I Will Say The Bus Looks Neat Though

I’m running late on stuff this week. I always am, which raises questions about the use of “late” as a concept. Never mind. For this week I blame that I got to reading an article about the 70s Disaster Movie genre. And that lead me to the 1976 spoof of the 70s Disaster Movie genre, The Big Bus. There’s many shocking things about this, starting with the idea that 70s Disaster Movies were somehow not already their parodies. The difference between The Towering Inferno and SCTV’s spoof of The Towering Inferno is mostly that the SCTV version opens with fewer scenes of the violently 1970s lobby of the doomed building. I mean, the Towering Inferno lobby looks great in a 1974 way. It’s only hard to watch because of thinking how it would look if it were a real building. I can’t see it without imaginaing what soul-destroying monstrosity it would have decayed by 1988, before its mid-90s renovation into something too lacking in personality even to be ugly.

Also startling: I remember nothing of this movie (The Big Bus) even though it seems like it should have been filling space whenever channels needed to have a movie throughout the early 80s. Yes, yes, Airplane! seems to have been as much spoof as the whole 70s Disaster Movie genre ever needed, in case we were taking it seriously, but between Airplane! and Airplane II! that’s only like four hours of programming. Even the rudimentary cable channels of the 80s needed as much as six hours before going over to “weird foreign cartoons” and “public domain Three Stooges shorts”.

Wikipedia describes the movie in fascinating detail. The plot summary makes it sound like the movie was trying about three times too hard and on all the wrong subjects. It comes out sounding whimsical in the way a gigantic iron woolly mammoth in a potato sack race across a field strewn with creme pies is: my metaphor is trying way too hard to cram in funny-flavored stuff.

Also, per Wikipedia: look at that movie poster. That’s your classic style, the kind of poster they don’t make anymore. Back then, movies were still mysterious things and we audiences just wouldn’t go to it if we didn’t have some proof that there were actors in the movie, as demonstrated by passport photos or, better, caricatured illustrations of the principal actors. Today movie poster style has moved on to showing abstract patterns of shadow and light, possibly featuring ruins where the villain blew up the plot. And that’s fine and stylish as far as it goes, but then you get surprises like last year where Star Trek Beyond turned out to be 105 minutes of kaleidoscope patterns and then a four-minute scene of Spock and McCoy trash-talking each other. Not saying it wasn’t good. I’m saying, back in the day, we’d get a big old grid of Actor Face staring out at us.

Then where I get permanently hung up by the Wikipedia article is in the sections about the movie’s production. Specifically this:

According to articles in 1976 issues of both Motor Trend magazine and the now defunct Bus World magazine

I’m sorry, I can’t finish that sentence or anything else, really. I’m assuming that Bus World was a trade publication for the large-person-road-transport industry. But it would be only eight percent stranger if it weren’t. What if it was a fan magazine? Don’t tell me there aren’t bus fans. There are fans of everything, including fandoms. What kind of journal was Bus World, though?

The difference between a trade journal and a fan magazine is in how they spin the articles. The point of a fan magazine is to follow up every bit of news with the question, “Will the industry ever manage to be more awesome than this?” The answer is, “No way, but we’re looking forward to them trying”. The point of a trade journal is to follow up every bit of news with the question, “Will the industry be able to recover from this?”. The answer is, “Conceivably, but likely not”. I don’t know that there are fan magazines for trade journals, but I hope there are. Also I hope there are trade journals for the fan magazine business, because the politics involved in everything would be awesome.

What do I hope the reality of the now-defunct Bus World was? I don’t know, and I’m too busy pondering that.

In short: Bus World.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index dropped another five points today which we’re willing to blame on that Access World/London Metals Exchange/zinc warehousing scandal. It’s probably good for another couple of points off the Another Blog, Meanwhile index. Just you wait and see.


Henry Morgan and the Discovery of Air

Old-time radio had many genres of show. Many of them still exist, albeit on television. (In the United States, where commercial interests sent them.) Soap operas, famously, still carry on, though nobody would say they’re healthy. Police and detective shows we’ll never be rid of. Medical dramas too. Suspense anthologies … all right, we don’t really have that anymore, although thrillers and crime procedurals nearly cover that gap. Sitcoms — with or without laugh tracks — come and go, but they’re steadily around. Game shows have mutated, but they’re still around.

But there’s one that isn’t really still around, not in United States anyway. I’m not even sure what exactly to call it. It’s the kind of show typefied by The Jack Benny Program. It’s centered around a strong, comic host, and there’s a set of regular supporting cast with clear punchy comic personas. There’s some topic, often drawn from the news, that all the regulars riff on for a while. Then a musical interlude. Then a spoof of something or other. A lot of shows fit this admittedly quite general template. Jack Benny fits it (less perfectly as the show ages and it turns into a semi-sitcom). Fred Allen too. Bob Hope. Red Skelton. Some of these shows are great. Some are agony, at least to my tastes. Depends on whether you like the host.

So here’s an example of that genre. It stars Henry Morgan, a comedian who is reliably described as “caustic”. This episode doesn’t show off anything “caustic”. I would describe it more as “sly”.

I wanted to use the embeddable little radio player that archive.org offers. But it won’t link to the file I want because whoever uploaded this episode in the first place included spaces in the file name. WordPress’s thing for embedding archive.org audio can’t handle that. So I’m afraid I must ask you to download or open in a fresh tab one of these links:

It’s a fast-paced show, with as its first centerpiece a mock-documentary about the discovery of air. I love mock-documentaries. Always have. The form of the factual essay and the content of nonsense tickles me. It ends with a spoof of game shows. Along the way there’s riffs about the other leading radio shows of the day, which was September 1946. It’s a sharp, densely written mix of stuff. I’m sorry the audio gets fuzzy at a few spots mid-show, but I want to feature more of Henry Morgan and this seemed to be a pretty good introduction, all things considered.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

Today it was the mainstream index’s turn to drop two points. Traders working on the Another Blog, Meanwhile index say they totally meant to get the number up to something impressively big, like 94 or even 95. Which isn’t all that big, but is still a pretty good-sized uptick. But then they noticed how distracted I got trying to find the episode of The Henry Morgan Show I really wanted to show off, and if it’s on archive.org I don’t know where, and they were feeling down because I was clearly irritated by all this. And that was before I found out embedding the episode I settled on was another hassle. It’s kind of them to worry so but they really shouldn’t. I can cope with bigger disappointments than having to show off a different episode of a favored comedian than I otherwise might.


Stan Freberg: College Football Report and Westerns

Everybody loves spoofs. I suppose they satisfy our desire for transgressive mockery without demanding the self-cutting introspection of satire. That makes me sound snobby about spoofs and it shouldn’t. A great spoof is a celebration of the good and bad of something. And we need sometimes entertainment that doesn’t ask how we justify our thinking.

Stan Freberg among many things produced fantastic spoofs. His Dragnet spoof made his name and solidified “Just the facts, ma’am” as the phrase the original show would be known by. In his one-season radio show he’d do a lot of spoofs, many of them really great.

A great spoof needs to capture something essential about the original. It might be the original’s rhythm, it might be its attitude, it might be just the way it sounds. To some extent a spoof needs to be precise. It needs to follow a template that could plausibly be the original’s. If it doesn’t then it becomes something like an Elvis or a William Shatner impersonation, something that at one time had something to do with the original but now is an entity unto itself. That’s not to say they’re necessarily bad, but to say that they’re their own thing, no longer based on the original.

But there’s a danger in capturing the sound of the original too precisely. That problem it’ll eventually be sixty years later and nobody is going to know what your spoof was going on about. There’s a bit of this in the Stan Freberg Show I want to share here. It aired originally the 22nd of September, 1957.

So. There’s two big spoofs there, one of a sports-radio announcer/interviewer, another of a western. If you’re not a fan of old-time radio then I’m going to guess the sports-radio thing made better sense. There are still sports announcers and interviewers kind of like this and you can imagine an interview coming close to but not quite that. The other spoof is of a western and that probably sounds all the more bizarre.

Freberg was taking seriously his responsibility to get his spoof right, to make it just this close to the thing he was spoofing. The sports-radio guy he’s spoofing was Bill Stern, pioneer of radio sports reporting. A fair number of his recordings survive. He had this bombastic and, must be said, addictive style, delivered in a breathless rush and sprinkled with amazing human-interest stories that might even be true.

The western, now, that probably reads stranger. We just don’t have so many westerns. And the image of the old-time radio western is, well, what people think The Lone Ranger was. Big, broad, cartoonish melodrama with dramatic declarations and gunfights and claim-grabbers and salted gold mines and big, broad dumb gags. That was one thread of western, yes. But there was another line, which for want of a better term I’ll call “adult westerns”. These varied, of course, but they would try for a more sedate, more grown-up tone. They’d be more meticulously paced and there’d be more of the sound effects of men walking in full, noisy garb than of gunshots. They’d try to address more grown-up topics, like drought, economic failure, and racial tension. Gunsmoke, the show Freberg was most specifically targeting, could be wretchedly depressing. It was the sort of show where the silver lining is that at least the floods will put out the range fire before washing away the railroad bridge the ranch-hands would use to get into town to riot.

So if this seems like a bizarre segment to listen to that’s just the problem that Freberg captured the sound of Gunsmoke and its ilk too well. I think you can infer what he’s mocking from this, but it is easier to understand, and funnier, if you’ve heard more of the adult westerns that 1950s radio offered. (Many are easy to find.)

The “sponsor” is an easier spoof to understand. That’s mocking Quaker Puffed Wheat and Quaker Puffed Rice. These breakfast cereals were shot from guns on every 15-minute program radio aired between 1939 and 1958, if my sampling is representative. That maybe communicates easier since we’re still spoofing commercials, and there’s an inherent goofiness that doesn’t need much setup.

Well, I hope you enjoy the show however much sense it makes.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose four points and then just knew it when it turned out the alternate index also rose four points. Someone went off and wrote a paper about how this proved that the markets were reflecting underlying real value and therefore the index traders were perfectly efficient. This went over 98 percent as well as you’d expect and there was a lot of pointing and snickering over the matter.


Bob and Ray Put Up The Storm Windows

I’m still feeling a little woozy and a more bit lazy, so let me give you something to listen to today. This is another Bob and Ray Present The CBS Radio Network. an episode from the 23rd of October, 1959. It’s seasonal. I’d be putting up the storm windows myself if I quite felt up to it right now.

The center sketch of this, One Fella’s Family, is a parody of something specific. The tone of it probably gives that fact away. What it’s a parody of is probably as forgotten as it used to be famous. They’re playing off the series One Man’s Family, a radio soap opera that ran from 1932 to 1959. And it kept the same actor for the main Man, J Anthony Smythe, for that whole run. (It also had two short-lived TV adaptations, one in prime time and one in daytime.)

The show had an irresistible comic hook. Episodes were introduced as being from a particular book and chapter of the tales of the Barbour Family. I would say that’s the high point of the episodes, honestly. The show strikes me as the tale of Henry Barbour sighing and grumbling about how his kids won’t listen to him, until they finally decide to listen to him. It’s a style of drama I don’t get much into.

Bob and Ray don’t have the great arcs of the kids figuring they’re too smart for college or whatever else went on in One Man’s Family. As with many of their bits, the story is of characters not quite able to do simple things. The closer you listen, the more absurd it all is.

Bob and Ray at the Grand Motel

Top Secret is a pretty good movie. Solidly fun, stuffed full of jokes, and breezy and silly in a way that seems to be lost to modern grand spoof movies. What probably keeps it from being one of the great spoof movies is that it’s impossible to answer the question: so what exactly is being spoofed? It’s a close parody of something that never existed, the … Elvis World War II espionage thriller? That doesn’t matter much. Maybe its genius comes from pulling together spoofs of a couple of genres and finding that they harmonize. Maybe its genius comes from just taking a goofy idea and spoofing it so relentlessly that we don’t care if there was ever an original.

A weird idea? Sure. But after all, how many people spoof silent movie melodramas by depicting women tied to railroad tracks, even though that never happened except in silent movie spoofs of melodramas? Something can have all the hallmarks of a spoof without actually being a parody of anything in particular.

And this brings me to the Bob And Ray Present The CBS Radio Network for the 14th of July, 1950. The episode is tagged as “The Grand Motel”, for the central sketch in it. It gives off the vibes of parodying some particular old-time radio soap opera but heck if I can say what. The most specific I can get is to One Man’s Family, but that’s just because I’ve heard a lot of that soap and it features a lot of cranky old man at its center. I’m attempting, again, to embed it, but if that doesn’t work the above link should let you download it. And if that doesn’t work you can try this Archive.org collection of Bob and Ray episodes, looking for the one tagged “590714TheGrandMotel”.

To the extent this is spoofing anything particular, it’s soap operas, of course. There used to be a lot of them. Many were surprisingly short, fifteen-minute installments mostly of people recapping where they were and advancing the story a little bit. Many blurred the line between drama and comedy, as we’d see it now. The Grand Motel feels just slightly outside what might be plausible for a real soap. It’s played with a ruthless integrity to its internal logic and the Bob and Ray sketch comedy motif of the world just not quite fitting together smoothly. Everyone in their sketch worlds is just a little bit out of place. If that amuses you at all, then the sketch will keep getting funnier.

Also, yes, look for surprise special guest Pat Boone. He’s there with advice for teenagers.

Bob and Ray Week: Guess The Name Of This

If you want to be a comic performer, broadly speaking, there are two paths to take. You can be Groucho Marx or an accountant. The Groucho Marx approach has obvious advantages: you go out looking funny and anybody paying the slightest attention knows you are trying to be funny. The audience is readied to laugh. The accountant is tougher: you go out looking utterly unexceptional and trust that, maybe, the audience will notice you’re being ridiculous. The accountant style is more likely to go over people’s heads. The audience might not understand they’re expected to find this funny. But it’s also the kind that gets critical acclaim. And discovering something that’s accountant-style funny is wonderful; it feels like being let in on a secret.

(Yes, I’m aware that Groucho Marx hated the greasepaint-mustache, looking-to-be-funny look he wore. He felt going out looking deliberately funny encouraged audiences to be skeptical, and would rather have gone out looking like an accountant. But by the time he could have cast off the vaudeville look, he was too famous for it to ditch it entirely.)

So this brings me to Bob and Ray. Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding were mostly radio comics, with some television and other ventures. I want to say the best way to describe what they did was that they did SCTV, but for radio. I trust that SCTV is a recognizable reference around these parts. However, what’s got me doing a Bob and Ray Week is that I discovered a friend had not the faintest idea what I was talking about when I referred to them.

So here’s a sample. In 1959 and 1960 they performed Bob and Ray Present the CBS Radio Network many installments of which survive thanks to the magic that lets old-time radio survive. This one is from the 12th of October, 1959; it’s tagged “Guess The Name Of This”.

It is theoretically possible that I have this embedded below. However, Archive.org’s “embed” feature is really badly screwed up, and its help page is utter gibberish. I recommend that if you want to see something explained in a way that explains nothing to anybody. It may be easiest to just download the MP3 and play that in your preferred MP3 player than deal with this mess. In any case it’s file number 77 in this collection, titled “591012 Guess The Name Of This”.

Anyway, this is a fun episode to try out. I think it conveys well the Bob and Ray spirit in which you might, if you’re not listening, not even notice something ridiculous is going on. We get some lovely predictions for the future, and a Name That Tune-style contest that goes subtly awry. The sense of subverted normality is strong here. It won’t be for everyone, but for the people it is for, it’s perfect. Also the episode is only twelve minutes long, so it’s easy to try out. (Most episodes of this particular series are fifteen minutes; I’m not sure why this one is short.)

Betty Boop: So who’s this Freddy character anyway?

Last week’s Betty Boop cartoon, Betty Boop’s Life Guard, raised the musical question of “Where’s Freddy?” They put the question in a song that lasted only about two minutes on-screen but which can last in the head for as much as eight years straight. Sorry about that. But at least as good a question is “Who’s this Freddy person again, exactly?”

Freddy, or Fearless Fred, is Betty Boop’s second boyfriend, for a half-dozen cartoons in 1934 and 1935. It’s repeatedly claimed he was created because under the enforced Production Code Betty Boop couldn’t be dating Bimbo — a dog — once she was finally established as human. I suspect that’s not a complete answer, though. If the Fleischers just wanted Betty Boop to pair up with a human, why not Koko the Clown? He was unmistakably human, and had been on screen for fifteen years, and even canoodled a bit with Betty now and then. Or why not humanize Bimbo? Why add a new character?

My suspicion is that Freddy reflects the discovery of personality. Cartoon characters didn’t lack personality before the early 1930s, but they did tend to be less distinct. Bimbo is faintly pleasant, kind of playful, a little mischievous, easily intimidated: what you’d get from a talented high school theater class producing their very own Little Tramp sketch. You see almost the same personality as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, as Bosko and then Foxy over at Warner Brothers. The biggest difference is in how much the characters seem like blackface jokes.

Soon, though, cartoon characters with personality started taking over. Betty Boop was a forerunner. Goofy appears in 1932; Popeye and his cast in 1933. Donald Duck would appear in 1934. They’re characters of a different order from Bimbo or even Koko. I believe that Fearless Freddy was an attempt to give Betty Boop, and the studio, a credible male lead who has character. And to support this I’d like to show the first cartoon with Fearless Freddy, She Wronged Him Right, which debuted the 5th of January, 1934.

His introductory cartoon is a theatrical performance. Fearless Freddy, Betty Boop, and Heeza Rat play out some versions of themselves. Two of his other appearances, Betty Boop’s Prize Show and No! No! A Thousand Times No!, his final appearance, would use the same framing device. The plot is the grand Spoof Victorian Melodrama of the sort we all thought was done to perfection by Dudley Do-Right. Perhaps it was; but the Spoof Victorian Melodrama was also being done very well in the 1930s, and in the silent movie era, and for that matter by the Victorians themselves.

At some point you have to wonder if the Victorian Melodrama was ever played straight. You wonder more once you learn that silent movie melodrama villains never tied women to railroad tracks. If you see one, it’s from a spoof. This cartoon is part of a curious genre that seems to exist only as a parody. There’s something weird here.

But you can see why a figure like Bimbo just won’t cut it for a Spoof Victorian Melodrama, and why even Koko wouldn’t do. The role has to be cast by someone who looks the part even as he looks ridiculous. Fearless Fred, helplessly dragged behind a horse, can make the best of his plight by declaring “I think I’ll go this way” and make sense. If Bimbo made the same declaration it would sound like the cartoon was nervous about nobody saying anything for too long.

The stage-set framing adds some weirdness to the look of the cartoon. Sets slide in and out, and people walk on the sets within a fixed proscenium. It’s more fun to watch than it probably would have been without the stage convention. Betty Boop’s Prize Show and No! No! A Thousand Times No! have even more fun with using stage mechanics to suggest complicated lines of motion and that’s a fun, dizzying, hypnotic illusion.

Outside his roles as a stage character Fearless Fred would play a lifeguard, a soldier (against an army of giant mosquitoes), and a traffic cop. They’re not far off the Spoof Victorian Melodrama hero-role and he’s affably not-quite-ept in them all. While he’s not as strong a character as (say) Wimpy, or even Gabby (from the Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels and some spinoff cartoons), he’s a good step forward. He doesn’t steal a scene from Betty Boop, but it’s at least thinkable that he might.

Charley Chase: A Versatile Villain

I’d like to offer another silent comedy here, this one 1915’s A Versatile Villain, starring Charley Chase. You probably don’t recognize the name and that’s honestly fair enough as his heyday was 85 years ago and he wasn’t in the top tier of silent (or early talkie) comedians. Even his name sounds like an attempt at the mockbuster equivalent of Charlie Chaplin. But he still did some fine work.

A Versatile Villain is also pretty neat in being the sort of parody of Victorian melodrama that’s pretty near the only way anyone sees Victorian melodramas; it’s easy to see the conceptual heritage to, well, Dudley Do-Right, down to the shacks of crates marked DYNAMITE and all that. It’s enough to make you wonder if there were ever a time that this sort of story was being told except for the comic thrill of finding it all ridiculous. I’m inclined to believe that no, these stories have pretty much been absurd exaggeration from the start, or pretty near, that curious sort of entertainment that spoofs something which doesn’t quite really exist, or at least exists nothing like its spoofs do.

The video is available at archive.org, but since I can’t embed that, here’s a YouTube version:

Finley Peter Dunne: “Sherlock Holmes”

Here’s a bit from Finley Peter Dunne — Mister Dooley — in Observations By Mr. Dooley. It amuses me, besides its basic funniness, for spoofing the Sherlock Holmes stories right about when they were still being written. I can’t find just when this particular essay was composed, but the book was published in 1902 or possibly 1903.

Dorsey an’ Dugan are havin’ throuble,” said Mr. Hennessy.

“What about?” asked Mr. Dooley.

“Dorsey,” said Mr. Hennessy, “says Dugan stole his dog. They had a party at Dorsey’s an’ Dorsey heerd a noise in th’ back yard an’ wint out an’ see Dugan makin’ off with his bull tarryer.”

“Ye say he see him do it?”

“Yis, he see him do it.”

“Well,” said Mr. Dooley, “‘twud baffle th’ injinooty iv a Sherlock Holmes.”

“Who’s Sherlock Holmes?”

Continue reading “Finley Peter Dunne: “Sherlock Holmes””