Friday, May 25, 2012

If It's Not Scottish, It's Crap!! A Birthday Salute to Mike Myers

All of us here at Debris Slide wish a very happy birthday to Mike Myers, one of the foremost comic minds of this or any other generation. As with Jonathan Richman, I first saw Mike Myers in Chicago in the 1980s, when he was performing onstage with the Second City E.T.C., the second string for that venerable show. (Since I now seem obligated to offer birthday tributes for people I first saw in Chicago in the 1980s, I probably ought to look up Ron Kittle's birthday.) I recall he did an improv as a Jamaican toaster, soliciting suggestions from the audience and incorporating them into his rap. Someone had thrown out "Pop-Tarts," and Myers made mention of Milton the Toaster, which was not only a pun but a highly impressive reference for a Canadian.

I've been thinking about Mike Myers lately because all the episodes of "Saturday Night Live" from the 1990s are now available on Netflix Streaming, and I've been plowing through them. After the early years, this was probably the most impressive era for the show; it was certainly the most talented post-1980 cast. At the time, it seemed to me that Dana Carvey was touted as the breakout member, but his work doesn't stand up as well of that of some other members:

* Phil Hartman was just devastatingly funny, deadpan and note-perfect in the commercial parodies while also serving as maybe the best straight man the show ever had.  Watching the show now, I can see Carvey letting the audience in on the joke far too often, especially in his overcooked impersonation of Bush the Elder, but Phil Hartman is always completely within his characters. (Carvey's Bush got very insufferable very fast, but in his defense, it was probably easier to take seeing it once a week rather than having to deal with it a couple times a day, as I have been lately.)

* Victoria Jackson was perhaps the most underrated cast member ever. She seemed to be hired to play the  blonde bimbo, but she had a sparkling quality that elevated every sketch she was in, even when it was just as wallpaper (which happened far too often). Every line reading was fresh and unexpected. I find myself often hoping she'll turn up in every domestic sequence, just because she's such a pleasure to have around. And her Roseanne Barr/Arnold was hilarious.

* With all due respect to Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Norm Macdonald and Tina Fey, Dennis Miller was the best Weekend Update anchor ever. Things were pretty freewheeling back then, and he'd do anything from his trademark abstruse allusions to one-liners in reference to wacky news photos. He was very smart and always seemed like he was having a great time up there, which helps.

* And there's Mike Myers. I am astonished at how well he could create a fully rounded character in even throwaway skits like All Things Scottish, the store whose motto was "If It's Not Scottish, It's Crap." (He basically played the same guy in So I Married an Axe Murderer.) You can see this most clearly in "Wayne's World" and the subsequent movies: Dana Carvey is playing a caricature, while Myers is playing a character. You would no more want to see an entire movie about Garth than you would want to see an entire movie about Pat, but it's always nice to spend time with Wayne. Mike Myers is also the only cast member who was able to translate incredible sketch-comedy skills  into a long and fruitful movie career, as opposed to people like Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy, who ended up just playing themselves.

It couldn't last, of course: Miller left in the spring of 1991, to be replaced by the horrible Kevin Nealon. Nealon brought nothing to the table; it wasn't just that he had no spin or personality to put on the news, he often couldn't get through the jokes without stumbling over some words. At some points, he seemed to be racing through the items just in order to get them out with mispronouncing something. The audience sometimes didn't even know where the joke was supposed to be.

Victoria Jackson, whose tenure at SNL was reportedly not happy, left at the end of the 1991-92 season. Her replacements were undistinguished, to say the least, including the remarkable Beth Cahill, surely the least talented performer ever to appear on the show, with her weak voice, lack of stage presence and penchant for looking around for the cue cards. She starred in the short-lived Delta Delta Delta series of skits alongside Siobhan Fallon and Melanie Hutsell, and while those two were hardly Jane, Laraine and Gilda, Cahill might as well have not been on the stage for all the impression she made. If you didn't know  better, you'd think Cahill had won some sort of contest in which random civilians were invited to appear in one of the shows.

The show would soon be taken over by the likes of Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider. And while those guys could be pretty funny - Sandler was to East Coast working-class goombahs what Bill Murray had been to Chicagoland working-class goombahs - it's no surprise that they went on to make a series of movies targeted at 15-year-old boys.

But if I were to put together a dream SNL cast, probably half of it would be from circa 1990. Here's a first pass at it, with an appropriate mix of gender, race, and comedic skills:

John Belushi
Jimmy Fallon
Phil Hartman
Jan Hooks
Victoria Jackson
Dennis Miller
Eddie Murphy
Bill Murray
Mike Myers
Gilda Radner
Chris Rock

I'd watch that show.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Top Ten Rock Hits With a Trombone Solo

1. "Let 'Em In," by Wings (1976)
2. "A Message to You, Rudy," by the Specials (1979)
3. "Wrong Way," by Sublime (1996)

Well, I guess that's all I got. Make that "Top Three Rock Hits With a Trombone Solo."

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Happy Birthday, Jonathan Richman: There's Somethin' About That Sound

I first saw Jonathan Richman, who turns 61 today, at Chicago's legendary Lounge Ax back at the tail end of the 1980s. I had literally never heard his music before (although I remembered a hugely fun-sounding review of his 1985 album Rockin' and Romance in Rolling Stone, which ended "Has there ever been a cheesier-looking album cover?"). My impetus for going was a rave preview in the Chicago Reader, which briefly encapsulated Jonathan's career and concluded, "Live, he's just great."

And he was. We had spent the earlier part of the evening seeing the Kingston Trio on the lawn of some elementary school in the south suburbs, and they were terrific, but Jonathan was even better, onstage with just his hollow-body guitar. I went out the very next day and bought Jonathan Richman: The Best of the Beserkely Years, and have never looked back. That CD had a selection of songs from The Modern Lovers and the great one-shot "Government Center" as well as some of his later child-like songs, such as "Ice Cream Man" and "I'm a Little Dinosaur." Surely, I thought, this is what Bob Dylan sounded like in the third grade.

Jonathan's lack of pretension is a big part of what makes him so endearing. The last time I saw him, at Maxwell's in Hoboken (accompanied by just his hollow-body guitar, as always), he played a song for us that he said we hadn't heard before, because the last time he had come through, he hadn't made it up yet. Jonathan doesn't "write" songs, much less "compose" them; he makes them up. God, I love that.

Jonathan has always had a small but extremely enthusiastic cult following. Back in the early 1990s, the cast of "Saturday Night Live" guest-edited an issue of Spin magazine, and the one contribution from Julia Sweeney was a rare interview with Jonathan Richman. David Bowie, Iggy Pop and John Cale have all (separately) covered "Pablo Picasso." He's probably best known for his appearance as the troubadour in There's Something About Mary, directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly, two other guys who love New England. I certainly hope Jonathan got a nice check for that, because he deserves it. The Modern Lovers showed up at Number 381 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, although it's surely one of the more obscure titles on that list. (I am proud to say I wrote the entry on that record.)  

Jonathan (no one in the history of the world has ever referred to him as "Richman") encapsulates something I am constantly seeking out, the ability of art to illuminate the truth and beauty in the quotidian details of life. From "cruisin past the Stop 'n Shop" in "Roadrunner" to an entire song about a "Crummy Little Chewing Gum Wrapper" to the beauty of his wife wearing "something from the hardware store" in "Everyday Clothes," he has always noticed the tiny things that make his life richer, and I'll bet they make your life richer too.

Not that he misses out on larger emotional truths, too; in fact, that probably makes him more receptive to emotional truths. In one of his greatest songs, "That Summer Feeling," Jonathan gets wistful about a little girl he dated back in grade school, then asks, "Do you long for her, or for the way you were?"

I don't know, Jonathan. But I do know you were right: That summer feeling was gonna haunt me one day in my life.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Love You "Live"

There's been a great deal of hoo-ha over the fact that Mick Jagger is hosting the season finale of "Saturday Night Live" next weekend, including this article in Billboard. Jagger sort-of hosted back in the first episode of the fourth season, in 1978, when the Rolling Stones were the (terrible) musical guest and there was no official host, although Jagger appeared in a few sketches.

But the relationship between Jagger and SNL producer Lorne Michaels goes back even further than that. Lorne Michaels has always been a man who knows which side of his toast has been buttered, and he was tight with Jagger before SNL was even on the air, at a time when Jagger was possibly the biggest star in the world. In the book Live From New York, writer and filmmaker Tom Schiller recalled this scene from the early days:

When I first arrived in New York, I slept on the couch in Lorne's apartment. He would entertain people like Mick Jagger at the apartment, and Jagger would be sitting on the very couch that I was going to sleep on. I just couldn't wait for him to leave, because the second he got up, I would go to sleep.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A "Quincy" Mystery

Episodes of "Quincy, M.E." recently appeared available for viewing on Netflix Instant, so of course, I have begun watching them. One thing has always puzzled me about the "Quincy" ensemble, and that has to do with the appearance of Joseph Roman as Sgt. Brill. If Brill ever had more than two lines in any one episode, I haven't seen it, but there he is, every time. According to the IMDB, Brill appeared in 146 out of a possible 148 episodes. As the Scottish say, nae Brill, nae Monahan, nae Quincy.

Danny never had more than one or two scenes in a show either, but at least Danny served a purpose, giving the other regulars a place to repair to where they could talk over that week's case and drink heavily. But what was the point of Brill? You'd think sooner or later the producers would have said, "You know, Monahan is already a supporting character, so I don't think he needs a sidekick."

Until someone tells me otherwise, I'm going to assume that Joseph Roman was a guy that Jack Klugman owed a huge gambling debt to, and this was Klugman's way of repaying it.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Bad Lyric of the Week

We were so close, there was no room
We bled inside in each other's wounds 
  - From "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," written and performed by Melanie Safka