“The Cabbage Patch Kids: First Christmas” (1984)

As our country continues its train ride into Hell, driven by a conductor who speaks in an inscrutable word salad, much like the Man From Another Place in Twin Peaks, it’s important to keep in mind that the concept of #MAGA, that dream world our President and his most ardent supporters speak about, never really existed. There’s never been a time when everyone had a Cadillac in their driveway, and people (wink) knew their place (nudge). The rich have always dominated the poor, teenagers have always been having sex, women have always been getting abortions, and the gays have always been gay. Other than the fact that you can now send a picture of a dancing hot dog to someone within less than a second, the world hasn’t changed all that much.

Remember last Christmas, when we all looked askance at parents who went to insane lengths to buy Hatchimals, the media hyped “hot toy” of the year? People lined up outside of stores before dawn, got into fistfights with each other over the last one, and paid up to ten times the price to predatory opportunists online. This year? You can get them for $20 at Big Lots. They can’t get rid of these things. But, it’s okay, as long as the rest of us who didn’t participate in such nonsense can smirk in satisfaction and judgment over what parents today will do in order to appease their spoiled brats.

But, here’s the thing (and I know that most people know this, but seem to conveniently forget it in favor of smug superiority): this exact same thing happens every few years, and has for decades. Before that, there was Tickle Me Elmo. Then there were Furbies, then Tamagotchis, and then Tickle Me Elmo again, for the first time. Before any of that, however, there were Cabbage Patch Kids.

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An Artistic Consideration of Benny Mardones’ “Into the Night” (1980)

NOTE: I’m on a brief break (fear not, returning next week!), so this is a slightly edited post from last year, which seems to fit well with November’s theme.

When you get to a certain age (say, 30), it becomes time to make a difficult decision: you can either continue to embrace the new and trendy in pop culture, or you can firmly dig your feet in and grumpily insist that what “the kids today,” some of whom might be a whole decade or so younger than you, are into isn’t nearly as good as what you enjoyed in your youth.

Once we were rendered a casualty in the war for relevance between the Baby Boomers and Millennials, members of Generation X became especially skilled in kidding ourselves into believing that our pre-smartphones and Wikipedia childhoods were somehow better, more pure than today. This is true. It was an innocent time where kids could ride their bicycles without helmets, and only occasionally die of massive head injuries after an accident (social Darwinism, amirite?), when gay teens would suffer in silence until they got old enough to run away from their shitty small towns, never to be heard from again, and when men could be abusive drunks to their families, and as long as he was supporting them financially it was no one else’s business.

It was also a time when men could extol the romantic and sexual virtues of teenage girls without anyone looking at them askance.

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“The Amy Fisher Story” (1993)

And so, we wrap things up with the most memorable movie in this trilogy of tastelessness, The Amy Fisher Story. Memorable not just because of who was tapped for the leading role, it presents the interesting (and probably mostly true) theory that everyone involved in the “Long Island Lolita” case was a craven opportunist, all but tripping over each other to get a piece of the action. Told from the third party perspective of a newspaper reporter, not one single character comes off well, and even the audience is left feeling a little dirty and ashamed for watching it.

In this version, Amy Fisher is played by Drew Barrymore, in what could reasonably be described as “stunt casting.” Barrymore, younger than Fisher but somehow looking and acting at least a decade older (the distractingly bad wig she wears doesn’t help), was in the middle of her post-rehab “comeback,” still mostly taking roles meant to prove to audiences that she wasn’t cute little Gertie in E.T. anymore. A great example of how Hollywood is a healthy and happy place for young women (or really just women in general) is the fact that The Amy Fisher Story was the second movie in less than a year in which Barrymore, not even eighteen yet, was cast as a murderous teen sexpot who has a steamy affair with a man far too old for her. While comparing The Amy Fisher Story to Poison Ivy is similar to comparing a boil to a sebaceous cyst, The Amy Fisher Story manages to come out slightly ahead.

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“Casualties of Love: the Long Island Lolita Story” (1993)

It’s said that there are three sides to every story–yours, mine, and the truth. Sometimes, as with the  three TV movies recounting the Amy Fisher-Joey Buttafuoco scandal, those sides are so far removed from each other that one is unsure if they’re even about the same incident. Particularly in comparing Casualties of Love: the Long Island Lolita Story to last week’s Lethal Lolita, the only things the two have in common are the characters’ names, and the setting. Beyond that, despite both of them professing to be the real true story, they vary so wildly in tone and “facts” that the viewer ends up feeling a little gaslit. Did Joey put Amy up to shooting his wife? Was Amy a prostitute of her own volition? Had Joey committed statutory rape? Is blue red? Is the tortoise a shoe? When’s lunch?

Lethal Lolita may have given Amy Fisher the opportunity to tell her side of the story first, but Joey and Mary Jo Buttafuoco were allowed their rebuttal just a week later. And oh boy, it’s some premium processed cheese food. Though there was never a point in the proceedings when Joey didn’t come off as at least a little shady (and certainly opportunistic), by the time Casualties of Love aired public opinion had turned against him enough that his participation in a movie in which he’s portrayed as a put upon blue collar mook whose only crime was being nice to a crazy, slutty teenager was, if not outright gross, certainly ill-timed and inappropriate.

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“Lethal Lolita” (1992)

Only 90s kids will remember when we as a collective society became obsessed with, in equal parts revulsion and titillation, the story of a high school student who, evidently distraught over her affair with a man twice her age, shot and almost killed his wife. The student was Amy Fisher, and her lover was the improbably named Joey Buttafuoco. In probably the best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) example of the pre-internet obsession with taking sad, sordid tales of sex and/or violence and turning them into inescapable news stories, it was a situation that started out as merely unpleasant and eventually became something so irredeemably gross that to read about it left you wishing you could remove your eyes and boil them.

While Buttafuoco at first denied the affair and claimed that he had no idea why Fisher would shoot his wife, eventually he admitted that, whoops, he had been sleeping with her after all, starting when she was sixteen. Spending a few months in jail for statutory rape neither shamed nor humbled him, however, and it became quickly apparent that Buttafuoco kind of liked being a minor celebrity, and was all too happy to capitalize on his wife’s brutal attack to keep that fame train a-rollin’. He did interviews with Howard Stern, and courted near constant media attention, becoming both a punchline on Late Night With David Letterman, and a sort of folk hero for other middle aged schlubs whose fondest fantasy was that an unremarkable looking teenage girl might one day cast an eye in their direction too.

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“The Paul Lynde Halloween Special” (1976)

I know that The Paul Lynde Halloween Special has been covered many times over by various pop culture nostalgia websites, and there is virtually nothing left to say about it. But to not mention it would be like a science fiction blog not mentioning Alien. You have to give at least a passing acknowledgment of it, if for no other reason than to reiterate that it actually happened, and was not the result of some sort of mass hallucination. Like The Brady Bunch Hour (which was also co-written by comedy goblin Bruce Vilanch), to watch the whole thing requires a great deal of pinching oneself and checking whatever you were most recently drinking for strange residue.

The Paul Lynde Halloween Special aired in 1976, when Lynde’s career was at its peak, thanks to his regular appearances on The Hollywood Squares. His road to television fame after working in theater and a handful of films was a bumpy one, and it wasn’t until Lynde essentially began playing himself–a middle-aged queen who was always quick with a salty quip–that he became successful. Though in retrospect it seems impossible to believe that anyone with eyes and ears wouldn’t realize that Lynde was gay, evidently the fact that he never actually stated as much in public was enough to convince many of his fans otherwise–Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall claimed in an interview that he received hundreds of love letters from adoring female viewers. Reportedly, Lynde’s frustration at playing up to stereotypes in his professional life while having to keep his personal life in the closet (a not very well hidden closet, but a closet nonetheless) exacerbated his alcoholism and anger management issues, which would eventually put his career on the decline.

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“Vampire” (1979)

You can’t keep a good bloodsucker down. Vampires may not be “in” right now, but they’ll surely rise again, because we love stories about tragic, misunderstood monsters, especially when you add in some sex and violence. There’s at least a small part of all of us who wouldn’t mind the idea of eternal life as a supernatural being who can command absolute control over anyone we want. Or at least, be able to pull off wearing a cape.

1979 was a banner year for vampires. Frank Langella redefined the lead role of Dracula. Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot was adapted into a two part miniseries. Klaus Kinski was an all too convincing Nosferatu. There was the inevitable comedy, with Love at First Bite. And, of course, there was a TV series–or at least, an attempt at a TV series, with a feature length pilot simply called Vampire.

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“Playboy’s Roller Disco and Pajama Party” (1979)

Last Wednesday marked the not terribly untimely death of Hugh Hefner, pioneer of the sexual revolution, civil rights activist, advocate for gay marriage, and alleged supporter of the women’s movement. I say “alleged,” because it’s hard to parse that when you consider that Hefner built his fortune on the backs of nude women, mistreated his romantic partners, and palled around with some of Hollywood’s most notable rapists, including Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski.

To be fair, Hefner didn’t just make millions from publishing pictures of naked ladies, he managed to sell the appreciation of said naked ladies as an elegant pursuit, like polo or fine scotch. His gimmick was that these weren’t any old skags in the altogether, but the finest young, innocent, young, fresh faced, young, girl next door types who were also very young. Playboy Playmates were wholesome, all American, sexy without being sexual. A man could almost whack off to them with pride, because they all looked just so delighted to be there.

Nevertheless, by the end of the 70s, Playboy‘s brand of winking faux innocence was starting to flag, both in competition with Penthouse and Hustler, which did away with any pretense of “elegance,” and facing the rise of feminism. Hef and his brand needed to reach a new audience, and that audience was primetime television viewers, who by 1979 were already well stocked in all the gratuitous T&A they needed, thanks to Charlie’s Angels and Three’s Company. Nevertheless, ABC aired Playboy’s Roller Disco and Pajama Party, which, despite Hefner’s claims that he respected women and wanted them to be on equal footing with men, comes off as a sharp rebuke to that. This is a celebration of the barely clothed female form, and Hefner’s ability to throw a great party, slightly smutty wish fulfillment for schlubby male viewers.

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“The Great NBC Smilin’ Saturday Morning Parade” (1976)

There are a few pop culture moments that have become uncomfortably sad, if not even macabre, in retrospect. Take Bill Cosby’s bit from Himself about how his wife once became so frustrated with their son’s behavior that she demanded that Cosby murder him. Or Dennis Miller greeting guest Phil Hartman on his talk show with “How’s Bryn?” barely a year before Hartman was shot to death by his wife in a murder-suicide. Or the exhausted sigh Kurt Cobain lets out near the end of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”, recorded just five months before he killed himself.

Depressed yet? Well, then allow me to sink you deeper into the pit of despair and talk about Freddie Prinze. Prinze, a stand-up comedian, experienced almost instant stardom after an appearance on The Tonight Show. In 1974, he was cast in Chico and the Man, a warm, uplifting sitcom about a streetwise but good hearted Puerto Rican youth, and the miserable old white man who barely tolerates him. Chico and the Man was a hit, and Prinze proved to be such a popular guest on the talk show circuit that he was offered a four year contract with NBC.

His first gig with NBC following the new contract was, curiously, hosting a primetime preview show called The NBC Smilin’ Saturday Morning Parade in 1976. I say “curiously” because nothing about Prinze’s persona, despite being just 22 at the time, or his comedy, screamed “popular with the little ones.” And yet, here he is as “The Grandest Parade Marshal of Them All,” singing and dancing in a garish cape and top hat, and doing an almost convincing job of not looking completely out of his element. Four months later, Prinze, who struggled with depression and drug addiction since his teens, committed suicide.

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“Back to Next Saturday” (1985)

As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, I generally avoid middle-aged navelgazing about how much better things were when I was a kid. Mostly it’s because they weren’t, but it’s also because there are few things more trite and boring than old people smugly looking down on things that exist for the youth.

HOWEVER. However. I will say that you kids today will never know the simple pleasures of Saturday morning cartoons. That is, of course, because there are now multiple channels available that air nothing but cartoons, twenty-four hours a day. But it lacks the joy, the soothing satisfaction, of rising with the sun, sneaking around so you don’t wake your parents, pouring yourself a triple serving of Froot Loops, and sitting in front of the television for the next five hours. Sometimes you’d get there early, and end up having to watch the end of local morning news, but that was alright, it was only ever good news at the end, like a waterskiing squirrel or a Kiwanis pancake eating contest.

Because the Saturday morning cartoons ritual was such an innate part of the 60s through 80s childhood experience, it seems strange in retrospect for a network to air shows encouraging kids to watch them. After all, what else were we going to do during that time, go outside? God fucking forbid. Nevertheless, as previously covered in The NBC Saturday Morning Preview Revue, this was a common practice for nearly three decades, elaborate primetime affairs created largely to promote mediocre children’s programming. The programs were mediocre, I should point out, not the children, although I suppose some children are mediocre, pobody’s nerfect after all.

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