Saturday, October 28, 2006

I like outrage as much as the next person, but could everyone please shut the hell up about the new Bob Dylan/Twyla Tharp collaboration currently on Broadway? I can't believe there are people out there who still regard Dylan as a symbol of intergrity and authenticity, or are unaware of how much he seems to enjoy givng his fans' nipples a tweak. The guy said it himself--he's "just a song and dance man."

Yes kids, it hurts when your idols reveal that they never really cared what you thought, that they were in the game for reasons that had nothing to do with you and your need for a savior. It's a painful moment when you discover that the weasel who just slipped a roofie in your drink is your hero, and that he can't stop giggling. But so what if Dylan is a lot closer to Andrew Lloyd Weber than Woody Guthrie?

That said, I wouldn't see the show if you rented out the theater for me. Never mind that I'd have to sell another kidney to be able to afford a balcony seat.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


I started Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic The Road the other day (I bought it at Coliseum Books, which is going out business--I thought that was fitting), and I agree with all the reviews that it's brilliant, but damn, 30 pages in and it's hard to pull myself out of its intensely morbid universe. I'm scared about going any further. I haven't felt like this since I read Blindness.

For a far less powerful but much more clinical look at the end of the world, there's the helpful Web site Exit Mundi, which catalogs every conceivable doomsday scenario according to sound effect, from the possible "Booomm!!" and the inevitable "Aaaaargh!" to the less likely "Beep Beep!" and the just plain silly (or is it?) "Groarrggh!"

Sunday, October 22, 2006


Last weekend I went to the Newark Museum to see the Masters of American Comics show, a fairly small exhibit of some of the most influential newspaper comic strip artists of the last century. I own collections of Windsor McCay's and George Herriman's strips, and I've read a lot of comics by E. C. Segar, Chester Gould, and of course Charles Schultz. I enjoyed seeing their work again--I also got an education about Milt Caniff and the current comic-archives it boy Frank King, and I found out for the first time about Lyonel Feininger. Obviously, the museum didn't have room for every single giant of the funny papers, but I was a little surprised that they had nothing by Al Capp, whose Li'l Abner was a comic strip phenomenon rivaled only by Peanuts. Li'l Abner contribued so much to U.S. popular culture, that his marriage to Daisy Mae made the covers of Life and Time.
Some other guys who should have been in the show: Hal Foster, whose Prince Valiant brought refined illustration standards to the comic strip (incidentally, Jack Kirby's The Demon was based on a mask that Foster drew in one of his strips); Burne Hogarth, Foster's replacement on Tarzan; and the co-creator of Flash Gordon, Alex Raymond.
One bit of advice; if you're heading to Newark from New York, forget the car and take the train. Trust toner on this one.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


...I have to make sure I draw your attention to this, my favorite Simpsons bit ever.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


This brings up an odd bit of trivia. Oddly enough, Mie and Kei aren't *officially* mispronouncing UFO when they say "yoo-foe."
This is a weird bit of Forteana.

When UFO's were first being talked about in the 50's, and well through the early 70's, "yoo-foe" was a popular way to pronounce it in English. I have footage of latter-day Fortean guru, John Keel, referring to them as such. Similarly, the underrated Gerry Anderson tv show from England, UFO, has many of the characters calling them "yoo-foes."

By the time Mie and Kei were singing that AMAZINGLY WEIRD song, the USA had switched over to saying "yoo-eff-oh." This was in the wake of CE3K, and "you-eff-oh" had become the preference. Another example of how Japan and the West are always several years behind each other's media.

Yes, PINK LADY AND DAVE could have happened. If Netflix offers PL&J, it's worth putting in a request, just for the Jeff Altman interviews. He has an appropriate mix of "this was a ridiculous concept" and "what the hell, a network was offering me my own show" and "this kind of wrecked my career" and "if your career is going to be wrecked, this is as good a way as any" and "looking back on it all, it was weird and also kind of fun."

Without a doubt, Jeff Altman comes across as a super guy. Ironic. Funny. This is a guy who, had the deck been stacked a little differently, could have at least had a likably Alan Thicke-or-Bob Saget-level career. No, they're not luminaries, but they have a niche. He looks like he could hold his own in a Christopher Guest movie.

And there were a number of places where he got to sneak in his own material. Most of it is good enough, in a "poor man's Carol Burnett" kind of way. The only piece that's a real time warp is when he does a character named "Leonard Moon," who is clearly a punch-drunk, sub-moronic black boxer... but not in black-face. It's, um, well, um, I don't think anyone got offended by it, but it wouldn't fly on TV, now. Probably for good reason.

(Also funny on the show is Jim Varney. Varney was a very, very talented comic actor. He could have easily been a Not Ready For Prime Time Player had the chips fallen differently. He does no "Ernest" at all on the show... in fact, I'm pretty certain that his work here pre-dates Ernest. Varney was a good comic with that trademark, manic intensity and Shakespearean training. He died too young... another reason not to smoke. He never seemed to resent getting stuck with the Ernest character, which is in his karmic favor. But I would have loved to have seen him play Dogberry in MUCH ADO. He had the training, and he would have stolen the show. If you "youtube" Jim Varney, you can find a great clip of him playing a southern sleazeball on Norman Lear's legendary "America 2-Night," with Martin Mull and Fred Willard.)

Another odd thing...

The show, as the credits indicated, is NOT called PINK LADY AND JEFF. The title in the opening credits was just PINK LADY. In the interviews, Jeff Altman says that he and his agent got into some pretty heated discussions over this with NBC, because he was going to carrying the brunt of the labor on the show. The credits never changed, but the name of the show when discussed in the media somehow became PINK LADY AND JEFF. Be careful what you wish for...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


In the proud Toner_Low tradition of beating a topic to death, I went to YouTube to find if they had any clips of the show. The best I could come up with was this clip, showing Mie and Kei performing their "UFO" number (holding true to their practice of mangling English, they pronounce it as a single word, "Yoofow"). As if to prove GoatBoy right about their humorlessness, they get through the entire crazy number without smiling once, giving their hip-swinging gyrations a kind of grim, funereal aspect.

I also draw your attention to this great blog, containing several clips of inexplicable things that have appeared on Japanese television more recently. Enjoy!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Pink Lady Love!

I love, love, love, love, love PINK LADY AND JEFF.

After suffering through things like DATE MOVIE, HULK, and UNDERWORLD, my definition of "bad" is genuinely refreshed. They really set a new bar.

I had only heard of PL&J as a rumor. I think the show may have been up against THE INCREDIBLE HULK or something, but I never saw it, or never paid attention to it during the amazing Fred Silverman year at NBC. It was the year that also brought us SUPERTRAIN and HELLO, LARRY.

When the DVD's came out from Rhino, I detected something that needed to be owned, and it was well worth the $40 or $50 that non-drinking, childless celibacy affords a man. (Which is a chicken-and-egg question, in and of itself.)

Jeff Altman was on contract with NBC along with David Letterman as a "hot, young talent." Altman, in the hilariously self-effacing interviews and introductions he gives on the DVD set, suspects that he was called first for the gig simply because his name was alphabetically higher.

I have a fondness for media that is so haphazardly conceived that it defies any attempt to rationally evaluate it. Stuff like this is gold. Nothing in it works, and it all doesn't work, brilliantly.

1. Poor, poor Jeff Altman. Here is a guy just a *few* years out of step. But only a few. Had he been ten years younger, he would have been a big hit on Laugh In or the Smothers Brothers. He was a little too sly to be a Borsht Belter of the Sid Caesar era, just a shade too youngish to be in the Stan Frieberg/Bob & Ray/Tom Lehrer era, and too gentle and to be as ironic as Letterman or as cutthroat as O'Donoghue's children. About five years after the variety era officially died, here's this poor guy stuck in a tux, valiantly doing his best to make a dead medium flounder for an audience that had moved on.

2. Pit him with Pink Lady, who had no sense of humor. Yes, there was a terrible language barrier, but that's not the real problem. They just look incredibly pissed off. Surliness can generally be turned against the surly, judo-style. But sometimes you meet an enemy too ticked off to really be won over. Jeff, meet Pink Lady.

3. Give them writers who are one of two things -- incompetent or hamstrung by the network. Silverman had a sense of humor that was strangely myopic. He nixed the legendary Andy Kaufman Special at ABC, forcing it to sit in the can and be sold to NBC. Before they could air it, Silverman went to NBC and squatted on it there, too. Luckily, SNL was already a monster hit, so he more or less left it alone. I actually think PL&J would have been a little "better" (by traditional standards) had he assembled a decent writing staff and instructed them to use Pink Lady only for musical numbers. Unfortunately, the show is just a beached whale of dated material. After tasting SNL and the syndicated SCTV, variety television could not be the same. I love that the show is horribly stuck between two eras, successfully enacting neither, but trying so hard to be both family-friendly *and* leisure-suitedly "hip" -- two things that rarely meet. The mind-boggling inclusion of Pink Lady perfects the ridiculousness. But with writers given free reign, and Pink Lady kept to the sidelines, I think that it would simply have gone down as a harmlessly tepid clone of the Carol Burnett show. Instead, we have something joyously weird.

4. Jim Varney was a member of the ensemble.

5. One episode included Jerry Lewis, Jim Varney, Red Buttons, Alice Cooper, and Robby the Robot. And Pink Lady. And Jeff. I watch that episode often, and always in speechless awe.

6. Each episode ended with Jeff "being tricked" into getting into a hot tub with two women who had nothing but contempt for the entire project they'd been roped into. An emblem of sexual swinging mixed with shtick that was increasingly awkward to sell. The more episodes they made, the more forced these "accidents" became. You can feel the writers' fingers straining to type them, and you can see Jeff Altman increasingly miserable. Schadenfreude ahoy!

Watching PL&J for me is like watching surgery. There is a grotesqueness to it that is horrific, yet, as with the portrait of Kramer, I cannot look away.

I have nothing but gratitude for PL&J. Most incompetence is simply dull. Try watching MYRA BRECKINRIDGE and you'll know what I mean. Honestly. Sit down to a double feature of DATE MOVIE and MYRA BRECKINRIDGE.

But this? This is something so bizarre that most people think you're making it up. For me, it defies traditional judgement. I look at it with a strange awe. I have often thought of writing a book called WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? It would simply look at the history of entertainment projects like this.

Everyone has his own definition of "bad." For me, bad is boring. Like the LOST IN SPACE movie. PL&J is not boring. Just unspeakably strange. It's in a FOR YOUR HEIGHT ONLY-category. God love it.


Let us return to my good friend in Iowa, who outraged .002% of the local populace when he got vanity plates reading "ITMFA;" he was promptly told by the Department of Motor Vehicles that his plates were offensive and that he'd have to turn them in. The greatest magazine in the world, REASON, posted an item on this on their "Hit & Run" blog, and apparently the guy who ratted on the plates e-mailed REASON's editors, quite proud of what he'd done and even insisting that he is the victim here. The Reasonoids have at him, and the result makes for very enjoyable reading.

Remember folks, insulting the President is treason, and treason is punishable by death (this doesn't apply when the president is Clinton).

Sunday, October 08, 2006


Sorry I've been away so long; I'm now working for a Japanese company. And whenever there's a slight linguisic or cultural misunderstanding (not too frequent, thankfully), my mind always slips back, as people's minds often do, to PINK LADY AND JEFF.

The contenders for the Worst TV Show of All Time ribbon have been myriad, yet Pink Lady and Jeff has repeatedly come out on top--not bad for a show that debuted and bit the dust way back in 1980, long before waves of television nausea much stronger than anything the musical comedy/variety shows delivered pummeled the American public. For my money, I have yet to see anything that made me want to devote my life to destroying television sets as much as MTV's The Real World--the show was a true abomination, I don't care what Chuck Klosterman says. But while the Real World ushered in an era of 'Reality' programming that we're all still wrestling with, Pink Lady and Jeff was the grand finale to a reign of camp that sticks at least partly in the mind for its humor value. The comedy/variety genre was all but over by 1980, but no one told Fred Silverman at NBC. Somehow, putting two non-English-speaking Japanese pop stars that no one in the U.S. had heard of together with a mediocre stand-up comedian whose signature punchline was "Buttsteak!" and weighing the whole thing down with frightful writing and has-been guest stars seemed like a good idea on paper.

Thanks to the Internet, I've learned that Pink Lady was the biggest pop act in Japan for much of the Seventies, popularizing dances as well as bubblegum songs. Pink Lady nostalgia remains so deep in Japan that apparently Mie and Kei, the two women who identified themselves as the singular 'Pink Lady,' regularly reunite for shows and the occasional album, even now in their mid-40s.

I've always been curious to know what Mie and Kei thought of the show, and if their disastrous attempt to win fins in the U.S. still smarted. It sounds like, on the contrary, when Pink Lady mania lurched into its final stages following their Statesite bellyflop, the girls were releived to take a break. As proof that all things in this universe, even Pink Lady and Jeff, are connected to comic book uber-genius Jack Kirby, one of the 'writers' on the show was Kirby's onetime assistant Mark Evanier, who gave a revealing interview to a Pink Lady fan website (!). Poor Mie and Kei were as frustrated as everyone else with their inability to gain even a toehold on the English language.

Mie went on to win kudos for her dramatic portrayal of a junkie; Jeff went on to, if I remember correctly, appearances on Letterman and the Cinemax Comedy Experiment. The show was released on DVD, with Jeff providing commentary. And what "Carrie: The Musical" was to Broadway, Pink Lady and Jeff remains to television; a gold standard for awfulness.

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