Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Hot in Cleveland


HOT IN CLEVELAND was a TV series I ignored for all six seasons it aired on TV Land, between 2010 and 2015. The one exception I made was for the highly publicized MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW reunion episode.


Ignoring it turned out to be a big mistake on my part. As of yesterday, I have now finished watching all 129 episodes and the series has safely ensconced itself into my all-time Top 10 favorite sitcoms list!


Why? The writing. That and the absolute fearlessness of the regular cast—Wendie Malick, Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, and Betty White. If you’ve ever imagined what a completely uncensored sitcom might look like, this was it, and, in the great tradition of Lucy and Viv, the talented actresses had no problems whatsoever in making their characters look silly or unattractive or even—in this case—slutty and underhanded. Anything for a laugh. Literally, ANYthing for a laugh!


I wished I’d kept track of how many men these women—all four of them—slept with on the series, but then I realized that would go against the purpose of the series, which is to show that women of any and all ages are sexual beings and that their lives and desires are valid. 


There are a couple of shows that aired LIVE, there’s a fully animated episode, there are several behind-the-scenes episodes and blooper episodes. 


Loaded with in-jokes and references to classic television programs, one of the best things about HOT IN CLEVELAND is its endless parade of high-profile guest stars from classic TV. Georgia Engel and Dave Foley are semi-regulars in later seasons. Soap goddess Susan Lucci appears or is name-checked often as an exaggerated version of herself. Here’s a partial list of others that were so much fun to see again:


Carol Burnett

Mary Tyler Moore

Carl Reiner

Tim Conway

Cloris Leachman

Juliet Mills

Buck Henry

Hal Linden

William Shatner

Cybill Shepherd

Queen Latifah

Ben Vereen

Jon Lovitz

Garry Marshall

Robert Wagner

George Takei

Orson Bean

Mackenzie Phillips

George Wendt

David Spade

Tim Daly

Heather Locklear

Rhea Perlman

Jason Priestley

Jean Smart

Sandra Bernhard

Jimmy Kimmel

Valerie Harper

Marla Gibbs

Paul Dooley

Barry Livingston

Pat Harrington, Jr

Bonnie Franklin

Fred Willard

Ed Begley, Jr

Bob Newhart

Gregory Harrison

Steve Lawrence

Kristen Chenoweth

Ed Asner

Doris Roberts

Ernie Hudson

Don Rickles

Regis Philbin

Stacy Keach

Cedric the Entertainer

Millicent Martin

Kirstie Alley


And that’s just SOME! In the case of a few of these actors who have since passed, their appearance on HOT IN CLEVELAND turned out to be their last acting role!

 All in all, I was impressed, amazed at the risks they took and got away with, and ashamed to admit that I never thought it worth checking out until it had been off the air for five years. It’s often compared to THE GOLDEN GIRLS but I watched that series and other than the basic “four women” setup and the presence of Betty White (as a VERY different character) I really don’t see the comparison. Don’t get the impression that it was all sex jokes and barbed jabs at aging, either. Every step of the way, the show displayed more genuine heart than I’ve seen on a TV series in years. I highly recommend HOT IN CLEVELAND.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

ABC Stage 67

ABC STAGE 67 premiered with a lot of advance press in the fall of 1966 but didn't last beyond one season. Shifting time slots undoubtedly played a part but the real problem was the same as with any anthology series--Some episodes were great, others not so much. 

Another reason was that some of the announced episodes that sounded very promising ended up  not materializing at all, such as a tribute to Mike Nichols, then riding high for directing the Broadway play, LUV.

The Mike Nichols show was announced as being the premiere but as it got closer, a one-hour comedy called THE LOVE SONG OF BARNEY KEMPENSKI (originally planned as BERT KEMPENSKI's NEW YORK) took its place. Written by Murray Schisgal, ironically the author of LUV, it starred Alan Arkin, who had, himself, just scored in the feature film, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING. A combination of absurdist comedy and New York City travelogue, Arkin is a charming delight throughout, flitting from one thing to another, often seeming to be aware that an audience is watching. You can find it on YouTube. 

 So the show was off to a good start. Another episode featured an all-new musical comedy adaptation of the venerable play, THE CANTERVILLE GHOST. The A-list cast included Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Sir Michael Redgrave, Frankie Howerd (in his only appearance for American TV, I believe), GILLIGAN'S ISLAND's Natalie Schafer, Tippy Walker (from THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT) and Peter Noone, Herman from Herman's Hermits! The book and music was by the folks who had created FIDDLER ON THE ROOF! 

Sounds good, doesn't it? VARIETY called it "spiritless" and "soggy" and "a waste of a considerable amount of good talent." I'd have to agree with all of that. It didn't help that they attempted to make the whole thing campy for no apparent reason.  THE CANTERVILLE GHOST, too, is available for your verdict on YouTube. 

 I haven't watched it yet but RODGERS AND HART TODAY shows up in two parts on YouTube. Originally advertised as showcasing the most popular modern singers of 1966--including Nancy Wilson and Tony Bennett--interpreting the composing duo's classic numbers, it looks as though someone informed the producers that those folks--wonderful as they were--really weren't the most popular singers of 1966. In its final form, the vintage Broadway songs are sung by The Supremes, the Mamas and the Papas, Bobby Darin, and Petula Clark, who arguably WERE amongst the most popular singers of their day. 

 There's one intriguing episode that does NOT seem to be currently viewable anywhere. Sci-fi writer Robert Sheckley was also popular at that time, having written the hit movie THE 10TH VICTIM, then in theaters. ABC STAGE 67 hired him to write THE DIE-OFF, described in ads as "a new hair-rising, original drama." Retitled THE PEOPLE TRAP prior to airing, it told the story of a near-future America described as, "a time of great shortages of air and food and land and housing. Conception of children must be approved by the Pregnancy Police. A history teacher and his wife (Stuart Whitman and Vera Miles) face the consequences of an "unlicensed pregnancy." 

Described as "cameo performances," there were reportedly appearances by this diverse cast of co-stars--Cesar Romero, Connie Stevens, Pearl Bailey, Mort Sahl, Jackie Robinson (!) Michael Rennie, Estelle Winwood, Betty Furness, Mercedes McCambridge! 

 Other episodes of ABC STAGE 67 included Rick Nelson and Joanie Sommers interpreting the music of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, a story in which Anthony Perkins lives in a department store, and Truman Capote's CHRISTMAS MEMORY, perhaps the best-remembered one of all. 

But again, as with all anthologies, inconsistency is the enemy, and the series, unique as it was, ended.  

Monday, September 21, 2020

Matrix Goose by Jack Sharkey and Gray Morrow, 1967

Robotic nursery rhymes as originally published in GALAXY.


Sunday, September 20, 2020

Adam West--A Reflection

William Dozier, producer of the 1966 BATMAN television series,  had no idea what he had created. He took the credit in interviews and said it was all intentional but if you notice, he was never able to re-create it. I think that was due to Adam West. 

Dozier always said Adam immediately was on board with the silliness and played to that. But all you have to do is watch it. Adam was NOT being silly. Adam--let's face it, a bit of a wooden actor anyway--was seriously playing the role, acting the lines, and actually MAKING the viewer believe. My parents never laughed at it. My dad, in particular, loved it as much as 8 year old ME did! 

Adam never again succeeded because there was never another concept that worked so well with his unique but limited strengths. Dozier never succeeded again because it was never his ideas alone that were good, it was ONE idea and one PERFECT actor for it. Dozier got once in a lifetime lucky and never HAD that kind of combination again.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Booksteve Reviews: The History of EC Comics by Grant Geissman

There are comics fans and then there are EC Comics fans. To say one is a comic book fan does not necessarily mean they like EC Comics. Conversely, to say one is an EC Comics fan may well mean that person is almost exclusively a fan of EC Comics. 

For the most part, EC Comics fans are and always have been some of the most organized, knowledgeable, creative, and downright nicest people I have ever run across in comics fandom. You know, pretty much the opposite of what was predicted by the late Dr. Wertham and those he so misguidedly stirred up back in the 1950s. 


If you aren’t familiar with EC Comics, the 1950s publisher was known for its particularly grisly horror comics, its sleek, thought-provoking science fiction, its social justice tales, its anti-war stories, and, finally, its astonishingly influential humor comics.


For the first few years I collected comic books, I was completely ignorant of EC except for Mad and, as an elementary school student, I only occasionally saw an issue of that and had no idea of the folks behind it. I first saw the three ghoulunatics—The Old Witch, the Crypt Keeper, and the Vault Keeper, when they appeared for a few panels in an issue of Marvel’s Not Brand Echh in 1968. Had no idea who they were. I picked up a few of the later editions of the first Mad paperbacks, too, but had no idea exactly what I had. 


Then I spotted the ads for Woody Gelman’s Horror Comics of the 1950s, forever revered by hardcore EC fans today as “The Big Book.” Only once did I ever see a copy in stores, though, and the dust jacket was badly torn so I didn’t buy it. 


My real introduction to EC Comics came when I discovered comics fandom. Alan Light’s Flashback was first, with several Wallace Wood science fiction stories reproduced in murky black and white scans from the original comics. Then I mailordered a copy of the program book for the one and only EC Convention because it had a fun and naughty cover, also by Wallace Wood, an artist whose work I already knew from Marvel, DC, and Tower Comics. The con book also had a well-chosen selection of reprints in the back. From there, things moved rapidly, as the Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror movies came out and articles about EC popped up with regularity in fandom and even in “real” newspapers. I learned of Dr. Fredric Wertham and his long-standing anti-comics movement. I even read a copy of Seduction of the Innocent via inter-library loan. (Didn’t believe a word of it!) I was a charter subscriber to the short-lived East Coast Comix project, which reprinted vintage EC issues in full and in color but with new text pages. Other EC-related fan projects were everywhere by the late 1970s, many of them from Russ Cochran via his direct line to EC Publisher William M. Gaines. There was even a hardcover biography of Gaines himself that briefly flirted with the bestseller lists!


It was Cochran, though, who truly resurrected EC Comics, spending several decades in contextually reprinting every single horror, science fiction, humor, etc. story that EC had ever published in quality, annotated, slipcased hardcovers from Gaines’ preserved collection of all the original art. 


All of which is a long-winded way of bringing us to today’s offering—an EC Comics fan’s wet dream—The History of EC Comics by Grant Geissman. Grant Geissman, you say? Sounds familiar. “Isn’t he a highly respected jazz guitarist?” Why, yes. Yes, he is. But he’s also highly respected as an EC Comics historian, having previously written or co-written more than a half dozen other books on EC and Mad, all from major publishers. 


This one is from Taschen, the German publisher that delights in putting out those amazing oversized art books dedicated to people, places, and things once thought not to deserve an amazing oversized art book. As with all Taschen books, this one offers beautiful design work. Comics being a visual medium, the entire book—about 600 pages—is perfectly designed to emphasize the colorful, visual history of EC Comics.


But the text isn’t lacking, either. Beginning well before the days of EC proper, Geissman walks us through the history of both M.C. Gaines and his son William M. Gaines, two people who had some major issues with each other but each of whom played several important parts in the overall history of comic books. 


We learn about All-American Comics and its connections to both DC and EC comics; we get the lowdown on Educational Comics and how it became Entertaining Comics; we revisit the infamous Congressional hearings on juvenile delinquency; we witness Mad becoming a cultural icon far and above its four-color beginnings. 


It’s all here. One could argue that some sections could have used more detail but that, of course, would make this huge book even bigger. The story of Mad could undoubtedly fill a volume this thick all on its own. No, Grant wisely gives us the big picture without getting bogged down in the smaller details. All the necessary points are there and all the major players are present and accounted for: Gaines, Feldstein, Kurtzman, Craig, Wood, Orlando, Evans, Ingels, Kamen, Krigstein, Davis, the Severins, Elder, Williamson, Torres, Krenkel, Frazetta, Ray Bradbury, and even the ever-fascinating Lyle Stuart. (There’s a man who deserves a book just about him. Is there one?)  


There’s not a naked page to be found. Every single one here is adorned with art, photos, or rare letters and documents, a large number of which were completely new to me, and all of which are annotated. Many well-known EC covers are printed in giant size, along with lots of original art, all with some of the best reproduction I’ve ever encountered. (The famous splash for “Food for Thought” by Williamson and Krenkel and friends looks astonishing!) A few seminal stories are reprinted in full including the quite literally legendary “Master Race” by Feldstein and Krigstein and “My World,” by Feldstein and Wood.


One of my favorite sections is the 75-page section at the back that shows the cover of every single comic book that could be called an original EC, in order by title and then number. Even the magazine version of Mad is covered up through issue 35. (Yes, I know the Grand Comics Database has all that, too, but here there’s no having to bounce between web pages and the images are much bigger!)


Sounds too good to be true, you say? Well, inevitably, any book of this size will contain errors. In this particular case, I found two. Choke! Gasp! Exactly two. Just…two. There may or may not be a few others but nothing else jumped out at me. That there were only two relatively minor errors that made it into a book this size is actually quite remarkable. And neither were really about EC. When it comes to the EC stuff, the man really knows what he’s talking about!  

What were those errors? Nope. I’m not gonna be that guy who reads hundreds of pages of greatness and then dwells on two errors. I’m here to celebrate this book! Ultimately, it comes across like the biggest and best darn EC fanzine ever! In the end, there wasn’t much information in it that I didn’t already know but to have it all in the same place like this, to view it all in perspective and in order, felt just amazing.  

If you’re a newcomer to EC, it goes without saying that this would be an excellent, if cost-prohibitive, jumping on point. If you’re one of those organized, knowledgeable, creative, and nice EC collectors I mentioned above, what are you waiting for? Sell your lesser-grade duplicates of Panic and Saddle Romances on eBay so you can afford to buy a copy of Grant Geissman’s The History of EC Comics.  

EC for me, see!


Booksteve recommends! 

Monday, September 07, 2020

Plan Nine From Outer Space--Coming Soon

 This piece from a 1959 monster mag actually manages to make the film often said to be the worst film ever made (although it isn't) sound like something worth looking forward to as its initial release neared.  

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Dr. Rock and Mr. Roll-1965

Another fascinating movie that never was.