Saturday, December 30, 2023

Quips and Quotations (Buckeye State Checks and Balances Edition)

This bill [a ban on transgender health care for minors] would impact a very small number of Ohio's children. But for those children who face gender dysphoria, the consequences of this bill could not be more profound. Ultimately I believe this is about protecting human life...Many parents have told me that their child would not have survived, would be dead today, if they had not received the treatment they received from one of Ohio's children's hospitals...These are gut-wrenching decisions that should be made by parents and should be informed by teams of doctors who are advising them. Were I to sign House Bill 68, or were House Bill 68 to become law, Ohio would be saying that the state, that the government, knows better what is medically best for a child than the two people who love that child the most: the parents.

--Mike DeWine, Republican Governor of Ohio

(I fully expected DeWine to sign this bill into law, but people sometimes surprise you. Go, Mike! Not that this is the final word on the subject. HB 68 passed the state's House and Senate by a supermajority, and that same supermajority could override the governor's veto. And even if that doesn't happen, DeWine has said he wants some kind of prohibition or restriction, just not what landed on his desk. Nevertheless, it's a ray of hope at the end of a very harrowing year for the LGBTQ community, both inside and outside of Ohio--Kirk)



Thursday, December 28, 2023

Vital Viewing (Siblings Soapbox Edition)


Dickie and Tommy Smothers

A couple of weeks ago I did a post on writer/producer Norman Lear, lauding him for making TV comedy safe for sociopolitical content. However, a death in the news now has reminded me that there was a predecessor, The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour, a show that, if it couldn't for itself make TV comedy safe for sociopolitical content, may have at least secured a beachhead for Lear's later, more successful assault on network Standards and Practices.

Inspired by The Kingson Trio and the folk music revival it helped launch starting in the late 1950s, brothers Tom and Dick Smothers decided to take part in the revival themselves. With Tommy on guitar and Dickie on base, the duo at first just performed straight-ahead folk. At some point in time, Tommy introduced a song by cracking a joke, and Dickie good-naturedly rebuked him for cracking the joke. Though both were decent musicians, they soon found audiences seemed to prefer that comedic rapport to the actual songs being played. The brothers weren't about to disappoint them, Dickie assuming the role of a straight man who couldn't get a folk ditty in edgewise thanks to his lamebrained brother's obstinance. In a few short years as the '50s gave way to the '60s, not only were there increased night club and concert bookings for the duo, but several Top-40 comedy albums as well, along with television guest shots on shows hosted by Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Judy Garland:

In 1964 the brothers got their own situation comedy, called simply The Smothers Brothers Show. The concept was less than simple as Tom played an angel apprentice trying to earn his wings with the reluctant help of his mortal brother, Dick. It lasted just a single season. CBS wasn't about to give up on them. In 1967 the brothers were offered their own comedy-variety hour. This time around Tommy demanded something that he didn't have with the earlier series: creative control. Scheduled opposite the highly rated western Bonanza, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour didn't start out as anything radical. Like most variety shows of that era it was a mixture of comedy sketches and music, with the type of guest stars such as Jimmy Durante and Jack Benny who seemed to go from variety show to variety show. Kate Smith was once a musical guest. Tommy, though, wanted the show to have more of a countercultural bent. Rock acts like The Who and the Jefferson Airplane were booked. The sketches became edgier, much more topical. Pat Paulson, a writer-performer for the show ran for President. There were references to the Vietnam War and race relations. Drug humor made its debut on American television. Viewers, particularly college-aged viewers, began to abandon the seemingly safe environs of Bonanza (though that series also dealt with social ills such as racism, albeit through an 19th century lens) for the wilder-than-Wild West Smothers:  


By the end of their first season, the Smothers Brothers were winning the hour. It wasn't a permanent victory, as Bonanza eventually regained its former footing. Nevertheless, by some math that's beyond my comprehension, both shows remained in the Top Ten for nearly the rest of the decade. No doubt some people were put off by the rabble-rousing Smothers and that necessitated a return to the Ponderosa. Allegedly both the Johnson and Nixon Administrations were displeased with the young upstarts. Affiliates sometimes preempted the Smothers or deleted certain sketches when things got too heated. Soon, CBS itself started chopping away, cutting a lyric from Pete Seeger's performance of "Waist Deep in Big Muddy", an allegorical song about the Vietnam War; and delating a segment which had Harry Belafonte singing against a backdrop of footage of the riots that surrounded the 1969 Democratic Convention in Chicago (footage that had come from its own news division, though with Walter Conkrite rather than Belafonte in the foreground.) An entire show that featured Joan Baez paying tribute to her then-husband David Harris who had been jailed for refusing to submit to the draft was replaced with a rerun. The Smothers, particularly Tommy Smothers, was outraged by all this censorship. He refused to submit the finished shows to the network before being aired. Of course, at the end of the day--the day being April 4, 1969--it was the network that had, and that made, the final refusal:

The Smothers were down but not particularly out. All this took place before I entered the third grade, yet they were still a familiar presence on TV while I was growing up, guesting on other people's shows and on commercials and whatnot. In 1988, even CBS, however temporarily, welcomed them back into the fold:

One thing that's always puzzled me. A little under two years separate the cancellation of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and the debut of All in the Family in 1971. Both shows were on CBS, with no major changes in network brass in that time. If anything, AITF broke even more taboos, was even more controversial, than the Smothers. According to his autobiography, Norman Lear had the same run-ins with the bigwigs from CBS as did the Smothers. Yet Lear's show ran three times longer (four times if you add Archie Bunker's Place into the mix) than the Smothers. How did he succeed where the brothers failed? I can't locate it on YouTube, but I once saw an interview where Tommy Smothers was asked that very question. His theory was that a nonfictional Carrol O'Connor portrayed a fictional Archie Bunker. O'Connor wasn't speaking for himself, so everyone accepted it as make-believe. Whereas the nonfictional Tommy and Dickie Smothers portrayed a nonfictional Tommy and Dickie Smothers. Even that involved a good deal of make-believe--the real Tommy wasn't anything approaching lamebrained--but not when it came to politics. Speaking for oneself always involves a certain amount of risk. 


Sunday, December 24, 2023

Smart Art (Nonrepresentative Nick Edition)

 Pablo Picasso (seen here with son Claude and daughter Paloma) may have been a great artist, but he just couldn't decide what Santa Claus looked like!

Picasso drew this in 1959. I like the nose-eyes combination.

From the same year.  Kind of a shifty-eyed Santa, don' cha think? I'm not sure whether this should hang in a museum, or the post office.


From 1960. Unlike most celebrities, this Santa could go out in public without being mobbed, since I doubt anyone would recognize him.

In the end, I suppose it doesn't matter what Santa Claus looks like as long as he comes through on the presents. What kind of present might a Picasso Santa bring?

Give me enough time, and I bet I could turn it into Guernica.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Vital Viewing (Pulp Christmas Edition)


Only four days left to get your official Samuel L. Jackson holiday T-shirt. Hesitant? Not sure it's the right look for you? Perhaps these videos will help you decide:

OK, Jackson couldn't get an F-bomb in edgewise there. At least not one that was picked up by the mike. Samuel is seen and heard to much better effect in this yuletide presentation from the good people at Capital One:

Don't feel too sorry for Jackson. He's paid handsomely every time he references maternal incest in a movie, and that more than makes up for whatever coal he gets in his stocking. As for that other fellow in the commercial, it's proof, as if any was needed, that in this great capitalistic system of ours, even a Sweathog can achieve sainthood.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Bad Santa


As Halloween approaches, let us pay tribute to the great Boris Karloff, who so chillingly brought to life--

Wait a second! Halloween's come and gone, hasn't it? So where does that leave poor Boris?

No matter the holiday, you just can't keep a good monster down.

Karloff, and, standing over him, Jones

Though we may associate him with an earlier era of pop culture, Boris Karloff still had a fairly busy schedule throughout the 1960s. He started out the decade as the host of the TV anthology series Thriller, kept on acting in horror films (most of which were low-budget drive-in fare) and narrated a series of children's records based on Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories.  It was the last of these that caught the ear of animator Chuck Jones (best known for the Coyote and Road Runner cartoons.) Jones wanted to make a TV version of Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and was struck by how genuinely tender Karloff came across as he recited Kipling's tales of how the camel got his hump or how the elephant got his trunk or how Great Britian got India (OK, the last one never appeared in Just So Stories, though Kipling DID bring up the subject quite a bit in his works geared toward adults.) Jones thought such a tender approach would work quite nicely for Seuss' story. Not that Jones was oblivious to the fact that Karloff also could do wickedness extremely well. So both the yin and the yang of Boris' vocal talents were brought to the fore as he's the tender narrator as well as the wicked Grinch who disguises himself as St. Nick and robs the town of Whoville of all its presents and decorations and foodstuffs until finally he has a change of conscience and promises to honor Christmas in his heart and Tiny Tim doesn't die--Oops! I'm getting my stories of Yuletide redemption mixed up. Which remind me...

Don't you think Alastair Sim would have made a scary monster? Just imagine him with a couple of bolts in his neck.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Graphic Grandeur (Time Dilation Edition)


Cartoonist Clay Bennett takes an expansive view of the Orange Dude's purported plans should he return to the Oval Office.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Quips and Quotations (Stone's Throw Edition)

The number of people who expected Mrs. Hutchinson to win a Bendix washing machine at the end would amaze you.

--Shirley Jackson


Thursday, December 7, 2023

Recommended Reading



One of my heroes has died at the grand old age of 101, I'm afraid. Though his heyday--I defining "heyday" here as when he achieved his greatest renown-- was in the 1970s, television writer/producer Norman Lear stayed in the public eye almost right up until the end. At 99 he was there as actress Marla Gibbs (who was in two of Lear's shows: The Jeffersons and 227) received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and at 100 was one of the recently deceased Bob Saget's pallbearers. Lear also was a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, guest-starred (his voice anyway) on South Park, and did more interviews, more symposiums, and more college lectures than almost anyone else, even I think outpacing a certain former and recently expired secretary of state in the same age range who was also much in demand. The years before the heyday could be pretty interesting, too. Lear and his brother-in-law Ed Simmons started out in the early 1950s writing for Martin and Lewis on the Colgate Comedy Hour, suffusing their vaudeville-like clowning with a bit of social satire. Lear and Simmons later moved on to shows hosted by Martha Raye, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and George Gobel, before a disagreement on how to proceed careerwise caused them to go their separate ways. Not too long after, Lear and a director of the Colgate show by the name of Bud Yorkin formed their owned company, the now-legendary (at least to me) Tandem Productions. One early, and given the rest of Lear's career, uncharacteristic success was Andy Williams' 1960s variety show. However, their most notable feats in that era, as either writers, directors, or simply as producers, were on the big screen: Come Blow Your Horn, Divorce American Style, The Night They Raided Minsky's, Start the Revolution Without Me, and Cold Turkey. Indeed, they could have and would have had a nice long career in motion pictures if a certain British sitcom about a working-class bigot in constant conflict with his lefty son-in-law titled Til Death Us Do Part had not come to their attention.

If the premise of Til Death Us Do Part sounds familiar to all you Americans watching the boob tube back in the '70s, that's because Lear, having obtained the U.S. rights to the series, turned it into the phenomenally popular All in the Family. Soon after came Sanford and Son (based on the Britcom Steptoe and Son), Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Eschewing the then-prevailing notion that when American TV viewers turned on the set, they wanted nothing that resembled the world as it is when the set is turned off, Lear shows dealt with such topics as race relations, class conflict, divorce, abortion, sexual orientation, gender dysphoria, unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, anti-Semitism, the Ku Klux Klan, gun control and the lack thereof, religious hucksterism, domestic violence, campus unrest, elder abuse, child abandonment, teenage pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, the Vietnam War  and its aftermath (which never rated a mention on Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.), wife-swapping, rape, cancer, mental illness, suicide, and euthanasia. Pretty heavy stuff, huh? Yet these were COMEDIES. You were expected to LAUGH at all this superduper seriousness. And, thanks to a combination of great writing, and even more important, great comic acting (Carrol O'Connor, Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers, Redd Foxx, LaWanda Page, Bea Arthur, Bill Macy, Rue McClanahan, Conrad Bain, Esther Rolle, John Amos, Jimmy Walker, Johnny Brown, Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford, Marla Gibbs, Bonnie Franklin, Pat Harrington Jr, Louise Lasser, Mary Kay Place, Dody Goodman, Martin Mull, and Dabney Coleman, to name just a few) you did indeed laugh. In a fallen world, what better catharsis is there than laughter? 

In 2014, the then-90-year-old Lear came out with his life story. While I do read them, I've always found autobiographies a bit problematical. Like the rest of us, the author is always going to try and place themself in the best possible life, which may end up not shedding much light at all. A celebrity also is not always a good judge of what us noncelebrities are going to find interesting. For instance, Lear totally ignores the fact that in 1974 Carroll O'Connor held out signing a new contract for so long that a script of All in the Family was prepared depicting Archie Bunker's funeral. Fortunately, such a script never went before the cameras (though some time later, the Grim Reaper took custody of Edith Bunker after Jean Stapleton decided she had tired of the role.) However, when it comes to the oft-leveled charge that his taboo-demolishing shows were less than wholesome, Lear defends himself nicely:

The controversy the shows set off--particularly some individual episodes--generated a good deal of criticism of me for what was viewed as editorializing. "If you want to send a message," I was told, "use Western Union."  In the early years I would face that accusation by denying it. We weren't sending messages, I'd say, we were doing comedy. If we could not make the story funny we would not do the story. I've always believed the things that make me laugh will make you laugh, and what makes you cry will make me cry. I have to believe that or I don't have guidelines. But to me, laughter lacks depth if it isn't involved with other emotions. An audience is entertained when it's involved to the point of laughter or tears--ideally, both.

At some point my response to the accusation that I was sending a message changed. I came to realize that, as a longtime observer of the culture, now in my fifties, why wouldn't I have a point of view and express it in my work? I determined not to be apologetic and began saying openly, "Yes, as full-grown human beings who read and think and pay a lot of attention to what is happening in the world our children will inherit, we will write and produce those stories that interest and involve us--and those are usually about something. Our humor expresses our concerns."

There then came a moment when--after expressing this for the umpteenth time--I thought: Wait a second. Who said the comedies that preceded All in the Family had no point of view? The overwhelming majority of them were about families whose biggest problem was "The roast is ruined and the boss is coming to dinner!" Or "Mother dented the fender and how is she going to tell Father?" Talk about messaging! For twenty years--until AITF came along--TV comedy was telling us there was no hunger in America, we had no racial discrimination, there was no unemployment or inflation, no war, no drugs, and the citizenry was happy with whomever happened to be in the White House. Tell me that expressed no point of view! 

Now let's end this with a bit of messaging:

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Quips and Quotations (Magic Kingdom Confidential Edition)


I'm not Walt Disney. I do a lot of things Walt Disney would not do. Walt Disney does not smoke. I smoke. Walt Disney does not drink. I drink.

--Walt Disney, on his public persona.

Saturday, December 2, 2023

All for Justice, and Justice for All


The rule of law has never been more bipartisan.

OMG! She's upstaging Mick and Boss Hogg!



Friday, December 1, 2023

Graphic Grandeur (Invasive Species Edition)


Either way, or from either end, people are getting bit, and not just in the Middle East but, increasingly, right here in the U.S.A.

Cartoon by Pedro Molina