Category Archives: On Pop Culture

Accept the obvious: R.I.P. Dick Gregory

By Dennis Hartley

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“The most difficult thing to get people to do is to accept the obvious.”

-Dick Gregory

Man, did Dick Gregory pick a bad weekend to go. With the passing of Jerry Lewis and eclipse mania building to a fever pitch, his death in Washington D.C. this past Saturday earned him but a few perfunctory thirty second obits on network and cable newscasts.

Truth be told, Gregory was not so much a “comedian” who went out of his way to make you laugh as he was a righteous, erudite truth teller, who also happened to be very funny.  He was a trickster of a sort;  he would lower your guard with a perfect zinger, then seconds later he would raise your consciousness with a sharp social insight.

“Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’  I said: ‘that’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’ “

-Dick Gregory

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When it came to his political activism, he didn’t just talk the talk:

[From The Los Angeles Times]

An invitation from civil rights leader Medgar Evers to speak at voter registration rallies in Jackson, Miss., in 1962 launched Gregory into what he called “the civil rights fight.”

He was frequently arrested for his activities in the ’60s, and once spent five days in jail in Birmingham, Ala. after joining demonstrators in 1963 at the request of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Gregory, who was shot in the leg while trying to help defuse the Watts riots in 1965, made a failed run for mayor of Chicago as a write-in candidate in 1967. A year later, he ran for president as a write-in candidate for the Freedom and Peace Party, a splinter group of the Peace and Freedom Party. Hunter S. Thompson was one of his most vocal supporters.

In the late ’60s, he began going on 40-day fasts to protest the Vietnam War.

In 1980, impatient with President Carter’s handling of the Iranian hostage crisis, he flew to Iran and began a fast, had a “ceremonial visit” with revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and met with the revolutionary students inside the embassy. After four and a half months in Iran, his weight down to 106 pounds, he returned home.

Not exactly your everday “ha-ha funny” type of clown, was he?

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His activism never stopped. From today’s Democracy Now tribute (I’d recommend watching the entire tribute-its quite moving)…

Gregory became one of the most popular comedians in the country, paving the way for generations of African-American comedians. On Sunday Chris Rock wrote on Instagram, “We lost a king. They’ll never be another. Read his books. Look him up you won’t be disappointed. Unfortunately the America that produced Dick Gregory still exists.” Dick Gregory was the first African-American comedian to sit on the couch of The Tonight Show, then hosted by Jack Parr. As his popularity grew, so did his activism.

[…]

More recently, his face appeared in newspapers across the country for his community action to — approach to investigate allegations behind the CIA’s connection with drugs in the African American community. He camped out in dealer-ridden public parks and rallied community leaders to shut down head shops. He protested at CIA headquarters and was arrested. Throughout his life, Dick Gregory has been a target of FBI and police surveillance. And he was virtually banned from the entertainment arena for his political activism.

The last sentence above  explains in part (sadly) why, despite his long career, you’ll find virtually no Dick Gregory performance clips on YouTube. That’s because he has essentially been blacklisted for years; there are very few archived TV or club appearances that exist.

Here’s a little taste of his early standup days:

Here’s a rare latter-day television appearance, on Arsenio in 2014:

There’s a lot of truth-telling going on in that interview. Interesting to note that Arsenio Hall’s “revival” run (that started in 2013)  was cancelled soon after (file under “Things That Make You Go: ‘Hmm.'”)

“To me, seeing a great comedian is a bit like watching a musician or a poet.”

-Dick Gregory

Accept the obvious:  America’s conscience has lost its Poet Laureate. R.I.P.

The day the clowns cried: R.I.P. Jerry Lewis

By Dennis Hartley

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“Jerry Lewis is never just OK or adequate; he’s either very funny or he’s awful.”  – Jerry Lewis, commenting on his film oeuvre.

Yes, I used “Jerry Lewis” and “oeuvre” in the same sentence. “Ouevre” is a fancy French word that means “Hey, LAAY-DEE!”

I’m kidding. Mirriam-Webster defines  it as “…a substantial body of work constituting the life work of a writer, an artist, or a composer.”

Jerry Lewis, who died this morning in Las Vegas, certainly left behind a substantial body of work.  From 1949 to 2016, he acted in over 50 films; out of those he directed 23, and wrote 20 of them. And, as Lewis himself observed, some were very funny, others not so much.

Some of Lewis’ early, funnier movies include 1952’s The Stooge, 1955’s Artists and Models, 1959’s Don’t Give Up the Ship (those three co-starring his decade-long stage and screen comedy partner Dean Martin),  The Bellboy (1960), Cinderfella (1960), The Ladies Man (1961), The Nutty Professor (1963),  and The Disorderly Orderly (1964).

Martin Scorsese gave Lewis a second wind when he offered him a juicy part in his brilliant 1982 show biz satire The King of Comedy (highly recommended). It not only introduced Lewis to a new generation of fans, but allowed him to demonstrate that he had chops as a dramatic actor (when he wasn’t pulling faces, that is). Two more post-Scorsese Lewis performances worth a rental are Emir Kusturica’s 1993 off-the-wall sleeper Arizona Dream, and Peter Chelsom’s 1995 dramedy Funny Bones.

While he had continued writing, directing and starring in films through the early 70s, Lewis floundered at the box office as his particular brand of shtick went out of vogue in Hollywood. “Hollywood” is the key word here; as everyone and their grandmother knows, it was the undying admiration by the French that ultimately kept Lewis’ rep as a film maker afloat during his wilderness years (they gave him the Legion of Honor award in 1983).

Despite all the joking and ridicule spawned by France’s love affair with Jerry Lewis, they were on to something. He was, by definition, an auteur,  having written, directed and starred in so many films. A lot of people are not aware that he was also an innovator. He essentially invented the “video tap”, a signal-splitting device that attaches to a movie camera and allows the director to share the  camera operator’s view in real time, via a separate video monitor.

I am aware that Lewis’ self-appraisal as being either “very funny or awful” as an artist could apply on occasion to his off-stage life. He didn’t always think before he spoke. That noted, stepping back to look at the big picture, this was a human being who devoted well over 70 years of his long and productive life to making people laugh.

And that’s a good thing. Going up?

Diamonds in the idiot box: Top 20 TV themes

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 10, 2017)

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After screening (and reviewing) 25 films over the last several weeks for my SIFF coverage, I’m taking a breather from sticky floors and the smell of stale popcorn tonight to share my favorite TV show themes. It began as a “top 10” list, but I quickly gleaned that I had assigned myself a fool’s errand with that limitation. So I upped the ante to 15. Then it had to be 20 (damn my OCD). Even with that generous margin, I still had to rob Peter to pay Paul on a few choices, which almost guarantees dissension in the ranks. So if I have “overlooked” your favorite(s), feel free to share in the comments section (be nice).

The Adventures of Pete and Pete – Nickelodeon’s best-kept secret, and a guilty pleasure. Gentle anarchy in the Bill Forsyth vein. I discovered, watched, and continue to re-watch it, as an (alleged) adult. So sue me. Besides…you can’t resist the hooks in Polaris’ theme.

Cheers – “Norm!” Gary Portnoy performed (and co-wrote) this upbeat show opener.

Coronet Blue – When I was 11, I became obsessed with this noir-ish, single-season precursor to the Bourne films. This theme has been stuck in my head since, oh…1967?

Due South – Paul Haggis’ unique “fish out of water” crime dramedy about a Canadian Mountie assigned to work with the Chicago P.D. was one of my favorite shows of the 90s (confession: I own all 4 seasons on DVD). It also had a great theme song, by Jay Semko.

Hawaii Five-O – The Ventures were the original surf punks (and they’re from Tacoma!).

M*A*S*H – Johnny Mandel’s lovely chart (ported from Robert Altman’s 1970 film, sans Mike Altman’s lyrics) is quite melancholic for a sitcom-but it spoke to the show’s pathos.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show – This ever-hopeful tune plays a bit wistfully now that Ms. Moore has shuffled off, but hey-as long as we have syndication, we’ll always have Mary.

Mission Impossible – Argentine jazz man Lalo Schifrin hit the jackpot with this memorable theme (he composed some great movie soundtracks too, like Cool Hand Luke). Legendary “Wrecking Crew” bassist Carol Kaye really lays it down on this one!

The Monkees – Here’s the cosmic conundrum that keeps me up nights: Mike Nesmith was my favorite Monkee…yet the Monkees remain Mike Nesmith’s least favorite band.

The Office (BBC original series) – For my money, nobody tops future Atomic Rooster lead singer Chris Farlowe’s soulful 1967 take on this oft-covered Mike d’Abo composition, but this nice rendition by Big George obviously won Ricky Gervais’ lottery.

Peter Gunn – Henry Mancini was a genius, plain and simple. Wrote hooks in his sleep.

Portlandia – Somehow, stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein (along with series co-creator/director Johnathan Krisel) have mined 7 seasons of material by satirizing hipster culture. Like any sketch-comedy show, it’s hit-and-miss, but when it hits a bullseye, it’s really funny. It’s easy to fall in love with Washed Out’s atmospheric dream pop theme.

Rawhide – “Move ‘em on! Head ‘em up!” This performance explains why Mel Brooks enlisted Frankie Laine to sing the Blazing Saddles theme. I’m afraid this squeezed Bonanza off my list (I’m sure I will be verbally bull-whipped by some of you cowpokes).

Secret Agent Man – This Johnny Rivers classic opened U.S. airings of the U.K. series Danger Man (which had a pretty cool harpsichord-driven instrumental theme of its own).

The Sopranos – For 7 years, Sunday night was Family night in my house. Fuhgettaboutit.

Square Pegs – This short-lived 1982 comedy series (created by SNL writer Anne Beatts) was, in hindsight, a bellwether for the imminent John Hughes-ification of Hollywood. Initially a goofy cash-in on New Wave/Valley Girl couture, it has become a cult favorite.

The Twilight Zone – It’s the Twilight Zone “theme”, but it’s not so much conventional composition as it is avant-garde sound collage (ahead of its time, like the program itself).

Weeds – I suspect that many of the writers, directors, actors, and producers of this outstanding Showtime dramedy weren’t even born yet when folksinger Malvina Reynolds recorded this song; yet it works in perfect simpatico with the program’s ethos.

The Wire – This lauded HBO series is a compelling portmanteau of an American city in sociopolitical turmoil. The Blind Boys of Alabama’s urban blues hits just the right notes.

WKRP – I’ve worked in broadcasting since Marconi, so trust me when I say that this sitcom remains the most accurate depiction of life in the biz. Tom Wells composed the breezy theme, show creator Hugh Wilson wrote the lyrics, and Steve Carlisle performs it.

#   #   #

and one more thing…

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R.I.P. Adam West. He was a class act; especially apparent if you watch the excellent 2013 documentary, Starring Adam West. He weathered his “one role” cult status with grace, wit, and a considerable amount of god-given charm. My favorite role of his was a wonderfully droll performance as an aging Lothario in Michael Tolkin’s criminally underappreciated 1994 social satire The New Age…which  hints at what “might have been.” Weirdly enough, the Batman theme was one of the “finalists” I discarded in the process of whittling down my list. Well, no excuses now. So…in memoriam:

We are all Freddy

By Dennis Hartley

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It is often pointed out that the presidency provides a “bully pulpit” for whomever holds  office at the time. But generally, that is a figure of speech; not every POTUS necessarily abuses that “privilege”.  And yes, “they’ve all done it” at one time or another, regardless of party affiliation. However, I think I can safely say that (in my lifetime, at least) we’ve never seen a bigger bully in the White House than Donald J. Trump. And as we all remember from grade school, bullies are empowered by submission. Which is why this was so cathartic:

Of course, due to certain restrictions imposed upon a network TV host, Stephen couldn’t say what we are all really thinking. Freddy?

What Freddy said.

# # #

UPDATE 5/6/17– Are you fucking kidding me? From Rolling Stone:

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission revealed Friday that the agency is considering whether to fine Stephen Colbert over the Late Show host’s controversial joke about Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

On Monday’s Late Show, Colbert quipped that “the only thing [Trump’s] mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.” The joke drew accusations of homophobia, a viral #FireColbert campaign and FCC complaints against Colbert.

In an interview Friday, FCC chairman Ajit Pai told a Philadelphia radio station, “I have had a chance to see the clip now and so, as we get complaints — and we’ve gotten a number of them — we are going to take the facts that we find and we are going to apply the law as it’s been set out by the Supreme Court and other courts and we’ll take the appropriate action.”

Pai added, “Traditionally, the agency has to decide, if it does find a violation, what the appropriate remedy should be. A fine, of some sort, is typically what we do,” Variety reports.

On Wednesday, Colbert commented on the controversial joke. “At the end of that monologue, I had a few choice insults for the president,” Colbert said. “I don’t regret that.”

However, Colbert admitted that, in retrospect, he wishes he chose his words more carefully. “While I would do it again, I would change a few words that were cruder than they needed to be,” he added.

As for whether the joke was homophobic, Colbert added, “I’m not going to repeat the phrase, but I just want to say for the record, life is short, and anyone who expresses their love for another person, in their own way, is to me, an American hero. I think we can all agree on that. I hope even the president and I can agree on that. Nothing else. But, that.”

Stay tuned for state-controlled media…

Spicer in the dicer

By Dennis Hartley

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I think I may have witnessed the re-birth of Saturday Night Live last night. This could be the dawning of a new golden era for the show, if the writers can build on the momentum of Melissa McCarthy’s inspired turn in a Sean Spicer sketch. With all due respect to Alec Baldwin’s Trump spoof, this should be the new weekly show opener:

I needed that laugh therapy, and I know you did too.

She had spunk

By Dennis Hartley

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1936-2017

Well, we almost made it all the way through the first month of 2017…but alas, another pop icon of my youth is gone. I was too young to fall in love with Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie on the innovative Dick Van Dyke Show in the early 60s, but her endearing characterization of the warm, smart, and fiercely independent Mary Richards on the equally groundbreaking sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, completely captured my heart and made me a lifetime fan.

She was an admirable person off the set as well, with her dedication  to animal rights activism and as a spokesperson for juvenile diabetes.

She was a gifted comedic actor, but had more range than many people seemed willing to give her credit for. Consider this subtly played scene of underlying tension from Robert Redford’s Ordinary People:

Moore received an Oscar nom for Best Actress in 1980 for her work in that film; if you’ve never seen it I highly recommend it. That said, I’ll always be most grateful for all the laughs over the years;  her comedy chops are on full display in this classic Mary Tyler Moore Show bit:

It’s OK to laugh. Mary would consider it an insult if you didn’t. R.I.P.

 

Bands still wanted! Sad!

By Dennis Hartley

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With SNL on hiatus, I’ve really been getting a kick out of the venerable weekly Canadian sketch comedy series This Hour Has 22 Minutes (on the CBC, which we get as part of our cable package here in Seattle). While I admit I don’t “get” all the jokes regarding Canadian politics (which, like most Americans, I don’t really follow that closely), they have been pretty relentless (and consistently hilarious) in their take downs of Donald Trump. God knows, there’s years of comedy gold to mine coming down the pike (or at least until he Tweets North America into nuclear oblivion). This recent bit had me in stitches:

I love Canada…

The act of empathy

By Dennis Hartley

As if I didn’t already have enough reasons to admire Meryl Streep:

Wow. Truth to power, baby. In case you missed the gist:

“Thank you, Hollywood foreign press. Just to pick up on what Hugh Laurie said. You and all of us in this room, really, belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it. Hollywood, foreigners, and the press. But who are we? And, you know, what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places. […]

Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. If you kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts. They gave me three seconds to say this. An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like. And there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that, breathtaking, passionate work.

There was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good. There was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life.

And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose. […]

This brings me to the press. We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call them on the carpet for every outrage.That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in our constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the committee to protect journalists. Because we’re going to need them going forward. And they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.

[…] And we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy. We should all be very proud of the work Hollywood honors here tonight.

As my friend, the dear departed Princess Leia, said to me once, take your broken heart, make it into art. Thank you.”

Stay tuned for Orange Julius Caesar’s 3am Tweet storm…

*    *   *   UPDATE 1/9/17   *   *   *

Right on cue:

Your new POTUS in just 11 days, America! Sad!