Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Stars Versus Actors

I just read Peter Bogdanovich's Who The Hell's In It, a collection of pieces on various movie actors, sort of a sequel to his Who The Devil Made It, featuring interviews with directors.  It's not as consistent or insightful as the previous book, but it's worth a look.  Bogdanovich explores, somewhat, the thing about movie stars--the most famous generally aren't remembered simply because they're good actors, but because they seem believable and authentic from picture to picture.

John Wayne is sometimes considered a limited actor, but true or not, does it matter?--on screen, he has a presence that few can match. It took him some time to develop what became known to the public as "John Wayne," but once he did, he was able to deliver regularly (and deepen somewhat) and to this day remains in the public consciousness when actors considered far superior are forgotten.

The same for Cary Grant.  He created an indelible character that gave the audience what it wanted over and over.  He would sometimes do drama, sometimes comedy, but it was still Cary Grant.  Then there are certain stars who perhaps showed a little more range--say James Stewart or Henry Fonda--but they always had a core that showed up on screen.

Not that all stars are this way.  Brando experimented quite a lot--even though it turned out early in his career that the parts that stuck were the earthy character like Stanley Kowalski and Terry Malloy.

If you appreciate what a star is, rather than get caught up in "acting," it can give you a different view of films.  Maybe the best test case is Humphrey Bogart.  It took him a while to establish his screen character, but once he did, he still liked the challenge of non-"Bogart" roles.  And these roles are often celebrated: Fred C. Dobbs in Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, Charlie Allnut in The African Queen (for which he won his only Oscar), Queeg in The Caine Mutiny.  But these aren't the films that made Humphrey Bogart an icon.  It's the Bogart roles that really count--The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, To Have And Have Not, The Big Sleep and a bunch of lesser films where he played variations on what he'd created.  If he only made those films where he was an actor rather than Bogey, how much would we remember him?

Tuesday, August 30, 2016


Gene Wilder has died.  He was an unlikely movie star.  A fine actor with a deftcomic touch, but still not the kind of guy (or the kind of face) you'd think would be earmarked for stardom.

After starting out in the theatre and doing some work on TV, he got his first notable movie role in Bonnie And Clyde (1967), as an undertaker who has a rather nervous ride with the Barrow gang.  It was clear from the start-- here is an original, with his own offbeat comic style.

He was chosen the same year to play one of the leads in Mel Brooks' The Producers.  The film is a comedy classic, thanks in no small part to Wilder's Leo Bloom, the meek accountant who's convinced to join a fraudulent scheme by Broadway producer Max Bialystock, played by Zero Mostel.  While Mostel has the bigger part, in every sense of the word, I think Wilder's quiet yet panicky Bloom steals the show.  The Oscars agreed, and gave him his only acting nomination.

After starring in another cult comedy, Start The Revolution Without Me, and showing some range in the more dramatic Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx, he starred in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.  While not that highly thought of in its day, it's become a children's classic, held together by Wilder's funny yet sinister work--we don't know Wonka's motives until the end, and don't really know if he can be trusted along the way.  It's possible generations hence this will be the part for which he's remembered.

After that he did a Woody Allen comedy, starring in one section of Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask, where he portrays a man who falls in love with a sheep.  While Mel Brooks and Woody Allen were the two top comic filmmakers of the 1970s, this is not one of Woody's better films, and Brooks would use Wilder to better advantage.

After a fairly listless version of Rhinoceros, costarring with his old pal Zero Mostel, Wilder returned to the Brooks' fold with the comic Western Blazing Saddles in 1974.  The role wasn't written for him, but when veteran actor Gig Young wasn't up to the role of the experienced gunslinger, Mel Brooks frantically called the twenty-years younger Wilder to replace him.  Wilder seems so natural (and this was not the sort of part he usually played) that it's hard to believe it wasn't custom-tailored.  The film was a blockbuster, and before the year was out, Brooks and Wilder made another huge hit, the horror parody Young Frankenstein.

This was actually Wilder's project, but Brooks, now a recognized comedy director, was brought aboard.  This time around, Wilder is the clear lead and many would say it's his greatest role.  While he's very funny, he also has to play it straight enough to hold the story together. (Also in 1974 he appeared in a small part in Stanley Donen's The Little Prince, as well as Thursday's Game, a little-seen TV-movie written by James L. Brooks that deserves another look.)

Now a major star, Wilder started writing and directing his own comedies.  The next ten or so years would see The Adventure Of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, The World's Greatest Lover, The Woman In Red and Haunted Honeymoon.  The films aren't bad (except for the last), but they definitely don't compare to his work with Brooks.

While this was happening, he found a new comic partner in Richard Pryor, and they made some hits of their own.  First--and still best--is Silver Streak (directed by the recently-deceased Arthur Hiller).  It's a romance and murder mystery aboard a train, but the real romance is between the duo of Wilder and Pryor.  Their next three films together, Stir CrazySee No Evil, Hear No Evil and Another You, are examples of diminishing returns.

In the midst of all this, Wilder made another gem that's mostly forgotten, The Frisco Kid.  It's a comedy and a Western, but the story is played straight, unlike Blazing Saddles.  Wilder is a rabbi on his way to a synagogue in San Francisco who meets up with tough hombre Harrison Ford.  I wouldn't call it a classic, and it's a bit too long, but worth checking out.

Some of the films he made around this time featured Gilda Radner.  Wilder and Radner became an item in the 1980s, and were married from 1984 until her death in 1989.  Those last few years when she was ill he didn't do much work.  However, when he returned to movies, he wasn't the star he'd been, and before too long, was out of films.

He went on to appear in a number of TV shows and TV movies, and essentially retired from acting in his late 60s.  But there was a time, mostly in the 1970s, when he was the face of Hollywood comedy.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Mad Man

When I was a kid, I loved MAD magazine--as did everyone else I knew.  I sought out the paperback reprints of older issues and that's where I discovered the original MAD, as created by Harvey Kurtzman.  It was wilder, more anarchistic than what I'd seen before. Its parodies of Superman, Archie Comics, Gasoline Alley, Mickey Mouse, Howdy Doody and so many other parts of popular culture evinced a skewed vision of the world, where nothing was what it appeared to be and anything could be mocked.  Kurtzman's work affected me as few other comics did.

Which is why I checked out Bill Schelly's biography Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created MAD And Revolutionized Humor In America.  Quite a claim in that subtitle, but the book substantiates it in its 600+ pages.

Kurtzman was born in Brooklyn in 1924, a child of Russian Jews.  His father died when he was young, and the boy was sent for a period to an orphanage--which may have led to a sense of uncertainty which Harvey never fully shook.  Growing up during the Depression, Kurtzman loved comic strips, and had a talent for drawing.  As a teen he won a scholarship to the High School Of Music And Art, and developed his gift.  There he met others who would be a central to cartooning, such as Will Elder and Al Jaffee.

In the early 40s Kurtzman got a foothold in the comics industry, doing lowly work for little pay. This was interrupted when he was drafted into WWII.  He stayed in America during the war and kept cartooning--for camp newspapers, instruction manuals and the like.  After the war, he started freelancing, taking whatever he could get. He created a one-pager called Hey Look!--used as filler in comic books--which showed a wild imagination and absurdist view of the world.

He married in 1946, and while he had big plans, and talent to match, for years was barely earning a living.  Then, in the late 40s, he met Bill Gaines, publisher at EC (which once stood for Educational Comics but changed to Entertaining Comics).  Gaines saw talent in the quirky artist and used him wherever he could.  Kurtzman started illustrating EC horror titles, but didn't really like the genre.  He moved on to science fiction, and then found his métier in war stories.  Kurtzman started editing two separate war comics, writing most of the material and using the best artists EC had to flesh out his conceptions.

Kurtzman was painstaking, doing lots of research, and creating his own sketches which the artists were required to follow.  He also wrote stories that were much more realistic than other war comics.  Because he worked slower than others, he always needed more money.  MAD was created, if nothing else, as a way to give him a new source of revenue.

It was Harvey's baby all the way--even with the amazing work of artists such as Wallace Wood, Jack Davis and Will Elder to bring his ideas to fruition.  MAD seemed to unleash something in Kurtzman.  It was like nothing else out there (though it would soon be copied by everyone--EC even came up with its own knockoff Panic).  Word of mouth spread, and after a few issues it took off, becoming EC's best seller.  Meanwhile, there was a crusade against violent comics, which just about destroyed every other title Gaines published.  MAD became EC's main source of income.  In addition, it was turned into a magazine and Harvey widened its subject matter, and started accepting contributions from other (often name) writers. 

Harvey asked for more money, and a voting control of stock--a demand it's hard to believe he thought Gaines would accept.  Indeed, Gaines let him go, but Harvey had an ace in the hole.  Hugh Hefner, who'd created the tremendously successful Playboy, told Harvey he'd back him if he left EC.

It looked like Gaines was in trouble.  Harvey was the magazine, and he also poached all the MAD artists. But EC brought in a new editor and MAD continued being a success for decades to come.  Meanwhile, Harvey had problems.  Hefner gave him unlimited time and money--unsurprisingly, Harvey took too long and spent too much.  His new humor magazine, Trump, was wide-ranging, sort of a precursor to National Lampoon.  But as the second issue was going to press, Hefner was having trouble with his line of credit, and canceled the entire project.  Suddenly Harvey was scrambling.

He and other artists from Trump funded a new magazine, Humbug.  Launched in 1957, it was certainly cheaper than Trump, but still had solid content.  However, its format, cost, and somewhat sleazy distributor helped ensure the magazine never quite took off.  It disappeared in 1958.

Harvey, now with a family to feed, did whatever freelance work he could get, landing many pieces in respectable slicks. He also published Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book--long comic stories reminiscent of his work for MAD.

In 1960 he got the backing of a publisher to put out another magazine, Help!.  This one was considerably cheaper than Trump.  For instance, it used a lot of public domain photos with humorous captions.  But Kurtzman added a lot to it, and started doing, for instance, fumetti--series of photographs shot specially for the magazine that told a story.  Help! attracted a lot of names who became big later--Terry Gilliam, Gloria Steinem, Robert Crumb, etc.  It lasted five years, but never was a big moneymaker.

During this time Kurtzman--with friend and collaborator Will Elder--started doing a comic strip in Playboy, "Little Annie Fanny." It ran from 1962 to 1988, and became Harvey's main source of income (say what you want about Hef, he paid well).  But it's far from Kurtzman's best work. For one thing, Hefner micromanaged it.  Worse, while the strip had a satirical slant, putting title character Annie in the middle of cultural movements of the time, its main purpose was sexual titillation.

Kurtzman continued to work on various freelance projects, and more and more was recognized as a master in his field.  A whole generation or two of cartoonists who grew up reading his stuff sought him out.  He worked with many younger collaborators in his later years.  In the 1970s, he also started teaching in New York's School Of Visual Arts, instructing many up-and-comers.

In the late 1970s, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, but kept at it until the end. He died in 1993, but did live to see a revival of interest in his work, with his old material--MAD and otherwise--reprinted to acclaim.  He was generally humble about what he did, but it's good to know he knew that his work would live on.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Name Game

I enjoyed reading It Happened On Broadway: An Oral History Of The Great White Way, even though oral histories are a form a cheating--I'd rather the authors do the full research and write a real book rather than just edit what others say.

But, as I've wondered before, what has happened to editing?  Okay, you've interviewed a bunch of people.  And someone typed up transcripts.  That's not the end of it.  Make sure it's spelled right.  This is an insider book, people will know.

For instance, early on we get a couple mentions of critic "Alexander Wolcott." I believe this is supposed to be Alexander Woollcott.

Later, more than once, we see the name of composer "Aaron Copeland." I'm pretty sure they're referring to Aaron Copland.

By the way, both these names are spelled wrong in the index as well.

But the weirdest of all is the mention of the great Russian opera singer "Shlapin." I have to assume they're referring to Feodor Chaliapin.  But how could anyone make such a mistake in the first place?  When a transcriber hears an unfamiliar name--even if she doesn't want to look it up, and decides to spell it phonetically--the least she can do is make a notation about it so someone will catch it later.  And I don't mean the reader.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Also have bowel movements, and exhale carbon

August Round-Up

Let's enjoy the music of some birthday boys and girl.

Lester Young

Martha Raye

Tommy Sands

Daryl Dragon

Glen Matlock

Friday, August 26, 2016


AP news coverage is frequently ludicrous in its bias against conservatives, Republicans and free market values, and its bias in favor of the antithesis of these things.

So it is all the more remarkable that the organization returned to actual news coverage. Shades of Larry Tribe. There are a few green shoots left in the Tree of Liberty. The smart money is they are merely the cut off remnants, enjoying their last, dwindling moments of life.

But here's hoping God might bless the country yet, and that the tree might still live. It will take efforts like this AP effort to make it so.


John Oliver's weekly HBO show is pretty amusing, though predictable politically.  Many of his comic-yet-serious investigations are very much like (or perhaps based on) articles found at leftist websites like Think Progress or ProPublica. And his solutions tend to be of the "more regulation, more government spending" type.

Sometimes I agree with his basic take, sometimes not, but that he looks at things a certain way is a given.  Which is too bad, since there are plenty of juicy stories he seems blind to, and it would be quite instructive not only for him to investigate these problems, but also to see the reaction of the people who, at present, agree with him on practically everything.

Why bring up Oliver now?  Because of his most recent piece against (or, some would say, hatchet job on) charter schools.  This is a subject libertarians know a lot about, and I know a lot of libertarians, and they seem to be reacting against this piece more negatively than anything else the show has done. (For example, this reaction.)  Of course, some of them have never seen the show, so are surprised to hear what sounds to them like an uninformed rant.

It's not so much that charter schools don't deserve to be put in the spotlight.  It's that all education does.  And I guarantee for every horror story in the charter school system, you can find ten in public schools--horror stories much harder to fix, in fact.  But Oliver seems to be on the side that will defend public schools against any competition. (The same side that often puts their own kids in private schools).

Would it be that bad to question leftist shibboleths on education, John?  To investigate not just the corruption, but how they oppose all sorts of reform that threaten their interests?  After all, when you're done you can always say "if only we spent more money we could solve this problem."

Thursday, August 25, 2016

I wish I'd got my doctorate in that

Prison currency

Bonus: Who doesn't love ramen?

Toots Goodbye

Toots Thielemans has died.  He was the best Belgian harmonica jazz artist ever.  He also played guitar and whistled.  And we had something in common--we shared April 29th as a birthday.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

All in

So I see one orange juice product labeled "100 percent orange juice" and the next, identical in every way, including packaging and supplier, also 100 percent orange juice--PLUS added calcium and vitamin D.

Isn't the second one mathematically impossible? Shouldn't it be something like, oh, I don't know, "More than 99 percent orange juice, plus some stuff we think you'll think is good for you, or at least that will help loosen up your wallet, you tightwad, but neither we nor any competent health care professional have expressed any such opinion, just to be clear about it"?

A Day For Waffling

Happy National Waffle Day.  Not to be confused with Vaffeldagen, Sweden's Waffle Day, which is on March 25.

How do I feel about waffles?  I guess I agree with Mitch Hedberg: waffles are pancakes with syrup traps.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"I was wrong" or "I wuz robbed!"

Ya gotta love Larry Tribe. First the Second Amendment, now the IRS?

What are you trying to do, Larry? Save the country?

It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's The Bouncer

I've just been looking through The League Of Regrettable Superheroes, a book that shows actual superhero comics that didn't quite make it.  Starting in the late 30s there was a craze for superheroes that hasn't abated yet, and as you'd expect there have been plenty of mistakes along the way.  Most of the characters receive a page of description, but to get a feeling for what's offered, you don't need much more than their names:

The Bouncer (doesn't kick you out of bars, he just bounces)


Doctor Hormone (at least he's got a degree)

Doll Man (if Ant-Man isn't wimpy enough for you)

The Eye (yep, just an eye)

Rainbow Boy

Brain Boy

The Straw Man (I guess he's easy to take down)

Zippo (not a lighter, but has wheels on his feet)


Captain Marvel (not the famous one--I bet they got each other's mail)

Dracula (the famous one--as a superhero)


Squirrel-Girl (I'll take Pow-Girl over this one any day)

Brother Voodoo (created in the era of Black Power)

Captain Tootsie (a huckster for Tootsie Rolls)

The Ferret

Killjoy (and his sidekick Buzzkill?)

Maggott (one of the less popular X-Men)

Prez (the first teen President)

Thunder Bunny

Monday, August 22, 2016

Turf wars

Not to step on LAGuy's toes, but I bet this is the only time in history (past and yet to come) that two of the top three box office draws star Jonah Hill.

Tommy's Side

I just read Cheech & Chong: The Unauthorized Autobiography by Tommy Chong. Published in 2008, it's mostly Chong's life up until he and Cheech split up in the 1980s.  It's written in just the style you'd expect from an elder hippie--free-flowing, somewhat nostalgic, and still full of wonder (not to mention poorly edited--lots of repetition, and names spelled wrong: Ned Tanen is "Tanin," James Komack is "Komax"--but hey, it's the spirit of things that count, not the exactitude, dude.)

Chong is known as the second half of the biggest comedy team of the 70s, but he had a lengthy career before teaming up with Richard "Cheech" Marin.  Born in 1938, of Scots-Irish/Chinese stock, he was raised in Calgary.  Like many in his generation, he was excited about rock and roll and R&B, and in the late 50s started working as a guitarist.

People loved his band, originally called The Shades. Canada needed whatever entertainment it could get, and Chong and his group moved to Vancouver and opened up a nightclub.  The group, now called The Vancouvers, was even signed by Motown and opened for The Supremes.  And Tommy got his Green Card, so he was ready to take America by storm.  But he was fired and, in any case, the band didn't make it.

He traveled around, eventually back to Vancouver, where he started an improv troupe.   He'd seen Second City and The Committee and loved comedy--often doing their bits, since he felt humor was meant to be shared.  That's where he met Cheech, who was American-born but living in Canada to avoid the draft.

They worked well together and became a comedy team.  Chong was the hippie stoner and Cheech the Chicano lowrider.  Cheech at first resisted the character, considering it demeaning, but it was so popular he had little choice.

They moved to Los Angeles and Cheech, who'd broken a leg skiing in Canada, was able to get 4-f status, taking care of his worries about the draft. The two scrounged around for a while, performing at various clubs, learning what worked and what didn't.  They were a hit at the Troubadour, and record producer Lou Adler asked to meet them.  They came to his office and he asked what he could do for them.  Chong said Give us a thousand dollars and a tape recorder and we'll make some comedy.  That's how it all started.

They came to the studio to make up material (they used improv to develop their act).  Cheech went outside to come back in for a bit, but the door was locked.  He asked to come back in and Chong pretended he didn't know who he was, and thus their first famous routine, "Dave," was born.

Cheech & Chong were different from other comedy acts.  They were part of the counterculture, but their characters were there from the inside, not commenting from the outside.  And they were more rockers than comics--not only that they played music, but that they had hits that were played on music stations:  "Sister Mary Elephant," "Basketball Jones," "Earache My Eye" and so on.

On the way to stardom, we learn about the women Chong loved, married, had kids with.  And, of course, he talks about his other love affair--with drugs, mainly pot.  Chong is still a big proponent, but he also believes in eating healthfully and is a body builder.

Their first four albums went gold.  Their fifth didn't do as well, and it looked like they might be moving downward in the late 70s, but that's when they turned to Hollywood.  They realized only they could make their own feature--featuring the classic Cheech and Chong characters, it would have a loose structure and they'd have to make up large parts of it as they went along.  They wrote it and got manager Lou Adler to direct it.  The film, Up In Smoke (1978), was a smash. However, Chong and Adler had a falling out over how the film should be done and Adler quit as their manager.

From now on, Chong would direct their films.  They made one a year in the first half of the 1980s.  The films made money, but with diminishing returns.  On top of that Cheech was getting restless--he wanted to prove he was a real actor.  The team split up and Cheech has since played numerous roles in TV and movies, but Chong believes he's "acting" now whereas he was authentic in the duo.

They've done a few things here and there since they split up, but the two (according to Chong) don't seem to get along any more.  Just as well--they were a team of the 70s that conjured up the spirit of the 60s.  That should be enough for anyone.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Friendly Persuasion

I bought my car a few years ago from Galpin Ford, which claims to be the biggest Ford dealer in the world (and I have no reason to doubt them).

But they're way out in the Valley, a bit of a hike from where I live--which means at present, if I need car maintenance, I go to local places.  This doesn't stop Galpin from sending me reminders by email that my car has hit yet another service date.  These communiques are easily enough deleted.

But the most recent one had a title which I don't recall in earlier messages:

This is a Friendly Maintenance Reminder from Galpin Ford

Friendly?  Why would I assume anything they write me isn't?

Does this mean I'm going to get more messages, and they're not going to be so friendly?  What happens next?  Do they inform the authorities?  Do they send out goons?

Do they think just because they're the biggest Ford dealer in the world they can get tough?  This is not the same Galpin Ford that was so eager to sell me a Ford to begin with.  Maybe I'll respond with a less than friendly note telling them to get off my back.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Be His Guest

Today is the 135th birthday of Edgar Guest.  Born in England, he came to America as a child and ended up working at the Detroit Free Press.  He became one of the most popular poets of the early 20th century, and was made Poet Laureate of Michigan.

He was (and is) also sort of a joke--a shallow, sing-songy, clichéd, workmanlike poet that no serious person could like.  As Dorothy Parker put it: "I'd rather flunk my Wassermann test/ Than read a poem by Edgar Guest." (In case you're not sure, a Wassermann test checks for syphilis.)

But hey, he wrote poetry people liked, and many still recite.  How common is that?  Here are some examples of his work, including his most famous work, "Home."

Friday, August 19, 2016


I love lists, which is why I'm going to comment on the otherwise forgettable "20 Best Comedy Movies Of All Time" at Splitsider.

Might as well put the titles in this post:

20. Office Space
19. Clueless
18. Rushmore
17. Anchorman
16. Wayne's World
15. Pee-wee's Big Adventure
14. Ghostbusters
13. Bringing Up Baby
12. The Great Dictator
11. Airplane!
10. The Jerk
9.   Raising Arizona
8.   This Is Spinal Tap
7.   Caddyshack
6.   Annie Hall
5.   Duck Soup
4.   Monty Python And The Holy Grail
3.   Some Like It Hot
2.   Dr. Strangelove
1.   Blazing Saddles

Some decent choices, but even bigger problems.  Rather than go over it film by film, let me give you my theory of comedy versus theirs.

There have been plenty of good comedies throughout the last century of cinema, but certain eras are better than others.  The best decades for comedy are the 1920s--when the great silent stars were at their peak--and the 1930s (and early 40s), when you had many of the best romantic comedies, often in the screwball genre, not to mention clowns like like the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and so on.

Whoever drew up this list, however, thinks the greatest comedies are, for the most part, films of the last generation or two--often poorly put together titles that people watch over and over for certain scenes, like Anchorman or Caddyshack.

Three out of four of their top twenty comedies came out since the 1970s.  More than half since the 1980s.  There's not a single title from the 1920s, and only two from the 1930s.  For that matter, there's one each from the 40s (The Great Dictator--why pick a Chaplin sound film when you've got his silents to choose from?), 50s and 60s.

Even among the more recent stuff, it's hard to understand why some made it while others--Tootsie, There's Something About Mary, even Wedding Crashers or The Hangover--didn't.

Really, it's a list best forgotten, so this will be the last time I ever talk about it.

Thursday, August 18, 2016


Director Arthur Hiller has died.  When I read the headline, I had a sense of deja vu--because I saw the same thing ten years ago in a local paper but they had made a horrible mistake, since they were referring to the death of noted actor Arthur Hill.

Hiller, while not generally a critical favorite, was a major Hollywood director with a long and notable career.  Born in Canada, he became a top TV director (for American television) starting in the 1950s.  He signed his name to over 100 episodes of such titles as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Gunsmoke and Route 66.

He worked his way into movies, generally doing middling comedies like The Wheeler Dealers, Promise Her Anything and Penelope, which are mostly forgotten today, but still occasionally pop up on TV.  But one film from his early period, The Americanization Of Emily, is still talked about.  It's a fairly dark comedy about WWII, written by Paddy Chayefsky, starring James Garner and Julie Andrews.  I can't say I'm a fan, but it shows that Hiller could handle tougher material.

In the late 60s, he directed The Tiger Makes Out--a weak adaptation by Murray Schisgal of his own play, but of interest if for no other reason that it's Dustin Hoffman's first film appearance.  That was followed by Popi, a reasonably touching film starring Alan Arkin as a single Puerto Rican father of two boys. Then came The Out Of Towners, an original screenplay by Neil Simon, where Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis have a horrible trip to New York.  Some people are fans of this film, but the protagonists are made so miserable I can't enjoy it.

Then Hiller hit it big.  Directing a screenplay by Erich Segal (which he'd already turned into a hit novel), Love Story became the biggest hit of 1970.  While the plot is a bit over the top, the film delivers what it promises, and Arthur Hiller took what could have been a nothing and made it work.  The film got him his one and only Oscar nomination for Best Director.

Hiller was now a major director.  He made The Hospital in 1971, starring recent Oscar-winner (and Oscar-refuser) George C. Scott.  It's a Paddy Chayefsky script about health care in America.  Once again, some consider it a classic, but I don't go for it.

Hiller average about a film a year during this period, and in 1976 had another huge hit with Silver Streak, which teamed up Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor.  Sorry to say, I'm not a big fan.

So why am I dong a tribute if I don't think that much of his stuff?  Because in 1979, he came out with a comedy classic, The In-Laws, starring Peter Falk and Alan Arkin.  If you're as good as your best film, then Hiller is pretty darn good.

In 1982, he made the controversial Making Love--one of Hollywood's first films to deal directly with homosexuality. I've only seen it once, but my guess is it doesn't hold up too well.

He continued turning them out in the 80s, mostly comedies, such as Author! Author!, The Lonely Guy and, most notably, Outrageous Fortune, a decent comedy (and a hit) starring Bette Midler and Shelley Long.

Hiller worked less in the 90s and his films did less well (those two often go together).  He all but retired about twenty years ago, only coming back to make the forgettable Pucked in 2006.

There's another reason I'm writing about Hiller--I knew him.  Hope I didn't bury the lead.  When I first came out to Los Angeles, I had a contact with him and he very graciously invited me to meet him in his Beverly Hills home.  We talked for an hour about the business and he explained how tough it could be--he didn't think he'd make it if he were starting today (though perhaps he was being modest). I showed him a script I'd written.  He passed it on to his daughter, Erica, a fledgling producer, and she optioned it--it was the first money I made out here.

One thing I'm glad of--I got to tell him how much I loved The In-Laws. He told me he got more comments about that film than any other.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Congress receives FBI notes from Clinton interview

The Man Who Started It All

There are so many shows on TV where a panel shouts at each other about politics that you can barely count 'em. But in the days before widespread cable and 24-hour news channels, the man to watch was John McLaughlin, whose McLaughlin Group essentially created the form and also set the gold standard.

His show started lurching into the truth in 1982 and continued up until he died.  So let's say goodbye to John.


Flashy chess players are more fun.  People like Tal or Fischer or Polgar, who make shocking sacrifices and relentless attacks, are exciting to watch.  But today, on the 105th birthday of Mikhail Botvinnik, we remind ourselves that careful position players not only have their place, but are often the best in the world.

Botvinnik was one of the top chess players for 30 years, from 1933 to 1963, and in 13 of those last 15 years was undisputed world champion of chess.  He's generally ranked in the top five or ten players of all time.  And while he liked closed games without wild tactical strikes, he could still surprise, being an all-around sort of player.

But why talk about it when you can show it?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

I love my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth once in awhile

. . . to what extent love and intimacy can be experienced between a human and a robot . . .

I think I'm looking for a "not equals" sign here.


Last week I had jury duty. Spoiler--I was not picked to be on a jury.  Still, I had to wake up very early (for me), drive downtown, be in a specific place for the whole workday and wait to see if I got an assignment. (It used to be easy to get out of jury duty, but when Los Angeles adopted the "one day, one case" rule they no longer allowed most excuses, and thus--I'm told--it's not unusual for the occasional Tom Hanks or Jack Nicholson to be in the jury pool.)

Every April 15th we're reminded of the long arm of government reaching into our pockets, but jury duty reminds you that they can also take you physically and decide what you should be doing for a day or longer.

Not that I'm complaining (exactly).  Certainly it's nothing next to the draft, which we no longer have (though many politicians long to return to it in one form or another--don't vote for these people).  And it's certainly not an onerous duty.  In fact, if you have nothing else to do, jury duty can be pretty stimulating.  It's even a power trip for some, if they've got the wrong attitude.

Still, no one I know looks forward to it.  I got my summons about a month ago and it is like getting a (mini-) draft notice.  You're told what week you have to serve. You call in the night before to see if you have to come in the next day.  I was hoping to be called early in the week so I could get it over with, rather than have it hang over my head.

So I phoned to check on Monday.  Not called.  Then I didn't have to come in on Tuesday.  Or Wednesday.  At this point my strategy changed.  There's no guarantee you'll be called to serve, so with only two days left I'm hoping I may not have to go in at all.

I check for Thursday and, once again, they don't need me.  Excellent. Just one more day.  I can smell my freedom.  So I call in Thursday night and...well, I've already given away the punch line.  Not only did they burst my balloon, they picked the worst day possible--in my mind I'd already given up the week, so if I came in Monday and Tuesday and caught a case, I still might be out by the end of the week.  But if I'm put on a jury on Friday, that means a whole 'nother week is gone.

Once I was in the jury room, the process was pretty nerve-wracking.  Each time the PA announced a bunch of names, I felt queasy.  Turns out I wasn't even sent to a courtroom.  That's only the beginning, of course, since there might be a plea or settlement just before the jury is chosen (not uncommon, since that's when people realize how serious the situation is) and, of course, you might be kicked out during voir dire (though they seem to have changed how things are done so that fewer people are rejected than they used to).

When, late in the day, they announced we were free to go, it felt like being a kid at the end of the school year. 

Just a couple questions, though.  First, I understand trial by jury is a right citizens of the U.S. enjoy.  But we've got an all-volunteer army.  Would it be that hard to have all-volunteer juries?

Second, I've heard peace officers aren't required to serve on juries.  I also seem to recall there was a time attorneys--officers of the court--weren't put on juries.  As a lawyer myself, I think it's time we return to this noble tradition.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Perfectly Frank

I was looking at a collection of Frank Jacobs' work.  He was a regular at MAD magazine for decades, and is best known for his verse and song parodies.  Deservedly so.  He may be the best writer of light verse of the past few decades. (There's not as much competition as there used to be, but still.)

Just a couple things about what he's done.

First, American law (other law, too, I suppose, but I only studied American law) is sometimes tricky when it comes to parody.  In the 1950s, Jack Benny was sued by MGM for his takeoff on Gaslight, which the company claimed was too close to the original.  MGM won, and a lot of parodists were scared.  Since then, however, most cases have come down on the side of satire.  If they hadn't, MAD as we understand it would have been impossible.

One of Jacobs' specialties was writing lyrics to be sung to famous tunes.  This got MAD in trouble in the 1960s when he wrote "Blue Cross," to be sung to Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies." Berlin was highly protective of his work and sued.  It's an odd case, when you think of it.  All Jacobs did was write some words.  No one reproduced a note of Berlin's work--the magazine merely suggested you might think of that tune while you read this new verse.  It's a bit like a chef suing you for theft because you asked someone to imagine his superior fare while eating your TV dinner.

Anyway, the courts found for MAD and today we live in a world where "Weird Al" Yankovic roams free.  Thank you, Frank.

Second, the reason Jacobs was a master, in addition to his wit and imagination, was his strict construction.  He hewed to the exact meter of the original compositions, and never used false rhymes.  Perhaps that doesn't sound like a big deal, but not only is it hard work, it's all but a lost art form.

From the start Jacobs parodied show tunes, generally from Broadway musicals, because they followed these old rules.  Once rock started taking over, where you don't have to have proper rhyming, and meter is whatever you make it, parody may be easier to pull off, but loses some of its impact.  This is why Jacobs, even in later years, generally stuck to older songs.  And also, perhaps, why we'll never see another quite like him.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Lightning Strikes Twice

What are the odds that someone would be instrumental in popularizing two separate phrases?  But that seems to be happening to an old acquaintance of mine, Jon Hein.

Hein is probably best known as being one of the first people to say "jump the shark" and then make it big by starting a website devoted to the concept.  The phrase has become part of common parlance.

Since then, he's become a regular on the Howard Stern radio show, and as such, is the subject of a new phrase--"Hit 'Em With The Hein!"--even if he isn't necessarily thrilled with it.

What does it mean? I'm not sure, but here's an attempt to explain:

It seems to be catching on.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

An August Day

Some interesting birthdays today (like every day of the year).

For instance...

Bert Lahr

Alfred Hitchcock

George Shearing

Fidel Castro

Don Ho

Friday, August 12, 2016

Say What?

I recently saw Don't Think Twice, a movie about what happens to an improv troupe when one of them hits it big.  Early on, the film tries to explain the rules of improv, rule #1 being "Say Yes."

This means don't deny the reality of another performer.  If someone comes into a bank scene and says "stick 'em up, I've got a gun," you don't say "that's not a gun, that's a fish." If someone hugs you and says "I can't wait till we're married" you don't say "I've never met you before, go away." (Improv people act as if this is a sacred rule. Maybe so, but Alan Arkin in his memoir explains in the early days of Second City the main reason they came up with it was simply because so many people kept disagreeing on stage.)

I've noted before I'm not a fan of improv, and "Say Yes" is why.  When you're writing something, you come up with lots of ideas--most of them bad, or not good enough, and thus discarded. But in improv, because of "Say Yes," new ideas, no matter how weak, no matter how much they move in the wrong direction, must be accepted. The "entertainment" then is often watching the cast thinking up ingenious ways to bring everything together--even though in a well-written piece it wouldn't have happened to begin with. (And that's in good improv.)

Improv has a great reputation--people are dazzled by stuff made up on the spot, and also feel they're participating in its creation.  But what makes it dazzling tends also to make it shallow.

I'm not against improv as an acting exercise, or as a way to develop sketches (where you get to experiment, discarding what doesn't works and keeping what does--you know, like writing).  But as a form of entertainment, I wish the audience would learn to Say No.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

All Of Paul or When I'm 74

I just read Philip Norman's life of Paul McCartney.  Norman has been writing about the Beatles for some time, not even including his years as a journalist in the 60s.  He wrote a solid book on the band 35 years ago (written before, but being sold just after John Lennon was shot).  In 2009 he wrote a bio of John Lennon.

Perhaps it figures he'd get to Paul eventually, though there was trouble along the way.  Even before the Lennon book, he'd generally favored John over Paul, and it seemed Paul was not a fan.  Eventually, though, McCartney and Norman had a rapprochement (even though this is not an authorized biography).

Still, for anyone writing about McCartney, there's a big problem.  Paul is best known for his years as a Beatle, and most would say he did his best work then.  Yet when the Beatles broke up, he was only 27.  He's now 74.  So how much does a writer devote to the Beatles career, and how much to post-Beatles stuff?  It's not as if Paul did nothing after the Beatles--as a solo artist he was, in fact, one of the most popular stars in the world, with numerous #1 albums and singles.

So, before I read the book, I paged through to see where the band breaks up.  It happens (by my reading) on page 425.  The entire book, including index, is 853 pages.  So Norman split it down the middle.

That sounds about right.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


Today is National Lazy Day, so why should I write anything?

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Assuming a fact not in evidence

There's a null set if ever there was one.

Future History

At the library I recently picked up Dead Heat: The Race Against The Greenhouse Effect, by Michael Oppenheimer and Robert H. Boyle, published in 1990.

The first chapter is the most interesting.  It's written from the point of view of 2050, if we don't do enough to stop the upcoming catastrophe.  The authors understand that no scenario can perfectly portray the future, but they do explain what they write is all too plausible, "distilled from scientific understanding" and based on a "business-as-usual" scenario.  Here's a sample:

It turns out "[a]ll debate about global warming ended in 1998 after a four-year drought desolated the heartlands of North America and Eurasia."  Family farming ended.  Some went up north to farm, and cities like Duluth and Edmonton bulged with people while the Great Plains became filled with ghost towns.

America and Canada also suffered from "black blizzards" starting in 1996, with prairie topsoil darkening the skies.  American grain reserves hit zero. When "the Indian monsoon failed in 2005, no one could help avoid the famine." (Russian wheat went to help the starving Ukraine.)

Forest death hit the East Coast, and by 2010 the red spruce disappeared from Vermont.  There was regular fire and smoke from New England to Pennsylvania. 

"In 1993 and 1996, heat waves struck the Southeast, cutting corn and soybean production by 50 percent." "By 2015, more than 30 percent of southeastern farmland had been abandoned." Crime and drug use skyrocketed in the South.

Starting in 1997, there was the first in a series of "super hurricanes" in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, creating a tidal wave that drowned 22,000 people in the Florida Keys.  (In comparison, Hurricane Katrina killed less than 2000.)

In 2004, a "dome of fetid air" stretched along the East Coast, and water was rationed in New York.  "Smoke from dying forests" "stung eyes and throats."  All the damage caused rioting.

In 2007, shrinkage of the ice pack caused mass die-offs of various animals as the effect--starting with algae that grows on the pack ice--worked its way up the food chain.

So there you have it.

Monday, August 08, 2016

To Err

I often notice mistakes in books.  I wish I didn't. It distracts from the reading experience and also makes you wonder if you can rely on the material you know less about.  Here are a couple recent examples.

--In a book about cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman, it's noted growing up he was a big fan of the Marx Brothers.  Their five Paramount films are listed, including "Coconuts."  Except the film is titled The Cocoanuts.  An understandable error, since the word is rarely spelled with an "a" these days, but still it gives one pause.

--In a book on director Blake Edwards, it's noted he and Peter Sellers got back together after their successful Pink Panther films to make The Party in 1968, since both were on losing streaks.  What's the author's evidence that Sellers career was in trouble?  He lists What's New Pussycat? and Casino Royale.  But What's New Pussycat? was a huge hit, one of the biggest comedies of 1965.  And Casino Royale, though a huge mess that Sellers walked out on, was a big hit in 1967.  So why would the author give these two titles as examples of Sellers failing career?

Of course, there is a pattern.  The authors, presumably, spent a lot of time researching their subject, but a lot less on tangential issues--Marx Brothers titles in a Kurtzman bio or Seller's non-Blake Edwards films in an Edwards bio.  It may be no excuse, but it's an explanation.

Still, someone should have caught them.  Isn't this what editors are for?

Sunday, August 07, 2016

A great American

When I became a movie actor and became well-known, it took care of itself. Maybe that's why I became an actor.

Truer words, truer words. 

In For A Penny

The first Lincoln penny was struck on August 7 in 1909.  Lately, people have been suggesting we get rid of the penny, since it actually costs more to make it than it's worth.  People leaves pennies (and nickels, dimes, even quarters) near the cash register because they're worth so little.  And they won't bend down to pick one up.

The anti-penny movement has a point.  In a world where a dime won't buy you anything, what's a penny?  We used to have mills worth one-tenth of a penny and they're long gone.  It may be nice if inflation didn't do this, but it has, so that's that.  (I suppose some people think inflation is a good thing.  If nothing else, it's made more millionaires than oil, automobiles and computers combined.)

At the other end, though, there is the creeping worry that we're getting rid of money altogether.  The biggest denomination available in the U.S. is the $100.  Used to be considerably higher.  Some are suggesting it go down to the $20.  This is, I've heard, both to stop counterfeiting and make illegal activity like drug trafficking harder.  It also makes losing money, or being robbed, harder (in some ways--easier in other ways).

But if we get rid of money, and make everything in our economy based on electronic transfers, that means that nothing we do can escape the notice of governmental bodies.  Good, they might say--you can't cheat.  But what about little things? Playing poker.  Leaving a tip.  Babysitting.  A yard sale.  Lending or receiving a few bucks from a friend.  Spending an evening in a motel where you want to be alone.

American citizens are required to report their income, that I understand.  But we're not required to report our lives.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Fifteen More Minutes

Happy birthday, Andy Warhol.  Born 88 years ago, he died in 1987 (some say he was never the same after being shot in 1968).

Friday, August 05, 2016

Good move. Sigh.

As much as one wants to see Ryan get Cantored, it's probably not going to happen. So, while I'm sorry to see Trump endorse him, it's a good move. Dammit.

But how much more fun it would be if he endorsed the other guy, and the other guy won.

Two Americas and the gap between

Regardless, Americans should still floss.

I Will Not Abide Another Toe

Before we forget, let's say goodbye to David Huddleston, who died last week.  He was one of those character actors who appeared in numerous TV shows and movies, always doing good work, yet would be unknown to most if he hadn't appeared in one cult movie.  That's how it goes sometimes.

Huddleston started appearing in TV in the early 60s, and soon after, movies.  He generally played in drama, though could also do comedy.  He also got to be known as a heavy--one of his breakthrough roles was as Big Joe in Bad Company (1972), where he plays the leader of a band of thugs who makes life miserable for Jeff Bridges' character.

A couple years later, he got a lot of attention for his town leader Olson Johnson in Blazing Saddles.

By 1979, he was playing the lead role in the Hizzoner, a series about a small-town mayor, but the show didn't fly.  In 1985, he got the title role in Santa Claus: The Movie, but the big-budget film flopped.

In the early 1990s he had a recurring role on The Wonder Years as Grandpa Arnold.  But it wasn't until 1998 that he lucked into the role he'll be remembered for.

The Coen Brothers had just made Fargo, the crime thriller that was their most-honored film as well as their biggest hit.  Next they decided to do The Big Lebowski, a shaggy dog comedy about a washed-up hippie.  When it hit theatres in 1998, the critics shrugged.  What was this, anyway?  The audience didn't know what to make of it, either.

But after its run, word started to spread.  It grew into one of the biggest cult films of all, with enough lines being quoted that you could probably reconstruct the screenplay.  It even became a way of life.  And amidst all the inspired character work in the movie, Huddleston gets to play the Big Lebowski himself.

No matter what else he'd do for the rest of his career--and he went on to plenty more roles in movies and TV as well as Broadway--his fame was assured.

The bums lost, but David Huddleston won.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Math is hard

"News organizations might well say, in effect, “We’ve found that these are the 10 issues voters care about most, but the candidates aren’t talking about five of them.” Or they might boil down the core elements from 30 campaign-trail stories into an easily digestible list or informational graphic. And they need to find these voters where they are — for example, on Facebook or Instagram."

Whatever the issue is, she's not clear on it. Regardless of fiber content, infograph genius or instagram followers (take that, Oxford Comma), she will never digest it.


Louis Armstrong claimed he was born on July 4th, 1900.  Actually, it was August 4, 1901, which makes this his 115th birthday.  So let's enjoy one of the great artists of the 20th century.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016


So, which image springs from the more demented mind?

I'd say the one on the right. The one on the left just shows good taste.

And as to this, I don't know what they mean by "micro." Looks at least average to me.


Here are two recent pieces on overrated TV shows.  One list has:

Friends, Lost, The West Wing, Family Guy, The Walking Dead, The Big Bang Theory, Glee

The other has:

Friends, Seinfeld, Mad Men, The West Wing, Lost, This Is England (it's a British list), Downton Abbey, Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, Arrrested Development

Without going into detail on each show, these lists do raise the question what does overrated mean when it comes to TV.

For one thing, you've got to pick on shows that are highly though of.  No one's listing reality shows, because no one thinks that much of them, even if they get ratings.  For that matter, lots of hit shows, like NCIS, don't make the list because no one is making major claims for them.  So even getting on such a list is a compliment, in a way.

Second, a TV show happens over several years, which can be of varying quality.  So when you rate them, do you include the worst years, or judge it by its best episodes.  A show like Mad Men was original and powerful at its best, but went on too long (even if it rallied near the end). Most Lost fans believe the final season, and especially the finale, was weak, but does that mean the whole show was a mistake?  (I don't think so, though with a show such as Lost, that has all sorts of secrets, if the final reveal doesn't work, there's an argument it retroactively hurts the entire show.)

Then there are shows that started great but ran out of steam, sometimes early on.  I think that applies to Battlestar Galactica and Downton Abbey.  So should we look back fondly at the exciting beginning, or bemoan how they never did as much as they could with the premise?

Then there's politics.  If there's too much, or they're too explicit, you sometimes want to run for cover.   And old political arguments can date.  This is arguably the problem with shows like The West Wing (though if any show is allowed to be political, it's this one) and Glee.

Then there's comedy. Does it date?  If it's tied to an era, does it not play as well later.  I would say no, in general, but some people think Friends and even Seinfeld, because they're no longer fresh, aren't as funny.

For that matter, comedy, no matter how funny or original, can grow stale after 100 or 200 episodes. Has this happened to The Big Bang TheoryFamily Guy? (It's definitely happened to The Simpsons, which, oddly, is not on either list.)

Finally, why is The Walking Dead on both lists. It's tremendously popular, but does anyone really think it's that great to begin with?

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

What love looks like

The professionals:

BUCKLEY:  Rush Limbaugh is by everyone's reckoning a phenomenon, the most spectacular media success of recent years.  His preeminent medium is a culture almost ignored by American critics, even the most beady-eyed, because it's assumed that nobody who really counts spends time listening to people talk over the radio.  We should have taken more seriously the polls that for a couple of decades have told us that one-third of the American people get all their news from radio.

It is news that Rush Limbaugh sets out to give, though he could not  perform as he does without reading scores of daily newspapers and weekly magazines he chews up.  His medium is opinion.  Advise him that the moon yesterday was caught blinking at the sun, and he will run that through his cosmology and come up with a meaning for it all.  And, if the episode was good news, responsibility for that good news would be the Founding Fathers or Ronald Reagan or Clarence Thomas.
If it was bad news, probably it was Teddy Kennedy or the National Organization for Women or the American Civil Liberties Union that is responsible for that frolic.  What astonishes is that no one is surprised and only the humorless are really offended.  In this sense, it's fair to say, I suppose, that he gets away with his scams as no one since Norman Lear got away with his in his series All in the Family, done at the expense of every conservative position ever held and glorious entertainment it was.

Rush Limbaugh was born to a family of lawyers, fooled around doing this and that for a while, decided not to sell potato chips for a living, went to Sacramento as a deejay, then came to New York City a few years ago.  Veni, vidi, vici, it is said about Julius Caesar; he came, he saw, and he conquered.

RUSH:  William F. Buckley Jr. intro'ing on Firing Line.  Nobody like him.  Nobody like him.  We did that show in the drawing room of his maisonette on 73rd and Park, and I don't believe he had a prompter.  There was not a prompter in there.  I think that was all off the top of his head.

Crime Doesn't Pay Too Well

I recently saw The Steel Trap, a 1952 film noir starring Joseph Cotten (my auto-correct keeps changing his name to "Cotton") and Teresa Wright.  It's no classic, but something about it surprised me.

The plot (the statute of limitation on spoilers has got to be under half a century) is pretty simple.  Cotten, an assistant bank manager, sees a way to steal a million dollars cash from the vault--and this was when a million could take care of you and your family for the rest of you life.

He steals the money but has trouble completing the rest of the mission, which is to fly off to Brazil--which has no extradition treaty--with his wife.  They're always just behind time, and always getting delayed.  Considering airport security today, it's pretty amazing what he gets away with.  At one point, customs checks his luggage and sees there's a million in it, but let's him go anyway.

But that's not what surprised me.

It's the ending.  His wife finds out about his plan.  She won't stand for it and returns home.  Cotton thinks about it and decides to come home, too, putting the money back in the vault before anyone finds out.  The End.

This came out when Hollywood was still ruled by the Production Code, and the number one rule is crime doesn't pay.  Yet Cotten gets away with it. Okay, he doesn't make any money, but he definitely committed a crime.  He took the money from the vault and if his plane hadn't been delayed he'd be in Brazil right now.

Sure, his returning the money shows he's doing the right thing, but it's still a crime.  There is the affirmative defense of abandonment, but I don't think you're allowed to abandon the crime after you've completed it and then some.

At the end, I expected him to confess what he did to his boss, or the cops, whom we can assume will be lenient since he did the right thing.  But nope, he gets away scot free.  Were the censors sleeping?

Monday, August 01, 2016

Do they offer Hillary coverage?

AIG Offers Brexit Coverage in UK for Anxious Executives

"AIG’s Brexit cover amounts to planning for worst-case scenarios"

Well, that's all I've ever wanted, besides a dedicated revenue stream.

Swingin Party

I just read Trouble Boys: The True Story Of The Replacements by Bob Mehr.  It's an in-depth look (450+ pages) at maybe the best band of the 80s, and probably the most screwed-up.  Though they were never as big as they deserved, the Replacements still live on as an inspiration, and perhaps a warning.  They at least deserve a book such as Mehr's to tell their story.

All four band members--Paul Westerberg, Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars--grew up with problems.  Especially Bob, whose father abused him.  Yet they were pretty different: Paul, the perverse front man who was actually an introvert; unrestrained Bob; young scamp Tommy (and I mean young--he was 12 when the band started and 14 when they made their first album); and Chris, the quiet one with a separate artistic bent.  But what they had in common was a love of music and, generally, nowhere else to go.  If they hadn't formed the Replacements, it was likely a life of manual labor or perhaps prison.

Bob, little brother Tommy and Chris Mars were in the band Dogbreath when Paul entered their life.  He'd been playing in other groups but saw something in them and thought they'd work well together.  He joined and soon forced out a guitarist and two singers, and became the group's sole songwriter and lead singer.  Bob had always thought it was his band, and it took him years to realize Paul had taken over.

It was the late 70s and there wasn't much of a musical scene around Minneapolis, but they'd soon help change that.  They called themselves the Impediments, but screwed up one gig so bad (a recurring theme in the book) that they changed their name so no one would know who they were.

They were tough to get along with, and rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but throughout their story there were people who fell in love with their music and would do anything for them.  A good thing, since they were the types who needed help.  One of the first acolytes, and probably the most important, was Peter Jesperson, a local tastemaker. He managed the big local record store, and also helped operate the newly-formed label Twin/Tone Records.  He got a demo of the Replacements and from that point on worked tirelessly to promote them, getting them gigs and a recording contract, as well as becoming their manager (though he'd be fired unceremoniously several years down the road--the Replacements were not sentimental).

Their first album, released in 1981, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, showed them as the wild, exciting, punkish band they were.  That was followed by the delightful 8-song EP Stink, where they got as hardcore as they would ever get.

Paul was growing more mature as a songwriter, and their 1983 album Hootenanny showed a new sophistication.  Some fans felt they'd sold out, but that's always the danger of change.  Then, in 1984, came their masterpiece, Let It Be.  The book explains the title--the band was driving around and decided they'd name their album after the next song they heard on the radio.  Let It Be showed the full range of what the band could do, and songs like "I Will Dare," "Androgynous," "Unsatisfied," "Sixteen Blue" and even something like "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out" put Westerberg at the top rank of songwriters.

The band was getting attention from the majors.  What the big labels found, however, was a bunch of screw-ups--a more accurate name for the band would have been the Functional Alcoholics.  As often as not, they blew their gigs either by being too out of it or by refusing the give the audience what it wanted.  And in person, they had a bad attitude, practically daring the suits not to sign them.

Eventually, they signed with Sire Records, distributed by Warner Brothers.  Sire had a roster that included bands like the Ramones and Talking Heads.  The Replacements, if they fit anywhere, fit here.

The next two albums they made, Tim (1985) and Pleased To Meet Me (1987), showed the boys hadn't lost it, and certainly hadn't sold out--they're probably the band's best after Let It Be.  But these releases didn't climb the charts as hoped.  The band had an intense following, but couldn't break out with a hit single--though you'd think songs like "Kiss Me On The Bus," "Bastards Of Young," "Alex Chilton" or "Can't Hardly Wait" should have done the trick.

Truth is, the band bears a lot of the responsibility for their failure.  The book becomes a depressing read after a while, as they blow one big chance after another.  They refuse to make videos in the age of MTV (at least videos anyone would want to show).  They're aggressive and unpleasant when they meet people who could push their music.  They do an appearance on Saturday Night Live where they get drunk and swear on air, and end up getting banned from national TV for the next few years.  And the screw up every big gig where important people are around (and then do great shows when it doesn't count).

During this period, it was becoming more and more obvious that Bob couldn't hack it.  He'd always been the biggest drinker and the hardest to deal with, and by the time of Tim was barely in the studio when they recorded.  The book talks about one watershed moment when they played a gig in Ann Arbor.  Bob didn't show and so the band went on without him.  Bob was drinking at a nearby bar, so the band invited audience members to come up and play his guitar.  Bob appeared after a few songs and the audience cheered, but Paul said "you should be booing him." I remember--I was there.

So the band--including brother Tommy--fired Bob in 1986.  Bob wasn't only an addict, he also had serious mental problems.  He abused himself so much that he died of organ failure in 1995, only 35 years old.  He had never enjoyed the Replacement's growing success--he probably would have preferred they remain a local group.  He also resisted how they changed--in fact, he'd often reject songs that Paul would bring to the band.  Ultimately, it's hard to blame his death on being fired--he was messed up with the band, and messed up without them.

The Replacements hired Slim Dunlap in Bob's place and recorded their next album, Don't Tell A Soul, which was released in 1989.  This was their last shot at stardom, and it fell just short.  The single, "I'll Be You" (which even had a regular video) got some traction, but the album stalled and only sold 300,000 copies--their biggest seller, but not enough.

Their next album, All Shook Down, is the Replacements in name only--it's more a Paul Westerberg solo project with the band members sometimes backing him. It was released under the band name for commercial reasons.  A fine album, but it didn't sell well.

Westerberg was almost thirty and ready to move on. He even stopped drinking.  He made some cutting remarks about drummer Chris Mars in print, who then quit the band. But they were on their last legs anyway.  They slogged through a bit more touring before they did their final gig in Chicago in 1981.  The big split was between Paul and Tommy, who had been the heart and soul of the Replacements for some time.

They all went on to various projects (musical and otherwise).  Westerberg put out solo albums every few years, but they didn't sell as well as the Replacements.  He also placed a song--"Dyslexic Heart"--on the 1992 soundtrack to the move Singles.  This was during the grunge explosion, and the album sold millions, so Paul at least knew what it felt like to be multi-platinum.  Though he and the band must have wondered how the Replacements would have fared in the Nirvana era.

In 2012, Slim Dunlap suffered a stroke.  Paul and Tommy got together to record an EP, Songs For Slim, to raise money.  They toured on and off for a few years, though appear to have broken up again--but who knows, we may get another Replacements album yet.

No matter what the future holds, we know what they gave us in the past.  And that can't be matched.

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