We’re Going on a Bear Hunt!

Children’s entertainers, performance artists, or simply lunatics?

Just before my winter hibernation, while foraging through YouTube looking for raw material for one of my mashups, I stumbled on these two vids:

Thank you to the New South Wales Centre for that inspiring presentation. πŸ˜‰

Anyway, these videos do raise the conundrum posed in the subhead. On the one hand, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is a children’s story by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, first published in 1989. So there’s that. On the other hand, when performing it these artists seem to let loose their natural craziness and touch on aspects of the human condition as well as political realities.

I suppose the spiritual lesson is that some people go on the spiritual quest with a pollyannish attitude, assuming that nothing could possibly go wrong. Then, when they realize they’ll have to pass through various difficulties and that their nature will be tested, they end up running back to their bedrooms and throwing the covers over their heads! (I am not immune to this phenomenon.)

The political lesson is that just when you’re thinking “Oh no! They couldn’t possibly elect so-and-so,” suddenly you come face-to-face with a big orange bear and find that it’ll be living in your big white house for at least four years. The scream let out by Sophie in the first vid says it all…

Sophie Maletsky channels the collective liberal scream

Sophie Maletsky channels the collective liberal scream

Compare for reference The Scream, by Edvard Munch:

the-scream-by-edvard-munchMore scariness for children: Count Floyd

Count Floyd (played by actor Joe Flaherty) was a regular character on the old SCTV comedy series which aired in the 1980s. I suppose he’s funny on his own, but it helps to know that at one time in America, in small towns with only one TV station, the same guy who was the newsreader was also required to do double duty hosting the Saturday kiddie show, which typically ran a B-movie of the monster variety (such as Invasion of the Bee Girls, which was hardly suitable for children).

So if there’s a sad, desperate quality to Count Floyd, it’s because he’s really a reserved newsreader forced to make a spectacle of himself by dressing in a black cape and pretending that the incredibly bad movies they send him (or sometimes fail to deliver) would actually scare a child.

count-floyd-06

Count Floyd (Joe Flaherty), b. 1941

Such frightful multitasking was required even in large markets like New York, where John Zacherle (R.I.P.) came to ply his trade as a combination progressive DJ, weatherman, and “cool ghoul.” Not an unwilling conscript, Zacherle made a name for himself by combining horror, sardonic humour, and rock music, as in the 1958 novelty song “Dinner With Drac,” whose most memorable verse goes:

For dessert there was batwing confetti,
And the veins of a mummy named Betty;
I first frowned upon it,
But put ketchup on it;
It tasted very much like spaghetti!

John Zacherle, 1918-2016

John Zacherle, 1918-2016

Presaging the Donald Trump phenom, Zacherle actually ran for president in 1960, under the banner of Transylvania’s People’s Party. According to this New York Times obit, one of his gags was pretending to give lessons in conversational Transylvanian. (β€œThe skull of my aunt is on the table.”)

Though less frightening than Nixon, he failed to garner the same popular support evinced by more recent political bloodsuckers whose names now drip from the headlines. By the way, has anyone checked Kellyanne Conway’s hotel room for vials of B-Negative? I’d also check the bedpost for bite marks. (There’s got to be a joke in here somewhere about lawyers who “pound the table.”)

Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway vamps it up a notch for her interview with CNN's Chris Cuomo. Lucrezia Borgia ring obscured by comfy chair.

Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway vamps it up a notch for her interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo. Lucrezia Borgia ring obscured by comfy chair.

For more on Zacherle, Count Floyd, and other purveyors of televisual horror, see fellow blogger The Impractical Cogitator here. Note that kiddie horror shows migrated to late night TV and were watched by adults. This helped pave the way for a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000, which has elements of a children’s puppet show, but where most of the obscure references are aimed squarely at adults:

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Children also watched the show and sent in drawings of Joel and the bots,

mst3k-kid-drawings_v05c

but I doubt many kids knew enough about the film version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to glom onto the whole Richard Burton thing. Adults, on the other hand, were soiling their Underoos listening to a dead-on Burton impression interspersed with references to Gamera turtle — the main character in the dodgy Japanese monster flick being screened that week (MST3K Episode 312, Gamera vs. Guiron).

mst3k-joel-and-bots-watch-gameraConclusion

So are the characters in question children’s entertainers, performance artists, or simply lunatics? The answer is D. all of the above! Particularly in the case of Zacherle, he no doubt had his schtick, but like comedian Andy Kaufmann perhaps needed to be a bit crazy to fully embrace and manifest it. This could easily lead us to a discussion of actors, artists, and sanity. I’m reminded of Werner Herzog’s documentary My Best Fiend, about the notoriously mercurial Klaus Kinski. Also Richard Curtis’s sensitive portrayal of Van Gogh in the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor.”

But perhaps it’s best to go out on a comedic note. After all, the marriage of horror and comedy gives us the comedy villain. The late Douglas Adams was a master at writing such, like the Vogons who torture their victims by reading them bad poetry. (I always credit my mentors!) Douglas also wrote for Doctor Who, his first effort being “The Pirate Planet,” where Bruce Purchase and Tom Baker vie to see who can take it furthest over the top. Memorable quote: “Douglas had a strange relationship with parrots…”

(Any problems with video, reload page or try dropbox link.)

But one of the most entertaining essays on the comedy villain comes from an earlier epoch of Doctor Who, from the William Hartnell era:

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Kinda makes you wonder whether Donald Trump has dodgy feetTake all those illegal aliens to the security kitchen, or I shall be forced to have Kellyanne Conway throw flowers menacingly on the floor. Or would flowers simply wilt in her hand, as with Beatrice in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter”?


Oooh kids, it’s gonna be scary!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

More TV/Movie Trivia

The Count Floyd skit (embedded earlier) showcases a “scary” movie called Whispers of the Wolf, which is actually a parody of Ingmar Bergman films like Cries and Whispers and Hour of the Wolf. It apes many of the cinematic devices found in actual Bergman films. See also SCTV’s Rome, Italian Style, which successfully parodies a number of stylish Italian films from the 60s and 70s, including The Tenth Victim.

The “Rappacini’s Daughter” clip is from a 1980 television production starring Kristoffer Tabori and Kathleen Beller. Beller often played an innocent, and the contrast is striking here between her innocent nature and poisonous touch. In 1987, she snagged a role in Bronx Zoo, a TV series which was arguably the prototype for Boston Public.

Beller played Mary Caitlin Callahan (her parents should only plotz!), a vegetarian, non-smoking art teacher who rides a motorcycle, but still struggles with her Catholic roots. It was one of her more sensitive roles, and Beller herself said it surpassed 90% of her feature film roles. Despite being married to Thomas Dolby, she clearly wasn’t “blinding them with science.” The science teacher was Victor Ginelli, played by Peter Hobbs. After Ginelli died, gym teacher Gus Butterfield (played by Mykelti Williamson) took over his classes.

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