On the Ides of March…

…my thoughts turn to one of the greatest Sesame Street sketches ever, the second installment of Monsterpiece Theater (written by Tony Geiss). From 1979, here is Alistair Cookie’s presentation of “Me Claudius”:

 

(Yes, all you historians out there: I am aware that the I, Claudius  TV series is set long after Julius Caesar’s death. Next, you’ll be chastising me for the monsters’ grammar. By all means, relax and enjoy some Muppets!)

Song In My Head #55: Sesame Street’s “Fuzzy and Blue (and Orange)”

I’d always assumed this Sesame Street tune, with its vaudevillian charm, was yet another classic penned by Joe Raposo. As it turns out, “Fuzzy and Blue (and Orange)” is the result of a 1981 collaboration between Stephen Lawrence and David Axelrod. While the song itself is quite catchy, my favorite part involves the little spoken interlude near the end. I’m still waiting to hear Grover’s precisely enunciated “Hit it, boys!” as a sample sometime:

Viewers of Mexico’s Plaza Sesamo often find Muppet Pancho Contreras belting out “Peludo y Azul,” the song’s Spanish-language version. Lola shines in the Frazzle role, further cementing her spot on this list

 

Song In My Head #53: “I Can’t Stop Dancing” by Archie Bell and the Drells

Some of you may remember my post about the (now-canceled) show The Muppets, featuring my strong feelings about Muppet problems. I realize now that I should have directed the show writers to this 1968 classic! Sure, there are many things to love about “I Can’t Stop Dancing”: the groove, the chiming melody, the clattering-yet-uncluttered percussion that nods to the Houston band’s smash hit “Tighten Up.” (What do you mean, you don’t know “Tighten Up”? You need it in your life! Go find it and listen now. I’ll wait right here.) What melts my heart every time, though, is the song’s premise. The song’s hero loyally eats lunch at the same place each day, but the music played there is so rockin’ that he can never finish his food, because he simply must dance. That predicament should have inspired an epic Muppet Show production number, or at least a shy heart-to-heart with a sympathetic Grover on Sesame Street. How does this dilemma get resolved? Wonder no longer:

In honor of National Cookie Day…

…I had to bring you Cookie Monster’s funkiest Sesame Street moment! “Cookie Disco,” co-written by  Christopher Cerf and Sam Pottle, first aired in 1977. The album version has graced countless mix tapes made by yours truly. (I played it several times when I was a college-radio DJ, usually following up with a Stooges number. Iggy Pop and Cookie Monster share a strange kinship in my head. I still have hopes that Cookie and Iggy will appear in a show segment together someday. It’s the least Sesame Street producers could do for me, now that they’ve chopped the show down to a half-hour.) Frank Oz’s rumbly vocal gives this “Theme From Shaft” homage real heft, but the backup singers deserve their props in the song and video alike. I confess that I still prefer the album version’s ending, where Cookie bellows “ME EAT THIS RECORD!” (How can we hear him say “Delicious!” afterward if he’s eaten the album? That used to confuse me when I was little.) Nevertheless, Cookie’s outfit and headdress go a long way to compensate in the video.

A friendly memo regarding THE MUPPETS

To the staff writers of The Muppets:

After watching the first three episodes, I feel qualified to give a few helpful reminders. Since you’ve all forgotten, here are some examples of the real problems that Muppets face each day.

The siren call of the Vendaface machine:

Trying to perform with Alan Arkin while he suffers the effects of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew’s Mr. Hyde potion:

Too many Beakers (though I’d argue there are never enough):

The scourge of cluckitis!

Earning your Frog Scout punk merit badge!

And of course, dodging sharpened bananas:

I’m sure you see my point. Think about it.

Very truly yours, Elizabeth

In honor of Star Wars Day…

Like many people, I’ve felt deep affection for Star Wars throughout my life. (Admittedly, I may be a casual fan compared to my childhood buddy Matthew, who’d seen the first movie ten times before he turned eight years old.) The films are always major events, but I particularly relish the unexpected Star Wars crossover moments in popular culture. As a child, I enjoyed the Sesame Street episode where R2-D2 fell madly in love with a fire hydrant. (Poor C-3PO had trouble convincing R2 that the romance would be star-crossed. Then again, as Anthony Daniels admitted about the hydrant years later, “Mind you–she was cute.”) Also, who could forget Mark Hamill on The Simpsons, playing Nathan Detroit in a Springfield dinner theatre production of Guys and Dolls…while sporting full Jedi gear? (Come on, you all know the words: “Luke, be a Jedi toni-i-i-i-ight…”)

I cherish my memories of Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination when it came to San Jose’s Tech Museum of Innovation in late 2013. I had to resist fangirl moments when I saw R2-D2 in the flesh (metal?) at the press preview event. The exhibition itself was really impressive, and its examination of droids’ place in society was extremely thought-provoking. (Those who are interested can read the whole article in my book, Going Coastal: Santa Cruz County and Beyond.)

To celebrate Star Wars Day properly, I present my favorite crossover of all to you: the February 23, 1980 episode of The Muppet Show, featuring the Star Wars cast. Mark Hamill is delightful as a bemused Luke Skywalker (who has no desire to appear on a “third-rate variety show”) as well as a desperate, struggling-actor version of himself (who, of course, will do anything to perform with the Muppets). The episode introduces my favorite underrated Muppet Show Muppet, Angus McGonagle (the gargling Argyle gargoyle). Hamill’s appearance with Angus alone…well, just watch, you’ll see. May the Fourth be with you, everybody!

Today in History (January 2)

On January 2, 1936, Roger Miller was born in Fort Worth, Texas. Most people remember him for such novelty songs as “Dang Me” and “You Can’t Roller Skate In A Buffalo Herd.” That’s how I knew his work for most of my life, and so when I saw one of his old records in the 50-cent bin at the Santa Cruz library a few years ago, I snapped it up. I was unprepared for the sheer awesomeness (to use the technical term) of what was to follow.

You see, no one ever told me about Roger Miller’s undeniable coolness. His lyrics, while never mean, have an appealingly sardonic bent that causes them to sound fresh more than 22 years after his death. What delights me to this day, though, is the delivery. Roger Miller’s flow remains up there with any rapper’s (and he practically beatboxes on some tracks, long before the word existed). Check out the break on “I’ve Been A Long Time Leavin’ (But I’ll Be A Long Time Gone)”:

Miller grew up, in his own words, “dirt poor” on his uncles’ farm in Oklahoma following his mother’s death. Music was a solace, and he longed to write his own songs. At 17, he stole a guitar in an impulsive act of desperation. The next day, he turned himself in, and joined the Army to avoid jail. He served in the Korean War, and played in various bands while stationed in Georgia and South Carolina. Miller’s military stint inspired my choice for the best, most sympathetic, funniest, most pointed and yet least preachy musical take on war and soldiers, “Private John Q”:

Miller wrote prolifically for himself and other artists, and was voted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and Country Music Hall of Fame. He won eleven Grammy Awards, and a Tony in 1985 for the score of Big River. He appeared in movies and comedy shows, even getting his own short-lived television series in 1966. In 1979, he appeared on what may be the best-ever episode of The Muppet Show. Not only is it technically dazzling and extremely entertaining, it remains our sole source of information about the (still incurable!) scourge of cluckitis:

For these reasons and more, I salute Roger Miller.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to Brian Boucher, born January 2, 1977 in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. His modern-day NHL shutout record of 332 minutes and 1 second, earned over a span of five consecutive games played in late December 2003 to early January 2004 with the Phoenix Coyotes (now the Arizona Coyotes), still stands today. Boucher played for seven NHL teams in his career, including my beloved San Jose Sharks. (While he usually played as a backup for the Sharks, I remember witnessing his very impressive start against Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals in person in December 2009.) In a 2012 Sports Illustrated poll of NHL players asking about the nicest guys in the league, Boucher was the only goalie and the only American (whatever those stats mean) to crack the top 10.

Boosh (as he was known) and his dry sense of humor also enlivened many an episode of Shark Byte. I can’t find the clip where he does various goalie characters, so this one will have to do:

Happy New Year, everyone!

Holiday Playlist, Track Two

It’s no exaggeration when I call Pearl Bailey (1918-1990) a Renaissance woman. Sure, she won a Tony Award and an Emmy Award, but how many other performers have won a Congressional Medal of Freedom? (Bailey did, in 1988.) She starred in several Broadway productions, and appeared in many films and TV shows. (Her 1979 Muppet Show episode features a nifty jousting-themed scene where she sings a Broadway medley with the gang. At the end of the episode, she offers to help the Muppets out of their armor, claiming to have been a welder. I wouldn’t be surprised.) She wrote six books (including three memoirs and a cookbook), and did humanitarian work for the United Nations and the USO. In between all this, she recorded dozens of albums. That brings us to today’s holiday gem, 1959’s “Five Pound Box of Money.”

(One of my favorite college memories reminds me of Pearl Bailey, too. Her husband, jazz drummer and orchestra leader Louie Bellson, played a show at Stanford in 1996 or 1997. The highlight of the evening was a drum battle between Bellson and a student named Mike Uchic. Uchic seemed nervous at first, but did an excellent job of keeping up with the jazz great. [His style reminded me a bit of Buddy Rich.] The seventysomething Bellson, of course, was unstoppable and unflappable. Not only were his stamina and creativity amazing, THE MAN’S HAIR NEVER MOVED through the whole epic bout. I was in awe.)