Friday, December 28, 2012

Hidden beneath the clothes on the bed: Deceased Artiste Jack Klugman

Every year around this time celebrity (and a lot of non-celebrity) old folk kick off. I believe that a lot of them leave this mortal coil around Xmas time because it’s a “good” time to do so — the emotionally overwhelming notion of another holiday season is deftly avoided, and the end of the year is a great place to call a halt to the proceedings — think of the ailing George Burns and Bob Hope somehow both living until 100, and then giving up the ghost within two months of that milestone birthday. This year we lost two great character people in the span of a day, the first being TV everyman Jack Klugman.

Klugman was a hearty, driven soul who kept active after losing a vocal cord to cancer in 1989. He performed on stage (most notably with his Odd Couple partner Tony Randall), in movies, and on TV. The only thing that suffered a bit was his work in comedies — he was still a damned good comic actor, but it was discomforting to laugh at a person with a scratchy, faint voice (the 1993 TV movie The Odd Couple: Together Again included Klugman’s real-life triumph over throat cancer as one of its plot points, thereby making it a hard sell as a rollicking comedy).

He did an impressive amount of work on stage and in the movies, but he will forever be enshrined as both Oscar Madison and as the skeptical medical examiner Quincy. He won three Emmys for his TV work (two for The Odd Couple and one for a guest-starring role on The Defenders), but is also well-remembered for his starring roles in four episodes of the Twilight Zone (and six Naked City eps).

Born to Russian-Jewish parents and raised in Philadelphia, Klugman worked (after serving in WWII) in the Golden Age of dramatic TV, appearing in both the shows that highlighted sterling performances and playwriting (Actor’s Studio, Goodyear Playhouse), and the aforementioned anthology series — although he guested on Suspense, Big Town, and Inner Sanctum before he journeyed to the Twilight Zone and Naked City.  He claimed his proudest moment was on Producers’ Showcase in 1955, when he had a supporting role in The Petrified Forest with Bogart, Bacall, and Henry Fonda.

I will confess to having been terribly bored by Quincy, as I was by the very similar Quinn Martin productions of that same era (The Streets of San Francisco being an exception). However, I loved the Odd Couple TV series and continue to love it after all these years — it is the ONLY example that I can cite of a network comedy getting appreciably better season by season (esp. in regards to the quantum leap the show took after its first, extremely drab and laughtracked, season).

My favorite thing about Klugman’s acting is that (especially when he did comedy) Jack talked with his hands. This is commonly thought of as a Italian-American trait (“Why aren’t there any Italian dogs? Can’t find anyone who can bark with their hands!” — George Carlin). It’s really an ethnic American trait that can be found in Italians, Jews, Germans, the Irish, the Poles, Puerto Ricans, and pretty much anyone who grew up in an urban area in the mid-20th Century. As Oscar Madison, Klugman spent a good deal of time trying to get things across to Felix with his hands, emphasizing and punctuating his statements as he spoke.

The character of Oscar Madison is supposed to be the biggest slob in the world, but he’s not a lazy lout. In fact, that was what made Klugman’s performance as the character so special — while Randall as Felix was supposed to be the more cultured half of the two, we knew that Oscar was actually the creative one. He wasn’t acquainted with high culture, but he pounded out sports columns on his typewriter for his bread and butter, and seemed to be capable of being a novelist, if only he could overcome his writer’s block.

The other thoroughly winning aspect of Klugman’s excellent work on the show was that, despite the fact that Felix was supposed to be the “sensitive” half of the duo, Oscar actually supplied the “heart” of the program. Most of the times that there was a complex emotion to be displayed on The Odd Couple, Klugman handled it, and did so wonderfully. This is no knock against Tony Randall, who was a superb comic actor — Klugman, however, was clearly the better dramatic actor and handled sentimental moments with no trace of mawkishness.

Finally, aside from his acting work, Klugman publicly took political stances in his lifetime. In one such instance, at the urging of his brother, he spotlighted the concept of “orphaned diseases” (diseases that pharmaceutical companies had abandoned because they didn't yield a profit) on an episode of Quincy, and he subsequently testified to a congressional subcommittee looking into the matter. 

His presence got the subcommittee’s hearing news coverage, and thus helped get a bill passed (the “Orphan Drug Act of 1983”) that offered drug makers incentives to do trials on drugs for diseases that had been “forgotten.” Klugman’s place in this campaign (including a *second* Quincy episode written by Jack and his brother to shame obstructionist Senator Orrin Hatch) are detailed in this clip from The Rachel Maddow Show.

At 85, Klugman became involved in a second campaign called “First Freedom,” an interfaith initiative intended to get candidates to move away from infusing their religious beliefs into their policies. Here he argues for “sound science… and not religious dogma”:

In this spot for the campaign, he argues that it is the patient’s right to choose how he/she should live or die:

There’s a very good clip on YT of Klugman’s final interview, and here he is in much better shape on The Tonight Show, hosted on this occasion by fellow Philadelphian David Brenner. As for performance clips: Klugman’s four Twilight Zone episodes are in permanent rotation, but here’s a good sample of one of the most dramatic of the four, “In Praise of Pip”:

Here’s a clip from the Defenders episode for which he won an Emmy. The plot is a sharp one about show business blacklisting (which was occurring up through the early Sixties). E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed were the show’s stars:

Klugman appeared on pretty much every conceivable type of TV program. He did the rounds of the game shows (while one of the best-remembered Odd Couple eps found Felix and Oscar on Password). Here he is on Match Game with his then-wife Brett Somers, raisin’ a ruckus:

There were countless great moments on the Odd Couple series, but since the series is in syndication (it’s about to enter the schedule on the MeTV network) , here is a series of amusing outtakes from the show (apparently from the DVD that was sold with Klugman’s book about his friendship with Randall):

One of the odder artifacts from Klugman’s TV career: his guest-starring appearance in the Sammy Davis comedy pilot film Poor Devil (1973), which finds Sammy playing a demonic assistant to Lucifer (Christopher Lee) who’s out to claim the soul of a gambler (Klugman):

As I noted above, much as I liked Klugman I was terribly bored by Quincy. One of the most famous shows in the series and the most compulsively watchable one (for people of my age group) was the infamous “punk episode.” It was a sublimely corny message drama about the dangers of punk music. Here is the TV ad for the episode. This short set of clips sets up the premise and shows Jack trying to convince the punks he’s only trying to help:

A bit more of the scene that sets up the plot (with a very concerned Anita Gillette) and the punk club that Quincy visits:

A clip of the punk show and slam-dancing that Jack witnesses:

Perhaps the finest moment in pure silliness that Klugman and Randall were involved in was the tie-in album for the Odd Couple series, The Odd Couple Sing. Here is the best track on the LP, the duo taking on Carly Simon’s classic of vague identification, “You’re So Vain”:

Monday, December 24, 2012

Catchy, beautiful, and very unusual music for Xmas Eve

It's everywhere this time of year – Christmas music that is. As I write this, only 24 hours remain until the holiday is here and then it's GONE, so I will get straight to the point – if you are looking for non-brain-damaged, unfamiliar Yuletide- (and Solstice-)themed music, songs with a brain, a heart, and in many cases, a “demented” soul, look no further than the following four recommendations.

First of all, there is the sublimely strange melange of music served up by the DJ known as KBC on his “Bitslap” podcast. His themed episodes are all wonderful, but one of his specialties is uncovering VERY rare and often uniquely oddball Xmas music. So feast on the offerings available on his podcast, found here. As of today he has four current Xmas shows and a number of items from years past.

Now we move on to the music-videos of three tunes I really do love, for different reasons. The first is a non-mawkish but beautifully sentimental item composed and performed by the Australian musical comedian Tim Minchin. Tim is an atheist whose Xmas tune celebrates the holiday from a secular perspective, arguing that the real crux of the season is being with family and friends. It's a smart and sweet tune.

On to the seasonal cheer. I've written a few times before on this blog about Sherwin Sleeves, the brainchild of writer-performer Sean Hurley. Sherwin is a man of many talents and a sublimely gravely voice. That voice has been featured in two very wonderful Xmas stories, the first being “The Christmas Skater,” a beautifully written piece of radio that can be heard here.

The second seasonal adventure is one that I have just listened to today for the first time. It is the innovative, award-winning play Whisper, Pray, Make Room, which finds Sean as a modern-day Scrooge who happens to work as a talk-radio host. The "ghosts" reach him in the voice of his callers. As I've noted before on these pages, Hurley is a really top-notch writer whose works are true Internet treasures. Check out his terrific "radio theater" stories with Sleeves at his Atoms, Motion and the Void site.

Oh, and here is Sleeves' extremely catchy Xmas tune, which appears at the end of Whisper... (but was written before the play was created). It's short and is worthy of repeat plays.

And finally a song that belongs not to Xmas, but to the original holiday that occurred around this time of year, the Solstice. Singer-songwriter Andy Ditzler's tune is a wonderful earworm with a chorus that's catchy as hell. The reason I recommend it heartily is not only that the song is upbeat and joyous, but because Ditzler was lucky enough to have an underground legend, Funhouse favorite George Kuchar, shoot his music-video.

Funhouse viewers and readers of this blog will know that I LOVE George's work (and that of his brother Mike), and this music-vid (shot while George was teaching at the San Franciso Art Institute) has some imagery that only he could've come up with. Santa, dinosaurs, and Halloween decorations – the nine-year-old in me cheers.

Speaking of those of other faiths, if you'd like to hear three novelty Xmas items recorded by Jewish comics (Jerry Lewis, Marty Feldman, and Albert Brooks), then check out my Xmas-music entry from last year.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

How *not* to make a star out of a killer: a timeless segment from Charlie Brooker's “Newswipe”

The best political humor is also pungent social commentary. This clip from the British humorist-columnist Charlie Brooker's razor-sharp series Newswipe from 2009 finds Brooker discussing a recent incident in which a German teen perpetrated a mass shooting at a school.

Brooker's programs analyze the media (news programs in particular), with him making sarcastic comments from the sanctity of his living room – the ultimate revenge of the couch potato. The object of his shows is certainly to make fun of media coverage of major news stories, but he's willing to sacrifice the jokes to make serious points, as he did in this instance.

Here he intercuts sensationalist footage from 24-hour news channels with an extremely pointed interview with Dr. Park Dietz, the forensic psychiatrist who has testified at several major murder trials, concerning the ways in which the mass media can cover mass shootings and NOT inspire similar incidents in the future.

The things he says may seem obvious to most of us sentient humans – do not do 24/7 coverage of the incident, do not make the body count the lead story, do not make the killer an antihero – but it does serve as a short list of the ways in which news nets do help perpetuate this cycle of violence.
Even the left-leaning networks that decry the violence and are seemingly in favor of gun control, like MSNBC, were doing “wall to wall coverage” of the Connecticut shooting yesterday, when there was absolutely no new news to report – in so doing they helped spread false info about the identity of the killer.

The clip speaks for itself, and sadly will be topical for a long time to come:

Friday, December 7, 2012

British Scottish Humor 9: Arnold Brown

I've been proselytizing about British alternative comedy on this blog and the Funhouse TV show for about three years at this point, and one of my favorite things about following it is “connecting the dots” and discovering even more brilliant standups whom I'd never heard of, but whose material puts the alterna-souls over here in the shade. The only problem with following this stuff “from a distance” is that it's highly unlikely these gents and ladies will make it over here. This last factor is counteracted, though, by the fact that the work of these comics can be usually be seen in profusion on YouTube and obtained on DVDs from the UK.

Such is the case with Arnold Brown, a “godfather” of British alternative comedy. I first heard about him when he was cited as an influence by Richard Herring and Stewart Lee in interviews. It's quite obvious why the former Fist of Fun partners looks up to him: Brown is a quiet, soft-spoken standup who regularly turns his jokes on their side, sometimes deconstructing and toying with them as he's telling them. His sarcastic edge is wonderfully lethal, and is enriched by his Scottish burr.
A little bit of history: Brown began his standup career in the late Seventies at the Comedy Store in London while still working as an accountant. He became a regular performer at the legendary Comic Strip club after it opened in 1980. There he performed alongside the club's other mainstays, which included The Young Ones set and French and Saunders.
Brown appears in the 1981 short film by Julien Temple called “The Comic Strip.” He is seen onstage doing his act from 1:25-4:15 in this section of the film:
His laidback stage presence counterpoints the weirdness of some of his remarks (“I come from Glasgow... why not?”). He was the exact opposite of the spirited (and superb) Alexei Sayle and the broadly comic Mayall and Edmondson. Through the alternative “cred” he built up doing his act at the Comic Strip, he eventually wound up opening for bands across the UK, something he discusses in one of the extras on his new DVD – more on that below.
From the Eighties to the present day, Brown has kept busy as a standup, an actor in both film and television, and a commercial voiceover artist. He could be seen by American viewers playing a psychiatrist in Bill Forsyth's Comfort and Joy (1984), and he also played different small roles during the run of The Young Ones.
Funhouse TV viewers will have seen him guest-starring as Stew's veteran granddad in clips I showed from the “Crisps” episode of Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle. He also shows up in an episode of the caustic comedian/magician Jerry Sadowitz's The Pall Bearer's Revue (1992) – although you'll find no clips from that online, as the brilliant and very explosive Sadowitz (another colleague of Brown’s who’s his polar opposite) is adamant about not allowing any performance footage of himself online (he makes the reclusive Daniel Kitson seem like Russell Brand).
Here is another vintage clip of a younger (read: middle-aged) Brown performing his unique material on an unidentified variety show:
As the years have passed, Brown’s delivery has gotten even more refined and laidback. Like a confident magician (should we raise the name of Sadowitz again?), he often peels back the layers of his jokes, as he does here in one of my favorite bits of his:
A short clip with Arnold offering his wry take on quotidian comedy (“pretended empathy with audience…”):
Brown can finally be experienced in the U.S., thanks to the folks at Go Faster Stripe, the Welsh mail-order DVD company that has done a terrific job of preserving the acts of both younger and older UK alternative comics, and making them available at a low price in supplement-laden releases. Befitting his act, Brown’s disc Jokes I Have Known, peels back the layers of his act, as he is seen alternately onstage and in a living room home alone, seated, performing straight to the camera.
At first, I thought the effect of intercutting the two different spaces was jarring, as if a DVD extra has crept into the main program. As the disc goes on, however, you realize that Brown is proud of his material and wants to communicate directly with the home viewer. As Stewart Lee has done in his Comedy Vehicle, Brown is acknowledging the big difference between performing for a nightclub audience and trying to entertain the TV viewer.
But all the above is theoretical, and this is comedy (which, as Steve Allen noted, can never make a person laugh once they’ve analyzed it). Brown has worked as a writer for other comedians, and that comes through in Jokes I Have Known: he has his own distinctly mellow-yet-sarcastic delivery, but the jokes themselves do not depend on his persona, they’re just funny.
He also doesn’t shrink from making his age a subject for laughs — at one point he stops, walks to the rear of the stage, and consults a legal pad to see if he’s left out any routines he wanted to do. He then remarks that the home viewer will never see him do that, it will be cut (but of course it wasn’t, intentionally).
At one point, he casually slides in as a side-note to bolster a joke the fact that he is 76 years old — with most entertainers (nearly all?), that would be a sad attempt to garner applause, but Brown uses it instead to shore up his slow-moving-but-fast-thinking comic persona.
As is always the case with Go Faster Stripe releases, the disc includes interesting extras, the main one being a very funny mutual interview that Brown carried on with fellow “mellow older gent” comic Norman Lovett (their GFS DVDs were shot back to back).

In the interest of *full disclosure* (and with great pride), I will note that, yes, the other extra is a “Consumer Guide” episode of the Funhouse TV show in which I reviewed three terrific GFS releases (Simon Munnery’s Hello, Nine Lessons and Carols for a Godless Xmas, and Stewart Lee’s 90s Comedian).
Two samples of the Arnold Brown DVD are available on YT. The first one shows the counterpoint between Arnold doing jokes onstage and at home (btw, fellow Yanks: “Strepsils” is a British lozenge):
And possibly the SINGLE BEST example of Brown’s wonderful deadpan to be found online, his piece on the potential desirability of sheep: