Routine Check 10/26/12

– Universal has posted the full screenplay for This is 40 a good two months before its release, which seemed like a really bold, interesting move until someone (I forget where I saw it) pointed out that not only does it happen all the time (it’s a handy way to attract screenwriting nominations), but even specifically with Judd Apatow’s own Knocked Up, not to mention that in both cases the free PDFs have read more like transcriptions of the final, edited films than the original, pre-improvisation shooting script, which means it doesn’t really have any real educational value unless you just want a bunch of spoilers for one of the year’s only major comedies. Which you may want exactly.

– I promise I’m not as obsessed with Genndy Tartakovsky as my constant writing about him here might imply — I’m probably not even going to bother getting around to Hotel Transylvania this life — but he sure has managed to parse out some neat little announcements the last few months, topping it off yesterday with the reveal of a new short he wrote, directed, and animated all by his lonesome over the past month. Goodnight, Mr. Foot, a sort of 2D companion piece to his CG feature still owning box offices, will start to play before that film in Regal theaters starting today. Though it’s sort of a promotional gesture for his big, squishy blockbuster, it’s also a nice way to subvert fan expectations that he might be moving away from more personal projects and his signature style, similar to how Joss Whedon is following up The Avengers with his bedroom Shakespeare movie.

– I am maybe a little obsessed with Hampton Fancher, the frustratingly non-prolific Blade Runner screenwriter who made his directorial debut with the misunderstood masterpiece The Minus Man in 1999 at the age of 61, and since then has mostly stayed silent beyond a tease here and there for various surrealistic indie features he wants to make. I was excited to see he has a book of short stories freshly out called The Shape of the Final Dog, and here’s an interview he did with, er, Interview to promote it. Of course, Fancher also made some recent headlines for being possibly attached to return in whatever the hell Ridley Scott is about to do with the Blade Runner universe.

– I’ve mentioned before that AV Club’s Random Roles interviews are probably my favorite thing about the Internet right now, and they’ve been dropping so many great ones lately I have to round them up. Robert Patrick made me laugh several times, and seems very charming in an old-school Republican kind of way, and has a few Roger Corman stories. He has an adorable “I just got lucky” approach to discussing his biggest roles, and he has a good sense of humor about the Double Dragon movie, which makes me happy. Kelly Lynch made for a good example of why I started reading every Random Roles even if I wasn’t previously fascinated by the interview subject. I quickly realized I was a bigger fan of hers than I thought, and she tells amazing stories about the Murray brothers (she’s married to Bill’s frequent collaborator Mitch Glazer), and her early days transitioning to acting from modeling on some notably seedy productions, plus drops some sincerely illuminating tales from behind the scenes of Road House and Cocktail. Also Brooke Shields, another one I wouldn’t have pegged to me a deeply interesting subject, comes off as delightful and honest, with an interesting angle on the teensploitation type work she cut her teeth on. I think writer Will Harris puts all of these together, and I hope he never stops.

– I don’t know how many people other than me would be interested in an interview with the forever-underrated pop duo Sparks, but you should be, because they’re the best. This is mostly discussion about their current Two Hands One Mouth European tour, which features the two Mael brothers playing without a backing band for the first time in their 41-year career, but there’s also an update on the film they’re developing with Guy Maddin based on their excellent radio musical The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, and an unexpected diversion about Ron working as a driver for Lee Marvin’s children in his youth. I also either had no idea that they’ve been on and off working on an adaptation of Mai the Psychic Girl with Tim Burton or I somehow forgot. Those are too-good-to-be-real film projects, I hope they prove me wrong.

– Speaking of artfully poppy bands making unexpected excursions into visual media, Stereogum has some news about the delightful indie synth-jammers YACHT developing a comedy series with the new open-door Amazon Studios. As part of the Amazon model, they’ll be making every part of the development process available to the public, including the script co-written by all four band members. It would be sort of interesting to have a not-strictly-comedic band showcase its music through episodic television the way Tenacious D, Dethklok, and Flight of the Conchords have. Has that even happened since the Monkees?

– Also potentially getting a show: Craig Robinson. I didn’t watch a lot of the American Office because my loyalties lied with the original, but I think everyone on that show is generally talented so watching them all announce their plans beyond its last season is kind of exciting for me. Greg Daniels did a lot of great, original work before he made his fortune neutering British comedy for American audiences, so I’m completely open to what he and the ridiculously funny Mr. Robinson want to try for their NBC reunion series.

– Chris Hardwick’s new special Mandroid should be pretty hotly anticipated since it’s his first stand-up special since creating an unlikely empire out of his Nerdist podcast network, and I believe his first major stand-up outing outside of his excellent musical duo Hard ‘n’ Phirm with Mike Phirman. You can watch it early at Comedy Central’s “Screening Room” press site, a site which they are very clear about not linking to despite it being readily accessible from Google.

– I wouldn’t normally link to a greatest-hits list of YouTube embeds, but this collection of streaming Halloween cartoons from Flavorwire was fun and timely and has a couple interesting stories behind the shorts.

– Finally, here‘s what appears to be a just-unearthed double-side single meant to be included in copies of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier but repeatedly canned for unknown reasons. It’s a couple of fake hit singles by a fictional band from that universe called Eddie Enrico and His Hawaiian Hotshots, with vocals by Moore himself.

Today in streams and freebies: I have been digging hard on Black Moth Super Rainbow’s new Cobra Juicy, which is still streaming here. Likewise the sophomore Diamond Rings album here. I haven’t listened to all of Luke Lalonde’s debut Rhythymnals yet, but I like his band Born Ruffians and the samples I’ve heard from it. It’s streaming here.

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Routine Check 10/15/12

– This has turned out to be fairly well-traveled news thanks to some news outlets misleadingly running it as “David Fincher taking new horror film to Kickstarter,” but I still want to point out that the long-gestating movie adaptation of Eric Powell’s The Goon is raising some funds. I’ve always thought it sounded like too much of a hard sell as a CG-animated film to actually get made, but now that it’s stuck around this long (and without losing the involvement of Fincher or the extremely well-cast Paul Giamatti and Clancy Brown), I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t. There’s been a little controversy over the details of the campaign, namely that it’s a fundraiser to develop some pitch materials to raise further funds for the actual movie. I understand the blowback against A-listers using a site designed for upstart DIY efforts in questionable ways, but I also think it’s just an inevitable side effect of the general shift towards crowd-funding being a major component of the arts across the board. If the campaign is honest about what it’s doing with a fan/potential-investor’s money, then I would argue it’s the fan/potential-investor’s job to read that information and decide if it’s something worth contributing to. Maybe I’ll change my mind as Kickstarter saturation continues, but for now I feel OK about linking to an opt-in fundraiser for a movie I’d like to see, even if I personally don’t feel a burning need to give them my money over someone else.

– As less contentious Kickstarter projects go, here’s AV Club detailing one for the radio serial parody podcast The Thrilling Adventure Hour that looks promising on a couple different levels. The initial goal, a new graphic novel that would compile several short stories based on the show, grabs me immediately for the potential involvement of Ben Edlund (the underground comics wizard who created The Tick before largely leaving drawing behind for TV writing) and his protege Jackson Publick (who followed a similar path from Tick spin-off comics to Adult Swim wonderboy), along with some well-liked “rising star” artists like Evan “Doc” Shaner and Chris Moreno. Also interesting is the unique way the podcasters are handling the potential overflow that happens with a lot of mid-to-high-profile Kickstarters when fans continue donating after the goal is met: once the graphic novel is funded, any further donations go into a multi-tiered plan for a web series, a concert film, and a motion comic, with the result being a clever investment package that can be satisfied with $55,000 but makes room for up to $200,000. Not to mention the bonus value of people like me looking over the project and thinking, “Man, I should probably be listening to this Thrilling Adventure Hour thing.”

– I missed the screening tour of the Jay Reatard documentary Better Than Something, so I’m glad to see Pitchfork‘s update about a DVD release, which will also be available with a new rarities LP and photo book. I am a big, big, big fan of Reatard and the documentary (which features footage mainly taken before Jay Lindsey’s death in 2010) looks great.

– Wow, it’s been a while since The Onion put out a brand new, non-archival book… Looks like the last one was their faux atlas in 2007. They’ve put up a preview for The Onion Book of Known Knowledge, a “definitive encyclopaedia of information in 27 volumes” that releases October 23. I would count Our Dumb Century as one of the all-time greats of original humor books, and it looks like this one is similarly ambitious.

– Apropos of nothing, here’s some amazing photographs of Bob Kane showing off some Batman paintings. Any links to it I’ve seen have been quick to mention that it’s extremely unlikely the infamous credit hog actually painted anything in the photos, but they are really delightful nonetheless.

– I really enjoyed the movie Argo (and so did the packed audience in Hilton Head, SC, who pelted Ben Affleck’s director credit at the end with a hilarious round of “Good for him!” applause) and equally enjoyed picking through the bizarre true facts of the case all over the Internet afterwards. Wired has a great showcase of real-life artifacts left over from the operation, including some prime concept art from Jack Kirby. One of the biggest misconceptions about the operation, which is only barely clarified in the movie, is that the script was either “fake” (as in never intended for production) or a throwaway that nobody wanted, when in fact it had been legitimately developed as Lord of Light, after the novel on which it was based, which is when the Kirby art was actually commissioned. As a result, a lot of the photos going around for Argo are only tangentially related to Tony Mendez’s exfiltration scheme, though anything that even touched that story is pretty fascinating.

Tom Spurgeon has a useful rundown of the overflowing news nuggets coming out of New York Comic Con. Lots of interesting little things in there that will probably make bigger comics news when they’re closer to reality… I’m particularly interested in tasty-sounding new graphic novels from Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire and a sort-of-vague collaboration between web-comic masters Ryan North, Christopher Hastings, and Anthony “Nedroid” Clark somehow based on the arcade game Galaga.

– Finally, R.I.P. Harris Savides. I felt guilty and ridiculous looking over his credits that his wasn’t a name I knew on sight, since his filmography is jam-packed with movies of which I very specifically loved the cinematography — The Game, Elephant, Milk, freaking Zodiac… he was also the primary DP for Mark Romanek’s legendary music video run. For a relatively short credit list, he managed to work with Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Ridley Scott, Noah Baumbach, and more in addition to his semi-regular status with David Fincher, Gus Van Sant, and Sofia Coppola. Slashfilm has some nice words about him and a healthy compilation of links and clips.

Today in streams and freebies: If you don’t want to pay to see it in front of the Finding Nemo 3D re-release (and who does?), Pixar has put up their new Toy Story short, Partysaurus Rex, for free viewing online. Why am I not watching that right now? Meanwhile, NPR is streaming the Beck-curated Philip Glass remix project, REWORK_, which has a lot of intriguing names attached. And hey, look, my frequent favorite band of Montreal is streaming a new rarities collection at MTV Hive, who also have a brief explanatory interview attached. Those are some quality streams and freebies, man, get on it.

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Routine Check 10/10/12

– I wrote about the extremely unfortunate end of everyone’s favorite modern comic strip Cul de Sac a while ago, and the final strip ran (online at GoComics.com and in the newspapers cool enough to carry it) since my last edition of this infrequently updated column. Richard Thompson (who, in case you missed it, is going into a bit of a forced hiatus due to his battle with Parkinson’s) wrote a brief but illuminating blog post about it, going into his scrapped plans for an original final strip before opting instead to rerun one of his personal favorites, one with an appropriately reflexive theme. GoComics will be running the entirety of the syndicated run as daily “classic” strips, which soothes the pain a little, and should attract a lot of new fans. Update: Thompson updated his blog with a report from some corrective neurosurgery. It is full of both good news and fascinating scientific experiments.

– Man, I’ve really been enjoying this episode-by-episode breakdown of the finally-on-DVD cult classic series Get a Life with showrunner David Mirkin. One of those lengthy pieces I started out skimming and then doubled back and read in deep detail. Lots of anecdotes about delivering surreal, unclassifiable material to a network before there were many examples of such, plus some valuable asides about working with the likes of Graham Chapman, Charlie Kaufman, and Brian Doyle-Murray.

– Speaking of Chris Elliott, he returned to David Letterman’s side last night to announce both a third season of Eagleheart (a show that makes me laugh like an idiot) and a new book he has coming out, a gimmick “unauthorized autobiography” that is going right to the top tier of my reading list (or listening list, since it’s available as a self-read audiobook). I always forget Elliott actually wrote a couple of humor novels a while back…we as a nation are not doing enough to appreciate Chris Elliott.

-Speaking of funny people writing books, the great Peter Serafinowicz has one coming out as well, A Billion Jokes! (Volume One…), which will likely be at least in part a compilation of some of his Twitter-born one-liners in “gifty hardback.”

– Look out for an amusingly mysterious Adult Swim event tomorrow night in The Greatest Event in Television History, which looks to be a one-off special developed by Adam Scott and Lance Bangs and starring Scott and Jon Hamm. It will surely be available in convenient Work-O-Vision streaming format after its broadcast. (Update: Watch it here. It’s funny.)

– I have to admit I’m pretty attracted to the idea of a haunted maze designed by Penn and Teller, which joins a previously announced Alice Cooper attraction for Universal Orlando’s annual Halloween Horror Nights. I hope at the end, everyone dies to the accompaniment of “I Started a Joke.”

– Finally, a farewell to the great Herbert Lom, a spectacular and beloved character actor who died in his sleep at a solid 95. I remember once thinking during a Pink Panther marathon that Lom’s Inspector Dreyfus probably does more to hold that franchise together than Sellers’ Clouseau, and is certainly just as integral to their mechanics. He’s also particularly great in The Ladykillers and Hopscotch. I’ll leave the proper obituary to the experts at AV Club.

Today in streams and freebies: I’ve got quite a few bookmarked since it’s been a little while, so I hope everything still works for you. How about a free digital comic to mix up the usual album streams? Comic Book Resources has the details on a Comixology offer to get a free download of the first issue of Mark Waid’s new Daredevil series, a critical darling I’ve been trade-waiting. In music, you can stream in full new albums by the always-enjoyable A.C. Newman, the psych throwback Tame Impala, the new Nigel Godrich-led supergroup Ultraista, a new sample-based project from Caribou’s Dan Snaith called Daphni, and the solo debut of Benjamin Gibbard, stepping out from Death Cab for Cutie for a moment. I haven’t had a chance to spend serious time with any of them, but I’m a big fan of Snaith’s and I really enjoyed the first Tame Impala album. Maybe the biggest stream of them all though is a surprise (to I think nearly everyone) new Godspeed You! Black Emperor release, their first in ten years, following a successful “reunion tour” I was fortunate to see last year.

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Routine Check 9/21/12

– I’m late on this, but last month saw the last episode of long-term Conan mainstay Brian McCann, an extremely funny writer and performer who did a lot of the heavy lifting in defining the weird, edgy humor on all of Mr. O’Brien’s programs. After 17 years, it’s impossible to estimate the number of spit takes he’s instigated even in just myself alone; I’ll point to The Comic’s Comic for a good round-up of YouTube highlights including a “video slideshow” compiled by the Team Coco folks. McCann was the Late Night audience warm-up comic from 2000 on and has had success with his hilarious troubadour character Raisin, opening for Yo La Tengo and performing his Campfire Fun Time show all over New York’s improv rooms. He’s moving back to NYC after following Conan to Los Angeles for TBS, and will presumably continue being funny and excellent in new and exciting ways.

– Speaking of which, the Tig Notaro stand-up set I posted about last month has continued to peak interest among the comedy-obsessed, with the dual happy ending being that Tig went on Conan last night to announce an optimistic prognosis following the double mastectomy and that Louis CK will be releasing audio of the Largo appearance through his website the same way he released his Live at the Beacon Theater special. Update: It’s up now for only $5, along with a nice note from Louis talking about the whole thing.

– Top Shelf is running their annual “$3 sale” (which is actually a massive sale in which $3 is just one of a variety of cost brackets) again, which is always a great time to pick up some indie comics you’ve been meaning to pick up. You can grab new stuff from Jeff Lemire, Alan Moore, and Eddie Campbell at almost-silly prices.

– AV Club points to an unexpected YouTube resurgence of Liam Lynch and Matt Crocco’s cult MTV puppet show Sifl and Olly, with the pair (and pals) now doing short video game reviews. I’ve been watching the original show a lot lately for some reason, so that’s a nice surprise.

– A Special Thing’s forum has a rundown of some upcoming comedy series in development at various networks, some of which sound too good to become anything but another legendary failed pilot. The Christopher Guest show for HBO has gotten enough press already (and seems like such an obvious slam dunk) that it will likely be fine, but there’s a wealth of interesting stuff on the docket: A Stephen Merchant solo series based on his stand-up material, a ’50s period comedy starring the very funny June Diane Raphael and Casey Wilson, a show based on the great, underseen musical comedy Punching the Clown, plus several previously announced shows from the likes of Daniel Clowes, Charlie Kaufman, and Dan Harmon.

– I don’t have a stream for it, but I’m mildly interested in this new A Tribute to Repo Man compilation, featuring acts like Black Francis, Mike Watt, and Amanda Palmer covering songs from the seminal movie soundtrack, reminiscent of the enjoyable High School Reunion – A Tribute to Those Great ’80s Films album from a few years back.

Today in streams and freebies: 1) You can stream Dinosaur Jr.’s tenth albumI Bet on Sky, at NPR. If it’s as good as their ninth album was, I’ll be very excited. 2) Also at NPR, the new Grizzly Bear album, which seems to me to be strangely under-hyped considering how popular their last go was with a cross-section of indie listeners. I prefer Department of Eagles myself, but I’m looking forward to checking it out. 3) The Film Stage has an embed of Jonny Greenwood’s The Master score. I definitely left the movie wanting to play closer attention to the music by itself, though I probably wouldn’t recommend listening to it before seeing it. 4) Hey, here’s an album I don’t fully understand: A compilation from an online collaboration project called hitRECord that somehow involves Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nels Cline, and Cibo Matto. Sounds pleasantly interesting from a skip-through on Bandcamp.

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Routine Check 9/9/12

– Hey, the Flaming Carrot reprint Kickstarter is the latest unexpected crowd-funded success story, ending today with over three times its $12,500 goal. If you don’t know about Flaming Carrot, it’s a completely insane indie comic that spawned, in kind of a sideways way, the misunderstood Mystery Men film as well as a bump in surrealism during the ’80s black-and-white boom. The money will go towards new hardback editions of the always-out-of-print collections of the earliest of Bob Burden’s work with the character as well as digital versions for, I assume, Comixology and places like that. It should be a nice little resurgence for a really entertaining series, and it’s another reminder that Kickstarter can do wonders for some relatively obscure work by uniting its scattered fans with incentives like the print above.

– Unlikely Twitter celebrity and genuinely hilarious human being Rob Delaney has released his new stand-up special, $5 Louis CK style as promised, on his website. This is mainly interesting since most of Delaney’s fans have never seen his stand-up or possibly even heard his voice. Also, I bet it’s pretty funny for five bucks.

– I won’t normally post film announcements because there’s plenty of sites that anybody like me already visits that are better suited for that, but there’s enough odd little details about the recently greenlit Frank that I thought I’d make an exception. Jon Ronson, a really interesting journalist and documentary filmmaker probably best known for his nonfiction book The Men Who Stare at Goats, is writing the musical comedy with Peter Straughan, who adapted Ronson’s book into the quirky sleeper hit a couple years back, with Michael Fassbender poised to star as an enigmatic rock star who may or may not have a plastic head depending on how you read the press release. Someone at Bleeding Cool spotted the similarity to the cult novelty act Frank Sidebottom and got some extra details out of Ronson, who said Sidebottom is indeed a key influence along with Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart. That sounds nice and crazy, especially for a dignified A-lister like Fassbender, no?

– I also won’t normally post DVD releases, not least because I’m not sure they really matter anymore, but I still can’t help but be glad when a hidden treasure gets a long-deserved post-VHS run, as is the case with the fantastic Elaine May and Walter Matthau ’70s comedy A New Leaf, now available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and immediate streaming via Amazon. If you like May, Matthau, and/or Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, and you are some kind of idiot if you don’t love all three, then this movie will delight the shit out of you.

– I think I’ve mentioned before that I make a habit of reading every Random Roles interview that AV Club does, and it constantly pays off with above-and-beyond instant classics like this talk with B-movie queen Mary Woronov, who tells completely amazing stories about her strange, eclectic career worth reading for fans of Roger Corman, Paul Bartel, Andy Warhol, and Joe Dante in particular, but really anybody who likes low-budget filmmaking stories should read it immediately. She also slips that there’s a documentary about her in the works called Confessions of a Cult Queen, which is guaranteed to be fascinating.

– If you’re like me, you’re dying for some Venture Bros updates, seeing as it’s inarguably the best show on television right now. There are some scant details and a few pictures over at Jackson Publick’s rarely-updated, always-delightful Publick Nuisance blog, mostly just saying season 5 is dutifully in the works. I personally geeked out a bit over the revelation that JG Thirlwell partially based his score for the upcoming Halloween special on the music of the secretly creepy Klute.

– Speaking of obscure soundtracks and weird music, I had a great time shuffling through this near-infinite Spin feature on Animal Collective’s influences, featuring intermittent comments from the members of the band and more YouTube clips than you could watch in a workday. There’s some good musical schooling in there, thoroughly worth the effort.

Today in streams and freebies: Didn’t see a lot of streams this week, but I’ve really been digging Love This Giant, the new collaboration between David Byrne and St. Vincent, which is nice and brassy and very in line with Byrne’s other late-era work. It’s streaming at NPR.

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Episodic: Radio Comedy Comes to TV – The Colgate Comedy Hour and The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950), The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show (1951), and The Abbott and Costello Show (1952)

I am watching select episodes of beloved and/or significant shows from every era in an attempt to break my current mindset of needing to watch a TV program from beginning to end, and to learn about and appreciate some things I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. You can read more about it here.

The medium of television is so young that it shouldn’t be surprising how readily accessible its early days are, but I’m still a little awestruck that a couple trips to YouTube and the Internet Archive can yield instant, uncut glimpses of the very earliest American broadcasts; for example, anyone who wanted to take a serious look at the evolution of TV comedy would have instant access to nearly everything they needed. I’m only doing a half-assed job of it myself, but this was a particularly enlightening stretch of this project, and with these shows in particular, a lot more rewarding than I think I expected. The first significant comedies (I’m not sure you could quite call these sitcoms yet, though that’s coming next) are of course cribbed from radio shows and radio stars. More specifically, the first transitions were with comedy teams, in this case mostly Burns and Allen, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, and Amos ‘n’ Andy (though the latter doesn’t really fit with the others for reasons I’ll get into in a minute). Most of these had some success in films before the advent of television, so these shows don’t necessarily get the credit for giving faces to the voices as much as giving them an outlet better suited to their ongoing stage and radio routines.

The Colgate Comedy Hour was one of the very first programs to provide that outlet, and it’s the kind of program that hasn’t existed for decades. I imagine it’s an NBC exec’s wet dream to have a popular catch-all variety program into which they could shove anything they pleased. The show premiered on September 17, 1950 with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as its first hosts. They would go on to host many, many more episodes, alternating with Abbott and Costello or Eddie Cantor or whoever else NBC felt like putting on that week. Sometimes they used it to launch or advertise new shows in their lineup, sometimes they were mostly letting an A-list actor plug a new film, and at one point they even staged a live adaptation of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes with Ethel Merman and Frank Sinatra. Beyond furthering the household-name status of its primary hosts, it is probably best known for presenting the first NTSC color episode in broadcast history, and even that plays into its sort of convenient, homeroom ground-control status. By design, it’s a formless network void, so I was surprised to be able to find a certain tangible sensibility in place over the episodes I watched. There’s a wealth of up-and-coming talent thrown at it, for one; Norman Lear wrote on at least one episode, and Samuel Fuller serves as executive producer for most of its run, which is wildly intriguing but unfortunately doesn’t seem to be well-documented. Maybe it’s also the fact that the familiar beats of a standard variety show weren’t completely defined yet, but the show’s mixture of sketch, musical numbers, and audience interaction feels gloriously and intentionally anarchic at times. The show’s hosts are more than figureheads; they seem to be given full creative control of the hour, with plenty of leeway to try any bit they can think of or invite whoever they want to be involved, which sort of unites all the episodes with a feeling of loose, free energy. The best and strangest example, and also the first episode I watched, the second of a handful of “Spike Jones Shows,” which sees the bandleader and his cohorts essentially running rampant from top to bottom (minus a few in-house advertisements, of course). They obviously perform a few of his popular, sound-effect-laden pieces, but they also put on their own sketches, including an epic Foreign Legion farce. It’s a breezy, pleasantly deranged hour, occasionally as broad as a bandcamp talent show act, but committed to unpredictability (a Stalin impersonator crosses a musical act just for fun) and a visual flair lacking from from most of Jones’ TV contemporaries, no doubt because he had a successful over-the-top live act to pull costumes and choreographed gags from. I also watched one of each of the Abbott and Costello (from May 23, 1954) and Martin and Lewis (from April 29, 1951) episodes, which are slightly less unhinged but still looser and wilder than I expected. I’ve honestly never been a big fan of either of those teams. I find Bud Abbott to be the world’s most boring straight man, and most of their routines to be stilted and emotionless, particularly in comparison to Laurel and Hardy, and Martin and Lewis always played to me as sort of harmlessly entertaining to a fault — so dependent on their thin “he’s a psycho, he’s a smoothie” formula that there’s nothing else for them to switch to. But I found myself warming up to both acts here. A freewheeling variety show feels more like home for both duos than their tightly scripted film comedies, and I’m impressed at how much work they seem to have put into making the hour their own. Both episodes are heavy on comedy bits and even the “variety” portions seem to be hand-picked by the hosts to fit the vibe of the night; Bud and Lou bring in Hoagy Carmichael for some breezy, good-humored jazz and Dean and Jerry invite Bob Fosse to choreograph and perform in an appropriately swanky dance routine. The sketches themselves aren’t necessarily brilliant but they’re quick and fun and well-designed. Martin and Lewis do gag-heavy, largely successful extended riffs on first a golf course set and then a library, and Abbott and Costello get a lot of mileage out of a running joke involving Abbott’s schemes to steal Costello’s money before doing an enjoyably silly, high-energy piece utilizing an apartment set loaded with special-effect booby traps. Both teams excel in the live format — Martin and Lewis use breaking the scene as a crutch a little too often, but it’s mostly charmingly chaotic, as when Lewis opens the show by willfully losing the camera (eventually a favorite trick of Conan O’Brien, of course). Lou Costello cracking in a conversation with child actor Ricky Vera (who?) feels less manipulative but the audience is all over it. These guys own the crowd like nobody’s business, and it’s a pleasure to watch. My favorite moment, however, comes near the end, when dry, camera-shy, Anthony Perkins-esque house bandleader Bill Finegan introduces a pretty delightful performance of “Midnight Sleigh Ride” with a bizarre, rambling explanation of his role in the piece. “I play the role of a horse… I make horse-like noises… It sounds exactly like a horse.” That intro and the following tune sort of sum up The Colgate Comedy Hour nicely: strange, appealing, funny, semi-improvisational, eclectic, and very specifically live.

Burns and Allen, who I don’t believe ever hosted for Colgate, were a duo I knew mostly by reputation alone. I’d been interested to see more of them since I’ve become more of a George Burns enthusiast after seeing the film Going in Style recently, and because I was curious as to how a couple who now function as sort of a Hollywood shorthand for true love could be funny and not precious. Anyway, I was glad to have an excuse to watch The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, arguably the apex of their 20+ year vaudeville and radio act. Even moreso than the Colgate shows, Burns and Allen served to quickly dash a lot of conceptions I had of the evolution of comedy. At the top of the very first episode, George speaks directly to the audience and essentially spells out the inner workings of their formula, talking through the details of playing a straight man to Gracie’s crowd-pleasing one-liners. This turns out to be a regular part of the design of the show, which has Burns stepping in and out of the action to make sly asides to the viewer and comment on what Gracie, still in character, is doing in the scene. These fourth wall breaking moments are considered the first on television, though Burns himself was modest about that particular accomplishment, saying that at that point in television’s infancy, everything you did was considered innovative. It was still jarring to see in an early proto-sitcom, but maybe not as much as seeing him pick apart the machinations of comedy, something I think of being more from Johnny Carson’s time and forward. The inner show/outer show format is strange and probably only there because there were hardly any traditional narrative formats on TV yet to follow, and it allows them to keep variety-show fixtures like musical guests and announcers (it’s also where the stars do their famous “Say goodnight, Gracie” sign-off at the end of every episode), but it works well with Burns’ sensibility. The asides are also my favorite part of the program. The actual narrative is crucial to the development of the domestic sitcom, as it mostly follows Gracie making dumb mistakes and misunderstandings that baffle George, their patient neighbors the Mortons, and whatever famous friends are stopping by that week. They are affable, gently funny stories but their legacy is a lot of bland, jokebook-style imitators. The progressiveness at the time of having the woman in a husband-and-wife comedy team be “the funny one” is slightly diluted by the fact that she’s playing a brain-damaged housewife in the vein of Jessica Simpson, though she certainly has a masterful control of her timing and delivery. The first episode has a classic bit where Burns makes up a convoluted fake card game called Kleebob as part of a plan he and Harry Morton cooked up to ditch their wives for a fight (sitcoms, right?) only to find that Gracie already knows the rules because it’s just like Mogul. “What is Mogul?” “Remember last week when you wanted to go to a ball game? You taught me how to play Mogul. Where do you want to go tonight, dear?” Another episode I watched features Gracie convinced that her marriage isn’t legal, despite the objections of witness Jack Benny and any other reasonable person she meets. There are several solid laughs, but it’s difficult to hang them on such an asinine delusion, which I guess would become a running theme for domestic fallacies in TV comedy forever. Still, it’s an amusing, important show all around, and it was popular enough to run for eight seasons, ending only due to Gracie’s voluntary retirement from show business. It doesn’t seem to take advantage of the visual medium quite as well as Abbott and Costello or some of their other radio brethren, but I’m not sure that visual gags would have fit well even with Burns and Allen’s vaudeville stage show; their humor is broad, but it’s well-dressed and well-mannered as well. Almost exactly a year later, I Love Lucy struck a deeper chord with audiences by expanding the showbiz-family format to make room for bits and setpieces specifically designed for the small screen, but the true origin of the classic setup of a Hollywood husband and his wacky wife lies here, as far as I can tell.

Speaking of visual gags, we’re coming to my first hearty laugh of this batch of early sitcoms, coming to my surprise from The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show. Amos ‘n’ Andy are another long-term comedy act and classic radio staple I knew by reputation alone, and what a complex, loaded reputation it is — a household-name minstrel act that’s possibly most controversial for how little controversy it ever seemed to cause. The story behind the radio serial and its evolution to television is bizarre and fascinating. North Carolina’s Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll created the characters, originally called Sam ‘n’ Jeff, specifically for radio in 1926. There’s the first detail that likely kept, or at least postponed, the very white Gosden and Correll from landing permanent seats in the Racist Douchebag Hall of Shame. The pair voiced the titular characters in addition to an ever-expanding fictionalized Chicago, meaning they were voicing men of all races (all the men on the whole program, in fact), but more importantly, not live in front of people. They rarely performed in blackface beyond a few promotional appearances and one ill-advised feature. Although “rarely performed in blackface” must be the thinnest defense against charges of racism in history, the fact the most popular iteration of the characters was heard and not seen seems massively important to their success, especially since many listeners assumed they were hearing black actors. The other saving grace is that people just really liked it. As one of the first serialized radio dramas, it was wildly innovative in the way it structured its cliffhanger-heavy stories to capture the full attention of its rapt audience, underlining its humor with emotional depth and long-running threads that rewarded avid fans. Even those who were aware and who cared that an inherently offensive minstrel show was the biggest thing on the airwaves largely gave it a pass, since the scripts tended to actively avoid stereotype-based humor and that fans were emotionally invested in the characters instead of laughing at them. The NAACP initially refused to protest the show, seemingly for reasons adding up to mostly, “Hey, it’s a pretty good listen.” Ironically, when they did finally mount their own protest, it was for the television version, which learned its lesson from the feature film and recast all the roles with African-Americans. Arguably, it was that protest and general mounting discomfort with the franchise as a whole that led to CBS pulling the show after a couple of seasons. Such is the confounding duality of Amos ‘n’ Andy: A show that lined the pockets of a couple guys who at one point thought blackface was an acceptable way to forge their success is also a funny, well-made sitcom that boasts one of the first predominantly black casts in TV history. And it is funny. I watched 1952’s “Kingfish Sells a Lot,” which, like most of the TV version, is a lot more about Andy and his local lodge leader and frequent swindler Kingfish than it is about Andy and Amos, who doesn’t even appear in this or many other episodes. Kingfish is possibly my favorite type of character, like Thimble Theater‘s Castor Oyl or Aqua Teen Hunger Force‘s Master Shake — a career con artist who is somehow deeply likeable despite his worst intentions, likely because his schemes tend to backfire. The setup for this particular scheme is like a textbook in how to write good, rich comedy for the half-hour format. Kingfish wants to get rid of a land lot he bought after miscalculating its worth based on a Hollywood production choosing to shoot there. The only thing on it is a picture house that the studio put there, just the front of the house with no interior. Kingfish suckers Andy into buying the lot at a marked-up price based on the assumption that there’s a beautiful multi-walled house on the property, and a battle of wits involving planted oil and other trickery ensues, with Andy eventually getting his revenge. Andy first visiting his new one-dimensional home and wading through several layers of denial as he explores it looking for the inside made me laugh like an idiot, like a classic Barney Fife moment with extra kickers. That’s the highlight, but the episode is consistently funny and just generally a pleasure to watch, with great performances from Spencer Williams, Tim Moore, and the supporting cast. It’s an attractively designed show as well, with contrast-heavy cinematography and a mood-setting cityscape credit roll that team up to give it the visual edge of something Jules Dassin might have directed. I expected to watch this one through spread fingers like a car crash, but honestly the off-screen complications of its existence are hard to keep in mind with such a confident presentation. It’s difficult to chart how influential the TV-specific leg of Amos ‘n’ Andy is as opposed to the better-known, longer-running radio drama, but it’s the earliest thing I’ve watched that really feels like a fully-formed sitcom.

Moving on to 1952 and coming full circle on this loosely connected batch of radio- and vaudeville-born early TV classics, Abbott and Costello finally got their very own series with the appropriately named The Abbott and Costello Show. Like their hosting gigs on Colgate, their own show did a lot to heal the relatively ambivalent opinion I’ve always held of their act, and again it’s mostly due to the work that seems to be put into each episode. They pack in as many jokes as they can and deliver them with the same or higher commitment that they would have in their movies. The show has become notable over time, in fact, for its all-out emphasis on bits and routines, with the “plot” often falling by the wayside. That’s great news for me, as someone who felt like the plot points and romantic beats of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein felt like they took a hundred years to complete. “The Haunted Castle,” one of three well-regarded episodes I watched, is an obvious precursor to that ever-popular film but it plays like a funnier, faster version without all the chaff. The game is to get Abbott and Costello in a haunted castle as quickly as possible, let Costello be freaked out by whatever weirdness is inside, and get them out. And as pleasantly simple as that is, it’s ten times the plotwork as “The Dentist’s Office,” which uses Costello’s toothache as a springboard for a lot of big, silly, random slapstick, or “The Actors’ Home,” which starts with a clear story about Abbott’s out-of-control greed landing him in a facility for retired or insane actors, but quickly gives up and has them do an eight-minute version of “Who’s On First?” Many of the show’s bits were holdovers from their long history of bit-building, but this particular rendition of their most famous routine is fresh and funny and is frequently considered the ultimate version. The show’s willingness to derail anything and everything to keep the funny coming is its most enduring aspect, and while the sense of humor can still be as broad as a planet — there is a recurring man-baby character called Hercules who is as dumb as anything you hate on modern network programming — I found all three episodes generally enjoyable if not outright funny, and I was again struck with how well that particular team’s style just seems to fit well with TV.

To be honest, I was expecting when taking on these shows to find more of a lag between radio and television styles. The only evidence that these were ported over from a non-visual medium is the pull-back-the-curtain style framing device present in all of them except Amos ‘n’ Andy. They weren’t quite just letting shows be shows yet, used to the necessary setup and presentation of a blind broadcast. These are partially practical moments, as standalone commercials were seemingly still rare, and the actors needed some time to pimp their sponsors without breaking a scene. You will hear so much about Carnation milk while watching Burns and Allen that you will want to die. For the most part, though, the writers and actors quickly caught on to ways to utilize the camera, even if much of it was just calling back on their original stage routines. So many familiar elements of TV comedy are here that I’d hesitate to even call these formative or transitional shows. Still, it’s hard not to think of them as precursors to the likes of I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, shows that were only sorta-kinda based on radio shows but that are more commonly associated with television, and that are still generally considered two of the biggest things in the medium despite arriving only a couple years later. Those are coming up soon, along with some of the earliest westerns.

Would I watch more?: I held back a couple of these for an all-Christmas round at the end of the year, and I already watched a bunch of Amos ‘n’ Andy clips on YouTube, first looking for an appearance by the elusive Amos, but then just enjoying weird Kingfish schemes. Beyond that, I think I’ve mostly gotten enough out of these early shows, though I wouldn’t turn any of them off if they popped up in front of me in the middle of the night. I’m a little tempted to check out some of the more unusual hosts on Colgate, but not any time soon.

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Comics & Coffee: 8/29/12 and 9/5/12 (Even Later Edition)

Wednesday is a day to buy new comics and drink coffee.

I missed last week due to this undefeatable virus I’ve had and Dragon*Con preparations, so I’ll just have to make like The Thing and do 2-in-1. This week starts off another transparent and pretty much ridiculous across-the-board marketing gimmick from DC — all their rebooted titles, just barely a year old, will be getting #0 issue to represent a new jumping-on point for anyone who may have missed the last jumping-on point. I think the problems with this line of thinking are self-evident, but as usual, I’m sure there will be some perfectly enjoyable comics to come out of it along with some perfectly horrible ones. The ones I’d grab for sure are Animal Man and Swamp Thing, and I’ll probably take a look at Action Comics, Dial H, Green Arrow, GI Combat, Phantom Stranger (which I believe is the only brand-new series coming out of Zerogate), and maybe a few of the others as well. You can also grab new issues of Sweet Tooth and Deadpool, two series that have absolutely nothing in common except that I like them and they are both beginning to wind down long runs, and the next-to-last issue of Marvel’s The Muppets, which has been collecting the last unpublished work Roger Langridge did with that franchise before Boom! lost its contract with it. A couple of new miniseries of note are Fashion Beast, a strangely under-reported adaptation of a screenplay Alan Moore developed with the Sex Pistols’ Malcolm McLaren in the mid-’80s, and The Road to Oz, the latest in the ongoing attempts by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young to bring all of L. Frank Baum’s children’s books to comics in the handsomest way possible. Also, IDW continues to put out one-shot “micro-series” for every Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles character. I haven’t paid a whole lot of attention to them so far but they have my number this week with Fugitoid, a character I like enough to most likely buy anything with his image on it. Also from IDW this week is another round of Bud Sagendorf reprints in Classic Popeye #2, which I didn’t realize was going to be ongoing when I called out #1 earlier in this column.

Last week saw another of the TMNT Micro-Series releases, that one focusing on April. Like the Fugitoid issue, it’s from a creative team I’m not familiar with but it looks nice at a glance. If nothing else, those one-shots get you a lovely David Petersen cover for everyone in that universe you can think of. There’s also the third and final issue of the Infernal Man-Thing mini-series Marvel has been putting out based on a “lost script” by Steve Gerber. It looks like a hardcover collecting the full story (and presumably some ephemera) is on the way as well. The big, obvious grabs for me are Axe Cop: President of the World #2, from another three-issue series (the second of its kind for Dark Horse’s new material branched out from the beloved webcomic), and Popeye #4, which originally was going to be the last of Roger Langridge’s new Popeye material but I believe it’s being extended into an ongoing series. Others from last week I’d say are at least worth a quick look in the store: The first post-reboot Flash Annual, written and drawn by the excellent artist Francis Manapul, Steed and Peel #0, which kicks off some new adventures of “the other Avengers,” written by Mark Waid, Prophet #28, which is the latest in Brandon Graham’s unique attempt to revitalize Rob Liefeld’s sci-fi odyssey as a surreal, art-focused indie flagship, and The Goon #41, which apparently marks the beginning of a new commitment to regular, monthly issues for the long-running cult series which, based on the backup feature drawn by Mark Buckingham, could be easing Eric Powell’s workload by alternating in some neat guests.

Not a lot jumps out at me in trades and OGNs, save a couple of hardcover collections I don’t know a lot about but sound intriguing and look very attractive: Dal Tokyo, which collects a bunch of Gary Panter sci-fi strips originally published in Japan, and Heartless, a compilation of recent work by the Toronto-born, Yugoslavia-raised, Kim Deitch-esque cartoonist Nina Bunjevac.

Normally this is where I’d link to some previews and other recommendations, but some of those links get a little complex past the week they’re intended for, so I’ll be lazy and end it here. I pick up my comics from Richard’s in Greenville, SC, and I pick up my coffees from Coffee & Crema, though I can’t remember what I drank there the last couple Wednesdays. More next time.

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