Friday, May 27, 2022

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Vital Viewing (Serenading Second Banana Edition)


Singer and comedian--no, no, that's not right--comedian and singer--no, I had it right the first time--singer and comedian Dennis Day was born on this day in 1916 (he died in 1988.) Day thought of himself as a singer first and a comedian second, and I have to respect that. Yet watching this clip from the once-popular game show What's My Line, it's hard for me not to think of him as first and foremost a comedian:

If you haven't figured it out, the way the What's My Line mystery guest segment worked is the blindfolded celebrity was allowed to keep asking questions as long as each answer approximated a "yes".  A "no" and the next celebrity to the right got their turn, or if you were at the very right, as was Random House publisher and best-selling joke anthologist Bennett Cerf, then the next celebrity up would be the one at the very left, in this case Broadway gossip columnist and occasional true-crime journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. Dorothy's string of correct guesses was unusual. In most cases, there's were enough "no" answers to go around, assuring each panelist got a chance to ask a question. I suspect it was no accident that the line of questioning began with stage and radio actress Arlene Francis, that the producers hoped that the segment would reach an exciting climax once radio comedian Fred Allen's turn came up. If I'm right, then obviously, things didn't go according to plan. Why does it matter? Well, in the larger scheme of things it really doesn't, except that Allen previously had been engaged in decades-long mock feud with..., and by this time, television comedian Jack Benny, Dennis Day's long-time boss. As it was, poor Fred had to settle for blurting out Benny's name afterwards, but it would have been a lot cooler, and a lot funnier, if the acerbic comic had guessed the answer instead of Kilgallen. Oh, well, at least you know the contest wasn't rigged. As for whether Day was first and foremost a singer or a comedian, we have Benny to thank for that bit of confusion. Day indeed started out as a singer. Mary Livingston, Benny's wife and radio show castmate, had heard the 23-year-old Day sing on some local New York program and told hubby about it. Benny liked what he heard and hired him on, a big break for Day since he was now heard coast-to-coast. But he couldn't just sing, he had to perform comedy when asked to do so, and as time went on, he was asked to that more and more. Day was most certainly as good a comedian as he was a songster, more than holding his own with program regulars Livingston, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Mel Blanc, Frank Nelson ("EEE-yeeeeeeeesssss?") Phil Harris (a band leader first and Baloo the Bear second?) and Benny himself. You just heard how good he was with the mimicry, but he became best known as the smiling innocent who couldn't help but get on the dryly prickly Benny's nerves. 

It's more than nerves at stake in this gangster film parody:

Given the all the shootings in public places--there's been several just this past week, including that one in Buffalo--you may question whether the gunplay in the above video is an appropriate subject for humor. But that sketch is from 1960. Back then, as far as the average person was concerned, shootings in public places mostly happened in fictional movies and on fictional TV shows, and not on the nonfictional news found on yet-to-be-invented smart phones. So give Benny and his writers some slack. In the meantime, Turner Classic Movies fans may have recognized the first gangster to succumb to Jack's bullets. It's Dan Duryea, a supporting actor mainstay of the 1940s and '50s genre we now call film noir. Gunplay for him was rare enough outside a movie set that he could make fun of it, and himself.

By 1968 both the long-running radio show and the long-running TV show were off-the-air, but Benny and Day occasionally found things to do together, such as this Texaco commercial. Day is in his early 50s by now, but gamely still plays the insouciant youth of yore:

Life before the self-serve pump.

OK, I've said Day was also, even primarily, a singer, but what did he sing? Usually novelty-numbers, especially when he sang on TV. But the son of Irish immigrants seemed particularly drawn to...

...Irish songs (or songs written in America about Ireland.) Here's one such song. Longtime Benny announcer Don Wilson provides a bit of musical accompaniment towards the end:

Maybe Day was a singer after all. A comedian shouldn't let the announcer have the last laugh.

Dialect comedy has fallen out of favor in this century, arguably for a very good reason. By poking fun at foreign (as well as homegrown ethnic) accents, it encourages xenophobia and racism, which so plagues present-day politics (and, increasingly, present-day police dockets, hospitals, and cemeteries.) Yet I don't think Dennis Day's intent in the above video was meant to be so harmful. It was all in fun, and, besides, the British, French, and Germans haven't historically been among the more oppressed groups to make a home on these shores. The Irish are a different matter. If you go far enough back in time, you'd find they were a put-upon group in the early days of our republic. But as Dorothy Kilgallen already told you, Day was really Owen Patrick Eugene McNulty. Jack Benny (Benjamin Kebulsky) was another first-generation American, in his case the son of Russian Jews. It all harkens back to an earlier "great replacement" that took hold on an island named Ellis, one of those occasional moments in our nation's history when people aren't afraid of foreigners, or the descendants of foreigners, whether they have accents or not.



Saturday, May 14, 2022

Quips and Quotations (Invasion of the Body Snatcher Edition)


Not even gays. Most would be surprised. Only because what you see on TV, a serious guy in a suit, unsmiling, isn’t how anyone thinks of gay males.

--actor Richard Deacon (Leave It to Beaver, The Dick Van Dyke Show), on how aware the general public was of his sexual orientation.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Graphic Grandeur (Avenging Titanic Wonder Edition)



*Sigh*. First Neal Adams, now George Pérez. The latter recently deceased comic book artist mentions the former recently deceased comic book artist, and a few other people, in this 2014 clip from one of the many comic book conventions he's attended:  


Listen to them cavalierly toss that word "nerd" around. I guess it's a way of "owning" the one-time slur, the same way some blacks use the N-word or the increasing popularity of "queer" among the LGBTQ community. I get it, but when it comes to the graphic arts, I'd prefer to think of such so-called nerds (or geeks) as the comics cognoscenti. 

Whether the South Bronx-born-and-raised Pérez was a nerd or a geek, he was first and foremost an artist, and a very good one at that. He got his start at Marvel with a character he co-created will Bill Mantlo called the White Tiger, a superhero who was Hispanic, like Pérez himself. But his star really began to shine in the late 1970s, when he was assigned to draw the more culturally homogenous mutants, androids, mystics and scientific test subjects-gone-awry who comprised the Avengers. Rival DC Comics took note of Pérez's talents and asked him to take over the Teen Titans, a group of adolescent superheroes led by Robin the Boy Wonder and turned that afterthought of a series into a successful seller. Meanwhile, the DC universe was getting a bit too complex, what with Earths-One, Two, Three, Four, etc. A downsizing was called for, and Pérez and former Marvel writer Marv Wolfman (I've always loved that name) destroyed one alternate reality after another in the massive crossover series Crises on Infinite Earths. This all led to a "relaunching" of various DC heroes (the first of several over the years), and Pérez was assigned Wonder Woman, reminding everybody that this was no mere superheroine but a goddess. Treat her with some respect or you might find yourself knotted up in a golden lasso. Like the Titans, that book became more of a success than it ever had been previously. Pérez did a lot of other things in his career but those were the highlights. Mostly a penciller whose work was inked by others, his style varied early on because of that but became more recognizable with time, a realistic elegance applied to the decidedly unrealistic and never particularly elegant world of superheroes. Here's a sampling of his best-known books (along with some com-con cosplay as an added attraction): 




Take the lasso off, Diana, and save it for Justice Alito.