T: Hey J, another year went by and Betty White is still here. And she still looks better than Ann Coulter.
J: Everybody looks better than Ann Coulter.
T: Well …
J: Everything old is new again. Even Betty White. But Paul Junger Witt didn’t make it.
J: Paul Junger Witt. Witt was one of the driving forces that moved TV comedy away from the wholesome “Dick Van Dyke”-style shows into something with more social consciousness; his shows dealt with racism, homosexuality, poverty, drug use, rather that relying on “Potato Poopies” for laughs.
T: Ok … but what did he do?
J: Soap, for one. And Benson, The Golden Girls …
T: Oh, I know who you are talking about. I binged “Soap” the whole way through, all 93 episodes, and I did it the hard way.
Unlike now, when you can go to Netflix at your convenience, I had to actually be in front of the tube at the same time Monday-Friday (miss one and you have to start over) for nearly five months.
It worked out OK, since it was on USA or some network (can’t remember) at 2 p.m. and I worked at 3; I just watched it and left for work every day.
J: Billy Crystal get his start on that show, plus Kathryn Helmond became a sudden sex symbol right about the time she hit menopause, not the easiest trick in the magic book.
A couple of the actors on that show passed this year, too. Robert Mandan, who played Helmond’s husband Chester, and Donnelly Rhodes, who played escaped convict Dutch, joined Junger Witt in the sitcom afterlife. Which, of course, is syndication.
Stephen Hawking went to the afterlife too last year, not that he believed in it. The collective IQ of the human race dropped about four points when he croaked.
T: It’s that time of year, isn’t it? The time when everyone else figures out which resolutions they are going to keep until this weekend, and we celebrate the lives of the freshly departed. Last year we did “Dirt Naps of the Rich and Famous.” I think, for this year, we should come up with a clever new title.
J: How about “Dirt Naps of the Rich and Famous 2”?
T: That was easy. (editor’s note: we got bored and changed the title)
J: I’ll start it off.
T: Suits me.
J: OK. I’ll go with Hawking first; smartest guy in the world, humanity’s collective IQ dropped about four points when he croaked.
T: Was he really that smart? I mean, if he was that smart, he would have written hip/hop songs and gotten rich and bazooka laid.
J: He got rich all right, he wrote a bunch of best-sellers so he must’ve done OK for himself cashwise, and with the whole ALS thing I doubt he was much interested in getting bazooka laid
T: Actually, that was the only muscle that worked.
J: Dammit, don’t say things like that out loud. God, the mental image. I need a bottle of brain bleach.
T: What would you call Hawking’s signature achievement?
J: Well, without getting too technical, he figured out how the universe began and how it’s going to end. His theories are standing up better than Einstein’s.
T: Actually, that was the only thing about him that could stand.
J: What did I just say?
T: My first-round pick is Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul.
J: Can’t argue with that… she was the greatest soul singer of them all, and a smart lady too… made people pay her in cash so she could pay her people in cash. She got screwed once by someone bouncing a check to her and she swore that’d never happen again.
T: My favorite memory of her was her “Respect” performance in the movie, “Blues Brothers 2000.” She added some extra sass and vinegar, and really drove the song home. Ironically, she sang the song to legendary blues cat Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who also passed this year.
J: That was the highlight of that movie. Probably the only memorable thing about it.
T: It missed Belushi’s voice – Akroyd can’t sing – but it was more cheerful than the original, which was pretty dark. And it had a tremendous soundtrack (better than the first one) and an epic chase scene. It wasn’t a great movie, sue me. But I loved it, especially the music.
J: Next on my list is Ray Thomas of the Moody Blues. He wasn’t the lead singer or anything, but his fluting (flauting?) made the Moodies’ sound unique, even more than Jethro Tull’s.
T: Did he write any of their songs?
J: Yeah, he collaborated with Justin Hayward on a lot of them, and the flute solo on “Nights in White Satin” is probably the most recognized flute passage in history.
He also played the harmonica on “I Am The Walrus”.
T: I know they were your boys, the Moody Blues.
J: I’ve always been a big fan of theirs. My sister introduced me to their music back in the mid-’70s. It was kind of underground because my dad hated all music and my mom would only listen to John Denver or Gordon Lightfoot, so I had to sneak downstairs to my sister’s room to groove on the Moodies.
T: Thinking about it, 2018 wasn’t as bad a year for musical icons as the previous couple of years. The ones that got to me weren’t the icons so much as the guys who played with the cool bands, like Ray Sawyer, the front man for Dr. Hook.J: I hadn’t heard about Sawyer. That’s a shame; I always liked Dr. Hook. “Cover of the Rolling Stone” is an iconic song.
T: Sawyer died on New Year’s Eve; I was shocked to find out he was 81 years old. That means he was in his 40s when Dr. Hook was in its heyday in the 1970s.
J: They morphed into more of a soft-rock band for a couple of years, but Sawyer always kept them from getting too soft.
T: He had sort of a gleeful edge to him, like bipolar Mr. Green Jeans or something.
J: How many Dexies it took to keep Mr. Greenjeans like that?
T: I’m afraid to ask. Who’s your next one?
J: My next choice is Penny Marshall.
She was a great comic actress; Laverne will live forever. But she was also a very successful producer in her own right, along with her dad.
T: For years I thought she was Peter Marshall’s daughter. Her brother Garry died last year, I think. I read a few things about her when she passed, but nobody mentioned that she got her start on the Odd Couple. I think she was Tony Randall’s assistant.
J: She was Oscar’s assistant, actually. Marshall was great on the show … she played a ditzy, Gracie Allen-esque character. But everyone will remember her as Laverne. She wasn’t what you would call a classic beauty, but I always thought she had a gawky sort of sexy charm.
T: The Ginger v. Mary Ann thing got stood on its head with Laverne and Shirley.
On Gilligan’s Island, Ginger was hot, worldly and wise while Mary Ann was the cute, virtuous and innocent; Ginger was the obvious choice – the glamorous one – but most guys felt compelled to choose Mary Ann if they didn’t want to be thought of as shallow and base.
On Laverne and Shirley, even though Shirley was the cute and virtuous one while Laverne was the worldly, wise one, the wise guys mostly chose Laverne because Shirley was considered kind of a tease and a little bit too full of herself.
So Laverne was the slut but still the wise guy choice, because while Shirley was the cute, pretty one, she was also the bitch.
Who’s your third-round pick?
J: Margot Kidder. She was the best Lois Lane of them all; she played off Christopher Reeve really well. And she was great in “The Amityville Horror,” too.
T: She had a tough life.
J: Yeah, she had a hell of a go off-screen, a nervous breakdown and all that stuff.
T: Noel Neill played Lois Lane in the original TV series, Teri Hatcher played her in the new series, and Kate Bosworth and Amy Adams have played her in the new movies
I think Teri Hatcher might have been chosen because she looked like Kidder … so she set the template. Who’s your third-round choice?
T: A couple of obvious choices jump out, George Bush and John McCain, but if I get going on either one of them we’ll be here for a week. So I’ll go with Blue Miller.
T: Blue Miller was Miller with the Gibson-Miller band, one of my favorite country bands from the 1990s. Their cover of “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babie Grow Up to be Cowboys” was part of the soundtrack to The Cowboy Way, and they put out a couple of really good albums before Gibson retired.
The guys in GMB were already oldish for the road when they hit it big; Nashville had a short period in the mid-1990s when older bands gained a toehold on the scene. It didn’t last long, but for a few years it was pretty awesome to have actual musicians playing the music.
The Tractors with Baby Likes to Rock It,” Big House with “Cold Outside,” Confederate Railroad with songs like “Queen of Memphis” and “Trashy Women,” etc. the Kentucky Headhunters were the first one, a few years earlier. I would not be surprised if that’s what started it; producers went out looking for bands that could replicate the Headhunters’ success.
Blue Miller was on the fringes of the music scene for years, playing sessions, writing, producing and singing harmonies, but he couldn’t get his own deal because he was too country for rock and too rock for country. He had a scratchy voice like Rod Stewart, somebody like that, but his musical sense was more country or Americana.
J: Did he do anything else after Gibson-Miller?
T: He spent the rest of his life working as a producer/engineer/writer, basically a studio rat. He worked on lots of albums, but his primary claim to fame was working with India Arie during her rise to fame.
T: Who’s next?
J: Jerry Maren.
T: Who? We sound like stoned owls. Who? Who? Who?
J: Jerry Maren. He was the last surviving original Munchkin.
T: Munchkin … oh, the Wizard of Oz?
That’s a topical reference.
J: So it’s my fault he took care of himself and lived to 98?
T: So Maren was the last Wizard of Oz actor left, huh? I don’t suppose the dog that played Toto is …
J: The dog? That dog would be about 600 years old by now.
T: In dog year?
J: Um, yeah. He wasn’t Henry VIII’s dog.
T: My next one is Simon Shelton. Guess who he is.
J: The guy from “Big Bang Theory?”
T: No, that’s Sheldon Cooper. Or Simon Helberg. So yes, in a dismembered sort of way.
No, Simon Shelton played an iconic children’s character.
J: Was it Barney? Please, please, please let it be Barney. I hate that purple fucker.
T: Well, he was purple.
J:} There wasn’t a purple Power Ranger; Teletubbie?
T:Yep. He was Tinky Winky.
J: Was he the gay one?
T:I don’t know if he was or not. But he played one on TV.
J: Supposedly the one with the triangle on his head was gay. I don’t remember the rationale for it and I don’t feel like going down the evangelical rabbit hole to find it. They were kids’ characters, for God’s sake. Like Ernie and Bert. OK, bad example.
T: I never watched the Teletubbies, so I can’t say. Who is your next one?
J: Ken Berry
T: The outfielder?
J: No, the actor.
T: Oh, I remember him. F Troop, Mamas Family, Mayberry …
J: F Troop was f-in’ funny, even with the racial stereotypes. To this day, in our house we still pronounce both f’s in words that have two f’s at the end, in honor of ze Burglaire of Ban-ff-ff.
T: I don’t like to judge old stuff by modern PC standards; if we all did that, nobody would ever dare say anything. I consider most old, dated stuff in the category of period piece, as long as it isn’t preachy about it. If it’s preachy, it can just shut the f-f up and get back on the dusty shelf.
J: Makes sense. Time and place; like cocaine in the colas. And preachers have carbon half-lives like fruit flies.
T: Is Larry Storch still around?
J: Yes, he’s still alive… he’ll be 95 in a couple of days.
T: Wow, that’s incredible. I would have guessed he had been dead for decades. Does his wife know?
J: I would have thought so too, but he’s still here. His wife might even know, assuming she doesn’t think she’s a tuna-fish sandwich herself.
T: Wasn’t Ken Berry part of the Mayberry crew, too? I mostly remember him from F Troop and Mama’s Family, plus he was always on the Carol Burnett show.
J: Yeah, he was Sam Jones. He got more exposure on “Mayberry RFD” than he did on the Andy Griffith show.
T: Was he naked or something?
J: Well, there was that unfortunate incident with Aunt Bee, but he never liked to talk about that.
T: He was a really good straight man, so Caucasian and stiff that Larry Storch and Tim Conway could always count on looking ridiculous in comparison. I think that’s an undervalued skill for an actor; there is no good without evil, and no ridiculous without boring to compare it to.
J: I didn’t watch the Mayberry shows all that much, but the ones I saw were set up like that. Andy or Ken Berry would play straight, and everyone else would be weird around them. Harvey Korman had the same quality, the ability to not laugh no matter what weirdness was happening around them.
T: Well, in Harvey’s case, not so much. Tim Conway turned him to jelly.
J: That was the kicker, I think. Everybody loved watching Harvey lose his shit at Tim’s antics because he had always been such a good straight man. If Tim could break Harvey up, then nobody was safe.
T: I’ll choose another television character actor for my next one: Bill Dailey.
J: He was a good second banana, “I Dream of Jeannie” and the original “Bob Newhart” show.
T: I mostly remember him from Newhart; his running gag was that he had permanent jet lag.
He never knew what time it was, and he’d have to look around to make sure that he knew where he was.
J: He played the same kind of role on “Jeannie,” the somewhat befuddled astronaut.
T: His business card said “Bill Daily: Have befuddled expression, will travel.”
J: That expression gave him a long career.
My next one is Stephen Hillenburg.
T: Lemme guess … he wrote Hill Street Blues?
J: He was the creator of Spongebob Squarepants, which is almost the same thing.
T: So he was Tinky Winky with a wet butt?
J: I guess that’s one way to look at it. You could say he was the wet Tinky Winky.
T: He was Tinky Winky of Soggy Bottom.
Did you watch Sponge Bob? I don’t think I saw more than maybe part of an episode or two in passing.
J: I saw it a few times. We used to watch one of Ida’s co-worker’s kids and she loved it. It was actually kind of funny, it was like “Toy Story” in that there are adult-oriented lines in it that kids don’t get.
T: The best kid shows always had something for the parents to laugh at.
J: If they are smart.
T: My next choice is Michele Carey. She got her start in one of those Annette Funicello beach movies, but her main claim to fame was her role in El Dorado.
J: That was a John Wayne movie, right?
T: Yeah, John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, sort of a reboot of Rio Bravo with Wayne and Dean Martin. Michele Carey was known for her wild mane of reddish hair. Within a couple of years all the actresses had it, but Carey was one of the first who didn’t have her hair pinned and oiled into submission.
J: The thing about being in a John Wayne movie was that he sucked up so much of the air that he didn’t leave any room for anyone else. Michele Carey, Kim Darby in “True Grit”… fine actresses overshadowed by John Wayne.
T: She might have lost her career to looking a bit too much like Jane Fonda or Ann-Margaret; that’s a tough crowd to compete with. She did stay in the business for twenty-plus years, acting and doing voiceover work.
Who’s your next choice?
J: Vic Damone, one of the last of the mobbed-up lounge singers of the fifties
T: I heard his name all my life, but I don’t think I know anything about him.
J: He had the original hit with “On the Street Where You Live;” Sinatra once said that he had the best pipes in the business. I’m not sure whether he meant vocally or for busting heads down by the docks, though.
T: When I was at EWU the first time, in 1981, Pat McManus was on the staff. I’s heard of him — people said he was a writer or something – but I hadn’t read any of his stuff. A few years later I got a boxed set with four of his books for Christmas; I eventually wore them out trying to memorize all his lines.
J: He was a big deal in outdoor writing, too, a regular in Field and Stream for decades. I had some of his books too; he was really good early on but tailed off towards the end. I figured he used up all his good stories by then.
“Never sniff a gift fish” is very sound advice.
T: No fish-sniffing unless you paid for it; agreed. You’re up.
J: .Luyanda Ntshangase.
T: Ok, dammit, who the f-ing hell is that? That name looks like a Swedish eye chart.
J: Luyande Ntshangase. He was a soccer player, got hit by lightning on the field.
T: Did the lightning knock half the vowels out of his name? I mean, seriously, it looks like his name was partially folded like one of those things in the back of Mad magazine.
T: So he got hit by lightning?
J: Yep. He was just trying to give the team a spark.
T: Oh, boo hiss. Tink. No Winky.
J: He’s just playing, doing his thing, then a voice from the heavens… “You’re offside.” BLAM!
I never knew God to take so much interest in soccer
T: “Is that yellow card on fire, or are you just happy to see me?”
J: We should probably stop joking about lightning; I have to go outside a lot.
T: That poor, unbelievably unlucky kid … my next one is Charlotte Rae. The Rack, as Peter Griffin called her.
J: Mrs. Garrett from Different Strokes and The Facts of Life.
T: Yes, Mrs. Garrett. But she got her start as a comedian.
J: Comedienne, you mean?
T: That’s racist.
T: Never mind … I got confused there for a second.
“Facts of Life” was on forever, but I stopped watching it after a while. Some of the girls famously got a little plump, but –
J: Some of them were plump to start with.
T: But I didn’t mind that they gained weight so much as it got kind of sad, seeing all those supposed teenagers turning 30 and they were still living with Mrs. Garrett.
J: The hazard of sitcom success. The premise gets tired long before the audience gives up.
T: Rae’s Mrs. Garrett goes on the list, with Frasier and Benson, as sitcom supporting actors who spun off to successful shows of their own.
J: Charlotte Rae, Dabney Coleman and Robert Guillaume, all in that category. And all dead, too.
T: Dabney Coleman? I forgot about him.
(checking …) He isn’t dead.
J: Only his career.
T: He was in Boardwalk Empire a couple of years ago … What was his crossover show?
J: Now that I look, I don’t see one. I think I was thinking of Kelsey Grammer.
T: Who also isn’t dead.
J: Thought not for lack of trying.
T: No kidding. Speaking of 1980s sitcom heroes: we can’t leave this slack without talking about Harry Anderson.
J: Yes, indeed… Night Court was a classic show. The whole ensemble was excellent. Richard Moll, Markie Post, John Larroquette, Charles Robinson … great sitcom cast.
T: I think of Anderson in four ways, and not necessarily in this order:
Harry the Hat from Cheers
His love of Mel Torme
To me, his Harry the Hat from Cheers might rank even over Night Court. Harry the Hat was one of the all-time classic recurring characters, as memorable as the regulars.
T: Oh, for sure; Night Court had a fantastic cast. I already liked Markie Post from watching The Fall Guy, but everyone was great. Even the two chronic smokers they brought in to do a year and croak – literally as well as figuratively – as bailiffs.
J: And they would have smoked any sitcom cast in history in basketball. They averaged about six feet four.
T: No pun intended, of course.
J: No, (cough) I don’t think so.
J: Oh, the places we’ll go with that one.
T: Plus he has a funny name.
J: That’s what was what I meant, smartass. We’re not gonna say a word about what he actually did with his life.
T: What’s funny is that his history with Nixon and creating dirty tricks is what grabbed me first. I didn’t glom onto the name until I typed it out.
J: I don’t think you should say Dick Tuck grabs you.
T: “Dick Tuck” would be a pretty sweet transvestite stripper name.
J: It sounds a little formal.
J: Yeah, it would be better if his last name was Tucker.
T: Richard Tucker?
J: Plus it rhymes.
T: Rhymes with what?
J: Never mind.
T: Did his pranks inspire Nixon to send out Segretti and the other Ratfuckers?
J: Whose pranks?
T: Mr. Tuck.
J: Oh, right.
T: They were actually called that. Ratfuckers. Well done, whoever named them.
J: Probably Nixon.
T: It does sound like his style, doesn’t it?
J: I got one more: This guy
was 104, died of assisted suicide.
I remember reading about him; I was like, “Dude, you’re 104. How much longer you think it’s gonna be?”
T: Talk about waiting until the last minute. If he dies before they hook the machines up, does Kevorkian still get paid?
J: It wasn’t Kevorkian; I’m pretty sure Kevorkian is dead, too.
T: Yep; died in 2011. Unassisted, too.
J: This guy was boring in 1918; that was before commercial radio, before commercial aviation, before computers or TV. And he lived to see a Tesla fly past Mars.
T: And he got bored?
T: He was born during WWI, before women were allowed to vote. Babe Ruth was a pitcher, Al Capone was a low-level thug, prohibition hadn’t happened yet, American football and basketball were in their infancy and films were still silent. Woodrow Wilson was president. FDR hadn’t had polio yet and Teddy was still alive.
J: There still was polio, and tuberculosis, and smallpox.
T: George Bush, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, who all lived longer than any other President in history, weren’t born yet.
J: Cancer was pretty much a death sentence; cut it out and pray was the standard treatment – and 70 was a ripe old age.
T: Hell, in 1918 Africa was mostly pre-agricultural revolution; the vast majority of the continent was populated by herdsmen and foragers.
J: Is that a wrap?
T: I’d say so. Let’s hook this slack up to the machine and put it out of its misery.