Category Archives: Humor

Nick & Jessica, meet Sonny & Cher

In April, 2004, I was sitting around, flipping the channels on the ol’ cable box, when I bumped into a program starring Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey. I stuck around for a while, just to see what Jessica would be wearing (or not wearing, as the case may be). Pretty quickly, I realized it was not their grossly-successful MTV reality series, The Newlyweds, but rather an ABC special called The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour.

A few minutes later, I was puzzled. And amused. And feeling strangely like I was in my PJs, in my bedroom, with my brother, sitting before a 14 in. portable TV, circa 1976 (see above). Comedy vignettes were intercut with extended musical numbers. A low-rent animated version of Nick and Jessica took us in and out of commercial breaks. The canned laughter was too loud, too happy and too fast.

In short, more than a parody of the long-lost variety shows of the 70s (Sonny & Cher, Donny & Marie, Tony Orlando & Dawn, et al)—it was the Real Deal. In a good way. This goofy couple was a perfect fit for this brand of disposable entertainment that benefited from talent that could look attractive while singing, dancing, cracking jokes and being self-deprecating.

So while I sat there, feeling surprisingly warm and fuzzy, I think, hey, who did they make this show for?! Nick and Jessica’s target audience was 15 year old girls, aka teenagers born 15 years after The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour was cancelled. Shit, it probably didn’t even have any relevance to the hosts. (In all fairness, Nick Lachey was born in 1974—news to me—but still…)

And as I pondered all of this, Nick and Jessica decided to mish-mash the 70s with the 80s and include sketches with Mr. T and KITT (from Knight Rider). And then, with this faux commercial (which takes a stab at Nick’s failing solo career), they took it to a whole new level of weird …


Astute viewers will recognize the silent guy as H. Jon Benjamin, famous as the voice of Benjamin Katz (Dr. Katz, top), Coach McGuirk (Home Movies), Sterling Archer (Archer, bottom), and Bob Belcher (Bob’s Burgers). Now my internal monologue included, “Wait…What?…Jon Benjamin? But he’s not even talking? What’s the point!?” (Honestly, casting Jon Benjamin in a non-speaking role is as clever as casting mime Marcel Marceau in a speaking role.)

By this point, I was bought and sold. I was firmly convinced that talented forces were behind this: their heart was in the right place; it looked and felt like something I embraced from my youth; and had contributions from one of my favorite comedians of the last decade.

Before the Hour was over, Kenny Rogers came out for a duet; a musical medley used excerpts from A Chorus Line and Godspell; and Johnny Bench joined Nick and Jessica for a skit that was both an uncanny impersonation of sports celebrity appearances from the 70s and a broadly funny gag in its own terms. Check it out–and pay attention to Johnny’s entrance: there’s a massive contrast between the enthusiastic canned applause and an audience full of confused teenagers lethargically clapping…

As far as paying tribute to the TV shows of a bygone era, the only things The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour was missing were the long dissolves-over-zoom shots that dominated ballads 30 years ago and a surprise appearance from Ray Jay Johnson, Jr.

They wrapped up the show on an obvious-but-well-earned note: Nick and Jessica sang Sonny & Cher’s signature song, “I Got You, Babe.” And even though it’s clear that Nick and Jessica are no Sonny & Cher, the ironies/similarities abound: The husband can’t sing as well as the wife (although Sonny wrote “I Got You, Babe” around his vocal limitations, not Nick’s); they genuinely enjoy performing together; and this marriage also has a shelf life. In fact, Nick and Jessica took the Sonny & Cher tribute so far, they were divorce a mere two years after this special aired.

So do I recommend you get The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour from Netflix? Aw, Hell. Not really. I enjoyed it because I had no idea what was coming—a fact I’ve spoiled in this post (sorry). If you want to take that trip down Memory Lane, you can get genuine Sonny & Cher episodes on DVD just as easily. But I’ll give the kids–and the forces behind them–credit for throwing my generation a bone. It was nice to know that for one hour, it was the Youth of Middle America that was scratching their heads, saying, “What the fuck is this?!

2 Comments

Filed under Humor, My Youth, TV

New York Stories: Meeting Spalding Gray

Being a teenager in South Jersey in the 80s, obsessed with the Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Andy Warhol, etc., I understandably had dreams of moving to NYC. Hell, repeated late night, VHS viewings of Midnight Cowboy and After Hours only inked the deal. I imagined trolling those mean streets, humming “Everybody’s talkin’ at me…,” bumping into Marty, Woody, Patti, and Iggy on a weekly/bi-weekly basis. This daydream was reinforced by something that happened while I was a sophomore in college, living near—but not in—NYC.

The fall of 1989. Sunday, September 17 to be exact. My college roommate, Dav-o, and I had just seen left-of-center trumpeter Jon Hassell perform at the World Financial Center. Hassell alone would be enough to draw me, but the real thrill was that the sound was mixed by Brian Eno. In fact, I sat as close as possible to the mixing board and watched the Master at work (the closest I may ever get to seeing Eno perform “live”). On the Metro North train back to our college in Westchester, still on an ambient high, I saw someone standing in profile who looked an awful lot like Spalding Gray. Just standing. Not reading. Not writing. Not monolog-ing. Momentarily, I questioned my sanity; I had just spent an hour sitting a few feet from Brian Eno and wondered if my Dream New York was taking shape. I whispered to Dav-o, “Dude, I think that’s Spalding Gray! But I’m not sure.”

“Spalding!” my fearless roommate immediately yelled, and we both shrunk down in our seats to see if he responded. He did, laconically, as you might expect. He had a pencil over his ear, which I thought was a nice touch.

With prodding from Dav-o, I approached Spalding, apologized for drawing attention to him, and we engaged in a brief conversation. I told him I was a fan and went so far as to say that I too enjoyed telling stories. I asked for an autograph. All I had was a paperback of short stories called The Vintage Bradbury. Spalding balked for a moment, feeling disrespectful to the author, but ultimately took his pencil and opened the book. Just as he was poised to write, he paused, looked at his pencil, and tentatively said (at this moment, please adopt your best Spalding Gray voice, timing and delivery): “Um, sorry…It’s a #3 lead.”

 

We both stayed static for a moment, as if this might be a dealbreaker, but he then shrugged and continued.

When I read it, I instantly thought, “Man, you just gave me a great story!”

I’d say watching Brian Eno at work and meeting Spalding Gray within hours qualifies as one of the Best Days of My Life, certainly to the young, impressionable “New York” junkie that still lurks inside me. My run-in with David Byrne ranks pretty high, too. And, naturally, meeting Andy Warhol while I was still in high school has some currency. But they all pale next to my brief one-on-one with Mr. Iggy Pop. (Man, one of these days I’m going to have to write that post.)

My most interesting Adventure with Spalding was yet to happen, and here’s that post about it.

Until then, dig this. In 1992, Gray did an exclusive trailer for the documentary Brother’s Keeper, and until the film came out on DVD, this trailer was considered “rare and precious Spalding”…

And Everything is Going Fine opens today. It’s Steven Soderbergh’s portrait of Mr. Gray. I can’t wait to see it. Here’s the trailer…

8 Comments

Filed under Humor

The Thin Man and the Little Erection, or How to Imagine Myrna Loy Talkin’ Dirty

I’ve been intimate with the Thin Man films since I was 13. And “intimate” is a good way to put it: it’s easy to feel close to such a hip couple as Nick and Nora Charles, as vividly portrayed by William Powell and Myrna Loy. They’re funny, smart and incredibly sexy (especially Ms. Loy. Whoa). The series of films is considered to be one of Hollywood’s strongest and most consistently entertaining. Still I’m surprised how few people I’ve met who’ve also read the book, written by Dashiell Hammett and published in 1934 (a mere five months before the first Thin Man film was released).

The book was Hammett’s fifth crime novel in as many years and was an instant bestseller (more below on the reasons why). There are many similarities between the book and the film, although mainstream literature of the day was even spicier than pre-code cinema. For example, although Nick and Nora drink heavily in the film, it’s a drop in the (ice) bucket compared to the book: with over 20 references to cocktails in the first 7 pages alone, Hammett’s prose is enough to make Don Draper order a Shirley Temple.

The book is more of a mystery with comic undertones, whereas the film plays more like a comedy with a mystery attached to it. (Well, not exactly, but I’m always surprised how The Thin Man tends to be referred to as one of the great screwball comedies of the 30s.) Like the film, the witty repartee between Nick and Nora is the key to its charm. 1   Screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich take that sexy banter as written by Hammett and run with it. For example, here’s Nick and Nora’s first conversation in the book…

Dorothy Wynant said she had to go back to her table. She…patted the dog’s head and left us.
        We found a table. Nora said: “She’s pretty.”
        “If you like them like that.”
        She grinned at me. “You got types?”
        “Only you, darling—lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”
        “And how about the red-head you wandered off with at the Quinns’ last night?”
        “That’s silly,” I said. “She just wanted to show me some French etchings.”

Which Hackett and Goodrich stretched out to this…


And this is why I urge fans of the Thin Man films to read the book: thanks to the wonderful chemistry between its lead actors, when you read the book, you can hear Powell and Loy saying the lines, even the racier ones that were removed or watered down for the film. Here some examples of the book’s more unusual exchanges, most the kind you wouldn’t hear even in pre-code films:

NICK: How about a drop of something to cut the phlegm?
NORA: Why don’t you stay sober today?
NICK: We didn’t come to New York to stay sober. Want to see a hockey game tonight?
__________________________________________________

NORA: (tasting a speakeasy drink and shuddering) Do you suppose this could be the ‘bitter vetch’ they used to put in cross-word puzzles? [Google it.]
__________________________________________________

NICK: Do you mind putting the gun away? My wife doesn’t care, but I’m pregnant and I don’t want the child to be born with—(he gets interrupted)
__________________________________________________

NORA: Tell me something, Nick. Tell me the truth: when you were wrestling with Mimi, didn’t you have an erection?
NICK: Oh, a little.
NORA: (laughing) If you aren’t a disgusting old lecher.

Even with a broad-minded reading public, this last exchange was over the top. The attention it received helped the book become a bestseller. To fan those flames, publisher Alfred Knopf placed this ad in the New York Times, on January 30, 1934, even signing it:

(It also helped the book get banned in Canada.) Most subsequent editions—those not published by Knopf–altered the passage to “…when you were wrestling Mimi, didn’t you get excited?” 2

Do I think these risqué passages make Hammett’s final novel worth reading? Not exactly. (Though it makes for a hell of blog post title!) But I think the book as a whole is an excellent compliment to the film, we’ll say the R-rated version to the film’s PG-13. Nick and Nora in print-form are a little looser, a littler drunker, and a little dirtier.

So if you ever pick up a copy of the book—and I highly recommend any and all Hammett—you should first check out the conclusion to Chapter 25. If it makes you blush then you know you’re holding something Hammett-approved.

__________________________________________________

BACK TO POST 1 Hammett supposedly based Nick and Nora on himself and his lover, author Lillian Hellman. He dedicated the book to her and told her she was Nora. “It was nice to be Nora,” Hellman wrote in 1965, “married to Nick Charles, maybe one of the few marriages in modern literature where the man and woman like each other and have a fine time together. But I was soon put back in place—Hammett said I was also the silly girl in the book and the villainess.”

BACK TO POST 2 As I’ve only read the Knopf edition, this alteration was news to me. Once I met someone who’d recently read the book; I said, “How about that ‘erection’ line?’ which created much confusion in the ensuing conversation.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Film, Humor

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!)

Continue reading

13 Comments

Filed under Humor, TV

Steve Martin: A Wild–Yet Inspirational–Guy

Like many men around my age (41), I was influenced—no, molded by Steve Martin. (And if you were, too, then you know exactly the inflection I used in that last sentence.) Although he was a non-stop presence on TV and in film in the late 70s, it was his LPs that really schooled me in comic timing. It was the ability to re-play those albums endlessly that made them so important for me and my ilk. Simply put, when I was a kid, Steve Martin was the embodiment of pure comedy (summarized beautifully in the still to the right, which came with his 1978 album A Wild & Crazy Guy.)

As I got older and his output mellowed some, becoming a steady stream of a film or two a year, with the occasional (brilliant) appearance on Carson or Letterman, I became more discerning. Some of his films worked (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), some didn’t (The Lonely Guy 1). One that’s always worked for me—perhaps my favorite of his films (after The Jerk, of course)—is Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988). I think it’s definitely the most clever film he’s been in, structurally.

The other day I wrote a post about this film and Oz’s DVD commentary for it, a commentary which is a primer on “How to Direct a Comedy.” He worked hard on this film to keep us on our toes, collaborating with Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus to maximize every shot, scene and plot twist.

Here’s a fine example of how he made a scene work. The set up: rookie conman Freddy Benson (Steve) has been jailed in the South of France for plying his trade, and he thinks his one-time meeting with local lothario Lawrence Jamieson will give him the clout he needs to be released. In this clip, the scene is followed immediately by Oz’s commentary for it…

He constantly elaborates like this on what went into making a joke click, whether it was in the writing, acting, shooting, editing, scoring or in the sound effects work. But the real treat in the commentary is Oz’s insight into working with Steve Martin. Repeatedly, the director describes how Steve would contribute a scene-saving gag or punchline—always at Oz’s request. Although Steve doesn’t get a writing credit on the film, you’d think he deserves one. Here’s a short list of what he brought to the table, which includes some of the film’s most memorable moments:

       • Freddy’s character-defining costume touches such as his Speedo and flip sunglasses.
       • Freddy’s Super Glued hand. According to Oz, prior to Steve contributing this sight gag, the scripted scene had no punchline.
       • Ruprecht “going to the bathroom,” perhaps the most quoted joke from the film. (It was actually a joke Steve used to do onstage in the early 70s.)
       • The film’s legendary teaser trailer!

And here’s my favorite of Steve’s contributions. Midway through the film, Lawrence and Freddy are knee-deep in their competition over Janet (Glenne Headly) and her money. Freddy’s angle is to be psychosomatically crippled, while Lawrence claims to be a doctor who can heal him. In this scene, Freddy is perched at the top of an outdoor flight of stairs that lead to a beach. Thanks to Lawrence’s insistence that Janet ignore Freddy, she won’t help him down the stairs. It leads to this…

In the original script, however, it was different: Freddy really does lose control of the wheelchair and careens wildly down the steps. Oz wanted to show this in a single shot, and the stunt supervisor began assembling an intricate rig with a pipeline running the length of the steep steps. It wasn’t going smoothly, and the producer told Frank Oz that it would cost $150,000 to make the gag work. In dismay, the director approached Steve… (At this point, I’ll let Frank finish the story in his commentary.)

I remember seeing this film in ’88 and the ten seconds where we can’t see him—but only hear him—we were laughing because we thought he had fallen, which makes the reveal get another, bigger laugh on top of that (as Oz explains “Sometimes you want to…imagine what’s happening”). But there’s something else that happens here, something plot-wise, that Oz doesn’t even mention: Steve’s suggestion allowed another transfer of control in the ongoing cat-and-mouse between Freddy and Lawrence. As scripted, Freddy gets Janet’s attention because he mistakenly falls down the stairs; as filmed, he wins back her attention by his own devices.

So let’s summarize. With Steve’s one-sentence suggestion—“Well, I’ll just pretend I’m out of control”—he: saved days of work and $150,000 of the film’s budget; inspired a great multi-level gag; and added a brilliant extra twist to the film’s plot. What more could you ask from an actor?! 2

I guess the thrill for me—as a fan of the film listening of the commentary—is that it validated my long-standing appreciation of Steve Martin. He really is the embodiment of pure comedy.

__________________________________________________

I was lucky to field produce this commentary in the summer of 2001, and I was going to share some stories from that wonderful experience. However, it’s just gonna have to wait for another post. Sorry!

__________________________________________________

BACK TO POST 1 Ignoring, of course, Charles Grodin’s perfect, toupée-free performance as Warren.

BACK TO POST 2 For the record, there are plenty of Steve’s films I haven’t seen, and although I give him all this credit (he’s brilliant, changed my life, etc), many of them I wouldn’t see even if you put a loaded pistol in my mouth. But, based on what Frank Oz says, I wonder if even the dumbest-sounding of his films have some moments of genius, moments that scream…Steve.

14 Comments

Filed under Film, Humor

Peanuts Week: The Aftermath

So an average two minutes of Charlie Brown’s life came to a close today (click here to see the week’s worth). Even though I knew how it was going to turn out, I did look at the strips repeatedly this week and absorb them before. (When reading these strips in the Complete Peanuts books, I generally read a months’ worth in a sitting.) One wonderful arc became very clear to me when reading them in this slow, methodical way: Schulz deftly turns all of the characters into Charlie Brown. Check it out…



They’re at his side and they’ve (foolishly) pinned their dreams on him.





And like Charlie Brown, they let their delusions of grandeur get the better of them.





But, as it normally goes for Charlie Brown, failure is imminent.





And they have all become losers.




Also, for four days into the next week Schulz shows us the aftermath of Charlie Brown’s mistake. Even the normally neutral Schroder tears into him…

__________________________________________________

I had so many notions I wanted to discuss in these few posts about Peanuts, and a lot of them got tossed aside in an effort to stay focused. Here’s two loose ends…

One of Schulz’s recurring gags was the snobbish Violet taunting poor Charlie Brown by bragging about her father (i.e. “My dad is taller than your dad,” or “My dad has more credit cards than your dad”), sometimes going for days at a stretch. One time, however, after only three days, Schulz gave Charlie Brown a rare moment of triumph. Imagine starting your week, reading this…

You think, Oh, shit, Violet’s at it again. And the next day, you read this…

Then, think how gratifying Wednesday must have been…

You gotta love Violet’s crushed “Charlie Brown look of nausea” face!

And lastly, there were a few storylines that spanned decades. One of the most famous was Linus’s loyalty to the Great Pumpkin. Every year there was another round of Linus being tested—and sometimes, after Halloween, he’d be downright pissed that he didn’t literally see the Great Pumpkin, his faith being tested more than his lumpy six-year old head could handle. In 1960, this prompted him to write his memoirs, giving us one of the Great Lost Peanuts Phrases…

“Rudely Clobbered”? How come a band hasn’t taken that as a name?!

So, if you haven’t already, I recommend that you find a spare 20 bucks, go to Amazon or Fantagraphics.com and buy yourself a volume of the Complete Peanuts (if you like, start with one from the early 60s, when Schulz was on a roll). You won’t regret it. Charles M. Schulz is one of the artistic geniuses of the 20th Century and, gratefully, getting a huge dose of that genius isn’t terribly expensive or difficult.

5 Comments

Filed under Humor

Peanuts Week Begins

(Clips Update: I’m trying out VideoPress, which is WordPress’s flash player. It’s going to take me a few days to get all the clips back up, but I’m chipping away at it. One drawback I already notice about the player is that it doesn’t have AutoPlay–which means it won’t play the clip until it’s completely loaded. This isn’t a drawback, per se, but it’s not how YouTube behaves, so it’ll seem slower. The fact is, if the first thing you do is click “Play” when you begin reading the post, it’ll probably be loaded by the time you get to it. If you have any qualms–or praise–for WordPress’s Flash player, let me know. Thanks!!)

I had a real-deal post ready to go–one about Army pamphlets, of all things–and I realized it was kinda lame. So instead I’ll just announce the beginning of Peanuts Week here at Peel Slowly. (For a better explanation of what a Peanuts week is, read my post here.)

Every day until Saturday, I’ll recreate the week of June 9, 1958, when everyone, young and old, expectantly “tuned in” every daily to see whether or Charlie Brown could catch a ball. The banner will be updated every day, and if you need to play catch up, I’ll post the prior days’ strips in the About the Banner page.


Add’l reading in a subsequent post:
       • Peanuts Week: The Aftermath

1 Comment

Filed under Humor