Thursday, December 27, 2012

In Memoriam: Jack Klugman 1922-2012

Actor. 12 Angry Men. Days of Wine and Roses. I Could Go On Singing. The Detective. Goodbye Columbus. The Odd Couple (TV series.) Quincy M.E.

"For 50 years, acting was the reason I got up in the morning."

12 Angry Men (1957) With Henry Fonda, Robert Webber, and  Lee J. Cobb.

The Twilight Zone, "A Passage for Trumpet" (1960).

The Days of Wine and Roses (1962) Couldn't find the clip I was looking for, so I had to settle for a still photo. Other than Klugman's fine performance in a good, though not great, film, there's something else I want to point out. Klugman famously played Oscar Madison in the TV version of The Odd Couple. Jack Lemmon, seen here on the right, played Felix Unger in the movie of the same name. So, there you have it, folks, Oscar and Felix. Except they're not Oscar and Felix in Wine and Roses, and never played Oscar and Felix opposite each other. Odd, huh?

I Could Go On Singing (1963) Klugman's hands rest on the shoulders of one of the greats, Judy Garland.

Goodbye, Columbus (1969). With Richard Benjamin, Ali MacGraw, and Nan Martin. The last name of Benjamin's character is Klugman!

The Odd Couple (1970-1975) With Tony Randall, whom, to my knowledge, never appeared in a movie with Walter Matthau.

I was never a fan of Quincy M.E. (1976-1983), all about a coroner who solves crimes, but Klugman himself was apparently passionate about the show, and that made it worth watching from time to time. Klugman also fought to make it more than a typical crime drama. The only crime in the episode "Seldom Silent, Never Heard" has to do with an orphan (rare diseases) drug bill that's being held up in Congress. Here's an excerpt, featuring Paul Clemens as a young man with Tourette syndrome:

Jack Klugman is obviously not the focus of the above clip. However, shortly after this episode aired, Klugman testified in front of Congress himself, the real Congress, not a fictitious TV version, about a real orphan drug bill that was being held up for some reason. Despite Klugman's testimony, a senator, Orrin Hatch, remained skeptical. So Klugman did a sequel, this one with a fictional, skeptical senator (sorry, I couldn't find a clip) which put pressure on the real skeptical senator. Eventually, The Orphan Drug Act of 1983 was passed, providing incentives to pharmaceutical companies to develop treatments for diseases that, as the young man in the clip says, never make it to the Top 40. Good going, Jack!

Another Quincy show from around the same time deals with a bunch of teenagers who become crazed murderers after listening to punk rock. I'm not going to show you a clip from that particular episode. I've seen it, and trust me, it deserves to be orphaned.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

No Room at the Speakeasy, or, I'm Dreaming of a Wet Christmas

Barring a Christmas miracle, I'll be away from the computer on the 23d, 24th, and 25th. In the meantime, enjoy the holiday as it was celebrated in the 1920s (in pop culture, at least):

By John Held Jr, probably the most popular cartoonist of the era.


Clara Bow, "The It Girl."

Christmas card.

Didn't that company just go belly up?

 A Salacious Santa.

You never know what Santa might have picked up after a trip around the world


Gloria Swanson is ready for her close-up, Mr DeMille.

Christmas at the Fitzgeralds.

Here's an Italian postcard. They had flappers, too, though they seemed to dress a little warmer.

The automobile had become more commonplace.

Why, even Santa was driving one.

Christmas in LA.

Prohibition did put a damper on things. If you're not familiar with 1920s fashions, I can assure you what that gentleman holding the spray bottle is wearing was way out of style, even back then. But maybe that's the whole point. It's the fogies who want to spoil all the fun.


Mary Pickford.

That "wotever it is" looks like a paint roller brush, doesn't it?

OK, I see a keyboard, but where's the screen?

Louise Brooks.  Her signature bob hair style defined the flapper look. Speaking of flappers...

...not everyone had a positive view of them.

OK, I've shown you the side of the 1920s that the purveyors of popular culture wanted you to see. They wanted you see it back then, and they want you see it now. But for most people, it wasn't as glamorous as all that. Here's some pictures of ordinary people celebrating Christmas:

OK, enough with the ordinary people already. One last look at Clara Bow:

All of the above photos were culled from various places around the Internet (unimaginable in the 1920s)

This was fun, and I might do it again next Christmas. To avoid repeating myself, though, I'll have to jump ahead ten years to the 1930s.

Expect a lot of Salvation Army Santas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

In Memoriam: Daniel Inouye 1924-2012

Politician. Democratic senator from Hawaii 1963-2012

"In 1941, the date December 7th was a day that evoked anger, fierce patriotism and dangerous racism. Soon after that day, I suddenly found myself, pursuant to a decision by the government and along with thousands of Japanese Americans declared 4C, enemy aliens. It was a difficult time. I was 17."

Enemy alien or not, Inouye enlisted in the US Army, and lost part of his right arm during a charge on a machine gun nest in Italy.

“This is my country...Many of us have fought hard for the right to say that. Many are now struggling today from Harlem to Da Nang that they may say this with conviction. This is our country.”

--Keynote address to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Yes, THAT 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

"There exists a shadowy government with its own Air Force,
its own Navy, its own fundraising mechanism, and
the ability to pursue its own ideas of national interest,
free from all checks and balances, and free from the law itself."

In the late 1980s, Inouye chaired a special committee investigating the Iran-Contra scandal.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Quips and Quotations

Random violence is incredibly infectious.

--Nicholas D. Kristof

We are a country of excess. So it's not the violence, per se, but the exacerbation and constant repetition.

--Norman Lear
Anyone with a gun can go out and commit an act of terrorism, even without a political affiliation.

--Aaron McGruder

What does it tell you that applications for guns since the shooting are up 41 percent in Colorado, and that our cameras found about 50 people in line at one gun shop yesterday outside Denver?

--Brian Williams, shortly after the shootings at Columbine.

Eighty-six percent of the gun death of children under the age of 14 internationally is right here in the United States of America. It is madness.

--Congresswoman Nita Lowry (D-New York)

I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.

--Isaac Newton

Pain is real when you get other people to believe in it. If no one believes in it but you, your pain is madness or hysteria.

--Naomi Wolf

The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.

--James A. Baldwin

Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.

--C. Wright Mills
In these times you have to be an optimist to open your eyes when you awake in the morning.

--Carl Sandburg

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Passing Notes in Class

Jazz legend Dave Brubeck died a few days ago at the age of 91. He's best know for an piece called "Take Five". Best known to me, anyway, since I'm rather ignorant about jazz. At least the jazz that emerged after World War II when that Bird fellow came along and reinvented the whole thing. Bop I believe it was called. Then came bebop. Or are bebop and bop the same thing? Then there was cool jazz and West Coast jazz and smooth jazz and fusion. Brubeck did one of those kinds of jazz, or maybe he did all of them. "Take Five" sounds pretty cool to me. For the sake of argument,  let's just say he did that.

I really shouldn't blame that Bird fellow--Charlie Parker, right?--for my lack of knowledge about jazz. That's irresponsible. Instead, it's the intellectuals, the ones with pointy heads especially, that are at fault. Before WWII, jazz was much like early rock 'n' roll in the way it thrilled the young and shocked the old. Then in the 1950s the eggheads came along and claimed the music as their own and suddenly it was just like classical and you had to be educated in jazz in order to fully appreciate or even understand it. Bone up on your blues, class. There'll be a test tomorrow.

As is often said when art and ignorance clash, I do know what jazz I like, and I like "Take Five":

 If you're just looking at the freeze frame rather than the actual video, you may think the fellow on the sax is Brubeck. No, that's actually Paul Desmond, a member of The Dave Brubeck Quartet who wrote the piece and played the--well, what the hell do you think he played? Also featured is Joe Morello on drums, Eugene Wright on bass, and Brubeck himself on piano. The Quartet had many other members over the years, but I guess this was the most famous version.

If you did play the video, you'll notice it's an instrumental. However, a few years later a version with  lyrics written by Brubeck and sung by jazz singer Carmen MacRae came out. I like it even more:

 I get the impression from people who know a lot more about jazz than me that it's music you're supposed to listen to very carefully, so as not to miss some intricately improvised chord progression that shifts the overall tone blah, blah, blah. But I bet for a lot of people, including those who consider themselves jazz enthusiasts, it occasionally and simply makes good background music. Especially if the piece is familiar. This clip is from Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993). Listen carefully, and see if you can't discern "Take Five" in-between Alan Alda's, Woody Allen's, Diane Keaton's dinnertime patter:

  Did you catch the chord progression? Or was Alda laughing too loud?

OK, enough already with "Take Five". Another famous Brubeck piece is "Unsquare Dance", which I also like. It features both hand-clapping and something done on the drums, and is a favorite of tap dancers everywhere, because they enjoy confusing the issue. Is it the clap, the tap, or the drum you're hearing? Watch these two perform and figure it out for yourself:

Finally, to borrow a phrase from the decidedly unjazzlike Steppenwolf, let's take a magic carpet ride.  "Blue Rondo à la Turk":

OK, it turns out I'm familiar with all of these pieces. I just didn't know, until I started researching this, their names or that they were by Dave Brubeck or that they were even considered jazz. It's just music I've heard over and over again in movies, TV shows, half-time shows, and talent shows . Maybe even when I've been put on hold.

What a way to get an education.



Friday, December 7, 2012

This Day in History

On December 7, 1941, one empire inadvertently begat another:


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Quips and Quotations (Apocalyptic Arias Edition)

I see the bad moon arising.
I see trouble on the way.
I see earthquakes and lightnin'.
I see bad times today.
Don't go around tonight,
Well, it's bound to take your life,
There's a bad moon on the rise.
I hear hurricanes ablowing.
I know the end is coming soon.
I fear rivers over flowing.
I hear the voice of rage and ruin.
Don't go around tonight,
Well, it's bound to take your life,
There's a bad moon on the rise.
Hope you got your things together.
Hope you are quite prepared to die.
Looks like we're in for nasty weather.
One eye is taken for an eye.
Don't go around tonight,
Well, it's bound to take your life,
There's a bad moon on the rise.

--John Fogerty

When the saints go marchin in
Oh, when the saints go marching in
Lord, how I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in
And when the sun refuse to shine
And when the sun refuse to shine
Lord, how I want to be in that number
When the sun refuse to shine
And when the moon turns red with blood
And when the moon turns red with blood
Lord, how I want to be in that number
When the moon turns red with blood

--19th century spiritual and 20th century jazz standard (go figure.)

Don’t you understand what I’m tryin’ to say
Can’t you feel the fears I’m feelin’ today?
If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away
There’ll be no one to save, with the world in a grave
[Take a look around ya boy, it's bound to scare ya boy]
And you tell me
Over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don’t believe
We’re on the eve
Of destruction.
-- P. F. Sloan, by way of Barry McGuire

That's great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes,
an aeroplane - Lenny Bruce is not afraid.
Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn,
world serves its own needs, dummy serve your own needs.
Feed it off an aux speak,, grunt, no, strength,
The ladder starts to clatter with fear fight down height.
Wire in a fire, representing seven games, a government for hire and a combat site.
Left of west and coming in a hurry with the furies breathing down your neck.
Team by team reporters baffled, trumped, tethered cropped.
Look at that low playing!
Fine, then.
Uh oh, overflow, population, common food, but it'll do.
Save yourself, serve yourself. World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed dummy with the rapture and the revered and the right - right.
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light, feeling pretty psyched.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

--Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe

I couldn't take it any longer
Lord I was crazed
And when the feeling came upon me
Like a tidal wave
I started swearing to my god and on my mother's grave
That I would love you to the end of time
I swore that I would love you to the end of time!
So now I'm praying for the end of time
To hurry up and arrive
'Cause if I gotta spend another minute with you
I don't think that I can really survive
I'll never break my promise or forget my vow
But God only knows what I can do right now
I'm praying for the end of time
It's all that I can do
Praying for the end of time,
So I can end my time with you!!

--Jim Steinman, by way of Meat Loaf

In time the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble,
There're only made of clay,
But our love is here to stay.

--The Gerswhins

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Road Not Taken

Just found out Larry Hagman died. He's best known for I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas. Both fun shows. Both dumb shows. Well, dumb can be fun, can't it? Remember Cousin Otto's New Year's Eve party? The one where your Aunt Hazel got so drunk she tried to play the harpsichord with your Uncle Lester's buttocks after he passed out over the pool table? Not too intellectually stimulating that, yet you laughed so hard you fell backwards into the goat cheese stuffed tomatoes. So let's not get snooty.

I plan to write about I Dream of Jeannie (as well as Bewitched) sometime next year. For now, let me say Hagman was perfect as Major Anthony Nelson, a sober-minded participant in the greatest scientific endeavor of his age--he was an astronaut in the 1960s--who tried to remain a sober-minded participant in the greatest scientific endeavor of his age even after coming in possession of a sexy, supernatural vase-bound domestic. As for Dallas, Hagman was perfect as JR Ewing, a greedy, lecherous industrialist who tried to remain a greedy, lecherous industrialist even after getting plugged full of lead by Bing Crosby's daughter. Even though Jeannie was a sitcom and Dallas was, charitably, a drama, Hagman may have been funnier, intentionally funnier, in the latter.

In his autobiography, Hagman referred to his success as a fluke. By "success" I'm assuming he meant fame and fortune. But what about artistic success? He was no Robert Duvall. But then Robert Duvall would have had a difficult time being Robert Duvall on Dallas. Was there perhaps a higher, more nobler fluke that skipped right by the rich and famous Hagman? A movie early in his career may offer a clue.

Fail-Safe came out in 1964, a couple years after the Cuban Missile Crises. In it, a malfunctioning Pentagon computer orders an attack on the Soviet Union. Unable to stop it (computers crashed even back then) President Henry Fonda offers to make it up to the Russians for the destruction of Moscow by dropping the Bomb on Manhattan. All's fair in love and nuclear war. Fonda dominates the following clip (as does the impending demise of the Big Apple), but keep an eye on Hagman as the interpreter who has to relay the opinions of the Soviet Premier to the President. This lowly White House functionary has been instructed by his boss to capture every little nuance of the Premier's comments, to not just interpret but to inhabit the Russian leader, right down to the accent. Actor Hagman is essentially playing a actor, and he's superb. Is the fear we see in his eyes his or the Premier's? Probably both.

SPOILER ALERT: This movie doesn't really have what you would call a happy ending:

Here's Larry Hagman many decades later at a Q&A session with Jeannie co-stars Barbara Eden and Bill Daily:

As Larry Hagman himself said, thank Gawd Jeannie came along  

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Going for the Old

Every so often, I skim through a page on Wikipedia titled "Deaths in 2012." Two months from now I'll be skimming through "Deaths in 2013." Last year, I was skimming through "Deaths in 2011." You get the idea. I do this to see if anyone obscure but notable has passed on but whose obituary didn't make my daily paper, or if it did I missed it because it was too small, or too far below the fold, or whatever. By "obscure but notable" I mean has-beens or never-weres, folks who are not, or are no longer, famous, but aren't quite unheard of either. That's how I found out about this fellow's passing:

Clive Dunn, 92, British actor (Dad's Army) and singer ("Grandad"), complications following operation.
 If you're not familiar with Dad's Army, it was a situation comedy popular in Great Britain from the late '60s to the mid- '70s. Taking place during World War II, it concerned a unit of the Home Guard, British volunteers deemed unfit to serve in the regular army, often due to age, and so did their part in this special service as a secondary line of defense in case the Nazis invaded, which, fortunately, they never did. I discovered Dad's Army about 15 years ago on a Youngstown PBS affiliate and found it hilarious. Dunn, though not the star of the show, was memorable as Lance-Corporal Jones, an elderly veteran of previous wars who couldn't stop talking. Here's Dunn in action:


While he was still on Dad's Army, Dunn released a song called "Grandad" that sat on top of the UK singles charts for three weeks in 1971, making him an unlikely pop star:

Some rather nubile granddaughters he's got there, huh?

When I read that Dunn was 92 at the time of his death, I originally thought nothing of it. Dad's Army first aired in 1968, quite a while ago, and Dunn had played an old man on it, so it was only natural that he'd be up there in years.

Then I did the math. As I said earlier, Dunn's character was a veteran who couldn't stop talking. Especially about earlier military engagements. In more than one episode, he mentions the Boer Wars, which were fought at the end of the 19th century. At the very least, Lance-Corporal Jones would have been close to 70 by the time of World War II. If the actor who played him was 70 in 1968, he'd...suddenly, 92 no longer seemed old but unusually young.

I did some research on Clive Dunn. He was actually 48 when he first appeared on Dad's Army. Here's a picture of him around that time, but out of character:

A middle-aged man. A touch of grey, laugh lines, but nothing that cries out "elderly." To play Jones, Dunn must have died his hair white, and further obscured his true age with glasses, but I think it was mostly his skill as an actor that made him such a convincing senior.

And it wasn't his first senior moment, either. In 1960, when he was 40, Dunn played a doddering old man on another British sitcom called Bootie and Snudge. After Dad's Army went off the air in 1977, Dunn played an elderly character yet again in a kids show called, appropriately, Grandad. That lasted until 1984, by which time Dunn was an actual senior citizen.

He then promptly retired.

Over the years, there have been other actors who've risen in their profession. Dunn's fellow Brit Alastair Sim made a career out of playing old men. Americans probably know him best as Ebenezer Scrooge in the '51 film version of A Christmas Carol. Sim himself was 51 at the time. Here in the States, Walter Brennan played elderly roles from the late 1930s, when he was relatively young, all the way to the early 1970s, when he was decidedly old. Redd Foxx was all of 50 when he first portrayed the 65-year old Fred on Sanford and Son. Foxx's childhood friend LaWanda Page played 60-something Aunt Esther on the same show. Estelle Getty was one year younger than Bea Arthur when she played the latter's mother on The Golden Girls.

And so, while the rest of us wash that grey right out of our hair, cover up those liver spots and wrinkles with anti-aging creams, have face-lifts, eye-lifts, neck lifts, and pump our faces up with Botox in a futile effort to hang on to our youth, there are those hardy souls among us darting in the opposite direction.

While they're still able to dart.     


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Post-War, er, Post-Election Analysis

I'll try and make this brief. Barack Obama won last night. Those of you aware of my politics will know I see this as a good thing. But not too much of a good thing. The President will still have to contend with a divided Congress, a divided nation, a divided world, and, if the Hubble telescope ever detects life on another planet, probably a divided galaxy as well. Like Bill Clinton before him, Obama may just end up a lonely centurion on guard duty at the gates of Rome, nervously flailing his sword at the approaching barbarian hoards.

Maybe it's unfair of me to call them barbarians. They're just well-meaning folks who simply want to return this country to those halcyon days of yore when blacks were serfs, women were indentured bedmates who knew how to cook, gays were unimaginable, indigenous people were trespassers, Genesis was science, literacy was a luxury, arsenic cuisine was unregulated, soot was a precaution against sun stroke, windows were for dumping out chamber pots, and you didn't have all these meddlesome laws prohibiting four-year olds from earning an honest living working in iron smelting plants with a half-day off for Christmas. These are the people, some of them either in Congress or just financing it, that Obama has to contend with for the next four years. I don't know that he'll have time to do anything else. So, if you're expecting some sweeping changes in his second term that will transform this country into a fairer, more equatable place with justice and opportunity for all, regardless of race, religion, gender, or social status, then...

You must be a right-wing Republican. That's exactly what they're afraid will happen

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Quips and Quotations

Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.

--Stella Adler, acting teacher. Among her students were Marlon Brando, Judy Garland, Robert De Niro, Elaine Stritch, Harvey Keital, and Warren Beatty, though probably not all in the same class. 



Saturday, October 27, 2012

Recommended Reading

George McGovern died last week while I was either in the midst of writing a recent post on politics, or responding to comments on it. It was 40 years ago that McGovern first ran for president, bucking the odds and party establishment to secure the Democratic nomination, only to lose by a landslide in the general election. If you'd like a better understanding of that period of history, don't bother with The Making of the President: 1972 or anything "respectable" like that. Instead, put your trust in the good gonzo doctor:

"If the current polls are reliable... Nixon will be re-elected by a huge majority of Americans who feel he is not only more honest and more trustworthy than George McGovern, but also more likely to end the war in Vietnam. The polls also indicate that Nixon will get a comfortable majority of the Youth Vote. And that he might carry all fifty states... This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable. The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes... understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon. McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose... Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?"

To be fair to Tricky Dick, the U. S. involvement in the Vietnam War did end on his watch--but only after he first expanded the war to Cambodia, essentially destroying that country in the process--KJ

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Civics Tested

If you look underneath the title, Shadow of a Doubt, on top, you'll see a none-too-brief description of what this blog's all about. Everything, essentially.  But the first three topics are "Social commentary, cultural commentary, political commentary..." When I first started this blog in the spring of '08, though all three were mentioned, it was pretty much political commentary all the time. The reason being, 2008 was an election year, and politics was my muse. The election was always on my mind. I wrote about Hillary. About Obama. About McCain. About Biden and Palin. About the debates. I was vigilant. Whatever hat was thrown in the ring, I'd check for lice. Whatever babies were kissed, I'd check for mono. If any backroom deal was being made, I'd make sure it wasn't from the bottom of the deck. If any mud was slung, I'd make sure it wasn't fertilized--by a bull.

All this was four years ago. Now, it's 2012, another election year, and I'm shocked to find I haven't written about it at all. Why have I been so remiss?

Much of it has to do with time, and the lack thereof. I'm working some unusual hours now, and I'm not at a computer as often. For small things like "Quips and Quotations" or "In Memoriam" it's not really a problem, but the essays that form the heart and soul of this blog (even if nobody reads them) now take much longer, sometimes three whole weeks instead of just one as before. Now, if I'm writing about some old movie or TV show, it doesn't matter. Old is old, and it will still be old after three weeks. But politics, current events, are about the here and now. If I had written about, say, Mitt's dissing of the 47%, it might have not been posted until two weeks after the other 53% percent decided the election. That essay would have been about as relevant as MySpace.

It's not just time, though. Over the past three years, this blog has evolved into an exploration of pop culture, especially past pop culture. That doesn't always rest easily with the politics. If I had all the time in the world to write, I'd probably have three blogs. One devoted to pop culture, one to politics, and the third to personal reminiscences and the like. As it is now, I try to shove all three of those things into Shadow of a Doubt (with a few crumbs tossed every now and then to the otherwise famished Ancient Celluloid.) Now, all three do come from the same brain, same mind, same sensibility. For instance, I saw my recent recent essay on Welcome Back, Kotter as being vaguely left-wing. But I don't expect you to find it left-wing, right-wing, left-leg, or right thigh. Not at the risk of you getting indigestion and then calling the health inspector to check this place out.

OK, in the above paragraph, I just revealed which way I lean politically. Yes, I'm a liberal, progressive, lefty, bleeding heart, pinko (just don't call me a communist; I strongly believe the Five Guys hamburger chain should remain in private hands. I don't want the government messing with those toppings!)

Fear not, conservative readers (I know I have at least one. Maybe I'll hear from that person in the comment section.) I 'm not about to spend the rest of this essay trying to convince you to vote for Obama instead of Mitt. I doubt if you're even persuadable at this point. I just felt I had to get my political ideology out there, or else the rest of this essay would become much too abstract to make sense. It would be like searching for a naked albino in a snowstorm.

I'm also a Democrat. The difference between being a Democrat and a liberal or a progressive or a lefty or a bleeding heart or a pinko is you have to register to be the former. The Democratic Party is supposedly entrusted with representing the liberal point of view in government, and compared to the other side--the Republican Party--they do just that. Except they don't. Not always. Or they do it long after liberals and progressives have moved on to other things. I don't have a problem with that. I understand political realities. What bothers me--and makes it a bummer to write, even think, from the liberal point of view at times--is that the Democratic Party, often for reasons of bald strategy and no other, gets to define liberalism.

I'll give you one example. After 9/11, President Bush's approval rating shot up spy drone high, and he was hailed a great leader for simply being the leader when the whole, sorry thing happened. To counter this, the Dems dreamed up the Department of Homeland Security. When I first heard that a department of that name was being proposed, I thought to myself, isn't it already the Pentagon's job to secure the homeland?  Of course, in spite of all the money thrown at it in the previous 50 years, the Pentagon couldn't even secure itself on 9/11, much less the rest of the homeland. But this new department wasn't going to involve the Pentagon, nor NORAD, nor the CIA, nor the FBI. Instead the idea was to take a bunch of agencies that theretofore has little to do with each other, such as Customs, the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, the INS, FEMA and the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, and put them under one roof. This way, in case of an emergency, instead of federal workers having to take cab rides all over the District of Columbia, they could just stroll down a hallway. Something like that. So, if Democrat = liberal, then I guess the Department of Homeland Security stands as one of liberalism's crowning achievements in this still-new century, for all the good that did waterlogged New Orleanians after Hurricane Katrina. Yes, you could, and should, blame Bush for putting an inexperienced and incompetent political hack in charge of FEMA, but the fact that it was now part of a larger Department of Homeland Security didn't prevent such incompetence from taking place. Really, when the department was being proposed, the Republicans in Congress had every right to attack the Democrats for creating yet another bloated, federal bureaucracy. Instead, for political reasons of their own, they went along with it this time.

Another problem with Democrats = liberal, is that Democrats running for, or already in office, don't like to be, and don't like voters to be, reminded of the "= liberal" part. Both Presidents Clinton and Obama, either themselves or through their spokesmen, have on occasion dissed liberals, some of whom have been rushed to the hospital for emergency tongue surgery after biting down too hard in the name of party loyalty.

It's enough to make some liberals pine for this Jill Stein chick as a third-party candidate. Actually, everybody of every political persuasion occasionally pines for a third-party candidate, if not necessarily for Ms. Stein. Earlier this year saw the Unity08 movement for disaffected centrists. It fizzled when people saw movement spokesman Sam Waterson talking about it on TV and assumed it was a commercial for TD Ameritrade. Something like it could still pop up in the future. Until ten, maybe 15, years ago, I considered myself a centrist, so I know where those people are coming from. They don't want the boat rocked, as the liberals would do, but also don't want that same boat to turn around and head back, as the conservatives would have it do (in case you're curious, I stopped being a centrist once I realized the boat's compass could be tampered with.) Even some conservatives unhappy that the Republican Party isn't moving fast enough at privatizing turning lanes may want a third party.

But the math is against it. Contrary to popular belief, the American form of democracy isn't based on majority rule. Instead, the candidate who gets the most votes wins.

OK, I can hear you now: "Kirk, what the hell are you talking about? 'Majority' and 'most' means the same thing!" Actually, they only mean the same thing in a two-, not three-, party system. I'll explain. Say there's a table with 20 apples. Tom sits down and takes 8 of these apples. Dick grabs 7, leaving Harry with 5. Who has the most apples? Tom, obviously. But he doesn't have the majority, because Dick's and Harry's combined are more than that. Tom, in fact, has a minority of the apples. He just gets more, that's all.

So, while it's tempting to vote for someone other than the lesser of two evils for a change, with a third party, you may find that the greater of three evils gets in office instead.

Is there anyway this all could  be improved? Well, you could change the law to favor the "majority" over the "most.' Two ways come to mind. You could have a two-part first-choice, second-choice election. If nobody gets a majority, the candidate with the least amount of votes is disqualified. Another election is held, with a nice clear-cut majority/most winner. This way, a liberal could let his hair down and vote for Ralph Nader in the first election, and then more realistically for Al Gore in the second. A conservative could make a principled vote for Pat Buchanan in the first election, and then vote for the more moderate George W. Bush in the second (at least everybody thought he was more moderate in 2000.)  I think we'd have a much clearer understanding of what the electorate really thinks about things. A better compass, so to speak.

Another way, one that I increasingly favor, is to add NONE OF THE ABOVE onto the ballot. Worried about the effect of money on elections? The Koch brothers could go through their entire fortune until they'd have nothing left but a single roll of Angle Soft toilet paper between them, and still couldn't defeat NONE OF THE ABOVE at the polls. Don't like negativity in politics? What kind of smear campaign could you possibly have against NONE OF THE ABOVE? Could you call NONE OF THE ABOVE a communist? If there's anyone who is not now or never been, it's NONE. Accuse NONE OF THE ABOVE of having sex with an underage intern? How would you know if she was on top or bottom?

OK, I can hear you now: "But, Kirk, suppose NONE OF THE ABOVE wins the election? Won't it look rather odd on inauguration day having the presidential limo go down Pennsylvania Avenue with no one in the back seat to wave at the crowds?"

If NONE OF THE ABOVE wins, you would then have a second election, this time without NONE on the ballot. Whoever got the most votes would win that election, but they'd go into office a bit humbled, a bit chastened. There would be no beating on the chest about how they have a mandate, about how the people have spoken.

Well, I suppose he or she could always brag they were second to NONE.


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Vital Viewing (Ships That Pass Through the Night Edition)

John Lennon was born on this day in 1940. He gave many, many interviews over the years, but here's one in 1974 by a man you normally don't associate with rock music:

Six years later:

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Brought to You By Nabisco

Andy Williams died--lemme check--two days ago. I can't say I paid much attention to him over the  years. I'm in no way prejudiced against his style of singing, which in my youth was referred to a "easy listening." I just have an easier time listening to Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, or Perry Como than I do Williams. "Moon River" is a great song, but I prefer the way Audrey Hepburn sang it in Breakfast at Tiffany's. And it's nice Williams stood by his ex after she was accused of shooting and killing her ski instructor, but I can no longer remember if she was found guilty or not (well, I am on the Internet, so let me check again...misdemeanor criminal negligence, 30 days in jail plus a small fine.)

Now that I think about it, there was a point in my life when I did pay attention to Williams. I was 8 or 9 and used to watch his variety show on TV. I didn't watch because of him particularly. I just happened to have liked variety shows, of which there were many when I was a kid. Singing, dancing, and comedy skits all under an hour. The format seems just about extinct now. You can still find singing and dancing and comedy skits on TV, but it's all been divvied up. Saturday Night Live gets the skits, American Idol the singing, and Dancing With the Stars, obviously, the dancing. A further example of the fragmentation of the media.

William's show had this recurring skit that I eagerly looked forward to each week. A talking bear would try to finagle some cookies out of Williams, but to no avail. I found this hilarious when I was 8 or 9. Now I just find it a bit strange. Of course, that may even be a better reason to look forward to it each week. Here's a clip of one such skit, in which the bear enlists the aid of a svelte Kate Smith (don't ask me to explain that countdown in the middle of the screen; best I can figure is that whoever originally put this on YouTube taped it on a 40-year old VCR):

A word about Kate Smith, a popular radio performer of the 1940s. If you're not familiar with her, you may be puzzled, after watching that clip, as to why I referred to her as "svelte".  Well, here's what she looked like in her prime:
That's in the 1940s. As you can see, she had slimmed down considerably by the time she appeared on Andy William's show in 1970. She was relatively, comparatively, svelte.
As for that talking bear, did you see how he fell backwards at the end of that skit? Obviously, the poor creature collapsed from hunger. And what did Kate Smith do? Just stand there and laugh. How cold. How callous. I hope those cookies made her fat all over again. It would be her just desserts! 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

James Buchanan Hijinks

When Robert Hegyes, who played Juan Epstein, died a few months ago, I felt a tinge of sadness, but didn't feel the need to write about it. When Ron Palillo, who played Arnold Horshack, died a few weeks ago, I was similarly sad, yet still reluctant to mention it. Why the reluctance? Because the TV show both these actors were on, Welcome Back, Kotter, was a piece of crap.

If you're not familiar with Welcome Back, Kotter, it's about a man named Gabe Kotter, played by Gabe Kaplan, who returns to his high school alma mater to teach social studies to a group of rowdy remedial students known as the Sweathogs, so-called because their classes were restricted to the top floor of the building. The school administration, in the person of Assistant Principal Woodman (John Sylvester White), believes the young hoodlums to be beyond redemption, and their job merely to go through the motions of teaching them until they were old enough to drop out and pursue a life of crime. However, Kotter, like Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier before him, sees promise in these students, believes they're worth saving, and sets about teaching them not just facts from a book, but life lessons as well.

Sounds like anything but crap, huh? Ah, but it's all in the execution. The show was based on Kaplan's own high school experiences, and while his own goals for the show may have been noble enough, I suspect that the other producers and network execs involved never saw it as anything more than a quick advertising buck. Everything about that show reeked of cheap. Cheap sets, cheap jokes, cheap expectations. The cheapness may have been exacerbated by being shot on videotape, common--in more than one sense of the word--for sitcoms in the 1970s. Videotape worked well for some shows like All in the Family,  but most others suffered because of it. For whatever reasons,  tape, as opposed to film, made a set look like a set instead of a living room, office, or classroom.  Worse still was the hallway outside of Kotter's classroom. I was never convinced it led to a gym, lunchroom, other classrooms or Principal's office. I always knew if you walked far enough down, you'd come to a bunch of stage hands using crude gestures to describe what they did that weekend as they waited for a cue from the director.

The executive producer of Kotter was James Komack, whose first show was The Courtship of Eddie's Father. This was a beautifully filmed, well-produced show that, while not laugh out loud funny, told its stories well. The switch to videotape, first with the crummy Chico and the Man, and then Kotter, seemed to have eroded Mr. Komack's storytelling abilities. And here is where we come to the real problem with the show: shoddy writing. Welcome Back, Kotter relied entirely too much on a series of catchphrases--"What? Where? Why?" "Ooh-ooh-ooooh!" "Hi there" "Hey, Mr. Kot-taire." "I got a note" "They're not people!" "I'm so confused!" and "Up your nose with a rubber hose."--that were arguably funny the first time you heard them, but not so funny, or intelligible, once they replaced such things as narrative structure, exposition, and character development. Or fresh jokes.

James Buchanan High School must have been located across the street from a costume shop, as the Sweathogs played dress-up quite a bit, depending on that particular episode's story. Epstein dates a girl from the Midwest, so the rest of the gang dress up like stereotypical farmers. At Christmas they're reindeer. Helping a hamster give birth, they're in surgical gowns and masks. Another episode has them entering a room as window washers. Much of this was just them clowning around, but there's a couple of episodes where they're actually wearing disguises so people won't recogize them. Some punk steal cars. Others snatch purses. These punks lift harebrain schemes from I Love Lucy.

The Sweathogs are supposedly four teenage miscreants bored by school. You would think they'd cut class a lot. Just the opposite. These teenage miscreants must have had the best attendance record in history. They were often shown in class, or at least in the classroom, when Mr Kotter wasn't even there. When there were no other students there. When it wasn't entirely clear school was even in session. They were just there. Why hang out at some street corner, they must have reasoned, when they could be sitting at some nice comfortable wooden desks?

Welcome Back, Kotter also had a lot of "message" episodes, warning of the dangers of smoking or pill popping or unprotected sex, but these topics were tackled much more intelligently by the Afterschool Specials of the era. On Kotter, however, a show where the cast gets locked in an Egyptian tomb in one episode and a Japanese inventor shows off his battery-operated musical underwear in another, these messages seem motivated less by the desire to make the world a better place and more by the need to mollify parent-teacher groups who might otherwise complain about the sitcom's glorification of juvenile delinquency.

Now that I've made my disdain for Welcome Back, Kotter perfectly clear, why should I care at all about Robert Hegyes and Ron Palillo's earthly cancellations? Truth be told, at one time or another, both of these fellows made me laugh.

As did John Travolta, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, White, and Kaplan (as well he should; the man was a stand-up comedian.) Even Marcia Strassman, who played Julie, Kotter's wife, made me laugh, usually when she wasn't laughing at her husband's "uncle" jokes that opened and closed the show. Whatever its flaws, Kotter was extremely well cast.

None more so than the four young talented comic actors who played the Sweathogs. Well, talented at  the broadest of broad comedy. Could they have been as talented doing a more subtle, more gentler form of humor, such as that which could be found on The Mary Tyler Moore Show? For that matter, could they have done The Courtship of Eddie's Father? It's now apparent that Travolta has a decent range as an actor, but as for the other three, I don't know. I can't recall ever seeing them on anything after Welcome Back, Kotter went off the air. And now two of them are dead. For those two, and possibly the third Sweathog who didn't become a superstar, Kotter is their legacy.

The Sweathog that did become a superstar, of course, was John Travolta, who played Vinnie Barbarino. 1970s movie critics often compared Travolta to Brando after his great success in Saturday Night Fever, but what they seemed to miss was the comic twist he applied to the Marlon mumble while still on Welcome Back, Kotter. Travolta would mutter the first two or three word, emphasize the fourth or fifth, mutter the next two or three, emphasize the word after that, and so on: "you're sister is SO LOW she plays HANDBALL against the CURB." Like everyone else on the show, Travolta/Barbarino had a catch phrase, not muttered this time but enunciated in a deliberately paced matter, "What?...Where?...Why?" He usually said this to avoid responsibility, but as time went on, and as the character became more dimwitted, he really seemed to believe it. We are what we pretend to be, Kurt Vonnegut once warned, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be.

In the early part of the show's run, Barbarino was considered the leader of the Sweathogs, but that became less and less sustainable as that character's IQ decreased. Thus, Puerto Rican Jew Juan Epstein--Robert Heyges--increasingly became, if not the leader, than at least the linchpin of the group, the spokesperson, the one who got to crack wise first when they all entered the room. With his winning smile and gutteral Shecky Greene/Alan King/Jack Carter vocal delivery, this Borscht Belt Dead End Kid often got the best lines ("best lines" being a relative term on a show like this.)

Freddie "Boom-Boom" Washington, played by Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, proved hipness and comic shtick need not be mutually exclusive. The character's most well-know catchphrase, "Hi, there" was spoken in a deep mock-announcer type voice. He would then switch to a mock Frenchman when addressing his teacher, "Hey, Mr Kot-taire." OK, it's hard to imagine a Frenchman saying "Hey", but it seemed to work for Hilton-Jacobs/Washington. When not talking like a faux-announcer or faux-Frenchman, Washington's main mode of communication was washed-scrubbed-rinsed-and-dried-for-TV street jive. The Three Faces of Boom-Boom. However he was talking, Hilton-Jacobs often put the whole of his, tall, angular frame into a joke. His character played basketball for the school, and even when off the court, he seemed ready to dribble down the court and shoot one through the hoop. And did in the form of a punchline (oops, wrong sport.)

Finally, Ron Palillo played Arnold Horshack, a misfit's misfit. The other three probably wouldn't have let such an odd duck hang out with them if wasn't for his willingness to serve as the group's entertainment. He was their madcap mascot, campy court jester, and spastic sycophant. In several Horshack-centric episodes, he does balk against the subservient role he was asked to play,  and those ended with the others promising to show him more respect from now on, now on lasting no longer than until next week's show. Academically, Horshack was the smartest of the Sweathogs ("ooh-ooh-ooooh, Mr. Kotter, I know the answer!"), and in one episode he gets such good grades that he's transferred right out of Kotter's classroom. But the outside world, or at least the rest of James Buchanan High that we never get to see, proves to be bit too much for poor Arnold, and he returns to the Sweathog fold, trading independence for security and a sense of belonging. Maybe a closet, too. Arnold Horshack could make you laugh, as long you didn't dwell too much on his dilemma. If you did dwell, he might make you wince.

There you have it. Four funny guys. As funny as they may have been individually, though, they were even more so as a group. As others have pointed out, they resembled the Marx Brothers. A Night in the Blackboard Jungle. A Day in Room 222. But where as Minnie's boys undermined and subverted the sensibilities of opera impresarios and high society matrons, the Sweathogs targets were closer to homeroom: rules, books, and teachers (except for Kotter) with dirty looks. This was tremendously appealing to the average 14-year old kid in 1976, who, after all, isn't going to care about any of the stuff I was complaining about earlier, such as poor production values or scripts with holes in them. In fact, I didn't even care at 14. It was only decades later, when I watched Welcome Back, Kotter again on cable that I noticed those things. That's what happens when you get older. You notice things.

The Marx Brothers relied on such talented writers as George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind for material. The Sweathogs got crap from hacks. The four remedial students made the hilarious most out of that crap, and for that they deserve a passing grade.

Welcome Back, Kotter had one other redeeming feature: a great opening song, one of the best TV themes of the 1970s. Written and performed by Lovin' Spoonful founder John Sebastian, it so impressed the producers, they incorporated it into the show's title, which theretofore had simply been Kotter: