Monday, June 17, 2013

Fred Mogubgub would like to blow your mind

As I've noted many, many times on the Funhouse TV show, the pop culture of the Sixties is the gift that keeps on giving and giving and giving – each time you think you know all of the most interesting artists and entertainers from that period, you become aware of another one who created some truly mind-roasting work. Such is the case with Fred Mogubgub, an animator whose body of work might be small, but is deeply deserving of a larger cult.

I have an institution and an individual to thank for my becoming acquainted with Mogubgub (more on his odd-sounding name below). The institution is the soon-to-be-movin' Whitney Museum, which included two of his best-known shorts in an exhibit they called “Sinister Pop.” (The exhibit was a lot of fun, but it only partially seemed to adhere to the “sinister” label.)

Some of the paintings were a little ominous in tone, but the underground films they chose to show were very un-sinister (Andy Warhol eating a hamburger on camera; George Kuchar's masterful “Hold Me While I'm Naked”; the trailer for A Bout de Souffle), except for two items (“Scorpio Rising” and Lynch's “Alphabet”). In a corner of the room they had the shorts with which I'll be closing off this post... and my mind fairly reeled.

Once I looked up Mogubgub (writing that name over and over is a side-benefit of doing a tribute to the gent), I found that one individual online has been mounting a sort of one-man campaign to keep FM's work alive. Richard O'Connor has posted Mogubgub's animated shorts on YouTube and written a number of blog posts imparting biographical info, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and critical appraisals of Mogubgub's work as an animator, fine artist, and “idea man” for ad campaigns. (As I wrote this, I then discovered the wonderful FM-related items that Michael Sporn has uploaded to his blog.)

First, a word about the gent's name: the Wikipedia entry for the artist notes that Fred himself said that his surname derived from the sound his Lebanese ancestors made when drowning. O'Connor, however, tells a story in one of his articles in which Fred M. was asked by one of his animator colleagues why he had changed the family name to simply “Mogub.” Fred thought people would laugh at the full name, but his colleague encouraged him to let them laugh, and make himself memorable with the full name. (O'Connor has indeed verified in correspondence with me that Mogubgub was Fred's family name and not just an artist's pseudonym.)

Born in 1928, he served in WWII and then attended the Art Students League. Although he wound up returning to fine art in his later years, he became an animator as a young man and quickly discovered he could make money at it by working in advertising. In 1961, he formed the firm Ferro Mogubgub Schwartz with two friends and wound up revolutionizing the TV ad with quick cuts. He maintained that the viewer could easily digest a lot of imagery in a short amount of time – he felt that commercials, and most films in general, were too slow. He was obviously way ahead of the curve here, operating on a severely "Sixties" wavelength at the very outset of the era.

In between the ads he produced a piece of animation for Jerome Robbins' Broadway production of the “black humor” play Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad. His animation reportedly ran before the play started – it most certainly has what later came to be known as the Sixties look, but keep in mind that this play debuted in 1963. The B'way cast included Jo Van Fleet, Austin Pendleton, Tony Lo Bianco, and Barbara Harris. Harris was the only performer to also appear in the really awful movie version of the play, which featured an odd narration by the dead father, played by Jonathan Winters.

FMS had big clients, including the Ford Motor Company. O'Connor notes that the ads created for Ford by FMS “accelerated the action [of the commercial]. Scenes could be one second, less than one second, always long enough to convey the shot's meaning without overstaying its welcome.” Mogubgub created other notable campaigns for Pontiac (using comedian Victor Borge) and Life Savers, for whom he created the tagline, “Have you ever heard anyone say ‘no’ to a Life Saver?”

Mentioned in a 1966 Newsweek article on Pop Art (found here) as “a leading pop adman,” Mogubgub was simultaneously working on his short animated features. The most important of these is “The Pop Show,” which I'll discuss at the close of this piece. He also contributed drawings to The East Village Other.

Mogubgub was aware of how to attract the public's interest – one of his best stunts found him having a three-story mural, which asked for two million dollars, painted on the outside of the building in which he had his studio. The building is i.d.'ed as being on Sixth Avenue, but Steven Heller's blog says it was located on Third Avenue and 59th St.

Upon discovering his work I had hoped that he had made a feature film. He did, but all copies of it are apparently gone. The film, called The Day I Met Zet, was 71 minutes long and reportedly had 72,000 shots in it. (O'Connor mentions that it was shown once on WNET, the PBS station here in NYC.)

It took him three years to make the picture, but after he was advised to change it in certain ways by a potential distributor he started it again from scratch. The best Mogubgub stunt is tied up with the film: when it was turned down by the New York Film Festival, he protested outside the festival screenings with a sign reading “Screw the New York Film Festival.” He eventually burned a canister of film in a garbage pail – although it wasn't Zet, the story got him some attention.

A Christmas card made by Mogubgub (from the Michael Sporn website)
I have very fond memories of the next project that Mogubgub was involved in: the Sunday morning children’s show “Make a Wish” hosted by Tom Chapin (Harry’s brother). The show (which ran from ’71-’76) was educational but also reflected the stream-of-consciousness, quick-cut spirit of the era, and thus animation producer Al Broadax (of Yellow Submarine) wisely recruited Mogubgub to do segments for the show.

In the Seventies Mogubgub moved away from animation – according to Steven Heller's blog, he threw his cameras into the Hudson River! – and moved back to his first love, painting. O’Connor has posted several photos of Fred M’s paintings, and he has pointed out “[Mogubgub's] painting couldn't appear more removed from his films. The films are frenetic and seemingly scattered, whereas the paintings are detailed and painstakingly rendered.”
A painting by Mogubgub, from the Asteriskpix blog.

Mogubgub returned to animation as a freelancer. He did commercials for cigars and candy bars, and even worked on a music video. In the 80s he continued painting while freelancing as an animator. He animated several commercials for the Buzzco company, including spots for cigars and "Bit O Honey.” He also worked on an ad campaign for a local Minnesota UHF station that was called “TV Heaven” (see image below).

He died at the age of 61 in 1989 and is ripe for rediscovery. At its best, his work did encapsulate an entire era, but his talent extended beyond the “pop” sphere. I’m glad that O’Connor has provided us with so much background information on the man, and I hope his works get further exposure in the years to come — and can anybody find a copy of that damned “Zet” movie?


For those who believe that “everything is on the Net,” I point out that not a single photograph of Mogubgub has been uploaded. Instead we can see him talking in Antonello Branca's documentary “What's Happening?”

The film offers a valuable look at artists in the “pop” period (including the major, museum-friendly names). Among the interviewees (speaking amidst images of their work and some great shots of NYC in the late Sixties) are Ginsberg, Leon Kraushar, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rauschenberg, an intriguing woman named Marie Benois, and Monsieur Mogubgub:

You NEED TO SEE this wonderful animated version of Don McLean's “American Pie” that doesn't visualize the song per se, but offers many memorable images as the tune plays. Mogubgub was one of several animators who worked on the piece, but he also gets a “Production” credit, and the short definitely is edited in the manner of his solo endeavors.

Three later pieces by Mogubgub: an excerpt from the 1983 R.O. Blechman film The Soldier’s Tale. O'Connor notes the main animator is Tissa David, and FM's section starts at 2:08:

A 1984 music video for the band Khmer Rouge. The video was signed by photographer Nat Finkelstein, but he collaborated with Mogubgub:

And a group of ads from the late Eighties for a station called “TV Heaven” (a rerun channel that was on only in St. Cloud and Rochester, Minnesota). The Fred/Alan blog explains the background for this ad campaign (yes, that's Dr. John singing) and how their work on it was influenced by the films of Fred Mogubgub, whom they eventually hired to work on the animation:

I close out with the three films that define Mogubgub's fast-cut “pop” style. The first, “Enter Hamlet” (1965), is an amazing experiment Mogubgub did for the the School of Visual Arts with animators Irene Trivas and Sylvia Davern.

The trio came up with an illustration for each and every word in the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, as read by Maurice Evans. The fact that some of these pictures are seen for barely a second or two makes this a true “trip”:

Mogubgub's most trenchant statement on consumer culture (and logo design) is “The Great Society” (1967), an assemblage of shots of dozens and dozens of products from the mid-Sixties. This is a perfect time capsule, as well as a kinetic reworking of the Warhol Campbell soup can and Brillo box concepts:

The seminal work is the aforementioned short “The Pop Show” (1966), which was conceived of as a trailer for a television series, and does lead you to believe at points that Mogubgub is referring to a dream film in his head with an assemblage of performers who could've worked together in that era: Alan Arkin, Liza Minnelli (whose name is misspelled), and Victor Spinetti).

This short requires several viewings to catch all the imagey (and simply because it so damned fun). The young lady trying out consumer products in a sexy fashion is none other than Gloria Steinem (after her work on Help magazine and well before the creation of Ms.).

Watching Mogubgub's work, one is constantly jarred by his innovation. It definitely makes one wish he had gotten that two million dollars. 

Note: the images in this post come from the Asteriskpix blog, the Ace and Son website, the Michael Sporn animation site, the Fred/Alan Archive, and the Ani 360 site.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Garden of Earthly Delights: Andy Kaufman, the Abrasive Genius (part two of two)

The time has definitely arrived for me to offer up the second part of this blog post, given that Kaufman was “in the news” again last week, thanks to another bizarre and pointless “Andy is still among us!” scenario taking place on the Internet.

In the first half of this post I discussed the recent gallery show that contained Andy's personal papers and professional paraphernalia. Among the events that were held to coincide with that show were a number of Kaufman-related video screenings and panels in a series called “Andy Kaufman’s 99 cent tour,” held at the Participant Inc gallery. I was only able to attend two of these events, but I feel that one of them was so special that it needs to be recounted in detail – and then on to more rare clips that are “hiding in plain sight” online....

The difference between this event, which took place on February 19, and the others was that it was hosted and arranged by Hal Willner. I've discussed the incredibly memorable summer shows that Willner has staged here in NYC before (and rhapsodized about his benefit for Tuli Kupferberg here) and his involvement in this particular panel made for quite a memorable evening.

The panel was initially announced to be MTV VP and journalist Bill Flanagan, the talented musician (and vinyl-holic) Lenny Kaye, and Richard Belzer – the last-mentioned dropped out and was replaced by Kembra Pfahlera (and who would *you* rather see?). Also added to the panel were another music critic and Janine Nichols, a former colleague of Willner's from Saturday Night Live.

Willner moderated the panel in a friendly, informal style, playing LPs on a small record player he brought with him – an obvious nod to Andy's original standup act. At the outset Willner showed us albums he assumed Andy would've loved, a hodgepodge of vinyl oddities that he exhibited and then sort of tossed aside. (The one and only jarring thing about Willner as host was that he literally did leave those albums sitting on the floor throughout the show – I had to step over them to use the restroom at the end.)

The first half of the discussion was all about Andy’s personal record collection, samples of which were in the Kaufman show at the Maccarone gallery. It's an odd assortment of singles and LPs, favoring middle-of-the-road singers, of the Fabian-Connie Francis variety – nothing to indicate that Andy lived through the later Sixties (no Beatles, Beach Boys, folkies, acid rock, any of that). One of the two music critics on the panel noted that it “seemed like a record collection with all the good records taken out”; the fact that some family member or friend might’ve lightened the load was put forth at one point. [NOTE: I’ve done several searches but couldn’t turn up the name of the other music journalist; if anyone has it, please put it in the comments field, and I’ll update this entry.]

Lenny Kaye, who wielded a printout of the titles in the collection as he spoke, disagreed, and noted there were a lot of interesting, progressive things in the collection. For instance, a large amount of albums by the African drummer Babatunde Olatunji, who was one of Andy's (non-Elvis) heroes.

Also, a number of Brenda Lee singles, a Soupy Sales (a later one, “Still Soupy After All These Years," signed by Soup to Andy), and this wonderful item, “Peppermint Stick” by Little Isidore and the Inquisitors, which was a famous “dirty record” of its time.

The two critics and Kaye emphasized how Andy's records were like the pop culture references in his act — firmly rooted in the Fifties and seemingly filled with longing for his childhood (they guessed that a number of the LPs were acquired years after they had initially been released).

The discussion then turned to Andy’s act, his links to the Fifties/early Sixties and his constant absorption of TV when young. Pfahler was asked to speak about Andy as a “performance artist,” and she answered quite eloquently that his sincerity was the key. She pointed to the times he sang during his standup act, and noted that he was truly feeling the songs, even though he was “supposed” to be performing them to make people laugh. Willner followed this by playing a snippet of the Slim Whitman tune “Rose Marie,” which Andy famously performed with utter sincerity on the NBC Letterman show — while wearing a turban and a loincloth.

Kaye and the two critics discussed Andy’s integration of music into his act — from the Mighty Mouse theme to his conga numbers to the full-on bizarre moments, like the performance of “Rose Marie.” At this point the two panelists who contributed the most interesting insights were Willner and his predecessor as music coordinator at Saturday Night Live, Janine Nichols (aka Janine Dreyer). 

Nichols offered her recollections of Andy, among them his entrusting her with his beloved portable record player and the records he played on it onstage. She noted that back in the pre-Internet/YouTube days, she would often receive viewer requests for tapes of the Mighty Mouse theme; she would supply tapes if the correspondent was polite enough in their request.

She noted that Andy gave her his records as if they were his children and felt comfortable enough with her to ask if he could do his required pre-show mediation in her office. She agreed, and said that each time that he did SNL, he did indeed disappear inside her office for close to two hours (she also noted that she never barged in on him, so she never saw what he was actually doing). Her (pretty valid) take on Andy’s record collection was that he seemed to have chosen his favorite singers based on how big a pompadour the singer had.

Willner told of working with Andy on musical numbers that never wound up appearing on SNL: an “opera/sword swallowing act” he later did on Letterman (which became the “Rose Marie” bit above) and three obscure Elvis tunes he was supposed to do to go along with the Albert Goldman-bio-inspired sketch in which he played Presley. Returning to the topic of record collections, Willner also spoke at length about the occasions in which Andy “hid out” in his office (he was not the most popular guest by a certain point) and was mesmerized by certain items in Hal's record collection.

There were two items that Willner says Andy made him play over and over again. The first was one of Jerry Lewis' prank phone calls – the one where a man calls the theater asking for Jerry to mention his friend from the stage and gets Jerry, who proceeds to fuck with him for a few minutes. The item below isn't that phone call, but a similar one from the Jer-sanctioned CD “Phoney Phone Calls”:

What was interesting about hearing this in a gallery on Houston St. was that barely anyone in the audience even tittered – Jerry is a hard sell in the art community downtown. The second thing Andy doted on was the famous live recording of Elvis losing his shit while singing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”

Willner closed the evening by performing himself, doing a bit he saw Andy rehearse in his office, but which Andy never performed on a TV show. Andy loved Wilner’s “CO-STAR” album of Cesar Romero so much that he worked out a ventriloquist act to go with one of the tracks, in which Cesar plays a lothario hitting on a manicurist in a hotel.

Andy acted out the manicurist part (which is unheard on the record – thus the “costar” aspect; the listener was supposed to “act” with the record), while he had a dummy “lip-synch” to the Romero dialogue. Willner used a Knucklehead Smiff dummy (!) with an NYU hoodie on as Romero, while he took Andy's part and played the manicurist.

As with all public events Willner takes part in (usually as a producer-organizer, never to my knowledge as a performer), the panel was indeed a one-of-a-kind event. Ensconced in the front row of the audience were Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed. Laurie watched with rapt attention, smiling broadly – I had forgotten that she has her own trove of Kaufman stories (which were recounted in this interview). Lou was asleep throughout most of the evening, but I guess his recent health troubles explain his condition.

Following the show, one video clip was shown: Andy's audition tape for SNL, in which he recited the lyrics of “MacArthur Park” very quickly, two times. Then he did the intro to the Superman TV show in a country bumpkin voice. That latter part is up on YouTube:

As for the newest “Andy isn't dead” hoax, here is the most in-depth article about it. All I can note is that it was verified that Andy did father a child as a teen, and the child in question was female (check it in his Wikipedia entry). And now onto a few of the many rarities that have turned up online....

Among the many super-rare items (read: so rare they must've come from family or close friends) are his first TV appearance and an 8mm horror film made with no budget that includes Andy in a “cameo.” Also there is a pilot called “Stick Around” that he appeared in in 1977, in which he plays a robot version of his Latka character (a few years before he played another robot in the film Heartbeeps).

Perhaps the most interesting clip of a Kaufman bit in “gestation” is this early version of the Tony Clifton character, when Andy simply wore a mustache and wig to play the character.

And yet another 8mm film, this time with Andy in his dressing room acting as his obnoxious alter-ego (in this case without any makeup or wig):

Andy did a LOT of cheesy Seventies TV. Here he is with Cher doing a really awful Garden of Eden sketch where he's Adam and she's the serpent. He was also on the Johnny Cash Xmas special doing his impression of Elvis and singing a nonsense song.  

Here he is doing a weird supermarket prank on a Lisa Hartman special (check out the Borat outtakes, and see if you don't think Sasha Baron is doing a major Andy bit when he asks one clerk “what is this? What is this? What is this?” at the cheese display).

He also appeared as “Dr. Vinnie Boombatz” on a Rodney Dangerfield cable special. Of particular interest, though, is his appearance with the one and only Marty Feldman on The Merv Griffin Show to promote Marty's film “In God We Trust” (which is a major disappointment, considering it stars Marty, Richard Pryor, and Andy!).

On more familiar turf, here he is with co-conspirator Bob Zmuda, fooling around on a kids show called Bananaz in 1979. Zmuda comes on a professor discussing the theory of “psycho- genesis” (in which you're encouraged to stay in the place that you were conceived by your parents). It's a very interesting example of a case where the folks on the show expected Andy to do something weird, as did the studio audience, so it seems like no one was truly deceived here, but it is fun:

Some of the clips that appeared in their entirety at the Participant Inc shows are up online in fragmented form, including this bit of The Slycraft Hour, a 1981 Manhattan access show, in which Andy does a weird Slavic accent, but keeps up his “I’m From Hollywood” bit, and does finally wrestle a woman in the studio:

And onto two clips that show Andy when his health was becoming an issue. First, doing an interview with Tom Cottle (a man with amazing hair). Kaufman stays out of character for the whole time, discussing his childhood, the “TV shows” he did in his bedroom, and the fact that his parents “were worried that I was crazy.”

It's a quite touching piece, where he's really serious; he even offers a fully serious discussion of his love of pro-wrestling, including his attempt to resurrect “the Buddy Rogers atmosphere.”

 It's one of three times I've seen what you might call “the real Andy” on film or tape (the other two being the backstage interview at the end of the “real Andy Kaufman” film by Seth Schultz, and a Tonight Show segment on which he's interviewed by a seemingly snarky Steve Martin, who's guest-hosting for Carson and asks Andy if his main goal is to make the audience feel embarrassed).

Andy coughs a little during that interview, as he does in his last TV appearance, where he's dressed in the Foreign Man outfit, but serves primarily as a host for music-videos and in-studio live appearances. The show was a pilot for a series called “The Top,” and if you need a time-reference, I'll simply note that Andy touts Cyndi Lauper as an up-and-coming talent:

Those last two clips would be very sad notes to go out on, so I will leave you with this delightful song from a Midnight Special appearance. Introduced by K.C. (of the “Sunshine Band”). This kinda sums up Andy's weirdness in one little package (except the audience is digging it).