Five easy pieces

Welcome to a little music history and education. I don’t think I’ve mentioned before on the blog, but I am a trained musician who plays anything with a keyboard (including piano accordion, thank you), and was lucky enough to be well-grounded in both the theory and history of music. It’s a fascinating subject.

Here, I’ll be dealing with some tunes that probably everybody would recognize after the first few notes, but very few people could actually name. For the most part, they were created for very different purposes, and a number of them are only known as small pieces of larger works. For all but two, they became iconic once they wound up in film or television — although it could be argued that the pop culture of the pre-mass media world did the same for the other two.

I encourage you to at least sample the linked videos so you can hear what I’m talking about, although most of the “Why you know it” sections will probably make the tunes play in your head automatically.

And-a 1, and-a 2, and-a 1, 2, 3, 4…

1.   Marche funèbre d’une marionnette

Funeral March of a Marionette, 1872, by Charles Guonod

Why you know it: Alfred Hitchcock. He mentioned loving the piece on a BBC Radio show called Desert Island Discs, in 1959. The show was basically one of those “If you could only take X things with you” question formats with celebrities, with the subject being eight pieces of music, a book, and a luxury item. This was one of Hitch’s eight pieces — probably not a surprise at the time, since he had already chosen it as the theme song for his TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which debuted in 1955.

How he stumbled across it is anyone’s guess, but it had already been used in a few films very early on, including Sunrise, Laurel and Hardy’s Habeas Corpus, and Buster Keaton’s Welcome Danger, all before 1929. Here’s the section from the opening of Hitchcock’s show.

Its original intent: Most likely, Guonod was aiming for a cross between macabre and whimsical. After all, this is a funeral cortege for a “dead” inanimate object, and the score itself plus a change to a D Major near the middle tells us that the “mourners” do stop for what is basically a buffet along the way. In other words, serious, not serious.

How it’s used: To create a general atmosphere of the macabre or sinister, leaving out any bit of whimsy or joy from the original.

Why you don’t know all of it: Hitchcock uses a tiny snippet. The whole piece is about four minutes — way too long for TV credits.

2. Vjezd gladiátorů

Entry of the Gladiators, 1897, by Julius Fučík

Why you know it: Ever been to the circus? You can’t hear this tune without seeing that parade of elephants and lions and clowns, all led by the ringmaster down the street and to the big top.

Its original intent: Pretty much the same as now. It’s from a genre of music called “screamer.” These were marches used in order to pump up a crowd, quite often at events like circuses or state fairs, and frequently right before the entrance of the main act or the famous clowns. What makes them notable is that they focus on the heavy brass in the band instead of the lighter woodwinds, and they are at a tempo that is actually too fast to march at comfortably. If you’ve ever been at any kind of performance that’s used pre-show music, then you’ve experienced this concept, although probably with a much different genre of music. Comedy clubs and live TV “tapings” (they really still use that word) use the same trick — fast-paced, upbeat music right before things start in order to get the audience in the mood.

How it’s used: As originally intended. It’s just that this particular piece happened to win out over all of the other screamers from the era. Oh — and don’t let the title fool you. Fučík never intended it to have anything to do with gladiators, either. He just had a jones for the glory that was Rome.

Why you don’t know all of it: Again, it’s short, and you may have heard the whole thing, but you only remember the hook. Bonus points — it was lifted by Three Dog Night. (God, the 70s didn’t age well.)

3.   O Fortuna!

AKA Oh Fortune, Empress of the World, from Carmina Burana, 1936, by Carl Orff

Why you know it: It’s been used as the soundtrack for countless films and movie trailers since forever. Here it is in Excalibur.

Its original intent: Somebody found a bunch of poetry written by 13th century monks, originally assumed to be from Beuren, but later determined to have actually been created in Austria. Oops! The title stuck, though. Carmina Burana means “songs of Beuren.” Written in a mix of Latin, German, and French of the era, they were not religious songs at all, but, in fact, were rather secular and earthy. Probably not surprising, though, considering that the authors were probably young men only just realizing what they had given up when they chose the monastic life. So, yeah… Orff didn’t start out with high art at all. The raunch is just hidden in the age of the language. Kind of like Shakespeare.

A great and probably honest description of the source comes from an NPR story on its history: “Carmina Burana,” Music of Monks and Drunks. Yeah, like I said, college kids. By the time it got around to Orff, though, he intended it as a pretty serious cantata, to be presented with dance and masks and all kinds of stage craft. After all, he titled it a “scenic cantata,” meaning that it would have scenes and scenery and stuff.

How it’s used: This is the “Shit’s about to get real” theme. Or, when used as satire, it means “Much ado about nothing.”

What you don’t know: It’s the opening and closing of the aforementioned song cycle, but none of the rest of it ever reaches this level of brilliant. I mean, the first four bars of O Fortuna are in a 3/1 time signature. Musicians will instantly get how balls to the wall that choice was. And while all that stuff between the beginning and ending isn’t well known, at least it’s good — unlike our next piece.

4.   Also sprach Zarathustra

Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1896, by Richard Strauss.

Why you know it: Stanley Kubrick.

Come on, really. If this isn’t the first movie you think of when you hear this song, you need to get out more. But even if you haven’t seen it, you do know the tune. Kubrick used it three times in the movie — under the opening credits, right before the most epic time span in a jump-cut in movies ever (hundreds of thousands of years, if not a million or two), and at the end as Bowman is… let’s just say, given a jumpstart in evolution.

Its original intent: Strauss was writing a tone poem based on a treatise by Friedrich Nietzsche of the same title, and probably most well-known for the statement “God is dead,” which appears as a question in the prologue and a statement in part two. It was this work that Strauss was trying to capture musically, although he proved that philosophical works probably don’t make the best source for emotionally moving art.

How it’s used: Whenever someone wants to parody or reference 2001: A Space Odyssey or indicate something profoundly epic is happening.

What you don’t know: Similar to Orff, this piece is the beginning and ending of a long song cycle. The difference is that while O Fortuna serves as the cookies outside of an Oreo, Also is just the bread on a shit sandwich. I’ve listened to the whole thing and, trust me, it’s less exciting than watching paint dry. There’s a reason that Johann “The Waltz King” is the better known Strauss, although he and Richard were not related. But Johann did get a piece in 2001 as well.

5.   Treulich gefürht

The Bridal Chorus, from Lohengrin, 1850, Richard Wagner

Why you know it: Come on. You’ve been to some weddings in your life, whether as guest, part of the wedding party, part of the family, or one of the two co-stars. This tune is now known as Here Comes the Bride, and it’s inspired more happy tears than have ever been cried by all of the fans of all the winning teams of every big sports ball championship final match ever.

Its original intent: Again, pretty much as we know it, except for the sole purpose of providing a dramatic, suspenseful, and emotional entrance for a wedding scene in an opera. It wasn’t written to be used in weddings at all. But you know how people are. It only took one socialite at the opera to announce, “Mother, we are using this song when I get married, and that’s it.” Boom. The rest is history.

How it’s used: Whether literally or ironically, it says “someone is about to get married.” It is most always played as the bride enters the wedding venue.

What you don’t know: Probably most of the rest of that opera, Lohengrin. And you probably don’t also realize the irony of weddings often using this song as an entrance and Felix Mendelssohn’s Wedding March as an exit — which is, sadly, not called There Goes the Bride. Why? Well, Richard had no love for Felix because Mendelssohn was Jewish and Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite. In fact, whenever the latter had to conduct the music of the former, he would wear gloves so that he didn’t have to come into contact with the score, and then throw the gloves away when he was done. Yes — Wagner was talented, but he was a jerk-ass.

What are your favorite “Songs everyone knows without knowing the source?” Tell us in the comments!

Image by Grzegorz Dymon, used unchanged under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

5 things space exploration brought back down to Earth

Previously, I wrote about how a thing as terrible as World War I still gave us some actual benefits, like improvements in plastic surgery, along with influencing art in the 20th century. Now, I’d like to cover something much more positive: five of the tangible, down-to-earth benefits that NASA’s space programs, including the Apollo program to the Moon, have given us.

I’m doing so because I happened across another one of those ignorant comments on the internet along the lines of, “What did going to the Moon ever really get us except a couple of bags of rocks?” That’s kind of like asking, “What did Columbus sailing to America ever really get us?” The answer to that should be obvious, although NASA did it with a lot fewer deaths and exactly zero genocide.

All of those Apollo-era deaths came with the first manned attempt, Apollo 1, which was destroyed by a cabin fire a month before its actual launch date during a test on the pad on January 27, 1967, killing all three astronauts aboard. As a consequence, missions 2 through 6 were unmanned. Apollo 7 tested docking maneuvers for the Apollo Crew and Service Modules, to see if this crucial step would work, and Apollo 8 was the first to achieve lunar orbit, circling our satellite ten times before returning to Earth. Apollo 9 tested the crucial Lunar Module, responsible for getting the first humans onto and off of the Moon, and Apollo 10 was a “dress rehearsal,” which went through all of the steps except the actual landing.

Apollo 11, of course, was the famous “one small step” mission, and after that we only flew six more times to the Moon, all of them meant to do the same as 11, but only the other one that’s most people remember, Apollo 13, is famous for failing to make it there.

I think the most remarkable part is that we managed to land on the Moon only two-and-a-half years after that disastrous first effort, and then carried out five successful missions in the three-and-a-half-years after that. What’s probably less well-known is that three more missions were cancelled between Apollo 13 and 14, but still with the higher numbers 18 through 20 because their original launch dates were not until about two years later.

Yes, why they just didn’t skip from to 17 so that the numbering worked out to 20 is a mystery.

Anyway, the point is that getting to the Moon involved a lot of really intelligent people solving a lot of tricky problems in a very short time, and as a result of it, a ton of beneficial tech came out of it. Some of this fed into or came from Apollo directly, while other tech was created or refined in successive programs, like Skylab, and  the Space Shuttle.

Here are my five favorites out of the over 6,300 technologies that NASA made great advances in on our journeys off of our home planet.

CAT scanner: Not actually an invention of NASA’s per se — that credit goes to British physicists Godfrey Hounsfield and Allan Cormack. However, the device did use NASA’s digital imaging technology in order to work, and this had been developed by JPL for NASA in order to enhance images taken on the moon. Since neither CAT scanners nor MRIs use visible light to capture images, the data they collect needs to be processed somehow and this is where digital imaging comes in.

A CAT scanner basically uses a revolving X-ray tube to repeatedly circle the patient and create a profile of data taken at various depths and angles, and this is what the computer puts together. The MRI is far safer (as long as you don’t get metal too close to it.)

This is because instead of X-rays an MRI machine works by using a magnetic field to cause the protons in every water molecule in your body to align, then pulsing a radio frequency through, which unbalances the proton alignment. When the radio frequency is then turned off, the protons realign. The detectors sense how long it takes protons in various places to do this, which tells them what kind of tissue they’re in. Once again, that old NASA technology takes all of this data and turns it into images that can be understood by looking at them. Pretty nifty, huh?

Invisible braces: You may remember this iconic moment from Star Trek IV: The One with the Whales, in which Scotty shares the secret of “transparent aluminum” with humans of 1986.

However, NASA actually developed transparent polycrystalline alumina long before that film came out and, although TPA is not a metal, but a ceramic, it contributed to advances in creating nearly invisible braces. (Note that modern invisible braces, like Invisalign, are not made of ceramic.)

But the important point to note is that NASA managed to take a normally opaque substance and allow it to transmit light while still maintaining its properties. And why did NASA need transparent ceramic? Easy. That stuff is really heat-resistant, and if you have sensors that need to see light while you’re dumping a spacecraft back into the atmosphere, well, there you go. Un-melting windows and antennae, and so on. This was also a spin-off of heat-seeking missile technology.

Joystick: You can be forgiven for thinking that computer joysticks were invented in the early 1980s by ATARI or (if you really know your gaming history) by ATARI in the early 1970s. The first home video game, Pong, was actually created in 1958, but the humble joystick itself goes back to as far as aviation does, since that’s been the term for the controller on airplanes since before World War I. Why is it called a “joystick?” We really don’t know, despite attempts at creating folk etymology after the fact.

However, those early joysticks were strictly analogue — they were connected mechanically to the flaps and rudders that they controlled. The first big innovation came thirty-two years before Pong, when joysticks went electric. Patented in 1926, it was dreamt up by C. B. Mirick at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Its purpose was also controlling airplanes.

So this is yet another incidence of something that NASA didn’t invent, but boy howdy did they improv upon it — an absolute necessity when you think about it. For NASA, joysticks were used to land craft on the Moon and dock them with each other in orbit, so precision was absolutely necessary, especially when trying to touch down on a rocky satellite after descending through no atmosphere at orbital speed, which can be in the vicinity of 2,300 mph (about 3,700 km/h) at around a hundred kilometers up. They aren’t much to look at by modern design standards, but one of them sold at auction a few years back for over half a million dollars.

It gets even trickier when you need to dock two craft moving at similar speed, and in the modern day, we’re doing it in Earth orbit. The International Space Station is zipping along at a brisk 17,150 mph, or 27,600 km/h. That’s fast.

The early NASA innovations involved adding rotational control in addition to the usual X and Y axes, and later on they went digital and all kinds of crazy in refining the devices to have lots of buttons and be more like the controllers we know and love today. So next time you’re shredding it your favorite PC or Xbox game with your $160 Razer Wolverine Ultimate Chroma Controller, thank the rocket scientists at NASA. Sure, it doesn’t have a joystick in the traditional sense, but this is the future that space built, so we don’t need one!

Smoke detector: This is another device that NASA didn’t invent, but which they certainly refined and improved. While their predecessors, automatic fire alarms, date back to the 19th century, the first model relied on heat detection only. The problem with this, though, is that you don’t get heat until the fire is already burning, and the main cause of death in house fires isn’t the flames. It’s smoke inhalation. The version patented by George Andrew Darby in England in the 1890s did account for some smoke, but it wasn’t until the 1930s the concept of using ionization to detect smoke happened. Still, these devices were incredibly expensive, so only really available to corporations and governments. But isn’t that how all technological progress goes?

It wasn’t until NASA teamed with Honeywell (a common partner) in the 1970s that they managed to bring down the size and cost of these devices, as well as make them battery-operated. More recent experiments on ISS have helped scientists to figure out how to refine the sensitivity of smoke detectors, so that it doesn’t go off when your teenage boy goes crazy with the AXE body spray or when there’s a little fat-splash back into the metal roaster from the meat you’re cooking in the oven. Both are annoying, but at least the latter does have a positive outcome.

Water filter: Although it turns out that water is common in space, with comets being lousy with the stuff in the form of ice, and water-ice confirmed on the Moon and subsurface liquid water on Mars, as well as countless other places, we don’t have easy access to it, so until we establish water mining operations off-Earth, we need to bring it with us. Here’s the trick, though: water is heavy. A liter weighs a kilogram and a gallon weighs a little over eight pounds. There’s really no valid recommendation on how much water a person should drink in a day, but if we allow for two liters per day per person, with a seven person crew on the ISS, that’s fourteen kilos, or 31 pounds of extra weight per day. At current SpaceX launch rates, that can range from $23,000 to $38,000 per daily supply of water, but given a realistic launch schedule of every six weeks, that works out to around $1 to $1.5 million per launch just for the water. That six-week supply is also eating up 588 kilos of payload.

And remember: This is just for a station that’s in Earth orbit. For longer missions, the cost of getting water to them is going to get ridiculously expensive fast — and remember, too, that SpaceX costs are relatively recent. In 1981, the cost per kilogram was $85,216, although the Space Shuttles cargo capacity was slightly more than the Falcon Light.

So what’s the solution? Originally, it was just making sure all of the water was purified, leading to the Microbial Check Valve, which eventually filtered out (pun intended) to municipal water systems and dental offices. But to really solve the water problem, NASA is moving to recycling everything. And why not? Our bodies tend to excrete a lot of the water we drink when we’re done with it. Although it’s a myth that urine is sterile, it is possible to purify it to reclaim the water in it, and NASA has done just that. However, they really shouldn’t use the method shown in the satirical WW II film Catch-22

So it’s absolutely not true that the space program has given us nothing, and this list of five items barely scratches the surface. Once what we learn up there comes back down to Earth, it can improve all of our lives, from people living in the poorest remote villages on the planet to those living in splendor in the richest cities.

If you don’t believe that, here’s a question. How many articles of clothing that are NASA spin-offs are you wearing now, or do you wear on a regular basis? You’d be surprised.

How to be funny

Drama is easy. Comedy is hard. Why? Because, too often, we try to write the funny instead of the reality.

I’ve written both comedic and dramatic scripts, so I can tell you beyond all doubt that it is much, much harder to write comedy than it is to write drama. I should know. Over the years, I’ve had more than a few readings of comedic plays that I’d developed in workshop, and everyone in that small room without an audience thought the jokes and situations were hilarious. Hell, even I thought they were hilarious on re-reading, and I can be one of the harshest critics of my own work. And then we’d come to the reading with an amazing cast, quite often made up of actors I’d specifically written for, knowing their strengths and kinds of characters they could play well. Then we’d get it out there for an audience, read it straight through — and from the reaction you’d think that I’d written the darkest of tragedies. Not a laugh nor a giggle nor a titter.

This is why, as a writer, learning how to do improv is so important — it will inform your writing. (Not, however, the other way around, but that’s a subject for later.) For a long time while learning, I would aim for the funny while doing improv. A clever idea, a funny line, a weird character, whatever. My brain would tell me, “Oh, this would be hilarious here,” and then I’d do it, and sometimes it would work and a lot of the time it wouldn’t, and my teachers would give me the encouraging look a parent gives a child when they say something really cute but stupid, then proceed to give me a note.

I appreciate every opportunity like this, though. Honest criticism is the only way to learn, and I needed a lot of it. But, sometimes, the best way to learn about your own mistakes is to watch someone else make them, and recently I wound up working with a fellow student who is genuinely talented and very funny — but he would always aim for the punchline as well, and that’s when I realized what the problem was. But let me back up one second for a technical explanation.

There are really two types of routines (or in the parlance of my improv troupe, games) that improvisers do, ignoring short vs. long form for the moment. There are scene games and there are so-called “jump out” games. Now, for the “jump out” games, which are essentially a series of dueling one-liners, it’s all about the jokes and the funny and the humor. You might not be familiar with any of the games our group does, but if you’ve ever seen “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” then you may know of games like “Scenes from a Hat” and “Props.”

In the former, the host will read out a prompt, like “Things you can say to your dog that you can’t say to your partner,” and then the improvers will jump out, make a quick joke, then go back to their spot. (“Sit!”) With the latter game, two teams each get their own weird prop or props, and they have to alternate coming up with as many funny uses and lines for it as possible — for example, if the props are two traffic cones, a quick Madonna impersonation will probably happen.

All very funny, very fast, and none of it would create an entire evening of satisfying comedy. They’re more like punctuation.

Scene games are, well, what they sound like. There may or may not be an audience suggestion, but then the players are let loose to interact with each other, and that’s the key word. Interact. And the secret to scene games, and to comedy in general, is to never go for the funny. Go for the relationship. It isn’t about the jokes. It’s about the reactions, in context of that relationship, and where they go. And the humor comes from that.

Imagine two people walk on stage and you have no idea how they’re connected. Then one of them says, “Nice hair,” the other one says, “Oh, shut up,” and they exit, end of scene. Not very funny, was it?

But bring the two people on and let them establish their history. Maybe they’re siblings, or parent and child, husband and wife, lovers, co-workers, best friends, worst enemies, whatever. And they don’t exist in a vacuum, so they’re somewhere, and they each want something. And then, once we have that framework, we have something else very important.

See, what makes comedy happen is its relatability. That is, when the audience identifies with the characters or situation, they empathize, and it’s that empathy that leads to the comedy. The reaction is either “Oh, I’ve been that person” or “Oh, I’ve put up with that person” or “Oh, I’ve seen that happen,’ and it leads to the laughs.

During a space work class recently, I had this insight while doing a scene with another student that, to me, felt like it really didn’t go anywhere, and it all started with him creating an invisible revolving door and entering a hotel lobby. I entered after, and we quickly established that he was a tourist in New York and I was a local — and then I proceeded to appear to be rude, but when his character called me out on it, mine would explain that I wasn’t, it was just the way New Yorkers did things, and we’d patch things up until my next offense.

And my offenses were not coming from a place of, “Oh, what would be funny here?” Rather, they were coming from a place of, “Okay, he’s a yokel, I’m urban, he just said that, so how do I (in character) feel?”

I found myself very present in that conversation with him. I wasn’t trying to think of anything funny to say, I was just listening and reacting. At the same time, I was thinking, “Shit, we must be boring the hell out of everyone else right now.” But we went on. And on. And on… it seriously seemed like a good ten minutes, although I’m sure it wasn’t.

And when it was over, the teacher jumped up and asked the rest of the class, “Wasn’t that totally engaging?” And they agreed. “I could have watched that all night,” he told me and my scene partner, and I was kind of bowled over.

I was also reminded of Nichols and May. If any of my readers know them, they probably know them as the film directors Mike Nichols and Elaine May, but many eons ago they were an improv comedy team. I only learned about them because my grandfather was a record collector. He would buy boxes of LPs at garage sales, pull out what he wanted, and then leave the “crap” for me and my cousins. Well, his definition of “crap” was “anything recorded after 1950” and “anything spoken word,” so I wound up with quite a collection of stand-up and comedy albums from the 50s and 60s — Newhart, Carlin, Bruce, Berman… and Nichols and May.

And the thing about Nichols and May is that they did not go for the jokes. They created relationships, and then created the emotional stakes, and subsequently the drier and more matter-of-fact they got, the funnier it got. Sure, they would pull out old tricks like repetition (the rule of 3s!), callbacks, sudden tilts, and so on — but everything was about the relationship between the two characters.

I hadn’t even thought of their stuff in years and hadn’t listened to them since I was a kid, but this little improv lesson in character and stakes as comedy builders brought them back to mind tonight. Here’s a particularly great example that begins with one of the most basic and common relationships of mother and adult son, and then spirals right off into hilarity that probably every one of us can relate to, but it’s all built on the emotional reactions from one to the other. Not a joke in the bit, and yet, you’ll be laughing your ass off.

Here’s the thing: while all art should reflect the truth in some way, comedy needs to be ten times as truthful as drama. Why? Because drama may depict travails and tragedies we have not gone through ourselves, but which we can understand. But for comedy to hit, we have to relate to the situation and the relationship, and everything else. We cannot laugh at a universe we have not experienced, and we cannot make others laugh until we show them that we have also experienced that universe.

One other way to put it: Drama shows other people being strong. Comedy shows all of us being weak — but, in exposing our weaknesses, sharing our vulnerabilities, and coming out better and more honest for it on the other side. That’s why laughter is cathartic. Humor is the great leveler. A sense of humor is the most important thing any of us can have.

As Mel Brooks put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”


Image of Mike Nichols and Elaine May by the Bureau of Industrial Service for CBS Television

Pardon meme, but…

The internet is full of images with text on them, but all such images are not created equal. Some memes are image macros, but not all image macros are memes and not all memes came from the internet. Want to stand out from the crowd? Know the difference.

Meme: noun

  1. a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition and replication in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.

If you’ve spent any time at all on the internet — which you obviously do if you’re here — then you’ve run across plenty of pictures with text on them. Facebook timelines and every discussion board around is full of them, and they frequently serve as a shorthand or pre-made response to a topic or idea.

In the image above, one of these things is not like the others. Three are memes and one isn’t. Can you tell the difference? I’ll get back to it after a bit so you have time to make your guess. But for comparison’s sake, here’s an image that contains four genuine memes:

MemeStrip

Notice anything they all have in common? I chose four slightly older and well-known memes specifically to increase everyone’s chances of having run across them by now. Chances are you can probably associate a name with two or three of them — possibly all four if you’ve been online a lot, like I have.

From left to right, these images have become known as “Ermahgerd Girl,” “Scumbag Steve,” “Success Kid,” and “Grumpy Cat.” The latter two proved to be particularly lucrative for their originators, with “Grumpy Cat” parlaying media appearances and merchandising into a million dollar business. Meanwhile, the “Success Kid” image has been licensed out to companies like Vitamin Water and Virgin Mobile UK, but its ultimate success was raising over $100,000 to finance a kidney transplant for the father of the infant in the image.

You’ve probably seen each of these images with dozens of different captions. It’s not the wording that matters, really — it’s the recognizability of the picture and what it represents. Ermahgerd Girl is a nerdy expression of enthusiasm over something. Scumbag Steve is usually a set-up and punchline about that one guy who manages to be a douche to everyone. Success Kid and Grumpy Cat represent exactly what they sound like.

Of course, there are some memes that are a specific image macro — the same image and the same text always appear together — although you probably recognize both the copy and the picture in this one.

not how this works

This was taken from an esurance commercial, in which a character called Beatrice tries to bring Facebook into the real world by taping her vacation photos to her living room wall. As a meme, it’s usually used to point out that someone has made a dubious statement about science.

Now, back to the original question. Of the four images at the top, which one do you think is not a meme? If you guessed the bottom right, “We’re vegan…” you’d be correct. It’s merely an image macro, combining what is probably a stock shot with some copy, but it’s nowhere near widespread enough to have achieved true meme status.

Here’s another example of an image macro that is not a meme — and which is rather meta about that:

Meme Not a Meme

If you ever want to find out whether something is a meme or a macro or to learn the often fascinating history of a particular meme, there are some great resources out there, but Know Your Meme is probably the most extensive collection. They frequently will have an entry for a new meme within hours of its first appearance. And if you’d like to visit a place where memes roam free and are frequently born, start with web-aggregator Reddit.

The secret to something being a meme is that it is generally known and understood on site across a wide swath of the population, although there can definitely be separate memescapes with their own subsets. For example, memes from anime or gaming may be very well known in one internet population but completely meaningless to another. Newer memes may be unknown to older users and vice versa.

Finally, as I said at the beginning, not all memes come from the internet, although most of them live there now. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” has been with us for close to 80 years. “Elementary, my dear Watson” and the image of Sherlock Holmes himself still endure — although the original character never used that famous phrase.

Some memes are even more ancient. Ever hear of Oedipus Rex? It’s a name that brings exactly one thing to mind. And that is the essence of what a meme is: a cultural shorthand widely understood within a group or subgroup that carries a lot of semantic meaning in very few images or words. Of course, I couldn’t end without sharing the most meta image macro of all that fits here perfectly using yet another meme picture known as “Good Guy Greg.”

Meme Final image

Although now you should know the difference between the two.

 

Sunday Nibble #22: Summer camping — sort of

Recently, Amazon Prime recommended something called The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, which aired on ABC in 1976, and it is… beyond surreal.

Basically, it was a make-good on a contract with ABC after two star-vehicles created for him failed. These were The Paul Lynde Show and Temperatures Rising, although in the case of the latter Lynde was brought in to replace the original lead, James Whitmore, of a failing series — never a good sign — and it was rechristened The New Temperatures Rising Show.

It’s no secret now — hell, it wasn’t even really a secret then except to Middle American audiences — that Lynde was as gay as Christmas on Fire Island. He hardly did anything to hide it, and even when he was supposed to be playing straight, married men he would camp it the hell up.

Somehow, he endeared himself to audiences, though, particularly as the put-upon father in the film version of Bye-Bye Birdie, and especially as the extremely flamboyant Uncle Arthur in the TV series Bewitched.

He sealed the deal when he became center square on The Hollywood Squares beginning in 1968 — and all of his best answers were so campy and over-the-top that someone had to be absolutely blind to not figure out how gay he really was.

Although, who knows? Maybe it was the idea that he was the wacky bachelor uncle who was too funny to have sex, so he was “safe.” Although if you look at a lot of his answers on Hollywood Squares, it’s hard to really believe that.

I mean, come on. He’s not even trying to hide it — and these are just six minutes out of hours of stuff.

By the way, the audience’s reaction and Paul’s response to the last question, at about 5:34, says it all. At least in some circles, they knew, and he didn’t even try to hide it.

This brings us to his Halloween Special, which is a bizarre combination of over-the-top camp combined with Lynde, playing himself, continually being cast in scenarios where he’s basically competing for female attention.

By the way, one of the principal writers on the special was Bruce Vilanch. If you don’t know who he is, the short version is that he is one of the funniest writers in Hollywood who has put humorous words into the mouths of everyone, since forever.

He punched up the jokes for the Oscars for years, and was the subject of the 1999 documentary Get Bruce! He also used to be the head writer for… The Hollywood Squares, and he was also loudly and proudly gay, although behind the scenes.

So we wind up with this bizarre mish-mash in which Paul Lynde is whisked away by his maid (Margaret Hamilton) to visit her sister (Billie Hayes). This is when he discovers that they are both witches, which is somewhat meta because the two of them played, respectively, The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz and Witchiepoo in the 1960s TV series H.R. Pufnstuf. They resurrect those characters here, and at least one of them is a gay camp icon.

The rest of the special involves the witches granting Lynde wishes, and in the first two he wishes to be a trucker and then a Sheikh — the first to seduce a diner waitress (Roz Kelly) and the second to seduce proper British Lady Cecily Westinghouse (Florence Henderson). He gives the witches the last wish, and they decide to go to a disco.

Along the way, the band KISS shows up and performs a few numbers.

If ABC wonders why they couldn’t get shows with Lynde to take off, this is a prime example. He was a fixture on Hollywood Squares for years. His Halloween special was never even re-run until the days of streaming.

If you have the slightest clue about Lynde’s private life, every single instance of him trying to seduce a woman here comes across as either cringingly inauthentic or, less charitably, as acts of hidden misogyny — we’re going to play the “girls are icky” game, but from a macho position.

Hm. Camp gay man portraying toxic masculinity? How very 1970s of them.

The other thing that really stood out for me, though, was how absolutely fucking boring and corporate KISS were. Now, I was never even familiar with their music, having been lucky enough to have avoided exposure to it in its heyday, but I had heard things from older cousins about how Satanic and evil and scary they were, or whatever.

I do remember some brouhaha when they ditched the costumes and make-up in the 1980s, but in watching them in this special now, my main impression was that they didn’t look scary or evil or anything like that. They just looked ridiculous.

This was what happened when somebody threw some 50 year-old brand manager a stack of records by Ozzy Osbourne and David Bowie and Alice Cooper, along with concert footage of the same, and said, “Come up with a band like this.”

I know it wasn’t intentional, but while the aim was for ultra-macho and dangerous, what they really managed to create was four young straight guys trying to do drag, but chickening out before the wigs went on.

Maybe that was totally appropriate for this special because, in a way, KISS actually represented exactly what Lynde had been forced into doing by strapping down his sexuality and pretending to play a straight man. The only difference was that he sort of managed to walk out with his dignity somewhat intact because he never actually gave up his personality along the way.

If anything, this special is a nice time-capsule reminder of how much mainstream pop culture in the 1970s sucked royal donkey balls. Oh, that’s probably the case now, as well. We’re just a lot better at design, costumes, hair, and make-up.

You can view the whole special in good quality if you have Amazon Prime, or watch it here, if you must.

The Saturday Morning Post #14, Part 7

Here is the penultimate installment of the L.A. social event of 2029. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top here.

TAKING HOPE

Fumiko had wanted to leave after the reception, but her nephew Haru had convinced her to stay and come down to the concert, and they’d been there ever since Maná and Natalia Jiménez had taken the stage at 6:30. Haru was a little pissed that they’d missed OK Go’s full show. On the other hand he did get to see their private number after the wedding, and he had made his aunt hang back so that he even got to high-five the quartet, especially his favorite, Andy, who also signed his program and took the time to have a short, friendly conversation.

Even though she didn’t understand Spanish much when it didn’t have to do with sizes and colors of cloth, Fumiko still seemed to enjoy the first act, and she seemed absolutely beside herself when Bette, Cher, and Barbra took the stage.

When A-Pop came on, she seemed a bit… confused.

Meanwhile, Alice and Edna had stayed, and Edna commented to Alice when the kids came on, “Damn. They’re hot. Probably all gay, too, but so what?”

“I… don’t know about this,” Alice muttered.

“What? They’re pretty good dancers and singers. Enjoy the show.”

“The one on the right, okay. He’s fine. And the one on the left. But…”

“But? Oh, damn. Is this one of those cultural things that my privileged white ass is missing?”

Alice just nodded, and then she noticed Fumiko, standing just to the other side of Haru. Of course, she didn’t know their names. All she knew was that Fumiko was giving her the same hateful look that she was shooting back, while the boy looked completely neutral, if not a little startled by Alice.

“Care to explain?” Edna asked. “Sincere question.”

“Thai boy on the right, everybody likes them. Chinese boy on the left, my home team. In between? Japan, Korea.”

“Sigh. So, in Western terms?”

“Think… World War Two, and you’re American. The Thai boy on the right? Canada. Everybody likes them. Chinese boy on the right? G.I. Joe. Your home team hero. In between? Germany, then Italy, in that order.”

“Okay,” Edna replied, “Except that nowadays, Americans don’t hold any particular grudges against Germans or Italians, although we still like Canadians. And the Thai. And now I know what you’re talking about, and it has to do with Nanking, doesn’t it?”

Alice just sighed and nodded. “It has everything to do with it.”

Edna took a deep breath, then threw up her hands. “I understand. I mean, I don’t agree with it, but I have absolutely no place to try to explain. Obviously. All I can say is just try to enjoy the concert, and how those four boys are working together so well.”

“I know,” Alice said, “But… it can be so hard with a reminder.” She nodded toward Fumiko.

“Or so easy if you just say ‘Hello?’” Edna asked. “No, sorry… sorry. I’m just going to shut up and maybe move over there to watch the show. You enjoy the rest of the evening.”

Edna moved off to the side, and she felt really conflicted. Honestly, she had no place saying anything about whatever deep-seated ethnic tensions existed between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people, even several generations removed. That would be like the Sultan of Brunei telling her how to feel about that whole British/Irish thing, given her ancestry.

On the other hand, it had really taken her aback to see clear racism in a person who wasn’t white. She didn’t think that such a thing was possible. She still didn’t. This had to be something other than that. Or maybe not. Maybe it was just another example of her actually being racist. Either way, it made her preconceptions spin, so she had to step away and just enjoy the music.

This didn’t keep her from watching as Alice and Fumiko gave each other the side-eye. Of course, Edna had no idea who Fumiko was, nor did she know who the young man with her was. She assumed that he was her son.

Toward the end of the concert, the young man finally walked right up to Alice, despite Fumiko trying to stop him, but he was insistent, and they exchanged a few brief words, Alice finally suddenly looking at him, incredulous, then at Fumiko, who glanced away proudly. Alice nodded to the young man, touched his shoulder, then walked over to Fumiko and got her attention, at which point she bowed deeply. Fumiko seemed legitimately shocked, throwing her hand over her face and leaning back but, after a moment, she stepped away from Alice backwards, and bowed even more deeply.

Edna had no idea what was going on, but it seemed to be progress, and the young man was beaming. In that moment, A-Pop were singing their finale, a song in English with the lyrics:

We know no borders and no countries

Religions don’t exist at all

Age and race and lies like these

Should never build a wall

All our genders are social fiction

All our sex is just some friction

Out with the old, and hey there newbies…

Let’s go have a ball!

The two women looked at each other, seeming to acknowledge the lyrics, then stood upright, paused for a moment, and walked away, leaving the young man to stand there looking very confused and sad. Edna wanted to run over and hug him, but didn’t, not knowing what was appropriate to do.

What she hadn’t heard was what had been said. Haru went to Alice and said, “My aunt knows of you, because she met that white woman you helped, and after she heard that story, she told me, ‘Haru, I don’t care if she’s Chinese. She has a charitable heart. I truly admire her.”

Alice said nothing, but just looked at Haru, incredulous, then past him at Fumiko, who glanced away and Alice knew that it was in embarrassment and shame. She nodded to Haru, touched his shoulder in a gesture of thanks, then went to Fumiko and did the only thing she knew to mitigate the woman’s shame because, truth to tell, Alice was suddenly feeling a lot of shame herself for having hated someone on sight who, clearly, admired her actions. Once Fumiko glanced her way, Alice bowed deeply, as she knew that this was a sign of respect among the Japanese.

Unfortunately, Fumiko seemed taken aback by this gesture, covering her mouth, eyes wide, gasping audibly and stepping back. She bowed even more deeply, and Alice understood that they really weren’t communicating as equals, because now they were in a struggle over who could say “sorry” the hardest, even though Alice knew that she was clearly in the wrong.

They stepped apart, regarded each other sadly, and then walked away. Haru couldn’t help but take the last lyrics of the song to heart…

Out with the old, and hey there newbies…

Let’s go have a ball!

As the line repeated, Haru looked up toward the stage, and realized that Li-Wei seemed to be singing it right to him, then noticed that the boys were marching down the steps, repeating the last lines alternately in unison in each of their own languages in turn — and Li-Wei was practically eye-fucking Haru. The only thing Haru knew to do was make strong eye contact, smile, and then do his best demure school-girl by tossing his hands in front of his face, giggling, and looking away.

Of course, there was no way that Li-Wei heard the giggle, and Haru wasn’t even sure that he’d understand that the move was a gigantic come-on. He didn’t even know whether Anime, or its successor Simume, had even made it to China. Or was Li-Wei just a Chinese boy from the west?

And then the Thai boy on the end announced, “Who wants to have a ball with us?” and Haru felt someone grab his hand. It was Li-Wei, and the other three were grabbing people from the crowd as well. Hiroji and Seojun grabbed two very pretty girls their own age. Hiroji’s was black and Sojun’s was most likely Eurasian. Haru wasn’t sure, but he suspected Vietnamese with at least one if not two American grandfathers courtesy of the tail end of that failed war. As for Kiet, he found a man who was probably old enough to be his grandfather, or at least his father, and one that Haru could not find subjectively attractive in any way, shape, or form. Then again, who was he to judge? And he tried as hard as he could to block his grandmother’s words about Thai men from his mind. She hadn’t been kind.

Well, hell. She hadn’t been kind about any kind of Asian other than Japanese, or anyone who wasn’t Asian at all. Haru had always found this odd, since his grandmother was sansei. Her parents were the first generation born in America. She was the third. She was as American as George Washington.

Of course, her big criticism of Thai men was, “Oh, they’re all just fags,” which had really hurt Haru, although he was afraid to say anything about it. That changed when he told it to his favorite auntie, Fumiko and, upon hearing the news, she went off on a tirade against Gran Shizuka, who was her mother, in front of the rest of the family.

That made for one tense and awkward birthday party for Fumiko’s sister Fukumi, who was Haru’s mother. But once Fumiko began berating Shizuka for basically tossing hatred on her own uncle, Masakatsu, now deceased, but who had always been openly gay, she won the argument, and Shizuka fled the party. It was only the intervention of Fukumi that kept the woman from going full-on drama gramma by pretending to perform an ancient suicide ritual.

“Really, mom?” everyone heard Fukumi say from the hall. “We’re in America. We’ve been in America for damn near 75 years now. Nobody does this shit anymore. Not this homophobia, and not this gutting yourself because you got embarrassed. Now grow the fuck up and come back to the goddamn party.”

From that day forward, Haru seemed to be Gran Shizuka’s favorite, so he had high hopes that people could change. And if that was whom Kiet loved, more power to him. Haru was absolutely loving the fact that he was being dragged by the hand back up to the top of the steps — one of the chosen few — by this hot Chinese-American boy who was probably at least half a dozen years older than him, but that was okay. At nineteen, Haru was tired of being a virgin, and he had a feeling that tonight he was going to lose his V-Card to an international superstar.

After a few choruses of wild dancing at the top, the song suddenly turned slow and the lights became muted and colorful, and Li-Wei pulled Haru in close, leading as they did a slow and sensual fox trot.

Haru really hoped that Li-Wei wouldn’t feel the raging boner in his pants, but then Li-Wei pulled Haru in by the small of his back, which was when they pretty much realized that they were both hard as hell.

“What are you doing after our show?” Li-Wei asked him, staring deeply into his eyes.

“You…?” Haru muttered, a breathless question.

Li-Wei pulled him closer. “Oh. I’m Li-Wei. And you?”

“I know,” Haru replied, feeling immediately stupid, then adding “Haru” after an awkward pause during which he couldn’t remember his own name.

“Well then… when this song ends, the exit is right across to City Hall doors, and then we get our own private elevators down to the limo, and to our hotel suites. But once we get there, I think I know where the entrance is.”

Li-Wei moved his hand and grabbed Haru’s ass, hard, one finger slipping as far up his crack as Haru’s trousers would allow. Haru just moaned a little and looked up at Li-Wei with hungry eyes.

“Oh… Senpai,” he sighed, not knowing what else to say.

“I’m getting to like you more and more by the second.” Li-Wei smiled back down before adding, “Kōhai.” Haru’s knees went weak and he almost turned into a manga character right there. He was equally bowled over by a Chinese boy knowing something that he thought only Japanese people and white American weeabos knew. Then the song ended, and the band and their insta-dates marched off towards the doors to city hall, but the evening and rest of the next day were only just beginning

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #19

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

If you opened a business, what kind of business would it be?

This is one of those questions I’ve known the answer to for years, and yet one which has had the parameters for actually doing it change so much in the last three months that the real answer has become something quite different.

Or, maybe not, but let’s start with the pre-plague version.

If I opened a business, it wouldn’t be so much opening my own as it would be facilitating and giving a home to something my friend Che’Rae Adams started, called the Los Angeles Writers’ Center. (LAWC.) It’s a similar idea to Playwrights Horizons in New York, although on not quite as grand a scale yet, but could get there.

In its ideal, pre-plague form, it would have served as a school, developmental center, and production/performance venue, ideally funded by grants, donors, and ticket-sales as a non-profit so that the playwrights would not have to pay tuition while the performers would be paid.

As the idea developed, I realized it would also be the perfect place to fold in ComedySportz L.A. as a second tenant in a building with multiple performance venues, allowing them to have their shows and classes as well, but as a subsidized part of the LAWC.

To go full-on insanely ambitious, those venues would be in a mixed-use commercial/residential property adjacent to a Metro station, but here’s the catch: none of those residences would be luxury properties, and none would be for sale. Instead, they would be available as very low- or no-cost rentals to the artists involved with the company below.

Income that wouldn’t accrue to the non-profit but which would cover operating expenses of the residential and commercial areas of the building would come from the very carefully selected commercial tenants resident on the first one or two floors, designed to cater to our audiences, staff, students, teachers, and artists-in-residence.

Our major goal would be diversity and inclusion, with the primary intent of presenting work written, created, and performed by artists from the BIPOC and LGPTQ+ communities. And while this doesn’t mean that we would never do Shakespeare, it does mean don’t be surprised if you see a production of Richard III set in Feudal Japan with an all-Asian cast, The Tempest recast as an African folk tale, The Scottish Play set as a struggle between native Indians and the Raj, or a First Nations and Native take on Romeo & Juliet.

But no, you would not be seeing an all-white version of The Wiz, thank you. Never, never, never, never, never!

On the other hand, a lesbian version of A Streetcar Named Desire or a gay version of A Doll’s House (with Nora as a twink who’s finally over it) or a transgender, pansexual take on Guys and Dolls could be very interesting.

But all of those are new stagings, re-imaginings, and adaptations. The real purpose and fire of the LAWC would be original works by new voices (new by exposure, not by age — we’re diverse in that way, too) developed via a collaboration of the writers, actors, directors, and dramaturgs of the LAWC, along with a series of readings to get audience feedback.

The ultimate goal is to keep creating seasons to present in our own theater.

Well, it was. The question now is whether and when live theater — or any live event in a venue that holds more than a hundred people — is ever coming back. And, if it does, is the staging going to have to be something new, different, and never before explored?

Will live theaters essentially become a stack of private boxes set in a tower of circles all the way around the stage, enclosed in glass with sound piped in, and occupancy limited to up to six members of the same household who have shown proof?

And how would that effect relative costs it tickets were per box instead of per-person? I’m sure that single theatre fans would pretty quickly revolt.

Do we instead reduce all theaters to 99 seats or less but have multiple shows per day in order to get enough people in? Or would that be too abusive to the casts, as well as forcing them to risk longer exposure times?

Do we turn all theaters into elaborate versions of Pepper’s Ghost, in essence turning the cast into real-time “holograms” to protect them from the audience and vice versa, basically using a 19th century stage trick?

Does being cast in every show from now on out require fourteen days in complete quarantine before rehearsals even start, and how is that paid according to union rules?

Are Noh theatre and Commedia dell’arte about to make a comeback because of the masks?

Too many questions, not enough answers.

I’d still like to make this business happen. I just don’t know what form it would take in the near future.

Theatre Thursday: So put another dime in the jukebox, baby

June 18, 1815: “My my, At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender

April 6, 1974: ABBA wins the Eurovision Song Contest for their song Waterloo, which has nothing to do with Napoleon, really.

April 6, 1999: the jukebox musical Mamma Mia! premieres in London’s West End. The date, obviously, is not a coincidence.

But now the theme of this piece probably makes sense, since it is Theatre Thursday. So I’m not writing about Napoleon, famous battles, or Swedish pop groups. This is about the concept of a jukebox musical, which I have to say I find somewhat abhorrent with a few exceptions.

If you’re not familiar with the term, here’s what it is. A jukebox musical is a show that takes existing musical works, either a collection of popular tunes or sometimes the collected works of a particular band or artist, and then uses them to create a story, although one that’s generally not about that band or artist — with exceptions, more on which later.

Note that concept albums that became musicals, like Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita are not jukebox musicals since they were created like traditional musicals, just released as soundtracks first.

No — a jukebox musical is a collage made out of pre-existing material. And the problem with this sort of backwards creation is that it forces the story into the music, rather than letting the music flow from the story. And, of course, if you’re working with a group like ABBA, with a lot of hits, there’s the need to jam every one of them in there, even if it includes Waterloo, whether it fits the story or not.

Another big danger is that it just turns into a concert loosely wrapped around a story — q.v. 2005’s Jersey Boys, documenting Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and infamous for the number of fistfights that would start in the audience every single night at intermission.

The concept of jukebox musicals really started in America with film rather than stage, and some of them are quite famous and actually good — Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, and An American in Paris being just three examples.

But the granddaddy of jukebox musicals is arguably John Gay’s 1728 opus The Beggar’s Opera, which took popular ballads of the day as the soundtrack of its story, which was stylized as a parody of Italian opera of the time.

Ultimately, it gave us the decidedly non-jukebox musical The Three Penny Opera by Brecht and Weill, which gave us the song Mack the Knife, which you probably still know from the linked version despite Bobby Darin having made it a hit in the late 50s and having last performed it just before his death in 1973.

Ironically, Darin’s music was used in the 2016 stage musical Dream Lover: The Bobby Darin Musical as well as the ambitious but incredibly miscast 2004 biopic Beyond the Sea, in which Kevin Spacey, already in his 40s, tried to play Darin at all stages in his life, keeping in mind that the singer started his career very young, basically getting into songwriting at 19 before dying at only 37.

Though they not always successful — hits like Mamma Mia! are the exception, not the rule — the number of jukebox musicals has exploded in each decade since the 1980s, with nearly 50 produced in the 2010s and three already planned for 2021, although there’s no telling whether they’ll happen now.

So what’s the appeal of the genre? Sadly, a vast majority of audiences prefer the familiar over the novel. Also, from the producer’s side of it, if they’re a large company that already owns a bunch of intellectual property (IP), like a huge star’s song catalog, then they don’t have to pay extra to use it, so they save a lot on material.

Not that they might not still spend the money, but Mega Studio Pictures paying hundreds of thousands to license music owned by Mega Studio Music Group is just an accounting trick that allows the former to deduct the cost and the latter to use the income to appear profitable. It’s no different than you or I transferring money from checking to savings.

With major companies like Disney and other studios getting more involved in Broadway productions, because the shows have just gotten so expensive, it was an inevitable move, really.

But, again, this leads right back to the big ho-hum drawback of large venue jukebox musicals focusing on a single artist or group. They can easily come across (and do) as nothing but overblown concerts with fancy sets, an attempt at a story, but with none of the original stars.

Yes, Sting did sppear in productions of his musical The Last Ship — but that wasn’t a jukebox musical. It was all original material he wrote.

I’m trying to think of a single stage jukebox musical that I’ve liked, and I can’t. Okay, I can think of one series of such shows but it’s a specific sub-genre, in that they use the jukebox format to create mash-ups between particular artists and authors.

Officially known as the Troubadour Theater Company but usually referred to as the Troubies, they do shows that take text from authors like Dickens or Shakespeare, combine this with the music of a specific artist or group, and give us musicals like A Christmas Carole King or Julius Weezer.

They work because they were never supposed to be serious in the first place while still presenting a distillation of the original stage story that is accessible to all audiences.

Oddly enough, though, the format seems to work a lot better on film than it does on stage — maybe because the need for film to make things literal works against everything just looking like a concert.

One very notable example is Moulin Rouge!, which used modern pop and rock songs in a story set in 1901 Paris, but part of the reason this worked so well is that the script was written first with the songs very carefully chosen, and nothing proceeded until Baz Luhrmann had acquired the rights to every last one of them. There’s only one original song in the film, the haunting Come What May, but this is common for every Hollywood jukebox musical. You can’t get an Oscar nod if the song wasn’t written for the movie, after all.

Another great example of one that works is the Elton John biopic Rocketman, but that’s because it brilliantly relates the songs to the life of the composer rather than putting them in the context of performance. There are only one or two moments where we actually see the Elton character performing one of his songs for an audience, but those bits are frequently parts of a bigger fantasy sequence.

And, of course, there’s the classic 1952 film Singin’ in the Rain, which happened because producer Arthur Freed wanted a vehicle to pimp out songs he and Nacio Herb Brown had written during the early talkie period (1929-39). It was all about owning that IP again. Fortunately, the result was a film that is still funny and timeless to this day.

In case you haven’t seen it, it takes place in the late 1920s, right as movies went from being silent to “talking pictures,” something which caused huge turmoil in the real-life industry. A key plot point is that one of the biggest starlets of the era looks beautiful, but has an accent and a voice that would make a chainsaw sound like James Earl Jones.

It’s an early 50s parody of the world of about 25 years previously — which seems to actually be the standard human parody cycle. Think about it. If you were going to make a film today about people struggling with a huge change in how things are done when it comes to media, wouldn’t the rise of the internet and mid-90s be the ideal target?

And if you haven’t seen Singin’ in the Rain, that’s even more of a surprise, because it happens to be what I like to call one of the Warner Bros. ATMs.

I worked for Warner Home Video just after the turn of the century, and loved it, but the marketing people behind it sometimes did… questionable things in search of a buck. Hence, the Five ATMs: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Singin’ in the Rain.

Why ATMs? Simple. Warner Bros. owned the rights to all of them and, whenever it looked like the company was going to have a bad quarter because some property had crashed and burned — which happened a lot back then (The Adventures of Pluto Nash? Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever?) — they would quickly whip out yet another special edition boxed set of any or all of those films, either adding more bonus material, special booklets, or collectibles (especially with Oz), or just going all whiz-bang on the packaging, calling it a limited edition #th anniversary set, and charging a premium.

By the way, I think I still have original, rolled theatrical posters for Pluto and Ballistic, in case anyone is interested in buying one or both.

As for all of those special releases, people bought them hand over fist. Oz was particularly egregious. Sell the exact same special edition box set as last time three months later, only now it comes with a special Tin Man ornament instead of Scarecrow. Whoosh — product out, money in.

It’s that lure of the familiar once again. But that was exactly how a jukebox worked: If you wanted to hear that song you liked one more time, you had to pay for it. Again, and again, and again.

Hm. Maybe that remake of Singin’ in the Rain, called Torrentin’ on the Net, should be all about how piracy came about, as people got tired of having to pay over and over for slightly shinier but not always better versions of the same old shit.

Image (CC BY-SA 2.0), used unmodified, Vintage Jukebox by Mark Sebastian.

Hindsight really is 20/20

Here’s another piece from the past, this one from April, 2019. I’m just starting the slow transition back to working again after three months, which is going to be emotionally difficult. I just hope we’re not returning too soon.

There were three particular things that my parents did when I was a child that seemed random, but it wasn’t until years later that I had the sudden adult “A-ha” moment of realizing what was probably going on. By then, my parents were no longer around to ask, but I think I guessed their reasoning accurately.

The first one was me getting my Social Security card at seven years old.

Second was not long after that, and my parents decided to sell the suburban starter home they’d bought right after getting married in order to buy something fancier.

The last was a few years later, when my parents met with my dad’s uncles, none of whom I’d met before.

While these this may seem like normal family things, it wasn’t until I looked at other events that happened around the same time and had my “A-has.”

Getting social

First, the Social Security card. Before Ronald Reagan was president of the U.S., kids didn’t need SSNs. (I think the reason for the change was to prevent tax fraud via deductions for fake kids.) It was normal to only get one when you were going to start working, so the usual earliest age would be about sixteen for a high school job, although definitely by senior year, since it would be needed to apply for college and (gack!) student loans.

My paternal grandmother didn’t get hers until she was 35 — but that’s because that’s how old she was when she suddenly had to go to work due to circumstances that will become obvious below. Did I mention that my dad was on the older side when I was born? I should, because that feeds back into the whys later on as well.

Anyway, one day we go to a government office and I’m clueless, so I just scrawl my signature on a form and that was that. Eventually, this fancy blue card comes in the mail with my name, signature, and nine-digit number on it, although my parents quickly lock it in their infamous “metal box” that lives in our linen closet, apparently a repository of Important Adulting Documents. (Insert ominous musical sting.)

Were they going to send me into child labor or something? Nope. This was not long after my dad’s older brother had a heart attack well before he hit his 60s. He survived, but I think it put some sort of fear into my parents. It wasn’t long after that a special “heart health” diet from my dad’s doctor became a permanent fixture on the side of our fridge — although the way my mom cooked, it was obvious that “heart health” back then meant something entirely different — lean red meat, alcohol, sugar, and sodium were apparently A-OK!

What I realized years later was that the only reason they got me an SSN was as a preventative measure in case Dad wasn’t so lucky with his heart and suddenly dropped dead. I had to have the number to get the Social Security death benefit, so they were really just looking out for me.

House for sale

As far as them deciding to try to sell the house two years later, it wasn’t until I realized this was right after my youngest half-brother from Dad’s first marriage turned eighteen. As in no more child support to pay — and Dad’s ex-wife had remarried right about the time he did, so he never paid much in alimony. He was free and could afford a bigger monthly payment.

Sadly, we never did sell that starter home and move on up to a fancy two-story house with a pool that would be worth millions now but which was, relatively speaking, ridiculously cheap then. I’ve often wondered how different my life would be if that had happened. I would have changed elementary schools, and every other school I went to.

Say “Uncle”

As for the third “A-ha…” My dad’s uncles — aka my great uncles — fascinated me as a kid for a lot of reasons. First, they were the only male relatives of that generation on my dad’s side I’d ever met. One of the four brothers died when I was two. Meanwhile, my dad’s dad had been in a mental hospital since forever and I wouldn’t have been able to meet him until I’d turned eighteen.

He died when I was thirteen, but apparently it was on the horizon for a while, so I met my great uncle Glenn first, and he fascinated me because he was the oldest human I’d ever met: seventy-six. He’d been around to see so much history I’d only read about!

I remember Glenn coming to our house a couple of times, and then we went to have dinner with great uncle Rolland. He was the last born of the four brothers (well, four out of six who made adulthood) and was a decade younger than Glenn. I liked Glenn, but Rolland scared me for some reason. He just seemed… well, he seemed to have the same mean streak that my dad’s brother, the uncle who’d had the heart attack, had. He lived somewhere way out, like Gardena or Glendora or one of those towns that’s lost in the great urban-suburban sprawl that stretches between Downtown L.A. and the top of Orange County in one direction and between L.A. and Long Beach in the other. What? L.A. County is bigger than some countries. (97, to be exact.)

This was something else that gave me pause years later — that my parents drove that far to have dinner with him. See, my parents weren’t big travelers except for very special occasions. Hell, maybe it was an emotional thing? We lived less than five miles from where my dad’s brother and wife lived — literally the third freeway off-ramp after the on-ramp — and we only made that trip a few times, too. It was the same with other friends of theirs who didn’t live too far away, but we rarely visited.

But here we were, driving forever. And if you can’t make minor in-town trips for close friends or family, then what incentive, exactly, is making you go this far? I didn’t know then because during the dinner with Rolland, I distinctly remember being sent out of the room to “play,” which, of course, even at that age I knew meant, “Oh, they’re talking ‘adult stuff.’”

The content of that adult stuff became abundantly clear years later while my dad was in the hospital for the final time, I was in the house I grew up in alone, knew the location of the infamous metal box (and of the key) and took a look inside. That’s when I found the explanation for what had been going on.

I mentioned the bit about his dad being locked up in a mental hospital, but hadn’t known the reasons for it. I’d always assumed that grandpa was basically insane. But, according to documents in the box, he had abandoned his family twice, despite being ordered back by the courts after the first time.

When he walked out the second time while his kids were barely teenagers that was apparently enough for Grandma, who managed to get a non-scandalous divorce (probably the only way to do so at the time) and then got his ass locked up.

Why? Well, because, in that day, no sane man would abandon his wife and kids and, honestly, admissions standards for mental hospitals were a lot less stringent. (Q.V. American Horror Story: Asylum.)

He was in there for something like forty years. Meanwhile, Grandma went to work, invested her money in land, originally in the still-developing San Fernando Valley, and went on to have a pretty good life, retiring with her second husband to a 15-acre farm/orchard near San Luis Obispo, which was my favorite place to visit as a kid.

Anyway… around this time, grandpa had started to show signs of dementia, and of needing to be checked out of the mental hospital and into a nursing home, and my dad filed papers with the court asking to be exempted from any familial or financial responsibilities for this action, citing the above abandonment. I’m guessing that maybe his brother did the same, but this would have meant that the ball would have landed squarely on the shoulders of grandpa’s two surviving brothers, Glenn and Rolland. (Grandma avoided any responsibility via that long-ago divorce.)

So those meetings were probably some combination of my dad justifying his position and my great-uncles trying to resist or negotiate. Ultimately, I think my dad won, and my grandpa wound up being relocated to a nursing home not far from where Rolland lived. When my grandpa died, I didn’t see my father shed a single tear, although he lost it when his mom died — ironically two years to the day before my mom, Dad’s wife, did.

And, even more impressive, my dad managed to somehow win over the mean, nasty uncle although, to be fair, a degree of blackmail or coercion might have been involved, because certain jokes my dad and heart attack Uncle made back in the day pretty much telegraphed that the entire family considered Rolland to be an alcoholic, and this was back in the days when “Hey, that was funny!”

Or, in other words, not now.

How parents change

This got longer than I’d expected, but I hope that it inspires people to get introspective and ask themselves, “Okay, why did my parents do that thing they did when they did, and what didn’t I know then?”

It can be an interesting and very illuminating game, and you don’t need to limit it to wondering about your parents.

What apparently random decisions did your parents make when you were a kid that didn’t make sense until you considered them as an adult? Tell us in the comments!

Something to crow about

Another quarantine break. Here’s an article from just over a year ago, on animals, language, and a bit of Lewis Carroll.

The other evening, while I was walking my dog, the neighborhood crows were engaging in their usual near-sunset activities, which mostly involve wheeling around the sky, landing en masse on the power lines, cawing loudly at each other, then wheeling around again, going from tree to tree as if they’re all trying to come to an agreement as to which motel to check into for the night.

This particular evening, a good sized murder had settled around one tree, more or less, but various birds kept swooping in and out or going from branch to branch. The thing is, because of their positions and because I started to pay attention, something struck me.

Their calls were absolutely not at random. I’d hear one crow squawk a particular note a certain number of times, then another crow answer with a different note and number, and so on, and each crow always gave the same signal. Also, the shorter calls seemed to come from more mobile birds, while the longest calls came from the same places.

It suddenly dawned on me that this was a family gathering in which each member was either announcing their presence by saying their name or asking if a particular other crow was present by saying their name. It surprised me how completely distinct each call was. Every bird had their own unique note and register and tone of voice, right down to the point that birds with the same number of notes still sounded like individuals. And I don’t think I’m crazy when I say that the two or three birds with the longest calls really sounded like they were squawking with absolute authority.

This is very different than what you hear when the flock is sending out a warning of a predator in the area, or when they discover a member of the family that has been killed by one. In that case, the birds are generally wheeling around in the air, and their caws are more frantic, overlapping, and agitated. Similarly, if a rival flock tries to come into the area, you’ll hear something akin to the predator warning, although in this case the flock will stand its ground, since it’s protecting territory, and may be a bit less frantic and user shorter calls in a lower pitch.

The thing is, dinosaurs never died out. They just evolved into birds. And the corvids, as in crows and ravens and the like, are among the smartest of all birds. They can remember faces and actions. Pro-tip: Never do anything to threaten or annoy a crow, because they will just tell the other crows, and they will gang up on you ever after. On the other hand, if you leave them food, they may bring you shiny trinkets.

Even more remarkable, they can use tools, and figure out problems, like this crow.

At first, this may not seem that amazing, since the crow was taught each of the stages of this puzzle separately, but the key detail is that he was never taught how they all fit together to get the reward. That was the part he had to figure out, showing that these birds are indeed able to think logically and consider the future implications of present actions — “If I do A, then I’ll be able to do B,” and so on.

They have a lot of other superpowers, which are worth reading up on. One of the most amazing, though, is that in Japan, they learned the meaning of traffic lights and began exploiting cars to crack walnuts for them. Watch.

As David Attenborough explains the above, the crows figured out that they could drop a nut in the street while cars were going along it and the tires would crack the shells. Then, when the light changed and stopped traffic, the crows could simply trot into the crosswalk and grab their treat.

There happen to be a huge number of crows in my neighborhood, and I love it. They are majestic and intelligent, they clean up road kill and other crap, and it’s amusing to watch when two or three of them will casually try to intimidate a lone squirrel into revealing where she’s just buried her goodies. (But don’t get me wrong. I love squirrels, too.)

Near sunset seems to be congregation time for the flocks, and it’s always the same process. They will arrive en masse, starting out by landing on the overhead wires and striking up a conversation, albeit a noisy and overlapping one. Then, as if one of them fired an invisible starter’s gun, they’ll take off, soar around a bit, then come back to settle into one or two trees. This is when they begin their alternating individual calls.

I sometimes wish that it were legal to have pet crows, but, sadly, it’s been banned by Federal Law without a special permit since 1918. In case you’re wondering how Frank Capra got away with it, he didn’t. Although legend has it that he owned Jimmy the Crow, who appeared in all of his movies from It’s a Wonderful Life on, that bird was actually a raven, and he was owned by animal trainer Curley Twiford, who presumably had the right permits.

(EDIT: Hat-tip to Kaeli at Corvid Research, whose article I linked above, for pointing out that corvids were not banned under the migratory birds act until the early 1970s, and people did keep them as pets during the Depression, although as far as I know, Jimmy still wasn’t actually Capra’s pet, just another hired actor.)

Finally, there’s the famous riddle from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which itself was really Lewis Carroll’s clapback at “modern” math of the day. Since he was also a mathematician, albeit a very conservative one, he took great umbrage at new innovations, like imaginary numbers, set theory, alternate geometries, and the like, and used his fictional works to satirize them. Or, in other words, he was kind of close-minded, although also a brilliant writer who managed to give us such endearing and enduring works as the Alice books, including the Jabberwocky poem contained in one of them, and the amazing stand-alone epic The Hunting of the Snark. By the way, Jabberwocky was the inspiration for the very weirdly wonderful early feature film of the same name directed by Terry Gilliam.

But I do digress. Here is Carroll’s riddle: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” He intended it to be complete nonsense and, in fact, when he finally got tired of fans asking him about it, he provided his own answer, which really is rather inadequate: “Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!” Unfortunately, the pun in the intentional misspelling of “nevar” (“raven” backwards) was “fixed” by a proofreader before this went into later editions, eliminating whatever bit of weak and pedantic humor was in Carroll’s original.

The “real” and much better answer, though, should be obvious. It’s because Poe wrote on both of them. Well, duh. And even though Carroll was British and Poe was American, the former should have heard of the latter, since Poe died when Carroll was only seventeen and managed to become somewhat well-known in his brief fortyish years. Carroll in particular should have known of Poe’s most famous work, The Raven, which is an absolute piece of music written in words. The rhyme schemes in it, both external and internal, are sheer art and brilliance, and the rhythm and intentional repetition absolutely create a mood and a forward motion that is inevitable.

But… none of this has anything to do with telling a hawk from a handsaw, by the way, unless Carroll was intentionally homaging Shakespeare with his poorly attempted riddle.

Here’s the point of all the crowing I’m doing, though. If you think that animals are not intelligent creatures with real emotional needs and wants, then you’re probably a little less than human yourself. Moving away from birds, I want to close with this absolutely delightful video that’s worth the time.

After watching those cows physically expressing joy at being let into the field after a long winter in the barn, I dare you to tell me that they are not thinking, feeling creatures.

Image source: Akshay Vijay Nachankar, used unaltered via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.