Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tony Geiss, 1924-2011

Writer and songwriter Tony Geiss passed away this week at the age of 86 due to complications from a fall. You probably haven't heard of him, but no doubt you've seen his work. Geiss is a credited writer on the well-known Don Bluth features An American Tail and The Land Before Time, but it's over at Sesame Street where he did some of his best and most well-known work. His writing credits for the Street include the TV special Don't Eat the Pictures and the feature film Follow That Bird. I had the chance to hear Mr. Geiss speak at a panel in Wayne, New Jersey alongside other Sesame alumni for the show's 40th anniversary in 2009, where, among other things, he recited the lyrics to this amusing song about cows which he wrote (as performed by the late Richard Hunt, North Jersey's own Muppeteer):

As well as commenting on Jim Henson and Frank Oz's chemistry as Ernie and Bert, pointing out this sketch he wrote for Don't Eat the Pictures:

As far as classic Bert and Ernie sketches go, Geiss is also responsible for this all-time classic:

In later years, Geiss helped develop the character of Abby Cadabby. Opinions on Abby are mixed, but I kind of like her, especially this catchy song that Geiss penned for her:

But Geiss's most influential- and perhaps most divisive- contribution to Sesame Street is helping develop the "Elmo's World" segment. He also wrote its now-inescapable earworm of a theme song, originally written back when Elmo was a bit player.

In 2004, Mr. Geiss sat down for an interview with the Television Academy about his work on Sesame Street, which you can listen to here. I end this tribute with a sweet song which was one of my grandfather's favorites, and one which actually made me cry (in a happy way) when I was a youngster. As Big Bird says good morning to Mr. Sun, we say a sentimental farewell to Mr. Geiss. And thanks for all the memories.

SESAME STREET characters and elements are trademarks of and ©2011 Sesame Workshop. No ownership intended or implied.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Good Sports

Mark Shepard (Matt Oberg, left) and Alex Reiser (Matt Walton) are the anchors of the Onion SportsDome- and given the way Reiser treats his female co-workers, it's a miracle he still has a job.

Originally founded as the humor publication of a Wisconsin university, The Onion has- thanks mainly to its website- become perhaps one of the most well-known names in news satire, and for good reason. Their stories are consistently funny, and "America's Finest News Source" does a great job at making believable-sounding but still ludicrous headlines, as well as editorials, etc. Recently, The Onion branched out with video clips supposedly from the fictional Onion News Network, which do a great job of satirizing TV news shows. The production values are so good, in fact, that a number of people have been confused as to their authenticity. The Onion branches out later this month by bringing Onion News Network to the Independent Film Channel. Given that The Onion's reports can sometimes be hilariously profane, I can see why they decided to go to a network with no limitations, but given as a lot of people (including myself) don't get IFC, I kind of wish that they had picked a network that is more mainstream. I guess there's only room for two fake news shows on Comedy Central- but that doesn't mean there isn't room for fake sports.

The Onion's other original series, Onion SportsDome, premiered on Comedy Central last night. A parody of ESPN's SportsCenter and other rapid-fire sports highlight and discussion shows, the series does a good job of parodying its target while also featuring a good number of jokes that are just the right amount of typical Onion ludicrousness to amuse those who (like myself) may not be big sports buffs or only have casual knowledge.

Last night's debut episode brought the typical (well, typical for a normal sports show) combination of highlights- including Shaquille O'Neal playing as he normally does despite suffering multiple heart attacks during the game, highlights of Major League Soccer since the last time they bothered to check in, which was four years ago (one of the announcers suggests just Googling "MLS results" if you really care that much), and the latest Crystal Meth Hallucination League matchup between a methhead and the imaginary snakes his limbs turned into- headlines- including a running gag involving three escaped NFL retirees who had suffered from one too many concussions- and other features, some of the most amusing of which included an advertisement for a CSI-style drama about a baseball team that solves murders on the side, a segment in which the commentators discuss how they would murder various sports figures they dislike (perhaps a tad in poor taste after what occurred this week in Arizona, but still amusing due to the ludicrous premise), and one of those "overcoming" stories about a solider-turned-UFC fighter who was recently banned from the league- not because he lost his hands in Iraq, but because his replacement hands are made of metal, thus causing all of his opponents to be killed with a single punch, a fact both he and the commentators seem to overlook.

Like most comedy shows, Onion SportsDome is hit-or-miss, but when it hits, it hits hard. It'll probably end up lasting as long as, say, such past Comedy Central news spoofs as Crossballs, but while it lasts, it's an amusing enough diversion as a lead-in to the Stewart/Colbert power hour on Tuesday nights.

Photo by Brad Barket/Associated Press. No ownership intended or implied.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Phineas and Ferb Get Real?

There sure are a whole lot of viral videos out there. I mean, there always are, but today I've seen a good number of them going around. I could write about the Glee video written by and starring Heather Morris, whose Glee character I named one of the five breakout stars of 2010 (which, after the attention it got, should perhaps be renamed "Axe Cop and Four People Who Aren't Axe Cop"). I could write about the Canadian dad who appears to be Archie Bunker reincarnated. I could write about the Simpsons porno and question both a)why it exists and b)why it took so long. But a lot of people have probably written about that already (including some members of my Twitter Secret Circle™). So, instead, I'm going to go in a completely different direction and talk about Phineas and Ferb.

You may be saying to yourself, "haven't you already talked about that on this blog?" Yes. Yes I have. You may also be saying, "who the heck are Phineas and Ferb?" If so, please refer to the previous link. Or if you're too lazy for that: it's probably the funniest all-ages animated series on TV today, and most likely, as the New York Times put it, "the new SpongeBob." And Disney has high hopes for it. So high, in fact, they announced a rather unusual and unexpected project...but one that has a long history in Hollywood.

Yesterday, Disney Channels Worldwide president Gary Marsh announced that Walt Disney Studios, under Sean Bailey, is in the planning stages of a feature film based on the series. Mr. Marsh stated that it is still in the early stages, but apparently, series creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh (no relation to Gary) will be involved. But the most unusual aspect of the announcement is that the film will be a mixture of live-action and animation.

Yes, that is Jason Alexander as Cosmo.

At first glance, this sounds like it might be one of those "live-action-actors-interacting-with-animated-characters" sort of thing. You got yourself maybe a CGI Perry in there or something. Which makes it sound like it would be the next in a long line of such adaptations probably started by Scooby-Doo, which led to such films as Alvin and the Chipmunks (which not only outgrossed The Princess and the Frog, but was so successful it lead to not one, but two sequels) and Yogi Bear (which did surprisingly poor at the box office, and didn't really lead to much except that video where Boo Boo shoots him in the face). It also brings to mind a similar made-for-TV project that was announced last year: a live-action/animation adaptation of The Fairly Oddparents. Given that this project seems to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek- or at least as goofy and lighthearted as the series is- plus the fact that the series writers and "Savage" Steve Holland (Better Off Dead, Eek! the Cat) are involved, it appears the project could be incredibly awesome or incredibly stupid. Until we get more information about this Phineas and Ferb project- and if the staff of the series is involved in this project as well (the entire writing staff, not just Dan and Swampy- if they actually are involved, which they hopefully will be)- I think the same goes for this as well. All we can do is wait and see.

In an interesting coincidence, another popular Disney Channel series, Kim Possible, had an episode revolving around a Hollywood producer's idea to make a movie based on Kim's life. Not surprisingly, it didn't work out well- especially since Kim's life usually involves fighting crime. (KP was actually the last successful animated series Disney Channel had before P&F- I've been thinking of writing a post about all the unsuccessful series that came in between.) Much like Phineas and Ferb, Kim Possible had a lot of well-known voice talent from both the Hollywood and Disney Channel worlds. Among the voices you may recognize in this episode include Raven-Symoné as Kim's pal Monique, the late great Ricardo Montalban as the wonderfully named Señor Senior, Sr., and Anneliese van der Pol as the actress playing Kim (who herself is voiced by Disney and Broadway vet Christy Carlson Romano). Given that her last project was the latest Seltzerberg tripe Vampires Suck, real Hollywood hasn't been as kind to poor Anneliese, either.

And Phineas and Ferb themselves also got involved (briefly) in the film business- much to the consternation of their leading lady, their easily-riled older sister Candace (voiced by Ashley Tisdale, who makes an amusing cameo in this episode).

PHINEAS AND FERB, KIM POSSIBLE ©Disney. THE FAIRLY ODDPARENTS and related titles, characters, and logos are trademarks of Viacom International, Inc. ©2011. Header image from Phineas and Ferb Wiki.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Losing Their Religion

In a 2005 episode of The Simpsons, Homer (briefly) became Catholic and confessed his multitude of sins. Surprisingly, the Catholic League didn't have a problem with this one.

TV Guide's cover story this week is "God on TV." And I must say, if you pardon the pun, they do a god-awful job of reporting on it. Those of you who may know me might also know I'm not a big fan of the conservative groups known as the Catholic League and the Parents Television Council (which are closely tied with each other), but I don't mind the fact that they got soundbites, since other organizations with differing opinions also did- and, thankfully, the article commended the "Grilled Cheesus" episode of Glee- which I thought did a good job showing that people of various religions (as well as those who don't believe) share common traditions, if not religious ones- as opposed to the Catholic League's ignorant and just plain wrong view of the episode as an anti-Catholic pro-atheist homofest. I also have a few qualms with their inclusion of The Simpsons and Family Guy. The Simpsons, created by an admitted agnostic, is both irreverent and reverent towards religion. It should be commended for its positive portrayals- which is was in the article- but the article overlooks that, as with everything satirized on the series, both organized religion and the trappings of religion in general are often poked fun at as incompetent and corrupt or just plain silly, respectively. Family Guy, created by an outspoken atheist, is only represented by a picture, but is an even odder choice for the article. Although the jokes towards religion were more sort of lighthearted jabs in the Simpsons vein in the early days of the series, MacFarlane and the show's writers have pulled no punches later on, making it clear that he believes religion period to be a load of BS. Take, for example, the two episodes that dealt with Judaism- the first, though Fox refused to air it at first, had rabbinical approval and a message of tolerance, while the second, which they DID air, not only poked fun at Schindler's List, among other things, but ended with a moral that "all religions are basically crap"- delivered by Jesus himself, no less.

I'm glad TV Guide pointed out the positive aspects of Glee to counter the Catholic League's just plain wrong opinion, and I'm glad The Simpsons was commended (as I think it should rightly be), but I'm surprised TV Guide or the interviewees didn't point out The Simpsons pokes lighthearted fun at some religious trappings and organized religion in general (as it does with everything), whereas Family Guy's jabs are certainly less than lighthearted in recent years. Hopefully someone will forgive TV Guide, since they've committed one of the worst sins of all- poor reporting.

THE SIMPSONS ™&©2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. No ownership intended or implied.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Skye's the Limit

For some reason, Canada has always seemed to be on top of things when it comes to kids' TV. Canadian productions seemed to rule Nickelodeon in the mid-'90s, and more recently, Canadian tweencoms such as Life with Derek and Naturally Sadie seemed much more tolerable and watchable than the domestic tripe it shared time with on Disney Channel. I recently stumbled onto an original web series which not only seems to continue that tradition, but also seems to do a good job of bringing kids' entertainment into the Web age.

I'm a little late to the game in discovering Ruby Skye P.I., which was recently took third place in Clicker's "Best Show for Kids" (hey, Phineas and Ferb is hard to beat- in more ways than one). But as someone who keeps a casual eye on the entertainment scene, I am quite impressed on how it combines standard kid entertainment with surprisingly savvy Web tips- as well as social interaction.

Created by Jill Golick (who is apparently a legend in Canadian kids TV or something), the series itself- which was rolled out as 12 short videos- has an interesting premise: the titular Ruby Skye is a teenage girl who is very observant and just can't help getting herself involved when something suspicious is going on. (In an interesting crossover/spinoff thing, Ruby is the sister of a character from another Golick web project, Hailey Hacks- and Hailey herself plays a supporting role, providing comic relief as it were since she's not too enthused by her sister's snooping.) When Ruby discovers that her quirky neighbor has fallen victim to the notorious Nigerian Scam- and that the e-mail was sent from her very own school- she quickly springs into action. Unfortunately for her, her common sense is not as sharp as her observational skills, and she ends up accusing everybody she knows before she finally gets the facts, forcing her to not only bring the culprit to justice, but also trying to patch up her relationship with her best friend whom she falsely accused as the scammer.

Perhaps if you didn't spend all that time snooping around, Ruby, this wouldn't have happened.

The first thing that sticks out when I look at that last paragraph is the involvement of the Nigerian Scam. A very unusual premise, yes, but since even after all these years people still fall for it, I like the fact that the series is teaching children the important lesson of "don't believe everything you read"- an especially important lesson when it comes to the Internet. (The website also gives additional information on the Nigerian Scam.) I was thinking after watching Ruby that I wouldn't mind seeing it as a TV series, but I now realize that it's meant for the Internet- if it continues, I hope it teaches more Internet safety tips and more about being wary and such.

Despite being quick to accuse, Ruby's web savvy does have some advantages- for example, making a quick escape from capture with the help of Mentos and diet cola.

The more I think about this, the more I have to commend it for combining typical tween entertainment- this being a Canadian production, however, it stands out in quality more than your typical American production (in a good way)- with social interaction and Internet savvy and safety. What is most surprising is that this was an independent production. It will be interesting to see if more producers and studios- both professional and independent- find ways to combine traditional entertainment with the online world, especially as kids are big consumers of both nowadays. Perhaps that itself is something worthy of a Ruby Skye investigation. Let's hope that the big players in the industry aren't experts at rock-paper-scissors...

RUBY SKYE P.I. ©Jill Golick Enterprises, Ltd. MENTOS® is a registered trademark of Perfetti Van Melle. No ownership intended or implied.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Going Postal

It's a small world after all...filled with a large number of marketable characters

Stamps. They are something which are required to mail a letter, but most of the time, we don't really think about them. Generally, the design on a stamp is representative of the history or the culture of the country that issued it. In many cases, that includes fictional characters...especially those of the animated variety.

The United States was somewhat late to the game in honoring their own famous cartoon characters on stamps- perhaps due to the fact that stamp designs were not copyrighted until the 1970s. (The stamp honoring Walt Disney issued in the late 1960s featured none of his studio's famous characters, but rather children of various nationalities inspired by the "it's a small world" attraction.) In more recent years, the U.S. Postal Service has featured a large number of people whose likeness are owned by a third party. Real famous people in particular are now more likely to have their likeness require a license to use, and a good number of them have been honored with stamps in more recent years, the most famous of which is Elvis, whose 1993 stamp is still the most popular of all time. (Elvis's likeness is now owned by the same company which owns American Idol- which, not surprisingly, changed the Elvis estate's long-standing dislike of Elvis impersonators- or, as they prefer to call them, "Elvis Tribute Artists.")

In 1997, the first well-known fictional character appeared on an American postage stamp, and it was certainly a good one to pay tribute to- Bugs Bunny. (This does not count the familiar government mascots of Smokey Bear and McGruff the Crime Dog, both of whom were honored with stamps in 1984.) Bugs was soon followed by his other Looney Tunes pals, and eventually, other well-deserved fictional characters were honored with their own stamps, including Snoopy, Kermit the Frog, DC and Marvel superheroes, the familiar faces of Star Wars, and a parade of familiar Disney stars led by Mickey Mouse. In 2009, the Postal Service even honored the 20th anniversary of The Simpsons by featuring them on stamps, which were advertised during the show itself with their usual style of sarcasm: "Simpsons stamps- proof that the government is getting desperate."

To paraphrase a line from Men in Black 2, the Postal Service has not kept up with today's youth, which is perhaps for the best. Although a number of people (including myself) have a casual interest in them (which explains why I'm writing this post), stamp collecting is perhaps the most stereotypically nerdy of all the nerdy hobbies. No matter what anyone tries, stamps never were and never will be cool. Even if you put Buzz Lightyear on them.

A failed attempt by the Postal Service to appeal to the youth of America

Recently, the Postal Service unveiled its 2011 stamp designs. For the most part, it is a standard mix representing various aspects of American culture, with designs honoring Mark Twain, Helen Hayes (designed by Drew "Greatest Poster Artist Ever" Struzan), Gregory Peck, the Civil War, Edward Hopper (whose stamp surprisingly doesn't feature his most famous painting, Nighthawks, otherwise known as "that painting of the diner"), and the fourth member of the Republican Holy Trinity (otherwise known as Ronald Reagan). One issue in particular, though, is rather interesting for a number of reasons.

The familiar faces of Pixar show up on an issue entitled "Send A Hello." Pixar celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and their films and characters are definitely a part of American culture. But is it a little too soon to be honoring them? I think so. For a number of reasons.

My biggest qualm with the stamp designs themselves is that (other than the fact that Woody isn't on the stamp alongside Buzz Lightyear), other than Toy Story, none of these films or characters seem to be worthy of a stamp. I don't care how much money Lightning McQueen makes for Disney- he does not deserve his own postage stamp. Actual people may not be depicted on a stamp unless they have been dead for at least five years- four of the five characters depicted on these stamps come from films that have been released in the last five years. (Oddly, were Lightning a real person- and dead- he actually would be the only one eliglble other than Buzz.)

In the past, when the likes of the Simpsons and such have been honored with stamps, there were concerns that the Postal Service had gone commercial. Their own guidelines regarding stamp designs read that "Commercial products or enterprises might be used to illustrate more general concepts related to American culture." And most of the designs that have featured well-known characters- including the Simpsons- have fallen under that- the characters chosen are American institutions, and using their likenesses on stamps shows to both the country and the world that they are worthy of tribute- which they are. Pixar characters? Certainly an American institution known both here and abroad, but worthy of a stamp? Not yet, anyway. Jeff Harris, a very smart guy and a member of my Twitter Secret Circle, probably puts it better (and in fewer words) than I could:

It seems a little too soon to put Pixar characters on a postage stamp, doesn't it?

I mean, yeah, Pixar has been making films for almost 20 years, but they're still too fresh in the public's consciousness. Up, Wall-E, Ratatouille, and Cars are amongst the stamps, but they haven't been around for ten years, let alone five. If they did the same cycle for Dreamworks' Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Prince of Egypt, Antz, or How to Train Your Dragon on postage stamps, the animation constituency lauded by Amid Amidi, the John K. acolytes, and the Pixar crowd that feels they deserve everything would be crying foul saying they don't deserve stamps.

Unlike Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, the DC comics characters, and the Marvel characters, they haven't been around long enough to make a significant impact on pop culture. Well, Toy Story has, but the others haven't. The Simpsons, while still in production, personifies America more than any television program before or since its creation. The Pixar stamps look like those stickers you'd buy near the card section of a store. It's just too commercialized.

...And yet, despite my (and others') concerns, I'll probably buy the Pixar stamps when they come out anyway. So will a lot of people. That's the power of Disney for you- can't live with them, can't live without them. Given that people don't use stamps as much as they used to, the fact that the Mouse is able to get people talking about them once again by putting characters they own on them is proof enough of their power. And that, perhaps more than any character, is their true contribution to American culture.

Stamp designs ©2010 United States Postal Service, characters depicted ©Disney/Pixar. Photo at top was taken by myself. Thanks to Jeff Harris for allowing his comments to be reprinted here.