things snl ought to bring back

NOTE: I will be liveblogging the “Saturday Night Live” 40th anniversary prime time special at this website Sunday night.

I have really enjoyed VH1 Classic’s “SNL Rewind,” a rerun of the vast majority of “Saturday Night Live” in reverse chronological order (except for a few themed programming blocks) over the past week or two, in preparation for the show’s 40th anniversary special on Sunday night.

One thing I’ve noticed (and I didn’t necessarily see all of these episodes during “SNL Rewind” – in some cases, I was just reminded of them) is that at certain points in the show’s history, they’ve been willing to monkey around with the format a little bit. Some of these variations were things I wish they’d revive – at least every now and then:

Onscreen graphics: I loved the little bumpers they ran during the original years of the show when going to commercial (“COMING UP: Is Roy Rogers Trigger-Happy?”), especially the ones where they’d zoom in on some unsuspecting audience member and put something on screen like “Won’t put out until the third date.”

Show-long running gags: As much as people malign the Dick Ebersol years, when Lorne Michaels wasn’t running the show, one thing they did well during that time was have fun with the format of the show itself. This included things like the extended coverage of Buckwheat being shot or the telephone poll over whether or not to boil and eat Larry The Lobster. They had an episode with multiple hosts. There was even a little of this during the show’s original run – such as the “anyone can host” contest.

The ill-fated first season of Lorne’s return – the one with Randy Quaid, Robert Downey Jr. and Joan Cusack – included an episode like this, based around the conceit that SNL had brought in Francis Ford Coppola to direct.

Standup or specialty performers: Some older SNL episodes had not only a musical guest but a comedy guest. Andy Kaufman, Joel Hodgson and even Harry Anderson appeared on SNL this way. I don’t suggest that they get a different run-of-the-mill standup comedian every week, but the occasional unique comedy talent would be better than another iteration of “What’s Up With That?” or whatever running sketch they’re running into the ground this week.

Trying new things in general: The Ebersol years had – and I had forgotten this – occasional segments similar to Jay Leno’s or Jimmy Kimmel’s man-on-the-street segments. I’m actually not advising that they do this specifically, but an occasional piece of unscripted comedy, taking advantage of SNL’s New York City location, might not be a bad thing.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing in some quarters that says the show as it is currently composed is doomed – it’s no longer appointment television because everyone knows that if something really funny happens, you can simply go online and watch the clip of that individual sketch the next day. There’s been some talk that whenever Lorne decides to retire, the show will go with him. But I think they should at least see if new hands could bring a fresh approach, and a willingness to play around with the format. If that happens, people might feel the need to watch the show live again.

and so it goes

Julia Louis-Dreyfus was playing Linda Ellerbee just now on early-80s SNL. I had not thought of Linda Ellerbee in ages.

I remember in the 70s when SNL ran three Saturdays a month and the irreverent and ahead-of-its-time NBC News show “Weekend” ran the fourth Saturday, which actually helped alleviate SNL rerun burnout. Ellerbee, with her wry, very un-anchor-like humor, anchored it, and then later anchored the critically-acclaimed “NBC News Overnight.”

But what I remember her best on was “Our World” on ABC, a fascinating show produced by the news department which was sort of a weekly mini-documentary focusing on one year, or occasionally a shorter period, from earlier in the century. Ellerbee co-hosted it with Ray Gandolf. Nobody watched it, because it ran against “The Cosby Show” on Thursday nights. It was relatively cheap to produce, and thus was basically ABC throwing up a white flag in that time slot, which they knew they weren’t going to win as long as Cosby was on the air. But the affiliates don’t like it when the network surrenders like that (see “The Jay Leno Show”) and the show was cancelled.

Gandolf usually opened the show (although Ellerbee opens it in the clip below) by saying “For the next hour, think of your TV as a time machine.” Then, Ellerbee got the last word, so that she could use her famous signoff from “Weekend” and “Overnight,” “…and so it goes.”

 

It was well done, while it lasted.

Ellerbee later went on to host a news show for children on Nickelodeon, which I’ve never seen. If Wikipedia is to be believed, it’s still on the air.

the sting

“The Sting” will be on Turner Classic Movies tonight. I love, love, love that movie. To me, it seems like such a part of popular culture that it might be beyond blogging about, but it occurs to me that some of my younger readers may not have gotten around to it yet.

Get around to it. Watch or DVR it tonight, or get it from Netflix or wherever. Just see it.

It’s a great showcase for its two stars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, of course, but it’s just as good from an ensemble standpoint – Robert Shaw, Eileen Brennan, Ray Walston, Harold Gould, Charles Durning, Dana Elcar and on and on.

It’s a period piece, set in the Great Depression, although Marvin Hamlisch’s score (“The Entertainer” was a top-40 hit at the time of the movie’s release) is actually based on music from the 1920s. Johnny Hooker (Redford) is a small-time con artist. He and his partner/mentor Luther (Robert Earl Jones, the father of James Earl Jones!) are being pursued by a surly and mean-spirited police officer (Durning).

Hooker and Luther pull a con on a victim who later turns out to be a money-runner for a powerful Chicago New York crime lord, Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw). At first, they think they’ve hit the jackpot – but Lonnegan doesn’t like having his profits stolen, and sends enforcers after them, with tragic results.

Hooker wants revenge. He seeks out Luther’s old partner, a legendary but retired con artist named Henry Gondorff (Newman). The two of them put together an all-star team of con artists to bilk Lonnegan. But Durning’s cop character is still in hot pursuit of Hooker, and could ruin everything.

To say much more would be to spoil the plot. There are twists and turns galore, but the movie is so brilliantly-conceived that when you go back and watch it again, it all holds up. In fact, this movie almost demands that you watch it a second time, just to try to figure it all out.

It’s everything a movie should be – funny and exciting and happy and sad. If by some slim chance you’ve missed seeing it until now, please watch or tape it tonight.

elmo, kimmel and bob barker

I usually record Letterman and Fallon, which means I usually miss Jimmy Kimmel, even though I enjoy him as well.

I was watching a rerun of his tonight, and he randomly selected an audience member to go on a scavenger hunt on Hollywood Boulevard, right outside the theater where his show is taped (and where I once stood for two hours in the standby line, all for naught). She was supposed to bring back one of the costumed characters who pose for photos with tourists — specifically, Elmo — as well as a Christmas tree topper from a tree near the theater and a few other items.

But she wasn’t actually selected at random — once she was out of the theater, Kimmel revealed that all of the balls in the drawing had the same seat number on them. After she returned with Elmo and the other items, Elmo revealed himself to be her boyfriend, who then pulled an engagement ring out of the tree topper. I love stuff like that. (She said yes, by the way.)

When I was a child, the game show “Truth or Consequences,” hosted by Bob Barker before he took on “The Price is Right,” did a lot of stunts like that, often involving reuniting a serviceman, who’d been out of the country or at sea, with his wife. They would pull three or four audience members to play a game – which was, after all, the normal format of the show – but it would turn out that one of the audience members was actually a plant, and at some point before or during the game he would be swapped out for the husband. The game would involve costumes or some other gimmick so that the wife couldn’t see her partner in the game; she would assume that her teammate was the nice man from the audience she’d met a few minutes earlier. She’d be so caught up in the excitement of the game, and being on TV, that once the game was over, it would take her a second or two to look over in the right direction and process what she was seeing there.

I looked to see if I could find an example of one of the reunions on YouTube, but the only thing I could find was a reunion of two Italian brothers, who hadn’t seen each other in decades.

remedial freed unit

Nashville Public Television is currently running a bizarre little special called “Classic Hollywood Musicals.” You might think that a special with that title would be about the breadth and scope of Hollywood musicals, but this is basically about five of them: “The Wizard of Oz,” “Singin’ In The Rain,” “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and (so help me) “Viva Las Vegas.” The special jumps around, presenting a clip and a few little details about one of the musicals, and then another, and then another. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, no attempt to connect any of the movies to each other, and it’s written at a really simplistic and elementary level — many of the little details presented as fascinating revelations are actually old news to any classic movie fan. Is there anyone left who doesn’t know that the studio bosses tried to cut “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz”?

What makes matters even worse is that it’s pledge drive season, and the woman co-hosting the pledge breaks keeps gushing about how she hasn’t seen, for example, “Singin’ In The Rain” in decades. She literally said that – decades!

Now, I realize the pledge break is intended to plug public TV stations and their programming. I wouldn’t expect them to mention or acknowledge Turner Classic Movies, a cable channel. But it sounds just bizarre to imply that these movies have been hidden away in a vault somewhere. “Singin’ In The Rain” probably gets shown an average of once a month on TCM. A good three-quarters of the people interested enough in classic movies to sit through this pablum-based documentary in hopes it will eventually become interesting is either a TCM viewer, or has a shelf full of classic movie DVDs, or both.

Yes, I guess there are probably a few elderly technophobes, receiving their public TV station by antenna, without DVD players, for whom catching a glimpse of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a rare and special treat. But that seems like a niche, not an audience.

peace pipe

Many of the previews and reviews of last night’s “Peter Pan Live!” noted that the lyrics to one of the songs were changed, with the participation of a Native American consultant, to eliminate negative stereotypes. (Some commentators applauded this, but others still found the scenes with Princess Tiger Lily to be dated and offensive.)

I do try to be sensitive to cultural stereotypes, and in fact I have a relative by marriage who has Native American heritage; connections like that sort of personalize the issue.

Then I noticed that TCM is showing “Good News” tonight. “Good News” is an MGM musical from the late 1940s, starring June Allyson and Peter Lawford, based on a much-older (and supposedly less-sanitized) stage musical. It’s full of all sort of hoary old clichés about college life. I don’t find the story particularly compelling. And yet, I’m going to sit here and watch it for one reason – Joan McCracken, a fascinating musical comedy talent who died tragically young and whom I know mostly from her work in “Good News.”

In fact – and, for reasons mentioned above, I’m ashamed to admit this – I mainly know her from, and am fascinated by, one particular musical number: “Pass That Peace Pipe.” The actual number doesn’t involve any Native Americans – it’s set in a malt shop – but it uses the imagery of the peace pipe and a sort of rhythmic recitation of the names of Indian tribes as if they were nonsense syllables. I know I should find it offensive.

But I can’t look away from McCracken’s performance. She sells that song in a way I’ve seen few musical performers do, staring straight ahead dead into the camera for several long stretches as if she owns the studio and Louis B. Mayer answers to her:

According to Wikipedia, McCracken helped promote Shirley MacLaine, encouraged her then-husband Bob Fosse to take up choreography, and was one of Truman Capote’s inspirations for Holly Golightly. But she had health problems related to diabetes and died when only 42.

I guess I’ll have to take the advice that my friends Brenden and Michael often put out on their podcast and try to be “a filter, not a sponge.”

sullivan’s travels

This is one of those cases where I’ve blogged about a movie multiple times in the past, and should probably just look up the old post and link to it on Facebook rather than reinvent the wheel.

But I think it’s been a while since I’ve actually devoted a whole blog post to “Sullivan’s Travels,” airing at 8:45 p.m. Central tonight on Turner Classic Movies, and so I figured, what the hey, I’d blog about it again.

This is a movie that is funny, first and foremost, by one of the best comedy directors of the golden age, the wonderful Preston Sturges. I love Sturges’ other work, especially “The Lady Eve” and “Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.”

But “Sullivan’s Travels” also has a little hidden message – sort of an irony, since the message has to do with the fact that not every movie has to have a message.

Anyway, the central character is John L. Sullivan, played by Joel McCrea. He’s a movie director, perhaps a standin for Sturges himself, who has spent the 1930s making silly little movies with titles like “Hey Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants In Your Pants of 1939.” But he’s decided that these musical comedies aren’t significant enough. He has been duly impressed by a “Grapes of Wrath”-style novel which he wants to adapt for the screen. (If you look closely at the cover, the author is Sinclair Beckstein, a wonderful melange of John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis).

Remember, this novel, and “Sinclair Beckstein,” didn’t exist – they were made up by Sturges to be a plot point for the movie. I tell you that because the the title of the novel is “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a title which was appropriated a half-century later by the Coen Brothers and made into an actual movie, although the Coen Brothers movie is a lot more fun to watch than John L. Sullivan’s social-problem drama would have been.

The title, of course, was an obvious play on words back in 1940, when “Oh, brother!” was a much more common expression of annoyance.

Anyway, Sullivan tells the head of the studio he’s tired of comedy and wants to make a film of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

John L. Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: A little, but I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: [reluctantly] With a little sex in it.
Hadrian: How ’bout a nice musical? (From IMDb)

The studio mogul, who’s been making good money off Sullivan’s comedies, tries to discourage him without offending him. He tells Sullivan, at one point, that he’s not the right person to make a movie about poverty because he, Sullivan, grew up in an upper-class family and has never known hardship himself.

Sullivan takes that criticism to heart – but not in the way the studio head was hoping. Sullivan decides to take a leave of absence from the studio and wander the countryside dressed as a hobo. It’s a fallacy that you can truly understand poverty from this kind of gimmicky stunt, of course, and eventually Sullivan will realize that – but not before some twists and turns. Along the way, he encounters a frustrated actress (the mesmerizing Veronica Lake) who is preparing to give up her dream and move back to the midwest. He tries to encourage her aspirations without revealing his real identity.

It’s a lot of fun, and yet there’s a great moment of realization at the end of it. Please, if you haven’t seen this one yet, set the DVR or enjoy it with the family tonight.

best. night. ever.

Here, my friends, is the story of one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me.

The thing I’m talking about happened this month, but in order to appreciate it we have to jump back a few decades, to the early 1980s in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was a student at what I sometimes refer to as Famous Televangelist University. Christian college can be a stiflingly-conformist environment; I had a dorm director once proclaim in a devotion that it was one of the hardest places to be a Christian, because it was so easy to just drift along with the crowd and do all the right things for all the wrong reasons, or for no reason at all.

Then, as now, there existed both really bad Christian music and really good Christian music. I had the quirky sense of humor to latch on to several artists with satirical sensibilities – songwriters who could laugh at themselves and poke at the foibles of both the secular world and the imperfect church. During my years at ORU, I became a particular fan of the band Daniel Amos, singer-songwriter Randy Stonehill and singer-songwriter Steve Taylor.

Daniel Amos, by the way, played a concert at a church in Smyrna three or four years ago – the first time they’d toured in ages. But I couldn’t go; I was in camp that week, as a volunteer in Mountain T.O.P.’s Adults In Ministry program in Grundy County.

About a year and a half later, my wonderful sister, who had drawn my name for Christmas, gave me a ticket to a nostalgia-themed all-star concert of Christian entertainers from the 1970s and 80s which had Randy Stonehill as one of the headliners. But the concert (which was going to be taped for a TV special) ended up being canceled for some unknown reason.

i-want-to-be-a-cloneFor purposes of this story, then, let’s get back to the third member of that troika. Steve Taylor’s 1983 debut EP, “I Want To Be A Clone,” had a blistering, new-wave title song. That song, and the EP, were a perfect antidote to Christian college conformity. The song was all about Christian conformity, and how some within the church seek to impose their own private beliefs, practices and even language upon others.

By the time that album came out, I was using my own sense of humor to help keep me level at ORU. My good friend, the late Kendall Durfey, and I produced parody radio ads which I played over the public address system prior to on-campus movies (I spent 2 ½ years as ORU’s campus film chairman, and then my senior year I was vice-president of the Student Association in charge of campus activities). I wrote the spots, we both voiced them, and Kendall used his production expertise to make them sound great. In many of the spots, Kendall played a funny character, “Dr. Herb Zimmerman.”

I also wrote a humor column, “Speed Bumps,” for ORU’s campus newspaper, the Oracle, and was in charge of a special April Fool’s edition of the paper my senior year, setting the stage for the April Fool’s story I now do each year at the Times-Gazette.

Time marched on. I graduated in 1984 and moved home to Tennessee a year later. Steve Taylor released several more of his own albums. He was also a member of a crossover band, Chagall Guevara, which had a secular record deal. I went to see Chagall Guevara in Nashville in 1991, the only time I’d ever seen Steve perform live. Steve became a record executive, and played a key role in the success of Sixpence None The Richer, among others.

He directed a number of videos – for himself, for Sixpence and for other artists – and that gave way to him becoming a movie director. I and my girlfriend at the time went to Brentwood Baptist Church to be in the crowd scenes for “The Second Chance,” a movie Steve directed starring Michael W. Smith.

More recently, Steve directed a movie adaptation of “Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller.

Now, after a 10-year absence, Steve is making music again. He’s put together a new band, The Perfect Foil. Their new album was released earlier this week. A few weeks before that, Steve started releasing videos to promote the new album.

I enjoyed all three. While watching the last one, “Goliath,” I happened to click the “like” button on YouTube. Because of the way my YouTube account is configured, that automatically generated a Twitter post stating that I had liked the video.

Right away, the official Twitter account for Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil favorited and retweeted my post. No real surprise there; any artist with a good social media team might have done the same.

But then, almost right away, I got a message from the account asking if I was the same John Carney who had attended ORU in the 1980s.

I had to admit that I was. I was also, at that moment, pretty curious.

The message came from Steve’s manager, Nick Barre. Nick was a few years behind me at ORU. He remembers the funny fake radio ads and the humor column. He said that Kendall and I inspired him, and made him want to be creative too.

We could stop the story right there and it would be pretty darn amazing. This guy remembers my humor – 30 years later! – and actually calls me an inspiration. He took the time to introduce himself and tell me so on a social media site. I was deeply flattered. That compliment alone made my night, and it’s probably the most amazing thing about this story.

But then, Nick continued. Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil would be playing Nov. 21 at the Cannery, a Nashville nightclub. The band was billing it as their album release party.

“I’d love to put you on the guest list,” wrote Nick.

Nope; sorry. Not interested. I mean, why would I want to be an invited guest for a show by one of my long-time favorite artists? That wouldn’t be any fun, would it?

Two of my ORU friends, Emory Stagmer in Maryland and Darrell Grizzle in the Atlanta area, went to earlier concerts on the tour and gave them glowing reviews.

I arrived at The Cannery early enough to get one of the last few free parking spots, before people started having to park in the paid lot next door. I must have gotten there about 20 minutes before the doors opened at 7 p.m.; it was an 8 o’clock show.

While I was waiting outside, a man in a plaid shirt darted out, and we instantly, if hesitantly, recognized each other from Facebook profile photos.

“John?”

“Nick?”

Nick was busy with his managerial duties, but he stopped to introduce himself and welcome me to the concert (as if I were doing him a favor rather than the other way around). He mentioned that The Perfect Foil’s lead guitarist, Jimmy Abegg, was “under the weather,” which I mistakenly thought meant he’d have to miss the concert. It later turned out he had gotten severe food poisoning while the band was in Atlanta for that show earlier in the week. (Darrell, do we need to educate you Georgians on food safety?) He was still not feeling well at show time, and Steve made reference to this, but you couldn’t tell it from his playing.

Nick did, however, tell me that there would be “surprises” during the concert.

I made polite conversation with a few other people standing there on the porch – a lot of them, not surprisingly, were my age, and the porch looked like Old Fart Jubilee, to borrow a phrase from Joe Bob Briggs.

The Cannery Ballroom is one of those big open standing-room-only nightclubs. There are no tables around the perimeter or anything like that. I was there early, and so I was thrilled to be standing very, very close to the stage.

WP_20141121_007The opening act was the husband-and-wife duo Fleming & John – not a coincidence, since John Mark Painter also happens to be the bass player for The Perfect Foil. I’d heard the name but wasn’t really familiar with their work. I was blown away – they were great, melodic and entertaining. I will definitely be checking out their catalog. I posted a photo to Facebook after their set, and was tickled when my former castmate Sharon Kay Edwards responded by saying that “I’m Not Afraid” had been her “high school jam.”

Later, during his set, Steve said his goal next year is to release a new Fleming & John record.

WP_20141121_017Then, of course, it was time for Steve and the new band. They were every bit as good as I thought they’d be. I was worried about standing for three hours. Steve, who is 4 ½ years older than me, rubber-legged and skinny as a rail, bounced around the stage, flailing and crouching and spinning and leaping with the same energy I’d seen at that Chagall Guevara concert in 1991. He has an incredible stage presence.

The set was a perfect mix of new and old songs.

They opened with “Only A Ride,” which had been the first video released from “Goliath,” but “I Want To Be A Clone” popped up early in the set as well.

I was lost in the music throughout.

When the show was over, we screamed for the encore. Steve, true to form, came back out and performed – so help me – a cover of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” Then he launched into the real encore, “Jim Morrison’s Grave.” I had seen reference to this having been the encore at one of the previous concerts.

But it wasn’t the only encore.

After that, Steve brought out Dave Perkins, Lynn Nichols and Mike Mead from Chagall Guevara. Mead displaced Peter Furler at the drum kit, but Abegg and Painter stayed on stage, and The Perfect Foil / Chagall Guevara peformed a cover of “Gloria” and then “Violent Blue,” off the Chagall Guevara album. That was the surprise Nick had hinted at, and what a surprise and thrill it was.

Steve-Door

Steve had promised to hang out and meet people after the show, and he was as good as his word. I had brought a 1984 issue of The Wittenburg Door with Steve on the cover, and he signed it for me. Nick was standing nearby and was kind enough to repeat his compliments in Steve’s presence, but the fact of the matter is that Steve was just as gracious to every single person who wanted to speak to him.

I’m an idiot, by the way, for not getting a photo of me and Nick as well.

WP_20141121_042

By this point, it was after midnight. I told Nick I had to get back to Shelbyville so that I could get up early for a Relay For Life fundraiser at the Times-Gazette. Nick repeated his story of how Kendall and my parody radio spots, and to a lesser extent my humor column, inspired him, and how seriously he took it when he got the chance to program ORU’s campus radio station.

At this point, I’m wondering to myself: If I was really as talented as Nick perceived me to be, what happened? How is it that I’m now 52, overweight, single, seemingly at a career dead end, and fighting my way out of poor financial practices from earlier in life? I was kind of grateful that Nick didn’t see my white 1995 Geo Metro with one red door, the one I literally prayed before the trip would make it to Nashville and back without incident.

But this wasn’t a night for dwelling on the negative. This was a night to accept a great compliment, enjoy a great show, relive some memories and get to know some great new songs. This was, in short, one of the best nights I’ve had in some time – one of the best nights ever.

heavyweight champion

I didn’t get around to watching Monday’s episode of “Mike Tyson Mysteries” until tonight, and – after three episodes – I think this may be one of my new favorite shows, and the funniest thing Adult Swim (Cartoon Network’s late-night programming block) has done in years.

“Mike Tyson Mysteries” is a 15-minute-long animated parody of several different things, including “Scooby Doo” and various Saturday morning cartoon shows of the past built around real-life personalities like Mr. T and Jackie Chan. You may recall a few times when Robert Smigel’s cartoon segment on “Saturday Night Live” parodied the Mr. T. show specifically. Those segments were funny, but “Mike Tyson Mysteries” is funnier.

Tyson (voiced by himself, although all the other celebrities on the show are impersonations) travels in a Scooby Doo-like van with his adopted Chinese teenage daughter; the ghost of the Marquess of Queensbury (Academy Award-winning screenwriter Jim Rash, who plays Dean Pelton on “Community”); and a talking pigeon (the always-funny Norm MacDonald).

The show parodies that one season of “Scooby Doo” that involved celebrity guest stars. The first episode featured a murder mystery involving Cormac McCarthy and John Updike; the second episode featured Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov and computer Deep Blue; and this week’s episode involved Buzz Aldrin, Elon Musk, Elton John and Richard Branson.

Please note, this is a show for grownups, with adult humor.