Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Dark Side of Mama’s Family

The short version: Before Mama’s Family, there was a TV movie about the Harper family in which Mama dies at the end. And that’s weird.

I talked to Carol Burnett on the phone last week. It was for an interview I was doing about her getting the lifetime achievement honor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. She was perfectly lovely, and I’m sure all the stories about her being genuine and beatific and otherwise purely wonderful are true. The thing that struck me the most about talking to her was how it felt like I was talking to a beloved aunt. I’m sure this reaction is common. She has that way about her.

I’d actually only seen a handful of the most famous sketches from The Carol Burnett show beforehand, so I noodled around on YouTube watching whatever came up. The show was pretty wild, and I think our conception of sketch comedy has become so shaped by Saturday Night Live that we forget how well long-form sketches can work. Take this 1975 takeoff on Cinderella, for example, with the Pointer Sisters playing the evil stepsisters.

My introduction to Carol Burnett, however, came in the form of Mama’s Family, which aired on a weird indie station in my hometown that also provided Matlock, Perry Mason and whatever movies they could get their hands on. But even then, it wasn’t easy to trace the show back to Carol Burnett. Though Thelma Harper and her family started on a recurring skit on The Carol Burnett Show, Burnett herself only reprised the role of Eunice — awful, striving Eunice — in only a handful of Mama’s Family episodes. And beyond the second season, after NBC cancelled the series and episodes were running in syndication first, Burnett doesn’t appear at all.

In going back to look at old sketches, I also found out that in 1982, CBS aired Eunice, a ninety-minute movie about the Harper family that works more like a four-act play. Eunice led to Mama’s Family premiering in January 1983, clearly, but it’s a lot different. It plays out more like All in the Family or maybe some Norman Lear one-off about the death of the American dream. It’s dark. It’s also good in a way that Mama’s Family wasn’t and maybe never tried to be.

Here’s the entire film, though I’m going to post one important scene later in the piece.

The film consists of four vignettes spread across time — in 1955, 1963, 1973 and 1978 — and over the course of them you see Eunice evolve from a young woman with creative aspirations into a sad, alcoholic divorcée. Ken Barry, who played the dumb son Vinton on Mama’s Family is in the movie too, but playing a different character: Phillip, Eunice’s writer brother who becomes successful and leaves the family to move to Los Angeles. The fact that he left is a major point of discord for Mama and Eunice. He also may be coded as gay, but I’m also possibly jus projecting because Phillip is me, if you ignore the whole “successful writer” part. Betty White plays Ellen, Mama’s third child, more or less as she does on the show — stuck up and eager to rub Ellen’s nose in her relatively comfortable life.

The most interesting difference between Eunice and Mama’s Family is the fact that the movie kills off Mama before the final vignette, which centers around the three Harper children returning to the family home after the funeral. It’s a heartbreaking scene, really. Faced with her failure of a life and a lack of anyone to live for now that her mother has died, Eunice crumbles. Phillip convinces her that she should follow her dreams and move to L.A. with him. She agrees, and for a moment she has hope. But then she gets a call from an elderly aunt suffering from a sore back, and Eunice agrees to help her out, even let her move into Mama’s old room. She decides to postpone moving to L.A., and the film ends with the implication that she’ll never go.

Watch the clip — even a little bit of it. You’ll be surprised how straight Burnett and the rest play it. They get real. The audience chuckles a bit before they realize that for this big scene, the cast is not trying for laughs.

It’s interesting that Mama’s Family would evolve out this TV movie, because the sitcom was very much centered around a family unit that was dysfunctional but ultimately necessary. Eunice, however, seems to argue that family life can be toxic and ultimately destructive to anyone who dreams of something more than simply marrying and reproducing. Phillip only achieves creative success by leaving the family, whereas not leaving it destroys Eunice.

There are scattered hints at Mama’s Family throughout. Naomi Oates, she of the off-the-shoulder margarita waitress look and the character who would marry Vinton on the show, gets mentioned as Eunice’s drinking buddy. Also mentioned but unseen is Bubba, who in the movie runs away from home. And while the unseen aunt with the sore back isn’t Fran (Rue McClanahan), I’m going to consider her a kinda-sorta forerunner, just because I like Aunt Fran.

This deep into the post, I suppose I should explain why the hell I decided to write about an old sitcom that I suspect most people don’t remember as well as I do, to say nothing of remembering it fondly. When I was a kid, Mama’s Family hit just right. As Mama, Vicki Lawrence said funny things and spat out PG-rated insults to dummies. I would still watch even in high school, even if teenaged me had gravitated more toward Mary Tyler Moore at that point. It was a comfort thing.

Eunice, however, is good, and that’s 33-year-old me saying that. On its own, it’s like a dark little play about how small-town America isn’t a safe place for certain kinds of children. This version of Raytown (and real-life Raytowns around the country) work hard to stamp out the desire to try hard and be different. I’m speaking from my own experience, of course, but that’s why this pop culture footnote resonated so strongly. As a predecessor to Mama’s Family, however, Eunice is the kind of stuff I live for — a weird, forgotten history to something most people remember as this benign, familiar thing. It’s like finding a lost Brady Bunch pilot where Carol’s husband dies of a self-inflicted gunshot and Mike’s ex-wife runs off because the fourth Brady boy drowned in the bathtub.

And if you have any sort of soft spot for Mama’s Family, either in spite of or because of how corny it could be, watch Eunice. It’s a look into an alternate dimension, and how often do we get a chance at those?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

“Whitney Houston Goes to Africa to Fight Demons”

I know this is just the dumbest thing in the world, but sometimes you make a few stray clicks too far and end up on a whackadoo Illuminati conspiracy website, and it’s kind of like the web version of one of those poorly Xeroxed flyers homeless people try to give you. While you’re floating in all this word soup, you realize that a lot of the Hollywood conspiracies that the author is putting forth sound like pitches for movies you’d want to see.

An edited list:

And if someone hasn’t used the text Killing Babies, Eating Hearts, Bonking Donkeys as an album title at least, that’s a shame, because there’s some sick internal poetry to it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Hey, Drew — Why Don’t You Have a Dog Yet?

(What follows is an imaginary conversation that has happened in bits and pieces over the last few months but which is not based off any one interaction in particular.)


No, not yet.

Oh. But you’re getting a dog?

It’s in the process. I am dog-shopping, by which I mean that I’ve been going to some of the recommended dog rescues and seeing who’s there, seeing who might be a good match for me. It’s higher stakes than dating but lower stakes than adopting a baby, I’d wager.

But you’re taking FOREVER.

I guess? I’ve been working at home for more than a year now, and I wanted to make sure this was a lifestyle I could do longterm before I brought a dog into it. Also, I had to do quite a bit of work in my backyard to make sure that it was secure for a dog — that I’d minimized the changes that one might have escaped or met an angry raccoon or something. It’s there now, though, and I’ve tested it out with some dogs that I’ve watched for friends. None have gotten out or been skeletonized by raccoons. (Don’t tell my friends I used their dogs as test subjects, maybe.)

OMG you should get a dog because on social media you’re just like “dog dog dog dog dog.”

Yes, I know I post about dogs a lot. Dogs occupy a large piece of my mental real estate. This likely will not change once I get a dog, you should probably know.

Ugh, just get a dog already.

No. I feel like this is something I need to take slowly. If you’re dating someone and you feel like you’re not a good match, you and the other person can just decide not to see each other anymore. I’m not sure that would work with a dog, and having that breakup conversation with a dog would just be the most awkward thing. You’d be all, “Well, Fritz, I feel like this just isn’t working out between us. I think you need to pack your things and find another human.” And the dog would be like “[licks you hand],” and you’d be all “Fritz, please. I’ve made my decision.” And then you’d watch him walking out the front door, bindle stick in mouth, whereupon he’d return himself to the shelter. (I’m guessing.) However, I suppose if the dog broke up with me because he found a human he loves more — that is, had more fresh-cooked steaks on hand — then I’d respect his wishes, but I don’t foresee that happened, mostly because I have a lot of steaks in the freezer.

But, like, just get a dog.

No, stop it. I want to make sure I find a dog that I can make happy and who will make me happy. And once the dog gets here, he’s staying no matter what, so it’s especially important that this turns out to be a good dog-human relationship.

When I got my dog, I just walked in and Patches was like “bark bark bark” and I was all, “That’s my dog! I’ll take that one.” And now little Patches and I are, like, super tight.

Well, see, I’ve met Patches.

What do you mean?

Hey! Look at the time! I have a playdate with a prospective dog companion, so I’d better run.

Wait, what were you trying to say about Patches?

[runs away]

Oh, I love my dog Patches. Hey, Patches — where are you, girl? Patches? Patches?! Shit, has anyone seen Patches?


a dog i did not adopt despite off-the-charts levels of cute

Monday, January 11, 2016

We’re Not Going to Talk About Judy at All

I’m sad about David Bowie’s death. I mean to say this in the most reverent possible way, but his passing marks a huge loss for the world’s weirdo community, because David Bowie is one of those special people who was not only permitted to be weird but celebrated for that. And while it would be tough to overestimate Bowie’s influence in the music industry, it’s also worth pointing out that he acted, too.

Yes, Labyrinth was huge, not only as a introduction for many ’80s babies to Bowie himself but also an introduction to codpieces. However, the role that strikes me as especially important is the small one he played in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. His character, Agent Phillip Jeffries, barely appears in the film, but in those few seconds, he manages to sum up a lot about why David Bowie was cool: He’s otherworldly, he’s inexplicable, he leaves too soon and he makes you wish he stayed around just a short while longer.

Here’s the whole scene, in text form and video form.

Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is at the FBI headquarters in Philadelphia when he realizes that it’s 10:10 a.m. on February 16 — a date he apparently once had a dream about. Coop steps into the hallway into the eye of a security camera, then walks back into the monitor room to see that he’s still appearing on camera, as if he were still in the hallway. Then out from the elevator walks Bowie’s character in a white suit. Agent Jeffries heads straight into the office of chief, Gordon Cole (David Lynch), starts babbling about Judy and questions who Coop is. The scene cuts to shots of the creepy Red Room residents as Jeffries talks, and then he vanishes.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Why No One at the Gym Fixes That One Loose Handle

The lateral press at my gym has a problem that no one wants to fix — and for good reason, I have found out.

Yesterday, I sat down and noticed that the rubber grip on the left handle had come loose once again and slid forward. This creates an awkward situation where I have a good two or three inches of floppy rubber grip extending beyond my left hand, which makes feel lopsided but which is also a problem that gets worse as you use the machine: Every time you lift up, the grip slides off a little more.

I am including a visual aid so you can better understand what I’m talking about.

See, that flaccid floppiness should not be there.

It happens a lot on this one machine in particular, and because the grip had nearly slid all the way off, I decided I would be better than all the thoughtless people who had used the machine and simply left it as is. But here’s the thing: As often as the grip slips off, it’s actually pretty hard to move back into place. So when I put one fist on it and pulled as hard as I could down, my hand slid down the shaft, necessitating that I put it back at the top and try again. I tell you, I pulled as hard as I could, but my hand kept slipping down. I did not give up, however. I tried a twisting motion. I tried using two hands. Figuring I might have better leverage not in a sitting position, I got up and turned around and tried pulling it down again from a different angle, but despite my best efforts and a lot of grunting, I’d barely moved the thing.

And that’s when I noticed that people were looking at me because I was essentially going through the motions of jacking off the world’s most impossible dick — or maybe giving the world’s most impossible dick an Indian burn, which would also be awkward to watch. Regardless what the intent, it looks like you’re manipulating a dick or at least trying to suggest to everyone in a room that you’re manipulating a dick and doing it with gusto.

And so I got up and left the lateral press, leaving the problem for the next gym-goer to deal with. But that, I learned, is why no one at the gym wants to fix the one loose handle.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

“As the parent of a gay person…”

I told my parents I was gay on St. Patrick’s Day in 2005, effectively ruining a pleasant corned beef dinner. I was three months away from graduating college, and I wanted to integrate the worlds I lived in. My college friends knew, but essentially no one from home did. I blame the closure of the bowling alley in my hometown; with no alternatives, the favored pastime there had become discussion of unplanned pregnancies, divorces and the various other ways young people had disgraced their good family names. In any case, I knew I had to tell my parents before someone else did.

More than ten years later, those worlds still aren’t integrated. Here in Los Angeles, I’ve constructed this Neverland of gay nerds with whom I can talk to about Chun Li and Barbara Gordon and Princess Zelda in the same sentence and not get looked at like I’m some kind of space alien. When I go home, I revert. I don’t pack the cutoffs. I leave behind the purple V-neck T-shirt and take the blue one. My life as I live it in Los Angeles does not get discussed unless I force it.

I went home earlier this year, and my mom asked how I was doing. “This guy I used to know in Santa Barbara passed away, and also I got dumped,” I said. Mom: “Oh, I’m sorry your friend passed away.” That bait dangled, untouched. I chose not to force it. Because the divide has remained over the past decade, it is hard for me to make that drive up Highway 5, knowing that I’m going to sit through days and days of questions about what’s growing in my garden, the activities of college friends I haven’t kept in touch with and the name of my apparently singular female friend — “Megan? Stephanie? Which is it? Wait, there are two?” — at the exclusion of anything more personal.

The single best example of this refusal to talk about the gay son’s stubborn gayness occurred while I was helping my mom clean out the liquor cabinet, which had been chiefly stocked over the years by visiting New Zealanders landing at SFO with duty-free offerings and the belief that my family drinks the hard stuff. I stood on a step ladder and handed bottles down one by one, and my mother, who often narrates what she’s doing, read the labels out loud as I passed them to her. “Smirnoff Vodka. Bombay Sapphire Gin. Beefeater Gin.” Then I passed her a bottle of Mount Gay rum. Mom: “Oh, it’s…. it’s rum.” The bottle later vanished.

As I do on most holidays at home, I spent this past Thanksgiving dutifully working — the big turkey dinner, raking leaves, getting ahead of freelance assignments — with the closest connection I have to any other world being Scruff, usually sitting unattended on the dresser in my childhood bedroom. Having come off from being the only gay at a wedding the previous weekend, I desperately felt like I needed something, even if that something wasn’t much of anything. At home, Scruff is mostly glimpses into the sad life I’d have led if I’d stayed in town: torsos that can’t host. I don’t really engage. It’s just a window on a world that reminds me that I’ve made good choices for myself. Well, that and an occasional invite to go up to San Francisco, unsolicited and politely declined. (Me: “I live in L.A. and I’m really only interested in dating,” and every time I say that I feel like I might as well be saying “I live in Chicago and I hate wind” or “I live in Maui and I’m allergic to sunsets.”)

With all that said, you can appreciate my surprise at what my mother said when she and I got into an argument about politics — why I can’t vote for a candidate running on a conservative social platform and why liberal politicians are apparently ruining the country with wasteful economic policy. I countered with all the examples of the good that liberal politicians have done in the face of conservative opposition, and the conversation eventually turned to the point that it was liberals, not conservatives, would made it possible for me to get married one day.

Mom: “Well, as the parent of a gay person, I understand that.”

It was followed by a “but” about taxes, of course. I was stunned that it happened at all. In the ten years since I told my parents I was gay, I’d never heard either of them ever refer to me as a gay person. (My grandmother referred to gays as “people who are that way,” and that euphemism has endured in the family long since.) I got hung up on that one sentence to the point that I think I lost the argument, just because my brain wouldn’t process anything aside from the fact that my mother acknowledged something that’s fairly important to how I live my life but which had gone unspoken, at least when I’m in the room.

I hugged my mom and told her it was good talking to her. It was the least acrimonious ending to a political argument in the history of my family.

It may not seem like much, especially to those weirdos with enthusiastically supportive families, but it was the single marker of progress I’ve had in a struggle that’s been going on for ten years. There’s still a lot to do yet — I recently mentioned that I was hoping to adopt a dog soon and was quickly cautioned against getting one that is too small — but it’s my single greatest takeaway from this Thanksgiving trip home.

(Yes, picture is unrelated. I needed a picture. It was this or a display shelf of Mount Gay rum.)

Friday, November 27, 2015

Thirty Thanksgiving Questions for Which I Have No Answer

Excluded from the list: the traditional and constant “Why are you making that face?”

1. “Why aren’t you using a placemat?”

2. “But if you’re eating at the table, why aren’t you sliding the placemat over so your plate is on top of a placemat?”

3. “Well, what is a placemat for, then?”

4. “Why are you wearing a jacket and a sweater inside?”

5. “Also, why does everyone keep saying it’s cold in here when it’s clearly so hot?”

6. “Doesn’t it feel better to be eating dinner at a reasonable hour?”

7. “What made you decide to grow a mustache?”

8. “Did you have that at the wedding?”

9. “Did the groom say anything to you about it?”

10. “Did the bride say anything to you about it?”

11. “Did the bride’s parents say anything to you about it?”

12. “Well then how long are you keeping it for then?”

13. “Is this something all of your friends are doing?”

14. “Why are you using two kinds of mustard on your sandwich?”

15. “Why isn’t anybody eating the lemon pie that I bothered to go out and buy at the grocery store?”

16. “Why doesn’t your phone make the typing noise when you’re writing a text?”

17. “Why are you sitting in your bedroom watching your iPad rather than talking to your family?”

18. “Who is this Jessica Jones and is she your friend from L.A.?”

19. “Is she related to John Ritter?”

20. “Are you sure?”

21. “Didn’t they try that with Wonder Woman in the ’70s and no one watched it?”

22. “Why was that new James Bond so violent and also why were the women in it so unattractive?”

23. “Why don’t you see if any of your friends from high school are in town?”

24. “Do you use the placemats I sent you?”

25. “Do all your T-shirts have V-shaped necks now?”

26. “Isn’t that shirt too small for you?”

27. “If you get a dog, where is it going to sleep when you come home to visit?”

28. “Won’t that make the outside dogs jealous?”

29. “Who took the toaster out again after I put it away?”

30. “When are you coming home for Christmas?”

BTW, unsure but willing to guess that this is the “Why are you making that face?” face. It is actually just my face.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

These Are Emails You Get When You Are a Freelance Writer

“Hi, Drew! I loved your article on Jodi Sweetin, and I’m writing to you with an exciting and exclusive scoop about her cousin, Donita, whose inspirational story of recovering a horrific softball accident would resonate with your readers. Can I schedule a Twitter interview with her? Like, right now?”

“Hi, Drew! I loved your article on Dallas, and I’m writing to you with an exciting and exclusive scoop about Patrick Duffy’s skincare line. Would you be interested writing a piece? Patrick is game to talk so long as all questions are about his skincare line and you don’t make eye contact.”

“Hi, Drew! I loved your article on Betty White, and I’m writing to you with an exciting and exclusive scoop about the Blu-ray re-release of Mama’s Family. Can I interest you an a sit-down interview with Bart and Tipsy, the stepchildren of the series co-creator? They have stories, let me tell you. Some effed-up stuff went down on the set of that show.”

“Hi, Drew! I loved your article on scary movies and I’m writing to you with an exciting and exclusive scoop about a an upcoming film that I think you’ll find scary as well. It’s a documentary titled Abandoned in Alleys: Urban America’s Teenage Pregnancy Crisis. Can I interest you in an interview with the director? She is scathing.”

“Hi, Drew! I loved your article on Wonder Woman, and I’m writing to you with an exciting and exclusive scoop about the ‘original’ Woman Woman herself, Cathy Lee Crosby. Would you want to talk to her? Oh, no reason in particular. She’s just bored and wants someone to talk to.”

“Hi, Drew! I loved your article on Mariah Carey, and I’m writing to you with an exciting and exclusive scoop about Basak Küçük, a.k.a. the Maria Carey of Turkey, whose new album is making a stir among U.S. music fans in very specific circles. Would you be interested in an interview? Basak is parked outside your house and can come in and talk whenever. If no, can she just use your bathroom?”

“Hi, Drew! I loved your article on The Breakfast Club, and I’m writing to you with an exciting and exclusive scoop about a new line of breakfast specials at IHOP that are Breakfast Club-themed. Would you want to interview the Don’t You Forget About Me Scramble? Like, the dish itself? I think it would be funny to make you interview eggs.”

“Hi, Drew! I loved your article on Rosemary’s Baby, and I’m writing to you with an exciting and exclusive scoop about Ruth Gordon. Do you want to interview her? Well, you can’t, you asshole. She’s dead. But if I could kill you and bring her back, I would in a second. Just making sure you knew that.”

“Hi, Drew! I loved your article on ALF, and I’m writing to you with an exciting and exclusive scoop about the ‘real’ Gordon Shumway. No, he’s not an alien! He’s an inmate, and his life story has some exciting parallels with that of the sitcom alien that Americans once fell in love with.”

“Hi, Drew! I love the hilarious gifs you made celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Color Purple. I’m not pitching anything. I just wanted to take the opportunity to point out how you wanted to be a journalist once. Guess how much more money than you I make sending out these pitches? BTW, I found your email address on a message board for publicists. The picture they have for you is SO BAD. LOL.”