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.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #880 to #877

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880. Billy Idol, Don’t Stop (1981)

The bloke born William Michael Albert Broad was exceedingly comfortable returning to promising material until it finally turned into a hit. Taking the stage name Billy Idol because his school teachers routinely derided his lack of ambition and referred to him as “idle” (he claimed his first choice was in fact Billy Idle, but there was concern it would stir confusion because with a famous member of the Monty Python troupe), the spiky coifed singer launched a solo career after a tenure with the glammy punk rock band Generation X. For his solo debut, the EP Don’t Stop, Idol nicked a song from his former band called “Dancing with Myself.” He didn’t record a new version, choosing instead to remix the Generation X version. It became his first solo single.

As had been the case with Generation X, the single didn’t make much headway on the charts. It was rereleased as a single in 1983, after Idol’s self-titled full-length became a hit, yielding two entries in the Billboard Top 40. Once again, “Dancing with Myself” couldn’t push through, peaking at #102. These days, it’s retrospectively considered one of Idol’s major songs of the era.

On Don’t Stop, Idol also planted the seed for his biggest U.S. hit. The EP included a remarkably faithful take on the Tommy James and the Shondells’ song “Mony Mony.” At twice the length of the original, it also failed to breakthrough as a single, but Idol included a live version on the hits collection Idol Songs. The live cut became Idol’s sole single to top the U.S. charts, knocking another Tommy James cover from the peak position in the process.

 

 

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879. Good Rats, Birth Comes to Us All (1979)

Former by a batch of schoolmates in Queens, New York, in 1964, Good Rats was one of those bands that prospered in the scruffy environs of nineteen-seventies FM radio without ever tapping the elusive magic required for a broader breakthrough. They toughed it out on the road, often playing hundred of shows every year, and released a batch of bruising hard rock albums through the decade. Suffused with ambition, Birth Comes to Us All likely stirred hopeful expectations for the band. Surely this would be the record that changed everything.

Using songs that had reportedly been written throughout Good Rats’ fairly lengthy career, Birth Comes to Us All was a loose concept album. According to press materials the tracks on the album are “all dealing with different phases of the human life cycle.” Instead of prog rock abstraction, the material on the album seems to be highly personal. Album opening ballad “You’re Still Doing It” is based it on lead singer Peppi Marchellos’s own marriage, which at the time was seventeen years strong and resulted in four children. One of those offspring, ten-year-old Gene, lends vocals to “Gino,” which otherwise sounds a little like Rod Stewart fronting Thin Lizzy, with some touches of prog rock’s sense of theatricality thrown in.

The greasy guitar opening to “School Days” leads to a litany of reflections on the progression through high school, all tinged with cynicism (“Sophomore year, you make your drug connections/ Junior year, you worry ’bout your ugly pimples showing”). “City Liners” has a funky, flinty vibe, and “Bed and a Bottle” is agreeably catchy. “Man on a Fish” bears a sonic resemblance to the roughly concurrent work of Billy Joel, as does “Spirit of the Times.” That should have been a boon to Good Rats (Joel notched six Top 40 hits across 1979 and 1980), but it might have actually done little more than dissuade the long-term fans who were expecting the rock to be a little harder.

Birth Comes to Us All was met with a familiar middling response, leading the band to splinter somewhat. Half the roster was replaced before the next studio album, 1981’s Great American Music. That record proved to be the last under the Good Rats name, until a revival was launched fifteen years later.

 

 

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878. The English Beat, Wha’ppen? (1981)

Wha’ppen? was the second full-length studio effort by the band known in their home country as merely the Beat. Affixed with a geographic modifier for stateside releases, the bustling band co-fronted by Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger had an enormous U.K. hit with the previous year’s debut, I Just Can’t Stop It. Boasting three U.K. Top 10 singles, the album helped establish reggae and ska styles as a major force in British pop. When it came time to record Wha’ppen?, the band wanted to do more.

The English Beat deliberately broadened their sound on the album, drawing significantly on West African rhythms, which gave Wha’ppen? a far more easygoing feel that its predecessor. The jolting surprises were largely set aside, in favor of the easy groove of “Drowning” and the gentle flow of “Doors of Your Heart.” This was a band known for delivering wondrously exhausting catalysts for joyous dance floor energy, and now they were essentially urging fans to slow down and settle into the music, potentially discovering some of the politicized agitation in the lyrics. There are still bursts of zippy invention — the flamenco shadings of “Monkey Murders,” or the funky jolt to “I Am Your Flag” — but Wha’ppen? largely expects the listener to lean in rather than be grabbed forcefully by the hand.

Perhaps inevitably, the response cooled down, too. The album charted just as high as its predecessor, but the singles stalled outside of the Top 20. The English Beat would deliver just one more studio album, the much-loved Special Beat Service — before calling it quits.

 

 

wall planet

877. Wall of Voodoo, Happy Planet (1987)

Happy Planet, the fourth album from the Los Angeles band Wall of Voodoo, was likely intended to merge the two distinct eras of the band. It reunited the group with producer Richard Mazda, who’d presided over Call of the West, the album that included “Mexican Radio,” the band’s biggest hit. That record was released during the span that Stan Ridgway was the group’s lead singer. Ridgway departed the lineup after that album, and Andy Prieboy, singer with the San Francisco art pop group Eye Protection, was recruited for frontman duties. It was surely hoped that Mazda could recapture the charms of the earlier record with the new personnel.

In accordance with the general Wall of Voodoo approach, the bulk of Happy Planet is decidedly, defiantly odd. That’s clear from the opening track, a weirdo cover of the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again.” The requisite music video included Brian Wilson, acting an unsettling madhouse vision that unfortunately (and maybe purposefully) called to mind his well-documented struggled with mental health. If Wall of Voodoo were hoping to generate chart goodwill with the familiarity of the song, they simultaneously did everything they could to repel the more casual listener.

Happy Planet is at its strongest when the band’s strange instincts are applied to styles that are sturdy enough to stand tall amidst the clowning. The quasi rockabilly of “Back in the Laundromat” and the boozy country-western goof “Ain’t My Day” overcome the sense that the band is signaling their disinterest. And the jittery “Elvis Bought Dora a Cadillac” is a surprisingly effective story-song.

Whatever aspirations Happy Planet carried, they weren’t fulfilled. Following the largely indifferent response to the album, the band broke up in 1988.

 

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

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.)

Greatish Performances #38

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#38 — Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1988)

Bob Hoskins had to invent an entirely new style of acting when he was recruited to play the lead in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The most obvious challenge Hoskins faced was interacting dynamically with beings that weren’t in place on set. Robert Zemeckis’s film imagined a classic Hollywood where humans and classically rendered cartoon characters lived together. Animated figures and human actors had certainly shared the screen before, but never in a manner that was meant to be particularly convincing. It was a gimmick, nothing more. That’s not what Zemeckis wanted, though. He wanted to bring a pliable yet compelling verisimilitude to the conceit.

Well before the advent of motion capture acting and the digital manipulations that make it possible, Hoskins was acting to tennis balls and other ad hoc contraptions to keep a physically consistent sight line. At best, he had Charles Fleischer, who voiced the hyperactive, conspired-against bunny of the title, sputtering lines just off set while adorned in an appropriately fluffy costume. Actors were already adjusting to a relatively new professional requirement to stare at some ominous something in the distance, knowing it was be added during the post-production phase. Ahead of the CGI revolution, sharing the screen with a whole cast of pending co-stars was unfamiliar terrain.

No matter how impressive the work of the animators or the efforts of other creative inventors to integrate the ink and paint with the flesh and blood, it was up to Hoskins to sell it. For the film to work, he needed to make the emotions and motivations in a highly fantastical environment feel completely, perfectly right. Importantly, that doesn’t necessarily mean he needs to make those elements feel real. And that speaks to the other components of the performance that are more elusively revolutionary and perhaps yet more impressive.

Hoskins hits a sliver of a sweet spot where realistic and cartoonish overlap, and does so while simultaneously offering the most loving and gentle spoofs of classic film noir private detectives. The performance is miraculously broad and grounded at once, in part because Hoskins seems to know he can push little mannerisms — especially the character’s defining gruffness — a little more robustly, knowing the popping, bounding crowd he’s within will make him look understated in comparison. It’s an invitation to indulgence, but Hoskins still keeps the performance in a precisely calibrated balance, making intricate adjustments depending on the moment and exactly which riotous rapscallion is sharing the screen.

Eventually, there would be a whole fleet of actors who could speak to similar experiences, shaped by the need to plaster every screen in the multiplex with superheroes, boy wizards, and other products of the wildest imaginings. There’s now a cohort that can offer mentoring in the strange art of acting against the future work of digital craftspeople. Three decades ago, Hoskins faced a untended landscape and simply got down to blazing a trail.

Previously….

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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.