Sunday, May 31, 2020

Remembering Fred Willard - and Jerry Hubbard



Been hitting the comedy hard during these horrid and heartbreaking times, so today's post pays tribute to a guy who consistently got big laughs over six decades: the late, great character actor and comic Fred Willard, who passed on May 16.



Big laughs were Fred Willard's specialty. Here he is on Late Night With David Letterman.



First recall seeing Fred on TV as part of The Ace Trucking Company, an improv group which appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.



In the following sketch, after a bit of slapstick, Fred plays straight man to the one, the only Billy "you can call me Ray" Seluga.



A few years later, Fred co-starred with Martin Mull in the satiric, outrageous and wonderfully silly Fernwood 2 Night.





Complete episodes of the series can be found on playlists on YouTube and Daily Motion.



Originated as a summer replacement for the hit series Mary Hartman Mary Hartman and set in the same small midwestern town, Fernwood 2 Night was an inspired sendup of talk shows and local TV productions.



Fred portrayed the astonishingly clueless and moronic, yet rather likable announcer Jerry Hubbard.



Did Fernwood 2 Night skewer small-town America and the cheesier aspects of 1970's show business clichés, television and Americana in no uncertain terms - and traverse boundaries of good taste in the process? Yes - with panache.









The individual favorite episode of Fernwood 2 Night/America 2 Night at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, hands-down, is the one in which Tom Waits ended up performing on the show because his tour van broke down in Fernwood.



In this and the 1978 followup series, America 2-Night, the always upbeat Jerry Hubbard, the dumbest talk show sidekick ever, not even equalled by John Candy's William B. Williams on SCTV, gets many of the biggest laughs.



Fred Willard and Martin Mull returned to television a few years later to satirize 1950's style suburbia hilariously and mercilessly in the comedy specials The History Of White People In America.





Fred would periodically appear in feature films had a short but extremely funny bit in a film loved by both the gang here and none other than the late, great TCM host Robert Osborne. . . This Is Spinal Tap.





Speaking of SCTV, Fred Willard was the guest star on a memorable episode of the comedy series.



Along with SCTV cast members and writers Catherine O' Hara and Eugene Levy, Fred Willard would be among the recurring actors in a quartet of splendid comedy features: Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. These movies represent a silver screen comedy gold standard for the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century.



Improvisations based on the essential characters are the modus operandi of these films. Not surprisingly, most of the cast members started with Second City troupes or originated improv groups of their own.



Among the usual suspects on these four hilarious feature films, along with Fred Willard and the aforementioned SCTV alumni: director/writer Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer (from This Is Spinal Tap and The Folksmen), Parker Posey, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Bob Balaban and John Michael Higgins.





This post will finish with some recent Fred Willard appearances. Fred continued working constantly through his late seventies and eighties on such TV series as Everybody Loves Raymond and Modern Family, as well as Adam McCay's Anchorman movies. Comedian and late night host Jimmy Kimmel, who featured Fred frequently on Jimmy Kimmel Live, paid tribute.



Fred Willard was a guest on the talk show hosted by one of the funniest and most original of those current standup comedians who got their start in the late unlamented 20th century (along with Chris Rock and Gilbert Gottfried), Norm MacDonald.



The "coup de gracie" today is the following very funny SF Sketchfest tribute to Fred.



With a Max Linder top hat tip to those super talented individuals who made us laugh, it is not lost on us here at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog that the comedy greats we write about are, for the most part, in the past tense (the Netflix show Schitt's Creek and the aforementioned standup philosophers notwithstanding).

Friday, May 22, 2020

Memorial Day Weekend 2020 means Silent Era Cartoons!



Awaiting the Tommy Stathes Cartoon Carnival online program tomorrow and The Silent Comedy Watch Party on Sunday, we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog begin the Memorial Day Weekend - after a respectful nod to the doctors, nurses, EMTs, ambulance drivers and other essential workers who have been the brave American heroes through this COVID-19 outbreak - by remembering the pioneering animators of yore, starting with the great Otto Messmer.



To begin whetting our appetites for early animation, Earl Hurd's Bobby Bumps series is always a great place to start.



Earl Hurd (1880-1940) could be considered the first to create, in Bobby Bumps, a character that inspires the approach to personality animation that would be seen decades later with Disney.



The animation of Earl Hurd was quite innovative in its day and the Bobby Bumps series retains its considerable charm and appeal over 100 years after the cartoons were produced.





We'll continue the compendium with a few of the artists who started it all. One of the first exhibitors to experiment with animation was Charles-Émile Reynaud (1844-1918), inventor of the Théâtre Optique film system, patented in 1888. Reynaud, pre-dating the Lumiere brothers and Alice Guy Blache, premiered his innovative predecessors of animated film at the Musée Grévin in Paris on October 28, 1892.



This history was not lost upon Walt Disney, who devoted an episode of his television series to the years of animation, starting with the zeotrope.



At the turn of the 20th century, Thomas Edison's studio and J. Stuart Blackton produced the first U.S. cartoons.








Filmmaker Émile Cohl was breaking new ground in France in the early 20th century.







Nobody in animation, before or since, was more innovative than the great comics artist/raconteur/animator/filmmaker Winsor McCay.








Returning yet again to the Daily Motion channel of Cartoon Research historian Devon Baxter, as he has posted several prime examples of the Fleischer Studio's terrific and highly imaginative work from the silent era.









Closing today's post: the wild and apocalyptic Ko-Ko's Earth Control, backed by a weirdly incongruous "Movie Wonderland" soundtrack.



We wish all of you reading this a happy Memorial Day Weekend; stay safe and, as the memorable Max Fleischer Color Classic cartoon insists, Play Safe. Kudos, bravos and huzzahs to all who are doing YouTube presentations, watch parties and other types of public service to help their fellow citizens through a stressful time.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Sheltering In-Place with the Comedy Greats



Sheltering in place as opposed to sheltering in lace, we're doing what we can to keep our spirits up. The unending coronavirus-related bad news means there's a temptation to give in to despair. Response? Give in to comedy - starting with Charlie Chaplin. Here he is in 1914, improvising for the camera and vexing director Henry "Pathé" Lehrman no end.



In the interest of optimum mental health during a pandemic, here's a clip from the Chaplin masterpiece The Circus.



MODERN TIMES always gets me laughing.







Nobody, not even Chaplin, has ever topped Buster Keaton.



Much enjoyed seeing Peter Bogdanovich's documentary The Great Buster: A Celebration and loved finding out that two of Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog's favorite current comics, Bill Hader and Richard Lewis, as well as lifelong favorites Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, are big time Buster Keaton fans.



Having Buster Keaton films cued up and ready to go is extremely valuable!







The Keaton classic The Balloonatic, co-starring Mack Sennett Studio leading lady and future star of Chicago Phyllis Haver, was the cornerstone of the May 3 edition of The Silent Comedy Watch Party (next Sunday's show, episode 9, will feature Buster's silver screen debut in the 1917 Roscoe Arbuckle opus The Butcher Boy).



Wondering who is in the following minute of silent movie mayhem from Huntley Film Archives. It is one fast fast fast (gosh darn fast) clip and it appears to be a compilation of at least seven or eight silent comedy sight gags. The star looks like Mack Sennett and L-Ko Comedies headliner (and later a prolific character actor) Billy Bevan and, for split seconds, we see Lupino Lane, Larry Semon and (frequent fall guy) Frank "Fatty" Alexander. Don't know what speed this was projected at when the video transfer was done, but it is blindingly fast, even by Henry Lehrman or Fox Sunshine Comedy standards.



The diametric opposite of the last frenetic film clip would be this wonderful 1933 2-reeler starring a comic genius whose m.o. was to slow it down, way down, and focus on the nuances: Harry Langdon.



Have heard that the devastatingly funny silent 2-reelers of a comedy team that at one point hired Harry Langdon as a scenarist and gag writer, Laurel & Hardy, will be restored and out on DVD and Blu-ray, knock on wood, later in the year.



The fellow responsible for Oliver Hardy's hiring by Hal Roach Studios was comedian-director-writer Charley Chase (a.k.a. Charles Parrott), IMHO the star of the funniest comedy short subjects, both for Hal Roach and Columbia.



Even a second-tier Chase opus is guaranteed to get this blogger ROFL.



If you want to see the predecessors of such dapper comic leading men of classic movies as Cary Grant and Robert Montgomery, look no further than these silent comedy masterpieces starring "Good Time Charley."



Charley directed other comedians and in some cases, helmed their very best and funniest films. Read that between takes on the sets where Three Stooges comedies were produced for The Columbia Shorts Department, Charley would sing barbershop quartet style with Moe Howard, Bud Jamison and Vernon Dent!



When it comes to big laughs on the silver screen in the sound era, it's tough to top W.C. Fields!











To finish today's post, we return to the field of animated cartoons, as it is also somewhere between tough and impossible to equal, let alone top, the great classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies produced by Warner Brothers.



Everyone from the all-time comedy greats to the lesser-known funsters helped people around the world in the early decades of the 20th century - my parents' and grandparents' generations - weather some very tough stuff, indeed.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Expanding Cartoonal Knowledge during Quarantine



Aspiring to a faint hint of cheerfulness during the ongoing and raging dumpster fire that is the year 2020, we at Way Too Lazy To Write A Blog find ourselves, after a lifetime of seeking classic movies, still totally floored to find animation rarities we have never, ever seen!



Here's a hilarious Krazy Kat cartoon, Farm Relief, which looks a lot more like the handiwork of Friz Freleng, Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising than anything those noted in the screen credits, Ben Harrison and Manny Gould, were producing at the time (1929).



It's a hoot, not in the TV package of Mintz studio Krazy Kats distributed by Samba Pictures - and joins the Walt DIsney Silly Symphony The Merry Dwarfs, the Scrappy cartoons Fare Play and The Beer Parade and the Max Fleischer Screen Song Down by The Old Mill Stream in Cartoonland's delirious "booze movies" sub-genre.



Laughs are a must for one's mental health and well-being, so a reliable way to keep the spirits up is to watch classic cartoons.



Fascinated by the history of the art form, this movie buff particularly enjoys seeing classic cartoons featuring commentary tracks. The presence of such authors, film historians and experts as Michael Barrier, Will Friedwald, Jerry Beck and Eric Goldberg mean that even the most dyed-in-the-wool animation aficionado will learn something watching these.





Here, animator Bob Jaques (and co-host with author Thad Komorowski of the informative and entertaining Cartoon Logic podcast) breaks down Too Weak To Work, an all-time favorite cartoon of the gang at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog and arguably one of very best ever produced by the too often disappointing Famous Studios.



Among the very best are those in which Jerry, Greg Ford and Mark Kausler offer their observations and incorporate interviews they conducted with the luminaries who made these films.



























Thanks, Greg! Thanks, Mark! While watching these classic cartoons isn't as good as hanging out with you guys in person during these very socially isolated times, it definitely helps. Cheers and thanks for your outstanding work, which is all over the documentaries I've been posting lately (including the following American Masters film about Chuck Jones).




Sunday, May 03, 2020

Home Watching Documentaries About Animation!



Quarantine means binge-watching documentaries - and in week 8 of this, the topic is animation. We'll kick off today's post with a film about Leon Schlesinger, the executive from Pacific Title who ended up as the producer of Warner Brothers cartoons. By pretty much leaving the Termite Terrace bunch alone to create as they saw fit, Leon, perhaps unwittingly, made it possible for the next wave of animation innovation, classic comedy and comic genius to flourish.



Leon hired Frank Tashlin and Tex Avery, two of the greatest comic minds to ever hit animation and filmmaking. They started turning the cartoon world upside down practically the moment they began directing Looney Tunes.





There is a very enjoyable documentary about stop-motion innovator Charley Bowers.



Never tire of watching the incredibly imaginative and frequently way-out Bowers Comedies.









Wondering if the rest of the following documentary, Looking For Charley Bowers, is on the Lobster Films Blu-ray of Charley Bowers films. Here is an excerpt from it.



Seeing Charley Bowers films and reading his story brings to mind another filmmaking innovator who loved devising gadgetry and was clearly pulled by his love of inventing and fascination with machines into making cartoons, Max Fleischer (1883-1972). The topic of Max' brilliant mind and creative inventions is a book in itself - and Fleischer Studio historian Ray Pointer has penned one, The Art and Inventions of Max Fleischer: American Animation Pioneer, which delves into the technological and filmmaking innovations in depth.



The following documentary covers the Fleischer brothers and their studio, which in this writer's opinion does not receive enough credit, even today, as loved as their work remains among animators, cineastes and classic film enthusiasts.



In the 1930's, the Fleischer Studio started utilizing a 3-D effect known as "The Stereoptical Process," with the camera dedicated to it known as The Setback Camera. Backgrounds were built on a revolving tabletop and, in the cartoons, were often integrated surprisingly seamlessly with the painted backgrounds. The 3-D backgrounds are utilized in all the Fleischer studio's series in 1934-1937. The Stereoptical Process was even spotlighted (starting at 3:50) in the following "Popular Science" short subject.



The Max Fleischer Color Classics series was introduced in 1934 to both compete with Disney's Silly Symphonies and spotlight the 3-D background process. The following Color Classic cartoon, Musical Memories, showcases the Stereoptical Process in a storyline that departs from the animated cartoon norm. It is nostalgic, lyrical and evocative, perhaps drawing upon the Fleischer brothers' reminiscences of growing up in the 1890's and turn of the 20th century, and features a quiet but moving ending.



The dream sequence in Play Safe, one of the best of the Color Classics, involves a spectacular multi-colored train station and presents one of the more psychedelic applications of the Fleischer Studio's 3-D tabletop background technique.



In the Popeye series, among the greatest animated cartoons ever made, the 3-D backgrounds enhance the storylines and the characters.



Note: the following dramatic excerpts from the Popeye Color Features do NOT demonstrate the Rotograph, but are prime showcases for the Stereoptical 3-D Process.



The Rotograph, just one among of many creative inventions developed by Max Fleischer in the early 1920's, was an aerial image photographic process where live-action film was rear projected behind animation cels (producing a backlit silhouette) to create an in-camera matte. Then, the film was rewound to the beginning, and the cels photographed again, top lit against a black card. The result: a first generation composite combining the animation with live-action.

Pondering how the Fleischer brothers got their start back in the teens, I thought of Donald Crafton's book Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928, a scholarly and painstakingly researched study of animation's early days - and was totally unaware that a documentary had been produced based in part on this book. It's a terrific film. Must thank Darren Nemeth for posting it, and also thank Devon Baxter from the Cartoon Research website for many of the other video clips.



Shifting from silent era animation, we love cartoon voice artists and documentaries about them. Do we love Mel Blanc here at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog? Yes.



Documentaries about cartoon voice artists were welcome extras in the Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVD sets. In the following, it is a pleasure to see such all-time greats as Stan Freberg and June Foray, along with more recent luminaries of the cartoon voice world such as Keith Scott, Billy West, Nancy Cartwright and Tom Kenny.



As we begin watching Noir Alley on TCM (on Robert Osborne's birthday) and set a reminder to check out today's Silent Comedy Watch Party this afternoon, we hope that all of you reading this are well. Also pay tribute to those individuals staffing the hospitals, ambulances, supermarkets, bodegas and pharmacies; these are the heroes who are keeping the country going through a difficult time. It is fantastic that the citizens of NYC are giving our brave first responders the accolades and rousing round of applause they deserve.