Category Archives: Pop Culture

The Holy Bee Recommends, #14: “Sinatra: The Chairman” (and to a lesser extent, “Frank: The Voice”) by James Kaplan

“Frank Sinatra saved my life once. I was jumped by a bunch of guys in a parking lot. They were beating me with blackjacks. Sinatra said, ‘Okay, boys, that’s enough…'”                                                                                  –Shecky Greene

I have never been a huge fan of Frank Sinatra, but I certainly can’t deny he was one of the foremost musical artists of the 20th century. (I’m not a fan of ballet or musical theater either, but would never deny the skill and talent required to do them well.) I’ve tried to get into Sinatra, but for all the praise heaped on him for his “phenomenal phrasing” and his way of “living the emotion of a lyric,” my rock-raised ears can’t get around the fact that everything he’s done now sounds dated and hokey. It’s grandfather music. Or nowadays, great-grandfather music. It’s polite. Which makes it all the more wonder that it comes from perhaps one of the most impolite human beings that ever existed. Sinatra may have hated rock — and he did, with all the passion his passionate nature could muster — but in personality and demeanor, he was first rock star, maybe even the first punk (although to someone of Sinatra’s generation, “punk” was a grievous insult.)

The post-1954 Frank Sinatra as depicted by James Kaplan (and many others) is, more often than not, a generally unpleasant person. Thoughtless, hyper-sensitive, and supremely self-centered at the best of times, he often melted down into rages that were literally toddler-like: screaming, throwing things, breaking things, hitting people — because he didn’t get his way on some minor matter. When asked why those close to him tolerated it, they usually said something about his formidable charm and bottomless generosity when his mood was lighter…and of course that talent, and “that voice.” But for a reader like myself who isn’t a particular fan of “that voice,” his behavior is inexcusable. His story, however, is fascinating…

Sinatra: The Chairman is the just-published second of a two-volume biography by Kaplan, but the first, Frank: The Voice (2010), feels like nothing more than an extended prologue, chronicling the singer’s early years in Hoboken (as an indulged only child of a lower-middle class family, not the tough street gangster he claimed to be), his rise to fame as a skinny, bow-tied “crooner” singing with the big bands in the 1940s, and finally his temporary plunge into semi-obscurity. (Peter Guralnick’s two-volume Elvis Presley biography has the opposite issue; the first volume, Last Train To Memphis, is riveting, and the second, Careless Love, feels like a perfunctory denouement.)

Kaplan’s first volume lingers for its entire final third on those wilderness years of 1950-53 — dumped by Columbia Records and MGM, Sinatra limped through hosting a short-lived, low-rated variety show on CBS, sang to half-filled halls, and clung to fame primarily through his rocky marriage to rising star Ava Gardner. Frank: The Voice ends in early 1954 on a note of triumph — it’s Oscar night and Sinatra has just won Best Supporting Actor for From Here To Eternity (he had begged for the role when no one wanted to hire him.) The ink has just dried on his contract with Capitol Records, where his newly-matured voice and partnership with a number of gifted arrangers (Nelson Riddle foremost among them) put him at the forefront of American popular music.

This is where Sinatra: The Chairman begins, and rewards the reader for making the slog through Frank: The Voice. This is where we get the Sinatra we want to hear about — the Mafia ties, the brawls, the womanizing, the Rat Pack, the iconic Capitol albums, the dabbling in Kennedy-era politics…Kaplan does not disappoint. When I call the first volume a slog, that’s not a knock on Kaplan’s writing. In both books it’s wonderful, almost novelistic prose. What I mean is Sinatra’s early years, personally and professionally, are his least interesting. 1954 and beyond is where the real meat is.

Kaplan weaves Sinatra’s story in and out of a larger cultural picture. Like the first volume, a generous portion of Sinatra: The Chairman focuses on a few key years, in this case, 1960 to 1963, when Sinatra parked himself at an exciting and somewhat dangerous intersection of entertainment, organized crime (he was friends with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana), and politics (he lobbied hard for JFK in the 1960 presidential campaign, and even partied with the Massachusetts senator several times early on, before Kennedy wisely began distancing himself.) Kaplan explains and intercuts all of these meticulously-researched threads without ever losing momentum, with a keen eye for the details he knows we want, and never becoming salacious or losing his academic tone. As we move through the 1960s, Kaplan also begins intercutting Sinatra’s story with the rise of the Beatles (by implication declaring them the other great musical phenomenon of the 20th century), and the rapidly-changing face of popular music in that decade. The sands once again shift beneath Sinatra’s feet as he ages out of any real relevance everywhere but Vegas showrooms and the cocktail parties of old Palm Springs millionaires. (Admittedly, it’s pretty cool that the marquees in Vegas would simply say “HE’S HERE” with no further information needed.)

Biographies sometimes find it difficult to strike a balance between telling the story of a life, and examining the work that life produced. They often either dwell on their subject’s psyche, or read like a chronological resume of projects. Kaplan does an excellent job interspersing Sinatra’s films and recordings into the overall picture, giving a good impression of what clicked and what didn’t, both with the artist himself (Sinatra did not care much for “Strangers In The Night,” and absolutely hated “My Way”), and with the public that paid for the results. Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Film & TV, Music -- 1950s & Before, Music -- 1960s, Pop Culture, The Holy Bee Recommends

The Holy Bee’s 2015 Halloween Special: 24 Hours of Halloween (Part 2)

10:00 — 11:35: Halloween

large_vjoOFOTBJcJvA1weJejlZ92LZD4The Holy Bee has already dedicated a “Halloween Special” post to his ill-advised, but ultimately successful, attempt to watch all eight original Halloween films in a row. I’m pretty sure we need only bother with the first one here, 1978’s Halloween, directed, co-written, and scored by John Carpenter. That three-note synth riff has become synonymous with slasher films, and almost as well known as the Jaws theme. Film historians have had a long-running debate about what constitutes a true “slasher” film, or what the first one was. Whether or not Halloween was the first slasher film, it certainly put all the tropes together in a stylish way, and more importantly, it was a pretty solid commercial success.

Success breeds imitators, and wherever Halloween’s place is in the origin of the genre, it opened the floodgates to the Golden Age of Slashers. Halloween’s superhuman, knife-wielding killer Michael Myers established a formula followed by at least two other slasher film series of the 1980s, beginning with Friday the 13th (1980) and its Jason Voorhees, and A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) and its Freddy Krueger. There were also dozens of others of lesser repute, and those usually sprouted a franchise of their own since they were so damn inexpensive to produce.

halloween-michael-myers

Unlike its later knock-offs, Halloween is almost Hitchcockian, pretty much bloodless, and except for a few flashes of nudity, could probably play uncut on network television. Carpenter’s film succeeds on camera work and atmosphere, which cannot be said for the others, and cannot even be said for subsequent Halloween films, which were in the hands of lesser talents than Carpenter.

11:35 — 12:00: NewsRadio (Season 3, Episode 5: “Halloween”)

NewsRadio was one of the most underrated shows of the 90s, and was one of the of the last great three-camera, live-audience sitcoms. (And before anyone says anything about Big Bang Theory or something like that, remember I said “great”.) Its best moments were in the same league as Taxi or Cheers, although it lacked those shows’ richness. I suppose it was more comparable to Night Court when it was at its mid-run peak, if anyone remembers that. Almost a television version of a comic strip. The ensemble cast boasts two genuine comedy geniuses (Dave Foley and the late Phil Hartman), future Serious Actress (Maura Tierney) before she became a fixture on E.R., and two future nutcases (Andy Dick and Joe Rogan) before they went barking mad. 51lg6TV3jUL._SX940_

The show’s real treasure, though, was Stephen Root as the eccentric billionaire who owns the radio station, and in this episode refuses to invite the staff to his annual Halloween party. When asked why, he mentions that at his last Halloween party, the staff were, as he puts it, “too cool for school,” refusing to wear costumes and participate in the party games. He relents after they beg him to reconsider, leading to the show’s payoff — After frantically trying to think of a costume idea, in desperation Dave Foley asks to borrow Maura Tierney’s new cocktail dress, which leads to Foley revisiting his Kids In The Hall days and appearing in full drag…and looking quite fetching, actually. Tierney is in a  mysterious foul mood for the remainder of the episode. When Foley finally asks why she is sulking, she explodes “Because you look better in my dress than I do!”

tumblr_mbbrqrYISt1qi972uo1_540

12:00 — 1:25: The Monster Squad

A flop upon release, The Monster Squad (1987) has developed a dedicated cult following over the past couple of decades, despite the fact it was a pretty obvious attempt to recreate The Goonies, right down to the slightly older tough kid and the token fat kid (simply referred to throughout the film as “Fat Kid.”) However, The Monster Squad has its own charms, not least the inclusion of the full gamut of classic movie monsters.

monster_squadThrough a series of convoluted circumstances, Count Dracula and cohorts are very real, very alive (or at least very undead), and wreaking havoc on a quiet 1980s suburban neighborhood. The only ones to take the threat seriously are Sean and Patrick, a pair of earnest, slightly nerdy middle schoolers who have a “monster club” in a treehouse right out of an Our Gang short. They are happy to be joined by the super cool older delinquent Rudy, though it’s for less than wholesome purposes. (The treehouse has an unobstructed view of Patrick’s older sister’s bedroom. And you know Rudy’s a delinquent because he wears shades and a leather jacket and chews a matchstick.) The club’s activities are usually restricted to drawing pictures and writing stories, but when people begin turning up dead, they piece together the clues, arm themselves with stakes and silver, and go into battle.

1412162321458020132

Despite, or because of, all its juvenile silliness (including its now-classic line from Fat Kid: “Wolfman’s got nards!” after he delivers a solid kick to the werewolf’s nether regions), there is a lot to enjoy here, including a fully committed performance by Duncan Regehr as Count Dracula, a poignant subplot about a Holocaust survivor, and a series of crowd-pleasing moments as it heads for its climax. My personal favorite is when the cynical, condescending non-believer Rudy unexpectedly steps up and blasts a stake through the heart of a hissing vampire to the open-mouthed amazement of everyone. (“What? I’m in the goddamn club, aren’t I?”) Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Film & TV, Pop Culture

The Holy Bee’s 2015 Halloween Special: 24 Hours of Halloween (Part 1)

Halloween falls on a Saturday this year. As far as the Holy Bee is concerned, every Halloween should be on a Saturday. (A dark, rainy Saturday, preferably. Not one of the sunlit 80-degree days that so often characterize late October here in the central valley of California. The last Halloween that combined Saturday and the requisite gloom was 1998, and it was mostly wasted by me working the afternoon shift down at the old movie theater. At least we were showing Bride of Chucky…)

Especially since I’ve had a grown-up, Monday through Friday type of job, Saturday Halloweens have retained their special cachet, and now another is upon us.

Halloween1

Given the choice between doing something and not doing something, the Holy Bee would tend to choose the latter course every time. I’ve often said to my sons (who share this philosophy) that our family crest should contain the Latin motto Utinam Non Magis (“I’d Rather Not”), along the lines of Bartleby the Scrivener. Combining a Saturday Halloween with nothing to do? Perfect. That’s when you dive into a Halloween-themed marathon on a local channel or deep cable. These are always a great idea, but they often come up short in terms of variety. How much variety can one put into a Halloween-themed marathon? Plenty.

Though I’m not quite Walter Mitty level, I do tend to daydream, usually when driving at high speeds, or when important people are talking to me about a topic I’m not interested in (which is most of them). So not long ago, I began thinking about how I would program a Halloween marathon on my very own TV station (“KHBE”).

Imagine yourself, Gentle Reader, as the inhabitant of a better world where51NyVCq3RyL KHBE actually exists, and is airing a “24 Hours of Halloween” marathon from midnight to midnight. You would get home from work around five-ish on Friday the 30th (maybe having slipped out a little early), toss your keys on the counter, flip through the mail, perhaps fix a snack, and then pop an Ambien and get right into bed and get some sleep! Set your alarm for 11:55 pm.

I hope you’ve stocked your larder and have the number of a good pizza delivery place, because you won’t be leaving the house any time soon. Cut through some of that post-Ambien grogginess with a quick Instant Pumpkin Spice Latte, and fire up your TV. What will you see? Not commercials, that’s for damn sure. The Holy Bee has scheduled this marathon tightly. No time for ads.

There will be a few minutes of downtime here and there to keep things starting 52 Coors Light Elvira Store Displayon the 0s and 5s. I have decreed that this time will be filled by everyone’s favorite wise-cracking horror hostess, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. I don’t care if she’s now 64 — enough make-up, candlelight, and soft focus will transport her back to how she looked on that Coors Light cardboard standee (left) that greeted millions of 7-11 customers during any given October in the 1980s, and may have contributed to the onset of puberty for the younger ones. (Her self-titled 1988 movie did not make the cut for the marathon because I needed her for hosting duties, and did not want to make 24 Hours of Halloween top-heavy? overstuffed? with Elvira.)

662a2e96162905620397b19c9d249781_567x210 Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under Film & TV, Pop Culture

“The All-New Holy Bee/Pointless Nostalgia Adventure Hour”: My Typical Saturday Morning in the Early 80s (Part 2)

As The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show rolled on through the morning, the focus of the program switched to the Road Runner for the second half or final third, introduced by its own memorable theme — “Road Runner, the Coyote’s after you/Road Runner, if he catches you, you’re through…” Unfortunately, the quality of the Road Runner’s portion of the show was somewhat compromised…

wile e coyotes

You see, Warner Brothers continued to release theatrical shorts longer than the other studios, but they farmed out the actual work to smaller companies. DePatie-Freleng Enterprises (co-owned by former WB director Friz Freleng) made the shorts from 1964 to 1967, resulting in a much-altered animation style (not quite “limited,” but close). The WB/DFE partnership did some Road Runner films, but focused mostly on a series of Daffy Duck vs. Speedy Gonzalez shorts (the less said about which the better). Format Films handled the final batch of Road Runner shorts, which were even worse than the Daffy/Speedy stuff. These late-period embarrassments turned up again and again on The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, but can’t hold a candle to the ones originally produced from ‘49 to ‘63, which also turned up on BB/RR. Even a six-year-old could tell the difference.

Sometimes during one of the Format Road Runner shorts (there were eleven of them, and at least two were shown every damn week), I would turn the dial back to ABC, and frequently encounter The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang, another entry in the trend of turning a prime-time family show into a Saturday morning kids’ cartoon. Before my time, there had already been Saturday morning versions of Star Trek, The Addams Family, Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, Emergency!, Lassie, My Favorite Martian, and possibly I Dream of Jeannie (the adaptation was pretty loose.)

Fonz_and_Happy_Days_Gang

The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang bridged that era with the 80s, which brought us animated versions of The Dukes of Hazzard, Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, Punky Brewster, ALF, and more Gilligan.

The premise for a lot of these shows was the same: take a few of the original TV cast, dump them into a crazy new setting, and add a few new “cartoon-only” characters, preferably some kind of cute mascot or talking animal. To wit: Fonz, Richie Cunningham, and Ralph Malph are caught in a malfunctioning time machine and bounce through history accompanied by a comic-relief dog named Mr. Cool and a “future girl” named Cupcake. (Second example: Laverne and Shirley are in the army and their drill sergeant is a pig named Squealer.)

Almost without exception, these spin-off cartoons managed to get most of the original cast to do the voices. I imagine Donny Most probably wasn’t too difficult to convince, but Ron Howard had already directed two TV movies, one feature film and was planning his second (Night Shift), and had left the actual prime-time version of Happy Days. Still, the work couldn’t have been too demanding. Howard could probably knock back a Scotch and polish off his lines for all 24 episodes in an afternoon, with one eye on the clock so he could get to the bank before it closed.

(Those 24 episodes were padded out for almost two years — first in the usual re-runs, then re-packaged with other shows, in true Saturday Morning style, as the rather desperate-sounding Mork & Mindy/Laverne & Shirley/Fonz Hour.)

222_65_ucpAt some point during The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, it would be time for breakfast. With a laborious lugging about of the kitchen stool, I assembled the disparate parts that would come together to form my perfect meal — a bowl of cereal. I took my cereal very seriously. Every other Saturday or Sunday afternoon, Mom would do the grocery shopping, and I would accompany her to make sure the cereal acquisition was handled by me personally. Mom had grocery shopping down to a science: her trip through the aisles took exactly sixty minutes. I had that amount of time to pick out my cereals for the next two weeks. I had to get one “healthy” cerealbox291 (Grape Nuts, Cheerios, Chex, etc.) to offset the effects of the two others I was allowed, which were always powerfully sugared. I liked the healthy ones just as well, because I would simply add my own sugar to taste, usually to the point it would leave a viscous sludge on the bottom of the bowl. Mom would often threaten that I would “get worms” if I continued to eat that much raw sugar, the horrific threat of which might be effective on less-savvy six-year-olds, but I waved it off like the old wives’ tale it was. (To this day, I am worm-free.)

So I stood in the cereal aisle in the dead center of Woodland’s Nugget Market (the original!) for an hour, making my decisions. When Mom passed down that aisle, I knew I was at half-time. Would I go home with a product from Post, Kellogg’s, or General Mills? Would it be Pops? Loops? Pebbles? Jacks? I avoided the Smacks — the puffed wheat cereal looked like a bowl of dead locusts, and I didn’t care how cool Dig ‘Em the Frog dressed, I didn’t want a slimy amphibian on my cereal box. Something from the Crunch family, perhaps? The good Cap’n’s original version would tear the roof of your mouth vanilla-cookie-crisp-boxto hell, and leave a strange film, but Peanut Butter Crunch was smooth as silk. (I’ve often wondered if Cap’n Crunch’s eyebrows were floating above his eyes, or simply painted on his hat.) And speaking of unpleasant mouth feel, Grape Nuts was tantamount to eating a bowl of garden-path gravel, but it had a peculiar charm and its slightly-smaller box often graced our shelf. If I was feeling particularly jaunty, I would select Cookie Crisp, which many hand-wringing nutritionists felt was truly the end of civilization. I preferred the long-discontinued Vanilla Wafer Cookie Crisp (in the blue box).

Around this time, at least one of the choices was almost automatic — Waffelos,waffelos my hands-down favorite cereal. They tasted exactly like waffles with maple syrup. They came in regular or blueberry, had a mustachioed cowboy mascot on the box, and best of all, my sister didn’t like them, so the whole box was mine! (If you go to the Mr. Breakfast website comment page — and who wouldn’t? — and read the comments for Waffelos, one of the first remarks you’ll see is “This stuff was like crack!”) The Waffelos cowboy rode off into the sunset before the 80s were half-over, and we’ll never see his like again. (Post introduced some bullshit called “Waffle Crisp” in 1996, but it is a pale imitation.)

Brimming bowl of cereal in (two) hand(s), I carefully baby-stepped my way back from the kitchen to the TV tray I had hopefully remembered to set up ahead of time… Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Film & TV, Pop Culture

Who Needs Friends When You Have “Super Friends”?: My Typical Saturday Morning in the Early 80s (Part 1)

It is about 7:45 on a Saturday morning, sometime late in 1980, or perhaps early in 1981…

We have gained a new president, lost a Beatle, and the whole country has just learned who shot J.R…

None of this matters to me, of course. I am six. The winter sun has begun to peek through the cracks in my Empire Strikes Back curtains. I am tucked under my Empire Strikes Back comforter. I hear the furnace kick on in the basement. I hear the back door in the kitchen open and close as my dad leaves for work. He runs an auto body shop, and his sole employee is himself, so six-day work weeks are a necessity. Mom works the graveyard shift as a police dispatcher, and arrives home not long before I wake up. She will remain sleeping until noon or so. My sister will also remain sleeping until noon or so, by virtue of the fact she is a fourteen-year-old girl.

The house is mine, and it is the best time of the week — it is Saturday Morning.

As warmth fills the house via the heating grates, I slip out of bed. I am clad solely in my briefs. I’ve always hated the sweaty, tangled mess of pajamas, twisting around my torso and riding up my shins. I usually only wear them on Christmas Eve, so I can appear decent in Christmas morning photos. There’s still enough chill in the air to raise goosebumps, so I make sure I wrap my security blanket tight around me, like a chrysalis or vampire’s cape. This blanket has been with me since the crib, and has seen better days. It is basic, thermal-style cloth (like long underwear) and was once vivid yellow, but has faded to a hue best described as “old buttermilk.” The satin edging it was manufactured with is not even a memory at this point. I already feel a little too old for such nonsense, but I confess it stays within reach for at least another few years.

underoosIf I’m lucky, one of my three pairs of Underoos briefs would be among the laundered options in my top drawer. Not only did they come in bold superhero colors, they were much softer than my standard tighty-whiteys, mellowing their cotton with a little polyester. I barely considered Underoos underwear — they were a costume, and, on a warm day, perfectly acceptable as outerwear, at least as far as the yard.

SCN_0004

Tom Kitty

Scantily-clad and wrapped in my shawl, I creep downstairs. There is one possible obstacle on the landing between the two sets of stairs. Ninety percent of the time, our housecat Tom Kitty is an amenable, purring charmer, on the hunt for a lap to knead and a hand to lick. But every once in awhile, he would get in a “mood.” Sprawled on his side, tail twitching, pupils dilated to the max, he would park himself in some family pathway and challenge everyone to dare try and pass fifteen pounds of feline moodiness. Everyone else stepped over him with little consequence. I was his favorite victim. He would literally nod at me, raising his furry chin in a menacing “‘sup, bro?” gesture. I could either sprint past him and hope to outrun him (he would give chase), or try to cause a diversion, frequently by sacrificing my blanket — tossing it over his head would buy me a few seconds. The downside was that I would sooner or later have to retrieve the blanket, and also the fact that Tom had a long memory for slights. “Payback’s A Bitch” might as well have been embroidered on his collar.

SCN_0016 (2)

The old Zenith…

Happily, most of the time he either wasn’t on the landing, or was in an agreeable temper, so my journey to the couch and TV was unimpeded. The TV was a Zenith cabinet model, half home entertainment, half furniture, with its controls hidden on the right-hand side by a little louvered door, and fake drawers under the screen.  I pull the on-off knob. If I’m a little too early, it’s still showing “Farm Report,” but usually I’m right on time. I feather my couch nest with yet another blanket — a much bigger blue tartan number with fringed edges that lives under our end table. There is no remote. Channel changing must be done on the dial. (Just like my descent from the bedroom, this process can also be complicated by the presence of a moody feline.) If it’s warm enough, I might not bundle myself on the couch, but rather drape myself over a barrel-like hassock footstool that I’ve turned on its side, and rock back and forth like a patient in an experimental chiropractic treatment.

What draws me out of bed so early on a non-school day? The same lure that is reeling in millions of children across the country at this precise moment – Saturday-morning cartoons.

533900766_17af94f2e2_o

Long ago, cartoons were denizens of the cinema screen, and the major studios had massive animation departments creating the shorts that would run ahead of the feature films. Each studio had its stable of characters — MGM had Woody Woodpecker, Tom & Jerry, and Chilly-Willy, Paramount had Popeye, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Baby Huey, and Little Audrey, and the twin kings of cinematic animation, Disney and Warner Brothers, had the most iconic characters of all, of whose names I’m sure I need not remind you.

Television arrived for most households in the early 1950s, and immediately began cutting into the movie studios’ profits as more people got their entertainment at home. One by one, the studios shut down their animation departments as a cost-cutting measure. At the same time, animation was still pretty scarce on early television. Kids’ shows tended to be live-action (eg. Howdy Doody, or The Mickey Mouse Club.) What was a cartoon-loving kid to do?

Hanna_Barbera_Logo

Luckily, along came two former MGM animators — Joseph Hanna and William Barbera. Out of a job when MGM closed their animation department, they formed their own production house with the revolutionary idea of producing quick, low-cost animation directly for television. After a few false starts, Hanna-Barbera hit it big with The Huckleberry Hound Show in 1958, and pioneered theHuckhound use of “limited animation.” Limited animation uses less-detailed backgrounds, fewer “in-between” drawings between key frames, recycles many elements, and has a lot more “holds,” where characters don’t move at all. Huckleberry Hound and his ancillary characters and spin-offs (Yogi Bear, etc.) were originally developed as packages for weekday syndication on independent local stations, and usually aired sometime after the evening news and before prime-time. Hanna-Barbera’s rival, Jay Ward Productions, actually scored a network deal with ABC for Rocky & Bullwinkle in 1959. There was even a brief period when a flurry of animated shows were developed for prime-time evening viewing, culminating in six seasons of The Flintstones.

8896283_f260Then around 1960, it dawned on the networks and station owners that Saturday morning was a programming wasteland — the perfect place to air a block of kid-centric shows, and much more importantly, kid-centric advertising. The post-WWII economy reveled in conspicuous consumption, and for the first time, the average joe could afford to buy useless crap for his kids. All manner of snacks, candy, toys, and games were hawked to eager young eyeballs. But mostly cereal. Cereal commercials followed each other like a sugar-coated freight train hour after hour. Saturday Morning basically created the brightly-colored, pre-sweetened substance that us kids knew as “cereal,” a development which would certainly send old John Harvey Kellogg into quite a grave-spin. As we’ll see, the commercials were just as big a part of the Saturday Morning experience as the programs.

Depatie-freleng1970

And the programs were for the most part cartoons. Hanna-Barbera and Jay Ward blazed the trail, and other low-cost animation studios followed suit. DePatie-Freleng and Filmation were both churning out material by 1963. (Think Hanna-Barbera animation was low-rent? Compare it to the dirt-cheap house style of Filmation. I recall an old Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin’s dad lambasted the quality of the cartoons Calvin was watching. “They don’t move! They just stand there and blink!” — he was almost certainly watching a Filmation production.) The major movie studios probably believed their old animated shorts were fated to collect dust in the archives, and were delighted to squeeze a few more bucks out of them by selling them to TV at bargain basement prices. (Except Disney — Disney guarded its vaults like a she-bear, which is why you would see nary a feather on Donald’s ass on Saturday mornings.) The fad for prime-time animation died out (at least until The Simpsons), making those shows ripe for plundering. All in all, tons of animated material, new and old, was now available to fill hours of airtime at a much lower cost than live action. Pixie, Dixie, and Mr. Jinks were never going to demand a salary increase or a contract re-negotiation.

Filmation83

Animation in other time slots of the broadcast week dried up, giving Saturday Morning its special cachet. For much of the 70s, Saturday morning was about the only place you could see a decent amount of cartoons on TV. By the time I reached TV-viewing age, things had loosened up. Thanks to a greater number of independent channels on the dial, and the birth of cable, by 1980 there were after-school cartoons, before-school cartoons, and hell, for an hour or two there were even Sunday-morning cartoons. (There was some Dutch/Canadian monstrosity called Dr. Snuggles, and the Pink Panther always seemed to turn up on Sunday mornings on Channel 31.)

But all of that was bush league compared to the hold Saturday Morning held over the average pre-teen viewer. Something about the melange of old Warner Brothers animation, new “limited animation” works by H-B and Filmation, the bright, loud commercials, and the token attempts to educate between all of it held a special kind of magic. Continue reading

5 Comments

Filed under Film & TV, Pop Culture

The Best & Worst of the Solo Pythons, Part 3: Terry Jones

Terry_JonesI had originally intended to move through the solo Pythons in strict alphabetical order, just as they are listed in the credits of their TV episodes and movies (always reading “Monty Python’s [Insert Project Title] was conceived, written, and performed by…”), but I was bursting with so many things to say about TERRY JONES, I leap-frogged right to him.

A great ensemble means that no one member is more or less important than any other, but I really do feel that it’s Jones who makes Python Python. He was an early champion of the idea of moving the TV episodes along through a “stream of consciousness,” not allowing conventional sketch-show structure to dictate how the thirty minutes of TV comedy unfolded. This concept was greatly aided by the animations of Terry Gilliam (we’ll be getting to him next), and Jones and Gilliam can be credited with contributing the most to Monty Python’s Flying Circus’s unique look.

The look…that’s actually what first hooked me when I saw my first episode as a middle-schooler on “late night” PBS. Like absolutely nothing on American TV at the time…A surreal visual appeal that augmented and fed into all the absurdity. Much of it was due to how BBC programs shot things in those days — everything in the studio was done on videotape, and everything outside the studio was done on film.

And “outside the studio” could be anywhere. It was sometimes simply the residential west London streets just outside BBC Television Centre, but they frequently trotted off to the coolest-looking spots in the British Isles — windswept highlands and rugged coasts — to get 5313917369_600full_terry_jones_answer_5_xlargetheir filmed segments. Jones more than anyone favored and pushed for this policy. (It became a running inside joke among the Pythons that all of the sketches Jones wrote opened with “Slow pan across Yorkshire moor…mist swirls, music plays…a lone figure emerges…”) Filming these parts of each episode outside the confines of the studio was where Jones first began making his mark. He admitted to constantly pestering the credited director, Ian MacNaughton. “I was always saying, ‘Shouldn’t we put the camera over there, Ian?’” He also cops to backseat driver-ing the editing process, succeeding in getting the editors to put in a full workday on an episode, rather than the couple of hours they were used to. Getting a clock-watching BBC technical crew to listen to his dictates proves his reputation for being willful and tenacious (he credits it to his Welsh blood) was well-earned, and it’s why Python’s TV show looked far better than anyone else’s at the time.

Jones wrote most of his Python material in collaboration with Michael Palin, and their stuff tended to be longer, more conceptual, and more visual than the Cleese/Chapman sketches, which were more traditional and verbal. (It was the blend, of course, that made Python great.) In many ways, the raw, earthy Jones existed at the opposite end of the comedy spectrum from the coolly cerebral Cleese, which led to many spirited “discussions” at Python writing meetings. “I only threw a chair at John once,” Jones has said.

From a performance standpoint, Jones was the utility player. He was a great straight man when the situation called for it (“Nudge, Nudge”), and was often the put-upon Everyman, the straight-laced “city gent,” or his true specialty — the screeching, middle-aged ratbag housewife the Pythons called a “Pepperpot.” All of the Pythons played Pepperpots at one point or another, but Jones perfected them.

When the Pythons branched into film, it was only natural that the two “visual” Pythons, Jones and Gilliam, co-direct Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Gilliam found that trying to direct five mouthy, prickly, opinionated teammates full of their own ideas was more than his patience could bear, and the two subsequent Python films, The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life were directed — quite happily — by Jones solo. And either through his own inclinations, or because the rest of the Pythons just thought it was funny, Jones managed to be nude on-camera a lot more than the others (including his iconic Nude Organist, which opened every third-season episode).

In all areas, Jones was absolutely essential to Monty Python as we know it. He was the glue, the heart. Yet he remains less well-known than all of the others, especially here in the U.S. (Sharing a name with a batshit-crazy fundamentalist preacher who made the news a few years back probably doesn’t help.) It all seemed so unfair that it caused me to create the very first Terry Jones fan website in 1996, on good ol’ GeoCities.

Film director. Historian. Children’s author. Opera librettist. Political journalist, even. Terry Jones, left to his own devices, covers a lot of ground. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Film & TV, Pop Culture

The Best & Worst of the Solo Pythons, Part 2: John Cleese

john_cleese-761027JOHN CLEESE was actually famous before Python, as a cast member for the very well-regarded series of comedy/satire programs starring David Frost in the mid-’60s. (5/6ths of the future Pythons wrote for Frost, but Cleese was the only on-camera personality among them.) His popularity was what caused the BBC to offer him his own show, which ultimately became Monty Python’s Flying Circus (with Cleese desiring to simply be part of the ensemble, refusing star billing, to the BBC’s confusion and disappointment.)

Then he was the first person to grow tired of Python, at least in its television incarnation, and did not participate in the final season of the show in 1974. Some members of the group were a little resentful, feeling that due to his fame and recognizability, he had the best chance of a solo career. They weren’t wrong.

Even the average non-Python fan in 2013 has a pretty good idea who John Cleese is.

Perhaps it’s his height. In Python sketches, the six-foot-four Cleese often played upper-class authority figures. Unlike Graham Chapman’s authority figures, though, Cleese’s were infused with a kind of cruel, maniacal glee that made them riveting and unsettling. Sometimes he played a very odd creation the Pythons referred to as “Mr. Praline,” always wearing a green plastic raincoat and complaining to a shopkeeper or civil servant (usually played by Michael Palin) in a clipped, nasal voice about his dead parrot or inability to purchase a fish license, always with an undercurrent of menace and suppressed rage. In both actual fact and in the audience’s mind, Cleese towered over the rest of the cast.

More likely, he’s known far and wide simply for his ubiquitousness. He’s everywhere. He has appeared in more films than the rest of the team combined (and deserves a special award for most supporting roles in terrible movies), has done hundreds of commercials for every conceivable product for the past four decades, has guest-starred in dozens of shows on British and American television (and had long-running recurring roles in several more), performed tons of voice work, and in general has been one of major faces of British comedy, streets ahead of his slightly less-recognizable Python teammates.

So let’s break down the fabulously successful solo career, shall we? Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Film & TV, Pop Culture