Trivial Pursuits

Give Me Bugs

I recently saw a great film called I Know That Voice, which I highly, highly, HIGHLY, recommend to anyone who ever watched a cartoon. It’s about the men and women who voice our favorite animated characters. The one person that nearly every person in the film named as an influence was the inimitable Mel Blanc, who was so brilliant at creating signature voices for a variety of characters. It made me remember this post in which I wrote about my love of Looney Tunes cartoons and the characters — all voiced by Mel Blanc.

I’m no fan of Disney characters and I never have been. I know, that’s sacrilege in some parts of the country, but I’m willing to risk it.

(Full disclosure: My wife and I did take our kids to Disney World once when they were young because, well, parents are supposed to do that kind of thing and we bought into that. But our boys were never Disney fans either. In fact, when we were walking through Orlando airport after our flight we came upon the giant statue of Mickey Mouse dressed in Fantasia Wizard robes. My wife pointed and asked my younger son, “Who’s that, Alex?” He stared at it for a while before saying uncertainly, “I think I’ve seen him before…”
I laughed, but other parents around us reacted in shock and horror. Fathers glared at me like I was “some kinda anti-‘Murican,” while mothers covered precious Kaitlyn and Tyler’s ears for fear that they’d overhear this blasphemy. I was never so proud in my life.)

Disney characters and their cartoons/films are too saccharine-cutesy for my taste. In fact, they turn my stomach. Some of it doesn’t even makes sense. I mean what’s the deal with Goofy and Pluto? Goofy is a dog that dresses and talks and acts like a human, yet he owns a dog named Pluto who is… a dog. Huh? Seriously, did they think about this before they did it?

But this post isn’t about my dislike of Disney, it’s about my love for Looney Tunes.

Those are the cartoons I eagerly watched every afternoon after school and on Saturday mornings. They were funny, with a mixture of colorful characters, great story lines, sometimes biting sarcasm, cultural references, and catch phrases that Disney could never hope to approach. (I’ve heard rumors of rogue Disney animators who drew NSFW versions of the characters in, shall we say, compromising positions but I don’t know if there’s any truth to them. It wouldn’t surprise me. It would even score a few points in my book.)

Looney Tunes characters had depth and substance. Even more, they had unique vocal tics and accnets that made them instantly memorable. Here’s what I mean:

Bugs Bunny was wisecracking rabbit with a New York accent (think about that for a second) who was always aware that he was in a cartoon. He mugged for the camera and spoke to the audience. Bugs was Groucho Marx back in his day and, I would argue, a later prototype for Alan Alda’s “Hawkeye Pierce” character on M.A.S.H, and Bill Murray’s …well his whole shtick actually.

Porky Pig is a not-too-bright pig with a severe stutter (again, think about that for a second). He was a well meaning porker who rarely caught a break, but you could never not like him.

Daffy Duck is Bugs’ nemesis, a perpetual second fiddle who believes he is more deserving of the acclaim that his more famous colleague enjoys. (I can’t believe I just wrote that about a cartoon character, but there you go.)

Foghorn Leghorn, a rooster with a deep southern accent, was based on the Senator Claghorn character from the Fred Allen radio show (it’s probably a testament of some sort that the rooster is remembered by more people than the radio character, who was portrayed by Allen’s announcer, Kenny Delmar). He is constantly tormenting the farm dog, but his jokes often backfired, resulting in Foghorn losing his feathers. This lead to one of his more famous catchphrases, “I keep my feathers numbered for just such an emergency.”

Elmer Fudd, one of the very few human characters (Yosemite Sam, and a minor character named Granny are two others) was a hunter, usually chasing Bugs or Daffy. Elmer suffered from a condition called rhotacism–difficulty pronouncing the letter R — “Be vewy vewy quiet. I’m hunting Wabbits.”

Sylvester the Cat is a slobbering lisper — you really don’t want to get too close when he’s talking. He was mainly interested in getting to Tweety Bird, a canary with a grossly enlarged head whose tagline was, “I tawt I taw a puddy tat.”

Pepe Le Pue had to be the horniest skunk in the world, but he couldn’t get laid to save his life. When I think about it now, I’m surprised at the double entendre content of the cartoon. Extra points for Looney Tunes.

There is one thing should be clear to anyone who has had even the slightest exposure to Looney Tunes. That is, so much of what made these characters whole is tied to the peculiarities of their voices. In Elmer Fudd’s case it is rhotacism. In Daffy, Sylvester, and Tweety it’s a lisp. In Porky, it’s a stutter. And Pepe? Well, he’s French, so… you know. (Just kidding, I loves me some French peoples.) You didn’t see that in Disney characters, with the exception of Donald Duck who, in my opinion, was just unintelligible, cranky noise most of the time. Somehow these flaws made the Looney Tune characters more accessible. And the fact that nearly all of them were voiced by the incredible Mel Blanc was a testament to the man’s versatility as a voice artist.

Anyway… you can keep your Disney lightweights, and give me Looney Tunes any day.

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Finale

29906170001_4248494398001_video-still-for-video-4248484810001Last night I watched the finale of The Late Show With David Letterman. I have been a fan since 1980 when I was one of the (apparently) few people who witnessed his morning talk show on NBC. I was living in Florida, staying temporarily in my great-uncle’s double-wide mobile home in Pompano Beach until I found my own place. As the “new kid in town,” I didn’t know too many people, and pretty much my only source of entertainment was my trusty little black and white portable television, with the funky whip antenna that had to be positioned just right to get a clear picture.

I had a night shift job at a convenience store called Majic Market, so my mornings were free to just relax. One morning I discovered this goofy gap-toothed guy with a pronounced mid-western accent doing a sort of talk/variety show. It was The David Letterman Show and it was his first attempt at network television. It was definitely not your typical daytime talk show, which in those days was sort of defined by the likes of The Merv Griffin Show and The Mike Douglas Show—super tame (or is it lame?) and targeted to the blue-haired adult demographic. Letterman was young and edgy (as they say) and dared to go beyond the accepted boundaries of daytime television with gags and stunts you wouldn’t see elsewhere. And sometimes the “guests” were actually part of the show’s writing staff who appeared as characters. I particularly remember Edie McClurg, a wonderful character actor who would appear regularly as Mrs. Marv Mendenhall, giving “updates” on the most mundane topics. She was hilarious and underappreciated, in my book.

But I’m way off the subject I came here to write about, which was finales.

The Late Show With David Letterman finale was a memorable one, but it was just one of many that come to mind. After all, I already saw Letterman do a “final show” when he ended Late Night with David Letterman in the messy aftermath of an NBC contract dispute. The network had held out The Tonight Show as sort a carrot-on-a-stick to him for years, and there seemed to be no one better suited to replace Carson than Letterman. Even Carson thought so. But instead, NBC gave The Tonight Show to Jay Leno, and Letterman packed his bags for the more welcoming CBS. If you’re interested, there’s a fascinating book on the subject called The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno and the Network Battle for the Night.

In thinking back on these “final shows” I recall a number of other memorable finales that were momentous in their own right. These include, not in chronological order:

  • The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson—I grew up watching Carson almost every night, even when I was far too young to be up that late. I shed a tear when he did his finale.
  • Late Night with David Letterman—As mentioned above.
  • The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno—I have to confess I wasn’t a big Leno fan, partly because I thought Letterman should have originally gotten The Tonight Show instead of him, and partly because his show, in my opinion, just wasn’t very funny. I wasn’t alone. Leno drew lots of criticism from other comedians who said he had lost his edge and his comedy was lazy. It wasn’t until 2014, when Leno was a guest on Jimmy Fallon’s version of The Tonight Show that he showed what he was capable of. He was extremely funny—because he didn’t have to be “The Tonight Show Guy” anymore and could do and say what he wanted.
  • Late Night with Conan O’Brien—The relatively unknown ex-Simpsons and Saturday Night Live writer replaced Letterman, and after a rather shaky start, built a popular show. He couldn’t know what was in store when he was later named Leno’s successor on The Tonight Show. Ex-Saturday Night Live cast member Jimmy Fallon took over the Late Night desk, from O’Brien, until opportunity came a-knockin’.
  • The Tonight Show Starring Conan O’Brien—Conan got one of the rawest deals in television history when NBC didn’t give him the time needed for his unique brand of humor to catch on with a Tonight Show audience that was conditioned by Leno.  Leno weaseled his way back behind the Tonight Show desk after the spectacular failure of his Jay Leno Show at 10p.m. that lasted less than 5 months. Conan would get his own show on the TBS network, but more important, he got the time to build his audience.
  • The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno—Again. Finally. Jimmy Fallon is off to a good start as the newest host.
  • The Colbert Report—As Stephen Colbert prepares to take over Letterman’s seat on The Late Show (isn’t it funny that so many of these events involve two programs?), I am reminded that it will also soon be time to witness another finale: the end of Jon Stewart’s version of The Daily Show.
  • M*A*S*H—At one time the final show held the record for largest viewing audience.
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show—The last scene where she turned off the light in the WJM newsroom was very touching.
  • Newhart—With possibly the best last scene in the history of television.
  • Cheers—A long drawn-out affair but still good.
  • Roseanne—One of the stranger finales. I had lost touch with the show for several seasons, so the ending, in which Roseanne revealed that the events of previous eight seasons had been part of a story she was writing or something, came out of left field for me.
  • Seinfeld—I wasn’t a real fan of the show. In fact I’d only seen a handful of episodes. But it was a much-hyped event, so I watched. I think I could have found a better use for my time.
  • Friends—Again, I rarely watched the show and the finale was over-hyped. Oddly, I don’t remember what happened.
  • Breaking Bad—An amazing show and brilliant finale.
  • How I Met Your Mother—I discovered this show late in the game (thanks Netflix) but was in time to see and appreciate the end.

And while I’m at it, there have been a few non-television finales that I remember well.

  • Peanuts—This one was especially poignant because Peanuts creator Charles Schulz died in his sleep the day before that final strip, announcing his retirement, ran.
  • Calvin & Hobbes—One of my all-time favorite strips. We knew the end was coming, and even though the final strip was upbeat and positive—”It’s a magical world, Hobbes,ol’ buddy… Let’s go exploring!”—it was still sad to see.
  • For Better Or Worse—Unlike most strips where the characters are frozen in time, we watched the Patterson family grow up and grow old and sometimes die. Lynn Johnston explored new territory with what I think was the first “out” character in mainstream comics with Michael’s best friend Lawrence.

Finales that often get talked about but which I didn’t see include:

  • The Sopranos—I didn’t have HBO
  • Mad Men—I watched a couple episodes, but never got into the show.
  • Six Feet Under—Never saw it
  • Prison Break—Never saw it
  • Friday Night Lights—Never saw it
  • …you get the picture

My Jackson Pollock experience

Pollock’s “One: November 31, 1950”

 I’ve told this story before and I’m sure it means nothing to anyone but me. It’s about an amazing moment I had in college.

My art class was on a trip to the MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in case you’ve somehow never heard of this world landmark. That day I could feel a migraine coming. If you’ve ever had a migraine, you know the signs of one coming on, and you dread it. But I couldn’t get out of this trip, so I popped some aspirin and soldiered on.

While I still could, I enjoyed the museum. I love going to museums of all kinds, and I really enjoy art museums. But, try as I might, I couldn’t avoid the migraine. It came on full force, including pale skin and cold sweats. I told my classmates to go without me and I’d see them later on the bus. I sat down in one gallery room of abstract works. One I remember was a large portrait shape rectangle that was painted a solid blue. That’s it. It had a title card, but I don’t recall what it said. Let’s just say in my current condition I really didn’t care.

The room was pretty empty, so I sat down on a bench and stared into nothingness, focusing neither near nor far. After a few moments I became aware of the large landscape rectangle mounted on the wall across from me. As my eyes began to focus, it filled my distorted field of vision. I knew it was a Jackson Pollock work because no one did what he did. What he did, exactly, I have no idea. I always joked that his works looked like painters’ drop cloths. Splatters and swirls and drips. Really? That’s art? So this painting (which I’ve since learned is titled One: Number 31, 1950) gradually absorbed my consciousness. Or my consciousness absorbed the painting. One of those things, or maybe both of them.

My head was pounding, my vision blurred. I wanted nothing else at that moment but to crawl into a dark hole and sleep. I was focused on this damned painting. How long had I stared at it? No idea. But at some point–FLASH! ZAP!–it happened.

I got it.

That sounds odd doesn’t it? But in that moment, I understood what Pollock was doing. I could see the depth and the movement of the painting. I understood its construction. The colorful overlapping paint drips and swirls gave it dimension. I could see into the painting through its many layers. “FLASH! ZAP!” is no exaggeration. Something literally happened in my head–an intense pain and a brief flash. My head “buzzed” for lack of a better term. It was as much a physical experience as a psychological experience. I “felt it” on multiple levels. Like a light bulb flashed in my head. Without putting too fine a point on it, I can only call it a moment of enlightenment.

Coincidentally–or not–my migraine began to lift. I say “or not” because some part of me believes that the “moment of enlightenment” experience triggered a chemical or electrical reaction in my brain that made the headache subside. I have no proof of this, of course, only my personal experience of what happened in conjunction with my Pollock moment.

I eventually got up and headed off to find my classmates. I don’t remember much more of the day, except getting on the bus and riding home, feeling dazed and foggy after the migraine, but overall much improved. The Pollock experience stayed with me during this time.

But then, after I had some rest and felt back to normal, the feeling of enlightenment left me. I found the painting in an art book at the library (pre-internet, so there was no Google images or anything to rely on). It looked, once again, like a painter’s drop cloth. I couldn’t reconnect to the feeling at all. That bothered me–I had a brief transformative moment that I’ve never had before–that I couldn’t get back.

Some years later, my wife and I were browsing in Borders books one evening and I came across a coffee table book of abstract art. The painting was in there, and I showed it to my wife. I tried to explain, not very well I’m afraid, the experience I had that day. I told her about the migraine and the experience of seeing the painting, and feeling a “connection” to it. It sounded as crazy to me then as I’m sure it did to her.

Nearby was a guy who was also browsing. He came over and said, “I couldn’t help overhearing your story. Do you know anything about Jackson Pollock?”  I told him I didn’t. “If you read about his life, it might help you understand why you had that experience,” he said, knowingly. Then he left.

What was it about Pollock’s life that would give me answers? Was he insane? Did the migraine open up, for a brief moment, a window into my own insanity? Is that why I understood him? I think most of us, especially in times of stress, think we might be “losing our minds” when things go out of control. I know a bunch of migraine sufferers who would likely agree that an attack makes them feel they are not in their right minds.

I don’t have the answers. I have not read up on Pollock, as suggested, other than a few superficial encyclopedia entries that didn’t reveal much of anything. Certainly the man had problems. He was said to have a volatile temper that was compounded by alcoholism–two things that don’t apply to me. So what was it? To this day, I don’t know, and it just might be better left unexplored and unexplained.

Ball of confusion

This is a photo of an immense gas cloud above the Earth’s atmosphere, as photographed from the ISS. The origin of the cloud is up for debate, with the chief explanations being:
1. Ozone depletion from excessive photodissociation of man-made halocarbon refrigerants (CFCs, freons, halons) on Earth
2. The physical manifestation of Ted Cruz’s asinine mock-filibuster a couple weeks ago
3. Friday night’s chili and bean space station dinner

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