Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Before Bill Murray Was Garfield, Garfield Was Bill Murray

If you were around in 1984, you surely were aware of the smash hit sci-fi comedy, GHOSTBUSTERS. The Bill Murray/Dan Aykroyd/Harold Ramis ensemble vehicle,  was the second biggest grossing movie of 1984 (right behind BEVERLY HILLS COP), and with cereals, action figures, a best selling soundtrack, etc., the Ivan Reitman directed blockbuster was a true phenomenon.


During the same flashy ‘80s era, another comic phenomenon was making a splash in the funny pages, and a series of successful books. That would be Garfield, the orange tabby cat that loves lasagna, hates Mondays, and makes his owner’s life a living hell. Created by cartoonist Jim Davis, Garfield made his newspaper debut in the strip, Jon (named after the cat’s owner), in 1976, but became kind of a big deal in 1978, when the cartoon went into national syndication.


In 1980, Garfield made his television debut in a Special entitled The Fantastic Funnies. In the fat feline’s segment, actor Scott Beach provided his voice. Following that, actor/writer/voice actor Lorenzo Music voiced Garfield for a series of specials, video games, ads, etc. 


Music was best known for his never seen character Carlton the Doorman on the popular sitcom Rhoda, which ran from 1974-1978. The perpetually drunk Carlton, speaking through an intercom, had a droll, laconic delivery that was a reliable laugh getter. There was even an animated Carlton pilot, but it wasn’t picked up for a series. 


It was just as well as Garfield’s cartoon adventures were loved by viewers throughout the ‘80s. But after the huge hit that was GHOSTBUSTERS, an animated series based on the film was rushed into production, and who did the producers look to fill the shoes of Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman? Garfield’s Lorenzo Music, that’s who!

So at the same time that Music was churning out Garfield specials, he spent two seasons aping Murray’s slyly sarcastic persona on The Real Ghostbusters (so named because of some legal whatnot with another show by the same name).


Years later, in 2004, GARFIELD: THE MOVIE, a big budget revamp was released to ginormous box office. Music passed away in 2001, so Garfield’s voice was taken over by, you guessed it, Murray. Despite the background, I doubt Murray referred to Music’s work, as he seems like an actor who has no interest in character research.

There you go – Lorenzo Music, the voice of Garfield, portrayed Bill Murray in The Real Ghostbusters animated program; then later Bill Murray portrayed Lorenzo Music’s signature role in GARFIELD: THE MOVIE. 


Murray later revealed that he took the GARFIELD gig, which included a sequel, GARFIELD: A TALE OF TWO KITTIES, because he thought that the first film was written by Joel Coen, of the Coen brothers, but it turned out to be Joel Cohen, who was quite a different style of scribe. Although he participated in the sequel, Murray expressed regret of doing the films. This was summed up in his cameo in ZOMBIELAND in which he was asked while dying if he had any regrets. “Well, maybe Garfield.” 


While there hasn’t been a third GARFIELD to complete the trilogy, in the ZOMBIELAND sequel, Murray puts in another cameo in a flashback in which he is doing promotion for the fictional third entry entitled GARFIELD: FLABBY TABBY. That way Murray can have his cake and eat it too.

It’s interesting to note that the sequels to GHOSTBUSTERS and GARFIELD are the only sequels Murray has made (I’m not counting the ZOMBIELAND movies as those are cameos). It’s funny that these guys are forever linked. I can’t think of a similar situation with such symmetry between two actors. If you can, do tell – in the comments section below.

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Monday, September 20, 2021

That Time That Norm MacDonald Played Michael Richards In An Andy Kaufman Biopic

Five years into the run of the vastly successful NBC comedy/music show, Saturday Night Live, a competitor came along. It was called Fridays and it featured a cast of comic actors, hip rock artists, and just like SNL it was live, and late night.

As you may have quessed, Fridays, was a blatant effort to completely copy SNL with sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll being the shared themes. However, later Seinfeld stars Michael Richards (Kramer!), and Larry David got their start there, and the show had tons of great musical guests including The Clash, Devo, Rockpile, Stevie Wonder, Rockpile, and the Pretenders.

One of the most notorious sketches in Fridays’ three season history, has to be what has been labeled “The Marijuana Sketch/Onstage Fight-cum-Prank.” It involved two couples at a restaurant, and unbeknownst to each of them is that they have individually smoke a joint in the restroom. This premise is actually explained to the audience by a cast member at the start of it, something SNL never did.

The dinner party consists of Michael Richards, Brandis Kemp, Maryedith Burrell, and Kaufman, the only one who doesn’t want to go along with the comic conceit. When it’s his turn to go to the restroom then come back stoned, something feels off. Kaufman sits down and spaces on what his next. After a long awkward pause, he offers up that he “can’t play stoned,” and that “he feels stupid.”

Kaufman’s fellow actors are visibly annoyed by his behavior, or lack of behavior, with Chartoff saying, “you feel stupid?” amid nervous giggling. Then, a remarkable thing happens. A frustrated Richards gets up from the table and walks off camera. “Where are you going?” Kaufman asks even though he doesn’t act like he cares for the answer.

Seconds later, Richards reappears holding a stack of cue cards that he abruptly drops down in front of Kaufman. Our abstract genius retaliates by throwing his glass of white (probably water as Richards. A skirmish in which Richards looks like he’s going to come to blows is quickly abandoned as the players announce “Hey, it’s all in fun.” After some playful shenanigans, the show fades to commercial. Watch it below:

So that’s how it went down on February 20, 1981, but how does it compare to the movie version. I’m talking about Milos Forman’s 1999 biopic MAN ON THE MOON, which told the story of the surreal comic artist Andy Kaufman as portrayed by the then hot Jim Carrey. The film was full of recreations of Kaufman’s bits, with Carrey being aided by a huge roster of actors playing themselves including most of the cast of the hit sitcom Taxi, David Letterman, and Andy’s wrestling nemesis, Jerry Lawler.

But when it came to the “The Marijuana Sketch/Onstage Fight-cum-Prank” sketch, nobody was acted by the original actors. Now, Chartoff and Burrell at the time were appearing in many TV shows and films (Chartoff voiced a character in a string of RUGRATS movies), so I hope that they were at least asked. Richards was on top of the world in the late ‘90s because of his run as Kramer on the ratings blockbuster Seinfeld, but that had ended by the time MAN ON THE MOON went into production. I wonder if he was ever considered for the role of, uh, himself.

So who did get the part? That would be legendary comedian Norm MacDonald, who sadly passed away last week. MacDonald had previously appeared in Forman’s THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT so apparently the director appreciated MacDonald and cast him in another small role in another biopic. MacDonald’s character name in the uncredited role was unsurprisingly named “Michael.”

The other dinner guests were filled by Caroline Rhea (as Melanie) and Mary Lynn Rajskub (credited as “Mary”) who acted as they were offended by Carrey’s Kaufman (which they may have been). Rhea had the added tag to “You feel stupid?” – “What about us?” Shots of uncomfortable, shocked people in the audience are sprinkled throughout this scene, as well as cuts to Vincent Schiavelli as an ABC Executive, who laughs conspiratorially at the players’ every utterance.

The big finale of the sketch takes some big liberties. MacDonald yells “Cut it out!” at Carrey, which Richards didn’t say, and after the kerfuffle, comedian/writer Jack Burns (played by Kaufman collaborator Bob Zmuda) comes out to tell Kaufman to “Get off my stage.” This also didn’t happen, but Burns and Kaufman (but Andy’s and Jim’s) do scuffle for a matter of moments. Then Schiavelli’s ABC Exec announces to everyone that this was a “happening,” and we see the audience delighted that they’ve been pranked. As this took place during a commercial, it could’ve happened but I doubt it.


Schiavelli has Carrey’s Kaufman address the camera when they start back to tell them it was all staged, but as expected Andy wants to again subvert the script. In a tight close-up, Kaufman starts off calmly explaining the situation, but ends up ranting about it being a “lie,” and a “cover-up” to the Exec’s chagrin. Now, this didn’t happen that night, but the moment is somewhat based on Andy’s appearance on the next episode of Fridays, though he made no such paranoid claims there.


This is a minor incident in this business we call show, but it’s a fascinating one (at least to me) that captures a weird, experimental era in sketch comedy in which audiences were taxed to figure out what was real or not. Like “The Marijuana Sketch/Onstage Fight-cum-Prank,” many examples of this aren’t very successful. And the movie recreation failed, as it’s too strained and self conscious in tone to really tap into the odd vibe of the Fridays exercise. The original was more interesting than entertaining, but it still had an edge that is impossible to convincingly imitate.

It was still fun to see Forman and the cast try in MAN ON THE MOON. Even if they couldn’t quite pull it off, I’ll give them a high mark for plopping Norm MacDonald down into the middle of this attempt to conjure up some magical Kaufman chaos. 

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Saturday, September 11, 2021

My 9/11 Story: Apocalypse Then

years ago, when the world was traumatized by events of 9/11, I was working at a Borders Books & Music (remember that chain?). But I want to start my story by going back a few days before the tragedy hit. My birthday is September 9th, which was a Sunday in 2001. The only thing I had planned was to go see the then newly released APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX, an extended version of Francis Ford Copolla’s Vietnam classic.

I love the original, and was anxious to see the new material, but the problem was that nobody wanted to go with me. I even had a friend say, “You’re going to see APOCALYPSE NOW on your Birthday?!!?” I called a woman I had dated a few times, but she sounded hungover and wasn’t up to going to see the film. I didn’t tell her it was my Birthday as I thought it might come off as a manipulative way to guilt her into joining me so I said something like “Okay, see you soon,” and accepted that I was going alone to the bloody picture show. (Years later she told me that I should’ve told her it was my Birthday, but que será, será)


I went to see the movie at the Carolina Theatre in downtown Chapel Hill, with a small audience of 20 people or so. It was my first time seeing APOCALYPSE NOW on the big screen, and I enjoyed the hypnotic spell it conjured, the swirling sound mix, and the intense performances by Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall, and Larry Fishburne (that’s right, Lawrence went by Larry back then).

Driving home after the film, I saw an unfamiliar vehicle ahead of me. It was a truck with a green helicopter on its flatbed. I sped up to see it better and was astonished to see lettering on the side of the helicopter, “N.C. Vietnam Association.” You’ve got to kidding me! I just came from a film that opens with army helicopters swooshing from one side of the screen to the other accompanied by the Doors’ “The End.” Was this a promotional gimmick to promote the film? I tried to get home so I could get my camera and get a picture  or two of the truck and its cargo, but I couldn’t pull that off. You see, phones with cameras weren’t a thing yet.

Now, this Vietnam helicopter encounter doesn’t have anything to do with 9/11, but I still wanted to begin with it as it was what kicked off my week. That experience alone would’ve been pretty memorable, especially as it happened on my Birthday, but it was obviously overshadowed a couple of days later.


The next day, September 10th, I was working at Borders in the evening. Many of the kids (20somethings mostly) I worked with would often watch The Simpsons in the break room during their dinner breaks. The episode (The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson, S9E1) that night featured Homer dealing with his car being illegally parked at the bottom of the World Trade Center. That’s right. One of the jokes in this scenario was that Homer needed to go to the bathroom, but the tower he went to had a “Out of order – please use next tower” (I know, as if there aren’t a zillion restrooms at the WTC).

Less than a day later, this episode of The Simpsons was yanked out of syndication, and didn’t air for years after. It joined a lot of TV shows, movies, and songs that were temporarily banned for obvious reasons.


But let’s get to the tragic day itself. I was scheduled to work at 10am on the 11th, and I didn’t watch any news, or listen to any radio on my way to work. September 11 was only supposed to be the release date of Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft (Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was originally scheduled to come out that day too but that’s another story). So I listened to Dylan’s latest (I had an advance copy) right up to my parking in the Borders lot.


When I walked in to the store, one of my co-workers asked if I had heard the news. After nodding no, the guy (I think whose name is Chris) told me what happened. I didn’t believe him. I thought he had been watching an action movie like TRUE LIES on a monitor in the video section. But it wasn’t long before I realized he was serious. I was now one of millions that was shocked by this attack and couldn’t wrap our minds around.


A good deal of the morning dealt with finding out if all the people who worked at a Borders at the bottom of one of the towers were safe. Before this, I didn’t even know there was a Borders there. Happily, all of the staff had gotten out in time. I don’t remember much about the rest of the day except that the store closed early, and I went to my brother’s house, which wasn’t far away in Raleigh.

he rest of the week felt incredibly surreal. It’s a cliché, but it really did feel like time had stopped. Like many, I was scared of another attack. I kept worrying that we wouldn’t get out of 2001 alive. I listened to the Dylan album a lot, which was oddly one of his most comical works, but it did have the line “Sky full of fire, pain pourin’ down.” I also played the hell out of a bootleg copy of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” which had a number of lines that felt like they had been written for the occasion, particularly “Tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad, sad songs.” Of course, neither of these albums were based on 9/11 as they had been conceived way before the date.

So these are things I think of every year at this time. It’s very difficult to believe it was 20 years ago as I bet most can relate. But no matter how long ago it is, when looking back at those tragic times, it will never not seem surreal.

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Sunday, September 05, 2021

Soundtrack Of The Week: LIVE AND LET DIE

The first album I ever purchased was the soundtrack to the 1973 James Bond movie, LIVE AND LET DIE. I’m not sure what year it was, but it was the early ‘80s and I had taken a city bus to downtown Chapel Hill to seek the record out at either Record Bar or Schoolkids. Both stores were very close to one another, with only a hallway of another business separating them (Schoolkids itself was a hallway of a store). 

These places being so close meant that customers could walk back and forth to compare prices on records. Sometimes Record Bar’s prices were just a bit lower than Schoolkids to compete. I can’t remember which store I bought the Bond soundtrack at, I think it was Schoolkids, but I do recall my bus ride home where I devoured the album art and anxiously waited to get home and listen to it. The record was one of the few 007 records to have a gatefold, and it was definitely a beaut.

LIVE AND LET DIE was Roger Moore’s first film as Bond, and while many think he never lived up to Sean Connery’s iconic interpretation of the part, Moore did have something his predecessor didn’t have: a big ass rock theme song delivered by a former Beatle, no less. Paul McCartney, along with his longtime Beatles producer, George Martin, and his band, Wings, were recruited to contribute the song while McCartney was working on the Red Rose Speedway album.


Although I had heard the song before, it was exciting to put the vinyl on the turn table, putting the needle in the groove, and listening to the tune come alive. It begins as a somber piano ballad with McCartney telling us that he “used to say ‘live and let live’,” and anyone can tell what’s next as he declares the title sentiment and the tune goes into orchestral overdrive with Wings inserting their bombastic beats into the thrilling chaos. 


While the song had much chart success, and received a Oscar nomination (it lost to Barbara Streisand’s “The Way We Were,” there was one element that was largely criticized. That was the fact that the lyrics contained a grammatical error. The line “But in this ever-changing world in which we live in,” has been considered ungrammatical and redundant, because of that extra “in,” and maybe the whole “in which we live in” phrase.

But many including the song’s composer maintain that the lyric is “in which we’re living,” as McCartney told the Washington Post in 2009: “I think it’s ‘in which we’re living’ - ‘In this ever changing world….’ It’s funny. There’s too many ‘ins.’ I’m not sure. I’d have to have actually look. I don’t think about the lyric when I sing it. I think it’s ‘in which we’re living.’” That’s fine, but it doesn’t sound that to me.


As for the rest of the LIVE AND LET DIE soundtrack, the flavor of the film’s New Orleans settings are established by Harold A. “Duke” Dejan & The Olympia Brass Band’s rendition of the funeral dirge that abruptly becomes the rejoiceful rave-up, “New Second Line.”


Then we’re into the first of five tracks on Side One written and composed by Martin, “Bond Meets Solitaire.” These selections are mildly enjoyable as incidental suspense music, but are a bit samey sounding as they provide the customary instrumental variations on the title song, mixed with Bond theme progressions. The most interesting of these tracks may be “Baron Samedi’s Dance of Death,” with its Herb Albert style horns, and fast tempo arrangements. Following that is a similar yet lazier “San Monique.” Seems like Martin was really cinematically spreading his wings here.


Side Two kicks off with one of two versions of Martin composition, “Fillet of Soul.” The first is labeled “New Orleans,” and it morphs into an alternate version of “Live and Let Die,” a silky yet spooky rendition by actress/singer BJ Arnau (Arnau put out a single of her take).

Despite its funky bass, and heavy strings, “Bond Drops In” is broken down into too many swirling sections to take hold, and too resembles Side One’s background ques for multiple set-pieces. Likewise the next several tracks, which repeat the same beats, and motifs over and over until I was dying for another funeral dirge.

But the two concluding selections, “Sacrifice,” and, of course, “The James Bond Theme” help the soundtrack to go out on a high note. “Sacrifice is an eerie, scary piece of embellishment to a voodoo sacrifice involving Bond’s love interest Solitaire (Jane Seymour). Its tribal drums and building orchestra frighteningly build to a sharp jarring moment that climaxes into a stinging instant that sums up the film’s menacing methods.


Now of course, “The James Bond Theme” is in all the Bond films, well, the EON-produced ones that is. But it never sounds the same – sometimes it’s surf guitar dominated, sometimes its epically orchestral, sometimes its rock, sometimes (or once at least) it’s all disco-fied like in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. 

But in LIVE AND LET DIE, the theme’s vibe is funk-ified with dirty wah wah guitars, and a heavy baseline. There has been controversy, though I think it’s most resolved now, about who wrote “The James Bond Theme.” Both Monty Norman and John Barry have been credited for it, but it’s become known that Norman was the track’s composer and Barry was its arranger. 


Unfortunately, the album doesn’t have a credit for who did the arrangement – only a credit for Norman as composer. As it’s possibly my favorite version of 007’s signature theme, it would be nice to know.

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