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Zappy Holidays

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reviews, TV Culture, TV Dreams, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2013 by Tom Steward

Like the most innocuous word in the English language, the phrase ‘holiday TV special’ means something very different in Britain and America. Christmas specials on UK television are typically bloated extrapolations or unwanted revivals of popular programmes while in the US they tend to be family-friendly entertainment specially made for the occasion. In Britain, the runs of TV series are normally over by Christmas meaning that each show is unnaturally forced back into the schedules. However, in the US Christmas falls slap-bang in the middle of the network season, allowing for a festively-themed episode preceding the mid-season break that incorporates the holiday rather than the other way round. American holiday specials tend to go straight for spectacle and showmanship, something we’ve tried unsuccessfully to imitate with musical versions of our soap operas and star performances where you text the Bee Gees for no apparent reason. I’m sure we Brits used to do this better in the days when vaudeville ruled our airwaves but US TV remains far less hesitant and bashful about pure, uncomplicated show. With the help of my wife G, who has been willingly indoctrinated by American holiday TV fare since childhood, I’ve been watching some classic specials.

 

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

 

The oppressed in 1960s American society.

 

What begins as a music video for the beloved Christmas song soon transforms into a scathing indictment of racism, homophobia and sexism. Appropriately for a TV movie made in the year the Civil Rights Bill was signed, Rudolph’s ostracision is an issue of skin colour. There’s also Hermey, a gay elf (acknowledged by seldom-used codeword ‘Dentist’) whose good hair, handsome looks and ambitions for a white-collar career make him a social misfit in the North Pole. It’s one of the few occasions in mainstream entertainment you’ll see a gay man as our closest link to normality. Such prejudices are shown to be a symptom of the stagriarchal society in which women are kept out of decision-making processes. The bare bones of the song are fleshed out with references to every children’s story and American myth you can think of: The Abominable Snowman, The Gold Rush, Narnia. There’s also a scene with disabled toys that could keep Pixar in court with the Rankin-Bass estate for the rest of existence. Add in transcendent stop-motion animation and wonderfully offbeat characters (like the prospector looking for silver and gold in the North Pole) and you have a deserved classic.

 

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973)

 

Stomach pump, please.

 

Having some of the best jazz piano riffs ever, ever, ever (courtesy of the Vince Guaraldi Trio) would be enough to destine this cartoon for greatness. But it’s so much more. A Thanksgiving variation on Charles M. Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip, the special has that perfect blend of wit and slapstick that distinguishes the very best cartoons. The combination of intelligent adult humour and childish situations sets an enduring template for some of the finest animation of the last thirty years: The Simpsons, Rugrats, King of the Hill. Schultz’s genius premise of a child with the malaise of a middle-aged man and friends who act like dinner party guests in a Woody Allen movie has one of its most memorable outings here, as Charlie tries to avoid social awkwardness by hosting an en-masse Thanksgiving dinner. Helped immeasurably by the wistful score, there’s a deep-seated melancholy here, which gives the special an unusually dark adult tone for family entertainment, making it the heir of troubling holiday movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and appropriate for Conan O’Brien’s deleted suicide scene parody. The painful deadpan on Charlie’s face was my own expression after a Thanksgiving buffet dinner.

 

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

 

A long time ago in a galaxy far far gone…

 

A classic of you’ll-think-you-dreamt-it television, this Thanksgiving spectacular featuring characters and actors from the original Star Wars movie was never re-broadcast and recordings were suppressed for decades by creator George Lucas in his ongoing quest to change history. Thanks to fans’ recordings of the original broadcast that can now be shared via the internet, we’re able to see the special in all its eminently bizarre glory. It’s the only time you’ll ever see an elderly wookie orgasming watching a helmet porno of Diahann Carroll, Golden Girl Bea Arthur tossing drunks out of the cantina, and a space drag queen TV chef cooking bantha meat while spinning her bosom. There’s a nice idea in here somewhere about using TV to bring the domestic verisimilitude of everyday life to the Star Wars universe but it gets drowned out by the tonal confusion and unintentional avant-garde of the execution. It also features some of the oddest dramatic choices in the history of TV (probably culture) such as dialogue-free, grunt-based scenes of Chewbacca’s family at home. At least we now have an idea of what Return of the Jedi would have been like had David Lynch directed it.

Watching TV with Americans will return in January…Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

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Live of O’Brien

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV channels, TV Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2013 by Tom Steward

Yesterday afternoon G and I went to Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank to be in the audience for the recording of Conan, the eponymous late night TBS talk show of Conan O’Brien. It’s an experience that goes far beyond the reaches of the hour that the recording takes place. Show time is 4.30pm yet the audience have to check in at the studio parking lot by 2.30pm at the latest and as early in the day as possible to get the best seats. Once checked in, you’re free to leave the parking lot as long as you return by 3.00pm. Not knowing this, and having checked in at the recommended time of 1.30-2pm, G and I had no time to do anything but aimlessly wander the vicinity of Warner Boulevard where the nearest attraction is Forest Lawn Cemetery, an area that is quite literally dead. Lest this start to sound like a yelp reviewer with a severe case of white people problems, I want to stress I completely understand keeping audience members half in the dark about check-in arrangements to ensure they arrive early and G found it entirely preferable to the Star Wars-premiere conditions of Conan’s New York show.

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When we returned from the land of the dead (actually we found a café with big salads so it was more Seinfeld than Six Feet Under), we were taken through a metal detector into a waiting area lined with black metal benches which had the atmosphere of a prison mixer. Actually the prison analogy remained apt as we were branded with a ‘WB’, which I believe stands for ‘Warner Bitches’, and processed through a street crossing deep with standing sewage water in a tribute to the epilogue of The Shawshank Redemption. The show even had a narc in the waiting area. One of the writers was strolling up and down the benches in search of people to turn the camera on in the ‘Craigslist Ads’ segment of the programme in which fake ads are juxtaposed with shots of the audience members who would likely post them. Lifers like me can tell the difference between a TV writer and TV viewer, although in layman’s terms this is also known as cleanliness. And he had a cup.

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At 3 the audience were lined up in groups and taken slowly in multiple stages through the Warner Brothers lots in scenes reminiscent of Day of The Triffids. While it was undoubtedly exciting to be where many of Hollywood’s finest movies (Angels with Dirty Faces, The Big Sleep) had been filmed, I have to say that all the Looney Tunes cartoons I’ve seen have been terribly misleading about what goes on here. Not once did I see Daffy Duck’s head being erased by an irate Chuck Jones! We arrived at a heavily air conditioned studio set, which TV expert G told me was for the lights and not as I suspected to prevent Conan’s skin from setting alight, and were seated with my urine-inflated bladder acting as an internal cushion. G and I were amazed at how small the set seemed and kept expecting a puppet version of the show to follow. The cameras magnify the set out of all proportion and it has an utterly different geography from the one we create in our heads when watching. G was especially thrown by how the guests’ walk from the stage curtain to the couch was literally a couple of steps.

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There followed multiple warm-up acts, starting with a fireman who demonstrated that the post-911 hero status of firefighters has significantly outlived that of cops (probably the lack of racial murders in the fire service). An MC discovered an audience full of drunks, meth manufacturers and slutty teens before Jimmy Vivino and The Basic Cable Band-who unlike most late-night house bands seldom feature in the programme-entertained with a lively, dad-at-wedding dancing funk and rock n roll double bill. There is an ‘Applause’ sign but it’s not the exploitative imposition that it is stereotyped as, its presence moving the show along and not forcing any reaction that isn’t already there. Not being a fan of bad sitcoms, teenage skaters and post-punk poachers the line-up didn’t do much for me. But the original segments were a TV bloggers’ dream. An irreverent ‘info’ button for programmes on a cable remote (Seinfeld: ‘You’ve seen this one’) and a clip from a new TV pilot starring alleged trumpet pumper La Bamba as a CIA assassin with limited knowledge of assembling weaponry.

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I realised that my knowledge of late-night talk shows tapings comes entirely from The Larry Sanders Show though having been there for real I can see why the prospect of a sitcom set there was so attractive. The musically-accompanied interludes between segments which are synced with ad breaks feature curious-looking interactions between guests, crew and talent not to mention the near-farcical stage invasions, all of which possesses intrinsic comic appeal. During the last of these interludes, G turns to me and asks ‘Is it nearly over?’ and I realise that as she’s always asleep by this point of the show and had never watched this far. After a bonus feature, a self-reflexive ‘end of the show song’ from the musically-gifted Conan, we were soon shuffled out into the lot, as I resisted the urge to crash through the parking barriers in homage to the final few minutes of Blazing Saddles.

 

 

 

 

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