Monday, November 28, 2011


I really, really wanted to love The Muppets, the new big-screen attempt to bring Jim Henson's beloved characters some current pop culture cachet, and...well, I just couldn't.

Not that I hated it, mind you.  This isn't a shameful misunderstanding of everything that makes the characters great, the Space Jam of the Muppet world.  If anything, it's too reverent, tries too hard to evoke warm and fuzzy memories, attempting to coast on a sentiment it simply hasn't earned.  It's made by fans, obviously--the primary fan, in this case, being co-writer and star Jason Segel, who has publicly stated over and over how much the Muppets meant to him--but as a result, it feels like glorified fan fiction.  The real Muppet crew would never have made this.

That crew is scattered to the winds, of course.  Jim Henson, Richard Hunt and writer Jerry Juhl are dead, Jerry Nelson has largely retired and Frank Oz...honestly, it's kind of hard to know what's up with Oz these days.  Of the old guard, only Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire are involved, and too many of the characters lack their old spark.  Henson, Nelson and especially Oz were renowned for their ability to give their characters distinctive physical mannerisms, odd bits of business that brought them to life, but all too often, the characters now just seem to move from Point A to Point B without any real sense of life.

Then again, there's not much life to the script by Segel and Nicholas Stoller.  It cleverly riffs on many beloved Muppet tropes and gags, and has some genuinely funny moments--the sight of Wayne and Wanda making out gave me great delight--but it just tries too hard.  Most disastrously, the catalyst for the story is a new Muppet named Walter, who is blessed with not a single interesting feature.  Favorites like Gonzo and Rowlf are given nothing to do so this character can go through a Screenwriting 101 Character Arc, and why?  It's like making a new Peanuts movie and sidelining Charlie Brown and Lucy in favor of Shermy.

The most exasperating thing about Walter is that he's not remotely funny, but you know who else doesn't have a single decent laugh line in this movie?  Kermit The Frog.  Sure, he's the starry-eyed dreamer and all that, but Kermit's always gotten some of the best gags.  But he spends the entire running time of The Muppets (that is, when he's not reminding the audience what an awesome new character Walter is) being mopey.  And when he finally breaks into The Rainbow Connection...

Look, if you've spent any time at this site at all, you've seen countless vintage Muppet clips posted, you've read all sorts of stories about how my Mom cried for days on end when Jim Henson died, how Bein' Green was the one song she stipulated had to be played at her funeral, and, for crying out loud, I went through a period there where most of the titles of my posts were taken from Muppet Movie lyrics.  All I have to do is hear the banjo-plucking intro to The Rainbow Connection and I immediately tear up.

And yet, its performance here did nothing for me.  Instead of an Applause sign, it felt like the filmmakers were using a Sentimental Tears sign.  The honest emotions that Jim Henson and company could evoke effortlessly just isn't there anymore.  I wouldn't presume to say that the time of The Muppets passed with Henson, but it's been twenty-one years since the man's death, and the characters still seem trapped, unsure where to go.  Despite the brilliant efforts of his fellow puppeteers, designers, scriptwriters and songwriters, maybe the only person who truly understood what made The Muppets work was Henson.  We know it was probably magic.

The Muppets is an honest attempt to bring back that magic, but a failed attempt just the same.  Still, if nothing else, it proves that audiences still have great love for these characters, and maybe next time they'll get where they're going.  Or, as Gonzo so eloquently put it, they're going to go back there someday.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Thanksgiving, right?  I should list all the things I'm thankful for (my health, my home, my friends, the cats, beloved beagle and, of course, Janie), I could reminisce about holidays past, I could do any number of things.

Or I could tell a story I've told before.

Because this is November 24th, the day when, twenty-three years ago, a scrappy UHF station in Minneapolis first broadcast a crudely-produced program entitled Mystery Science Theater 3000, a vehicle for local comedian made good Joel Hodgson.  The premise was simple: Hodgson played a guy trapped in space, forced by his evil overlords to watch terrible movies.  He did, with the help of his two robot pals, and the three of them would crack wise all through the movie.

Simple, and potentially awful.  But somehow, MST3K (which got a lot better than that original intro would suggest)transcended its simple premise, ultimately running for ten seasons on two different cable channels, and bearing a profound influence on the world of comedy.  It has provided its fans with an alternate way of looking at the world, has encouraged, in its small way, its viewers to never accept what is given to them, to talk back, to question.  And it has provided comfort.

As on that Wednesday night, when I stumbled home dead tired from working late.  When I got to my apartment, I found numerous messages on my answering machine from my sister Ann, informing me that Mom was in the hospital.  Finally, a message from Mom herself, assuring me that she was okay, I could call her or stop by to see her, but she understood if I was busy.

I went up to see her.  She'd fallen, and had...never mind.  You don't need to know the details.  The point is, she looked so small, so fragile, so...mortal.  But she was still Mom, and we talked, though her voice was weak.  "Have you eaten yet?" she asked, always more concerned about others than herself.  No, I said, I'd probably just go home and have a pizza.  "Oh, yes, it's Wednesday, isn't it?  Are you going to watch an MST?"  (She was, obviously, aware of my weekly ritual.)  Yeah, maybe, I said, but I can stay here.  "No," she said.  "I have to watch Lost."

So I went home, fired up the pizza and the VCR and chose an episode of MST to watch.  I hadn't seen the episode where they mock Roger Corman's Gunslinger in awhile, so that's what I picked, completely at random.  Halfway through the show, there's this sketch:

I thought nothing of it, or any of the other odd reminders of mortality in this particular episode.  Why would I?  It's not like Mom was dying or anything.  I enjoyed the episode, laughed myself silly, and went to bed.

The next morning, Ann called early.  Someone from the hospital had let her know it would be a good idea to get up there and see Mom.  Wait, what?  She just fell.  How could that lead God, no.

If you've spent any time at this site, you know what happened, since this space was originally conceived as a way of working through my grief.  The days after her death were spent dealing with the usual things, but it was funny.  She died on a Thursday, the funeral was the following Monday...but by Tuesday, I felt cried out.  I didn't want to be sad anymore.

So I turned again to MST3K, and it did the trick.  I laughed, and it was as though my whole world hadn't changed, as if things would be okay again.  It reminded me that there was still joy in the world, and that life, not unlike Celine Dion's heart, would go on. 

When I think of my favorite TV shows of all time, I think of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or Columbo, or Wiseguy or Batman: The Animated Series or The Simpsons or so many more.  But I never think to include Mystery Science Theater 3000 on that list, because, no matter what the theme song says, it's never been just a show.  It's part of my life.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


Isabella pulls on her leash, the same walk we take every morning.  Down the sidewalk, across the street, through the parking lot of the neighboring restaurant.  It's closed, but even at 3 AM, there's music coming from within--Louis Prima and Keely Smith, That Old Black Magic.  We stop for a minute, Isabella's nose snuffling the ground, me listening to the music.

I try to remember.

My ex-wife loved Louis Prima.  This song makes me think of her, but only in the abstract.  When I try to conjure details of our time together, there's often nothing there.  I remember, for instance, her love of Prima, and I remember buying her a documentary about him, and that we watched it together.  I know we did that, but I don't remember how it felt.

She and I still talk, usually once a week, and we remain as close as two people who profoundly hurt each other can possibly be.  She fills me in on the broad details of her life, and I do the same.  On occasions, these conversations spark a certain detail, a shared inside joke, a memory only the two of us would share.

Mostly, though, I don't recall specifics.  When I think of our time together, mostly what comes to mind is the anxiety, the sense that it was all somehow going to end.  I can't even remember the no doubt terrible arguments and incidents that produced this mindset, just the general feeling, the state of flux. 

The wind picks up, frustrating Isabella.  The breeze carries so many different scents, too many for her to pick out.  She skitters about, wanting to follow her nose in all directions at once.

I pull on her leash, leading her back home.  My life with Janie is different from the life I once led, different from anything I ever imagined.  For maybe the first time in my adult life, I've learned to accept things as they come, and I finally know contentment.  Isabella's pace quickens as we approach the house, and she bounds up the steps happily.  Because, you know, we're home.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


1) Wow--an authentic Random Thoughts post.  Formerly one of my regular go-to pieces (along with clips of Lynda Carter singing) when I didn't feel like doing any actual writing and just started knocking out whatever crap popped into my head at the moment.

In the present case, however, there's slightly more thought put into this effort--mostly these are scattered premises, things I wanted to write about in a little more depth, but just never had the time.  Or energy.  Or will power...

2) I'm pretty sure I claimed somewhere along the line that I wasn't going to say anything more about Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, and well, I tried, but our old friend Julie Taymor has been at it again, and I just can't resist.

Taymor has been exceptionally busy, what with filing a lawsuit against the show's producers and giving a monumentally self-pitying interview to Esquire in which she claimed to be shocked, shocked I tell you, at her dismissal from the show, which she thought was just swell.

Of course, the terrible reviews for Taymor's version of the show, and the fact that she refused to even consider dropping elements that clearly weren't working, and her increasingly incoherent public statements about the show, which suggested she considered the whole thing to be some sort of workshop for her private vision, even though the thing was bleeding investors dry to the tune of almost a million bucks a week--none of these things had any bearing on the decision of the producers to fire her.  They were just philistines who didn't care about Art.

As for the lawsuit, Taymor is demanding a share of profits (which, despite the fact that the show sells out nightly, it still hasn't earned a dime, mostly because Taymor burned through SIXTY-FIVE MILLION DOLLARS while in the process of finding her "vision") and, more amusingly, claiming copyright infringement for using elements she created in the show.

Obviously, I don't know the details of her contract, but that's pretty much how big Broadway musicals work--nobody is irreplaceable.  Creative personnel are constantly brought in and let go, but they're doing for-hire jobs--producers have every right to use elements of their work, because that's why they were hired in the first place.  More talented people than Taymor have been fired off shows, only to see work they did used on stage, often without credit.

In the case of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark--have I mentioned that's the worst title for anything in history?--Taymor is actually listed in the credits.  If anything, the producers indulged her for way too long.  Is she actually trying to get people to feel sorry for her?  Because I'm pretty sure it's not working.

3) Alexander Payne's new film The Descendants opens this week, a mere seven years since his last feature, Sideways, which opened two years after About Schmidt.  He's not terribly prolific, is what I'm saying.

I'm a big fan--Sideways hit me where I lived--but it's not like he's Stanley Kubrick.  He makes humanist comedies somewhat in the manner of Paul Mazursky, only Mazursky could really crank 'em out.  (Have I mentioned Harry And Tonto is one of my favorite movies ever?)  But Payne, like Paul Thomas Anderson and David O. Russell, is a major filmmaker with a disappointingly thin filmography.  All three cite the great directors of the seventies as inspiration, but they seem to not realize that those guys worked constantly.

Sure, studios aren't keen to produce odd personal efforts these days, but the financing is obviously out there--Joel and Ethan Coen are able to make whatever pops into their head, and they were managing the Woody Allen trick of knocking out a movie a year for awhile there.  Payne, Anderson and Russell seem to only want to work when the muse strikes, but even Robert Altman made Quintet.  It's okay to fail--just keep working.

What I'm basically saying is, I love these guys' stuff, and I selfishly want more than they've given me.

4) Hey, are there any long-time readers of this thing still around?  Remember when I used to go off on long-winded political screeds?  No, I don't miss those things either, but still...Occupy Wall Street, Rick Perry's memory lapse, the whole Penn State'd think I'd have something to say.  Sometimes this space seems a little hermetically sealed, cut off from the real world, like late period Woody Allen.  (Zing!)  I kind of regret that, and kind of not.  Maybe I'll reengage with the real world soon.

5) Ordinarily, I'd say something about all the critters here, about Cookie's continued reluctance to play nice with the beagle, or about Staley's odd habit of head-butting me in the middle of the night.  Certainly I don't need to say anything about Delmar, because I'm always going on about him here.

Except yesterday morning, Del was sitting in my lap as I read the funnies when he suddenly, for no reason, reached up and slashed my nose.  Blood poured everywhere, including into my eyes, leading me to temporarily think he'd blinded me.  And, needless to say, it hurt like hell.

And yet, he's back on my lap as I write this.  I'll never learn.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Not a lot of snow, but enough: Branches down, and others cracked, hanging dangerously low over some wires.

Oh Lord, has it come to this?  Am I really using snow-covered branches as some sort of metaphor for my emotional state?  Isn't that the most tired literary device imaginable?  Has my writing become this trite?

Still.  It's not a cheap use of a tired trope when it's actually true.  The branches really are hanging, and so is my mood.

Some back story might be helpful at this point, yes?  I got an email from my brother John the other day informing me of the death of our uncle, Ronald Dean Hegstrom.  John was quite sad, remembering the last family reunion (which--ominous chord--I did not attend), and how Uncle Deanie, in John's words, "looked like Dad, only different."

But this news didn't make me feel sad, just numb.  For so long, I associated Uncle Deanie and Aunt LeDora with the family reunions I actively hated as a kid, which were attended by people so much older than me, and there was never anyone for me to hang out with, so I'd just sit there, isolated and lonely.  It never occurred to me to, you know, talk to anyone.  They all seemed to know each other so well.

So I never got to know Uncle Deanie, and reading his obit, how he served in the military in Greenland and worked as a repair man, things I knew but didn't know, or didn't appreciate, because I never took the time, but damn, I was just a kid, what do you want from me?  Yeah, I could've taken the time as I got older, but, well...I didn't, and...

Look, that's not even what has me feeling so numb.  It's John's description of our uncle as looking kind of like Dad--because even my memories of Dad are starting to fade.  There are fleeting images, things I remember, still these become less concrete with each passing year, with each passing minute.

How can this happen?  Not just dad, but Mom, too, and everything about my childhood.  I can remember specific things, doing this and that, but the details of the faces that accompanied these activities, the sounds of voices, the smells and colors--all are going, all are past.

But I do remember the summer I turned seven, before I had my own room.  I slept on the couch in the living room, and when I went to bed, Dad would come over and kiss me goodnight. His breath smelled like Grain Belt and he barely said a word, but it was a small gesture of love that meant the world to me.  Maybe it's why I make a point of saying goodbye to the dog and all the cats whenever I go somewhere. 

So I have that to hang onto.  Maybe I'm not as numb as I think.  Maybe the branches can be easily trimmed.  Maybe there's nothing broken that can't be fixed.

Saturday, November 05, 2011


Ah, I should never have posted that Bert Parks clip yesterday.  It served as a virtual portal to hell, a hell long-time readers of this site (both of you!) know all too well: The seventies variety show.

It seems utterly inconceivable that in 1976, the year the Sex Pistols recorded Anarchy In The UK, the year Taxi Driver was released to theaters, a year in a decade in which everything changed at tremendous speed, TV executives still held so tenaciously to what had worked before.  Except it didn't work anymore; the variety format was obviously dead if the best it could muster was Telly Savalas.  It's a terrible idea even in theory.  Did they really need to produce this thing--and worse, put it on the air?--to realize this?  Did they think anyone could possibly enjoy this?

'76 must have been the year TV executives just collectively decided to throw anything on to see what would happen. If Telly Savalas could have a variety special, why not Paul Lynde? Sure, and why not feature musical guests KISS and--the horror! the horror!--Florence Henderson? People will watch, won't they? Won't they?

Also in '76, The Captain And Tenille got their own regular series! So they could do things like this, thus scarring an entire nation.

And it's not like this celebration of sub-mediocrity was limited to variety shows. You could be innocently watching your favorite large-breasted action heroine when suddenly you're forced to ask yourself, "Why is Wonder Woman singing? And how can I make it stop?"

And then the horror would escalate, because if she could sing as Wonder Woman, suddenly someone thought it would be a good idea to give Lynda Carter her own variety special. And then they gave her another, and another, like she was good, like they were entertaining, when it should have been obvious that, Lordy, no, this was not entertaining in the least.

Friday, November 04, 2011


Go to Blogger Dashboard, hit New Post, tap out a few words, delete them, tap out a few different words, delete them, pause and idly wonder if the topic I've picked to write about is even all that interesting...which means I'm second-guessing myself...which means I no longer have the confidence that what I'm doing is worthwhile...which means...what?

No idea.  That whole paralyzing writer's block thing, which inconveniently struck once before just as I was starting to actually get stuff published and, you know, earn money, and which decided to hang around for a decade or so--has it returned?  Have I run out of things to say, or interesting ways to say them?  Are there no more tortured Star Wars analogies for me to make?

Again, no idea.  But hey, in the interest of (barely) fulfilling the minimum daily amount of entertainment one can expect from this site, here's a clip of Bert Parks performing a Paul McCartney song during the 1976 Miss America pageant.  Regarding this, for lack of a better word, performance, I would note two things: 1) Those background dancers are staging what Crow T. Robot once referred to as a "mince-off" and 2) Back in '76, people watched this sort of thing in huge numbers, and mostly not ironically.  Even at the time, I couldn't understand.