10.11.05

Take Three Stooges and call me in the morning…


There was a story going around a few years back about someone who was dying of an incurable disease and given little to no chance for survival. Instead of getting high on prescription morphine or Demerol and living his last few months in a medicated fog, this person decided to fight with the best medicine of all—laughter. (Although when you’re trying to push a kidney stone the size of a raisin out of your penis, there’s nothing better than a big hypodermic needle full of Demerol to take your mind off your problems.) The story claims that after weeks of watching tapes of the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers, the dude’s cancer went into remission and he’s alive and well and selling homeowners insurance in Tulsa.

I don’t know if the story of this cure is true, but I do know that certain activities like intensive exercise, exposure to sunlight, and even petting a kitten or a puppy can trigger the body to act in a certain way. It causes the blood to flow more rapidly throughout the body, and it even releases certain elements like endorphins, oxymorons, and midoclorians into the bloodstream.

I don’t know the physiological effects, but after a hearty extended laugh I feel really good. (Unless it’s one of those cases where you find yourself laughing so hard that you don’t think you could stop. You just keep laughing harder and harder until you think you’re going to pop a blood vessel in your brain.)

One day, if I ever come down with a nasty case of toenail fungus or get a really bad canker sore on my lip, I’ll sit down and watch a few hours of the Benny Hill Show and see what happens.

Of course if I ever diagnosed with something really, really horrible, like the brittle bone disease that Samuel L. Jackson’s character had in the movie Unbreakable, or some form of cancer, I would immediately pull out he big guns in my home treatment arsenal.

My treatment would involve repeated viewings of the Will Ferrell film ‘Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy’. In fact, I’d probably have it looped and playing on at least one television set around the clock. I’m not here to say that Anchorman is a perfect film. It’s not. It has one major flaw; it’s too short by nine or ten hours.

Will Ferrell is a young man and I’m sure he’s going to make a bunch more movies before he retires, but as of this writing Anchorman is the jewel in his crown. His performance is letter perfect. The writing and direction are both top-notch, provided by long time Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay. (I haven’t seen it yet, but rumor has it that McKay punched up some of Ferrell’s scenes and dialogue in Bewitched.)

The supporting cast draws from the stable of today’s funniest actors and comedians. Many of them have starred in or been featured in other films that would be in my ‘cured by comedy’ festival. They include: Steve Carell, Fred Willard, Chris Parnell, Tim Robbins, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Jack Black. Paul Rudd and Christine Applegate are not two people who I would have necessarily cast in a comedy of this type, but they both knock it out of the park, along with the rest of the cast.

A major part of the appeal of this movie is that everyone on the screen sells it. There are no sly winks at the camera, letting us know that the actors are in on the gag. Most of the characters are clueless idiots, and the actors are confident enough to play them exactly that way. It’s the same factor that made Ben Stiller’s ‘Zoolander’ such a joy. When performances are unflinching we don’t feel the need to question them, and that means the scenes and dialogue get to take a direct path into our brains.

I’ve always believed that sincerity = comedy. Early in his career Steve Martin pulled this off to a ‘T’ in the movie The Jerk. I guess the whole formula first clicked fifty years earlier with the likes of Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin.

I hope I never have to find out if laughter is indeed the best medicine, but if I do, I have no problem filling the prescription.

9.11.05

What’s that smell?

The smell in question is the stink being raised by some movie theater chains over the running length of Peter Jackson’s upcoming version of King Kong. The theater owners are crying like a bunch of milk babies because Jackson’s current cut of the movie is clocking in at almost three hours.

The exhibitors are booing and hissing because they claim that the audiences won’t sit still for a movie that long, and that’s just a steaming bowl of butter-flavored popcorn topping. Give an audience something entertaining to watch and they’ll sit there all day. The real reason they don’t want to play a movie that long is because it lowers the number of times the film can be showed in a day.

Back when I was a theater manager, the optimum running time for a movie was around a hundred minutes. A little over an hour and a half. That way you could schedule your show times for 12, 2, 4, 6, 8 & 10, which was easy for people to remember. The timing worked out well. You could shepherd one audience out (nobody seemed to want to stay and read the credits back then), pick up the cups and popcorn buckets from the aisles, and then load the next audience in, with five or ten minutes left for them to buy candy, drinks and popcorn.

For a first-run theater, the concession is where it’s all at. For the first few weeks of a new movie the film distributor skims up to eight percent of the ticket cost right off the top. Sure, playing eight bucks for a bucket of popcorn is highway robbery, but keep in mind that it’s what’s paying for supplies, salaries and keeping the electricity on. The longer a movie is in release the less the distributor takes out of every box office dollar.

The movie chains want King Kong to be shorter so they can have more showings per day and sell more five-dollar bags of M&Ms. I don’t blame them, but don’t try to cast the blame on us.

Gosh, I hope this movie is good. I have my worries about Jack Black. I love him in Tenacious D, but this might not be the right role for him. I’ll wait and see about Adrian Brody. He’s a good enough actor that he might effectively vanish into his character. And then of course there’s Naomi Watts. I’d pay to watch her wash socks.

David Green is an Astronomer!


That’s what I believed when I was in fourth grade, while attending Edgar Allen Poe grade school on the south side of Chicago.

I knew it because I had read it.

I didn’t really know David Green. He was in the fifth or sixth grade. I knew that he was a school crossing guard, which was something akin to royalty at Edgar Allen Poe. Crossing guards got to wear spiffy orange belts. They were made of seatbelt material. (I was intimately familiar with seatbelt material because I used to play jet pilot in the back seat of the family car. Back in the late 60s only some cars came equipped with seat belts. Nobody ever wore them, as I recall, but I used to have a blast playing with them.) The crossing guard belts featured one strap that went around the waist and a second that came up over one shoulder. They were totally bitchin’.

If you were a school crossing guard you got to leave school a few minutes early so you could beat the crowds to your appointed intersection. The guards didn’t have stop signs, but they had orange belts and that seemed powerful enough to make cars stop.

(I petitioned really hard to become a crossing guard, and the next year, my last at Poe school I made the team. The only problem was that the intersection I was appointed to was far off the beaten path. The entire time I stood guard not a single kid needed help crossing. Not a single kid crossed. After a week or two I stopped going. I kept the belt and used to play around with it for a while, until I grew too fat to fit into it.)

One day I actually had occasion to stand face to face with David Green. I was in an upstairs hallway of the school admiring a fort that someone had built as a class project. The entire thing was built out of Popsicle sticks. A couple of kids were standing around it. I thought to myself that whoever built it must really like Popsicles. There were hundreds of them. One of the other kids admiring the model joked that it would have taken the kid who made it a hundred years to save up enough Popsicle sticks. He continued on that it was a good thing that you could buy the sticks at the art store. I laughed along with the joke, thankful that my tongue was stuck in first gear that day.

I don’t know if he was the one who made the model, but I talked to David Green right next to it. It was a long time ago, but our conversation went something like this.

“Hey, you’re David Green, right?”
“Yeah, so?”
“Yeah, well I hear you really like astronomy. I think that’s cool.”
“What are you talking about, kid?”
“I just read it. That’s all. Sorry.”
“Where’d you read it? Show me?”

And so I did.

Edgar Allen Poe was a three-story brick affair, built in a section of Chicago that used to be called Pullman. It was called Pullman because that’s where the factories where they used to build Pullman railroad cars were located. Around the turn of the century Pullman employed a lot of people, so he build his own housing, churches and schools. There was an abandoned factory at the end of my street, and another one just one street behind our house. My friends and I spent countless hours climbing around inside the derelict buildings. It’s a wonder we survived, or at the very least didn’t fall victim to lockjaw from all the rusty ladders we used to scale.

Poe school was built with functionality in mind. Safety came second, or third. My parents would have died early deaths if they knew the hours we spent up on the school rooftops. It was pretty easy to get up there because there was a metal fire escape that ran up and down the outside of the building. At some point they had constructed a cage of sorts around the lowest section of the fire stairs. The cage was made of cyclone-type fencing, with a sheet metal door you could exit out of the cage through if you came down the stairs. This safety precaution was easy enough to defeat. All you had to do was climb up the cage and then you had access to the fire escape, and the lower of the roofs. Once you were on the lower roof you were good to go.

David Green followed me outside, to the cage. We were the only ones outside. The blacktop ‘playground’ that formed a big ‘U’ around the back and sides of the school was empty. The cage, along with the metal door in the middle of it had been painted probably a dozen times. The fencing was thick with multiple coats of paint. The door showed old coats of paint where kids had scraped into the surface.

I was still pretty na├»ve at the time, so I didn’t understand all the words and phrases that were scratched into the paint. I do remember that someone had stuck a bumper sticker on the door that read “Save Water—Shower With A Friend”. I still blush. Near the bottom of the door I showed David where his name was scratched in.

It said DAVID GREEN IS AN ASTRONOMER.

At least that’s what I thought it said.

David Green stooped down to read. He stood back up and then pushed me down on the ground. He waved a fist in my face. “Did you do that?” he asked. “Do you think that’s funny?” he continued.

It must have been a chilly day. My face had to have been cold, because I could feel the warm tears running down my cheeks. I might have said something, but I can’t think of what. He stood over me for a moment and then was gone. I’m pretty sure I never saw him again.

For the life of me I didn’t know what in the world had happened. I ran home.

Later that day, or maybe it was the following day, my best buddy Donnie Draves and I returned to the scene of the crime. We looked at the door and then I saw the problem.

Reading letters scraped into layers of paint on a metal door is hard work. Especially for a kid. Donnie and I examined the writing and figured out why I got pushed down.

David Green may or may not have been an astronomer, but that wasn’t the subject of the message. Donnie and I figured it out.

DAVID GREEN IS AN ASSHOLE.

Truer words have never been written since.

7.11.05

It’s Good Eunuch For Me…


Conan O’Brien makes me laugh, but a little self-deprecation goes a long way. David Letterman is still funny, for a cranky old man, and Leno’s monologue elicits more than a few laughs out of me (in contrast to Letterman’s sloth paced delivery, Leno opts for the machine gun approach, telling a dozen jokes for every one or two Dave delivers, thus he comes out on top due to the simple law of averages), but in my book they still pale compared to the master, Johnny Carson.

Carson could milk just as many laughs out of a good joke as one that tanked, which was his special gift, but one of my favorite things about watching Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show was the guests he featured.

These days just about everyone you see on a talk show are there to promote a new movie, book, video or album. Of course there was a lot of plugging going on in the olden days that I hold so dear, but there was also a lot of guests that stopped by to simply stop by and pay Johnny a visit.

Johnny had a lot of pals, like Jimmy Stewart, Don Rickles, Shelly Winters, Buddy Hackett, George Gobel, Dean Martin and Burt Reynolds who would just stop by to shoot the breeze and maybe tell a few anecdotes or jokes. These members of Hollywood’s old guard came out cold. Today’s talk show guests are pre interviewed, which is how the hosts can miraculously come up with questions like, “I heard that while making your latest movie you had some sort of an encounter with a pack of albino bats.” Johnny Carson would talk to his guests naturally, and if they happened to bring up a story about some albino bats, that was cool, but they were so at ease that were just as likely to come up with an equally funny story. Nothing was forced.

Buddy Hackett was one of my favorites. Part of the reason was because Johnny genuinely liked him and thought he was funny. Another part of the reason was that he told jokes and stories that were mostly racy, and usually a couple of words had to be bleeped out and I would have to rack my brain to figure out what he had said. And one of the biggest reasons was that he told long jokes and stories. Four, five and six minutes long. While Buddy was telling his joke you could see Johnny looking off camera, probably being told that they really needed to go to a commercial break, but Johnny rarely cut anyone off.

I miss Johnny. Not enough to buy those ‘Best Of’ video compilations I see for sale. But I do miss him a lot.

I heard a great quote on the Tonight Show one night. It was spoken by an actor or an actress who was responding to a bad review that his/her movie had gotten. The actor/actress dismissed movie critics by saying, “Critics are like the eunuchs who guard a king’s harem. They know what sex is. They see it happen every single day. But for the life of them, they just can’t do it themselves.” I thought this was a pretty neat quote, but I had to look up the word ‘eunuch’ in the dictionary. Then I had to look up the word ‘castration’. Once I knew what a eunuch really was the quote was even more powerful to me.

I love movies and based on the reviews of Roger Ebert, I once considered writing movie reviews for a living. But then I thought about that quote and wondered how I could sit back and criticize someone who was doing something that I was incapable of. I can’t cook, so I could I tell a master chef what’s wrong with his bouillabaisse?

Movie critics are not moviemakers, yet we trust their recommendations and heed their warnings. At least I do. Which is why I didn’t see the animated movie ‘Robots’ when it was in the theater. The critics called it thinly plotted, childish, one-dimensional and they mocked Ewan McGregor’s American accent.

Shame on them. And shame on me for listening to them and missing Robots on the big screen. I watched it last night and I can’t recall liking an animated movie more since the first Toy Story movie.

Robots has got a lot of things going for it. For starters, it was produced by the creative forces that gave us the film Ice Age (a film that I had my share of problems with, based mostly on character design and some story elements, but which I still enjoyed a great deal). The next great thing about Robots was that it was designed by the mega genius that is William Joyce. If you’ve lived a sheltered life and don’t know who Joyce is, do yourself a favor and run a GIS (Google Image Search) on him and see what you’ve been missing.

Okay, so the plot of Robots is pretty lightweight, but that’s sort of the point. It’s almost a fable or a fairy tale. The filmmakers understood that from the beginning, which is why they kept the pace so fast. The action and dialogue move along at a lively clip. The Toy Story movies dealt with some complex issues and they built some deep characterization, but at the same time there are huge sections of both movies that move at a snail’s pace. Robots starts off at a pretty fast pace and never really slows down.

Oh, another thing that the critics warned us of was the return of Robin Williams playing the same motor-mouthed character we’ve seen (or heard) him deliver in other animated movies. I was really worried about this. A little Robin Williams is a good thing. Which is what Robots delivers. The character he plays does sound like Robin Williams, but there’s a degree of restraint that was not present when he was playing the Genie of the lamp. There was also a happy absence of celebrity impersonations and pop references that tend to age a film.

This film is gorgeous. The animation is top notch. There’s a slew of big name actors that weren’t at all necessary. Halle Berry is a delight for the eyes but her voice is ordinary and her performance was wasted. The critics were right about Ewan McGregor’s wavering accent. The only voice actors that improved the movie were Greg Kinnear, Amanda Bynes and Robin Williams. Mel Brooks had his moments as well.

If you’re in the mood for some lightweight fun that might make you feel like a kid again, rent a copy of Robots. At the very least, check it out on HBO a few months from now.