A politically incorrect moment with Apu

The Simpsons invited controversy last week by responding to criticisms about their Apu character and racial stereotyping. The accusations are both accurate and 30 years late. As The Simpsons has progressed, Apu’s character has, as well; He isn’t the common stereotype he was in his first appearance in February 1990.

My favorite Apu moment is the final question on his citizenship test:

That scene seems like something television couldn’t get away with today – not because of Apu, but because so many are so willing to put the same effort into historical literacy and nuance as the test taker.

Modern media doesn’t have a lot of room for nuance, which is one reason I argue The Simpsons’ producers will have trouble resolving their Apu problem.

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 aging, bitter childhood detective

CBS will welcome detective Nancy Drew to its programming lineup soon, but not the Nancy Drew you might remember from the dusty shelves of your elementary school library:

The drama, which is in development, is described as a contemporary take on the character from the iconic book series. Now in her 30s, Nancy is a detective for the NYPD where she investigates and solves crimes using her uncanny observational skills, all while navigating the complexities of life in a modern world.

And, promises the network, she will not be white; Drew could be Brazilian… or Chinese… or somethin’ weird. It’s the age, though, that Katrina Trinko of Acculturated has an issue with: “[I]f Nancy’s ethnic and racial background was irrelevant, her age and independence were not. And that’s what the new TV series completely misunderstands.” Trinko points out the appeal of Nancy Drew books to girls in the elementary-to-middle-school age range, offering a role model in the wise-beyond-her-years sleuth able to outwit the adults in her life.

Yet the new Nancy Drew allows CBS to offer kids an important lesson: No matter how full of promise your life seems, eventually the weight of adulthood crushes us all. Your dream job as a kid will turn out to be a dreary, soul-sapping endeavor that bleeds a little more hope from your reservoir each day.

Why should CBS stop with Nancy Drew? Maybe the clean-cut Hardy Boys could go for a gritty, modern reboot. Older brother Frank would have his act together and boast a cushy, if uninspiring, job monitoring crime statistics in the Bayport mayor’s office. Younger brother Joe would run what had been their late father’s detective agency, but now with a low-life clientele who pay him to tail cheating spouses or dig through trash cans looking for reasons to evict tenants. Their lives would intersect when a city council candidate asks for Joe’s help doing shady opposition research, and he stumbles on a corruption scandal that goes all the way to city hall. (Rhea Perlman would make guest appearances as Aunt Gertrude.)

Does anyone think Encyclopedia Brown would have kept solving crimes for a quarter a day (plus expenses)? Flash forward to see Leroy Brown running IT for the Idaville police department while secretly pining in vain for police chief Sally Kimball. The neighbors on his cul-de-sac include Bugs Meany, who has trained his dog to do his business on Encyclopedia’s front lawn, and shady investment banker Wilford Wiggins, who constantly tries sell Encyclopedia suspect financial products or recruit him into one of his several fantasy football leagues.

And who wouldn’t want to see a surly, middle-aged man-child version of Nate the Great – unemployed, living with his parents, and constantly catching flack from his successful cousin Olivia?

Maybe CBS is onto something here.

GOODNIGHT EVERYBODY!

Tonight, David Letterman will sign off for the last time. Now you may say, “Everyone is gushing about Letterman, the last thing the internet needs is another ‘Thanks, Dave’ post.”

Well, that’s too damn bad for you, Paco, because this is my blog and I get to write about whatever the hell I want. Go start your own blog. It’s free.

Watching the retrospectives over the past few months, the reason it’s so sad that Letterman is leaving is that it is so clearly time. Even if he reversed course tonight and said, “Nah! I’m coming back!” he couldn’t recapture the edge he had from his earlier days.

I’ve watched Letterman regularly since the early 1990s, starting out when A&E ran reruns of Late Night at 7:00 p.m. For Christmas 1993, I got a portable, broadcast-signal-only TV. The station that came in clearest was the CBS affiliate out of Philadelphia – and that was all I needed as I watched the Late Show every night. In 1995 I moved to Massachusetts (and got a normal-sized TV); even as many things in my life changed, Letterman was there. One of the best compliments I ever received was during sophomore year of high school, when a classmate turned to me and said, “You know, you remind me a lot of David Letterman.” We weren’t even talking about Letterman at the time.

Not to romanticize the man – Lord knows, he’s had flaws aplenty. But watching his shows, I have taken away some pretty valuable lessons – things that apply to politics, careers, relationships, or anything else you’re getting into these days. If only there was a thematically appropriate way to present these lessons in an ordered fashion…

TOP TEN LESSONS FROM DAVID LETTERMAN

10. Build your own road. There’s room. In 1991, when Letterman was passed over for the Tonight Show, there was Johnny Carson on at night and not much else. Arsenio Hall targeted younger demographics and black audiences, and Nightline was there for the news junkies, but there was only one late night talk show. Now there are at least five. Letterman may not have topped Leno in the ratings after 1995; but by striking out from the safety of his 12:30 Late Night time slot in 1993 – and creating his own show – he found more success.  In the process, he’s become the cornerstone for two late night franchises. Not even Carson could say that.

9. Don’t take yourself too seriously. From goofy hair to the gap between his front teeth, Letterman has never been shy about cracking jokes at his own expense. The occasional rough edge is much easier for others to stomach when you make yourself the target now and then.

8. Everyone has a story (and a joke) to tell. With non-celebrity guests – from audience members to kids who won science contests – Letterman really shined, showing genuine interest in what they had to say. He turned his neighbors around the Ed Sullivan Theater into stars. Being generous with the spotlight made Dave look better in the end.

7. Don’t be intimidated by anyone. …And when the person sharing the spotlight thought too much of themselves, Letterman was never afraid to knock them down a peg or two. (Even big stars like Madonna and Cher.)

6. There is such a thing as good-natured cynicism. Each week, Family Guy does a send-up of the sitcom family trope. The characters assault each other verbally, emotionally, and physically. It’s funny, but you wouldn’t say it’s rewarding. Letterman may have been caustic and sarcastic, but at least you knew there was always a smile on the other side of it.

5. Be respectful. When Letterman left NBC, he also left the blazers-and-sneakers look behind; he understood the investment CBS made in him (a $14 million per year contract) and wanted to at least look nice. That shows a level of respect that isn’t readily apparent in the irreverance. It extended to the audience, too. Daniel Kellison, the segment producer for the infamous 1994 Madonna interview wrote about Letterman’s real problem with the Material Girl’s f-bombs: “He always understood the privilege that came with the ability to broadcast, and the responsibility that accompanied it. Ratings and press were less a consideration.”

4. Rely on your team. Paul Shaffer said that Letterman told him from the beginning to jump in with comments anytime – whether it was during the monologue, during an interview, anywhere. Stage hands, producers, directors, writers, and staff all found themselves on the air. Letterman understood what he did was nothing special, and that talent was everywhere around him.

3. Great things can come from heartbreak. As mentioned above, Letterman is a late night legacy on two different networks, and at two different time slots. None of it could have happened without the crushing disappointment of losing his dream job. Sometimes the bad breaks work out. Everything happens for a reason.

2. Remember how lucky you are. As Letterman himself said, “I cannot sing, dance, or act. What else would I be but a talk show host?”

1. Have fun. I couldn’t tell you exactly when it happened, but my all-time favorite memory came when Letterman, in the middle of a monologue or a bit, called out to no one in particular, “Who has more fun than we do?” Dutifully, Shaffer enthusiastically hollered from off camera, “Nobody, Dave!” It was a small, throw-away moment that didn’t seem rehearsed. Few people probably gave a second thought to it two minutes after it happened, let alone in the decades since.

Yet it always stuck with me as the epitome of Letterman’s attitude toward his own show. Even when the jokes were bombing or the guests were lame, it seemed like Dave and Company understood that there would always be another show. At least until tonight.

This may be the most important lasting lesson of the David Letterman era. In every office I have ever worked at in my professional life, I have, at some particularly tense or busy time, called out loudly, “Who has more fun than we do?” The answer has always come back (from folks I’m certain weren’t avid Letterman fans): “Nobody!” Without fail.

Johnny Carson might have invented late night television as we know it. Jay Leno might have bested him in the ratings. Jimmy Fallon might have merged the TV and internet age better than anyone.

But who had more fun than David Letterman?

Nostalgia takes 20 years

ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat isn’t what I would call appointment television, but it’s kind of interesting because of when it’s set: the mid-1990’s. The sitcom is set in the past and told through modern-day narration (like The Wonder Years and The Goldbergs); and following an Asian-American family that had just moved to Orlando.

“Wait – the mid-1990’s? For a nostalgia sitcom? Surely,the world has gone mad.”

I thought the same thing too when I first tuned in. But then I thought some more and it actually makes perfect sense.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Happy Days took us back to the 1950s and 1960s. The Wonder Years aired from 1988-1993, with the events of the show happening exactly 20 years prior. The early 1990s years of The Simpsons evoked images of the 1970s such as Homer and Marge’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” Prom (you can make your point about Artie Ziff in the comments, Comic Book Guy). That 70s Show premiered later in the decade. In the 2000s, Family Guy’s 1980s cutaway references ranged from The Transformers to  The Facts of Life.

It looks like the rule is that nostalgia is fondly remembering the past, so long as the past was at least 20 years ago.

And now, the real news about the fake news

The Onion debuts two cable television programs this month.  The fake newspaper turned fake internet news site presents a unique and specific genre of comedy – the obviously false presented as seriously real.  It’s similar but a bit different from slapstick comedies like Airplane! or Spaceballs.  It’s closer to Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update as delivered by the more deadpan performers, like  Kevin Nealon in the early 1990s.  The 1970s spoof talk show Fernwood 2 Night and the long-forgotten short-lived Nick at Night television review series On the Television may be the best examples, even if short-lived.  Because the audience is in on the joke but the performers are apparently not, it depends as much on performance as it does on clever writing.

Since this type of humor is so specific, it’s unsurprising that the Onion’s television ancestors met with limited success.  What has given the Onion its staying power?

The Onion – which started as a small, regionally distributed newspaper in 1988 – became an early example of the internet’s power of viral distribution.  It may be difficult for a network television show to find the audience it needs to build a niche following; the Onion’s following grew over time as its stories were forwarded by email.  When the Onion’s television shows air this month, they will have already recruited their niche audience online over approximately 15 years.

There’s one final layer to peel back, and that’s the Onion’s business model based on generating large amounts of free, high quality content.  The term “viral growth” is overused, but is applicable to the Onion’s rise through virtual word-of-mouth.  The content brought traffic, and the traffic brought money – both in terms of advertising, book deals, and now television shows.  None of it would have worked without something that was worth sending in an email to a friend.  Funny always came first – and the money followed.  Other small, regionally distributed newspapers who are struggling may want to take note.

Conan’s set as a TV strategy

Conan O’Brien’s TBS premiere last night is sitting on my DVR and waiting for a more formal viewing.  But from the clips I caught this morning, one thing is both apparent and unsurprising: O’Brien knows that he has a pale and ruddy complexion.  (I feel his pain.)  Check out this picture swiped from an AP story:

Note all the blue in his new set – a similar color scheme to his short-lived Tonight Show set.  This wasn’t just to save money – it’s an old trick for anyone who is going on TV.  Television lights are harsh, and tend to reflect badly off of white shirts, so many talking heads will make sure they have a blue shirt at the ready if called to do an on-camera interview.  This is even more true for people with pale skin like O’Brien (who frequently pokes fun at himself over his ultra-Irish tone).  Even something as seemingly minor as a blue shirt can have a dramatic impact on how an audience sees an on-air personality, and these visual cues are surprisingly important to the perception of the show’s content.

When O’Brien took over the Tonight Show – thus thrusting him in front of a new audience – the show’s producers likely recognized that they needed to do what they could to make the image that got beamed into the nation’s living rooms and bedrooms as visually appealing as possible.  Rather than settling for a blue wardrobe, they went for an entire set. With the stakes arguably even higher for his new endeavor, the blue set came with O’Brien to TBS.