Wednesday, July 15, 2009
As I sit here watching a can't-take-my-eyes-off-this-trainwreck marathon of MTV's 16 and Pregnant, I have to wonder what exactly is going on at MTV. First Date my Mom, and now this? What happened to the far-superior, significantly less lazy programming of my day? Back when I was a kid, MTV had a little intelligence, didn't it? And before you say something, yes, I'm old enough now to get all crotchety about this. Before you know it I'll be hiking my pants up to my eyelids and complaining about that damned newfangled rock music.
While I reminisce about my MTV glory days, I accidentally contradict my inital proclamation of the golden age of intellectually stimulating programming by entertaining the notion of the show Beavis and Butthead. I know, I know, I should be mentally conjuring something more promising for my things-were-better-in-my-day argument, but I can't help it. After all, I already wrote about Daria, who more than cornered the market on intelligent, sharp-witted MTV original programming. And since Daria spun off from Beavis and Butthead, I can only hope this reflects on the quality of Beavis and Butthead themselves. After all, that little delusion is certainly easier than admitting a teensy bit of hypocrisy.
Anyhow, the series featured its eponymous cartoon stars, deadbeat high schoolers with a shared penchant for extreme obnoxiousness.
Despite their young age, for some reason we never really encounter any sort of parental figures. Beavis and Butthead were pretty single-minded, er triple-minded. Their lives revolve around the pursuit of chicks, nachos, and hardcore heavy metal. After all, what good would heavy metal be without a side of chicks and nachos?
That was pretty much it. Oh wait, did I mention that Beavis had a ridiculous alter-ago named The Great Cornholio? Because that part is sort of important. Whenever Beavis got all hopped up on caffeine and sugar, he morphed into El Cornholio and began seizing up and speaking in tongues. That's normal, right? He raises his arms Evita-style, puts his shirt over his head, and in a vaguely Spanish accent declares boldly, "I am Cornolio!" Sometimes just for kicks he'd also discuss the need for TP for his bung-hole. Oh, and he comes from Lake Titicaca. Heh.
Observe, a montage:
If you sat through that full two minutes and 17 seconds, bravo. You have an extremely high threshold for pain and under-the-skin irritants. Kudos.
Butthead (first name Butt, last name Head) was more of a charmer with his signature, "Hey baby". Who could resist that alluring cad? Between the braces and that adorable "heh heh, heh heh" laugh, I can't settle on a best feature.
And...that's about it. They have a neighbor and a teacher or two who sporadically show up as supporting characters, but generally it's just the two of them wreaking widespread havoc. They occasionally are employed at fast food joint Burger World, though their general incompetence in a long-running theme. Behold, their general slackerish incompetence:
As you can probably gather, the appeal of these characters was baffling. For some reason, the show ran an astounding seven seasons. SEVEN. Meanwhile, gems like Freaks and Geeks run for one. Riddle me that one, nineties kids. Riddle me that. I'm sorry to say I'm a bit ashamed of our collective inability to appreciate witty shows in favor of cackling over a couple of oversize-headed kids in Metallica and ACDC t-shirts. For shame, children of the 90s. For shame.
Beavis and Butthead wasn't all stupid, of course. Beneath the veneer of rudeness and outright obnoxiousness lay a thinly concealed layer of social commentary and witty observations. Of course, B&B themselves were too oblivious to make these observations themselves. Rather, the social criticism was tied to the fabric of the show, emphasizing the stupidity, laziness, and anti-intelligence of youth culture. It was a pretty multi-faceted approach at social commentary, though it probably didn't do much for viewers in terms of elevating youth culture. If nothing else, it probably taught many of them to light stuff on fire and delight in general idiotic mayhem. Maybe I'm just a cynic, but I think that qualifies as missing the point.
It wasn't all fun and games for MTV, though. A young child burned down his family's mobile home, purportedly influenced by Beavis's maniacal obsession with lighting things on fire. It was certainly tragic, though you have to wonder where the boy's parents were during this whole thing. As with other controversial shows, movies, and games, parents often expressed outrage that these characters were being portrayed as an idealized example.
They weren't, of course. It was a pretty thin argument. MTV began running a caveat before the show, saying:
Beavis and Butt-head are not role models. They're not even human. They're cartoons. Some of the things they do could cause a person to get hurt, expelled, arrested, possibly deported. To put it another way: Don't try this at home.
At the end of the day, that was the moral of the story. They weren't humans. They were cartoons. They weren't people to aspire to emulate, they were fictional characters and moronic ones at that.
Beavis and Butthead got the full-length feature treatment in Beavis and Butthead Do America, where they continued to terrorize the nation with their unapologetic stupidity:
The movie boasts a surprising 72% positive rating at rottentomatoes.com, suggesting that perhaps their juvenile sense of humor was enjoyed by more people than would care to admit it. Like any guilty pleasure, B&B provided us with laughter for things that we knew deep down we probably should not find funny. But we did. Because it was funny. Beavis and Butthead may have been a pair of music video-ragging idiot savants, but they were a lot more perceptive than people gave them credit for. Inadvertently, that is. The show was ripe with contradictions, but then again, so is real life. Heh heh. Heh heh.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Once upon a time, when Steve Martin was not busy making ill-advised career moves like The Pink Panther 2 and Cheaper by the Dozen 3, he was out there making some genuinely funny movies. In fact, Martin has appeared in a few of my favorite films, notably 1991's Father of the Bride, a remake of the 1950 movie starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. In the 1991 version, Martin plays ultimate protective dad George Banks, hilariously hesitant to marry off his 20-year old daughter to a man she met while studying abroad. Between his worries of weakening the father-daughter bond and the inevitable bankruptcy sure to result from his daughter's desired lavish wedding, Banks has his hands pretty full.
Back in the early 90s, a movie didn't need to be raunchy and racy to garner laughs from audiences; indeed, Father of the Bride was only rated PG. It had a real it's-funny-because-it's-true type of quality to it, playing on the traditional child coming of age story from a parent's perspective. Martin plays George Banks, a middle-aged owner of a sneaker factory happily married to wife Nina (Diane Keaton) and with two children, the aforementioned bride-to-be Annie (Kimberly Williams) and much younger/most-likely-a-mistake son Matty (Kieran Culkin, aka Macaulay lite).
Banks' world is shaken when Annie comes home from one semester abroad with startling news: she's engaged to some guy they've never met. Annie reassures her dad that her mysterious betrothed is a good guy and that he is gainfully employed as a "independent communications consultant", whatever that means. Mom Nina is ecstatic but George's reaction is noticeably subdued. If anything, he seems downright opposed. Then again, the kid is 22 and has known the guy for all of a couple of months. You can sort of see where he's coming from.
To give you an idea of Martin's mental picture of his daughter at 22, here's a handy clip:
So while Banks still sees his daughter as an adorable plaited 7-year old, he is forced to accept that she is here claiming to be a grown up with the autonomy to make these kinds of decisions.
This is all, of course, before mother and daughter can slap a big ol' price tag on the whole shebang. While George is pretty unnerved just at the thought of losing his precious baby girl to some common independent communications consultant, he is downright apoplectic at the staggering costs of putting on a big to do for his daughter's wedding. At the opening of the film, George says in voice-over, "I used to think a wedding was a simple affair. A boy and girl meet, they fall in love, he buys a ring, she buys a dress, they say 'I do.' I was wrong. That's getting married. A wedding is an entirely different proposition."
So as they are not particularly equipped to plan the whole thing on their own they enlist the help of flamboyant wedding planner Franck Eggelhoffer, a man of unknown national origins with a strange accent that can only be the work of Martin Short. Franck also has his assistant in tow, the inexplicably Asian-with-a-Jewish-named Howard Weinstein. The awkwardly ponytailed Weinstein is played by B.D. Wong, and you can imagine my surprise the day I realized that that was the psychologist guy from Law and Order: SVU. I'll never watch another analysis of an assaulted jogger or molested nanny in the same way.
Franck is...eccentric, to say the least, though it seems his intentions are good. At times it's actually impossible to tell what he is saying through his mysterious European accent, so I can only assume his intentions are good. Observe as George fails to understand a damn word this Fraaaanck character says:
On top of all that, when the Banks' go to meet their future in-laws, they find out that they are totally and completely loaded. Aside from their lavish digs in Bel-Air, the Mackenzies also spring for a brand new car as a gift for the happy couple. Unfortunately for George, it sort of trumps his measly gift of a cappucino maker:
Throughout the movie George is all about the nickel-and-diming, going so far as to get all giddy when he finds out one of their potential guests is in fact deceased. All the more money to feed those live ones. Rather than reveling in the celebration of this soon-to-be hopefully blessed union, George is horrified to find that for his own family to attend their own wedding at their own house comes with a whopping price tag of $1000. And they want to invite the wedding player? What's next, swans? Oh wait, that part comes later.
George gets a little wacko, going so far as to end up in jail in a mad quest for hot dog buns. He comes out of his wedding-induced insanity long enough to reunite the bride and groom after a quarrel, pleased to still be able to play the hero. We get a cute if admittedly corny montage of Annie throughout the years, and it finally appears George is ready to relinquish the reigns on his daughter.
After all is said and planned and hopefully paid for, the wedding day arrives with a surprise snowstorm in LA. Like there's any other kind of snowstorm in LA. Needless to say, the swans Franck brings in are pretty pissed. Despite the minor hiccups, the whole thing goes off without a hitch and the neurotic overprotective George actually manages to relax long enough to let his daughter get married.
Sure it's all a bit cheesy, but you have to admit overall it's pretty sweet. Somehow in the midst of George's craziness and Franck's eccentricity, things come together and the whole affair is so nice it's worth the $100,000 they spent on it. Well, almost.
Monday, July 13, 2009
Saturday Night Live in the early 90s was a flourishing comedic enterprise. The first season of the decade brought us many new stars including Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, and David Spade. Mixed in a with a group of old pros like Mike Myers, Kevin Nealon, Phil Hartman, and Dana Carvey (oh, I think there were some female cast members as well), the cast had a unique chemistry and produced consistently funny sketches. SNL in the early 90s featured several recurring sketch themes and characters (you can find some of them here). They seemed to adhere to the old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Continue not fixing it for as many years as you can possibly milk a single concept...perhaps longer if necessary."
For the most part, the recurring sketches were pretty funny. To keep them fresh, the show's producers brought in flashy big-name cameos, sometimes to the surprise of the show's staff members. As a side effect of the sketches' enormous popularity, they spurned a generation's worth of annoying new catchphrases. Viewers seemed immune to the notion that things that are funny the first time from the mouth of a talented comedian are notably less funny when some regular joe says them over and over and over again. There are only so many times you could hear some shmoe claiming to be "verklempt" before wanting to spill a hot pot of Linda Richman's coffee all over him.
Though there were many, many humorous sketches during the early 90s, here are just a few of the most well-known and recognizable.
Coffee Talk with Linda Richman
Mike Myers actually based the character of Linda Richman on his mother-in-law, whose name was (wait for it) Linda Richman. I'm sure she was just ecstatic. As if relationships with mother-in-laws weren't tenuous enough, why not add an overblown and ridiculously mocking character based on the M-I-L herself to the mix? Well done, Myers.
Linda Richman hosted a show called "Coffee Talk" (pronouced "Cawfee Tawk" for those of you who don't have any older Jewish female relatives). Linda, full of middle aged New York Jewish wisdom, had huge hair, gaudy gold jewelry, and enormous darkened glasses. If you were to step into any deli in Boca Raton, no doubt you would find a hundred of these Linda Richman look-alikes munching on pastrami on marble rye. Myers' overblown stereotypical portrayal perfected the exaggerated New York accent and captured the essence of the modern Jewish mother.
Richman was famous for her many catchphrases. Whenever she was overcome with emotion, Linda would explain, "I'm getting verklempt." To help pass the time between her verklemptness and recovery, she would usually give us something to chat about. It went a little something like this:
"Rhode Island is neither a road nor is it an island. Discuss.""
"The chickpea is neither a chick nor a pea. Discuss."
"Duran Duran is neither a Duran nor a Duran. Discuss."
Richman and her cohorts occassionally took calls from viewers at home. Linda would announce, "Give a call, we'll talk, no big whoop." Linda Richman was absolutely obsessed with Barbra Streisand, who she frequently described as being "like buttah". Babs actually played a surprise visit to the show in a segment costarring Roseanne Barr and Madonna alongside Myers. Her appearance was planned by producers and kept secret from the actors, who somehow managed to stay in character while experiencing Streisand-induced heart attacks of joy:
Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker
I'm going to come right out and say it: I love Chris Farley. Not everyone is a fan of his shtick, but you have to admit that he knew how to drive a joke home. He consistently gave it his all and had no sense of propriety about going completely insane on camera. As Matt Foley, motivational speaker, Farley hammed it up in a plaid jacket, green tie, and thick glasses, constantly bent in an overly eager leaning-forward position.
Foley's brand of motivation was not particularly positive. In fact, it usually involved Foley speaking disparagingly about his own damned existence in which he was 35 years old, divorced, and living in a VAN DOWN BY THE RIVER. He told his audiences that they too would probably end up living in a VAN DOWN BY THE RIVER, throwing their comments back in their face with a triumphant "la-dee-FREAKIN'-da!" In this first sketch, Farley accidentally tripped and fell flat on his face, which was later turned into the sketch's recurring gag. Watch for David Spade's uncontrollable laughter:
Matt Foley-Motivational Speeker
There was a lot of cross-dressing going on at the Saturday Night Live studio in the 90s. It seemed their theory was that every concept would be funnier if we used our male actors in drag instead of the many females actresses we have on hand. Pure brilliance, I tell you.
Admittedly some of the male cast members made better women than others. For instance, David Spade was moderately passable, whereas Adam Sandler was completely and utterly ridiculous. One of the more popular tranvestital* sketches featured Spade, Sandler, and Farley as the "Gap Girls", a group of ditzy, mall-ratty valley girls who folded jeans at the Gap. They characteristically giggled uncontrollably nails-on-chalkboard style at their own inane jokes. Their jokes were really, truly terrible. Just awful.
Whenever a customer came in with any sort of question, their advice was always the same, "Just cinch it!" as they tightened the belt to eye-bulging proportions. The clip below shows off the characters nicely, though their jokes about Michael Jackson are probably a smidge on the untimely side. If it offends you in anyway, just listen to Adam Sandler's character's counterargument. He (seen here as a "she") directly repeats what s/he heard on CourtTV, so you know it has to be true.
Pumping up with Hans and Franz
Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey played Hans and Franz, two Austrian bodybuilders comically based on then-actor now-governator Arnold Schwarzenagger. On their set of life-size Schwarzenagger cutouts, Hans and Franz dispensed quasi-useful bodybuilding advice that usually consisted of openly mocking their clients and referring to them as "girly men".
Hans and Franz wore trademark grey sweatshirts complete with enormously padded fake muscles. They would issue their bodybuilding expertise with their trademark promise to pump (clap!) you up!
Hans and Franz finally received their comeuppance when the Terminator himself came and flexed a little pre-gubernatorial muscle:
Fake accents were another popular theme of 90s SNL recurring sketches, the vaguer the better. In fact, overblown accented English was nearly enough to pass for a foreign language. As was the case with Adam Sandler's Opera Man, an Italian operatic singer who belted out arias about current events.
Sandler wore a cape and was somewhat Dracula-esque in appearance. Well, technically he reminds me of the Count from Sesame Street, but maybe that's too embarrassing to admit. Then again, I just did, so maybe it's not as shameful as I'd imagined. Opera Man sang loud and ostentatiously in a language that sounded like Italian until you took a look at the subtitles flashing across the screen. In reality, he added a lot of Italian-esque suffixes to English words to make them sound Italiany. This is definitely one of those hit-or-miss ideas that could have crashed and burned into an unstoppable pile of mounting flames, but Sandler's comic timing was well-suited (okay, well-caped) to its silliness.
Dana Carvey's Church Lady character had quite the SNL lifespan, with sketches running from 1986-1992. In the sketches, Carvey played Enid Strict, an uptight, sanctimonious schoolmarm-type who openly chastises the alledged sinning behavior of her celebrity guests. While ordinarily other cast members would play the roles of celebrities, occasionally the celebs themselves would good-naturedly appear on Church Chat for some pious berating.
The Church Lady wore cats-eye glasses and drab knee-high hosiery and displayed a notable amount of bitterness and sarcasm. She was famous for her rhetorical, “Well, isn't that special?” and also for calling out celebrities with the phrase "How conveeeeeeeeeeenient!" For someone so supposedly full of Christian love, she was kind of a bitch.
Yes, the early 90s were a sort of renewed golden age for SNL, with its talented cast and memorable sketches. Sure, the writing wasn't exactly Pulitzer-worthy, but the actors had the comic chops to infuse life into the characters. To this day, we have to wonder what could have been had Chris Farley lived to make the Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker movie. Then again, what do we know? We'll probably just end up living in a VAN DOWN BY THE RIVER.
*This is a made-up word