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Mixed Nuts (1994)
Bad on a biblical scale
Given its stellar cast and pedigree, you could be forgiven for expecting "Mixed Nuts" to be really, really funny. Make no mistake--it's not. This movie is bad on a biblical scale--it's the cinematic equivalent of an Old Testament plague.
Steve Martin heads a suicide prevention hotline on Christmas. This weak premise gives Nora Ephron an opportunity to roll out every cruel, mean-spirited and painfully unfunny stereotype in the bad movie book, from the mannish transvestite to the forced-zany suicidal loon to the ever-popular Recurring Dead Body. One wonders why Martin and his staff run a suicide prevention hotline if they hate the mentally ill. As a Christmas movie this cynical, nasty exercise makes "Bad Santa" look like "Miracle On 34th St." The script is an incomprehensible mess, even veteran comic actors like Martin, Garry Shandling and Madeline Kahn seem lost, and Ephron's direction is so sloppy and hamhanded that the film plays like cutting-room debris stitched randomly together. If you're a Steve Martin completist you may feel compelled to see "Mixed Nuts", but do yourself a favor and don't. This movie is physically painful to watch. Everyone involved with this film should be embarrassed.
Kilroy Was Here (1983)
Don't Let It End!
Probably one of the most singularly bizarre moments in rock, Styx's 1983 short film "Kilroy Was Here" paints a picture of a dystopian, rockless blue-neon future ruled by religious zealots and screamingly racist Japanese androids (designed by effects guru Stan Winston). The loose plot has superstar rocker Robert Orrin Charles Kilroy (played to the hilt by Styx leader Dennis DeYoung, who dreamed up this concept and wrote the film) framed and convicted of murder by the Majority for Musical Morality, led by the evil preacher Dr. Righteous (guitarist James Young, who should not quit his day job). Kilroy's downfall comes on the same night that rock and roll is outlawed forever, and he's locked away for good--that is, until five years later when Kilroy sabotages a "Mr. Roboto" and breaks out, in search of Jonathan Chance (Tommy Shaw), the rockin' rebel leader of an underground movement to bring down bible-thumping Dr. Righteous and return the youth of America to their headbanging, Camaro-driving ways.
"Kilroy Was Here"--the movie and the album that inspired it--was laughably over-the-top even for the 80s. It spawned hits like "Mr. Roboto" and "Don't Let It End"--both included here--but its gut-busting excesses broke up the band, who dumped Dennis DeYoung for ruining their image as "serious rockers." Band members later dismissed the project as a huge DeYoung ego trip, and casting himself as the martyred saviour of rock and roll does strain belief beyond the breaking point. However, it's also a huge part of this film's charm. It's very much a "Spinal Tap" type project, with overblown special effects and every slick 80s music video cliché in the book--the fog budget alone must have been enormous. But it's tremendously entertaining for what it is. And though its vision of rock being banned outright seems ridiculous, Frank Zappa and Dee Snyder were testifying before Congress in rock's defense just a few years later. Who knows, maybe DeYoung's comically dark vision of the future is on its way even now.
The complete film "Kilroy Was Here" can be found at the beginning of the out-of-print VHS concert video "STYX: Caught In The Act".
The best and most bizarre TV special ever made
Paul Lynde was a one-of-a-kind character whose flaws have been amply documented by tell-alls like the "E! True Hollywood Story". What shows like that neglect to mention is that besides being a troubled man, Lynde was also an outrageously funny and willfully campy entertainer who never had a dull TV moment. A milestone in TV history, Lynde's Halloween special is one of the best things ever committed to videotape.
The basic outline is that Lynde is magically conjured up by two of the most famous witches in TV and film history, "The Wizard Of Oz"'s great Margaret Hamilton--reprising her role nearly 40 years later--and "H.R. Pufinstuf"'s Witchiepoo, Billie Hayes. He's paid for his services in wishes, which leads to bizarre fantasy transformation sequences that involve everyone from an extremely accommodating Tim Conway to "Happy Days" supertramp Pinky Tuscadero (in character!) Florence Henderson appears in various kinky outfits, Billy Barty makes dinner and the triumphant pièce de résistance is an appearance by a band naturally associated with arch-camp homosexual comedy--KISS. No, seriously, this special was KISS's network television debut! You have not lived until you've seen Peter Criss sing "Beth" to a middle-aged gay man. KISS also plays "Detroit Rock City"and "King of The Night Time World" while an appreciative Lynde flirts shamelessly. It's a beautiful thing. Hollywood legend Hamilton's bizarre interaction with KISS will also add breathtaking new dimension to any "six degrees" game you care to play. And did I fail to mention the other musical guests--Donny and Marie?
This special aired only once, in 1976. I was fortunate enough to see it then, although extremely poor quality bootlegs exist. Should the masters survive, this special should be released on DVD at once. Perhaps Gene Simmons has buried this the way George Lucas deep-sixed "The Star Wars Holiday Special"--but Lynde's Halloween special deserves a wide audience, both for its inimitable 1970s camp value and to introduce Lynde's riotously funny, uniquely gay sense of humor to a new generation. "Will and Grace" is "The Waltons" by comparison. No assessment of the strides made by gays in the media can be complete without giving this special--and Lynde--significant attention. But you definitely don't have to be gay to laugh yourself silly here.
Anarchic, unhinged, showered in sequins and hypnotically immediate, "The Paul Lynde Halloween Special" will grab you from the first frame, beat you senseless and leave you begging for more. See this special at any cost.
A Grave Disturbance In The Force--Maude! (possible spoiler?)
Check your illusions at the door. "The Star Wars Holiday Special" is genius. Oh, sure, it'll cost you your immortal soul to watch, but it's genius. It's like the apple Adam and Eve famously snacked upon--a myth-destroying wake-up call. Once you see this, you'll never look at "Star Wars" the same way.
Behold the power of the Dark Side: Bea Arthur of "Maude" and "Golden Girls" fame tends bar at the Mos Eisley cantina. Harvey Korman is a wisecracking transgendered robot. The lamest band of the 70s, Jefferson Starship, plays a song called "Cigar Shaped Object." Carrie Fisher, high as a kite, sings a plaintive Wookie "Life Day" ballad. Boba Fett and Snaggletooth get down and get funky. Chewbacca's dad gets all Wookie-aroused at a singing holographic Diahann Carroll. Mark Hamill is made-up like Gloria Swanson. Bruce Vilanch "zingers" abound. And that's just the beginning. There is ample evidence here that Mel Brooks wasted his time making "Spaceballs"--this is much, much funnier.
Fans love to imagine that George Lucas was forced to do this special at gunpoint, that he was drugged and abducted and brainwashed, but it's just not the case. He may have taken some bad, bad advice, but he was the writer and director of the biggest movie of all time. He could have said no. His presence here--and the presence of almost the entire original cast--makes denying this special's existence a little disingenuous. "Star Wars" as a film and as a phenomenon did not exist in a vacuum--it's very much of the 70s, just as the heartbreakingly bad altered versions of the original films, and the nearly unwatchable first prequel are very much of the 90s. And the 70s were a cheesy, cheesy time where Bea Arthur and Bruce Vilanch ruled the earth. I was a first-generation "Star Wars" fan and I still love it, but it wasn't the laughable, inconsequential "Star Wars Holiday Special" that first broke my Jedi heart. It was those sickeningly cutesy singing Ewoks in the tremendously disappointing "Return Of The Jedi." I would have much preferred Bea Arthur.
Lucas need to stop denying this beast exists and release it on DVD--maybe as a hidden "special feature" on "The Phantom Menace". He could then set the record straight once and for all about how it came to exist. The man came up with Michael Jackson's "Captain EO" and "Ewoks." He produced "Howard The Duck." This special is no more embarrassing. And it doesn't diminish the greatness of Lucas' original achievements. Watch "The Star Wars Holiday Special." Laugh at it. Mock it. Learn from it--that no mythology is perfect, that no writer/director/actor is above a few colossal mistakes, that no creative entity is immune to the excesses of its own era, that hubris is a dangerous thing. And beware of anything that takes itself too seriously.
Off to an excellent start
Craig Ferguson is one of the brightest and funniest comic wits Great Britain has produced in the last ten years. Still, Ferguson's selection as host of the Late Late Show came as a big surprise. Known to American audiences mostly from his appearances on "The Drew Carey Show," Ferguson seemed like too much of an unknown quantity to host a nightly network talk show. Judging from his first shows as host, however--especially his smashing official debut--casting Ferguson may have been a stroke of genius. The irreverent Scot--a cult figure from his work on "Red Dwarf" and "Freakazoid"-- is lively, likable, sharp and captivating, gently mocking competitors like Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel and poking merciless fun at the dull conventions of late-night. Fans who may have worried that Ferguson's UK comic sensibilities would be blunted or watered down by US network standards should rest easy--at least in early episodes, he's at his best, and is a significant improvement from Craig Kilborn's snarky Hef's-grotto fratboy sensibilities. O'Brien and especially Kimmel should keep a close eye on Ferguson--this show is off to a bold start, and savvy viewers will find Craig Ferguson hard to resist.
It's in the Bag! (1945)
Witty and edgy--but strays far from the novel
Fred Allen was--with the possible exception of his "rival" Jack Benny--the biggest star in the history of radio. He was Letterman to Benny's Leno--an acerbic smartaleck who practically invented topical humor/current political events satire. While he had numerous small film roles and cameos (and later starred in TV's "What's My Line?"), "It's In The Bag" was Fred Allen's only starring role in a motion picture, and it was a good one.
The plot--Allen gaining, then losing, then frantically trying to recover an inheritance hidden inside one or more mystery chairs--is just a skeleton on which to hang the movie's wry jokes, strange interludes and satirical jabs at Hollywood stars. A trainload of radio and film comedians appear in this movie, including Jack Benny (with whom Allen shared a longtime "feud" that was as successful--and as manufactured--as anything the World Wrestling federation ever produced). Author and bon vivant Robert Benchley makes a strong appearance here, and Richard Wallace's steady direction manages to keep up with the comic mayhem.
Allen's irreverent humor, wild tangents and complete disregard for film conventions (including the sacred fourth wall) inspired Mel Brooks, who, drawing from its source material, made a version of "It's In The Bag" as his second feature, "The Twelve Chairs"--although literary purists who love the original darkly satiric Russian novel by Ilf and Petrov, take note: you will likely hate both these movies with a fiery passion. Even faithful Russian screen adaptations of that extraordinary book have failed to capture its greatness, and "It's In The Bag" doesn't even try--it's merely a sardonically humorous sendup of 1940s Hollywood in general and Mr. Allen in particular. It's no intricate Russian literary classic, but if you love vintage Hollywood comedies with an edge, you won't be disappointed.
Not to be confused with "Garanimals."
Is there, in the whole English language, a better word than "Manimal"? I think not. And should you be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this show, you'll never be the same again.
Putting the "high" in "high concept," Glen Larson's crime-fighting shape-shifter was a man who could turn into ANY ANIMAL. Any animal at all. As long as that animal is a panther. OK, in a pinch, he can do a hawk, but can we stick with the panther please? It's not so much that special effects technology didn't exist in 1983, it's just that network TV could not afford them. Production costs were high for all that Manimalization, and when low ratings did not quickly morph into Neilsen success, Manimal was hastily euthanized.
Simon MacCorkindale does fine work as the Manimal, but to modern eyes this show plays more like an extended Saturday Night Live skit, when the promise of a man who can be any animal turns into the reality of a guy being swapped out for the same piece of stock panther transformation footage week after week. Still, I sincerely hope Manimal is reissued, because for all its faults, it's a priceless slice of ridiculous 80s fun.
Delta House (1979)
Let's not go to the "Delta House."
In the 1970s, no hit film was safe from the clutches of ambitious TV producers. "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" became "Alice," "Private Benjamin" became, um, "Private Benjamin", and let's not even talk about ABC's ill-fated attempt to turn "The Deer Hunter" into a sitcom vehicle for Norman Fell.
In that vein, "Delta House" had the potential to be a worthy follow-up to "Animal House." It reunited much of the cast of the debaucherous 1978 classic as well as many of the original's creative team. Trouble was, "Animal House" was a raunchy R-rated movie, and in 1979, television was so squeaky-clean you couldn't even say the word "pregnant." ABC, land of "Three's Company"'s wacky-till-it-bleeds double-entendres, stuck "Delta House" in an early-evening timeslot worthy of "The Waltons" and surgically excised any trace of the original's humor, leaving the cast with nothing to do but pass around tone-deaf anti-establishment banter that even Dean Wormer would have found square. "Delta House" got promising ratings despite all this, but perhaps sensing the creative impossibility, ABC pulled the plug. The cast and crew deserve a medal for trying, but there was just no way to adapt a screamingly funny R-rated film for broadcast TV in 1979, and thankfully there still isn't. John Belushi's Bluto would have smashed this show to bits on a staircase.
There's a new girl in town, and it's Jean-Paul Sartre!
Future cinematic forensic technicians are going to have a field day figuring out how Martin Scorsese's "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore"--a beautifully realized film rich with meaning, showered with Oscar nominations--became a two-dimensional sitcom that was so jacked-in to the pop-culture zeitgeist of the 70s that 30 years later, people still tell unsuspecting passers-by to "kiss my grits."
The bare-bones plot lines are similar--woman's husband dies, she and her son leave home searching for a new life, end up in Phoenix where her dreams of becoming a singer take a back seat to serving burgers at Mel's diner. But where that's a jumping-off point for Ellen Burstyn's Oscar-winning Alice, poor Linda Lavin's Alice just stays and stays and stays, dishing out nine interminable years of hard-scrabble deep-fried wisdom to Mel (played in both versions by sensitive thespian Vic Tayback) and celebrating life's little mysteries with fellow waitresses Vera and Flo. But even Polly Holiday's Flo soon escapes to her own catchphrase-fueled sitcom, and to make matters more surreal, the movie Flo, Diane Ladd, replaces her--albeit as "Belle," who does comparatively little grit-kissing to everyone's disappointment.
Putting aside the impossible comparison between a masterful film and its weird TV echo--"Animal House" versus "Delta House", anyone?-- "Alice" the sitcom is watchable and even funny, in measured doses. The banter is sharply written, the catchphrases work for a while, the characters are likable. The theme of struggling to make a better life is still there and still engaging. Alice still dreams of singing, of finding a new love, of life on the left coast. But like those seven stranded castaways cursed to forever wander La Isla Gilligan, you can't help but remember that the laws of television sitcom physics mean Alice and her son are doomed to live and die in Mel's Diner in the kind of greasy-spoon hell even Milton couldn't dare dream up. If you missed the 70s and want to understand what was popular in TV comedy and why, if you're looking to add to your fatally-hip retro catchphrase quotient, or if you just like seeing hapless sitcom characters spend nine years making snappy quips in a doomed existential loop with "no exit," you need look no further.
Joanie Loves Chachi (1982)
You'll beg for "The Ropers" or "AfterM*A*S*H*" instead
Some show generate spinoffs. Others metastasize. "Happy Days"--itself a spin off from "Love, American Style"--generated everything from "Laverne and Shirley" to "Mork And Mindy" to the rarely-seen "Anson Williams, P.I.". "Joanie Loves Chachi" was the final, genetically damaged offspring of this long, inbred line.
The premise--and here I use the word "premise" in the broadest sense--is that our Chachi has left Milwaukee to start a singing career in that hotbed of the music industry, Chicago. Joanie went with him, of course, along with Al (who has opened a new restaurant to escape the long shadow of Pat Morita). Chachi and Joanie have a band with painfully zany characters. Chachi and Joanie sing and dance--usually several times--in each episode. Chachi and Joanie sing the theme song. The only minor technical problem with all this is that Chachi and Joanie can't sing a note.
Erin Moran and Scott Baio are as grating and unlikeable here as they were in "Happy Days," only here they're on screen for the entire 22 minutes. How the producers dreamed up a romance between these two is a mystery--they have no chemistry. It's like watching Al and The Fonz kiss. The spin off was clearly intended to breathe new life into the "Happy Days" franchise, but here the "sitcom hijinks" are as tired and threadbare as they were in the original's Richie-less last gasps. Also, the ethnic stereotypes would make any Italian cringe. They boycotted the Sopranos but not this?
To be fair, this show is such a relic of early 80s television cheese that it would have to have some retro entertainment value now, especially for those who were young enough to enjoy it the first time. The Fonz and the Cunninghams show up with alarming frequency, and kitsch/camp fans who loved master thespian Baio in "Charles In Charge" will find gold in his "singing teen idol" incarnation, especially since Leif Garrett never made a TV series. The Christmas episode in particular is amusing in retrospect. But viewing it without irony/unintended humor, "Joanie Loves Chachi" is difficult, bordering on painful, to watch. I knew Arthur Fonzarelli. Arthur Fonzarelli was a friend of mine. Chachi Arcola, you are no Arthur Fonzarelli.