Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ask The A.V. Club: June 8, 2007

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It's In The Pudding

I'm going apeshit trying to identify a piece of music. The A.V. Club may be my last hope. I don't have much by way of description, and it's not very pop-cultural, but I don't know where else to turn. It is a piece of (presumably) modern classical music with a beautiful, sprightly piano intro that evolves into soaring strings. It's a very moving piece. Fans of the PBS series NOVA will recognize it as the theme music from "The Proof," an episode dedicated to Fermat's Last Theorem. It's also used on occasion as bumper music on NPR's All Things Considered. (I went through their archives—no luck.) Anybody know? I'm going mad trying to find an answer. Help me, A.V. Club, you're my only hope!!!

Gabe In Texas

R2D2 conveyed your message to music detective Donna Bowman:

No wonder you've had trouble, Gabe. NOVA aired "The Proof" in 1997, and it's only available on VHS tape directly from WGBH. Online credits stop at the usual producer-director-writer, far from a complete rundown of the music used in the film.

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But "The Proof" didn't start life as a NOVA episode. Director Simon Singh made it for the similar BBC television series Horizon in 1996, and it won a BAFTA (the British Oscar) for best documentary. On his website, Singh tells the behind-the-scenes story of filming and post-production, and mentions his choice of music:

One evening, after a long day of editing, Horacio and I decided to head out for a pizza prior to more editing and a late night session. It was in the Pizza Express on Shepherds Bush Green that we heard the music that we had been searching for. The waiter told us that it was the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, and the next day we ordered up every album that they had ever released. Their music would pepper the final cut.

So we have a lead on the group behind this "(presumably) modern classical music" that you remember, Gabe. The question now is whether we can identify the particular piece. Here, we can head back to NPR's All Things Considered and try to backtrack by searching for the artist, but the songs that come up that way—"Prelude And Yodel," "Music For Found Harmonium," and the inimitable "Telephone And Rubber Band"—clearly aren't our quarry.

But browsing through their albums on Amazon yields paydirt. A reviewer of the Signs Of Life CD mentions that their "Perpetuum Mobile" is frequently heard on NPR and in commercials, and sure enough—we've found it. After a brief introduction (keep listening), there's the rapid, repeating piano figure (perpetuum mobile, or "perpetual motion," being a musical term for exactly that) and the surging strings rising underneath in a Philip-Glassish way. Even those who've never seen the NOVA episode will probably find they recognize the piece from car commercials, or as the theme to the very short-lived CBS series 3 Lbs.

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Simon Jeffes, the founder of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra and the composer behind all these tunes, died in 1997 of a brain tumor at the age of 48. His music is far more ubiquitous on British television than here in the States, but he created the soundtrack to part of your life, Gabe. And now that you know, raise a glass to him at the pub tonight for us.

Homosexuali-TV

With all the hubbub about Ellen DeGeneres coming out on her show a few years back, I swore that I could remember another sitcom character revealing his homosexuality on a show called, I believe, Carter Country. I think he revealed it to a befuddled sheriff after an ill-fated hunting trip. Am I high?

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Craig Erickson

Noel Murray, who actually lived in "Carter Country" when Carter Country was on the air, responds:

Yes, this happened, in the first season's third episode, "Out Of The Closet," which originally aired on September 29, 1977. Veteran action star Richard Jaeckel played an old buddy of small-town police chief Victor French, and on their annual fishing trip, Jaeckel came out. But it was only a one-shot appearance, and Jaeckel was hardly the first actor to play an openly gay character on TV. In 1971, Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker had an old friend come out to him on All In The Family's fifth episode, "Judging Books By Covers." A year later, the summer-replacement sitcom The Corner Bar featured TV's first recurring gay character, an interior designer played by molten-faced character actor Vincent Schiavelli.

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The first recurring gay couple on TV appeared on Hot L Baltimore, a 1975 sitcom adaptation of Lanford Wilson's controversial play. And of course pretty much every smart (or smart-ish) sitcom of the '70s had its requisite gay-themed episode: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Room 222, Sanford And Son, Maude, M*A*S*H, and so on.

On TV's drama side, homosexuality was acknowledged sooner. It happened first in a 1967 N.Y.P.D. episode, about an extortionist threatening to out gay men. The '70 also saw murderous lesbian nurses on Police Woman, child-molesting high-school teachers on Marcus Welby M.D., psychologically damaged family men also on Marcus Welby, and so forth. So by the time Richard Jaeckel confessed his sexual secrets to Victor French, homosexuality was pretty omnipresent on TV—if only in carefully proscribed stories of tolerance or fear.

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Oh, and by the way, if you remember Carter Country, then yes, you're probably high.

Bright Lights, Big Puppets

I was watching TV about a year ago and saw one of the most bewitching short films I had ever laid my eyes on. It was a story based either on "Ali Baba And The 40 Thieves" or a tale from 1,001 Arabian Nights. But the amazing thing was that it was all done with paper cutouts, colored lights, and shadows. I thought it was presented on Turner Classic Movies, but having queried the fine folks at the TCM website, I still haven't a clue to who made it and where I may see it again. May tributes to you never end for a clear answer given.

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Jerry

Tasha Robinson claims her tribute:

Sounds like you were watching The Adventures Of Prince Achmed, a pioneering 1926 movie directed by Germany's Lotte Reiniger. It's been hailed as the first animated feature—it beat Disney's Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs to the screen by more than a decade. And as you say, it was accomplished entirely with stunningly detailed paper cutouts manipulated with threads and lit in a variety of colors. I reviewed it here back in 2002, but if you want to be sure, the DVD release has a typical image from the film on the cover. The story is based on various tales from The Arabian Nights—which, according to most scholars, is where "Ali Baba And The 40 Thieves" originated, so there isn't much point in differentiating between them as source material.

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Next week: A Bob Dylan mystery album, the origins of a comedy catchphrase, and more. Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.

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