Hail & Farewell.

Lest we forget.

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:

Some Of Her Best Friends Were…

Hail and farewell Anne Meara. She and Jerry Stiller were part of an early wave of performers who, through albums, brought their acts out of the nightclubs and into homes. They must have seemed like an unlikely pair which may explain why some of their funniest routines revolved around an unlikely pair finding each other. Another routine that I’ve been able to find online is Stiller and Meara playing two strangers who meet and develop a relationship when one of them calls the wrong number. It’s funny but also touching. Unlikely they may have been, but we were lucky to have them.

One Of A Kind.

Source: IMDB

Source: IMDB

With Mad Max and the Terminator back and Jurassic Park reopening, plus a slew of sequels coming to theaters this summer, it seems like everything old is new again. I often hear complaints about remakes. In fact I seem to hear the same complaint about remakes over and over, which is funny when you think about it, but that’s another story. In principle I don’t have any problem with remakes. I’ve mentioned that my favorite movie is Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, but it doesn’t bother me that I have to specify that I mean the 1956 version. There are things I like about the 1978 version, including the inside-joke-cameo by Kevin McCarthy.

The problem I have with the 2015 remake of Poltergeist isn’t that it’s a remake. The problem is the absence of Zelda Rubinstein. I’m sure Jared Harris is a fine actor, but let me be blunt: Zelda Rubinstein was perfectly cast in the original because she may have been physically small but projected being psychically strong. She carried herself with grace and strength. The original Poltergeist is full of strong women, but Rubinstein’s Tangina towers over all of them. The first time I heard her say, “This house is clean” I expected the credits to roll. I can’t imagine anyone would want to mess with her, but it seemed like anyone who did would regret it.

Maybe that’s why her work to fight AIDS in what only seemed like the disease’s early days—it had been around for years, but Rubinstein’s work began in 1984—was so powerful to me.

AIDS and HIV have only affected me indirectly. I can’t speak to, or even imagine, the horror suffered by those who lost those they loved, especially in the early days when the disease was so poorly understood. The closest I could come was someone else’s experience. A friend of mine who was a few years older lost his first longtime partner to AIDS. They had been separated for several years. It was the partner’s diagnosis and hospitalization that brought them back together briefly. One summer when I was home from college my friend told me the whole story. His partner had died only a short time before and I did what I could to help him through his grief. He never said so, but I knew from the way he described it that his time with his partner was the happiest time of his life. We’d go to restaurants and sit and he would tell me how they used to climb a hill overlooking Centennial Park and spend the night there just talking.

Even before I met him, even before I knew anyone I knew was gay the tragedy of AIDS saddened me. Kids I knew would make tasteless jokes about it and I hated them. Maybe it scared and saddened them too and that was their way of dealing with it, but I don’t want to let them off the hook. It was a scary thing to a teenage boy, even one who had almost no chance of being infected with HIV, but that doesn’t matter. Those of us who were hitting puberty during the AIDS crisis should have been able to sympathize, to know that joking about AIDS wasn’t wrong, but joking about the victims was. The subtext of every AIDS joke I heard at the time was “if you have AIDS you deserve it”. Sadly the kids who told those jokes were just repeating what they’d heard from adults, but as teenage boys we should have been smarter and more understanding. Our bodies were surging with hormones that were almost screaming at us to have sex, and the news was telling us “Sex can kill you.” The one AIDS joke that made me laugh was when a kid sitting next to me in math class leaned over and whispered, “I’m so scared of it I’m wearing a condom right now.” There was also a Bloom County strip that reflected the dating scene at the time that also tickled me.

Maybe that’s why when I thought about AIDS all I cared about is that it was a disease and it was killing people. Whom it killed didn’t matter to me. It did matter to others, though. It mattered enough that there was a stigma surrounding it that fed the fear. AIDS was popularly considered a “gay disease”, but the fear was directed at anyone who had it. When I was sixteen one of my teachers read a story to the class about a boy with hemophilia who’d gotten HIV from a blood transfusion. His neighbors drove past his house chanting “KILL HIM! KILL HIM!” This fear spread even to those who worked with or even knew anyone with AIDS.

Here’s my version of an 80’s AIDS joke: how do you find out who your real friends are? Get HIV.

It’s against that backdrop that Zelda Rubinstein took part in the LA CARES advertising campaign. I remember seeing one of the ads in a magazine and thinking, “Hey, that’s the lady from Poltergeist. She’s so cool!”

This was the ad I saw. I didn't realize it was just one in a larger campaign. Source: The Advocate

This was the ad I saw. I didn’t realize it was just one in a larger campaign.
Source: The Advocate

Hollywood, where, within a few years red ribbons would become ubiquitous, didn’t think she was so cool at the time. She didn’t work for a year after publicly speaking out about AIDS. In case you think there just might not have been any roles for her check out her IMDB page and note how much she worked, which makes the absence of any credits for 1985 very conspicuous.

Was Poltergeist about AIDS? Not intentionally, and not even unintentionally since it was released in 1982, and it’s probably a bad idea to even try to tie the two, but let me offer some thoughts. The film was called “Poltergeist”, suggesting a single entity, but the haunting is caused by a group of ghosts. We speak of a disease as a single thing but it’s the manifestation of a multitude of organisms. The Freeling family notices odd things at first, but they’re afraid to talk to their neighbors openly about it. They retreat into their home and only turn to professional help when they lose their daughter. They don’t do anything to deserve being tormented. And then there’s that tagline: “It knows what scares you.” (It’s been changed to “They know what scares you” for the remake.) Sexual contact is the most common way HIV spreads. I don’t care how casual a hookup seems. Sex is always intimate contact which makes HIV a disease shared by intimacy. It also forced people who’d kept part of themselves secret, who’d been afraid to admit to the world who they really were, to come out. And for others, like my friend, there was nothing more terrifying than losing someone he loved. So many lost their lives. So many others lost everything else.

On the other hand the Freeling family escapes in the end. People with AIDS often disappeared, but there was no escape from the disease.

Zelda Rubinstein, who worked to make the world a better place, was born May 28th, 1933. She passed away January 27th, 2010. She lived to see HIV infection become a treatable disease even if there still is no cure. There will never be another one like her.

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