Thursday, October 24, 2002

Mark Russell: Feeble satirist, parodist; racist

Last night WNED-Buffalo presented still another Mark Russell comedy special on PBS, and I again found myself asking: That was comedy? That was special?

It's the songwriter in me that finds these shows particularly disappointing. Song parody is an admirable sort of tunesmithing, and in capable hands the results can be sublime. Witness the 70s Mad magazine lampoon of "Star Trek," in musical form, which featured this number to the tune of "Aquarius":

As your ship goes through the galaxy
To distant worlds way past Mars
Make sure that your adventures
Do not kill off your stars!

And you can do it with a crew that's dispensible
A crew that's dispensible

I also relish Tom Lehrer's take on Gilbert and Sullivan:

There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium
And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium
And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium
And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium

On the other hand, we see in Mark Russell's song parodies--the core of his act--numerous examples of precisely how not to write songs, much less rewrite them: weak rhymes, poor scansion, witless jokes. Russell is even known from time to time to mess with the structure of songs, by inserting a Russell-composed bridge, for example. There are no professional standards for this sort of things, of course, but my feeling is that if the original song is unrecognizable in the song parody, then what's the point?

But it's not just Russell's music that stinks; his comedy is no better. There is ample proof in the efforts of for-profit ventures like The Onion and The Late Show With David Letterman that vigorous, funny satire is alive and well in America. So why are PBS viewers subjected again and again to Mark Russell's lame shtick? At best his comedy is puzzling ("I played a show for the liberal wing of the NRA! Nuns with guns!"), at worst retrograde and offensive ("An Iraqi luau! How do you like your dog!?").

And why, insofar as we expect political satirists to possess a certain awareness of the times, does he choose such hoary tunes to parody? Last night's broadcast included send-ups of such recent hits as "We're Off To See the Wizard" (1939) and Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" (1963)--itself a song parody of Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" from "La Gioconda."

Indeed, I correctly prophesied (using absolutely no effort) that Russell would turn his musical sights upon hapless Martha Stewart, but I gave him far too much credit in the song I predicted he would use: the Beatles' "Martha My Dear." What ditty did he spoof instead? The flower-power anthem "I've Been Working On the Railroad."

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

I couldn't help but notice, as I get my blog off the ground, that Doonesbury this week is about blogging. I'd like to blog at some point about Doonesbury, which I like enormously but which is sometimes about as subtle as a Jackie Mason routine. (Although, to paraphrase a line in Annie Hall, G.B. Trudeau's a bigot for the left, so it's okay.)

At any rate, the Doonesbury series on blogging is pretty funny.

You might not even know, love, that I'm a Space Buff. Manned space exploration fascinates me. During space shuttle missions, I endlessly watch NASA TV broadcasts on the web. I dragged Ereck to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry (which has human body slices) so we could watch an IMAX movie about the International Space Station (narrated by Tom Cruise). In a particularly obsessive moment, I transcribed a David Letterman interview with space tourist Dennis Tito and posted it on

I also like my space lore in book form, though breathlessly hagiographic tomes like Andrew Chaikin's Man On The Moon tire after a while. That's why I was pleased recently to pick up The Final Frontier (London: Verso, 1988) by Dale Carter, an American historian at Aarhus Universitet, Denmark. This is a critical-theoretical analysis of the U.S. space program, and it draws heavily on a reading of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (which I haven't read, so I find myself skimming a lot). Typically of a Verso book, the methodology of The Final Frontier is appealingly Marxian, and we get bits like this description of the American astronauts: the extent that any propagandized society systematically undermines friendship, trust, independence, and security and systematically fosters feelings of frustration, guilt, inferiority, and the desire for power, a hero, leader, or celebrity will appear effortlessly to satisfy those needs (174).
To me that's even more exciting than a Revell model of Skylab.

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

What album can't I get enough of these days? It may surprise you to learn that the side in question is Boz Scaggs's Down Two Then Left, which I've played at least every other day for the last couple of weeks. The reviewer to which I link dismisses Scaggs's lyrics as "meandering, almost incoherent," but I find something exhilirating in silly, throwaway lines like these from "Still Falling For You":

He's hearing voices, seems the choices really are but few
He makes a break, gets out of there
He acts like a fool, stands and stares
See, the joker's acting like nothing's happenin'
He just ate his cocktail napkin

You probably had to be there. I can't get behind everything Scaggs has done--the lite-FM staple "Look What You've Done To Me" has a weak hook--but the 1976-1980 trifecta of Silk Degrees, Down Two Then Left, and Middle Man makes a solid case for Boz as a memorable blue-eyed-soul crooner cum dystopian rocker.

Monday, October 21, 2002

Things that occur to me:

* The show Saturday was great. I think all us Junkers were worried about what was going to happen, but Ed came through with flying colors. It is, to quote Evita, a new Argentina.

* There is a lot of negativity in the world. Let me illustrate with an anecdote from the King Club show: Because I wanted to buy some water, and because being in the nightclub before the show makes me nervous, especially if attendance is spotty (attendance ended up being very healthy), I left the bar about half an hour before the show. As I was returning, a group of four young men were walking by the King Club. I watched them in hopes they would enter, but instead one of them gestured derisively toward the club and sneered, "What the FUCK is the King Club!?" I hope that later he found, to quote Poe, surcease of sorrow. But the mere fact of the King Club's existence seemed to enrage him. Curious.

* The #1 Dad show last night, on the other hand, was slow, but I'd wager not our slowest. If that's consolation. My favorite moment came when, before we played "You Never Even Called Me By My Name," I introduced it by saying we were going to play one of the few David Allen Coe songs that is not racist, sexist, or homophobic. In response, a voice came from the back of the bar: "BOOOO!"

* I installed the bracket shelves in the bathroom this morning. These have been sitting in a corner since late August, but today the spirit moved me. Maybe it was reading yesterday in the Times about the genesis of PBS's "This Old House" and the home-improvement-show juggernaut that followed. (Speaking of which, I was surprised recently to learn that "Home Improvement"'s Jonathon Taylor Thomas once played a hustler in what looks by all evidence short of actually watching it to be a forgettable indy flick.) Stuck to the brackets were some pesky stickers, and these I took off with 80-proof Jim Beam rye. This came from a bottle Ereck received as a birthday gift in October 2001. In earlier times (so to speak), a fifth of rye would not have lasted a day in this household, much less a year, and it would not have been used toward home improvement; quite the opposite.

* Celebrities who appeared in my dreams in the last week: Richard Gere; Beyonc� Knowles.