Monthly Archives: January 2010

Divining Destiny from a Year’s Worth of Fortune Cookies

Growing up an Italian–American on the west side of Cleveland, Ohio, I was wholly satisfied with my mother Mary’s glorious homemade tomato sauce, pasta, meatballs, and lasagna. As I was a third-generation American, our family’s traditional Italian diet had been augmented by New World culinary classics like steak, hamburgers, corn on the cob, and Kraft macaroni cheese – with a few exotic forays into Swiss steak and French toast. But, for the first 17 years of my life, Chinese food was essentially off my gastronomical radar.

As for fortune cookies, the first time they were brought to my attention was through the 1966 film, The Fortune Cookie, directed by Billy Wilder: the first movie to pair Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. As far as I can remember, the film had nothing to do with fortune cookies, but it did have something to do with Cleveland, which made an impression on me.

The opening scenes in The Fortune Cookie were shot at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on October 31, 1965, during a game between the Browns and Minnesota Vikings. Lemmon plays a cameraman who gets injured when the Browns’ star running back, “Boom Boom” Jackson (modeled on the great Jim Brown) slams into him on the sidelines, sending Jack’s character to the hospital. The rest of the plot involves his scheming brother-in-law, played by Matthau, who engineers an insurance scam by getting Lemmon to pretend he’s paralyzed. I can’t remember if they ate Chinese food in Billy Wilder’s hilarious movie, but by my junior year in high school, I still hadn’t experimented with Eastern cuisine beyond nibbling some Chow Mein noodles.

Of course, while I had yet to enjoy a fortune cookie, I had been reading fortunes connected to a staple foodstuff for years. For as long as I could remember, Bazooka Joe comics always featured a fortune. In fact, Jay Lynch wrote many of these fortunes. (Maybe Jay will provide us with more detail on the evolution of fortunes in Bazooka Joe comics. Maybe he won’t. Jay is a mysterious man.)

I came late to Chinese food – and fortune cookies. It wasn’t until my junior year at Cleveland Central Catholic High School that I discovered the joys of Chinese cuisine. It had become a CCC theatre tradition to go to Chung Wah on the near east side of Cleveland, where my favorite teachers, Ellen Fasko (art) and Mary Ann Zampino (theatre), introduced me to the Cantonese food served there. I loved the atmosphere at Chung Wah, but I was ambivalent about the relatively bland Cantonese dishes. I dug the fortune cookies, though. They were tasty, and it was cool that there were fortunes inside.

The author (what's with that goatee?), Ellen Fasko, and my best high school buddy, Gary Swisher at Chung Wah on a break from freshman year at college. (1976)

35 years later, I am a dedicated Chinese food fan, though I’m still not big on Cantonese. I prefer hot and spicy Schzechaun dishes — and my passion for Thai food is rivaled only by my blood-bond to my mom’s Italian menu. I eat Thai food at least once or twice (and sometimes three) times a week. I also frequent Panda Express. I’ve cracked open quite a few fortune cookies, and over the years, I’ve thought quite a bit about the fortunes inside them.

Here, then, is a look a year’s worth of fortune cookies that I’ve collected. What do they say about me? And what do they say about the largely unsung and unexamined art of fortune cookie fortune writing?

“Long life is in store for you.”

This is a classic, all-purpose crowd-pleaser. Who can possibly be disappointed with the prediction of a long life? It’s the kind of fortune you keep in your wallet for a few weeks. You may not necessarily believe in the power of fortune cookie voodoo, but such an encouraging omen can’t hurt. This is a real fortune, folks. It makes a bold prediction. It goes out on a limb.

But I must caution weight watchers. No fortune cookie fortune has a chance to come true unless you’ve consumed the whole cookie. In this case, a long life is worth a few extra calories, isn’t it?

“You are original and creative.”

It may be nice to read such a compliment after your meal – but this is certainly NOT a fortune: it’s simply an observation. They are not called observation cookies. In this particular example, it can be argued that the cookie was correct in its assessment of my artistic nature. However, this next fortune illustrates the pitfalls of the observation cookie.

“You have a quiet and unobtrusive nature.”

Quiet? Unobtrusive? Sorry, but this is just not me. Not only is this NOT a fortune – it’s not even a correct observation. It’s a total waste of calories. I would much rather have gotten the weakest, most vague fortune — something like, “You will someday have a good experience.” Fortune cookie bakers should end this practice of making blunt assessments about the reader’s personality, and stick to post-meal prognostication.

“You will be rewarded for your patience and understanding.”

This is better – but only by half. It starts with a legitimate fortune (the prospect of reward) and closes with a snap judgment of my personality. But what happens if I’m neither patient nor understanding? Does that disqualify me from getting the predicted reward? The whole thing is a mess: too many moving parts. Why not simply state, “You will soon be rewarded” – and let the reader decide why he’s getting a reward. Problems arise whenever a fortune cookie strays from the role of sugary soothsayer.

“Soon, you’ll have a chance at a profitable transaction.”

All I have is a “chance”? What kind of limp fortune is this? To call the fortune writer cautious in this instance, is to be too kind. Whoever wrote this mealy-mouthed fortune has no faith in himself – or his reader. He promises nothing. Risks nothing. Says nothing. The word “profitable” is another dodge: a mere suggestion of how lucrative this possible transaction might be. The whole exercise is meaningless. It’s like Charlie Brown getting a fortune that reads, “Soon, you’ll have a chance at successfully kicking Lucy’s football.”

“Luck is with you now, act upon your instincts.”

This is not really a fortune, folks — it’s advice. Fortune cookies are no more advice cookies than they are observation cookies. This one combines an observation (“luck is with you”) with some advice. But, even here, the fortune cookie writer lets me down. Does he suggest something specific I might do to capitalize on my fleeting, momentary bit of luck? No. He just punts the ball to me: “act upon your instincts.” But he doesn’t know a damn thing about me! What if my instinct is to squander my luck? Now, I’d like to think I’m confident enough about my instincts to cash in on a lucky moment, but a non-fortune like this requires too much introspection.

“You will win success in whatever you adopt.”

Bingo! Here you go. This is what I’m looking for when I crack open a fortune cookie. I’ve just eaten a great, hot, spicy meal, I’m feeling full, and I’m in the mood for some good news about my future. I’m not looking for a philosophical brainteaser or well-intentioned advice. I just want a satisfying fortune clearly stated. And this one opens great (“You will win success”) – and closes even better (“in whatever you adopt”). I’m a winner, no matter what I choose to do! I can’t miss. In fact, I’m giving the waiter an extra five percent!

“7 10 18 26 32 37”

Many fortune cookie bakers have been printing lottery numbers on the back of their fortunes. I’m not a lottery player, so I’m not sure how to feel about this. I suppose for lottery players, this is value-added. Do these cookie bakers get a kickback from the state for encouraging the purchase of lottery tickets? And, if I don’t use them in the lottery, do these numbers suggest anything about my future?

The numbers do suggest a little about my past: I wrestled in high school at 126 and 132 pounds. But, other than that, these numbers mean nothing to me. Perhaps if you’re a numerologist, the numbers on the back say more to you than the words on the front of the fortune? I just don’t know…

“Your love life will be happy and harmonious.”

This is a great fortune. And, in my case, I firmly believe it will come true. Thanks to my wonderful wife, Victoria, my love life is happy and harmonious now – and shall no doubt be so for the rest of my days. But it’s nice to be reassured of that after a splendid lunch. Now, I imagine if you got this fortune in the middle of a rocky divorce, you might wince, suffering a pang of painful irony. However, someone in that sad situation might also see this fortune as a promise that his hopes for a happy love life will someday be fulfilled. It’s a fortune that can save lives. For me, it’s confirmation of what I already know.

And, continuing upon this theme…

“You and your love one will be happy in your life together.”

Gotta love it: more confirmation of life-long happiness with Victoria. This is a truly classic fortune – especially as it contains the kind of typo (“your love one”) that used to be a frequent feature of the fortune cookie. Back in my Chung Wah days, the fortunes were full of grammatical and spelling errors – owing to the fact that, for so many cookie bakers and fortune writers, English was, at most, a second language. But no matter how they mangled syntax and spelling in those days, they never forgot the fundamental mission of the fortune cookie. Would that all of today’s fortune cookie fortune writers respected the tradition established by their forbears: a delicious dessert packed with a prophecy.

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Le Salon de Crawford

After my graduation from Northwestern University in June of 1980, the birth of my daughter Maura that July, and our establishment of The Practical Theatre Company in the newly-built John Lennon Auditorium at the corner of Howard and Custer Streets – the most important thing that happened to me (and all of us at the PTC) was our serendipitous introduction to the remarkable Ron & Sydney Crawford and their fabulous children: Suzy, Jennifer and Ronny, who would soon come to be known as Rockin’ Ronny.

I can’t remember the exact moment I first met Ron & Syd Crawford in 1981 – but it was a moment that changed my life. It’s hard to catalogue the many ways in which the Crawfords contributed to my personal and artistic growth. They gave freely and generously of their love, their many talents, their warm hospitality – and their genuine enthusiasm for what these crazy kids were doing in their tiny storefront theatre on Evanston’s border with Chicago.

Ron and Syd Crawford were – and are – artists of the first rank. To me, they were – and are – a living, breathing cultural institution. In those days, their splendid Victorian “painted lady” on Elmwood Avenue in Evanston was home to the North Shore’s most vital and progressive salon — something I’ve only begun to fully appreciate in recent years. According to Wikipedia, a salon is a gathering of intellectual, social, political, and cultural elites under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation.”

Rush & Paul, two of Evanston's avant-garde habitues of Le Salon de Crawford.

I didn’t realize it back then, but that was the scene at Ron and Syd’s house. Artists, writers, musicians, peaceniks, revolutionaries, madcap recent NU graduates, and assorted interesting members of the Evanston avant-garde – they all gathered at the Crawford’s home. Sydney and Ron were inspiring hosts, to be sure, and we all increased our knowledge through the passionate, party-driven conversation and camaraderie, as we dug the scene, hanging out with the groovy creative spirits, iconoclasts, and free thinkers at les Salon de Crawford!

Inside the Crawford house, you could still feel good vibrations lingering from the Summer of Love. The walls were covered with the evidence of an artistic and socially conscious life well lived – all arranged with impeccable taste: a poster from Eugene McCarthy’s campaign, neon artwork, and a museum’s-worth of paintings, photos and drawings. Oh, the drawings!

The Crawford's living room turned into an impromptu recording studio.

Yet another fabulous Ron Crawford poster for a PTC/Rockme event.

I’ll get back to the drawings in a moment. But for those who don’t know the Crawfords as well as I do, I should provide some basic biographical info…

They live in New York City now, but Ron & Sydney raised their children in Evanston and lived there for 30 years. (Ron’s dad was Captain Robert Crawford, the “Flying Baritone,” who wrote the Army Air Corps Song, “Off we go into the wild blue yonder…”) Ron did a lot of animation work in the 60’s and 70’s, creating educational films, corporate videos, TV commercials (Fiddle Faddle, anyone?) and television station graphics. When we met him, Ron still had an animation studio and film and video editing equipment in their coach house. (He often used his equipment and skills in the service of the PTC.)

Long before Sydney became the PTC’s beloved den mother, she helped Ron run their business (she even starred in some of their commercials), worked in a local frame store — and made the world turn for everyone in her salon.

Twenty years ago, Ron started working as an actor and, of course, he found success. He appeared in the Steppenwolf Theatre production of The Grapes of Wrath that went to Broadway, and his film career took him to Paris, where he starred in the movie Arthur and the Invisibles, as well as its two sequels. He also performs a one-man stage show, Travels with Mark Twain. You can fill in the gaps regarding Ron’s acting career here and here. Once Ron got to Broadway, Ron & Syd wound up staying in New York City — where they reside to this day. Lucky, NYC…

In recent years, Ron does for New York City what he did for Evanston, Illinois.

Today, Sydney is a talent agent representing fashion stylists, prop stylists, and photographers for print work: advertising, celebrity shots, and catalogs, etc. She started her agency, Sydney Represents, in 1994.  Of course, Syd’s still doing what she does best: creating an enthusiastic, encouraging and productive environment in which artists can flourish. She certainly helped one of the most talented artists I’ve ever met to thrive: her husband, Ron.

Willard Hall at Northwestern University

Which brings me back to those drawings.

Ever since I’ve known him, Ron has always had a pencil and art pad in hand, rendering every scene, every gesture that draws his interest into a kinetic snapshot made of exquisite lines. He drew every important building in Evanston, and every Victorian home that captured his fancy. What Ansel Adams photos are to Yosemite – Ron’s drawings are to Evanston. Lucky for me — and everyone at the PTC — Ron has also illustrated just about every major event and many candid, everyday moments in the life of The Practical Theatre and its house band, Riffmaster & the Rockme Foundation (for whom his son, Rockin’ Ronny, bangs the drums with uncommon artistry).

You can check out the wide range of Ron Crawford’s truly awesome work at his website by clicking here.

What follows is a gallery of drawings that Ron has blessed me with over the years, from the early 1980’s up through today, drawn from the hundreds of fabulous Ron Crawford sketches I’ve been saving ever since I met Ron & Syd — and was drawn into their happy, heavenly circle. Vive le Salon de Crawford!

Note: To see any of the Ron Crawford drawings in this post in glorious detail, simply click on the image. Presto!

Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation performing at Tuts on Belmont Ave. in Chicago (1982).

"The Basic Food Groups Four" in "Babalooney" at the Piper's Alley Theater. (1983)

"Babalooney" pre-Off-Broadway preview at Crosscurrents. (1983)

Rockme Foundation "World Tour" at Biggies in Cleveland, Ohio. (1983)

Paul & daughter Maura at Q&R Studios, Evanston. (1983)

Paul as Ghost of Christmas Past, Goodman Theatre. (1984)

Rockme party after a performance of "Hula-Rama" at the John Lennon Auditorium. (1984)

Paul hanging out in the house at the Provincetown Playhouse in NYC. (1984)

The Rockme Foundation playing at Limelight in Chicago, opening for Jimmy Sohns & the Cons. (1984)

A meeting of the John Lennon Athletic Club, trying to keep the 703 Howard space open. (1985)

SNL (1985)

SNL, Studio 8H at 30 Rock. (1985)

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Mary Gross in make-up at SNL. (1985)

Ron's poster for "Art, Ruth & Trudy" (1986)

Paul as "All The King's Horses" in "Art, Ruth & Trudy" ('86)

"Art Ruth & Trudy" preview at Club Victoria. (On the PTC's 7th birthday in 1986)

"Greylord have mercy on me!" ('86)

"Professional Pessimist" ('86)

Paul and Victoria in rehearsal for "Art, Ruth & Trudy". (1986)

Paul, Brad Hall and Steve Rashid taping "Overnight Guest" at WMAQ-NBC. (1986)

Victoria and Paul at home in their apartment in Evanston. (1986)

Taping "Swan Lake" in "Bozo the Town" at the Vic Theatre at Belmont & Sheffield in Chicago. ('87)

"Bozo the Town" notes with Sheldon Patinkin, Victoria, Paul, Louis DiCrescenzo, Bea & Steve Rashid.

I wrote the copy, Ron did the drawing. ('89)

Paul in "The Dybbuk" at the National Jewish Theatre. ('87)

Victoria and Linda Emond in "Serious Money" at The Court Theatre, directed by Terry McCabe. (1989)

Victoria as "Jacinta Condor" in "Serious Money" backstage at Court Theatre. (1989)

Real life & drawing at Rockme Foundation's "Woodshed @ Woodside" recording sessions. (2008)

Paul at the mike. (2008)

Larry & The Rockmes at Woodside Sessions. (2008)

The best way to end this post is with the man himself, Ron Crawford. "Peace. Out!"

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“I have not yet begun to fight!”

Among all the depressing, defeatist, hand-wringing, and otherwise pathetic punditry on television and in print this morning in the wake of Martha Coakley’s upset loss in the Massachusetts election for Teddy Kennedy’s former seat in the U.S. Senate, The Christian Science Monitor had this headline (see above) in their online edition. I agree that there are lessons to be drawn from Coakley’s collapse, but not the lessons I’m hearing from all the usual talking heads.

It’s been nearly impossible to watch TV yesterday and today and listen to triumphant right-wingers crowing about the message that this election sends President Obama and the Democrats. Of course the GOP’s take on Coakley’s defeat is easy to dismiss. Today’s Republicans are a bunch of lock-step, talking-point spouting hacks whose analysis of everything in the last decade has been dead wrong. There are just two things the GOP knows how to do: keep their message focused and fight.

On the other hand, too many Democrats are already drawing the wrong conclusions from this debacle. And their messaging is all over the place. Conservative Democrats like Evan Bayh are using this moment as a call to centrism – which is code for a lack of political courage. And I shudder to think what a triangulating corporatist like Rahm Emmanuel is advising President Obama at this moment. I worry that Rahm, who was asleep at the switch in this critical Senate election (he’s supposed to be the White House inside politics genius), will also draw the wrong lessons from the loss of what should have been a safe Democratic seat in a very blue state.

Let me, then, suggest to my fellow Democrats four lessons in courage, and some bold messaging, courtesy of – no! not a group of politicians and pundits – but a quartet of American Naval heroes.

1. John Paul Jones: “I have not yet begun to fight.”

John Paul Jones is revered as the Father of the U.S. Navy, and his exploits in the War of Independence are legendary. But his greatest moment came when he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat on September 23, 1779.  In what has been called one of the bloodiest engagements in U.S. naval history. Jones, in command of the Bonhomme Richard, slugged it out with the 44-gun English frigate Serapis. The gun crews of the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis traded thundering broadsides until Jones’ ship was burning and in danger of sinking.

Yet, when the Englishmen requested Jones strike his flag and surrender, he replied in defiance, “I have not yet begun to fight.” The battle raged on for more than three hours, ending when the tide of battle turned, the Serapis surrendered — and Jones took command of the defeated English ship.

Sure, the loss of a Senate seat is a terrible blow – but it would be great to hear Harry Reid say something very much like, “I have not yet begun to fight.”

2. Captain James Lawrence: “Don’t Give Up the Ship”

Sometimes a courageous example can turn a cruel defeat into an inspirational moment that transcends that loss – and helps to fuel an ultimate victory — as it did in a dramatic naval engagement early in the War of 1812.

In 1813, Captain James Lawrence was in command of the frigate Chesapeake when he dueled the English ship Shannon at the mouth of Boston Harbor, barely a cannon shot beyond the shore upon which, two centuries later, Martha Coakley’s Senatorial hopes were sunk.

In a brief and brutal exchange of volleys at close range, the Shannon outgunned Chesapeake – and the two ships became so entangled in each other’s fallen rigging that Chesapeake could no longer fire at the English ship. Captain Lawrence gave orders to board the Shannon, but he was hit by an enemy musket ball and had to be carried belowdecks, mortally wounded. Before he was taken below, Lawrence’s last words to his officers were: “Tell the men to fire faster and not give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks!”

Although Chesapeake was forced to surrender, Lawrence’s valiant words served as a rallying cry for generations of officers and men in the U.S. Navy: “Don’t give up the ship!”

3. Oliver Hazard Perry: “We have met the enemy and they are ours…”

The immortal words of Captain Lawrence inspired his fellow officers. In fact, just months after the loss of the Chesapeake, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry honored his late friend Lawrence by having the motto “Don’t give up the ship!” sewn onto his private battle flag – which he flew during the Battle of Lake Erie.

During the battle on September 10, 1813, Perry’s fleet engaged a fleet of British warships determined to put the Great Lakes in English control as a prelude to a possible invasion from the north. Perry’s flagship, the USS Lawrence (named in honor of the martyred Captain James Lawrence) was destroyed in the battle – but did Oliver Hazard Perry simply throw in the towel and seek compromise with his enemies? No, by god! He had himself rowed a half-mile through shot and shell to transfer his command to the USS Niagara – carrying his battle flag with his buddy’s final words of defiance emblazoned upon it: “Don’t give up the ship!”

Parry's personal battle flag at the Battle of Lake Erie.

Perry won the Battle of Lake Erie, ending the threat of English invasion via the Great Lakes, and sent his after-action report to General William Henry Harrison. Perry’s message contained few words and, like the words of his fallen friend, they became legendary: “We have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.”

I’d love to hear President Obama call out the obstructionist GOP Congress with a statement as blunt and bold as “We have met the enemy and they are ours…” The right wing may defeat us in Massachusetts, but like Commodore Perry in his rowboat, we must transfer our efforts to the next stage of the fight and press on until we win the battle.

4. Admiral David Glasgow Farragut: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Stop worrying about the Coakley catastrophe, sagging poll numbers, what the GOP and right-wing pundits might say, or foot-dragging fears about your own re-election – just press on with a progressive agenda, keep trying to fix the stuff that Bush broke, fix the health care bill in reconciliation – and forget about bipartisanship. In other words,“Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Just about every American my age has heard – and used — this famous phrase many times, but few realize that it has nothing to do with torpedoes as we know them, and that it was actually coined during the Civil War. Of course, the phrase speaks of boldness, courage, and defiant resolution in the face of grave danger – and this time the words were uttered by Admiral David Glasgow Farragut.

Farragut was the highest-ranking U.S. naval officer when he fought the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864. Farragut was hanging from the rigging of his flagship Hartford, as his invasion fleet approached the entrance to Mobile Bay, Alabama, intent on sailing past the Confederate defenses and conquering the forts that guarded the Bay.

As the guns of the Confederate forts came to bear on the ships in Farragut’s fleet, the leading ship, the ironclad monitor Tecumseh, was destroyed by a submerged mine. (BTW — we call it a “mine” now, but in Civil War parlance, a tethered underwater explosive device was called a “torpedo”.) With Tecumseh knocked out of action, Farragut’s fleet began to drift in confusion under the guns of the Confederate forts. With disaster in the offing, as Farragut hung from the shrouds aboard the Hartford, he gave the orders, “Damn the torpedoes! Four bells! Captain Crayton, go ahead! Joucett, full speed!”

Farragut sailed his own ship Hartford into the lead — and across the mines, which failed to detonate. The rest of his fleet followed the Commodore’s bold example, ran past the guns of the Confederate forts, and hammered them into submission from a safe anchorage.

Farragut’s fearlessness and resolve — when all might have been lost — saved the day and immortalized his words. If I was President Obama, in command of our mighty Ship of State, that’s the order I would give to Reid, Pelosi, and all my officers. “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

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Getting Lucky with Gary Whitney

In the 1980’s, all of us at The Practical Theatre Company were very lucky to meet and work with an artist named Gary Whitney. At the time, Gary was partnering with Jay Lynch on the strip Phoebe & The Pigeon People which appeared in the pages of the Chicago Reader – and all of us recent Northwestern University grads had been fans of Gary’s artwork and Jay’s jokes for years before the incomparable Ron and Sydney Crawford introduced us to those two fascinating and talented artists.

Connecting us with Jay and Gary was yet another important social and artistic contribution made by the Crawfords to the PTC. Soon, I will undertake to express the full measure of our collective gratitude to Ron & Syd by blogging the story of their impact on my life, the history of the PTC, and the musical adventures of The Rockme Foundation. I’m pleased to say it’s an ongoing story.

From the moment I first met Gary, I liked him. We all did. Gary was a relatively quiet guy, but he was also very open and warm. He had a big beard and a big sense of humor. I can easily picture him at any number of gatherings at the Crawford’s house or at the John Lennon Auditorium laughing and enjoying the scene. Few of us knew who Gary Whitney really was (other than the guy who drew Phoebe) and Gary wasn’t the kind of guy to toot his own horn – but he, like Jay, was already a fixture in the wild, wild world of underground and alternative comix.

Gary had already been very active in the underground comic scene in the 1970s, contributing to many titles, including Bizarre Sex, Dope Comix, Kitchen Sink Press, Flying Fungus Funnies, and Windy City Comix, among many others. In the 1980’s, we at the Practical Theatre were blessed to have Gary lend his wit and talent to our efforts.

I can’t remember what the first event was for which Gary drew one of his great posters or flyers – but he drew a lot of them. He created a whole series of fabulous flyers to promote appearances by our house band, Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation. Gary’s posters for the band’s gigs always created excitement, especially within the band. It was so cool to have the guy who drew Phoebe & The Pigeon People make our next gig look so exciting, offbeat and…cool. There’s no better word for it.

Gary also did the poster for The Practical Theatre’s production of Soapbox Sweepstakes, an ongoing satirical look at the 1984 Presidential election, which ran at the John Lennon Auditorium for 30 weeks, from May of ‘84 through election day.

But the collaboration that I enjoyed most was working with Gary, Brad Hall, Gary Kroeger and Ron Crawford on the one and only issue of Practical Comix.

Practical Comix was a childhood dream come true. I’d been an avid reader of comic books since I was a small boy — and in high school during the groovy early 70’s, I became a big fan of underground comics. I even went to Cleveland’s Cooper School of Art one summer in a vain attempt to develop my artistic talents so that I could draw a comic book of my own. Alas, I never became more than a rudimentary cartoonist, but the dream of my own comic book never died. In 1983, Gary Whitney helped to make that dream come true.

What follows is an excerpt from Practical Comix: Special Family Ties Issue. The story is adapted from a sketch that Brad Hall, Gary Kroeger and I wrote for Saturday Night Live. The sketch didn’t make it to air on SNL – but Gary Whitney made it come alive in the pages of Practical Comix.

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A Poll on Polls…

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Fox News: Beyond Satire & Yet We Laugh

The Top 5 (Most Recent) Reasons that Fox News Has Jumped Way, Way Over the Shark into Uncharted Depths of Wing-Nutty Non-Journalism.

In September of 1977, in the climax of a special three-part episode that opened the 5th season of Happy Days, America’s favorite greasy rock n’ roll rebel, Arthur Fonzarelli, performed a now-infamous feat of derring-do. The Fonz donned swim trunks, water skis (and his leather jacket, of course) and jumped over a shark. For many fans and critics, that highly implausible scenario signaled the beginning of the end of the series. That’s why, since 1985 — the year after Happy Days went off the air — the phrase “jumping the shark” has come to mean the point at which a TV program spins off into absurd plot lines and suffers a mortal, self-inflicted wound to its fundamental integrity, often in quest of a ratings boost.

Whatever you may think about the integrity of Fox News at any point since its launch on October 7, 1996 by Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes (a former media consultant for Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush the First) – the period from January 3-11, 2010 may come to be considered the week that Fox News finally jumped the journalistic shark. Always a reliable source for unreliable information with a right wing spin, Fox News has recently leapt beyond conservative bias into the abyss of utter lunacy. Expect bigger ratings to follow.

The 9-day period, from the day Brit Hume completed his conversion from news anchor to televangelist to the day that Fox News announced that Sarah Palin was on their payroll, marks not just a final shattering of Fox’s facade as a real news organization — it may also sound a death knell for political satire. What is left to ridicule, exaggerate, burlesque or parody when your target has jumped the shark and sailed clear through the looking-glass?

Let’s take a look at just how crazy it’s gotten with a roundup of my Top 5 Fox Non-Newspeople.

#1 Britt Hume: Anchor & Televangelist.

Until recently, droopy, sanctimonious Brit Hume was the D.C. managing editor of Fox News and the anchor of Special Report with Brit Hume. Now in semi-retirement, Brit crawls out from under his rock regularly to appear as a guest pundit on the network. In was as a guest on Fox News Sunday that, on January 3, 2010, Hume bade a final farewell to his reputation as an objective newsman by suggesting that Tiger Woods should turn to Jesus Christ in order to find true forgiveness and redemption. Hume went on to say that Buddhism just doesn’t cut it in the redemption department the way Christianity does. But let me allow Brit to speak for himself…

Tiger Woods will recover as a golfer. Whether he can recover as a person I think is a very open question…but the Tiger Woods that emerges once the news value dies out of this scandal — the extent to which he can recover — seems to me to depend on his faith. He’s said to be a Buddhist; I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be, ‘”Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.”

That’s how far Fox News has gone. A former news anchor feels perfectly comfortable as a guest pundit on Fox to dismiss one of the world’s great religions and become cheerleader for another? And given a chance to clarify his anti-Buddhist statements in the wake of the mini-brouhaha that followed, Bishop Hume went on Bill O’Reilly’s show and doubled down on Jesus, with an added touch of faux persecution: “It’s always been a puzzling thing to me. The Bible even speaks of it. You speak the name Jesus Christ — and all hell breaks loose.”

Don’t blame Jesus, Brit. Jesus advised us to “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God’s what is God’s.” He knew when and where to draw the line. Then again, Jesus’ classically liberal point of view never really gets much play on Fox News.

#2 Sarah Palin: Fox’s Newest News Fox.

Fox News has established a tradition of casting hot-looking women as reporters and anchors on their newscasts – even on the local level. Fox News foxes are generally long-legged blondes who dress like they’ve just been to a cocktail party. Now the Fox blondes will have to make room for the Big Brunette. On January 11, 2010, Fox News announced that 2008 GOP Vice Presidential nominee and Alaskan Gubernatorial Quitter, Sarah Palin was joining Fox News as a contributor. Bill O’Reilly, who (allegedly) enjoys chasing gals around the newsroom, hailed the move: “This, of course, is good news for us, as the governor is the most charismatic politician in the country right now, with the possible exception of President Obama…and she’s a legitimate presidential contender in 2012 should she seek the office.”

That Sarah Palin is considered “a legitimate presidential contender” has a lot to do with Fox News pushing that meme. And now, they’re giving her a bully pulpit for self-promotion. And just what is Sarah Palin qualified to comment on? What kind of serious contribution can she make to a news show? In the new book, Game Change, authors John Heilemann and Mark Halperin quote McCain Campaign manager Steve Schmidt on the subject of Palin’s depth: “She knew nothing. She had to be taken through World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and Palin was not aware there was a difference between North and South Korea.” Yikes. And this ignoramus could have been one heart attack away from the Presidency? Surely, Palin will say something stupid enough on Fox News to ruin her chances of ever holding high office again.

But why hold out false hope? Glenn Beck has already proven you can never say something stupid enough on Fox News.

#3 Glenn Beck: Dangerous & Tragic Clown

If Glenn Beck hadn’t been born, then Paddy Chayefsky would have had to create him. After all, the only differences between Glenn Beck and Chayefsky’s fictional anchorman-gone-mad, Howard Beale from the film Network, are that Beale was sincere and paid the price for truth-telling with his life. Beck, on the other hand, in an insincere carnival barker who gets paid millions to tell lies. Both Beale and Beck are, however, emotionally damaged, paranoid nutcases who rant and rage night after night, drawing viewers for many of the same reasons an auto accident does.

Beck’s back-story provides clues to what lies behind his rage and paranoia. I won’t go into his childhood family tragedies (you can link to them here), but Beck is, by his own admission, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. Of course, having been a heavy drinker and pot smoker doesn’t disqualify him from the role of newsman any more than the fact that he’s been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Nor should his fitness as a newsman be questioned because he dropped out of college after taking one theology class, “Early Christology.” It may raise an eyebrow to learn that Beck was raised in the Catholic Church as a kid and became a Mormon as an adult, but that’s between him and his deity. The whole biographical package, however, does raise questions about his stability. And his schtick on camera indicates that either Beck’s a guy who’s truly teetering on the edge of sanity (as his bio suggests) – or he’s a dangerous demagogue who’s actually crazy like a fox.

Once again, we can look to a great movie, this time Elia Kazan’s 1957 film, A Face in the Crowd, written by Budd Schulberg, for another Beck parallel. This classic film noir follows the rise of a hillbilly huckster named Lonesome Rhodes as he works his opportunistic way up from local radio rabble-rouser to a television cult personality with heavy political clout. In fact, Keith Olbermann frequently refers to Beck as Lonesome Rhodes. But I’m not the only one who sees a far more dangerous and instructive parallel to Beck, not in characters from fiction, but in real world history.

Father Charles Edward Coughlin was a Canadian-born Roman Catholic priest who was one of the first political hacks to use radio to browbeat the ill-informed masses.  Back in the 1930’s, Father Coughlin drew up to 40 million listeners for his weekly broadcasts.  Though he was an early supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, Coughlin soon became one of the harshest critics of FDR’s New Deal policies. His message also became increasingly anti-Semitic, and he sought to rationalize some of Hitler and Mussolini’s fascist policies in the run-up to WW2 as antidotes to Communism. In time, with America’s entrance into WW2, Father Coughlin’s extreme views and anti-Semitic paranoia lost favor with the public, and he retired to become pastor of his Catholic parish where, one assumes, he preached the Christian gospel of love, tolerance, and peace. I see in Glenn Beck’s weeping, race-baiting and tea-bagging too much of Father Coughlin’s paranoia and embrace of right wing fascism masquerading as faux populism. Sarah Palin is freaky — but Beck is scary.

And now for the comic relief…

#4 Fox & Friends: TV’s Unintentional Morning Zoo

Bozo’s Circus, which featured Bozo the Clown and his wacky friends for over 40 years, is the only TV show in history that starred more clowns than Fox & Friends. Never, I repeat never, fall asleep with your TV tuned to Fox News or you may wake up first thing in the morning to the inane blathering of that trio of know-nothings, Steve Doocy, Gretchen Carlson and Brian Kilmeade.

Steve Doocy has also been the network’s weather forecaster. The dude is a TV weatherman. ‘Nuff said. Gretchen Carlson’s background is a little heavier. She worked at CBS News as a news correspondent and co-anchored the CBS Saturday Early Show, covering breaking real news events like the Columbia space shuttle disaster and the 9-11 attacks. And before her television career, she was the first classical violinist to be crowned Miss America, she graduated with honors from Stanford University, and also studied at Oxford University in England. But all of Carlson’s education, training, and experience is wasted in the lowbrow back and forth on Fox & Friends — though her pageant-winning pulchritude is probably more relevant to her position on the show. As for Brian Kilmeade? He’s a former sports reporter — and not a very bright one. I know Keith Olbermann. Keith Olberman is a friend of mine. You, Brian, are no Keith Olbermann.

And speaking of sports – no serious TV news interviewer lobs a softball question quite like Chris Wallace.

#5 Chris Wallace: Softball Pitcher

Chris Wallace’s dad is the legendary 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace: the guy who made his bones putting hard questions to the biggest of the big boys. Mike went toe to toe with the Ayatollah Khomeini in a 1979 interview in Tehran during the Hostage Crisis. Yet, in Chris Wallace, the apple has fallen many miles from the tree.

Wimpy Chris Wallace routinely invites GOP flacks like Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Mitch McConnell and others to come on his show and serve up baseless assertions and  dubious facts – without any real challenge from Chris: the guy who’s supposed to ask the tough questions. It’s not like Chris doesn’t know how to ask a tough, insightful question. Heck, the guy worked at ABC News for 15 years as a senior correspondent and as a substitute host for Nightline. Surely Ted Koppel taught him something — even if watching his daddy all those years on 60 Minutes didn’t.

That’s not to say Chris Wallace never asks a tough question. If his guest is a Democrat foolish enough to gamble that a Fox News show might actually be fair and balanced for a moment – then Chris is full of facts, figures, and fighting spirit. Suddenly, the softball pitcher is tossing knuckleballs, wicked curves — and the high hard one, up and inside. Obviously, Roger Ailes is behind the plate, calling the signals. GOP at bat? Softball over the plate. Democrat up to bat? Fastball, high and tight.

This past week, as Fox News finally lost all journalistic credibilty – there was one slight ray of hope. The day before it was announced that Sarah Palin was joining Fox News, Matthew Freud, the son-in-law of News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch and a part-owner of the company, denounced Roger Ailes, telling the New York Times he was “ashamed and sickened by Roger Ailes’s horrendous and sustained disregard of the journalistic standards that News Corporation, its founder and every other global media business aspires to”.

It was a moment of institutional sanity drowned out by the mad splash of Fonzie’s water skis flying through the surf and up over that damned shark.

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Bazooka Joe, Jay Lynch & Me

It was 20 years ago that I was fortunate enough to cross paths with two pop culture legends.

Here I am, circa about '64. Just the age for Bazooka Joe. In fact, is that an eyepatch strap wrapped around my crewcut head?

I’d actually known one of these legendary figures since I was a boy, riding my bike recklessly down to the corner store for a comic book, pop and some chewing gum. The gum of choice was Bazooka, a sugary square of latent tooth decay, swathed in a waxy wrapper. But I didn’t buy Bazooka for the taste of the gum – just as I didn’t buy baseball cards to get that stale, petrified pink stick that came along with all the photos, stats, and trivia. No, as my teeth worked their way through the first torturous chomps that would eventually soften that small rock-hard mass into something chewable, I was psyched to read the latest about a smart-aleck kid with an eye-patch: Bazooka Joe.

As far as I knew back then, Bazooka Joe And His Gang had always been and always would be. Iconic characters like Joe and Mort weren’t born and could never die. That’s how it is with great folk art. Did Woody Guthrie really write “This Land Is Your Land”, or was it always on the wind, just waiting to be given voice? Was some unknown drummer the first to hit a rim shot after a bad joke – or is that response simply wired into our DNA? Weren’t hamburgers and hot dogs available since the Garden of Eden? For millions of kids like me growing up in the early 1960’s, chewing Bazooka gum while reading Bazooka Joe comics was an essential cultural touchstone — albeit, one that made our jaws sore and our dentists rich.

It was inconceivable to me, as I sat in front of that corner store and chuckled at the antics of Joe and his pals printed on those little colored rectangles of waxed paper, that I would ever have anything to do personally with Bazooka Joe. Then, two decades later, I found myself in the orbit of a second cultural luminary: Jay Lynch.

This is Jay a few years before we met -- so he's not flipping me off.

I met Jay Lynch in the early 1980’s through our mutual friends, Ron and Sydney Crawford. (Someday, I will devote a lot of blog space to the amazing, artistic Crawfords.) At the time Jay was writing a comic strip called Phoebe & the Pigeon People with artist Gary Whitney. (I will soon be writing more about Gary, too.) Of course, like any fan of The Chicago Reader I knew Phoebe & the Pigeon People very well before I ever met Jay and Gary. In person, Jay was a relatively quiet guy. He was quick-witted and fun to be around, but you wouldn’t call him conversational. Jay gave up information about himself with more reluctance than a Gitmo detainee – so how was I to know he was an underground comics legend?

These links will give you a more complete picture of Jay Lynch:

http://www.mindspring.com/~jaylynch/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jay_Lynch

http://jaylynchlist.ning.com/

Jay is a cultural superstar that has been operating on the minds of American youth (and older folk of youthful spirit) for decades. A contemporary of R. Crumb, Jay contributed to Bijou Funnies, one of the first underground comix, and his characters, Nard n’ Pat are icons in the world of subterranean funnies.

Besides his work with Gary Whitney on the long-running Phoebe & the Pigeon People strip, Jay contributed to Mad Magazine and worked for Topp’s on Bazooka Joe comics. He’s the guy all of us middle-aged kids have to thank for Topp’s Wacky Packagesin the early 1970’s: those satiric cartoon stickers we stuck all over everything, with titles like “Plastered Peanuts,” “Ultra Blight Toothpaste,” “Messquire Magazine,” and “Mrs. Blubberworth’s Whale Fat Syrup.” And then there’s Jay’s work on classics like Garbage Pail Kids and Meanie Babies. The list goes on…

In the fall of 1989, Victoria and I were planning our wedding for June of the following year, and I already had one foot in Los Angeles, when Jay approached us with an offer I could scarcely believe: would we like to work with him on a new edition of Bazooka Joe comics? I was busy and the holiday season was upon us – but how could we pass up a chance to have our work immortalized on one of those little waxy rectangles? A cosmic opportunity like that must be seized upon with joy and thanksgiving. We told Jay that we’d give it a shot.

According to Jay, Bazooka Joe was in a transitional, post-MTV period. Joe was in need of a makeover. For one thing, the notion of Bazooka Joe and his gang was problematic. The word “gang” no longer called to mind harmless Huntz Hall and The Bowery Boys. Now, courtesy of rap video imagery and real-world drug wars between outlaws like the Crips and Bloods, “gang” had taken on a far more negative connotation. “Bazooka Joe and His Gang” were gone, replaced by Bazooka Joe & Company.

Now, Jay Lynch had dubbed himself Jayzey long before Jay-Z, so he knew that Topps had to embrace the MTV and Hip-Hop culture if it wanted to destroy the teeth of a new generation of kids, so Jay told us they were launching Bazooka Joe Raps. Run DMC meets Bazooka Joe.

Bazooka Joe himself would undergo a bit of a transformation: hipper, more handsome, and more of a jock. Joe’s hair and the bill of his ever-present baseball cap were both longer. And while his eye patch remained, Joe’s good eye was on the future.

Topps was also introducing some new characters. Mort was still there, his nose sticking out of his ultra-long turtleneck, but Bazooka Joe’s new girlfriend was a sexy shopaholic named Zena.

In another nod to advances in youth culture, Metaldude made his debut. A hairy, hard-rocking misfit, Metaldude was designed to appeal to guys who wouldn’t be caught dead hanging with a relatively square guy like Bazooka Joe.

Then, there was Ursula – something totally new for Bazooka Joe: a black woman. And a sexy, confident and athletic black woman at that! Hard-bodied Ursula was drawn in an eye-popping fashion that even a guy with one good eye like Joe would have to appreciate.

From November of ’89 through February ’90, Victoria and I submitted scripts for the various new Bazooka Joe series, including Bazooka Joe Fantasies and Bazooka Joe Mystic Master of Space & Time. As it turned out, we did our best work on Bazooka Joe Raps.

However, my favorite strips are the ones we wrote for Bazooka Joe & Company. I’d always loved those classic three and four panel jokes as a kid – and to get a chance to do it myself was an honor. Victoria, having chewed more than her share of Bazooka Joe as a youth, was also thrilled to be part of a great American cultural institution.

The comics that illustrate this article are ones that we were privileged to add to Bazooka Joe’s jaw-aching legacy. And we’ve got Jay Lynch to thank for allowing us to share a very small part of childhood cultural history.

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Filed under Art, History