Tag: Happy Days

Day 999: Buh-Bye, So Long and Hallelujah

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It’s a completely valid question.

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

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

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

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

Day 982: Opening 40

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As some of you may have heard (I have griped about this rather frequently lately), the cold, icy grip of 40 is looming around my next corner, poised to wrestle my youth to the ground before September’s end, pummeling it with its grey-haired, middle-aged fists.

But I’m okay with that.

Not only because I will finally experience my first day off from writing since December 30, 2011, and not because I believe some faucet of inherent wisdom will squeak open and gush the solved riddles of the universe upon my anxious brain, but because I simply refuse to stack my plate full of anxiety and dread over a number. 40 can be the new 30 – except my kids are mostly grown-up, my time is more my own, and my taste in beer has matured to a delicious and luminous plateau.

Besides, I’m not the only one packing air into his lungs for a big 40-candle blow-out. Skittles turn forty this year, so does the Volkswagen Golf. The Intel 8080 chip was released four decades ago, as was the San Diego Chicken (from whatever oversized, freakish coop in which he was reared). Let’s see what else will be launching its fifth decade on earth in 2014.

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The toy whose very visage defines the 1980’s was born in Budapest on January 16, 1974. The Rubik’s Cube is, quite literally, Rubik’s cube. Ernö Rubik worked at the Academy of Applied Arts and Crafts (where I suppose you can begin working on your major in kindergarten), and he designed the toy as a way to solve the design problem of having the parts move independently without the entire thing falling apart. After playing around with it for a while, Rubik discovered that putting it back to its alpha state, with all six sides sporting a uniform color, was a nifty little puzzle. Read more…

Day 898: A Descent Into The Maelstrom Of Poe’s Final Days

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So much has been written about Edgar Allen Poe that my contribution of words #898,001-899,000 of this project to the great writer will hardly land an impact crater upon his legacy. But there’s one chapter of Poe’s life – specifically that last one – that stupefies me. Most famous figures from the modern era of recorded history have the details of their demise fairly well documented. Some – like Kurt Cobain, Natalie Wood and JFK – might be vague on a few pertinent specific details, but we’re aware of the physiological nature of what scooted them off this planet.

Poe’s death swims so deep in a reservoir of murky suspicion and guess-work, it’s almost unfathomable, especially when one considers that he died at a well-known hospital in a populous American city less than two centuries ago. I’ve been picking on the state of medical science in the mid-1800’s a lot lately, but you’d think a celebrity’s cause of death should have been something they could have pinned down.

So much of Poe’s life is open to conjecture, in particular his final few days. All we know for certain is that he bid adieu to Richmond, Virginia on September 27, 1849, headed for his home in New York. Six days later he turned up in Baltimore, walking the streets in a delirious state, one which he was never able to adequately explain to anyone. Four days after that, he was nevermore.

Yep. That's a "Raven" pun. Every article about Poe gets one.

Yep. That’s a “Raven” pun. Every article about Poe gets one.

There were few witnesses to Poe’s weird final days. Among them were Dr. Joseph Snodgrass, an acquaintance, and Dr. John Joseph Moran, his attending physician. Snodgrass was the man called to Poe’s side at his request, and he describes the writer as having been found unkempt, dirty and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. This didn’t jive with Poe’s style – the man prided himself on looking snazzy when out in public. But when he turned up in Baltimore he was incoherent, and could not explain how he ended up in this condition. Read more…

Day 872: Here Come Ol’ Levy, He Come Groovin’ Up Slowly

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A survey of music lovers who possess even so much as a passing interest in the Beatles’ music will undoubtedly reveal “Come Together” to be one of the most universally beloved bullets in their melodic clip. From its swampy bass, its percussive “Shoot me” refrain to its absurdist and almost comically weird lyrics, the song righteously opens the gates to the magnificent Abbey Road album, tantalizing and gratifying most every pair of ears it meets.

It’s almost shocking to imagine the pretzel of nefarious backlash it provoked. “Come Together” may have begun its life as John Lennon’s attempt to pen a campaign song for Timothy Leary’s quest to unseat Ronald Reagan as governor of California, but it wound up inadvertently connecting Lennon with one of the most insidious corners of the music industry.

If only it were as simple as Lennon scribbling a new idea then slapping it onto vinyl with his buddies through the immaculate channel of producer George Martin. For the origin story of the madness that would follow, we need to travel back to 1956, back to when songs about cars were a veritable genre unto themselves. To a little single by rock ‘n roll’s illustrious grandpa, Chuck Berry.

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In 1956, Chuck released a song called “You Can’t Catch Me”. Lennon’s song boasts a similar vocal melody and a set of lyrics (“Here come old flattop, he come goovin’ up slowly” to “Here come a flattop, he was movin’ up with me”). The similarity ends there – Berry’s song is about driving quickly whereas Lennon’s is about something called ‘toe-jam football’ and some guy with feet below his knees. But it was enough to snag the ear of music publisher Morris Levy, who owned the rights to Berry’s song and promptly launched an infringement lawsuit against Lennon. Read more…

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

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

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

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

And these are just the sitcoms.

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

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

Day 749: The Manipulation Conundrum

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A few days ago I slaked my fingers through the questionable history of the television laugh track. While I have always been baffled that one studio audience’s instinctive responses to actual comedy might 1  have been slapped underneath decades-worth of other material, I had no idea there was one guy running the entire show from his garage. One guy whose job it was to make Small Wonder appear as though it was funny to someone. One guy who made us believe there was a studio audience atop bamboo bleachers on Gilligan’s Island.

A laugh track is a form of audience deception, but it’s not the only tool in the manipulative belt of the entertainment industry. And I get it – people slave for weeks or months in preparation for a performance, often to the point where the ‘funny’ disappears for them into the swampy churn of repetition and rehearsal. They don’t want all that work to simply hover in the air around their audience like an unwelcome fart.

So they’ll take a moment of hilarity-response from Milton Berle’s old show and make it sound like Happy Days never lost a step when Richie and Ralph left. And we’ll eat it up, just as audiences have done before us – back before television, when entertainment producers had to be a little more clever and a lot more clandestine with their work.

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16th-century French poet and playwright Jean Daurat was the first to plunk his toe into the smoky brine of audience manipulation. Whether it was moral or deceitful is a judgment call; Jean’s artistic guts were in the lines of this play, and he wanted a good response from the ticket-holders. So he did what any desperate artist would do: he bought a bunch of his own tickets and gave them away for free. Well, for “free” meaning that the recipients had promised to supply applause.

And it worked. Read more…

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

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

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

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

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

Day 671: November – More Than The First Grey Spittle Of Winter

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It never fails. You’re meandering through the crispy clutter of October’s autumn, steering clear of the path-side puddle of vomit from over-candied children, breathing the warm scent of massacred pumpkins, when suddenly the ground gives way and you plummet head-first into that fetid murk known as November.

Here in the grotesquely northern chunk of Canada, we refer to November as the It-Will-Get-Damn-Cold month, or at least we will as soon as I can get it to catch on. November is the year’s punishment for passivity. Its only sanctioned holiday is a sad and reflective one, and we have to endure the agony of missing at least one and a half NFL games because our employers won’t acknowledge American Thanksgiving as a sort-of holiday. Daylight Savings Time ends, and suddenly the journey home from work becomes a race against the setting sun.

Well screw it. With a thirty-day sentence in the muckiest month of the calendar I believe we deserve to celebrate something. Okay, a lot of you have birthdays in November. That’s great, you have a little thumbtack of joy amid this great barren corkscape. For the rest of us, what do we get? Well…

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Once upon a time, Americans had a huge celebration every November, and it had nothing to do with turkey or shopping. November 25 was once Evacuation Day, a celebration of that fateful day in 1783 when the final snippet of British authority plunked its muskets on a boat and sailed out of New York. This was a holiday of July 4 proportions. Kids would symbolically climb greased poles in Battery Park to tear down Union flags, and adults would lift steins of liquid hoorah in honor of the nation’s first genuine victory. Then two things killed it: Mexicans and Lincoln. Read more…

Day 641: Our Home And Native Candy

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When I was eight years old I endured the most boring vacation of my life. There were a few glorious days spent in Disney World and the newly-christened EPCOT, and also an imagination-tickling stop at Cape Canaveral to gawk at Columbia, asleep at her launch pad. But the majority of those two weeks were spent at my grandparents’ Fort Lauderdale “condo”, a tight-knit community where you couldn’t so much as sneeze without an elderly Jewish lady telling you pipe down.

There was no internet to numb my curious mind, and figuring out when I could find my Happy Days reruns in this insane town was a daunting challenge. I found myself reading a lot, and eventually drifting down to the corner store with a crinkled dollar bill to ingest a purposeless sugar rush. While I was fortunate to find a handful of chocolate munchables (and always the tongue-inspiring flavor of Black Cherry Shasta), I would return home to Canada feeling that our snack selection was somehow… better.

Could this be? The nation that was dwarfed, both population-wise and culturally by the glorious USA, had a better offering of chocolate bars on our store shelves? I’d later learn it was the Commonwealth influx of British brands like Cadbury that put the ‘oooo’ in our candy store oomph. Allow me to share with my American friends just a little taste of what you’ve been missing.

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I have sampled the American Caramello, and it ain’t no Caramilk. Caramilk is made up of 8 bite-size segments, each bursting with velvety caramel so smooth and sweet you’ll think your tongue went and rented a tropical timeshare and is simply broadcasting the warm sunny bliss back to your brain. Read more…

Day 558: An Evening’s Worth Of Lost Film

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Throughout my years of paying an exorbitant amount of money to study the history of film, I was often told of films that had been lost to the ages for whatever reason. Georges Méliès, the first man to play around with film as an art form, had a lot of his original films confiscated during WWI and melted down to make army boots. Old nitrate film stock was highly flammable and prone to deterioration. Sometimes the prints of movies just got lost.

The rediscovery and restoration of vintage film is fascinating work. Fritz Lang’s revered silent film Metropolis has seen rediscovered and reassembled in chunks over time, providing a new experience every time I’ve watched it. Every so often a new Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Fatty Arbuckle short film gets unearthed in a stash found in Norway or France.

Rarely do these films turn out to be cinematic gems, more brilliant than their never-lost counterparts. But they are history – and sometimes weird history. Take, for example, Santo Gold’s Blood Circus.

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This is a fairly typical formula flick for the mid 80’s – aliens from the planet Zoran show up to do battle with a bunch of professional wrestlers, who wind up eating their foes once they’ve pinned them. The Shyamalan-esque twist is that the entire film was nothing more than a promotional vehicle for the producer’s jewelry store. Read more…