Losing Friends

During Saturday Night Live’s round-number anniversaries, you’ll see lists of the greatest sketches and the greatest cast members. (Get ready, because Season 50 will be here soon.)

My own favorite sketches and performers vary depending on what day you ask me, but I do have an absolute, 100%, no-doubt-about-it favorite single frame of SNL. It’s this one, from the musical sketch for the song Lunch Lady Land, which aired on January 15, 1994:

sandler-farley

That’s Chris Farley on the left, and Adam Sandler on the right, by the way. And just look how happy they are.

At this point in the sketch, Sandler has launched into a power chord and Farley, after gyrating for a bit like a lingerie model in a late-80s heavy metal video trapped in the body of, well, Chris Farley, has joined in singing the next line of the song: “Sloppy joes, sloppy sloppy joes, yeah!” Farley is singing along so enthusiastically, Sandler’s mic picks him up. He’s dancing in character but singing in his own voice, as if he’s rocking out to the song in his own car with the windows up. 

In this frame, two friends at one of the first jobs in their young career are obviously having so much fun that it’s hard to call it “work.” There’s a mutual appreciation for each other’s talent.

They aren’t quite hitting their stride yet: This was more than a year before the releases of Tommy Boy and Billy Madison, the movies that would make them movie stars, and more than two years before Happy Gilmore would cement Sandler as a legit box office draw. There’s something raw, amateurish, and almost innocent here.

Anyone who has known the mixed blessing of a fun, early-career job that doubles as a social circle can appreciate this relationship. When you get older, the people you work with are people you work with. When you’re 23 and working with people of a similar age, the people you work with can wind up as your good friends, too.

Thankfully, I can relate a little bit to the bond Sandler, Farley, and others from that era of SNL must have shared; just as thankfully, I can’t relate to the loss Sandler must feel. But others can.

These two united again, in a manner of speaking for another musical sketch last weekend on Saturday Night Live. It came at the end of a show that “skipped” politics, in a traditional sense. But America also has an opioid problem, and a suicide problem — issues that don’t get dealt with while Alec Baldwin is grunting his way through his latest Donald Trump impersonation. As I wrote at Medium, I wonder how many people watched Sandler’s tribute thinking about the Chris Farleys in their own lives — or perhaps more accurately, the Chris Farleys who weren’t in their own lives anymore.

 

Kicking off year No. 40

Last week was my 39th birthday. I tend not to make a big deal about my birthday every year. In fact, I don’t even share my birthday with friends on Facebook.

This year, Facebook did remind me of a blog post I wrote for my 30th birthday, sharing 30 lessons I had learned from life to that point. Some of them I still follow every day, but many of them I have forgotten.

Since I turned 30, I’ve gotten married, had two kids, and bought a house. My family has suffered losses that we feel every day. I changed jobs twice. Growing older in years but staying young at heart is an easy prospect for those whose age is marked only by years.

Life experience tends to make time and everything else go faster. It’s easy to forget stuff, even big stuff. It’s easy to forget to find the joy in life when the kids are making messes, or when figuring out how to refinance a mortgage, or when your boss gives you a bad performance review. It’s especially easy to forget or question your own abilities in the face of your daily responsibilities.

But just because it’s harder to remember those things doesn’t make them any less important. I’m almost a week into the last trip around the sun before my 40th birthday. On this pass, I’m going to try to be less forgetful — and do a better job following my own advice.

This one just hit me this morning: You’re only old when you wake up in the morning and feel like your best days are behind you. If you wake up every day feeling like you are about to embark on a new adventure, you will always be young – no matter how long ago you were born or how sore your body is.

 

Two Forgotten Christmas Classics Turn 30

A Garfield Christmas Special / christmastvhistory.com

According to IMDB, A Garfield Christmas Special and A Claymation Christmas Celebration both premiered on December 21, 1987, on CBS. They both turned 30 this week.

You can be forgiven for forgetting: Neither seems to have aired on a major network this year… or in the past several years, for that matter. But both used to be seasonal staples for CBS.

Christmas specials tend to fall into one of two broad categories: Either a grumpy killjoy learns the “true meaning of Christmas” (the myriad re-tellings of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” fall into this bucket) or a hero must “save Christmas” by making sure Santa Claus can make his rounds. (One might argue the existence of a third category about finding love for the holidays. I highly recommend the We Just Saw a Movie podcast, which has explored this odd genre in great detail over the past two Yuletides.)

A Garfield Christmas

A Garfield Christmas Special falls into the first category, inviting us to the Arbuckle family farm for a “good old-fashioned Christmas.” There are no human children characters, but thirty-something brothers Jon and Doc-Boy Arbuckle prefigure criticisms of today’s millennials by immediately reverting to childlike behaviors. (Also, we learn that Mr. Arbuckle paid for nearly a quarter century of piano lessons for Doc-boy. That’s… odd.) Garfield, for his part, plays the closest thing the episode has to a Scrooge; while not openly hostile toward the holiday, he welcomes Christmas with a shrug and a trademark, “big fat hairy deal.” He has a heart-to-heart with Grandma Arbuckle (a stereotypical 80’s “sassy old lady” in the mold of Sophia from the Golden Girls) about her late husband, then both gives and receives thoughtful gifts to inspire a change of heart.

As a media franchise, Garfield doesn’t get a lot of credit for its subtle, Letterman-esque sarcasm. There’s passive-aggressive friction between Grandma Arbuckle and her daughter-in-law. There’s Mr. Arbuckle, wondering aloud why he has to entertain his grown offspring with children’s stories, while his wife enables their sons. The family gawks at the Christmas tree that probably looks like every Christmas tree they have put up for decades. Doc-boy spends Christmas morning wearing a bunny rabbit onesie; Jon receives a horrible oversized sweater but seems fairly appreciative nonetheless.

The Arbuckle Family Christmas is at various time silly, ridiculous, tedious, immature… and ultimately perfect because it belongs to them. Garfield himself summarizes the message: “It’s not the giving, it’s not the getting, it’s the loving.”

A Claymation Christmas Celebration

Remember when the GEICO cavemen got their own sitcom? Decades before that debacle, the stop-motion animated California Raisins went from selling dried fruit to multi-media stardom.

The signing raisins were the grand finale of A Claymation Christmas Celebration. Claymation is the rare children’s Christmas program which doesn’t fit into the categories mentioned above; it has more in common with variety specials by the likes of Michael Bublé. Six short, unconnected, musical vignettes fit around the banter between Rex and Herb, a couple of dinosaurs trying to find the definition of the word “wassail.” (They eventually learn from a  band of leprechauns or elves who appear to be driving with open containers.)

Each song is a unique take on a classic. The Magi Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar sing the traditional verses of “We Three Kings,” while their camels provide jazzy, upbeat improvisational choruses. Walruses ice dance to “Angels We Have Heard on High” while inadvertently tormenting a waddle of penguins. The Carol of the Bells is played by an orchestra of anthropomorphic bells who whack themselves with mallets (including one who has apparently taken a few too many hits). And the California Raisins improvise after missing a bus by crafting their own magic sleigh to the tune of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”

There’s no story to be had here, but each vignette is funny in its own way.  And the music is fun. (There is also something to be said for true, stop-motion claymation. Imagine the painstaking process of sculpting the characters and bringing them to life.)

Why We Don’t See Them Anymore

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Garfield and Claymation were holiday television staples. They aren’t anymore. That’s probably fine.

Cynically, one might blame it all on merchandising. Suction cup Garfields don’t adorn every third car anymore, and dancing clay figures aren’t selling dried grapes. Why devote prime airtime to specials that advertise yesterday’s product when Olaf’s Frozen Adventure could start building excitement for the upcoming-but-still-far-away Frozen 2?

On the other hand, yesterday’s Christmases are yesterday’s Christmases. Today’s Christmases are the wholly owned domain of today’s kids.

Garfield hugging Odie might inspire misty-eyed memories for me, but I can buy Garfield on DVD or watch him on YouTube if I need a nostalgia fix.

Other people (like me) grew up watching this stuff, but my kids don’t know Garfield. They know Olaf the snowman. We watched his special this year, and we all liked it. It was an imaginative story which doesn’t fit into either the “grump finds Christmas Spirit” nor the “save Santa/save Christmas” categories, and that’s a bit refreshing. The music was catchy, and the messages about Christmas traditions and being with loving family were there.

The characters might be different, but the best Christmas stories run a little deeper than that. Maybe, 29 years from now, my kids will look at the calendar and think, “Wow, that Frozen special is 30? That reminds me of when I was a kid…”

 

 

The poetic end to your holiday season

It’s only the 11th Day of Christmas, so technically there’s still time to enjoy this Christmas gift to the world of literature from Matt Lewis and me. If you’re just stumbling back to work this week and looking for an excuse to put off productivity, all the better.

I should note that this is definitely not something we pushed out in a couple of days to avoid doing real work in the week before Christmas. An excerpt from this masterpiece:

“You and the rest of the talking head group
Have treated my campaign supporters like poop.
I’m not quite as bad as you paint me to be.
Go ask your Mom just how much she likes me.

“So I’m making my rounds on this special night
Settling scores and setting you right.
And believe me, I didn’t start this but the media is more unfair to me than to any other candidate or President or possibly person in the history of American politics. It’s very important. Very important. And I could do other things. Just tonight, an old friend came to visit me, a guy I did a lot of business with back in the 80’s, a guy I made very rich. Hugely rich. I thought he was dead years ago, but he showed up at Trump Tower tonight, on Christmas Eve. Came in, no warning, looked like death. Kept muttering something about ‘chains he’d forged in life’ and trying to let me open my house for his three friends. What a deadbeat. Some people can’t handle winning. My people, my supporters, they love winning, but Jake was a loser.”

Keep on reading, and have a Happy New Year!

Funny First

“Indeed, work whose Christianity is latent may do quite as much good and may reach some whom the more obvious religious work would scare away. The first business of a story is to be a good story.” – C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis might have been talking about religion, but his words apply to politics, too. Overt politics makes for bad entertainment.

It’s a lesson America’s political conservatives certainly ought to have learned by now. Right-leaning would-be entertainers have spent years trying to counter the left’s dominance of the culture with movies that clumsily and unsubtly push conservative ideas. There’s a considerable list of failures. The awful 2011 film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged bludgeoned audiences with bad acting, forced dialogue, and an anti-government message. In 2008, David Zucker’s An American Carol pushed unabashed patriotism with poor satire and awkward slapstick. Fox News tried to counter the Daily Show’s bias with “The Half Hour News Hour” in 2007 – a Weekend Update-wannabe whose laugh track was the only way viewers would know where the jokes were. There are numerous enough examples to prove that artists who focus on political messages first and their art second will lose their audiences.

That lesson applies on the left, too.

Will Farrell caught heat recently after media reports linked him to the title role in a project titled Reagan. The satirical comedy reportedly revolved around staff members coaxing the former President through his second White House term through the fog of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Dementia is comedy gold, right?

Enough people thought otherwise – including Reagan’s family – that Farrell backed out of the project not 48 hours after those reports hit the mainstream news.

Unfortunately, the screenplay’s apparent goals went beyond making a political satire. Positioning Reagan – still the champion of so many on the center-right – as a witless buffoon comments negatively not only on conservatism, but Alzheimer’s as well. The would-be filmmakers (including Farrell, screenwriter Mike Rosolio and others attached to the project) seem to have allowed politics to cloud their judgment when considering what audiences would laugh at. Blinded by ideology, they lost sight of comedy.

It’s too bad, because there’s a nugget of value in that plot. Imagine this alternative: A party leader, so desperate to win some race (maybe state legislator or even Congress) hatches a plan. He recruits an aging, politically uninvolved former actor, who doesn’t watch much TV or pay attention to social media, into appearing in a “movie” about running for Congress. Except, the actor isn’t filming a movie, he’s filming commercials, and participating in actual debates rather than staged scenes. Now imagine Farrell, playing a comically demanding prima donna actor past his prime, as the hapless, unwitting candidate. (Maybe Steve Carell could play the unscrupulous party leader.)

In this version, the objects of satire are party leaders political image-makers. The film doesn’t target anyone else suffering from Alzheimer’s, or cast the voters and supporters of any particular side as easy dupes. It wouldn’t have the major buzz that controversial subject matter attracts, but with smart, witty writing and a tight plot, it could achieve the type of cult-hit status that films like Dave or Thank You for Smoking have enjoyed in political circles.

The film was early in its development. Perhaps, had news of the project not been so widely reported, smarter minds would have revised the concept as the script went through re-writes. More likely, the production would have suffered the same insular groupthink that made it acceptable to use dementia for laughs because of the patient’s political party. The most probable result would have been a disastrous finished film that inadvertently spent two hours making fun of people stricken with Alzheimer’s.

Audiences don’t want movies that sacrifice a story in pursuit of political points. Farrell, Rosolio, and company should be happy they learned this lesson before they sank any more time and money into a sure box office bomb.

Does Clinton run anything by anyone?

The other morning, news outlets carried the clip of Hillary Clinton doing her impression of a lie-detecting dog, barking from a stage in Reno.

This is the predictable result:

This is an obvious response. So glaringly obvious, it’s incredible that Clinton ran her little Lassie impression by any one of the people she pays to help her seem more relatable. If she had, surely that person would have told her to skip the canine theatrics.

One can only imagine the poor, cringing communications staffers, watching from backstage, as Clinton diverged from the script and ventured into animal kingdom. It shows not only a lack of discipline, but a lack of self-awareness. It’s why Clinton is losing her grip on the Democratic nomination (again) and why she shouldn’t beat any Republican who isn’t named Trump in November.

The real reason Oregon isn’t the same

There are plenty of questions about the way police and the media are handling the wildlife refuge occupation in Oregon. Bernie Sanders drew an immediate comparison to police brutality issues,  and  he wasn’t the only one asking whether the militia would have been summarily executed had they been black or Muslim.

The reality is that this situation isn’t the same because, unlike terrorism or a Black Lives Matter protest gone awry, this is actually pretty funny.

There aren’t hostages. There weren’t any forest rangers beheaded on video. There’s only a rag tag bunch of rednecks with legal guns holed up in a building people rarely ever go to.

When faced with terrorism (real terrorism, that is) we tend to become resolute. When faced with injustice, we become outraged. There is nothing here to get outraged or resolute over. There are just a few Duck Dynasty wannabes, probably getting drunk off some homemade hooch in the middle of nowhere, and taking to Twitter and Facebook to beg for snacks.

Snacks! This is hilarious.

Illegal? Sure. Wrong? You bet. But this is “terrorism” like John Candy and Rhea Perlman’s invasion of Canada in 1995’s Canadian Bacon was terrorism. Opponents are mocking them as “Y’all Qaeda.”

 

Most serious observers understand that in an American West which still smarts from government overreach at Waco and Ruby Ridge, an armed standoff could go sideways right quick. Hopefully, they’ll get desperate enough to leave soon. In the meantime, we can share a chuckle at the folks who really think they’re sticking it to the man by squatting in a birdwatching shack.