Sunday, April 24, 2016

How Howard Phillips Gave Princess Peach to Little Gay Nerds

The TLDR version: My friend’s stepdad is responsible for Princess Peach being my gay nerd icon, because his actions resulted in her being a playable character in Super Mario Bros. 2.

I’d wager it’s strange for anyone to live in Los Angeles, but it’s especially weird when you were that certain type of lonely kid who used pop culture to relate to the world around you, just because this dumb city happens to be where a lot of that stuff originated. Stay here long enough, and you may end up bumping into one of the people responsible for some movie or TV show that hit you on a personal level. So far, I’ve had a few interactions with people where I had to temporarily dump journalistic pretense and say, “By the way, thank you — that thing you did helped me feel less broken.”

Back at the 2012 Indiecade in Culver City, I met Howard Phillips, a guy who shaped the childhoods of many young video game nerds by being the Nintendo’s first American employee and its unofficial ambassador to the U.S. I originally knew him from Howard & Nester, the Nintendo Power comic that had a cartoon version of him alongside Nester, the magazine’s mascot and a character Phillips himself created.

via the howard & nester comics archive

At Indiecade, the non-cartoon Howard Phillips was meeting and greeting a lot of people who, like me, grew up playing Nintendo games and realized that he helped shape their experiences. And I got to talk to him a little more than the average fan because I’m friends with his stepdaughter Katherine. She and I worked together at the time, and she had once bragged that her stepdad was the Game Master. I initially assumed she meant Captain N: The Game Master and that she was crazy, but she explained that “the Game Master” was one of Phillips’ monikers during his Nintendo heyday and that she therefore grew up having a level of access to Nintendo products that would have made my head explode. When I got a few extra minutes to speak with Phillips as Indiecade, the conversation veered into Super Mario Bros. 2, which was my favorite game — a fact that should already be known to you if you read my blog.

Phillips happens to be the person who informed Nintendo of Japan execs that the “true” sequel to the original Super Mario Bros. was too difficult for American players. And while there was a lot of doing on the part of Nintendo’s Japanese developers to transform a game called Doki Doki Panic into something that starred Mario and Luigi, the impetus, as I’ve understood the story, was this single decision my friend’s stepdad. When I spoke to him, I’m not sure I truly grasped that had it not been for him, this weird game with vegetable-plucking, magic carpets and a curious preponderance of masks probably wouldn’t have become part of my life. But more than just that, Super Mario Bros. 2 is important because it was the first game in the series that let you play as Princess Peach.

Back then, Peach was still known as Princess Toadstool, but she was otherwise the same character we have today: blond and wearing a tiara but nonetheless able to fight the bad guys as effectively as Mario and Luigi could. She was a captive in the first Super Mario Bros. and again in Super Mario Bros. 3 — and in fact when news of that later game came trickling out in the pages of Nintendo Power, I remember thinking, “It’s weird how they’re only showing screens with Mario and Luigi,” because why the hell would Nintendo ditch one of the best parts of the previous game with this new fancy sequel? But that’s exactly what Nintendo did. It would take until the Super Nintendo to see Peach playable again — but only in spinoffs like Super Mario Kart and Super Mario RPG. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 2007’s Super Paper Mario that she would be allowed into the side-scrolling, hop-and-bop action of the original titles, and it wouldn’t be until 2013’s Super Mario 3D World, which is in many ways a spiritual successor to Super Mario Bros. 2, that you could play as her in a “real,” non-spinoff Mario game.

(EDIT: It’s been pointed out that I forgot to mention 2005’s Super Princess Peach, the game that had the princess using her rapidly changing emotions as weapons — angry fire, pouring water for sad tears, etc. It’s possible I just wanted to forget it.)

In Super Mario Bros. 2, you could select which character you wanted to venture through each level, and on many occasions I’d play the whole thing through as Peach, just because I could and especially because I didn’t have to play as a male character if I didn’t want to. As time went on, I’d default to the female character in any game that gave the option. In Street Fighter II, I was Chun-Li. In Mortal Kombat, I was Sonya. In Donkey Kong County 2, I would routinely pick Dixie Kong and her whirling helicopter ponytail over Diddy Kong, the male counterpart who had no magic ponytail.

Growing up in a more rural, more conservative town, this was well and good for home console gaming but slightly awkward in public at arcades. I can remember going to a pizza parlor birthday party and bouncing from Darkstalkers (where I played as Felicia, the oversexualized cat-girl) to Tekken (where I played as Anna, a brassy female fatale who fights in an evening gown). This prompted one of the other kids to ask, “Why do you always play as the girl?” That was a scary question. I felt like I’d been caught doing something I shouldn’t have, and I think I weaseled out of answering by lying about these characters being the best ones per all those video game magazines I read. But I honestly didn’t know what the motivation was at the time. I liked playing as female characters but couldn’t explain why.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Various Nostalgic Pop Culture Icons My Dog Looks Like

Yes, I finally got a dog. I’d apologize for not saying so sooner, but in the best possible way, he’s why I haven’t had much free time the past two months.

His name is Thurman. He is a rescue. He is five years old. I’d had reservations about the problems a rescue dog might bring with him, but Thurman has proven himself to be a fully-formed little gentleman — well-mannered and socialized to the point that as soon as he got here, it seemed like he’d always been here. And while he’s taken up my time with walks and all the other things dogs require, he doesn’t seem like a burden; making him happy seems like the best possible use of my time. I suppose this is what parenthood feels like, only without the crippling fear that this cared-for thing will one day go to college and learn to resent me.

This is how Thurman looks, in general.

This is Thurman again.

Here is Thurman looking like a supermodel.

And here is me and Thurman looking his most Muppet-y.

It’s on that last note, “Muppet-y,” that I get to the subject of the post: If I am to believe what the general public tells me, Thurman resembles all manner of characters from the collected pop-cultural memory of ’80s babies. Here, then, is an up-to-date list on every fantastic animal character people have claimed he looks like.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Skipping Batman v Superman, Not Out of Laziness But Out of Principle

The New York Times review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of the Subtitle described it as “less a free-standing film than the opening argument in a very long trial.” This is far from the only damning review of the movie, which will probably prove be a blockbuster anyway. Like Superman himself standing sturdy through a hail of gunshots, this movie will repel criticisms about its length, logic and overall look as if they’re nothing. It has to make money, and so it probably will.

But it occurred to me today that even before the first eulogy of a review hit, I already had a great reason to skip this film: I walked out of Man of Steel.

Before you react to that statement, you should know that I’d never walked out of a film before. I saw Ghost Dad in theaters. I was Rock-a-Doodle. I even sat through a screening of Joe Dirt that was free, therefore meaning that I could have left at any time without incurring a financial loss. Also know that I love DC superheroes. I also like your Spider-Men and your X-People, but I’ve always cared more about Batman and Wonder Woman and (to a lesser extent) Superman.

I, however, did not enjoy Man of Steel, which was directed by Zack Snyder, who is also directing Batman v Superman. I didn’t hate it; no, that would be a strong reaction. I was simply bored by it. I saw it when I lived in Los Feliz, walking distance from the Vista Theater, and I’d gone because I’d gotten home late from work on this particular night but just in time to trot over and slip into a seat in the back row. “Surely this will be more fun than sitting in my apartment alone,” I could have said, but didn’t, and good because it would have been a lie.

It’s also important that you understand that I saw the vast majority of Man of Steel. I really tried. But near the end of the film — or, I suppose, what I’m imagining was near the end of the film — there was a scene that made me literally throw up my hands in exasperation.

It was the scene with Jenny. Fucking Jenny.

Jenny Jurwich (Rebecca Butler), in case you’ve forgotten, is the movie’s kinda-sorta Jimmy Olsen character — an intern at the Daily Planet about whom we know nothing and about which we’re given much reason to care. You could argue that the audience isn’t given reason to care for or about many of the film’s characters, but at the very least most of them are versions of familiar characters we’ve cared about in other forms. Amy Adams, for example, is playing this kinda-sorta version of Lois Lane that never feels quite right, but at the very least we know she’s Lois. Jenny, however, is no one. And during the film’s cusp-of-the-apocalypse scene, she somehow gets trapped beneath rubble.

I’m foggy about the circumstances of her extrication, but I think it played out something like this: Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) is all like “No! Jenny! My intern! I have always loved you!” And Jenny is all “[SCREAM]” and then the residents of Metropolis are all “No! We have to save Jenny! Free Jenny!” And they band together to pull her out and the city rejoices because they deeply love Jenny for some reason. I’m probably exaggerating, but I feel like the scene lasted about twenty minutes, at which point I asked myself, “Wait, who the fuck is this person we’re supposed to care about?” And then I realized I didn’t care if Jenny turns out to be Doomsday in disguise. I didn’t care what happened to her. She only existed to get trapped in rubble and briefly become the focus of a dramatic scene. I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters, really.

I just wanted to leave, so I did. I got home and read the ending on Wikipedia, popped open a bottle of wine and watched Adventure Time, which is a great show that tells its stories in tidy, ten-minute chunks, but which Zack Snyder probably wouldn’t like because ten minutes is not longer than two hours and also it’s colorful and also Jenny the Fucking Intern isn’t a character.

According to IMDb, Rebecca Butler is reprising the role of Jenny in Batman v Superman. I’m honestly unsure if I will have the honor of seeing her revisit the role that made her famous. But yeah, I’m faced with the odd situation of there being a big-budget Batman movie about to hit theaters and I’m not the least bit interested in going to see it.

Maybe Suicide Squad will be good?

Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Best Bea Arthur Story I’ve Ever Heard

I grew up with The Golden Girls. I watched it on Saturday nights with my parents, because when you’re a kid living somewhere that’s a bit further than a bike ride from any of your friends, that’s a standard evening’s entertainment.

I remember that Sophia Petrillo taught me the word “slut,” which I promptly used at school. I got in trouble, of course, and when my teacher asked me where I’d learned that word, I said “Golden Girls.” It’s weird thinking about how a show about four old ladies could have been a corrupting influence, but I’d wager it did more good than harm.

Years later, I found out the show had a huge gay following, and this was surprising because I thought it was just a weird thing that I really liked. It was gratifying. It made me feel more connected to a community I didn’t have that much first-hand experience with, even if I didn’t immediately understand why it would have resonated with gay dudes. This past week, I got to interview some of the people who wrote for the show. We talked about their experiences on the show, but also why they thought the show got the devoted following it did, and why people — gay and otherwise — still watch the show today.

The piece appears in the print edition of Frontiers, but I’m going to direct you to the online version. I ended up getting so many good stories from those writers that I added an extra 1,000 words online — just because I knew there were people out there who would want to learn as much as possible about what it was like behind the scenes on the show.

And in particular, I’d like to draw your attention to one story that is my absolute favorite. I was speaking to Mort Nathan, an executive producer on the show who also co-wrote a lot of episodes, including the one where Rose dates a little person, and he told me something that affirms everything I’d want Bea Arthur to be.

TV Guide had done a piece on the show: ‘The Golden Girls—Is it still as good as it was the first year?’ And they asked random people what they thought of the show, and this one housewife said she didn’t think the show was as good and that Bea Arthur’s character wasn’t as interesting. They mentioned her by name—Mrs. Betty Johnson, Sioux Falls, Iowa. So Bea reads this at lunch and then gets on the phone and asks information for this Betty Johnson’s number. And she calls her. And she picks up, this TV Guide woman, and Bea says, ‘This is Bea Arthur, and I want to talk to you about what you said in TV Guide.’ The woman was horrified. She said she was misquoted. ‘I didn’t mean it. Is it really you? I love the show. I take it back.’ And Bea goes, ‘That’s what I thought. OK, that’s better.’”

I just can’t believe she fucking called the woman. I mean, can you imagine? Hearing that voice on the other end of the line, and she’s knows you said something about her and she wants to have words with you? And this is pre-Twitter, pre-internet. She just found this woman and reached out. I love it. It’s awesome.

Winifred Hervey, who also wrote a lot of great Golden Girls episodes, also told me that story, but she added one part that makes me like it even more: “And then Bea said, ‘That person’s going to go tell everyone that I called her, and no one’s going to believe her.’”

Just perfect.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Six Conversations That Did Not Happen at the Silver Lake Gelson’s

The following dramatic scenes are inspired by real-life events.

Me: Hey, I’m sorry, but do I know you?
Her: Oh, maybe. Do you live around here?
Me: Yeah, but more like I’ve seen you in something…?
Her: I’m an actress. So that’s it, probably.
Me: Cool. What would I know you from?
Her: I was in Showgirls. I was on Murder One for a while. I had a recurring role on Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place.
Me: Maybe it’s one of those.
Her: I was on this one episode of The X-Files
Me: Dr. Bambi Berenbaum!
Her: Yep. I usually don’t lead with that one just because the episode title was—
Me: “War of the Coprophages”!
Her: Yeah, and I don’t really don’t like people’s first association with me being “the sexy cockroach lady.”
Me: “War of the Coprophages” was such a good episode!
Her: Thank you! But still, you know, that word “coprophages.”
Me: Hey, everyone! It’s the sex cockroach lady from The X-Files!
[An excited crowd gathers around.]

Me: Hey, I’m sorry, but do I know you?
Her: Oh, maybe. We went to college together.
Me: Cool! And you recognize me?
Her: Yeah, we were in some of the same art studio classes.
Me: That must be it.
Her: How are you? Do you live in L.A. now?
Me: I do. I’m working as a writer here.
Her: Movies? Or TV?
Me: Neither!
Her: Really? How novel. I did some work as an actress for a while after I moved here, so that’s my frame of reference.
Me: Yeah? Anything I’d know?
Her: Well, I was in this one episode of Fringe where I played a kidnap victim who has her brain removed.
Me: Oh my god! I remember that episode.
Her: Yeah, that was fun. But I’m not acting anymore. I’m more into—
Me: Hey, everyone! It’s the lady who got her brain removed on that one episode of Fringe!
[An excited crowd gathers around.]

Me: Hey, I’m sorry, but do I know you?
Him: Kinda.
Me: Oh, are you an actor?
Him: With looks like these, how could I not be?
Me: Okay, that’s fair. Have you been in anything I’d know?
Him: Probably not. But you may remember me as the attractive guy who was shopping here the day you broke your toilet and came in all disheveled to buy a plunger.
Me: Oh. Yes. I do remember that.
Him: You were trying really hard to make it seem not obvious that you came in to buy a plunger. What else did you buy Hangers? Lightbulbs? It was really funny because the odds that someone would come in here and just buy stuff from the house supplies aisle are really low.
Me: I felt embarrassed.
Him: Because everyone knew you broke your—
Me: Yes, because everyone knew I broke my toilet.
Him: Hey, everyone! It’s that guy who broke his toilet!
[An excited crowd gathers around.]

Me: Hey, I’m sorry, but do I know you?
Her: Oh, maybe. I’m Annabella Sciorra.
Me: Not ringing a bell.
Her: Really? I’ve been in a ton of stuff. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle? I was the mom.
Me: I think that was Annabeth Gish.
Her: No, that was me. I… you know, remember being in it.
Me: What else?
Her: Like, a lot of stuff. I played Gloria on The Sopranos. I was in What Dreams May Come with Robin Williams. I was in Cop Land.
Me: I think that was Laura San Giacomo.
Her: No.
Me: Maybe it was Illeana Douglas?
Her: No, it wasn’t.
Me: Oh, I got it. It was Mia Sara.
Her: Those are just other Italian actresses. You’re just naming other Italian women.
Me: I guess it will just be a mystery then!
Her: It’s not.
[I wander away.]
Her: Hey, everyone! It’s the lady from The Hand That Rocks the Cradle!
[An excited crowd looks around for Rebecca De Mornay or Julianne Moore.]

Me: Hey, I’m sorry, but do I know you?
Him: No.
Me: Looks like you’re buying some Imodium there.
Him: Go away.
Me: Wait, are you Ron Perlman?
Him: No.
Me: Are you sure? Because he has a really distinct face.
Him: No, I’m Michael Cudlitz.
Me: No, you’re not. I’ve seen him before. I’m pretty sure you’re Ron Perlman and you’re buying diarrhea medicine.
Him: No.
Me: Hey, everyone! Come over and let’s figure out who this guy is! Whoever he is, he’s buying diarrhea medicine!
[An excited crowd gathers around.]

Me: Hey, I’m sorry, but do I know you?
Me: Oh, god! Ms. Witherspoon, I’m so sorry!
[Reese Witherspoon scorpion kicks me in the neck. Bystanders are too terrified to help me. I die on the grocery store floor.]

Monday, February 15, 2016

Feel the Dern

This is all for today, but you have to admit: It’s pretty important.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Marcia Clark in Lanford

People may be talking about what a good job Sarah Paulson is doing on The People vs. O.J. Simpson in playing Marcia Clark, but I keep thinking of the actress who donned that curly moptop before her, and even before Tina Fey on Kimmy Schmidt: Laurie Metcalf on Roseanne.

I looked online and couldn’t find the scene posted anywhere handy, so I created a clip of it myself, just in case you maybe haven’t seen it or did see it and wonder if perhaps you dreamed it.

Late in the show’s seventh season, Marcia Clark literally popped out of Roseanne’s living room TV to chat about the difficulties of being a working mom. Watching it more than twenty years later, it’s a little clunky — that joke about ex-husbands goes down about as well as any joke about current events, decades after the fact, and it’s more disturbing than funny that Roseanne is blithely cutting food with the knife that killed Nicole Brown Simpson — but to this day, it’s this bit I think about when I hear Marcia Clark’s name, not Marcia Clark herself. Dueling Beckys notwithstanding, Roseanne did better with continuity than other ’90s sitcoms, but I like that they could also take a break from that to get weird. “Hey, what if this happened?” “Eh, sure. Why not? Let’s stick it into the closing credits.”

Closing thought: Are people maybe just impressed with Paulson’s role just because Ryan Murphy’s TV machine has permitted her to take a break from playing literal monsters? Do you think she was like “Hey, what if I played someone my mother could tell her friends about?”

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?