Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy Bad Year!

Another horrid year comes to a close, to be replaced by, I'm sure, an even worse one. Why pretend otherwise? (A liberal acquaintance is crossing his fingers, hoping for a Dem sweep in the Nov elections -- that's how sad it is, kids.) Personally, I'm striving to breakout in '06, whatever that may or may not mean. But I'll have to do so while the tortured scream, common household items explode, amphibians fall from the sky, and vibrating flesh vans patrol suburban streets, filming and recording any and all "questionable" activity.

C'mon, Red boy! You can be more optimistic than that!

Okay. All right. Fine. Truth is, I'm actually in a pretty upbeat mood today, since every New Year's Eve the wife & I watch 2 or 3 extremely bad movies or related awful fare, and this year's crop is perhaps the ripest yet.

The first offering is a 1967 NBC Nancy Sinatra TV special, "Movin' With Nancy," complete with period commercials and plenty of go-go boots -- second-generation Rat Packers slumming Haight-Ashbury wearing desinger Day Glo duds. Sweet.

Next, "Hello Down There," starring Tony Randall, Janet Leigh, Roddy McDowall, Jim Backus, and a young Richard Dreyfuss as the bass player for Harold and His Hang Ups, a teen garage band on the verge of commercial success. The twist is, they must rehearse in an underwater house built by Randall, surrounded by turned-on tuned-in sea creatures, including a seal who does The Frug. I haven't seen this 1969 plum in over a decade, but the wife hasn't seen it at all, so there'll be that joy watching a first-timer exposed to pop songs like "Glub, glub glub/I'm floatin' on a sea of love!" carried by heavy Casio organ licks and boy Dreyfuss lip-syncing some other guy's voice, among numerous way out groovy scenes. Rightwingers at the time blamed "Hello" for undermining American will in Vietnam, but I don't see the connection.

Finally, Otto Preminger's 1968 ode to LSD, "Skidoo," with Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Mickey Rooney, Frankie Avalon, Groucho Marx as God, film score by Harry Nilsson. Now this is truly a rare treat. I saw it once, 20 years ago at the old Thalia theater on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and much of the film has stayed with me. I mean, how does one forget tripping prison guards hallucinating a garbage can ballet in a prison yard? Or the closing credits sung? No, not a song over the closing credits -- the closing credits as the lyrics to its own song. Wild. Perfect for the midnight show, the first images of 2006.

Whenever I think about bad creative choices of any kind, I have to give it up for Tom Schiller, who wrote all the "Bad" sketches on the original "Saturday Night Live." Dan Aykroyd's Leonard Pinth-Garnell emceed all manner of badness, from the musical "Leeuwenhoek," about the man who invented the microscope, to a Red Chinese ballet where late-70s New York Yankee Mickey Rivers represents "Yankee imperialism," to a Weimar cabaret for children, and a dramatic play scripted by a man who couldn't form sentences. "Bad" remains one of SNL's true conceptual triumphs, and was never boring no matter how often done, since each new installment promised something exquisitely awful. To this day, I still sing songs from "Leeuwenhoek" as though Gilbert and Sullivan composed them.

I knew Tom for a time, and since we lived in the same neighborhood, I used to see him quite often on the street. He'd invite me to his apartment, which doubled as a film lab, and show me all the short videos & films that were rejected by then-SNL head writer Jim Downey and producer Lorne Michaels. One with Tim Meadows was really funny, and I couldn't believe it didn't air. It was about how Meadows's father was part of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s & 60s, but for him, civil rights meant lower meat prices. Meadows, playing his "Dad," would march while eating a turkey drumstick, an image Tom told me that Downey & Lorne thought might be seen as racist, even though the gag was conceived by Meadows, who as you may know is black. Tom just shook his weary head when speaking about his troubles at the early-90s SNL, saying that in the show's first years, he got on pretty much anything he wanted. "It's all corporate now," he'd say, downcast. Not long after that, Tom was fired by the show without any explanation, a cold slap in the face to an original, talented guy who was the first writer hired by Lorne in the Spring of 1975.

Another visit was happier, and for me unforgettable. I'd told Tom about my love for "Bad," so he had me over to watch every one of them. We shared a bowl of robust pot, and soon I was laughing my ass off at all the intentionally dreadful productions, while Tom smiled and beamed that his early work so moved a younger fan. I can't fully express what a kick it was to watch what I'd marveled at as a teenager in Indiana alongside one of my comedy heroes. It was beautiful, and Tom was generous and encouraging. I haven't spoken to him in years, but if for some reason you're reading this, Tom, thanks man. No one did bad better or more artfully than you. Tonight's bad cinema will be enjoyed with you in mind.