Tag Archives: John Belushi

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 Impressions of Fall TV

Network Russian Roulette

Network Russian Roulette

Another season, another crapshoot. But if you’re going to find the pearl, you gotta shuck the oysters. Here’s my first impressions on five shows making their debut this fall, as well as five shows trying to avoid that sophomore slump:

 And yes, there might be spoilers below.

The freshmen

CommunityJoel McHale, like the hosts of The Soup that preceded him, has charisma. Hard to tell where this one is going with so many characters getting introduced so quickly, but McHale plays his selfish user somewhere between Sgt. Bilko and a young Chevy Chase. Problem is, the old Chevy Chase is in the cast, and in the first week he already dropped the name-fumbling gag from Caddyshack and the awkward food pantomime John Belushi used in Animal House. If Chase is used sparingly, and they let McHale spar more with the hilarious John Oliver (who I hope will be a recurring character), this could work. LINK

EastwickThey don’t know Jack. if they did, they would have realized that most remakes suck, and remakes of Jack Nicholson vehicles really suck. It was a stupid movie with Jack; imagine how abysmal it is dumbed down for network television sans Sir Satan. This should be dead by Christmas. LINK

Flash Forward…Hands-down the most ambitious and amazing looking pilot; the debut episode looked like a feature film. The central concept is a good one, and the strong performances of a solid cast already have me invested in a few of them. It’s odd that despite a global catastrophe most of the characters seem to have wrapped their head around this global mystery, accepting the chaos with a little better demeanor than I would have, but an hour of people screaming “what the hell??” probably doesn’t make good television. Conspiracy theory, science fiction, time travel, dreams and alternate reality. I’m down. LINK.

Glee…Yes, every character is a stereotype (jock, nerd, bully, brainiac chick, earnest teacher, dysfunctional athletic director, etc.). I don’t care. This is laugh-out-loud funny, the songs are phenomenal, and even though Jane Lynch is playing the same character she usually does – here a cross between her oddballs from The 40 Year Old Virgin and Role Models – she still steals every scene she’s in. Hopefully they don’t try to make it melodramatic as well. Either way, I cannot believe this is from the same guy who created Nip/Tuck – that’s like Barbara Walters doing porn. In your face, High School Musical! LINK

Modern Family…This is like watching a nervous juggler; if he can keep all those balls in the air it will be an amazing feat and perhaps even something worth talking about. But he might have tossed too many up at once, and it’s possible he’s going to collapse under a hail of projectiles. I love Ed O’Neill, and Ty Burrell shows promise as a cringeworthy “cool Dad”, but they were already going for the cheap, broad laughs in the pilot. Must admit I laughed at a couple of them, but with so many characters, the writing will have to be very strong or this is toast.   LINK

The sophomores

Castle…Looks like it’s picking up right where it left off, and if Bones continues to waste its time on romantic subplots between the secondary characters, this will be the go-to show for people who want a little light banter and sizzle with their crime drama. The leads have killer chemistry, the cases are plausible and  interesting enough to hold their own, the daughter might be the most realistic teenager on television, and Nathan Fillion is a star. LINK

Dollhouse…If any other team was behind this show, I think the network would have deep-sixed it after the first season. But Joss Whedon not only has proven himself, even the shows of his that have been cancelled have continued to mesmerize large fanbases. Regardless, it doesn’t look like a concept with a master plan at this point, it seems as if they’re trying things out to see what sticks. He’s got to focus this one better or only the fanboys will be left, because Friday night is a tough sell. LINK

FringeMindblower of a final episode last season, the kind of cliff-hanger that people talk about all summer. Solid cast, complex but not difficult plot (if you pay attention), and if you can accept the premise, you can be richly rewarded. Great chemistry between the leads and main supporting characters with some fascinating oddballs in the mix. If you liked The X-Files for either the linear mysteries or the Mulder/Scully relationship, you’ll love Fringe. LINK

Parks and Recreation…I’m really pulling for this one, although I can understand if people’s patience wears thin. The cast is amiable and there’s good situational dialogue, but the amount of people who can identify with this workplace – as opposed to The Office, which it’s modeled after – might not be enough to make this water-cooler material. Amy Poehler’s character is a dolt with heart and she nails it, and the supporting cast is good, with Aziz Ansari a standout. Hiring Louis CK as the small town cop was a stroke of genius; he might just save the show. LINK

Sons of Anarchy…Obviously not for everybody, but this biker drama is yet another reason FX has become the best channel on television. Somehow they pepper in a little humor among the violence and criminal activity, and the performances are so universally excellent (Kim Coates is absolutely twisted, and Katey Sagal was robbed of an Emmy) that even the guest stars need to bring their A-game. This season’s first episode brought Henry Rollins and a quietly demonic Adam Arkin to the table and proved the show already took it up a notch. LINK

There's always this option...

There's always this option...

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Too Fat To Fish

Boats everywhere breathe a sigh of relief.

Boats everywhere breathe a sigh of relief.

Summer reading – uncomplicated, light fare, books you can doze off in the middle of and pick up again on the wrong page and nobody cares. Perfect time for most books about musicians and actors and comics, because with few exceptions you can blow through them in a sitting. Depends on how interesting the subject is. Also depends on how talented the ghostwriter or co-writer is. Artie Lange seemed to fit the bill, especially since the #1 bestseller from last Fall was now available in paperback. Too Fat To Fish is a decent read, breezy enough to enjoy and written conversationally so even his most challenged zealot can grasp the gist of it.

I’m not a regular Howard Stern listener, but I’m familiar with a lot of Artie’s  other work and he can be a funny guy. He’s got the John Belushi schlub thing down pat when he wants to, and anyone who can make a film like Beer League is okay by me. The proof is out there – MAD TV, Dirty Work, It’s The Whisky Talkin’, even bit parts on shows like Rescue Me. Artie Lange has charisma, although often it’s train wreck charisma – but either way he’s not slipping off your radar once he’s on.

Artie’s book skips through events in his life, starting in his childhood and his determination to make it as a ballplayer or a comic. A tragic accident paralyzed his Dad, whom Artie worshipped, and he ties a lot of his recklessness and problems to the aftermath of his father’s death, although ultimately the same event made him rededicate himself to making a mark in the entertainment world. He succeeded quickly as one of the charter cast members of MAD TV but was in over his head from the start, although castmates Orlando Jones and David Herman (later the hilarious Michael Bolton in Office Space) bailed him out repeatedly, first saving his job and later his life.

Those looking for stories of excess and debauchery will fins plenty here, from the “pig story” and rampant dug and alcohol binges to the networks throwing development money around like Johnny Appleseed with little or no hope of valuable return. Lange is pretty honest about how many times his screw ups affected dozens of people, and the frequency of public apologies to those he is no longer in touch with are both heartfelt and sad. As each chapter unfolds you’re certain that this, finally, is the redemption coming along, but all it does is blow up yet another bridge. Few have gone through Lange’s orbit unscathed, and Artie doesn’t deflect the blame.

Mostly Artie comes off like a guy who got too much too soon, blew it, miraculously got it back. He was emotional recalling the honor of performing for the troops. His family is still on a pedastel, including his late father whom he still reveres. He sounds truly grateful to those still willing to give him yet another chance, and I imagine there are days when he gets up in the morning and wants to pull a Dave Chappelle for his own sanity. Maybe catch a ballgame and share a private thought with his Dad. Maybe hang out with some of the legends he truly reveres – Don Rickles, Shelley Berman – and just soak it up a little. Maybe grow up a little.

But then he hits the studio where magic happens, where the most dynamic voice in the last quarter century of radio (no, idiot, it’s not you) welcomes him like family. Where the phones light up with armies of zealots. Zealots who will fill theatres and arenas and generate more money than ninety percent of his comedian peers will generate. Where he is surrounded by legions of fans who worship the very behavior that ran him into the tree the last time around. (Just be outrageous, Artie – drink, eat, curse, belch…be that derelict we love so much! Dance, monkey…dance!)

Fishing? Fuck fishing. Who needs fishing?

Hang in there, Artie. I hope those you ask for forgiveness do so. I hope those who you ask to come back to your life do so. And I hope the second time around you pay attention to the Norm MacDonalds and Howard Sterns and Dave Attells and learn how to walk that line between caricature and character. You’re still a pup, Artie – I hope we haven’t seen your best yet. I hope you don’t take the easy road down and out.

P.S. – Artie…park that car, ok? You can afford a driver by now.

Artie Lange’s world.

Artie wiki.

Artie’s MySpace site

MAD TV, R.I.P.

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