Laughing Matters — Saturday Night Live, “Common Knowledge”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

common knowledge

Saturday Night Live long ago crossed over into the status of institution, which cemented all of the longtime criticisms leveled against it and simultaneously made them beside the point. I’m not sure how often anyone still bothers to drag out the well-worn lament about the writers’ lazy tendency to default to game show and talk show parodies. It’s probably a little less now since one of the best, most pointed recurring sketches current running falls into that category.

And then there’s simply the pesky detail that sometimes the familiar format of a game show, in particular, provides the best entryway to truly inspired comedic commentary. I believe that’s the case with “Common Knowledge,” easily one of my favorite sketches in the program’s multi-decade history. Practically any other conceivable method of mining the same sad truth about U.S. culture for laughs would be sure to end up didactic and mean-spirited. Instead, “Common Knowledge” makes its points with sly deftness, helped by the patience that holds back its motivating premise until almost two full minutes in, giving it a touch of happy puzzlement.

Usually, I’d embed the sketch here, but NBC video doesn’t like to play that way, so I’ll opt for a hyperlink instead.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

aretha whitney

Whitney Houston’s mother was a highly lauded gospel and soul singer. But it was someone other than Cissy Houston who stirred aspirations to the stage for young Whitney.

“I remember when I was six or seven, crawling up to the window to watch my mother sing,” Whitney once explained. “And I’d be talking to Aunt Ree. I had no idea then that Aretha Franklin was famous — just that I liked to hear her sing, too. I just remember being in an atmosphere of total creativity. When I heard Aretha, I could feel her emotional delivery so clearly. It came from deep down within. ‘That’s what I want to do.'”

By the end of the nineteen-eighties, Whitney Houston was doing it, all right. In one stretch, she took seven straight singles to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. She topped herself a couple years later, when her cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” the centerpiece of the soundtrack for The Bodyguard, spent an astounding fourteen weeks at the pinnacle of the singles chart. But Houston was already a huge star.

Her Aunt Ree was wasn’t doing too badly, either. After watching her commercial prospects soften up somewhat in the late nineteen-seventies, Franklin revived her career with the 1985 album Who’s Zoomin’ Who? It yielded four Top 40 singles and was amazingly her first full-length album to be certified platinum by the RIAA. Part of Franklin’s clear strategy was to pair with other famed performers, especially relatively young up-and-comers. In 1987, a duet with George Michael, freshly sprung from Wham!, earned Franklin her first #1 single since she reportedly inspired Otis Redding to say, “That little girl stole my song.”

So teaming up with Houston was a natural fit for Franklin. Working with producer Narada Michael Walden, who presided over Franklin’s earlier hits in the eighties, Franklin and Houston traded verses on “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be,” a song penned by Albert Hammond and Diane Warren. Truthfully, it’s not much of a song, which might help explain why, despite the great diva convergence, it was held back to serve as the third single. Even so, both Franklin and Houston absolutely belt on the track, showing off voices that seemed to be effortlessly powerful.

The meeting of vocal luminaries wasn’t quite enough to overcome the other limitations of the song (and maybe the yucky aftertaste of preceding single “Through the Storm,” a duet with Elton John that smashed all the worst traits of adult contemporary radio into a single track). Both Franklin and Houston had made plenty of hits on their own. Together, they had to settle for a song that peaked at #41.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

From the Archive — Pineapple Express

express

The arrival of the tenth anniversary of the release of Pineapple Express has led to a small batch of articles reflecting on the comedy-action film as if it’s some significant artifact. I guess. For me, it’s just another entry in the long line of films that demonstrate the dismal effect that Judd Apatow has had on modern film comedy. I actually like Apatow a lot (and owe him eternal gratitude for his central part in making Freaks and Geeks happen), but has he ever brought a proud sloppiness to a genre that benefits from razor-sharp precision. Anyway, this was written for my former online home.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about Pineapple Express and, despite my best efforts to avoid it, I keep coming back to Judd Apatow. I’d rather a different angle because I’m not likely to center evaluation of any other film this year around the perceived contribution of the producer. Directors and actors I’ll bring up for certain, and I’ll often consider the screenplay. Cinematography, music scores, editing: these are all fair game. Once I even offered praise for especially interesting and effective sound editing in a film that was not of the sort that usually gets singled out in such a way. But a producer. There are not many instances where I’d be likely to bring up a contributor whose role is nebulous enough that its hard to spot their fingerprints while sitting in the theater.

Then there’s Judd Apatow. Since The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which he also directed, there have been a whole group of films — Knocked Up (in the director’s chair again), Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall — that feel of the same set. David Gordon Green may have directed Pineapple Express and the Superbad writing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg bear the predominant screenplay credit (Apatow has a story credit that, according to Rogen, amounted to little more than coming up with the shell of a premise), but its tone, rhythms and shape (or, more accurately, shapelessness) feels scissored out of Apatow’s well-worn cloth. His influence as a producer is evidently strong enough to make all these films feel like they belong to him as much as anyone else. I can’t immediately recall any other producer skewing the authorship of films to such a degree since Steven Spielberg started amassing producing credits in the eighties and every film seemed to represent some variation on his then-twinkly worldview. This is the kind of impact Brian Grazer dreams of every morning as he civil engineers his ridiculous hair into place.

Pineapple Express is about a pot-smoking summons server and his friendly neighborhood drug dealer who inadvertently find themselves…well…inside an action movie. I don’t mean that literally — this isn’t some sort of meta romp like The Last Action Hero — but the actual plot is so thin and lacking in any sort of compelling intricacies that it’s simply easier and more accurate to talk about the film in terms of its premise instead of its storyline. Besides, it’s not really about that. Like all of these Apatow films, it’s about that fleeting opportunity when a male can reject his own orchestrated arrested development and decide to grow up and take responsibility. This time it’s just framed around rescuing your cohorts from gun-wielding drug gangs instead of devoting yourself to the unexpected mother of your child or the cute girls you hung out with at last night’s party.

There are laughs to be extracted from the situation, mostly from exploiting the contrasts inherent to slobby, clumsy guys who recoil from the very carnage they’re creating or rapidly fold under pressure when playing the hero role isn’t as effortless at it seems onscreen. James Franco is especially good as the generally amiable drug dealer prone to mental wandering. He’s loose enough in this role that it does feel like a liberation from the sort of dour leading man stuff he’s concentrated on since he was the first Freaks and Geeks cast member to achieve visibility apart from the cult fandom of the show. It’s an agreeably scruffy performance in a sometimes disagreeably scruffy film. Overall, it’s still entertaining and has memorable moments, but Apatow is fast approaching the point where he’ll face a similar decision as those thrown at the characters in his films. Does he want to grow up enough to add some focus and discipline to the films that bear his name, or is he satisfied softly plodding along, making movies that pass like a thin, dissipating haze?

One for Friday — Hunters & Collectors, “You Can Have It All”

hunters and collectors

Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1988, Hunters & Collectors released the U.S. edition of their fifth studio album. The Australian band was a reasonable commercial force in their homeland, routinely delivering albums that charted in the Top 20 and singles that made — or at least approached — the Top 40. Stateside, they had recently signed with I.R.S. Records, the independent label that made dominance on college radio their model through much of the nineteen-eighties. The album What’s a Few Men?, released in Australia in 1987, was determined by the executives to have too strong of a Down Under vibe, so it was retitled Fate and a couple new tracks were recorded, including the fantastic “Back on the Breadline,” which served as a s single.

Fate largely succeeded according to the I.R.S. Records model, charting singles and making a healthy overall showing on the CMJ charts. Multiple tracks — including “You Can Have It All” — skewed closely enough to the yearning, anthemic style popularized by U2. Like just about everyone else, college programmers always had room for bands that reminded them of the the music they already liked. Although Fate did well, there were evidently hopes for greater crossover success. By the time of the band’s next album — Ghost Nation, released in 1989 — they had a new American label, Atlantic, that also couldn’t figure out a way to fully crack the bonanza code of The Joshua Tree. Before breaking up at the end of the nineteen-nineteens, Hunters & Collectors released three more albums that did bang-up business in Australia. But in the U.S., they were little more than an afterthought.

Listen or download —> Hunters & Collectors, “You Can Have It All”

(Disclaimer: While there appears to be loads and loads of Hunters & Collectors collections released in Australia over the years, a presumably a healthy enough trade in the original albums, I believe their recordings to be out of print in the U.S., at least as physical objects that can be procured from your favorite local, independently owned record store in a manner than compensates both the artist and the proprietor of said shop. I am not presenting this file — shared under the legal precedent of fair use — as a replacement for engaging in commerce. In fact, I think you should go buy some new records right now. I just don’t think this is a viable candidate for that purchase. I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Bait Taken — The Academy Awards Shake-Up

rotk oscars

Not that long ago, the Academy Awards spent one of their annual ceremonies giving practically every trophy they could to The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Directed by Peter Jackson, the film was the concluding feature in a trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus. It won in every category in which it was nominated, including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Directing, and — the top prize — Best Picture. It became one of three films in Academy Awards history to tally eleven total wins. It was also the highest grossing film of the year, by a considerable margin. Indeed, by the end of the film’s box office run, bolstered a bit by the Oscar haul, it was the second-highest grossing film of all time to that point, behind only James Cameron’s Titanic, another Academy Award Best Picture winner (and another film tied for the record of eleven Oscar wins).

In an increasingly desperate bid to stem the ongoing attrition impacting practically every televised event, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced a set of planned changes to their annual awards ceremony, which will present its ninety-first edition in early 2019. There aren’t many changes, but those that were sent into the showbiz world (with a shocking lack of basic logistical detail) are so abjectly terrible that they suggest the people charged with protecting and preserving the Oscars have nothing but contempt for the venerable institution in their charge. The additions and subtractions are simultaneously an embarrassment and an affront, undercutting the credibility of the one entertainment award that matters and tacitly communicating to a wide population of cinematic artisans that their most inspired efforts simply aren’t as worthy of public celebration.

The proposed change that has stirred slightly less chatter will relegate an indeterminate number of Oscar categories to presentation off-air during the annual ceremony, while the American Broadcast Company is helping Pepsi and Toyota peddle their wares to the masses. The Academy hasn’t identified while categories will be shunted to the side, but they surely are looping an oversized hook around the so-called technical categories, bereft of famous names, but also, let’s not forget, more amenable to exactly the sort of big blockbuster entertainments the Academy clearly wishes were more present in the ceremony. Those Academy members presumably targeted for official second-tier status are understandably upset.

The more buzzed about alteration is an addition. There will be “a new category for outstanding achievement in popular film.” It is vaguely defined, with the tepid assurance that “key details will be forthcoming,” but all signs point to it as some sort of “people’s choice” equivalent, given to a film with a far larger box office footprint than, say, Spotlight or Moonlight or even, I guess, The Shape of Water, which took in a wholly respectable $195 million worldwide. Those sorts of films can, and often do, factor into major Academy Award categories on their own merits. Even Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, long the poster child for the Academy’s elitist rejection of hit films, was nominated in eight categories and won an acting trophy (posthumously, for Heath Ledger). It competed in the very categories the Academy would so dearly love to excise. I find it hard to believe that the pandering consolation prize of Best Popular Picture would struck anyone — creators, fans, viewers — as a satisfying outcome.

If anything, the segmenting off of “popular” films makes them less likely to contend. It’s early in the process, but it does seem possible that Marvel’s Black Panther could be a major presence at next year’s Oscars, for a variety of reasons. The Academy’s new categories signals to voters that they need not take it seriously. A little kiddie table has been created for that film, so don’t bother considering it among the real art. (To be fair, at this point last year, it was plausible that Wonder Woman could factor into Picture, Director, and Lead Actress races, and it was completely shut out of the nominations.) Even if the best intentions are assumed, that the new category is meant to extend the celebration of film excellence, it winds up doing the exact opposite, emphasizing that the hit movies don’t belong, that they’re not creative achievements.

I freely admit that I’m not the type of film fan the Academy is anxiously trying to win over. But I am precisely who they need to keep around. I’ve been watching the Oscars with a mildly mortifying intensity for decades, and I’ve defended the earned value of the awards with exhausting persistence. I’ve also openly lamented certain choices, especially in recent years. Today, though, really does feel like the first time I’m watching Academy leadership blithely demolish everything that’s been built up across nearly a century.

Great Moments in Literature

“Anna drew on the cigarette, enjoying the dry heat inside her mouth, and let the smoke scatter into the wind. It was dirty, but a dirtiness she liked — akin to the girl welders eating their lunches sitting on the floor. She and Nell smoked in silence. Anna looked across Wallabout Bay at the hammerhead crane bent against the sky. A few days before, she’d watched it lift a cement truck off the ground as if it were a die-cast toy. Beyond the crane sprawled the Williamsburg Bridge and then the low buildings on the shore of Manhattan, windows like gold flakes in the dusty sky.”

—Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach, 2017

 

FIVE WORLDS AS HEADS FROZE THE MOMENT — AND BRIDGET WAS AWED TO THAT HAIR-RAISING SILENCE ALWAYS FOLLOWING A GASP. I‘D SUCKED AIR WITH PRICKLED SCALP, TOO, THE FIRST TIME I’D SEEN IT: FIVE CONCENTRIC LAYER-WORLDS, TUCKED ONE INSIDE THE OTHER, THE CEILING OF EACH STUDDED WITH ARTIFICIAL SUNS LIGHTING THE LAYER BELOW…OCEANS OF AIR PERMITTING TRAVEL FROM ONE WORLD TO THE NEXT, AND EVEN ALL THE WAY DOWN TO THE CORE. THE WHOLE THING WAS A SYMBOLIC REALIZATION OF TIME, SPACE, HISTORY’S MYSTERY, AND THAT WHICH COULD UNRAVEL THE WHOLE BALL OF YARN. AN ONION WITH FIVE LAYERS AND A NASTY CENTER — OR FIVE APPLES SHARING THE SAME WORM-RIDDEN CORE. BUT DON’T ASK ME HOW IT CAME TO BE; I HAD OTHER PROBLEMS…”

—Doug Moench, AZTEC ACE, Vol. 1, No. 1, “The Mexica Serpent,” 1984

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #884 to #881

del stand

884. Del Fuegos, Stand Up (1987)

Time was running out for the Del Fuegos. Signed by the Warner Bros. subsidiary Slash Records, the Boston band were fully expected to inspire the same fervor from a national audience as they generated in their hometown, where they were the standouts of a local scene which would soon evolve into one of the proving grounds for nineteen-nineties alternative rock. Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp were routinely placing singles in the Billboard Top 10 at the time (they had two apiece in 1987). There was plenty of room for straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll bands on commercial radio. Despite a hearty label push and the mixed blessing of a starring role in a Miller beer commercial, the Del Fuegos hadn’t really broken through with their first two albums. So there was a lot riding on the third effort, Stand Up.

Working with their regular producer, Mitchell Froom (who presided over one of 1987’s most inescapable songs, the Los Lobos cover of “La Bamba”), Del Fuegos cranked out a batch of barroom rockers burnished with a studio sheen. Stand Up is solidly crafted and achingly safe. It’s as if they were hedging their bets, figuring that if they got another soft response from record buyers, at least they had material that could serve as an audition for another beer ad.

On Stand Up, the Del Fuegos are at their best when they keep it relatively simple, as on the bluesy album opener “Wear It Like a Cape.” There’s a comfort there that’s missing on much of the rest of the album. “Long Slide (For an Out)” is so packed with layers and elements that it is reminiscent of the Eurythmics’ “Would I Lie to You,” with Chess Records instead of Stax as the inspiration, and — more problematically —  without the mix of discipline and sly reinvention perfected by Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox. “A Town Called Love” has a similar put-everything-out-there vibe, with similarly drab results. When the album falters most gravely, the result is the bad Tom Waits impression “He Had a Lot to Drink Today,” or the laughable flashes of hard rock posturing on “News from Nowhere”

Except for the most faithful (including, clearly, a decent number of college radio programmers), no one was particularly happy about Stand Up. Following its lackluster rollout, Slash Records dropped the Del Fuegos, and guitarist Warren Zanes and drummer Woody Giessman both exited the band. A reconfigured version of the group released one more album — Smoking in the Fields, on RCA Records — before calling it quits, at least until the eventual siren song of college rock reunion cash-ins unexpectedly arrived a couple decades later.

 

 

easterhouse

883. Easterhouse, Contenders (1986)

There were plenty of bands staking out strong political positions in the nineteen-eighties, enraged to action by the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the ongoing moral crime of apartheid in South Africa, and all the dismaying information shared by Amnesty International as that organization’s prominence rose like mercury on a sweltering summer day. Few groups, though, were as unabashed about laying out their shared manifesto quite like the English post-punk punchers Easterhouse. Within the opening paragraphs of a 1986 Spin magazine profile, the fact that every member of the band was a full-fledged member of the Revolutionary Communist Party was casually offered up as an interesting tidbit. This was miles away from a Teen Beat clip-and-save page revealing that Simon Le Bon’s favorite color is blue.

Contenders, the full-length debut from Easterhouse, puts their politics right at the forefront of their adrenalized sonic assault. The songs sometimes get a little didactic — realistically, how could they not? — but sterling musicianship prevails a laudable amount of the time. The material is catchy and sharp enough that the hooks have already sunk in before the geopolitical lessons elbow their way in. “Nineteen Sixty-Nine” may consider the Northern Ireland riots of the title year with a term paper efficiency, but the enveloping slink of the bands sound — a little Echo and the Bunnymen and a lot of Joy Division — softens the lesson.

The jabbing guitar line of “Whistling in the Dark” evokes political punk forefathers the Clash, and the low rumble thunder of “Cargo of Souls” feels like Easterhouse is just starting to find a way to carry their influences forward into something sharply new. With clamorous authority, “Get Back to Russia” emphasizes the importance of pushing forward with potentially unpopular positions, even in the face of derision (“They tell you in England/ We’re all entitled to a say/ But nothing too extreme/ That’s not the English way”). The title refers to the commonplace dismissive counter to the band’s shared politics, and the song emphasizes the importance in maintaining vigilance in the face of that phrase. When a country is in trouble, the song points out, that’s when you fight the hardest for it.

 

lucy undone

882. The Lucy Show, …Undone (1985)

Presumably, the writers at Billboard didn’t quite know what to make of a band like the Lucy Show at the time …Undone was released. Though hardly a publication that went long in their record reviews, Billboard‘s assessment of the Lucy Show’s first full-length was strikingly brief: “British quartet debuts with a well crafted but rather dour set of trim rock originals, given urgency by its sober lyrics and taut arrangements.” The same issue offered significantly more words and enthusiasm for the concurrently released Ray Parker Jr. album, which was said to be “Tough enough for the dance floor, but slick enough for CHR.”

The assessment by Billboard was accurate, yet woefully incomplete. The debut by the Lucy Show was perfectly suited to the still-emerging college radio sound. Opening track and lead single “Ephemeral (This is No Heaven)” is emblematic, bringing a dreamy quality to a catchy, chiming track. It’s exploratory, emotionally piquant, and conveys an intellectual assurance. It’s no wonder the record immediately connected with student programmers. As if emphasizing the perfect fit of …Undone“Resistance” has a tingly touch of R.E.M., and both “The White Space” and “Better on the Hard Side” echo the romantic anguish of the Cure.

“The Twister” delivers a dizzying morass of synthesized sounds, coupling the music to fairly oblique social commentary lyrics (“You can laugh/ Don’t you laugh too hard/ We’ll fill you up with confidence/ And pack you off to war”). It can seem as though the Lucy Show is actively trying to figure out who they are, trying on different guises. Rather than resulting in a muddle, the approach gives the album a different sort of vigor. It’s not unpredictable, exactly, since there’s definitely a moody, lush through line to the sound, but there is a sense of rippling nuance from track to track.

The album did well on college radio, but neither it nor its singles (including the peppy “Undone”) made much of an impression on the commercial charts. The Lucy Show likely believed they’d made a good start. The label disagreed. A&M Records dropped the band at the end of the year, leaving the Lucy Show to scramble to find a home for their follow-up album, eventually landing on the Australian independent label Big Time Records.

 

 

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881. 10cc, Bloody Tourists (1978)

Bloody Tourists is officially the sixth studio album credited to 10cc. It’s more accurate to think of it as the sophomore effort of the group that reconvened after founding figures Kevin Godley and Lol Creme departed, in part because they’re grown frustrated with their bandmates’ comparatively conventional tastes. Godley and Creme wanted to craft operatic pop opuses. On the basis on the 10cc found on Bloody Tourists, the remaining band members were more invested in weirdo pastiches that sloppily poured the wine of diverse music styles into the foggy chalice of upstanding British rock. The album title evidently refers to the band as they traipse blithely, somewhat ironically around the musical globe.

The album’s biggest hit is also its most egregious act of cynical appropriation. “Dreadlock Holiday” adopts a generic reggae sound in recounting the travails of outsiders vacationing among the ruffians on a Caribbean isle (“I heard a dark voice beside of me/ And I looked round in a state of fright/ I saw four faces, one mad/ A brother from the gutter”). The eventual scoring of some high quality weed (“She said I’ve got it you want it/ My harvest is the best”) redeems the vacation in a different eye-rolling deployment of cliche. Although it fell shy of the Top 10 in the U.S., “Dreadlock Holiday” was a chart-topping hit in the U.K. and several other countries.

The musical wanderlust also burbles up in the music box preciousness of “Tokyo” (“Kimonos and geisha girls/ From grade one, down to three/ Oh Tokyo, oh Tokyo/ Oh Tokyo, I love you”) and the quasi-calypso oddity “From Rochdale to Ocho Rios.” Even when there’s a less obvious geographic tie, the tracks meander strange paths. “The Anonymous Alcoholic” opens with just a a touch of woozy country twang before evolving into a disco riff and then back again. Although “Reds in My Bed” doesn’t pilfer any tones from Moscow (if anything, it sounds a little like Squeeze), it takes its own unique side trip into topics of global concern  (“And while the Cold War exists/ I’ll stay warm with the commissar’s daughter”).

And sometimes the explorations are yet plainer. “For You and I” is a clear descendent of 10cc’s major hit “The Things We Do for Love,” which means it’s just a softer version of Steely Dan’s icy, elegant pop. Since the band bops around, they occasionally alight on material that’s slightly more interesting. “Take These Chains” isn’t fantastic, but it could pass for a lesser Dave Edmunds offering. For a band wearing out their passport, that’s a better destination than most.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs