Saturday, October 28, 2017

Oh my god, I've been watching SNL wrong my whole life.

David Koechner and Mark McKinney as the Fops on Saturday Night Live

The cast of SNL in the early 1980s. Eddie Murphy in foreground.
My parents weren't lenient about everything, but they were very understanding about letting me stay up late and watch TV as long as I didn't have school the next day. In the summers during my elementary school years, for instance, I got to watch The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and even Late Night With David Letterman. I had the same privilege on Friday nights during the school year, so it really bothered me that Dave's show originally only ran from Monday to Thursday, ceding its place on the NBC schedule to Friday Night Videos once a week. But I still saw plenty of after-hours talk shows back then. By junior high, I was already writing my own Top 10 lists. So thanks for that, Mom and Dad.

As near as I can figure, I must have started watching Saturday Night Live when I was 8 or 9. It was the early 1980s. Dick Ebersole was running the show then, and Eddie Murphy was the star attraction. I've been a faithful SNL viewer ever since, regardless of the show's quality. Whether it's good, bad, or (most likely) mediocre, I'm there for every new episode. I'll keep watching SNL until either it expires or I do.

So what? Well, I've come to realize that my way of watching SNL is actually all wrong and directly in opposition to the wishes of the show's creator, Lorne Michaels. Except on those rare nights when the cast and crew are firing on all cylinders, Saturday Night Live  can be a chore to watch. With commercials, it's 90 minutes long -- almost the length of a feature film -- and most weeks, you can feel every minute of that. The musical guests are often of little interest to me, so I wind up muting them. When the show isn't hosted by a comedian, the opening monologue is often torturous, too.

Even the sketches -- the jewels in the show's crown -- can be painful. We've all heard the stories about how cast members and writers compete ferociously to get their sketches on the air, and yet SNL often feels like it's desperately filling up time with any material it has available. Many sketches follow a pattern I call "ever-escalating variations." This means that the performers do different versions of the same basic joke over and over for five minutes, only making the central joke slightly more intense with each repetition. SNL studio audiences have become so familiar with this formula that, occasionally, they won't laugh at a joke until it's repeated. They're waiting for the pattern to emerge. Over four decades, essentially, the show has trained them how to watch sketches.

This problem is more noticeable in the sketches that involve recurring characters. From the Coneheads to Stefon, SNL has had many, many, many, many such characters over the years. They're the lifeblood of the series. And each of these characters generally has his or her own catchphrases and signature routines that become well-known to viewers. A classic SNL recurring character typically does the same exact things in the same exact order in each appearance. Even if you love the character, it can get a bit boring for the every-episode viewer like myself because you can predict exactly what this person is going to do well in advance.

But here is where I've been screwing up. Check out this 2013 interview with comedian Mark McKinney, who served as a writer on SNL in the 1980s and came back as a cast member in the 1990s. This guy knows what he's talking about from an insider's perspective. And here's what he says about Lorne Michaels and recurring characters:
"Lorne pointed out, and I think this is absolutely true, that even if you have big fans who are really into your show, they'll probably only see every second one. Or sometimes every third one. So that's the logic, at least on SNL I know, about why they sort of repeat characters."
So there you have it, folks. Straight from the source. I've been watching SNL incorrectly for decades. Lorne wants you to watch every second or third episode. Maybe you're not even supposed to watch all 90 minutes each week. I've noticed that, the Sunday after a new episode airs, there are highlight videos all over YouTube and the rest of the internet. And, generally, it's only two or three sketches that get any real attention out of any given show.

SNL usually is well-served by judicious editing, i.e. cutting away all the filler and getting to the handful of funny sketches. The earliest episodes of the show -- with Belushi, Aykroyd, etc. -- were just a little bit before my time, but I saw highlights from this era through a half-hour syndicated series (called, I believe, The Best of Saturday Night and masterminded by Lorne himself) that played both on a local affiliate and, later, on Nick at Nite. I loved it. It wasn't until years later that I finally saw full-length episodes with the original cast. I thought it would be even better, but I realized I greatly preferred the condensed half-hour editions. Even "classic" SNL had a lot of dead time.

The weird thing is, I probably won't change the way I watch SNL, even if it prevents me from fully enjoying the show. I'll still be there for every new episode, and I'll still watch from beginning to end each time. Sorry, Lorne.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Magazine Odyssey, Part 16 by Greg Dziawer

Ed Wood in 1969, when life was slow and oh so mellow.

Note to Readers: Normally, Greg sends me his articles by e-mail, which is my preferred method of correspondence. This week, however, he chose to send me a mysterious envelope filled with random scraps of paper, most of them badly stained and wrinkled. After considerable detective work and one particularly productive seance, I have managed to assemble these scraps into their proper order as Greg intended. Together, they form a comprehensive index of all the magazines produced by Pendulum Publishing in 1968 and 1969. Please enjoy. - J.B.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Some thoughts on Ed Wood's 93rd birthday

Happy, happy birthday, Eddie!

Edward Davis Wood, Jr. would have turned 93 today. That is, if his alcohol-drenched heart hadn't given out in December 1978. The Bible promises us "threescore years and ten" (Psalms 90:10). So Eddie got about three-quarters of what he was due. Was he cheated? I dunno. Hard to say. He didn't exactly treat his body like a temple. More like a distillery. And, besides, he packed a lot of living into his 54 years. I mean, I never made any movies with Bela Lugosi. Did you? My mother only lived to 46, and I'd sure as hell rather have her alive today than Ed Wood.

Eddie became an interest of mine about 25 years ago, thanks largely to Danny Peary's Cult Movies and a well-timed movie marathon. He didn't become my taskmaster until four years ago when I started Ed Wood Wednesdays.  I can say that this series has more or less cured me of my need to know more about the director of Plan 9 from Outer Space.

I don't know all there is to know, and I'm a long way from seeing all there is to see and reading all there is to read. But I know enough. And I've seen and read more than enough. I'm sure there are 80 bazillion more porn films of his I could watch from the 1970s. But I don't wanna. Once you've seen 12 or 13 of those, you've seen 'em all. They're not sexy. Just kinda sad. And gross. And then sad some more. I'd rather sit through more of his Westerns than more of his pornos. At least some of the people in the Westerns look like they're getting fresh air and exercise. (That old sourpuss Kenne Duncan being a perennial exception.)

A lifelong drunk, a mediocre Marine, and a prodigious wife-beater, Ed Wood was no hero. He's certainly not my hero. I even flinch a bit at being called an Ed Wood fan, because that implies that I'm either a delusional idiot who thinks Eddie's movies are unassailable masterpieces or a smirking hipster making snide jokes about an unfortunate dead man. I've tried not to be either.

So if I'm not a fan, what am I? I'm a person who admires aspects of Ed Wood's work and thinks his life holds some -- though not infinite -- fascination. He's not without talent, you know. There are moments of genuine horror, humor, pathos, drama, and even wisdom in his works. Those who write him off as a clueless hack -- and that's almost everybody -- are mistaken. I'd say he was a better writer than he was a filmmaker, though he brought a lot of enthusiasm and inventiveness to those early movies of his. In a lot of ways, my experience with Ed Wood peaked with that film festival in 1992. I've been chasing that high ever since.

Eddie's been in the news quite a bit this year. For one thing, actor Martin Landau, who played Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994), died at the age of 89 this July and got a gratifying amount of news coverage. Meanwhile, James Franco's new film The Disaster Artist, chronicling the making of Tommy Wiseau's The Room, has been garnering many, many, many comparisons to Ed Wood. (Trust me on this; all these reviews wind up in my inbox.) And then there was that semi-disastrous recent screening of Take It Out in Trade at Fantastic Fest. I don't even want to get into it, but this garnered a lot of negative press. There was a flurry of statements and think pieces and accusations. To be honest, I barely followed it due to lack of interest. But if there's no such thing as bad publicity, then 2017 has been a pretty decent year for Ed Wood.

*sigh*

There's no real point to this article. Sorry about that. But I hadn't written anything for this blog for a while, and it was Ed Wood's birthday, and I decided to use that as an opportunity to vent a little. Don't let my lack of enthusiasm get to you. Greg Dziawer has enough enthusiasm for ten people, and I'm sure he's got plenty of articles lined up. Ed Wood Wednesdays could not be in better hands. Here's his latest.

Happy birthday, Ed.