Sunday, January 25, 2009

It's a mad mad mad mad world.

Mad Men has been an Emmy-winning hit for AMC, which used to be American Movie Classics, but once it started showing films like Death Wish 3 (sponsored one night last summer by, of all things, a Time-Life collection of Contemporary Christian Music), the cable channel had to take a long, hard look at itself in the mirror and come clean. Or, better yet, abbreviate its name and not tell anyone what it stands for anymore.

Tomorrow night TNT debuts Trust Me, starring Tom Cavanagh (Ed) and Eric McCormack (Will & Grace). It's another series about people working at an ad agency, except it's set in the present day and doesn't have the pedigree of being created by an ex-Sopranos writer.

In August 1988 CBS debuted its own show set in the advertising world, but it only lasted one episode: Mad Avenue was its name, and according to IMDB, it was a "drama about the 'frantic professional and personal' lives of the staff at a national advertising agency." The title is short for Madison Avenue, but IMDB says the one episode was shot "entirely on location in Toronto, Canada."

False advertising? No, but the way in which CBS presented Mad Avenue to viewers was slightly misleading.

Back in the '80s, when the networks could still afford to take the entire summer off and depend on viewers coming back en masse in the fall for new episodes, original programming often boiled down to tossed-off pilots of shows that weren't picked up for fall or midseason. Since they weren't going to see the light of day any other way, CBS decided to air its unsold pilots under the umbrella title of CBS Summer Playhouse in 1987, '88, and '89.

Mad Avenue was one such pilot that didn't make it onto CBS's 1988 fall schedule. It starred a post-Hill Street Blues, pre-Doogie Howser James B. Sikking (on the latter show he always looked like he'd had a drink or two before arriving on the set), presumably an adman at the fictional agency of Stein, Atkins, Thomas, Andrews & Noble. IMDB helpfully points out the acronym: SATAN. And the address of the agency was 666 Madison Avenue. (I used to like a girl who worked at a museum located at 666 Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Take a wild guess as to how that courtship panned out.)

These days unsold pilots rarely make it to the air, though the once proud, now dead cable network known as Trio showed some of them in 2003 under the umbrella title of Brilliant But Cancelled. Some network executives have suggested that pilot "season," when pilots are ordered, cast, shot, and edited, be done away with entirely because of all the time and money that's expended on the final product, the main problem being that the majority of the pilots won't be sold and turned into series. (Last season's writers' strike affected pilot season, which is one reason it was reevaluated. Mad Avenue aired a couple weeks after the 1988 writers' strike ended.)

I didn't see Mad Avenue when it aired, but the name has stuck with me all these years. So has Bill Hicks's routine about people who work in marketing and advertising.

Hicks was 30 when he filmed Revelations, the stand-up special the above clip is taken from; he died two years later of pancreatic cancer. If he was alive today he'd be 47, and I assume he'd be a mellower guy about things like commercials and the people who create them. But maybe not. I just hope he wouldn't be taking supporting roles in movies like Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007) and its upcoming "squeakquel."

David Cross, a Hicks-style comedian and actor who appears in the Chipmunks movies (to be fair, he's also been in critically acclaimed movies like I'm Not There and Ghost World), was 38 when he recorded his stand-up album Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! (2002). The jokes and routines have a mostly bitter edge, especially when he discusses politics and religion.

Bitter can be funny, as Hicks proved, but on that album Cross rarely makes himself the butt of the joke just as the humor is about to tip over into anger, therefore turning some of his routines into self-righteous rants. He also interrupts himself so many times with the all-purpose adjective and adverb "fuckin'," not to mention the handy time-stalling phrase "you know," that his jokes go on far longer than they should, weakening the punchlines. On his follow-up album, It's Not Funny (2004), his timing is much sharper, he's more self-deprecating, and his jokes are funnier in general. It is funny. It's also a single disc, whereas Shut Up contains two discs filled with two hours of material—the preaching to the drunk choir feels like it'll never end.

Cross defended his participation in the first Chipmunks movie early last year on the website he shares with fellow Mr. Show creator Bob Odenkirk and their comedian friends. He wrote that his fans and critics shouldn't bother questioning it because it's "a waste of time and energy. I choose to care about other things that I believe are worth the investment of that kind of outrage, disappointment, and sense of urgency."

But if you're going to dish it out in a war of words with comedians you don't respect, like Larry the Cable Guy, you should be able to take it just as well and understand why you're on the receiving end this time. Cross also admits that "I used my 'Alvin and the Chipmunks' money to pay for the down payment [on a cottage]. Seriously, I totally did." Seriously? Yes, totally. Because it's easier to forgive a cozy new cottage than a pile of coke and hookers (for the record, one pile of coke, one separate pile of hookers).

I bet a lot of actors who do commercials, even voice-over work like the kind Gene Hackman does for Lowe's (Cross has done it for video games like Halo 2 and Grand Theft Auto, according to his IMDB page, and he was the Daniel Stern-like narrator of the Fox sitcom Oliver Beene five years ago), enjoy the paychecks they receive that allow them to buy new summer homes. Unlike Hicks, who was an angry young man at the time, I forgive them. But I don't want to get into the politics of stardom. I'd much rather hear Cross deliver a ... fuckin', you know ... funny, self-mocking routine about it instead.

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