I’ve been watching Arrested Development again in reruns on IFC, and I’m struck by how funny Liza Minnelli is. I always knew she was an icon and the daughter of the one and only Judy Garland, but I didn’t care a thing about her until I saw her as Lucille II. In fact, I still don’t think I appreciate her entire body of work the way many people do, but her performance on that gone-but-never-forgotten show sticks out to me. Are there actors or musicians or authors you appreciate for something completely arbitrary, not what they’re best known for? —Kip
I was late on board the Buffy The Vampire Slayer bandwagon. My boyfriend and I had heard a lot about how it was hilarious, touching, exciting, blah blah blah, but when we happened to catch a random episode on TV, it was one that started with the Scoobies casually killing a demon, then having an off-handed, ironic chat about it. To us, everything about the tone seemed ridiculous and artificial, so we tuned back out. (Much later, watching the whole show and seeing that scene again in context, we realized that one scene was the show consciously making fun of itself by turning its own action and themes slight and ridiculous. It was just about the worst possible place we could have started.) So when friends dragged me to a Joss Whedon Q&A at a comics convention in 2001, I was baffled and ignorant among a huge crowd of people who thought he was the Second Coming, people so bowled over with admiration for Buffy and the spin-off Angel that they could barely get their questions out. The questions they asked (“Is Spike ever going to get that chip out of his head?”) meant nothing to me, but Whedon’s answers were hilarious, disarming, and casually frank. By the end of the Q&A, I was a fan—not of the show, but of Whedon himself, of his ability to be funny and supportive to his fans while essentially saying “That’s a stupid question, and I’m not answering it.” I enjoyed hearing his answers so much that I arranged to interview him, having still never seen an episode of Buffy or Angel. I still recall that interview really fondly—my boyfriend and I still sometimes use the phrase “I dented the bathroom stall with my puddly little fist” when describing our own moments of impotent, useless anger. I’ve since come around and watched all the shows Whedon has had a hand in, and I’ve enjoyed and respected them all, but I’m just not built for the kind of bowled-over, subsuming fandom his incites in a lot of people. Instead, I’ll always be a fan of the man himself, as a speaker and an apparently just really personable, sharp-witted individual.
I have lots of people like this, artists and writers and performers who I value (maybe even over-value) just because they accomplished something unusual outside their area of expertise. Even when I was younger, I was enthralled by Heddy Lamarr, a beautiful, talented actress of the 1940s who also co-created a form of technology that helped pave the way for wi-fi and wireless telephones. The avant-garde composer John Cage was also an artist, choreographer, essayist—and mycologist, or expert on mushrooms. And I’ve always especially admired artistic figures who also proved to be genuine tough guys, like playwright/author Samuel Beckett, who fought for the French resistance, and actor Sterling Hayden, who carried out a number of frightfully perilous missions for the OSS during World War II. But maybe my favorite is comics artist Jim Steranko, a man of many talents: He was a stage magician, an escape artist, a sideshow performer, a boxer, a master fencer, an amateur criminal, a musician who shared the stage with Bill Haley, an entertainment impresario, a gymnast, a graphic designer, and an ad man, all in his teens and 20s. And he shared with Hayden the brave, or foolhardy, choice of walking away from his greatest claim to fame at the peak of his powers. Frustrated with the creative constraints and brutal deadlines of the comics industry, Steranko—who, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, drew some of the most striking work the medium had ever seen—quit the business when he was fully in command. He went on to do successful work in a half-dozen other careers, including television writing, fine art, graphics, production design for film, and publishing. The rare jack of all trades who seems to master them all, Steranko is still going strong in his early 70s, and even though he’ll always be remembered—and rightly so—for his comics, he’s almost infuriatingly good at everything he tries. He’s such an amazing character that he seems like a superhero himself: Jack Kirby based the character of Mr. Miracle on him, and Michael Chabon designed The Escapist in The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay on him as well.
I have so many of these. Right now, I am tickled by Alan Cumming, of all things, hosting Masterpiece Mystery, which I just started watching thanks to Sherlock. First of all, just the fact that I’m watching Mystery is funny to me, because it’s something I associate so much with being a little kid, since my parents would watch it when I was little. (I always liked the animated Edward Gorey sequences—specifically the yelling lady, who’s still there!) So I guess now I’m old too. I’ve always like Alan Cumming as an actor, but I’m especially entertained by him hosting Masterpiece Mystery because a) we get to hear him speak in his Scottish accent, which is really beautiful but he rarely seems to speak in when he’s acting and b) to me, Alan Cumming is a bit of an iconoclast, a man once described as “a frolicky pansexual sex symbol for the new millennium.” I just love that PBS, then, is having this guy host the new incarnation of an old standby series. I should pledge, now that I think of it…
Mine’s easy, and I don’t think I’m alone: I’ve listened to Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly soundtrack approximately 20,000 times. I’ve seen the movie exactly never. I’d like to. I’ve seen plenty of other blaxploitation movies, but somehow never gotten around to this particular cornerstone. (Future Better Late Than Never, maybe?) I think that’s partly because of the soundtrack. It’s so good, I don’t think the real movie could ever measure up to the one in my mind.
When reading the pre-release information for R.E.M.’s 2004 album Around The Sun, I was dismayed to see that one song, “The Outsiders,” featured a guest spot from Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest. It was the intersection of two musical entities I have great respect for, but the past made me apprehensive. R.E.M. was my favorite band growing up, and still maintains a spot high on the list. But they’ve dabbled in the rap-rock mix before on “Radio Song,” the jarring Out Of Time opener that featured KRS-One. The song didn’t have much to do with the baroque nature of the rest of the record, and it just wasn’t good. Thirteen years later, R.E.M. returned to the guest-rapper format with the help of the man who fronted the group that produced one of my favorite hip-hop albums, The Low End Theory. But what on paper appeared to be an awful plan actually comes off pretty damn great. In fact, it’s the reverse of “Radio Song.” That was a blemish on an otherwise fantastic record; “The Outsiders” remains one of the few stand-outs on an otherwise bland, underwhelming record. Q-Tip’s appearance is limited to an outro, a smooth, mellow flow that seamlessly fits the song’s melancholy yet defiant tone. As with any song, its meaning is open to interpretation, but there’s clearly a political element, which dovetails nicely with the political aspects of ATCQ’s output. If anything, Q-Tip’s presence in the song is almost understated, a welcome reverse from KRS-One’s obnoxious guest-spot. In fact, when the band performs “The Outsiders” live, Michael Stipe performs the outro verses himself, lending more credence to its presence as something akin to beat poetry rather than rap.
I’ve been on a major podcast kick for the past year or so, and I’ve become extremely fond of two weekly podcasts helmed by comedians I formerly had little to no interest in: Doug Benson’s Doug Loves Movies, and Chris Hardwick’s The Nerdist. I previously knew a little of Benson’s comedy, but not enough to elevate him beyond the pejorative of “stoner comedian” in my mind. (I’ve since come around on him a bit.) And I knew Hardwick was a stand-up, but still thought of him as the guy from Singled Out with the unfortunate haircut. (I know he also hosted Web Soup, but, really, who has G4?) But I’ve since become a big fan of both in the context of their respective podcasts, where they come across as much funnier and smarter—particularly in terms of pop-culture stuff—than I ever gave them credit for. The informal, rambling nature of Doug Loves Movies and The Nerdist is somewhat different than a written, polished stand-up routine, though Benson and Hardwick’s comedy certainly influences the content, but I think I’m more impressed with their abilities as MCs and—particularly in Hardwick’s case—interviewers.
Until recently, most of my experience with Albert Brooks derived from his many appearances as a guest voice on The Simpsons, not his filmography. According to the IMDB, he has appeared in five memorable episodes: as Jacques, the Frenchie who tries to seduce Marge in season one’s “Life On The Fast Lane”; self-help guru Brad Goodman in season five’s “Bart’s Inner Child”; supervillain Hank Scorpio in season eight’s “You Only Move Twice”; and fat-camp drill sergeant Tab Sprangler (with a cameo by Jacques) in season 16’s “The Heartbroke Kid.” He also played presidential puppetmaster Russ Cargill in The Simpsons Movie. Only in the past few years have I begun digging into his films in earnest, thanks in no small part to superfan Scott Tobias. I haven’t even touched his two comedy albums yet. The Simpsons has turned me on to many things over the years. Next up: I hope to learn more about this belch-master Eudora Welty.
Growing up as an indoor child, I was an enormous fan of the Saturday and Sunday afternoon movies. Thus, my introduction to Dolly Parton wasn’t through “I Will Always Love You” or “Coat Of Many Colors.” It was Steel Magnolias, Straight Talk, and the much-maligned-but-much-loved-by-me Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, which I liked because it was a little dirty. As Truvy, the hairdresser with a heart of gold in Steel Magnolias, Shirlee, the accidental radio host with a heart of gold in Straight Talk, or Mona, the madam with a heart of gold in Best Little Whorehouse, Parton was inherently likeable and darling, and she had incredible hair. I knew she was a singer or something at the time, but, frankly, I was more interested in her fictional life in Chinquapin Parish, and how she dealt with Shelby’s hair after that scary diabetic crisis. Later, I became absolutely obsessed with her voice, and I’ve even dressed as her for Halloween a couple of times, but I’ll always hold a fond spot in my heart for Best Little Whorehouse’s “Sneaking Around.”
I grew up watching game shows like To Tell The Truth, The Match Game, and Hollywood Squares, which featured celebrity panelists I recognized only because I’d seen them on TV before, mostly on other game shows. I started thinking of people like Charles Nelson Reilly and Peggy Cass and Brett Somers as “game-show celebrities,” famous for being famous. Then in 1999, I moved to a place with Game Show Network on the cable system, and I started watching all those old shows again, but this time with my laptop open and Google at the ready. Untangling the long Broadway and Hollywood histories of these game-show folk gave me an added appreciation for the history of the business and the way certain strong personalities endure.
This tends to work well for musicians either past their prime or who I generally don’t like much to begin with. One example is John Mayer, who tends to get a pass from some people because he’s apparently a technically decent blues guitarist. (He played with Stevie Ray Vaughn’s band Double Trouble, and apparently didn’t embarrass himself.) Yet in spite of the simpering creepiness of “Your Body Is A Wonderland” and the images I get of people frolicking on hilltops with Coke bottles in hands whenever “Waiting On The World To Change” comes on at the drugstore, I’m willing to give Mayer a pass for two things. One was that much-maligned Playboy interview, which I actually thought was kind of admirable for its nutsoid candor; the other, of all things, was his cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A,” which was actually pretty good, making it a shockingly workable voice-and-disconnected-acoustic-guitar something or other.
On the other end of things, there’s Liam Gallagher. I’m with all the people who think Oasis effectively sucked it up hardcore past 1995, but I would have cheerfully watched the band go on for years and years, pumping out one sludgy single after another, just for the pleasure of Gallagher’s hilariously combative interviews. A staple of these interviews tends to be Gallagher explaining why every other band in the world is basically shit: He called Scissor Sisters “weirdos on stilts” and said Radiohead fans “are boring and ugly and don’t look like they’re having a good time.” Too bad the band broke up. Hopefully they’ll get back together, so Liam has a platform for hurling more inexplicable expletives at people.