Sunday, February 24, 2008

"The pinball that will blow you away!"

Not the pinball game that will blow you away—just "the pinball." That's some industry shorthand I'd never heard before.

I came across this advertisement recently while writing about Wesley Snipes's legal troubles and career (and southern fast-food chains) over at I didn't grow up playing a lot of pinball—early-'80s video games like Pac-Man and Frogger and the Atari home versions of those games were what excited me, so I would've figured that pinball games had peaked in popularity by the end of the '70s. Not so, according to a 2005 article in the Chicago Reader that focused on Chicago pinball manufacturers Stern Pinball and Williams Electronics, the manufacturer of the Demolition Man pinball ... game:

Sales of pinball machines peaked around 1992, when more than 100,000 were manufactured; among them was Bally's Addams Family game, the best-selling machine ever. But consumers were shifting to home video and computer games, and mall arcades were closing. One after another the remaining manufacturers folded. By 1996 only Williams Electronics—which had absorbed Bally and another legendary company, Midway—and Data East were left.

In 1999 Stern bought Data East's pinball division and renamed it Stern Pinball. A few months later Williams Electronics unveiled a new game that melded video games and traditional pinball, projecting video images onto the playing field. The company marketed it as the "future of pinball." But the machines were expensive to produce, and it was soon clear that a hybrid wasn't going to save pinball. Williams built only two games—Attack From Mars and Star Wars: Episode I—and that fall it decided to get out of pinball and focus on more lucrative slot machines. "I am the last man standing," says Stern.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Dying is easy, comedy is hard. (Why do you think everyone dies?)

The Writers Guild of America's strike ended on Tuesday after more than three months. The previous strike, back in 1988, lasted five months. When that strike was in its final weeks, three Saturday Night Live writers were in Chicago performing a sketch-comedy revue called Happy Happy Good Show at the Victory Gardens Studio Theater. Below is a review of the show by Tom Valeo, from the July 15, 1988, issue of the Chicago Reader:
If any television executives see Happy Happy Good Show, they may decide to let the writers' strike go on forever.

Created with the help of three striking Saturday Night Live writers—Conan O'Brien, Robert Smigel, and Bob Odenkirk—this comedy revue is remarkably unfunny. Almost nothing works. Almost everything is either facile or outlandish—or both.

One prolonged skit, for example, involves two southern crackers who sit outside a gas station making fun of all the big-city types who drive in expecting big-city services. One man wants to pay for his gas with a credit card; a woman needs a part for her Saab. The joke is that these two men are sitting in front of a gas station that has been transformed into a minimart capable of supplying anything—even the kosher pickled herring requested by an Orthodox Jew. That's not a bad premise for a satirical sketch, but the way the sketch is executed here is decidedly unfunny.

But if you want really unfunny stuff, try this: a lawyer described as having a "sharp legal mind" turns out to have a head shaped like a wedge.

After several skits like this, I began to suspect I was witnessing a pioneering experiment in comic minimalism—no jokes, no wit, no surprises. The audience certainly greeted the material with the respectful silence usually reserved for baffling artistic innovations. Maybe we were merely failing to respond to some major advance in the history of humor.

Alas, I'm afraid we were merely failing to respond. Our reaction was reflected in the face of Dave Reynolds, who, in a series of sketches, plays a director auditioning performers who are amazingly untalented. One is a ventriloquist, played by Smigel, whose routine consists of mumbled small talk with his dummy. "Sure is hot out." "Yeah, it's hot." Another is a teacher, played by Debby Jennings, whose twitches, nervous chatter, and momentary trances ("The children say I've gone to Jupiter when I do that") are perfectly mimicked by a student, played by Rose Abdoo. As he beholds these performances, Reynolds's face reveals astonishment, combined with intense politeness, as though he doesn't want the auditioners to know how pointless their stuff is. His expression could be applied just as well to Happy Happy Good Show.

Actually, the performers themselves are pretty skillful. They're just stuck with unfunny material. (Of course, they created the material, but that's another matter.) In one skit, Hugh Callaly, a veteran of the long-running revue All You Can Eat and the Temple of Dooom, does a fine impersonation of Clint Eastwood playing Dirty Harry. The setup just isn't very clever: As Detective Stone, Callaly pushes his way into a restaurant and tries to spoil the dinner of a mobster suspected of murder by showing him photographs of the mutilated victim. When that fails, the detective brings in a decomposing leper for the mobster to stare at. It's an outlandish premise, to be sure, but unfunny

In one of the audition segments, Bob Odenkirk and Conan O'Brien are wonderfully manic as "bithespians" who team up to give a single performance—O'Brien does the visual aspect, while Odenkirk provides the vocals. Jennings has a great face for a comedian, and Rose Abdoo actually is a wonderful mimic, just like the student she plays. She does a "completely gratuitous" impersonation of Audrey Meadows playing Alice Kramden in The Honeymooners, and she's terrific.

Happy Happy Good Show is a vivid demonstration of how elusive comedy can be. Some of the skits, when described, sound potentially funny. The Dirty Harry segment, for example, has promise, and Callaly returns later as a eunuch who shows up in an office one day intent on protecting "the women of the harem." Such setups invite improvisation, but two skits in the show ridicule that very technique. In one, the Impets, "the world's only improvisational puppets," perform improv games that bring to mind the ImprovOlympic, developed in Chicago by Charna Halpern and Del Close. (The host is a puppet called Delkie who, like Close, has a chronic smoker's cough.) Ironically, the spoof works best when it resembles the ImprovOlympic the most.

The other skit is a savage put-down of Second City, in which O'Brien portrays a performer soliciting the audience's help in developing a character known as Spoon Man, who talks like a pirate and holds a spoon over one eye. He chooses the most prosaic answers imaginable to the questions posed by the audience: "Where did you get your spoon?" "At the Spoon Connection." In between questions he says things like "This is really helping me build my character." When he's finished, he removes the spoon, drops out of character, and thanks the audience sincerely for their help. "I'm going to go backstage now and write some of this down," he says.

Now, Second City is certainly ripe for satire. The revues have lapsed into a predictable formula, and the use of improvisation has become self-conscious and stale. But the bitterness of O'Brien's spoof undercuts the humor, and makes the skit look like the expression of a personal grudge.

Even worse, the skit is unintentional self-satire. The prosaic answers that Spoon Man gives to the questions are as obvious and unfunny as much of the material in Happy Happy Good Show. The revue, like Spoon Man's character, needs a lot more work before it can become even remotely humorous.
The reason I posted that review is because I've written and performed sketch comedy myself in Chicago. It's not easy, and I doubt it's any easier in any other city. But Valeo's review proves that even the best sketch writers struggle—O'Brien made a comment on a Saturday Night Live retrospective last year that no matter how rich or famous you become in comedy, you still feel miserable when one of your ideas bombs—and you're not going to be able to please everyone all the time.

But I have a feeling that because O'Brien, Odenkirk, and Smigel were already SNL writers when they did this show, the audience was less inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. If in fact the audience wasn't laughing, that is—some critics like to project their own opinion onto everyone around them. I know I find a lot of things funny that don't make me laugh out loud, but the goal for any comedian is to get laughs to come out of an audience member's mouth, not stick the thought "That was funny" in his or her brain without converting the thought into a laugh. (Don't deny that analyzing comedy in this fashion is always good for a chuckle or two.)

Comedy nerds will recognize the big names in Valeo's review, but they might not know that Dave Reynolds cowrote Finding Nemo (2003) and The Emperor's New Groove (2000) and has "additional material" credits on other Disney and Pixar movies like A Bug's Life (1998), Tarzan (1999), and Chicken Little (2005). And Rose Abdoo costarred in the short-lived CBS comedy Johnny Bago in the summer of '93. Robert Zemeckis directed the pilot episode, which had the same inventive comic energy of the films he cowrote with Bob Gale (I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Used Cars, Back to the Future), before he started saying "But seriously, you guys ..." with films like Contact (1997) and Cast Away (2000). But that's another topic for another day, of course.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

corporate gossip

Rupert Murdoch is totally making the moves on Yahoo! right now.

See, Yahoo! has been telling anyone who'll listen that its current boy toy, Microsoft, isn't the corporation Yahoo! thought it was. Microsoft said it would make the world Yahoo!'s oyster, but Yahoo! wants some pearls with that oyster, you know what I'm sayin'?

Microsoft was all "What am I, made of money?" and Yahoo! was like "Yeah" and Microsoft was all "Corporate behemoths have feelings too, baby" and Yahoo! was like "Uh-huh, well, my feelings are hurt because you won't provide for me." Then Yahoo! made a sexual joke using the words "micro" and "soft," and that's when Microsoft walked away from the dinner/negotiating table.

Then Rupert Murdoch showed up and Yahoo! was like "Ooh, I like your accent," and Rupert acted like he plays rugby and wrestles alligators in the outback every weekend, but girl, you know that ain't true. Now Microsoft's jealous and Rupert's trying to add one more notch on his billion-dollar bedpost and Yahoo!'s starting to get a reputation as a slut. I'm not saying it's fair, but people will talk.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

This panda was just hibernating.

In case any of my 2.4 readers care, Mulberry Panda 96 isn't going to become one of those blogs that used to have new stuff to read every week for a few months but now looks like it'll only be updated on the 12th of never. I started a bunch of drafts last fall that I never finished, but now I'm finally in the process of finishing them as a way of productively procrastinating instead of writing my weekly piece for Popdose, which is always late.

Here are three completed posts that I started writing prior to January:

9/18: Blythe Danner should've married David Gates.
9/25: slow news day
"Escape from Cleveland"
12/10: These Carpenters never performed any miracles.

I apologize in advance to anyone who was hoping for a reference to Bread in the 9/25 and 11/21 posts. If you can think of a way to sneak one in after the buzzer, please let me know.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Super Tuesday

I voted this morning, even though I probably should've checked to see how Joe Biden's been doing in the presidential race lately before I cast my vote. I've just been so busy ...

Last week I found a discarded campaign flyer in my apartment building for James Byrne, who's running for Cook County judge, eighth subcircuit. The front of the flyer is designed like a movie poster, with Byrne and Cook County commissioner Forrest Claypool standing next to each other and smiling; below them is the tagline "On Feb. 5th, Justice Soars," and underneath that is the title "Legal Eagles."

Legal Eagles, you may remember, is a 1986 romantic comedy starring Robert Redford and Debra Winger. Is Byrne trying to tell voters that he's got a thing for Forrest Claypool? If so, how can I expect him to focus on his duties as a judge when his head is somewhere in the clouds? It'd be okay if I wrote mash notes to a fellow juror while pretending to listen to testimony, but it'd be grossly irresponsible if Byrne were to write them to Claypool while doing the same.

Sorry, James, but you're not getting my vote*. I wish you the best in your pursuit of Forrest's love and affection, but not in your pursuit of justice**.

* I voted for Byrne after all. I'm a sucker for a good love story, and since Legal Eagles was a disappointment 22 years ago, I'm hoping this all-male "reimagining" will be more satisfying. I don't want James and Forrest to reimagine Legal Eagles' theme song, though, no matter what the naysayers still have to say and nay about it all these years later—Rod Stewart's "Love Touch" should remain untouched. But unloved? Oh, it's always been loved by me. (But not while touching.)

** Keith Sweat, please don't come between James and Forrest. I'm serious! Just walk away.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Mica Paris

In the summer of '89 one of my favorite songs was "My One Temptation" by Mica Paris. A jazz-inflected pop-soul number, it didn't burn up the American charts back then, but the song did make its way to Top 40 radio, at least in Georgia, where I grew up. "My One Temptation" was a breezy triumph then, and remains so today.

I didn't know much about Paris at the time, and MTV wasn't playing the video for "My One Temptation," as far as I can remember, but I found it on YouTube the other day. I know I've seen pictures of Paris before, but when I watched the video I couldn't help but think, "Oh, so that's what she looks like."

I wonder if there's a name for that phenomenon—if it can even be called a phenomenon. Maybe it's that I was seeing Mica Paris in motion for the first time, whereas before I'd only seen still photos. 

Or maybe I felt like I was seeing her for the first time because I'm in love.

That's right, Ms. Paris, it's your move now. Just promise me you won't give your love to Keith Sweat instead.