The Art of the Sell: “Dance with Your Feet”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

I’ve been taking my place within the hallowed cathedrals of movie theaters for long enough that I can remember a time when there wasn’t a sitcom-length sprawl of commercials as the preamble to any feature. While the natural presumption is that I — in proper cranky old man form — find such intrusions of corporate marketing to be deplorable, I see it instead as, at worst, a necessary evil in a time of mounting costs and more drastic ebb and flow in theatrical exhibition. Maybe more surprising, there are instances, which admittedly happen with damnable rarity, in which the advertising is so clever that it stands as a highlight of the moviegoing experience. The surest route to that outcome is create an ad that take full advantage of the movie theater setting.

Way back when I was reviewing movies for a weekly program on my college radio station, in the early nineteen-nineties, I encountered the finest example of such an approach that I’ve ever seen. And it distantly outpaces whatever the runner-up might be. As I remember it, I was at the Majestic Theater in Madison, Wisconsin. It was part of a day trip to the city in order to see as many independent films as possible, all in the service of filling the slate of our radio show since the little Midwestern college town that twas our broadcast home was sometimes lucky to get more than two new movies per week.

Much as I enjoy — even prefer — the sorts of films that play at art house cinemas, the trailers for them are usually not exactly, an enduring truism that was even more solidly certain back then. I’m uncertain about the quality of the films we watched that day, but the trailers had begun to wear me out with their wispy lack of commitment. (Trailers for foreign films were especially nebulous as editors took great pains to disguise the presence of subtitles from prospective audiences.) Up came a trailer for a Noire Pictures feature called Dance with Your Feet, from director Renato Floresca. As it tracked through a familiar series of shots depicting the sort of romantic melancholia that the film business routinely imported from across the Atlantic, I slumped lower in my seat, resigned to the idea that we’d be trekking back to Madison in a few weeks to sit through this feature.

Then, after almost a full minute fake-out, the surprise punchline was delivered. What we were watching was actually an entry in one of the most enduring, ubiquitous, and inventive ad campaigns of the era. Remarkably, it was an entry in the campaign that seemed precisely engineered to play in art house theaters. As I already noted, I don’t remember anything about the full-length features we saw that day, even though they were the purpose of the trip. I damn well remember the commercial, though.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

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College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 148 – 146

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148. Eurythmics, “Sexcrime (Nineteen Eighty-Four)”

There was no way the big bosses of the entertainment business were going to let the calendar year 1984 pass without doing their level best to capitalize of the fact it corresponded to one of the most famous titles in 20th century literature. Given the need to heavily prioritize timetables over creative decisions, there was equally little chance they were going to avoid bungling the whole endeavor. While respectfully reviewed upon its release, the 1984 film version of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was not the sensation, critically or commercially, that the producers expected. Even its place in film history as the home of the final screen role for the great Richard Burton doesn’t especially boost its regard. (There was also a 1956 film version, but that’s even more thoroughly erased from the cinematic memory by now.) There was strain and confusion during the production process, exemplified by the bizarre tussle over the film’s music. According to director Michael Radford, who would nab an Oscar nomination years later for fulfilling the same duties for Il Postino, claims he always intended Nineteen Eighty-Four to have a more traditional orchestral score, and he’d hired Dominic Muldowney to compose it. Evidently, Virgin Films, the chief financial backers of the production, had different ideas. They solicited the services of Eurythmics, then less than a year removed from the global smash “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and already the standard-bearers of arty, futuristic pop. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox delivered a music score and a batch of songs, fully expecting they provided every bit of music that would be used in the finished movie. It didn’t turn out that way. “The first we heard that our music wouldn’t be used was at the premiere of the film,” Lennox said at the time. The version of the film that eventually played in theaters had a rough patchwork of both sets of music, an unhappy compromise that Radford successfully sought to eradicate in later home video releases. Even though there was some dispute about putting Eurythmics music in the film, the reticence didn’t go both ways, compounding the frustration of the band. “We though, Oh well, we’d rather not have our music on the film if somebody doesn’t want it; we’ll keep it for ourselves,” Stewart noted at the time. “Then they agreed to give us the film to put in our video, and then I was really confused, and I thought, hello, the director doesn’t want to our music in his film, but he wants to put his film in our video in order to sell the film. And at that point we just stopped talking to them.” The video for “Sexcrime (Nineteen Eighty-Four)” did incorporate footage from the film, though somewhat sparingly. Following up the band’s second Top 5 hit in the U.S., “Sexcrime” fared poorly on the Billboard charts, peaking at #81, three places higher than those who enjoy happenstance symmetry would prefer.

 

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147. The Human League, “Don’t You Want Me”

The initial inspiration for the 1981 single “Don’t You Want Me” came from a story Human League lead singer Philip Oakley saw in a teen girl’s magazine. As he tinkered with it, he incorporated some of the psychodrama elements of the much-remade film A Star is Born, eventually deciding that the song was best served by becoming a duet. He looked to the band’s backup singers, ultimately opting to give the shared lead to Susan Ann Sulley, a decision he acknowledged was almost arbitrary. The result is that Sulley wound up a central contributor to one of the tracks that essentially defines nineteen-eighties music. “Don’t You Want Me” topped the charts on both side of the Atlantic, becoming the first #1 for the Virgin record label and the top-selling single of the year in the U.K. Proving that indie rock animosity towards pursuing success has existed for a good long time, the band was against making “Don’t You Want Me” a single. “We didn’t want to release that song, we tried hard to get Virgin not to release the record,” Sulley later explained. “We thought it was too commercial.” As for the production of the song, it was marked by ingenuity and good fortune. Oakley recorded his vocals in the studio bathroom, a process that was complicated by bandmate Jo Callis pranking him with repeated, surreptitiously instigated flushes of the toilet. And the famously off-kilter melody of the chorus was the result of an error caused by the relatively new technology being employed. “That came about because the computer screwed up and played the line a half-beat out of time,” Martin Rushert, the producer on the song, explained years later to NME. “The moment we heard it, Jo and I went, ‘Wow, that’s amazing!'” Like many hit songs throughout the eighties, “Don’t You Want Me” benefitted from heavy, appreciative airplay for its music video, directed by Steve Barron, one of the trailblazing masters of the form. It was one of the earliest videos — if not the very first one — to be shot on 35mm instead of 16mm. “At the time of ‘Don’t You Want Me,’ I was really into the Truffaut movie Day for Night,” Barron said. “I was intrigued by his idea of a film within a film, and I thought, We have to go further? What about a film within a film within a film?'” There were other motivations for strolling down this particular creative avenue. The female character in the video spends time working in an editing room because of Barron’s own whirling affections. “She’s basically playing a girl I had a crush on, one of the assistant editors where I was working,” he said. Though Oakley and many of his Human League bandmates still don’t especially care for the song, it’s developed into a pop music standard. And the long afterlife of the single has brought about some especially unique and inspired derivations.

 

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146. Thomas Dolby, “Airhead”

Thomas Dolby is considered one of the pioneers of synthpop, largely on the basis of the 1982 single “She Blinded Me with Science.” By the end of the decade, however, even he was growing weary of the hyper-produced material he helped spawn. Ahead of his third album, Aliens Ate My Buick, released in 1988, Dolby developed a band to take on the road and help work through his new material. Through that process with the backing group, dubbed the Lost Toy People, Dolby felt he had all the arrangements to the individual songs solidly worked out before he ever went into the studio. His goal was no longer to tinker and stitch, which led him to seek out some different technical support than he’d had in the past, when he’d handled most of the production duties on his own. “I needed to find an engineer who was really able to capture the energy of Lost Toy People and get it down on tape,” Dolby later said. That led him to Bill Bottrell, a studio technician who got his start working with Jeff Lynne on ELO records. The resulting album betrayed a strong funk influence, up to and including a George Clinton cover. The album’s lead single, “Airhead,” seemingly took disparaging aim at superficial young women. As with many songs that traffic in satire, “Airhead” was widely misunderstood, with plenty of listeners catching the seeming misogyny of the primary lyrics and missing the scathing turnabout delivered by the closing lines: “If she’s an airhead it has to be said/ It was men made her that way.”

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: Changeling

When I started reviewing films on the radio, in 1990, Clint Eastwood was still larger considered a movie star who occasionally directing movies, almost as a hobby. That consensus view was understandable, but also needlessly dismissive. Within the first few months of our radio show, Eastwood released his fourteenth and fifteen features as a director, one terrific and one atrocious. Now eighty-six years old, Eastwood has acted only twice in the past ten years. Including 2006, he’s directed ten films, and in three of those years he’s had two separate offerings released as the same calendar hangs on the wall. 

Clint Eastwood is a director who resolutely, rigidly adheres to the material he’s chosen. He has a fine visual sense, to be sure, and is an effective storyteller, but he’s not going to pull a film together by bringing his passions, sensibilities and personal inspiration to bear on the project. He’s a seasoned factory worker doing his part to get the car built. In the end, it may be a sturdy piece of craftsmanship, but it’s easier to see it as admirable construct that a piece of vivid art. That’s one of the reasons screenwriter Paul Haggis has been a well-suited collaborator on recent films. Haggis leans on cliches, finding small ways to tweak expectations in the process. It’s given Eastwood familiar narrative angles that play to his strengths and allowed just enough freshness in the fringes to compel some amount of forgiveness for the pieces that stand out as worn-out movie moments. Million Dollar Baby may be manipulative melodrama, but it’s gripping manipulative melodrama.

The screenwriter of Eastwood’s latest film, the wrenching drama Changeling, is J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski’s most notable prior work has been highly episodic in nature. Those writing habits manifest in the script as it builds to multiple climaxes instead of rolling out a single cohesive story. Eastwood, ever dutiful to his script, doesn’t smooth that out, giving the film a bumpy feel.

That unyielding solidity of Eastwood’s approach–an old school stodginess almost–is as much a strength as it is a weakness. Based on a true story, the film centers on the anguish of Christine Collins, whose son disappeared in the late 1920’s. After several months, the Los Angeles Police Department reported they’d found him, but Christine insisted the boy they presented to her was not her offspring. Her efforts to convince the authorities of their mistake and to force them to continue in the hunt for her son were met with outright hostility and even persecution. Eastwood has a sure hand in depicting this. The lives of Christine and her son are laid out with unfussy care and the escalation of her woe is palpable. The thematic points about the casual sexism of the era and the ways in which fear of negative public perception drove the decision-making of the authorities is embedded rather than overt.

It helps immeasurably that Eastwood has Angelina Jolie in the central role. Jolie is inescapably a star, but, placed in the right film, she is a shrewd, graceful actor of the highest capability. She makes a choice that seems especially honest given the cultural time and the circumstances of the film: She plays Christine with a greatly tentative nature. Even as she’s pushing against the system, she’s quick to acquiesce to the powers that impatiently knock her back down. Jolie’s star power largely emanates from a fiery personal authority and sexually-charged fearlessness. When she coasts on that, it can be pretty boring (admittedly, I can also be a pure sucker for it). When she channels it into a more tightly focused performance that draws on different shadings of personality, as she did with last year’s A Mighty Heart and as she does here, it’s immensely rewarding to watch.

In fact, Jolie’s richly realized performance gives the film a cohesion that would otherwise be absent. The script brings in several different elements–there are many stories connected to Christine’s–to a point where it occasionally threatens to become unwieldy. She develops her character–her personal growth, her tenacity, her intellectual fortitude–with an thoroughness that the scattershot narrative story structure can sometimes undercut. But even when the film drifts away from Christine for too long, Jolie’s performance looms as a promise. It heightens what works in the film and obscures what doesn’t. It’s just the kind of performance that Eastwood needs, and he deserves credit for his collaborative work with Jolie to get it to the screen. The old hand may not be infallible. It may seem more like work than art, but you can still look at it and see his influence, the unmistakable marks of fine craftsmanship.

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One for Friday: The Bens, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”

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It only made sense. A trio of Bens — with the last names of Folds, Kweller, and Lee — emerged on the alternative music scene at about the same time, in the mid-nineteen-nineties. (It’s not quite accurate to term them peers since two of the three were literally kids and the third could accurate reference multiple ex-wives in his lyrics.) Besides a forename, all three songwriters had a propensity for clever, genially comic lyrics. Around ten years later, the music business landscape around them had changed dramatically: album sales started their precipitous plummet, the once hot alternative radio format was relegated to the broadcasting field’s junk drawer, and there was certainly no place for wit where the painfully sincere likes of Radiohead and Coldplay dominated the fraying attention of supposedly discerning critics and fans. Why not band together for one last stand of wry pop-rock.

Dubbed the Bens, the band didn’t last long. Honestly, it’s hard to discern if it was even meant to. There are only so many times a joke can be told, after all. In their limited time, there were a few memorable musical contributions, none more so than a live cover of the finest song from Sinéad O’Connor’s finest album. It’s hardly world-changing stuff, but it manages to capture the drive and churn of the song, somehow approaching it both earnestly and with a dapple of irony. And it shows off the exemplary taste of the men in the band.

I’m not sure I long for a succession of original albums from the Bens. On the other hand, this provides sound evidence that a few nights of them serving as a cover band in just the right bar, with a generous row of taps, would be well worth signing up for.

Listen or download –> The Bens, “The Emporer’s New Clothes”

(Disclaimer: So. I’m not even entirely sure how this digital track came into my possession. As best as I can tell, it was included on a live release that may or may not have even been commercially available. I have a foggy recollection of playing this on air at the Florida college radio station that served as my professional home for several years, so maybe it was a radio-only promo release? Regardless, more than most weeks, it appears to me that sharing this track causes no fiscal harm in that the song in question cannot be purchased from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensate both the proprietor of said shop and the original artist, not to mention the songwriter, who could use a little added support these days. Seriously, go buy one of O’Connor’s first two albums. And any of the early work of the three guys pictures above is equally worth paying for. Really, just go buy an album this weekend. It will make your heart feel better. Despite my conviction that sharing this file in this space at this time is completely fair, I will gladly and promptly remove this song 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.)

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My Misspent Youth: Hero for Hire by Steve Englehart and George Tuska

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

The nineteen-seventies were a weird time, man. Freshly freed from the constraints of the strict content guidelines and emboldened by the surging influence of the counter-culture, American cinema pushed into edgy new territory, and practically every other form of visual storytelling followed suit. In particular, Marvel comic book creators took their cues from what was happening on big screens, especially as the publisher’s bullpen filled up with writers and artists who drew formative impressions from the revolutionary work of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and wanted to push the form to take the next step. That they increasingly viewed scruffy college kids rather than slingshot-toting youths as their target audience only heightened the sense of trippy daring.

The first issue of Hero for Hire was cover-dated June 1972, meaning it arrived in spinner racks less than a year after Shaft played in theaters coast to coast, effectively launching the blaxploitation cinematic subgenre. Whatever other goals they may have had in launching the series, Marvel was clearly looking to cash in on this suddenly flourishing interest in gritty urban adventures. In place of John Shaft, Marvel had Luke Cage, an ex-convict whose time in the slammer included experimentation that turned his skin impervious. His dialogue was peppered with obvious stand-ins for profanity and he generally operated with a slick swagger. As with any character infused with such idiosyncratic qualities, the real delight arose when he interacted with the rest of the Marvel Universe proper.

As the original title of Cage’s series implied, he developed a business model around his superpowers. It made it a little easier to get a story started. All it took was a new customer.

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In the case of this story, written by Steve Englehart and drawn by George Tuska, the mysterious benefactor who offered Cage a pair of matching Benjamins for his services is none other than the biggest bad guy in all of Marvel mythos. Demonstrating he may not have been much of a Daily Bugle reader, Cage wasn’t familiar with Dr. Doom before coming face to faceplate with him, leading to a completely rational reaction.

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Proving the capitalistic principle that all money spends the same, Cage decides that he’ll remain in the employ Dr. Doom, no matter his reputation. The mission isn’t that tough, after all: simply taking on some errant robots. The real problem arises when Cage delivers the invoice, discovering that Doom has a Trumpian aversion to paying his debts. The malevolent monarch jetted back to his home country of Lateveria with no intention of settling up with the yellow-shirted powerhouse. That injustice rankles Cage more than any other, leading him to seek out transport of his own from a certain quartet who’ve had their own share of tangles with Victor Von Doom.

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For no good reason, the Fantastic Four decide to go ahead and turn over one of their multi-million dollar, proprietary, rocket-based transport devices to this complete stranger with no known experience piloting such aircraft. Why not? Maybe it will keep Dr. Doom out of their hair for a few issues.

Once Cage gets to Latveria, he works his way through Doom’s castle until he encounters the despot himself, leading to maybe the most famed panel in the whole series.

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“Where’s my money, honey?” is, I think it’s safe to type, not a phrase used to address Dr. Doom in any previous Marvel comic. Luke Cage was a trailblazer in many, many ways.

Cage’s relentless battering of Doom’s armor leads to a malfunctioning of its underlying defenses, leaving the tyrant essentially defenseless when he’s suddenly attacked by a sentient orb known as the Faceless One (again, Marvel Comics in the seventies were nutso). In a continuing demonstration of Cage’s uniquely flexible moral code, he winds up defending the very supervillain he was battling moments earlier.

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Luke Cage announced his weight in pretty much every issue. It was practically a catch phrase.

Duly impressed and grateful, Dr. Doom fishes a pair of one hundred dollar bills out of the pocket of his cloak providing Cage with the only thanks he needs. Sweet Christmas, what an ending!

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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Bernstein with Hooker, Chaplin, Friedkin, Lowery, Taylor

Terminator: Genisys (Alan Taylor, 2015). The reeling lesson of the just completed summer box office season is that the recycled repetition of brand-driven moviemaking may finally be sputtering its last. The ideal case study as to why arrived one year earlier. Arriving six years after the previous attempt at franchise revivification, Terminator: Genisys shows precisely how hollow the endeavor can be. The film trots out a procession of touchstones — familiar lines, restaged scenes, echoed character beats — without a hint of a central vision or an ounce of soul. Director Alan Taylor brings that same sluggish blandness that made Thor: The Dark World the weakest film yet released as an official part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The filmmakers can’t even exploit the built-in benefits of an overall time travel storyline that creates endless possibilities for tinkering, instead using it to indulge in narrative switcheroos that obliterate established details and, even worse, defy basic logic. It’s nonsense presented as shocking reinvention, mistakenly equating difference with quality.

Everything is Copy (Jacob Bernstein with Nick Hooker, 2016). This examination of the life and career of Nora Ephron is veers between point-by-point documentary and personal essay. The more it skews to the latter, the better it is. Directed by her son Jacob Bernstein (with an assist by Nick Hooker), the film is at its most intriguing when the intimacy of his attention comes through, even when its no more overt than the occasional interview subject referring to “your mom” when talking about Ephron. Simultaneously, the contradictions of Ephron’s openness in writing about herself while being highly selective and even secretive about what was shared is introduced without being fully explored, an example of the reticence that naturally comes when making a documentary about family instead of a subject that allows for greater willingness to expose with something that might feel like unkindness but which is actually honesty.

City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931). Could any film that came before this be described as a melancholy comedy? Whether or not Charlie Chaplin finessed a new complexity into the cinematic fabric with this film is certainly up for debate. What’s clear is that he firmed up the certainty that his voice was vital and transformative, which would be further cemented by his next feature, the masterful Modern Times. Though City Times has a compelling wholeness and a notable emotional resonance, it’s also a clear product of its time, betraying Chaplin’s background in two-reelers (as well as the general dominance of those shorter form works). There’s an overarching story involving Chaplin’s regular tramp character and a romance with a blind flower seller (Virginia Cherill) that’s based in part on some inadvertent deception, but the film is also somewhat fragmented, making room for every clever set piece Chaplin devised. The best of the bunch is a boxing match that’s a feat of choreography. An artifact of its time, it nonetheless sparks with the enduring thrill of a whole art form being invented on the spot.

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011). This film adaptation of the first play written by Tracy Letts, before he remembered that less twisted depictions of familial discord held the key to official artistic reverence, builds to a cacophony of florid human gruesomeness. Directed by William Friedkin, who previously brought Letts’s Bug to the screen, the film is hobbled by a fevered intensity that feels forced, like an overt attempt to demonstrate that the boundary-battering of nineteen-seventies cinema can be transmogrified to suit a more jaded twenty-first century. The basics of the plot are borrowed from dozens of crime drama ancestors: gambling debts, insurance policy, a hit man, and a klatch of seedy people on the edge of desperation. That puts the burden of shock and surprise on the details, leading to an overlong scene with a KFC drumstick. There are some nice performances in the film, led by Thomas Haden Church and Juno Temple, the latter giving a stereotype surprising depth of feeling. Emile Hirsch brings his typical wooden line readings and feigned, needy grittiness to a central role that requires an actor with a stronger sense of craft at hiss disposable. This film was also the starting point for Matthew McConaughey’s respectability revival. He’s strong through the first half, when the script calls on him to rein in his energy, but when the character pivots to bolder gestures, McConaughey’s passion for playing unhinged brings him dangerously close to Nicolas Cage territory.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, 2013). Director David Lowery can evidently bring a fable-like gentleness to just about any story. Ahead of this year’s notably affecting Pete’s Dragon, Lowery brought similar care and restraint to a very different story, involving a criminal (Casey Affleck), the woman he loves (Rooney Mara), and a concerned police officer (Ben Foster). There’s a love triangle in there, but it’s mostly a tale about the grip of the past and the quiet redemption in moving on. Lowery is occasionally so refined and careful in handling the narrative particulars of the piece that he pushes the film toward an emotional aridness. He clearly has a greater investment and corresponding gift in crafting imagery that will convey feeling all on its own. Collaborating with cinematographer Bradford Young, a ringer who’s worked on two of Ava DuVernay’s features, Lowery delivers enough shots of aching beauty to reasonably invoke comparisons to early Terrence Malick.

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Laughing Matters: Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic”

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.

When I was a kid, Saturday nights were a sketch comedy goldmine. At least one robust vein is obvious: the programming night is right there in the title. Saturday Night Live endured some complicated seasons during the nineteen-eighties, but it was also the decade that saw the likes of Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Martin Short, and Christopher Guest pass through Studio 8H, and all of them were before the handful-of-aces casts that included all-time greats Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, and Dana Carvey. It was the program the aired earlier in the evening, however, that proved to be the real boon.

Where I grew up — and many other places, I assume — the local PBS station turned over their Saturday nights to some of the less stuffy programming they imported from across the Atlantic. That included Dr. Who, which I found all but impenetrable despite my aspirational geekiness. More importantly, it meant a portion of the evening was filled with old episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Initially, I responded to the inspired silliness more than anything else, delighting whenever the famed Spam sketch cycled up just as I was ready to celebrate when, say, Carvey’s Church Lady made one of her increasingly redundant appearances on SNL.

The turning point arrived with “The Argument Clinic,” the first comedy sketch that made me realize the form could be more than goofball diversion. It could be art. To this day, I marvel at the construction and verbal dexterity of this piece, which rivals the work of Tom Stoppard in its relentless ingenuity. In the category of comedy sketches, it still hasn’t been topped.

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

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September 2016
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