Hail & Farewell.

Lest we forget.

It’s A Post About Garry Shandling.

As a kid I watched a lot of sitcoms even though I felt like they insulted my intelligence. And, let’s face it, most of them, even the smart ones, did. The idea that the same group of usually “average” people would spend most of their time in one location, usually a living room, making witty remarks at each other is pretty ridiculous. Even the smart ones required a pretty large helping of suspended disbelief because the cast and crew know the biggest joke is the one in plain sight: the idea that this spectacle is supposed to be real. And then one night I tuned into a sitcom that took a sledgehammer to the fourth wall. Actors spoke into the camera and there were even cutaways to the audience. It was one of the rare times I could watch a sitcom knowing the laughter wasn’t canned. With It’s Garry Shandling’s Show Garry Shandling was a sitcom emperor who came out saying, “Yeah, I know I’m not wearing ‘new clothes’. I’m naked,” and invited everyone to laugh.

Some other comedians or actors couldn’t pull it off. They’d either be too sharply sarcastic to sustain the joke or they’d fall prey to the cheap sentimentality that got into other sitcoms. Shandling was a comedic alchemist who could be sharply satirical but likable at the same time. My favorite moment of the show was when Jeff Goldblum was the guest star. Shandling says his “neighbor’s son” is such a huge Goldblum fan “he’s seen The Big Chill fifteen times, he’s seen The Fly seventeen times, and he’s seen almost all of Transylvania 6-5000.” It was hilarious and I’m also pretty sure it was improvised because Goldblum seemed genuinely surprised.

It’s that same alchemy that I think makes Shandling’s film What Planet Are You From? an underappreciated romantic comedy classic. He took an overwrought comedy cliché—the differences between men and women—and broke it down. If you really think it’s as simple as men are from Mars and women are from Venus, Shandling seemed to be saying, you must not be from this planet. Roger Ebert called it “an exercise in feel-good smut” but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Shandling was trying to elevate the most lowbrow kind of humor. Some other comedians wouldn’t have been able to pull off the gag of a hyperactive alien penis, but I think he succeeded because of his comedic alchemy which was so unique I have to wonder, what planet was he from?

Hail and farewell Garry Shandling.

Sponsored By The Monongahela Steel Foundry, Makers Of Ingots For The Home.

Sometimes all it takes to make something funny is to give reality just the tiniest nudge. Take for instance, reporter Wally Ballou touring the historic Sturdley House, home of Fabian Sturdley, which was going to be torn down to build a combination bowling alley and car wash before a group of civic-minded citizens banded together to save it. A tour of the Sturdley House takes approximately four and a half minutes and you can see Mr. Sturdley’s collection of National Geographics as well as his picture of a blank Mount Rushmore. Not too many of those around.

That, of course, comes from the comedy duo Bob and Ray. After more than forty years of working on radio together they were separated in 1990 when Ray Goulding passed away. Bob Elliott continued working, including appearing with his son Chris Elliott. Bob played Chris’s father on the show Get A Life. That sounds like a premise for a Bob And Ray bit: What’s it like playing your son’s father on television?

Their wit was dry as a bone and I think that’s what keeps me going back and listening to it. Or reading it since a lot of it works just as well in print—their book From Approximately Coast To Coast…It’s Bob And Ray includes some great bits, including an interview with historian Alfred E. Nelson whose history of the United States mistakenly puts the Civil War in 1911. Nelson admits that’s a mistake and goes on, “I could have checked by asking almost anybody. But, here again, when I sit down at the typewriter, I just like to take off and go. Know what I mean?”

In a genuine interview with Mike Sacks, collected in Poking A Dead Frog, Elliott said, “We did what we wanted to do and we got away with it. And it was fun.”

Yes. Yes it was. Hail and farewell Bob Elliott.

As a final twist I first learned about them from a 1979 NBC television special. The clip below includes one of my favorite things ever, which starts at the 7:33 mark. If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing skip to that. It’s four and a half minutes you won’t regret.

He Licked The Big C.

schimmel

In the late 1990‘s, when the web was still a novelty, long before YouTube, there was a website, khaha.com. It’s defunct now. It played continuous streaming comedy, mostly standup bits from every comedian you’ve ever heard of and quite a few you’ve never heard of. Doing some mindless task I’d sit and revel in the jokes. One voice stood out. Did he just say what I think he said? This is the filthiest thing I’ve ever heard. And then I started laughing. And I started listening for the sharp-tongued sarcasm of Robert Schimmel, whose birthday is today.

Unlike other X-rated comedians Schimmel often made himself the butt of the joke–sometimes literally. He told a joke about a woman suggesting he try anal beads. He balked at first but then thought, who’s gonna know? Beat. “So I’m in the emergency room…”

He also sometimes went too far. As he told an audience he’d been banned from a late night talk show after telling a joke about the time his dentist said, “You’re gonna feel a little prick in your mouth…”

And he wasn’t always dirty either. He applied that same intense wit to everyday situations, like his daughter’s pet rabbit.

I got her a rabbit like Easter time and about three days later it’s actin’ real sick and it’s just layin’ around and my wife goes, Gee, maybe we should take him to the vet. I said, Yeah, why don’t you just let me take him for a drive? I’m not gonna take a five dollar rabbit to the vet.

Beat. “So we’re at the vet…”

It didn’t surprise me that Schimmel was recognized as a major new talent. He got an HBO special and a sitcom deal.

And then came cancer. Specifically non-Hodgkins lymphoma. In his book Cancer On $5 A Day* (*chemo not included) he describes getting the diagnosis.

“Just my luck,” I say. “I get the one not named after the guy.”

He has a show that night. He then goes on,

I realize instinctively that even though I’ve been told I have cancer, I haven’t been told that I’m going to die. And to prove it, I’m going to do the one and only thing that shows that I am very much alive.

I am going to make the audience laugh.

The original title of his book, by the way, was I Licked The Big C. When he was in remission he went on a late night talk show. He opened with, “I licked the big C!” When the audience’s cheers and applause died down he added, “And I beat cancer!”

The joke wasn’t just cut by the producers. They stopped taping and took him backstage for a little chat.

When I got my own cancer diagnosis I thought of Schimmel. His doctor told him, “If you can keep your sense of humor you’re going to be okay.” I’d read his book years earlier and I didn’t just remember the jokes. I also remembered how honest he was about the trauma of chemotherapy, and a conversation he had at his lowest point with his father. His parents survived the Holocaust, and the conversation saved his life.

I have mixed feelings about sharing this because even though Schimmel beat cancer, even though he went on to make jokes about how he celebrated remission by swimming with dolphins and was told not to stick anything in the blowhole–”What’d I spend fifty bucks on then?”–he died in September 2010 following a car wreck.

But four years later I knew if I could keep my sense of humor I could lick the big C.

Hail and farewell Robert Schimmel. And happy birthday.

 

Pause.

Great acting is not becoming another character. It’s using your unique gifts and putting yourself into a character to give words on a page, an imagined situation, real life and depth. Alan Rickman was an actor who embodied that. Whether the role was drama or deadpan comedy, which he did so well, it was what he brought to it that made it special.

Hail and farewell.

Want An Axe To Break The Ice, Wanna Come Down Right Now.

It’s hard to imagine a world without Major Tom or Ziggy Stardust. Hail and farewell David Bowie.

Check out this short appreciation of Bowie by Mark Dery, author of All the Young Dudes: Why Glam Rock Matters, who says,

We live in an age where no one is ugly, an article of P.C. faith whose corollary is, of course, that no one is beautiful, but like Wilde I believe devoutly that beauty, and certainly style, can be their own profundity.

Poke In The Eye.

pokeA single stalk of pokeweed came up in the backyard. I recognized it by its bright red stem and its black shiny berries, little oblate spheroids that somehow I knew even as a kid were poisonous, although it was fun to squeeze the juice out of them and write stuff on concrete in dark purple. Except I would later learn pokeweed isn’t always poisonous. Woody Allen’s line that everything our parents said was good for us—milk, sunlight,, red meat, college—actually turned out to be bad for us has its opposite, at least in nature. Plants that are normally toxic—pokeweed, milkweed, stinging nettle—can be edible if you boil them to death. And in the case of pokeweed you have to get the very young leaves when it first comes up in the spring, before it’s put up a stalk. People boil it and eat it, and call it “poke sallet”—not salad, which is what I first thought they were saying, before I saw it in print. I’m not a big fan of leafy greens. I like them best in the form of sag paneer, which is Indian for “creamed spinach”, but I’m kind of tempted by pokeweed, or I would be if I could spot it before it’s branched out. I always forget it Every time I see pokeweed I think of Jerry Thompson. He was a columnist for The Tennessean, back when it was a newspaper and not just a stack of printed coupons. I’m old enough to remember the morning paper being delivered, and I started reading Jerry Thompson’s columns in the fifth or sixth grade. I don’t know why, but I noticed one morning that he’d written something snarky about Barbie ditching Ken and taking up with a sketchy character named Rio. And it was funny to me that this was newsworthy. So “Thompson’s Station”, with his ruminations on everything from pop culture to the good old days when he did things like throw cats on his father’s bare back and accidentally shoot roosters. And there was the time he and a cousin took a snort of an uncle’s moonshine. His uncle kept a jug in the barn “for medicinal purposes”, and Thompson and his cousin weren’t happy when they learned it was flavored with pokeweed root, which may or may not be poisonous but tastes really awful.

My senior year in high school I took a creative writing class. And writing was only part of the class. We also had to submit. The teacher would let us thumb through her copy of The Writer’s Market in search of places that might take the contributions of high school students. And I found some. I had a real knack for finding small publications that had ceased or simply disappeared even though they were still listed as active. Some of my fellow students got their first rejection letters. All I got was envelopes marked “Return to sender”.

The teacher also brought in a few local writers. I was really excited that Jerry Thompson was one of them. By that time I’d learned that he didn’t just write a funny daily column. He’d had a long career as a journalist. He’d been the first journalist to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, and had written a book about it, My Life In The Klan. I had to explain to a black friend that it was intended to be an exposé of the organization and not a recruiting manual when he saw me reading it. Maybe I should have kept it hidden under my copy of Rooster Bingo, Thompson’s other book, which was a collection of his lighter newspaper columns, although if I’d looked like I was trying to hide it that might have come across as even more suspicious. Thompson in person turned out to be a lot like his columns: gentle and kind and funny and laid back. He told a few jokes and a few stories. Aside from mentioning his love of poke sallet—something he brought up regularly–I really don’t remember anything specific he said, but I do remember he had the longest eyelashes I’d ever seen on anyone.

After each writer visited we were supposed to write a thank-you letter to them. At least that’s how I interpreted it. A girl in the

He signed my copy and added, "Dear Chris, if you ever play rooster bingo I hope you win." I feel like I lost.

He signed my copy and added, “Dear Chris, if you ever play rooster bingo I hope you win.” I feel like I lost.

class wrote a report on Thompson’s visit, describing his attitude and adding that he was really cool. It, along with my thank-you letter, was mailed to him, and Thompson wrote about it and quoted her, but didn’t mention me, his number one fan–at least in the class. Being published eluded me once again.

A few years later Jerry Thompson would be diagnosed with cancer. Since I was off at college I didn’t read his columns regularly anymore so I missed most of his fight with the disease, although on a few trips home I did see his new “Thompson’s Station” photo. Already bald when I’d met him Thompson’s new photo showed him completely hairless, eyelashes and all. He would fight the disease for eleven years before finally passing away in early 2000. Maybe I should put a marker or a small fence around that spot where that pokeweed plant came up so that next spring I’ll be able to spot it as soon as the first leaves appear, but I’ll probably forget about it until there’s a bright red stalk.

Mad Scientists.

tungstenTwo recent losses are hitting me especially hard because they take me back to my childhood. Granted I was in college before I knew who Oliver Sacks was. Like a lot of people I was introduced to him by the film Awakenings, although when I read the book I was disturbed to find the story was a lot more complicated, and a lot uglier, than the film. That’s Hollywood for you. The first book of his I read, though, was The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, which was even weirder, and funnier. I really felt a kind of kinship with Sacks when I read Uncle Tungsten. As a kid I’d had a chemistry set in my basement where, among other things, I played with mercury and melted lead and started a few fires that almost got out of control. And I was fascinated with the periodic table and bored my friends to death talking about it. Sacks had a similar experience when he was fourteen, talking to his parents about thallium on a road trip.

Sitting in the back, I was talking about thallium, rattling on and on and on about it: how it was discovered, along with indium, in the 1860s, by the brilliantly colored green line in its spectrum; how some of its salts, when dissolved, could form solutions nearly five times as dense as water; how thallium indeed was the platypus of the elements…As I babbled on, gaily, narcissistically, blindly, I did not notice that my parents, in the front seat, had fallen completely silent, their faces bored, tight, and disapproving—until after twenty minutes they could bear it no longer, and my father burst out violently: “Enough about thallium!”

That could have been me in the backseat.

About the same time that I was doing fun things like combining potassium permanganate and glycerin (try it with your kids–it’s fun!) I saw the movie Swamp Thing, which I loved. It was dark and weird and incredibly tongue-in-cheek, and I kept expecting Dr. Alec Holland to recover his human form by the end. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t. And I loved that he didn’t. I loved that science had the power to transform, to bring out the best and the worst in us, and that such transformations could be permanent. Maybe that’s why my first basement lab was an homage to Swamp Thing where I also kept jars of lichen from a vacant lot and pond scum and tiny leeches I’d collected from a creek, combining biology and chemistry. It would be several years before I’d see A Nightmare on Elm Street. I love horror films now but with my history of night terrors and sleepwalking Nightmare hit a little too close to home, but that’s another story. I didn’t realize at the time, though, that Wes Craven had also directed Swamp Thing. Craven is known as a master of horror, but let’s give the guy credit for his wicked sense of humor.

Hail and farewell Oliver Sacks and Wes Craven.

 

Shakespeare in the slums.

Happy birthday Danitra Vance. If you don’t recognize her name that’s not surprising, but also sad. She was the first African American cast member on Saturday Night Live, as well as the show’s first lesbian (although this wasn’t made public at the time). Her tenure on the show, and her life, were too brief. Born July 13th, 1954, we lost her to breast cancer a little after her fortieth birthday in 1994.

She did a few sketches on SNL, including some recurring characters, but it’s Shakespeare In The Slums that I remember. It was hilarious, but so tight I was afraid if I laughed I’d miss something.

Memory’s Labyrinth.

The loss of Christopher Lee is sad and would be for me even if the only thing I knew him from was that version of Dracula that gave me nightmares when I was a kid. As a teenager I appreciated it much more when I watched it again in my bedroom very late one night. It was almost as much fun as the less well-known Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors, in which Lee plays a critic menaced by…well, I won’t give it away. It’s just brilliant. If Lee’s passing is what finally prompts a proper U.S. DVD or Blu-Ray release of Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors it will be bittersweet.

I didn’t realize it was the same actor at the time but Lee also played a brilliant mad scientist in Gremlins 2, holding his own against the Brain Gremlin. If you’ve seen Gremlins 2 you know that’s no mean feat. If you haven’t seen it you should.

Hail and farewell Christopher Lee.

Less publicized is the loss of Ron Moody. Most people will recognize him as Fagin from Oliver! For me he’ll always be Rothgo, the all-powerful wizard who’s lost his powers in Into The Labyrinth, a British series that ran on Nickelodeon in the early ‘80’s. My friend Andi and I would watch it together. Into The Labyrinth was part of Nick’s “The Third Eye”, a compilation of British and New Zealand supernatural series for children. For some reason Into The Labyrinth was the only one Andi and I watched together. She loved it. From Into The Labyrinth I learned that “souvenir” is French for “memory”.

A few years later Andi would succumb to cancer at the age of twenty-five.

Into The Labyrinth remains one of my favorite souvenirs of Andi, and of Ron Moody too.

Hail and farewell Ron Moody.

A souvenir of Christopher Lee:

And Into The Labyrinth in its entirety, a souvenir of Ron Moody:

%d bloggers like this: