Wednesday, June 3, 2009

In which we Find, and Lose, Wags (the Obnoxious Battery-Powered Puppy)

Shopping malls have service corridors that snake behind the stores. These corridors connect the back doors of the (usually not anchor tenant) stores to a corridor that leads to loading docks, trash dumpsters, restrooms and other common space necessities. There was such a corridor in the Mall at Ruckus Arenus, which connected to a Secret Passage that led down to the service areas of said Ruckus Arenus. This Secret Passage was very useful for engineers who might need to get into the stores, or "tenant spaces" as we quaintly referred to them, for the various mechanical adjustments occasionally called for during the busy shopping day. It was also very useful for most everybody else to get up to the Mall for coffee and lunch breaks and dashes over to Triangle Park and the Opera House.

The Secret Door to the service corridor was in the corner behind a store that for the longest time was a toy store. Outside of the toy store was a large drum table with a high lip surrounding the edge. The lip contained the toys on display, which were battery operated little squeaky dogs. These dogs did two things: They squeaked, they sat down, and they backflipped. Well, three things. The little squeaky dogs were set out at a height appropriate for small children to pick up a dog, bond with it hopefully and present it to the accompanying parent for immediate purchase n gratification. This seldom happened, because of the dogs' continous irritating squeaking. The squeaking was irritating, very irritating. And it was continuous -- from the time the store opened until the time it closed. Since most RA hourly and technical employees went in and out of that door several times daily, the little squeaky dogs were known to and loathed by all.

A few years earlier, Woody Allen released a gorgeously photographed and otherwise disturbing film, Manhattan. The disturbation came from the plotline that Allen's 42-year-old doppelganger was infatuated with a 17 year old high school girl, not that life imitates art or anything. The film also offers the equally amusing subplot of Allen's doppelganger putting the moves on his best male friend's new obnoxious girl friend, Diane Keaton. O the humorous n sophisticated hijinks among the New York literati of a certain age n time! Pip ho, wot? One humorous n sophisticated scene featured humorous n sophisticated witty repartee among Allen, Keaton and BMF Tony Roberts in the Keaton character's tiny Manhattan kitchen, with everyone continually interrupted by Keaton's tiny yapping dachshund, Waffles. Loathsome characters with a tiny little loathsome dog in a confined space ... loathsome little squeaky dogs ... hmm ...

Thus was born Wags, the Obnoxious Battery-Operated Puppy. The idea was to have Wags squeaking continously throughout random segments, with Millie completely oblivious to Wags while Wags drove everybody else crazy. We'd run this from time to time to establish that Wags was going to be allowed to run through the whole bit. After a few weeks of this, we'd then start the Overreacting Comic Retaliation. I envisioned crazed camera operators, maybe even a crazed Keith coming out of the control room, throwing Wags across the room, blowing Wags up real good, attacking Wags with hammers. In order to get the point across, every time we would use Wags we would throw up a helpful title: "Oh, No! It's WAGS -- The Obnoxious Battery-Powered Puppy!"

Didn't work. For one thing, Barb was driven to distraction by Wags. It's one thing to pitch a metajoke, but pitches have the luxury of ignoring certain realities like whether or not you can actually do it. Barb could not concentrate with Wags squeaking away, and after all there was no show without Barb holding it together.

For another thing, we also finally got called on going over the line of Public Decency. Around this time we discovered that Dougie's many talents included a pitch-perfect imitation of a crying baby. He had achieved a certain notoriety in certain social circles for performing this imitation in certain crowded, inappropriate, dark environments and setting off amusing scrambles by People who Weren't In on the Joke to find and shush the baby. Accordingly, we immediately worked up a segment featuring "Millie's Babysitting Tips for the Misanthropic". Dougie cried off-camera while Millie offered various inappropriate ways to calm a crying baby (a doll in a teeny dolly crib, fashioned from a beer carton conveniently donated by one of the guys), culminating with a deft whack upside the head with a 12" cast iron skillet. And of course we showed the skillet, slammed it down onto an off-camera metal counterweight (to produce a resounding clang), whereupon Dougie immediately cut off his piteous wails -- prompting a seraphic smile from Millie and a bridge into some other bogus tip. Being selfish childless boomers obliviously assuming that our entire audience consisted of selfish childless boomers, we failed to anticipate that there might be a) young parents watching, who b) did not find child abuse jokes funny and who c) had telephones and typewriters and d) knew how to use them.

Their use of telephones and typewriters brought an immediate appearance of the previously invisible Bill, who made it very clear that whacking defenseless off-camera suggested anythings was not what he had in mind when he contemplated Zaniness and Wackiness. Had we no decency, no sense of shame? Did we not realize that small children were watching? (Monster movies? At 2 in the morning? On a church day?) WLEX was not going to be party to an epidemic of random frying-pan attacks on the defenseless, apologies all around to the entire viewing community and the senior management of WLEX for putting them in such a parlous predicament, you know the drill. Bill stood over me as I called one particular lady on a speaker phone to abjectly apologize; she seemed very surprised that I would call, said she thought the segment was really pretty funny otherwise and loved the show, the frying pan just seemed a little over the top to her is what, asked for an autographed picture, at which point Bill decided that I probably didn't need to make any more calls on the station's behalf.

But no more cruelty to children or small animals. Real or imaginary.

On the other hand ... if we were to record these shows in advance ... then it would be possible for management to ... prescreen the show and catch any potentially ... unseemly ... content before it aired. So live-to-tape, at least, went back onto the table.

On the third hand ... Wags as an ongoing obnoxious comic foil was no longer an option. Back to the drawing board.


  1. Man am I glad I found you. It has been a real joy reading about the show and all the people who made it happen. I put together a walk-thru Haunted House for Halloween and write and perform skits each day for Vacation Bible School every year. Some might think the two are about as far apart as possible, but they lead one to the other for me. After finding and reading your blogs so far I see where some of it comes from. VBS is next week and I've been working on the skits for a few weeks now. Searching for ideas I scanned a Halloween Forum where someone asked "What in your past makes you a home haunter or fan of Halloween." I took the time to answer giving various reasons, one being Millicent B Ghastly and her show I couldn't remember the name of. That got me wondering and I ended up posting on that site and on some Lexington forums if anyone else remembered her. I didn't get any responses so I just Goggled the name and there it was Millie and Monsterpiece Theatre. After reading your posts and comments I realize a couple of things. 1) Its now 4 a.m. and I owe the past twenty some years of late nights to the fact I hated when I would fall asleep while MPT was on. I trained myself to stay awake. 2) I see where I formed my humor and story style. Reading the posts is like you guys stole my ideas twenty years before I had them. Bare bones costuming, pulling props from the curb, rigging lights, using crew for actors. So many things I'd forgotten. I've never been involved with theatre but I get the feeling that amost of that is standard fare. I never really knew any of the behind the scenes problems and hassles you talk about, but hearing them makes me appreciate the show even more. I can't wait to here more.

  2. I remember those displays but for some reason every time I saw one of them, the little yapping Wagses would merely give an annoying shriek and then usually topple over on their side, twitching like their poor plastic puppy parts had been smashed with a ball-peen hammer. Sometimes they wound up going in circles, a 'la Curly. Woo woo woo!

  3. @ cooldtb: Welcome to the show that never ends. There are many ways to get a show up, some of which are more efficient than others, some of which are more fun than others. I think the benefit of a training program is that it frees us from having to constantly invent the method for doing something; this allows us to choose to invent a method, and hopefully we choose for a good n defensible reason. I think the other main benefit is that we can see how our work fits into some kind of context, which informs our choices, which brings us back to Do. The Story of Millie is really to capture, before we completely forget what happened and content ourselves with our imagined memories, what happened with that silly little show that some of us fondly remember.

    All that being said, a lot of Good Stuff comes from the folks who don't come out of formal training. We're not bashing, here -- not even Bill. If you're called to do this Stuff, make it as Good as you can.

    We know Keith, Doug (who is an Esteemed Member of the Community now, but back then was Our Dougie), and Richie are lurking from time to time; so pipe up n share, guys! -- the only things I'm sort of sure about in telling the story are some of the things that Barb n I did.

    @Ken: We found that the reason for the lip on the display tables was that it offered some resistance to the things as they reached the flip cycle. No lip = no resistance = they'd fall wherever they fell. We noticed the inadvertent Curlies, too; amused me no end, but Barb still disapproves of the Stooges and rues the day that I introduced them to the boys. Come to think of it, that's probly where the Inappropriate Frying Pan gag came from.

    I want to think that at some point Millie said that she was a Victim of Coicumstance.

  4. I agree, they should share! There's plenty of things you might have just forgotten about that really fascinated me when I was young. The music selections were one, and of course the end credits had to be watched to the very end. Kind of a cool-down for the show.

    So speak up, guys!

    I have to admit after the early 80s I fell out of favor with the Stooges, because I'd discovered British Comedy *somehow in Ketucky I did this, thanks KET* and that kinda took over my life. However, I have a new appreciation for them after seeing them occasionally on one of the HBO channels while living here in Boston the past two and a half years. (Them and Abbot & Costello, oh and the Marx Brothers too.)

  5. Check out Fry and Laurie's version of Jeeves and Wooster. I'm still ambivalent about Stephen Fry's Jeeves, but Hugh Laurie's Bertie is spot-on. It's like Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes: it's definitive. Flip back and forth between Laurie-as-Bertie and Laurie-as-House. Brit technique ...

    We stopped tracking comedy at the height of Seinfeld -- missed from Puddy on. We have the excuse of parenting to justify our absence from modren culture for the last 16 years or so, looks like we didn't miss much, so we're catching up with Colbert, Conan and Carrell; and of course Sheldon & Leonard (the current home of the metajoke, down to the lead character names). Barb had a couple of class clowns in her acting class a few years ago, and she was puzzling how to put them in their place: so we told them that they'd have only one piece, it would be a star turn, they'd have all semester to work on it, the only requirement was that they had to make it work and make us laugh -- and we gave them Who's on First.


  6. I've never been able to check out F&L's version of J&W, but have always meant to. I guess a couple of years ago I was discouraged because I bought a Wodehouse collection knowing that Douglas Adams considered him one of his main influences... but it was just too English, I guess. Very witty, very good writing, but I just didn't have the experience necessary. I guess still though, the F&L version might be worth checking out.

    Watching House is a chore. Sure, it's formulaic, "Oh, here's a person who's sick... this'll cure them... oh no, it's made them worse, let's try this... oh no, now they're pooping blood, that's bad, let's try this... hey look in their house for dead things... aw, that was it all along... yay we fixed him/her." But knowing that the smartypants who did King George is the lead for the show just throws a spotlight on his fake accent. If only I didn't like Britcoms!

  7. I can see your argument, Ken. From my perspective, it shows the craft.

    Our national tradition is that We Do Things Our Way; we studiously avoid doing things the way everybody else does. That's the whole rationale behind MT morphing into what it morphed into: we weren't going to do Sammy Terry, no way no how.

    Given that premise, craftsmanship becomes almost countercultural because it's not (necessarily) the norm.

    I can watch somebody like Hugh Laurie for hours, just for the craftsmanship; just like I can watch a master carpenter build for hours. Yes, it's just nailing one board to another, one at a time; yes, it's playing back mannerisms; but it's the study, the years of work, the absorbing of craft to the point where craft and person become indistinguishable.

    Twyla Tharp makes the point in her book on creativity: you have to put the daily work in to master the craft before you can do anything with the art stuff.

    That the entertainment is formulaic, no question; that's part of the pleasure so long as it's done well. I'm not arguing about whether House is good formula or bad formula; what I am arguing is that Laurie, like a trained Brit actor, shows how far craft can go, and how he can stretch the formulaic character way beyond the limits of the formula through craft.

    That said, I am not normally moved by the performance. Delighted, impressed, occasionally surprised.

  8. Oh don't get me wrong... I *love* House. And if I didn't watch Blackadder, I'd never have been able to tell he was doing an American accent. I've been really happy for Laurie and his amazing success with the show. The whole affair just seems so surreal... like when John Cleese does a drama role (which I think he's quite good at and wish he'd do more). It's a tickle in the back of the neck... "Aren't you supposed to be laughing at him?"