Sunday, December 24, 2006

A brief hiatus will now ensue

I'm going to take a couple of days off from shining the humor beacon across the land in order to enjoy the Holidays. I'll be back near the end of the week. Until then, don't go see "The Pursuit of Happyness." Instead, scour the cable channels in pursuit of the late 80's TV yuletide classic "A Very Brady Christmas." You won't regret it. And by that I mean you will.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

R.I.P Joseph Barbera (1911-2006)

Animation czar Joseph Barbera (the one with the shoe-polish black hair) passed away yesterday at the ripe old age of 95. Along with partner William Hanna (who previously passed away in 2001) they formed Hanna-Barbera and went on to create all the Tom and Jerry cartoons, as well as The Flinstones, Johnny Quest (an awesome series), The Jetsons and Yogi Bear to name just a few. In fact, anytime you watched a cartoon that featured a talking animal wearing cufflinks, a tie or a hat, it was probably from the Hanna-Barbera stable (think Wally Gator, Magilla Gorilla, et al). Their animation wasn't of the highest quality (except for Johnny Quest), but they pretty much dominated the Saturday morning landscape for decades nonetheless. One of my guilty fav's was a terrible 60's cartoon they did called "Dino-Boy", which depicted a young obnoxious kid somehow trapped in pre-historic times, where he was befriended by a caveman named "Ugh." They also did a 60's "Moby Dick" cartoon, wherein Moby Dick was a kind benevolent creature that hung around with, you guessed it, some precocious kids in modern times. Such is the dark side of having your work in the public domain, Mr. Melville.

The funeral will be held on Friday and will most likely include some pallbearers carrying the casket past an endless background that has the same potted plant or cactus repeated in it over and over again.

Monday, December 18, 2006

You people make me sick

What the hell is the matter with you, public at large? Have you no gray matter? Is there not a speck of intelligence buried beneath your thick skulls?

I speak of course, of this weekends box office tally, which grimly reveals that "The Pursuit of Happyness", Will Smith's transparent attempt to net an Academy Award nomination ("Oscar bait" as they say), was #1 at the box office, with a 3-day haul of $27 million.

Listen, I know the general population is stupid. I held my tongue when "Dancing With The Stars" pulled in big ratings. And I've always felt that picking on "American Idol" was going after low-hanging comedy fruit, as deserving of evisceration as that program and the people who watch it may be.

But my tongue can be held no longer. So I must break it down for you.

Here goes.

Will Smith stinks. His movies stink. His 'music' stinks. His performance as Muhammad Ali stunk. It's true. It was no better a Muhammed Ali impersonation than any semi-drunk guy at a party can do. And I'm including white guys. What's that? You say he was nominated for an Oscar for that? So what?! Anyone who stars in a biopic gets nominated for an Oscar these days. And you're going to hold up the Academy Awards as a symbol of quality? You're referring to the same Oscars that never saw fit to grant one of their worthless trophies to Hitchcock, Kubrick or Scorcese, right? I thought so.

And if Mr. Smith wasn't bad enough, now we have to deal with his son! That's right, his son was his co-star in this dreck! And now you've made his progeny a star! Do you know what you've done? Do you understand what you've unleashed?

Listen up. you mopes. If you like Will Smith, see his movies or buy his music, stop reading my blog. Take your time-killing elsewhere. I'd sooner have a readership comprised of Joseph Mengele, David Berkowitz and anyone who's ever lived at The Spahn Ranch than Will Smith fans.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Speaking of "Animal House"...

It was the fall of 1995. I was still in school and working part-time at my first ad agency. A friend of mine who made props for the local commercial industry got a gig working on a made-for-TV movie set in Milwaukee that was going to film exteriors there for a week or so before heading up to Canada to shoot the rest of production on the cheap.

My friend called and said that they had some jobs for drivers available and that he could get me 3 or 4 days work at $150 a day. This was easy work (sit around and then drive "the stars" to the set when they were needed ) and good money for a guy in school, so I was certainly interested. But what sold me was the fact that the movie was called "A Family of Cops" and would be starring the one and only Charles Bronson!

I eagerly accepted the gig and spent a couple days driving around the insane Daniel Baldwin, one of the Baldwin brothers and a man who's problems with substance abuse have been well-documented. He was chatty and nice enough to me, though.

But the real thrill came on my third day. It was nighttime, and I was hanging around the production office with nothing to do. A production manager came in and said "Is anyone available to go to the airport and pick up John Vernon?" My mind raced. Where had I heard that familar name before? Wait a minute! John Vernon is...Dean Wormer from "Animal House"! Holy shit! I quickly volunteered and speed off to the airport. And yes, they gave me a sign to hold up at the gate that said "John Vernon" on it. Not that I needed it. He came off the plane and came over to me and let me tell you, the dude was well cast as Dean Wormer. He was a big, imposing guy - about 6'3" and 220 lbs.

And he was super cool. He wouldn't sit in the back and let me chaffuere him around. Instead, he hopped in front with me. He was very chatty and more than willing to talk about "Animal House" and "The Outlaw Josey Wales" (which he was awesome in). And now for the best part. He asked if I minded if he smoked. I said no, go right ahead. He then said "Do you want one?" I looked down, and he had a pack of Kents extended towards me. I didn't smoke, but rightly figured, "When am I ever going to get the chance to smoke with Dean Wormer again?" So I accepted, and Dean Wormer and I smoked as we drove down I-43 in Milwaukee. The next day when he saw me he smiled and waved from a distance, which was also cool. Suffice to say, I was sad when John Vernon passed away in February of 2005 at the age of 72.

I only saw Bronson in the flesh once or twice. But people said he was nice. One of the times I saw him was when I was walking by a trailer, and I saw him sitting inside, alone and staring at the wall. Weird.

The movie turned out terrible, by the way. But I knew it would. And even the thrill of seeing my name in the end credits was snatched away when the promos for the local news came on, causing the credits to be crammed into a little box on the side of the TV screen, distorted and spooling by so rapidly as to be indecipherable.

The super-funny guy who fell off a cliff

I'm currently reading a great book called "A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever " by a fellow named Josh Karp. The reason I think this is a great book is because even though I'm already very familiar with the subject, I'm still enjoying reading it.

For those of you who don't know, Doug Kenney was a guy who almost single-handedly created a new kind of humor. He was one of the founders of and driving force behind National Lampoon magazine, which was launched by him and Henry Beard, after graduating from Harvard and reviving the Harvard Lampoon while there. Although now a lame brand name that gets slapped on boorish, inane comedies, National Lampoon magazine was at it's peak from 1970-1975 one of the funniest things ever created. It was also subversive at a time when comedy, save for Lenny Bruce, generally wasn't. I mean, people called "Laugh-In" subversive, but come on. It was just flowers, Artie Johnson and bad one-liners.

It was a great magazine (look for some of the older anthologies, as well as the classic "1964 Yearbook Parody" at used book stores), and it was not only creatively successful, but it made Kenney rich. He and the other two founders had a five-year buy-out clause in their contracts, and their publisher wanted the rights when the mag hit it big. Thus, he had to pay them $7.8 millions dollars or so. In 1975 this was serious money, and Kenney instantly became insanely wealthy.

Kenny's brand of smart, dark humor literally created the climate that allowed for "Saturday Night Live" to exist and flourish. In fact, most of the original "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" were previously performers on National Lampoon's radio show, performing material written by Kenney and other notables such as the equally-deserving-of-import Michael O' Donaghue (who went on to be SNL's first head writer. He wrote the classic "NBC cancels Star Trek" sketch, among many others). The ironic voice he gave birth to still influences people to this day, and it's not an overtstatement to say with certainty that every writer who has ever toiled on "The Simpsons" and shows of that ilk, not to mention "The Onion", revere Kenney and his work.

Kenney was also one of the creators / writers of "National Lampoon's Animal House." You may recognize him as the character of "Stork", who led the parade's marching band into a dead-end alley and uttered the immortal line "Well, what the hell are we supposed to do, ya mo-ron?"

Kenney (left) as "Stork" in "Animal House." Co-writer Chris Miller,
who also played "Hardbar", is pictured at right.

He was also the co-writer of "Caddyshack", which was certainly a more ramshackle affair, and he knew it. He was also heavily into cocaine at this time. He went to Hawaii with Chevy Chase in August of 1980 to dry out, and stayed there to hang out some more when Chevy left. A couple of days later he was reported missing. Eventually his body was found at the bottom of a cliff, broken and sunburned. It is unclear if he fell accidentally (the edge of the cliff was eroded and had a warning sign posted on it) or, despondent with the way his life was going, leapt to his death.

They found several notes / jokes / ideas in his hotel room. One of them read: "These are the happiest days I've ever ignored."

Some Lampoon colleagues were fond of saying that "he fell while looking for a place to jump." When my young 8th grade self heard the news of his death, I was pretty unhappy. A good friend's father had a bunch of old National Lampoon mags and we used to read them all the time. I was pretty obssessed with that strange, small world of comedy at that point (SNL, SCTV, Steve Martin, National Lampoon) and how everybody seemed to know each other and work together. Esquire magazine did a cover story on him shortly after his death that painted him as somewhat of a madman and pissed a lot of people off, so I'm glad this book has come along. It's an interesting and detailed portrait of a man who shaped an entire industry, all before the age of 33. Check it out.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Horny Manatee is online

They brought us "The Gaseous Weiner", "The Masturbating Bear", "The Coked-Up Werewolf", an endlessly vomiting Kermit the Frog, and countless others. Now the folks at "Late Night with Conan O' Brien" have added to their stable of memorable characters with "The Horny Manatee." What's more, he has a website, complete with compromising photos and a live webcam. Enjoy. And just try not thinking about Wilford Brimley as you do so.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Muppet acid rock

Remember "Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas"? It was a Jim Henson production that was shown on HBO back in 1981 (good god I'm getting old), and featured a band of otters that, well, had a jug band. It's all there in the title, folks. Anyway, there was some talent show that the otters needed to win, and seemed a cinch to do so, but fate threw a curveball at our wholesome heroes in the form of the Riverbottom Nightmare Band, a loud, sinister rock band that has a snake playing the guitar and a platform boot-wearing bear with the voice of Cookie Monster on keyboards.

One thing I really like about this clip is that the song that the Riverbottom Nightmare Band sings is about themselves. It's even called "Riverbottom Nightmare Band." This predates hip-hops obssession with self-referencing by a couple of years (or at least comes very close to tying "Rapper's Delight").

In particular, I urge you wait until until the 2:13 mark, when the frog creature playing the drums unleashes a blood-curdling shreik that really takes the song to new heights.