Hail & Farewell.

Lest we forget.

The Never Ending Performer.

Source: The Forward

I don’t know where to begin with Carl Reiner.

There’s a story that a fifteen-year old Albert Brooks got his start in show business when he did a backyard bit for a friend’s uncle. The bit was about Houdini who was supposed to make a big entrance but he couldn’t get the door open, and it was so funny the uncle literally fell out of his chair laughing.

The uncle was none other than Carl Reiner who, at the time, was already a comedy legend, having worked on Your Show Of Shows, where he met his lifelong friend Mel Brooks (no relation to Albert), and he would be in his second or third year of The Dick Van Dyke Show, as well as one or two years after a role in Gidget Goes Hawaiian.

Technically that’s not a story about Carl Reiner think it’s just one example of how Reiner was a magnet for funny and talented people, and not just a magnet—he made them, and everything he was part of, funnier and better. Except, maybe, Gidget Goes Hawaiian.

He was an incredible presence. Like a lot of people I know reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show were a daily fact of life for me, whether midday in the summer or after school in the winter, and I’m kind of surprised to find he only appeared in thirty-two episodes because some of those episodes are the ones that I remember best.

And then there’s The Two Thousand Year Old Man which I still listen to regularly—the last time was just a few months ago, which I had on an album and then a cassette and then a CD and I think it will last so long it’ll go through two thousand formats, but that’s another story—and while the first hundred or so times I listened to it I laughed at Mel Brooks I began to also pay attention to Reiner, and just how perfectly and deliberately he’d set up each bit. Carl Reiner could be a really funny guy himself but he also knew exactly when to step aside and let someone else have the spotlight. In fact he was, metaphorically, the one holding the spotlight, illuminating others, unseen but nevertheless vital. See also: just thirty two episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show.

So it’s no surprise he seemed to be working right up until the very end, probably because he was working right up until the very end. I’m surprised that the episode of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee he and Mel did was released eight years ago. It seems more recent than that, maybe because I’ve watched it more recently than that, but also because he was so brilliant and so hard working and had such a legendary career that I don’t even know how to end except to say that there is no end to Carl Reiner.

Hail and farewell.

Just Tryin’ To Have Me Some Fun.

Source: Bandcamp

I’ve been trying to come up with something to say about the recent passing of two legends, some way to tie them together, but I can’t. So here are two unrelated stories.

Living in Nashville means I’m even less than the usual six degrees of separation from some famous musicians, and I was reminded of that one day when I was talking to a coworker from Ireland. Her husband is a drummer, and while not technically famous he did teach the guy who played the drummer in the film The Commitments, which I’d seen way back during its initial release in 1991, when I was in Cork, Ireland. That is the best place in the world to see that film but even if you’re not in Ireland I still highly recommend it, but that’s another story. Anyway the coworker and I got onto the subject of snooker and she said her husband played snooker all the time.  Since it requires a special table, one that’s not usually found in Nashville pool halls, I asked, “Where does he go to play snooker?”

“Oh, he goes to John Prine’s house,” she said casually. And I got a bit sarcastic and said, “Oh, well, we’ve all been to John Prine’s house.”

And then I immediately felt like a schmuck because she wasn’t deliberately name-dropping. And Prine, I believe, is the sort of super cool guy who never let fame go to his head and who, if we’d had the chance to meet, probably wouldn’t hesitate to invite me to his house. He was a very funny guy, too, as anyone who’s heard his songs Illegal Smile, Dear Abby, or, especially poignant after his passing, Please Don’t Bury Me, knows. And, as much as I love his music, somehow it just made John Prine even more cool to me knowing that he played snooker.

Hail and farewell John Prine.

And then I was taken back to 1982 and the release of The Empire Strikes Back. Like, well, pretty much my entire generation, I was an enormous Star Wars fan, and loved Empire. And then, making it even better, MAD Magazine hit the stands with The Empire Strikes Out. And it was hilarious. More than that, though, it was a piece of Star Wars that was tangible, that I could enjoy outside the theater. This was before VCRs, even before Star Wars would be screened on cable, so the MAD Magazine parody was as close as I could get to watching Empire again and again, at least as long as I was at a friend’s house, since I couldn’t have my own copy, but that’s another story.

Source: The Star Wars Unofficial Parody Site

I couldn’t articulate it at the time but I sensed that whoever had done the artwork for The Empire Strikes Out loved Star Wars as much as I did. I also didn’t know at the time that the artist was Mort Drucker, who passed away recently, or that Drucker’s work, being so close to the mark, caused a minor kerfuffle. This is from his Wikipedia page:

When the magazine’s parody of The Empire Strikes Back was published in 1980, drawn by Drucker, the magazine received a cease and desist letter from George Lucas‘ lawyers demanding that the issue be pulled from sale, and that Mad destroy the printing plates, surrender the original art, and turn over all profits from the issue. Unbeknownst to them, George Lucas had just sent Mad an effusive letter praising the parody, and declaring, “Special Oscars should be awarded to Drucker and DeBartolo, the George Bernard Shaw and Leonardo da Vinci of comic satire.” Publisher Gaines mailed a copy of the letter to Lucas’ lawyers with a handwritten message across the top: “That’s funny, George liked it!”  There was no further communication on the matter.

That’s almost as funny as the parody itself.

Hail and farewell, Mort Drucker.

They may be buried but neither one will be forgotten.

A Minute Of Silence, Please.

Source: BBC Radio 4

I used to listen to BBC Radio 4 a lot. And by “a lot” I mean at least four or five hours a day at work, usually while working on mundane tasks. Sometimes it was just background noise but when I heard Chopin’s Minute Waltz I turned my full attention to the radio because that meant it was time for Just A Minute. Just A Minute, if you’ve never heard of it, or heard it, is a quiz show with a four-person panel. A panel member would be given a topic and would have to speak on it for a full minute without hesitation, repetition, or deviation. If they do any of these another panel member can challenge. The challenger can then get the subject for the remainder of the minute—even if it’s just a second. Points are awarded for successful challenges and for speaking when the timer goes off.
Hesitation and repetition are easy but the definition of “deviation” has deviated over the years. Originally it was deviation from the subject but it’s been applied to deviations from “English as she is spoke”, from the facts, or even from logic. When Sir Clement Freud mentioned that his son had just given birth to a grandson Paul Merton challenged, saying that so far no one’s son has given birth.
The host from the show’s start, when it was called A Minute Please, and for the more than four decades it ran was Sir Nicholas Parsons. Friendly, subtly witty, and never seeking the spotlight himself Parsons was the perfect host. He also hosted the TV version of Just A Minute. A friend of mine who grew up in Britain tells me he also hosted a TV game show called Sale Of The Century, which I’ve never seen, and which my friend says “was an awful game show, but when you only have three channels…” And he added that Parsons himself was always a classy but warm and friendly host. On Just A Minute he was a funny, kind, and always fair arbiter, the sort of guy you’d want refereeing any competition. His old-fashioned gentility is probably why another British friend made fun of me for liking him so much. “You and my gran,” she said, “could have a nice cuppa and sit together and listen to that.” That was part of the fun, though: it really was a show for all ages. Maybe this is where I confess that one of my life goals was to be a panelist on Just A Minute.

Just A Minute ran for fifty-two years and some of its panelists include Eddie Izzard, Rob Brydon, David Tennant, Sandi Toksvig, and Miriam Margolyes. Graham Norton was a regular panelist, stepping out of his usual host role, and while he rarely got challenged for hesitation he had a hilarious way of drawing out syllables, obviously playing for time.

The length of the show’s run meant that Parsons was still hosting at the age of ninety-six, and in all those years only missed one show, due to illness. He also had a fascination with clocks–he tinkered with watches as a hobby, and in 2016 hosted the documentary The Incredible Story of Marie Antoinette’s Watch. Maybe this is where I confess that one of my life goals wasn’t just to be a panelist on Just A Minute but also wear one of my pocket watches and talk to Parsons about why they never should have gone out of fashion, but that’s another story.

Hail and farewell Sir Nicholas Parsons. I won’t hesitate to say your charm will never be repeated, and no one will accuse me of deviation for saying so.

And, seriously, here’s an episode of Just A Minute. Take a listen and you’ll be amazed how the time flies by.

He’s Quite Dead.

“Who’s your favorite Python?”

This is a question that always stumped me. It’s like giving me a piece of chocolate cake and asking what my favorite ingredient is. For a friend of mine, though, the question was always an easy one.

“Terry Jones. He’s so wonderful as a grumpy old woman.”

There’s no question that there was a particular type he played better than any other. Whether he was the mother of a reluctant martyr in The Life of Brian, the more sympathetic mother of a young man who’s disgraced his novelist father by becoming a coal miner, or slinging Spam he was always brilliant.

I’ve enjoyed his documentaries that he played—mostly—straight. For me, nothing will ever surpass Herbert, the young prince who just wanted to sing from Monty Python & The Holy Grail, although so many of his other lines just from that film made it into regular conversations with my friends. Seriously, we couldn’t get through a day without saying, “And that, my liege, is how we know the Earth to be banana-shaped” or “What, the curtains?” or “Oh Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down here!”

He was also a prolific author who wrote serious works on history as well as fairy tales and books for children like Strange stains and mysterious smells: Quentin Cottington’s Journal of faery research. Somehow I’ve missed that book up until now but I’ll have to pick it up.

And I’ll never forget the evening that I was with some friends in a British pub, sitting around chatting quietly. We were talking, for some reason, about the baggage retrieval at Heathrow, and the jukebox, by itself, suddenly started playing “I’m So Worried”. It was as though he was right there with us.

Hail and farewell Terry Jones.





Dead Again.

Several years ago I was at a science fiction convention and wandered into a room where an author I wanted to meet was supposed to speak, except he didn’t show up, so they had an alternate speaker who I thought was even better. It was the cartoonist and author Gahan Wilson.

I was already familiar with Wilson’s work because my parents occasionally had issues of The New Yorker lying around the house and I didn’t read the articles but I did look at the pictures, and my father also had a collection of Playboy issues and I didn’t read the articles there either but I did look at the pictures—and by “pictures” of course I mean Gahan Wilson’s cartoons.

Wilson started with a story about the origin of one of his most famous cartoons. National Lampoon was looking for cartoons with the caption, “Is nothing sacred?”

He didn’t have a copy of the cartoon he drew. He just described it to us. At first there were a few chuckles through the audience, then more of us started giggling, and by the time he got to the punchline the whole room was laughing.

Source: The Best Of Gahan Wilson, 2005

And the coup de grâce was when he said, “National Lampoon thought it was too weird so Playboy bought it instead.”

National Lampoon would publish his long-running series Nuts, a sort of response to Peanuts, which Wilson didn’t think represented childhood accurately enough.

Source: Comics Bulletin

His cartoons were wonderfully morbid—like Charles Addams or Gary Larson, but even more out there, and even more obsessed with death and disease. Several are set in doctor’s offices. It’s fitting that there’s a 2013 documentary about him called Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird. Sometimes his cartoons even contained a touch of social commentary.

Source: Barnes & Noble

It’s hard to know what to say when someone with such a dark sense of humor as Wilson’s passes on because it’s like he beat us all to the punch. He knew all along that life has only one inevitable conclusion, and he was dying to make a joke about it.

Hail and farewell, Gahan Wilson.


Tears Of A Clown.

Source: Rip Taylor website

I can’t remember when I first saw Rip Taylor. It was probably on The Hollywood Squares or Match Game or, well, if you look at his IMDB credits he popped up all over the place and was unmistakable. I’ve probably forgotten where I saw him because he just overwhelmed everything else.Regardless of the role he was always Rip Taylor, the big-haired, big-moustached, confetti-throwing character sometimes known as “the crying comedian”. For most performers pretending to break down and throw themselves on the mercy of the audience would just be pathetic, but Rip Taylor made it work with a combination of charm and energy. It didn’t matter that his persona was probably as fake as his hair or that his jokes were ridiculously silly. He just made me laugh, and it’s fitting that his roles ranged from children’s shows—including just voice work—and more adult entertainment. Even when I was too young to understand the jokes other comedians made on game shows, or, for that matter, the jokes he told, I understood that Rip Taylor was funny.

It also didn’t matter that he regularly stole or recycled old jokes. If anything that was part of the fun, and I don’t feel bad about frequently stealing one of his lines. Any time I tell a joke that doesn’t go over so well I say, “This is it, folks, I don’t dance!” And that always does get a laugh, and every one of those laughs go to Rip Taylor.

Hail and farewell.

Death Of A Clown.

Source: Inquisitr

I don’t know where to begin with Tim Conway. Maybe that’s because I feel like I grew up with him, whether it was watching reruns of McHale’s Navy in the afternoons after school or watching first-runs of The Carol Burnett Show in the evenings where my favorite thing was seeing Conway break up the cast, especially Harvey Corman who, to me when I was a kid, had a kind of sinister quality. Seeing Tim Conway make Corman laugh, now that I think about it, was an early lesson for me in how comedy could make something scary safe, could rob it of its power.

Tim Conway also seemed like a big kid fumbling around among the adults, making a mess of things but, like any kid, able to get away with it because of his naiveté. Even when he played adult characters, like Mr. Tudball, the overbearing boss, he seemed like an overgrown child, just barely able to hold up the pretense of being mature, and his old man character who provided another early lesson: we end life much the same way we begin it, helplessly shuffling along, just trying to get by.

There was also something about that face of his. Tim Conway was a natural born clown, someone who seemed almost like he wasn’t born but produced in a laboratory for comedy. It made everything he did funny. I had an aunt who took me to see his films with Don Knotts: The Apple Dumpling Gang, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, and Private Eyes. None of them were that great, but everything Tim Conway said and did made me laugh. Some comedians take on dramatic roles and earn high praise for being able to play it straight. Tim Conway never did, possibly because he never wanted to, but also because I’m pretty sure he could do Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech and it would be hilarious.

It’s even funnier, though, that in one of his last roles, reuniting with Ernest Borgnine who played the aged superhero Mermaid Man on Spongebob Squarepants, Conway was the voice of Barnacle Boy, Mermaid Man’s sidekick, and in a great reversal, the straight man. Mermaid Man was always the joke, bumbling around, in need of help, and Barnacle Boy was the competent one, occasionally calling Mermaid Man “you old coot!” And yet, true to most of the roles he played, Conway was still a child, or at least younger than his companion. In one episode Barnacle Boy even becomes a villain simply because he’s tired of always getting the child’s meal at the Krusty Krab.

Even in old age he was young, kept that way by the innocence of laughter.

Hail and farewell Tim Conway.

He Kicked The Bucket.

Source: IMDB

Walter, you are just an echo of a world I knew so long ago.
-The Kinks, Do You Remember Walter?

My parents were telling me about an art exhibit of life size sculptures they’d been to.

“It reminded me of Bucket Of Blood,” said my mother.

My father explained that A Bucket Of Blood was a movie they’d been to see when they were still dating, then he asked me if I’d seen it.

“Seen it?” I almost shouted. “I’ve got it on DVD!”

My father rolled his eyes and said, “I should have known.” I’m still not sure why he was surprised. The fact that my parents were going to Roger Corman movies long before I was born explains a lot about who I am. Maybe it even explains why, long before I first saw it, I was strangely drawn to its star, Dick Miller. Maybe it’s why there was always something familiar about him. When I saw him as Murray Futterman in Gremlins or a gun shop owner in The Terminator or proprietor of a roadside restaurant in The Twilight Zone: The Movie, or a guy who eats flowers in the original Little Shop Of Horrors—I honestly can’t say which of those I saw first, and when he popped up in an early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation—my reaction was always, hey, it’s…that guy! From…that thing! And I’m not the only one. A 2014 documentary about Miller’s life and career is called, fittingly enough, That Guy Dick Miller.
Maybe I recognized him because I’d seen him in something else. He built a career on cameos. After serving in the Navy in World War II he earned a Ph.D. in psychology—making him Doctor Dick Miller—then moved from New York to California to write screenplays. He went straight to Roger Corman who said he had plenty of screenplays but needed actors, so Dick Miller became an actor, appearing in several Corman films. One of his most memorable roles is as a vacuum cleaner salesman in 1957’s Not Of This Earth. Corman wanted the salesman to wear a suit and bow tie, but Miller came to the set in a black cashmere jacket and a black shirt, saying, “this is the way I dressed when I sold pots and pans in the Bronx…You think a guy goes to college to sell vacuums?” He played the role as a fast-talking hipster who says, “Crazy, man” when invited in, providing the film some much needed comedy.
Then he got a large, although not quite leading, role in the 1958 film War Of The Satellites, and would get his most memorable role in A Bucket Of Blood. Miller played Walter Paisley, a busboy in a coffee shop who longs to be like the poets and artists who hang out there. Mentally challenged and lacking any real talent Walter has an inspiration when he accidentally kills his landlady’s cat and molds clay around the body. He quickly moves on to people, turning corpses into sculptures that the critics love—until they find out what’s underneath. It sounds grim, and it is, although the story rocks along at a speedy pace and the total runtime is just a little over an hour, and even finds time for a subplot about heroin dealing that helps provide Paisley with a couple of models. Yet Miller made Walter Paisley a sympathetic character, playing him with a wide-eyed innocence reminiscent of Lenny in Of Mice And Men, and, like Lenny, he doesn’t fully understand the implications of his actions, which heightens the tragedy. The film was shot in five days on a very low budget, and critics noticed, but they were positive toward Miller. A review in Variety said “his ability to sustain a sense of poignancy…is responsible in large part for the film’s appeal,” and the CEA Film Report called the part of Walter Paisley “cleverly played”.
Miller stuck around for a small part in Corman’s record setting Little Shop Of Horrors, shot on the same sets and using most of the same cast, in just two days, but his career had peaked. He’d accumulate over a hundred screen credits in his career but until That Guy Dick Miller he’d never land another leading role. Instead he took small parts, and, in a kind of inside joke, played several characters named Walter Paisley. A Bucket Of Blood would go on to be remade as a made-for-TV movie on Showtime in 1995, and as a stage musical. Dick Miller, like some critics, regretted that Corman had been too focused on time and budget to make a better film, but remained proud of it, saying in 1998, “I believe A Bucket Of Blood is truly the cult film of all cult films…Very, very few films are in every film museum in the world. A Bucket Of Blood is.” That’s likely because the copyright lapsed and the film is now essentially in the public domain, but I think critics and scholars recognize that, like Walter Paisley’s sculptures, there’s something substantial under the film’s outer shell.
If you’ve never heard of Dick Miller, if you see a picture of him and, like me say, “Hey, it’s…that guy,” or if you don’t recognize him at all that’s sad, but it’s also at least partly his own fault. He was well liked and respected by directors and other actors. Some actors, on their days off, would come to the set just to watch him work. And yet he never pursued bigger roles. He took the saying that there are no small parts too much to heart. The film industry is full of actors with ambition but no talent. Dick Miller was the opposite. That Guy Dick Miller unfortunately doesn’t explore this in detail but does sum it up in its final moments when Miller looks straight into the camera and says he hopes people enjoy the film, it will probably be his last one. Then his wife hands him the phone and he says, “Hello?…Yeah, I’m available.”
Dick Miller, born December 25th, 1928, died January 31st, 2019, was the exact opposite of Walter Paisley: he took statues and gave them life, covered them with flesh and blood. He was the character actor of character actors. And as I think about his career I think about the saying that a great actor knows to leave the audience wanting more. Dick Miller was a very great actor.





Source: USA Today

The recent passing of two performers has really taken me back to my past, two performers in very different genres but whose similar deadpan styles were a great education in comedy. Which is funny because one of them wasn’t even a comedian, but Mean Gene Okerlund was the funniest person in wrestling, and given how over-the-top and ridiculous wrestling is that’s saying something.
I’ve never really been a fan of wrestling–watching guys throw each other around just isn’t entertaining to me even when they have crazy characters and wear brightly colored leotards–but a couple of my friends were. One of them also had an illegal cable descrambler, which made his house the place to watch a lot of movies even though he felt compelled to throw a towel over the cable box every time a police car went by but that’s another story, and a large group of us gathered there one afternoon to watch Wrestlemania III. For my friends it was all about the grudge match between Hulk Hogan and Andre The Giant. For me the best part was Mean Gene Okerlund’s interviews with the wrestlers. Even though Okerland wrestled some his main career was announcer, ringmaster, and interviewer. The “Mean” was ironic, of course; Okerlund was known as one of the nicest people in wrestling, and his quiet gentility made him the perfect contrast to the wrestlers. While wrestlers screamed and raged and threatened to destroy their opponent in an upcoming match Okerlund would stand there holding the microphone, saying nothing. He’d glance at the camera, the faintest twinkle in his eye hinting at “Can you believe this guy?” But, like the wrestlers, he never let the mask drop. His only judgment at the end of an interview was to quietly say, “Wow.”

Source: MeTV

And then there was the purposely funny but just as understated comedy of Bob Einstein. I was never a fan of Evel Knieval but some of my friends were–it seems to be a pattern–so I loved the stunts of Super Dave Osborne, whom I first saw on David Letterman. Although the running joke of Super Dave Osborne’s daredevil stunts always going horribly wrong was predictable Einstein’s deadpan delivery always killed me, and while I was in college his animated series Super Dave: Daredevil for Hire was always a welcome study break. Most of the time when I hear about the passing of a famous person I learn something surprising about them. Yet I wasn’t surprised to learn that Einstein was the older brother of Albert Brooks and that he worked on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour with Steve Martin. Just like them, and just like Mean Gene Okerlund, Bob Einstein would fully commit to a ridiculous premise and make it funny by playing it completely straight.
Hail and farewell.

Art Matters.

When I took my first art history course it was simple. In fact it was just as simple when I took my last art history course. Art history was like regular history: a linear progression of events, or movements, starting with cave paintings, which were prehistory really, and going up through the millenia with widely spaced high points: Egypt, Greece, Rome, then there was the Renaissance, and the rediscovery of perspective. Neo-classicism gave way to Romanticism and then Impressionism was followed by Fauvism or Expressionism. As the chronometer ticked over to the 20th century everything exploded into a bunch of isms: Cubism, Orphism, Futurism. World War I prompted Dadaism and Surrealism. Before World War II the major center of art was Paris. After World War II it was New York, with Abstract Expressionism followed by Pop Art followed by…well, if they made it to that point the art history classes just sort of fizzled out there. Nothing was left: art history had ended. For some art historians Andy Warhol’s soup cans were the capstone. For others the end had come before that: the first time a prehistoric person placed pigment on a cave wall was leading up to the moment Jackson Pollock dripped a blob of paint, breaking the connection between brush and canvas that had been the basis of all art. The greatest emphasis was on artists who were mostly white and mostly European and mostly men, artists who were centered in Italy, Paris, and New York, with brief asides to Berlin, Moscow, and London, because they were the Artists Who Mattered.
Even from the beginning, from that first art history class, there was a question in the back of my mind: what about artists in other parts of the world? Artists from Japan, the South Pacific, South America, and Africa influenced a lot of those 20th century isms, so why did the mostly anonymous artists who produced those works matter less than Manet, Van Gogh, Picasso? The history of art history follows a pretty simple pattern. Vasari, whose Lives Of The Artists is considered the first work of art history, focused on artists he knew. In the 16th century the internet was pretty rudimentary and unreliable; dial-up hadn’t even been invented yet, and that remained true up to and even through 1950 when E.H. Gombrich published The Story Of Art, the book that was either used or influenced every art history course I ever took. And I get it. In order to make sense of art, in order to make a story of art, a few scholars had to pick what they liked and cram it into an alley. And to keep the art history classes simple we students were supposed to ignore the buildings, the whole cities, the whole world on either side.
I like taking pictures of graffiti I find but I’m also always curious about the artists behind it, and some time ago created an Instagram account just to follow them, and through that I learned that an artist I’d seen, whom I only knew by the tag Betor, had died of a drug overdose on Christmas Day 2016. Or rather it helped explain some pictures I found. Through Instagram I learned Betor was part of a group of artists who worked together and influenced each other–what art historians might call a movement, or what they might label with an ism.

These works aren’t done by Betor. They’re done by friends of Betor, artists who admired his work. They’re tributes. There are more on Instagram, and messages too from artists who knew him, and others who are sorry they never met him but admired his work. I feel the same way. Betor was a person who mattered. An organization, A Betor Way, was founded in his memory to help anyone struggling with addiction.

There is no one story of art. Art doesn’t end with the death of any artist, or with any particular movement. And if I had to give only one explanation for why I’m so interested in graffiti it would be this: because it matters.


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