Thursday, April 28, 2011
What Minchin does harkens back to masters of wordplay like Tom Lehrer and Noel Coward, except that Minchin is a self-professed “rock ’n’ roll nerd” (who has written an autobiographical song with that title). His music demonstrates a pretty thorough knowledge of piano-centric songwriters past and present (he’s namechecked Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and Ben Folds in his work, among others), and he shares with the comedy-music deity Lehrer the ability to convey a smart social or political truth in the form of a few verses and a chorus. Example:
Minchin clearly possesses the ability to write catchy and touching serious music — see his gorgeous atheist-Xmas tune (below) — but he has instead decided to use his talent to amuse. Before his present incarnation as a performer with a striking appearance (he performs barefoot, in eye makeup, and his “ginger” hair teased) and a strange stage persona that moves effortlessly from impish to positively demonic, he worked as a cabaret-style singer-pianist and also acted onstage in his hometown of Perth.
Minchin started gathering a following at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2005; he won the “Best Newcomer” award at the Edinburgh Fringe in the same year. He has since mounted various one-man shows and also, from what I’ve seen on YouTube (since we Yanks are “locked out” of the BBC website’s streams), has appeared with some regularity on British and Australian TV. He also was involved in an Oscar win at this past ceremony, as he narrated the Best Animated Short of 2010, the Australian short “The Lost Thing.”
Although his stage character seems “uncertain” of what to say at times, Minchin the performer is in complete control throughout his shows. He does intersperse short standup routines (including this crazed piece about anger) in among the tunes, and is in fact quite good at it, but his songwriting is so vibrantly creative that you come away from watching his stuff with his melodies lodged deep in yer brain pan.
I only discovered his work a few weeks back and was delighted to see he’s traveling to America in May to play several dates, including three in NYC that… have already sold out! I’m not sure how he’s acquired a cult over here — either it’s word-of-mouth among Aussie and British expats, or due to an appearance on Conan O’Brien in January of this year.
Before I move on to a survey of Minchin songs that you should definitely check out, I should underscore the two elements of his work that I most enjoy. The first is his ability to deconstruct himself and his persona in his lyrics and performance; the second is the aforementioned ability to convey a deeply held belief through the vehicle of a “funny song.” Come to think of it, the best subversives always have a good sense of humor….
Let me start off my mini-survey of Minchin’s music with my fave item from him (besides the above-linked ditty), his discourse on religion entitled “Ten Foot Cock (and a Few Hundred Virgins).” This is a clever, tuneful piece that speaks for itself:
The most commonly used topic in songwriting is, of course, love. Here, Minchin directly addresses his lover and comes straight to the point (in an actual music-video!):
In case the lady wants Tim’s “Dark Side,” he’s willing to reveal it in this brilliant piece that bounces genres from jovial piana-playin’ to introspective Pearl Jam-mish angst:
An open challenge by Minchin to religious folks, believers in psychic phenomena, and new-age therapies that finally works its way around to its subtitle (which is a variant on Henny Youngman’s most famous punchline):
A melodic piece that proves Minchin can write meditative songs (serious with a few funny lines) pretty damned well:
And this may seem weird in April, but I wanted to close with the Minchin song that first “hit” me, his serious Xmas song about what really matters about the holiday and what doesn’t, “White Wine in the Sun.” I avoid sentimental holiday music like the plague, but this song appeals to me greatly because it’s genuine and not mawkish:
Those who are intrigued by the above can check out mucho Minchin on two YouTube channels, one put up by a dedicated fan who has collected some great TV appearances and the other put up by Tim himself.
FOOTNOTE: In praising Minchin, I neglected to mention two other practitioners of musical humor whose work I love, the multi-instrumentalist Bill Bailey and the acoustic master of wonderfully funny folk-rock tunes, Stephen Lynch. The work they do is equally impressive in this era when there ain’t any humor at all in popular music.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
But I have not abandoned my Easter celebration of Xtian kitsch artifacts (crafted, of course, with very serious purposes in mind). Thus, I give to you two tracks (actually four, since the spoken word pieces are separate from the songs) from an extremely deadpan Xtian-themed album intended for teens called For Mature Adults Only (1968).
Usually that kind of title denotes a porn flick or, in the case of LPs, a “party record.” This album is neither — it’s an attempt by a doctor of theology, Norman Habel, to present the “voices” of real teens, complete with songs that trumpet the fact that all problems can be solved by the big JC.
From the liner notes:
Honest Teenage Cries, Poems and Prayers
Collected and Narrated by
With Music by
Incredible! Impossible! In!
These were a few of the reactions of people when they heard about a show with teenagers entitled FOR MATURE ADULTS ONLY. You can thank a teenager for that title!
Who ever heard of trying to bridge the generation gap by letting the teenager have his own say about life and faith and love? Who ever heard of a professor of theology loving teenage poetry and reading it in public? Who ever heard of a coffee house on stage?
All of these improbable situations were part of the experiment in youth communication entitled FOR MATURE ADULTS ONLY. We wanted the teenager to be heard. So we collected poems, cries, prayers and words of teenagers across the country. We met kids like Debbie, Mike, Jan and their friends. Then we let them be heard and felt in this show.
The cries and songs of these kids are honest, simple and sometimes painful. They are for mature people, people who can feel the soul of youth and listen with love.
The show was first presented in the auditorium of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in March, 1968. The response was so dramatic that the International Walther League [the Lutheran young people’s league — .ed] invited the cast to appear at its convention in August, 1968.
The album is charmingly naïve in its view of what was happening in 1968, and so I thought I’d upload what are surely the most extreme (read: extremely quaint… and amusing) tracks on the album, the ones concerning psychedelic trips (don’t these kids know the best trips are ones taken with Xt?) and the alienation of black teenagers.
Please enjoy, and spread these relics from the decade that remains "the gift that keeps on giving" (and giving and giving...). Pass these items on to your friends, and have a happy celebration of Easter, Passover, or whatever other commemoration of something mystical, magical, and very unlikely that you choose to celebrate. Roll away the stone!
Take a trip, ’cause Jesus changes everything. Robert Edwin sings the tune:
A black teen’s lament (with Broadway-style funk goin’ on). Don Hunter sings “Adam Was a Man”:
Thanks to Jim G. for yet another discovery.
Monday, April 11, 2011
Whenever anyone discusses “the great NYC filmmakers” the names Scorsese and Woody Allen inevitably come up first. Scorsese has pointed to Woody as being the finest advocate of the city in cinema and perhaps he is right (his own Seventies and Eighties work is indelible, but the never-ending “DeCaprio cycle” is blighting his legacy). But there are a few other filmmakers who deserve consideration, including many indie and underground directors and a major-studio master who was one of the finest “actor’s directors” ever, Sidney Lumet.
Lumet, who died last week at 86, made some masterpieces and every one of them featured unforgettable performances — in some cases career-defining ones. He graduated from TV work in the Fifties to theatrical films (Twelve Angry Men, A View from the Bridge, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night) that were indeed actor’s showcases. He coaxed one of the last sublime “golden period” performances out of Brando in The Fugitive Kind, truly established Sean Connery as a talented actor who could say more than “shaken, not stirred,” and blessed Pacino with two of the finest roles he's ever had. (Not forgetting for a second Rod Steiger's incredible work in The Pawnbroker.)
The best Lumet films are indeed masterworks, but sadly he was only as good as his scripts and his actors. There were a bunch of films he made that disintegrated as they went on — from The Anderson Tapes and Just Tell Me What You Want to Garbo Talks and Family Business. The Wiz (1978) is in bad-movie class of its own — the only film to feature a (semi-) starring performance by Michael Jackson, it is just so fucking miscalculated, it is amazing. And yet it does have gorgeous NYC locations and the HQ of the “Wiz” (Richard Pryor) is an utterly transformed World Trade Center, looking like a multicolored daydream/nightmare.
Following the odd Eighties miscalculations, there was a 15-year period where he made several lackluster items in a row, including a bunch of work for cable television. The theatrical films ranged from the unintentionally (very) funny A Stranger Among Us (1992) to the what-the-hell-is-he-thinking? remake of Cassavetes' Gloria (1999) as a Sharon Stone vehicle. Thankfully in 2007, Lumet put that less-than-memorable work in the shade with the terrific Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which returned him to familiar territory with a caper movie that was actually a downward-spiral character study, and featured terrific performances by all the leads. As a fan of Lumet’s work, I am very glad that this was the film that he “went out on” — god knows how depressing it would’ve been if he had left us after Gloria!
One last thing about Lumet: he was categorized (and diminished) as being a “NYC director,” and yes, he was indeed one of the all-time great chroniclers of the five boroughs on film. I remember being particularly pleased that he had used the "Airline Diner" on Astoria Blvd. — which had some lovely items in the machines in the men's room — as a setting for a sequence in Prince of the City (this was well before it was used in a scene in Goodfellas).
But he also made a host of great movies that are not related in any way to NYC, especially when he worked with Sean Connery in England (The Hill, The Offence). The best argument that Lumet was a versatile filmmaker who was not bound to NYC as a location (or a state of mind) was the old-fashioned and delightful Murder on the Orient Express (1974) with the always impeccable Albert Finney. Even a great film set in Manhattan like Network (1976) actually has nothing to do with the city at all.
Lumet’s talent transcended this burg, but as a New Yorker, I’m very proud that he paid tribute to the city so incredibly well, and so often. Lumet’s best-known films are all readily available on DVD, so I’ll point the way to some choice scenes that are available online (some uploaded by mine own hand). First, a powerful bit from Lumet’s TV version of The Iceman Cometh, the only version of the play that preserves Jason Robards’ killer performance. Here, he delivers the central monologue in the play (the scene is in three parts; the later links are visible when each clip finishes):
I will confess that I have not watched this feature, but one helpful poster has uploaded all of Lumet’s View from the Bridge, a 1962 film version of the Arthur Miller play starring Raf Vallone and Maureen Stapleton, which was funded by French and Italian producers (and partially shot in NYC, partially shot in Paris). The film is a true rarity, but I can't vouch for its quality:
A commercially available title, but one that resonates with New Yorkers for its fleeting final glimpses of the city, the deadly serious nuclear-paranoia thriller Fail-Safe (1964). Beaten at the box office (and in reviews) by Doctor Strangelove, its conclusion — in which the president (Henry Fonda) has to agree to let Russia bomb NY — works so well because Lumet conveys the destruction through a few simple images:
I uploaded four scenes to supplement this blog post. The first two are from what I consider one of Lumet’s best NYC films, but probably one of the least well-known, Bye Bye Braverman (1968). The film is hardcore New York City stuff that still has a lot to say to folks from anywhere about middle age and its discontents. Here George Segal and Jack Warden discuss the death of their friend, who is the exact same age as they are. The film was based on a novel by Wallace Markfield and the script was by Steve Allen alum Herb Sargent. It is a delight:
The film was shot in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and is one of Lumet’s finest Valentines to the city. Here are the sequences that feature ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman capturing what parts of Brooklyn looked like in 1968. These moments are intoxicating and demonstrate Lumet’s love for NYC:
And to further the argument that Lumet was not just an NYC director, here is a very tense sequence from The Offence (1972). Sean Connery interrogates a child rapist and murderer, played by the ever-creepy Ian Bannen, whom I last namechecked in reference to his equally creepy (but amusing) performance in The Driver’s Seat with Elizabeth Taylor:
The film’s tour de force sequence is this encounter between Connery’s tightly-wound cop and his wife, played by Vivien Merchant. Sequences like this are a testament to Lumet’s talent with actors. They need to be seen:
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
First, some background for those who’ve started reading this blog in the last few weeks or months. In March 2010 I wrote a post lamenting the cancellation by local radio station WOR of Joey Reynolds’ all-night talk show. In that post I mentioned Reynolds’ background — that he has been in the radio business about close to five decades and that his show was essential to the late night radio “scene” in NYC, as it was the very last talk/variety program on a commercial station at that hour (or basically any hour). When the show went off the air, Joey promised us he’d be back with a TV show that would be on “all night,” that would feature the same eclectic (and sometimes bizarre) mix of guests, and that would air live in Times Square.
Well, aside from the live aspect (All Night is taped an evening ahead of time), Joey has made good on that promise. The result is the most invigoratingly eccentric talk show to be seen on NYC TV since the departure of Joe Franklin and of cable-access staples Beyond Vaudeville and The Coca Crystal Show.
I’ve been watching All Night since its third night on the air, and the show is incredibly difficult to describe without offering a vigorously assembled montage of the many kinds of acts that have been featured on it thus far, and the various moments in which Joey has conversationally “tangented” wildly off from whatever he’s supposed to be discussing (perhaps that will appear on a future episode of the Funhouse TV show — yes, I’ve been recording All Night….). In the meantime, since NO ONE on the Net is chronicling what’s taking place on the show, and the webmasters of Joey’s own sites have put nothing new up for weeks now, I hereby tender a review of, and commentary on, the proceedings.
The show airs only in the NY tristate metro area on NBC, Channel 4.2 (that’s on the digital-converter-box lineup that few people are aware exists) and on pretty much every cable system on the channel known as “NBC Nonstop” (it’s tucked away neatly on Ch. 161 on my Time Warner lineup). Thus, you have to really know the channel exists to catch Reynolds’ show.
All Night actually lasts from midnight-2 a.m. five nights a week, meaning Reynolds and company come up with TEN HOURS (!) of new programming every week, ensuring that one can never be sure what is coming up next, even if you’ve seen the opening guest roster, which has often been inaccurate in the past few weeks — and now the staff has taken to sending out two guests when Joey introduces one, so even the host is taken aback by who walks out onto the set (!).
Thus far, I, my dad — who is the target demo for the show, a senior who stays up late — and an artist friend are the only ones I know monitoring the show on a nightly basis, just to see what’s on next and also to assure ourselves we didn’t hallucinate the weirdness that went down the night before. (“Did you see that Disco-yogi act?”, “Did I dream that a man in an Octopus costume and a ‘scream queen’ were interviewed about their comedy-horror access program??”, “Did a guy really eat a light bulb on-air last night???”, “Did Joey really spend 10 full minutes telling us how his car got repossessed the other day????”). All Night could *definitely* become a cult favorite, a la The Joe Franklin Show, if only anyone knew it was on the air…..
So what exactly happens on the show? Its first cornerstone is its eclectic, and again often bizarre, guest roster. NYC is filled with performers who never get a break on TV, and so it’s terrific to see Reynolds and his producers showcasing local cabaret performers, unsigned rock bands, standup comedians, authors, and various specialty acts you never see on TV anymore — and will most likely never see, now that the MDA Association is cutting back the Jerry Lewis telethon to a mere six hours.
The guests sometimes appear in odd succession — thus, my favorite nights have had bizarre juxtapositions, like the night that the “Jewish hour” (see below) was followed by a mixed-martial arts demonstration (punctuated by an inappropriate queer joke by Joey — he is prone to un-p.c. utterances that fall flat, very flat), only to be trumped by a country singer who brought Joey several gifts from local area merchants. Joey chose to dote on a gift basket of cheese and its aroma — “it smells like feet,” Joey complained, at length, to the gift-giver before actually munching on the damned cheese and finding out it tasted okay (you won’t get those moments on the network talk shows, I guarantee you).
Joey has noted that he’s taking a leaf from the old Ed Sullivan Show, but then again he’s also expressed an admiration for Funhouse deity Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Carson, and Dick Cavett. All Night is thus a combination of both variety and talk, to very strange effect. Two particularly crammed-to-capacity shows had the following line-ups:
-celebrity impressionist Marilyn Michaels
-a group of All Night investors signed a contract with Joey on-air to solidify their involvement in the show (huh?)
-impressionist Bob Greenberg, who specializes in vintage comedians
-an impersonator known as “Carole Channing,” who solely does Miss Carol (and who discussed Funhouse favorite Skidoo with Greenberg!)
-comedian “Shecky Beagleman” (see below)
-a young singer/songwriter woman
-a sleight-of-hand master who performed con-artist card tricks
-a musician-songwriter and singer who got crammed in as the credits rolled
-hangdog-looking standup Phil Selman
-a gent with an impressively weird hairdo who is a comedy writer and spoke about stuttering (in reference to The King’s Speech)
-his cohort, a young woman who makes Lady Gaga parody videos
-a pretty good pop-rock band performed live
-an off-Broadway revue belter, who did a parody of Christina Aguilera fucking up the National Anthem
-the owners of a French restaurant
-a rabbi, who discussed recent international tumult, including Libya
-a singer-songwriter who came on to promote both his music and his starring role in a serial-killer drama that more than likely will be going the “DVD Premiere” route
Making All Night seem even more like a late-night fever dream that couldn’t possibly be on commercial TV are the very serious topics that are occasionally tackled by Joey, including his favorite, the 12-step program and various rehab facilities and their approaches to sobriety. Reynolds openly speaks about his own struggles with past addictions, which I respect (although when he discusses the struggles of one family member, it’s cringeworthy TV — one can’t help but think that it’s her private dilemma and none of our damned business….). These and other self-help discussions clash wildly with the singers, comedians, magicians, sports figures, and authors who’ve written celebrity bios or history tomes. All Night works well when it’s light (providing the guests are allowed to steer the conversation — which does happen occasionally), but runs aground when serious topics are explored.
For sheer conversational “swerves,” there is also nothing as powerful on the Joey program as mentions of the Las Vegas electronics show that he attends on an annual basis. He has derailed really interesting conversations — as with the brilliant comedian Paul Mooney and road-warrior standup Bob Altman (aka “Uncle Dirty") — just to talk about an electronics show that few, if any, folks at home are interested in. I’ll probe Joey’s odd conversational swerves and unusual interview approach in the upcoming second part of this blog post.
Now that I’ve raised the specter of Joey’s unwelcome verbal disruptions, let me sing the praises of segments on All Night that I thought were exemplary. It will come as no shock to those who read this blog regularly or watch the Funhouse TV show, but I’d point to two very touching obituary segments, and one senior-birthday one, that Joey hosted. The first instance was part of the one “Jewish hour” that aired on the TV show. For those who were not familiar with Reynolds’ WOR radio show, each week he hosted hours of the show he good-naturedly called “the Italian hour,” “the Jewish hour,” “the gay hour,” etc., featuring groups of his friends.
He did two Italian hours and one Jewish hour on All Night, and then declared to his announcer that putting the Jewish hour on TV had been a “big mistake,” since it had only worked on radio. (Given that this has been the ONLY thing I’ve heard him refer to in two months as a “mistake,” that’s quite an admission — but regular viewers and listeners will know he’s often not the best arbiter of what works or doesn’t on his own show.) All Night is a local show that works best with an emphasis on all things NYC — and the ethnic and gay hours definitely lived up to that, in spades.
In any case, the first and only TV Jewish hour featured a heartfelt tribute to Mickey Freeman, the Borscht Belt comedian and Bilko cast member whom I first found out about on Reynolds’ radio show. The second, equally emotional and well-handled item was a farewell to Charlie Callas. In this segment, Joey interviewed Callas’ close friend Albert Wunsch about Charlie’s sad final year, in which he experienced the tragic death of his wife and then slowly succumbed to depression. As I write this blog post, he’s doing a very entertaining series of segments paying tribute to the work of songwriter Ervin Drake (“It Was a Very Good Year”), who turned 92 this week. Despite Joey's protestations that All Night has “cross-generational” appeal, it’s clear that all the best aspects of the program have to do with nostalgia of one kind or another.
The show’s other hallmark besides its guest roster is its location, the NASDAQ building on the Southeast corner of 43rd Street in Times Square. The studio doubles as a financial news center during the day, and for two months now it’s been apparent that the odd decision to shoot the show *towards * the window adds nothing to the proceedings, and in fact is distracting and entertaining as hell in all the wrong ways. For instance, a guest will be offering a very serious thought on the Holocaust, America’s military commitment in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, or their own health crisis, and suddenly your attention will be diverted by a teenage idiot doing jumping jacks in the window behind the person speaking.
This aspect has become something I wait for. When the show is simply being “radio on the TV” as it often is — with very little visual activity going on, except for the stray ventriloquist, magician, or dance acts — you instantly turn back to the TV the minute something deeply serious is introduced, because it’s absolutely certain that a passerby is going to be vaulting in the air, or pressing their face to the glass (it should be dynamite when summer hits the Square — can mooning be far behind?). Joey frequently tells his cameramen to get a shot of “our audience,” but as is usually the case with any local newscast, the idiots leaping up and down in the window don’t know, or care, what is actually happening in the TV studio in front of them.
Two weeks ago it appeared as if Joey and his producers had figured out the ultimate way to attract an audience of passersby to their street-level studio window: have sexy burlesque girls do dance numbers. In classic Joey-show fashion, though, in between the three burly-Q dancers, there was a performance by a local NYC Gilbert & Sullivan light operetta troupe, as well as a discussion with a self-help author. So a hula girl performed, then there was a discussion of the burlesque show, then a girl in a small sexy outfit twirled a baton (and kept dropping it — but who noticed?), and then a Gilbert & Sullivan song, some self-help talk (very heavy), and back to a chick in fishnets, dancing up a storm under the credits. To paraphrase Cindy Adams’ famous closing line: Only on Joey, kids, only on Joey!
The Times Square location has also spawned a rather awkward nightly man-in-the-street segment called “Reynolds’ Rap.” Teens and inebriated people can sometimes be seen chanting Joey’s name because a young, very exuberant comic named Frankie Hudak has gotten them to do so, but they have no idea who in the hell Joey is. But, hey, they’re on TV! During these segments, Joey corrals anyone walking by on Broadway to talk to him, resulting in one of two options: either he gets ridiculously frustrated because the people he’s speaking to don’t speak English (now, who exactly is walking through Times Square after 9 p.m. on a weekday work-night but tourists?). Or, Joey asks the interview subject to read the sign for his show in the window of the NASDAQ building, and tells them that he’s doing a TV show and they’ll be on it that very night (although, as noted, the show is currently being taped a day in advance).
In the second part of my review of Joey’s “incredibly strange” television show, I will probe how Joey’s runaway “talkaholism” makes the show even more hallucinatory and unlike anything you’ve ever seen on commercial TV. In the meantime, although he keeps mentioning that the show will be “triple-platformed” soon — on TV, the radio, and on the Internet — there are currently no updates being made to the show's website. A few (very few) clips from the first two weeks (primarily the first two shows) were put up on the show's YT channel, including this slice of Jackie “the Jokeman” Martling and local comic Dave Konig. Where else in the goddamned world will you hear Wheeler and Woolsey being namechecked?
The most interesting clips, however, have been put up by the guests themselves. Here is a musical performance by downtown NYC legend Phoebe Legere:
Russian entertainer Oleg Frisch puts his own spin on the evergreen “Goody Goody.” If you’ve taken the time read this far, oh, please do fast-forward to 8:00. Hey now!
Another, very special warbler, called the “singing CPA,” updated a Rolf Harris/Johnny Cash song “I’ve Been Everywhere,” to suit his chosen profession. Again, please take the time to fast-forward to 4:10 on this one:
Perhaps this one bit of comedy shtick best exemplifies many of the stranger guests that Joey has had on. Here, concept comedian “Shecky Beagleman” (it’s a she) guests as “Mrs. Bin Laden.” The lack of laughter in the studio (no audience!) makes this bit even more bizarre than it would be in another context. Sample this and know what it is like to hallucinate without the benefit of chemicals, chum: