News From ME

Happy Birthday, Steve Sherman!

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Bruce Simon, Steve Sherman and me.  In that order.

In many of the essays I've written about comic book collecting, I've talked about an increasingly-legendary group we had in the mid-to-late sixties called the Los Angeles Comic Book Club. Others started it but I was president for all of the several years of its existence. It convened every Saturday afternoon at a public park near where the Santa Monica Freeway and the San Diego Freeway cross…and each week, a few dozen devout comic fans would converge on that park for trading, selling and a lot of discussion.

A lot of great friendships were made (and one or two ended) at the L.A.C.B.C. This evening, I had dinner with a group of folks, two of whom I've known since they came to the club about '68. One is Bruce Simon, who drew for a number of underground comics at the time and who now owns and operates a company selling classic television programs on video. The other is Steve Sherman…and the reason for the whole gathering was to celebrate Steve's 65th birthday.

Some folks reading this will remember that when I worked for Jack Kirby in the early seventies, I had a partner. That was Steve. When I went off to write comics and TV shows, Steve became a very successful maker and operator of puppets, often for TV and movies. By sheer coincidence, I wound up writing a few shows which featured the skilled puppetry of my former partner and his current partner, Greg Williams. Greg was also there this evening along with many of Steve's friends and family members, most notably Steve's terrific wife, Diana.

I do not recall that Steve and I ever had an argument in the four-or-so years of our partnership or in the other 42 years I've known him. Disagreements — and there were some — were always resolved in a civilized, congenial manner. This was because he was and is a civilized, congenial fellow and someone I've always liked an awful lot. I like Bruce, too. It was great to see both of them again…and given some recent medical problems, especially great to see Steve up and around and looking well.

Recommended Reading

Dick Cheney and George W. Bush pushed a false rationale (Weapons of Mass Destruction) for the invasion of Iraq and took this country to war on bogus pretenses, in large part because Cheney saw the opportunity for his company, Halliburton, to reap billions in profits. And Halliburton got shady deals and delivered shoddy work that got a lot of American soldiers killed.

That's not me saying that, though I can easily believe it. No, that was the viewpoint just a few years ago of the current front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Hey, if he still believes it, that oughta make for a fun convention!

Rooney Remembered

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Turner Classic Movies has quickly assembled a Mickey Rooney tribute. Starting Sunday morning, they're running thirteen of his starring vehicles, none of them Andy Hardy pictures. (The Courtship of Andy Hardy is on this evening but that's not part of the marathon.)

[CORRECTION, added soon after: Hank Gillette writes, "There are two Andy Hardy movies in TCM’s Mickey Rooney tribute: A Family Affair and You’re Only Young Once. These are the first two in the series and before they started putting Andy Hardy in the title. A Family Affair is notable for having Lionel Barrymore in the role of Judge Hardy."  Hank's right, I'm wrong.  I never cared for any of the Andy Hardy movies so I don't know them as well as I should.]

The whole list and a lot of good background information can be found here. If you're only in the mood to watch one, watch Boys Town. It's a great film…easily the second-best to ever star Rooney and Spencer Tracy.

The Rooney films are followed by a nice string of classic films on Monday: The Maltese Falcon, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Gaslight, Citizen Kane, Meet Me In St. Louis, Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, Singin' In The Rain and It Happened One Night. Oh — and I forgot to mention that early Sunday morning, they're running Disco Godfather, a Rudy Ray Moore film that's truly as crazy as its title would indicate. It's a classic of another kind.

Then next Wednesday, they're running If You Could Only Cook, a 1935 comedy that starred Jean Arthur. It was directed by William Seiter, who helmed what was arguably the best Laurel and Hardy feature, Sons of the Desert. If You Could Only Cook is a mildly fun affair but it occupies an interesting place in film history. It was produced at Columbia at a time when their biggest money-earner was producer-director Frank Capra and someone at the studio got the bright (!) idea that they could generate more rentals in the United Kingdom, and at a higher price, if they advertised If You Could Only Cook as a Frank Capra production, supervised by Frank Capra.

Mr. Capra — who hadn't heard of the film, let alone produced it — was furious and he sued Columbia to be released from his contract. It led to a year of Capra, who was then in his prime, not making movies for anyone while the lawsuit dragged on…and he eventually dropped it for reasons that remain murky. Capra, in his autobiography of dubious accuracy, said it was because Harry Cohn — the gruff, antagonistic head of Columbia — came to him and pleaded. Which is not impossible.

And an early alert: Starting in the wee, small hours of April 21, TCM is running darn near all of the American-International "beach party" type movies: Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, Ski Party, Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Pajama Party, Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. Record all eight or just record any one and watch it eight times. Buster Keaton is in the last three. For some reason, they're omitting the final one American-International made — The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini…a film that answers the question, "How bad does one of these things have to be that Frankie Avalon and Vincent Price wouldn't appear in it?"

That's one of the things I like about TCM. They run Gone With the Wind and Casablanca and then they run Disco Godfather and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. If you really love movies, you do that kind of thing.

Today's Political Comment

There was a time I thought Mike Huckabee was a good man, the kind of Republican I could imagine voting for. Maybe I was wrong then or maybe he one day realized there was a career advantage to pandering to the Extreme Right. That would apply to either of his careers — running for public office or hosting TV and radio programs for the Fox News audience. Lately, he's been thrilling those folks by questioning Barack Obama's devotion to Christianity based on the president's support of Gay Marriage.

But doesn't that apply to…well, everyone who supports or at least doesn't actively oppose Gay Marriage? Huckabee has long maintained that it is an undeniable fact that America is a Christian Nation. The polls are telling us that somewhere between 55% and 59% of Americans approve of two guys or two gals getting hitched. Some polls say a majority of Republicans now feel that way. Could someone ask former-Governor Huckabee if 55% to 59% of Americans are no longer Good Christians? I suspect they are and he's just got the definition wrong.

Today's Video Link

Tony Randall tells Johnny a story about Groucho Marx…

More Colbert Stuff

I'll probably stop posting much about Stephen Colbert in a day or so but I wanted to direct you to a piece by Ian Crouch about Colbert's screen character and how Colbert has managed to disappear totally into the character but still manage to remind all but the dumbest people that it is, after all, just an act.

And it's really been quite a feat. I suspect in classes that teach improv comedy, Colbert's ability to ad-lib interviews in that character will long be pointed to as a very high watermark in the art of improvisation. I can't even think of what might come close.

But you wonder — well, I do at least — if he ever regretted tagging that character with his own name instead of drawing a line of separation as Bill Dana did with Jose Jiminez, Paul Reubens did with Pee-wee Herman, Jim Varney did with Ernest P. Worrell and Cliff Arquette did with Charley Weaver. Or if he regrets it now. If he'd named the character something else, it could become part of his repertoire, the way Martin Short could be Jiminy Glick for one part of a show and be himself for other portions. I also wonder if something he might do on his Late Show is actual sketches, the way Johnny would occasionally bring us The Mighty Carson Art Players.

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  • There's no menu item in Italian restaurant anywhere that's tastier than the garlic bread dipped in the spaghetti sauce.

Worth Noting

The Senate Intelligence Committee's secret report on the C.I.A.'s use of torture is starting to get leaked. It's only a matter of time before the whole thing is public. Not that anyone's going to be held accountable for wrongdoing…

The J.D. Salinger of Sick Songs

Here's a great article by Ben Smith about Tom Lehrer, the reclusive writer-performer of many brilliant tunes. (Well, when you think about it, not that many…but a lot more than most songwriters manage in their lives.) Lehrer was — and the past-tense seems appropriate, though he is still alive — a wickedly funny man.

One slight quibble with the article, which was brought to my attention by Mark Thorson: Smith says the man's last public performance was on a fundraising tour for George McGovern in 1972. Ah, but here's the man performing in a very public place in 1998 at a tribute to Cameron Mackintosh. Yes, that's Stephen Sondheim doing the intro…

More on This

The most-asked question I'm getting about the Letterman/Colbert handoff is "Why not Jon Stewart?" I think there are a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they probably knew he didn't want it. He has a little empire built at Comedy Central and he's doing a show he obviously loves. More importantly, I don't think The Daily Show leaves much of Stewart's talents untapped, whereas The Colbert Report was always just one thing that Colbert did using some of his skills. Colbert can sing and dance and do a wider range of characters than his pompous Fox News parody.

If I were the guy at CBS making the pick, I'd pick Colbert over Stewart. I think Colbert has potentially broader appeal and would be more comfy with a pure, non-political show biz environment; not that his Late Show won't have on political guests but I think he'd function better when it doesn't, which will be most of the time. I think the world of Stewart as a talented, smart man but where he is now seems like a perfect fit, whereas Colbert has other places to go.

Jon Stewart, by the way, has figured into CBS's late night plans in the past. For a time, he was under contract as a possible 12:30 guy to follow Dave whenever Tom Snyder abdicated. He was signed in a move which many viewed as a tactic to keep him off the market, lest he go somewhere else and compete with Dave, but all that came of it was him occasionally guest-hosting for Snyder. Later, when there was that brief period in which Letterman was threatening to leave CBS and go to ABC, CBS had some sort of contingency deal to have Stewart replace Dave should a replacement be necessary. But from all indications, Jon's perfectly happy where he is right now.

The other question I'm getting a lot has to do with Conservative outrage about the Colbert selection and Rush Limbaugh saying, "CBS has just declared war on the heart of America. No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values. No, it's just wide out in the open." Which does raise the question of whether a certain kind of person in this country is going to ever stop responding when someone like Limbaugh tells them they're being victimized and threatened and their whole way of life and belief system is moments away from total destruction.

It also raises the question, asked by many, if any Conservatives were considered for the job. Actually, I don't think anyone but Stephen Colbert was considered…but is there anyone who has the credentials as a TV host and comedian who would have pleased the Limbaugh mob? It's been some time since the last in a long string of flop Dennis Miller Shows. Even Fox News hasn't tried giving him one lately.

I'm sure there are unknowns or little-knowns who could handle it or think they could. (Every time one of these slots comes open, I'm amazed at the number of comedians that no one has wanted to hire for any TV show for years, even on the smallest cable channel…but they feel they deserved equal consideration for the top job.) I don't think there's anyone out there with any experience and track record who falls into that category. If there were, Rupert Murdoch could make one phone call and put that person on the air…and he hasn't.

Today's Video Link

This runs an hour and 19 minutes so few of you will watch it…but you should. It's a pretty good video of what I think is one of the ten-or-so best movies ever made: The General starring Buster Keaton. Made in 1926, it was not a success and its failure to perform at the box office damaged Keaton's career somewhat.

Why did it fail? Historians of such things have offered many reasons but a biggie is that audiences then expected more comedy and less serious adventure in a film with Keaton's name on it. Also, back then, there were still people alive with strong first-hand and second-hand feelings about the Civil War and some found things in it as reasons for outrage.

But the film survived and was rediscovered and heralded. The American Film Institute, when it compiled its 10th Anniversary list of the 100 best American movies of all time pegged it at #18. That's pretty darn good. I don't expect anyone to watch the whole thing here…and maybe a web video isn't the ideal way to experience this masterpiece. But I couldn't resist having one of my favorite movies on the site here. You understand…

More on Colbert

A friend of mine who claims familiarity with Craig Ferguson's deal at CBS called to congratulate me on my prediction of Colbert as Letterman's replacement. Actually, you may recall I initially said it should be him but predicted it wouldn't be. Then I switched and said it probably would be. My friend also agreed with me that Ferguson was never in the running.

My guess would be that no one else was in the running. There's a story on the 'net that says…

Mr. Moonves said Mr. Colbert, whose contract with Comedy Central expires at the end of this year, was long at the top of his wish list. He started discussions with the 49-year-old comedian just a week ago, after Mr. Letterman announced his retirement, finalizing a deal in the corner of the arena at the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament over the weekend.

Well, maybe. But I can't shake the feeling that what we're looking at is an understanding between Moonves and Letterman: If Dave would exit gracefully now, CBS would give him a royal send-off and make sure that when the history is written, whether by Fate or Bill Carter, it would be said that the decision to leave was 100% Dave's. He wasn't kicked-off — twice! — like Jay. People wouldn't say he was elbowed aside like Johnny. (I don't think Johnny was, by the way, but I heard from someone close to him that he was pissed some people thought he was.)

The decision of exactly when to retire may indeed have been Dave's…but that doesn't mean that they weren't already talking to Colbert. And if they were, I would think they'd deny it, rather than risk the charge that Dave was pressured out by CBS lining up his replacement. We may never know for sure but I don't think CBS would decide on something as important as their new 11:35 host quickly enough to have a deal in place in one week. Conan's deal to displace Jay took months to hammer out. I also don't think Les Moonves, being a smart planner, would have risked that while they were waiting for Dave to pick the date to announce, they might discover Colbert had signed for another year at Comedy Central or something else, thereby becoming unavailable.

In any case, if this whole thing succession planning did start with Dave calling Les and saying, "It's time," Les must have hopped on the other line and made an offer to Colbert ten seconds later. All this talk about Chelsea and Louis C.K. and Ellen and Jay and Conan and Sarah Palin (!) was just the press generating a story where there wasn't one.

There were reports that Mr. Ferguson had it in his contract that he would take over for Letterman while other reports said that there was no such clause. My friend clarifies and says Ferguson had a clause that said he'd get a huge cash payment (something like eight million $$$) if someone else succeeded Dave. So it was the same as the deal Letterman had back when he followed Carson. It said that he [Dave] would succeed Johnny and if he didn't, he'd get a sum of money that his network wouldn't have balked at paying out if he wasn't their choice for the job. So he (and Craig) kind of had it both ways. They had deals that said they would get the earlier time slot…unless the network wanted someone else.

Says my informant, CraigyFerg has long known he wouldn't be moving up, which is why he signed on for that new game show he'll soon be hosting in addition to his Late, Late Show duties. I hadn't thought of that but, yeah, that should have been a dead giveaway. I sure would not be shocked if (a) Ferguson decided this would be a good time to explore other career possibilities and/or (b) CBS decided this was a good time to see if they could find a host who would do better in that time slot.

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So let's see how this is being orchestrated. Dave put out a statement congratulating Colbert and blessing him as a replacement. I'm sure those are true sentiments but Dave had to do that no matter who they picked. And I don't think it's coincidence that the announcement of Colbert came just when Letterman's going on vacation for ten days. He'll have Colbert on before long, and Stephen will do the other late night shows to shake hands and demonstrate friendship and sportsmanship. In a few weeks, they'll announce an end date for Dave, an earlier end date for Colbert's Comedy Central show, Stephen's start date on CBS, and a new show on Comedy Central which, it is hoped, will keep the Jon Stewart watchers watching.

I'm eager to see what The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is like. My TiVo no longer has season passes to any hour-long late night talk show but I'll be taking one for this. And I guess I'm even more eager to see what Colbert does to promote his new gig and how he uses the opportunity for silly routines and appearances. He's really good when he has something to play with and I think CBS has just handed him a very big sandbox and a whole lot of toys.

Today's Video Link

Not long ago, my pal Bob Bergen got to interview his pal Lily Tomlin. Here's an hour and a half with a fascinating, brilliant lady…

Submitted for Your Approval

Why is it that most film and TV producers will not read scripts that are not submitted to them by reputable agents? Well, this exchange between a producer and a wanna-be screenwriter might give you a good idea.

Recommended Reading

Brian Beutler on the problem of "repeal and replace" for Obamacare. The problem is that any working alternative plan is going to look a lot like Obamacare.