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Second City, Twice

It’s probably just a coincidence that Eli and I were talking about SCTV the other day, because she had no way of knowing I had just picked up a couple of books about The Second City (one about the history of the theatre; the other about the television show).

I hadn’t planned on reporting for Jury Duty on the first day of Summer, but having been through the drill before I knew that I’d probably have to kill a little bit of time. As it turned out, it was a good thing I brought both books.

The first was one I had read before, an insider’s recollection by Dave Thomas about the show, the cast, and how it all came together called SCTV Behind The Scenes. Thomas weaves personal observations with interviews with others into an engaging narrative about the origins of the program as well as the camaraderie – and sometimes rivalries – between the cast members. In doing so he is unflinchingly honest about his own myopia and drive which sometimes placed him at odds with fellow actors and staff while trying to put the show first.

There’s a lot of inside peeks at the process of turning writing sessions into post-produced pieces for air; how despite comparisons to Saturday Night Live the shows were really apples and oranges; how dedicated behind-the-scenes people from makeup artists to producers were usually in way over their head but delivered anyway. Despite the incredible difficulties involved in staging and (mostly) selling the show, their ability to self-create in a vacuum without regard for ratings or network input led to what most of them consider the artistic peak of their careers.

Behind The Scenes is already fifteen years old but still a wonderful read and a must for any SCTV fan. It’s a vivid reminder of how blessed we were to have a company with such creative minds cranking out truly original material. There’s a great essay from Conan O’Brien where he describes the impact the show had upon him. He felt for the first time that a comedy program was speaking directly to him while refusing to dumb it down for the masses; it was a logic that he would carry forward and use in his own career. (And his story about first meeting John Candy is both funny and a heart-warming tribute to both men.)

Unscripted, written by Mike Thomas (A Chicago journalist, no apparent relation to Dave) is a 2009 book that presents a fascinating history of the Second City theatre framed within quotes from its creators and participants. Although the Chicago side of the story dominates – as it should – Thomas pays great tribute to the Toronto establishment and sheds light on the many road shows and other city-based affiliates.

If you’ve read Live From New York by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller – among the best tomes on Saturday Night Live – you’ll be familiar with the structure that Unscripted utilizes. Both authors conducted a bevy of interviews and weave quotes and anecdotes from the insiders to tell a chronological story. It’s an effective technique – as if a group of famous people are gathered in one room and they decided to tell you the history of their theatre in a round-robin format.

And we’re talking famous people.  A fifty year history, from early stars like Alan Arkin,  David Steinberg and Robert Klein to the recent TV pipeline of comedians Tina Fey, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. Most of the better cast members from Saturday Night Live. Ensembles from classic sitcoms from Cheers to 30 Rock. Actors like Peter Boyle. Stand-up comics like Joan Rivers. Of course, many will gravitate towards the bittersweet stories of the departed legends John Belushi, Chris Farley, and John Candy as well as famous stars like Bill Murray and Mike Myers who parlayed their improv training into huge careers. The list of Second City alumni is daunting.

But Thomas also lets us get to know about important innovators like Del Close, Bernard Salkins, Andrew Alexander and Joyce Sloan, whose work behind the scenes saved the company many times over. It’s great storytelling, albeit using the words of others. I laughed out loud several times, caught up in everything from great backstage anecdotes to quotes that just killed me. (My favorite – one performer recalling that a sketch bombed so badly “you could hear a mouse shit!”)

It’s fun to read about Second City and its history, but it’s great to know we can take in a live performance and revisit the brilliant television show on DVD.

Info about Unscripted at the Mike Thomas webpage.

Dave Thomas Wiki page

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T.G.I.F. – Ten Music Flicks

After writing about The Boat That Rocked the other day, I thought about other music-related movies that I really enjoyed and found that I had several favorites that I could watch over and over again and enjoy almost as much as the first time. These aren’t concert films – those are obvious repeat performers – but movies about pop music. I’m also focusing on the more modern era (forgive me, Sal Mineo). Plus the movie has to be good (sorry, Tommy) . A few are obvious commercial favorites (is there anyone who doesn’t quote Spinal Tap?) but a couple of these must be off the path; I find most people have never heard of them, let alone seen them.

But hey, that’s a large part of why I do this, to share information about what knocks me out and hopefully expose people to a great band, film or book they might have missed. I highly recommend every single one of these, and hopefully there’s at least one you haven’t seen that you will take a chance on. Enjoy some great movies with great music, whether it’s a library rental, a used copy on Amazon or circling the listing in TV Guide when you see it. Without further ado (you’ve had just the right amount of ado so far, right?) and with apologies to The Committments and The Rutles, here they are in alphabetical order…

Almost Famous : Cameron Crowe drew upon his own story to craft this brilliant peek behind rock’s curtain, from the groupies (sorry…Band-Aids) to the roadies and the madness that is rock’n’roll. Great music and wonderful performances from the leads and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s great turn as Lester Bangs.

A Hard Day’s Night : The Beatles. Need I say more? “I’m a Mocker”

Hedwig and the Angry Inch : Absolutely the best rock opera ever. John Cameron Mitchell’s brilliant performance and Stephen Trask’s music are a perfect match, and both the musical and the movie soundtracks could stand on their own as great music. But the film is phenomenal.

The Idolmaker : Ray Sharkey should have won the Academy Award for his performance as a teen idol Svengali. Great performances from Paul Land, Joe Pantoliano and Peter Gallagher.

A Mighty Wind : The Spinal Tap of folk music and another perfect movie from Christopher Guest. Tremendous performances from everyone, but Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara as “Mitch and Mickey” were brilliant. How did this song not win the Academy Award?

Rock and Roll High School : The Ramones. Need I say more? “Things sure have changed since I got kicked out of high school”.

Spinal Tap : Absolutely hilarious, with pitch perfect performances from the three leads and an amazing array of bit parts and cameo roles, like Paul Shaffer as Artie Fufkin and Bruno Kirby as the Sinatra-loving limo driver (the extended deleted scenes are priceless). Here’s a song so good I like it even though it’s parody.

Still Crazy : I think the common thread in all these movies is perfect casting. Bill Nighy is wonderful as the fragile lead singer and you can’t go wrong with comic geniuses Billy Connolly and Timothy Spall. But the story is as heartwarming as it is funny and the music is phenomenal.

That Thing You Do : Tom Hanks nailed the screenplay about a one-hit-wonder band and even wrote many of the songs that the other acts in the “galaxy of stars” performed. The main songs benefitted from pop wizards like Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne) and Mike Viola, but the perfect casting was only exceeded by the movie’s heart. One of my favorite films of all time in any genre.

Velvet Goldmine : Glam fans will lap this up – an Eddie and The Cruisers type plot in the world of glitter and decadence, with Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as thinly disguised Iggy Pop and David Bowie plus great performances from Christian Bale and Eddie Izzard.

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