sleight of …

I enjoy the TV show “Penn & Teller: Fool Us,” which airs on the CW network. The premise of the show is that professional magicians appear and do one of their best tricks with the bad boys of magic, Penn & Teller, sitting in the audience. Penn & Teller try to figure out how the trick is done. If they can, they communicate this to the magician using jargon or coded language, so that the trick is not ruined for the audience. If, however, they are fooled, the visiting magician wins a trophy, bragging rights – and the chance to be the opening act for a performance of Penn & Teller’s Las Vegas show.

The show started in the UK, with British TV personality Jonathan Ross as the emcee. The CW began running the British episodes and eventually took the show over itself. At first, they kept Jonathan Ross as the host, even though he’s not well-known here. Recently, however, Alyson Hannigan of “How I Met Your Mother” and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” took over as host.

Tonight, a magician named Mahdi Gilbert fooled Penn & Teller. That’s not amazing in and of itself – in fact, they get fooled about once per hour-long episode. What was amazing about Gilbert’s performance was … something else. He performed a close-up sleight-of-hand card trick for Penn, Teller, and Hannigan.

I said “sleight of hand.” That was an unfortunate choice of words, but it’s the standard expression, but I’m not sure what to say instead in Mahdi Gilbert’s case. Here’s a YouTube video of Gilbert doing basically the same trick he did for Penn & Teller, in much more casual surroundings than a Las Vegas stage:

comedy bang! bang!

Since getting back a cable tier that included IFC a week or two ago, I have been catching up on the new season of one of my favorite shows, “Comedy Bang! Bang!”, the first season with “Weird Al” Yankovic as sidekick.

This show is really popular with a certain subset of comedy fans, but a lot of other people have never heard of it. I think it’s wonderfully creative and silly and joyful.

“Comedy Bang! Bang!” is based on a podcast of the same name – both the podcast and the TV show are hosted by Scott Aukerman. Strangely enough, I don’t really listen to the podcast that often. This post will be about the TV show, not the podcast.

It’s difficult to describe because it’s too easy to describe. It’s a parody of a talk show – but it’s actually a lot more than that. It’s got elements of everything from “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” to “Community” to “Saturday Night Live.”

Originally, Aukerman’s music director and sidekick was Reggie Watts, who was hilarious. Reggie left the show after several seasons to become the bandleader for “The Late Late Show with James Corden.” Kid Cudi took the position for one season, and he was fine, but he left because of conflicts with his musical career. This season, “Weird Al” – who had been a guest and done cameos on the show in the past – took the job, and he’s a perfect fit.

Within the talk show format, there’s a first guest – a real celebrity, although sometimes playing an exaggerated or caricatured version of themselves – and then a second guest, who is actually a sketch character or an impersonation of a celebrity. (The podcast follows this same real-guest-plus-fake-guest format.)

Here’s the real Ellie Kemper and a fake Jesse Ventura (James Adomian):

But there are several levels of the show going on at the same time as the talk show parody. First off, there’s a behind-the-scenes element. We see Scott and Al talking to crew members about the show, there’s an angry network executive who pops up from time to time complaining about things, and so on.

But there’s usually also some subplot making fun of some other pop culture – from beach movies to “Lord of the Rings” to “The Big Chill.” And there are funny fake commercials and trailers and flashbacks.

I really enjoy this show. It may take a few episodes to get into, especially since each episode has a different feel and flavor to it due to the pop culture parody aspect. You might even want to go online and look for some of the old Reggie Watts episode before perusing the newer Weird Al episodes – but I think it’s well worth it.

in through the back door

I was over at my father’s this afternoon and he turned on “Emergency!” on MeTV. For my younger readers, “Emergency!” was an hour-long drama from the 1970s about two firefighter/paramedics in Los Angeles and the doctors and nurse who supervised their medical work at a nearby hospital. It was a popular and entertaining show, but it had an even-larger impact on the real world than its ratings would indicate. The show informed the casual viewer about paramedics, an idea that was still in its infancy, and encouraged the creation of paramedic programs in cities and towns across the U.S. It was from Jack Webb’s production company, but an associate of Webb’s named R.A. Cinader was in day-to-day charge of things.

The episode we happened to watch today, however, spent a small amount of time on the regular characters. Instead, it focused on Los Angeles animal control – two officers, one of them played by an impossibly-young Mark Harmon, a veterinarian played by David Huddleston, and a supervisor played by Bing Crosby’s son Gary.

I immediately figured it to be a backdoor pilot – and a quick check of Wikipedia confirmed this.

What’s a backdoor pilot?

Each year, TV networks receive hundreds of proposals for new shows from studios and independent producers. At a certain time of year, each network selects the most promising proposals and orders “pilot episodes” – sample episodes that demonstrate what the show will look like. It’s those pilot episodes that the network uses to decide which ideas it will actually order to series.

Sometimes, pilot episodes are seen by the public. If the show makes it to series, the pilot may – or may not – be used as one of the first-season episodes. However, if the network asked for a lot of changes to the pilot, or if a lot of roles had to be recast, the pilot may never see the light of day, except maybe as a DVD box set extra or what have you. Some cable network – TV Land, maybe – once ran the previously-unaired pilot for “Gilligan’s Island,” which was significantly different from the show which followed it. For example, instead of Ginger being a movie star, Ginger and Mary Ann were secretaries and best friends. There was a high school teacher instead of a professor.

“Star Trek” had a first pilot starring Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Christopher Pike. NBC disliked numerous things about it but still saw potential, and asked Gene Roddenberry to shoot a then-unheard-of second pilot. By that time, Hunter was unavailable and Roddenberry cast William Shatner instead, changing the character’s name. However, frugal Roddenberry didn’t throw that pilot footage away – he simply declared that Pike had been captain of the Enterprise before James T. Kirk, and that allowed him to use much of the Jeffrey Hunter footage as flashback sequences for a first-season episode of the show.

If a pilot episode is not picked up to become a series, the pilot may be locked away – or maybe shown as a one-time special. A few years ago, there was a very funny pilot, “Mockingbird Lane,” which was a witty re-imagining of “The Munsters” starring Jerry O’Connell and Eddie Izzard. The show was not picked up, but the pilot episode was aired around Halloween as a special.

So that’s a “pilot” – but what is a “backdoor pilot”?

In 1959, Danny Thomas – star of “The Danny Thomas Show” – and his producing partner Sheldon Leonard (Nick the bartender from “It’s A Wonderful Life”) wanted to create a TV show around rising young comic and actor Andy Griffith. They pitched it to CBS, but CBS was not interested enough to put up money to shoot a pilot.

So Thomas and Leonard put their heads together and found a way to shoot a pilot without the network putting up any extra money. They wrote an episode of the show they already had on the air – “The Danny Thomas Show” – in which Danny’s character is traveling through the South and his car breaks down in the small town of Mayberry, North Carolina. Danny is introduced to the town’s sheriff, Andy Taylor, and various other colorful characters.

The strategy worked. Using money already in their budget, they were able to give the network a glimpse of what they were planning even though the network hadn’t funded an official, stand-alone pilot. The network ordered “The Andy Griffith Show” to series, and the rest is history.

This technique of using an episode of an existing show to introduce a potential new one became known as a “backdoor pilot.” The resulting episodes are sometimes clunky and contrived, but that’s the price you pay.

“Emergency!”’s “backdoor pilot” about Los Angeles animal control was not picked up by NBC, and so it remained an unusual – and unusually star-heavy — episode of the show. It was a little bit contrived – the animal control officers rescue a child’s pet goat from a fire, but can’t get it to a veterinary hospital in time to rescue it from heart problems and so must convince a doctor from the normal “Emergency!” cast to operate instead, with the remote radio advice of Huddleston’s kindly veterinarian.

OK, this is probably more than you wanted to know about backdoor pilots. What can I say? Maybe I should propose a pilot episode about the Guy Who Loves To Mansplain Things.

broadsword, calling danny boy

Turner Classic Movies runs a Memorial Day marathon of war movies – but, given the somber nature of the holiday, they run a sort-of-surprising variety of movies within that genre. Yesterday, the emphasis was on service comedies, including both Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello, as well as “No Time For Sergeants.” I wonder if they ever get any complaints.

Tonight in prime time, they’re running “Where Eagles Dare,” one of my all-time favorite movies, but it’s a slam-bang, over-the-top spy thriller.

I am sure most of you have seen it, and I’ve blogged about it before, but in case you’ve somehow missed it, it stars Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. Burton, of course, is known for heavier dramatic fare, but his son challenged him to do an action movie as a change of pace, and to prove his versatility. “The Guns of Navarone” (which will also be on TCM today) had been a big hit, and so Burton wanted to adapt another Alistair MacLean spy novel. But all of MacLean’s novels were spoken for, and so MacLean agreed to write a new, original screenplay, which he then turned into a novel. Eastwood, who was riding high as the star of Sergio Leone westerns, wasn’t sure about taking second billing, but agreed to it anyway, and the two of them make a fantastic team – the bombastic Brit and the cool, laconic American.

This is one of those movies that you don’t want to spoil, but I can give you the basic setup. An American general, with knowledge of the D-Day plans, has been shot down and captured by the Germans and is being held prisoner in a remote mountain castle. A British commando team, headed by Burton, with Eastwood as a token American member, is dispatched to rescue him.  But events soon make it clear that the situation isn’t what it seems and that no one can be trusted.

Supposedly, Spielberg is a fan of this – when he was asked about it by an interviewer, he immediately started parroting Burton’s radio call sign, “Broadsword calling Danny Boy.” Once it gets going, the last two-thirds of it have the same sort of slam-bang action-serial pace as Spielberg’s “Raiders Of The Lost Ark.” There’s a fight on top of a skylift car.

Anyway, I love it. I have it set to record (I also have the DVD around here somewhere), but I’ll probably watch it live if I’m here tonight.

To prompt or not to prompt

I posted last week about a new version of “Match Game” which will air this summer, and in passing I mentioned, and included a YouTube clip of, the mid-1980s “Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour,” one of the most notorious flops in game show history.
I actually liked both “Match Game” and “Hollywood Squares,” but despite sharing lots-of-celebrities gimmick they’re actually quite different shows, and I think that’s one reason the attempt to put them together did not work.
One thing that differentiated the original 1970s shows from each other was the matter of whether the celebrities got any advance preparation. On “Match Game,” for better or worse, they did not. Any answers given by the panelists were their own, and any tomfoolery was their own. As I mentioned last week, five shows were taped in a day — that’s the norm for half-hour game shows — and the celebrities had access to Adult Beverages during the lunch break, which is why the Thursday and Friday shows tended to be more, um, free-spirited than the Monday and Tuesday shows.
“Hollywood Squares” was a different matter. If you’ve seen any version of the show (except the “Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour”) you know that the normal pattern was that the host (Peter Marshall, John Davidson, Tom Bergeron, and Peter Rosenberg from MTV’s “Hip Hop Squares”) would ask the celebrity a question, and the celebrity’s first answer would normally be some sort of joke, but then the celebrity would give his or her “real” answer. Whether the celebrity’s answer was right or wrong was not the determining factor, of course, because the contestant would then get the chance to either agree or disagree with the celebrity’s answer, and that would determine the outcome of the question. In some ways, the contestant was helped by a too-obviously-wrong answer from the celebrity, and so the producers had an interest in prepping the celebrities to the extent that they could at least give a credible wrong, or “bluff,” answer. In any of the versions, the host would usually read a disclaimer at the top of the show that “the stars were briefed before the show to help them with their bluffs.”
According to most sources, virtually all the joke answers were written in advance, even from some of the stars who have been complimented over the years for their quick wits on the program. In the Tom Bergeron / Whoopi Goldberg version, head writer Bruce Vilanch — who had not really been known as a performer up to that point – was made one of the squares. Vilanch had worked for years with center square Whoopi Goldberg. His placement on the tic-tac-toe board put him right next to Whoopi. Vilanch, who’s written for at least a dozen Oscar ceremonies and numerous other awards shows, has been known for writing jokes on the fly backstage, so that the host could refer to and build on some blooper or running gag from earlier in the show. I’m guessing he probably wrote some on-the-fly jokes for Whoopi on “Hollywood Squares” as well.
I’m not saying there was anything at all wrong with this; it’s entertainment, after all, and some of those scripted “ad libs” were pretty funny, no matter who actually came up with them or when. But it was a different type of humor than “Match Game,” and therein lied one problem with trying to mash the two shows together.
The “Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour” was one of the game shows run by Mark Goodson, the creator of “Match Game,” who simply licensed the “Hollywood Squares” name and format from its original creators or whoever owned it at the time. Goodson had taken pride in the fact that the celebrities on “Match Game” were unscripted and wanted the new show to be unscripted as well.
In order to facilitate this, without all the celebrities looking like idiots in an SNL “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketch, the trivia questions on the Hollywood Squares portion of the “Hour” were largely limited to true-false or multiple-choice formats, which limited the chances for the celebrities to look stupid. There were also, of course, no scripted joke answers.
This meant that the “Hollywood Squares” part of the show wasn’t very much like the “Hollywood Squares” people had come to know and love in the late 60s and through the 70s. To make matters worse, it was hosted by Jon Bauman of Sha Na Na, who lacked the kind of polish that Gene Rayburn brought to “Match Game” or Peter Marshall brought to the original “Hollywood Squares.”

Logan’s Run

I see that I already have a blog post tag for “Logan’s Run,” so I must have blogged about it at some point in the past. But I don’t feel like going back and looking.

The 1976 movie “Logan’s Run” is airing right now, as I type this, on Turner Classic Movies. I remember it from my adolescence, although I only saw it edited on network TV, not in the theaters. It was followed in September of 1977 by a TV series, a relatively short turnaround for that sort of thing. It was right in the wake of “Star Wars,” which had come out that summer, and studios and TV networks were snatching up anything science fiction-related.

The original novel by by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, which I’ve never read, was a Vietnam allegory, published in 1967. By 1976, Americans were trying to forget the war – well, except for “M*A*S*H,” which was as much about Vietnam as Korea. So the politics were played down, although the central allegory – young people sent off to die because that’s what the system demands — remains.

The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic domed city – a seeming paradise, in which you work only a few hours a week and there are a lot of leisure options. There’s just one catch, and it’s a doozy. When you are born, a crystal is implanted in your hand. As you approach your 30th birthday, the crystal changes color and you are summoned to “carousel,” a ceremony in which participants float up into the air and explode. (The TV series substituted the explosions with a less-disturbing effect that looked like the transporter on “Star Trek.”)

The public is told that carousel is simply a first step to reincarnation, but there are some, called “runners,” who doubt the official theology and try to evade their pre-ordained fate. There’s virtually no other type of crime, so there’s no regular police force, but there’s a special squad called the “sandmen” who track down such runners.

Our central character, Logan 5, starts the movie as a sandman and is sent undercover to infiltrate a sort of Underground Railroad for runners. He, too, begins to doubt the line about reincarnation, ultimately pitting him against his former partner, who considers him a cop-gone-bad and is obsessed with tracking him down, even outside the protection of the dome.

Logan was played by British Michael York in the movie, and then by all-American Gregory Harrison (of “Trapper John, M.D.”) in the TV series. Jenny Agutter was the female lead — a runner who befriends Logan — in the movie, followed by Heather Menzies in the TV show.

The movie features a very brief cameo by Farrah Fawcett, but by the time it was released she was starting to explode from “Charlie’s Angels” and that poster, and so some theaters even advertised “Farrah Fawcett-Majors in ‘Logan’s Run'” or what have you.

IMDb still lists a remake as being bounced around. At one time, it was supposed to star Ryan Gosling; now, it seems to be limbo.

Let’s go to the races

I don’t know what made me think of “Let’s Go To The Races” this morning – I guess it was all this week’s Powerball talk, combined with the fact that I was headed to the grocery store at the time.

“Let’s Go To The Races” was a grocery store promotion from, if I remember correctly, the early 1970s. Our family moved to Bedford County in 1972, and I think I remember seeing LGTTR in one of our previous cities, connected to a different supermarket chain, and then seeing it again once we’d moved here. Or maybe I remembered seeing it in another city when we traveled to visit friends or family. Here in Middle Tennessee, the game was sponsored by Cooper & Martin grocery stores, which had a location in the Big Springs Shopping Center in Shelbyville.

The game worked like this: You would pick up a free card at the checkout when shopping at the sponsoring grocery store. The card would change color each week, to make it easy to identify that you had the right card for that week. Once you tore the card open, you would see five different horse races, with a different a different entry number horse listed for each race.

On Saturday afternoon or Saturday night, there was a half-hour TV show on one of the local stations. The show featured five different horse races. You would look to see if the horse listed on your card for a given race won that race; if your horse won, you were entitled to a cash prize. The prize money would increase with each race.

The horse races were real, but they were on film and were from months earlier, maybe years earlier, in any case long before the game tickets had been printed. The organizers of the game knew in advance which horse would win, and so they could announce that you had a 1 in 500 chance (or whatever) of winning, because they knew that exactly 1 in 500 game tickets had a winning horse.

The horse racing segments were the same nationwide, and the tickets looked pretty much the same except for the sponsor logo, but the host segments were locally produced so that they could be customized for each grocery store chain. The YouTube video I found and embedded below is for Hy-Vee stores, in the midwest:

If you happened to miss the TV show, you could always check the week’s winning numbers at the grocery store, where they would be on a little poster hung on the wall somewhere near the checkout.

It’s strange the things that stick in your mind after so many years.

the spoils of babylon

I have been binge-watching “Eric Jonrosh’s ‘The Spoils of Babylon’” tonight on Netflix, for the first time since it first aired on IFC a few years ago. It’s just as funny as I remembered it being.

This is a parody of the type of potboiler miniseries that aired on network TV in the 70s and 80s – think “Rich Man, Poor Man,” “The Thorn Birds,” and “The Winds of War,” among many others. The conceit is that novelist Eric Jonrosh adapted his novel for television back in the 1970s, but it never aired, and now it’s being seen for the first time, with Jonrosh introducing each episode.

Of course, there is no such person– Will Ferrell (a partner in Funny Or Die, which produced the show) plays the part in a fat suit and huge beard, as an impression of latter-day, wine-commercial Orson Welles.

In keeping with the conceit, there are fake opening credits featuring the names of the (completely made-up) actors who starred in the production back in the 1970s, and about whom Jonrosh reminisces in his introductions.

The ensemble cast is great – Tobey Maguire, Kristin Wiig and Tim Robbins are the actual leads, but also appearing are Jessica Alba, Val Kilmer, Haley Joel Osment, David Spade, Molly Shannon and more.

The story, quite intentionally, jumps around in time and narrative styles. It begins during the depression, as struggling oil man Jonas Morehouse (Robbins) encounters and adopts a homeless boy, who fights against his forbidden attraction to his adopted sister. The story zips along, in six half hours, through the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, mocking stereotypes and cliches at every turn.

If you missed this when it first aired, it’s a great thing to add to your Netflix queue. Netflix has also just added the followup, “Eric Jonrosh’s ‘The Spoils Before Dying,’” which is not a sequel and has no characters in common except for Jonrosh himself. “Dying” is a parody of the film noir genre, and it’s also quite funny.

viewers like you

Anyone who thinks about it reasonably understands the value of public television, and right now, local public television stations have to rely on some form of local fund-raising to make their budgets. You’ll get no argument from me on either of those points.

But the current system of on-air pledge drives seems more and more broken each year. Here are a couple of the things that really annoy me about it:

Bait and switch: The type of programming that turns up during pledge drives is so different in style and approach from regular programming that Pledge Drive Public TV seems like an entirely different station from Regular Public TV. And I don’t mean that they save their best shows for pledge drive season – that would be understandable. I mean that the target audience for their regular schedule sometimes seems like an entirely different demographic than the target audience for pledge week.

Frankly, it’s a little disturbing sometimes that so many of the pledge drive shows are geared towards seniors – it’s almost like PBS has decided to target a demographic with low sales resistance. Sometimes, I halfway expect them to segue into selling reverse mortgages and medic-alert pendants.

No longer local: I remember when the pledge breaks used to originate with the local station. They would feature staff members from the local station, and occasionally other local radio or TV personalities. I think it sent a great message to occasionally see a news or weather personality from one of the commercial TV stations appearing on the public TV station asking for funds.

Now, all or most of the pledge breaks are packaged with the programs, and they are national and generic. The announcers, whom you’ve never seen before, ask you to support “this public television station” or “your public television station” but they never say its name, channel or call letters, because they’re airing on hundreds of stations across the country. I understand that it’s easier and cheaper to do it that way, but I think it gives up part of the connection the stations should be trying to build with their viewers. How can I think of it as “my public television station” if they won’t talk to me directly?

That’s enough ranting for now. Public TV is a good thing, and we should all support it. Apparently, not enough of us can or do, and so they have to ask for money. I just wish they’d find some different way of doing it.

broken record, I know

Turner Classic Movies: TCM keeps running an (excellent) interstitial with Laura Dern talking about her admiration for Barbara Stanwyck, but when it ends they use it to promote an upcoming showing of Meet John Doe. Fine, fine. It’s just that the Stanwyck movie I *really* want to see this time of year is Christmas in Connecticut.

I just checked, and TCM will be showing it 11 a.m. (Central) on Sunday, Dec. 13. Go ahead and set your DVRs now; I certainly have.

Sometimes I wonder if anyone ever takes my classic movie suggestions. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard back, “Hey, John, I watched Topkapi on your recommendation and loved it.” But I guess I’m enough of a narcissist to keep putting myself out there anyway. I’m relatively harmless, in any case.

Although I have blogged about “Christmas In Connecticut” on multiple prior occasions, I guess I will go back and talk about it again. Narcissist, and all that. It was a bad day at work, and so I need to get my mind off things.

“Christmas In Connecticut,” despite its title, is really a straight romantic comedy which just happens to have a holiday setting. Elizabeth Lane (Stanwyck) is Martha Stewart before there was a Martha Stewart – the ultimate cook and hostess, whose monthly column in “Smart Housekeeping” magazine is closely read by much of America. She vividly describes her idyllic life on her Connecticut farm with her husband and infant son, and includes her mouth-watering recipes.

There’s just one problem: It’s all a lie. She’s single, lives in a Manhattan apartment, and can’t cook. The recipes come from her restaurateur friend Felix (S.Z. Sakall, whom you know from “Casablanca” and who is billed in some movies as “Cuddles” Sakall), and everything else comes from her imagination and her talent as a writer. Her immediate supervisor knows the truth, but the publisher of the magazine, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet, speaking of “Casablanca”) does not – and would be horrified at the deception.

Yardley receives a letter about a war hero (Dennis Morgan), who has no family and nowhere to spend the holidays. Yardley summons Elizabeth Lane and tells her that she and her husband should invite Jefferson Jones to their Connecticut farm for the holidays – and that he, Yardley, would love to join them for Christmas dinner and sample some of Elizabeth Lane’s famous cooking. It would be patriotic! It would be good publicity for the magazine! It would be in the spirit of the holiday!

Elizabeth Lane, who has just bought a very expensive mink coat on credit, can’t afford to lose her job and can’t bring herself to stand up to the forceful Yardley and refuse his plan. So she has to come up with a farm, a husband and a baby, all on short notice.

If you know anything at all about romantic comedies, you know that once she has all of these things in place, she’ll begin falling head over heels in love with the veteran. Oh, what a tangled web we weave ….

Seriously, this is just a fun, funny movie, with great performances all around.

There’s also a TV movie from the 1980s with Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson, directed by …. Arnold Schwarzenegger (because when you think “romantic comedy,” you immediately think “Arnold Schwarzenegger”). I’ve only seen bits and pieces, but there’s no way it could measure up to the original.

Why haven’t you set your DVR yet?