Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Brought to You by the Letters S, N, and L

Sure, much like North Korea bombing South Korea for some reason, a supposed Ugly Betty star murdering his mom with a samurai sword for some reason, and Miley Cyrus turning 18 for some reason, this has been getting a lot of talk online, but why not have one more voice join the chorus? Especially because it's funny.

Sesame Street's been in the public eye a lot this year. Be it Grover spoofing the Old Spice ads, a song called "I Love My Hair," that whole Elmo-Katy Perry thing, or Bert apparently outing himself on Twitter, the long-running and still-beloved show has gotten a lot of buzz online and in the media, both thanks to the efforts of the show itself and through word of mouth- what's known in the online biz as "going viral."

And so has Betty White. The veteran comedienne has been everywhere this year, and it all started with a successful Facebook campaign to get the ex-Golden Girl to host Saturday Night Live. Today, one of Sesame Street's bluest citizens started his own campaign to rock 30 Rock, with his own audition tape. A very cookie-obsessed audition tape.

I wish Mr. Monster the best of luck in his campaign and encourage you to support him on his official Facebook page for his quest. And even if he doesn't make it, his audition is still good enough for me.

To help him in his long running-quest to debunk those rumors about his changes of diet or name, I leave you with his classic Colbert Report guest appearance, one of my all time favorite highlights for both him and Colbert.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Cookie Monster
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionMarch to Keep Fear Alive

SESAME STREET characters are trademarks of and ©2010 Sesame Workshop. THE COLBERT REPORT ©Comedy Partners.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Ships Hit The Fan

This post was originally written as a personal blog entry on the Phineas and Ferb Wiki. It is reprinted here with only minor modifications for posterity and for the interest of this blog's readers.

As a fan of Phineas and Ferb for almost a year now, I've done my best to keep my edits to the wiki in the best behavior and be a good citizen, interacting with the fan community in order to discuss a show I love. Sadly, for me, doing so has been difficult, because it seems that, with the except of a certain few, the most outspoken only seem to enjoy certain aspects of the show which are, for the most part, inconsequential. Particularly, the topic that always seems to rear its ugly head so much that it is now off-limits in blogs: shipping. (This is not a shipping blog. Rather, it is a blog on the subject of shipping.) Some events occurred recently in the field of kid pop culture that made me think a lot about shipping and its effect on the Phineas and Ferb fan community and how it seems to be affected by shipping. This is in part me basically just rambling to get the thoughts off my chest and on paper (or screen, as the case may be), but I still think it's relevant.

Recently, Dan Schneider, the creator of a ton of kids shows I used to watch and still do to this day (Kenan and Kel, Drake and Josh, Zoey 101...the list goes on), posted some very funny videos lovingly poking fun at some of the more vocal of his fans.

Clearly, with these, he's following a philosophy I myself often follow when I make jokes online or in public, summed up best by The Simpsons's Krusty the Klown: "I kid because I love." It's clear that the only reason he's poking fun at them is because he knows that the fans are ridiculous at times and, even though it may annoy him, he still loves his fans no matter what. It's part of a long line of pop culture poking fun at the more overenthusiastic members of their fanbase, alongside the 1986 Saturday Night Live sketch where William Shatner (playing himself) tells the audience of a Star Trek convention to "get a life!," the Simpsons character Comic Book Guy and his newsgroup-taken catchphrase "Worst. Episode. Ever" who has now been adopted by the fan community as one of their own, the very funny "Please Please Pleese Get A Life Foundation" Animaniacs sketch which featured quotations from an actual alt.tv.animaniacs document and was first shown to members of that newsgroup, and Phineas and Ferb's own hyper-obsessive superfan, Irving (as voiced by 30 Rock's Kenneth the Page himself, Jack McBrayer).

I was so inspired by Mr. Schneider's sketches that I wanted to write one of my own poking fun at the members of the Phineas and Ferb fan culture that are even more obsessed than Irving is, but I never got around to doing so. And this is one case where procrastination paid off, since Mr. Schneider paid off once again for me personally this week.

His popular Nickelodeon kidcom iCarly ran an hour-long episode entitled "iStart a Fan War," written by Schneider himself, which basically revolved around the main gang- Carly, Freddie, and Sam- going to a website convention in the vein of Comic-Con and other cons. Though there was nary a Ducky Momo in sight, there was a lot of comedic chaos to be found as the iCarly panel devolved into mayhem as the audience started asking if Freddie was in love with Sam (Seddie) or Carly (Creddie), even going so far as to use screenshots from the webshow to prove their points. (Here, just as The Simpsons often uses ''Itchy and Scratchy'' as an in-universe replacement for itself or the animation industry in general, here "iCarly" the fictional webshow is taking the place of iCarly the real TV show.) Sam- who, if you watch the show, loves to cause chaos- decides to tell the audience she's madly in love with Freddie. All you-know-what breaks loose as the convention floor devolves into an all-out Creddie-v.-Seddie war. "My goodness," I said to myself, "I've actually seen this stuff on the Phineas and Ferb Wiki! People using photographic evidence to show Phineas and Isabella really like each other, shipping wars...they really did their research!"

However, not surprisingly, it all becomes too much to bear, and the trio attempt to defuse the ruckus with a speech...

We love all fans of iCarly. Totally. The average fans, the super-fans, the psycho fans, even the super-psycho-fans. But iCarly is not really about our romantic relationships. I mean, sure, we're better-than-average-looking teenagers with "those feelings." But iCarly's about comedy. Stupid, pointless comedy. Just to make people smile and laugh...sometimes groan. I know the whole who-should-date-who thing can be fun to think about, but don't get TOO caught up in that stuff, you know. Sometimes you should just watch iCarly...laugh, and share an apple with a friend. Any fruit, really.

Carly proceeds to end the speech (which I thought was heavy-handed but necessary, and on rewatching isn't really as anvilicious as I first thought it was) by explaining she isn't even seeing anyone at the moment, though there is a new guy (introduced earlier in the episode) she's interested in. The fans...proceed to beat up said new boy for ruining their beloved ships and keep on fighting. Ba-dum-bum.

Personally, as a self-aware criticism, I thought the episode was perfect, since, as I said earlier, I had seen similar behavior in the Phineas and Ferb fanbase. And I thought the ending was particularly inspired: rather than resolving a question which can never be resolved (at least, not at the moment), the show basically poked fun at the fact that despite its efforts and well-meaning attempts to explain that the show is about comedy first and relationships second, people probably won't listen and keep on complanin'.

And boy, did they ever. To paraphrase a classic Comic Book Guyism, rest assured the iCarly fan community was on the Internet within minutes registering their disgust throughout the world: the way they saw it, Schneider was basically saying they were watching the show for the wrong reasons, had no life, and should basically just give up because nothing will ever happen on iCarly ship-wise- none of which are even remotely true. (The "no life" claim came from a line I personally thought was hilarious but some people apparently took way too seriously, as a convention staffer feared the war could last for days since most nerds have no jobs or lives to get back to. I guess it's true- people think things are funny until they're the ones being made fun of. Jokingly suggesting nerds have no life is one of the oldest nerd jokes in the book, dating back to that classic Shatner SNL skit if not earlier- which in itself ended with Shatner hastily backpedaling to calm the nerd rage by explaining he was recreating his evil self from a classic Star Trek where, much like Split Candace once was, he is split into the two halves of his personality.) Fans were also accusing Schnieder of lying, since the earliest promos for the episode claimed that it would settle the debate once and for all. Both sadly and hilariously, they ended up proving the stereotypes poked fun at were 100% true.

Earlier today, Mr. Schneider wrote a very nice blog post explaining a lot of things: for one thing, the promos are the network's responsibility, not his. Secondly, for those fans who were disappointed in the episode, he teased some future ones which he said will "make a lot of fans extremely happy – especially those who felt they were mislead [sic] by the promos for iStart A Fan War." And most importantly (in my opinion), he said this:

'If you're an enthusiastic iCarly fan, and you felt that iStart A Fan War was making fun of you (in a mean way), please don't feel that way!  The writers and I love the iCarly super-fans!

Sure, the episode was a parody of some iCarly fans, but only a very specific type – the type of fans who fight bitterly and are mean to each other – the ones who take the whole Creddie vs. Seddie thing too far, and actually get verbally abusive with others who don't agree with them.

Those are the fans we were parodying – the mean "fighty" ones.  But they only make up like 0.0000000001% of iCarly fans.  And honestly, we don't dislike those fans.  We just think they'd be a lot happier if they'd calm down a little bit. :)

Do you act like the psycho fans you saw in the episode?  Probably not.  More than likely, you're just a normal person who feels passionate about iCarly.  If you are, then you're not the kind of fan we were parodying.

But if you're the type who would actually get into a physical confrontation with someone over Creddie vs. Seddie (or write nasty comments online), then yeah, we were making fun of that kind of behavior.  But even so, we didn't mean it in a mean-spirited way.

On Saturday Night Live, they're always making fun of the President of the United States, other politicians, and celebrities… but that doesn't mean that the SNL producers, writers, or actors are trying to hurt those people's feelings.  SNL is a comedy, so sometimes they parody people, but it's all meant in good fun.  Parody is an exaggeration of behavior.

I hope this explains things to any fans who felt the episode was mocking them.  Unless you're a crazy, extreme fan who gets in fights with other fans and hates anyone who disagrees with you, we weren't mocking you.  If you just love iCarly (for any reason), WE LOVE YOU.

Still, if you felt offended, then I'll take the blame, and I'm sorry.  My goal always is to make you laugh, smile, and have a fun time – not make you feel angry or hurt.

So, what does all this have to do with Phineas and Ferb, you may ask (if you got this far)? Well, the sort of fan behavior Schneider poked fun at in this episode of iCarly is exactly the sort that I see on the Phineas and Ferb Wiki. People complaining about certain character pairings, or appearing to care only for the relationships between the characters rather than everything that makes the show great. I would say moreso than iCarly, where both the comedic interactions and the romantic tensions between the characters take center stage often equally, romance takes a backseat to comedy much more so on Phineas and Ferb- which isn't surprising, given as there's a lot of characters and a lot of things going on. And, unlike iCarly (*coughJaneLynchcough*), the comedic foundation of Phineas and Ferb hasn't cracked yet- if anything, it gets stronger with each episode as the writers find even more cleverly comedic ways to twist the formula to its breaking point and make it seem less like one. Sadly, the most outspoken members of any community always seem to happen to be the craziest- there may not be a lot of them, but they sure are loud. All this combined actually gave me the inspiration to finish the sketch I was talking about- which I hope you watch if you're interested in what I have to say.

To paraphrase what I myself said in that little film, Phineas and Ferb is a comedy first and foremost. It's about comedy first and romance...geez, do I have to make a list? Whatever number it is, it's down near the bottom. Or somewhere in the middle, maybe. Either way, even more so than iCarly, the romance aspects take a backseat to the comedy- or sometimes, even add to it. As my idol Charles Schulz once said, "There is nothing funny about being happy," and I think the way Phineas and Isabella's relationship is right now- with Phineas completely unaware as to what is going on with Isabella's crush on him- is much funnier and more entertaining to watch than if they were both in love with each other equally. That's just not funny. Will Phineas ever wise up? Maybe. Will this ever happen on screen? Doubtful. Same with Ferb worshipping Vanessa from afar despite the fact that they barely even know each other, or any other relationships in the series, both real and imaginary. As Mr. Schneider himself said through Carly and friends, it's fun to speculate, but let's not go insane doing so and start wars over it and nonsense like that.

And Mr. Schneider's comment on the promos also brings up a good point, too: people often think that the creative arm of the show (as helmed by Dan and Swampy) and the licensing/distribution arm (as represented by The Walt Disney Company itself) are either one and the same or very closely involved with each other. I don't know 100%, but I'm pretty sure that's not the case. I've read some things on Martin Olson's SoundCloud page and just listened to an interview with Laura Dickinson, who is one of the major female singers on the show, and even they didn't know when the third season is going to start. They're just as clueless as we are as to future developments, nor do they have any control over what Disney is going to do with the series in terms of distribution. So let's keep that in mind and not ask questions of the staff that not even they know the answers to.

I realize this is really long and most people probably aren't going to read it to the end, but if you did, I hope you see what I'm trying to say. If you disagree with me even only a tiny bit- good. That means you have a brain and know how to use it. I hope, though, that the more outspoken of you who did read to the end keep what I have to say in mind: the creative end has no idea what the distribution end is doing, and most importantly, if you ''must'' talk about shipping, please do so amongst yourselves or lightly and non-confrontationally (if at all possible). Let's talk about all the aspects of what make Phineas and Ferb great as a whole: the plotlines, the music, the voice acting, the writing, the comedy, and yes, the character relationships. Alone, all of these aspects are great. Together, they're even better. So, as Carly herself suggested, let's try to take some time to share an apple and laugh with Phineas and Ferb and everything that makes them great. Together. Because if you like something a lot, chances are you hope there are other people who want to talk about it with you too. I know I do. And it kind of disappoints me that a lot of people in this community- at least the most outspoken ones- don't seem to enjoy the show for all that makes it great as I do.

Ryan is out! PEACE!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thoughts on Theatre: The Pee-Wee Herman Show

Playing now through January 2 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 West 43rd Street, New York. For tickets and additional information, visit peewee.com/broadway. Reviewed November 20, 2010 (afternoon show). Directed by Alex Timbers. Produced and conceived by Paul Reubens. Written by Paul Reubens and Bill Steinkellner with additional material by John Paragon.

Incorporating elements from both the original stage show and the TV series with a number of amusing new elements added, Pee-Wee's Broadway debut reunites the classic Playhouse gang, for the most part all portrayed by the original actors- Miss Yvonne [Lynne Marie Stewart], Jambi [John Paragon], Mailman Mike [John Moody], and puppet characters Chairry, Conky, Pterri, Randy, Globey, and other puppet scenery without names that end in "ey." Cap'n Carl is thankfully not replaced (as, sadly, no one can ever replace Phil Hartman for whatever reason period), and comedian Phil LaMarr (the voice of Hermes on Futurama, among other roles) does a great job filling Cowboy Curtis's boots in Lawrence Fishburne's stead- clearly, big boots to fill. And you know what they say about people with big boots... Adding to the comedy is a new character simply known as Bear [Drew Powell], who practically steals every scene he's in with his over-the-top pantomiming, frustrating Pee-Wee: "I hate charades! I hate mime! I hate new characters!"

The plot of the show, such as it is, is really more a means to an end of stringing along the various gags and sketches and is taken more or less directly from the original stage show: Pee-Wee is jealous of Pterri's ability to fly, and hopes that someday his wish of flying will come true, while also keeping a friendly ear out for a way to make Miss Yvonne's wish that Cowboy Curtis would like her would also come true...even if it means giving up his own. Far more amusing as far as plots are concerned is the subplot regarding a handyman named Sergio [Jesse Garcia] who is hooking up Pee-Wee's new computer ("new" being a relative term in this case), and the puppet gang's fear that Pee-Wee's new toy will replace them.

But really, what little plot there is takes a backseat to the jokes, of which there are plenty. Set up as a both a parody and a loving tribute in the style of a classic kiddie show of the Bozo-Kangaroo variety, Pee-Wee asks his audience to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and, of course, scream real loud whenever they hear the secret word- "fun"- before, among other routines, trying to cook onion rings, reading postcards from his pen pals, becoming engrossed in a children's book about the life of a dog, and introducing a classic Penny cartoon from the series (animated by a young Nick Park of Wallace and Gromit fame) and a public-domain educational film about lunchroom manners with comedic sound effects added (though the biggest laugh comes from one of the film's actual visuals). Most of the best humor, however, comes from the childlike Pee-Wee's interactions with the other characters, especially Sergio, with whom Pee-Wee proceeds to mangle Spanish, partake in the now-famous Tequila dance, and attempts to impress with long bit involving a balloon which, along with an overly long scream, is one of the two most drawn-out- and funniest - gags in the show. Add to this a good number of Pee-Wee's signature quips and dirty-jokes-that-really-aren't, horrible-yet-still-amusing puns, some topical jokes about subjects such as abstinence rings and gay marriage, visual delights including a dead-on recreation of the classic Playhouse set and a fun sequence set entirely in the dark in the classic cartoony blinking-eyes style, a funny running gag involving ad jingles and products (including a puppet Shamwow who unexpectedly becomes an ingredient in those onion rings), and a bunch of other surprises I don't want to give away and you've got a recipe for FUN.

Although the entire cast is superb, I have to give a shout-out to the puppeteer behind Chairry, who has a fun dance sequence with Pee-Wee, Powell, who gets lots of laughs as Bear without ever saying a word (well, maybe a few words), and, of course, Paul Reubens himself, whose not-quite-an-adult-but-not-quite-a-kid-either persona as Pee-Wee has always entertained and still does. Coming back into the role after a long absence, Reubens clearly is ready to leave his unfortunate past behavior behind him and come back to the character that made him famous. He may have aged, but Pee-Wee certainly hasn't- both physically and mentally. And given Pee-Wee's character, that isn't surprising.

Like many great actors who are known for playing a character (for example, Stephen Colbert), it's hard to tell where Paul Reubens ends and Pee-Wee Herman begins when he's performing as the character. After the show, Paul...or Pee-Wee...or is it both? came out and said some hellos to the receptive fans waiting outside the stage door, asking them where they came from to see the show and quickly responding to someone's shout that they loved him in Blow with the classic Pee-Wee "then why don't you marry it?" rejoinder. He explained that while he couldn't sign autographs, he was glad that everyone came out to see his show. It's clear from the way he came out after the show that Paul/Pee-Wee is a nice guy and really loves performing...and the reaction he gets for doing so. As Pee-Wee himself sings at the end of the show, he's the luckiest boy in the world and wants to share his luck with the audience. Truly, for both Paul Reubens and Pee-Wee Herman, that much is true...and both they- and the audience-are loving it. I know I did.

FINAL VERDICT: Highly recommended! A must-see for anyone who loves great comedy, Pee-Wee Herman, or just plain having FUN.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ten Terrific Obscure Peanuts Characters: #7

7. The School Building
I once saw a reprint collection which removed the equations from the first and third panel of this strip, thus rendering the joke pointless.
Snoopy's doghouse. Schroeder's piano. Lucy's psychiatry booth. Objects that have become as well-known in the Peanuts universe as the characters often seen next to them. But one object- or rather, building- in particular actually became somewhat of a character once it started thinking on its own, taking a literal approach to the phrase "if these walls could talk"- or at least think. (Not that someone actually needs to voice their opinions in public to be "heard." Just ask Snoopy- if you can.)

Every child has had an antagonistic relationship with school in one way or another. For Sally Brown, one character for which school takes up most of her life (perhaps more so than any other Peanuts character save Peppermint Patty in her later years), this relationship took an interesting turn in 1974, when the school building actually started responding to some of the anger Sally dished out at it- or at least, responding as much as a school building can.

In his well-written (and which I highly recommend reading if you haven't already) 2007 biography Schulz and Peanuts, which caused controversy within the Schulz family due to how their father was depicted, author David Michaelis pointed out that this series of strips came about shortly after Schulz fell in love with and married Jeannie Clyde, an event which helped him come out of the funk that resulted from his recent divorce. (Michaelis's depiction of Schulz's first wife Joyce as a domineering woman and perhaps the inspiration for Lucy's similarly domineering attitude, especially when it comes to Schroeder- whom Michaelis sees as Schulz himself, more interested in his "music" (read: cartooning) than what she has in mind- was in particular a subject of debate and controversy when the book came out.) Michaelis hypothesises the school building might represent Jeannie herself, which seems a likely theory when we take into account that it once comforted Sally by calling her "poor, sweet baby"- a term Jeannie frequently called Schulz (and which Schulz in turn frequently used in the strip, eventually immortalized by Grossman and Hackady with a song in the lesser-known Peanuts musical Snoopy!!!), and even more so when you look at strips like the following:

But if that's the case, how, then, are we to take into account the final fate of the school building? In January of 1976, it committed suicide- at least according to Sally ("Well, I happen to know that it had been depressed for some time!"). Although Sally made her way into the new school building just as clueless as ever, Peppermint Patty was forced to share a class (and a desk) with Charlie Brown...and you can probably imagine how that turned out. By the fall of 1976- just in time for the new school year- the original building had been reconstructed...though, not surprisingly, without the job experience of its predecessor, it was less than eager to chalk up conversation with Sally- or do its job, for that matter.

Whether or not there is any deeper autobiographical meaning to be found in Sally's friendship with the school building, it seems only fitting that the character with the biggest apathy towards school would find a kindred spirit who feels the same way...and that it would be the school itself. If anything, it gives a lesson for those of my readers (if any) who may still be in school themselves...if you think you're having a hard time, think of how the school itself must feel. After all, it's had to put up with this nonsense much longer than you have. And if you think it's a bit crazy to emphazise with a school building, well...just don't say that to its...um...face? After all...

All PEANUTS® comic strips and characters ©2010 Peanuts Worldwide LLC. No ownership intended or implied.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Heck Yeah, Winnie the Pooh!

This is my new rallying cry. Why? Because, both like Winnie the Pooh himself, it is both incredibly dumb and incredibly awesome. My pal the Flash probably put it better than I could, but this is why I find myself saying that: the trailer for Disney's upcoming animated feature, Winnie the Pooh.

©Disney. Based on the "Winnie the Pooh" works by A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepherd.

Seriously, if you could bottle Disney magic, the result would probably look something like that. This trailer puts a smile on my face and makes me feel like a kid again. This film looks like it has the perfect formula for pure awesome...first off, it's hand-drawn (and lovingly so). Plus, it's going to be adapted from the original Pooh stories of A.A. Milne, just as the three original Disney Pooh shorts were (which were later combined into the feature The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.) Not to mention the fact that Pooh and friends are such well-known and beloved, not to mention well-developed characters- the bit in the trailer where Pooh thinks Owl is sneezing when he says "issue" made me laugh out loud, just because it's perfect Pooh. On the audio side, we have a voice cast which includes Craig Ferguson as Owl, Bud Luckey as Eeyore, and, of course, the wonderful Jim Cummings as Pooh and Tigger.

The only concern I have is that the music will not be done by Richard and Robert Sherman. The memorable songs by the great Disney Legends and recipients of the National Medal of Arts are part of what made the Pooh shorts, like most of Disney's '60s output, just plain classic. I'm not even sure if they work together anymore- their last project together for Disney was The Tigger Movie ten years ago, and an homage to their immortal "It's A Small World" which showed up in this year's Iron Man 2 was written by Richard sans Robert. But in their stead is a team which includes Bobby and Kristen Lopez. Mr. Lopez won a Tony for co-writing the music for Avenue Q, and he and his wife have done a number of projects for Disney. In fact, they wrote a song very much in the vein of "It's A Small World" called "The World Is Something You Imagine" for the recent opening of the Disney Store in New York City, and it was pretty darn catchy. (I was actually in town for it standing next to Ms. Lopez herself- more on that in a future post.) The song in the trailer is not very Shermanesque, but it fits the Pooh spirit and sounds a lot like a late Beatles song.

With all of these elements, I think this bear of very little brain is in good hands. Hopefully, the trailer captures your fancy as it does mine, and you can join in the most unexpected but apt rallying cry ever: HECK YEAH, WINNIE THE POOH!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

This Is Only A Test

I may or may not be involved with an audio-based project in the future, so this is just an audio-based test for fun and also an attempt at amateur voice acting. I'm using a site I've used in the past for other reasons. So, see if you can hear- and enjoy- my take on an excerpt from an unproduced Homestar Runner cartoon. (As for who that is for those who don't know- maybe I'll get to that one of these days...) I realize my Homestar fails to pass the "fish was delsih and it made quite a dish" test- it's hard not to go overboard when impersonating him, but maybe I should practice doing voices without making the audio unlistenable in the process.

Character voices impersonated by and track produced by Ryan W. Mead
Written by and characters created by The Brothers Chaps ®&©2010 Harmless Junk, Inc. No ownership intended or implied

Friday, November 12, 2010

Quick Film Thoughts: Megamind

©DreamWorks Animation LLC

After the supervillain Megamind (voice of Will Ferrell) defeats his nemesis Metroman (voice of Brad Pitt), he soon finds victory isn't all it's cracked up to be and creates a new superhero to fight (voice of Jonah Hill). However, things don't go as planned, and he soon finds himself becoming the new unlikely hero.

Though not DreamWorks Animation's greatest film (that honor goes to How to Train Your Dragon), this one is probably a close second in terms of story- it's not a great film, but it's not bad either. It surprisingly strays away from the pop culture references that usually populate DWA films (though those that are there are pretty amusing, especially Megamind as Jor-El complete with Marlon Brando voice), and most of the humor comes from the relationships between the characters. Definitely not your average superhero story, Megamind is no The Incredibles- heck, it's not even Despicable Me- but it's still a fun little film for what it is and a unique twist on a common hero-vs.-villain story.

FINAL VERDICT: Slightly recommended. Fun for what it is, but not a must-see.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Ten Terrific Obscure Peanuts Characters: #8

8. Tapioca Pudding

Bill Watterson famously refused to license Calvin and Hobbes and spoke out frequently against cartoonists who seemed to be in the business only for the licensing money rather than the art of it. Although Peanuts is perhaps the most lucrative comic strip ever in terms of licensing, Schulz always put the strip first. He had no problem with licensing the characters or using them for advertising- he didn't see it as "selling out" because he saw comic strips as a commercial product meant to promote newspapers. In the mid-'70s, Schulz renegotiated his contract with United Features for a 50-50 royalty split and final approval on all merchandise- not for the money, but for, as he put it, so that United couldn't sell Charlie Brown razor blades in Germany without his authorization. With that in mind, it's hard to tell what Schulz had in mind when he came up with Tapioca Pudding, a character who appeared in a single storyline satirizing merchandising.

Tapioca's father, Joe Pudding (another "Joe" name!), thinks that she looks like a million bucks- literally. But then again, he is in licensing. And she won't shut up about it, which Linus learned the hard way in late 1986 as he started going out with her (much to the consternation of Sally, who considers Linus to be her "sweet babboo"- although as with most "romances" in Peanuts, he does not feel the same way.) Ironically, it took one of the most famous licensing icons of all time to get her off Linus's back, acting as a world-famous licensing agent who got her a stint at the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics. Yes, you read that correctly.

Compared to other Peanuts storylines, this one is rather weak, short, and doesn't really go anywhere. I'm not sure if it's because of how late in the strip's run it was, Schulz not being able to come up with ideas, or, if he was trying to satirize overlicensing of comic strips (which seems likely), Schulz not wanting to bite the hand that feeds him too hard (which seems unlikely, given his good relation with the syndicate). Either way, Tapioca Pudding stands out as an interesting minor minor character, especially in the age of Miley Cyrus and other real-life youngsters whose face can be seen everywhere...and some of which are encouraged by their parents.

All PEANUTS® comic strips and characters ©2010 Peanuts Worldwide LLC. No ownership intended or implied.

Ten Terrific Obscure Peanuts Characters: #9

9. Clara

Every season has its traditions, some common and some not. And in the Peanuts universe, this is no exception. Winter is a time to play in the snow and get together to celebrate Christmas (or Beethoven's birthday). Fall brings with it football season and Halloween, the perfect time to practice your place kicks or wait for the Great Pumpkin. And for many kids, summer means time to go to summer camp. For many years one or two of the characters or even the whole gang headed off to camp during the summer, often leading to a number of memorable storylines. And for one character, summer camp led to meeting someone who would later become a close friend and the straight woman in a comedy duo...but the real question is, when exactly did that happen?

One of the more memorable characters in Peanuts who wasn't part of the original cast got her name from a dish of candy. A character whom Schulz often said could carry a comic strip of her own, Peppermint Patty made an interesting transition as the strip progressed regarding her personality- which in part was due to the fact that she had someone else to work off of. When she first entered the Peanuts universe in 1966, Peppermint Patty was clearly a product of the '60s feminist movement- a baseball-playing tomboy who wasn't afraid to speak her mind, and whose brash attiude was certainly different than that of Charlie Brown and his friends, the humor coming from her interactions with them. Despite having a good head on her shoulders, she was a little clueless at times as well, believing Snoopy to be a "funny-looking kid with a big nose." Eventually, Peppermint Patty mellowed a bit and her ignorance (or just plain not caring) about the world at large overshadowed her attitude as the years went by, with the humor in her character now coming from her struggles at school, be it her tendency to nod off in class or her difficulties with schoolwork in general. Serving as the voice of reason to offset Peppermint Patty's chaotic behavior in class was Marcie, whom Peppermint Patty met in summer camp during the summer of 1971...or was it the summer of 1968?

In July of 1971, both Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty headed off to gender-divided summer camps (along with a certain World War I flying ace). Peppermint Patty ends up meeting a girl who has the strange habit of calling her "sir," while much to Charlie Brown's dismay, his bunkmate has nothing to say but "shut up and leave me alone." When Peppermint Patty sneaks over to the boys' camp to see the blockhead she has a crush on (bringing her new pal in tow), she takes Chuck's bunkmate's apathy personally, leaving practically everyone confused.
I just love the expressions in the second panel here.
Later that year, Peppermint Patty's crush on Charlie Brown brought forth another storyline in which she discusses it with her new pal during a game of "Ha Ha Herman" (a hide-and-seek type game which must be a Schulz invention, given as I cannot find any non-Peanuts-related reference to it). It is here where the bespectacled, somewhat naive girl gives her name for the first time.

Or is it? Three years earlier, Peppermint Patty served as a camp counselor at Camp Kamp (another funny name!) for three young girls. Interestingly, one of the three, Sophie, had the comedic habit of calling Peppermint Patty "sir," just as Marcie would do. But perhaps most interestingly, another one of the girls, Clara, happens to look exactly like Marcie- the only difference being that her pupils can be seen behind her eyeglasses.
So, what exactly happened here? Are Clara and Marcie the same person? Clara is nearly a head smaller than Peppermint Patty, indicating she is much younger. Did Clara have both a growth spurt and an unfortunate incident that led to her family joining the Witness Relocation Program in three years' time? Are Clara and Marcie sisters? Or did Schulz just like the character design and decide to reuse it? Either way, Clara is an interesting oddity in the Peanuts universe, with her brief appearance setting the stage for a future Peanuts star and creating an unsolved mystery along with it.

All PEANUTS® comic strips and characters ©2010 Peanuts Worldwide LLC. No ownership intended or implied.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

10 Terrific Obscure Peanuts Characters: #10

When Charles "Sparky" Schulz passed away a decade ago, he left behind one of the greatest legacies not only in comic strip but possibly pop culture history: almost 50 years worth of daily comic strips all written and drawn by himself alone, starring some of the most recognized and well-developed characters in comic strip history. By employing both well-written gags and stories as well as references to the pop culture and current events of the time, Peanuts remains both a time capsule of postwar American suburbia and a source of timeless humor. Schulz himself stated a number of times in interviews his doubt that anyone would remember his work after he was gone, but given that the characters still can be seen practically every day on store shelves, on TV, and in newspaper reruns, it seems that the characters will be around for a long time to come. As Schulz himself wrote when he bid his readers farewell, "Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy...how can I ever forget them?"

But much like any long-running pop culture institution, such as The Simpsons or Saturday Night Live, the world of Peanuts wasn't fully populated overnight. Various characters, both well-known and not, made their debuts even up to the end of the strip's run. Some stuck, some didn't, and thus there were a few players in Schulz's repertory company who were forgotten for some reason or another. Whether it's because their role was eventually taken over by another character or they just didn't go over to begin with (or were never meant to), the failed characters and supporting cast of Peanuts is often just as interesting as the main cast. So here are ten of my favorite obscure Peanuts characters. This is by no means a "top ten" list- unlike Roger Ebert, I don't mind making lists, but like him, I know all lists are subjective. So, in a way, it is a "top ten" list, but it's by no means the top ten. To create a bit of suspense and to create some content for myself (since I have been a little lacking in the update department), I won't be posting all ten all at once- maybe one or two a day. So let's start with:

10. Joe Shlabotnik

Picking a character who never appeared and was never meant to may be cheating a little bit (a cheat I'm guilty of a number of times on this list), but sometimes a person doesn't even need to make much of an appearance to make an impact. Such is the case with Joe Shlabotnik, a character who never actually appeared in the strip but certainly is remembered, mainly for the fact that he has a funny name.

"Joe" is such a common name that it's used a lot in the English language to represent ordinariness, such as "average joe" or "G.I. Joe" (a nickname for an ordinary soldier during World War II which later became the name of a popular toy soldier). During the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain, "Joe the Plumber"- an actual plumber named Joe* whose name and occupation coincidentially combined to make a nickname that could represent not only himself but also sounded like an average middle-class American of the sort McCain was hoping to appeal to- briefly became a celebrity. And Schulz himself combined various words with the name to create a number of minor and/or gag characters, such as a marble player named Joe Agate (who interestingly enough was voiced in a TV special by Taylor Lautner a few years before he became famous for another reason), Spike's only "friend" in the desert Joe Cactus, and perhaps most famously, Snoopy's hip college student alter ego Joe Cool. But adding the funny last name "Shlabotnik" to it seemed to amuse Schulz so much he used it multiple times, first as the name of a fictional classical pianist (with a slightly different spelling):

"Shlabotnik" (sans "Joe") also showed up in a gag Schulz did in his other (short-lived) sports-based panel strip, It's Only A Game, a few months later (again with a somewhat different spelling than that finally used in Peanuts):

And it was in the realm of sports that Schulz would cement Joe Shlabotnik when he reused the name in Peanuts as it would be finally used multiple times- as the name of an unnotable major-league baseball player. So is it any surprise that he is the favorite player of another unnotable average...er, Joe baseball player (namely, Charlie Brown)? Later in his career, Shlabotnik played for a minor-league team with another very funny name, the Waffletown Syrups. Given Charlie Brown's luck, it's not surprising that this disappointing player was able to disappoint by doing such things as failing to show up at a sports dinner Charlie Brown attended for the sole purpose of meeting him. There are worse things a sportsman could go down in history for than having a funny name. Given his apparently poor career, perhaps it's for the best that Joe Shlabotnik gained fame in the Peanuts universe for that exact reason.
All PEANUTS® comic strips and characters ©2010 Peanuts Worldwide LLC. IT'S ONLY A GAME ©Charles M. Schulz Trust. No ownership intended or implied.

*UPDATE: Thanks to avid reader Galileo of Beaming for Bunnies and In 10 Words for pointing out that "Joe the Plumber" was neither a Joe nor a plumber- he was a plumber's assistant named Sam (Joe was his middle name).