Hail & Farewell.

Lest we forget.

Under The Sea.

Source: BBC

When I was a kid I wanted to be a marine biologist. My family would go on summer vacation in Florida and each day we’d go to the beach where I’d swim and collect various creatures. Then back at the house I’d draw whatever I found, or I’d draw other things—I did a lot of drawing too, and making up stories. I felt strangely divided between wanting to be a scientist and wanting to be an artist, and although I didn’t pursue a career in science I did realize that art and science aren’t that far apart—aren’t different, really. There’s a creative aspect to all scientific research, and art provides a way to share what’s learned, and both are a way of understanding the world.

Because of that I like to think of Stephen Hillenburg as a kindred spirit. We weren’t that far apart in age so I couldn’t say he was a childhood hero—although it’s a sobering thought that a child born the year Spongebob Squarepants debuted could be nineteen years old now—but we shared that duality. Hillenburg started out teaching marine biology but left it to pursue a career in art—in animation, specifically, and even though I think teachers are really important I think he had an equally important impact by giving us a world that was pure silliness.

He was also very private, and in a world where too many of our heroes or even kindred spirits turn out to have feet of clay—where we learn so much about people we admire it can be hard to keep admiring them—that’s okay. For all that I feel a connection to him personally I’d rather think I know him through the characters he created, and while, like all classic animated characters, they always sprang back to their original selves, the denizens of Bikini Bottom had personalities and emotions as deep as Rock Bottom. Consider this: Patrick Star is continually joyful and full of life and once, when asked how stupid he is, replied, “It varies.” And yet he also worked hard to impress his parents—at least until they turned out not to be his parents, and gave up the brain coral that turned him into a genius, deciding that ignorance really is bliss. Squidward, perpetually grumpy, got so fed up with Spongebob and Patrick he moved to Tentacle Acres, but realized that living with people just like him didn’t really make him happy. Sandy is a squirrel who lives underwater, the only girl in the main group, and while she occasionally gets homesick for Texas, she realized home is really where you’re surrounded by those who care about you. Mr. Krabs is a perpetual cheapskate who nevertheless is willing to spend money on his daughter and, hey, as bosses go I’ve had worse. Even Plankton, the show’s villain, has a soft side—he has a computer wife named Karen (which was also the name of Hillenburg’s wife)—and is able to let go of his quest for the Krabby Patty formula once in a while and just have fun. And then there’s Spongebob himself: he finds joy in everything, from blowing bubbles and catching jellyfish to working at a griddle and scrubbing toilets.

And there’s a wonderfully weird group of other recurring characters, from Mrs. Puffs, Spongebob’s boating instructor, to Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy. They’re a diverse enough group that almost anyone could find a kindred spirit in there, although I did once take an online quiz, “Which Spongebob character are you?” and was surprised to get the answer “Gary”, but that’s another story.

Source: Giphy

Spongebob has been with us and will be with us for a very long time, but it feels like Stephen Hillenburg was taken too soon.

Hail and farewell.

We Can Be Heroes.

I have a complicated relationship with comic books. For some reason I never had any when I was a kid. It’s not that my parents had any objections to comic books, but I don’t remember going anywhere they were for sale. When I was, I think, in second grade there was some kind of school contest and I won a single issue of <i>The Fantastic Four</i>. I don’t remember what the contest was exactly–I wasn’t really paying attention, and maybe if I had I could have won more than just a single issue, but that’s another story. And I loved it. I could never figure out where to find more, though. I hear people talk about comic books racks at the drugstore or the grocery store, and eventually, when I was in my teens, the bookstores in the mall had racks with offerings from Marvel and DC, but at that point I’d moved on. I was making regular trips every Thursday–new comic day–to a local comic book store where I spent my money on mostly independent titles. I liked, if I could, to pick up a comic from issue one so I wouldn’t miss any of the backstory. I avoided the old classics because the size and depth of their universes intimidated me. My friends were all big X-Men fans and yet I avoided it because I felt I’d missed so much. I was fascinated by them–and several times seriously considered getting back into Spider-Man, my childhood hero–but kept my distance.

And yet there had been a glorious summer, maybe in between second and third grade–I don’t really remember because I wasn’t paying attention–when every afternoon the local UHF station ran a series of Marvel cartoons from 1966, and, starved for superhero action, I soaked up a good dose of Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man, and Namor of Atlantis. The stories were great but at first the animation seemed a little shoddy and goofy to me–characters barely moved, and the design seemed, well, flat. Over time it grew on me, though, and I realized these were faithful interpretations of the originals. The quality of the animation may have been intended to save on costs, but it also captured the spirit of the comic books. I like to think the singular genius behind all of these characters, Stan Lee, had a hand in making the comic books characters he created and helped write the stories for, accessible. And that he got a kick out of the catchy theme songs. They opened me up to the worlds of comic book stories, and those comic books I collected in my teens–that included The Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman–probably wouldn’t have existed without him.

Tom over at Tom Being Tom has a great tribute to the comic books of his youth and the profound influence Stan Lee had on him and, reading it, I realized that even before I started collecting comic books regularly Stan Lee had an influence on me too, and even that his influence reached beyond just giving us memorable comic book characters who’ve become part of our collective culture. He made it possible for us all to be part of the world of heroes.

Hail and farewell Stan Lee.

Here are some of the openings to those old cartoons. Enjoy the catchy theme songs.

Feet, And Everything Else, Of Clay.

Source: Cartoon Brew

When I was a kid I’d spend hours playing with modeling clay, creating miniature worlds and the strange creatures that inhabited them. When I was finished I’d mash them up and start over again, although what I really wanted to do was Claymation. Some magic tricks are even more impressive when you know how they’re done, and after seeing how it was done that’s how I felt about Claymation. It just fascinated me that every motion, every gesture, every change of a clay figure was produced through the slow and patient work of a pair of human hands, and not that different from what I created, then destroyed, at the kitchen table. I even created characters, wrote scripts, plotted out movements, but cameras were expensive then. Well, they still are, but most of us carry cameras around in our pockets all the time.

What I didn’t know until I recently heard about his passing was that the genius behind a lot of the Claymation I loved so much was Will Vinton. Vinton created the term Claymation. He won a 1975 Academy Award for his short Closed Mondays, which I remember seeing bits of but not in its entirety until now—thanks, YouTube—and several other projects. His studio produced, among other advertising campaigns, the California Raisins and Domino’s Noid, which has a weird and dark history. His studio also produced the Claymation Christmas Celebration which I loved even though I’d outgrown playing with clay by the time it first aired.

I never even knew his name but he was one of my childhood heroes.

Hail and farewell Will Vinton.

Ordinary People.

Some critics complain that Neil Simon’s plays rely too much on jokes which, to me, is like complaining that Shakespeare’s plays rely too much on iambic pentameter. And Neil Simon started out as a comedy writer, along with his brother Danny, working on, among other things, Sid Caesar’s Your Show Of Shows in a writers’ room that also included Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner and I can’t begin to imagine what that was like.

His plays are generally romantic comedies, built on a style that can be traced back to ancient Greece and fairy tales–he once said his own life was “kind of a Cinderella story”–but he went beyond the traditional happy ending. Neil Simon was always interested in what happened after happily ever after. Barefoot In The Park, his second play and first big hit, picks up where most romantic comedies end, and his next and probably most famous play, The Odd Couple, centers around two divorced men. The funny thing, though, is that Oscar and Felix enter into kind of a marriage—when Oscar asks Felix to move in with him he even asks, “What do you want, a ring?” And then they end up going their separate ways, although they’ll always have the weekly poker game. Even in his later plays Simon keeps returning to the themes of divorce and how families break up or stay together. In the semi-autobiographical Lost In Yonkers it’s mostly seen from children’s perspective, reflecting how, when he was young, Simon’s father deserted the family for long periods and his mother took in boarders to pay the bills while sometimes sending her sons to live with relatives. Simon said, “The horror of those years was that I didn’t come from one broken home but five.” Escaping into comedy, starting with the films of Charlie Chaplin, was how he survived.

Even though comedies traditionally end on a happy note many of his plays, his best plays, have open or ambiguous endings. While he always affirmed the human desire to survive he also reminded us that after every ever after there’s another story, another beginning. His characters and plays realistic–only once does a character break the fourth wall and talk to the audience, in Jake’s Women–but he also wants them to find happiness and fulfillment, and they find it through laughter. He said, “I used to ask, ‘What is a funny situation?’ Now I ask, ‘What is a sad situation and how can I tell it humorously?'”

Here’s a better line, one that could be a philosophy for life: in Laughter On The 23rd Floor, a tribute to that old writers’ room, one of his characters says, “I knew then and there that if I was going to keep my job I’d have to become as totally crazy as the rest of them.”

Hail and farewell Neil Simon.

Her Conviction.

Source: Goodreads

Maybe you have, or had, an older family member, an aunt, say, who was nice to you but whom you never thought that much about because you only saw her at family gatherings. She’d take an interest in you, give you a piece of cake and some milk, and ask about what you were up to, what you liked. And you never thought to ask her anything about herself and you only discovered later in your own life that she had a rich history, that she was intelligent and interesting and there were so many things you wish you could have asked her.

If you know that feeling then you’ll understand when I say that’s kind of how I feel when I heard about the passing of Charlotte Rae. Yes, she never took any interest in me personally—we never crossed paths, and I know it’s weird to feel that way about someone I really only knew as a television character, but I was seven when Diff’rent Strokes debuted and once a week lost myself in the goings on of the Drummond family. And even though I thought it was the kids I related to there was something about Rae’s Mrs. Garrett that was warm and familiar; there were women like her in my family, although none of them lived with us.

It’s a surprise to me now that she only spent one season on Diff’rent Strokes. I immersed myself in The Facts Of Life too–yeah, I was a kid who watched too much television–but in my memory it’s as though she lived in both the Drummond house and Eastland School simultaneously. The younger cast members may technically have been the focus of both shows but she was a vital part of both.

And it never occurred to me at the time that she had a rich history and an interesting life outside of those shows. Her memoir, The Facts Of My Life, co-written with her younger son Larry Strauss, traces her history from the pogroms of the early 20th century that drove her family out of Russia and to the United States, through her career in cabaret and television–including a stint on Car 54, Where Are You? as Al Lewis’s wife Sylvia Schnauser. The Facts Of My Life opens, though, in 1971 while Rae was working on Sesame Street as Molly The Mail Lady. Her older son Andy had been put in Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric treatment following a violent outburst just before his sixteenth birthday. It was a tough time for her and she says,

I had to be back on Sesame Street in the morning delivering mail to Oscar The Grouch and Big Bird and those bright-eyed children who would sit on my lap. They were so adorable and precious and I was in such pain. I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t think I could do another scene with those beautiful children. I tried to talk myself into it: Come on, Charlotte. You’re an actress. You can love them and admire them and admire and marvel at them.

That was really only the latest in a series of difficulties and things would get a lot harder for her.

Something else I didn’t even think about until now is that Rae was also a singer, and in an odd coincidence this morning on my way to work I was shuffling through songs on my phone and “My Conviction” from the Hair soundtrack popped up. I’ve listened to that whole album countless times and yet it never occurred to me that it’s Charlotte Rae singing, that, in addition to her talents for acting and comedy, she had some serious pipes too.

Hail and farewell Charlotte Rae.

Answering The Call.

Source: NPR

The clock radio in our bedroom wakes up my wife and I. It’s set to NPR and for years most weekday mornings we’d be stirred out of sleep by the gentle baritone of Carl Kasell reading the morning headlines. There was something comforting about his voice, even when it was bad news, and he was as much a part of my morning routine as taking a shower, brewing coffee, taking the dogs out, and flossing my toes. Then he went away and while his successors were fine it was never quite the same. Then an odd little comedy news quiz called Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me! started up, hosted by the guy who wrote Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights, Peter Sagal. Every fool has to have his straight man and it was Carl Kasell who stepped in. He was as somber and professional as the show’s scorekeeper as he was when reading the headlines, although every once in a while it I’d hear a strange, low rumbling. It took a while before I could get used to the sound of Kasell laughing. Now he didn’t wake us up in the mornings but he accompanied us on errands around town and on road trips, for an hour, anyway, or until we drove out of broadcasting range.
Kasell was always honest that in its early days Wait! Wait! just wasn’t that good but, to their credit, the powers that be at NPR allowed some tweaks to the show, including the addition of a live audience, that made it great. They recognized that it had potential, or maybe they just liked the prize: lucky listeners would get Carl Kasell to record the outgoing message on their home answering machine.
Several years ago when Wait! Wait! came to Nashville and was recorded at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center my wife surprised me with tickets and we got to go. It was fun seeing the panel banter back and forth with Peter and talk to the “Not My Job” guest Vince Gill, but what made it really special was that, off to one side of the stage at his own podium, was Carl Kasell. No offense to his successor who does a fine job, but I was so glad to finally get a good look at the man who joined us in our car and came into our bedroom every morning for so many years.
Hail and farewell Carl Kasell.


Hat Trick.

Source: NBC.com

In one episode of the TV show Night Court Judge Harry Stone meets a younger version of himself: a kid in a three-piece suit and a fedora who does magic tricks. Faced with this window into his past the judge moans, “Oh God, I was a geek!” And I said, what? No! Judge Harry Stone is cool!

For some of us who grew up with Night Court’s original run from early 1984 to May of 1993—because it was strategically placed right after Cheers I watched it from the very beginning—the show is part of, and even represents, a cultural change that happened during that time. The 1970’s preached non-conformity but it was really the ‘80’s that embraced it. Night Court started off more or less grounded in reality but its throwaway lines and then whole plots became increasingly surreal. Night Court made it hip to be square, or polygonal, and at its heart its stabilizing influence was the barely stable Judge Harry Stone, prankster, magician, and Mel Torme fan, played by the prankster, magician, and Mel Torme fan Harry Anderson.

While his Judge Stone character was squeaky clean it tickled me when Anderson showed up occasionally on Cheers as the grifter Harry The Hat, and when he hosted Saturday Night Live and stuffed a guinea pig in his mouth and shot magician Doug Henning in the back. I liked it that he had a dark side, and that it was just as weird as his light side.

I know he did more TV after Night Court finished, but it wasn’t until I heard about his untimely passing that I thought about how much Night Court and Harry Anderson warped my adolescent mind. In 2006 he moved to Asheville, North Carolina. I have cousins there who take pride in that city being known for its weirdness and openness and being labelled a “cesspool of sin”. It seems fitting that Harry Anderson, who helped some of us embrace our own weirdness, would live in a place that embraced it right back.

Hail and farewell Harry Anderson.



Looking Outward.

Source: Wikipedia

In 2010 Stephen Hawking said that humans should stop sending signals out into space because we run the risk of letting aliens know we’re here. According to Hawking it could be very bad if aliens find us, and he compared it to Europeans discovering Native Americans. The Europeans did bring syphilis and smallpox, but they also brought horses, so aliens could potentially do something similar.

I really do respect Stephen Hawking and I don’t think he offered up his opinion lightly. He has a history of carefully thinking things through. When he was at Oxford-–this is absolutely true-–he was a lazy and unmotivated student but told his professors that if they gave him a first he’d leave to go study at Cambridge and if they gave him a second he’d stay at Oxford. So naturally they gave him a first.

I once did something similar: I managed to pass sixth grade math by telling the teacher that if she flunked me I’d just come back the next year, but that’s another story. Sometimes I imagine his old Oxford professors getting sloppy drunk. One of them says, “Dude, we let Stephen Hawking go.” And the other one says, “He was such a slacker then. How could we know he was gonna write bestselling books and play poker with Data and Einstein on the Enterprise holodeck? And stop calling me ‘dude’. We’re both in our nineties.”

If I could ask Stephen Hawking one question, though, it would be, “What led you to the conclusion that aliens are a threat? And show your work.” I have to include “show your work” because, even though I’m pretty sure he didn’t just leap to this conclusion I would like to know how he arrived at it. I think Hawking may be completely wrong about aliens, but it’s an interesting question to debate, and I credit Hawking with making me think about my own position.

The problem I have with the assumption that aliens are going to come and put an interstellar smackdown on us if we let them know we’re here is that, as far as I know, we really don’t know what aliens are like or what their interests are. I think Hawking was right when he said the universe is likely teeming with life, and given how diverse life is just on this planet whatever forms that life takes are likely very strange, even unrecognizable. If he’s smart enough to have figured that out, though, he should be smart enough to realize that if aliens are capable of advanced interstellar travel they’re probably already aware of us. And if they’re not aware of us they’ve probably already scanned this solar system and discovered that there’s a nice rocky little planet full of water and silicon and heavy metals and Viagra and whatever else they might need to continue their galactic cruise. And if their technology is that advanced then everything we have is theirs for the taking whether we advertise our sentience or not. That’s also why I admit that Hawking may be right. I hope someday we’ll meet aliens on friendly terms, but the universe is a cold, hostile place. Some nights when I look out and see the moon cut into pieces by the spreading branches of a tree I wonder what is out there and I am afraid.

Hail and farewell Stephen Hawking.

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