Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Blame Me!

You're an up-and-coming, young liberal blogger, looking to ply your talents for your favorite Democratic politician. You're filled with political energy and bursting with opinions, just waiting for that special candidate to bring you aboard the Victory Express. Problem is, you've left a trail of angry, critical attacks on your many political opponents, some of whom have media access and demented followers who can make your life a living hell. It's the last thing a Democrat running for office wants to be associated with, and so your dreams are shattered before they've even taken flight.

Sound familiar? Well, it no longer has to end this way, not when you can simply Blame Me!

Hi, I'm Dennis Perrin from Red State Son. You may know me from my many assaults on liberal bloggers and the Democratic Party as a whole. While I maintain that no serious, lasting change can come from voting for the lesser of two evils, I still like to help where I can, and the recent John Edwards/blogger controversy offers just such an opportunity.

Look -- there's no way in hell that a serious Democratic campaign is going to hire the likes of me. Not only is my contempt for this corrupt, archaic political system open for all to see, my public opinions have bordered on slander and oftentimes read like a lunatic's screams. When it comes to mainstream political discussion, I'm toxic, damaged goods. But that doesn't mean you have to suffer the same marginalization. So instead of quitting a campaign under pressure, why not Blame Me! for your previous outbursts!

For an affordable, privately-negotiated fee, I'll allow you to insert my name in your blog archives, making me the source of any or all hostile opinions you may have typed in the heat of the moment. When your political enemies are searching for something that can embarrass your candidate, instead of finding this:

"The crypto-fascist Christers are trying to shove their blood-stained crucifix up our collective ass."

They'll see this:

"'The crypto-fascist Christers are trying to shove their blood-stained crucifix up our collective ass,' said Dennis Perrin, discussing the GOP's 2008 campaign strategy."

It's just that simple! With a few clicks of the keyboard, I become the target of reactionary ire while you are merely "quoting" me! And there's no need to worry or feel guilty about any harsh response I might inspire -- I have years of experience dealing with rightwing maniacs and their tortured, projected psyches. Nothing they say about me bothers me in the least. They're fucking crazy! I even briefly tangled with Bill Donahue back in the day, and let me tell you, that guy is a sad, sorry motherfucker. Think what spending countless years defending a sick, twisted institution like the Catholic Church does to a person's mind, then multiply it by 20. That's where Bill Donahue's at. Mix in some Jew-phobia and an obsession with queers that practically kicks down the closet door, and you get a jabbering head-case who always seems to find a working camera or microphone. But that's no longer your concern!

"I wrote some pretty harsh things about Republicans and conservative Christians on my popular blog. Then one day, someone from Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign offered me a job overseeing her online outreach. It was a dream come true, but I worried that my blog archives would come back to haunt me. Thanks to Dennis Perrin, all of my crude insults, casual libels, character defamations, and gutter-level slurs instantly became his! I never knew how powerful a few quotation marks could be! By blaming Dennis, I can focus all of my energy on Sen. Clinton's plan to tighten the corporate stranglehold on our country while finding new ways to wage war in the Middle East!"

Jill Smith (not her real name)

"I was all set to move to North Carolina to help John Edwards become the next President of the United States, when my archived attacks on 'pro-life' nutjobs and patriarchal fascists were spread all over the media, derailing my plans and filling my in-box with semi-literate screeds against my looks and sexuality. If only I could have blamed Dennis Perrin for my old opinions, I might very well still be in the thick of the '08 campaign. If there is a 'next time,' you can bet that I'll Blame Dennis!"

Amanda Marcotte

It may be too late for Amanda, but it's the right time for you. Campaign season is heating up, so don't take any chances -- Blame Me today!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Talking "Fridays" With Tom Kramer

As many of you know, I'm a big fan of the old ABC sketch comedy show "Fridays." I've posted several takes about the show and whatever clips I could find, but there's much more to be written and said about that now largely forgotten effort.

Recently, a friend in LA put me in touch with Tom Kramer, who directed the short films on "Fridays", as well as the filmed commercial and TV parodies. One of my favorite Tom Kramer filmed bits was "Assassin M.D.," about a sniper who shoots people, then rushes down to the street to medically treat them. It was written by Rod Ash and Mark Curtis, the latter of whom died of cancer in 2004. Tom shot an hour-long video about Mark Curtis' final months called "50 Things To Do Before I Die". In it, Tom and Mark go to a Neil Young concert, which they hate, travel to Vegas, meet up with some of Mark's closest high school friends (including former writing partner Rod Ash), go on a cruise, and at one point, reunite with several old "Fridays" writers, among them Larry David and Larry Charles, as well as Jack Burns, Bruce Kirschbaum, and Bruce Mahler.

Watching that assembled talent talking about their time on the show made me want to do a bigger project about "Fridays", either written or videotaped. Even though it used the same format as "Saturday Night Live", "Fridays" had its own flavor, and in many ways remains unique among the many sketch shows that have since come and gone. And of course it helped prepare the creative ground for "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm". So I asked Tom if I could interview him about his time on the show, and he graciously made time to do so. Consider this the first step toward realizing that larger project.

DP: Could you tell us a bit about your background and upbringing? When did you decide to become a filmmaker?

Tom Kramer: I was a good Catholic kid from a dry cleaner family in St. Louis, MO. I started making films in grade school, first by editing home movies to music, then by making my own scripted films.

DP: Which came first for you -- film or comedy?

TK: Actually, I liked making dramatic films until I showed one before a large crowd at Loyola University in New Orleans, and everyone laughed. I then realized I had an accidental knack for comedy.

DP: Tell us about how you got involved with "Fridays". What did the producers John Moffitt and Bill Lee tell you about the project, and how did they know of your work?

TK: I was a freshman at Loyola when Dick Clark did a special in New Orleans and hired some of us students as runners. I took the next Fall off from college to work as a runner on an NBC series, "Dick Clark's Live Wednesday" in Burbank. It was a dream come true, but the show got cancelled. So I went back to college the next Spring and made a documentary film parody in film class. The summer after my sophomore year I made a drastic decision and dropped out of college. I drove back to Hollywood and gave a copy of my film to Bill Lee and John Moffitt, who I met doing the Dick Clark series. I didn't know that they were just putting together a pilot for ABC to be called "Fridays". I got a call two days later telling me that they wanted to use the film in the pilot. I was so excited, I couldn't sit down. That film, "Nauseating Spasms," aired on Episode 9 of "Fridays", I think.

DP: What was planning the show like?

TK: We'd meet on Sunday to pitch our sketches and get assignments for the week. Blocking and rehearsals would go on during the week with a dress rehearsal and air on Friday. I would write sketches as well, but mostly concentrated on films, which I would pitch on Sunday. Monday would be casting and location scouting, Tuesday or Wednesday shooting, Thursday editing, Friday sound mixing and then air on Friday evening. I would also direct anything else on the show that needed to be shot on location.

DP: Early in its run, "Fridays" was slammed by critics and other comics as a rip-off of "Saturday Night Live". Did any of this criticism bother you guys or make you write in a different way?

TK: We were so happy for the opportunity that we didn't care. Besides, it was a "rip-off" of "SNL" and we tried to acknowledge that and have fun with it.

DP: What were your initial impressions of the cast?

TK: I was most impressed with John Roarke, because of his impressions, and Mark Blankfield's incredible physical comedy.

DP: What were your initial impressions of the writers?

TK: Genius.

DP: What was it like being one of the youngest people on staff?

TK: I was very impressionable, but I think I was also allowed time to grow because of my age. They really made a big deal out of it when introducing my films.

DP: That's true. I recently watched the parody of "A Chorus Line" you did with Billy Crystal, and he praised you to the heavens. What was your favorite piece?

TK: "Cons On Ice" was my favorite, about a new convict in prison who has to prove himself on the prison ice rink.

DP: In the early stages of the show, comedy veteran Jack Burns served as supervising producer, head writer, and on-air announcer. He certainly brought a lot of experience to "Fridays", having worked at Second City in the 1960s, and in comedy teams with George Carlin and Avery Schreiber. Tell us how Jack Burns helped to pull the show together.

TK: Jack staged and blocked the sketches, and worked a lot with the cast. He also inspired the edginess of the show with what he always referred to as "that 'Fridays' edge."

DP: At a certain point in the show's run, he seemed to just disappear.

TK: Jack stepped aside to spend more time working with the cast in staging the sketches. He recognized the talents of the writers he helped hire and encouraged all of us to have more say in the show. He was a big "protector" of me as well, being the "young filmmaker," and to this day is a great friend and Hollywood "father figure" of mine. He did have some problems [with other staffers] but never with me. I remember when he left the show about two-thirds of the way in. I'm not exactly sure whose decision it was at the time. But things were pretty crazy back then. You can only imagine.

DP: One part of "that 'Fridays' edge" was of course the show's drug humor. It's no secret that various chemicals were ingested on "Fridays", but what was the comedic thinking behind some of the drug sketches like the "Rasta Gourmet," the pill-popping Pharmacist, and the dope smoking 3 Stooges?

TK: "Fridays" aired during possibly the last time in America that drugs were at all acceptable. It was the early-80s, and drugs were open and everywhere in Hollywood. Some of the writers were veterans of the 60s drug culture, so drug humor, like that of Cheech and Chong, was popular. I personally had very little experience with drugs at the time and didn't seem to get the humor like most others. I guess I was very naive. I resisted [using drugs] at first, but eventually got pulled in and struggled for years to get sober. By the way, not everyone [on the show] did drugs.

DP: "Fridays" was also known for being very political -- much more political than "SNL" ever dared to be. You guys bashed the religious right at a time when most shows and networks feared people like Jerry Falwell. You never let up on the Reagan administration, and perhaps boldest of all, the staff wrote and performed hard core material about US involvement in El Salvador, setting sketches in refugee camps, torture centers, and the like. What was the general political bent of the writers and cast? Where there any political arguments or disagreements?

TK: Most of the writers and cast were antiwar and liberal in their views, so I don't remember many arguments on that. Reagan being in office became great fodder for humor. John Roarke, in make-up, did a hilarious Reagan. Draft registration was just reinstated and I was turning 21, so I did several antiwar films. One I remember was the "Draft Lottery Sweepstakes," which was a parody of the Publisher's Clearinghouse commercials, only here the grand prize was a trip to Afghanistan.

DP: You were about a quarter century ahead of the geopolitical curve on that one, though back then, we were on Osama Bin Laden's side against the Soviets.

TK: As far as that anti-draft film goes, my main political point of view was pacifism. I was a member of "The Fellowship of Reconciliation." It wasn't practical, real world thinking. I was just against war and killing in general except maybe in active self defense. I think how war comes full circle and how America sometimes changes sides depending on who has the oil or whatever is typical of politics. I'm still antiwar but still not quite as knowledgeable or active as everyone was back during "Fridays".

DP: What were the audiences like during air? Any incidents?

TK: The audiences were great and enthusiastic, but the only problem, if you want to call it that, is that they were sometimes too loud so that the sketches couldn't be heard.

DP: Give us a sense of what it was like during the infamous Andy Kaufman week in early '81.

TK: Andy lived in character most of the time. The famous on-air fight was kept secret and I only found out about it a few minutes before it happened. It was arranged by Andy and Jack Burns. The following show [hosted by Billy Crystal], Andy came on to apologize and feigned a nervous breakdown. He hosted the first show of the next season as a born again Christian, and a lot of people believed him.

TK: Andy told some of the writers that his ultimate plan was to fake his death. A few years later [1984], I was almost killed in a car wreck in St. Louis. I was in traction in my bed, and I remember watching the news that Andy Kaufman was dead. Since I was seriously near death myself, I actually resented this and called the news station to tell them not to fall for the joke. They were going to send a news crew to my hospital bed to interview me; but then I talked to Mark Blankfield, who had the same manager as Andy, and he confirmed it. Andy had died.

DP: When did you guys get the sense that the show might be doomed?

TK: After the Iranian hostage crisis, Ted Koppel started "Nightline", which pushed us back a half hour, which hurt our ratings. That was the beginning of the end.

DP: We all know the names Larry David and Michael Richards. Who are some of the people, writers or cast, we should also remember?

TK: You should remember Mark Blankfield for sure, a reincarnation of Buster Keaton. Also, Larry Charles, who directed "Borat" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm", was on the writing staff. I'm just amazed that you remember the show at all!

DP: I loved "Fridays". Like I said, it's the "forgotten" sketch show from that pre-comedy boom period. It should be remembered.

TK: People ask me all the time what "Fridays" was like. It was the most intense experience I could imagine, my dream gig. I had the opportunity to enjoy the adrenaline of a live show with a live audience, but at the same time, have the creative freedom and control to write, produce and direct my own short films each week, starring people I idolized, including Oscar winners, all before I was legally old enough to drink. This was right before cable hit, so our audience was enormous.

DP: At one point, larger than "SNL's".

TK: I knew how lucky I was. I remember going off alone at times and crying in gratitude. But still, it spoiled me rotten and didn't prepare me at all for how Hollywood worked. It took many years of humbling experiences to rebuild a life and career. Between then and now I've fought with addictions, serious accidents and homelessness. I got sober and made a transition into making reality and hidden camera shows. When I got word that Larry David was offering me a chance to direct an episode of "Curb" [for the upcoming season], I screamed and then cried again. The first day on the set, I asked Larry if he remembered the first film I directed him in. He didn't hesitate: "Underwear Beach." He then listed several more of his favorite "Tom Kramer Films." That was an honor.

DP: Finally, how would you define the legacy of "Fridays"?

TK: A once in a lifetime opportunity, and totally exhausting!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Sincere Farewell

A moment of silence for Molly Ivins, who died yesterday of cancer at 62.

I believe it was Gore Vidal who said, "Of the dead, speak only the truth." So I must admit that I was not the biggest Molly Ivins fan around -- not that I disagreed with her or found her work to be seriously lacking in any way. It just seemed to me that she was trying to reach the fence sitters and assorted wavering types, hoping to show them that being on the left was not a bad or frightening thing. Her natural, at times caustic, sense of humor definitely helped. But I never felt that she was writing for the likes of me. Which is fine. The struggle operates at all levels. I will say that I admired her warm and humane demeanor. She remembered what it's all supposedly about while grunts like me cursed humanity and threw garbage on the stage. Roses at her feet for that.

The other thing worth noting about Ivins is how she influenced and helped to wake up younger writers and activists. A lefty Texan of my acquaintance told me that Ivins seemed like a Marxist in that reddest of red states, and that her example was not only needed, it was cherished. Coming from a pretty rightwing state myself, I can definitely understand that (Hoosiers of my generation had Kurt Vonnegut, who, while not overtly political, was still a creative, humanist example to admire). That Ivins served as a nail in reactionary hides is to be remembered and celebrated. I only wish that her style of writing was more in evidence among libloggers. Most of them could use a generous injection of Ivins.

Farewell, Molly. You've been spared the madness and misery that is hurtling our way. The fight continues in our battered hands.