everyone how much better Happy Days was before he’d left, as did Topher Grace in the final entry of That 70’s Show. Dr. House welcomed back most of his former colleagues in the finale, including the guy who’d killed himself in season 5. Michael Scott returned to The Office, Fox Mulder helped to seal The X-Files, and even Eldin showed up to tweak Murphy Brown’s house after a few years’ absence.

There are many precedents for this, though I don’t think it would make sense for my project.

If one question has rivaled the popularity of the finale question, it has been what I will do next. 2000 Words, 2000 Days? No chance. 1000 Complaints About The Government, 1000 Days? Too negative. 1000 Sexual Partners, 1000 Communicable Diseases? That one is intriguing, so long as I’m only the documentarian, not the subject.

I will not be using tomorrow’s pulpit to announce a spin-off, though there will be another project taking shape within these electronic walls in due time. Besides, spin-offs that launch from the boot-end of a successful series tend to be obvious attempts to milk a franchise, and I’m not just talking about AfterMASH and W*A*L*T*E*R. Did our culture really benefit from 22 more episodes of Jack Tripper in Three’s A Crowd? Mayberry R.F.D. lasted for three seasons in the top 20, so I suppose this gimmick could work – hell, Boston Legal lasted a while too after having swept James Spader and William Shatner clear of The Practice.

Maybe I’ll wait to see how Better Call Saul turns out.

Perhaps there should be some concern that my exit from this stage may be a little premature. Many shows have run series finales under the belief that their network’s shiny silver ax was set to dice it into cancelled chum. Maybe there’s a Day 1001 waiting to pop up on Saturday morning, extending my tenure beyond my initial plans. Of course that would betray the site’s original intent (not to mention its registered domain name), so I’d call that fairly unlikely.

Sledge Hammer! wrapped up season 1 by nuking Los Angeles, as they were pretty certain they were on the cancellation block. They were wrong, and season 2 was awkward and ultimately fatal to the show. Scrubs was offered one final half-season by ABC after the My Finale episode, and poor Futurama has endured four distinct and legitimate series finales. The latest show to offer up a pseudo-ending was Community, which satisfactorily wrapped up last spring under an uncertain renewal decision by NBC. Time will tell whether they should have let the show die or whether Yahoo! will make another season worth our while.

As for this joint, let’s safely bank on #1000 being the final curtain.

What if I totally blow it? What if my final thousand words are pedantic and uninspired? What if I disrespect the entire run of this project and piss off my fan-base, maybe by finishing off at 995 words? What if I leave a bunch of unresolved loose ends? Considering the lack of a story arc in this little universe, that might not be a concern. But there’s a lot of pressure here.

The creators of Seinfeld provided a karmic closure to its four reprehensibly selfish characters, while also opening up the door for many of their most beloved one-off characters to return for the finale. Yet the audience mostly loathed that final episode. Even more controversial was the cryptic church scene at the end of Lost that invited more questions than it answered.

Nope. I need to do it right. I want to be lumped in with the best. Inasmuch as this will be compared with any other finale to a large writing project; I can’t let my metaphor blow my perspective here.

A perfect finale can take many forms. Breaking Bad finished with a final episode worthy of the brilliance of the series’ entire run – resolving every storyline and completing the arc of each character. The Fugitive’s last show was the first finale to truly earn the next day’s headlines, as it closed off a 4-year story with a tremendous punch, at a time when most shows were happily thwacking the reset button every week.

Friends said goodbye as it was meant to, by terminating the weird vortex of New York in which six people could almost never actually work, yet could afford upper-middle-class lifestyles in Midtown Manhattan. Star Trek never got to end its five-year mission to its fans’ satisfaction, but Star Trek: The Next Generation concluded with a magnificent intertwining of multi-dimensional philosophy.

Then there’s the 135-minute epic that brought M*A*S*H to a close, landing a 77% audience share, which beat out The Fugitive’s 72% share to become the most-watched series finale in history. Was it the best ever? Probably not, though the story that wrapped up the arc of Charles Winchester may have been the high point of the entire series.

Perhaps I need to look at a classic twist. Newhart’s big reveal was that the entire series had been a dream by Bob Newhart’s character on his first successful sitcom – my pick for the greatest series ending ever. No, I might be overthinking this. Maybe simplicity is the key here. It’s like I’ve always said: “Don’t stop believin’. Hold on to that feelin’. Streetlights people, don’t stop

Day 823: Trolling The Trough-Crusties – Worst TV Part 7

originally published April 2, 2014

Posting a list of bests and greatests opens the door to debate, dissent, and the occasional inter-cubicle pelting of office supplies. Posting a list of worsts never seems to stoke the same ire. I have offered a tankard of derision for the insipidly successful sitcom According To Jim throughout my 823-day journey and have yet to hear one person defend the show’s quality. I appreciate my audience’s congruity. Perhaps it’s a rare thing for someone’s “worst” to be another someone’s favorite.

Even the shows I can’t stand today – and I make no apologies to fans of Two And A Half Men or The Big Bang Theory – I would hardly consider them to be among the absolute worst fare in the medium’s history. Just as I’m certain those folks who abhor shows I enjoy, like The League or It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, would likely not plunk them at the bottom of the proverbial barrel.

Sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves just how low art can sink, which is why once every month or so I like to pick apart the worsts of things – most often television because she was my third parent and we still keep very much in touch. Just as we eventually grow to learn that our actual parents are flawed and imperfect, we must also acknowledge the defects in TV’s past, the moments we all wish she could take back.

And these are just the sitcoms.

Concocting satire surrounding one of the worst genocides of the past century is a painfully delicate operation. The British nailed it in the 80’s with ‘Allo ‘Allo! and the Americans found a winner years earlier in Hogan’s Heroes. But check out this pitch for Heil Honey, I’m Home:

“It’s a parody of the cutesy family sitcoms of the 50’s and 60’s. We’ve got Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun living in an apartment building, and their next-door neighbors are… wait for it… Arny and Rosa Goldenstein, a Jewish couple! Oh, the hijinks! Oh, the hilarity!”

Oh, the humanity. I can appreciate what the producers were going for here, but the jokes simply weren’t funny. Plus, the satirical poke at old-school domestic sitcoms was poorly planned, popping up in 1990 at the tail-end of that subgenre’s second major wave when The Cosby Show and Roseanne were in their prime. Nothing about this show’s attempted goofiness hit home. Luckily, we can actually sit through this one-off horror (only one episode was aired, seven more were filmed).

The mid-60’s was a magical time on television. You could watch talking horses, flying nuns, and sexy genies, all sprinkled with the sounds of a laugh track (all with the same laugh track, actually). In My Mother The Car, Jerry Van Dyke (hoping to match his brother Dick’s success) plays a guy who buys a beat-up old 1928 Porter touring car, only to discover his dead mother talks to him through the car’s radio. And only to him, of course. Because that’s funny.

But wait – it gets better. This no domestic sitcom with a ghost-mother; the ongoing storyline here is that a crazed collector will stop at nothing to acquire the car, because that would actually ever happen. The show aired on NBC for a complete 30-episode season somehow. Co-creator Allan Burns would eventually redeem himself with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda and Lou Grant, while the other co-creator, Chris Hayward, would kick Barney Miller into gear. James L. Brooks, one of the staff writers, would have a hand in shaping Taxi and The Simpsons. So the lesson here is that sometimes you’ve got to sling some crap before you get to the gold, I suppose.

My first thought upon reading about this next show is, “How the fuck did Small Wonder last for four seasons?” Somewhere there exists an answer, though I suspect it shall elude me for the remainder of my days. For those of you too young or too fortunate to have seen this show, it was about a guy who built a robot named V.I.C.I. (which stands for something, but who really cares?) that looked conveniently like young actress Tiffany Brissette.

I watched the show because I was young, stupid, and as an only child with a twisted world-view and a distorted sense of technology I’d always wanted a fully sentient robot buddy. Small Wonder was a syndicated show, meaning it was crammed into the low-priority time-slots for local affiliates, and it eventually made its way around the world into several languages, no doubt embarrassing our western culture as a stunning display of consistent non-funniness.

From the files of the unfathomable comes the unlicensed TV spin-off from Look Who’s Talking, a hugely successful slab of cinematic dreck from 1989. Amy Heckerling, who had written and directed the film (don’t hold it against her – she also headed up Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Clueless), helped to create the characters for Baby Talk, the 1990 ABC series that somehow didn’t decide to cash in on the film’s name. This was exactly what it sounds like – a single mother with a baby whose inner monologue we can hear, though we’ll wish we couldn’t.

Tony Danza played the voice of the baby. In the first season, his mother was besieged with potential suitors, including creepy Uncle Lewis from Christmas Vacation and George Clooney. In the second season, the entire cast was scrapped except for the twins who played the baby and of course Danza as the baby’s voice. Scott Baio was brought in to be the new love interest. When asked why he’d join a show with such awful reviews, Baio shrugged and pointed out that Happy Days never got good reviews either. Mary Page Keller, who was brought in to play the new mom, said she had never watched the first season.

Hey, a job is a job.

One does not create a riotous sitcom simply by including a familiar face, even if that face belongs to the queen of comedy, Lucille Ball. Here’s the premise for Life With Lucy, which aired for 14 tragic episodes on ABC in 1986: Lucy is a widow. She inherits half of a hardware store from her husband, and insists on helping out in the store (fish out of water, haha). The store is co-owned by a widower (potential old-people sexual tension, haha). Lucy’s daughter is married to the widower’s son, and along with the grandkids they all live together in the same house (domestic hilarity, hah-oh god just shoot me now).

ABC gave Lucy the reins for this show – no pilot was required and no focus group testing was done. Lucille Ball was TV magic; she had proven herself to be a veritable sure thing in the past. But Lucy was 75 and Gale Gordon, her co-star, was 80. And despite featuring the writing team of Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Davis (who were heavily involved in the creative success of I Love Lucy in the 50’s), this show hit Saturday night audiences like an old balloon filled with creamed corn.

When it was pulled after less than two months, Lucille Ball was devastated. She never made another show or appeared in another movie before her death. It’s a sad way to wrap up, but such is the power of crappy TV – it can break hearts and cripple careers.

And sometimes it’ll stay on the air for FOUR GODDAMN SEASONS. Seriously… how?

Day 784: Show Me That Smile Again

originally published February 22, 2014

Lately I have found myself falling back in love with All In The Family. The jokes are still funny, the characters still compelling, and it’s the only show from the 70’s that can still be called ‘edgy’ by today’s standards. I wanted to do a piece about the show, but rather than delve into a history of the show’s production or spin a bullet-list of trivia (which I’ve already done for The Golden Girls), I decided I’d focus on the song.

You know, that song. The one where Jean Stapleton – whom I have recently decided is the funniest woman ever to appear on TV – hits that high note that can make your sofa cushions cringe. The song that Family Guy homage-ifies with their opening number.

TV Theme songs may seem like a fluffy topic, but they are certainly worthy of a couple hours-worth of finger-punching my keyboard. The lyric-laden theme song is a dying art form, yet these tunes are woven with the fabric of my slothful youth. Some became hits or were hits already – I’m not going to dig into the roots of John Sebastian’s “Welcome Back” or Al Jarreau’s “Moonlighting” here. But each of these songs was written and performed by somebody, and those somebodies had a story.

“Those Were The Days” was penned by the team of Lee Adams and Charles Strouse, the guys responsible for the Broadway hit, Bye Bye Birdie. There were a few versions of the performance recorded throughout the series’ run, and astute listeners can pick out Stapleton’s second-verse screech becoming more comically punched as the song evolved.

The song’s melody can be played solely on the black keys of a piano, something I plan to try when I get home tonight. Also, the reason you don’t see any footage of the World Trade Center in the opening credits is because the footage was shot in 1968, two years before the show aired and three years before the towers would dominate Manhattan’s downtown.

See? I knew this topic would be full of fun and useless facts.

That suave, mustachioed heartthrob is Jeff Barry. Along with his wife, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff wrote a slew of girl-group hits, including “Da Doo Ron Ron”, “Then He Kissed Me”, “Be My Baby”, “Baby I Love You”, and “Chapel Of Love”. He also produced a heap of Neil Diamond’s early singles, as well as the Monkees’ cover of “I’m A Believer.” The guy has a mammoth resume.

In the late 70’s, scoring a hit was a bit harder to come by. He had split with Ellie and though he landed a big score when Olivia Newton-John sent his schlocky love song “I Honestly Love You” to the top of the charts in 1974, Jeff wasn’t above spurting out some addictively catchy ear-worms for prime-time TV, including “This Is It” for One Day At A Time, “Movin’ On Up” for The Jeffersons and “Without Us” for Family Ties. This guy scored a great deal of my childhood and I’d never heard of him before today.

Speaking of Family Ties, Jeff’s song was originally sung by Dennis Tufano (lead singer for The Buckinghams in the 60’s) and Mindy Sterling, who you probably remember as Frau Farbissina in the Austin Powers movies. Back then she was merely a struggling actress, looking for work.

Then, because NBC didn’t want to give a break to two unknowns, the song was rerecorded by Deniece “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” Williams and Johnny Mathis after ten episodes. That’s the version we all remember.

The name ‘David Pomeranz’ probably doesn’t mean much to you. But if you were a fan of the Perfect Strangers theme, “Standing Tall”, then you know his work. Seriously, that theme song just went on and on… it was 90 seconds long before they started cutting it back to fit in an extra commercial or two.

Pomeranz’s other work never made a huge dent in our pop consciousness, but he has built a great career in theatre and television. Also, his compilation of adult-contemporary love songs – Born For You – His Best & More – became the greatest-selling album in the history of the Philippines. Hey, sales are sales.

Jack Elliott gets a long round of applause for me, as he wrote what might be the greatest sitcom theme ever, the opening of Barney Miller. He also laid down the similarly funky groove for Night Court, in addition to scribing the score for the 1984 Summer Olympics, and running the music for the Oscars and Emmy Awards.

Though unrelated to the theme song, I found it interesting that a number of police officers (including former Chicago cop and brilliant character actor Dennis Farina) called Barney Miller the most realistic cop show ever made. Yes, that quote comes from two sources after The Wire, so that’s saying something.

I said I wasn’t going to write about theme songs that became hit singles, but then I’m not sure that peaking at #65 on the pop singles charts constitutes a hit. But I mention this to dispel those rumors that Richard Saunders (Les Nessman) sang the opening theme of WKRP In Cincinnati. I enjoyed believing that was true, but it simply ain’t.

And the closing theme – there are actually lyrics to that tune, some vague story about a bartender. But composer Jim Ellis decided to lay down a gibberish vocal track, drowning the lyrics in seemingly arbitrary vowels and consonants. Still, the closing theme rocks harder than pretty much any other theme song I can think of.

Hell, I didn’t even like this song. “Brand New Life” was written by the creators of Who’s The Boss, who apparently didn’t like to farm jobs like this out to professionals. The music was composed by smooth-jazz artists Larry Carlton and Robert Kraft (not the guy who owns the New England Patriots). There were three versions used throughout the series, sung by three different people. I have no idea why this was deemed necessary.

Larry Weiss sang the opening from 1984-1986. Larry’s other big contribution to music was writing the song “Rhinestone Cowboy”. Steve Wariner, one of the most active country music singer/songwriters in the last half century, sang the version used between 1986 and 1990. Lastly Jonathan Wolff sang the tune for the show’s final two seasons. Wolff’s other claim to fame?

That’s right, Wolff put together the sampled bass, synthesizer and weird vocal pops and clicks that made up the Seinfeld theme. In true Seinfeldian, post-modernist fashion, the sitcom broke with the tradition of employing a full-on theme song to introduce the show, thrusting us right into the action. Well, into the stand-up comedy that preceded the action.

The Seinfeld music varies from episode to episode, mainly composed from bits of improvised funk Jonathan Wolff played using the same instrumentation. At the start of season three, a bit of female vocal scatting was added to the music, but while Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David loved it, the network did not. Jonathan’s music was kept pure from then on.

Okay, I suppose there was enough for a full-size kilograph in those opening credit sequences. I kind of miss the all-out theme song – The Office had one and 30 Rock’s was rapid-fire and brilliant. But while I’d probably fast-forward or check my phone during an all-out theme song today, it’s still sad to see an art form die off. Those were the days, I suppose…

Day 771: On Tonight’s Show… History

originally published February 9, 2014

Once the collective click of a few million TV sets shutting off had resonated throughout North America in the shadowy hours of February 9, 1964, the pentimento of American culture as it existed before that day was almost invisible. This is the news blurb that kids – and I include here many in my generation, those who played their opening number on this earthly stage some years after the 60’s had taken their bow – will gloss over and ignore. Precisely one half of a century has elapsed since the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.  

Trying to rationalize the significance of this broadcast to my children is a fruitless endeavor. Even in my limited history, the only television “events” that embedded a rusty touchstone in our shared timeline were series finales (M*A*S*H, Cheers, Seinfeld), sporting events or news stories. The first two would get us talking, but eventually they’d meander under the covers of the past. And while the scope of our world might have shifted after we all watched O.J. race through the arteries of Los Angeles in a Ford Bronco or after we saw the towers fall a few years later, television was merely the window through which we’d all observed a salient chapter in history. When the Beatles splashed down into 74 million pairs of eyeballs for the first time, it was culture announcing through its own mouthpiece that everything was about to change. 

There had never been an equivalent in the world of popular music. And given the splintered state of our popular tastes and the three-block buffet of media options at our disposal, such a singular jarring of our culture is not likely to ever occur again.  

First of all, there is no parallel to Ed Sullivan today. Sullivan’s show was a weekly stage for performers to hurl their skills at a national audience in hopes the exposure will crank their success meter up to the next notch. You’d see plate-spinners and dog trainers, classically-trained actors and world-renowned singers. The late-night talk show circuit is the closest to an equivalent today, but Ed’s show was about showing off his guests, not interviewing them to hear pre-rehearsed stories about the time George Clooney pranked them in the studio commissary. Sunday nights were our culture’s window into the wider world. 

On February 2, 1964, Ella Fitzgerald performed a rousing duet of “S’Wonderful” with Sammy Davis Jr. and Rip Taylor performed a set of standup (probably involving glitzy confetti). A week later, the line to get in (or to catch a glimpse of the show’s featured guests) was eight blocks long. Sullivan had witnessed the shared madness among British Beatle fans, and it was he who determined the group might bring a few grins to American audiences. I don’t think he could have predicted all of this. 

By the time the cameras clicked on for the 8PM broadcast, Ed Sullivan and CBS knew their advertisers would be happy with the night’s ratings. In between Ed’s expressing to the band’s manager Brian Epstein that he’d like to bring them across the Atlantic and that early February evening, the Beatles’ music had already swatted countless American turntables. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” had spent the previous three and a half months meandering to the top of the Billboard charts and “She Loves You” was patiently waiting at #7 for its hike to the summit. 

Kids were buying the records, and while at the time their flash-bomb of sudden frenzy might have seemed no more than a fleeting moment in extreme fad-dom, the Sullivan broadcast was exhibit A that there was more to it. The Beatles did more than cement their own fame that night, they did more than usher in the American outpouring of love (and record-buying cash) for British artists. They changed the way rock bands wrote songs, sang songs and marketed themselves. 

And what of the other acts who had the misfortune of lingering in the Beatles’ shadow on Ed’s show that night? And although the restless young audience was clearly just biding their time on the fragile brink of politeness until their favorite band reclaimed the stage (the Beatles opened and closed the show), should we pity those forgotten names? 74 million people is more of an audience than a Broadway cast usually gets in one shot. 

The Great White Way’s biggest smash at the time was Oliver. Two of the show’s stars, Georgia Brown and Davy Jones, performed a pair of songs to the crowd. Yes, it was that Davy Jones, who would eventually procure his own gaggle of shrieking girls as the lead singer of the Monkees. No doubt Jones was watching the crowd from the side of the stage, wondering how he himself could acquire that kind of adulation. 

Husband and wife duo Mitzi McCall and Charlie Brill performed a sketch right before the Beatles’ second set. They couldn’t hear themselves or one another, and the crowd’s reaction could only be described as ‘impatient’. Huge audience or no, it wasn’t the big break they’d been hoping for. 

Frank Gorshin, who was at the time a popular comedian and impressionist, performed a stand-up bit about celebrities going into politics, which no doubt struck a poignant chord among the 15-to-17-year-olds in the bleachers. Gorshin would later take out his vengeance upon the world as The Riddler on the Adam West Batman series. 

Magician Fred Kaps performed a pair of tricks, one involving cards and the other a shaker of salt. Already a successful performer, Fred didn’t need the exposure, though wowing even the frail attention spans of 74 million people must have been somewhat of a rush. 

Also on the bill were Tony Award winner (and banjo songstress) Tessie O’Shea and the acrobatic stylings of Billy Wells & The Four Fays, a group which featured Jacqueline Jessica Anderson, the mother of Tony Basil, singer of the insipidly catchy 1981 hit “Mickey”. 

The Beatles performed five songs on the show that night, cementing the first chapter of their global legacy with the help of 728 seats-worth of abetting fans. It was the first time The Ed Sullivan Show had ever turned their cameras on the studio crowd, but the manic reaction of screeching young mouths and watery eyes helped to fuel the message: the culture was shifting, and that shift was hinged on this quartet of Liverpudlians. 

One critic called the band “androgynous and ugly”. Billy Graham – ever the beacon of hipness and forward-thinking – expressed that they were but a passing fad. Fifty years of hindsight has taught us differently. And while we may never see another singular axis-shifting bump to popular culture, the music from this one still holds up.  

A week later, The Ed Sullivan Show had shuffled on to another roster of big acts, including a troupe of sway pole acrobats, a unicycle balancing act, Mitzi Gaynor, Myron Cohen, and… yeah, the Beatles, on a live feed from Miami, playing another six songs. Ed knew how to brew up some ratings gold. 

Day 757: Best Care Anywhere – 23 Things I Didn’t Know About M*A*S*H

originally published January 26, 2014

Up until the recent spate of Platinum-Age television brilliance forced me to redefine the parameters of small-screen excellence, I had always placed M*A*S*H upon a mighty khaki pedestal. The show wasn’t perfect, but it blended riotous comedy with deeply human drama and did so often within the same scene. As recently as last week I found myself reminiscing with someone about the most unforgettable episodes – “Point of View”, “Dreams”, “The Interview” – and I realized I have yet to pen a piece in tribute to this eleven-season masterpiece. 

Hell, I’ve already written about Golden Girlshow have I not written about this show yet? I’m going with the ‘things I didn’t know’ format, since there’s simply too much interesting trivia to cram into a proper narrative kilograph. Also, I’ve got an extremely tight deadline. 

Some of these I did know before today, but I learned them after the show’s initial run (which wrapped up when I was 8 – thank goodness for syndication).  

  • The TV show was based on MASH, an elegantly twisted 1970 film by Robert Altman. The film was based on MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, which was written by Richard Hooker. 
  • Richard Hooker doesn’t exist. He’s an amalgam of writer W.C. Heinz and former US Army doctor H. Richard Hornberger, who served as a military surgeon in the 8055 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. 
  • Many of the stories in the first few seasons of the show were based on actual tales from former army doctors. Hornberger’s quarters in Korea were actually nicknamed ‘The Swamp.’ 
  • During the football game in the film, one player warns another his “fucking head is coming right off”, one of the first uses of the word ‘fuck’ in an American studio film. Altman claims it’s the first – he could be right. 
  • Rene Auberjonois, who played Odo on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, portrayed Father Francis Mulcahey in the movie. The role was played by William Christopher in the series… except for the first episode. For that one broadcast, Mulcahey was played by George Morgan. Morgan has one other minor entry on his IMDb page, then dropped off the entertainment radar. 
  • Gary Burghoff (who was the only principle actor to appear in both the film and TV series) has a deformed left hand, which he keeps mostly hidden via clipboards or his pockets. 
  • Burghoff is also a jazz drummer (his Krupa-esque solo in that talent show episode was no fluke). In 1968 he drummed in a band called The Relatives. The lead singer was future Wonder Woman star Lynda Carter, with whom Gary has remained friends. 
  • Both Maclean Stevenson (Henry) and Wayne Rogers (Trapper John) allegedly regretted leaving the show after season 3 (Stevenson felt he’d go on to bigger and better things and Rogers wasn’t happy with his contract). Larry Linville (Frank Burns) had no regrets about taking off after season 5, believing he’d taken his character as far as he could. 
  • Spearchucker Jones (yes, that was an actual character name for a black guy in season 1) disappeared and was never mentioned again. The writers had discovered that there was actually no record of a black doctor serving in the Korean War. 
  • Henry Blake was supposed to be sent home after season 3. In the final scene of “Abyssinia, Henry”, when Radar enters the O.R. and announces Henry’s death, the actors’ reactions were genuine – no one had been told this was coming. This is probably the most well-known piece of M*A*S*H trivia, but it’s too brilliant not to mention. 
  • There were two spin-offs from the show, not counting Trapper John M.D., which takes place decades afterwards and has no narrative tie to M*A*S*H outside of that one character. AfterMASH lasted for two seasons, and the curiously dark W*A*L*T*E*R made it only through one episode. I mentioned this one before
  • In England, the show was broadcast with no laugh track, just as creator Larry Gelbart had wanted. CBS wasn’t sure we North Americans would know when to laugh, so they insisted upon canned laughter everywhere except for during scenes in the O.R. 
  • The show was taped in a Century City studio, and also in the current location of Malibu Creek State Park. An abandoned jeep and ambulance from the show mark the spot in Malibu today, as well as a restored version of the iconic sign. 
  • The writers had to come up with so many new character names, they ran out of ideas. The seventh season saw many ancillary characters named after the 1978 Los Angeles Dodgers roster. 
  • Jamie Farr and Alan Alda both served in Korea, though after the war had ended. Klinger’s dogtags are in fact Farr’s from his service.  
  • The guy who wanted plastic surgery in the season two episode “Operation Noselift”? That was Todd Susman, who went on to be the faceless voice over the PA system for most of the run of the series. 
  • That guy on the right who appeared only in the pilot episode is actually Bruno Kirby, star of When Harry Met Sally, City Slickers, and The Godfather, Part II
  • Other notable guest stars include George Wendt, Shelly Long, Leslie Nielsen, Ed Begley Jr., Pat Morita, Laurence Fishburne, Joe Pantoliano, Alex Karras, Patrick Swayze, Ron Howard, Joan Van Ark, Ned Beatty, Andrew Dice Clay, James Cromwell, Teri Garr and Jeffrey Tambor. Most of those actors were virtually unknown when they appeared on the show. 
  • B.J. Hunnicutt’s daughter was named Erin at Mike Farrell’s request – it was his actual daughter’s name. 
  • Nearly 100 days ago I wrote about the Friday Night Curse, in which shows are moved from their regular night to Friday nights, thus leading to their premature demise. M*A*S*H was moved from Tuesdays to Fridays for the first chunk of the 1975-76 season. It survived. In fact, it eventually took a turn on every night of the broadcast schedule except for Wednesdays and Thursdays. 
  • The show ended because four of the series’ eleventh-season regulars – Alan Alda, Mike Farrell, Loretta Swit and David Ogden Stiers – had felt it was time. The other three kept their grip on the brass ring for two seasons of AfterMASH
  • Most shows pull the plug when the ratings dip; M*A*S*H never had to. It was ranked #46 during its first season, but climbed into the top ten the following year. Season 4 found it at #15, but for every other season it was a top ten show, peaking at #3 during its eleventh and final year. Much like Seinfeld, the show went out on top. 
  • The show won 14 Emmys, 7 Directors Guild awards, 7 Golden Globes (Alan Alda won six alone), and even a Peabody Award. 

For serving as a modern-era allegory for the Vietnam War when that war’s popularity was at an all-time low, M*A*S*H held for its generation of viewers a special significance that even I missed out on. There hasn’t been a show like it before or sense., and while it might not get the same level of DVD airplay as my Arrested Development collection, I’ll still pop it on from time to time. 

With the damn laugh track turned off, of course. 

Day 740: You Bring The Gags, Charley Will Bring The Laughs

originally published January 9, 2014

It was once so commonplace, so natural, so subconsciously integral to the very essence of comedy that we hardly noticed it. The laugh track came with the medium; it was swept in as part of the original package, like the wheels on the first car or the door on the first refrigerator. It was the oily black fingerprint of television comedy, first by tradition then by mandate. If you didn’t hear laughs, you weren’t meant to laugh. Bing Crosby’s team brought the technology to radio in the 40’s when they had to jazz up the flaccid responses to some flat jokes. It seeped into  the realm of TV with ease.

In the early 1990’s, the state of small-screen comedy began to transform, and with this came a subtle erosion of the dominance of the laugh track. Those shows with the broadest base appeal – by which I mean the ratings hogs that comedy connoisseurs and critics tend to loathe… yes, Two And A Half Men, I’m talking about you – still make use of laughter prompts. But for the most part, as an audience we’ve decided we don’t need them.

Good for us, not so much for the fleet of companies that made their mint by plopping requisite ha-has into prime time programming over the past half-century. Except there is no fleet. Most of the laughter beamed into our homes all those years ago came from the fingertips of one man.

That’s Charley Douglass, who was a sound engineer in the nascent days of television at CBS. Back then, many comedies were broadcast live from the stage to the screen. Those that weren’t live were shot with a single camera, with scenes re-staged several times to capture different angles. Studio audiences were used, but they couldn’t be counted upon to deliver the chortles when the writers wanted them to, particularly on the third or fourth take. Charley came up with a process to ‘sweeten’ the laughter. It was brilliant and effective, and when Charley was ready to leave CBS in 1953, the network claimed it was their intellectual property.

Fortunately for Charley, his prototype laugh-booster tape system broke down shortly after he left. He devised something new: a machine comprised of numerous tape loops of different laughs, many taken from audience reaction to the pantomime sketches of The Red Skelton Show, due to the pure, dialog-free clarity of the laughs. Charley had a host of different reactions, from giggles to gut-splicing guffaws. And he wisely built them into a proprietary machine that only he knew how to operate.

That’s Charley’s Laff Box. It features a ‘keyboard’ that would trigger the 32 tape loops inside, with each loop containing ten distinct laughs. Using a pedal for volume, Charley could manipulate the sounds to appear natural and dynamic, and his masterful editing skills enabled him to integrate these bottled laughs into the genuine studio response, creating a hearty stew of whatever the producers wanted.

The technology behind the Laff Box would later be adapted with tape loops of actual instruments – such as an entire string section – and developed into the Chamberlin Music Master, and later the Mellotron. Those opening notes of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and the hooky string part in Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” were played on a Mellotron. That’s right – two of the greatest rock anthems of the classic era exist because of the same weird technology that told us when to laugh during The Flinstones.

I never paused as a child to wonder why a cartoon needed a laugh track. Clearly there was no studio audience. If the jokes are funny, shouldn’t we simply know when to laugh?

Actually, when CBS was getting ready to roll out Hogan’s Heroes in 1965, they did extensive testing of the pilot both with and without a laugh track, and audiences overwhelmingly preferred to hear the laughter. This might be because they were accustomed to comedies giving these cues, or it could be because we have an instinctive need to share laughter together in a group. Watching a play or a movie in a theatre provides this – watching a comedy in our underwear at home does not.

By the mid-60’s, live televised comedy was dead and almost every sitcom employed the single-camera technique. The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Lucy Show and a few others still slapped their goofiness in front of an audience, but that wasn’t practical with The Munsters, Bewitched or The Beverly Hillbillies. And when the laughs were needed, everyone called upon Charley Douglass and his magic Laff Box. He kept the thing in his garage and waited for the stream of producers to show up with tapes and instructions.

For shows like The Brady Bunch or The Andy Griffith Show, a laugh track was fairly practical and expected. But a laugh track insisted up on a forced pause, which slowed down the pace of even the sharpest comedy. While the laugh track seems inextricably bonded with the goofy early seasons of M*A*S*H, the greatest thing the DVD set ever did was allow the viewer the option of watching the show in the more natural, laugh-less state that creator Larry Gelbart had envisioned.

Tony Randall and Jack Klugman hated the laugh track. They had no studio audience for the first season of The Odd Couple, and the requisite pauses during filming felt jilted and arrhythmic. When the show moved to a live audience, they could treat each episode as a theatrical performance, which allowed for a more natural acting performance. Conversely, when the Monkees insisted on the laugh track getting yanked from their show, they wound up with dipped ratings and a swift cancellation.

By the early 70’s, Charley Douglass faced competition from a former protégé named Carroll Pratt. Carroll’s technology was more realistic and allowed for a greater dynamic, particularly when it came to quieter and more subdued laughter. Carroll moved onto Charley’s turf, adding to the audience guffaws for Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and the later, more dramatic seasons of M*A*S*H.

Charley’s business continued to thrive as the age of three-camera sitcommery took over, adding his laughs to the likes of Soap, Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Cheers. Perhaps the only hit show to remain true to its audience in that era was All In The Family, which taped before a live crowd and refused any laugh track sweetening in post-production.

HBO – which I refer to as the channel that saved television – forged ahead with hit comedies completely devoid of laugh cues in the 90’s, like Dream On and The Larry Sanders Show. It was the aesthetic of comedic film, imported to TV. In 2000, only one of the five comedies up for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy (Sex And The City) used no laugh track. In 2009, the only nominated show *with* a laugh track was How I Met Your Mother. The very feel of comedy has shifted. As an audience we have become accustomed to a faster pace, and to figuring out for ourselves what’s funny and what isn’t.

And so the recent spate of cue-less comedy juggernauts – Modern Family, The Simpsons, The Office, 30 Rock, South Park, Community, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Parks & Recreation, and Arrested Development – are most likely the beacons of a lasting trend, the eventual demise of show-prompted laughter. The Flintstones and the Jetsons are more antiquated than ever now, with literally every successful primetime cartoon forgoing cued laughter in favor of trusting its audience.

Have you seen those garbage shows on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel like The Suite Life of Zack & Cody or That’s So Raven that force laugh tracks in between their wretched interpretations of “comedy”? They aren’t kid-heavy laugh tracks either – they actually expect us to believe that grown humans are heaving forth chuckles at these terrible scripts.

I like a comedy that trusts me enough to laugh when I’m supposed to. Or one that trusts itself enough that its humor will be found.

Good riddance, Laff Box.

Day 712: Big Bucks… No Whammy… Ever!

originally published December 12, 2013

As a child raised within the warm glowing bosom of television, coming down with a cold had its advantages. A day off meant I’d have access to those glorious programs with the flickering lights, sonorous bells and adrenaline-drenched, screaming contestants. The game shows. Sale of the Century. Card Sharks. The Price Is Right. It was an opportunity to drink in the enthusiasm of strangers winning fabulous prizes. I loved it.

There was no game show that better served the entertainment-starved eyes of a mid-80’s child than Press Your Luck. There was a board with bouncing lights and tempting prizes, players would yell at the fates with the passion of true desperation, and when bad luck would fall, an adorable cartoon creature would worm his way onto the screen and sweep away their money. The Whammy. The contestants hated him, but he was the reason I watched.

Then one day, someone beat the system. A man figured out the guts of the show and changed everything. Meet Michael Larson.

Michael was, according to his own family, an odd man. He drove an ice cream truck in Lebanon, Ohio for at least ten summers, and worked as an air conditioning mechanic for the rest of the year. He had a common-law wife and three kids, but more importantly, he possessed an entrenched belief that he was savvy enough to earn a heap of cash, ideally through legally grey means. When a bank would offer $500 to each new customer, Michael would open an account, take the money, then close the account. He’d then open another under a different name. Michael was the kind of guy who liked to exploit the flaws in the world around him.

In case you don’t remember how Press Your Luck works, I’ll give you a quick refresher. Players answer questions to earn ‘spins’. Those spins are then used on the big board (pictured above), where squares light up seemingly at random. The player yells, “STOP!” (which I believe is merely an optional theatrical gesture) and slams on the button in front of them, and whichever square is lit up will provide a prize. If the Whammy is in that square, the player loses all the money they’d accrued throughout the game.

As random as it seems, each square on the board only offers three possibilities:

In addition to the pre-set trio of options for each square, the light indicator moved in one of five programmed patterns. Michael Larson watched episodes of the show frame by frame, learning the patterns, then figuring out how to identify which pattern was in play at full speed. His goal was to predict when the board would stop on one of two squares: the one on the top row just to the right of center, and the middle square on the right. Both offered only cash prizes, plus bonus spins. If he hit only those two squares, he could theoretically keep playing and spinning and racking up money as long as he’d like.

It cost Michael most of his savings, but he made his way to Hollywood to audition for the show. He was picked for the fifth episode to be taped that day, destined for a Friday airing in June of 1984. His competition would be Ed Long, a Baptist minister and the previous episode’s winner, and a dental assistant named Janie Litras.

Round one didn’t go so well. Michael’s extensive preparation didn’t help him answer questions, and though he finished the round with $2500, he was in third place.

Then came round two.

Michael’s play was erratic at first, and he wound up scoring a few prizes, like a sailboat and a trip to Kauai. Then he decided to stop toying with the game. Michael set his sights on those two squares and nailed them with deadly precision. The money built up and the audience went crazy. Paul Tomarken, the show’s host, was begging Michael to stop, lest he hit a Whammy and lose his $40,000… $50,000… $60,000… The audience got quieter and quieter the closer Michael got to $100,000.

After racking up over $102,000, he passed his remaining spins to Janie Litras. Janie’s first spin was a Whammy, and she promptly lost the $4,608 she’d won in round one.

After gaining back some money, Janie passed her remaining spins back to Michael, presumably hoping he’d hit a Whammy and lose it all – this was a common strategy in the game, to force the leading player to spin at least once more and risk it all. Sure enough, on his third spin, Michael made a mistake. Fortunately, that mistake netted him a trip to the Bahamas. He walked off the set $110,237 richer, mostly in cash.

Michael was not invited back for the next show; CBS had a rule in place that if any contestant won $25,000 on any of their game shows they could not return as next-day champs. But the network didn’t want to pay Michael – they knew that he’d cheated.

Or had he? Was it really cheating or simply an exercise in studious preparation? The board had been running with these pre-programmed patterns since the show began – there was nothing in the rulebook to disqualify Michael. They had to pay him.

Unfortunately, if there is an otherworldly dispenser of karma out there, he was paying attention to CBS that day. Larson invested a heap of his winnings in a real estate deal that turned out to be nothing but a Ponzi scheme. He was obsessed with rapid routes to riches more than ever before. He and his common-law wife went out to a party once, leaving between $40,000 and $50,000 cash in their home. They were robbed and the money was stolen. Michael accused his common-law wife of being in on the theft, and she promptly took off with his kids.

Diagnosed with throat cancer in 1994, Michael got involved with a scam to sell part of a foreign lottery. The Securities & Exchange Commission, along with the IRS and FBI came after him, and Michael was forced to go on the lam. The authorities never caught up with him until his death in 1999. The throat cancer got him.

As a result of Michael’s successful victory over the Press Your Luck game, the show’s producers were quick to revamp the system, programming the board with 32 patterns, and making it next to impossible for anyone to prepare the way Michael did. In fact, all game shows become more alert to holes in their operation after the Michael Larson affair.

It didn’t set Michael up for life, but it earned him a weird place in TV history. If only I’d been at home sick that day.

Day 707: Live From The Internet, It’s (All About) Saturday Night!

originally published December 7, 2013

Some topics are simply too large to fit into a thousand words. When Wikipedia’s magic Randombulator dumped me on the page for Saturday Night Live, I struggled with how to approach a thousand-word breakdown of a 39-season-long show that has somehow affected or entertained nearly everyone in the known universe (by which I mean people whom I have specifically asked).

Do I tell the story of the show’s origins? Run through its most controversial moments? Focus specifically on the work of Joe Piscopo, because why not?

In the end, there’s too much. I have one day to research and write this, so to hell with a flowing exposition or narrative structure. Here’s some stuff about that thing.

  • Actor George Coe, who presently appears as the voice of Woodhouse, the butler on Archer, was one of the original Not Ready For Prime-Time Players. He was only credited for the show’s first three episodes and for whatever reason he didn’t stick around.
  • NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer insisted that Chris Farley and Adam Sandler be fired from the show because he didn’t “get them.” He’s also the guy who ordered the firing of Norm McDonald. Ohlmeyer also gets credit for the weirdness of hiring Dennis Miller for a season of Monday Night Football. I’ll admit, I kind of liked Miller in the booth. But for the most part, fuck Don Ohlmeyer.
  • SNL contracts include a clause that allows NBC to plunk a cast member in their second year into a sitcom. The cast member can turn down the first two offers, but they must accept the third. I’m not sure if this has ever been enforced, but it seems decidedly creepy.
  • Original cast member Chevy Chase was banned from the show after a 1997 hosting gig that saw him verbally abuse the cast and crew. He is the only member of the “5-Timers Club” to have been banned.
  • Speaking of the Club… there are fifteen members. Only two are women (Candace Bergen and Drew Barrymore). Steve Martin hit his fifth hosting gig the quickest, over the span of one year and 181 days. It took Drew Barrymore over 24 years to land her fifth show. The only hosts to have been invited ten or more times are Buck Henry (10), John Goodman (12), Steve Martin (15) and Alec Baldwin (16).
  • In the first season, cast members were paid $750 per episode. Most recent numbers (from the late 90’s) start SNL newbies at $5000 per show, plus $1500 if a sketch they’d written gets on the air. Will Farrell was pulling in $350,000 per season at his peak (about $17k per show), and Tina Fey was cracking $1.5 million when she was both cast member and head writer.
  • Drew Barrymore was the show’s youngest host at age 7, and Betty White it’s oldest at 88. They had a fleet of younger performers from Tina Fey to Maya Rudolph on standby in case Betty wasn’t up to the task. Betty showed up in every damn sketch because Betty White is Betty White.
  • When Adrian Brody came out in fake dreadlocks and performed an impromptu 45-second ramble in a Jamaican accent before introducing (and mispronouncing) musical guest Sean Paul, he earned a lifetime ban from the show.
  • Original SNL bandleader Howard Shore has since won three Academy Awards, for his score (and original song) in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
  • The musician who has appeared the most often on the SNL stage? Dave Grohl, eleven times. I assume that includes his surprise appearance with Paul McCartney last year.
  • Cast member Nora Dunn refused to appear on the May 12, 1990 episode because the host, comedian Andrew Dice Clay, was known for his offensive and misogynist schtick. She was told not to show up for the season finale the following week, and her contract wasn’t renewed for the fall.
  • Sam Kinison had part of his 1986 stand-up set censored for the west coast feed because it contained a plea to legalize pot and a complaint as to its scarcity at the time. He said, “If you give us back the pot, we’ll forget about the crack!” I knew we were getting screwed, getting our broadcast from Spokane, Washington.
  • James Franco’s directorial debut was a 94-minute 2010 documentary that went behind the scenes and showed the creative process behind a 2008 episode that featured John Malkovich as the host. The project began as part of Franco’s film class at New York University.
  • John Belushi agreed to a cameo appearance during the 1981 Halloween episode, but only if punk band Fear was booked as the musical guest. The band had brought in a number of local punk rockers and skinheads, and proceeded to run up between $20,000 and $50,000 in damages as they slamdanced violently on stage.
  • The process of making the show includes pitch day (Monday), writing day (Tuesday), read-through day (Wednesday), rewrite day (Thursday), with rehearsals for some sketches not beginning until Friday. This is why so many sketches feature performers who are clearly reading off teleprompters or cue-cards beside the camera.
  • Saturday Night Live has been the name of the show since March 26, 1977. Before that it was known as NBC’s Saturday Night, because Howard Cosell hosted a sports show with the other name on ABC. Luckily, that show died young.
  • Mary Ellen Matthews – you’ve never heard of her, but if you’ve watched the show since 1999 you’re familiar with her work. She’s the photographer who brilliantly captures the hosts and musical guests during the bumpers around commercial breaks. She also directed the opening credits.
  • The February 10, 2001 episode was delayed for 45 minutes due to a lengthy XFL game. Due to the outrage that ensued, the rules of the league were actually changed to ensure this would not happen again. Then the league folded because it stunk.
  • Sinead O’Connor’s controversial tearing of Pope John Paul II’s photograph was a surprise to everyone in the booth. In rehearsal she had held up a photo of a refugee child.
  • Eleven films have been made from SNL sketches. Those that made money: Wayne’s World (both of them), The Blues Brothers, A Night At The Roxbury and Superstar. The biggest stinkers include Blues Brothers 2000 (budget: $28 million; box-office: $14 million), The Ladies Man (budget: $24 million; box-office $13.6 million), and Stuart Saves His Family (budget: $15 million; box-office: $912,000). The film It’s Pat doesn’t have a published budget, but it probably cost more than the $60,822 the movie brought in.

Saturday Night Live is currently in its 39th season. It has won 36 Emmy Awards, and slew of other accolades. The only individual Emmy winners have been Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner, but that’s because the show is a group effort. And so long as one of their self-re-inventions doesn’t tank completely, it’ll probably be on the air long after I’m gone.

Day 706: One-Thousand Word Rock!

originally published December 6, 2013

If someone were to stop me on the street (or some other such location where I’d be removed from easy access to my braintrust, the internet) and ask me how a Canadian bill becomes a law, I’d have no idea. I know we have a legislative branch, and that there are votes and dissent and people that thump their hands against table-tops. But the details of the process? No clue. And I work for the government.

But before you condemn me as one of the drooling ignorant, in my defense there has never been a catchy song written about how Parliament does its thing.

As a kid, there were scant few options for television programming, so when something animated was on we watched. And despite our base desire for pure entertainment, the educational stuff would seep in through the cracks.

On Sesame Street the learning was fairly obvious. Mr. Rogers was teaching us all sorts of valuable lessons, but we didn’t care because we liked his sweaters and puppets. But perhaps the catchiest and most fun show from my youth was the delightful School House Rock: 3-minute animated classroom lectures, set to music.

Oh, we also had the Log-Driver’s Waltz too. Got to give props to true Canadian learning.

Around the dawn of the 1970’s, David McCall was a huge name in advertising. He was half of the successful Madison Avenue firm McCaffrey & McCall, which pulled in over $40 million in billings every year. One day David noticed that his son was having trouble remembering his multiplication tables. The kid could spout off the lyrics to the entire Beatles’ White Album and remember inane pop music ramblings like “there ain’t no one for to give you no pain,” but when it came to math he was lost.

McCall came up with the idea to combine school lessons with rock music. He commissioned jazz pianist Bob Dorough to create “Three Is A Magic Number”, which was pressed as a children’s record. The tune was put to some catchy animation, and since David McCall already had the ear of ABC (they were McCaffrey & McCall’s biggest client), it was an easy pitch as a series. Michael Eisner, then the head of ABC’s children’s programming, snapped up School House Rock and suddenly we were all learning to a backbeat.

But let’s face it, when people reminisce about School House Rock, they aren’t getting wistful over “Verb: That’s What’s Happenin’” or “Suffrin’ ‘til Suffrage”. There was really only one lasting star from the series and his name was Bill.

“I’m Just A Bill” has been covered, parodied, and sung drunkenly at weird parties since its debut in 1975. If you haven’t seen it – wait, seriously, where have you been all these years? Get thee hence to the Youtubery – it’s the tale of how a bill becomes a law, as told from the perspective of the bill itself. The bill in the cartoon had to do with school buses stopping at railroad crossings. In the song, our little paper hero triumphantly becomes law. In reality, no such legislation has ever been approved by Congress.

Bill is the only character from the original series to make a second appearance, showing up at the tail end of “Tyrannosaurus Debt”. Of the 37 three-minute segments that ABC ran on full-cycle repeat throughout the 1970’s and early 80’s, “I’m Just A Bill” was the fan favorite, the star of the show. And that’s due in a large part to this guy:

That’s Jack Sheldon, pioneer trumpet player during the West Coast jazz movement of the 1950’s, collaborator with Art Pepper and Gerry Mulligan and the picture of pure cool. He also provided Bill’s voice in the cartoon. Jack had an impressive career, performing as Merv Griffin’s sidekick for a number of years and even landing his own sitcom, Run, Buddy, Run. It’s a wacky story about a guy who overhears a mafia boss plotting a murder and then goes on the run, because potential dismemberment and/or murder is always a romp.

Jack voiced the “Louie The Lightning Bug” public service shorts in the 80’s, and he also appeared in an Oscar-winning documentary about Chet Baker. As a testament to his cool, he played the magnificent saxophone heard all over Tom Waits’ Foreign Affairs album. Perhaps most impressively, Jack appeared as himself when both The Simpsons and Family Guy parodied “I’m Just A Bill.” Jack has a sense of humor.

A number of other notable names popped in to the School House. Jazz chanteuse and star of the supper clubs Blossom Dearie sang about adjectives. Hard bop drummer and the guy who worked the skins during Simon & Garfunkel’s Central Park concert, Grady Tate, taught us how to multiply by six. Lynn Ahrens, who won a Tony Award for writing Ragtime, gave us a lesson on interjections. Essra Mohawk, one-time member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, sang that one.

The Tokens, who topped the charts with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, sang a piece about gravity. Dave Frishberg, whose jazz tunes have been cut by Diana Krall, Rosemary Clooney, Shirley Horn and Mel Torme, wrote a handful of School House Rock tunes, including “I’m Just A Bill.” They didn’t aim to scoop any big-name artists for this gig, but they had a superlative team.

The legacy of School House Rock lives on, as savvy parents continue to show the shorts to their kids. And why shouldn’t they? They take ideas more complex and grown up than letters and numbers and work them into cute little cartoons. Kids eat up cartoons like candy. A live show has toured the continent, and a 1996 album featured fifteen covers of songs from the show by prominent artists. This was handy if you’d always hoped the singer from Blind Melon could put down the heroin for a moment and help you out with remembering the multiples of three.

VHS, LaserDisc, DVD… these cartoons have been out there for public consumption since the birth of the home video market. In 2009, Disney – who now owns the franchise, just as they own practically everything else – released eleven new shorts, gathering together much of the team who created the phenomenon 30 years earlier.

Dated as the music and animation may seem to our weary and cynical eyes, these cartoons really hold up. My daughter, who swam amid the filth and drek of modern children’s programming, loved these things. Also, she learned how a bill becomes a law in another country. That’s the kind of knowledge that lasts.

Day 703: Come Children, Let’s Gather ‘Round And Hate

originally published June 3, 2013

Sometimes I really hate humans.

What started out as a jocular journey through the goofiness of North Korean barbershop propaganda turned remarkably dark and sinister, and suddenly I was watching a dime-store Mickey Mouse knock-off get beaten to death by an Israeli interrogator. You know, for the kids.

Propaganda can cut through the truth like a lightsaber through a Hostess Ding-Dong. It’s a universal comfort to believe that such a thing as objective and impartial reality exists, and that we can access it via the people in charge. Alas, for many leaders of faith and flag the truth is but a 1.6mm flathead screwdriver in the tool-belt of public dissemination. Obfuscation, indoctrination and manipulation are in there too, and sometimes those tools see a lot more action.

I like to think of myself as a tolerant, compassionate, and when the light glistens just the right way on the beer froth clinging to my beard, a ruggedly handsome man. I pledge my allegiance to no specific religion, yet I wish them all the best with their vows and beliefs, so long as they don’t infringe upon my world. But fuck these guys. This is just evil.

Meet Farfur the Mouse. If your first thought is, “Hey, that looks a bit like Mickey; I wonder if Disney is pissed,” well you aren’t alone. Disney was pissed, but not just because someone crapped all over their trademarked character. No, Farfur is something decidedly more heinous than a copyright violation.

Farfur appeared on the Hamas-run Palestinian children’s show Tomorrow’s Pioneers. The program is sort of like Barney & Friends or Sesame Street if the focus was placed more on hatred of Americans and the righteous killing of Jews than on the letter ‘K’ and how many cookies Cookie Monster can shove in his gullet. This show marks the absolute rock-bottom of human depravity and puke-brewing lunacy on television. It makes Keeping Up With The Kardashians look like Shakespeare by comparison.

Saraa Barhoum is the show’s host, an affable-looking young Muslim woman who landed the gig after winning a singing contest. Saraa is the anchor for the show’s myriad of life lessons, like don’t cheat on school tests, remember to drink your milk, and the Jews will destroy your family because they’re Jews. I wish I was making this up. I wish there weren’t parents in the world so irresponsible and consumed by the vitriol their leaders have splashed in their faces since they themselves were infants that they’d allow their kids to feast on such a diet of death and negativity.

Much of the show is dedicated to a phone-in segment in which actual children aged 9-13 dial up Saraa or her hate-spewing rodent friend and discuss… I don’t know, Islamic supremacy and fashion and stuff. Rather than focus on the positives of their culture – which perhaps they do, at least for part of the broadcast – they instead dwell on brainwashing young minds into hating the world outside their culture. Here, if you haven’t recently dined on anything you’d rather not puke up, have a look at a clip from season 1 of the show.

That’s a still from the above clip. It shows Farfur as he is murdered by an Israeli interrogator. Yes, the twist in the final episode of season one was that Farfur becomes a martyr for his cause. A bit of a far cry from when Mr. Hooper died on Sesame Street and kids were taught about grief, love and finding strength in sharing a painful experience with friends and family.

Farfur lasted five episodes, from April to June of 2007. He was replaced by Nahoul, his bumblebee cousin. Nahoul made it through six shows before he fell ill, but was unable to travel to Egypt for an operation because of (spoiler!) the Jews. He died and was replaced by this delightful character, a bunny named Assoud.

Yep. This is the state of religious extremism in our world today, and the filthy assholes in charge – whether it be Hamas, the Westboro “Christians”, or the militant, Arab-hating Jews – know that the only way they can keep the hatred flowing like bitter nectar is to cram it as fact into young minds. Logic and reason won’t work. Snagging young people after they’d had a chance to think for themselves and evaluate the state of the world won’t do the trick.

Israel and America – not to mention the people at Disney – have naturally spoken out against Tomorrow’s Pioneers. Many prominent Arab and Palestinian voices have as well, because this show is not a question of right and wrong, morality, religion or interpretation of faith. This is about smearing the purity of children’s minds with hate. If the foundations of your cause are so flimsy and dependent on brainwashing the weak and indefensible, then maybe you need to re-evaluate how you’re spending your time and spiritual energy. You live in a world where there’s beer. And key lime pie. And five tremendously entertaining seasons of The Wire. Maybe lay off the hate for a while and enjoy some of the magnificence of life.

Oh, and Assoud the Jew-eating bunny dies at the end of season three. So there you go kids – drink up the death and bring your scowl and sorrow to sweeps month.

Here’s the article I was going to write, back when I thought propaganda TV was going to be a fun topic. It’s a North Korean show called Let’s Trim Our Hair In Accordance With The Socialist Lifestyle, and it’s about… well, they don’t exactly bury the lead on this one. The lesson of the show is that hair length can affect human intelligence, and that a man who allows his locks to creep beyond 5cm in length (that’s two inches) cannot possibly be expected to perform his societal duties properly.

This was not a one-off special. The producers would set up hidden cameras in Pyongyang to catch scruffy slobs, then they’d interview them in regards to their lifestyle choice. It was decided that 7cm hair was acceptable if a man was old enough and attempting to cover up baldness.

You see? I started out my research with a laugh this morning, only to spiral down the funnel of darkness and hate that inevitably forms when people begin to take themselves too seriously. Sometimes it’s really hard not to hate humans, given what we’re capable of doing to one another.