Archive for February 12, 2017

Why SNL of Late is NOT All That

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd
"I'll get back to you later", indeed

“I’ll get back to you later”, indeed

Sometimes the difference between comedy and satire can seem slight, but when the latter is properly done, you can drive a truck through the gulf. Satire is comedy made by an angry moralist. The greatest of satirists, Jonathan Swift, was an Anglican clergyman. You see something that is wrong, you take aim, you shoot at it, hopefully you hit it, but you MUST DRAW BLOOD.

So I’m worried about SNL. It succeeds as I would hope sometimes, but only sometimes, and what’s worse, more often, its aims seem ambiguous. They make the administration figures of fun, which is fine, but too often I feel the fun is too much fun, or their fun is beside the point. The danger in doing that is in normalizing these monstrous figures. The mere presence of Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer was more than enough last week — it was a hilarious stunt, audacious and shocking, and hit those insecure pigs right where they live by having it rubbed in their face by a woman. But that was last week. Now we’re used to her — she’s cute and lovable, even when she’s angry, she can’t help herself. So there must be something else, something pointed. It can’t be about gum-chewing or whatever. That’s a mere wacky foible and the message it sends is that Spicer is like any other SNL targeted pol, Jimmy Carter, for example. For the most part I felt there was a real danger of Spicer being the HERO of that sketch, that it’s now becoming exciting and lovable to watch him tear it up. The only part of that sketch that I felt had any real impact was the end…it felt quite powerful when he was herding the reporters around the room like a sheepdog. That is a comic, satirical image with a point: funny but also scary. I had the same criticism about the Kellyanne Conway sketch, it was glamorizing, not a take-down. The sketches with Baldwin as Trump are usually much more on point, although there is a danger there as well, about it being about funny faces or something.

Lorne Michaels is mercenary. He’ll triangulate if he can. If he thinks he can get Trump viewers as well as anti-Trump viewers by steering some toothless middle ground he will do it. But you can’t just do it to do it, you must DRAW BLOOD. If you do not, as when Kate McKinnon appeared for a brief second as Jeff Sessions, it becomes business as usual. Sessions becomes that hilarious guy we laugh at on Saturday nights who deprives blacks of voting rights. It’s worse than nothing not to go for the jugular vein in political satire. It can never be a case of “Hey, isn’t what’s going on in America right now kinda offbeat and FUNNY?” This is a life or death situation. The only legitimate goal is to END THIS ADMINISTRATION. There is no “wacky” here. Some Mexican mom just got yanked from her kids last night, maybe next door to your house. I’m obviously not saying the sketches shouldn’t be funny, but they must be on point, and they must reduce the target to ashes or we are doing the administration’s work for them. 

Secession Talk on Lincoln’s Birthday

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, Lincoln's Birthday with tags , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln.

How sad Lincoln would be to know that 152 years after his death, the country would still be divided, and for reasons not too different from those of his own time. The dynamic is different now of course. Today we find ourselves in a situation not unlike what might have occurred if the Confederacy had won the Civil War, or if, through some electoral fluke, some Southern fire-eater had become President of the United States. So extreme are Trump’s views, plans, and (so-called) policies that millions of Americans, in fact a majority of them, are incensed at the direction the country is taking. And (for the most part, half-jokingly) once again many people talk about secession. For, as in the past, superficially at least, the nation’s political divisions appear to concentrate along sectional lines, with the largest dissatisfaction with Trump occurring on the West and Northeast coasts.

This isn’t the first Northeast secession movement, by the way. New England Federalists were very strong for secession, culminating in the party’s Hartford Convention in 1814. They wanted to end the War of 1812, they were against trade embargoes, they were unhappy with the addition of Western territories through their opponent Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, and they wanted to repeal the 3/5 representation clause in the Constitution, which they felt gave undue political weight to the South. Moderates carried the day, of course, else today we’d be talking about a very different Civil War. At any rate, now folks in the Blue States are hopping mad. All by itself, for example, California has a GDP equivalent to that of France, and yet it finds itself bowing to the political will and inclinations of Mississippi.

And so we have proposals such as the Calexit, and a similar one in the Pacific Northwest, and my personal favorite, a New England Independence Campaign (I might improve upon that proposal just a tad by including Eastern New York, including NYC, Long Island and parts of the Hudson River valley. New York was part of the short-lived Dominion of New England during the years 1686 to 1689.). Then there’s the most all-encompassing plan, which would include all of those regions and attach them to Canada, thusly:

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You may look at the above and say, “What about Washington, DC?” If you do, you’ve probably never lived in the Northeast. People who’ve lived in New York or Boston or Philadelphia don’t need Washington. It’s never really felt like our capitol. In fact, New York City briefly WAS the American capitol. Washington was built where no city existed in order to placate the South. So: West Virginia and Arkansas, Washington is our gift to you.

There is a larger problem, however, and I hope you’re ahead of me here. Our crazy plan would leave some very good friends out in the cold, in particular cities like Chicago, New Orleans, the Twin Cities, Austin etc etc etc, scores of them. More than this — I have friends in every Red State who live in the RED part of their state, who would be left high and dry from such a plan. You could say, “Join us in our new Blue country!” But that wouldn’t really be an answer.

Our divisions are only sectional in the crudest of possible terms. They emerge only when we cut the nation into majority voting blocs. But there are dissenting minorities in each bloc. And as I wrote about a bit in this earlier post, this has ALWAYS been true. It was also true during the Civil War and the Jim Crow era.  The Blue States have always contained plenty of racists; and the Red States don’t just contain many good people, which is just a kind of platitude, but they also contain people who are working against racism and other social ills, just as in historical times they contained people who were working against slavery and Jim Crow. Some southern regions and towns protested involvement in the Civil War. Some states were about equally divided on this issue (Eastern Tennessee, like West Virginia, was pro-Union). When I was researching my grandmother’s home town, Monteagle, Tennessee, I learned about the Highlander Folk School, an activist training center for labor and Civil Rights founded during the Great Depression. It still exists as the Highlander Research and Education Center.  As politically progressive a place as you can imagine, located in the Smokey Mountains. Or Atticus Finch, the hero of Harper Lee’s Alabama novel To Kill a Mockingbird, based on her real-life father.

I think most of us are just letting off steam when we joke and daydream about getting our revenge through secession. But mere territorial solutions are NEVER the answer. Look at Israel and Palestine or India and Pakistan. Making a boundary, building a wall won’t prevent violence where people are existentially divided. And pinning the whole burden of change on others prevents you from doing the work on yourself that needs doing. Where intolerance exists, somehow, to steal a phrase from Rodgers and Hammerstein, they’ve got to be taught. The prospect is so hard I don’t even want to think about it. Cutting and running is a lot easier. But I’ve been to Kansas. I love Kansas, you know? I don’t want a divorce. I want to figure this thing out and mend the heart of America.

Stars of Vaudeville #1027: Ralph Riggs and Katherine Witchie

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of dancer Ralph Riggs (1885-1951). With his wife Katherine Witchie (d. 1967) had an acrobatic dance act in vaudeville for many years. A description of their act from The Independent in 1917 says they presented “…Dance Divertisements, composing a wide range of dances from the modern steps to dainty classical numbers.” From Billboard, June 2, 1917, re their performance at the Majestic in Chicago: “Ralph Riggs and Katherine Witchie have a dancing number that is always worthy of he highest praise. Both are artists of real ability and their offering contains enough variety to keep the audience thoroughly interested.” A 1934 New Yorker piece calls them the “Inventors of the Adagio Dance.”

By 1911, they had broken onto Broadway in a show called The Entrantress. Other shows included All Aboard (1913), The Princess Pat (1915-1916), The Passing Show of 1919, Cinders (1923), Ed Wynn’s The Grab Bag (1924-1925), Nic Nax of 1926, and Oh, Ernest (1927). The latter was Witchie’s last show but Riggs went on to still greater glory in the original productions of Of Thee I Sing (1931-1934), Let ‘Em Eat Cake (1933-1934), The Farmer Takes a Wife (1934-1935), Parade (1935), Yokel Boy (1939-1940), Louisiana Purchase (1940-1941), Oklahoma! (1943-1948), and many others. He is also appeared in several musical film shorts in the 1930s, and many broadcast appearances during the earliest days of television.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Stars of Vaudeville #1026: Max Terhune

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Max Terhune (1891-1973). Originally from Indiana, Terhune was a ventriloquist, whistler, animal imitator, juggler and magician in the last days of vaudeville (early 1930s), occasionally performing with the Hoosier Hot Shots. But the most astounding thing he was, was a movie actor. Friendships with guys like Kermit Maynard (Ken’s younger brother) and Gene Autry got Terhune picture work, notably in the Republic and Monagram western serials  The Three Mesquiteers and The Range Busters. 

These films were where I first became aware of Terhune, and not just aware, but entranced, dumbfounded, slack-jawed. For in these movies, he is never to be seen without his ventriloquial dummy “Elmer”. The reality in which this situation takes place is MOST ambiguous, to say the least. Is Terhune’s cowboy character also an amateur ventriloquist? A professional one? Is it just completely meta, and he is just an actor, not a cowboy? Or is it the opposite, as it often seems? In other words is Elmer a sentient entity with his own action and volition, an actual character? I’ve seen episodes where Elmer gets kidnapped and cries for help with no ventriloquist around! (Warning: do not watch if that is your idea of nightmarish horror). The other characters talk directly to Elmer, laugh at his jokes, and never acknowledge that Terhune is the ventriloquist making him talk (except for the occasional films where Terhune plays a literal ventriloquist).

Terhune continued to be featured in B movie westerns through 1949, usually with the character name “Lullaby” or “Alibi”. Through the first half of the ’50s he got some work in TV westerns and bit parts in films (his last was Giant, 1954). After this, he continued to perform ventriloquism and magic live for a number of year in Hollywood area venues like the Magic Castle and the Corriganville Movie Ranch. 

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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