I read a story last week – an actual news story, written and published by actual news people who weren’t pranking their employers – that our world is entering into an actual clown shortage. There are people (mostly people who run clown schools, I imagine) who are worried about this. Perhaps this is predictable fall-out from an age entranced by online distractions and hand-held toys that ooze a non-stop viscous goo of entertainment and fun. Maybe Stephen King is to blame for sticking a clown in the fictional sewers and frightening a generation of readers.
Maybe, like disco dancing and earthquake movies, clowns are merely part of an entertainment cycle that swells and wanes with the syncopated breath of a culture. My daughter was creeped out by clowns, as were many of her young friends. Gone are the days when Clarabell, Bozo, and Flunkie the Clown would tickle funny bones on TV. There’s no street-cred in clowning anymore.
But we’ve still got Ronald. Oh Ronald, that trans-fat-peddling scamp who was born in McDonaldland and has a permanent address in our hearts (probably near the blockage). He still pops up to remind kids that healthy food isn’t as much fun as McNuggets, even though his cronies have mostly been driven into advertising obscurity. Perhaps that’s for the best.
This photo pops up in various Buzzfeed retro-galleries – it’s the first incarnation of Ronald McDonald, prior to the crafted look that presently echoes the McBrand. Underneath all of that make-up is a man named Willard Scott. You probably know Willard as the one-time weatherman who still shows up on The Today Show to wish centenarians a happy birthday. Maybe you remember him from hosting the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade broadcast on NBC for ten years. Maybe you have no idea who I’m talking about. That’s okay too. Read more…
Lately I have found myself falling back in love with All In The Family. The jokes are still funny, the characters still compelling, and it’s the only show from the 70’s that can still be called ‘edgy’ by today’s standards. I wanted to do a piece about the show, but rather than delve into a history of the show’s production or spin a bullet-list of trivia (which I’ve already done for The Golden Girls), I decided I’d focus on the song.
You know, that song. The one where Jean Stapleton – whom I have recently decided is the funniest woman ever to appear on TV – hits that high note that can make your sofa cushions cringe. The song that Family Guy homage-ifies with their opening number.
TV Theme songs may seem like a fluffy topic, but they are certainly worthy of a couple hours-worth of finger-punching my keyboard. The lyric-laden theme song is a dying art form, yet these tunes are woven with the fabric of my slothful youth. Some became hits or were hits already – I’m not going to dig into the roots of John Sebastian’s “Welcome Back” or Al Jarreau’s “Moonlighting” here. But each of these songs was written and performed by somebody, and those somebodies had a story.
“Those Were The Days” was penned by the team of Lee Adams and Charles Strouse, the guys responsible for the Broadway hit, Bye Bye Birdie. There were a few versions of the performance recorded throughout the series’ run, and astute listeners can pick out Stapleton’s second-verse screech becoming more comically punched as the song evolved. Read more…
Some topics are simply too large to fit into a thousand words. When Wikipedia’s magic Randombulator dumped me on the page for Saturday Night Live, I struggled with how to approach a thousand-word breakdown of a 39-season-long show that has somehow affected or entertained nearly everyone in the known universe (by which I mean people whom I have specifically asked).
Do I tell the story of the show’s origins? Run through its most controversial moments? Focus specifically on the work of Joe Piscopo, because why not?
In the end, there’s too much. I have one day to research and write this, so to hell with a flowing exposition or narrative structure. Here’s some stuff about that thing.
- Actor George Coe, who presently appears as the voice of Woodhouse, the butler on Archer, was one of the original Not Ready For Prime-Time Players. He was only credited for the show’s first three episodes and for whatever reason he didn’t stick around.
- NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer insisted that Chris Farley and Adam Sandler be fired from the show because he didn’t “get them.” He’s also the guy who ordered the firing of Norm McDonald. Ohlmeyer also gets credit for the weirdness of hiring Dennis Miller for a season of Monday Night Football. I’ll admit, I kind of liked Miller in the booth. But for the most part, fuck Don Ohlmeyer.
- SNL contracts include a clause that allows NBC to plunk a cast member in their second year into a sitcom. The cast member can turn down the first two offers, but they must accept the third. I’m not sure if this has ever been enforced, but it seems decidedly creepy.
- Original cast member Chevy Chase was banned from the show after a 1997 hosting gig that saw him verbally abuse the cast and crew. He is the only member of the “5-Timers Club” to have been banned.
- Speaking of the Club… there are fifteen members. Only two are women (Candace Bergen and Drew Barrymore). Steve Martin hit his fifth hosting gig the quickest, over the span of one year and 181 days. It took Drew Barrymore over 24 years to land her fifth show. The only hosts to have been invited ten or more times are Buck Henry (10), John Goodman (12), Steve Martin (15) and Alec Baldwin (16).
- In the first season, cast members were paid $750 per episode. Most recent numbers (from the late 90’s) start SNL newbies at $5000 per show, plus $1500 if a sketch they’d written gets on the air. Will Farrell was pulling in $350,000 per season at his peak (about $17k per show), and Tina Fey was cracking $1.5 million when she was both cast member and head writer.
- Drew Barrymore was the show’s youngest host at age 7, and Betty White it’s oldest at 88. They had a fleet of younger performers from Tina Fey to Maya Rudolph on standby in case Betty wasn’t up to the task. Betty showed up in every damn sketch because Betty White is Betty White.
- When Adrian Brody came out in fake dreadlocks and performed an impromptu 45-second ramble in a Jamaican accent before introducing (and mispronouncing) musical guest Sean Paul, he earned a lifetime ban from the show.
- Original SNL bandleader Howard Shore has since won three Academy Awards, for his score (and original song) in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
- The musician who has appeared the most often on the SNL stage? Dave Grohl, eleven times. I assume that includes his surprise appearance with Paul McCartney last year.
- Cast member Nora Dunn refused to appear on the May 12, 1990 episode because the host, comedian Andrew Dice Clay, was known for his offensive and misogynist schtick. She was told not to show up for the season finale the following week, and her contract wasn’t renewed for the fall.
- Sam Kinison had part of his 1986 stand-up set censored for the west coast feed because it contained a plea to legalize pot and a complaint as to its scarcity at the time. He said, “If you give us back the pot, we’ll forget about the crack!” I knew we were getting screwed, getting our broadcast from Spokane, Washington.
- James Franco’s directorial debut was a 94-minute 2010 documentary that went behind the scenes and showed the creative process behind a 2008 episode that featured John Malkovich as the host. The project began as part of Franco’s film class at New York University.
- John Belushi agreed to a cameo appearance during the 1981 Halloween episode, but only if punk band Fear was booked as the musical guest. The band had brought in a number of local punk rockers and skinheads, and proceeded to run up between $20,000 and $50,000 in damages as they slamdanced violently on stage.
- The process of making the show includes pitch day (Monday), writing day (Tuesday), read-through day (Wednesday), rewrite day (Thursday), with rehearsals for some sketches not beginning until Friday. This is why so many sketches feature performers who are clearly reading off teleprompters or cue-cards beside the camera.
- Saturday Night Live has been the name of the show since March 26, 1977. Before that it was known as NBC’s Saturday Night, because Howard Cosell hosted a sports show with the other name on ABC. Luckily, that show died young.
- Mary Ellen Matthews – you’ve never heard of her, but if you’ve watched the show since 1999 you’re familiar with her work. She’s the photographer who brilliantly captures the hosts and musical guests during the bumpers around commercial breaks. She also directed the opening credits.
- The February 10, 2001 episode was delayed for 45 minutes due to a lengthy XFL game. Due to the outrage that ensued, the rules of the league were actually changed to ensure this would not happen again. Then the league folded because it stunk.
- Sinead O’Connor’s controversial tearing of Pope John Paul II’s photograph was a surprise to everyone in the booth. In rehearsal she had held up a photo of a refugee child.
- Eleven films have been made from SNL sketches. Those that made money: Wayne’s World (both of them), The Blues Brothers, A Night At The Roxbury and Superstar. The biggest stinkers include Blues Brothers 2000 (budget: $28 million; box-office: $14 million), The Ladies Man (budget: $24 million; box-office $13.6 million), and Stuart Saves His Family (budget: $15 million; box-office: $912,000). The film It’s Pat doesn’t have a published budget, but it probably cost more than the $60,822 the movie brought in.
Saturday Night Live is currently in its 39th season. It has won 36 Emmy Awards, and slew of other accolades. The only individual Emmy winners have been Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner, but that’s because the show is a group effort. And so long as one of their self-re-inventions doesn’t tank completely, it’ll probably be on the air long after I’m gone.
Mention The War Of The Worlds to someone, and they’ll have one of four distinct reactions:
- They’ll recall images of that creepy Tom Cruise movie.
- They’ll remember stories of massive public hysteria surrounding an old radio broadcast.
- They’ll have no idea what you’re talking about because they are either too young or too culturally obtuse.
- They’ll ask you to stop pestering them, as they’re simply trying to select a second ice cream choice since the supermarket is out of Chunky Monkey, and you’re invading their personal space.
For the purposes of today’s cultural investigation, I’m most intrigued by the second one. Was the world in 1938 so naïve, so dependent on the radio as a source of factual information that they could have been nudged into an outright panic by something like this? Was Orson Welles, the producer, director and star of the show, this much of a genius? And how does a supermarket run out of Chunky Monkey? How hard is it to place a damn order with the Ben & Jerry’s people?
The Tom Cruise movie I’ll write about if I decide to stretch this project to 1200 days. (spoiler: I won’t.)
First, a bit of background: War of the Worlds is an 1898 H.G. Wells novel about aliens invading Earth. Orson Welles (no relation), who had yet to redefine the visual and narrative aesthetic potential of film with Citizen Kane, was an actor and radio performer with a penchant for creating original material. Howard Koch and Anne Froelick were pivotal cogs in Orson’s Mercury Theatre On The Air radio drama series, and together they adapted the novel, importing the story from England to New Jersey, and modernizing it into a radio-age newscast, reporting on the horrors of the invasion. Read more…
As my television dependency shifts more and more from standardized broadcast schedules to the liberating realms of Netflix and Hulu and torrent dowloads, I find myself less and less interested in the annual fall offerings of fresh meat, filtered through tried-and-tested formulae. There was a time when a new slate of pilots would whet my curiosity at the next direction of pop culture.
Looking back, the year that ultimately steered my obsession with network TV into the shallow waters of rehabilitation was 1990. Some good shows found their way out of the sludge of mediocrity that year: Law & Order, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose all popped up in 1990, but we were also handed more than our fair share of drek.
This year… who knows? I hear Seth McFarlane has a live-action sitcom and AMC is plugging the ever-loving hell out of Low Winter Sun, but that’s all I’m really aware of. Twenty-three years later and my expectations are still tempered by the crapfest from 1990. Will we ever sink this low again? My guess is probably.
This really happened. While NBC was pushing that giant Law & Order boulder down the mountain – the fragmentary pieces of which are still rolling along with a steady momentum – ABC felt that what was really missing from the standard police procedural was the bright splash of musical theatre. Read more…
Amid the seemingly infinite waterfall of random thoughts that saturate my brain and prevent it from doing anything particularly beneficial to society comes the realization that my children have grown up in a world where the Fox Network has always existed. They have never known the confines of a 12-channel world, nor have they experienced the end of a broadcast day, when content gave way to a static test pattern image (or, in some cases simply static) after a rousing rendition of the national anthem.
But then, even my own perspective of the technology is somewhat limited in scope. I remember the three-channel world (four if you count the French one) of not having cable, though I never actually experienced it myself. For me, there has always been a PBS, a CBC, a smattering of local channels and at least three equally massive networks.
But even I’m too young to remember that other network. The DuMont Network was long dead once I came around, even though its legacy deserves more than the hushed tones of seldom-referenced history.
Allen B. DuMont was an inventor. After performing some magic necessary to the birth of the medium by revolutionizing the cathode-ray tube in 1931, DuMont slapped down the first consumer-ready all-electronic television set in 1938. Throughout the 1940’s, DuMonts were the Lexus, Cadillac and BMWs of the television world. The only problem was, there wasn’t anything to watch. Read more…