Sunday, January 31, 2010

Hee-Haw: 1969-1992; part four

Howdy ever'body! Welcome to part four in this Hee-Haw blog series. Part Three was published on this blog many months ago...almost a year ago...where I spotlighted a couple of DVD's that Time-Life had released. Several weeks ago I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my cable provider now carries RFD-TV! This is excellent news because this is the channel that airs Hee-Haw on Sunday nights at 8pm. The show repeats on Monday morning at 10am. I've watched the show at 10am but I don't have that same feeling that I do watching the show in the evening hours...even though the 10am Monday morning airing is a repeat of the 8pm episode the night before. I guess that has to do with all those years watching the show at 7pm back when it was still in production. I do remember catching the show in 1991 during Saturday and, or, Sunday having it air in the daytime isn't unheard of...I just prefer watching it in the evening hours.

The episode that aired tonight, January 31st, featured Loretta Lynn and Bill Anderson as guests. Susan Raye, a regular cast-member and frequent duet partner with Buck Owens, sang a song as did hosts Buck Owens and Roy Clark and twin cast-members Jim and Jon Hager. Loretta sang "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "Secret Love"; Bill Anderson sang "Wild Weekend" and "I Love You, Drops". Susan Raye sang her Top-10 hit, "Willy Jones". The Hagers sang "Looking Out My Backdoor", a Creedence Clearwater Revival hit. The episode originally aired on February 2, 1971.

I have 11 of those Time-Life DVD's of Hee-Haw. I'm holding up 10 of them. An 11th wasn't able to be in the you can see I had a difficult enough time trying to keep them from falling from the I took the 11th DVD from the stack and snapped a picture real quick. Some of those DVD's have two episodes on them and several have just one episode. There is a 5-disc set called A Salute to Hee-Haw that is rather pricey. It's running time is 480 minutes altogether. I was never able to purchase it. It features 4 DVD's with 2 episodes per disc which adds up to 8 episodes and then a 5th disc which features interviews with some of the surviving cast members of the show.

Although I wish I had the 5-DVD release, I'm happy with the DVD's that I have so I'm not complaining...and the fact that I now get RFD-TV where I can see the show each Sunday evening is also a plus!! If I had my way, though, the show would air every weeknight at 7pm and I'd mix the episodes around. One evening have a show from 1970 and the next night have a show from 1984 and then the next night have something from 1972 and then an episode from 1989, etc etc. The 5-DVD collection is sold-out at Amazon and at Wal*Mart's web-site store...and I did a search at Time-Life's web-site and couldn't find any reference to Hee-Haw on their site. I did a product search and it came up empty so they must have stopped offering these DVD's. The 5-DVD set was released in 2006...much of the DVD's were released in 2004, 2005, and certainly doesn't seem like it's been 4 years some cases 6!!

This is the DVD release of the only episode of Hee-Haw that George Strait appeared on. The episode originally aired on November 12, 1983 and at the time Strait was an emerging superstar...having been on the national scene a little over 2 years. In that short span of time he had racked up several consecutive Top-5 hits on his way to a hugely successful career...with over 50 #1 country hits and election into the Country Music Hall of Fame 23 years later in 2006. The Statler Brothers are the other guests on this episode and there have been some consumers upset over what they consider over-kill by the Statler Brothers. Some of the commentary I came across regarding this DVD included anger over how many sketches were centered around the group. I never saw anything wrong with the episode myself. The show's producer, Sam Lovullo, always wanted guests who loved to do the comedy sketches. Some artists shied away from doing too much comedy and they only shown up to sing. So, to my way of thinking, since the Statler Brothers are hilarious and have a comedic side to them, having them appear in the comedy sketches on the show seemed natural so you'll get no complaints from me.

Hee-Haw: 1969-1992.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Tonight Show

The Tonight Show has been in the news A LOT lately given all of the controversy surrounding the lackluster ratings of O'Brien's version of the program and the prime-time Jay Leno program. In a move that is unprecedented for the franchise, NBC will have Jay Leno return to hosting duties on The Tonight Show in March of this year as Conan O'Brien departs the network. O'Brien had been the host of the program since June 1, 2009 and when he became the host he followed in the foot-steps of four comedic titans: Jay Leno, Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, and Steve Allen. The benchmark of hosting duties of course will always rest with the late Johnny Carson. He hosted the program for 30 years which means that he was a major comical voice of all the major events in world history for three decades. Although Carson did the show for 30 years others hosted the program before him and of course others hosted the show after him. The successors of Carson are fairly, or unfairly, compared to him even today nearly 18 years after he retired as host.

A run-down, of sorts, of the franchise's hosts...

Steve Allen: September 27, 1954 - January 25, 1957

Ernie Kovacs: October 1, 1956 - January 22, 1957**

Jack Lescoulie: January 28, 1957 - June 21, 1957*

Al Collins: June 24, 1957 - July 26, 1957*

Jack Paar: July 29, 1957 - March 30, 1962

Various hosts: April 2, 1962 - September 28, 1962***

Johnny Carson: October 1, 1962 - May 22, 1992

Jay Leno: May 25, 1992 - May 29, 2009

Conan O'Brien: June 1, 2009 - January 22, 2010

Jay Leno: March 1, 2010 -

As of this writing I have no idea what will air from January 25th through the end of February because O'Brien officially left the network on the twenty-second of January. NBC may repeat episodes of O'Brien's program or air reruns of Leno's older shows until Leno makes his return in March. This makes Leno the first former host to return as the "new" host. I think NBC realizes their mistake of removing Leno from The Tonight Show in the first place.

*- Jack Lescoulie and later, Al Collins, hosted the program when it was a news program called Tonight! America After Dark.

**-Ernie Kovacs hosted the Monday and Tuesday episodes of the program during Steve Allen's final year as host. NBC had wanted Steve to focus more on his Sunday night program opposite Ed Sullivan's CBS program.

***-various celebrities hosted the program after Jack Paar left. Johnny Carson was still under contract with another network and couldn't become the host...and so fill-in hosts presided over the program until October 1, 1962 when Carson took over the show...and remained for 30 years.

Gene Rayburn, later of Match Game fame, was the announcer on Steve Allen's version of the program. Jack Paar used Hugh Downs as an announcer for his version of the program. Ed McMahon was Johnny Carson's announcer for the entire 30 year run. Edd Hall was Jay Leno's announcer from 1992-2004. Hall was replaced by John Melendez for the remainder of Leno's first stint as host. Andy Richter became the announcer for Conan O'Brien's stint as host.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Looney Tunes: Golden Collection, Volume Four

The Golden Collection in my opinion is a fascinating series of DVD's spotlighting the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies series of cartoons. I personally own almost all of the volumes that were released. I still need to grab the later volumes and I shall do that one of these days. One of the things that I liked about the series was the extra's. I think I've played and re-played and re-re-played several of those "Behind The Tunes" segments. The history that's presented and the comments from those who were there or those who are part of the cartoon world today are captivating.

Volume Four contains 4 discs.

The critically maligned Bugs Bunny Superstar documentary, from 1975, is broken into two parts on Disc 1 and Disc 2. I happen to like the documentary, if for the only reason, is that I love seeing the clips of the directors/animators from a point in time where their cartoons, although airing on TV for kids, hadn't really experienced the fame and glory that was to come as younger people became more and more fascinated with the whole body of Warner Brothers cartoons and the directors became, in the minds of fans, almost God-like. Orson Welles narrates the documentary. It contains footage of Bob Clampett speaking, often at length, about the characters. Historians and his contemporaries often pointed out that Clampett assumed credit for creating characters that he factually had no creative input on, other than animating or directing the characters. He did create characters. Tweety, for example, was a significant contribution, but the character was redesigned and toned down by Friz Freleng several years later and Tweety became synonymous with Freleng ever since. Freleng teamed Tweety with Sylvester, a character created by Freleng, and a star duo was born.  

Each cartoon director that went through the studio and had any considerable time-span has their 'followers' even today. There's the fans of the wild, zany cartoons epitomized in the works of Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Norm McCabe, and Robert McKimson. Frank Tashlin's cartoons have a live-action flavor. I was not familiar with his cartoons due to how they rarely, if ever, played on TV and so I learned quite a lot about him in this Volume...he has a disc all to himself. Later, after I purchased the previous release, Volume 3, I found out even more thanks to the documentary called Tish Tash: The Animated World of Frank Tashlin.

It should be pointed out that I didn't purchase these Golden Collections in numerical order.

Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones are the two directors from the studio that garner the most acclaim and attention and they, too, have their followers. It should also be noted that Freleng's cartoons won the most Academy Awards for Warner Brothers, a total of 4: Tweetie Pie, Speedy Gonzales, Knighty Knight Bugs, and Birds Anonymous.

Friz Freleng gets spotlighted on a documentary called Friz on Film and he, too, has a fan base that prefer cartoons that have razor-sharp timing and music ties. It's a wonderfully done salute to arguably the best director from the Golden Age of Warner Brothers Animation in terms of stats, accolades, and total body of work. Freleng directed just about all the Warner cartoon characters at some point or another with a large percentage of his work concerning Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety and Sylvester, Yosemite Sam, and Speedy Gonzales. Speedy was created by Robert McKimson (who directed the character's debut and some later cartoons of the late '50s and early '60s) but Freleng directed the ones considered by historians to be the most popular. In this documentary, as well as in other extra features that elaborate on Freleng, the creation of Yosemite Sam is almost always discussed. His peers and colleagues routinely state that the character is a complete duplication of the real-life Friz Freleng. His daughter remarks that Friz had red hair in his younger days and that he had a temper and several animators affectionately recall Friz being impatient, fuming, pacing a lot, and anxious during the animation process. Friz himself, in archive footage, laughs about his tyrannical reputation during the production of the cartoons but remarks that he obtained that reputation due to his perfectionism and insisting that the cartoons come across exactly as he envisioned. The character of Sam, by the way, was created as a replacement for Elmer Fudd.  

Chuck Jones, in addition to his many contributions to Warner Brothers cartoons, did a lot of mostly seasonal animation projects and specials away from Warner Brothers from the early '60s through the early '70s that often play on cable television annually to this day and that's probably a big reason why his name is much more recognizable by those outside the audiences of Warner cartoons. He did critically acclaimed work for MGM. The crowning achievement away from Warner Brothers, in hindsight, would be his adaptation of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, a story from Dr. Seuss, that plays every year. Jones returned to Warner Brothers in the late '70s and remained a pivotal figure in keeping the the public remembering the Warner Brothers characters as well as providing newer animation projects utilizing the classic characters.

Characters created and, or, associated with Chuck Jones at Warner Brothers are Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, The Road Runner and Coyote, Pepe LePew, Porky Pig, Marvin Martian, Charlie Dog, Witch Hazel, and Sylvester. Jones' depiction of Bugs Bunny is in sharp contrast to the depictions from the other directors. Friz Freleng stayed with the wiseguy, Brooklyn-Bronx mannerisms brought out by Tex Avery's A Wild Hare. Jones depicted Bugs as a calm, minding his own business kind of character who only became a wiseguy or became aggressive once provoked.

Jones introduced the world to the Duck Season/Rabbit Season routine and changed the personality of Daffy from being a free-for-all, zany, looney character into a gigantic egomaniac forever jealous of the popularity enjoyed by Bugs Bunny. The fans who love this depiction have Chuck Jones to thank.

The funny thing is that this characterization of Daffy remained constant...being picked up by the other directors...and today Daffy is known as a greedy, vain, egotistical braggart. In his memorable role as Duck Dodgers, Daffy plays the part of the know-it-all hero scolding and blaming his associates for his own incompetence. This is not the Daffy that intrigued movie audiences of the '30s and '40s...but it's a comical stroke of genius all the same.  

Jones directed three cartoons that are in the National Film Registry: Duck Amuck, One Froggy Evening, and What's Opera, Doc?. Ironically, those three cartoons didn't win any awards during their original releases, but decades of showings on television and the viewer response to those three in particular elevated them above the other cartoons. Three of his theatrical cartoons did win Academy Awards: For Scent-imental Reasons, So Much For So Little, and The Dot and the Line. Jones won an Honorary Academy Award in 1996 for career/lifetime achievement.

One of the things about these Golden Collections is that the work of the directors are on full display and you're able to enjoy the various styles and characterizations associated with specific animators and directors. Until these collections started being released it was next to impossible to see cartoons from Frank Tashlin, for example, or see Norm McCabe's work for the studio. I think the collections certainly have the capability to spotlight the lesser known work that wasn't seen on TV on a constant basis and maybe spawn followings for those directors. Time will tell, though!

The four disc's consist of theme-oriented cartoons:

1. Bugs Bunny Favorites
2. A Dash of Tashlin
3. Speedy Gonzales in a Flash
4. Kitty Korner

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Ray Stevens: The ObamaCare Song

The feeling continues to grow as "We The People" climbs into the Top-30 on Amazon's best-selling MP3 list. As far as country music MP3's are concerned it's still among the Top-3. The official web-site of Ray Stevens crashed multiple times on Friday January 8th and a lot of it had to do with increased traffic which as everyone knows causes a web-site to crash. I believe a lot of this increased traffic stems from the television exposure that Ray's music video had in a brief segment on The O'Reilly Factor. I think that the exposure helped to introduce the song to those who aren't as conversant when it comes to social networks like You Tube or Facebook and as a result even more visitors checked out Ray's web-site looking for the ObamaCare information. There's always a risk or a slim chance that an internet hit isn't well known outside the confines of cyber-space. Some people who don't frequent places like You Tube or just don't even pay attention aren't going to know a music video is available. One of the things that this experience has done with "We The People" taking on a life of it's own is that a good 75 to 80% of people weren't even aware that Ray had been active. A lot of people make the statement that they thought he had retired or had died years on one hand it's satisfying to see Ray get a lot of media hype and attention and on the other hand it's ironic to see that a lot of people didn't, on their own, seek Ray's music out and instead are just becoming aware of his presence through the "We The People" song.

There's also a good chance that people who discovered Ray through this song will check out his catalog of music...which dates back to the late 1950's. I think one of the things that's surprising to a lot of people who weren't really into all things Ray Stevens is how serious he actually is. As I mentioned in the earliest blog entries that I wrote, Ray had always wanted to be taken seriously and sing serious songs and love ballads but he had a sense of humor and also wanted to express it occasionally. The thing that happened, as long-time fans already know, is that the love ballads and non-comical songs weren't obtaining the same degree of attention from the buying public. One of the things that may be fascinating for some to learn is that the music critics, both in pop and country, almost always gave Ray's serious side good reviews and they would groan and bellyache whenever he'd issue a comical song or an entire album of comical songs. The exact opposite would occur with the buying public...with the exception of a few non-comical songs from Ray that achieved Top-40 rankings, nearly all of his biggest commercial successes came with the comical material. So it was like the buyers wanted fun and silliness from Ray while the critics wanted the serious, thought-provoking Ray.

Those who are amazed or surprised that Ray has serious opinions and world views perhaps thought that an artist known for light, comical banter doesn't take anything seriously? That's just my guess as to why some out there are shocked or stunned by the song...more stunned that it came from someone like Ray whose branded "safe" or "non-threatening". I think the very idea that the song comes from someone the public would least expect is where the 'novelty' aspect comes from...even though the lyrics are dead-serious. This is where I think the genius of Ray Stevens shines through and it has to do with the song's arrangement and the humorous music video imagery. The arrangement is bouncy and the chorus is catchy while the music video is funny to watch...and something else that's funny...

I've been a fan of Ray's 1974 single, "The Moonlight Special", ever since I first heard the song. It was on a 1983 Greatest Hits tape that RCA issued. The tape came into my possession during the early '90s when I located it at K-Mart. The song is a parody of the Midnight Special TV show which featured Wolfman Jack. I happen to think that the inability of a lot of teenagers and even young adults to laugh at themselves is why the single wasn't as big a hit as I think it should have been. As far as statistics go the single peaked just inside the Top-75 of the pop music chart and I believe it was based upon strength of sales instead of airplay. I did a blog entry about this single and titled it "Anniversary Under the Moonlight". 2009 had marked the single's 35th anniversary. The song itself is broken into three acts and the Sheep Dog acts as presenter/emcee. The Sheep Dog, of course, is the Wolfman Jack parody. Ray's own voice appears throughout singing the chorus of the song...but mostly the song is composed of his impressions of Wolfman Jack and the guests appearing on "The Moonlight Special".

For those who want to hear an R&B, bluesy take on "Indian Love Call" look no further than Ray's version of the song. He recorded it in 1975 and it became a Top-40 country music hit. Surprisingly the single didn't do as well with the pop audiences and that's perhaps because the overall feel of the song didn't mesh with the sound of pop radio at the time...or another reason could be that pop music DJ's didn't like the song altogether, no matter whose singing it. Some songs just seem to have this vibe that causes DJ's or music buyers to freak out and they don't want to hear the song by any artist and perhaps "Indian Love Call" is one of those songs? If that's the case the sentiments don't extend to the pop-standards crowd who loved the first known recording by Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in 1936. Slim Whitman recorded the song in 1952 and his version is often considered the definitive recording because of his yodeling techniques when phrasing some of the lyrics. Ray's version I'd assume was a sleeper hit with country audiences because it doesn't exactly sound 'country' and the origins of the song aren't 'country'. I will make the assumption that a big factor in the song's acceptance had to do with Ray himself and perhaps the country DJ's getting a kick out of Ray's bluesy arrangement.