Monthly Archives: September 2010

R.I.P. Joe Mantell: “Forget it, Marty. It’s Chinatown.”

I was still reeling from the news of the passing of two Hollywood luminaries—Arthur Penn and Tony Curtis—when I heard that wonderful character actor Joe Mantell had also passed on within the last 24 hours.

Although Mantell is nowhere near as familiar as Penn or Curtis—by name or by a lengthy and distinguished resumé—Mantell nevertheless holds a special place in our collective heart: He’s the one who tells Jake Gittes to “forget it.”

Since this very famous line (#74 on AFI’s 100 Most Memorable Movie Quotes) is part of the final scene of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), I’m unwilling to include it here as a video clip. So, instead, here’s a still from that scene and if you’d like to here Mr. Mantell (playing Walsh) utter the famous line, simply click the picture.

In truth, Mantell was doubly lucky, at least so far as having secured a place in the Lexicon of Film Quotes. Not only did he get that fantastic line from Chinatown, he also originated the character of Angie in Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty, first on live TV in 1953 and again in the 1955 film version (he’s the only principal actor to appear in bother versions). Therefore, Mantell is also responsible for half of this famous and oft-quoted exchange:

Angie: So, what do you feel like doin’, tonight?

Marty: I don’t know, Ang’…What do you feel like doin’?

Here’s the clip from Delbert Mann’s film:

It may not be as famous in most circles as “Forget it, Jake,” but it is where I come from. I was stunned when I made that connection that Mantell originated both lines. (I hadn’t been that shocked by a piece of film trivia since I heard that the cute, 13-year-old chick from National Lampoon’s Animal House and Maggie, the Scottish girlfriend from Caddyshack, were one and the same.)

And so it goes: it will be a long couple of days in my world, full of wonderful quotes from Bonnie and Clyde, Some Like It Hot, Chinatown, and Marty.

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Filed under Film, R.I.P.

The Seinfeld Pop Culture Literacy Quiz

Two weeks I did a post that was in part about pop culture references on 30 Rock. I certainly enjoy their frequent nods to all-things-geeky, but my heart belongs to Seinfeld. While 30 Rock creator Tina Fey tends to be meta in her approach, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David just love using their favorite films and TV shows as punchlines, especially references to old comedians, which makes perfect sense when you think, well, the show is about a stand-up comic.

While re-watching several seasons’ worth of Seinfeld recently, I was struck by how high-end their lowbrow was. Some of their references seemed beyond the reach of the average primetime TV viewer of the mid-90s (a point typically driven home by the use of a laugh track to “sweeten” those jokes that failed to get a large response from the studio audience). Ozzie Nelson’s fashion sense, the lyrics to the theme song of The Patty Duke Show, and Kris Kringle speaking Dutch in Miracle on 34th St were all referenced without explanation. Either you got it or you didn’t.

This 3-and-a-half minute quiz has 7 clips from Seinfeld, each punctuated by a joke that banks on your knowledge of popular culture of the last 80 years. When you’re done, click “Keep reading” at the bottom of the page to see the answers. (Hey, at the very least you get to see a few minutes of great gags from Jerry and the Gang!)

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Filed under Humor, TV

She Could Turn the World on with Her…

Did you ever notice that Mary Richards (the heroine of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) rarely dated a man for more than a single episode? Oh, sure, that’s the way TV was back then in the 70s, with self-contained episodes, before sitcoms and dramas had on-going storylines, but still, you had to wonder…Just how loose was Mary? Was she a heartbreaker? Afraid of commitment?

I feel neither qualified nor compelled to write at length about the depiction of feminism on The Mary Tyler Moore Show—it’s also too broad and important a topic to shortchange in a blog post. However, while watching on DVD the first three seasons of the show, I became sensitive to this recurring motif (we see how her relationships begin but rarely how they end) and wondered if all involved were subversively telling me something. Finally I saw a moment—a single joke—where all my suspicions were addressed.

I’ve always known that The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which aired from 1970-77, was classic TV, even when I was watching them as first run episodes. (Of course, as a kid, I would have been happier if it were simply The Ted Baxter Show.) As an adult, without having re-watched many episodes in syndication, I would have assessed the show as such:

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was more progressive than its immediate predecessor, Marlo Thomas’s That Girl (1966-71), where the central character’s independence was hampered by her inbred sense of settling down and marrying her boyfriend Donald; and the show was definitely the beginning of career-focused women in TV, paving the way for the likes of Murphy Brown, Carrie Bradshaw and Liz Lemon.

While recently watching the show on DVD, I found that my assessment wasn’t that far off. But it was Mary Richards’s sex life that I hadn’t considered. I guess I thought she had one but didn’t know the show implied it so strongly.

I would have assumed any episode dealing Mary’s sex life would have been clichéd TV: a lengthy set up and an extended scene or two of soul searching on Mary’s part, with a touch of humor here and there. (You know the kind of sitcom episodes I’m talking about, right? The anti-drug episode of Diff’rent Stokes comes to mind. Also, when Edith Bunker enters menopause on All in the Family. Big problems, moral dilemmas, laugh-track free scenes—stuff like that. When I was a kid, you’d always know when these episodes were coming because they’d get a “Close Up” in the TV Guide.)

But, in the hands of Mary Tyler Moore and creators Allan Burns and James L. Brooks, the issue of Mary Richards’s sex life is quite the contrary. There’s a complete lack of judgment or concern. It’s presented matter-of-factly.

A crucial episode of season 3 has Mary’s retired parents moving to Minneapolis, to be near their daughter (“Just Around the Corner,” airdate October 28, 1972). This puts them in direct contact with her day-to-day life, with her mother being overly inquisitive about Mary’s dating habits. We see Mary dressing for a date one night, and the next scene begins the following day, with her entering her apartment—dressed as she was the night before. (I made a genuine WTF?! face when I realized what she was wearing. Nothing like this had ever happened in the show before.)

And that pretty much sums up the attitude. Later, when confronted by her parents, Mary never apologizes for her behavior nor says where she was all night.

But that isn’t the moment I’m referring to. The moment that inspired this post happens a few episodes later and also involves her parents (“You’ve Got a Friend,” airdate November 25, 1972). Here’s the set up, though it’s incidental, trust me: Mary and her father have a difficult, strained relationship, and Mary’s compelled to face him head-on, inviting him to dinner and asking her mother to leave them alone. Since her mother dotes on both of them and acts as perpetual mediator, it’s disarming that Mary asks her to leave.

Not being an expert on early 70s TV, I don’t know how scandalous dialog like this was, but the audience’s reaction is an indication that it was uncommon. What’s key here is that the reveal that Mary is on the Pill not only passes without judgment, it also passes without verbal comment. What I expected would have been the source of a whole episode—Will Mary take the Pill? What does that mean about her loose morals? Is she ready for this?—is simply a joke. And the brilliance of the joke—it’s timing, the performances, its ability to address everything I’ve just written about and still be funny—is what makes this Perfect TV. Perfect.


While it’s somewhat off-topic, this is the best place to show the impact The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s has had on my life:

-A lifelong dream of mine is to have a job where my name will be on the door, Lou Grant-style!

-My wife and I wanted to put our son’s initials on his bedroom door, but I refused to until I could find the right font. (And there’s only one font that will suffice for a wooden initial.)

-As long as I’ve been food shopping, I always put my meat in the cart like this:

Doesn’t everyone?


Filed under Comedy, TV

Goodbye, Farewell and Reinvention

The folks behind 30 Rock know their core audience is obsessed with popular culture and has been (clearly) raised on TV. Their Trivial Pursuit-like references test the intelligence of even the geekiest of fans, and the May, 2009, episode “Kidney Now!” has one of the best. NBC page Kenneth is helping Tracey Jordan though the trauma he experienced in a high school science class, and they are interrupted by Jack Donaghy’s father, played by Alan Alda…

Alda’s line about a “chicken and a baby” is an explicit reference to a crucial scene in the series finale of M*A*S*H, “Goodbye, Farewell & Amen,” which aired in 1983. For those who need a reminder, here’s 90 second clip, edited down to its bare essentials. Hawkeye Pierce, played by Alda, is in an army psychiatric hospital recovering from a nervous breakdown. He’s telling his doctor (Allan Arbus  1)about the experience that triggered it: He, his fellow soldiers and some Korean refugees were in bus hiding from an enemy patrol, and a woman’s chicken wouldn’t keep quiet…

I loved the joke on 30 Rock (the “It was a baby!” moment has been a touchstone with my crowd for years), but my wife missed it. In fact, most of the people I asked—peers, mind you, also in their early 40s—missed it. But certainly they had all seen it. Everyone did. The finale to M*A*S*H is one of the most watched events on TV (let me be clear here: the series finale of The Sopranos was watched by 12 million people, whereas the M*A*S*H finale had 121 million viewers), and yet today one of its most memorable moments (good or bad) might as well be an in-joke.

Naturally, this is due in part to its age: the M*A*S*H finale aired 26 years before the 30 Rock season finale. But that’s not the only reason most people missed that joke, as far as I can see. M*A*S*H the Series must be one of the biggest examples of a cultural phenomenon that has an incredibly weak lasting impact. Incredibly weak.

M*A*S*H was a massive media machine its last few seasons, with non-stop press, awards, books, calendars, clothing, etc. My God, it was sick. (Who wouldn’t want their kid to be Max Klinger for Halloween?) And I’ll freely admit that I drank that (Un)Kool Aid. Sure, I preferred the older episodes (and continue to have a soft spot for the first few seasons), ones I could see 10 times a week in syndication, but I was thrilled to be watching the new episodes, being a part of truly popular culture. And, yes, I was psyched for that finale, having my own M*A*S*H party (everybody did) and proud it received such ginormous ratings, beating the record set in 1980 by Dallas’s “Who Shot J.R.?” episode (screw you, Larry Hagman!)

But, wow, did that show become yesterday’s news fast. And revisiting it (for the sake of this post) it’s not hard to see why. Jesus, what a self-important mess. Plodding, pompous, preachy (the 3 P’s of Bad Television). Unfunny to the nth degree, too. And Mike Farrell’s mustache may be the worst TV has ever seen.

Mind you, in the 80s, there were several critics who said exactly what I just did. They were right on the money in their contemporary assessment (but I ignored them a bunch of naysayers). None were more astute than the Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine. In October, 1982, they brilliantly skewered the show’s de-evolution from situation comedy to sanctimonious pulpit. It includes one of my all-time favorite MAD panels:

And that laugh-out-loud piece of business brings us back to Alan Alda, the actor who in the last seasons became the show’s driving force (he was a frequent writer and director). Presumably, the show’s holier-than-thou, War-is-Hell attitude was an extension of his own beliefs, and in the wake of the show, he laid low for a few years. He graciously gave us all a break, perhaps because of burn-out, perhaps hiding from the unavoidable backlash in the wake of such tremendous success.

But beginning in 1989, he stole scenes as Lester in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (“If it bends, it’s funny…”) and reinvented himself as a character actor with a knack for playing assholes, liars and egomaniacs. And the Band Played On, The Aviator, Flash of Genius  2, and ER all benefited from his contributions. (Full disclosure: I’ve never seen him The West Wing.) In 2005, he played Shelly Levene in a Broadway revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, and, man, it was something to behold. (This was Jack Lemmon’s role in the film version, and Alda made it his own.)

(Besides the plethora of memorable supporting roles, there’s an oft-told story that endeared Alda to me as well: Sometime in the last decade he attended an dinner ceremony for Queen Elizabeth II and while standing in the reception line, he realized he was next to Donald Sutherland, who originated the role of Hawkeye Peirce in the film version of M*A*S*H. Alda leaned over to Sutherland and whispered, “Thank you for my life.” I love that story.)

I can’t imagine what Alan Alda means to someone who didn’t live through the 70s and 80s. I suppose to the young’un’s who care, he’s exactly as I described: a superlative character actor who tends to play a jerk. (The IMDB lists his acting trademark as “often plays ambitious authority figures that are corrupt and unethical.”) But 30 years ago he was so much more: actor, writer, director, activist, male feminist, peace-loving TV preacher, and possibly one of America’s first metrosexuals. Honestly, he did not come across as someone with a sense of humor about himself, much less an actor who’d go on a show and poke fun at his precious M*A*S*H.


Frankly, this whole post began because of Seinfeld. I’ve been re-watching seasons 4 though 7 and marveling at the abundance of references to ancient or arcane pop culture. For example, in one episode (“The Hamptons”), in a matter of minutes, there are references to The Graduate; Johnny Carson’s mannerisms; Tang and the Space Program; and the theme song to the Bea Arthur series Maude. I saw an episode last night where a punchline was “Hey, it’s better than Dondi”!

And so stay tuned for a future post: the Seinfeld Pop Culture Literacy Test!

(By the way, he M*A*S*H memorabilia photos came from the wonderful and thorough blog AfterM*A*S*H, by Rob Kelly. If you’d like to see someone intelligently pay tribute to the show and put it in perspective, pay him a visit.)


BACK TO POST 1 Yes, Diane Arbus’s ex-husband. How weird is that?

BACK TO POST 2 Flash of Genius (2008) is a film about the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, wonderfully played by Greg Kinnear. Alda, playing a lawyer, has only a few scenes, but he’s great. Frankly, whenever I hear he’s in a film I’m about to see, I say, “Fuckin’ A!”


Filed under Comedy, TV

A Goy Walks into a Synagogue…

(This post includes many references to both Jewish and Roman Catholic traditions and paraphernalia. Rather then slow down the narrative with too many descriptions/definitions, I’ve loaded it with plenty of Wiki links to help keep all of us on the same page.)

Often, people mistakenly think I’m Jewish, which I’m sure has a lot to do with my Italian roots/looks. (They’re interchangeable, right?) Since my wife is Jewish (and therefore, so is my son), I’m frequently in Jew-heavy social circumstances. Here’s an extreme example of someone thinking I’m one of the Chosen: My son attended a Jewish pre-school, one that’s fairly observant. We all went to a Shabbat dinner one night (I believe it was a Friday), which included several Hassidic men praying, complete with tefillin, which are these little black boxes the men attach to themselves when praying, kinda like a leather Rubik’s Cube. One gentleman approached me with a smile and a spare tefillin, reaching for my arm to strap it on. I shook my head and said, “No thanks,” and his response was to nod knowingly and begin to strap it on my head! Here I was–suitless, beardless, and hatless–and this guy assumed I was a member of the tribe.

As I said, that’s an extreme example, and generally speaking, the confusion has never been a problem, per se, just a source of mild misunderstanding and amusement.

Last weekend I attended my first bar mitzvah and it was an education, believe me. It was for the son of one of my wife’s childhood friends, and it was at an Orthodox synagogue in Westchester. My wife, Debbie, was raised as a Conservative Jew (aka somewhat less rigid and observant), so a lot of the traditions and rules were foreign to her. And since they were foreign to her, you can imagine how I felt. Having been raised as a Roman Catholic, I was like a (loaf and) fish out of water in that place.

According to tradition, men and women sit separately in an Orthodox synagogue, so as soon as Debbie and I entered the sanctuary, we split up. I was now flying without a net and tread cautiously into a pew. The moment I sat down, a few men instantaneously, albeit politely, pointed out that I was not wearing a yarmulke. Man, that’s Jew 101, and I started right away on the wrong foot.

The fact that I looked like I belonged made it more difficult. At one point when everyone was saying a prayer (in Hebrew), I just hummed along, and a nice gentleman handed me book so I could keep up. I gave a headshake, with a little stutter and gestured with my forefinger to my lips that he was mistaken, but since I was reflexively pulling a “Woody Allen” (right) I only looked more Jewish. Finally I took the book, opened it to pages and pages of Hebrew and did my best to learn on the spot. I couldn’t even figure out the page numbers (which were conventional Arabic numbers!). I gave up and started skimming the English sections for pointers; all I found was a passage where Moses reminded me that God’s punishment for a Jew marrying a gentile is to stone him to death. (Is this where I’m supposed to say, “Oy!”?)

I thought I could go with the flow, mimicking those around me, but the whole vibe was unusual to me. It was all very communal and relaxed, which is the opposite from what I remember of Catholic masses: no talking, sit still, kneel with your back straight, etc. Debbie says that because the services are so long (up to 3 hours), there’s a lot of latitude: there’s friendly conversation and people milling about, entering and leaving the sanctuary. To me it resembled jury duty, with everyone wandering around, killing time. For example, two guys next to me were talking about a trip to Vegas, their voices at a normal register. Man, if I had pulled a stunt like that in Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Jesus Christ himself would have climbed down from the cross to slap my wrists.

My favorite part, however—the portion of the ceremony that prompted this post—was the bar mitzvah boy’s speech to the congregation. He nervously raced through it, like all good 13 years olds do—regardless of their religion—and barely looked up from his notes. But what he said was equal parts history, tradition, gratitude, and humor, and it had “Today I am a man” written all over it. It was marvelous to watch.

Y’see, when I was thirteen, I received the holy sacrament of confirmation, which is a joke. Ostensibly, it’s the moment when a young boy or girl receives the Holy Ghost (aka the Silent Partner of the Christian Holy Trinity), but it’s more like a poor man’s bar mitzvah, something Christians cobbled together to compete with the Jews in the next town over. I was confirmed with my classmates simultaneously, all of us presumably receiving the Holy Ghost at the same moment, which is akin to a Sun Myung Moon mass wedding. What little I could remember of it was, honestly, lame, forgettable and faceless. Nothing about it felt like a rite of passage.

But what I saw on Saturday truly felt memorable—certainly for the boy-now-man and his family—and I was jealous. Call it peyes envy. (Ba dom dom tish! I’m here all week, folks. Try the brisket!)

Look, I don’t mean to refute my Christian upbringing, but let’s face it: the Catholic church hit me up with eight years of weekly masses and religious class in school five days a week and what did they get for their efforts?

I’m now an agnostic who married a Jew. (Well played, nuns. Jehovah 1, Jesus 0.)


A post wouldn’t be complete without some popular culture, right? In the fifth season of The Dick Van Dyke Show show, creator Carl Reiner decided to treat most of middle America to its first bar mitzvah.

In a 1966 episode called “Buddy Sorrell, Man and Boy,” comedy writer Buddy (Morey Amsterdam), at age 58, takes lessons so he can finally be bar mitzvahed. The conceit is that when Buddy was 13 he was too poor to have one but now he wants to have it for his mother’s sake.

My favorite moment comes when Buddy’s lesson is ending, just as another student’s  is beginning. Listen to the football joke at the end of this clip and pay close attention to the studio audience’s reaction…

Most of the audience doesn’t get it; those that do need a long moment to process it; and what laughter we hear sounds like, “I can’t believe they just made that joke!” (The Dick Van Dyke show is rich with moments like these: intelligent punchlines followed by pregnant pauses and then genuine, heartfelt laughter.)

The episode ends with Buddy’s service, which made TV history as it was the first time a series regular was bar mitzvahed onscreen. Not surprisingly, Buddy’s speech resembles what I heard last weekend.

Debbie watched this with her jaw on the floor. She kept saying, “What did people make of this!?” We were probably underestimating America’s intelligence; hell, I’m sure a lot of the 1966 audience had seen The Jazz Singer, fer cryin’ out loud. But I’m way impressed that Carl Reiner put a kippah on Dick Van Dyke’s head.


Filed under Family