Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Steve Whitmire: An Appreciation

Steve Whitmire (right) and unidentified co-worker. Photo via Muppet Wiki.
Today, a few days after Muppet fan site Tough Pigs broke the news that puppeteer Steve Whitmire was leaving the Muppet troupe, with the iconic role of Kermit the Frog to be taken over by Matt Vogel, Whitmire broke his "radio silence" and Internet ineptitude to set up a blog to explain that the decision was a less-than-amicable one: nearly a year ago, The Muppets Studio (a division of The Walt Disney Company) informed Whitmire that he was being fired and replaced due to two offenses which he chooses not to mention (most likely out of respect and being a confidential matter), which he stresses had never been brought up before that moment. Mr. Whitmire remarks that he "remain[s] willing to do whatever is requried to remedy their concerns because I feel my continued involvement with the characters is in the best interest of the Muppets" and that he is "devastated to have failed in my duty to my hero", Muppet creator and original performer of Kermit Jim Henson, whom Whitmire took the duties over from after his unexpected death on May 16, 1990 (and in one of those weird coincidences that makes you wonder if fate plays some part in it, happened to share the same birthday as Whitmire, September 24).

This is an incredibly devastating end to Whitmire's story of his professional career, which started in 1978 when he joined the cast of the original Muppet Show, originating the character of Rizzo the Rat. For every great decision Disney happens to make, they make two dumb ones, as every fan and enthusiast of the company - be it through feature, TV, theme parks, or just a general interest to their contributions in pop culture in general - and this is definitely one of them. I am of course not privy to what exactly went down between Whitmire and The Muppets Studio and/or Disney (as none of us are, of course), but it is indeed a shame that Whitmire was neither informed of them before this time nor given a chance to recifty whatever these wrongdoings were - something that, as he stated, he is still willing to do if possible.

As for letting Jim Henson down...nothing could be farther from the truth.

One of my earliest memories is the ride on the bus to school the day after Jim Henson died. I was five years old. The local radio station was playing Bein' Green in memory of Henson's death after reporting on it, and a conversation between myself and a friend started. I forget the main gist of the conversation, but I remember the final statement in it, delivered by my friend in equal parts curiosity, fear, and sadness: "Then who will do Kermit's voice?"

(Being as we were elementary schoolers, I am willing to give this statement a pass due to our shared ignorance, but it does bring up an aside: the large number of people referring to Whitmire as Kermit's "voice actor" in news reports regarding Whitmire's being replaced is both baffling but also not surprising, given how few people think about what puppeteering really entails but also Disney's admittedly respectable policy not to depict the Muppet performers in public with the exception of a few industry-centric events in order to keep up the illusion that the Muppets are living, breathing characters whenever they make their always amusing appearances on talk shows and other media.)

Finding a new caretaker for an iconic character is incredibly difficult and has a lot of complications. Warner Bros. has for years after Mel Blanc's death hired new voice actors for every Looney Tunes project for the most part, in part due to the fact that Blanc's interpretations of the characters changed over the years and no one at the company can agree on what the "true" Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc. is for the sake of recreation. Both under the Henson Company's ownership and under Disney, the Muppet troupe has done well in making sure only one puppeteer has control of one character in cases where they must be recast, such as unexpected losses (Henson and Richard Hunt) and retirements (Frank Oz, who in recent years has left puppeteering for his other successful career in film directing). It is true that at one point Disney planned on dropping this "one performer per Muppet" policy - yet another one of their foolish decisions - but thankfully were talked out of it due to outbursts from the Muppet fan community.

I always enjoyed the Muppets - whether it was on Sesame Street as a youngster, Muppet Show reruns on the Turner networks and later Nickelodeon when I was a little bit older, and anywhere else I saw them - but it wasn't until they were under Disney's ownership that I really started to appreciate them, watching Muppet Show reruns on DVD with my grandmother, a fellow Muppet fan (Statler and Waldorf were her favorites) and pop culture enthusiast. From there I learned to appreciate the performances of not only the original Muppet perfomers such as Henson and Oz, but also the talented performers who have replaced them such as Eric Jacobson, David Rudman, and Whitmire. Fans have remarked that the personalities of the characters have changed a little, which may be true - people have remarked Whitmire's Kermit isn't as prone to comic angry outbursts as Henson's was (and in my own opinion, his famous arm-flailing "YAAAAAY" is the one aspect of the character Whitmire had the most difficulty nailing, but nobody's perfect) - but given the impossible task of replacing a character and a performer many thought irreplacable, Whitmire gave his all - not just as Kermit, but as Henson's other beloved characters such as Ernie and other memorable Muppet characters including Beaker.

Perhaps the most telling story about Whitmire's devotion to the Muppets - and proof positive that, despite his claims, he did not let Henson down - is an anecdote about the 2011 feature film The Muppets, Disney's (pretty much successful) attempt to bring the characters back in the public eye. As a metaphor for how the Muppet franchise itself had languished in the time between the last Muppet feature (1999's much-despised Muppets from Space, whose plot involved revealing that Gonzo - who proudly considered himself a "whatever" for decades - was in fact an alien, a revelation which was tantamount to blasphemy for many Muppet enthusiasts), the plot involved the Muppets living their own lives and going their separate ways, but getting back together with Kermit's help after an intentionally cartoony oil tycoon villain named Tex Richman threatened to tear down the original Muppet studio for his business to do one last show to save the day. As originally written, the film was to have revealed that "Tex Richman" did not actually exist and was all a ruse (what TV Tropes would call a "Xanatos Gambit") devised by Kermit the Frog for the sole purpose of getting the Muppets back together again. Upon hearing about this, Whitmire requested that if this plot twist was to stay in place that his name be taken off the credits of the film, as he felt it was incredibly out of character for Kermit to lie in any way, even if it was for good intentions. And if you think about it, he's right.

David Rudman's Cookie Monster is not Frank Oz's Cookie Monster, but both have their hilarious charm. Steve Whitmire's Kermit the Frog is not Jim Henson's Kermit the Frog, but it's as damn close as you can get; perhaps a little softer-spoken and less prone to comic outbursts, but still the good-hearted but in-over-his-head-far-too-often ringleader of this nutty bunch. If it were not for Whitmire's devotion to not just Kermit the Frog but also Jim Henson, things would have ended up a lot differently and Whitmire's departure, sad as it and the events surrounding it may be, would not be as much discussed as it is being.

To The Muppets Studio and The Walt Disney Company: I disagree with your decision, and I wish it didn't have to come to this, but for the most part you have been doing well with bringing The Muppets into the 21st century, especially with the viral videos and the well-written character Twitter feeds (and I'm not just saying this because I know a few people who work for them). I wish cooler heads could have prevailed in this situtation and an amicable decision been made on both sides, but what's done is done, sadly, and I wish nothing but the best for the Muppet franchise and performers - who have truly become a part of the Disney family - in the future.

To Matt Vogel: You have done a fantastic job inheriting Muppet characters such as Floyd Pepper and Count von Count (always one of my personal favorites), and as the perfomer for Big Bird in a number of public events such as the Thanksgiving Day Parade, you are proving yourself well as The Bird's official understudy for when the day eventually comes - God forbid - that Caroll Spinney can no longer perform him. Obviously, this task is one of the biggest for you to undertake yet, but given your performances past, I know you can do it, and I am sure the world's most famous frog is in capable hands under your care.

And to Steve Whitmire: Thank you for your 39 years of service to giving us laughter (the third greatest gift of all, after ice cream and children) and helping to Kermit the Frog's own dream, singing, dancing, and making people happy - a dream which gets better the more people you share it with. As the frog himself said (with help from his original caretaker, Jim Henson), you've done just what you set out to do. You have not failed in your duty to Jim - in fact, for those of us who only started to appreciate what he helped set in motion until long after he left this earth, you helped us enjoy both what he did and those what those came after him continue to do even more. Thank you, Steve.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Things That Made My 2016

Way back in 2010, I did a post on this blog about who I felt were the five breakout pop culture stars of the year for various reasons (which, among other things, got noticed by Ethan Nicolle, creator of one of the characters on that list, Axe Cop, who joked around about it on a podcast). I planned on making this an annual thing, but not surprisingly I forgot all about it.

This year I've decided to pick it back up, but approach it from a different angle inspired by my Twitter pal Steve and instead talk about some of the pop culture of 2016, but from a more personal standpoint. This is a look at the year that was through stuff I did; both some entertaining pop culture and other things that occupied my year.

Something Rotten!

Via Playbill. PLAYBILL® is a registered trademark.

My mother and I are really big Broadway buffs, and this is probably one of the best shows both of us have seen. Much in the same tradition as The Producers and the like, this is the sort of Broadway show I like best - very broad comedy with ribald jokes, silly songs, and pop culture satire. In this case, the subject is Broadway itself, as well as Shakespearean drama.

The premise of the show: in olde-timey England, two brothers, Nick and Nigel Bottom, are incensed that their plays are being overshadowed by the work of the great William Shakespeare, who is depicted here as an egotistical rock star who gets all the women and fancy parties. Nick decides to use what little money he has to go see Nostradamus - no, not THAT Nostradamus, but his little-known and much less reliable relative Thomas Nostradamus - to see into the future and foretell what the next big trend in theater will be. The answer, naturally - Broadway musicals! The brothers soon get to work on a musical about the most important event ever to happen in the history of the world: the bubonic plague. ("What's that comin' down the Silk Road out of China?/The Black Death! Black Death, whoo!/What's that crawlin' 'round your pee-pee and your vagina?/The Black Death! Black Death, whoo!") Naturally, this doesn't work, so Nick returns to Nostradamus (again, Thomas, not the more famous one) to try and figure out what Shakespeare's most famous play will be. His - naturally mangled - answer: Omelette. The whole thing culminates in a very silly sequence where the characters put on an egg-based version of Hamlet with pastiches of musicals such as The Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story, Dreamgirls, and pretty much every other famous Broadway musical you can think of, including a kickline of dancers in egg costumes and Shakespeare himself in disguise trying to steal back the play he hasn't written yet from the people who stole it from him by looking into the future when he has written it.

As you can probably tell by the description, it's intentionally a very silly show (the writers, themselves brothers, wrote a number of Disney movies as well as the Aardman feature Chicken Run). But everything works - the jokes are funny, the songs are silly and catchy, the parodies are memorable, and the actors...we saw this with the original cast, all of whom were fantastic. My mother was interested in this show at first due to the fact that the main cast members - Brian D'Arcy James, who played Nick; and Christian Borle, who played Shakespeare (and won a Tony for it), were both on one of her favorite shows, NBC's Smash, about a group of New Yorkers brought together by their involvement in a Broadway musical about the live of Marilyn Monroe. (James originated the role of King George III in Hamilton while it was still being developed; he fell in love with this show and decided to join it, long before Hamilton would end up winning Every Award Ever and become such a draw that you have to mortgage your house in order to afford a ticket.) Borle was hilariously hammy, and other breakouts of the cast included Brad Oscar as Nostradamus (Oscar was Nathan Lane's replacement in The Producers by the time we saw it, and he sounds a lot like Lane, which adds a lot to his performance here) and Brooks Ashmanskas as Brother Jeremiah, a Puritan whose daughter falls in love with Nigel, causing an extra layer of chaos. Ashmanskas was probably the biggest scene-stealer, with incredibly subtle facial expressions and effeminate line readings and behavior subtly implying that perhaps he himself is not the "straight" arrow he's cracked up to be. We saw this show twice; the second time around Ashmanskas had already left the cast and his replacement wasn't nearly as memorable. James, Borle, and the rest of the cast would eventually leave as well; the show closed on January 1 after nearly a year and a half on Broadway. It had a great run and I'm glad I got to see it with its original cast.

Christian Borle and Bryan D'Arcy James perform the Act I closing number "Bottom's Gonna Be On Top" on ABC's The View.


Via Playbill. PLAYBILL® is a registered trademark.
This is the musical Christian Borle left Something Rotten! for, as well as its complete opposite tonally. A revival of a two-part off-Broadway musical, this tells the story of an unusual family over the course of 10 years. The first act is pretty much a comedy of errors; a man leaves his wife after he falls in love with another man named Whizzer. The wife, Trina, is forced to raise her son on her own but ends up falling in love with the therapist she hired. Things only escalate from there. This unusual group is brought together by a tragedy in the second act: AIDS has just been discovered and Whizzer has come down with it. The rest of the show is this group of characters in the hospital during Whizzer's final days, being brought together as an unlikely family due to the event.

This was originally performed as two different one-act musicals set 20 years apart, and I can only imagine what audiences must have thought, since the first is pure comedy through and through and the second is much more emotional. Together, they work very well: first you get to know these characters and laugh at how wacky the situations that brought them all together are, but then you really start to feel for them once you've learned their quirks and Whizzer's diagnosis changes the tone of the show. Very few shows I can think of go for both comedy and tragedy and pull it off, but this one did.

One very interesting aspect of the show I enjoyed is that there is no spoken dialogue. It is sung through entirely. This is by no means the first show to do this (Les Miserables is probably the most famous example), but it keeps it from being dull. The minimalist set design is also very effective: in the first act, rather than constructed sets, the action is all set on a bunch of grey props that the actors position to set each scene. Once reality and tragedy sets in, the props are real, as Whizzer spends his final days in a real hospital bed.

We saw the show in previews; the writer and director came out to explain a particular situation that apparently had never occurred in Broadway history: the actress who played Trina fell ill, so her understudy had to step in. However, the understudy also fell ill, so Trina's understudy's understudy was playing the part. Since it was still previews and the actress had so little experience in the role, she carried her script with her at all times in case she needed to refer to it. However, she still managed to do a wonderful job and you immediately ignored the fact she was holding a piece of paper because you were so immersed in the world of these characters. Trina also had a hilarious number where she's preparing dinner as her world falls apart around her and basically says "screw it, this is the way things are now" while frantically chopping vegetables to get out her aggression. Trina's understudy's understudy did great with this number - and, it should be noted, did not need to use her script for it.

The cast of Falsettos is very small, probably around seven actors (two of whom only appear in the second act). The entire cast save for Borle came out to the stage door after the show and it's pretty clear that working on this show made them a close-knit family. They were very sweet and talked about their experiences to the audience outside. Just as events outside their control made a family out of the characters they played, working together made a family out of these actors. Falsettos will be airing on PBS's Live from Lincoln Center later this year; if it sounds appealing to you I definitely suggest you check it out.

The Loud House

Via Viacom press release
What can I say about this that hasn't already been said? Not only did I make an entire blog post about it (which I plan on doing a follow-up to sometime soon), but the show has done enormously well and has made headlines as a result.

For those who are somehow not familiar with it, I'll try to keep my explanation brief (though it's admittedly a challenge): The Loud House is a cartoon on Nickelodeon created by Chris Savino, who has worked on practically every cartoon you can think of over the past 25 years. It's centered around an 11-year-old boy named Lincoln and his 10 colorful sisters: Lori (the oldest), Leni (the not-so-bright one), Luna (the would-be rock star), Luan (the comedienne and resident punslinger), Lynn (the athlete), Lucy (the dark one), Lola (the bratty pageant queen), Lana (the tomboy and Lola's identical twin - which naturally leads to a lot of conflict since that's the only thing about them that's identical), Lisa (the genius), and Lily (the baby). Each episode usually involves Lincoln wanting or trying to do something - have a sleepover, get ready for school, etc. - with the fear in the back of his mind that his sisters will interfere. Lincoln is sort of a Charlie Brown type, so his own dumb luck usually ends up foiling his plans - if his irrational worrying that his sisters will get in the way hasn't already caused them to do so already. In the end though, things (usually) work out well for everyone and there's a little lesson about living life and getting along with a family - immediately followed by another joke lest things get too sappy.

The unique personalities of the cast of The Loud House take center stage in this promotional short.

The show has done surprisingly well - in June, only one month after it premiered, it made headlines by doing the unthinkable and dethroning SpongeBob in viewership ratings. The Loud House became so successful that it was quickly renewed for a second and third season. And it definitely deserved that success - besides being generally positive, upbeat, and reinforcing the importance of friendship and family (things that are definitely needed at this time), the jokes are funny and the art style is distinct and memorable. The visual look of the show is admittedly based on old comic strips, and those touches can be seen everywhere. Characters have stars come out of their heads when they get hit or fall down and emit puffs of smoke when they run. Whenever the Loud siblings get into a fight - which, being siblings, is often - it's always a cartoon fight cloud with arms and legs popping out (which is probably one of my favorite comic running gags on the show).

Via Nickelodeon on Giphy
In an interview with comics journal Hogan's Alley, Savino touched on some of his influences - the visual style is mainly based on a cartoonist named Cliff Sterrett (who I want to learn more about as a result), but the writing, pacing, and characterization come from Peanuts. As you probably know, Charles Schulz is my biggest creative inspiration and my own personal hero, so it's probably this link that drew me to the show - much like Charles Schulz's repertory company or the colorful and large cast of characters that populate The Simpsons's Springfield, every character is immediately recognizable because of their character trait or quirk but aren't defined by it. The characters are kept from being one-dimensional and all of them work well off of each other and even better as a group. Episodes where all 11 of the Loud siblings are playing off of each other are always the most fun, but occasionally an episode will focus on one or two of them in-depth and these are always enjoyable to watch too. Working together must create a special bond - much like the cast of Falsettos, the voice cast of The Loud House has become a family in itself. Based on posts I've seen on social media, they enjoy spending time with each other as if they were real siblings. The official Nickelodeon Animation podcast did a very fun episode with the voice cast, proving not only how much like a real family the Loud voices act, but also in many cases how much they act and sound like their characters in real life!

In a shoutout to one of The Loud House's influences, Lincoln learns the hard way not to practice football with someone named "Lucy". Screencapture via The Loud House Wiki.
The show is also well-promoted on social media, which is very important for promotion in this day and age since most kids - and people in general - consume their entertainment by online streaming rather than traditional over-the-air TV; The Loud House has official presences on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram. The staff of the show even wrote and drew an interactive comic strip in the Choose Your Own Adventure style taking advantage of the Instagram format. It's a clever idea I'm surprised no one has ever done before and definitely worth checking out.

The Loud House has encouraged me to write and draw again for fun in a way no animated series has since Phineas and Ferb (and since I talked about that show a lot on this blog, given the current success I have a feeling the kids from Royal Woods will pretty much have permanent resident status here too). This summer, I wrote a fan letter to the Loud House crew in Burbank (with some help from an old high school friend who introduced me to the show in the first place) explaining why I liked the show so much and why it's inspired me to be creative again as well as thanking them for doing so. Inspired by a friend on Twitter who I saw sent cartoonists fan drawings of their drawings to be signed by them, I sent along a drawing of the Loud House cast in the hopes that it would be signed by Chris Savino. I was humbled and honored to not only receive his signature, but also that of the entire writing and storyboard crew, whom I have become fans of as well. I wish the entire team continued success and hope that they continue not only to inspire others with their work but also get to showcase their own awesome talents with projects of their own someday. (Even Savino himself isn't resting on his laurels - he recently started posting samples online of a Rocky and Bullwinkle homage he's had in the back of his head for years called Bigfoot and Gray he's just started to work on again.)

Watch one of my favorite Loud House storyboard artists, Jordan Rosato, draw the cast of the show and discuss her career (including designing the anime-style versions of the characters seen in the short earlier in this article!)

Milo Murphy's Law

Via Nerdist. ©Disney Enterprises Inc.
After nearly a decade on the air, Phineas and Ferb - which, as I mentioned (and as you probably know), is another cartoon I talked about a lot - ended a successful run in 2015. Creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh immediately began work on a new series which debuted this year. Milo Murphy (voiced by "Weird Al" Yankovic) is a normal kid - well, normal in the same sense that Phineas and Ferb are normal. Milo is the walking embodiment of Murphy's Law (officially he's a direct descendant of its namesake and inherited the condition hereditarily, but that's never actually mentioned on the show itself). Fires, explosions, property damage - you name it, if Milo's in the area it's probably going to happen. Yet Milo himself is never aware of it, nor does it ever affect or faze him. Milo is naively optimistic, and feels that his bad luck only makes his life an adventure, carrying a survival kit around in a backpack just in case. The episodes usually revolve around Milo and how his unusual luck and viewpoint turn everyday tasks into slapstick adventures, with a colorful cast of characters including Bradley, who has a Frank Grimes-style pessimistic view of Milo as everything goes right for him but wrong for Bradley (and is ironically voiced by the same person who voiced the always-optimistic Phineas on Phineas and Ferb) and Diogee, Milo's pet dog who is the exact opposite of Ferb's Perry the Platypus - whereas Perry was always running away, Diogee always follows Milo into the brink of danger and usually saving him without anyone realizing (to which Milo simply responds "Diogee, go home. Silly boy, he's not supposed to be [incredibly descriptive explanation of what he's currently doing]").

In the ever-competitive television landscape, being a hit show requires not only quality, but luck. Besides being a well-written show, The Loud House has been incredibly lucky in that it's been given a prime weekday-afternoons-at-5 slot of real estate but also adequate promotion - the problem with an animated show is that production takes so long you either have to run episodes on a regular schedule and run out of your stockpile quickly or stagger premieres while increasing the wait between new episodes. Cartoon Network made the latter into the ultimate promotion tool with its Monday-to-Friday strip "Steven Bomb" weeks of premieres of Steven Universe, increasing not only the anticipation for new episodes but the eventual Nielsen ratings each time they aired. Nickelodeon has been reaping the rewards of The Loud House in a similar way, stockpiling episodes to dole out an entire month of premieres in May to create buzz followed by one or two weeks of premieres each month following, creating a supply-and-demand situation that didn't burn out new episodes too quickly but still managed to get an entire season on the air in six months' time. Ferb itself was given a similar PR blitz, with an entire "Ferb-uary" of new episodes every day in February 2008. Most other shows aren't so lucky (as C.H. Greenblatt made clear to many when lamenting the raw deal his show Harvey Beaks was given late last year), and unfortunately Milo Murphy's Law is one of those cases. Sadly befitting a show whose main character is the epitome of bad luck, Disney doesn't really seem to know what to do with the series, having only aired a handful of half-hours throughout 2016, then shifting premiers over from Disney XD to flagship Disney Channel as a result of poor ratings. Like Milo himself would be, I remain optimistic that Milo will find an audience. Besides, it took Povenmire and Marsh over a decade to sell Phineas and Ferb in the first place because networks thought it was too weird - this wouldn't be the first time they've had trouble having a creation of theirs catch on.

Mighty Magiswords

Via Variety. ©The Cartoon Network Inc.
This is a late addition to the list as I only started watching this series last week when I was looking for something to do. Mighty Magiswords is a Cartoon Network series that originally debuted as a series of online shorts. In a intentionally anachronistic medieval kingdom called Rhyboflaven, siblings Prohyas and Vambre serve as warriors for hire - in that that is their job, the name of their business (pronounced "bweezness") is Warriors for Hire, and their last name is actually Warrior. Prohyas is the dumb one who rushes into things before thinking and loves making horrible puns (much to the dismay of his sister), and Vambre is the level-headed one whose hobbies include reading the Harry Potter-esque Veronica Victorious book series and not wearing pants. Most of their quests involve both using and finding Magiswords - which are swords with bizarre powers.

This series is just plain goofy, and a throwback to stuff such as classic Looney Tunes where the order of the day is snappy dialogue and slapstick, with a little bit of Ren and Stimpy thrown in as funny and overexaggerated posing and facial expressions also deliver a lot of the humor. (In fact, Bob Camp, who's probably one of Ren and Stimpy's most famous artists, works as a writer and storyboard artist for the show). Cartoon Network is cross-promotiong the show with original online shorts as well as an app that allows viewers to gather their own collection of Magiswords. If there's one problem the show is having in its infancy, it's that the free three and five-minute online shorts are more entertaining than the 11-minute TV ones. The staff is apparently having a problem due to the snappy pacing of the original online shorts and stretching that out into a longer story, but one of the staff members admitted that was a problem they were having and are trying to work on. Either way, the characters, setting, and comedy prove that this is definitely a show that looks like it will have potential down the line once the kinks are ironed out. For fun, here are some of my favorite shorts.

"Warriors for Hire" - The Warriors are less than enthused that their first job after opening for business is unclogging a sink.

"Bark Attack" - The Warriors confront a tree who thinks he's a radio deejay (despite radio not yet existing, although cell phones do. Go figure.)

"The Desolation of Grup" - The Warriors are hired to vanquish a cute and clumsy dragon named Grup. Thankfully, they soon discover that "vanquish" is not the same thing as "kill".

Game Center CX (Retro Game Master)

Via Level Up Video Games. ©Fuji Television/Gascoin
Here are a few things that are not "pop culture of 2016" but "pop culture I got into during 2016". Game Center CX - also known as Retro Game Master - is a long-running Japanese television show starring Shinya Arino, a well-known Japanese comedian, as the "kachou" (section manager or chief) of the Game Center, a fictional company. His goal is to play classic video games - usually for the Famicom (NES) - usually incredibly difficult ones that define the phrase "Nintendo Hard". Part of the appeal of the show is that Arino is not a video game expert by trade, and the struggle of getting through particularly hard parts of the game is made out to be like a sports event - and sometimes is actually as stressful as one! Arino has access to period strategy guides and assistants when he gets stuck, but most of the time he pulls off an unexpected miracle, and these are always the most satisfying.

Although seeing him challenge difficult games we all know such as Mario and Zelda titles are always entertaining, the most interesting episodes are ones that revolve around incredibly difficult games that were never released in the United States or quirky Japan-only genres such as detective RPGs, plot-based quiz games (where players have to answer Jeopardy!-style general knowledge questions to do something like unify feudal Japan or raise a child), and horse racing simulations. Arino's playthough of the latter was unintentionally filled with a soap-opera worthy plotline due to his usual ineptness, as he accidentally had one of his horses mate with its own parent and then struggled with the decision as to whether to have the incestuous offspring run in an important race knowing that it would be physically weaker as a result of inbreeding.

Another highlight of the show is the various segments which change every season which highlight retro video game culture in Japan, which is pretty much the same as it was in the United States: strategy guides, bizarre peripherals, tie-in comics, unsuccessful systems, etc. Probably my all-time favorite of these was one called "Sing About Whatever the Hell You Want", in which Arino is sent lyrics to songs from classic video games made up by viewers he then proceeds to sing on the air. Another memorable segment was "Moshi Moshi Tactics", in which Arino received assistance from random callers in how to complete an incredibly horrible RPG called "Super Monkey Adventure", ostensibly based on the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West. (At one point, Arino makes fun of the game's full title "Original Journey to the West: Super Monkey Adventure", remarking that there is in fact nothing original about it.)

The segment that remains the same each season - and probably one of the most fun - is "You Should Visit This Game Center Sometime" (or "Tamage", after its abbreviation in Japanese, for short). Here, Arino visits an arcade (or game center, as they are called there) somewhere in Japan to see what sort of games they offer. Usually these are arcades of the regular sort, but very often he visits a small candy shop somewhere in a small town with a few arcade games set up outside. These are always fun as the candy shops are inevitably always run by a kindly old woman. And one of the arcade games is inevitably Metal Slug. I'm assuming it's some kind of law that all candy shops in Japan must be run by kindly old women and have at least one Metal Slug game on the premises. Arino always asks the old woman to play Metal Slug with him, and some of them are surprisingly good at it! Special episodes based on the Tamage segment have taken Arino to Cambodia, Vietnam, France, California, and other exotic locales, where he took a look at the video game culture of each and managed to mangle foreign languages (his favorite French phrase was "je t'aime" - I love you - whereas in his American adventure he became obsessed with telling people in English "I am very tired because of a long trip").

For the most part, Game Center CX thrives in less-than-legal manners thanks to a very enthusiastic fanbase who has subtitled most of the episodes. There was an unsuccessful attempt to bring the show to the United States, which led to a DVD release of a handful of episodes as well as the translation of the first video game for the Nintendo DS (sadly, its sequel never saw the light of day over here). Both are worth checking out, and if you must take a look at the seedy underground to see some of the fan-subtitled episodes, I'm not going to stop you. It's just a shame that the series didn't catch on here, but Arino has a big American fanbase regardless (which he himself was surprised at when he made his American trek) and he's always fun to watch.


A lot of people are interested in learning a foreign language as a result of some element of that language's home country they enjoy. For a lot of people who want to learn Japanese, it's usually anime or manga. For me, it's a mix of my interest in classic video games and their history as well as Game Center CX that made me want to learn Japanese.

I originally tried learning Japanese when I was in high school, buying a few books but being woefully unprepared in knowing how to start actually studying it. In 2016 I decided to start anew as a result of my Game Center CX kick. There are a ton of great online and print resources that not only teach you Japanese, but also teach you how to "learn how to learn" - not just Japanese, but anything. I admittedly haven't been studying as full-on as I should be (something I plan to rectify in 2017), but the fact that I can actually read all of the Japanese hiragana, katakana, and a good handful of kanji (probably about 100 or more, including all those required for the beginning level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test) is an improvement from the beginning of 2016, when I couldn't read any Japanese at all. I can identify a few simple sentences - my mother was impressed when I saw a sign outside a Hershey's store in New York that read チョコが大好きです (Choco ga daisuki desu) and I was able to both read it and identify that it meant "I love chocolate".In 2017, I hope to really start seriously studying Japanese in-depth, and hopefully I'll have a few blog posts that will introduce you to the world of Japanese for those of you interested in studying it yourselves.

So that's my 2016 - like most of yours it was probably very colorful and entertaining. Even with all the sadness and uncertainty, this was certainly a memorable year for me as it probably was for all of you. Let's all go forward and make new discoveries in 2017 - in entertainment, in the world around us, and wherever we may find them.