Saturday, July 4, 2015

Bonkers really was some candy!

Excerpt from a vintage print ad for Bonkers fruit candy. Artwork by Mort Drucker.

Someone saved on old strawberry Bonkers wrapper.
Does Nabisco even make candy anymore? Cookies, yes, but candy? I don't know, but they sure gave it a whirl in the go-go, profit-hungry 1980s, when every consumerist dream seemed within tantalizingly easy reach. I can imagine the marketing meetings that must have occurred then, with a slick Gordon Gecko type giving his sales pitch to the honchos at Nabisco: "I can practically taste that allowance money, boys! All we gotta do is take it right out of their sticky little hands!" Back in 1983, to that end, the National Biscuit Company introduced its ultimately-unsuccessful answer to competitor M&M/Mars' Starburst: Bonkers fruit candy. Chewy and gum-like in consistency, these artificially-flavored, chemically-saturated, rainbow-colored treats came in longish, skinny foil packages, just like Starburst. But Bonkers were thicker and chunkier, and each individual piece contained a core which was darker and denser than the lighter-colored outer layer. "Chewy outside, super fruity inside!" is how the ads explained it. I wish I could tell you to toddle on down to your local drug store or gas station and pick up a package, but that's not possible. After a few years of mid-'80s popularity, Bonkers fell out of favor and were thereafter found only in specialty candy shops. Nabisco phased the brand out sometime during the 1990s. Another candy wannabe had bitten the nougat, so to speak.

Bonkers revivals have been in the offing for the last decade or so, but nothing substantive has come of it. A nostalgia-minded confectioner called Leaf Brands, whose other products include Astro Pops, Wacky Wafers, and (ahem) Farts, purchased the Bonkers name most recently, circa 2012, and promised to bring back the beloved candy -- with additional flavors, no less. As of this writing, all Leaf Brands has done is brag a little on social media, posting to a Bonkers Fruit Chews page on Facebook as recently as April 22 . The company's self-imposed 2014 deadline for getting the candy back on store shelves was decidedly unmet, however. Here, to drive you mad, is a link to Leaf's page for Bonkers. Their current alibi? "We are in the process of acquiring the machinery needed to wrap these amazing fruit chews." A likely story, Leaf. No new Bonkers have been forthcoming. Previously, in 2004, a company called Joyco briefly released its own Bonkers candies, but these bore no resemblance to the Bonkers of old, leading to dashed hopes and bitter disappointment for children of the '80s.

As fondly remembered as the candy is, it cannot compare to the popularity of the TV and print advertising campaign for Bonkers. Rather like Burma-Shave, with its famous rhyming highway signs, Bonkers was a case where the promotion easily overshadowed the product. Bonkers' commercials, which debuted in '83 along with the candy, memorably centered around a demented Southern housewife -- most online descriptions call her an "old lady," but I'd say she's no more than middle-aged -- who generally speaks in a monotone directly to the camera. Try as I might, I could not find the name of the actress who played this part so wonderfully and with such gleeful malevolence. There is some speculation on Internet candy forums (yes, such things exist) that it's Lily Tomlin from Rowan & Martin's Laugh In, but it's clearly not. The character may well be inspired by Tomlin, who played the vaguely similar Ernestine the Telephone Operator, but it's not her.

The Bonkers lady
Anyway, the commercials are all set in some weirdly antiquated, early 20th century version of the Deep South. Thirty seconds at a time, they give us a glimpse of a disturbing alternate universe where eating Bonkers candy causes giant pieces of fruit to come crashing down from the sky. Pop an orange-flavored Bonkers into your mouth, for instance, and within seconds you will find yourself crushed by an orange the size of a Volkswagen. Victims of a typical Bonkers blitzkrieg are not only pinned to the ground under Brobdingnagian strawberries and watermelons but are also overtaken by maddening, incessant laughter. "Bonkers," the ads explain, "bonk you out." The candy's very name betokens its mind-scrambling effects. Meanwhile, the victim's home has been utterly destroyed by the falling fruit. There is rubble, debris, and smoke everywhere. So Bonkers promises a delicious fruity taste along with incurable insanity and massive property damage. No wonder kids adored these commercials. They promised chaos, which children love nearly as much as sugar.

At the center of it all is our prim, apron-wearing Dixie hausfrau, the only one who seems to know the true, incredible import of eating Bonkers candy. Is she disturbed by the terrible consequences of ingesting the fruit-flavored cubes? Not at all. The stiflingly old-fashioned world she inhabits -- a snoozy place where the only "entertainment" is an upright piano in the parlor -- is so straight-laced and circumspect that she semi-secretly welcomes the anarchy brought on by Bonkers candy. Curiously, she is surrounded by doubters skeptics, and naysayers who do not understand the awesome and terrible power of Bonkers. Their ignorance gives her a great deal of smug satisfaction, since she knows what's going to happen and they don't. "Some folks think Bonkers is gum," she intones in the most famous Bonkers ad. "They know it's candy now!" When we kids imitated these commercials in the schoolyard back in '83, this was the line we quoted to one another. At this moment, the housewife is like the token oldster in a horror movie who tries to warn the youngsters that they're headed for disaster. They never listen, of course, the fool kids. But even our savvy housewife is not immune to the wrath of Bonkers! She slyly ties to cheat fate by side-stepping the falling fruit, but to no avail. Soon, she, too, is lying helpless and prone beneath a bunch of grapes the size of beach balls. "Some candy!" she manages to get out between fits of laughter, the Bonkers-induced madness having claimed her.

Here, for your enlightenment, is a selection of mid-1980s TV commercials for Bonkers, all featuring the same superlative actress. It is perhaps best simply to enjoy the deadpan, cartoon-like surrealism of these spots and not dwell overmuch on their disturbing implications. Surely, in the Bonkers-verse, there must be occasional fatalities from the relentless fruity onslaught. And imagine the weary rebuilding which must take place in between commercials. How could construction workers, plumbers, electricians, and carpenters possibly put their hearts into their labors, knowing that all of their efforts could be wiped out in mere seconds by anyone with a sweet tooth and enough pocket change to buy a pack of Bonkers? One wonders, too, about the role of religion in this world. Certainly, as conservative Southerners, these characters would be regular Christian churchgoers. But how could you continue worshiping God in a world where giant berries were constantly raining down from the sky, destroying your humble property? Would you assume that Bonkers had power greater than that of God, or would you conclude that God Himself was acting through Bonkers, using the fruity delights as his instruments of wrath? These ads raise so many theological questions.

So persuasive were these ads that, apparently, some young and very impressionable viewers were taken in by them completely, not realizing that trickery and exaggeration were being employed in this fiendish marketing campaign. On YouTube, I found a seven-minute-long testimonial by a now-grown man who learned the hard way that television advertisements do not always tell the truth. As a 7-year-old child, he convinced his parents to buy him a pack of watermelon-flavored Bonkers, only to learn to his great disappointment that eating the candies did not cause gargantuan watermelons to descend from the sky onto the roof of his parents' Chevy Malibu. "I unwrapped the package of Bonkers," he recalled, "took out a piece of that watermelon flavor, popped it in my mouth, and started chewing. And I waited. No sound from above. No crashing. I don't hear anything. Oh, what happened? Where's my giant piece of fruit?" Eventually, after the boy burst into tears, his mother let him know the truth: "Honey, it was just an advertisement." Bonkers, then, taught this young man an important, if unpleasant, lesson about the way the world really works. I'd say, in a weird way, he actually got his parents' money's worth and more.

Print advertisements for Bonkers.
Before I let you go, I'd like to mention the concurrent print campaign for Bonkers. This, too, was memorable in its own way and helped create a strong brand identity among candy-crazed young people. During those peak Bonkers years of the mid-1980s, Nabisco advertised the product heavily in comic books. Apart from a few Marvel titles like The Amazing Spider-Man, I was pretty much a die-hard DC reader in those days, gorging myself on Action Comics and Justice League of America, and I can remember seeing such ads many times back then in those publications. Our disillusioned YouTuber up there remembered the ads, too. At one point in his tale of woe, he holds up a familiar-looking example. "Let me show you the ad," he says. "You may even recognize this, that appeared on the backs of comic book and at the checkout shelves. It says, 'BONKERS! FRUITY CANDY HITS YOU WITH A NEW FLAVOR!' And you see the old lady from the commercial, a portrait of her there with the watermelon laying across her and the different flavors."

Indeed, the mysterious housewife from the television commercials was represented via caricature in the print ads, putting her in the company of such cartoon mascots as Charlie Tuna and the Vlassic stork. When I wasn't watching cartoons as a kid, I was reading comic books, so this strange lady was never far from my mind in those days. And neither, consequently, were Bonkers candies. In my research for this article, I discovered -- to my utter delight -- that one of these ads was drawn by Mort Drucker, my favorite cartoonist from MAD Magazine. He didn't sign his Bonkers work, the way he did with his Shrunken Head Apple Sculpture ad (another comic book staple), but he scarcely need to do so. Those hatch-marks on the lady's cheeks are unmistakable, and those blissed-out background extras are pure Drucker. Enjoy.

This Bonkers ad by Mort Drucker would certainly get me to buy the product.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Jon Arbuckle is one sick mutha...

Jon knows how to keep the flame of love alive.

In recent years, Jim Davis' comic strip Garfield has relented somewhat in its depiction of the character Jon Arbuckle as a friendless, antisocial dweeb by giving him a seemingly-normal girlfriend named Liz, a veterinarian. That convention was taken over to the Garfield movies as well, with Jennifer Love Hewitt playing Liz to Breckin Meyer's Jon. This, to me, feels like a cheat, akin to the "bland nice guy" makeover former hothead David Seville got when the Chipmunks franchise was revived in the 1980s. This, too, was carted over to the Chipmunks movies. So Dave is no longer a truly-scary rageaholic, and Jon doesn't necessarily spend his Saturday nights alone with his cat. Well, I say phooey to all this focus-group, audience-placating nonsense. I'm making these characters off-putting again, and I'm starting with Jon. So there!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Some Ed Wood fan art: Duke Moore in 'Night of the Ghouls'

Some rare Duke Moore fan art.

Originally, I had planned to do more original fan artwork to accompany my Ed Wood Wednesdays pieces, but it never panned out that way. I do, however, have this one attempt at a moody, black-and-white portrait of Duke Moore as he appeared in Final Curtain and Night of the Ghouls. It's the same footage in both movies, so you can decide whether this is Curtain Moore or Ghouls Moore. There's just something about Moore I like, and I tried to capture that here. Enjoy.

Ed Wood extra! 'Chiller Theatre' (1965) and 'Oh! Those Bells' (1962)

Vampira and Dr. Tom Mason in the intro for WPIX's legendary Chiller Theatre.

If you don't mind, I'd like to share with you some Ed Wood-related TV treasures from the early 1960s. The first dates back to 1965 -- a half-century ago. While poor Eddie was toiling on Orgy of the Dead, clips of his Plan 9 from Outer Space featuring Vampira and Dr. Tom Mason were being used in the opening montage of the legendary Chiller Theatre on New York's Channel 11 WPIX, an independent station, along with snippets from The Cyclops and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. WPIX had been running horror movies under the Chiller Theatre banner since 1961, but the Wood-centric opening did not turn up until 1965, coinciding with the departure of host Zacherly "The Cool Ghoul." WPIX had a strong signal and was well-known in those days to viewers throughout the so-called "tri-state area," encompassing New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. It is conceivable, then, that Chiller Theater had a major impact on the baby boomers who grew up in that area of the country, introducing them to the joys and terrors of horror films. The Saturday night show might have scarred some kids for life.

One such victim/beneficiary was New Jersey-born writer Rob Craig, who grew up to be the author of the exhaustive study Ed Wood, Mad Genius: A Critical Look at the Films. In an extensive interview included in the newly-published The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood, Craig talks at great length about the Chiller Theatre intro and the impact it had on his life. He began watching the WPIX show when he was eight years old and became entranced with it. "Like any self-respecting baby boomer," he said, "I was completely enamored of monster movies." The Chiller Theatre intro became such an object of fascination for Craig that, fifty years later, he could easily rattle off all the movies quoted within it. But one particular excerpt stood out among the rest, as Craig explained to the Cinematic Misadventures authors:
"However, the one clip which really resonated with me -- and which I would not identify for many years -- was a very strange scene showing a sexy young woman with a tight black dress, long black hair, heavy makeup, and long dark fingernails. This sexy/creepy monster woman was walking towards the camera in a menacing way, with a deranged grimace on her face. Now, to an eight-year-old monster movie buff -- it may sound funny to say now -- but I found that clip extremely creepy. The woman's grimace indicated some sort of madness or evil which really unnerved me. It was an interesting combination, I think, of sex and horror."
You can probably guess the rest of the story: Rob Craig finally saw Plan 9 from Outer Space years later and had an epiphany when he finally recognized the mystery woman who had been haunting his dreams since childhood. Watching the intro, which was retired in the late 1960s, I can definitely see why the WPIX show affected Craig so strongly. The Plan 9 clips are right at the beginning of the montage -- unmissable, unmistakable. Removed from its original context, the footage is genuinely unsettling and provocative all at once. It's darker and grainier than the current DVD version, which makes it a little more sinister. Furthermore, WPIX has added its own bombastic library music to the montage, underlining the sense of dread. Perhaps most importantly, the Plan 9 footage only lasts three seconds. A shot of Vampira standing still in the graveyard. A shot of Tom Mason standing still in (apparently) the same graveyard. Then back to Vampira, who approaches the camera with her arms out in front, as if she's reaching for the viewer directly through the TV screen. There's no time to process any of this. It's almost subliminal. Did I just see that? Here, more so than in the full-length movie, the ersatz Dracula is as scary as the real thing. It really helps when you don't get a good look at him. And Vampira is sex and death made flesh, Eros and Thanatos in one body. The viewer is simultaneously attracted and repelled. I want to fuck her! She's going to kill me! So many conflicting thoughts, so little time.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 62: 'Swedish Erotica' (ca. 1973)

Standard logo for the Swedish Erotica loops of the 1970s.

Jinny: Would you like a beer? 
     Howie: I'd like something else. 
Jinny: Now what in the world could that be? 
     Howie: I'll show you. 
-subtitled dialogue from "The Virgin Next Door (Part One)"

Hindenburg over the Hudson: Early inspiration for Ed.
There's a common element you'll find in seemingly every biography of a famous filmmaker born in the 20th century, from Grade-Z schlockmeisters on up to Hollywood royalty: the story of getting that all-important first home movie camera. From those old, hand-wound 8mm jobs right up through VHS camcorders, the story is always pretty much the same. A kid would get ahold of one of those magical devices, and synapses would start firing in his brain. He'd get ideas, man. "That could be my movie playing at the local bijou," he'd think. And pretty soon, he'd start rounding up the neighborhood kids to start acting in his little pint-sized Westerns and war pictures, shot on location in the backyard. In his book The Big Lebowski: The Making of a Coen Brothers Film, writer William Preston Robertson devotes several amusing pages to documenting the early filmmaking experiments of Joel and Ethan Coen, siblings who grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis in the late 1960s. Joel, the elder Coen, decided that he and his brother should mow lawns and use the proceeds to buy a Super 8mm home movie camera and film stock. Eventually, the plan succeeded, and the Coen boys did actually purchase a Vivitar camera and some film. The historic purchase did not immediately yield cinematic greatness, as Robertson details:
"Their earliest explorations were, to be sure, uninspired, if not disgracefully lazy. Setting the movie camera up in front of the television, they simply let it run -- filming, at least in part, a Raymond Burr jungle movie. It was an act of artistic lethargy that shamed even the boys, and they soon carted the Vivitar outdoors to see what might be worth filming there."
Eventually, the Coen boys did become more ambitious with their Super 8 extravaganzas, especially once they'd found a neighborhood star their own age, one Mark "Zeimers" Zimering (later an endocrinologist in East Orange, NJ), and crafted around him such homemade epics as Zeimers in Zambia and the serendipitously-titled Ed... A Dog, their surreal update of 1943's Lassie Come Home. This era of the brothers' lives culminated in what Robertson deems their "pinnacle": a surrealist mini-epic entitled The Banana Film.

A Kodak ad from 1934.
Though he started nearly four decades previously and half a country away, Ed Wood's "origin story" was not too different from that of the Coens, minus the dogs and bananas. Edward Davis Wood, Jr.'s earliest films in his native Poughkeepsie were just as humble as what young Joel and Ethan were doing in the suburbs of Minneapolis. In one of those fortune-shifting accidents of history, Ed Wood happened to be born during an era when affordable home movie cameras were first being made widely available to the general public. Though little Eddie did hold down several jobs in his hometown as a youth, the fateful movie camera which changed his life -- ultimately for the worse, it sadly seems -- was a gift from his postal worker father. In his 1994 Ed Wood-based musical, The Worst!, singer-songwriter Josh Alan Freeman attributes the cinematic gift to Ed's mother Lilian instead. The camera and young Eddie's obsession with it form the basis for a plaintive song called "Kodak City Special." Sample lyrics: "Look at me, Ma! I've got a camera! What in the world have you given your son? Let us pray!" A couple of interviewees in Rudy Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy speak with a certain amount of knowledge about Eddie's primordial work. A witness named Fred Robertson, seemingly a friend of Ed's father and quoted nowhere else in the book, makes a tantalizing statement:
"Years ago I had some of Ed Jr.'s films, 100 foot, 16mm, that he took himself. Scenes of him playing G-man with cap pistols, black and white, the typical thing that a kid would have taken -- a couple of guys playing cops and robbers, just clowning around, about four minutes."
Meanwhile, Kathy Wood, Ed's wife of twenty-plus years and perhaps the person who knew this unknowable man best, shared the following info with Grey:
"His dad bought him this movie camera ... and the Hindenburg was coming down the Hudson, on the course where it crashed in New Jersey and went up in flames ... and Eddie filmed it, he said it was thrilling, exciting, he was so proud that he shot it before it crashed. He was always so proud of that. [...] Ed would stage plays in his backyard, all the neighborhood kids would join in, he would stage them, write little stories and then film them. He was always filming things ... and that's all he wanted to do from the time he was four or five. He'd run around taking pictures. That's all he wanted to do."
Kathy's account gives you some insight into the life and mind of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Simply put, the boy was camera-crazy. He never got over that gift from his dad. It must have seemed like magic. But he was hardly unique in that respect. Like I said before, the "my first camera" story is one I've encountered in lots of biographies of directors. I doubt, though, that such tales will crop up in the life stories of future filmmakers, who won't actually be using film in their endeavors. In the age of YouTube and the iPhone, the humble yet all-important camera has lost its mystique. So, too, has the moving image, I'm afraid. It's now a magic trick any idiot with a smartphone can accomplish.

I'm dredging all this up because, this week, we are discussing perhaps Eddie's least-prestigious work: the pornographic, hardcore loops he made in the early 1970s. By this point in his life, Ed was making his extremely meager living from a typewriter, not a camera. His only steady, reliable source of income during those dark years was Bernie Bloom at Pendulum Publishing, for whom Ed wrote novels, short stories, non-fiction articles, all manner of pseudo sex manuals and tawdry textbooks. Kathy Wood was fine with this arrangement. Money's money, after all. But Eddie couldn't deny his first love, cinema, and was determined to stay in the motion picture game in any way he possibly could, no matter how lowly the assignment.

That's a constant theme throughout Eddie's thirty-year tenure in Los Angeles, actually. When he couldn't get a feature film going, he'd do what he considered "the next best thing" or "the next best thing to the next best thing," be it commercials for Wesson Oil and Pyequick, unsuccessful Western and horror pilots, bone-dry industrial films for Autonetics Aviation, local TV programs like Criswell Presents and The Sam Yorty Show, and even sports shows -- the latter despite Ed's seeming lack of interest in athletics. Anything that would keep him behind a camera. As Ed Wood worked his way down the Hollywood ladder, from horror and sci-fi to to nudie cuties to outright porn, the "next best thing" gigs he took between pictures also declined in prestige.

Which thus brings us to...

Sunday, June 21, 2015

I'm not so sure I love this Lucy

"Do you pop out at parties?" Clearly, the answer is yes.

I have already expressed my love of wax museums in general and really bad wax museums in particular. I wish sometimes I could work in such an establishment, though it's probably less glamorous than I'm imagining. Well, in my Internet travels, I recently encountered this grotesque approximation of Lucille Ball from the famed Hollywood Wax Museum, one of the great tourist traps in LA. Like the infamous bronze statue of Ms. Ball in Celoron, NY this paraffin effigy is based on the indelible I Love Lucy episode called "Lucy Does a TV Commercial," better known as "Vitameatavegimin." What is it about that episode which so stymies artists? They can't come close to capturing it. While the bronze statue looks like the Golem of Judaic folklore, the wax figure resembles a crazed, possibly murderous Reba McEntire. Why is Lucille Ball so hard to capture? Anyway, for comparison's sake, below is a picture of the infamous statue, juxtaposed with a photo of the real Lucille Ball.

Well, the artist got some details right. Lucy did wear a necklace in the episode.

What is the deal with Father's Day cards? Am I right, people?

Today, there would be sarcastic quotes around the "dear" part.

NOTE: This is a, um, "golden classic" from the vast Dead 2 Rights archives. In other words, it's a rerun from 2011. But since it's Father's Day, I figured I'd try to get some extra mileage out of it. The sentiments it expresses are as true today as they were four years ago.

If you wish to meditate upon our society's ambiguous and sometimes troubling attitudes towards fatherhood, you have an EXCITING opportunity to do so this weekend! Yep, just truck on down to your local grocery store, card shop, or pharmacy and spend some time browsing through their selection of Father's Day cards. Prepare to be astonished and possibly horrified by what you find. Now, of course, you can always go the sappy, sentimental route or the religious route. That's true of virtually every holiday or major observance. But if you want to go the "lightly humorous" route, Father's Day offers its own unique challenges. I'm sure I was not the only person who spent many minutes trying to find a card that I would not be completely mortified to send to my father and have him actually read. The card I wound up choosing this year had the following legend on its cover:
You Made Me the Person I Am Today! 
And on the inside, it read:
How Can You Sleep at Night? 
Followed, of course, by the cheerful tagline:
Happy Father's Day!
In retrospect, this seemingly-innocent little witticism is actually quite barbed and nasty. The implication is, "I am a neurotic and messed-up adult, Dad, and I blame you entirely. I am baffled by the fact that you can sleep while in possession of this horrible knowledge. Any creature capable of emotion would be tortured to the point of sleeplessness over this, but you apparently are a bloodless and unfeeling monster. Still in all, I hope you enjoy this holiday dedicated to you and your tyrranical kind." Kind of harsh, right? But believe me, it was the best one I could find. To peruse the Father's Day cards at the local store is to navigate an emotional minefield, I tell you.

The basic themes of "humorous" Father's Day cards are these:
  1. Dad, you are an alcoholic who cherishes beer more than your own children.
  2. You are a repellent and disgusting troll whose primary modes of self-expression are belching and flatulence.
  3. You are also a perverted old lecher who lusts after younger women.
  4. You use golf, television, and home improvement projects as excuses for avoiding contact with your own family.
  5. At home, you are merely a useless figurehead who serves no real purpose. Knowing this, you choose to spend your time parked in a recliner in front of the television.
  6. Your true importance to the family unit is as a provider of income. Money and work define you. In fact, I would like to use this very card as an opportunity to borrow money from you.
It's a pretty bleak picture, I know. But that's the basic message I get from Father's Day cards. I'm not the only one who's picked up on this. Here's a 2008 article from the Grand Rapids Press on the very same topic. I think the underlying issue with these cards is that we really do have an ambiguous attitude towards fatherhood in this country. The post-Industrial-Revolution male has no well-defined role within his own home. Women are still expected to be the ones who do the actual day-to-day raising of children. Maybe as traditional gender roles break down and new paradigms for family life are established, the public's nebulous opinion of this thing called "fatherhood" will evolve. For a check-up on how we're doing as a society on this matter, I'd suggest keeping an eye on the greeting card department!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Let us ponder the riddle that is Orson Bean

Orson Bean admits to having eaten the baloney.

Orson Bean on Match Game.
Orson Bean. It's very possible that this name will mean little to you, dear reader, especially if you're lucky enough to be under 40. You cinephiles out there may remember him as dotty old Dr. Lester, the lecherous, carrot-juice-drinking boss from 1999's Being John Malkovich. ("My spunk is to you manna from heaven.") He was also the voice of Bilbo Baggins in the 1977 animated version of The Hobbit. Connoisseurs of TV reruns may recall him from his appearances on The Twilight Zone, The Love Boat, or The Facts of Life. He did 146 episodes of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman back in the '90s, too, if that's what you're into. (Hey, there's no shame in it. My sister loved that show.) If you were lucky enough to have the Game Show Network back when they showed many of the old panel-style game shows from the 1960s and 1970s, Orson Bean should be a familiar face to you. He logged countless appearances on Match Game, To Tell the Truth, What's My Line, and more. In fact, I think of Orson Bean as a sterling example of a now-dying breed: the all-purpose professional celebrity with no particular specialty. Bean was an actor of stage and screen, of course, as well as a comedian and author, but his real claim to fame was as a "personality." Need a familiar face for your talk or game show? Just call Orson! He possessed numerous traits which made him ideal for television: an impish sense of humor, a vast storehouse of jokes and stories, a winning smile, impeccable diction, and a flair for accents and dialects. The man was born to talk into a microphone.

The Orson Bean discography.
Speaking of which: like most stand-up comics of his generation, Orson Bean put his act down on wax a couple of times for posterity. He released At the Hungry I, recorded at the legendarily-hip San Francisco nightclub, in 1959. A decade later, however, Orson released the album which concerns us today: a collection of songs, poems, and "street jokes" entitled I Ate the Baloney. I first heard the title track, an irreverent religious-themed anecdote set to the tune of "Pop Goes the Weasel," on The Dr. Demento Show in the 1990s. Just this year, I found the entire LP had been uploaded to For reasons I cannot adequately explain to you, I have listened to I Ate the Baloney in its entirety at least 20 times in the last few months, almost becoming able to lip sync the jokes as Bean tells them. I just like the sound of his practiced voice, especially when he slips into an Irish brogue. There's a vaudevillian old-fashionedness to the entire affair I find comforting and satisfying.

Since this is the 1960s, Bean can still openly acknowledge ethnicity in ways which would draw tremendous fire today. Take a conceptual bit called "The American Restaurant," in which Bean affects a broad, almost caroonish Chinese accent. One might be tempted to call the bit racist because of this, but in fact, Bean is poking fun at racism and stereotypes in a clever, insightful, and even subversive fashion. The Chinese characters in Bean's story talk about Americans in the bigoted, reductive way we Americans too often talk about the Chinese. It's a classic role reversal, as when the speaker ponders an infamous urban legend about sex. "Not look now," the man says to his giggling buddies. "American girl sit a-next table. Ooh, that's a nice lookin' girl! Built like a bamboo house! I don't know... American girl... I always wonder. I don't think so either. That's old Army story!"

But the track from I Ate the Baloney which has really captured my attention has nothing to do with religion or ethnicity. Instead, it's a brief bit of comedic doggerel about the plight of an urban commuter. The poem describes a man's experience aboard the IRT, which is what New Yorkers used to call the subway because it was run by a private operator called the Interborough Rapid Transit Company. I don't have much experience with the IRT, not being a New Yorker, but I do commute by train to and from work each day and can thus sympathize with the hero of Bean's poem. Some of the humor and pathos come from Bean's performance, but I think the words are worthy of study, too. In that spirit, the entire text of the poem is included below:

                         Last week, I'm ridin' in the IRT,
                        And this poor slob is sittin' right across from me.
                        So he's sittin' in the subway, kinda slumped in his seat,
                        Like a tired old dog, so dead, so beat.
                        His clothes, his face, everything looks sad,
                        And I'm thinking what a rotten life he must've had.
                        So I look in his face, and what do I see?
                        He looks like he's feelin' sorry for me!
                        But you don't know the IRT!
                        The windows are filthy. The lights are dim.
                        It was my own reflection, and I am him!

On the LP, this actually leads into entire bit about whiskey ads on the New York subways.  But I will leave that one for you to discover on your own. Bean is so convincing in delivering this particular hard-luck story that he elicited actual sympathy from the audience. Periodically throughout the recording, you can hear a tender-hearted woman in the audience say, "Awwww." Incidentally, Orson Bean is still alive at the age of 86, thanks to all that carrot juice. He worked as recently as 2014 in a parody of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman entitled Dr. Quinn, Morphine Woman. More intriguingly, back in 2008, he recorded a delightful little 10-part series of YouTube videos called "The Art of Joke Telling." Here is possibly my favorite of the ten: