Monday, June 30, 2008


They've made a huge mistake!

Am I reading this right? Mitchell Hurwitz left his new TV show over a union dispute? FOX will continue to air Family Guy and American Dad, but Mitchell Hurwitz gets the shaft because the contracts weren't clear?

Has the whole world gone mad?!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

TV Comedy died forever in 1982

I saw this, and I wondered why it was considered newsworthy because I remembered reading about that being a controversy in Brooks and Marsh. In fact, this post was originally going to be all about that, and was to be entitled "Is it 1982?"

But while I was looking for first-hand accounts of the controversy from the period, I found this Time article instead. The conceit of re-animating the characters from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to comment on great sitcoms that had just been canceled is a clever one, and writer Richard Corliss does an admirable job of writing everyone in character. They aren't all dead-on - Mary's a little too stereotypically hysterical, maybe - but Murray, especially, sounds exactly like he should.

Reading the article, a couple of things jump out at me. First, Mork & Mindy is included. In that company, it stands out like a guy dressed as Yoda at a Star Trek convention. The other three shows (Barney Miller, WKRP in Cincinnati, and the soon-to-be-saved-by-another network Taxi) were all character-based and driven by relationships. In my mind, they form a trilogy of near-perfect workplace sitcoms that has never been topped before or since. Mork & Mindy, especially after the first season, was based around finding new excuses for Robin Williams to act like a caffeinated eight grader. Admittedly, Corliss gives all of the Mork affection to dim Georgette, so it's possible he wasn't too fond of the show either. But can it be possible that in the spring of 1982, the critical community mourned Mindy along with all of the others?

The other thing that's striking is the title of the article. Of course, it's not unusual to read articles announcing the death of the sitcom during this pre-Cosby Show period. But the inclusion of the word "honest" gives it another dimension. He doesn't ever come out and say comedy is dead - he even makes a point of saying M*A*S*H was still on the air - but Corliss seems to be saying that TV was no longer capable of creating well-crafted comedy. It was going to be Diff'rent Strokes and Too Close for Comfort from then on. That fall, of course, Cheers would premier, and would feature a lot of the same qualities Corliss honors in the article (close-knit group of characters depending on each other, the city as a character).

Saturday, June 28, 2008

You know what's great about Mary Steenburgen?

If you read the subject of this post, you’re no doubt thinking to yourself “But Anthony, everything about Mary Steenburgen is great!” That’s true, obviously, but today I want to talk about one thing specifically.

Mary Steenburgen is so talented, so generally amazing that sometimes I do nothing for days on end but sit around and think about how terrific she is. With that in mind, it’s my theory that she would be well-cast in some role in any movie ever made. Not every role, but *a* role in every single motion picture ever made.

For example:

Rocky – Mary Steenburgen as Adrian
Batman Begins – Mary Steenburgen as Boring Katie Holmes Love Interest
Revenge of the Nerds – Mary Steenburgen as Gilbert’s mom
City Lights – Mary Steenburgen as the Blind Girl
Alien – Mary Steenburgen as Lambert
12 Angry Men – Mary Steenburgen as Juror #2
Toy Story – Mary Steenburgen as Bo Peep
Casablanca – Mary Steenburgen as that woman who wants to escape with her husband. Not Ilsa, the other one. The one who Rick rigs the roulette wheel for.
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure – Mary Steenburgen as Movie Dottie
Norbit – Mary Steenburgen as Eddie Murphy

I could go on until I’ve listed every movie, Leonard Maltin-style, but you get the idea. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I defy you to name me a picture that wouldn’t do well to feature Mary Steenburgen. Seriously – go ahead and give it a try.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Yes yes, yes. Without the oops.

Now, like most of America, I stopped caring about Law & Order: Criminal Intent a long time ago. But then this had to go and happen:

The Tall Guy replaces Mr. Big

Obviously, I'm giddy with anticipation for the next season. The promise of Goldblum on my TV every other week is just about more complete awesomeness than I can stand. And honestly, when uptight, rigidly-structured L&O began eighteen years ago, could anyone have predicted that it would eventually give us a series in which all-time Hall of Fame Quirky Guys Vincent "EdgarBug" D'Onofrio and Jeff "BrundleFly" Goldblum traded off as lead character?

Of course, the great irony in all this is that I never think to watch L&O when I'm not at home, where my entire family consumes the show like oxygen. And I'll be in Missouri during this season.

Oh well.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Convenience Road Trip 2008

Yesterday, as my friend Justin and I traveled from Fargo to our hometown of Hatton, ND, we stopped at eight convenience stores. If you’ve never been to more than one gas station in the Midwest, you might assume they’re all the same. You’d be wrong. Here’s a summary of our trip:

Stop ‘N Go – Fargo, ND (71 miles from home): I bought some iced tea here, as well as gas (currently priced at one soul per gallon). Like every other convenience store in Fargo, there is absolutely nothing remarkable about this one. Everything is where you’d expect it to be, and it’s all very boring.

Cenex – Harwood, ND (64 miles from home): Harwood Cenex is the most perfectly designed convenience ever in the history of Earth. It has every food item you might expect to find in a gas station, and more. When you walk in, the bottled drinks are directly to your right. Keep walking, and you hit the fountain drinks and then the coffee and cappuccino. These curve around, until you find yourself unexpectedly walking past the onion rings, cheese sticks, rotisserie chicken, and other fresh-cooked fatty things. A slight left, and you’re right at the counter. This is only a sample, of course. The whole store is full of food, in well-stocked, well-spaced aisles. If there are convenience stores in heaven, they are exactly like Harwood Cenex.

Stop & Shop – Grandin, ND (45 miles from home): Stop & Shop is, in many ways, the opposite of Harwood Cenex. It’s on the other side of Interstate from the town, and the outside looks creepy and sketchy and not friendly at all, covered in words like “Food” and “Fuel” and “Groceries”. But inside, it’s like entering a new, crazy universe just bursting with character. The walls are adorned with things an old-fashioned, light-up Pabst Blue Ribbon clock and a North Dakota Centennial Flag from 1989. They’ll sell you a rake there, or a garden hoe. And, best of all, cappuccino is only $1.09 for 20 ounces. You can’t beat that!

Tesoro – Hillsboro, ND (33 miles from home): Hillsboro Tesoro used to pretty much wall-to-wall booze. Now, apparently, they keep it all hidden somewhere. As anyone who knows me could tell you, I’m no drinker, but at least it used to be interesting. Now it’s just nothing.

Cenex – Hillsboro, ND (33 miles from home): Directly across the street from Tesoro, Hillsboro Cenex is most notable for two things. 1) New release rentals are only $2 each if you get two of them, which is nice if you happen to live in Hillsboro. 2) It has a Burger King attached to it, which is even nicer if you happen to live in Hillsboro. I grew up in Hatton and went to college in Mayville. Neither of them has a Burger King. I used to dream about living in Hillsboro for that reason alone.

Cenex – Mayville, ND (16 miles from home): Mayville Cenex is *the* convenience store in my college town, so I spent a lot of time there for several years. It’s easy, then, to think of Cenex as an average gas station. It isn’t. It has a rack of inspirational Christian books in it, which is pretty awesome. Also, it has a cream dispenser instead of cups, which is pretty kooky.

Tesoro – Mayville, ND (15 miles from home): Mayville Tesoro is Cenex’s weird little brother, and it has the worst layout I’ve ever seen. It’s a tiny little box of a store, with the cashier enclosed in the center. As soon as you enter the store, you’re standing in line to check out. The aisles are extremely close together, and it’s impossible to find what you’re looking for. It’s the anti-Harwood-Cenex.

Cenex – Portland, ND (13 miles from home): Portland Cenex is huge, and is full of empty space. The shelves it does have are filled mostly with motor oil and spare tires. Also, it closes at 6 PM. What a weird, pointless inconvenience store.

Ampride – Hatton, ND (Home!): Being at Ampride is actually very much like being at my parents’ house. I can’t begin to be objective about it. In fact, they recently replaced Piccadilly Circus Pizza & Subs with Hot Stuff Pizza and SmashHits Subs. At the same time, my parents remodeled their kitchen. It doesn’t matter. Both of those places are still home.

In August, I’m heading off to Missouri for graduate school. I’m not really looking forward to the actual process of moving, except that I’ll probably get to stop at a bunch of interesting convenience stores on the way.

One more good pop culture reference in a song

Okay, I realize it was only supposed to be five, but I just thought of this one, and I couldn’t leave it out.

1979 - “Honest Lullaby” by Joan Baez, from the album Honest Lullaby

“Living in a fantasy, in love with Jimmy Dean. If you will be my king, Jimmy, Jimmy, I will be your queen.”

Each verse of Joan’s painful, beautiful, lyrically dense memoir of growing from teenager to mother tells of a separate phase in her life. Here, in the second verse, she’s blossomed into a teenager who isn’t awkward around boys the way she was in verse one. Now she has the opposite problem, as she’s “spending all [her] energy, in keeping [her] virginity.” The only way she knows to deal with it is to pretend she’s dating, instead, an idealized movie star. It's just one indelible image in a song full of them, but the use of the late actor's name makes it that much clearer.

This version, from the Muppet Show, contains only verses two and four. You really should hunt down the album track. It’s terrific.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

5 Good Pop Culture References in Songs

It’s a tricky thing to score with a good pop culture reference in a song. It’s easy to toss off an allusion, but considerably harder to make it mean something. A jumble of references that mean nothing will only lead to this:

So today, I’m going to present five pop-culture references that add to the songs they’re in. I’m not talking about songs dedicated to TV shows or movies, although that’s certainly a possible topic for a future list. None of these songs is about the item or person being alluded to. In all five cases, allusions help make a specific point about the song’s larger theme.

1974: “Young Americans” by David Bowie, from the album Young Americans

“Black’s got respect, and white’s got his Soul Train

In his epic, vicious indictment of American life circa Watergate, Bowie invokes everything from the lack of emotionally moving music to the handiness of having a razor “in case of depression.” But one undercurrent that runs throughout the song is the state of race relations at the time, which reaches its peak in the bridge, when he implies that in the end, all it really achieved was a TV show.

1980: “Play It All Night Long” by Warren Zevon, from the album Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School

“Sweet Home Alabama, play that dead band’s song . . .”

Unlike David Bowie, the late Warren Zevon wasn’t railing against all of America – just the South. In “Play It All Night Long,” he paints a bleak picture of a staggeringly dysfunctional and, in his view, apparently typical Southern family. He mocks them for their backwards ways, bringing up child abuse, incontinent grandparents, and failed ranching endeavors. It’s all wrapped around the chorus, which claims that perhaps this is the type of person who listened to Lynard Skynard. Necessary? Probably not. But it certainly stings.

1985: “Bastards of Young” by The Replacements, from the album Tim

“Elvis in the ground – no way he’ll appear tonight.”

The Replacements carry out an indictment of their own, as they “trash that Baby Boom” for four minutes. In reaction to the protest songs and movements of the 60s, they proudly announce that their generation can’t be summed up like the previous one. They don’t have a cause. They don’t unite around an issue. There’s “no war to name [them]”, and the song gives the sense that even if there was, they wouldn’t care anyway. Getting involved is a thing of past, and Baby Boomers were silly to ever try. Nowhere is this sentiment clearer than in the line I quoted, where with a sneer they dismiss the false hopes of a generation who won’t let their time pass gracefully.

2004: “Damn Good Times” by TMBG, from the album The Spine

“She acts like David Lee Roth when he turned twenty-one.”

This song is much more upbeat than the previous three (or, indeed, the next one), but it uses its allusion to equally profound effect. The song focuses on a girl who is described at various times as a “natural dancer” and “a jumping bean”. Nothing puts across her crazy style of dancing better than when it nods to the man who a hit song of the same title. Honestly, can you even imagine what he must have been like on that occasion?

2005: “Stevie Nix” by The Hold Steady, from the album Separation Sunday

“And when we hit the Twin Cities, I didn’t know that much about it. I knew Mary Tyler Moore, and I knew Profane Existence.”

Like most Hold Steady songs, “Stevie Nix” is part of the larger tapestry of the album which contains it. In this case, the album is about two girls who transition from Catholic upbringings to drug-fueled lives in Minneapolis. Craig Finn often weaves in pop culture references, as he does a number of times in this very song (although, strangely, the Fleetwood Mac singer herself is never referenced). None of them work quite as well as this one, where the reality of the drug-addled world we hear about (and indeed, could read about in Profane Existence ‘zine) is contrasted with expectations engendered by watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

You know what? That turned out a lot darker than I thought it would when I started.

5 Good ___________: An Introduction

Today I’m introducing a new feature, in which I choose something – anything - and offer five good examples of it. I plan to do this at least once a week. They will start out deal with pop culture (the three I have lined up now deal with comics, music, and the Greatest Movie Studio on Earth), but they’ll probably branch out into other topics as time goes on. Once I feel like I need to resort to “5 Good Charles in Charge Jokes”, I’ll move on to algebraic functions or something.

A disclaimer before we begin: I won’t claim (see that? I’m disclaiming) these are the top five in whatever category I’m discussing, because I haven’t seen everything and have no way of knowing the actual top five of anything. These won’t even necessarily be my five favorites. Each time, however, the five examples will be as representative of my tastes as any I could come up with.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

This is a Career?: Cynthia Stevenson

Cynthia Stevenson is awesome.

I first became aware of actress Cynthia Stevenson when USA Network started rerunning the 1995-1997 NBC flop Hope & Gloria in the fall after it had been cancelled. Now, Hope & Gloria was not a great sitcom, or even an especially good one. But even as a twelve-year-old, I was captivated by her offbeat-yet-shockingly-sincere delivery of stale sitcom punchlines. Somehow, on a TV show that also featured Alan Thicke chewing scenery like he was selling a trip to Las Vegas, she managed to convince me that Hope was an actual human being. I was astonished, and I became a fan for life.

I can’t find any decent clips of Hope & Gloria online (You’d think the Enrico Colantoni fansites would be all over that), nor can I find clips of the next place I saw her. Three years earlier, she had played Bob Newhart’s daughter on his failed sitcom Bob. I saw a few reruns on TV Land in the late 90s, when they filled time by showing failed sitcoms rather than reality shows (Weren’t those the days?)

Clearly, she wasn’t the best thing about this show opposite a legend like Newhart, but she held her own. Bob had resisted having kids on his hit sitcoms, and having an adult child here could easily have flopped. It didn’t, and that’s because Cynthia Stevenson was perfectly cast. Her flippant, wise-cracking delivery is about as far as you can get from Bob’s signature stammer, and the generational bafflement was all there in the performances. Too bad the scripts weren’t up to the same standard.

In the years since her failed sitcoms, Cynthia’s been working steadily, and she’s been wasted consistently – as the mom in the Air Bud sequels, as the mom in Agent Cody Banks, as George’s mom on Showtime’s Dead Like Me, as that one guy’s mom on ABC's Men in Trees. In all of these roles, she has the same snappy, believable delivery she always had, but she gets nothing interesting to say.

The one role I’ve seen that really allowed her to display the range of her talents was in Todd Solondz’s Happiness. Most of the praise directed towards the movie focuses on Dylan Baker’s role as troubled, twisted pedophilic father Bill Maplewood. But Cynthia matches him as his cheerfully, pathetically, heart-breakingly oblivious wife Trish. At the beginning, it's a pretty typical performance for her - the same smirk, the same wisecrack-y delivery. As the picture goes on, it becomes clear that much of that is a mask because the character can't bear to deal with the reality of her everyday life. It’s an amazing performance, and she deserves the chance to do that all the time.

I’d like TV and movies a lot more if Cynthia Stevenson wasn’t wasted all the time.

Is Anyone Still There?

You may have noticed that I’ve had this blog for nearly a year now, and I’ve only posted a handful of times. I always mean to post. I get ideas all the time, but when it comes time to type them up, I just don’t. Instead of typing up my thoughts about comics and TV and movies and music, I decide I’d rather spend my time watching or reading or listening to them. Or, frequently, reading blogs where other people write about them.

Well, no more. Starting today – June 24th, 2008, I’m going to update this blog every single day for the next year. It will continue to be a grab bag – most of the posts will be about comics, TV, movies and music, but I’ll also talk about other things if they happen to catch my fancy. Some of the posts will be serious thoughts, some of them will be satirical pieces, such as the Simpsons entry a few posts down. I trust my readers will be able to tell the difference.

I can’t promise that each day’s post(s) will set the world on fire, but there will be always be something new. You see, the blog is called “Zeppo Marxism” because Zeppo was the Marx Brother who provided a point-of-view for the audience. He was our window into the world of his crazier brothers. With this blog, I hope to provide a window to the world from my point of view. For the geeks out there, some of it should prove to be interesting.

Starting tomorrow, I’m going to introduce a new semi-regular feature and soon, I’m going to embark on a large project that I’ve been working on for some time. But come back tonight, for my thoughts on an actress who hasn’t been allowed to live up to her full potential.