Tag Archives: On Pop Culture

Pointing a way to the moon: Bruce Lee hits Criterion

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 15, 2020)

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TV interviewer: Do you think of yourself Chinese, or do you ever think of yourself as North American?

Bruce Lee: You know what I want to think of myself? As a human being.

At the risk of provoking fists of fury from gentle San Francisco or Hong Kong readers, we here in Seattle consider Bruce Lee a hometown boy. Granted, he was born in San Francisco and raised in Kowloon. However, he lived in Seattle for five years (from 1959-1964). In the early 60s, he attended the University of Washington, where he met and eventually married the love of his life, Linda Emery. And Seattle is his final resting place.

While it’s been on my checklist since I moved to Seattle in 1992, I have yet to make the requisite pilgrimage to Lake View Cemetery to pay my respects to Lee and his son Brandon (my procrastinating skills are as legendary as Bruce Lee’s martial arts prowess).

I have been to Jimi Hendrix’s grave and memorial (in nearby Renton). I only bring this up because I see a few interesting parallels in the life and career trajectories of Bruce Lee and Jimi Hendrix.

Both are pop culture icons and considered maestros in their respective fields. While both honed their craft in Seattle, neither became superstars in America until they until took their act overseas. Both died tragically young-Jimi at 27, Bruce at 32. With youthful visages forever trapped in amber, their legend takes on a mythical quality.

But as we know, gods and goddesses are purely myth; Hendrix and Lee were merely human beings. And as such, they did not suddenly appear from the skies to wow the masses with their talent. On their way to the top, they had to slog through the same travails as anyone-which brings me to the most significant parallel: both artists had to work that much harder in order to transcend the racial/cultural stereotypes of their time.

(via okayplayer)

Following his London Astoria performance Hendrix was labeled the “Black Elvis” and the “Wild Man of Borneo” by the London press. Rolling Stone even went on to refer to him as a “Psychedelic Superspade,” the latter word used to describe black people who were exceptionally talented. These descriptions foreshadowed the challenges Hendrix faced as a black man navigating a “white” genre of music. But they were also indicative of something else, an unfortunate truth that, still to this day, arguably hasn’t been rectified — that although rock was born from the foundation of black music its creation is credited to white artists. […]

Hendrix was the embodiment and a reminder of that harsh truth, a black artist that had to work twice as hard to succeed in a genre that belonged to his people but now wasn’t seen as such. Because of that, Hendrix received hostility from both black and white people; the former felt he had betrayed his own race for catering to predominantly white audiences with white band mates during a time of Black Power and separatism, while the latter was intimidated by him.

Like Hendrix, as he gained notoriety Lee frustratingly found himself in a “push me-pull you” conundrum, stuck between two worlds. Following his short-lived but career-boosting stint as “Kato” in the 1966 TV series Green Hornet, he began to get more acting offers, but was unhappy about Asian stereotypes Hollywood was continuing to propagate. As his widow Linda recalled in Bao Nguyen’s excellent ESPN documentary, Be Water:

“He refused to play any parts that were demeaning to Chinese people, and for the next few years, he had very few parts.”

The final straw for Lee was in 1971, when he pitched a TV idea for an “Eastern” western called The Warrior. Long story short, the idea was initially nixed, but was later re-tooled as Kung Fu, starring white actor David Carradine as a Shaolin monk wandering the old West. Reportedly, studio execs were reticent to cast Lee because of his Chinese accent.

In a bit of serendipity, Lee was offered a contract soon afterwards to star in several martial arts films in Hong Kong, where Green Hornet reruns (popularly referred to there as “The Kato Show”) had made him a cult figure.

Initially, not all of Hong Kong welcomed him with open arms; in the aforementioned ESPN documentary, family members recall Lee getting local backlash for “selling out” to Western culture and then returning to China as a “big shot” (Lee was born in a trunk; one of his parents was a Cantonese opera star, and he worked in the Hong Kong film industry as a child actor before moving to America). But once his first starring vehicle The Big Boss hit theaters, Lee’s charisma and star quality came to the fore, and such criticism was forgotten.

A string of even bigger hits soon followed, starting with 1972’s Fist of Fury. Now with his own production company, Lee went full auteur for his next project, Way of the Dragon (serving as writer-director-star… and of course, fight choreographer!). At this point, his star was rising so fast that he ended up abandoning his next Hong Kong production Game of Death (which he’d already begun shooting) so he could jump on an offer from Warner Brothers to star in a US-Hong Kong co-production: Enter the Dragon.

The rest, as they say, is history (although sadly Lee died less than a week before the release of Enter the Dragon, which posthumously turned him into an international superstar and remains his most popular and iconic film).

When you consider that Lee’s martial arts legacy and iconography is largely predicated on a scant five feature films, it’s hard to believe that it’s taken this long for a definitive Blu-ray collection to hit the marketplace, but Criterion’s new box set should please Bruce Lee fans to no end.

Cheekily entitled Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits, the set has 4K digital restorations of The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon, and Game of Death. There are two versions of Enter the Dragon included (both with a 2K restoration). One is the “rarely seen” 99-minute original 1973 theatrical presentation; the other is a 102-minute “special edition” with optional 5.1 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.

Just for giggles, they have tossed in a high-def (not restored) presentation of the posthumous 1981 film Game of Death II (which I’ve never seen) and Game of Death Redux, which is “a new presentation of Lee’s original Game of Death footage”. OK then.

While I haven’t had a chance to watch them all yet, spot-checking reveals that these are the best-looking prints of the 5 principal films I’ve seen to date. The extras are plentiful: multiple programs and documentaries about Lee’s life and philosophies, a plethora of interviews with Lee’s fellow actors, as well as many of his collaborators and admirers. There are also commentary tracks and interviews with Lee biographers, Hong Kong film experts and others.

It approaches overkill for the casual Bruce Lee fan, but if you’re a hardcore martial arts fan (sorry, have to say it) you’ll really get a kick out of this box set.

Notes from Ground Zero…and The Twilight Zone

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 7, 2020)

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The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices…to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill…and suspicion can destroy…and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.

– Narrator’s epilogue from “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” (1960 episode of The Twilight Zone) original teleplay by Rod Serling

A few days ago, this Tweet by NBC news journalist Richard Engel caught my attention:

Now here was an angle on the Coronavirus crisis that I hadn’t given much thought to. Engel makes a very salient point about “social” side effects of pandemic panic. Many people are prone to allergies or suffer from non-viral chronic respiratory conditions who will be (or already are) getting dirty looks when they’re out and about. I’ve been worried about this myself for several days; the apple and cherry trees have begun to blossom, and (right on schedule) so has my usual reaction: sneezing fits, runny nose and dry coughing.

I currently live in fear of mob retribution should I fail to suppress a sneeze in an elevator.

On the flip side, I must come clean and plead guilty to feeding the monster myself. Earlier this week I was waiting in line at the drug store. Standing in front of me was a man and his young daughter (I’d guess she was around 7 or 8 years old). She was doing the fidget dance. Just as she twirled around to face in my direction, she emitted a fusillade of open-mouthed coughs. I jumped back like James Brown, nearly colliding with the person standing behind me (we’re all a tad “jumpy” in Seattle just now). For a few seconds, I was seeing red and nearly said something to her dad, who was too busy futzing around with his cell phone to notice his Little Typhoid Mary’s St. Vitus Dance of Death.

Thankfully, my logical brain quickly wrested the wheel from my lizard brain, and I thought better of making a scene. After all she was just a little girl, bored waiting in line.

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A lot of sociopolitical fallout from pandemic panic has been on display in recent weeks: fear of the “other” (ranging from unconscious racial profiling to outright xenophobia), disinformation, fear mongering, and the good old reliable standbys anxiety and paranoia.

This got me thinking about one my favorite episodes of the original Twilight Zone, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”. Scripted by series creator Rod Serling, the episode premiered in 1960. I re-watched it today and was struck by how tight Serling’s teleplay is; any aspiring dramatist would do well to study it as a masterclass in depth and brevity.

**** SPOILERS AHEAD ****

The story opens under blue suburban skies of Maple Street, U.S.A. in a neighborhood straight outta Leave it to Beaver where the residents are momentarily distracted from their lawn mowing and such by the overhead rumble and flash of what appears to be a meteor streaking though the sky. However, this brief anomaly is only the prelude to a more concerning turn of events: a sudden power outage coupled with an inexplicable shutdown of anything gas-powered, from lawn mowers to automobiles. Concern builds.

This precipitates an impromptu community meeting in the middle of the block, as residents start to speculate as to what (or who) could be to blame for these odd events. A young boy takes center stage. An avid sci-fi comic book fan, he regales the adults with a tale he read recently about an alien invasion. In the story, the invaders infiltrate towns by embedding a family in each neighborhood, until the time is right to “take over” en masse.

The seed has been planted; fear, distrust and paranoia spreads through the block like wildfire, becoming increasingly more palpable with the diminishing daylight. By nightfall, anarchy reigns, and once-friendly neighbors have turned into a murderous mob.

The camera pulls away further and further from the shocking mayhem occurring on Maple Street to a “God’s-eye” view, where we become aware of two shadowy observers (who are obviously the alien invaders). After absorbing the ongoing scenario, one asks the other “And this pattern is always the same?” “With a few variations,” his companion intones with a clinical detachment, adding “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it’s themselves.” Cue Mr. Serling’s equally omniscient epilogue (top of post).

Obviously, when Serling wrote the piece he was referring at the time to the Red Scare; America and Russia were at the height of the Cold War and nuclear paranoia was rampant among the general populace (in the episode, a character sarcastically refers to himself as a “Fifth Columnist” when accused of being an alien invader by his neighbors).

That said, Serling’s script (like much of his work) is “evergreen”. With its underlying themes about mob psychology, scapegoating, and humanity’s curious predilection to eschew logic and pragmatism for fear and loathing, the “message” is just as relevant now.

Keep your head, be a good neighbor, and don’t forget to wash your hands for 20 seconds.

 

A special guest post: On people …and light

By Kermet Apio

Note: Kermet Apio is a Seattle-based comedian with whom I had the pleasure of working with in my stand-up days.  Not unlike foreign correspondents, road comics get a firsthand take as to what’s happening “on the ground” anywhere their job takes them. Kermet shared some thoughts regarding the current situation between the U.S. and Iran in a Facebook post today. With his permission, I am re-publishing it here. -Dennis Hartley

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I have been incredibly lucky to have performed in the Middle East twice in the last few years. Travel cuts through all the media sound bites. When you spend time with people and learn about their culture, their history, their foods, and their joys, THEY become your definition of that country. You shake your head at the propaganda because you saw with your own eyes human beings who were kind, funny, welcoming, and love their families and friends.

Bombs don’t fall on a map. They fall on people. For one brief moment I ask you to look beyond the justifications and the talking points. Think about those that will lose their lives and those that will survive with the pain of loss.

I relate more to the everyday people I’ve met around the world than the people running my country right now. The war mongers and profiteers don’t want you to see people, they want you to see darkness. I am hoping we see people and light because that is what’s really there.

What’s on your DVR?

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 12, 2019)

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Years ago, in days of old (pre-internet or cable) when magic filled the air…around this time of year, we ancient folk used to look forward to TV Guide’s “New Fall Season” issue. Granted, one could say the very concept of TV “seasons” is now moot, with a growing wave of cable subscribers “cutting the cord” and saddling up to the digital streaming salad bar to power graze on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Now, etc., etc.

But there remain some of us who still subscribe (literally) to the Old Ways. I don’t know, perhaps it’s that tactile sensation of brandishing a remote. Or maybe it’s the warm, special feeling I get when I see my monthly Xfinity “Triple Play” bill of $200+, which not only gives me access to the interwebs and 200 channels (out of which I only watch about 15 with any regularity), but provides me with a good ol’ reliable land line, which keeps me up-to-date on all the latest phone scams (“Hello! I’m calling from Microsoft.”).

(To which I usually reply, “Eh, what’s that, young feller? Let me go fetch my ear horn!”)

If you dig around, you can still find worthwhile teevee for your viewing pleasure. It does require effort, as you must be willing to hold your nose and sift through a load of offal (read: reality TV overkill) to unearth the odd gem. For anyone who cares, here are my current top 10 Must See TV shows (with a wee bit of off-platform cheating…mea culpa).

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At Home With Amy Sedaris (TRU-TV) – I don’t mean to judge, but if you don’t bust a gut watching At Home With Amy Sedaris there’s something seriously wrong with you. Actually, there’s something seriously wrong with Amy Sedaris…but that’s what I love about her. In this faux-lifestyle/homecraft/cooking show, she’s basically goofing on Martha Stewart-but in her own wonderfully twisted way. Sedaris plays multiple characters (all of them disturbing), assisted by a small and dexterous comedy ensemble. Seasons 1 and 2 are currently in V.O.D. for free if you have TRU in your cable package.

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The Deuce (HBO) – While it sometimes feels like The Wire Lite, even a lesser effort from the great David Simon (a writer and producer for the excellent 90s series Homicide: Life on the Street and creator/head writer of the aforementioned HBO series The Wire) beats most TV fare any given day.

Now in its 3rd (and final) season, The Deuce is a network narrative that centers on the “golden age of porn” in NYC from early 70s to the mid-80s. There are several central characters; including a street walker turned porno actress turned film director (Maggie Gyellenhall), a bartender and degenerate gambler who are twin brothers (both played Patti Duke-style by James Franco) and an NYPD patrolman (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.). PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights meets Sidney Lumet’s Serpico and John Sayles’ City of Hope at the corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue.

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Frankie Drake Mysteries (CBC & Ovation) – Now in its 3rd season, this refreshingly old-school detective drama from Canada follows the escapades of the eponymous Ms. Drake (Lauren Lee Smith), a WW I veteran who founds Toronto’s first female P.I. agency. Ably assisted by her partner Trudy (Chantel Riley), Toronto P.D. “morality officer” Mary (Rebecca Liddiard) and a city morgue pathologist named Flo (Sharron Matthews) who serves as a de facto forensic specialist for the team, Frankie tackles a new case every week with pluck and aplomb.

I like the way they viably work in historical figures now and then; Ernest Hemingway was a recurring character in Season 1 (I had to look it up…but turns out he was a reporter for the Toronto Star newspaper in the 1920s!). It’s lightweight, but a lot of fun (and archly feminist). I’ve been watching in on CBC, but I see Ovation will be running episodes from the first two seasons beginning October 14.

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GLOW (Netflix) – Set in the 1980s (lot of that going around lately, I guess those are the “olden times” for some of you kids), this engaging dramedy was co-created by Liz Flahive (a producer and writer for Nurse Jackie and Homeland) and Carly Mensch (a producer and writer for Nurse Jackie, Weeds, and Orange is the New Black).

The series is set in the world of women’s wrestling (which enjoyed a surge of popularity during that decade). Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin lead a fine ensemble cast as a pair of longtime friends and struggling actors named Ruth and Debbie, who channel their thespian skills into creating their wrestling characters “Zoya the Destroya” and “Liberty Belle” (respectively).

Marc Maron co-stars as a cynical grade-Z horror film director who now writes storylines for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling’s ring characters, as well as “directing” rehearsals for each match. The writing and acting is superb, with a nice balance of drama and hilarity.

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Goliath (Amazon Prime) – I fought long and hard against joining The Collective (as I refer to the act of “becoming an Amazon Prime member”) but between Whole Foods cashiers chirpily inquiring “Are you a Prime member?” ad nauseum-and my pal Digby and her husband browbeating me into catching up on Seasons 1 and 2 of Goliath, they wore me down. I was immediately hooked.

Billy Bob Thornton is outstanding as the central character, a brilliant but down-and-out attorney who lives in a beachfront motel in Santa Monica (the premise and vibe recalls the 70s series Harry O).

I just binged Season 3, and it’s damn near the best thing I’ve seen this year, including films (yes…I just said that). Dark, deeply weird, and wildly original (think David Lynch directs Chinatown). Great casting, superb performances, and sharp writing. My favorite quote: “Sometimes you need waffles. Sometimes you need pancakes. It’s the same fuckin’ batter.”

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Mayans M.C. (FX) – If you miss The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, this Sons of Anarchy spin-off (currently in Season 2) should get your motor runnin’. The brainchild of Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter and punk-rock musician/filmmaker Elgin James, the series retains the noir-ish vibe and a few characters from its forebearer but ups the ante with a more ambitious and complex network narrative.

Like its predecessor it is an ensemble piece, but still features a compelling, conflicted central character; in this case “EZ” (J.D. Pardo), a “prospect” member of the Mayans motorcycle club. He is vouched for by his older brother (Clayton Cardenas), a full-fledged member. EZ is no saint, but essentially serves as the “conscience” in this violent, amoral universe. Top-notch writing and acting.

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Mr. Robot (USA) – I have faithfully watched every episode of this tough-to-categorize drama series (which launched its much-anticipated 4th and final season last week) about a disenfranchised computer hacker- and to be perfectly honest with you, I still don’t really understand what the fuck is happening half the time. Yet I can’t wait for the next episode. Go figure. Maybe I’ve just stumbled on the secret to its wild success…always keep ‘em guessing. I don’t know. I mean, what is reality, anyway? For that matter, who am I? Why am I asking you? Who are you? How do I know you even exist? [tap, tap] Hello…friend?

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MIXTAPE (AXS-TV) – The premise of this program is so simple yet brilliant that I’m surprised no one has thought of it before. Each episode features a rock star talking about the artists and songs that have had the most personal impact and creative influence on them throughout their life. As the show progresses, so does a cumulative playlist of all the songs mentioned. By the end…voila! A cool mixtape. In most cases, a surprisingly eclectic mixtape that reveals more about the artist than you’d expect. Nicely done.

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On Becoming a God in Central Florida (Showtime) This social satire is set in the early 90s. Kirsten Dunst stars as a Florida woman who lives in a one-horse burg near Orlando. She has a minimum-wage job at a water park, but dreams of getting rich quick via an Amway-type pyramid scheme. At least, that appears to be the elevator pitch as Episode 1 begins. To avoid spoilers, let’s say it soon switches gears, taking more unexpected turns with each episode. Very dark and very funny (right in my wheelhouse). Quirky characters abound; a bit reminiscent of Carl Hiaasen’s universe (if you have read any of his novels).

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Paul Shaffer Plus One (AXS-TV) – Hosted by the affable Canadian keyboardist, band leader and music arranger who came to fame from his work on SNL and as David Letterman’s house band leader, this breezy half-hour show features Shaffer sitting at the piano and going one-on-one with a single guest (mostly musicians). To put it politely, he has an idiosyncratic interviewing style, but asks the right questions…especially in context of what matters most: the music!

Special guest post: A tribute to Robert Hunter

By John Wing

Note: John Wing is a Canadian comedian, writer and poet with whom I had the pleasure of working with several times during my stint in stand-up. He’s made a half-dozen appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and is a perennial favorite at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival.  Today, Grateful Dead fans the world over are mourning the passing of poet and  lyricist Robert Hunter. John wrote a piece on his Facebook page that meshes a great road story with a touching tribute to the Dead’s late muse. With his permission, I am re-publishing John’s thoughts here.

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1983, winter, probably February or March. I was booked on a comedy night at the Tralfamadore in Buffalo NY. I was opening and I did all right. Nice room. I was getting $250, which was the most I had ever been paid up until that time.

The boss called me into the office after my show and said, “We have Robert Hunter playing here tomorrow night. Two shows. If we take care of another night in the hotel, could you stay and open for him? We’ll pay you $100.” I must have been feeling my oats, because I said, “Sure, but why am I worth $250 tonight for one show and only $100 tomorrow for two shows?” He thought about it and then offered me $250 to open for Robert, and I agreed.

I had a typical three-years-in act at the time. About 30 minutes, 40 if it was going GREAT, lots of crap, drug jokes, some song parodies and some personal stuff. Some of it was funny, but my real voice was a couple of months away. That spring I would write the opening and closing bits that would make me a headliner in the next two years. 

So I went back the next night and met a very nice man, Robert Hunter, lyricist of the Grateful Dead. He shared his dressing room with me and we chatted and I did a pretty good first show for 300 screaming deadheads. The drug jokes worked very well. Robert had a great show and after, we had a meal in the dressing room and he lit a powerful joint and offered me some. I was 24 years old and what did I have to fear? I got high with Robert Hunter.  

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I went out for the second show completely stoned and noticed within 30 seconds that the crowd hadn’t been turned. It was the same 300 people, and they knew every joke, and I didn’t have a spare 30 minutes. After two or three minutes of death with hecklers, I put the guitar on and took requests. What the fuck. 

Did a couple of songs and during the second or third one I thought “I gotta do something uptempo to get them going.” So I finished the song and went blazing into Good Lovin’ by the Rascals. And they went craaaazzzy! They sang along, louder then hell. My God, it tingles even now, 36 years later. I did a couple more songs and finished.

They CALLED ME BACK for an encore, the first one I ever got. I did “Sweet Baby James” and finished. Backstage, getting ready to go on, Robert asked, “How did you know to do Good Lovin’?” I said I didn’t know. I just wanted to get them going. “The Dead do it every show,” he said.

What a nice man and a perfect memory. Rest in peace, Robert Hunter. 1941-2019

Start out running but I’ll take my time
Friend of the devil is a friend of mine
If I get home before daylight
I just might get some sleep tonight.

Special guest post: A very, very, very fine house

By Dwight Slade

Note: Dwight Slade is a Portland-based comic with whom I had the pleasure of working with several times during my stint in stand-up. Much has been written about comedians on the road; many such tales are entertaining,  yet tend to be (shall we say) less than “family-friendly”.  Dwight shared an uplifting “road story” on his Facebook page this week that recounts two journeys; a bittersweet memoir about the miles already traveled, and a hopeful peek at what lies around the next bend.  With his permission, I am re-publishing Dwight’s thoughts here. – Dennis Hartley

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In 1983, Bill Hicks and I were sharing a studio apartment in Burbank, CA. The 80’s comedy boom was beginning, and Bill decided to head back to Houston. I was struggling with the LA open mike scene. Sometimes waiting hours to perform 3 minutes at the Westwood Comedy Store or at a brand new, tiny club on Sunset named The Laugh Factory.

My friend Bill Weber called me and said I should come to Portland for the summer. He was going to house sit for 6 weeks. I could stay with him. What a great opportunity…I could do open mikes in Portland while trashing the house of a complete stranger.

When I got to Portland I found a charming, rainy city with a ton of open mikes. I remember taking the TriMet bus over the brown, rusty Hawthorne bridge that crosses the Willamette river and emerges into downtown. I thought to myself, “I can handle this city. Why should I go back to LA and be frustrated and unknown, when I can be frustrated and unknown in Portland?”

I plunged into the open mike scene and found a loving and creative group who had an absolutely unique combination of unbridled support and gritty competition. Dave Anderson, Mike “Boats” Johnson, JP Linde, Dan Deprez, Dawn Greene, Susan Rice, Art Krug and Robert Jenkins. We all found a link to what our lives would soon be about.

Before long we had all graduated to local headliners fueled by a crazy group of fans who loved this brand-new irreverent form of stand up. This was before Evening at the Improv and chain comedy clubs.

I made Portland my home, but spent most of the time on the road.
Cutting my teeth as a middle act all over the US.  Mostly in Nebraska, however. All while raising two wonderful children.

This was so long ago that my first CD, “Weird State,” was printed on cassette.

In 1998, Dave Anderson and I found an opportunity to do talk radio in Portland. I stopped doing stand-up as Dave and I tried to make our mark in talk radio. This was in 2000. Which featured the most contentious election in history. In an awesome stroke of irony, the day the Supreme Court gave the election to Bush, KXL decided to let us go.

I was suddenly without a job and hadn’t performed stand up in a year. I had no choice than to throw myself back into stand up. Maybe that Renton gig wasn’t so bad.

Within a year I had experienced my most creative period. Winding up with a development deal with the company who created Gilmore Girls. I did road work, I traveled to Edinburgh to do the Fringe Festival, went to Afghanistan to entertain troops (US Troops).

All from a small house in NE Portland. This was my home. Where I recharged and healed through auditions, marriages, the kid’s saxophone and flute lessons.

I thought I would live here forever.

I’ve discovered however that I need to rattle my cage every now and then. And there is no better rattling than to move to Boise, Idaho.
Since Whitney accepted her new job with the Idaho Food Bank and we decided to move, I have seen how much the city of Portland has given me. How much it has changed me. My kids have grown into wonderful human beings that know not to laugh at fart jokes in movies; a wonderful marriage and a 17-year-old cat.

That’s why we packed 18 years of accumulated crap that would challenge the worst of hoarders and have hustled over the mountains to Boise, Idaho.

This has entailed a lot of tearing of roots. This was the house where I dealt with my Dad and Mom’s illness; my two brothers’ deaths, Dave, Mike and Bill Hicks.

All from this pretty blue house in NE Portland.

I’m not going far. But wanted everyone to know that I will carry you, and Portland, with me no matter where life’s adventures takes me.

Here come the nice: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 6, 2018)

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Oh, Mr. Rogers, you sly son-of-a-gun. As it turns out, you get to have the last laugh, even though you were not alive to defend yourself. From a 2007 Wall Street Journal piece:

Don Chance, a finance professor at Louisiana State University, says it dawned on him last spring. The semester was ending, and as usual, students were making a pilgrimage to his office, asking for the extra points needed to lift their grades to A’s.

“They felt so entitled,” he recalls, “and it just hit me. We can blame Mr. Rogers.”

Fred Rogers, the late TV icon, told several generations of children that they were “special” just for being whoever they were. He meant well, and he was a sterling role model in many ways. But what often got lost in his self-esteem-building patter was the idea that being special comes from working hard and having high expectations for yourself.

[…] Some are calling for a recalibration of the mind-sets and catch-phrases that have taken hold in recent decades. Among the expressions now being challenged:

“You’re special.” On the Yahoo Answers Web site, a discussion thread about Mr. Rogers begins with this posting: “Mr. Rogers spent years telling little creeps that he liked them just the way they were. He should have been telling them there was a lot of room for improvement. … Nice as he was, and as good as his intentions may have been, he did a disservice.”

Signs of narcissism among college students have been rising for 25 years, according to a recent study led by a San Diego State University psychologist. Obviously, Mr. Rogers alone can’t be blamed for this. But as Prof. Chance sees it, “he’s representative of a culture of excessive doting.”

And of course, it’s no secret that the Fox news crowd has been gleefully vilifying the beloved children’s television host for quite some time now; holding him accountable as a chief enabler of the “participation trophy” culture they so vociferously mock and despise.

But here’s the funny thing. Several of the more interesting tidbits I picked up about Fred Rogers in Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (currently available on PPV) were: (1) He was a lifelong registered Republican, (2) He studied to be a minister, and (3) He came from a well-moneyed family. I wonder if his fire-breathing conservative critics were aware this radical hippie commie cuck-creator was one of them!

In his affable portrait of this publicly sweet, gentle, compassionate man, Neville serves up a mélange of archival footage and present-day comments by friends, family, and colleagues to reveal (wait for it) a privately sweet, gentle, compassionate man. In other words, don’t expect revelations about drunken rages, aberrant behavior, or rap sheets (sorry to disappoint anyone who feels life’s greatest pleasure is speaking ill of the dead). That is not to deny that Rogers did have a few…eccentricities; some are mentioned, and others are implied. It goes without saying that he was an unusual and unique individual.

The bulk of the film focuses on the long-running PBS children’s show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which debuted in 1968. Neville demonstrates how Rogers sparked children’s imaginations with the pleasant escapism of “Neighborhood of Make-Believe”, while gently schooling them about some of life’s unfortunate realities. Right out of the gate, Rogers intuited how to address the most pervasive fears and uncertainties stoked by current events in a way that (literally) a child could understand and process (a clip showing how Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination was handled is poignant beyond words).

If anything lurked beneath Rogers’ genteel countenance, it was his surprisingly steely resolve when it came to certain matters-and you could file these under “eccentricities”. For example, there was the significance of “143” in Rogers’ personal numerology. He used that number as shorthand for “I love you” (“I” is 1 letter, “love” is 4 letters, and “you” is 3 letters). “143” was also the consistent weight he strove to maintain all his adult life; helped by diligently swimming the equivalent of 1 mile in the pool nearly every day.

That same resolve is evidenced in an extraordinary bit of footage I’d never previously seen. The Republican Nixon administration (not unlike the current one) devoted a good portion of its first year vindictively hamstringing various achievements by the previous Democratic president. Lyndon Johnson’s Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which created and earmarked funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, was an early target.

When Congressional hearings commenced in 1969 to address the White House’s requested 50% budget cuts for CPB, Rogers appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, to speak on behalf of Public Television. Armed with little more than a few notes, some song lyrics, and his unique brand of friendly persuasion, you watch in amazement as Rogers turns the (initially) comically gruff and hostile committee chairman into a puddle of mush in just under 7 minutes, prompting the senator to chuckle and quip “Looks like you’ve just earned 20 million dollars.” Straight out of a Frank Capra movie.

Granted, there is virtually nothing to shock or surprise most viewers, especially if you are one of Fred Rogers’ “kids” who spent your formative years riding Trolley Trolley (and you “entitled” so-and-sos know who you are). And yes, expect the waterworks, especially if you’re sentimental. That said, anybody with a heart should go in with a box of Kleenex on standby. I was 12 in 1968, so I was already too hip for the room back in the day…but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t peeling onions every 10 minutes or so while watching this film.

With apologies to Howard Beale, I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everyone knows things are bad. There is so much vitriol, spitefulness, division, and ill will floating on the wind that it’s an achievement to make it to bedtime without having to ingest vast quantities of pills and powders just to get through this passion play (with apologies to Joni Mitchell). I think this documentary may be what the doctor ordered, just as a reminder people like Fred Rogers once strode the Earth (and hopefully still do). I wasn’t one of your kids, Mr. Rogers, but (pardon my French) we sure as shit could use you now.

 

Torn, torn, torn – Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 14, 2018)

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punk (noun)

[mass noun] A loud, fast-moving, and aggressive form of rock music, popular in the late 1970s. ‘punk had turned pop music and its attendant culture on its head’

1.1 [count noun] An admirer or player of punk rock, typically characterized by coloured spiked hair and clothing decorated with safety pins or zips. ‘punks fought Teds on the Kings Road on Saturday afternoons’

– from The Oxford Living Dictionary

So what does ‘punk’ really mean? I suppose it depends on who you ask. Tony James of Generation X likened it to “…my childhood, the glorious, very exciting naivete of rock n’ roll.” Kurt Cobain defined it as “…musical freedom. It’s saying, doing and playing what you want.” David Byrne surmised that ‘punk’ was “…defined by an attitude rather than a musical style.” To Lester Bangs, it was “…a fundamental and age-old Utopian dream: that if you give people the license to be as outrageous as they want in absolutely any fashion they can dream up, they’ll be creative about it…and do something good besides.”

Seminal punk provocateur Malcolm McLaren explained it thus (in an interview taken from Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk) … “I was just this strange guy with this mad dream. I was trying to do with the Sex Pistols what I failed at with the New York Dolls. I was taking the nuances of Richard Hell, the faggy [sic] pop side of the New York Dolls, the politics of boredom and mashing it all together to make a statement, maybe the final statement I would ever make. And piss off this rock ‘n’ roll scene.” Well, he certainly succeeded on that last part; but he also shook up the status quo. That said…he didn’t do it alone, despite his braggadocio.

Specifically, it’s possible that Mr. McLaren would have lived a life of quiet desperation sans acclaim or notoriety, had he never crossed paths with a Vivienne Westwood. Their longtime relationship was complicated; briefly romantic and fitfully platonic at best. Ultimately, they settled for pragmatic, as it was their creative partnership that fueled the U.K. punk scene-with McLaren on the music end, and Westwood covering the fashion front. The couple co-founded “SEX” in the mid-70s, the King’s Road boutique where future members of the Sex Pistols famously hung out. This was where Westwood fully realized her knack for couture, putting her on the map as a key architect of punk fashion.

Unfortunately, this fascinating chapter of Westwood’s life is largely glossed over in Lorna Tucker’s slickly produced yet curiously uninspired documentary Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist. Granted, the feisty and still-punky Westwood appears quite reticent to reminisce on-camera about the Sex Pistols era; but frankly, that is why most people would be intrigued to see this film in the first place (that’s my theory…I could be wrong).

Westwood herself is entertaining; as is her current husband/creative partner Andreas (he’s a trip…and so spooky close to Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Bruno” character that I can’t help speculating if he was the inspiration). I did come away admiring Westwood’s dedication to various causes. However, I didn’t feel I learned much about who she really is or what makes her tick (e.g. there is very little regarding her life pre-McLaren). Still, if you’re attracted to the world of overblown couture and underfed models (I’m afraid I am not) then you might find this sketchy hagiography  more engaging.

 

A special guest post: Looking for comedy in the Muslim world

By Brad Upton

Note: Brad Upton is a Seattle-based comedian with whom I had the pleasure of working with during my stint in stand-up. He has just wrapped up a tour in Pakistan with several other comics, and has been posting on Facebook about his experience.  As we all know, there’s no crying in baseball…or comedy. Nonetheless, Brad wrote a post today that I found incredibly moving and inspiring; and in light of all the bellicose nationalist rhetoric coming from the top these days, it is a much-needed reminder that people are people, wherever you go. With his permission, I am re-publishing Brad’s thoughts here. – Dennis Hartley

Image result for brad upton

Please allow me to ramble.

Karachi, Pakistan

Last Wednesday night I went back in time and was able to relive what it was like when I started doing stand up. That feeling of excitement, anticipation, feeling the collective energy of the room, of the possibility….of the future. It felt like my beginning in 1984.

After a day of promotion, meals and being ferried throughout Karachi in traffic that can’t adequately be described other than a mass of scooters, motorcycles, 3-wheeled motorized rickshaws, buses, donkey carts, horseback and cars….none of them following any observable rules, we pulled up in front of a 5-story building on a side street. Everywhere we pull up in Karachi: a restaurant, studio, or hotel, a man or men, stand up and emerge from the shadows carrying highly modified automatic weapons. Blue slacks and blue polo shirts, this is security.

There are offices on the first floor. Five of us enter a hot, humid elevator that should probably only hold three. We emerge on the top floor. It certainly isn’t a bar, or a restaurant, or banquet room, or any kind of theater. It is an empty office space and this is where you find Karachi’s two-year-old, open mic comedy scene. There is a logo on the wall behind the comics proudly calling this place the Thot Spot. As we emerge from the elevator we can hear laughter as we slip quietly into the back of the room. The audience sits in rows of folding chairs. The room holds about 70 and is packed.

The room is electric with energy, each comic is getting big laughs. What takes me back in time is how the comics and audience are enthralled with what is happening. This vibe doesn’t exist at an open mic in the US; stand up is part of our culture and some of the comics have been going up for years.

This is different. This is new. This is fun. We’ve never done this. We’ve never had this. People are standing in front of their peers and talking about life in Karachi, their awkwardness, sex, politics, traffic, social media, dating, school, family, etc. Young Muslim men and women speaking their minds in ways that make their peers laugh.

Wait, I haven’t mentioned something VERY important. I THINK these are the topics. This entire show is being performed in Urdu. Many Pakistanis are bilingual but it seems Urdu is usually the first option.

I. Am. Mesmerized.

To hear stand up performed in a language I don’t understand is fascinating. I love the rhythm of the words and can quickly recognize an approaching punchline just by the pacing and nuances. I can hear the beats. I find myself laughing at jokes I don’t understand, verifying that laughter is contagious.

The audience and comics are aware that this night is different. The international professionals that have just arrived from Great Britain and the US will go up at the end and do 7-10 minutes each.

Our host, our organizer, our MC, Umar Rana, takes over the hosting duties at the conclusion of the Urdu sets and quickly converts the audience over to English. Keep in mind that myself, Dwight Slade and Shazia Mirza aren’t quite sure what we’re in for. We are almost sick with jet lag. We are confident, veteran professionals….but this is Pakistan. Will they like us? Have I chosen the right material? Will this joke make sense?

Suddenly I have the open mic feeling that I haven’t felt in over 30 years. I go first, followed by Dwight and Shazia. For all three of us, everything works. Every joke, every expression, every nuance. All three of us destroy and delight in the experience. The show wraps up and we stand around laughing and smiling and talking with our Pakistani cohorts. I suddenly have new friends!

This audience has given these pros a taste of what the weekend is going to be like. It is humbling. I witness what has happened at this open mic in Karachi and am proud of my profession. I got more out of this evening than they did. These people want to laugh and be entertained. These kids are Pakistan’s future. Inshallah.

 

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.