Sunday, December 13, 2009

Christopher Walken's Three Little Pigs

They're not making actors like they used to. If you compare the classic Hollywood films of the 1930's through the 1960's, even on into the 70's to a lot of the movies being made today, that becomes alarmingly clear. Classic movies were filled with iconic actors. People like Humphrey Bogart, Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, Jimmy Stewart, Judy Garland, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and a long list of others were icons because they brought some of their own unique personality to the roles they played. The characters they played were memorable because they shared similar traits to the actors' pre-established personas. Humphrey Bogart could be a tough gangster or a good-guy detective, or he could be a conflicted lover, and yet he was still Bogart in all of those roles.

Modern actors I consider to have this quality include Johnny Depp, Samuel Jackson, George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Kathy Bates, Jack Nicholson, Will Smith...and a few others.

Like this guy, Christopher Walken. Whether he's in a movie, a TV comedy skit, a music video (he's done all three and then some), he's instantly recognizable. He can be creepy, serious, funny, dramatic...but he has that certain quality that makes him a character just by himself.

Case in point: This comedic, ad-libbed take on "The Three Little Pigs".

Now, if someone like Brad Pitt or Jude Law or Christian Bale or Will Ferrell read that same story, would it be as unique or funny? I doubt it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

My Top 10 Favorite FUNNY Christmas songs

Since I did a top 10 favorites and top 5 least favorites, I decided I should do a top 10 list of funny Christmas songs and Christmas song parodies. This one's pretty eclectic...I have a pretty weird sense of humor!

10. I Tawt I Taw Ol’ Santy Claws” (Tweety and Sylvester)Back in the early 90’s, Looney Tunes had a resurgence in popularity they hadn’t seen in years. The only problem was, their principal voice artist, Mel Blanc, passed away in 1989. They found replacements, but it took an army of voice actors to do what Blanc had once done all by himself. Nevertheless, a Christmas album was released with the new actors. This track from it managed to get some radio airplay, and rightly so…it’s hilarious, and it’s so well-voiced by Bob Bergen and Joe Alaskey, you’d swear it was Blanc himself. Sorry about the weird video, all I could find on the internet was a video of 2 little kids dancing to it.

9. Jingle Bells, Batman Smells (Unknown)
This is one of those silly parodies we all sang as kids, making up variations and just being silly. I don’t think anyone knows who first came up with it, but the folks who made the classic Batman Animated Series remembered it and did as good a tribute to it as any. By the way, the Joker’s voice is done by Mark Hamill. That’s right kids, Luke Skywalker was playing the Joker long before Heath Ledger came along.

8. Walkin’ Round in Women’s Underwear” (Bob Rivers)
Some of the funniest Christmas parody songs of all time were done by Bob Rivers, a West Coast DJ and song parodist. This combines two things you wouldn’t think to combine: “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” and cross-dressing. It’s sick, wrong, messed up, but incredibly funny.

7. 12 Pains of Christmas (Bob Rivers)
Again, Bob Rivers takes a Christmas song and turns it on its ear. This time, “The 12 Days of Christmas” takes a turn for the worse as various people in the song air their grievances with the Yuletide. A frustrated light-rigger, an effeminate Christmas card writer, an Archie Bunker-type drunk and a nervous woman scared to death of her mother-in-law, among others, make this a fun and funny listen.

6. Cat Hair Balls (Ren and Stimpy)
So nasty. So weird. So twisted. That’s Ren and Stimpy for you. After their original creator, John Kricfalusi (a pretty sick and twisted guy in his own right) was fired from his own show, that didn’t stop Nickelodeon from continuing without him, and merchandising it like crazy. There were several albums of songs and skits released featuring voice actor Billy West, including this one. It’s hard to imagine a Christmas album this nasty aimed at kids today. Still, this particular song sort of sticks with you.

5. The Hat I Got For Christmas Is Too Big (Mel Blanc)
Mel Blanc, the voice of the Looney Tunes, spins the tale of a Mexican (His “Speedy Gonzales” voice) who gets a sombrero for Christmas that is so big, it blocks his vision. Why he didn’t just take the sombrero off is anybody’s guess, but it’s a genuinely hilarious vocal performance by one of the greatest actors to ever work in film and radio.

4. The Night Santa Went Crazy (Weird Al Yankovic)
This original song by Weird Al tells of what happens one night when Santa Claus turns into a homicidal maniac. It’s not one of those “nice”, “warm fuzzy” Christmas stories. In fact it’s extremely violent! However, what makes it work is Al’s clever lyrics. The cartoon someone did to accompany it is a little on the bloody side, but it, too, is pretty funny.

3. Jingle Dogs (Jingle Dogs)
Now here’s an idea that’s so crazy it works…Christmas songs performed by pets! Back in the mid 90’s, somebody got the idea to record various dog barks and cat meows and string them together to create “Jingle Dogs” and “Jingle Cats”. Though not really something you want to listen to over and over again, when one of these pops up on a Christmas radio station, it can catch you off guard!

2. Twelve Days of Christmas (John Denver and the Muppets)
Another “12 Days” variation, but this is probably the best one ever recorded, even though it’s meant to be funny. John Denver sings the song in his trademark warm, clear voice, with different Muppets characters chiming in for each “gift”. Jim Henson and John Denver are both gone now, but this song and the album it came from have been charming listeners for 30 years

1.Merry Christmas From the Family (Robert Earl Keen)
Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen scored one of his biggest hits with this yarn about a redneck family Christmas. As distinctly white-trash as it is, it’s also surprisingly universal. We all have those eccentric relatives who get together at Christmas, and everything that comes with them. Keen brilliantly illustrates a scene filled with drunk parents, a sister with a Mexican boyfriend, a cousin who shows up in a trailer, and a growing grocery list of humorous items. Feliz Navidad!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

My Top 10 Favorite Christmas Songs

Now that I've given my least favorite Christmas songs the criticism they deserve, here's a list of my all-time favorites. I couldn;t narrow it down to just 5 in this case, so I went with a top ten. As with the "worst of" list, I did some research on each one. Sometimes, the origin stories of these songs were just as incredible as the songs themselves.

10. Linus and Lucy (Vince Guaraldi)
Jazz musician Vince Guaraldi lent his talent to the iconic TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. While this particular snippet of the soundtrack eventually became the “Peanuts” theme song, it is forever associated with Christmas. It’s a bright, cheery piano number that never fails to make the season bright. In fact, The whole soundtrack CD is perfect background music for family holiday get-togethers.

9. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (Robert May)
“Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” is a classic in spite of itself. It’s been commercialized to death, but its origin is a great Christmas tale if there ever was one. An employee at the Montgomery Wards department store in Chicago named Robert May was in a tight spot. It was the middle of the Great Depression, his wife had just died, and he didn’t have enough money to buy his daughter a Christmas gift. So he wrote her a story. An executive of Wards caught wind of it, and bought the story from May to distribute to kids who came to the store. After its initial success, the CEO of Wards returned the rights to the story to May, who promptly got together with his brother in law and wrote a song to go with it. May presented the song to country crooner Gene Autry, and it was a huge hit in 1949. The rest is history. Rudolph didn’t just save Christmas, he saved his creator too! Of course, it was also adapted to animation: twice. First, a straightforward adaptation of the book by Max Flesicher, and later the more familiar Rankin/Bass stop-motion film. This one is actually a two-fer...I like the original by Autry and feel the need to include it. But my favorite version is by Motown greats, the Temptations.

8. Frosty the Snowman (Jack Rollins)
After “Rudolph” proved to be a huge hit, Gene Autry wanted to find another Christmas song to turn into a hit. In 1950, he got one: Songwriter Jack Rollins came up with a song that told the story of a snowman who came to life with the aid of a magic hat. It’s pretty childish, especially by today’s standards…but the bottom line is that it’s a great Christmas song. Snow? Check. Happy children? Check. Christmas miracle? Check. It’s catchy as a mofo, too!

7. Here Comes Santa Claus (Gene Autry)
Gene Autry must’ve really liked Christmas music. It’s pretty obvious his wallet liked Christmas music too, considering he had a hand in three of the most iconic Christmas classics of all time. This was the first, though, and he wrote it himself after hearing kids chant “here comes Santa Claus!” in a Christmas parade. Many have tried, but nobody’s managed to top the original, either in performance or success. Like “White Christmas”, the first one to sing it always did it best.

6. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting) (Mel Torme, Bob Wells)
Mel Torme and Bob Wells found themselves in the middle of a brutal heat wave in 1944. In an effort to keep cool, Wells decided to think of things that reminded him of winter. He wrote them down on a note-pad, and when Torme read it, he decided to sit down at a piano and turn it into a song, adding to the lyrics with his own cold-weather memories. They shopped it around and it was picked up by Nat King Cole, who turned it into a hit the following year. It’s one of the best Christmas songs ever created, and has always been one of my favorites.

5. Deck The Halls (Traditional)
This is a really old one. It dates back to 16th Century England, specifically Wales, and has been passed down through time. Even Mozart played it. There are a number of different versions of the lyrics, and it’s never been very popular as a recording, but it’s a song that just about everybody knows. The Christmas carolers of old sang it, kids today sing it, families gather around and sing it around the fireplace. And everybody puts boughs of holly in their homes on Christmas. I can't say I have a favorite version of it, they're all pretty much the same. But Nat King Cole did a good one. I'll give him another spot on the list.

4. Silent Night (Joseph Mohr, Franz Gruber)
This traditional hymn was written by a priest in Austria (Mohr) back in the 1800’s. So the legend goes, he brought it to teacher Franz Gruber and they composed it as a song that could be performed on a guitar instead of a traditional church pipe organ. One variation of its origin story is that this was done out of necessity, in a hurry because the church organ broke before a Christmas Eve service. It’s peaceful, beautiful, and tells of the birth of Jesus. It’s generally sung as a church hymn, although Bing Crosby’s take on it has always been my favorite.

3. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings (Barenaked Ladies)
Technically, this is two songs in one. One is a traditional Christmas hymn, the other is an Epiphany hymn (about the Three Wise Men who followed the North Star to see Jesus.) The Barenaked Ladies got bitten by the Christmas bug in the late 90’s, and with help from fellow Canadian Sarah McLachlan, and together they merged the two songs together and set it to a catchy acoustic guitar riff. I think it’s one of the best Christmas songs ever, even though it’s actually just a modern medley of two ancient songs.

2. White Christmas (Irving Berlin)
Irving Berlin wrote it, Bing Crosby took it from there. I don’t know anyone who hates this song, or anyone who doesn’t know it. When he wrote it (By a hotel swimming pool in sunny, warm Arizona), Berlin is quoted as having said: “I just wrote the best song I've ever written — hell, I just wrote the best song that anybody's ever written! In a way, he was right. After it first appeared as part of a group of songs in the 1942 musical film “Holiday Inn”, in which Bing Crosby performed it, it was released as a single recording by Crosby. It is estimated to be, to this very day, the best-selling single of all time. In any genre, by any artist. Many have covered it since, but none have surpassed Bing Crosby’s version in popularity. Because that would be impossible.

1. I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day (Longfellow/Calkin)
Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote this incredible song on Christmas morning in 1863. He’d had a rough couple of years leading up to it. The Civil War was in full swing, and he’d just gotten word that his son was wounded in it. His wife had recently died in a fire. There wasn’t any Christmas cheer for him that day…he’d given up all hope. That is, until he heard church bells. What he wrote is not one of the more well-known Christmas songs. It wasn’t even turned into a song until at least 10 years after it was written, by an English organist named John Baptiste Calker. It’s not especially catchy, it’s not about presents and Santa and cute snowmen. I’d gone my whole life without ever hearing it, or hearing of it…until 2 years ago when I stopped by the Starbucks in downtown Austin on a really cold day seeking warm liquid refreshment after picking up a gift for my grandmother. I heard it on the in-store music, asked what it was and was pointed to a compilation of new and old Christmas songs produced by Starbucks. Turns out it was performed by Sarah Mclachlan. It hit me hard. I’d had a pretty lousy year, the country was at war, and I was kind of down in the dumps. Call it a random discovery if you want. Chance, maybe. But when I heard it that day, I knew it was God tapping me on the shoulder and reminding me what Christmas is all about…just like the bells that inspired its author to write it in the first place. “And pealed the bells both loud and deep, God is not dead, nor does he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.” That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Santa Claus is Coming To Town (Fred Coots/Haven Gillespie)

As originally written in the 1930's by 2 guys named Coots and Gillespie, it's just another Christmas pop tune about Santa Claus. I couldn't really give it a spot in my top ten because the song itself is nothing special. Everybody's performed it, and nobody cares. Except ONE version, and that's Bruce Springsteen's. The Boss started playing it at live shows with his E-Street Band back in the 70's and 80's around Christmas time, and it became their little tradition. He took an old chestnut and roasted it on an open fire. A real classic.

My Top 5 Least Favorite Christmas Songs

I really like Christmas music. Christmas is the one holiday to have its own genre of music, and most of the songs are beloved classics that have been dusted off and enjoyed every December for generations. Old Christian hymns, pop songs about reindeer, snowmen and an old fat guy from the North Pole, and old vocal standards about warmth and good cheer. Some are religious, some are commercial, some just talk about the weather, but there's something in it for everybody. Not to mention that just about every recording artist you can name has put out a Christmas album at some point, or at least done a song or two.

In this first of 2 posts, I'll present my favorites, and the ones that make me want to go hide in a dark hole with Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch and chow down on gruel and that last can of Who Hash.

Let's go with the bad news first. I'll do only 5 for this segment, but don't worry, I'm making them count. This is one rancid plate of roast beast!

5. Silver Bells (Jay Livingston and Ray Evans)
Christmas is a time for giving. It is, above all, a time to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But you won’t find anything about those two subjects in this painfully commercial, schmaltzy, lay-the-sap-on thick little ditty from 1950. No, it’s about shopping in the city. Its most popular version (though it’s been performed by many) is by Bing Crosby…and not even Mr. White Christmas himself made it sound good. A lot of people like it, but count me as one of those people who doesn’t like its message.

4. The Chipmunk Song (Ross Bagdasarian)
One of the most popular Christmas songs of all time. It’s a classic, it’s creative, it’s cute and it’s well written. But that doesn’t numb the pain of hearing it over and over again back-to-back. Alvin and the Chipmunks are one of those things best enjoyed in small doses, and for some reason, this song is never used in moderation come Christmas time. This makes my list not because it’s annoying in and of itself, it’s annoying because it’s overexposed. Every Christmas, the family of the late “Dave Seville” (Ross Bagdasarian) listens to their pockets play “Jingle Bells”, and what do we get in return? Bad CGI blockbuster movies with poop jokes.

3. Christmas Shoes (NewSong)
This is a fairly recent addition to the Christmas music repertoire. A Christian musical group got a chain email back in 1996 telling the story of a poor kid who showed up at a store on Christmas Eve to buy a pair of shoes for his dying mother. It’s a nice premise, but it’s SO sappy it hurts! Not to mention sad. When I hear Christmas music, I want to celebrate happy things like Jesus and Santa Claus, not poverty and death. I’m not a Scrooge, I understand that Christmas is a time to recognize and give to the less fortunate. But in doing so, we’re supposed to make them happy and feel good about doing it, not listen to tear-jerking songs about it!

2.Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree (Johnny Marks)
Oh man, make it STOP! “Hey, it’s 1958, those kids are listening to rock and roll records. We should do a Christmas song about it to show we’re not squares!” 4-foot-9 country vocalist Brenda “Dynamite” Lee performed the original, and in fact it really is more country than it is rock. I really can’t put my finger on WHY I don’t like this song, it’s just that whenever I hear it, a big neon sign flashes in my brain that says “This SUCKS.” It genuinely irritates me.

1. Jingle Bell Rock (Beale/Boothe)
Much like the #2 entry, this was a late 1950’s attempt to make a Christmas tune that was (at the time) hip and modern. "Jingle Bell Rock" was written by Joe Beal, a public relations man from Massachusetts, and Jim Boothe , a Texas advertising writer. That should be adequate warning that we’re dealing with one commercialized, purely empty piece of horse shit. It was originally performed by Bobby Helms. That version is really country (not rock), complete with steel guitar. It’s also the only version I’ve heard that features the sound of jingle bells in it at all. Lyrically, it’s the dumbest Christmas song ever. “Giddy up, Jingle Horse, pick up your feet!” What the hell is a “jingle horse”? I’m not a horse expert, but I know the’ve got your quarterhorse, your arabian, your saddlebred. I’m from Texas, and we’ve probably got every kind of horse there is, but danged if I ain’t NEVER seen no “jingle horse” around these parts. To add insult to injury, there are countless versions of the song out there performed by countless artists, and not one of them has managed to make it palatable. I hate it, I hate it, and just for fun, I hate it some more.