Friday, July 3, 2009

Happy Independence Day, Children of the 90s

Image via

I hope all you children of the 90s are out there enjoying your 4th of July weekend. And to all of my non-American readers, I hope you're enjoying our ethnocentric view of the world. Still going strong.

In the spirit of US Independence day, I present to you the following clip from the 1996 blockbuster hit, Independence Day. Let's just hope this July 4th goes a bit better than that one.

What a great tie-in, right? Too bad President Bill Pullman's prophecy of July 4th becoming a world-wide celebration of independence from tyranny and oppression didn't come to fruition. Then again, we never had to battle evil aliens. I guess all in all, it's sort of a wash.

If that's not enough of a 90s fix to hold you over until Monday's full post, then by all means please enjoy this clip from Eddie Izzard's 1998 show, Dress to Kill. It's one of my favorites. Though it doesn't speak to independence per se, he does teach Americans a thing or two about their own gloriously self-serving colonialism.*

Have a great weekend, everyone!

*Sure, if we want to splice atoms here, those colonists were technically British at the time. However, as I once taught high school AP US History, I give myself a free pass on factual bendiness. It came with my teaching certificate

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Sideways Stories from Wayside School Books

Children have a certain knack for appreciating the bizarre and unusual. While adults are quick to question and doubt, children have always embraced the silliness with open arms. That's probably why looking back fondly at the oddball books and cartoons that used to entertain us often reveals them to be totally and completely insane.

The Wayside School series by Louis Sachar is a prime example of this type of endearing strangeness. While our adult selves may wonder what sort of drugs he was taking and where we can get some, our inner (well, at the time, outer) children lapped up his unending creativity and originality. To kids, things don't need to make sense. Not everything requires a logical explanation. Things can be zany, wacky, madcap, and other corny adjectives as well.

Wayside School was certainly a place all its own. Built sideways, the school mistakenly ended up with 30 floors with one classroom each rather than one floor with 30 classrooms. There is, however, no 19th story. In Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Chapter 19 reads: "19. Miss Zarves---There is no Miss Zarves. There is no nineteenth story. Sorry."

In the introduction to Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Sachar helpfully offers:

"It has been said that these stories are strange and s
illy. That is probably true. However, when I told stories about you to the children at Wayside, they thought you were strange and silly. That is probably also true."

As a child, I was fully sold after reading that introduction. In my book (yet to be published, nowhere near the towering fame of Wayside School), Louis Sachar was a brilliant author. He truly tapped in to the way kids think, and threw it back at any adults that may be reading along with tongue-in-cheek humor that could be enjoyed by readers of all ages. The overall message was, yes, these stories are completely absurd, but we're all strange in our own ways. Silliness should be celebrated, not repressed. After all, that's what makes kids kids. Otherwise they'd be adults, who we all know to be terribly dull and boring.

The first installment of the Wayside School books was published in 1978, meaning an expansive 11 years passed between release of the first and second books*. For condensation (in time, not moisture) and relevance's sake, let's delve into the 1989 title Wayside School is Falling Down. As the book is made of 30 loosely interconnected chapter, I have chosen a few to share with you today. I've even thrown in a handy "moral of the story" to enhance the story's applicability to you today:

Chapter 1: A Package for Mrs. Jewls

Thank heaven for kindly, sweet-faced Mrs. Jewls who replaced the tyrannical Mrs. Gorf in the original Sideways Stories. Mrs. Gorf had a penchant for zapping children into apples, so pretty much anyone below the meanness threshold of fascist dictator would have been welcomed graciously. Sure, Mrs. Jewls thought they were all monkeys for awhile, but overall she meant pretty well. For an inane fictional character, that is.

In "A Package for Mrs. Jewls", Louis the yard teacher claims to be Mrs. Jewls and accepts a package on her behalf. It should probably be noted that that Sachar neatly inserted himself into the stories, basing the Louis character on his own experiences as a playground teacher. Anyway, so this amalgam of the real and fictional Louises takes special care with the package as it is marked with numerous warnings of fragility. After lugging the enormous box up thirty flights of stairs, Louis breathlessly opens the box to reveal a shiny new computer.

The kids whine and resist, saying that the computer will speed up their learning and make more work for them. Mrs. Jewls objects, saying the computer will help them learn. She proceeds to push the computer out the window. After it smashes violently to the ground, she announces "That's Gravity!"

Moral of the story: If you're having a rough day at work, perhaps your office-mates would enjoy a good lesson in gravity. After you've read your daily installment of Children of the 90s, of course.

The real Louis (author Louise Sachar), who we can only assume has never carried a computer up 30 flights of stairs. Image via

2. Mark Miller

Benjamin Nushmutt is a new student joining the wacky thirtieth floor class. Without provocation or just cause, Mrs. Jewls incorrectly introduces Benjamin as Mark Miller. Too timid to correct a teacher, Benjamin/Mark lets it slide. Unfortunately, by the time Benjamin musters the courage he is afraid she'll think him strange for not pointing out the mistake sooner. Benjamin adjusts to being called Mark and assumes the Mark Miller persona. Later in the book his efforts to come clean about his real name are acutely thwarted, though we do eventually meet the real Mark Miller.

Moral of the story: When you tire of your current personality, feel free to try another on for size. Particularly if you have a last name with the non-musical garblings of Nushmutt.

3. A Bad Case of the Sillies/A Wonderful Teacher

In these two stories, Allison (the only seemingly normal child at Wayside) mysteriously finds herself on the nonexistent nineteenth floor, home of Mrs. Zarves' classroom. Mrs. Zarves even-crazier students consist of Virginia (a 30-something who has never heard of a bathroom), teenage Nick, Ray Gunn (Bebe's made-up little brother), a cow, and the real Mark Miller. Unluckily for Mark Miller, everyone inexplicably keeps calling him Benjamin Nushmutt.

Moral of the story: If Seinfeld can have Bizarro Jerry, Benjamin Nushmutt can certainly have his Mark Miller. You may now freely assume that you too have a perfect opposite/evil twin somewhere out there.

4. Mush

Miss Mush is Wayside's school cook, whose most popular dish ("nothing") is in such high demand that she is always running out of it. She prepares her signature Mushroom Surprise, though no one knows exactly what the surprise is. The only person who ever eats Mushroom Surprise is Louis. Ron mans up and takes a bite, only to find that the surprise is that you immediately fall in love with the first person you see. Surprise! It's his teacher.

Moral of the story: If you ever are dining out and happen to run into JTT or Britney Spear circa 1999, feel free to dish out the Mushroom Surprise. You won't regret it. Unless, of course, it turns out to be Britney circa 2008. Then you're pretty SOL.

Who says reading for enjoyment can't be educational? The next time you hear someone make a statement like that, simply take a page from the Wayside books and call them a mugworm griblick. That'll show 'em.

*The series also includes the equally humorous 1995
Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger, which is totally worthy of a full-scale examination that I don't have the time or space to provide.

*Oh, and they recently made a Wayside TV series that I'm sure if I watched, my imagination would automatically shrivel, die, and retreat. Hence it will not be covered in this post

Ooh! Read some Wayside Stories online with Google Books!

Sideways Stories

Wayside School is Falling Down

Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

From Humble Beginnings: Before They Were (Animated) Stars

A funny thing happened to cartoons in the 90s. While once relegated exclusively for the mindless enjoyment of children, in the 1990s a new breed of animated series emerged with decidedly adult content. TV producers took the basic premise of the animated series and morphed it into a viable means of conveying grown-up themes and humor. These weren't your mother's cartoons. Or perhaps more accurately, they were.

Adult-geared cartoons flourished, and many of these series had long and fruitful runs far outstripping their initial potential. In fact, some of these shows continue to churn out new episodes today, though their adherence to original standards is ultimately questionable. Mind you, what we are about to delve into is a brief smattering of 90s adult cartoons and is by no means intended to represent the full canon. It does, however, represent part of the spark of the novel idea.

Nowadays, blocks of grown-up-geared cartoons air frequently on FOX or Cartoon Network's Adult Swim; if anything, the concept has gotten a smidgen tired. Back in the mid-to-late 90s, however, the concept was but a twinkle in the animators' eyes. The idea was just beginning to bud, and the craftsmanship was at best on the shoddy side. The underlying goal, however, was solid: to bring entertainment to an older audience using animation. Depending on your age at the time of their release. you may have enjoyed or misunderstood these cartoons. Either way, I think we can all agree that a lot has changed since their initial episodes.

The Simpsons

The Simpsons premiered on the Tracey Ullman Show in 1987, though its format was far from the smoothly drawn HD-TV Simpsons of today. The Simpsons began as a series of one-minute shorts focusing on a decidedly dysfunctional family.

Observe, the 16th short from the Tracey Ullman Show:

Sure, it's mildly amusing, but it's hard to believe that this meager offering evolved into a monstrous franchise spanning over 20 years. Obviously the Simpsons had a long way to go before achieving its immense popularity. Incredibly, all of the main character's original voice actors continue to perform their same roles. How's that for job security?

South Park

Though nowhere near as long-running as The Simpsons, South Park still boasts cartoon longevity running on its 13th season. When it premiered on Comedy Central in 1997, it was received as crude, juvenile, foul-mouthed, and dark. Critics noted the sharp contrast between the cute, innocent appearance of the characters and the filth that emanated from their poorly animated mouths. South Park was the first weekly TV series to receive the TV-MA rating, indicating it's intention of reaching mature audiences only. Depending on your definition of mature, this maturity was definitely open to interpretation.

In 1992, Matt Stone and Trey Parker produced the first ever South Park Short, The Spirit of Christmas: Jesus vs. Frosty. The film was presented at a student student film screening at their then-place of higher learning, University of Colorado. Though very, very rudimentary, the characters are shockingly similar to their current forms. They even have a "Oh my God! You killed Kenny!" sequence, only the Kenny in question later becomes the episodic Cartman.

Spirit of Christmas: Jesus vs. Frosty:

In 1995, with a slightly bigger budget, Stone and Parker produced a second Christmas short at the personal request of a FOX executive. It soon became one of the first viral videos, eventually catching the attention of Comedy central and prompting the initial discussion of the series.

The Spirit of Christmas, 1995 version: Jesus vs. Santa:

The actual pilot episode (shown below in its entirety, if you're into that kind of thing) is entitled "Cartman Gets an Anal Probe." Cute, right? Though many of us would hardly bat an eye over this today, at the time of its release it was pretty envelope-pushing.

more movies at

Family Guy

I'm sure I'll be burned at the proverbial stake for my heathenry, but I am ready to admit that I have lost interest in the new Family Guy episodes as of late. Pardon me for not worshiping at the feet of the great MacFarlane, but I don't find it particularly funny anymore. It's gotten so gimmicky, it's forgotten its initial, truer, lighter gimmickiness. Okay, so maybe that's a bit confusing, but I promise there is some sort of sense buried in that statement somewhere. After all, I used to be a pretty dedicated fan during the DVD era.

Family Guy is a series that has been through innumerable phases and reformulations. In fact, the animated short that eventually became the series was not Family Guy at all but rather The Life of Larry. Life of Larry featured a slovenly middle-aged man named Larry, his wife Lois (I think we can all see where this is going), his son Milt, and his talking dog Steve. If you watch the short below, you'll see that the animation and character style is distinctly different, but the jokes do get recycled into later Family Guy episodes. I guess some jokes are just too good to waste.

Life of Larry (1995):

I will admit I find it pretty funny when Seth MacFarlane says, "Oh, hi there. You scared the crap out of me."

MacFarlane created a second Larry short, Larry and Steve, for Cartoon Network a year or so later:

The Family Guy pilot came a few years later (see clip below). If you're a fan, you may recognize it as a more crappily-animated version (with a few differences) of the 1999 premiere episode, Death Has a Shadow. As you can probably gather, the characters and flow differ pretty significantly from the current version:


From the creators of the Simpsons, Futurama was a satirical science-fiction cartoon focusing on the life of Fry, a nebbishy pizza delivery guy who falls into a cryogenic freezer in 1999 only to be revived in the year 3000. Let me just clarify that Fry deserves our utmost 90s respect as he is voiced by Billy West, the man who brought us Doug Funnie, Roger Klotz, Stimpy, and the voices of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in Space Jam. Now that's a 90s resume right there.

Fry and his distant relative Professor Farnsworth (along their robot, alien, and mutant misfit friends) start a shipping company called Planet Express. Over 2000 years, Fry evolved from delivery guy guy. What a journey. The pilot is very set-up heavy as the premise of the show is fairly complicated, but if you stuck with it for awhile there were certainly payoffs. Now is probably also a good time to mention that Comedy Central recently ordered 26 new episodes of Futurama set to air in 2010. Set your phone calendar alarms, people, this is going to be big.

Clip from Space Pilot 3000, the Futurama pilot episode:


I know, I know, Daria was aimed at teens more than adults, but as my favorite cartoon ever I've made the executive decision to place it on this master list. I was in middle school and high school during Daria's run and just toeing the waters of sarcasm, so Daria really spoke to me on an "it's okay to be irreverent, rude, and brutally honest" kind of way. In short, Daria was my kind of girl, though significantly ballsier and more anti-social.

Or rather, in long. In the full-length episodes, we get a well-rounded picture of Daria with all of her character traits and flaws. In the pilot short, however, we get just an eensy taste of the sarcasm to come. As the Daria character premiered on Beavis and Butthead, the pilot short represented the transition from secondary character to star of the show. The show's creator's wanted to pitch the Daria series as completely separate from the juvenile lowbrow humor of B&B and thus sought to emphasize Daria's more biting wit and intelligence in the short. It's by no means as fleshed-out as the actual series (both literally and figuratively, as the pilot was done with crude animation in black and white), but you can gather the general idea:

The 90s showed us that animation geared toward more mature (age-wise) audiences was both a viable and worthwhile enterprise. You have to admire the enduring nature of these series: South Park and The Simpsons are still on the air, and Futurama and Family Guy both did so well in DVD sales and syndication that they were revived from the depths of cancellation hell. Now if only Viacom would see fit to release the Daria* DVDs, all would be right in the 90s cartoon world.

Hint: You can, however, watch the episodes online here. Just between you and me.

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