1041.) Vintage ep, re-digitized and re-edited for 2013: For Halloween this year I present a re-airing of my 1996 interview with editor and fantasy-fanboy extraordinaire Forrest J. Ackerman. Forry discusses with us the founding with producer James Warren of his legendary fright-film pic and pun-filled monster-movie mag Famous Monsters of Filmland. He also discusses his other long-stemmed vocation as a fan of fantasy fiction and film and stirs the heart of yours truly by talking about the first-ever fan conventions he attended back in the 1930s (with, among others, a young pal name of Bradbury). We also touch upon his side-career making cameos in films made by the former readers of Famous Monsters: John Landis, Joe Dante, and Fred Olen Ray. Forry takes the most joy, however, in telling me about his encounters with the two biggest stars in the monster-movie cosmos, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, both of whom he met when they were older gents but still working hard in the “picture business.”
1042.) Vintage episode: The death of the most commercial filmmaker in the French New Wave, Claude Chabrol, led me to look back at his body of work to discover some absolute masterworks and uneven wonderments. This first Deceased Artiste tribute to this very singular (and sometimes singularly weird) body of work focuses on his first four films, made from 1958-60. The films are extremely dark in tone compared to the other New Wave debut features (even Rivette’s) and each one of them is a skillful blend of excellent acting, cruel dialogue, and a bleak outlook on human behavior. I also discuss the important influence of screenwriter Paul Gégauff on Chabrol. Gégauff was a womanizing, fascistic gent who had a turbulent private life and wrote some terrifically compelling films for Chabrol and other filmmakers. Chabrol’s masterwork from this period, Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), has a “Gégauffian” tone, as a quartet of shopgirls discover little joys and major sorrow in Paris; the film bombed at the box office upon its release, but is now recognized as one of Chabrol’s strongest statements on man’s inhumanity to (wo)man.
1043.) Vintage ep, reedited to include a rarer clip featuring Morris on-camera doing a strange bit of wistful, weird humor. This week I offer the second and final part of my little tribute to the very original, very strange, and extremely dark TV series from Chris Morris called Jam. Based on a mind-warping radio series called Blue Jam, the TV show offers visualizations of the sketches from that radio show, shot in a jarring manner reminiscent of David Lynch at his nightmare-suburbia best. In this episode I offer the “nastier” sketches from Jam, including scenarios involving kids and odd sexual practices. As BBC-America offers very little in the way of British comedy (but they do still air Star Trek: the Next Generation reruns), it’s nice to be able to turn to cable-access to see all the really important British comedy shows they’ve completely ignored.
1044.) Vintage episode. Part two of my Deceased Artiste tribute to the late, great Claude Chabrol focuses on his misfires in the Sixties and Seventies. A number of the titles featured in this episode are not available on DVD in the U.S., but I’m happy to present them in the spirit of comprehensiveness. A few of these misfires (Les Godelureaux, L’Oeil du Malin) were actually great films that just had a dark, “unpleasant” tone and never acquired an audience, while others were “commercial” concepts (Bond-ish spy comedies), downright mistakes (the dubbed-in-every-country, sexist-comedy international coproduction High Heels starring Belmondo, Mia Farrow, and Laura Antontelli), or bizarre twists on familiar material (Sylvia Kristel in an existential but not sexually-oriented Alice in Wonderland update). When you discuss Chabrol’s work it’s important to emphasize his masterworks, but it’s also a lot of fun to probe his fascinating flops.
1045.) Vintage ep, reedited: My quartet of episodes dedicated to the work of humor visionary/sensory-assault expert Chris Morris concludes (for the moment) with this show discussing his last U.K. TV series, Nathan Barley. Although conceived in the early 2000s and aired in 2005, the show is very much of the moment, as it concerns a thoroughly obnoxious high-tech hipster who runs an alternative website. His interactions with a jaded journalist (Julian Barratt, from the comedy team “The Mighty Boosh”) and his documentarian sister inform the series’ nominal narrative, which examines just how much of a shit a trust-fund kid can be (the issue of where Nathan gets his cash from was explored in the series’ source matter, but never addressed in the series itself). At its best, the show wavers between the social realism and abrasive humor of Mike Leigh’s early telefilms and a masterful dissection of the hipster mentality that now exists in every major American city (Williamsburg is only one of many outposts).
1046.) Vintage episode: In part three of my Deceased Artiste tribute to Claude Chabrol, the most prolific and most uneven of the New Wave directors, I delve into what is considered his “golden age,” a period from 1968-’73 when he had made a series of smart and disturbing thrillers set among the haute bourgeoisie. We start off with the lesbian personality-theft pic Les Biches and move through what is called “the Helene cycle” — as there was always a female character named Helene, usually played by Chabrol’s then-wife, the marvelously sexy and talented Stephane Audran. The cycle concluded with the feverish, James M. Cain-ish, middle-aged l’amour fou tale Les Noces Rouge, but I offer a bonus in the form of scenes from Une Partie de Plaisir (1974). Partie is one of the strangest Chabrol films ever, a weird act of “catharsis” for its very colorful (and seemingly not very delicate avec les femmes) screenwriter Paul Gégauff.
1047.) In Part 4 of my very informal interview with the “rock raconteur,” Mr. Howard Kaylan, the front man of the Turtles (singer for the Mothers, “Eddie” of “Flo and…”), imparts his very honest feelings about the legend that was Lennon (loves the music, not as fond of the man); discusses at length a movie project that he and his partner Mark Volman were developing with scripter David Bowie (!); talks about the dynamics of being in a comedy team; and dispenses some of his deeply felt philosophy about getting into show business (and, more importantly, staying in the business). All of the above is illustrated with wonderful video clips (except the Bowie, I have no access to footage of Flo and Eddie and Bowie).
1048.) The Consumer Guide department encompasses three media this week (although, naturally enough, all three entries are on DVD). First up is a review of the U.S. home-entertainment debut of Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai. The film is Marker’s verite portrait of Paris during the “first spring of peace” in 1962, and as such is a somewhat more “normal” work for him; it still contains glimpses of his trademark playfulness, a bristling honesty about issues of colonialism and racism, and memorable visuals. Next is Radio Unnameable, the wonderful documentary about free-form radio legend Bob Fass. The film reviews Fass’s career, with an emphasis on the Sixties and early Seventies when he united late-night tri-state area radio listeners and introduced the world to burgeoning talents in the worlds of folk, rock, and humor. Since the film has played on PBS, I focus on the DVD extras, which are truly priceless, ranging as they do from rare audio from Fass’s radio shot to his (very stoned) appearance on a legendary MNN show. I close out with a review of Here’s Edie: The Edie Adams Television Collection, a four-disc set that contains the full run of Edie’s very ambitious, very classy two-season variety series (’62-’64) in which she upheld the legacy of her late husband Ernie Kovacs by offering guests from a variety of musical genres and comedy notions that originated with Ernie. The guest list is an amazing array of show-business legends and Funhouse favorites; included as extras in this box set are the Edie musical numbers cut from the preceding two Kovacs boxes.
1049.) Once again for the Yuletide, I celebate a “godless” Xmas with the help of our friends at the Welsh mail-order DVD firm Go Faster Stripe. The first item “under review” is Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre podcast. Herring interviews notable UK comedians and keep the atmosphere light and lively – but on occasion (as in the Stephen Fry segment excerpted here) his colleagues reveal some interesting serious information. Next up is Herring’s standup show Talking Cock, the male response to The Vagina Monologues, a very funny and at times touching reflection on the male member – the ups and downs, the pleasure and anxiety, and the size dilemma. I close out with a review of, and clips from More! Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, Robin Ince’s annual rationalist Xmas celebration. Showcased in this segment are two comedians we’ve never heard of in the U.S. and one gent who is well known but not for his speaking engagements, comics legend Alan Moore.
1050.) I don’t go back and revisit gems that I’ve shown on the show in the past that often, since there are new items that constantly command my attention. In honor of the 20th anniversary of Media Funhouse, I revisit one of the odder and more thoroughly entertaining (ridiculous=entertaining) discoveries, namely Mooch (aka “Mooch Goes to Hollywood”). This is a new episode with new clips and a new commentary, as I return to the subject of Jim Backus’s blissfully deranged piece of cute-doggie TV programming. The cast includes a plethora of movie and TV stars from the Sixties and Seventies, from Vincent Price, Jill St. John, and Backus on down (one of the two narrators is Zsa Zsa Gabor). The plot is a deranged beauty about a little dog (played by the female pooch that later became “Benji”) that wants to find stardom in Hollywood and is willing to do anything – including dressing up very strangely – to do so. The super-catchy theme song is sung by Sonny Curtis (“Love Is All Around”) and the L.A. locations (circa 1971) are wonderful. Attend a party at Jim Backus’s house and see the stars of yesteryear interact with regulars from “The Hollywood Squares”! The film is a mind-boggler, and thus I am *very* happy to share it again with Funhouse viewers.
1051.) VINTAGE: No better way to celebrate the new year than to see Uncle Jean talking about “the origins” of this century!
I am very proud to present the U.S. television premieres of two of Godard’s short video essays and scenes from two other brilliant video pieces. The pieces range in date from 1993 to 2002, with the biggest discovery — in terms of Funhouse “conceptual continuity” — being JLG’s “sampling” of a Serge Gainsbourg song in one of his videos (with an appropriately dense visual overlay as it plays). The shorts that will be seen in their entirety are the very short-short “Je Vous Salue Sarajevo,” which analyzes a photo of the conflict over there, and “De l’origine du XXIeme siècle.” The latter is a beautiful creation: a summation of the 20th century in a mere 15 minutes that spotlights the tragedies and horror of the century, counterpointed with gorgeous sequences from classic films (including a Jerry Lewis citation, utilized for its “chromatic” aspect). The end is a terrific metaphor for the century, taken from Ophuls’ Le Plaisir. Godard continues to be arguably the most significant filmmaker alive, and these shorts are evidence of how great his work has been in his “senior” period.
1052.) The very first Deceased Artiste episode I did on the Funhouse was a salute to the late, great Federico Fellini (also Vincent Price, who died around the same time). The maestro’s last film, The Voice of the Moon (1990), had at that point only played a few days in select American cities as part of a traveling film series called “Tutto Fellini.” Move forward twenty years and the film still hasn’t been distributed in America (the “Tutto” screenings were it). I am thus very proud to offer a TV premiere of scenes from this “missing” film by one of the greatest European filmmakers. The film is far from his best, but it has some beautiful, and ribald, moments – as one would expect from any late-period Fellini film. Funhouse fave Roberto Benigni stars as a poet who is a literal lunatic, a man driven mad by the moon and his blonde object of obsession, named Aldina. As he travels from place to place he encounters various colorful characters and participates in odd events, a few of which come straight out of fairy tales. He also utters some beautiful lines of dialogue that indicate where Fellini’s mind was at in his final years. The film deserves screenings in the U.S., and I’m very happy to celebrate its finer moments on the Funhouse.
1053.) The final installment of my interview with “rock raconteur” Howard Kaylan goes in some interesting directions. We discuss the “Flo and Eddie by the Fireside” radio show from the early Seventies, on which Howard and his partner Mark Volman interviewed rock royalty. Howard discusses why he’d never sanction commercial releases of the “Fireside” interviews and offers his opinions of the new phenomenon of concert-download sites (can anyone say “Wolfgang’s Vault”?). We go on to a little discussion of politics, and a bigger discussion of movies in which the Turtles’ music has been heard. Anytime I can discuss Wong Kar-Wai and Kaurismaki with a guy whose music I’ve loved for four decades, all is indeed right with the world….
1054.) I never stop being fascinated by the battle between the “old” and the “new” that was carried on in the variety shows of the late Sixties and early Seventies, so I happily share this week an amazing example: The Kraft Music Hall episode called “Woody Allen Looks at 1967.” The show combines a razor-sharp monologue by Woody (including material that did not appear on his three LPs) with sub-par sketches that are still astounding as time-capsules, including one about a wife wearing a miniskirt to a party and another about Bonnie and Clyde. There’s a “Q&A” segment with Woody and William F. Buckley and the musical guests? Why, Liza Minnelli (her name spelled wrong on the opening credits) and Aretha Franklin. The Sixties are, as I say very often, the gift that keeps on giving and giving and….
1055.) In the Consumer Guide department this week, I offer up three reviews of recently released titles. First up is I Cannibali, an absurdist political allegory from Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter) about a society in which youthful rebels ignore a fascist government’s mandate not to remove dead bodies from the streets of their cities (think Marco Ferreri crossed with Pasolini, with a really wonderful score by Morricone). You will not be able to get the theme song from this film out of your head – I guarantee it. Next, I review the latest from 90-year-old Alain Resnais, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. The film is a reflection on aging, romance, and death that also contains Resnais’ latest, characteristically dense and brilliant, takes on theater vs. film (and the far more unsolvable time vs. space). I close out with Aki Kaurismaki’s 1992 feature La Vie de Boheme. Shot in a Parisian suburb that seems untouched by time, the film offers the familiar La Boheme storyline with a welcome injection of Kaurismaki’s deadpan humor – and lots of smoking, drinking, and listening to old records.
1056.) I happily return to British comedy this week with a discussion of, and scenes from, the wonderful Matt Berry vehicle Toast of London. Berry has been crafting a blissfully egomaniacal alter-ego over the past few years through his appearances in several series (including The IT Crowd and The Mighty Boosh). In this new sitcom he plays a hammy actor who keeps working for his big break while doing voiceovers, appearing in odd vanity film productions, acting in embarrassing commercials, and appearing in “the worst play in London.” Cowritten by Arthur Mathews (Father Ted), the show is never anything less than ridiculous (in a great way) and includes musical numbers illustrating our anti-hero’s dreams and aspirations.
1057.) I venture back to the Sixties once more for a “lost” character study that was shot here in NYC, Pigeons (titled in its first release Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker). This 1970 film is a post-Graduate comedy-drama about a young man who is neither conformist nor hippie. He works as a cabbie, is having a romance with a pretty trust-fund hippie chick, and is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. In the meantime, he attends not one but TWO parties — a “swinging” bash on the Upper East Side (attended by Elaine Stritch and Melba Moore, among others — for no reason) and also a “square” Xmas party in the suburbs where everyone is sloppy drunk (including TV’s David Doyle). The film is very much of its time and as such is both a curiosity and a wonder to behold.
1058.) Vintage: David Bowie has had a pretty rich career in and out of music, and has made some pretty interesting choices as an actor. This week I present two such curious and ambitious choices, both having a connection to Weimar-era Germany. The first is the never-screened-in-the-U.S. television version of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal (1982), directed by Alan Clarke. Clarke tried to find a cinematic/televisual equivalent to Brecht’s “epic theater” style for the piece, and so uses split screens, on-screen titles, a profusion of wide shots, and, of course, stylized acting. Bowie stars as a sleazy but charismatic poet-musician who seduces women and ultimately kills his best friend, all while delivering Brecht’s original songs with only voice and banjo accompaniment. The second feature of the evening is Just a Gigolo (1979), directed by Blow-Up star David Hemmings. The film features Bowie as a WWI vet who takes on the titular profession when he can’t find another job. Hemmings emphasizes Bowie’s model good looks in various moments in the film, but he also sets up a farcical tone (which later is broken by a dramatic ending — I ain’t saying the movie is flawless) in which Bowie is pursued by various females including the always daunting Ms. Kim Novak. Also making her final screen appearance in the film is the ultimate Weimar era dame, Miss Marlene Dietrich, who does actually sing in the film, for what was the very last time in public.
1059.) As a footnote to my interview with rock raconteur Howard Kaylan, I present a full episode devoted to the raunchy and very trippy cartoon Down and Dirty Duck. The 1974 feature is an obvious successor to Fritz the Cat that is most notable for its un-p.c. humor, its playful animation, and a full score by “Flo and Eddie” (aka Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman). It’s been noted that the script brings to mind another R. Crumb creation, “Mr. Natural” (with the duck character here assuming the Mr. Natural role). As it stands, the film functions as a series of weird episodes in which an unnamed free-spirited duck (Volman) leads an introverted insurance investigator (Kaylan) on a road trip. Along the way they encounter some strange characters (many of whom are intentional stereotypes) and participate in a broad array of sexual activity – well, as much as can be depicted in an animated feature (and as much as I can show on cable TV). Some of the soundtrack tunes became perennial numbers in Flo and Eddie’s live shows in the years between the film’s appearance (and disappearance) in theaters and its resurrection on home-video.
1060.) Robert Bresson was one of the all-time masters of cinema, but for certain unspecified reasons, two of his 13 films have been “missing” in America for the last few decades. This week I focus on the more obscure of the two, Four Nights of a Dreamer, which has never been released on DVD or VHS in the U.S. It’s an incredible movie, in that it’s a *light* feature from a master of somber cinema. The plot, based on Dostoyevsky, follows a schnook painter who saves a young woman from suicide, and then offers to help her reconnect with her great love – while he himself is madly in love with her. The film is uniquely charming and sensual; it may or may not have directly influenced modern masters of alienated romance like Carax and Hartley, but it certainly is a model for the work they now do. It’s another one of the “lost” films that I’m proud to provide with a “U.S. TV debut.”
1061.) Howard Hawks’ best-known films are hardly rare, and yet each one of his works gains something when seen as part of the whole of his career. This week I present part one of two “megamix” episodes (inspired by the recent Museum of the Moving Image retrospective “The Complete Howard Hawks”) in which I’ll be discussing Hawks’ body of work and the fact that he absolutely loved to present “variations on a theme” in his pictures. The most striking thing about his career is that he made a seminal film in many genres (screwball comedy, noir/detective, Western, race car drama, prison picture, brassy color musical, Fifties sci-fi paranoia, aviation saga, and gangster movie). I’ll be showing scenes from these and discussing the tenets of his work, including ultra-fast talking (the speed of which I believe I approach in my intro – although Cagney, O’Brien, and company did it to much fuller effect), the repetition of certain gags, and one of his favorite themes, the bonding between two friends (or as he honestly referred to it in interviews “love stories between two men”). He was one of Hollywood’s truest auteurs, because his work was remarkably consistent, and his repetitions and reworkings were artful and even sometimes bizarre (he frequently switched genders in his screwball pics to make the situations funnier).
1062.) The second and last part of my tribute to the work of Howard Hawks centers around two of the most enjoyable aspects of his films. The first is the “Hawksian woman” – Hawks enjoyed matching his male leads (Bogart, Wayne, Cagney, Cooper, et al) with independent and sarcastic female counterparts who weren’t hesitant to demonstrate their interest in the men. Whether these characters were male fantasies or feminist archetypes is open to debate, but their impact on his films in terms of driving the storylines is one more area in which Hawks’ films were incredibly modern for their era. The second endlessly entertaining aspect of his work covered in this episode are the sudden musical moments that would appear out of the blue in what were decidedly non-musical-comedy settings. The show offers clips from 15 of Hawks’ films, offering another cross-section of this diverse – yet *incredibly* consistent – artist’s work.
1063.) Completing a trio of episodes about “lost” movies (after my recent Fellini and Bresson shows), this week I offer a discussion of, and scenes from, Albert Finney’s Charlie Bubbles. This 1967 film, written by Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey), is Finney’s Antonioni-esque take on celebrity in the UK. Farcical opening scenes and a wonderfully whimsical finale frame a post-“kitchen sink” portrait of a working-class guy from Manchester who just happens to have become a very famous novelist. He is thus treated very differently by everyone around him – including his erstwhile secretary and groupie (Liza Minnelli, in her first adult movie role). The only people who will tell Charlie the truth are some of his old friends and his wife (the incredible Billie Whitelaw). The film pretty much flopped, so Finney never directed again (outside of a British telefilm), but it’s worthy of a second look, thanks to its impeccable acting and incredibly “alienated” tone in scenes shot on location in London and Manchester.
1064.) Vintage: You’d think that presenting the “best moments” of a recent-vintage standup comedy DVD would be simple, but that’s far from the case when the comedian in question is Stewart Lee. Lee is currently at the top of his form, and he delights in constructing routines that go on for a good 20-30 minutes and are fashioned like a house of cards — if any one element is removed, the whole thing tumbles to the ground. Thus, I carefully considered what I’d show to turn folks on to Lee’s disc If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One, and decided, true to Lee’s mission, to present the DVD’s most “difficult” routine. The 33-minute set-piece in question (which I had to internally edit to preserve its rhythms, but also to fit our 28-minute mandate) is an odd reverie that starts out in one place, moves to another (physically), and then winds up with Lee turning from his trademark sarcasm and virtuoso deadpan to tackle something even more difficult (as he puts it): sincerity. The result is a savagely brilliant piece of material that may not be the best place to become acquainted with his work (for those who haven’t seen my previous episodes about him), but represents something new and fresh, and thus very unusual, in the world of comedy.
1065.) To further the discussion about “the old and the new” in Sixties and early Seventies variety shows, this week I return to the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. I’ve covered the roasts in the past from their VHS releases, but now that the entire series of segments and specials (ranging from ’73 to ’84) has been put on DVD, I wanted to spotlight the “un-p.c.” aspect of the shows, as well as some of their more interesting comic participants. So, be warned: the jokes on this episode are a far cry from the more genitalia-oriented lines used on today’s Comedy Central roasts, but the jokes on the Dean roasts are even more “offensive” in today’s view. And quite often much funnier (especially since everyone, including the shelf-life-expired white celebrities, takes a pounding).
1066.) In the true spirit of the Paschal celebration, the Funhouse once again presents some truly bizarre Xtian entertainment. This year I discuss and show scenes from the feature film The Life Zone, an anti-abortion suspense thriller that will truly warp your mind (again, the Funhouse presents cult material before the cult has arrived). The plot is simple: a trio of women who were about to have abortions wake up in an odd space where a crazy obstetrician (Blanche Baker, Carroll’s daughter) and her super-shady boss (Robert Loggia, seen only on a TV screen, making bizarre remarks) are planning on holding them hostage until each of the women gives birth. The filmmakers make a great show of trying to present both sides of the abortion debate – via odd fake documentary sequences and wildly stilted non-conversational dialogue – but it’s rather clear where their sympathies lie as the film moves on and the liberal Jewish girl in the trio opposes being forced to give birth. At that point the film enters “Twilight Zone” territory and truly becomes the modern equivalent of the Reefer Madness “warning” films of the Thirties and Forties. As a bonus, I offer a bit of more familiar, cheerier kitsch as a closer.
1067.) Technical screw-up from Access HQ, again. Nothing aired.
1068.) Back to the world of comedy from “over the pond,” in this case an Irish series coproduced by the BBC and RTE. The Walshes is a ridiculous family sitcom, intentionally ridiculous and very funny. It is the creation of an Irish comedy troupe called “Diet of Worms” (historical reference made into disgusting gastronomic choice) and the wonderful Graham Linehan (The IT Crowd, Father Ted, Black Books, and writer for Jam and Brass Eye). The show ran earlier this year for a mere three episodes, which means it left the audience wanting more, not less. I discuss the show and its offbeat sense of humor, and focus on the third episode, which included a bit about a photograph that I take to be the ultimate comment on all the I-love-my-animal pics that flood onto the Internet on a daily basis. The Walshes is a silly, intentionally weird depiction of an Irish family that may be “too good for BBC-America,” but it fits just right on the Funhouse.
1069.) This week in the Consumer Guide department I revisit some topics I love with three reviews of recent DVD releases. First up is Stranger on the Prowl, a 1953 film made by Joseph Losey in Italy when he was blacklisted in the U.S. The film is an interesting mix of Neo-Realist and noir techniques and subject matter, with a refreshingly low-key Paul Muni in the lead. Next up is Up the Junction, a 1968 British drama about a “posh” girl who decides to live and work in a working-class London neighborhood. Most notable for its location photography and soundtrack by Manfred Mann, the film does indeed include at least one female character (not the lead) getting “a bun in her oven.” I close out with Breaking the Waves, Lars von Trier’s masterful tale of religion, sex, and (no surprise) suffering. The Criterion edition of the film contains some wonderful supplements that came directly from von Trier’s own archive of materials.
1070.) Kevin Eldon is kind of a through-line for the best in recent and current British television comedy. He’s worked with literally all the best producers, scripters, comic actors, and standups. Thus it was odd that he never had his own show until 2013, when It’s Kevin debuted on the BBC. The series was a terrific showcase for Eldon’s talent for voices and wonderfully weird characterizations. The sketches were hit and miss, but when they hit, they were truly memorable. In this episode I’ll be discussing the show and airing a montage of the “hits.” Featured are a number of Kevin’s odder characters and a good number of his comedian friends, all of whom should be familiar to regular Funhouse viewers.
1071.) In considering what I should do to commemorate the death of Mickey Rooney, I realized that I had already done the ultimate Rooney episode back in 1998. I reworked the episode, editing in clearer, upgraded versions of the film clips and, of course, now acknowledge his death. On this show I confessed to my “fear” of Mickey Rooney and chose to show scenes that illustrated the scarier Mick. First up is a discussion of what made me leery of Rooney, including anecdotes about him that I had forgotten I’d known (do you want to know what he did every time he had sex, and how he defined an orgasm? Well, wonder no more!). Then I present some brief clips from Skidoo and the ridiculous-bordering-on-insane straight-to-vid kiddie movie Revenge of the Red Baron. The featured film in this episode is The Manipulator (aka B.J. Lang Presents), perhaps the craziest damned thing Rooney ever did. He plays an insane movie director who holds an actress (Luana Anders) hostage in an abandoned movie studio. The actress is our surrogate (except she’s a rather irritating surrogate), and so *we* are held hostage by Mickey as he performs his tiny heart out and has bizarre wannabe-Fellini nightmares about his parents (who were apparently always naked and covered in body paint). You will get this kind of entertainment nowhere else on TV – and yes, some of this stuff is on the Internet, but d’ya know what you’re looking for…?
1072.) I hope to feature some different British TV comedy this summer, but for two episodes I will return to an old (recent) favorite, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. The third season of the show aired in the last few months and is just as big a delight as the first two. At this point Stew has honed his approach to a fine point. In this series of shows he attacks modern news stories, everyday irritations, his own act, and “jazz chickens” (that’s for later on); the show I draw on primarily for this episode concerns the rise of the British right-wing, anti-immigrant party UKIP. I’m presenting two episodes about this season, since Lee’s work is so much “of a piece” that the house of cards that are his routines will tumble if you don’t include the intro, the outro, and the tangents. In this season those tangents include Stew being beautifully verbally attacked by an eloquent “interrogator” – but, since ex-producer Armando Iannucci was tied up, “script editor” Chris Morris took over those duties. The notion of the two most deadpan humorists in England doing an autopsy on Stew’s monologues and comedy style makes Comedy Vehicle even more brilliant, and essential TV-watching (that can’t be seen over here on any cable or PBS channel).
1073.) Charlie Brooker is not only a bitterly funny TV critic and news-analysis TV host, he’s also been carving out a solid track record as a TV scriptwriter, venturing into the world of fantasy and horror. His most lauded creation in that area has been Black Mirror, an anthology TV series that presents fantasy stories that all have to do with technology. The episode I discuss and show clips from this week is “Fifteen Million Merits,” a beautiful bit of TV (and pop culture) criticism presented in the guise of a near-future saga. In the world created by Brooker and his co-scripter (and wife) Konnie Huq, middle class men and women ride exercise bikes to earn “merits,” which function as both money and status. The ultimate use of these merits is to buy one’s way onto a reality TV talent competition, on which one will either become the next major star or be verbally abused on-air. It’s not that different from the world we currently live in, but the episode functions as a beautiful take on materialism, dreams of show-biz success, and really bad TV. Plus, the finale seems to be a wry comment by Charlie on his “place” in the world of British TV.
1074.) Each year around this time, when I turn “another year old and deeper in debt,” I present a film that I want to see again, which may or may not be hard to obtain. In this instance, the film has never come out on DVD (or VHS) and is lurking in the backwaters of the Internet (or on VHS tapes, recorded off Cinemax in the early Nineties). The film is Thieves, a 1977 comedy-drama directed by the fascinating John Berry (a blacklisted director who on his return to the U.S. made some notable features starring African-American performers) and written by the late, great Herb Gardner. My love for Gardner’s work has been illustrated in previous years through excerpts from A Thousand Clowns and Who Is Harry Kellerman…? I’ve never spoken about his later career, though, and so we come to Thieves, the ’77 film adaptation of his 1974 play, starring Marlo Thomas and Charles Grodin, as well as inveterate scene-stealer Irwin Corey as Thomas’ dad. The film could be seen as a rewrite of Thousand Clowns (with the married couple taking the place of the brothers in the older film – Thomas being the free-wheeling Robards character, and Grodin playing the buttoned-down Balsam). It touches on various important issues of the Seventies – divorce, abortion, inner-city education – but it really shines in a few scenes where the trio of leads reflect on love, aging, the changing face of New York City, and the ultimate thief, time.
1075.) Continuing my “too good for arts cable” series of episodes (although I’m not certain there is such a thing as arts cable anymore), this week I return to British humorist/critic-turned-screenwriter Charlie Brooker’s imaginative Black Mirror anthology series, offering “Twilight Zone”-type stories with a technological, 21st-century twist. In this episode I discuss and show scenes from the second-season episode “Be Right Back.” The plot is a cyber-age love story about a woman whose husband dies suddenly and she is offered a method to “speak” with him again, via Internet chat. She soon finds there are more immediate ways to communicate with him, and thus we arrive at an imaginative variation on the theme of Blade Runner (namely, what constitutes a human being). The episode contains none of Brooker’s trademark sarcastic humor, but does offer a very smart conclusion to the heroine’s predicament.
1076.) In my second “birthday episode” this year, I return to the subject of playwright Herb Gardner, discussing and presenting scenes from his self-directed feature The Goodbye People. The film adapts a play of his that he returned to again and again for over 15 years – each time it flopped, he would let it lay for a bit, then retool it and attempt to remount it on the stage, on the road or on Broadway. The 1984 film adaptation was the “final” version of this quirky comedy about a Jewish senior (Martin Balsam) who dreams of re-opening his old Hawaiian-themed hot dog stand on the Coney Island boardwalk in the depths of winter. He is aided in this dream by a would-be sculptor/workaday schnook (Judd Hirsch), who gradually falls in love with the old man’s daughter (Pamela Reed), who is having an identity crisis of her own. The copy of the film I used to create this episode is an old VHS dub (the film has never been released on DVD). The murkiness of non-SP speed video is present, but the film’s audio is what’s important, as the three leads did a wonderful job in bringing Gardner’s “dream project” to life. They are aided by the terrific Gene Saks, who enters the picture towards the end (as he did in A Thousand Clowns) and steals the show with a wonderful speech about aging.
1077.) Given the ubiquitousness of “cult culture” in the Internet era, it’s more difficult to come across unheralded movies that are “so bad they’re good” (or at least very amusing). But we still have the world of Xtian and right-wing propaganda to explore. Thus, this week I present scenes from the anti-Obama fantasy film O.B.A.M. Nude, a relic of the present that connects strongly with Reefer Madness, Glen or Glenda, and many other “educational” fantasias that make little/no sense. It’s basically a filmed play, in which the devil obtains the soul of a stoner college student whom the devil feels would make a really great “socialist dictator” for the U.S. The concept of subtlety is nowhere in evidence, but the producer/writer – a former NJ lawyer/municipal judge/actor/filmmaker (no shit!) – decided to remove the issue of race from the picture by playing the Obama character himself. Thus our stoner hero is not a thin, well-spoken half-black gent, but is instead a chubby Italian-American one. The film plows through several issues (abortion, affirmative action, war, climate change) with a chainsaw, introducing some great fake “documentary” sequences in which “real people” hold forth on these issues (including a white-trash liberal girl drinkin’ a beer as she talks). That’s setting aside several other visual delights in the film (odd montages, cheesy animation) and the flat acting of the guy playing the devil. O.B.A.M. Nude is a very special bad movie, one that has a message (several dozen of them, in fact) and deserves an audience – an audience that most likely won’t agree with the politics of the “auteur,” but will enjoy the threadbare nature of the concept.
1078.) I continue a summer of comedy with a return to the best items from “over the pond” in the UK. The program I’m saluting this week did play on American TV, but in the late evening hours for a short time several years ago on the Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” block. I salute it on the Funhouse because it fits very nicely into the tapestry of deadpan British humor I’ve been exploring for the past five years. The program is Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, the 2004 spoof of the many horror/fantasy anthology series produced in the Seventies and Eighties. Writer-star Matthew Holness plays Marenghi, an egomaniacal hack horror novelist who reminisces about his “lost” TV series. In the process we are treated to ridiculous plotlines, mismatched editing, and startlingly bad lead performances. The performances are delivered by Alice Lowe, Matt Berry (of Toast of London and The IT Crowd), and Richard Ayoade (who also directed Darkplace, and of course starred in IT Crowd) with joyous hamminess. The series is so effective in its satire that you’ll never view modern horror anthologies in the same way again.
1079.) I return to the Deceased Artiste department this week for the first of three episodes dedicated to the inimitable Sid Caesar. A lot of talk appears on the Net (and in what publications still remain in print) about the “funniest TV moments ever.” The fact that some of the people writing those articles haven’t ever seen the variety shows of the Fifties is similar to writing an essay on screen comedy without having seen Chaplin or Keaton. Funhouse deity Steve Allen in fact called Caesar “TV’s Chaplin,” and he wasn’t wrong. In this series of episodes I will be discussing what made Sid so special, and also the two incredible ensembles he had around him, first of performers (Coca, Reiner, Morris, Fabray) and then of writers (Brooks, Simon [times 2], Allen, Gelbart, Tolkin, Reiner, Kallen, Diamond, etc.). The first episode is devoted to Sid on Your Show of Shows, with the spotlight focused on his incredible dynamic with Imogene Coca and what is clearly one of the best-ever YSOS sketches (and definitely contains several of TV’s funniest moments), “This Is Your Story.”
1080.) For part two of my three-part Deceased Artiste tribute to Sid Caesar I present sequences from the many movie parodies that were done by Caesar and company on both Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour. They ranged from fun spoofs of American genre pictures to affectionate – and, more impressive, knowledgeable – satires on foreign film. Caesar’s expert skill at speaking pidgin versions of various languages was the centerpiece of these sketches, but they also reflected the fact that Sid’s writers were foreign movie buffs who knew the territory and knew how to entertain both the viewers who had seen the original films and those who had no idea they existed. Thus, I present excerpts from sketches based on French, Japanese, German, and Italian films, all done to perfection (while remaining particularly frenzied, in the trademark Caesar fashion). As always, the contributions of his fellow cast members are particularly wonderful, most notably the sublime Imogene Coca and the very cartoonlike Howard Morris.
1081.) The third and final part of my tribute to Sid Caesar focuses on his years doing Caesar’s Hour (1954-57). At that point, Sid and his writers knew well what would work on the program, so the sketches are less rough and more refined, but there is still a marvelous amount of timeless comedy. This ranges from sitcom-type sketches with Sid and Nanette Fabray as a married couple to wonderfully imaginative parodies of popular musical genres. Sid returned to prime time in the Sixties for a short while, but the material from the Fifties is his lasting legacy.
1082.) The summer of comedy continues on the Funhouse with the second and last episode exploring the third season of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. I’m very happy to present Stew’s work on the show, since it has no U.S. distribution of any kind, and there’s little to chance of it ever appearing on BBC-America or PBS. In this episode, we get into Stew’s discussions of language (is there such a thing as a “context-free word”?), political correctness, jazz, low-priced chicken franchises, “foods and non-foods,” little children, dog shit on the sidewalk, and the new population of rich, foreign “oligarchs” in London. Lee’s laser-focused, hysterical work is unlike anything we’re seeing in the U.S. explosion of safe, introspective “alternative comedy” and all-too-lackluster sitcoms starring same, which draw on the popularity of Louie (but not its willingness to be utterly grim and unfunny).
1083.) Sometimes the greatest artists are capable of the most astoundingly tasteless stuff. That is the case with Deceased Artiste Gordon Willis (who left us some weeks back, but in the Funhouse we never stop loving the work of our heroes and heroines). Willis was a top-notch cinematographer (he shot the Godfather trilogy and some of the finest paranoia films of the Seventies) whose specialty was providing a visual style for directors who had none – the most famous instance being Woody Allen, for whom Willis was d.p. on everything from Annie Hall (1977) to The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). This week I’ll be saluting the single most unpleasant and bizarre film Willis was ever associated with – his only directorial credit, the lesbian slasher movie Windows (1980). The film is very rarely shown and was omitted from the one giant Willis-fest held on the East Coast a few years back. It’s both disturbing and laughably overwrought, so I’m happy to feature its “finest moments” on the show. The tissue-thin plotline finds psychotic Elizabeth Ashley hung up on her friend, nerdy Talia Shire, to the extent that the film begins with Shire being raped by an intruder in her apartment – a man that Ashley hired to do the deed and tape record it for her delectation. The proceedings get weirder from there, with the plot making little sense, and Willis punctuating Ashley’s scenery-chewing and Shire’s schnook-girl antics (she’s a stammerer who dresses like she did in Rocky) with gorgeous location shots of NYC.
1084.) I can think of no finer way to say goodbye to this “summer of comedy” than to present the extremely deadpan, and most definitely (wonderfully) incompetently made, cult movie Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010). The picture is a no-budget ecological horror story (so much more entertaining than the Syfy-slick “Sharknado” deals), inspired by Hitchcock’s The Birds; it spends a full half its length developing a relationship that holds no interest (and business deals that make no sense). The second half presents us with the sight of birds attacking humans – or more properly, CGI birds hovering over the actors. As I edited this episode together, I was overwhelmed by the odd edits (which I couldn’t quite compensate for), lack of sound in many shots, and the wildly flat acting and dialogue. It has acquired a major cult in LA, but has only done a few midnight shows here in NYC; it is quite something (you pick the adjective after seeing it) and deserves our attention. I mean, you can’t watch competently made movies all the time, now can you?
1085.) This Labor Day weekend I return to the subject of one Jerry Lewis, the once and future king of this Monday holiday. For this year’s Jerry show, I present a program that is oddly mostly Jerry-less: I have finally put together my long-planned montage of “arthouse” directors reflecting on Jerry. In some cases this takes the form of them speaking in interviews about him – both pro- and anti- spokesmen are heard from (and there *are* Americans in amongst the French). In other cases, Jerry is discussed in a film or a routine of his is recreated. I came up with seven instances of this that I believe make for great entertainment, whether you’re a Jerry fancier or not. To round out the show I present a few “telethon memories” from one specific year in the mid-Nineties when all was calm in the MDA/Lewis universe.
1086.) A discussion of, and short scenes from, the long-missing Woody Allen short film “Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story” (1972). The film was made after Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex… and before Sleeper, and toys with the mockumentary concept that Woody had already dealt with in Take the Money and Run, and which he was later to perfect in Zelig. It was created independently by Woody and then sold to PBS. The main reason why it never aired is that PBS was wary of infuriating the Nixon administration and losing its funding. The cast is comprised of character actors who appeared in Bananas and his other films, including Louise Lasser and Diane Keaton.
1087.) Let’s venture once again to the swingin’ Sixties in France, this time for a satire on the packaging of pop stars that is part spectacle, part theatrical “happening,” and all nasty abuse of the music industry. The film is Les Idoles (1968), and the writer-director is Marc’O, a key member of the Lettrist movement of the Fifties (for more info, check out this review segment from the Funhouse about Isidore Isou’s Venom and Eternity) and noted playwright-director. Here he keeps intact the cast of his original play, each performer incarnating an interesting (and creepy) type of pop star: Pierre Clementi plays a “tough kid from the streets” who has become a rocker; Bulle Ogier (in her first significant movie role) plays a ye-ye girl whose delivery is grating and whose lyrics are quite perverse; and Jean-Pierre Kalfon is a fortune-teller turned rocker who specializes in agonizingly self-deprecating psychedelic tunes (also sung out of key). Marc’O thus is able to spoof different kinds of stardom and different record-company gambits (including the sudden romance of Clementi and Ogier’s characters and the excusal from military service of Clementi). The film is intentionally abrasive and in-your-face (witness guest star Bernadette Lafont’s incarnation of “the Singing Nun”), and it shares the mod/psych look with items we’ve debuted on the Funhouse (especially the films of William Klein and Anna).
1088.) I’m happy to adjourn more once to the Consumer Guide department this week for a sort of “end of summer” episode in which I cover three very welcome releases that connect to topics and artists whose work I’ve reviewed before on the show. First up is Love Streams (1984), the last personal film made by John Cassavetes, an exquisite mess that is distinguished by some absolutely perfect (extremely touching) moments and some bizarre fantasy/dream/magical realism sequences. Next up is The Essential Jacques Demy box set, which contains six films and countless extras exploring Demy’s work in great detail. The box of course includes his three classic Sixties musicals (all starring the non-singer Catherine Denueve, who lip-synched, as nearly everyone in all three casts did). I discuss the notion of whether Demy was a “New Wave filmmaker” (chronologically he was – and his first two films fit neatly under that, er… umbrella). I close out with The Marx Brothers TV Collection, which contains some gems, and a few mundane items. The gems are eye-openers in which we see directions the brothers never went in but could have (Chico as a slightly randy comedian, Harpo as a dramatic actor) and witness over and over again how Groucho was not only the funniest person on certain TV panels, he was also the chattiest (even the hosts didn’t get a word in when Grouch was on the premises). The set has many must-sees, among them the last time the three brothers worked together, the surprisingly excellent dramatic show featuring Harpo, and Groucho “breaking up” various variety shows, a tedious game show, and a thus far “missing” Dick Cavett episode.
1089.) I return to the subject of British humor with an episode devoted to the much-beloved 2006 cult sketch series Snuff Box. Written by and starring two Mighty Boosh alumni, Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher, the show is a loose-limbed collection of odd situations, framed by the notion that our two anti-heroes are hangmen who like to retreat to a staid old “gentlemen’s club” to talk about the world. The situations they and their alter-egos fall into are quite strange and usually extremely awkward. Because Berry is a musician, each episode contains a variant of the show’s theme song and other sudden musical outbursts. It’s an often grim sketch show that serves as the perfect antidote to the crap served up on a weekly basis on the LCD show to end all LCD shows – namely, SNL.
1090.) Vintage: I do my best to present the very best in “unseen” entertainment week after week in the Funhouse, but one small thing has been left out in the past few months — and that’s the very worst! So tonight, I rectify that as I commemorate the passing of Hollywood’s “last star,” Elizabeth Taylor. Expanding upon my blog post about her “flamboyant flops,” I show clips from three of them and discuss her screen persona in the late Sixties and Seventies. We start out with the biggest cult hit among her misguided movies, Boom (1968). A collaboration between Tennessee Williams, Joseph Losey, and Taylor and Burton (not forgetting Michael Dunn) should have produced unforgettable fireworks, but instead the film is just blissfully tacky and esoteric. A later solo Liz picture, The Driver’s Seat (1974), is a whole other kinda kitsch that finds Taylor involved in all sorts of sex-related situations and giving yet another shrill performance. We close out with Peter Ustinov’s strange and uneven comedy Hammersmith is Out, a Faustian saga with Taylor and Burton that actually works pretty well in its first half when it’s a sarcastic comedy (which is all I’ll be dealing with on the show; check out the feeble allegorical drama in the second half on your own). All those tributes to the lady on network and cable TV, and yet no one showed these films….
1091.) Vintage: Few things are as admirable as a life well lived, and so this week I offer a Deceased Artiste tribute to the actress Annie Girardot, who started out as a sex kitten in the Fifties and wound up being a respected character actress from the Eighties through the Aughts. I’ll be focusing on the most colorful section of her career, when she essayed very odd characters for Funhouse favorite Marco Ferreri and also played middle-aged women caught up in the psychedelic whirlwind that was the Sixties. There’ll be a bit of Mme. Girardot with “B.B.” and a bit of her acting for Il Grande Marco, but the feature presentation is most definitely Erotissimo, a super-psych comedy about a wife who wants to win back her husband’s affection and thus starts exploring the sexier side of pop culture. The film lifts entire chunks from the visual playbook of a certain Uncle Jean and its music sounds like the work of a certain Serge, so it was an absolute must for the Funhouse.
1092.) Vintage: Months after it went off the air, I’m still processing the wonderment that was the local late-night cable talk show All Night With Joey Reynolds. In order for me to fully deal with what I witnessed, I must (naturally enough) share it with you, and try to see if it was indeed a hallucination or was truly the most bizarrely structured gabfest in TV history. This week, as the second part of a projected three-part journey through the show’s unique moments, I offer up more of Joey’s oddly self-destructive meditations on pop culture in general and network television in particular. I also spotlight some unusual moments with his guests. Joey frequently boasted that the show was “unscripted,” and it truly was. The program showcased some immensely talented people doing what they did best, but it also contained an enormous amount of tangents, on-air flubs, and startling leaps in (il)logic. I still can’t believe it was ever on television, but it will be once more when I keep you “All Night with Joey Reynolds”….