I want to talk about death.

No no, don’t worry, not in a morbid way.

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the death of the great Mel Blanc, the legendary actor who gave life to countless cartoon characters, most notably the majority of the Looney Tunes characters at Warner Bros.

As most people who know even a little bit about me know, I am a huge Looney Tunes fan, and Mel had become one of my heroes. Ironically, my initial interest in acting and voice work had nothing to do with cartoons but rather because of my childhood fondness for comedian (and eventual Full House star) Dave Coulier, who at time starred on a short-lived but nostalgically remembered Nickelodeon show called Out of Control. When I was just six, Dave was the first celebrity that I ever met in person, and the idea of someone making a living off entertaining, doing funny voices, and making goofy sounds enamored me so. (I do have a Polaroid of us together, though it’s currently in storage. I may dig it out one day to add to this blog post.) – SEE EDIT AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS ENTRY!

When I finally rediscovered the Looney Tunes cartoons in the late 1980s and started to truly appreciate the work of not only Mel but also all of the animators and directors, Mel was near the end of his life. I would have loved to been able to tell him how much his work has meant to me.

Mel died at age 81 while in the hospital undergoing some semi-routine check-ups. As a child, to me 81 seemed pretty old, and perhaps ghoulishly, I had used that as a baseline as far as thinking if someone else had died too young or too old. It’s so funny because now you have celebrities like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Dick Van Dyke still alive and actively working well into their nineties. It’s so weird how common it is to hear that someone like Billy Graham or Zsa Zsa Gabor lived to 99–99! (My own great-grandmother died when she was 102, while my great-aunt who is still alive turned 101 last year!) We’re now in a time where 80 is the new 60, I guess.

Anyway, Mel’s official cause of death was attributed to heart disease, although according to his son Noel, Mel had suffered a fall from his hospital bed (apparently the side rails were not put up) and broke his leg, resulting in an embolism. Whatever the cause of death, Mel was in the hospital to get his lungs looked at after a lifetime of smoking had given him emphysema.

Look, I don’t like to preach, but if you are to take away anything from this blog post, it’s this: don’t smoke. Please, just don’t. And if you do smoke now, please quit. I don’t care if it relaxes you; go get a massage or spend a day at a spa or listen to some ASMR on YouTube. I don’t care if it helps you maintain your weight; go exercise instead. I don’t care if you’ve simply done it for so long or whatever. Just stop it. It’s not worth it. I have lost far too many people close to me due to smoking-related illnesses. It’s just too dangerous of a vice.

Anyway, Mel’s death resulted in an outpouring of love and condolences from cartoon fans around the world. For many, it felt as if it wasn’t just Mel Blanc but also Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety, etc. who had died. Warner Bros. was about to formally launch a fiftieth-birthday celebration for Bugs, and the company was suddenly having to scramble to figure out a way to promote and sell the character without his voice artist being at the ready for Bugs to make “appearances.” Central to the plans was a new theatrical Bugs Bunny short, Box Office Bunny, going into production, which now had to be (hastily) recast. In the three decades since Mel’s death, Bugs and the gang have gone through a laundry list of actors hoping to carry on in Mel’s place–with two notable names, Greg Burson and Joe Alaksey, even passing away themselves in the meantime–which just illustrates how irreplaceable Mel Blanc was and is and how much of a loss his death meant to the animation world.

Shortly following his death, Warner Bros. ran a simple, effective memorial in the Hollywood trade papers. Designed by animator and Box Office Bunny director Darrell Van Citters, the image featured nine of Mel’s characters solemnly bowing their heads to a vacant microphone under a spotlight. The caption was short but effective: “Speechless.”

The original “Speechless” image.

It was a moving tribute, and in the years after Mel’s death there was a growing demand from collectors to want to own a reproduction of the image. In 1993 the Warner Bros. Studio Stores obliged by offering “Speechless” as an open edition lithograph, meaning that no set number would be produced and that it would continue to be printed as long as there was consumer interest. (Speechless is still being sold to this day through the outsourced WBShop.com, which means it was so open of an edition that it actually outlived the existence of the Studio Stores by another eighteen years and counting!) Some animation fans have expressed the opinion that it’s crass of Warner Bros. to sell the memorial and turn it into just another higher-end product, which originally sold for $150 framed. I get that to a point, but to another point I understand the need for fans to want to memorialize someone without whom they likely wouldn’t be fans in the first place. I personally own a framed print of Speechless and to this day it still resonates with me. I have no interest in building any kind of Elvis-like shrine or anything, but as someone who has an interest in these films and particularly in voice acting, owning this piece to honor someone I greatly admire means a lot to me. And evidently it means a lot to other people as well, or otherwise at some point they’d stop printing and selling it.

This is, however, where my defense of commercialization and corporate greed ends. Because in the wake of the lithograph’s debut to the consumer public, Warner Bros. has turned that simple, effective tribute image into a whole frickin’ product line! Between 1994 and 2008, Speechless has spawned spin-offs, a plate, a figurine, a diorama, a cel, an interactive wall mural, and even a sequel lithograph! With almost each subsequent item being sold at a higher price point than the last, Warner Bros. has repeatedly tried to capitalize on fans’ sentimentality and turn it into an entire franchise in and of itself. Obviously that’s what major media conglomerates do and have always done, but Jesus, is there anything more ghoulish and unsettling as figures of the Looney Tunes characters in mourning??

The very stupid “Speechless Stage” from 1994.

I guess I’ll go more or less in chronological order here, because there was no progression to the release of these products that made a lick of sense. The first Speechless cash-in came about in 1994 with the Speechless Stage, which looks more like an action figure playset than anything meant to convey respect or sorrow. The Looney Tunes characters are recreated as resin figurines in their downcast poses, affixed onto a vaudeville-like stage complete with curtains and footlights. The whole thing is housed in a weird fishbowl-like plexiglass case, with the “Speechless” text printed on the outside. Oh, and of course, Warner Bros. had to clutter up the backdrop by slapping on the WB shield front and center.

The added visuals annoy me to no end. Part of the impact of the original “Speechless” image was the bare sparseness of it. The characters and the microphone are standing in an otherwise empty white void. There’s no floor or walls or anything. Your eyes can only focus on the gang and what they’re experiencing. But here in this oddball figure display they couldn’t just let the emptiness speak for itself; they had to add crap. An ugly tan floor and gold curtains and a black wall–yeah, that’s the change this image needed! From an empty white void to a cold black wall. And this is to say nothing of the fact that it’s all being done to create the look of a live theater stage, as opposed to…you know…an animation studio or radio booth or you know…anything Mel Blanc was actually KNOWN FOR.

Even if one gets past the tackiness of the additions, what the hell is someone supposed to DO with this? The original Speechless print you hang on a wall, but this is what? Does this go on a mantle or a fireplace or in a curio cabinet? (A case for a cased-in item?) It’s too bulky and three-dimensional to mount onto a wall at all, and too many of its elements are far too breakable to just leave out in the open for a kid or wandering cat to knock over. So, what purpose does it serve other than to collect dust?

The very stupid “Speechless 3-D” plate, 1997.

The idea of wanting to three-dimensionalize Speechless came again in 1997 with the release of a 3-D plate for $55. The Warner Bros. Studio Store gallery team loved the idea of plates, for some reason. Most of the ones that were sold over the years were basic flat plates with charmingly painted (and likely highly toxic) images of the studio’s various characters, but somewhere along the line someone thought people also really wanted thick, hard-to-display plates with lumpy figural images sticking out (such as one that essentially looked like someone glued a Batman Beyond action figure right onto the front of it). For the Speechless 3-D plate, the main figural image is the cluster of cartoon characters in mourning, with Mel’s vacant microphone shoved off to the side and into the background. No caption of any sort this time, but a very cartoony stage and red curtains were added to the picture. The WB shield again appears lined around the rim of the plate, alternating with the head of Mel’s microphone. Yuck.

There was one final (so far) attempt to create some sort of toy based on the “Speechless” image, and it came in 1998 from those two words that makes many an art collector’s eyes roll: Ron Lee.

Who is Ron Lee, some of you may say? Oh, consider yourself lucky that you are not aware.

The very stupid “Speechless” Ron Lee figurine, 1998.

Ron Lee made a name for himself with an endless series of miniature statuettes. If you’ve never seen one, they’re tiny pewter figurines with gold plating that are then painted over in glossy colors, then affixed onto a white onyx base. These were somewhat popular pseudo-art pieces in the late 1990s, usually owned by people who thought they were buying actual art sculptures.

Ron Lee thought of himself as some sort of three-dimensional Norman Rockwell artist, trying to convey whimsical scenes with a nostalgic slant. He specialized in figurines of hobo clowns in the Emmett Kelly style, but really, he whored himself out to whichever company or entity needed to push their designs (M&M characters, etc.). Some of his work also had a bit of a condescending right-wing slant to them, including a ridiculous sculpture depicting Ronald Reagan on the face of Mount Rushmore (another Rushmore piece also featured Yosemite Sam as a fifth head, so go figure). Lee died in early 2017 of a stroke and his family has been slowly liquidating the company since then.

For the Speechless Ron Lee, the characters become these lumpy globs, looking almost like something a child would make out of Play-doh for a school project. The microphone is present, but there is no indication of Mel’s name or even the otherwise obligatory “Speechless” tagline, which like on the 3-D plate are both missing again. Many other Ron Lee pieces include a small “title card” where such a notation would have been appropriate, so its removal here was either a curious aesthetic choice or–speculating here–was intentionally removed to bring costs down. I’m suspecting the latter, because you know, Warners can’t be bothered to spend money when it comes to milking Mel Blanc’s corpse.

The very stupid “Speechless Power Picture,” 2000.

In 2000 Warner Bros. teamed up with Animated Animations to produce the Speechless Power Picture, which sold for $195. AA had previously developed a number of products that in the loosest sense of the term could be called “animation art” but were really just expensive toys. They made these cel-shaped window box displays that invited you to push a button (you know, just like on all real artwork) and watch a scene play out. Typically, static cut-outs of the likes of Bugs, Tweety, etc. would have a quick, funny showdown with one of their nemeses, sliding back and forth into view while sound bites from classic cartoons come out of a speaker. Usually some cheapo “special effect” would be utilized: a flash bulb to approximate an explosion, or a blinking LED light to simulate gunfire, etc. But really these were just playthings for people with too much money. They buy it, hang it up in their den, and watch their kids run out of the batteries.

Thinking they had some kind of long-lasting niche going on, AA started developing what they called “Power Pictures,” which were these segmented images whose quadrants would spin around in a pattern to reveal hidden pictures and sound clips. Most of the Power Pictures produced were more pop-cultury in nature–The Simpsons, I Love Lucy, Snoopy, etc.–but someone thought that manufacturing one themed after “Speechless” would tilt things on the more prestigious end.

Parts of the main “Speechless” image (again enhanced with a garish red curtain as a backdrop) would rotate to show a photo of Mel and play a sound bite of him explaining the origin of one of his voices. Noel Blanc was able to provide interview clips and original voice sessions from his vast archive of his father’s outtakes and home recordings–quite an effort for such a cheesy product. The program’s finale would spin all four segments around to reveal an image of Mel surrounded by clip art of his various characters, while a medley of his voices played (including a quick “Beep beep!” from the Road Runner, who was voiced not by Mel but by Paul Julian…good job on research there).

At this point “Speechless” was just becoming a blanket name for any Mel Blanc product. Why couldn’t a Power Picture be made about Mel without having to theme it after the memorial image? Was he only worth celebrating because he was dead? Or was it all just some cold way for Warner Bros. to create a poorly planned product license, kind of like how all of the merchandise for their CW show Supernatural has to be called “Supernatural: Join the Hunt”? “Oh, this is our Mel Blanc merchandise. We call the line ‘Speechless.'”

(And whoring out Mel’s death went beyond mere product strategies. When the Warner Bros. Studio Stores began the process of shutting down following the AOL/Time Warner merger, individual stores were sent a preparations binder outlining what they had to do at certain intervals. The cover of the “store closing” binder was a close-up of the characters in mourning from Speechless. Keep it classy, Time Warner!)

AA promptly went out of business following not only the closure of the Warner Bros. Studio Stores but then also the Disney Store’s decreased focus on selling animation art, which left the company without its two biggest clients. In 2011 AA founder Marc Segan unsuccessfully sued FarmVille developer Zynga over a vague claim of patent infringement concerning an animated web-browsing icon, with Segan ending up being ordered to pay nearly two million dollars in court costs.

When you have such a successful franchise as Speechless–making money off variations of the same image that wouldn’t have existed in the first place if not for someone’s death–it only stood to reason that Warner Bros. would ghoulishly look at their other, aging animation legends in the hope of expanding the line beyond Mel Blanc.

“Friz,” who deserved a better memorial.

Warners unfortunately got their wish with the passing of legendary director Friz Freleng in 1995, and sure enough, tribute products soon followed–almost in a concerningly short amount of time, as if things were already prepared. A rather jubilant, colorful lithograph was offered called Salute to Friz, depicting Yosemite Sam cheerfully riding a horse off into a glorious sunset. Since Sam was modeled after Freleng himself and was said to be the closest to his personality than the other characters, it made for a rather celebratory tribute to the director.

But alas, the tasteful salute was more or less overshadowed by a more mass-market item: “Friz.” Clearly done in the same vein as Speechless, and even marketed to be intended as a companion piece to it, the Looney Tunes cast (almost the exact same lineup as seen in Speechless, minus non-Freleng characters Foghorn Leghorn and Pepe le Pew) is again seen against a white background, this time surrounding an empty animation desk, with Bugs gracefully placing down a carrot. Freleng’s formal full name, Isadore Freleng, is shown with his birth and death years, while the “Speechless”-like caption simply refers to his iconic nickname: “Friz.”

Despite being a thematic cousin to Speechless, the differences between the two pieces are quite stark. The former’s bareness of the characters and single microphone are replaced by the large, rather detailed animation desk. I’m not sure what an appropriate alternative would be, but the desk provides too much clutter for what should otherwise be an empty void. Even the use of the Looney Tunes characters themselves leaves something to be desired. The group shot from Speechless has the gang clustered together, sharing a single, static pose. Their facial expressions aren’t excessively detailed, just closed eyes and the occasional slight frown. In “Friz,” however, almost all of them are in these odd mid-action poses. Bugs is in the middle of setting down his carrot, Sam and Speedy are clutching their respective hats and crouching down, and Daffy is jerking back in grief with an almost comical expression. The static subtlety of the original lithograph is replaced by what looks like a badly timed screen grab from from an actual cartoon. It betrays the depth and gravity of Freleng’s death.

Unlike the open-endedness of Speechless, both Salute to Friz and “Friz” were strictly limited pieces. And thankfully, neither image has subsequently been turned into toys.

Unfortunately(?) for Warner Bros., there weren’t too many remaining living legends of their animation history whose eventual deaths they could immediately capitalize on. At this point Chuck Jones was still alive, and to a lesser (historical) extent so were Arthur Davis, June Foray, and Stan Freberg, but that was about it. Robert McKimson had died back in 1977, Tex Avery followed in 1980, and then Bob Clampett in 1984. The morbidly proverbial well was drying up.

Chuck Jones was in fine health for a man his age at this point, even creating his own “85th birthday” limited edition cel and cranking out a series of other releases through his daughter’s company. I remember a conversation I had with a colleague at Warner Bros. around this time, where we were joking that Jones had created so much of these limited pieces that he likely had already drawn his own “Speechless” image for himself for when the time comes.

“So,” I asked, “is his tribute print going to be thanking himself?”

“Nah,” my friend replied. “His will probably say ‘You’re welcome.'”

It was also around this time that a rumor was circulating that Jones’s company kept a warehouse stockpile of blank cels already signed by Jones to be at the ready for future limited edition pieces. Linda Jones Enterprises emphatically denied this cache of blank cels existing, but strangely a couple of new, signed limited editions nevertheless were released in the years following Jones’s eventual 2002 death, so make your own conclusions.

But anyway, things were looking up a little for Warner Bros. in 1996 with their acquisition of Turner Entertainment, resulting in Warner controlling the Hanna-Barbera library and characters. The company made quick use of Scooby-Doo, marketing the hell out of the character and turning him into an even bigger brand than Bugs and friends. The celebration was short-lived, though, as in 1997 Scooby voice actor Don Messick died following a number of strokes. A legendary voice actor whose characters are now a hot commodity for a massive media conglomerate? Now, you just KNOW what’s going to happen, right?

“Farewell” to Don Messick, who as we all know was famous for saying “farewell” in Shaggy’s voice.

Issued just in time for Christmas of 1997 (how considerate of Don), the Farewell lithograph attempted to follow the same mold set by Speechless and “Friz,” but it’s about as half-assed as it could possibly be. With their backs to the viewer, Shaggy and Scooby are looking off into the distance, with Scooby’s head downcast and Shaggy consoling him. And of course, the obligatory caption, “Farewell,” is present.

That’s it.

Don Messick was with Hanna-Barbera for four decades. In addition to Scooby-Doo, Don ALSO voiced Bam Bam Rubble, Astro, Boo-Boo, Ranger Smith, Dr. Quest, Bandit, Papa Smurf, Muttley, Scrappy-Doo, and countless others. Where were any of these other characters? Did Warner Bros. seriously believe any fan of Hanna-Barbera animation would only know Don for Scooby-Doo?

To add insult to injury is the inclusion of Shaggy, a character that Messick never voiced. Warner’s merchandising and marketing at the time certainly didn’t always depict Scooby and Shaggy together at all times, so it’s not like there was any precedent to suggest that they were joined at the hip. Besides, considering that Don also voiced Scooby’s own nephew, there was no reason for Shaggy to be the one consoling him. Two of Don’s characters mourning together as a family that suffered a major loss would have been meaningful enough.

The capper to the laziness of the piece is the caption: “Farewell.” How very specific and well-thought. I don’t know off the top of my head what would be an appropriate alternative that would have a better connection to Don Messick, but then apparently people being PAID to do just that couldn’t be bothered to come up with one, either. The whole image comes off as an afterthought, likely much as how acquiring Hanna-Barbera as part of the Turner deal was for Time Warner, too.

One would think the 2001 closing of the Warner Bros. Studio Stores would also mean the end to the Speechless line of products. We never did get that Chuck Jones “You’re Welcome” cel (though a rather tasteful, completely original memorial for Jones was placed in the Hollywood trade papers, showing a flurry of his original pencil drawings scattered across his animation desk, with the caption “Drawn to a Close.”). But you can’t keep a good product line (and somewhat gullible consumer base with deep pockets) down. In 2002 Ruth Clampett, Bob’s daughter and former supervisor of Warner’s gallery division, created her own company–Clampett Studio Collections–and struck a deal with Warner Bros. to continue producing gallery-quality pieces of artwork featuring the company’s characters.

Unfortunately, times were changing. Chuck Jones’s company had no interest in dealing with an outside vendor (especially a Clampett), preferring to sell directly to animation galleries themselves (selling through the Warner Bros. Studio Stores was likely a mere courtesy as a part of their licensing agreement), and there was no longer any entity offering Friz Freleng limited edition artwork. The collectable animation art industry was caving in on itself, and online galleries and eBay were quickly making any remaining physical galleries obsolete. This meant Clampett had to hire the services of more anonymous modern day Warner Bros. artists to provide the cel artwork, and images were less reminiscent of iconic Looney Tunes cartoons as they were just mere comical panels featuring the characters. This gave new releases a rather cold, hollow look about them. Whatever flair or uniqueness the Jones and Freleng cels gave the characters was traded in for generic poses seemingly taken direct from a licensing model sheet. The artwork had the same aesthetic as a Looney Tunes t-shirt, and had the same level of desirability among collectors.

The original Speechless lithograph was still being offered through WBShop.com, the rather generic post-Studio Store online site that would become better known as the home to the Warner Archive Collection of DVDs. But oh no, simply reprinting their most popular piece of artwork is never enough for a corporation that was still trying to justify the AOL merger and subsequent closing of their retail operations.

Hence the Speechless Deluxe Edition, issued in November 2005.

The very stupid “Speechless Deluxe Edition” cel, 2005.

Like all redos of the original Speechless, Speechless: Deluxe takes the main character image and strips away all of its depth and solemnity by slapping it in front of a multi-colored background (again a theatrical stage, for some reason). Even Darrel Van Citters’s original artwork of the characters gets sullied, with Sylvester’s closed eyelids now being inexplicably colored white (looking like a pupiless ghost instead of someone in mourning), the white of Pepe’s chest and stomach has been changed to jet black (making him look like he’s on a break from performing in a kabuki puppet show), and gaps between characters are left white and opaque rather than transparent. It’s just a lazy, sloppy translation of a well-crafted, and at this point almost iconic, image.

The original lithograph’s signature inscription has been moved to a brass plaque to be glued onto a frame, while the cel itself has been signed by Noel Blanc. Only a hundred pieces of this monstrosity were produced, with each one priced at $2,595 unframed!

And speaking of Noel, we need to go back in time a small bit to focus on one of the more embarrassing pieces of Speechless-related merchandise, the Passing the Baton lithograph from 2003. Sold as a limited edition of 500 pieces for $495, press releases announce that the new art “celebrates the life of world-renowned character voice artist Mel Blanc and his son Noel.”

Um, why?

The very stupid “Passing the Baton,” 2003.

Look, I’ve met Noel. He’s a nice, funny, down-to-earth guy, but as far as any kind of animation career goes, what is there to celebrate? His actual vocal contributions to the Looney Tunes characters following his dad’s death were minuscule–mainly just filling in a very small void before Jeff Bergman was hired in the fall of 1989. Noel has in actuality done wonders in preserving Mel’s legacy and making hundreds of hours of recordings available for commercial use–at times even developing software to adapt and customize Mel’s voices to fit specific product needs (perhaps most famously by creating a singing clip for a “Macarena Tweety” plush doll). Keeping his dad’s legacy alive and relevant is important, of course, but do we really need to celebrate that?

Passing the Baton was in fact marketed not as merely a “salute” to Noel Blanc but in fact as an actual companion piece (they literally used that phrase in marketing the litho) to Speechless, hoping those morbid collectors out there would display them on their walls side by side.

The image features all of the characters from the original “Speechless” plus the addition of the Tasmanian Devil, who was just starting to become a major licensing character at the time of Mel’s death but likely then still wasn’t seen as popular or mainstream enough to depict in the original memorial…but hey, it’s 2003 and we gotta slap on a hot merchandising character to drive sales (surprised Marvin the Martian wasn’t added, too). Anyway, the gang is all decked out in tuxedos and joyfully playing various instruments as if in an orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl. Behind them is a large black and white photograph of Mel and Noel as a child, with the younger Blanc “conducting” the music with a baton. GET IT?!?

According to the original press release for Passing the Baton, “Clampett Studio Collection…has done it again.” Ugh, yes, they have, and it’s despicable.

Whether or not Mel actually intended Noel to carry on his voices is kinda irrelevant. The fact remains is that Noel didn’t, and a product like this feeds into that general public ignorance that he did. It’s the same lazy phony knowledge that make people think Brian Henson ever performed Kermit the Frog after Jim died (a “fact” that I swear was actually repeated by a reporter in a newspaper interview with Noel). I’ve complained before about how newspaper comic strips for whatever reason get passed onto children whenever a creator dies (and I’ve yet to hear an actual believable reason as to why), and I in a way blame that trend for this mass stupidity when it comes to newer voice artists taking over classic roles. I mean, we don’t really think Alec Guinness’s son played young Obi-Wan in the Star Wars prequels, do we?

So after toys, figurines, plates, deluxe cels, spin-offs, and sequels, what is there left to mine from Speechless to “salute”? Well, in 2008 the always reliable Clampett Studio Collections came through by creating a new version of Speechless that saluted Speechless itself!

2008’s “Timeless…,” the very stupid tribute to “Speechless.”

Titled Timeless… and timed around what would have been Mel’s 100th birthday, it was a newly created cel limited to only one hundred editions, with each piece priced at $1,375 framed. Yikes! Eschewing any kind of pretense as to its intentions, the cel’s certificate of authenticity actually explicitly calls it a “sequel tribute.” Hey, animation collectors! Plunk down nearly $1,400 for a sequel!

Timeless… tries to recall the original emotions that Speechless brought, even enlisting Darrel Van Citters to design the new image. But instead of the Looney Tunes gang being mournful and solemn, this new artwork was (I guess) meant to be the inverse and instead be a celebration of life, a jubilant acknowledgement of Mel’s career. A concept like that could actually work, but why even tie it to the original Speechless piece? Why use the same cluster of characters? What would have been wrong with, say, an energetic piece with all of Mel’s Warner-owned characters (Hanna-Barbera guys included) bursting from the glow of a central microphone? Or even, daresay, make the extra effort to also license the images of other Blanc characters like Heathcliff, Twiki from Buck Rogers, or even something out there like the Frito Bandito or Go Go Gomez from Dick Tracy? Call it “The Man of a Thousand Voices” and avoid putting birth and death years on it; just let Mel’s body of work speak for itself for once. I have a feeling such a piece would sell in considerable numbers and would appeal to collectors who maybe have felt the last two decades of derivative products have been too ghoulish.

But no, Timeless… doesn’t take any risks but wants the same reward. This time, the characters aren’t so much just honoring Mel Blanc as they are also perversely commemorating the release of the original Speechless lithograph. A facsimile of the print is depicted on the outside of the theater the way one would see a movie poster for an upcoming release. The rest of the image has generic trappings of a “Hollywood movie premiere” setting, including a drawing of Mel’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a parody of the iconic Hollywood sign reading “ACMEWOOD.” And of course, not only Van Citters but also Ruth Clampett had to sign the cel saluting Mel Blanc. Lame.

Like every other piece of Speechless-related merchandise, one begs to question who the intended audience is or what purpose is it meant to serve. The original Speechless is still being printed and is readily available to purchase at this point, so why would one need to purchase an item that is simply recalling a better, and more meaningful, piece of art? Especially one that was initially a memorial piece to begin with? I don’t even know if the word “morbid” is appropriate here. This lithograph is a celebration of morbid commercialism.

So as we are now at the thirty-year mark of Mel’s passing, I have to wonder if we’re simply past the point of no return. Are we just going to keep seeing regurgitations of the “Speechless” imagery and sentiment courtesy of whichever third party “art” vendor holds the Looney Tunes license at any given moment? Will we soon see a holographic version of Speechless? Or a laser-cut crystal version? Or a talking music box? Or are we just a Comic Con away from seeing a Funko Pop version of Speechless?

And this just goes back to what I asked earlier. With all of his work and creations at their disposal, why is Warner Bros. so intent on just focusing on Mel Blanc’s death? Apart from DVD releases of the actual cartoons (which themselves are few and far between lately), what are they doing to celebrate his actual talent? Individual people working on Looney Tunes productions have made attempts–from Mel’s Jack Benny Show Maxwell sound effects turning up in Looney Tunes: Back in Action to his vintage Capitol Records songs being used for recent CGI cartoons–but what exactly has the Warner Bros. company done apart from constantly reminding us that he’s dead? There was a long life before that death, you know. Over eighty years. I still think that’s a pretty long amount of time.

Mel’s own tombstone famously says, “That’s all, folks!” I really wish that was the case.

As I had hoped, I found the picture of me and Dave Coulier, taken at the Cleveland Comedy Club before his set…during a blizzard.

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Greg’s Unpopular Opinion #1: “The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees” is a pretty lame album

This is a very odd blog entry for me to make. This was something I was planning to write and post as more or less just a random thought; something that I had been pondering that was otherwise irrelevant to the world around me…as most of my thoughts tend to be. Every time I tried to sit down and write these thoughts down, some major news event surrounding the subject would happen. I didn’t want it to seem like I was merely following a trend. I would prefer my thoughts on here to be regarded more as non-sequiturs.

I’m here to blog about the Monkees. I first became a fan of the group in 1986 when MTV reintroduced them to children with their “Pleasant Valley Sunday” weekend marathon. I talked a little bit about my mania for them early on in Yankoheit 27, and I am happy to say that I have remained a fan to this very day, even having been lucky enough to have met all four of them on a variety of occasions. (A professionally taken photograph of me, my daughter Pru, and Michael Nesmith hangs rather prominently in the hallway as you go up the staircase to our second floor. If you’re heading the other way, Pru’s shirt in the picture tells you which direction you’re heading, as it depicts the title of the Monkee single “Goin’ Down.”)

The history of the Monkees was so unique and crazy that myths, embellishments, and outright lies eventually became part of the narrative of that journey. Davy bragged that his pre-Monkees solo single “Dream Girl” hit #1 in Australia–well, it didn’t (none of their solo recordings reached #1 anywhere). Micky often said that the movie Head was so salacious that it was originally rated R–well, it wasn’t (it was always rated G). Many people have said that one of the catalysts for the Monkees ousting Don Kirshner was his offering them a demo of “Sugar, Sugar” to record–well, he didn’t (he had actually commissioned a demo of a far less iconic song called “Sugar Man”). And some guy who wrote some stupid song called “Acapulco Sun” for the 1970 album Changes said that it was a hit single in Mexico after Colgems gave up on the group in the States–well, it wasn’t (a four-track EP was released down there as opposed to the full Changes album; “Sun” was on side two, wasn’t billed any more prominently than the other three songs, and certainly wasn’t a “hit”).

But I’m not here to go too deep into the entirety of Monkees history. There are already numerous excellent web sites and books all covering that. Should you feel the need to want to learn all there is about the mania that was the Monkees, the books and liner notes by historian Andrew Sandoval is an ideal place to start. Instead, I wanted to focus on one very specific part of the Monkees story, in a retro-timely sort of fashion.

You see, this year marked a few notable golden anniversaries for the group. The fiftieth anniversary of the end of their TV show’s original run. The fiftieth anniversary of the release of their now-beloved cult classic Head. The fiftieth anniversary of their final concert tour as a quartet (at least, until 1997). And this year marked fifty years since the release of their fifth album: The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees.

The Birds

Released just as the second and final TV season was starting up summer reruns, The Birds… squeaked out just as Monkeemania was about to end. The group was still at a point where anything with their name on it was going to sell through the roof, and in a way everyone involved seemed to be aware of that. The four guys were off filming Head, so they did very little to promote the release of the album. Their record label, Colgems, hyped it up a little bit with a preview single, “Valleri,” which itself was cashing in a bit on its notoriety as an already-recognizable song from the show’s first season (the label didn’t even feel the need to print up picture sleeves in the U.S.). And unlike the year before when it had a new album and two singles to push, Screen Gems opted not to dub songs from the album into summer repeats of the show. Apart from one major exception that I’ll go into in a bit, the only television exposure The Birds… received was “Valleri” and “Zor and Zam” sneaking awkwardly onto the final two episodes of the series. Colgems seemed to have been banking on Monkee reliability alone to sell the album.

In terms of the group’s development, the album was a spiritual triumph. The back cover proudly declared that it was “Produced by The Monkees” (with, again, one major exception). Here they were, four guys hired to act on a TV show–assembled by a stunt-like casting call no less–breaking free from their plastic corporate origins and producing what was guaranteed to be a hit rock album all on their own, supposedly with little to no creative input or assistance from others. Sure, nowadays we’re used to reality TV stars launching their own clothing lines, recording artists designing headphones, and movie stars inexplicably adding “producer” to their credits, but in 1968 overnight successes rarely exhibited or pulled off such lofty ambitions. It was unusual enough for a session musician to become an artist in their own right, let alone four guys originally hired–in the coldest context–to merely provide vocals now producing an entire album themselves. But the Monkees had (apparently) done just that.

If only.

The boys had started their own musical destiny about a year before when they broke free from the supervision of Don Kirshner, who was hired by Columbia Pictures to provide the music for the Monkees television series. Utilizing an array of skilled composers and producers, it was under Kirshner’s direction that the Monkees had such hits as “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” and “A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You.” But in crafting those songs, the Monkees themselves were intentionally kept out of the process, only being allowed into the studio to sing (and even then, usually only the lead parts, with studio singers providing backup). Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork quickly grew tired of the charade and simply asked that they be involved in the recording of the music, too. To make a long story short, an agreement was reached to allow “group-performed” songs on the flipsides of singles, that agreement was broken behind the guys’ backs, and they forced Columbia to fire Kirshner. In any other circumstance, such a loss would have been fatal–surely the Monkees’ music would flop without the guidance and expertise of “The Man with the Golden Ear.” But miraculously, in 1967 the boys (ahem) banded together and turned out not one but two spectacular albums: Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. Whereas the first two Monkees albums–late 1966’s The Monkees and early 1967’s More of the Monkees–contained tracks from various producers on both coasts and recorded with numerous session players, these next two releases had the four Monkees playing on every track (and in most cases, with little to no outside musical assistance)…and all under the direction of just one producer, Chip Douglas.

Despite the creative, artistic, and commercial success they had with Douglas, by the end of 1967 the Monkees decided that they wanted to be the ones in the mixing booth, seemingly having complete control over the production of the music. The result of these group-produced efforts became the tracks found on The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees.

If only.

True, from a certain point of view “The Monkees” were in fact producing the new sessions, but Peter, Davy, Mike, and Micky were not all sitting together in the booth making group decisions. Far from it. Apart from the rare instance of a cooperative musical or vocal contribution, the four Monkees were in fact working individually. On any given day at RCA’s affiliated studios, Michael and Peter–and to a lesser extent, Davy–could be found in separate recording booths working on their own material. Micky eventually entrusted a few group confidants to produce tracks under his guidance, but to say that he himself was now a record “producer” was being a bit euphemistic. At this point the guys were merely accumulating solo recordings with little understanding to a goal in sight. They were hardly “producing” an album, and they certainly weren’t producing it together as a single unit.

Much of the creative decisions concerning The Birds… was in fact actually made by Screen Gems’ new musical supervisor for the group, Lester Sill. Though he wasn’t as militant as Don Kirshner and knew enough to take a backseat during the recording of Headquarters and Pisces, some of his decisions throughout 1968 were less than stellar. After all, this is the man who thought “D.W. Washburn” was going to make a great stand-alone Monkees single after the demise of the TV show–a hokey ragtime number that wasn’t even going to enjoy the benefit of any television exposure.

Sill served as the de facto executive producer of the album, handling many of the production responsibilities that the Monkees themselves did not. About half of the tracks on The Birds… were supervised under his auspices, enlisting the likes of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart to assemble the songs anonymously (so as not to shatter the “Produced by The Monkees” illusion). A better, more accurate credit for the back cover of the album would have been “Produced by The Monkees and Friends.”

That’s not to say that these were all bad decisions, but it definitely paints a less pure picture than what the Monkee PR machine was offering to the public. The boys did not have free reign on this album–in fact, one of them almost got cut out of the process completely, while some of the more totally Monkee-made decisions were questionable at best.

One of Lester Sill’s biggest flaws during this period was his reliance on Davy to sell the group’s records, echoing shades of Don Kirshner preferring the hassle-free Jones when the other Monkees were making their biggest and loudest demands for musical freedom. Working closely with Sill, Davy churned out a parade of middle-of-the-roady songs that varied from tepid to downright unlistenable. This is the era of Davy material that typically gets the “schmaltz” label–dreck like “We Were Made for Each Other” and “It’s Nice to Be with You.” Older songs like “I Wanna Be Free” and “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” proved that Davy was able to turn in excellent performances when given strong enough material to work with–heck, most of his contributions to Pisces show how he was growing as a modern pop performer. But unfortunately, somewhere along the way Davy’s songs started going backward and traded in ’60s pop/rock for sappy melodrama, more “The Day We Fall in Love” and less “Star Collector.” The Birds… eventually became littered with this treacly Davy fodder.

But speaking of Davy, Sill also wanted to ensure that The Birds… was going to be a hit by including “Daydream Believer,” which had enjoyed tremendous success as the group’s latest single–already selling over a million copies. Recorded during the making of Pisces and originally intended for that album before being reshuffled onto a single, Sill decided to save it for the next LP to make sure there was a recognizable track already on it–a decision that seemed like a genius stroke when the song went to #1 and was already heavily used on the TV show during the “romps.” It wasn’t uncommon for any group let alone the Monkees to “save” a hit song for a later album, but it does seem a bit ironic now that easily the album’s most iconic and recognizable song wasn’t even intended for the release–and notably, it was the only song on it not “Produced by The Monkees” but rather by Chip Douglas.

Much of that “selling on recognizability” thinking can be seen elsewhere on the album. Two of the other tracks to make surprise appearances on The Birds… were “Valleri” and “I’ll Be Back Up on My Feet.” Both songs had previously been recorded in mid-1966 for what would eventually become More of the Monkees, and their inclusion seemed so definite that both songs were featured a number of times during the first season of the show. But alas, neither song was used, so although they remained “in the can” they were already recognizable to Monkees fans–especially after reports emerged that some resourceful deejays across the country taped “Valleri” right off their televisions and added it to their stations’ playlists. So clearly Sill knew that adding some familiar tracks to The Birds… would likely push it to fans of the series, but alas in an effort to better create the illusion that the Monkees were in charge of the album both songs were re-recorded to mixed results. “I’ll Be Back…” in particular gets drowned out by odd brass and Latin-sounding embellishments, sounding more like a strange samba number than a possible pop hit. But still, substandard Monkees material that people knew was a better risk than completely unfamiliar Monkees material–again, especially as the show was no longer featuring new recordings.

There’s no concise way to describe The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees. Stylistically it’s kinda all over the map. Pisces at least had a common tone throughout with its mild psychedelia, and Headquarters‘ raw “garage band” sound gave all of its tracks a cohesive feeling. The Birds… isn’t necessarily bland, but it’s not totally entertaining either. It is definitely not an album for the casual Monkees listener, and even a die-hard fan can easily start skipping over tracks to get to the better material. It’s the kind of album you’d find in an old lady’s house because she wanted to make sure she had some of those Monkees guys her grandkids liked to listen to when they came over. That’s pretty much the way to describe The Birds…: Monkees for old people. The Monkees and More of the Monkees were full of youthful, almost juvenile innocence; Headquarters and Pisces showed a group heading into adolescence; and now here they were at a mature stage in their development, with all of their past knowledge and song-crafting know-how at their disposal.

If only.

Of the four Monkees, Micky Dolenz gets through The Birds… relatively unscathed. The onetime lead singer of the group–who commanded the bulk of the tracks on the debut album and even sang the show’s theme song–had been slowly sliding into the backseat ever since Pisces, allowing Davy and Mike to metaphorically duke it out on the number of leads on an album. Here Micky is again present, but he’s certainly not featured on any of the album’s “major” songs. His voice is found on the remake of “I’ll Be Back Up on My Feet” along with two solo numbers, a harmless Boyce/Hart pop number called “P.O. Box 9847” and the toothless anti-war-themed “Zor and Zam,” which at least had the notoriety of being the final Monkees song heard on the TV series.

As for Davy, sigh…again, I don’t want to beat up on the guy, but his material is truly the weakest on the album. You hear the Davy on his dopey, more-personal productions like “Dream World,” “We Were Made for Each Other,” and “The Poster” versus the Davy of the excellent “Daydream Believer” and “Valleri” and you’d almost think they were two different guys.

And then something needs to be said about Michael Nesmith. Look, he’s a great songwriter and innovator in both music and video, but he does get a bit of a swell head about himself at times. The period when The Birds… came out represented Nez at perhaps his most pretentious–at least as a Monkee. This is during his “I’ve written three books of poetry that will never be published under my name”/”I will record an instrumental album of my songs with a big band”/”We’re not even going to be billed in the cast of our own movie” era of needless artsy-fartsiness. This extreme need for self-indulgence definitely made its way into the songs he was producing, which is all the stranger because this is about when he first started writing and recording some of the beautiful songs that he would later resculpt and release on his ’70s solo albums. The first iteration of “Conversations” was recorded during this time, as was the first studio take of the magnificent “Nine Times Blue.” But then there were also songs where his creativity ran a bit too amok, and for some reason a lot of them found a home on The Birds…. The enigmatic, folk-rocky “Auntie’s Municipal Court” is perhaps the most accessible Nesmith song on the album (it should be noted it’s also the only one on the LP that he didn’t write by himself), saved in large part by Micky and Mike doubling a very Monkees-pop lead vocal. Later on the album is the strange but enjoyable “Magnolia Simms,” a 1920s-ish throwback that would become a precursor to the production style Nesmith would later employ when recording “Daddy’s Song” for the Head soundtrack. The song’s signature “record skipping” effect helps make it a light-hearted, easy to take novelty–and definitely more enjoyable to sit through than, say, “D.W. Washburn.”

But then we have “Tapioca Tundra” and “Writing Wrongs,” perhaps two of the most tedious Nesmith songs in the released Monkees catalog.

“Tapioca Tundra” is such an oddity. It’s almost a country/Latin hybrid in style, representing something of a transition for Nez. The song has the speedier pacing of his earlier Monkees recordings, but it’s mixed with the unfocused oddball lyrics of his later, slower songs. In recent years Mike has tried to explain “Tundra” as a metaphor for what the Monkees and the audience shared during the group’s first concert tours, that symbiotic experience of feeding energy to each other. It’s a nice sentiment (if that was truly the intent), but the point is never driven home in the lyrics. It sounds very much like latter day backpedaling to explain away a very boring song.

Even Andrew Sandoval has little to praise about “Tundra,” often charitably framing it as the group’s “strangest” top 40 hit–and yes, it actually made the top 40 as the b-side to “Valleri.” Less charitably, the song has yet to appear on any of the single-disc Monkees greatest hits collections that have been released over the decades (assembled by Sandoval or otherwise), despite it being a legitimate chart hit at #34 and supposedly being more successful than some of the other tracks that routinely populate such compilations. There’s just nothing about it that really resonates to the listener; it’s the musical equivalent of an inside joke.

The dreary, hard-to-understand “Writing Wrongs,” meanwhile, clocks in at a bloated five-minute-plus running time, with passages of the song almost endlessly repeating. It drags side one of the album to a listless close without ever achieving the “epic” vibe a pop song of this length should offer.

(A much tighter, better thought-out version of this same kind of song concept can be found with “Birth of an Accidental Hipster” on Good Times!)

It all just becomes too much weirdness from Nez for one album, and the fact that one of his oddities ended up on a single also says a lot about Lester Sill’s judgement, too.

And then there’s poor, poor Peter Tork. If anyone was the most disillusioned by the termination of the group-recording dynamic it was Peter. The days of the guys playing and singing virtually every note like on Headquarters was gone, and with each Monkee now individually producing their own recordings there was nobody else to truly bounce ideas off. Peter’s own solo productions were distracted, unfocused messes. One song he was working on in particular, “Lady’s Baby,” infamously took nearly a hundred takes over several months and ultimately forced longtime studio engineer Hank Cicalo to leave in disgust. Peter seemingly pinned a lot of hopes on getting a final mix of “Lady’s Baby” ready for inclusion on The Birds…, even offering it as a potential single, but in the end the song was passed over. Perhaps not surprisingly, Tork grew more frustrated with the direction the group was taking; by year’s end, he quit the Monkees. He certainly stopped recording any new tracks after his “Baby” was shelved.

(Perhaps the one redemption was that two of Peter’s other passed-over songs, “Can You Dig It” and “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again,” were used later that year in the movie Head and its accompanying soundtrack.)

Peter appears only once on the entire LP, via his iconic piano introduction on “Daydream Believer” (a song recorded an album ago during the Pisces sessions, yet!). Despite the fact that he was never a prominent vocalist on the group’s recordings, the lack of Peter nevertheless gives The Birds… a very thin, cold vibe not unlike the albums done after he actually left the group. It’s strange to point out that Peter contributes as much to The Birds… as he does on the post-Tork LP Instant Replay, where he had provided something like ninth-chair guitar on Mike’s 1966 outtake “I Won’t Be the Same Without Her.” Ironically, this meant that Peter was as represented on an album “Produced by The Monkees” as he was on one released after he was no longer a Monkee!

Monkee fans love to “what if” the group’s history. What if the series had a third season? What if Head was a hit at the box office? What if Peter or Mike didn’t leave the group? What if, what if, what if? But typically the era fans like to fantasize about revising is the post-show era, from mid-1968-on. The TV series and first five albums are almost looked at as untouchable, like some perfect “how can you mess with this?” golden age of pop multimedia. Even the Kirshner-assembled More of the Monkees album is regarded as sacred despite the actual group despising how it came about and was released. And look, it makes sense for fans to not want to think about how the group’s “best era” could be tinkered with–all four guys were together and (relatively) getting along, the series was still on the air, and their best known hits all came out in this period. Seriously, why mess with near-perfection?


Many episodes of the show don’t age well at all, with a select few coming off as downright racist to certain groups. More of the Monkees, despite having many true-blue Monkees classics like “She” and “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),” also forces the likes of “The Day We Fall in Love” and “Hold On Girl” onto unsuspecting listeners. Colgems did themselves and the group a great disservice by not issuing a single off Headquarters in the States, especially during that all-too-important summer of 1967 when Sgt. Pepper’s quickly dominated the music world. And then something needs to be said about the wisdom of the group and Chip Douglas for including Davy’s horrid “Hard to Believe” on Pisces instead of either “Daydream Believer” or “Goin’ Down.” The guys weren’t infallible, even during this high time that everyone loves.

The Birds… always seems to coast by when it comes to serious criticism, like it’s quietly hiding in the corner because it knows it’s safe sitting between Pisces and Head, two of the Monkees’ crowning creative achievements. It’s rarely given much attention, regarded more as an admirable end of an era. If anything, at worst it sometimes gets a “it was the best they could do” reputation.

But if I may, since it’s my blog, I’d like to do my own “what if” here and reshuffle the tracklist of The Birds… to imagine how that album could have been constructed better. And to be clear, I’m mainly going to be fiddling with the Birds album, so I’m not going to, for example, grab songs from Head or the “D.W. Washburn” single (Instant Replay, however, will not be nearly as safe).

For your reference, here is the originally released tracklist on The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees….

Side one:
1. Dream World
2. Auntie’s Municipal Court
3. We Were Made for Each Other
4. Tapioca Tundra
5. Daydream Believer
6. Writing Wrongs

Side two:
1. I’ll Be Back Up on My Feet
2. The Poster
3. P.O. Box 9847
4. Magnolia Simms
5. Valleri
6. Zor and Zam

Right off the bat, the tiring Davy material has to go. He had better performances in him–“Daydream Believer” and “Valleri” are proof of that–but either he or someone he listened to kept thinking people wanted him to do these ineffective pop ballads. Songs like “The Poster” and the opening “Dream World” just grind the album’s momentum to a halt, even more so than his bossa nova-like “Hard to Believe” did back on Pisces. The stuff that ended up on the album is all the more frustrating when one hears the outtakes Davy was working on around this time. The 1994 Birds CD from Rhino offered the perfect alternative: a somewhat angsty version of Neil Sedaka’s “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” The version that Davy eventually re-recorded for inclusion on 1969’s Instant Replay is all right, but the attempt of the song done in late 1967 features alternate, less gushy lyrics–resulting in not so much an aggressive Davy, but definitely a more defiant one. It would have paired well with the likes of “Valleri” and “Daydream Believer.”

Some of the Mike Nesmith fat needs to be trimmed a little, too. It’s too much Enigmatic Nez for one LP, and it’s not all that great, either. As I said, “Writing Wrongs” sinks like a stone on side one, a rambling end that may not make one want to flip over to the second side. It needs to go, and despite all the excellent outtakes Nesmith was working on at the time, the best candidate for that “mature Monkees pop” sound is his rocking, Dylan-esque “St. Matthew.” An almost angry opening fiddle sting kicks off a fast-paced country/pop number, definitely a worthy successor to such tracks as “Sunny Girlfriend” and “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” from the previous albums. It would actually make an ideal opener to the album, much more than “Dream World” did.

And we need to get Peter back on this album. His absence was simply an insult to him, period. He really had everything riding on “Lady’s Baby,” but at this time he crafted a far better song with “Tear the Top Right Off My Head,” a quirky ’60s rocker that definitely shared a style with his Head standout “Long Title….” Plus, Peter and Micky sang a brief acoustic rendition of the song during the second season of the TV show, during the “Hitting the High Seas” episode. With the second season in reruns at the time of the album’s release, the song’s inclusion would have definitely fed into the “selling on recognizability” vibe that Lester Sill was going for.

And finally, speaking of recognizable songs, the one song The Birds… was sorely lacking was “Goin’ Down,” the b-side to “Daydream Believer” that was featured heavily during the second season of the show but never showed up on any of the studio albums. Granted the song itself wasn’t nearly as big of a hit as the group’s other b-sides, but again, to any current Monkee fans it would have been immediately recognizable as a recent show highlight. That song deserved better than being relegated to compilations as an also-ran…and it definitely would have upped the amount of TV-recognizable songs on The Birds… from three to five.

So here’s my adjusted tracklist to The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees….

Side one:
1. St. Matthew
2. The Girl I Left Behind Me
3. P.O. Box 9847
4. Daydream Believer
5. Tapioca Tundra
6. Goin’ Down

Side two:
1. I’ll Be Back Up on My Feet
2. Tear the Top Right Off My Head
3. Auntie’s Municipal Court
4. Magnolia Simms
5. Valleri
6. Zor and Zam

But this all just daydream believing on my part. It certainly doesn’t change the group’s history, nor does it change the fact that some more totally enjoyable albums followed The Birds… like Head, The Monkees Present, and of course Good Times!

When asked about the more fragmented, isolated, not-singing-or-playing-together production style on the very recent The Monkees Christmas Party, Andrew Sandoval tried to sell it to skeptical fans by saying “think of it as done like The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees“…as if that would be a good thing.

If only.

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Make America Hate Again

I don’t like to get political, but–

Sorry, I couldn’t even finish that sentence without laughing uncontrollably.

Though I’m often cracking wise about the election over on my Twitter feed, this is actually going to be the only regular blog post I’m going to make about this little grudge match we have going on right now. Extended writing about politics is just too exhausting for me.

Back in 2004 I started a new section over on my site called …without Bush, which was a series of monthly columns leading up to the election that year. This was back when people’s attention spans online lasted a little longer than 140 characters or a Snapchat image. After John Kerry lost the election that year, I continued the columns but at a slower rate–turning them from monthly to quarterly. I kept writing them until George W. Bush finally left office, even offering a countdown on the site to the end of his term.

The name of the section came from a phrase that I believe I heard somewhere else but I was nevertheless trying hard to popularize, that “you can’t spell ‘bullshit’ without ‘BUSH.'” The columns were what one might expect from a left-wing writer angry about the state of the country and the uneducated madman in the Oval Office at the time. I covered a variety of topics that I researched long and hard beforehand, hitting a number of subjects that I thought were important that election season.

I did issue a minor challenge throughout those columns. I simply asked Bush supporters out there to explain to me why they liked him. Unfortunately, I never got any answer. Oh, people did read the columns, as somehow word got around about them (and again, this was before I would have used Twitter to promote them). My piece about the environment seemed as if it was the most popular; while one about the soldiers lost in the Iraq war triggered an angry, seemingly non-specific, most likely copy-and-pasted response from a supposed Army sergeant who was upset at seeing a colleague’s name among the dead (as if that was my fault).

Perhaps the most interesting reaction (of sorts) I received came shortly after I started posting the columns, as a new subscriber joined the e-mail list for my (completely unrelated) “Weird Al” Yankovic Songography…a subscriber using a Halliburton.com e-mail address–yes, as in the corporation Dick Cheney ran before becoming vice president and still had a financial stake in. Amazingly, this person’s interest in Weird Al’s catalog of songs waned right after the Bush administration ended in 2009, at which point they asked to be removed from the mailing list. But remember, it’s Hillary who supposedly abused private e-mail servers, right?

Now, this blog post isn’t going to be any sort of major thinkpiece. Everyone pretty much knows how I plan to vote anyway, and at the moment I don’t think any return of a …without Bush-like series of articles is going to change the course of the election (Trump certainly doesn’t need anyone else’s words to sink his ship). BUT, for those of you who are still for whatever bizarre reason still considering filling in that oval for Cheeto-colored, Tribble-headed seacow Donald Trump, then this blog post is sorta for you.

First, just real quick, what the hell is the matter with you anyway? Are you so terrified of a woman or non-white holding public office that you’re willing to insult your own intelligence and vote for this charlatan? And don’t give me the “He acts like a phony because he’s a celebrity” line. Bullshit. Reagan was a celebrity before entering politics and he never acted like a drunk frat boy crashing an alumni dinner. And remember back in 2008 when Republicans were so enraged that Obama’s popularity made him a “celebrity” without any supposed political experience? He didn’t seem to have any problem acting like an actual statesman. So drop the pretense here about Trump being an asshole because he’s a celebrity. He’s simply an asshole.

Like with Bush, it just goes back to not understanding why people like him. For that matter, I also don’t quite get why some people hate Hillary so passionately. I’m sure someone somewhere has some rambling diatribe ready about Benghazi and Wall Street and cops and Bill’s penis and Vince Foster–it’s all bullshit, too. You hate her for some intangible reason (surely not gender) and you’re tripping over your own ass trying to backtrack your way into a plausible reason.

To be fair, what the hell difference does it make if you like a candidate as a person? You’re electing them to be president, not your best friend. If you want to vote on a messiah, go to church. The rest of us adults are a little more concerned about the welfare of our country than if we personally want to have a beer with a candidate.

But anyway, there had been talk from Trump about Hillary supposedly not looking “presidential,” whatever that is really supposed to mean coming from him. To me, he always looks and sounds like a bad character actor playing a president in a low-budget Syfy movie–he’d be the president worried about the sharknado affecting “tourist season.” But supposedly what it all means is that Hillary is not carrying herself the way a president should.

This is white male privilege at its essence. “This isn’t how I envision something, so therefore I must be right.” And the reason he gets a pass on all the shit he’s said and done is because his loyal base is just like him: big, dumb, white guys. It’s not that they don’t know any better; they like what they see. It’s simple-minded male empowerment. They see a supposed alpha and roll over to expose their bellies.

But seriously, let’s just run down a quick “greatest hits” list here. Pretend this isn’t a white male doing this stuff. Can you imagine the outrage and reactions from the right…

…if Barack Obama said that Mexicans were notorious rapists and drug dealers?

…if Hillary Clinton attacked a Gold Star family for speaking their mind, and then suggested that the wife’s religion was forbidding her from talking about it?

…if Barack Obama referred to a U.S. senator as “Pocahontas”?

…if Hillary Clinton mocked a disabled person?

…if Barack Obama went onto Russian television and slammed not only the American press but also U.S. foreign policy?

…if Hillary Clinton lied about donating to September 11 relief charities?

…if Barack Obama encouraged voters to track down and watch a sex tape?

…if Hillary Clinton said that POWs were not war heroes, or that soldiers with PTSD were not “strong”?

…if Michelle Obama had appeared in a nude photoshoot, let alone one showing her engaged in lesbian sex?

…if Hillary Clinton asked Russia to spy on a political rival?

…if it was revealed that Barack Obama had appeared in a number of softcore Playboy home videos?

…if Hillary Clinton had a convicted felon introduce her at a black church and use the word “nigger”?

…if the Clinton Foundation used donations to buy a ten-foot portrait of Hillary to hang in a restaurant?

…if Barack Obama proudly announced that he refused to pay income taxes for eighteen years?

And we have all that before even going into the “grab them by the pussy” interview tape, the increasing number of sexual assault stories and allegations, the championing of the housing crash, and all of the other things that would disqualify any other candidate in a heartbeat, let alone a Republican!

But none of this matters to Trump’s basket of unintelligibles. His core support is living in a fantasy world–one where some dead asshole’s political blog is considered a news source, one where Scott Baio is their answer to Gore Vidal, one where a foundation meeting with world leaders to fight child hunger and disease is supposedly more scandalous than one embezzling money to buy a butt-ugly painting, and one where a goofy, bankruptcy-prone reality television star should be running the country. But hey, he’s going to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!!!

“Again”? Based on what criteria and what point in history? It seems that the things that have made America great are still around or are still impacting us: the Industrial Revolution, the New Deal, civil rights, marriage equality. I mean there are some things that should probably return to make America better–the estate tax, the higher tax rate for one-percenters, pre-Citizens United campaign finance restrictions–but I doubt Trump has any of those things in mind.

But of course, by “Make America Great Again” he means going back to the era that old, white, uneducated, middle class guys pine for. Blacks had to use separate bathrooms. Women were supposed to stay home to cook and clean. Tab Hunter had to pretend to be Rock Hudson. Workers didn’t have rights. The environment didn’t matter as long as Coalworker Joe Lunkhead didn’t have to learn to read in order to support his family. The world that characters like Archie Bunker and Hank Hill are satirizing.

It just won’t work. Civilizations don’t thrive let alone improve when they go backward. Nothing does. People don’t know how to let history be history. You can be nostalgic for something but also look forward to something better.

We can’t live in the past. I’m voting for the future.

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“Oh god, that’s terrible!”

I know I risk turning in all of my cool-person cards–and I have so many–but I need to disclose something to all four of you. It’s not something I’m ashamed of at all, but when I do mention it to another person I tend to get odd looks and follow-up questions.

I don’t drink coffee.

I never had a desire to do so. I simply don’t like the taste of it. I don’t care what’s done to it: blend it, ice it, steam it, sweeten it, top it with some kind of whipped goo, whatever. I just don’t like coffee, and the closest I will come to that sludge is a jamocha shake at Arby’s.

When it comes to caffeine, I tend to lean toward what we call around these parts “pop” but what’s also known as “soda,” “Cokes,” “tonic”…uh, let’s say also “swamp water,” and, um, “gloopy-gloop,” depending on the part of the country you live in–because evidently we have such a hard-on for making English our official language that we can’t even decide on the same words for certain common items. If I’m lucky I will sometimes also partake in a cup of tea, which is all the more easier now that I’m married to a tea connoisseur, but pop is usually my default soft drink of choice…and since I don’t drink alcohol anyway, let’s just say it’s my default drink, period.

I can’t say that I’m a big follower of pop news, but when something pretty cool comes along it tends to fascinate me. Several years ago, Coca-Cola unveiled this…I don’t know exactly how to put it…this, thing. It is one such pretty cool thing; some would say downright awesome. It’s perhaps one of the most ingenious innovations the soft drink industry has ever stumbled upon.

Coke unveiled the Coca-Cola Freestyle.

Coke FreestyleWhat is the Coca-Cola Freestyle, you ask? Well, you may know it as “that cool Coke thing,” but in its most simplistic essence, it’s a soda fountain, much like the ones you would find inside any fast food establishment that allows one to dispense their own drinkage into their own paper drinkage cuppage. Typically those work by you–as the mindless consumer devoid of any power and control–delicately placing your empty, and usually hideously decorated, paper cup under one of as many as six or seven pop options and then filling your cup, either via a button or latch or whatever. Your choice is usually limited in large part because the company and/or franchise owner running said restaurant is bottomlessly unimaginative (seriously, apart from White Castle, who else is going to offer red cream soda in their fountain?) but also because “shelf space,” so to speak, is so limited and there are only x number of selections that can be offered; and too many of which are considered essential for a soda fountain. If we’re dealing with Coke products you will always find Coke Classic, Diet Coke, and Sprite. The other few remaining slots probably normally go to brands such as Barq’s Root Beer, the vile Country Time Lemonade, maybe a Hi-C flavor, and usually Dr Pepper even though Coke doesn’t own the property and in most parts of the country doesn’t even bottle it. If you’re lucky, on the side of the machine you can sometimes also find a button in order to just dispense plain old water, because doesn’t that just hit the spot when you’re consuming salty, fatty fast food?

But the Coca-Cola Freestyle is a different animal altogether. Looking like a cross between an old school “drop cup and fill” vending machine and the Suicide Booth from Futurama, it’s all operated on a touchscreen. The machine greets you with a welcome screen displaying all the known Coca-Cola Company brands, including some that they don’t even offer at the grocery store. Old standbys such as Coca-Cola Classic, Sprite, and Coke Zero are there, sure, but so are Pibb Xtra, Fanta, and even Mellow Yellow Zero (don’t worry, it still tastes just like fermented sewer water). Once you make your brand selection you’re taken to a new screen where you get to pick your flavor of said beverage! With typically six to eight different additional flavors available for each drink, the possibilities increase tenfold. Just plain old Diet Coke too boring for you? Then how about Diet Coke Raspberry? Pibb Xtra Zero too Diet Dr Peppery for you? Then try Cherry Vanilla Pibb Xtra Zero!

The whole machine operates like a computer printer, where the various syrup flavors and base pop flavors are contained in individual cartridges like toner. When you make some crazy combination of soda and flavor the machine will mix the various elements in a certain ratio, just like when you need to print out something with a variety of different colors. You’re essentially drinking #F4A460! Taste that cyan!

I like the Freestyle for a couple of reasons. One, it’s amusing to see which obscure brand names Coke still believes can be relevant in 2015, such as Mr. Pibb and Mellow Yellow (I wouldn’t be surprised if certain Freestyle machines also offered Tab and Fresca). But also, as any of my Twitter or Faccibukke friends know, I’m a staunch opponent of high fructose corn syrup, the vile synthetic non-sugar goo that’s found in most regular pop brands because it’s cheaper than using actual sugar (maybe it wouldn’t be if corn farmers didn’t receive huge, unnecessary government subsidies and tax breaks?). Traditional pop fountains don’t usually offer any diet flavors beyond the respective brand’s signature diet cola–to say nothing of sit-down restaurants where the servers’ eyes cross in confusion if you should ask if they serve anything diet besides Coke or Pepsi, as if “diet” is a singular flavor in of itself. So it’s comforting to be able to choose from more than just ONE diet pop, be it Diet Barq’s or Sprite Zero or Pibb Xtra Zero or whatever. And hey, if I do want to add a goofy flavor to it once in a while, it’s only going to add a calorie or two and a trivial amount of sweetener. It makes the diet-pop drinker feel like they’re not just being relegated to that restaurant ghetto set up to appease people from Weight Watchers.

I did such an experiment the last time the family and I went out to a local Five Guys, we went with the entire family, we even took our baby with his new stroller we got from the babystroller-reviews. I wanted to try something truly bizarre, something that I doubt I would ever see on a grocery store shelf (in this country, anyway). I decided adding a unique fruit flavor to normal plain old Diet Coke would be fun to try–hey, after all, I buy Diet Coke Lime for home from time to time (I’m drinking a can of it now as I type this). So I pressed the “Diet Coke Orange” button. I doubt I was the first to do so, and I doubt I will be the last…but I will say that if anyone ever orders that again, it certainly won’t be me.

“Oh god, that’s terrible!” was the utterance heard around the table. I’m not quite sure I could accurately describe the strange mix of bitterness and gooey sweetness that hit my tongue. If I had to approximate it, I would try to put it in the same category as that taste you get when you drink orange juice after brushing your teeth. It was nasty; I imagine it was on the same “ick” scale as repulsive-sounding crap like bacon-flavored vodka. But I had to finish the cup. I was committed to seeing it through to the end. I chalk it up as a horrible attempt, but that’s all a part of the fun of the Coca-Cola Freestyle.

And while we’re on the subject, can I just really quickly ask that we as a society drop this infantile fixation on bacon? Despite what a shirt at Hot Topic may suggest, you’re not a “hipster” for wanting to make fatty strips of pork a part of every meal; that’s called a “slob.” And don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against bacon as a breakfast meat per se, but we’ve really got to stop celebrating obesity and the things that cause it. It’s unhealthy for us on a psychological level. We need to stop treating competitive eating as a sport worthy of ESPN coverage and making a celebrity out of that Man vs. Food asshole. Wait no, scratch all that; let’s keep that up. Let’s encourage these idiots to keep doing what they’re doing, because you know what kind of people eat bacon at every meal? Dead people! Let’s see if they can purge themselves from our culture. I’m glad they’re now finding cancer links.

But anyway, what’s really, really funny about the Freestyle is its secret corporate ulterior motive. You didn’t really think the Coca-Cola Company was doing something this innovative out of the goodness of their hearts, did you? They didn’t concoct it after some vague, soda-based “I have a dream” ideal. No no, the true purpose of the Coca-Cola Freestyle is to provide that most treasured of corporate assets: consumer market research data.

You see, the Coca-Cola Freestyle records every iteration of every pop that’s ordered on it, saving and filing it the way a survey keeps track of demographic data. Periodically Coke downloads the information to see what everyone’s been ordering, compiling a sort of internal Billboard chart of their products. Obviously, the more known products such as Coke Classic, Sprite, etc. are going to be among the most ordered, but the company takes a bigger interest in the various flavored mixtures that are concocted. Coke uses this information to see what kinds of new brands and new flavors might be worth their while to either test-market or introduce on a national scale.

It’s a savvy, sneaky way of developing new product and doing field research without investing a dime (apart from manufacturing the machines, of course). And isn’t that what current America’s all about anyway, having someone else do all the hard work and take all the risk without making any personal investment yourself? How else does a concept like Kickstarter become popular? “I want to make a movie by myself but not sink a single penny of my own money into it, so I’ll beg people to Paypal me their money and I’ll promise to send them a script page or something stupid.” Let’s face it, Coke isn’t letting these people play on the Freestyles for free; you’re still buying a soft drink from them and their restaurant partners. Coke loses nothing in selling someone Mellow Yellow Zero Raspberry. They exert no energy finding out if people like it or not. Everyone in this country wants to be Huckleberry Finn, even though most of them have probably never read the book. It’s too much work.

But as far as lazy research and development goes, the Coca-Cola Freestyle is a work of genius, but it also might be the company’s undoing; its Achilles Heel Zero, if you will.

Imagine this hypothetical situation….

Let’s say, to name a rival company, Pepsi wanted to cripple Coca-Cola and cause it to waste millions of dollars in product development, market research, manufacturing, distribution, marketing, etc. Yeah, yeah, I know, it sounds crazy, but Coke has pretty much set it up to allow such a thing to happen.

The first thing Pepsi would need to do is locate all the known Freestyle machines in the country, a lengthy but not impossible task (Coke even provides a web site just for that purpose). Once such locations are mapped out, Pepsi could easily coordinate with its various local bottlers to recruit and/or hire a group of part-time workers or interns for each city. Local “street teams” are nothing new; in fact, with viral marketing and social media they are in fact a bit on the way out…and if there’s any one entity to fully utilize a marketing gimmick that’s quickly becoming irrelevant, it’s corporate America.

So each street team sets up a schedule to determine when each member will hit each Freestyle on which day and time. Meanwhile, Pepsi picks one, and only one, completely revolting Coke flavor–for the sake of argument, let’s just say Diet Coke Orange.

It is now up to each member of the local street teams to go to their nearest Coca-Cola Freestyle and do nothing but fill their cups with Diet Coke Orange, with a new person on the team hitting the Freestyle every day. Pepsi pays for their drink, their expenses, and their time. What American would not want to get paid for simply driving to a fast food joint and buy pop? They don’t even need to drink it; just purchase it and select the flavor on the screen.

You now have a whole country of pop consumers willingly and knowingly selecting Diet Coke Orange out of their local Freestyle machine. Coca-Cola has no choice but to see these sales figures and think, “Well, this must be what Americans want now!” Nobody can predict what the next big “flavor” is going to be. Remember when mango was popular for about three months? Pomegrante? Kiwi? We’re already seeing such a demand for orange, such as its baffling inclusion in Listerine and Crest products (whatever happened to avoiding the taste of orange while brushing your teeth?). A sudden, supposed grassroots surge in popularity for a Diet Coke Orange drink isn’t too farfetched.

But the reality is that it does truly suck, but Coke is just listening to their supposed consumer base, regardless if it made sense to them. After all, they thought everyone was going to go gaga over New Coke before public demand forced them to think otherwise. And if anyone who has ever visited the Coke-sponsored exhibit at EPCOT can tell you, the company isn’t necessarily against offering oddball flavors internationally.

So Coke spends billions of dollars to roll out Diet Coke Orange, a product that they are convinced the public will love…because that is what the public has already told them (supposedly). A huge ad campaign is plotted, commercials starring Bruce Willis are shot and sent to movie theaters to show before the trailers, there is some big Super Bowl tie-in sweepstakes, and pretty much every American consumer is made aware of this awesomely big new product that is on the horizon.

And it bombs big time.

And I don’t mean it simply underperforms. I’m talking New Coke failure…Crystal Pepsi failure…Josta failure…Henry Cavill Man from U.N.C.L.E. failure. It becomes one of the biggest corporate misfires in American history. Coke loses credibility and faces the worst quarter in its existence, while Pepsi not only thrives but also delivers the final sting by offering a new ad slogan for Diet Pepsi like “Why fool around with perfection?”

To the average American it will seem like a colossal error in judgement, when in actuality everything will have gone according to plan…for Pepsi.

You see, Pepsi at least understands how dangerous it is to put the fate of insane-sounding pop flavors solely in the hands of the public. In 1991 the company introduced a bizarre trio of fruit-flavored Pepsi colas in very limited release, literally just over the course of the summer…and in self-contained multi-packs, yet. It was probably the only time Pepsi test-marketed a product as deep into the wilderness as Northeast Ohio. The flavors were Pepsi Raging Razzberry, Pepsi Strawberry Burst, and Pepsi Tropical Chill. They were definitely a mixed bag. One or two of the flavors were, if memory serves, delightfully sweet. The other one, maybe the raspberry one, was forgettable but never as vile as the aforementioned Diet Coke Orange. Pepsi didn’t need a super-computer novelty toy to research and market these three new sodas. They simply quietly brought it out and, when it was clear that nobody was begging for more, quietly took it away. If Pepsi was to unveil their own version of the Freestyle, god knows what nasty-sounding, nasty-tasting Mountain Dew variation would catch on among teenage mall douchebags.

And that’s what’s so simultaneously awesome and hilarious about the Coca-Cola Freestyle: it blindly trusts us to make the right decisions that could potentially affect the whims of a major corporation. The fools! We’re idiots. We can’t distinguish quality on our own. We follow dumb trends and go see bad movies and listen to lousy music. We make Avatar and Titanic the two highest grossing movies of all time. We let a major recording artist get away with beating the shit out of his girlfriend, who just happens to be another major recording artist.We let some creepy home-schooled religious zealot molest his sisters just because he stars on a reality show. We let a president get away with lying us into a war, and a vice president with shooting someone in the face. We have a rich billionaire fuck convince poor people that being provided with government-guaranteed affordable health care is a bad thing that they should be ashamed of enjoying. We are a nation of intellectual and cultural lemmings, and our deluded perception of choices vary from what we’re used to and “Oh god, that’s terrible!”

I also bring all this up now because supposedly certain Freestyle machines are now offering seasonally themed flavors of its products, including gingerbread. I honestly can’t imagine something like, say, Gingerbread Fanta Zero being popular anywhere in the world.

Well okay, maybe Japan.

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Rapey, It’s Cold Outside

It’s that time of year once again: presents, feasting, decorations, over-entitled grade-schoolers giving a bald-headed misfit grief over his choice of a tree after they guilt-trip him into buying one for them, and of course…caroling.

Back in 2011, I wrote a very long, very detailed, very angry rant about one of my biggest (and really, one of my only) pet peeves about the Christmas season: the tendency for FM radio stations to shove down our throats umpteen versions of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” a song that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the yuletide season.

In my blog post those many moons ago, titled “Why ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ is NOT a holiday song…and other rantings about radio programming of the season,” I went into the origins of the song itself, how it somehow got perverted into some kind of modern standard, and why all of this frustrates me so. Feel free to read said essay if you haven’t already, but in short: it’s about a guy using the cold weather outside to seduce, drug(!), and take advantage of a woman who wants to leave his house. It’s an anthem for all the seasonal date rapists out there.

The song started life (sort of) as a torch song in the 1949 romantic comedy Neptune’s Daughter. It fits the movie just fine, as it’s definitely a product of its time. In my original 2011 blog post I added that in all fairness, “it’s a fairly cute song.”

But you know what, all that has changed.

In the time since I first wrote that, I have been very happy to see people crawl out of the woodwork and start recognizing the skeeviness of the song (my friend Ludo frequently retweets such observations for my cathartic amusement). I strongly doubt it had anything to do with my blog, but it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who’s seeing it. There’s a big difference between looking for something sinister where it doesn’t exist and something disturbing smacking you in the face.

Sadly, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is still being recorded, reused, and overplayed every Christmas season. Lady Gaga performed it on a TV special she did with the Muppets (that is, when she wasn’t dancing around on stage in a giant Naked Gun-esque condom costume). And just this year, Adele Dazeem recorded a new cover version with Michael Bubble…pairing it with a video where children are lip-synching to the song. Yuck!

Culturally, though, a lot more has happened since 2011. We had a presidential election in which candidates and members of our government had the nerve to create the concept of a “legitimate rape,” saying that women have the ability to prevent pregnancy if they really didn’t want to be assaulted. It came out that Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of the GOP’s great white hopes, had knocked up his Hispanic maid and was keeping their “love child” a secret all while he was governor of California. Stephen Collins was molesting young women while starring on 7th Heaven. And then there’s Bill Cosby, who for decades was leaving a rape-filled shit-storm behind him darker than any Jello Pudding Pop.

And that’s just in addition to all of the other shit that was already going on; the “known secrets,” if you will. It’s been the same old story for decades, from Al Capp to John Kricfalusi. Otherwise weak males using their quasi-celebrity status to take advantage of young women…sometimes with the promise of advancing their careers, sometimes not, sometimes not needing to say or do anything so long as they can slip them a Mickey.

“Hey, what’s in this drink?”

I’m not saying the song has gone hand in hand with this atmosphere of abusive male power, but Jesus Harold Christ, can we maybe enjoy the Christmas season without hearing a song where a guy wants to RAPE SOMEONE?? Especially since, to reiterate my previous rant, the song has absolutely NOTHING TO DO WITH THE CHRISTMAS SEASON!

It’s finally time to start weeding this sleazy, smarmy ballad out of an otherwise peaceful and caring time of year. I ask everyone to send tweets and Facebook messages to your local radio stations–those two or three in your area that all claim to be your city’s “official” Christmas station–to request that they stop playing “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Suggest an alternate if you’d like; one of the zillions of other songs that have been pushed aside in recent years to accommodate not only that but also “Where Are You Christmas?”, that stupid Vince Vance song, and the numerous versions of “Last Christmas” that we’re stuck with every year.

I’ve been preferring to use the hashtag #AbortTheBaby in such messages…because most people will still agree that abortion is perfectly fine in cases of rape.

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“Book Daze” Part One

Read any good books lately?

I hate, hate, hate conversation icebreakers like that. They’re akin to comments on the weather. Why we feel the need to engage in inane introductory exchanges in order to talk with someone is beyond me. Years ago, I would see someone every day and they would ask me, “How’s it going, Greg?” or some other empty alternative. I would always be downright honest with them: “I have a lower back cramp and a cyst on a testicle.” They stopped asking me after a while.

But I did want to talk with you about books, reading, and writing for a while, so I figured it was actually a very apt question. It’s rare that one of these insipid conversation-starters is actually relevant to what’s being discussed!

By sheer coincidence, I am writing this entry right in the middle of National Novel Writing Month–or “NaNoWriMo,” as the die-hards call it. My wife is a big NaNoWriMo–um, –er. For those who know not, it’s a month-long project in which one challenges oneself to sit down and start, write, and complete an entire novel during the course of the month of November. Many creative types not only look forward to it, they thrive in this kind of atmosphere.

This is simply something I cannot do. Not that I wouldn’t love to be able to grind out a whole, completely original book in a month. It’s more just that’s not how I work. I can’t. I don’t have that kind of drive in me.

Some of it is probably a determination problem. I usually work best on a deadline, but I love creating and writing and imagining so much that to have a clock ticking over my proverbial head all the time would seem too much like homework.

Another part of it is how I work. I write very randomly. Some people do very well writing in a linear way, going from start to finish. I jump around: write what comes in my head and then work on the context later. Sometimes it’s very hard for me to come up with a proper ending until long after I had started something.

Followers of either me or this blog know I don’t post here that often. It’s not because I don’t have thoughts to share; it’s more that I don’t have good wrap-ups (“wraps-up”?) for these thoughts. They would just come off as the disjointed ramblings of a madman, even more so than the ramblings that DO get published on here! Seriously, I have a series of files on my computer with half-baked paragraphs and rough drafts for blog entries. This current entry is saved as “blogentry10.”

This same reluctance to finish a project has also stalled a lot of my non-blog writing. I currently have at least seven major (to me) writing projects in various stages of development–things that have a real shot at getting out there and doing well once they’re published in their respective formats…or at least existing, which is good enough for me. But my brain only works on them in various chunks, and for only four of them do I have a somewhat clear idea on how to “end” them. One project, the one I’m most passionate about from a story angle, currently exists in Word files, numerous scribbled notes, and pages upon pages of sketches.

And you know, a lot of my unwillingness to finish things comes from just general fear of not being satisfied with my eventual product, or the fear of it not satisfying or at least entertaining others. I try so hard to be a perfectionist, but one can only be as perfect as one’s limitations and resources. The old saying that something doesn’t get released but rather escapes has never been more true. I was completely unhappy with the way Yankoheit 27 turned out. There was so much more I wanted to do with it, both during and after production. Sadly, though, I was crippled by time, resources, money, and an extreme lack of cooperation by those who initially expressed interest. But I pressed on and was determined to finish it and get it out there, and then people still hated it. A former friend went so far as to suggest that it was the worst thing he had ever seen…but this of course was only after he kept tripping over his own dick to jam his hammy, squeaky-voiced face into it. This is that David Cross school of douchebaggery: when you don’t have enough scruples (or testicles) to turn down a project you don’t necessarily believe in, so you’ll end up bashing it in a desperate attempt to retain your tenuous “street cred” with your hipster-loser fanbase. I’m not too concerned about criticism per se, but I am concerned if I’m not delivering a satisfying product.

I bring all of this up because I did want to talk about writing; more specifically, the current state of writing in this country. The current state of books, to be exact.

What the hell is going on with books lately?

Why is there a sequel to The Shining? Why on earth is there a threat of more Harry Potter books after the entire central conflict supposedly was resolved? How did an erotic piece of Twilight fan fiction get published on its own, become a hit, and get a movie adaptation??

You see this stuff happen and it’s very hard to regard a lot of current mainstream authors as writers in the truest, old-school sense. The Stephen Kings, Tom Clancys, John Grishams, undead Michael Crichtons, et al–though producers of entertaining work at times–are “writers” in the way that White Castle and the ready-made-food counter at a gas station are considered “restaurants.” Don’t get me wrong; every October I try to sit down and read through a few classic King short stories while I’m on the toilet (usually, and appropriately, after eating White Castle), but not for a second am I kidding myself into thinking that I’m indulging in some great literature. And I’m certainly not going to line up to buy a hardcover edition of his bimonthly exercise in gruesome dismemberment, unnecessary details about a woman’s figure, oddly described moments of juvenile-flavored supernaturalism, and of course those all too random and awkward flashbacks involving some character’s sexual abuse as a child, especially when the first of umpteen paperback editions will be released a month later, just before the two-night ABC movie of the week adaptation. No, these are the fast-food equivalents to good literature, meant to do nothing more than give you a tasty, quick, filling morsel but no nutrition. I read Dracula in high school and the mood and tone still resonates with me long after I’ve forgotten any element in the derivative Carrie. I will forever remember the last line in, say, Double Indemnity before I could even begin to try to recall how The Client ended. The moon, indeed.

It’s even harder to see print die when it involves someone you respect. For Christmas one year I received a George Carlin book; never mind which one. I love Carlin. I miss his wit and genius so much. In addition to Mssr. Izzard, Yankovic, and Secondcity, George Carlin had a great deal to do with how my comedic sensibilities were shaped in my adolescence–and I was so lucky to have been able to see him live in my youth (how we weren’t stopped at the door is another question). But the book wasn’t really a book so much as just his latest stand-up act written out and broken up into chapters. I’m sure there is some value in this to some, but without the actual performance from George–the vocal inflections, the wiry mannerisms–you’re only getting a Half-Carlin. Then of course later he released the “audio” version of the book on CD, which in reality was just audio ripped from the HBO special featuring this routine. So George was able to get three profitable products–a book, a CD, and a TV special…shit, to say nothing of the tour leading up to that special!–all off the exact same written piece of material. This is a major cheat. One can easily become a “best-selling New York Times author” or “Grammy-nominated artist” simply by writing a stand-up act and knowing how to market it across different channels.

Michael Moore did the same thing, taking his entire narration screenplay for Fahrenheit 9/11 and publishing it as The Fahrenheit 9/11 Reader. Bill Maher releases books of compiled “new rules” bits from Real Time without crediting the rest of his show’s writing staff. Jerry Seinfeld’s big mid-90s hit Sein Language were just the opening and closing stand-up acts from episodes of Seinfeld, most of which were written by Larry David and not Jerry. It’s a lazy form of writing. Sure, someone is putting those words down on paper or on a file, but it wasn’t for a book. It’s a deceptive way to fatten up that “Other Books by…” page that authors love sticking into the front of their latest project.

Apart from fiction and humor, I love reading books about the arts, pop culture, and the entertainment industry–biographies, history books, etc. The “stories behind the stories” always fascinate me. It’s probably why I’m such a huge fan of substantial special features on DVDs (the commentaries, documentaries, etc.). There used to be a time when biographies and history books of the sort–especially if it’s about a specialized type of media or a unique artist–required a great amount of research, with the author often spending years tracking down otherwise forgotten persons or materials that have never been uncovered before.

For prime examples, Mark Lewisohn’s numerous Beatles biographies and Andrew Sandoval’s The Monkees: The Day-by-Day Story of the ’60s TV Pop Sensation unearth things such as musicians’ union paperwork, previously lost master recording tapes, internal memos, and other informative Holy Grails that would be off-limits to casual or even hardcore fans. Sandoval’s book, published in 2005, had started life in the early 1990s when he began conducting interviews for Rhino’s remastered versions of the Monkees catalog, including scoring in-depth chats with the then-reclusive Mike Nesmith, who not only discussed his career as a Monkee in detail for the first time in decades but who also constantly asked, “Would anyone really be interested in reading all this?” The likes of Lewisohn and Sandoval and Roger Ebert and Jerry Beck became super-experts in their particular fields of study because they strived to ask about the minutiae.

But then there’s that other kind of entertainment book. I don’t quite know how to refer to it. There might be an industry term for them, but let’s for the sake of argument call them “compiled history books.” The narrative isn’t based so much on the kind of story the author wants to tell but rather on the research materials they’re limited to. Instead of crafting a story based on their materials, they merely rewrite text from their sources (or just copy them verbatim) and hope that the context will happen naturally.

One example that angered me to no end was the 2006 book Mastering the Universe: He-Man and the Rise and Fall of a Billion-Dollar Idea, chronicling the origins and history of (what else?) the Masters of the Universe toy franchise. It was written by Roger Sweet, who’s usually credited as creating the toyline, and his nephew David Wecker. I had one of my characters make fun of the book back when it was new, but something needs to be said about how poorly it was physically written. It begins as a rather dry memoir about Sweet’s days at Mattel at the start of the 1980s, but then the majority of the text is taken over by boring product descriptions of every single toy in the Masters of the Universe collection. They aren’t even written in a “Here’s a fun character we did called Ram-Man…” kinda way, like how a toy web site might spotlight the figures. Instead we get very cold, very technical summaries of each toy, including patent numbers and industry jargon. It becomes pretty clear that Sweet and Wecker merely copied text off whatever Mattel paperwork Sweet took with him when he left the company.

Nobody else involved with the production of the toyline is interviewed, nor did Mattel grant permission to the authors to use any images of their trademarked characters (if permission was even sought). The latter isn’t too surprising, but neither writer couldn’t get anyone else on record to talk about one of the defining toy fads of the 1980s? That would involve actual work, actual research, and an actual idea of what kind of story you wanted to tell and what questions you would need to ask interview subjects. They had no interest in outlining their narrative first; Roger’s files would take care of that once they’re copied and pasted. This is the utmost laziest kind of writing, especially when you’re trying to present your project as an authoritative history of a topic.

And sure enough, when peripheral subjects happen to come up in the book–such as the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon series or the horrible 1987 feature film with Dolph Lundgren–Sweet flounders, glossing over information or outright getting major facts wrong. Why? Because that would involve research, and it would apparently be too much trouble to hop onto the IMDb to see which character Courteney Cox played in the movie. Sweet’s story also ends abruptly after the release of the movie, ignoring a follow-up He-Man toyline that came just two years later and barely acknowledging the concurrent She-Ra sub-franchise. But, isn’t this book about the “Rise and Fall of a Billion-Dollar Idea”?? Why not talk about all aspects of it, especially that later “fall”? Again, that would involve work. To further show his lack of interest in exerting minimal legwork, Sweet’s five pages discussing the animated cartoon are taken mostly from another book. Not passages, mind you, or extended quotes; just a quick “And here’s what this guy said about it in his book…” and away we go. Another author takes over. Sweet and Wecker couldn’t even bother to stick with their own story, dropping the reader off at a literary subway station with the vague promise of picking us back up after the ride’s over. A lazy work of writing has become even lazier.

Sadly, things haven’t gotten better now that writers are bypassing publishers and releasing their work on-demand. The advent of YouTube and Wikipedia has made it all the more easier for a lazy writer to craft a lazy book about a subject that may require anything but laziness. Need a fact or image? Check Wikipedia; they pride themselves on stealing from other sites and them offering everything for free without credit or compensation. Need to see an obscure television clip or hear an interview? Don’t bother tracking down your own copy when you can watch a blurry, murky version on YouTube and just cite the interview source rather than whoever actually took the time and trouble to upload it.

There are fortunately people out there doing things right; as in, the hard way. My friend Thad Komorowski spent years meticulously researching the complete and entire history of The Ren and Stimpy Show for his awesome book Sick Little Monkeys, doing his damnedest to track down and interview practically every person ever credited as working on the show, even notorious “I don’t want to talk about Ren and Stimpy” veteran Billy West. (When it was becoming clearer and clearer through interviews that series creator John Kricfalusi wasn’t exactly the guiltless and saintly victim of corporate meddling that he made himself out to be for two decades, Kricfalusi pressured a few of his closest allies into refusing to do interviews with Thad.) I am quite proud to say that I helped Thad a little on his book, providing a bunch of vintage newspaper articles on the show from back in the day, video recordings of rarer episodes and original airings, and two mid-90s audio interviews I did with crew members back when I was a journalism student. I also supplied him with my extensive airdate notes that I had researched around the same time for an episode guide I was compiling, which amounted to a few long-distance phone calls to Nickelodeon’s headquarters and pleasant conversations with a patient receptionist or two flipping through these big airdate logs and us trying to decipher which episode “#104” was, etc. And with all this and with all of his other research and notes, Thad did the right thing. He used them in the context of his narrative rather than letting it be the narrative in of itself. He actually wrote a book–gasp! In THIS day and age??

Even in well-written or well-researched books the desire to simply Google their information is becoming more and more apparent. In the 2012 Weird Al: The Book, Nathan Rabin spends a concerning amount of time describing a dumb but otherwise forgettable TV appearance Al had made in Japan back in 1984–going into it in more detail than he does Al’s career-related spats with the likes of Coolio, Eminem, and Lady Gaga. Why? Because Al had uploaded the Japanese appearance on his YouTube channel among other odds and ends. In last year’s Jim Henson: The Biography, Brian Jay Jones raided YouTube for clips relating to the final years of Henson’s life, including his last TV appearance ever on The Arsenio Hall Show–not to mention a videotaped recording of Henson’s entire memorial service. It’s very passive research.

But then we must come back to that other kind of book, the “compiled history book.” Mel Blanc is perhaps one of the most famous and notable names in the history of American animation, and though Blanc himself wrote a well-received quasi-autobiography near the end of his life called That’s Not All Folks, surely much more could be said about a man who worked almost constantly from the mid-30s right up to his 1989 death, bringing to life some of the world’s most beloved fictional characters. Ben Ohmart promises such a detailed tribute and biography in his 2012 Mel Blanc: The Man of a Thousand Voices, but instead we frustratingly get another lazy man’s narrative.

Ohmart doesn’t act so much as the credited author as he does a host, introducing writings and even complete chapters by others who are conveniently left off the front cover. Much of Mel’s biographical information is taken from extended passages of an unpublished book attempted by Mel’s son, Noel. Ohmart makes no bones about it, either; he says right at the start that he’s letting Noel take over for a lot of the text, presenting the unfocused and hyperbolic text in bold. An introduction to Mel’s career of recording novelty singles with Capitol Records is all the credited author allows before offering a mini-history and complete discography written by two actual Blanc scholars. When Ohmart first brings up the character of Foghorn Leghorn, he turns things over to voice historian Keith Scott–or rather, he copies and pastes a lengthy blog post Scott made on his web site about the origins of the loudmouthed rooster.

This kind of crap borders on contempt for the reader. “I can’t be bothered to write anything original on my own, so here is someone else to do the heavy lifting.” Why am I reading a book claiming to be “by Ben Ohmart” when entire halves of chapters are by Noel Blanc and Keith Scott, to say nothing of the Capitol discography that gets slapped right into the middle? Toward the end of the book’s narrative proper, it starts to smell like it started life as a compilation of essays, as there is even a section of testimonials and tributes by Blanc fans and other voice artists–followed by the entirety of a speech Mel himself gave at an advertising conference. That concept alone is fine, but when you present something as a book YOU’VE written, then you actually have to do some of the writing. If this book was presented as merely being “Edited by Ben Ohmart,” I don’t think it would have seemed so lame.

Ohmart’s story on Mel Blanc ends rather quickly. The remaining two-thirds of the 700-plus-page tome is made up of a supposed complete Mel Blanc discography (again!), filmography, and list of known radio credits. This alone would have made a fantastic book, but then Ohmart wouldn’t have been able to stick his name on the cover–hence the haphazard biography in the front. Other writers take over for most of this back section, with Ohmart seemingly taking care of the filmography. Well, the problem with that is he simply copied and pasted Blanc’s credits as listed on the IMDb. Ohmart chooses not to credit the site as a source, because if he did than he would have had to find out who edited or contributed to Blanc’s numerous entries on the site. I personally did a lot of clean-up of Mel’s credits on the IMDb, and I definitely recognize specific, minor character names or labels that I came up with (unless Ben Ohmart also happened to have decided to refer to an off-screen voice in Super-Rabbit as an “Observer”). Again, it’s simply taking the work and research of others, with as little effort as possible, and printing your name on the cover (it should be noted that Ben Ohmart also self-published his book, meaning he was devoid of having to answer to an editor or publisher or lawyer).

I wish I could say this kind of lazy writing–or “lazy compiling,” if you will–was anything new. I had to deal with it head-on a decade ago…when I had the unfortunate misery of editing one of the worst books ever written.

I was between jobs at the time, and an opportunity came up for me to do some freelance editing for Kent State University Press. I got the job that age-old way: someone I knew worked there and asked me to help them.

Now, I usually can’t stand people who get jobs that way. Very few things are more annoying than someone who gets everything handed to them through no effort or skill of their own…all because of a relative or friend in a position of minor authority. Look at the newspaper comics and you’ll see what I mean. How many of those hacks have their jobs because they just happen to be the son or grandson or widow of the creator of whatever strip they’re working on. How does that happen? In what other modern profession, especially one tied to corporate media, can someone inherit a job from a deceased relative?? What artistic qualifications did Tom Wilson Jr. or Jeff Keane or the Walker clan have to write and draw comics besides mere blood? AND to be guaranteed wide circulation of thousands of newspapers worldwide right off the bat?? Who gets a lifetime career just handed to them, besides Kim Jong-un of course?

But I was asked to give this project a whack, partly because the subject matter was kinda sorta right up my alley. It was a book about the history of rock and roll radio in Cleveland.

I don’t know how it is in other mid-to-big cities, but in Cleveland there’s something of an industry with the sole intent on cashing in on baby boomer nostalgia. I love being a Clevelander, and we do have a pretty cool cultural legacy (something I talked a bit about in Yankoheit 27), but the city does tend to take things a bit too far. The local PBS station produces specials where yuppies wax romantic about popcorn balls and department store Christmas trees and the local Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise (seriously!). We have a local publisher called Gray and Company that shits out cheapie paperback books about the history of every suburb and neighborhood and then lets every has-been weatherman and newspaper columnist write their non-awaited memoirs. Not everything is worthy of reverence just because it’s old. Unfortunately, because we overcelebrate everything local, our city’s real cultural landmarks–birthplace of Superman, being home to late night TV pioneers like Ghoulardi and Big Chuck et al–get completely lost in the shuffle among all of the cheesy relics.

The Kent State University Press, at the time, didn’t care one whit about local nostalgia. That’s not what university presses are meant for. KSU was about publishing limited, scholarly books from a historic perspective–books that could be used for reference and educational purposes.

And they really thought that was the kind of book they were getting, too. The book’s author was a longtime news announcer for WMMS and fancied himself as some sort of amateur historian on Cleveland pop culture. I was told he had pitched the book to Kent State as an academic look at the entire history of Cleveland rock radio; the innovations, the impact, the legacy, etc. At some point later on it was being scaled down to focusing primarily on the history of WMMS–still something that needed to be explored and dissected, given the station’s worldwide fame, but not exactly what the press had in mind. By the time I came along it was clear that this joker was more interested in writing a book of his own personal memoirs. This was something KSU was wholly uninterested in–who did he think they were, Gray?–and the situation became all the more frustrating when the author didn’t understand the difference between what he had originally pitched and what he had written. “Surely MY story is as important as the story of rock radio in Cleveland, right?”

The manuscript was a mess. A portion of work and a round of editing had already been done before I had gotten my hands on it, but I would spend the next several months screaming at my computer as I tried to make this mangled piece of literary driftwood into something resembling coherence. My girlfriend at the time would later tell tales of being woken up in the middle of the night by the sounds of me pacing in front of my monitor and growling in frustration.

The main problem with how it was written was, as I’ve been saying, the type of research that had been done. Instead of trying to seek out unique sources of information or going any kind of extra distance, the author claimed to have gathered what he was calling the “Cleveland Media Archive” (or something of that ilk). I’m not quite sure what he was hoping to accomplish that wasn’t already being done by, say, the Cleveland Plain Dealer or the Cleveland Public Library or any of the area universities, but the gist of it seemed to be that he was asking people to send him any articles, video tapes, promotional items, novelties, etc. related to Cleveland media. Doesn’t this sound a bit like someone trying to amass a personal collection with as little effort as possible (to say nothing of the fact that I don’t think he was offering compensation)? It would be like if during all my years of researching and compiling the “Weird Al” Yankovic Songography that I just asked fellow fans to send me actual CDs and things from their collections instead of seeking them out and acquiring them on my own. Again, it’s that passive research thing I’ve talked about.

You can probably guess where there is going. In order to tell the “history” narrative that he was using as a facade for his own oh-so-interesting backstory, he merely relied on this supposed archive of his; putting newspaper articles in chronological order and trying to glue them together with weak segues. The problem with this technique was that he was stuck with whatever he already had available to him, so certain pieces of information or minor news events go unresolved in the text. A number of times I gave him a note that asked, “So, what happened? How did this thing end?” Instead of finding that kind of information out, he would ask that we merely remove the “offending” (dangling) passage. He wasn’t even willing to trot down to a library and dig into a newspaper microfiche file. Heck, I’m willing to bet that a lot of his newspaper articles came from the daily newspapers that were delivered to his house and saved in his closet. Again, passive research. You don’t even need to put pants on for that.

I will happily share some of the goofier aspects of this process over time, but I will give you a taste of what I was up against. When we were nearing the end of finally editing this monster of a headache of a book, the realization came that we were going to need a foreword. The author himself didn’t write any kind of introduction or set-up the story for the reader (despite being asked), and it was felt that maybe someone with more reliable writing chops would offer their thoughts. That’s when I had a great idea. A fantastic idea. A super duper fucking brilliant idea.

Instead of a dry foreword written by some local schlub or friend of the author, why not go for broke and try to contact celebrities who spent their formative years in Cleveland during the late 1960s to early 1980s, the heyday of rock radio, the period of focus in this book? We could ask them to maybe just offer a few thoughts on listening to Cleveland radio during their adolescence and young adulthood–flipping the dial to WMMS or hearing Bowie or Springsteen for the first time. This way all that cheesy talking-head nostalgia that Clevelanders eat up can be done away with right at the start of the book, and be done with style!

My compatriot at the Press and I started putting together a list of names to forward to the author. The author could use his media contacts to get these people on the phone. Drew Carey would have been a lock, and we had a lead on Tom Hanks, but I wanted to think outside the box–ask Cleveland-born-and-bred celebrities that you wouldn’t normally associate with its pop culture legacy. Halle Berry ended up on our list, sure, but so did Teri Garr, Sean Young, Mark Mothersbaugh, Tim Conway, and many others. I might have to see if I have my list somewhere hidden deep in one of my computers. The list we came up with so exciting. It was going to look like those introductory blurbs that stick out like a sore thumb in front of every Stephen King paperback, but entertaining!

The author wouldn’t go for it.

My heart sank upon hearing this response. I was flabbergasted. Why on earth wouldn’t this be a great idea??

The author didn’t want to seek out all these people.

But, but, you work in the media. You have hundreds of contacts. You know people in upper management at Clear Channel that could—

The author decided it was too much work.

Too much work. If it can’t be done passively, then it can’t be done.

All was not lost, though, as the author promised that he had a great counter-proposal. He would still use the same approach, remembrances about listening to Cleveland radio, but he wouldn’t ask a bunch of famous people.

Ooo, sounds intriguing, because if it’s not going to be a bunch of famous people, then surely it will be one fam–

Carl Monday.

Carl Monday??

Yeah, Carl Monday. He was (maybe still is) a local TV news reporter, specializing in those “we’re on your side” investigation segments for whatever channel he was currently working for. Not that he didn’t seem like a nice guy, but he wasn’t exactly what we had in mind; some older-middle-aged white-haired guy in a suit with a mustache.


Yeah, we’ve gone from Drew Carey and Tom Hanks to Carl Monday.

The author felt he was easier to get.

I don’t know how we were able to, but the idea was promptly vetoed. This wasn’t the first time this phrase was conveyed to the author, but the response was clear, “You’re going to have to try harder.”

He eventually came back to us with Tom Batiuk, the local comic artist best known as the creator of Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft. That suggestion was okayed, mostly out of desperation and fear that the book would miss a deadline or two. Batiuk and the author were friends of sorts, so again this just goes back to the lack of necessary effort on the author’s part.

Not to say that Tom Batiuk was a poor choice per se, as he was definitely of the age that we were envisioning, and he still had a decent amount of wit in his writing. This was just before Funky Winkerbean devolved into constant misery, supernatural treacle, and poorly drawn characters smirking as they make unintentionally horrible puns. But, I don’t even think Batiuk was on our dream list because he just seemed a bit too obvious. It was one step above getting a local deejay to write it.

I honestly don’t think I’ve ever read Batiuk’s forward, as that part of the project was out of my hands. Besides, when it came to this God awful book, I had bigger fish to fry, some more of which I’ll share one day.

In the meantime, I guess I should mention that ten years later, the same author claims to be working on a follow-up to his shitty book, one all about Cleveland’s television history. The publisher: Gray.

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The Looney Tunes DVD+R Project Part Two: The Saga of Duck Dodgers

Hey, who wants to hear the latest on my ongoing project to transfer all of my Looney Tunes video cassettes to digital DVD files?? Of course you all do!

One of the little side things I wanted to do for this project was something that, curiously, Warner Bros. themselves has yet to attempt: edit together a complete version of Duck Dodgers and the Return of the 24 1/2th Century. Now, if you’re not a cartoon fan, your response might be, “What?” And if you are a cartoon fan, your response will most likely be, “Why waste your time, Greg?”

Duck Dodgers and the Return… is a 1980 sequel to the much more known and celebrated theatrical short Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century. The cartoon was the result of a recent re-appreciation of the original film in the wake of the big-budget sci-fi movies of the late 1970s such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and of course Star Wars. In fact, George Lucas even reportedly had the cartoon shown before one premiere screening of his movie. Since it seemed as if a Star Wars sequel was all but inevitable, Warner Bros. commissioned the one and only Chuck Jones to produce and direct a sequel to his 1953 classic. Though it was never officially stated anywhere, it seemed as if the goal was to produce something that could be paired theatrically with Lucas’s eventual The Empire Strikes Back.

Sequels are usually so hard to pull off anyway; it doesn’t matter which franchise or director one’s speaking of. It is the rare follow-up that can even possibly live up to the expectations of the original. Off the top of my head I can only think of a very few: The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, The Dark Knight, X2: X-Men United (or whatever that one was called), Aliens, Terminator 2, Toy Story 2. Consider that small selection versus the countless Madea movies, the endless American Pie spin-offs, and the increasingly tiresome Scary Movie sequels and spin-offs and rip-offs that seem to come out on an annual basis. The odds are stacked against a sequel from even being entertaining let alone worth the time and effort…to say nothing of the money wasted, which is quite ironic considering the raison d’etres for sequels are almost always financial in nature.

If this had been the Chuck Jones of the mid-1950s then he probably could have pulled off a Duck Dodgers sequel with little to no fuss. In the early part of the decade he directed an entire trilogy of cartoons in which Bugs and Daffy square off before Elmer Fudd’s hunting rifle, all three of which are usually considered among the director’s best. And really, Jones had already sorta done a follow-up to Dodgers with the 1956 Rocket Squad, which obstensively was meant to be a Dragnet spoof but contained many of the same visual and comedic trappings of the earlier sci-fi film. But unfortunately, starting around about 1962, Chuck’s films took on a slower, more pedestrian approach. The speed and quick cutting that defined the Road Runner series was traded in for extended pointless monologues and micromanaging of otherwise incidental characters or story elements. Such over-examining of things wouldn’t have been so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that the stories in Jones’s shorts started to suffer as well. Longtime writer Michael Maltese had fled Warner Bros. for the higher salaries of Hanna-Barbera by the end of the ’50s, leaving Jones with newcomer John Dunn, whose skills as a Looney Tunes gagman varied wildly at best. Even when Jones was fired from Warner in 1962 and was able to recruit Maltese to write for him again while directing Tom and Jerry for MGM, some creative spark was missing. Jones’s humor was becoming more literal; he wanted his films to become more intellectual, but his evolving style was clashing horribly with the characters he was directing. This was most evident when Chuck went back to working on Warner Bros. productions in the late 1970s. Bugs Bunny started becoming a wandering philosopher, a poet who would name-drop Ray Bradbury almost randomly. This was no longer the Chuck Jones to handle a fast-paced, whiz-bang follow-up to a film that supposedly helped influence Star Wars.

Jones hired the irreplacable Michael Maltese to help pen a script for Duck Dodgers and the Return…, not to mention bringing back many of the same animators from back in the day; optimistically hoping to collect lightning in a bottle once again. There has yet to be any definitive answer, but somewhere along the way Jones and Maltese had something of a falling out over the final script, with Jones throwing out most of Maltese’s material for a new story in which Dodgers is sent go after a meteor containing the last remaining source of yo-yo polish…a very derivative variation of the original Duck Dodgers storyline. Naturally, once at the meteor, Dodgers and Porky (as the Eager Young Space Cadet) run into Marvin the Martian, who is there setting up a missile to blow up the Earth. Dodgers makes a half-hearted attempt to stop him, but Marvin sics Gossamer (the giant, red, hairy monster Bugs occassionally bested) after him. The short quickly devolves into a weird pun-based miscommunication between Daffy and Porky, and the former soon chases after the latter, firing laser blasts into his ass. Meanwhile, Marvin is free to go on his merry way…to destroy our planet. Though Marvin pops up during the “That’s all Folks!” end tag to assure us, “Don’t worry, folks. After all, it’s only a cartoon,” the depressing cynicism in the short has won out. Chuck set out to repeat the triumph of one of his greatest cartoons, and the best he could come up with was a weak story that plodded between obscure gags and lame puns…capped with not only no resolution whatsoever but with our own supposed imminent destruction.

For SOME reason, Warner Bros. backed out of its plans to release the film theatrically, instead allowing Jones to construct a half-hour TV special called Daffy Duck’s Thanks-for-giving, with the new Dodgers short as its centerpiece. The special premiered in 1981 and would repeat a number of times, most recently in 1991, before being offered on home video. The actual Duck Dodgers and the Return… short, however, would quietly be added to the various television packages of the shorts over the years. I first discovered it as a part of Looney Tunes on Nickelodeon, which at time was stuck with all the leftover, undesirable cartoons that weren’t being used either in syndication or on (what was then) ABC’s The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show on Saturday mornings.

But here’s where it gets strange. Jones’s original cut of Duck Dodgers and the Return… hovers around the nine-minute mark, about two to three minutes longer than the average Looney Tunes cartoon. When the short was sent to television packages on its own, about a third of the footage was removed from it so that its length would conform with the rest of the library. The only place the missing scenes would ever be shown was within the Thanks-for-giving TV special. Even more frustrating, the short as seen in that special doesn’t include a title sequence, yet Jones clearly created one for it…it’s seen when the short is played on its own! Warner Bros. considers the shorter version of the cartoon as the “uncut” version, and it is the shorter version that has been included on various VHS and DVD releases over the years. All the removal of the footage does is make a bad cartoon all the more incomprehensible. Marvin is more or less removed from the third act of the story, including his final act of blowing up the Earth…thus making his end-tag plea for us not to worry a completely baffling non-sequitur.

Unlike with such classic shorts as Have You Got Any Castles? and Hare-um Scare-um, Warner Bros. seems to have no desire to edit together a “director’s cut” of the cartoon for release. All one would essentially need to do is glue the credit sequence from the shorter “uncut” version onto the footage as seen during the Thanks-for-giving TV special. Both the stand-alone short and the special have individually been remastered for DVD release, so it’s not as if any extensive restoration work is required. One could easily do it on their PC video-editing software.

So I did.

I was hoping this would be as easy as one, two, three. I already own the DVDs contain both the “uncut” short and the TV special. Theoretically for me it would just be a matter of ripping the respective files from the discs and plugging them into my editing software. This way not only would there be no risk of losing a generation from the transfer but also I would end up with a finished product that looked as good as what the studio had already released. The only thing I didn’t–couldn’t–anticipate was Warner Bros.’…gosh, how can I put this? Not giving a shit?

Upon ripping the digital files from the Thanks-for-giving special, I came upon a curious abnormality. The video for the special was rendered in thirty frames per second, but the audio was rendered in twenty-four frames per second! When presented together as-is on the Warner Bros. DVD they play fine, but if one was to take them apart they would end up with two incompatible frame rates, resulting in audio material that is out of sync with its own visual!

I sadly lack the technical knowledge to either understand or convey how such a difference could occur. I can’t say I’m a frequent “ripper” as far as DVD files are concerned, but even with my small amount of experience–including working with other Warner Home Video DVDs–I have never come across an issue like this before. My guess–and again, this is based on nothing tangible–is that the video and audio elements were taken from two different sources; most likely one mastered for television and another mastered for some other form of distribution (maybe even international). It’s not impossible to master one product into two different frame rates, but it’s pointless, costly, and time-consuming. These had to have been sitting on the shelf as-is. But because these were latter-day Looney Tunes productions from the 1980s, the studio doesn’t care. It doesn’t consider this era of the studio’s cartoon library worthy of any real attention, even though they represent some of the final projects Mel Blanc had worked on.

My initial focus was trying to get the audio and video files back in sync with each other, but there was no good solution. I tried slowing down and then even speeding up audio in Audacity to no effect. There is probably some super-expensive, or super-complicated, professional-grade software that can correct this sort of thing, but my desire to seek such a program out rapidly faded; it would have been too much trouble tracking something like that down just for the sake of one project. I decided instead to go the long route: capturing the TV special and the short off the DVDs as I would a VHS recording. At least this way the corresponding audio and video elements would be in sync if maybe not in absolute perfect quality.

Sadly, doing it that way only solved a part of the problem. There was still a slight difference in the frame rates between the TV special and the stand-alone short; nothing too severe, but noticeable at the part where I needed to edit the two together. In the end I maybe lost a half-second of music at the edit. I am clearly not satisfied with the way it all turned out, but the considering some of the problems actual commercial-release Warner Home Video products have had, it could have been a lot worse, too.

But don’t worry, folks. After all, it’s only a cartoon!

TRANSFERRED DIGITALLY SINCE LAST UPDATE: The Fair-Haired Hare, Captain Hareblower, A Street Cat Named Sylvester, The Jet Cage, Greedy for Tweety, Tweety’s Circus, Catty Cornered, Muzzle Tough, Design for Leaving, Stork Naked, Zip ‘n Snort, Ready, Woolen and Able, Hip- Hip- Hurry!, Ain’t That Ducky, Racketeer Rabbit, Daffy Doodles, Little Orphan Airedale, A Feud There Was, Along Came Daffy, The Hardship of Miles Standish, Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, People are Bunny, Bonanza Bunny, Wet Hare, Hare-Breadth Hurry, Devil’s Feud Cake, Dumb Patrol (1964), The Impatient Patient (1967), The Daffy Duckaroo (B&W), Mucho Locos, Snow Excuse, Feather Finger, The Music Mice-tro, Skyscraper Caper, See Ya Later Gladiator, Rushing Roulette, The Village Smithy (B&W), The Lone Stranger and Porky (B&W), Chicken Jitters (B&W), The Chewin’ Bruin (B&W), Porky’s Hired Hand (B&W), Porky’s Midnight Matinee (B&W), Porky’s Railroad (1967), Porky’s Spring Planting (1967), Ali-Baba Bound (1967), Notes to You (1967), Porky Pig’s Feat (1967), Porky in the North Woods (1995), Porky’s Building (1995), Porky’s Double Trouble (1995), Porky at the Crocadero (1995), Porky’s Tire Trouble (1995), Chicken Jitters (1992), Porky the Giant Killer (1992), Pilgrim Porky (1995), Porky’s Poor Fish (1992), The Sour Puss (1995, edited), Meet John Doughboy (1995), We the Animals Squeak (1992), Peck Up Your Troubles, Mr. and Mrs. is the Name, Big Game Haunt, Hippydrome Tiger, Feud with a Dude, Bugged by a Bee, The Mouse o 57th Street, A-Lad-in Bagdad, The Curious Puppy, Stage Fright, The Organ Grinder, I Like Mountain Music (redrawn by Turner), Honeymoon Hotel, The Lady in Red, Boulevardier from the Bronx, I Only Have Eyes for You, Clean Pastures, My Little Buckeroo, You’re an Education (edited), Gold Rush Daze, Hare-um Scare-um, Mighty Hunters, Saddle Silly, The Bird Came C.O.D., Tin Pan Alley Cats, Angel Puss, Goldilocks and the Jivin’ Bears, Bone Sweet Bone, The Shell Shocked Egg

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The Looney Tunes DVD+R Project Part One

Wow, 2013, here we are! I have got so much coming up in the next twelve months that I should really use this blog that I was so happy to start well over a year ago.

I’ve got some rants, stories, commentaries, work projects, and other things that will come up in the future. But for today, I will be blogging updates on what will (hopefully) be my major non-work-related creative hobby of the new year. I won’t begin to pretend that this will interest everyone, and frankly I don’t care if it does or not. Get your own bloody blog.

This was actually something I had started well over a year ago and was well into the process of working on, but numerous life events–moving, releasing a feature-length movie, moving again, getting married, and then being indirectly involved in a drawn-out criminal matter dealing with truly one of the scummiest people on the planet–kept me a little preoccupied. But I like to think I can start this all up again at a comfortable, leisurely pace.

As all of my closest friends and family know about me–as do many of even my most casual of friends–one of my passions is classic theatrical animation, particularly the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons produced and/or released by Warner Bros. from 1929 to 1969 (and then some). I have been an avid fan and collector of not only the cartoons themselves but also of the characters for nearly a quarter-century now, and I am happy to say that my collection contains everything from half-inch Mexican plastic figurines to original animation cels from the actual productions.

But through it all, my true fandom lies with collecting the shorts themselves on home video. Warner Bros. has done an above-average job releasing them on DVD for the last ten years–in both multi-disc boxed sets and a handful of single-disc odds and ends–but there is still so much more left unreleased on disc. There are over a thousand shorts total in the Looney Tunes series, and about six hundred of them are still unreleased on DVD (or Blu-ray). I was always happy to supplement my collection with not only the previous VHS releases Warner had produced a generation ago but also my numerous, numerous recordings made off TV on both Beta and then VHS over the last two decades. I have always tried to store and archive my videos in the best conditions possible, but the fact of the matter is that tape simply doesn’t last forever. Unfortunately, I can’t play the waiting game any longer. These recordings will soon become goo even if I had them sealed underground in a temperature-controlled salt mine alongside the Johnny Carson vault. Although I’m fairly optimistic that Warner Bros. will eventually release everything on DVD over time–either through retail or through the awesome Warner Archive–I have twenty-plus years of videotaped material that I could be transferring to disc myself…just in case.

Please understand, this project and these updates are not advocating piracy, bootlegging, or whatever you want to call it. If Warner Home Video tomorrow was to announce that they will release the entire collection of shorts in one huge, 500-dollar boxed set, I would pre-order it without thinking twice (in fact, the studio has already made some of my work on this project moot, as you will read later). This is me trying to find a way to make over a hundred videos with over four hundred hours of material more compact and easier to access. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but VHS tapes are thick and bulky. If I can squash an entire bookcase of videos down to fifteen or twenty discs, well, to me that sounds like an insanely fun goal to pursue.

And while I’m offering caveats and warnings and the like, this is also not meant to be any sort of “advertising” for bootlegs. I’m not interested in selling copies of what I will end up with, nor is this some sneaky wink-wink way to promote a YouTube channel or anything. I’m also not really interested in trades for the discs unless you had something extremely super-rare like a pristine 35mm-sourced transfer of 1969’s Injun Trouble or the rest of the redrawn-colorized Porky Pigs or something. If all you’re going to say is, “I got a bad VHS dupe of Coal Black. Do you want it so I can get copies of your DVDs?”, then I will merely wish you a good day, sir.

I’m usually not one to even want to do this kind of thing. I remember buying a computer years and years ago just as DVD burning drives were becoming quasi-popular. The salesman tried in vain to talk me into getting one installed, promising that “Oh, you’ll be able to convert all of your VHS tapes to DVDs and blah, blah, blah….” I was unconvinced for one major reason: knowing the technology at the time, I would most likely have lost a generation in video quality. The salesman seemed to have thought that merely possessing a video recording of a broadcast was the same thing as owning or having access to a studio master tape, film negatives, remastering tools, etc. Or let me rephrase that: he either assumed that I did or he knew that I didn’t but was trained to act otherwise. I strongly believe that a lot of early “transfer to DVD” programs and hardware were marketed and sold intentionally ignoring the fact that no matter what–no matter how much disc space you use or how little tinkering you do with the files–your end result would have in almost all cases looked worse than your source recording.

Thankfully, times have changed a little and the technology in all areas has improved. I am still not 100 percent convinced that there won’t be some loss of quality, but like I said, I now feel like I am running out of time. I can now take that chance. I’m ready to say good-bye to one dead format and move everything over into another, dying format.

Actually, the technical process is one I’m already well used to. Digging through video tapes and the like and converting them into digital files was how I acquired some of the stock footage that I used in my documentary feature Yankoheit 27. I also performed an archival dig through my ancient recordings of The Ren and Stimpy Show in order to supply research materials for my friend Thad and his awesome, awesome, awesome book on the history of the series coming out this year. And two years ago, I took a dozen of then-gridlocked-by-copyright episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and made DVDs of them for birthday gifts (a huge task now since negated by Shout! Factory’s recent deal to release MST3K episodes based on Universal Studios’ classic ’50s sci-fi movies). So I’m quite comfortable and familiar with the actual physical task involved; it’s mostly of matter of getting organized.

The first step in this whole endeavor was, naturally, seeing what had already been released on disc by Warner Home Video, which shorts were still unreleased, and then seeing which of those shorts I already had on tape. Getting a list of shorts not on DVD was relatively easy; my fan site The Bugs Bunny Video Guide was formed with that essential purpose in mind. The real task was cross-referencing that information with the 160 VHS and Beta tapes in my collection; some store-bought retail items, some fan tapes from trades, and many more recordings made off TV.

Luckily for me, I suppose, I had already logged all of my Looney Tunes tapes and recordings and made a running total of what I still needed, what was available where, which versions of shorts I had, etc. After all, you don’t get to be considered obsessed about anything unless you’re ready to make many tedious, mind-numbingly long lists.

By my count, I had 572 cartoons on tape that had not been released on DVD or Blu-ray. Now, that doesn’t complete the studio’s filmography at all; there are still many, many shorts and variations that I simply was never able to acquire for one reason or another. That’s not really the point of the project anyway; it’s merely to transfer what I do have so that I can still enjoy it until the time that the material gets released officially. And I should add that my number includes alternate versions of some of the same shorts: all the black and white Porky Pig cartoons, for example, were colorized at least once–a batch in 1967 and then all of them throughout the 1990s. I am a completist. I love the black and white versions; they are the original, authentic versions of these cartoons and they are a joy to watch…but I also get a kick out of being able to compare them to the computer-colorized attempts of the 1990s. As for the 1967 redrawn versions…well, they are a perverse guilty pleasure for me. If you have never seen one of these abominations, you can’t possibly call yourself a movie fan. These Korean-made monstrosities are what people imagined in their heads back in the 1980s when Ted Turner first started colorizing the classic movies he owned.

Also in my count are my copies of shorts that Warner themselves had botched on their own official releases. In 2010, to cite the major example, two single-disc DVDs were released–Bugs Bunny: Hare Extraordinaire and Daffy Duck: Frustrated Fowl–in which cartoons originally released after 1953 were cropped to be presented in a fake “widescreen” format. The Looney Tunes cartoons were always produced and animated in full frame, but because the widescreen format was the big new thing in the late ’50s many theaters projected them matted in order to conform with the rest of the program. In the process, visual gags get clipped off, characters’ heads and feet got lopped off, and a lot of the backgrounds and visual designs that were so crucial to the artistic quality of the shorts in that era were compromised. These DVDs marked the first time Warner Home Video has ever “experimented” with the formatting of the cartoons, and only after six entire boxed sets had been released in full frame with most of the major entries from the “widescreen era”–What’s Opera, Doc?, One Froggy Evening, Robin Hood Daffy, etc.–presented in their intended full frame aspect ratio. It’s not like the studio offered a choice; it just simply said, “Okay, four hundred cartoons in, and we’re switching to widescreen versions.” I’m sure collectors of anything reading this understand and agree that collections need to be uniformed. To suddenly tinker with something mid-stream is a bit of a cheat. To use an obvious example, it would have been like if the recent remastered Beatles CD were only in mono up until “the white album” and then only in stereo after that. I like to believe that Looney Tunes fans are as passionate about the shorts as Beatles fans are about their music, so if Apple was smart enough to offer a choice between mono and stereo versions, then why wasn’t Warner smart enough to offer a choice between widescreen and full frame?

But I digress. So, between five to six hundred. Where the heck do I begin? I’m dealing with cartoons spread out over 160 videos–not to mention all the other numerous bumpers, commercials, title cards, and other miscellaneous items that would make great “bonus features.” I needed to see what all I was going to work with and find out how to best arrange them. Before I even started copying and burning, I wanted to program the DVDs and lay them out.

I thought this was going to be the hardest step, because surely I just have too many odds and ends…they couldn’t POSSIBLY be organized into single-disc DVDs with any individual themes, right? I just knew I was going to be stuck with some crazy layout like a disc with three Bugs shorts, a Tweety, a solo Elmer Fudd, and ten random Merrie Melodies from the 1930s. But surprisingly, utilizing a skill only those of us who assemble Songographies and cartoon video guides possess, I was able to sort them all out and put them into a rough draft of disc lineups as good as anything found on any of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection sets.

Allowing some wiggle room for disc space, tape problems, and the like, here is approximately how the discs are going to be laid out:

1. Bugs Bunny: The 1940s and 1950s
2. Bugs Bunny: The 1950s and 1960s
3. Bugs Bunny vs. Yosemite Sam
4. Bugs, Daffy, and Elmer
5. Daffy Duck and Porky Pig
6. Daffy Duck: The 1940s
7. Daffy Duck: The 1950s and 1960s
8. Speedy Gonzales
9. Speedy Gonzales vs. Daffy Duck
10. Road Runner
11-12. Black and white Porky Pig
13. Colorized Porky Pig (1967 versions)
14-19. Colorized Porky Pig (1990s versions)
20. Tweety: The 1950s
21. Tweety: The 1950s and 1960s
22. Hippety Hopper and Sylvester Jr.
23. Porky Pig and Sylvester (as in solo shorts of each)
24. Bosko and Buddy
25. Buddy
26. Foghorn Leghorn and Henery Hawk
27. Cool Cat and the Seven Arts era
28. Chuck Jones Mini-Series: Ralph Wolf/Sam Sheepdog, Inki, and the Three Bears
29. The Evowution: Egghead to Elmer Fudd
30. Looney Tunes All-Stars
31-35. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: The 1930s (one-shots)
36. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: The 1930s and 1940s (one-shots)
37-39. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: The 1940s (one-shots)
40. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: The 1940s and 1950s (one-shots)

In the process of assembling the lineups for these discs, I was already picturing the menu designs and disc artwork in my head. I wanted both to be simple; again, something uniform. I will most likely be utilizing the iconic concentric circles of the Warner Bros. bullseye opening. It’s not the most mind-blowing concept for a Looney Tunes DVD, but those rings can be presented in a variety of different colors for each disc, giving each DVD its own identity while make it all (hopefully) pleasing to the eye as a whole.

BUT, all of this cloudtalk was meaningless if I didn’t actually sit down and start transferring cartoons into files for burning. I decided to do the most logical thing (to me, anyway): start with the oldest videos and work my way up. Some of my Warner Home Video cassettes date back to 1982, and a few are about as rare of Kryptonite (I’m talking Looney Tunes Video Show #4 and 5 rare). I suppose it could be argued that I should have started with my own recordings first because any commercial release is replaceable, but my attitude is that if there is something wrong with one of my own tapes then it’s a problem no matter when I get to it. I’m willing to accept a loss of one of my tapes; replacing a VHS tape in 2013 that was hard to find ten years ago is another story.

In cases where the same cartoon appears on numerous Warner VHS tapes, I am deferring to the more recent releases, as the studio attempted to make better video masters for commercial release in preparation for their eventual DVD release (restoring title sequences, etc.). For the former Turner-owned package of pre-1948 cartoons, whenever possible I am sticking with the MGM Home Video VHS releases of the early-to-mid-1990s, as they used complete prints with the bullseye sequence and had not yet replaced the end tags with the “Dubbed Version” endings as seen on Cartoon Network from 1995-on. The only thing that would prevent me from using the MGM videos would be their occasional knack to somehow “read” when they’re being copied and therefore fade the contrast in and out again and again. In all cases, I am trying to use the best known VHS-era master in my possession.

Yes, it does sound like a lot of fuss, but you have to understand how cartoon fans think. Most of us want perfection or, barring that, at least a clean picture without logos, interruptions, or edits. Some collectors were so paranoid about this that–I kid you not–a number of them were convinced that Warner releases manufactured on leftover VHS stock (as in duplicating a Bugs Bunny release over, say, an unsold Superman II cassette) meant a lesser picture quality. There was a very brief time in collector circles where people were actively avoiding “rainbows” at the beginning of the Warner VHS releases, a clear indication of a reused cassette.

My first goal was to get the 1982 Looney Tunes Video Show releases and then the 1985-86 Golden Jubilee tapes done with. My Golden Jubilee videos in particular had been heavily replayed over the years, so I wanted to make sure those were transferred over before they melted before my eyes.

In my first batch, I was able to get eight cartoons from the various Golden Jubilee videos transferred, nine from the Looney Tunes Video Show volumes, and even five from the 1988 Cartoon Cavalcade series and two more from two 1990s Bugs collections. Funny enough, since I had transferred these shorts, Warner Home Video released two DVD collections–Looney Tunes Mouse Chronicles and Porky & Friends: Hilarious Ham–that covered four of the shorts I had converted. As I said, I am more than happy to see that happen. If more releases get announced for this year that take some more off my list, I’ll be a happy camper. It will result in less work for me, more space on my own discs for my project, and high quality copies of more cartoons out on the market.

I have got a very, very, VERY long way to go. I will keep posting updates big and small here on my blog. Again, I don’t know who exactly will find interest in this project. If you’re one of them, then stick around. This is only the beginning, folks!

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Why “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is NOT a holiday song…and other rantings about radio programming of the season

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in the car lately; I wouldn’t necessarily say more time than usual, but enough to become a frequent radio listener. One thing everyone should know about me is that when listening to the radio, there are only three things that will make me want to immediately change the station without question or debate: the Kid Rock song “Picture,” one of the worst things ever committed to tape; Nickelback’s insipid “Rockstar”; and the whiny, wimpy, cancer-deserving voice of Dave Matthews.

And when it’s Christmastime every year, I add one fourth, final option: “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”

For those of you who are unaware of it, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is an Academy Award-winning song originally written in 1936 by Frank Loesser that publicly debuted in the 1949 Esther Williams vehicle Neptune’s Daughter. To cash in on the success of the movie, a number of recordings of the song by such artists as Dinah Shore and Ella Fitzgerald were released throughout the year to commercial success. The song, in its most cynical form, is about a sexual predator trying to talk a girl into staying at his place so he can rape the shit out of her. It’s essentially the 1940s version of “Funky Cold Medina.”

Like a lot of torch songs from the 1930s-1940s, I first became aware of it from that celebration of all things entertainment, The Muppet Show. In one of the series’s watershed episodes, legendary ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev sings a duet of the song with Miss Piggy, with the roles reversed as the diva tries to prevent the (gay) ballet star from leaving a sauna. It’s a cute scene; heck, it’s a fairly cute song.

But it’s NOT a Christmas song. It was never meant to be. Yet for some reason, adult contemporary stations around the country have in recent years insisted on cramming various versions of it into their holiday programming–and now sadly to the point where modern artists are recording “new” versions in lieu of recordings of actual traditional holiday standards.

This is not open to debate or interpretation. It’s not a Christmas song; it wasn’t even written with any holiday in mind. It’s simply a song that mentions a temperature.

Everyone can blame this seasonal confusion in part on none other than Dean Martin. In 1959 Deano released A Winter Romance, an album primarily containing songs related to the winter months. Even though most of the album was reissued six years later as Holiday Cheer, only two of the album’s songs, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “White Christmas,” specifically mention the holiday that falls on December 25 (it also contains “Winter Wonderland,” but more on that in a moment). The rest of the album mainly focuses on things only related to the concept of being cold: winter, the month of January, Canada, etc. Despite the reissue, Dean never intended it to be a by-definition “holiday” album. Ironically, it worked better as simply a goofy concept album.

But the bigger culprit in this cultural crime has been radio programmers, who in the last couple of decades have been under increased pressure to provide more secular content in their otherwise all-Christmas lineups. Even though the Christmas season had traditionally been full of completely non-religious standards such as “Frosty the Snowman” and “Silver Bells,” stations had jumped on the political correctness train to include songs that couldn’t possibly be construed as appeasing religion.

Look, this isn’t some diatribe for or against religion or how it’s expressed at Christmastime. Frankly, I think Don Wildmon and his fellow “War on Christmas” assholes have a serious screw loose and are a bunch of bigoted hypocrites (I already had not one but two of my characters mock them back in December 2005). This is in fact about trying to curb the manufacturing of one more artificial tradition in a season that is already brimming with them to the point of saturation.

It’s something I’ve been saying to friends for years. With each passing year a new Christmas movie, a new Christmas TV special, or whatever emerges, and invariably some of those will become a part of some corporate interest’s annual tradition, and it will get to the point where all the television and radio stations will simply be forced to start their “Christmas” programming earlier and earlier in the year just to accommodate everything. That in fact started this year, where two local radio stations here in Cleveland–“soft rock” station 102.1 WDOK and “oldies” station 105.7 WMJI–officially switched to 24/7 holiday music a week before Thanksgiving. I’m pretty sure they both switched at the exact same time, even though one station is owned by Clear Channel and the other by CBS Radio. At this point, whatever, you know? It’s akin to Coke and Pepsi both offering the same new flavor at the same time. But the point is that it’s already happening; we’re starting the “Christmas season” earlier and earlier. How else does one explain stores opening at nine o’clock on Thanksgiving night?

But as far as television and radio go, there should at least be some sort of attempt at purity to it. I don’t think any of the Harry Potter movies after the second one mention Christmas at all, for example, yet the entire series takes up several nights of ABC Family’s “25 Days of Christmas” campaign. And radio stations shouldn’t need to pad out what should otherwise be ample holiday programming with material that no matter how one slices it only has at best a tenuous connection to the season. “Baby It’s Cold Outside” seems to be included only because of the word “cold.” There are no mentions in the song of a time of year, a holiday of any sort, or even any real numerical temperature. It’s sort of like calling Dumb and Dumber a holiday movie only because Jim Carrey’s character is named Lloyd Christmas.

At the same time, I’m not really crazy about the idea that Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy”–a.k.a. the Peanuts theme–is considered a “Christmas” song as far as radio is concerned. I mean, yeah, I get it; it was originally composed for A Charlie Brown Christmas, but really, that piece of music has so transcended its original intent that to relegate it back to the holiday season is kind of missing the point. But I’ll nevertheless give it a pass only because it’s one of the only times that jazz music–or at least, what marble-headed Charles Schulz and the equally lamey white people at Coca-Cola thought was jazz music at the time–is heard on mainstream adult contemporary FM radio.

Granted a similar argument could be made for a lot of songs that we all consider to be “real” holiday standards. “Frosty the Snowman,” “Jingle Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” etc. They don’t necessarily refer to Christmas, either, and it’s likely that they’ve all been grandfathered into tradition just by sheer time. But I have to say that it’s not that black and white. Those songs at least convey a sense of the spirit of the holiday season, whether it be because of the whimsical thought of a snowman coming to life or the imagery one conjures up upon hearing about sleigh bells and the like. To equate such elements with “It’s kinda chilly out, so let me rape you” is a little too extreme for me, and only a Sith deals in absolutes.

But honestly, the song supposedly counts because it mentions it being cold outside? Doesn’t that denigrate the meaning of Christmas and the holiday season in general? Even apart from the religious meaning of not only Christmas but the other December holidays, what about just the general spirit of peace on Earth and goodwill toward your fellow persons? I always thought Christmas was about more than just being “the cold holiday.” To negate it like that–and especially with a song that, again, was never meant to be a comment on a holiday by any means–is sort of a sign of ignorance or unfeeling.

This goes to a deeper problem we face every December: that radio stations are severely limiting their annual Christmas playlists, only sticking with maybe a couple dozen of tracks that they seem intent on overplaying ad nauseum to the point where one is sick of them. In the past it had usually been only one song per year that got overplayed. One year recently it was Lou Monte’s dumb but harmless “Dominick the Donkey,” another year it was Straight No Chaser’s oddball version of “12 Days of Christmas,” and this year it seems like it’s going to be the original Burl Ives version of “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.”

Don’t get me wrong. I like most of the songs that are a part of the normal holiday rotation. I need my Burl Ives fix. I don’t think it’s truly Christmas until I hear Bruce Springsteen screech out “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” the Harry Simeone Chorale “rum” out “The Little Drummer Boy,” or Thurl Ravenscroft croon about the Grinch. BUT, for every standard that I’ve already heard at least a dozen times on the radio this year I am missing some others that too were a part of the holiday season year after year. The handful that stations are sticking with are getting overplayed and overplayed. Heck, on more than one occasion I’ve switched over from one station to another only to hear the song that just ended on the station I had left.

Yes, there are certain songs that need to be buried and never to be heard from again. “The Christmas Shoes” for one. And this may sound incredibly insane, but we have had not one but two songs themed around Cleveland, “Christmas in Cleveland” and “Merry Cleveland Christmas.” The less said about either of these, the better, but let’s just say they reek of the work of some “fill in the blank” custom-song service. Do not seek these songs out for yourself, for your own sake!

But already this year I’m sorely missing songs that in the past I could always count on being a part of the normal holiday season. I need to hear the renditions of “12 Days of Christmas,” “Deck the Halls,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by John Denver and the Muppets; “Little St. Nick” by the Beach Boys; Bob Rivers’s “12 Pains of Christmas”; “Christmas in Hollis” via Run-D.M.C.; the Eurythmics’ “Winter Wonderland”; Chuck Berry’s “Run Run Rudolph”; the breathtaking Pretenders song “2000 Miles”; Willie Nelson’s bittersweet recording of “Pretty Paper”; and the king of novelty Christmas songs, the Seymour Swine version of “Blue Christmas.”

And that’s just the tip of the North Pole iceberg; that’s merely listing the songs that used to be standards on the radio this time of year. There is a whole slew of other songs–recorded by extremely well known artists–that as far as I can tell have never been a part of normal Christmas radio programming.

For example, I have never heard on the radio a song called “Christmas Time (Is Here Again),” which is a rather rockin’ and upbeat number from 1967.

Oh, and did I mention it was recorded by the Beatles?

Yeah, as in the Beatles Beatles. It was recorded shortly after production wrapped on Magical Mystery Tour and was initially released as a single through the group’s fan club. It would later see a more public release (albeit in edited form) as the b-side to their 1995 “reunion” single, “Free as a Bird.” So this is the Beatles at their peak–just six months removed from Sgt. Pepper’s–recording a Christmas song. It was not only one of the Fab Four’s rare group compositions, but each of the boys even get their only vocal spotlight–including George, who unlike his cohorts never recorded his own solo Christmas tune. It’s fun, catchy, and like everything else they touched represents a little bit of history.

But worthy to hear on the radio? Evidently not. Not even on the “oldies” station that during the rest of the year has a daily feature called “The Fab Four at Four” (as in o’clock). Nope, they would rather ram Celine Dion’s grating cover of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” down our throats.

Or did you know that the Monkees recorded a Christmas song? Or Norah Jones? Or the Moody Blues? Or Kenny Rogers? Or Spinal Tap? And you should know by now that I have to mention that “Weird Al” Yankovic recorded not one but two holiday songs (or three if one counts “Weasel Stomping Day”). But no, mixing up the selection with cuts by established artists is impossible; the stations have decided that people instead want umpteenth playings of “Last Christmas,” “Where Are You Christmas,” and whatever the hell that Dan Folgelberg song is (and more on that in a bit).

I cannot begin to explain how much I would love to be a radio program director at Christmastime. I would pull from all sources, make sure every kind of artist and genre is represented, and make sure the favorites are in rotation without sacrificing exposing listeners to a potential new favorite. I guess I sort of naively thought that the actual programmers would feel the same and with the same level of enthusiasm. But it seems instead every station just gets its government-issued copy of A Very Special Christmas Volume One and feels like that’s enough…or worse, they leave the decisions to an online poll. It’s crass laziness, and at a time of year where one would ideally eschew either crassness or laziness.

Speaking of otherwise irrelevant songs, why does that idiotic Dan Folgelberg song “Same Old Lang Syne” turn up every year? You know that one, the annoying “we drank a toast to innocence” song about some burnt-out singer who runs into an old girlfriend at a grocery store on Christmas Eve, but instead of either of them returning to their loved ones they go to a park to get hammered. It’s an otherwise sappy, whiny ballad, but because it has a reference to Christmas wedged into the beginning and then ends with the melody of “Auld Lang Syne” we have to hear this crap every year? Is that some last-ditch effort by pop/rock has-beens to remain immortal, cutting a quasi-Christmas record? How else does one explain repulsive shit like Neil Diamond’s recent A Cherry Cherry Christmas album? Dinosaurs desperately trying to prevent themselves from becoming oil.

I would say that radio listeners need to take a stand and tell stations to stop playing crap every year, but really, by now, what’s the point? Why stop at “Baby It’s Cold Outside?” Why not add “Ice Ice Baby” to the rotation? Or “Hot N Cold?” “Freeze Frame?” If we’re going to make a ridiculous exception for one, then how far can this possibly go?

And hey, John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” mentions Christmas, so why isn’t that ever added to the mix? So does Elton John’s “Levon,” Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” Ben Folds’s “Brick,” Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl,” and many others. Hell, for years “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music was played at Christmas because it mentions–in passing!–snowflakes and wrapped packages (in brown paper, yet!). So really, what precedent is being set here?

Anyway, it’s something to think about. I’m off to watch my favorite Christmas movie, Die Hard.

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Welcome to my blog…and it’s a sad time to be a Weird Al fan.


This is my blog. There are many like it, but this one’s mine.

I’m not usually the hippest person when it comes to the latest web interfacy things. It took me a little while to get on the Twitter bandwagon and I’ve only started using Facebook with any sort of regularity. Heck, I have finally just gotten a phone with web capabilities! But you know, I felt it was finally time I got into the mid-00s and start a blog. A regular plain old blog. You know, with paragraphs and thoughts more than 100-some-odd characters long.

I’ll continue to use Twitter–and, by proxy, Faccibuke–regularly. Twitter is perfect for whatever’s going through my brain at a specific moment. But I wanted some more room to babble endlessly about things I’m doing and feeling. Yeah, yeah, I already have a web site, Dohtem.com, all to myself, but I never really intended that to be a place for me to just…you know…express myself.

This blog will hopefully be many things. Unlike the quick, here’s-something-off-the-top-of-my-head bon mots that I unleash onto Twitter, I’ll most likely use this blog for more drawn-out, carefully planned thoughts. You know, going on endlessly about specific subjects. Pure minutia, baby.

And also, I wanted a space for updates. I’m going to be starting a number of major (to me) projects later in the year, and I want a nice, formal place online to chat about the progress of such things. So yeah, this blog may be many things to many people, but it will be all things to me.

To start off, I thought I would dust off something I had written and posted on Facebook back in May. It’s rare for me to do something exclusively on Facebook. I like the site just fine, but I’ve yet to feel completely comfortable with it. You know how people use social networking to gain friends? I’ve actually lost a number of close, dear friends thanks (in part) to Facebook, so there you go. But I realize not everyone can “go” to Facebook because you need to register to it and all that crap, and I’m too proud of this writing to just let it linger there.

As most people who know me already…um, knows, I’m a huge fan of “Weird Al” Yankovic. I’ve been following his career for years, have started the international grassroots campaign Make the Rock Hall “Weird” to get him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and am proud to say that I’m on friendly terms with him, his drummer Bermuda, and many other fans from around the world.

But sadly, there’s been a…I don’t know…scarier(?) element in the fan circles brewing as of late. Weird Al fans are some of the most dedicated, rabid music fans around, and many of them will go cross-country (and cross-continent) in order to see him at multiple concerts. Hey, that’s fun. I’ve been a “concert tracker” before and will probably again be one in the future. But on the last couple of tours there has been one fan who has…well, stalked Al and the band at a concerning number of concerts, to the point where they consistently attempt to break into the performing venue before official business hours and attempt to present themselves as one of the peripheral crew. They have been ejected from venues on at least one occasion because they were attempting to crash the band’s private soundcheck…you know, bothering professionals at work.

Frustratingly, Al is just too nice of a guy to yell, “Good god, leave me alone!”, which sadly and apparently has given this person the impression of encouragement…to the point where they often post on the Weird Al forum bragging about their stalking exploits, even labeling their odd behavior “pre-concert,” as if it’s a natural part of the concert-going experience. A number of fans (myself included) consider such actions a gross invasion of privacy and especially consider it dangerous to post about in a public forum, because like it or not it does give others the impression that it’s acceptable to lurk about buildings, break in before business hours, and hound people at work.

In May Al started a quick U.S. tour, one done before the release of his latest album, Alpocalypse. To make a long story only slightly shorter, I posted on Facebook what was essentially a spoof of the “concert review” posts typical of this person, in which they usually spend more time and energy describing in detail the lengths they had gone to in order to harrass Al, the band, and even members of the crew before and/or after the show.

I don’t especially like being mean, and I don’t really like making fun of someone behind their back…I’ll gladly do it to their face, especially if it serves to call them on their bullshit. This person has for some reason felt persecuted online–maybe because of their public anti-homosexual comments and just their general douchebagginess–but I like to think it’s just been people finally annoyed with this, let’s say, “I’m so cool because nobody’s really stopped me from stalking people” attitude that this person has displayed. I felt it was time to proverbially call them out, and in the most approprate, Weird Allian way…through parody.

So here is that “concert review” in full….

I arrived at the venue exactly three-and-a-half hours before the crew’s truck arrived. I decided to skip breakfast because I needed the money to buy materials to make my welcome sign for the guys. Ramone, the East Coast weekday bus driver, said when I chatted with him at length before my last 2010 show what the crew likes to see when they get to the venue. He said, “signs.” Glad I could be on the team and do my part.

The guys finally arrived at the venue in the early afternoon…pfft, late for a change, I see. I tried shouting at them through the security fence, but they didn’t seem to hear me and forgot to tell security to let me in. I’m sure it was just an oversight. I’ll see them at soundcheck.

The venue wasn’t open for business yet, but staff members were clearly using the front entrance in order to get to work, so I figured that was the best way inside. My ticket for the show said 8:00, but surely that didn’t apply to me. They must have been waiting for me because all the doors into the main hall were open and the ushers weren’t around yet. I found a seat in the back just as soundcheck had begun. It sounded as if they were doing the 45-minute S.C. as opposed to the typical 52-minute one, so I was sure they were going to cut a number tonight. I could tell by their mannerisms. They were different from soundcheck #162 from the Glenside show last year. I was eventually asked to leave soundcheck by the band, which surely was because they were acting on the best interests of the venue and didn’t want to get in any trouble with them. I told them it was cool and as far as I knew they were all pleasant to me to my face.

Pre-concert wasn’t done just yet, as I wanted to make sure I flirted with the merchandise booth girl before I was asked to leave the building for the second time. We have this routine together. I ask her these intrusive, annoying questions, and she pretends that she’s really trying to work and set up the table. I could almost see the tongue firmly planted in her cheek when she muttered, “Jesus Christ, another summer of this” under her breath. Ha ha, score one…I win.

I lost track of about two hours after that, but I’m sure I was the center of attention during that time. I arrived back at the venue for the show about twenty minutes late for me…I only had an hour before showtime at this point. I didn’t want to miss the start of the playing of the pre-show CD.

Ooo, I knew it! I could tell it was pre-show CD #4. It has perhaps the best selection of songs and fit nicely with the surroundings. I asked them on the last leg if they could use pre-show CD #4 (PSC4) more often, and I’m glad they’re finally listening to me. I go to enough shows and I deserve special treatment. They owe me.

Some employee of the venue eventually told me that I couldn’t sit on the edge of the stage while the crew was setting up. They were clearly looking out for my safety and I appreciate that. I tried to get the choice seat I wanted with my collectable VIP laminate, but I was kindly asked by the nice usher to go back to the seat on my ticket. I tried to explain that I was with the show and that I wanted to sit next to the cute girl that I saw, but the ushers were clearly distracted, trying to talk on their radios about something. It was cool, it was after all the first show of the tour. They’re still ironing things out.

So all in all, Pre-concert was an amazing experience. Time well spent.

It was a cathartic fake post to write, and I felt with Al’s new Alpocalypse Tour starting up this month, it was appropriate to post it somewhere where it can be a little more easily accessed.

That is all for now. Hope to see you back here. If not, then go to hell, I guess.

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