THE ADVENTURES OF BIFFLE & SHOOSTER (2015) – Classic comedy that you never knew existed

It’s time to answer one of cinema’s burning questions: Who the heck are Biffle & Shooster?

The raucous duo are apparently the brainchild of Hollywood producer Michael Schlesinger, who at some point must have decided he wanted to represent a comedy team from Hollywood’s Golden Age, even though Schlesinger himself wasn’t born until 1950. Thus were borne Benny Biffle (Nick Santa Maria) and Sam Shooster (Will Ryan), two crazies who owe more than a bit of their existence to Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, and probably any other double-act you can name from the post-vaudeville era.

The Adventures of Biffle & Shooster is a collection of comedy short subjects that the team supposedly filmed in the 1930’s. Schlesinger and his troupe have gone miles beyond the call of duty to give these shorts the look and feel of 1930’s programmers, complete with black-and-white cinematography (except for one short filmed in Cinecolor, the poor man’s version of 1930’s Technicolor), and old-fashioned wipes and fade-outs, as well as authentic-looking “bumpers” including B&S making a plea for the Will Rogers Institute. Also, ’30s movie buffs will be delighted by the countless inside jokes provided in the shorts.

The plotlines certainly feel 1930’s-ish enough. They don’t miss a single comedy trope of the times: comic murder mystery (“The Biffle Murder Case”); haunted mansion with crazy scientist (“Bride of Finklestein”); musical revue extravaganza (“Schmo Boat”); and finally, husband unexpectedly brings boss home for dinner, wife leaves husband in the lurch, and his partner dresses in drag to save the day (a triple-header in “Imitation of Wife”).

All of this is put over most effectively by a very eager-to-please cast that is in on the jokes, not the least of which are the two leads. Will Ryan is a most effective straight man (and charming musician, in several gratuitous musical numbers). And Nick Santa Maria, as the situation calls for, mugs gleefully in a style not seen since the salad days of Jerry Lewis.

Anyone who has ever wished that comedy would return to the old days when comedians actually worked to get a laugh will bask in this nostalgic piece of hilarity. And I can’t help but think that kids will be laughing themselves silly at these shorts, which could provide their film-buff parents with a pipeline to introduce their kiddies to the style of old-fashioned comedy.

(Oh, and be sure to look for the surprise appearances from acclaimed actor Robert Forster, and a very funny two-line bit from “cult” character actor Dick Miller.)

The Adventures of Biff & Shooster is available for rental on YouTube, Amazon Prime, and Apple TV. Spring for the rental, bub — you’ll thank me later.

Larry Lujack and The Tooth Fairy

Do you remember when radio had personality? And personalities?

One of my favorite bloggers, Ken Levine, does. Besides being an Emmy-winning writer (he used to write for the likes of “M*A*S*H” and “Cheers”), he was also a disk jockey in Los Angeles in the late 1960’s and early ’70s. He is forever waxing nostalgic about the old-fashioned DJs who used to provide comedy and contests between the songs.

I share Mr. Levine’s nostalgia. I grew up in a tiny Illinois town named Lexington, which is about two hours south of Chicago. Every morning I would hop on the school bus, whose radio would be tuned to WLS, the Chicago station that boasted of “50,000 watts of power” and whose signal still reaches 38 states at nighttime. In the mornings, WLS would treat us to the deep-voiced tones and risque humor of “Super Jock” Larry Lujack.

Mr. Lujack.

Mr. Lujack was such a radio legend that when he died in 2013, he rated an obituary in The New York Times. His show was replete with recurring segments that were eyebrow-raising at the time but would hardly evince a shrug today, such as “Animal Stories” and “The Cheap, Trashy Showbiz Report.”

But my all-time favorite segment of his was a daily serial titled “The Adventures of The Tooth Fairy.” The premise was that a dentist named Newton Snickers (voiced by Chicago voice-over artist Dick Orkin) became so obsessed with his job that he declared himself the genuine Tooth Fairy and decided to do the job for all of America’s good little boys and girls. Needless to say, this did not sit well with the adults who saw Newton in his fairy get-up and didn’t realize his earnest intentions.

I’ve embedded one of the “Tooth Fairy” audio segments below. I don’t know how it will play to the uninitiated, but humor-wise, it’s definitely in the “Rocky & Bullwinkle” mode. A couple more segments of the show are available on YouTube. For a brief history of the show, click here.

So did you have a favorite radio “jock” when you were growing up? If so, please share your story with us.

FAMILY BAND: THE COWSILLS STORY (2011) – The pain, The Cowsills, and other things

In the late 1960’s arose a musical genre known as “bubblegum pop” — rock music stripped of any thoughtful content, meant only as escapism. And it didn’t come any more bubblegummy than The Cowsills.

Originally consisting of brothers Bill, Bob, Barry, Paul, and John — there was another brother, which we’ll get to shortly — the group’s self-proclaimed manager, the boys’ father Bud, insisted on adding mom Barbara and sister Susan, both of whom were reluctant to join the act. Nevertheless, the premise of a “together” family singing hip songs in the late ’60s was the perfect exclamation point for the hippie era, and The Cowsills sold millions of records and were a hit in concerts and
TV appearances.

Sadly, the seemingly cheery family had tension constantly brewing offstage. Bud was a Navy veteran, and much like the character portrayed in The Great Santini, the only method he saw fit for running the family was the military way. He ruled with an iron hand, which he frequently applied to family members who showed the slightest form of rebellion.

There were two glaring examples of Bud’s bullying. One was Richard, the one non-performing Cowsill, against whom Bud had an inexplicable grudge. When Bill — whom the rest of the family regarded as the group’s de facto leader — tried to convince Bud that Richard would make a great drummer for the group, Richard instead nonchalantly sent Richard off to fight in Vietnam. A while later, Bill and Bud got into a physical confrontation in which Bill surprised himself by emerging victorious. The next day, Bud sent Bill a letter stating that his services were no longer needed for the group or the family.

All of this family turmoil, plus the group’s loss of popularity due to changing musical styles, is well-documented here. The movie is narrated by Bob, and he makes it quite clear that he is trying to make some sense of the chaos that befell the family. If the film has any fault, it’s that — already a pretty brisk 90 minutes — it seems a little padded by Bob’s aw-shucks narration, as well as moments where untitled music is expected to carry the movie along for a few more minutes. (Also, strangely, there are clips of The Cowsills appearing on Mike Douglas’ and Johnny Carson’s talk shows without identifying the hosts.)

But overall, this is a very insightful, not to mention bittersweet portrait of a family who might have made more of their success if not for their dysfunctionality. I always thought their song “The Rain, The Park, and Other Things” was a bit treacly, but this movie definitely makes you see their music in a different light.

Nowhere Man

As I’ve recently mentioned on this blog, I officially retired eight weeks ago. When I turned 60 three months ago, I became eligible for 71.5% (who determined that figure?) of my late wife’s Social Security benefits, and while that wasn’t a fortune, I found that it was a comfortable enough figure to live on. So I took the closest ramp off the rat race, and here I am.

Until she discovered that I’d make it okay on my own, my grown daughter was dead set against the idea. She was convinced that I should hold out until age 62 so that I could get more money for retirement. But for me, it wasn’t completely about the money.

After having been laid off from the best job I’d ever had, I’d been forced to take a job at a convenience store. After a year of working there, I thought it would get easier. But frankly, it only made me more disgusted with life. Everything I’d ever hated about jobs — condescending bosses, annoying co-workers, concern about things that didn’t matter — came to bear on this job. Even emptying the trash made me shudder, and not just for the obvious reasons. I would find things such as half-eaten pizzas or half-used cartons of beer (with six unopened bottles, just thrown away) and think, How can people waste this stuff so nonchalantly?

Sadly, I’ve never been much of a people person to start with, but this job only emphasized that fact, to my despair. As with many Americans, there were many days when it was all I could do to pull myself out of bed just to go to the job. So, as I say, when a window of opportunity presented itself, I jumped right through it.

The funny thing is, I used to think it was just me who felt this way. Plenty of people dislike their jobs, but not to the point of wanting to avoid mankind altogether. Or so I thought. But lately, I’ve found some evidence on the Internet that lots of folks are tired of having to deal with their fellow man (or woman).

Mark Evanier, a very entertaining blogger and one of my favorites, recently wrote this column about how he has enough means and material goods that he is quite happy not having to negotiate the outside world. And on Twitter, there’s an account named Fact (@Fact) that daily espouses either some fact or some random philosophy about life. On July 2, they posted this gem: “Most people aren’t actually anti-social. They choose to be alone because they hate spending time with stupid people.”

Sadly, it’s not an absurd philosophy these days. I get all of my news from my computer nowadays. When you go to the news and read about insurrections against our Capitol, or how politicians who were supposedly elected to serve their constituents do nothing but fill their own coffers, staying squirreled away in your little room suddenly doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Let me know what your feelings are on this subject. In the meantime, I’m off to my patio to smoke a cigar.