Thursday, February 4, 2016

Joe Alaskey: 1952-2016

I found out on social media today that voice actor, Joe Alaskey, has died at the age of 63 from cancer. Children of the 1980s (including myself) may recall Alaskey from a couple of programs that aired in syndication.

First off he appeared as the on-camera announcer/next-door neighbor on a syndicated television trivia game show titled Couch Potatoes. In a clever use of the on-camera announcer role Alaskey appeared in a living room set positioned next to the main set. Marc Summers, later of Double Dare fame on Nickelodeon, hosted Couch Potatoes. This series debuted on January 23, 1989 and aired it's final first-run episode on June 19, 1989. A daily series it amassed 100 episodes and it remained in local syndication (in reruns) until September 1989...after which it jumped to cable's USA Network and reruns aired during that channel's game show block of programming from September 11, 1989 to March 23, 1990. Alaskey departed the series near the end of the syndicated run and in his place came actor/game show emcee, Jim McKrell. Even though McKrell had a highly visible career on television and in movies he wasn't an on-camera announcer for Couch Potatoes as Joe Alaskey happened to be.

A sitcom titled Out of this World aired in syndication for four seasons (1987-1991) and a total of 96 episodes. Joe Alaskey appeared in the series as Beano Froelich starting with it's 1987 debut until the middle of Season Four in 1990 (appearing in more than 80 of the series 96 episodes). According to on-line sites Alaskey's final episode is "Marlowe Vice" (Season 4, episode 12).

It is during this time period (fall 1990) that Alaskey became more involved in voice acting for cartoons. Tiny Toon Adventures, debuting in September 1990, provided Alaskey the opportunity to originate the voice of Plucky Duck. The character is based on iconic Looney Tunes character, Daffy Duck, which Alaskey also eventually voiced following the 1989 death of Mel Blanc.

The decade of the 1990s had Alaskey providing a staggering amount of voices for all kinds of animated projects. Given my preference for a lot of classic cartoons I tended to gravitate more toward his contributions to the Looney Tunes legacy. Alaskey, more than any other, could replicate the iconic vocalizations of Mel Blanc. That is the reason I applaud the Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries series so much. Alaskey voiced both Sylvester and Tweety plus other roles. The other main cast of vocal performers included June Foray as Granny and Frank Welker as Hector. Given Joe, June, and Frank's vocal abilities they often voiced a large number of other characters, too, in addition to their main roles. Those familiar with the Nickelodeon series, Rugrats, Alaskey became the second voice of the grandfather character (Lou Pickles) starting in 1997 and lasting into the next decade.

Chuck Jones fans may recall a video series titled Timberwolf. Well, Joe Alaskey provided the voice of Thomas Timberwolf in the thirteen episode 2001 series (the last project released during Chuck's lifetime). Alaskey's next big series arrived in 2003...the entertaining Duck Dodgers...featuring contemporary exploits and adventures of the fictional Duck Dodgers (Daffy Duck), Eager Young Space Cadet (Porky Pig), and Martian Commander (Marvin the Martian). All these characters are based on a classic Merrie Melodies short titled Duck Dodgers and The 24th and a Half Century. The short, directed by Chuck Jones and released on July 25th 1953, had by 2003 become one of the signature, iconic cartoons in Warner Brothers history.

The television series more or less is an extension of the 1953 short including the debut of a new character, Martian Queen. Tom Jones performed the theme song. In 2004 Alaskey won a Daytime Emmy award for his vocal performance as Duck Dodgers.

In the latter half of the decade Alaskey kept busy providing voices on various video games and on a revival of the Rugrats franchise. During the last 5 years or so he participated in a series of Tom and Jerry direct-to-video projects (issued on DVD or Blu-Ray) but oddly enough he wasn't cast in the most recent revival of the Looney Tunes...more specifically, The Looney Tunes Show. The roles of Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Sylvester and Tweety all went to Jeff Bergman even though the other voice actors and voice actresses returned to their primary Looney Tunes roles: Bob Bergen as Porky Pig, June Foray as Granny, Jim Cummings as the Tasmanian Devil, Billy West as Elmer Fudd, and Maurice LaMarche as Yosemite Sam. That particular series ran a couple of seasons (2011-2014). I'm sure if I looked through Google archives I could find articles surrounding Alaskey's non-participation but I'm not going to...probably not for awhile. His most recent work centered around the series, Murder Comes to Town. Airing on niche station Investigation Discovery Channel since January of 2014, Joe Alaskey was the narrator of the series...causing a lot of viewers to praise the similarity in narration to that of the late Paul Winfield (narrator of a similar series, City Confidential).

Joe Alaskey: April 17, 1952 - February 3, 2016.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Benny Hill...my favorite British comedian...

In December of 2014 I posted a blog entry marking the occasion of Benny's birth year 90 years earlier in 1924. I didn't post a blog in January of 2015 marking the 60th anniversary of the debut of The Benny Hill Show on the BBC because I'm notorious for not keeping track of anniversaries, birthdays, and milestones except for a chosen few. But as I began looking through some of the photo's saved on my computer of Benny from various stages of his career I happened to read that January 15th is the day that Benny debuted as the star of his own self-titled comedy special. No stranger to British audiences in 1955 he had been seen in a series of comedy programs and specials as early as 1951 but those didn't carry the title of The Benny Hill Show.

It should come as no surprise that I'm a fan of Benny Hill...he's my favorite British comedian by far. Although he isn't the only British entertainer that I'm familiar with he is by far my favorite. Television specials hosted and written by Benny under the specific title of The Benny Hill Show aired, on and off, from January 15, 1955 to May 1, 1989. The last television special in May of 1989 was his 58th and final for Thames TV. The syndicated half-hour series that originated in America in 1979 and had expanded globally continued to air regardless of the cancellation of the series by Thames TV. There happened to be more than 100 half hour programs that had already been compiled since 1979 that re-airing them over and over to fill the lack of new footage coming over became the norm for several years. In the early '90s Benny ventured over to America to check out potential spots to tape comedy material for a proposed series of specials titled Benny Hill's World Tour. The first special, focusing on New York, is the only program that became a reality due to the slow nature of the shooting schedule, delays, and the usual perfectionism Benny had been known for. The special finally hit the air on the USA Network on May 30, 1991. It didn't air in his homeland until 1994 (2 years after his death!).

I discovered the comedy of Benny Hill as a teenager in the early 1990s. Here in my part of America the local channels aired Benny's program in the late-night/over-night hours although research shows his programs in some parts of the United States aired as early as 9pm.

The syndicated half hour programs, comprised of sketches originally seen on his full-length hour long programs in the U.K., began airing in 1979. The batch of syndicated programs that aired for the first several years in local syndication in America featured material that had originally aired as early as 1969 (the first year Benny began making television specials for Thames TV).

After the phenomenal success of the edited programs in America it didn't take long for those clip-fest programs to find their way onto the television screens of people all over the planet. As it's been pointed out by official historians and biographers alike the popularity of Benny Hill in America kicked open the bolted doors of just about every country across the globe and this half hour program of sketches suddenly gave Benny global fame the likes of which a decidedly television-created star had never known.

This isn't to say Benny's mass popularity translated into critical acclaim, praise, acceptance, or any other similar synonym you can think of. Critical praise of Benny Hill is limited and in some countries it's muted. The irony of Benny's global success and the acclaim from abroad stood in sharp contrast to the cold and condescending remarks by television critics. Baffled, mystified, and dumbfounded could easily have been the adjectives to describe television critics in America once the program started to become such a hit in local syndication that episodes of the show began to air for what seemed like every other hour in the same market but on a different channel. It also wasn't uncommon for multiple local channels to air the program at the same time during late-night.

To further illustrate the phenomenal success of Benny's program in America newspaper columnists began to go on the attack in their editorials...attempting to link Benny's programs to increased crime, the rise of AIDS, increased rape, and just about anything else. During my research for this blog entry I come across a scathing article about the program carried in a Florida paper on July 5, 1982. The author attempted to find the reasoning behind Benny Hill's success. To the author's credit he supplied Arbitron ratings information supplied to him for WTVT-TV (Channel 13) during May 1982 and compared the numbers of Benny Hill's half hour of so-called "sexist smut" to it's chief competition, NBC's Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. The article's author couldn't understand how Carson's classy presentations had consistently been, in that market at least, toppled by Benny Hill's "vulgar, tasteless, and sexist" excesses.

According to the numbers provided in the 1982 article Benny's program averaged 36,000 viewers locally to Carson's 13,000. There wasn't any demographics numbers provided for Carson but according to the report Benny's program attracted nearly double the amount of male viewers than females (21,000 male; 15,000 female). Obviously the goal on reporting the demographic numbers for Benny's program is the author's way of driving home the sexist accusations. Hmm, judging by those numbers, there must be a lot of female sexists out there if we're to buy the author's argument about Benny's comedy being sexist.

In an article dated July 4, 1983 it had been reported that WVNY-TV (Channel 22) had decided to stop airing Ted Koppel's Nightline series at 11:30pm in order to make room for Benny Hill's program. The station's programmer explained his decision by citing the ratings reports, too. The local ABC channel  decided to start an 11pm newscast. The newscast would run to 11:30pm and be a lead-in to Koppel's national program. The only problem was Benny Hill's syndicated series aired on the local channel at 11pm and the program director didn't want to push Benny's hugely successful series to 12:30am. He cited that Benny's series at 11pm had attracted more than 50,000 viewers on average and Koppel's series attracted nearly 10,000 and so the removal of Ted Koppel's program in favor of the higher rated Benny Hill series made perfect business sense to him.

Benny Hill's birthday is coming up...born on January 21, 1924. He died on April 20, 1992 at the age of 68.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Be Cool, Scooby Doo...

Let's have a show of hands...has anybody seen the most recent revival of the Scooby Doo franchise? It's a series titled "Be Cool, Scooby Doo" and it airs in the United States on Cartoon Network. It debuted back on October 4th in the United Kingdom and Ireland and then October 5th in America and then on October 8th in Canada. It's the 12th incarnation of the Scooby franchise and much like the last couple of previous incarnations it offers something a bit different than the franchise's original premise. In this particular series the gang's all here: Scooby, Shaggy, Fred, Velma, and Daphne...as is the Mystery Machine. The characters have all been redesigned and some of the character traits have been altered slightly. 

Fred's returned to being the all-American leader rather than being the clueless, oblivious moron that recent incarnations have cast him as being even though there are moments that see Fred revert to his clueless demeanor. Daphne, this time around, is portrayed as the goofy character...and that only adds to the mix given that Shaggy and Scooby remain goofy, nervous, frightened, and hungry. Velma is the one constant...although in this series the character gets a different voice actress, Kate Micucci. The previous voice actress, Mindy Cohn, continues to voice Velma in the direct-to-DVD animated projects and the video games but she doesn't reprise the role in this series. Matthew Lillard returns as the voice of Shaggy. Grey Griffin (formerly billed as Grey DeLisle) is once more on hand as Daphne...and the vocal God, Frank Welker, is on hand as Fred and Scooby.

Be on the lookout for monsters and villains that carry similarities with iconic monsters and villains from past episodes. In "All Paws on Deck" the gang is terrorized by a monster resembling the Beast from a late '70s episode titled "The Beast is Awake in Bottomless Lake". In the 2015 episode Velma has hydrophobia...something that isn't consistent with her history...for in several episodes in the franchise's history she clearly enjoyed being in large bodies of water and scuba-diving and so the need for Velma's hydrophobia is a plot-device. In addition to having similar looking monsters and villains there is the inclusion of the much iconic chase scene...something that appeared in the classic episodes (1969-1973) and in some of the other installments but mostly the chase scenes are identified as a hallmark of the original programs...each episode features a chase scene.

The publicity surrounding this series hyped the existence of 26 half hour episodes already completed...14 of those 26 have since aired on Cartoon Network. The last first-run episode to air occurred on October 28th. As you can see it's a daily series...having aired half of season 1 in a month's time span already. Ordinarily this is why a 13 episode half-season airs weekly for 13 weeks...that way it gives people plenty of time to get used to the series, enables promoters to advertise and hype the series, or for potential audiences to discover it during the 13 week rerun cycle. An episode of the series aired on-line on October 30th...but according to on-line sources it shouldn't have aired and it has since been removed (an episode titled "If You Can't Scooby Doo the Time, Don't Scooby Doo the Crime"). 

It has never, to date, aired on television yet but you can search for it on-line...I'm sure it's available for viewing somewhere out there. 

On December 10th a first-run episode finally emerged...titled "Scary Christmas". Technically this is episode 15 of the 26 that have already been completed (episode 14 has never aired) but in broadcast chronology the December 10th airing is listed as episode 14. The series is set to debut in other parts of the world on December 28th and so if it isn't airing locally in your geographic's then chances are it'll begin airing later this month.

Once I'm able to catch a full episode for myself I'll be a bit more detailed in my opinions. At the moment I'm going by the clips that have been posted on YouTube and those are just too brief to form an educated opinion. I could be like so many others and just say "yuck! ick! I hate it, hate it!!!" or "these can't compare to the originals...I hate it!!". I've never been that sort of reviewer and so I'll gather my thoughts and post more detailed about this series at a future date. Who knows, by that time, a DVD of Season 1 may be available for Amazon purchase!?!!