Thursday, July 28, 2005

O Brothers, Where Art Thou? (Click PODCAST)

Tom & Dick Smothers

Last December I wrote an article titled "Where’s Norman Lear now that we need him?" where I said,

"Where are today’s Norman Lears, Larry Gelbarts and Susan Harriss? People who used comedy to talk about war, prejudice, and the issues of the day". Now don't shout out your answers, it’s a rhetorical question. I know where they are. They're telling stories in coffeehouses. They're making underground comedy albums that make fun of the current administration. They're in 99 seat houses doing controversial plays. They’re everywhere just not on TV. Why? Some say that it’s the dumming down of the TV viewer who would rather see a bikini clad girl in a tank filled with electric eels or a guy eating goat testicles than something that requires them to think. In the process, this puts talented actors and writers out of work. Others feel that in this current political climate anything topical especially when it is mocking or criticizing the current administration is considered dissent, treasonous or just down right Un-American. We can debate this forever, but the third and most practical reason is that this is a business and topical sit-coms do not do well in syndication where the money is."

The closest thing that I have found to Norman Lear, Larry Gelbart or Susan Harris on the air today is Seth MacFarlane the creator/writer/director, and voice of Peter, Stewie, Brian, Quagmire, Tom Tucker, and various background characters on the animated TV series Family Guy. Seth MacFarlane is also the creator/writer/director and voice of Stan, Roger, and various background characters on the animated TV series American Dad!. Did I mention these were animated TV shows? Don’t get me wrong, I like these shows and I love cartoons (In fact I’m surprised that I have not dedicated a column just to animation). I just want to see this type of cutting edge comedy on live action TV. These two shows also made the Parents Television Council "Worst TV Show of the Week" list.
Family Guy - Worst Family TV Shows of the Week
American Dad on Fox - Worst Family TV Shows of the Week
Making the PTC "Worst TV Show of the Week" list is like being on Nixon’s Hit List.

Speaking of being on Nixon’s "Hit List", I was watching a documentary titled Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Here are two people who fall under the category of "People who used comedy to talk about war, prejudice, and the issues of the day". For some if you mention the Smothers Brothers they will think of Tommy’s famous punch line, "Mom liked you best" or the Yo Yo man. Others may look at the Smothers Brothers the same way they look at Lenny Bruce, seeing the controversy over the content. This documentary covers the life of a show that CBS could easily put together in a short amount of time and stick in the Sunday night 9PM death slot against "Bonanza" on NBC. Since the network did not have a great deal of faith in the show success in that death slot, they gave Tom Smothers creative control. Long story short, Tommy decides to go for broke and tries to do something different from other Comedy Variety shows of the time by hiring writers (including Stan Burns, Bob Einstein, Mike Marmer, Steve Martin, Lorenzo Music, Rob Reiner, Murray Roman , Norman Sedawie and Mason Williams ) who were outspoken members of the counterculture movement. Tommy invited counterculture musical guests like Pete Seeger (singing "Knee Deep in the Big Muddy") Jefferson Airplane, the Doors and Joan Baez (who wanted to dedicate a song to her draft-resisting husband who was about to go to prison for his political views). The show also had a cast of regulars including Pat Paulsen, Leigh French as Goldie O'Keefe (Share a Little Tea with Goldie) and Bob Einstein as Officer Judy. Whenever something on the show got censored, The Brothers went to the press and let America know what they missed. Just to make things more confusing, the shows hosts were two clean cut looking "All-American" boys (and what could be more "All American" than defending free speech.) On stage Tommy played the simpleton, but in reality he was the brains of the outfit. And "Establishment" entertainers like Kate Smith, Bob Hope, Jack Benny George Burns and Jimmy Durante supported the show by being on it. The closest thing that I have found to The Smothers Brothers today is "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart". Even SNL’s or MAD TV’s edge is not nearly as sharp.

The documentary also highlights a skit that the censors cut featuring Tommy and Elaine May as two censors. I contacted the people at the Smothers Brothers Home Page and asked if there was a copy of the skit anywhere. They answered with,

"There were actually three skits recorded for the same show but they didn't air due to censorship. Tom and Dick would love to see The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour shows rerun on television and/or released on home video/dvd. So far we have been unable to arrange this because of the high upfront residual and music publishing costs. We'll keep on trying and when we're successful, we'll announce it on the Home Page of our website at The Elaine May skits will definitely be included in any new releases."

I look forward to seeing these shows on DVD and think that they could be a great teaching tool when covering 1960s America. If you think that I am exaggerating, just remember the show has historical significance that goes beyond television because they ran Pat Paulsen for president.

Finally there is a fundamental rule that I should add to my list of Comedy Grievances and that is to remind people that they should never piss off Humorists (that includes Comedians, Comedy Writers or Cartoonist) because they will always have the last laugh.

To quote Tommy Smothers, "The ultimate censorship is the flick of the dial."

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Beauty of The Munsters & The Addams Family. (Click PODCAST)

I do not want to repeat my Blake vs. Potter debate, but comparing "The Addams Family" to "The Munsters" is like comparing "Laverne & Shirley" to "Cagney & Lacey". Other than the fact that these were macabre sit-coms mocking the nuclear families that were on the air at the time, these two shows and families were very different. For example if Eddie Munster (Butch Patrick) wanted to join the Boy Scouts his parents Herman & Lily (Fred Gwynne and Yvonne De Carlo) would be thrilled where as if Pugsley Addams (Ken Weatherwax) wanted to join the Boy Scouts his parents Gomez & Morticia (John Astin & Carolyn Jones) would be mortified and hope that this was just a phase. If there was an explosion in Grandpa’s (Al Lewis) laboratory, it would be an accident with humorous consequences, where as if there was an explosion in Uncle Fester's (Jackie Coogan) room, it would be expected and encouraged behavior. If Herman got sick he would go to his family doctor (Paul Lynde) who had just sent his eyeglasses out to be repaired. The doctor would then perform Herman's entire examination with out being able to see him and receiving the repaired glasses in time to say goodbye then mayhem ensues. If Gomez got sick he would contact his family which doctor and because of his massive wealth he did not have to worry about whether or not the which doctor was covered under his HMO.

The Addams Family

THE ADDAMS FAMILY debuted on ABC on September 18 1964, and ran through September 2, 1966. The show was based on Charles Addams' dark, warped and funny comic strip created for the "New Yorker" magazine. Charles Addams named the characters for the TV show. The episodes were written by Nat Perrin who had written several Marx Brothers movies. (Come to think of it Gomez had some Groucho Marx qualities). One of my favorite elements of the show was the brilliant use of sound effects like in the days of radio comedy, thus requiring the audience to use their imagination. An example of this was when a houseguest saw Kitty (a lion). All you heard was a roar followed by a running sound effect followed by a door slam. In fact I would love to perform some of the old TV show scripts as a radio comedy. The show mocked other TV families by being their polar opposite. This family would do everything from sword fight to blowing up model trains in the middle of their own living room. If "Fear Factor" was around then, they would have the home version. I don't think anybody knew where John Aston began and Gomez ended. Everything gave him a rush and his love for Morticia can only be described as horney monogamy. With all the craziness the show had moral high ground. Not only did you see a loving family where the parents were not afraid to show affection in front of the kids, you got to see so called "normal people" compromise their principles in order to do business with Gomez followed by humorous consequences.

The Munsters

THE MUNSTERS debuted on CBS on September 24, 1964 and ran through September 1, 1966.
This show mocked other TV families by having a family of classic movie monsters emulate them. The show was developed, written, and produced by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher (The same team created, wrote and produced "Leave It to Beaver"). The Show is a brilliant mix of three key ingredients.

  1. The classic Universal Studios Monsters from the 1930 & 40's (that were finding a whole new audience thanks to Saturday Matinee "Creature Features" on TV)
  2. The placing of these monsters in the world of "Leave it to Beaver" (In fact the Munster's house is still across the street from the Cleaver's house on the Universal Back Lot only now "Desperate Housewives" have moved in).
  3. The "Normal People" reactions to our family similar to those seen in Casper cartoons.

The patriarch is the Frankenstein monster who married Dracula's daughter and live in the states as an "Typical American Family". There is more to Herman than a big stupid baby who throws tantrums by saying, "Darn! Darn! Darn! Darn!" Here is a character that is the Frankenstein monster, but he really thinks he is Fred MacMurray from "My Three Sons". Fred Gwynne could deliver Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) type dialogue totally straight and was incredibly funny doing it. He was also able to play the stooge to Al Lewis in one scene, and then straight man to guest stars Paul Lynde or Harvey Korman in another. Al Lewis' Grandpa was and will always the most unique interpretation of the Dracula character since Bram Stoker first created him. Again I don't know where Al Lewis begins and Grandpa AKA The Count AKA Sam Dracula (I guess the guys at Ellis Island could not spell Vladimir) ends. Like Dracula he has found immortality. On April 30th he turned 95 years old.

Because of the macabre settings of the show, I think the writers were able to slip things under the censor’s radar. The wild look in Gomez’s eyes when he and Morticia played with whips and chains came very close to S&M. "The Munsters" did jokes about Vietnam, nuclear war and drugs. Herman & Lily were also the first TV couple to sleep in the same bed while Gomez & Morticia had twin beds of nails.

Grandpa: Hmm. What smells so good?
Herman: I cut myself shaving.

Morticia: Think of Romeo and Juliet.
Gomez: They died!
Morticia: Oh, but what fun they had those last three days.

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Beam me up.

James Doohan
1920 - 2005

Thanks to this man I always multiply estimates by a factor of four. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Kirk: How long to re-fit?
Scotty: Eight weeks. But you don't have eight weeks, so I'll do it for you in two.
Kirk: Do you always multiply your repair estimates by a factor of four?
Scotty: How else to maintain my reputation as a miracle worker?
Kirk: Your reputation is safe with me.

Still my favorite Scotty quote is Scotty explaining how he got rid of the tribbles in Star Trek Episode 42, The Trouble with Tribbles, "Just before they went into warp, I beamed the whole kit and kaboodle into their engine room, where they'll be no tribble at all."

Good Night Mr. Doohan. Your reputation is safe with me too.

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa

Thursday, July 14, 2005

My Sharona

Last Friday the USA Network aired the season premiere of Monk Titled Mr. Monk and the Other Detective (with guest star Jason Alexander). I have been a big fan of this show for awhile and last Friday's episode provided a welcome break from summer reruns. In my opinion Tony Shalhoub is one of the best actors on television playing one of the best characters on television. It takes a special talent to make Adrian Monk's obsessive compulsive behavior (caused by the tragic murder of his wife) funny. Can you imagine what the pitch meeting was like? Still the episode was missing something I had always enjoyed Monk's sidekick/nurse Sharona Fleming (Bitty Schram). I feel that it is too early in the show's run for it to Jump the Shark. Early on I had feared that the show might Jump the Shark by exploring a romantic relationship between Sharona and Adrian, or Sharona and Lieutenant Randy Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford). I know I am not the only one who wants Sharona to return, in fact I found an online petition to Bring Sharona Back To "Monk!" And people say that I have too much free time.

I know, "People who live in glass houses".

I have a great affection for characters who say what you are thinking or have the guts to say what you want to say but can't. The best part is that these characters can get away with it like we wish we could. We tend to forget that there is a team of talented writers who spend many hours creating these spontaneous lines for them to say. I wrote a spec script for Monk last year and my favorite part was writing Sharona's wisecracks. My wife told me that it was because I am Sharona. I think she meant to say, "I am a wisecracking sidekick trapped in a leading man’s body"

Finally my singing Bitty Sharam's praises is in no way shape or form is an attack on Traylor Howard who recently joined the show as Adrian's new girl Friday Natalie Teeger. When someone deserves the Dick Sergeant award I will say so. It can be a very risky career move to replace a beloved character on a show, especially a character with very big pumps to fill.

To quote Monk & Sharona,

MONK:Do you register to vote?
SHARONA: I never vote. It only encourages them.

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Misplaced Keys.

"You unlock this door with the key of imagination, beyond it is another dimension. A dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into... The Twilight Zone."
Rod Serling

My day job requires me to work on the 4th of July, but it's okay since I get paid double-time on holidays. After a long day at work I came home and started my usual unwinding ritual of channel surfing. To my surprise, I found a Twilight Zone marathon on the Sci Fi Channel. I got to see some of my favorite episodes including A Stop At Willoughby, Mr. Bevis, A Hundred Yards Over The Rim, It's A Good Life, The Odyssey Of Flight 33 and Once Upon A Time. I loved tuning into an episode and see a character or characters out in the middle of nowhere be it the desert or a distant planet. A puff of smoke appears behind them, yet the characters do not acknologe the smoke, then the camera pans over to the side to reveal that the smoke came from Rod Serling's cigarette. The Twilight Zone is or was great television that can be boiled down to good stories, good writing and good acting.

I find it funny that many people today see television as pure escapism, not healthy entertainment, but escapism. They want to get lost in the lives of others whether they are real or fictional. These people do not care to use television to be informed enriched or educated. The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Playhouse 90 and other anthology series told great stories yet sadly they are no longer marketable since most of the television viewing public would rather see formulaic programming with reoccurring characters, and don’t even get me started on reality TV.

Is it that people are too lazy to escape reality or is it a narrow-minded escapism? You can’t unlock the door with the key of imagination when you have misplaced the keys and refuse to go look for them. To quote Rod Serling, "You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead— your next stop, the Twilight Zone!" It’s not like this type of travel requires airfare, a passport or a security check. So why are you placing boundaries on it?

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa