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Monday, January 11, 2010

The Weird Al Show

In 1997, Weird Al Yankovic hosted a Saturday morning show on CBS called, appropriately enough, The Weird Al Show. The show ran 13 episodes before being canceled. A typical episode unspooled like this: an educational objective is displayed on a parchment and literally yelled at the viewer. Al, playing a jerky man-child, behaves in a manner contrary to the educational objective and his friends awkwardly reiterate the message to him. A Fatman cartoon is played, TV is watched, a tween friendly band plays. Finally, Al learns his lesson. Roll credits.

Sound kind of dull? Well, sad to say, it is. But, I think it's safe to say it's not the creative team's fault. It seems they envisioned something more along the lines of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, aimed at a middle school audience. CBS had other things in mind.

Since the network had been stung by past controversial kidvid, like Pee-Wee and the New Adventures of Mighty Mouse, they were looking to play safe with future Saturday morning fare. Additionally, new government mandates required three hours of educational television in the Saturday morning slot. How CBS was pitched The Weird Al Show and decided it would be safe and educational is beyond me.

What appeared on the screen was the product of back and forth between the show's creators and CBS, who insisted on things such as the educational objective and more or less dumbing down the show to reach a Barney aged crowd. Aided by an ever changing time slot, the result was the show never found an audience and was off the air a year after it started.

It is exactly this behind the scenes wrangling that may have ruined the show, but makes this DVD set worth watching. Not because the show itself has improved with age. It hasn't. But because it allowed Al, director Peyton Reed and producer Thomas F. Frank the opportunity to create one of the most blunt and fascinating commentary tracks of all time.

If you are expecting a laugh a minute track like say the one from This Is Spinal Tap, you will be disappointed. However, if you enjoy knowing how the sausage is made, or not as the case is here, it doesn't get much better than this. I'm not talking technical details of how they made shots and things of that nature. Sure, that's there too, but I'm talking pretty blunt airings of the many ways CBS mucked up the show.

The three commentators turn their bitterness and disappointment into a fascinating look at how major networks really view their audience and how removed they really are from the creative process. It's also interesting to get takes on what was removed vs. what was allowed. For instance,Al proudly proclaims the show had the fist television puppet vomit and then marvels that this was allowed while other, much more innocent things, were axed.

The tone of the commentary isn't all bile. They seem very self-aware and willing to poke fun at their own shortcomings as well as dish earned blame to the network. For example, Al notes if they had wanted to avoid comparison to Pee-Wee's show, they probably shouldn't have used the same set designer. There's also some fun trivia, such as they were originally offered the Family Guy characters for the show and Randy "Macho Man" Savage only agreed to a skit where he is pinned by Al's hamster sidekick after he was assured Harvey the Wonder Hamster wasn't a girl. It's also amusing to hear how Al lined up guests by accosting them on the Tonight Show set (which was down the hall) and they aren't afraid to poke fun at some of those same guests. ("John Tesh? There's one for our target demographic. Kids love John Tesh.")

To be fair, the show, as crippled as it is, has it's moments. On the rare occasion Al is allowed to be Al, it works well. The channel surfing bits, especially the Mr. Rogers parody Fred Huggins, are quite funny. And Emo Philips, who makes a guest appearance (much to the networks chagrin, it seems,) is great. But, it's hard to see The Weird Al Show as anything other than a giant missed opportunity, just like it's creators do. It's hard to deny these DVDs are much better with the commentary track on, and I'd highly recommend anyone interested in how messed up network television really is have a listen.

Random thought about Blade Runner

I know it's popular opinion to hate on the voice over version of Blade Runner originally released, but I don't. Maybe the fact that I saw the original version first helps. (It seems to me a lot of the people really against the voice over version, saw it after the "Director's Cut".) Yes, Harrison Ford phones it in, but that only adds to the noir feel of the film. (Really, it pretty much gives the movie a film noir feeling all by itself.) It also helps me accept the movie as a separate entity from the book. Watching the "Director's Cut," I tend to get mad about all the stuff they cut from the book.

I would stop the projector five minutes before the end though. The ending they tacked on is disgusting anyway you look at it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Rifftrax DVDs

Once upon a time, a company called Legend Films, who specialize in colorizing old movies, decided to put out a DVD of their version of Reefer Madness. In their infinite wisdom, they hired Mike Nelson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 to do a humorous commentary track. And it was funny. The project proved successful, so more DVDs followed. Soon, Mike was joined by Bill Corbin and Kevin Murphy, also of MST3K. As the commentary tracks were proving to be very popular, RiffTrax was born, which allows you to purchase commentary tracks for a wide variety of movies, including the public domain fare Legend was releasing.

Soon, the old commentary tracks were remade with all three of the MST3K alumni. These tracks were available for download and synced to the appropriate movie as video on demand. But then someone had the idea to issue new DVDs with the so called "three riffer versions" of the old films as well as two collections of short industrial films the RiffTrax crew had been doing as well. You can buy these discs individually for $9.99 or as a ten pack, which I got for around $60 on Deep Discount.

The only of these I'd seen prior to these DVDs were the shorts and the original Reefer Madness with Mike solo. The shorts are absolutely hilarious. When films like this were shown on MST3K, they were always one of my favorite features and the RiffTrax crew hasn't lost its touch. Reefer Madness is also a hit with few jokes being repeated from Mike's version (or at least few that I can remember.)

After that however, the laughs slow down. I'd passed on Mike's versions of Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead as I'd read some mixed reviews on these. The new versions are pretty mixed as well. The laughs are sparse and I'm not sure why that is exactly. My hunch is that those two movies, aside from being low budget, are fairly well constructed and among some of the best horror films ever made. It's not as easy to riff on something that doesn't give you much to work with.

On the other hand, Plan 9 From Outer Space is one of those movies that bad movie fans know so well, there aren't going to be too many jokes that haven't been thought of already. In an official MST3K FAQ, they said something to that effect in response to the question of why they hadn't done Plan 9. I think this RiffTrax disc proves it was a pretty wise move. Plan 9's jokes practically write themselves and unless you haven't seen the movie before, or if you have no imagination, there's not a lot of new chuckles to be had.

And then there's Swing Parade and Little Shop of Horror, which show the difficulty of riffing on comedy, even when the film is so threadbare as Swing Parade is. You just can't make that much fun of a film that isn't taking itself seriously.

On top of that, these DVDs are pretty barebones. You don't get the colorized versions and, in some cases, it looks like you don't even get the restored prints Legend used to make their colorized versions. Night of the Living Dead and Little Shop of Horror in particular approach streaming web video in quality. Other than that, you get a new song over the menu (meh) and a download code for a Riff on one of the Harry Potter films. Unfortunately, it's the same card in all the DVDs, so once you've downloaded it, there's not much point to the other nine codes you have.

As much as it pains me to slag anything MST3K related, I have to this time. It's pretty difficult to recommend buying all these. The Shorts are really funny and so is Reefer Madness, but if you buy just those, you're halfway to the ten pack in cost. On the other hand, I really can't see myself re-watching any of these other than those three and, my life would be no poorer having skipped the other seven. It's really a toss up. I think I'd say the smart move is to try to score those three used and do a video on demand rental of the rest if you must see them.