Saturday, April 4, 2009

In which we apply the Tex Avery Principle

The Hard-Boiled Dick show was Breakthrough 2 of 4, showing us that the show stood up better by breaking away from the movie we were hosting. We still weren't ready to cut the umbilical to the movie entirely; we had to assume that people were tuning in for the movie first, and that our efforts were wholly directed to keep their little dials glued to 18 at least through the first hour (so it would count as an Official View) so as to be motivated to run out and buy some snazzy Duck Head Jeans at the earliest opportunity, October being the all-important ratings sweeps month and all. In two weeks it would be Halloween, and also Fall Back Night. Halloween had not yet become the anti-Christmas bacchanalia and shopping holiday we are now so fortunate to enjoy, but it was starting down that road at the time with some pretty notorious underground costume parties. It seemed to us that we could go off script, or at least full script, if we could take advantage of some of the planned masked revelry that was already in the works: we would convince one or more of the annual acting community Halloween parties to relocate after midnight to the WLEX studios, and get some trained improvisers to riff along with Barb. Then, at 2AM, we'd -- run the first hour all over again, through the close. In a perfect world, we'd even restart the movie.

My key style influences were Villy Elder, Ernie Kovacs, Buster Keaton and Tex Avery; and while all of these used the same approach, Tex refined it into two key concepts:
  • Start with a logical but ridiculous premise.
  • Pursue it way past its logical conclusion.
  • Pursue it with absolute conviction and complete sincerity.
The perfect expression of this, to me at the time, was Tex's Northwest Hounded Police, a staple on the Turner cable stations of the time. Look it up sometime. There's no directorial winking: in order for the premise to work, Droopy must be omnipresent and the last shot shows that this is indeed so. Doubtful that Aristotle had this in mind when he proposed his theory of the unities, but I'd argue that these seven minutes of handmade determinism serve as a perfectly valid proof test (although I would not get an A on my paper from my former colleague the Professor of Philosophy at Transylvania University, but instead a V for Vulgarity).

Given that, it seemed that the best way to show on a live teevee show what Falling Back really meant would be to do a complete rewind-n-replay of the first hour of the show. Keith was up for it; by this point Bill had retreated to whatever his next triumph of programming or WLEX turf war was, and was allegedly only reviewing show tapes; advance script approval had been abandoned. After a day or so of thinking about it, Keith called to say he didn't think it advisable legally to restart the movie; he thought that there might be some FCC issues if somebody complained, but as long as we ran the sold commercials in their proper slots and did nothing illegal immoral or fattening during the host segments, we should be fine.

So I started calling our friends The Actors, inviting them to come over to WLEX for the next show in costume for our On-Air Costume Party. We'd supply the party fud, and the centerpiece would be a Costume Fashion Show with hushed commentary by good ol' Missy (I hadn't sprung this on good ol' Missy yet, but I figured she'd be all over it). We'd want them to adlib humorously for probly four bits, and it would all be over by 2:15 AM or so. Since we had known all these folks for years, we pitched ideas that we were sure they'd glom onto, resulting in a killer show that would go down in th' annals of teevee history ferever.

Well, we were wrong. Nobody wanted anything at all to do with this.

It seems that the world of Lexington theatre at the time was aligning itself along two lines -- the followers of Director W and the followers of Director S. Of the two, Director S was considered far the more Artiste, living the total Boho Artiste life along with the dedicated troupe of followers. Entry into this secret society implied a full commitment to the total gestalt, which mean shunning the likes of all other influences, including Director W. And Barb was considered to be wholly in the camp of Director W. So if you wanted to be doing Real Thee-Aytre Art with Fellow Traveler Artistes in that place at that time, you got yourself hence to Director S, and you had naught to do with the irrelevancies of Director W and his boozhwa minions. And you especially wouldn't be caught dead intimating that you a) might own a teevee b) might watch some programs on this teevee and c) might watch that wretched Monsterpiece Theatre, just about a perfect example of All That Thee-Aytre Art Wasn't or Would Never Be.

Barb took all this a little personally: she felt, with some justification, that she was being personally redlined. I thought it was silly at best -- but I had also invested time normally spent in writing to try to recruit a largish group of good comic improvisers, and I had no Plan B.

Plus Missy returned my call: she didn't want to be on the air either, although this had nothing to do with the extracurricular foolishness -- she and John had plans. Our friend Maggie the Costumer had already committed to coming in costume, so I called her and asked if she was interested in doing the color commentary. Maggie has a very dry wit, and when I described what was left of Plan A, she almost audibly licked her chops at the thought of giving back to actors some of the grief that actors had given her over the years.

We tried a few other options. Seems that our friend Jack the soon-to-be-Famous Author was quite willing to come down as an Inebriated Genteel Sot, and passed the word to his various circles, which somehow included Bob. Bob recruited several of his more eccentric friends, who actually showed up. Good Old Reliable Nathan and his girlfriend also signed on. I made sure that Elmer knew the night before that we had these people coming over, and after giving us the Do Your Parents Know You're Having These Kids Over for a Wild Party look, he agreed so long as I escorted them in and out.

A small but quite motley crew showed up for the Halloween Party show, and I had some serious second thoughts: we didn't know most of these people, so we didn't know how this was going to play at all. This was not Pushing the Creative Envelope; this was Public Stupidity. Well, the first rule of leadership is Don't Show Second Thoughts, so I huddled with Barb and Keith. We would go with the cold open as planned, following the Pizza Guy into the studio and giving the setup; we'd do viewer mail third, at about 1:25 AM; we'd do the Fashion Show fourth, about 1:40 AM and stretch for six minutes or so; we'd do the rewind at 1:58 AM. We needed a scripted bits for the second and fifth slots, fake our way through the close, and hope for the best. And we'd confiscate the beer that somebody snuck in.

I ran the show down for our guests, and did the 86 the Beer speech to the predictable hoots. I turned the set lights off and said I'd be willing to go with dead air for the open if we didn't lose the beer now, crossing my fingers as well as the Rubicon; the beer was surrendered, once again proving the Power of Teevee to Change Minds and Influence Behavior. The Pizza Guy showed up with the delivery -- a new pizza guy, who looked quite puzzled at the request to "just hang around a minute, walk through that door when we tell you and ask who gets the Blubber Pizza. If you do this, we'll tip you $20." The $20 tip carried the day; when we played the show back we could hear Keith hollering "Cue the pizza guy" just as the show started. We got through the open more or less intact, and decided that Position 2 would be talking smack about the movie to date (that could be controllable). We got through Mail, the Fashion Show and the Fall Back. Barb felt comfortable with more trash talk for our last open segment, and we ran through the close as fast as we could. Thanked everyone for coming, thanked our guardian angels for getting us through a call too close for comfort, and concluded:
  • High Concept alone wasn't enough to carry the day.
  • We aren't putting anybody on camera who we don't know or aren't sure about.
  • We aren't going into the studio without knowing what we're going to do that night.
Well, at least we were leaving the studio more or less intact, and our merry prankster studio crew thought the whole affair quite funny. So, let's get next week's reviewing tape and we'll call it a night.

Keith hems a bit. Then he explains that, well, next week's movie hasn't come in yet.


  1. I seem to remember that the Costumed Revelry was actually promoted as a costume contest for viewers? I ask because I know I sent a few designs in (very lame, Letterman-esque inspired designs) and that you guys actually were really nice and called me about my entries...

    ...and here's where I had a very embarrassing moment as a kid. See, I'd already gotten onto the idea of the tongue in cheek humor and everything of the show, and I really thought it was cool and might even have been one of those first viewers to actually send in a letter. Well, by the time this show rolled around (I believe the movie was Zombi, was it not?) I think you had firmly established me as That Kid Who Likes the Friday the 13th Movies.

    (It's not that I really liked them as anything other than popcorn horror, I just thought at that point they were getting a bit absurd. No explanation for Jason Voorhee's longevity? By then, we were up to at least part four, with a pre-pubescent Corey Feldman offing the psycho. How far would the series go? I started doing a series of cartoons for our school's newspaper of what all we'd see in Jason's future. Oddly, I had a bit of precog in me when one of my sequels was "Jason Takes Manhattan" which they actually did do, only they didn't have him in a top hat and tux doing the French Mistake like I did. Voila!)

    So, at some point in the conversation with Barb, who was letting me down easy because HELLO I WAS LIKE 14 NO YOU CAN'T BE ON THE SHOW AT 2 A.M., she said to me "Well, you know, we're not like this in *real life,* this is all just a TV show..."

    I think I peed myself a little. Immediately I knew I had presented myself as a demented fanboy who did not understand reality and fantasy and how the two do not mix, which were people I knew and frankly couldn't stand.

    However, I just hemmed and hawed and ended the conversation, then ran to cry in a corner of my bedroom closet where my Snoopy stuffed doll guarded my ROM comics.

    Very sad case, I was.

  2. I'm pulling as much memory as I can out of what I once referred to as my brain sludge, and I know I'm going to mess up details. Our primary real-life focus during all this was to build up the right bona fides to move out and get on with our lives in the place we were supposed to do so; we knew that 86 was our last year in Lexington, but that's all we knew. We focused intensely on MT when we focused intensely on it, but it was really Priority 3.

    Thanks for reminding me about the contest. We hoped for viewers to participate, but the Secret Plan was to salt the viewer costumes with the Actors. At that point, we hadn't yet got the idea to check zip codes to see where people were watching; we still thought we were playing to an essentially inside-the-Beltway (well, New Circle Road) audience.

    Ken, I promise you: we knew that you were having fun with sending us letters and that you were tuned into the Joke, and we knew that you were sending us hooks that we might develop into show material, but we never thought that you were one of them lack-of-life fanboys. I remember Barb telling me about the call; she was concerned that you might have taken it the wrong way. Not being the parents of teenage boys at that time, and not having the benefit of having parents of teenage boys in our immediate circle of friends, we were going by our own teenage boydom experiences, which included parents very disinclined to allow their sons to hang out with unknown adults in an unknown place until 3 or 4 in the morning of church day, as well as being very disinclined to hang around chaperoning in order to taxi said sons home at 0dark00. And although I believe that showing the work that produces the theatre can be a valid component of the total theatrical effect, I know that most people are vastly unfascinated by the prolonged watching of somebody else working. We didn't want to put you in the position of having to negotiate an extremely iffy proposition with your parents in order to see three hours of inbred concentration at a ridiculous hour.

    We may have pegged you at that point as The Kid Who Wrote In About The Friday the 13th Movies, because that's what you wrote about and that's the input we had; but if we thought anything about your relationship with that series of movies, we would have thought it about as benign as my teenage relationship with Toho Studios' rubber-suit movies: someone who saw these things as cynical slough offloaded for quick bucks and called it thusly.

    We have since come to see how personally our own teenagers took and take everything when they're 13-14, we have two kids prepping to be teenagers, and we work with and teach teenagers. We have learned that while it's a good thing to speak to kids at this stage of development as peers-in-training, and to give them respect and take them seriously, they will misunderstand more often than not; it's a hormone thing, it's a growth thing, it's a too much input thing, it's a human thing, and while all kids take things hard, we can't predict how the kids will react -- we just hav to deal with it.

    So if it helps now, many years after the fact, I'm very sorry that we disappointed you. We meant to save you the harder disappointment of building up your expectations knowing it was unreasonable to expect that your parents would support our faux-permission. If we had been wiser people, we would have handled it much better.

  3. Oh! I've given you the wrong impression. It wasn't the phone call that bothered me... it was me. At the time I'd been trying to deny a very obvious fact, in that I was turning into a Fanboy. Not only of your show, but a Fanboy in general. See, I really didn't like Fanboys at the time. I had just at that age became aware of them and how annoying they can be, and more and more I saw myself turning into one. It started with stuff like comic books, horror and sci fi movies, and of course the one I really didn't like at all but my friends kind of forced me into, Dungeons and Dragons.

    A good example of what I feared I'd become happened to me just this past Friday. I've joined the ranks of the unemployed for now, and have decided to visit home here in Kentucky for a couple of weeks, thus visiting old high school friends I haven't seen in ten years. I've, since then, grown to accept being a Fanboy because I'd learned that there was the okay Fanboy as well as the annoying Fanboy, and I felt it was fine to be one as long as I was the former. Well, all my friends here in the bluegrass state were also mostly the former as well. But then, while talking to a small group that had gathered at a friend's pizzeria, somebody had to ask if I'd ever played World of Warcraft.

    Thirty minutes later the conversation was still on W.o.W. and I don't think I'd said more than ten words. I was surrounded by Fanboys.

    That's the kind of thing I was always trying to avoid back then, but just kept seeing signs that I was turning into one big time with any of my geeky interests. It was like having a consistent unpoppable pimple on the tip of my nose all the time. But I think I did okay. I can have an reasonable discussion of the final episode of Battlestar Galactica without irritating people, I can talk Star Trek and Lord of the Rings and discuss X-Box without scaring the populace... really I've remained a big kid at heart and I'm okay with that now. Back then... not so much.

    I definitely didn't mind being pegged as the Friday the 13th Kid except that the movies were so inconsistent in quality... worse than the Star Trek movies (although the odd/even numbered paradox hadn't become apparent by then). But then, they weren't meant to be good were they? At least number six was fun (Jason Lives! And Alice Cooper provides the theme song.) I'd rather have been tagged as the Godzilla Kid except that I was a Godzilla fan who'd never seen a Godzilla movie, and at the time I wasn't really a Star Trek fan so being the Friday the 13th Kid was a little cliche for a Fanboy at the time, but it wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Besides, that's really the only genre stuff they'd show at the drive-in, so I really didn't have a whole lot of choice in what to reference.

    So don't worry, I wasn't let down... I just was worried that I was giving you guys the wrong impression when in fact I was giving you the correct one. I was a Fanboy, and I am a Fanboy... but I promise and swear never to mention World of Warcraft, ever. (Although if anybody reading this ever want to power level somebody, look up Wyrmdred on the Alliance side Moonrunner server. I mean, I'm just sayin'.)

  4. Ah.

    I think your distinction between fanboy and Fanboy is critical. Barb and I have had a running discussion for years, accelerating during parenthood, about whether 'tis wiser to shelter oneself and one's children from what's known to be the slippery slopes of the world or to permit a certain amount of exposure under controlled circumstances. At the most mundane level, take Dunkin' Donuts: is it better in the long run to ban fried sugar doughbombs from the diet altogether, or to permit as an occasional rationed treat? If we ban altogether, then at some point we and the children throw caution to the wind and gorge ourselves sick on the forbidden fruit (well, jelly). If we permit under controlled circumstances, then we hopefully teach and learn moderation. Except when we throw caution to the wind and gorge ourselves sick on the forbidden fruit (well, jelly).

    I have come to see that the reality is that we will find ourselves gorging ourselves silly from time to time on junk; and in a society that can't tell the diff between junk and the good, we have the means, motive and opportunity to gorge whatever and whenever we choose. With luck, good parenting and the blessing we push ourselves away from the table before we burst like Mr. Creosote.

    Our eldest son is now more or less completing negotiating the passage through Warhammer and its various iterations while we try to keep him focused on Eagle Scoutdom. As parent musicologist and former stagehand I acknowledge without approval his choices in music (Slipknot et. al.) fully aware of my parents' similar acknowledgment without approval of mine (Zappa). Choke, how ironic.

    And so I warn that junk unbalanced by beauty is unhealthy, while hopefully a sufficiency of beauty purges the junk. And a jelly donut every couple of months is a thing of wonder. But not two at the same sitting.

  5. I think it's better to allow the occasional badthing as a reward, unless it's really really bad. Like, when I was an extreeeeemely poor college student, I had the perfect diet for weight loss: I had apple juice for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and a Lunch Bucket for dinner (I don't see the brand anymore, but it's equivalent to a microwaveable Chef-Boyardee meal).

    BUT. If I stuck to this diet all week, on Thursdays I would go across the street from my dorm to Mr. Gatti's and have their buffet AND STUFF MY FACE. No breakfast or lunch, I just had all my meals at the end of the day and just gorged myself. Once a week.

    This diet, while forced because of my poor student status, actually helped me lose fifty pounds in college. Apparently after that I was smokin' hawt and certain ladies around my hometown thought I was quite handsome. Of course they never told me that.

    Oh, by the way, although I over emphasized it, Barbara was really really very nice and kind to me when she told me "Um, yeah having a teen there past midnight probably wouldn't fly with the bosses," and I kinda felt silly for two reasons: a.) I actually didn't believe, at the time, that the show was live, and b.) when I realized it was, I was like, uh YEAH no way you could do that anyway, kid. Like my father, who was already drawing Social Security, would camp out in 18's parking lot for me or something. :)

    as I said, good times!