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Monday, May 31, 2010

Ode to a Partridge - A Sonnet

Twixt Partridges and Bradys there's no doubt
That Shirley's gang  has claim to greater fame
But without Danny and Reuben's verbal bouts 
Both family bands might seem equally lame

The Partridge clan did boast a lovely sound
Of honeyed harmonies and dulcet tones
Though Bonaduce acted like a clown,
The day was saved by Keith (and Shirley Jones)

But all in all, one can't forget this fact
That proves their top hit records were all fake
Although they tried to put on a brave act
They leave this vivid image in their wake:

It's Danny Partridge with his freckled face
So ignorantly strumming on his bass.

Friday, May 28, 2010

5 Huge TV Letdowns

Given the recent glut of series finales that have enjoyed great hype and anticipation but left legions of confused, disappointed viewers in their wake, I thought it would be a good idea to put things in perspective, and travel back to the late 70's for a few minutes.

Seven channels. That's all we had to choose from. One of them, PBS channel 13, was nothing but drab, gray cultural programming outside of a few hours of Sesame Street and the Electric Company. Three others (WNEW 5, WWOR 9, and WPIX 11) were great for Hogans Heroes reruns or Met/Yankee games, but during primetime usually showed low-budget films (ironically dubbed the "Million Dollar Movie" on one of the stations) peppered with extra commercials and bad editing.

And that left only three channels - the big networks - to provide us with the thrill of exciting new programs that we could anticipate for weeks. And because of the built-in "captive audience" factor, the networks' hype machines were always in full gear. ABC really capitalized on fast-paced editing and the dramatic effect of its deep-voiced announcer (check out this short promo), while NBC relied more on heavily orchestrated theme music and animated logos. Whatever the method, these promos, like the Pied Piper, successfully hypnotized an entire generation of elementary school kids into weeks-long daydreams about upcoming shows and specials. I clearly remember frantic conversations on the schoolbus and in my classes about the next episode of CHiPs, Fantasy Island, and The Incredible Hulk. Every so often, a TV show would appear on the horizon whose potential was so alluring that it couldn't possibly live up to a 9-year old's expectations.

Here are the biggest five TV disappointments of my childhood:

1. KISS Meets the Phantom of the Amusement Park - There's a fine line between Superheroes and cartoon characters. And this is where the line was obliterated. My friends and I had really started buying into the urban-legend fuelled hype surrounding the otherworldly origins and powers of the band members. This horrible, low-budget, ill-conceived, 4th-grade play acting-filled disaster made my heroes seem like nothing but  hacks, and exposed them as paper-thin media creations. To this day, the band members avoid any discussion of the film. The "plot" featured a ride-designed turned mad scientist with a Dr. Evil-esque lab beneath Magic Mountain who zombified the park's patrons by sticking some type of transistor on their necks. Monosyllabic Space Ace to the rescue.

2. The Star Wars Holiday Special - In the Greek myth of Pandora's Box, the protagonist, against all of the warnings and advice she's offered, opens an attractive-looking treasure box and unleashes all sorts of evil and mayhem into the world, along with one lone, beneficial side effect - hope.

The Star Wars Holiday Special, broadcast on CBS in November, 1978, arrived right smack in between the original release of Star Wars and 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. For the millions of us who lived and breathed all things Star Wars, waiting for this to air was almost like waiting for Christmas to arrive. Unfortunately, this "special" turned out to be George Lucas' own Pandora's Box. The "evil and mayhem"? Bea Arthur and Art Carney cavorting in a song and dance number in the Cantina amidst Krofft-ized space aliens; Chewbacca's lovable relatives, Itchy and Lumpy; and "live" performance by a holographic Jefferson Starship. The hope? A cartoon short that introduced Boba Fett to the world.

3. Any WWF match involving SD "Special Delivery" Jones - Back in the days before "Raw" and "Smackdown," the WWF TV shows were used solely to build up feuds between the good guys and the supervillains. "Matches" consisted of monsters like Nikolia Volkoff, Superstar Graham and Hulk Hogan tossing stiffs like Jose Luis Rivera around like rag dolls. Occasionally, as Vince McMahon monotoned his way through the closing credits, my brother and I would be informed that next week, SD Jones would be taking on ______________ (insert name of "over the top" WWF Villain here). Before we were old enough to know better (and maybe even after we should have been) we'd spend all week talking about strategies and moves that good old SD could use to pull off the incredible upset. And every single time, he'd find some improbable way to turn surefire, liberating victory into a humiliating, headshaking defeat. As soon as he'd get on a roll, and point to his head in an "I'm so brilliant - I've outsmarted this idiot" gesture, you knew he'd be on his back for the three count or "unconscious" on the arena floor seconds later. 

4. Hardy Boys TV series - To this day, I'm not sure if this series was any good or not. But personally, it was my first experience with the "I read the book first" phenomenon. To be fair to the TV series, there was absolutely no way that Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson (and ABC's cheesy production values) could ever stand up to the vivid characters I'd been building in my head, as a reader, since the first grade.

5. Rescue from Giligan's Island - Can you imagine a worse idea? Somehow, my entire spellbound generation missed the point that the whole show depended upon the castaways being stranded. Of course, they all end up back on the island anyway when Gilligan forgets to clean the rust off the compass prior the group's "reunion cruise." And no Tina Louise.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The "Mork From Ork" Principle

One of the key principles I focus on in my Media Literacy class is the "Truth Effect" - known in psychology as the "Illusion of Truth Effect." Basically, the "Truth Effect" claims that we are more likely to believe things that we see and hear frequently. For instance, most people readily accept the idea that "diamonds are forever" (and therefore are an important symbol of love and matrimony) as if it was the eleventh commandment. Yet, this widely held "truth" is the result of a very clever and successful 1947 ad campaign by DeBeers. Over time, the slogan and associated images have become such a familiar part of our environment that the assumption they convey goes completely unquestioned. And this is what makes studying media literacy so important and so difficult at the same time - in order to really look at what we believe and why we believe it, we need a way to alter our perspective.

 This is where Mork (of the TV series, "Mork and Mindy") comes in. An outcast from his home planet of Ork, Mork was sent by his supervisor, Orson, to live on earth. Mork's mission was to live among the earthlings and report back to Orson with his observations on human nature and culture. Because, especially in the first season, he has no real understanding of human feelings or psychology, he can only resort to objective descriptions of human behavior. This literal approach, of course, leads to plenty of humorous moments. For instance, the following dialogue (from

Mork: If Holly liked him so much, how come she punched him and told him he was weird.
Mindy: Boys and girls often punch or push or hit each other as a sign of affection.
Mork: Punching and pushing and calling someone names means you like them?
Mindy: Yeah, it can.
Mork: Then the cowboys and Indians are lovers?

While the childlike innocence of Mork's analysis may not shed much light on the motivation behind the silly things that Earthlings do, it does help to point out just how absurd they may actually be.  And that's why being able to think like Mork from Ork is a very valuable strategy in understanding media and its effect on us. When we really are able to step back, remove ourselves from what we assume to be true, and look only at our actions, it lets us get beyond the lure of the "truth effect." So when we look at the tradition of buying diamonds for engagements, anniversaries, and so forth, from the perspective of a space alien, it suddenly just looks like Earth men putting shiny rocks on the fingers of Earth women. And then we can start to ask why.

So, while many of my students have never heard of Mork at the outset of my course, I encourage them to make use of the "Mork from Ork" principle when it comes to viewing commercials and even examining their own spending patterns. I've also found this exercise useful in my own life, especially when I start "sweating the small stuff."

What can the "Mork from Ork principle" do for you?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

5 songs that sound as if the Partridge Family is singing backup

Say what you will about the Partridge Family (bubble gum, fluff, fabricated pop) but whoever the singers and musicians actually were on those recordings really created some fun, well-crafted tunes. Other than Keith Partridge's excellent lead singing voice, probably the most distinctive characteristic of their sound was the lush, layered background vocals. I'm pretty sure they were all studio singers, but I swear I can hear Shirley in the mix. Anyway, use your imagination when you listen to these (titles link to YouTube):

1) Day After Day - Badfinger

2) Share the Land - the Guess Who (this one also sounds like Keith is singing lead!)

3) We've Only Just Begun - The Carpenters

4) Tequila Sunrise - The Eagles

5) Sun King - The Beatles

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Most Incredible Guitar in Rock History!

In November of 1984, I got my first guitar. It was a black Cort Les-Paul copy that I had first seen advertised in the Sears Catalog. As cheap and imperfect as that instrument was, I loved it dearly, and practiced way into the morning hours, even on school nights. I became an avid student of the guitar, and hungered for any and all information I could find on how to unravel its secrets. Some of my guitar-playing friends were really into reading Guitar Player magazine, so I figured that would be a good place to start. Sometime in the summer of '85, I picked up the Eric Clapton issue, hoping to learn the solo to "Sunshine of Your Love.

The first thing that caught my eye in the issue was this beautiful guitar, hand-painted by the Dutch "painting duo" known as "The Fool." The caption indicated that it had once belonged to Eric Clapton during his "Cream" days, but that he had since sold it to Todd Rundgren. Two of my biggest musical heroes had both played this work of art, and the guitar instantly took on a mystic significance in my mind, aided no doubt by the whimsical, psychedelic artistry covering every part of the instrument.
I kept plugging away at learning rock guitar, and worked meticulously on the "Sunshine of Your Love" solo. All the while, I imagined myself playing that beautiful SG. As I listened to the record over and over again, I concentrated on the fact that Clapton was making those amazing sounds with the specific instrument I'd been daydreaming about.

As I graduated high school, I really started to discover the musical genius of Todd Rundgren. "Hello, It's Me" is my all-time favorite AM-radio hit, but I quickly realized that there was much more to Rundgren's music and sound. Underneath all the glam-rock fashion and pop melodies was an incredible rock guitarist with a unique style and sound. I always felt that his music connected with me on a very personal level, and this feeling was enhanced by the knowledge that he was playing the magic axe.

A few years ago, I was watching Todd Rundgren on the Conan O'Brien show. A few nights later, Jimmy Vivino of the Max Weinberg Seven suddenly held the spectacular SG in his own hands during a house band number. Thinking that maybe Todd had sold or given the guitar to Vivino, I emailed the Conan show, and was very surprised and delighted to hear back from Jimmy Vivino himself a few days later. In fact, the guitar was so famous that several high-priced replicas had been made, and Vivino had purchased one. It also turns out that Todd Rundgren had paid Clapton a mere $500 for the instrument, and consequently sold it for half a million years later. 

As for me, I graduated from the Cort replica to a real Les Paul, and later a jet-black SG, as well. I love my guitars, but if I ever win the billion-dollar lottery, the magic SG is one relic I just might try to acquire.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Meanwhile, back at stately Wayne Manor.....

The Batman TV series, which premiered in 1966, was so deliciously bad that you had to watch. And not in the way that some "reality TV" fans appreciate evil schemers such as Richard Hatch, or disasters-in-waiting like Danny Bonaduce. Batman was so meticulously crafted to reek of camp/kitsch (I'm not sure if anyone is sure which is more applicable here) that it's an absolute masterpiece of pop art and pop culture. Basically, the show was a hokey Silver-Age comic - including all of the visual color, contrived plots, and ridiculous dialogue - come to full, glorious life. 
 In both modern comics and films, superheroes have become increasingly dark and complex. Batman is certainly no exception. Starting with the Tim Burton production of 1989 and progressing through the recent Dark Knight, popular interpretations of Batman have chosen to focus on the psychology of the characters and the moral ambiguity of the worlds they inhabit, rather than giving us simple stories of good vs. evil. But, much like Silver-Age comics (see  example on the left) the 1966 Batman show provided us with simple, cardboard heroes that espoused good and evil with a childlike simplicity. It also provided us with a boatload of laughable dialogue and horrible puns. And sometimes it's fun to forget about grim reality and just get lost in a world of colorful nonsense.
Here are eight things to love about the original Batman series.

 1. Two episodes per week - When the show hit the air in 1966 it was a monster hit. It ran two nights a week on ABC during the first season. The Wednesday night show would end with a cliffhanger - the dynamic duo strapped to a slot-machine controlled electric chair or tied beneath a meteor that's about to drop from the ceiling - and the Thursday show would wrap it all up with some miraculous escape and improbable detective work by Batman.
2. Utility Belt - A Swiss-army knife on steroids, this belt contained an improbable number and variety of cool gadgets that made the caped crusader look like McGyver (actually, more like MacGruber). Included "Batarangs" and the "Bat Goo Gun."
3. Ostentatious Villains - Bad guys who advertised their criminal nature with every available resource - maniacal laughter, garishly bright costumes, and old-school WWF wrestling gimmick names.
4. The Batcomputer - In the classic short story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," Walter (who has little real-life experience with anything mechanical or technical) daydreams about a hospital machine featuring "many tubes and wires" and "a row of glistening dials." The Batcomputer is essentially a Walter Mitty invention - as a 5-year old watching this show on TV, I was fascinated by the complicated machine and daydreamed all the time about creating my own.Whenever we'd get a new fridge or dryer, my brother and I would get our magic markers and try to turn it into some high tech spaceship or helicopter. The Batcomputer was always the prototype for what the control panel would look like, though.
5. Guest Stars - Everyone from Milton Berle to Vincent Price. Apparently, celebrities were begging for guest spots on the show, as it was incredible sensation during the first season. My favorite is Alan Hale, the Skipper from Gilligan's Island, playing the part of "Gilligan," the owner of "Gilligan's Diner" on an Egghead episode.
6. Awesome Action Figures!!
7. Onomatopoetic violence
8. Not available on DVD - Which makes this show even cooler by being elusive. It's also tough to find this on TV these days, so the memory of the show starts to take on a life of its own. 

Friday, May 14, 2010

70's Horror Commercials

Just's just after dinner, and you're settling into the couch to watch Gilligan's Island or the Partridge Family reruns.You've finished your spelling and multiplication homework, and life is good. You're relaxed, you have a snack, and you feel totally safe and secure in your childhood cocoon. And then, after the opening credits of your favorite sitcom, you see this: Horrifying tv ad #1

 The Suspiria ad really captures an essential element of growing up in the 70's: having to deal with terrifying shocks like this that would keep you away from the TV for weeks. No wonder we spent so much time outside playing baseball and manhunt!

This ad is very typical of the time period, in that you really couldn't tell that it was going to be a horror trailer in the first few seconds. It might have just as easily been an advertisement for shampoo or perfume. And the curiosity hooked us all just long enough to get burned.

Horrifying TV ad #2

The "Magic" commercial really screwed me up. The first time I saw it, I thought it was some kind of new toy or game. About 10 seconds in or so, I remember getting a gut feeling that something was amiss - but again, I had to look. For the next month or so, I had recurring nightmares in which the TV set would continue to power itself on, despite my vain efforts to unplug it.

Maybe the creepiest commercials of all, though, weren't even for horror movies. 1970's public service announcements were often sadistically frightening. This one starts off bright and sunny, but sours pretty quickly. Check out the way the music and lighting conflict with the voiceover to create a sense of panicky tension: Trauma-inducing TV ad #3

In many ways, the 1970's was a more innocent and (at least it felt this way) safer time to grow up than today. But these commercials really hit us where it counted - the safety and comfort of our TV couches.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

5 Classic Toys (That Weren't Allowed in My House)

I don't want to give anyone the impression that I didn't have toys as a kid - my brother and I had plenty of them, and we had a great time. But there's a reason why "A Christmas Story" resonates so clearly with so many people; I'm sure we all had toy requests that met with unreasonable and forceful opposition. Here are my top five:

1.) Squirmles - My mom insisted that this was "a pipe-cleaner on a string" and thus we were never allowed the luxury of a Squirmles toy. The absurdity of equating Squirmles with a pipecleaner struck me as I watched friends on the schoolbus, magically weaving their "pets" in between their fingers and around their shoulders. I remember puzzling over just how I could accomplish such fluid and graceful movements with a pipe cleaner.

 2) The "Ready Ranger Backpack" by Aurora. Well, this one was allowed in my house, but very quickly became the focal point of my personal "Ralphie" moment.

Christmas, 1974. I had longed for this toy for months, after seeing the commercial, in which kids about my age and size used all of the cool gadgets and dials on this backpack to climb mountains, spy on each other, and survive in the wilderness. That black hose you see the kid talking into on the left was the backpack's "communication system" and the single feature that I was most excited about.

Well, X-mas arrived, and the backpack sat under the tree. I tore it open, and within seconds was ready to try out the bullhorn. I had my brother put other end to his ear, and then I proceeded to scream into the mouthpiece. Upon witnessing this, my horrified mom warned me that I'd "rupture my brother's eardrum" with this toy, and disconnected the hose. Minus the "communication system," this awesome gadget very quickly began to look just like what it was - a hunk of cardboard and plastic.

3) The Inchworm. Everyone, it seemed, had one of these in the 70's, but for some reason my dad was convinced that this innocent-looking riding toy was a deathtrap. I'm still mystified by this one...

4) Micronauts - These were the greatest toys ever! Colorful, plastic, and had interchangeable parts. Basically, the precursor to the Transformers, and they also had great space-age sounding names like Biotron, Gammaron, and Phobos.

My favorite aspect of these toys was that each had a spring-loaded launcher somewhere on its "body." The launcher would propel red plastic "torpedoes" with a rubber ball at the end. In order to be allowed to have Micronauts, my brother and I had to convince our parents that we would be vigilant not to accidentally launch the torpedoes into each others' mouths.

5) Sea Monkeys. Described by my mother as "crap." Good call, mom!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Origins of Squidward

A few years ago, thanks to my son, I really started to appreciate SpongeBob Squarepants. In the mold of many classic cartoons, it's colorful and silly enough to appeal to kids, but also offers plenty of sophisticated humor and allusions for teens and parents.

One thing I realized right away, though, was that Squidward seemed somehow very familiar. As an English teacher, I recognize that archetypes are present in all forms of storytelling, but Mr. Tentacles seemed to remind me of other characters in very specific ways. The nose, the eyebrows, the overbearing manner, and the fascination with minutiae that most people would find dull.

I couldn't help but be reminded of Bert, that paper-clip collecting, pigeon-dancing curmudgeon. Could that bulbous nose and those scrawny arms, coupled with the killjoy attitude, just be a coincidence?

Or maybe it wasn't Bert, after all, who inspired Squidward. A few months ago, I somehow found myself watching a Golden Girls marathon on TV Land, when another connection occurred to me: Bea Arthur. The character of Dorothy, played by Arthur, is described by Wikipedia as "strong, sarcastic, sometimes intimidating" - and who can deny the physical resemblance?

Do you have any other Squidward connections?