The Seven Words You Can’t Say in Crime Fiction

I’m over at The Crime Factory talking about cussin’ in crime fiction. I believe cursing has its place. It will not elevate a mediocre story, nor will it drag a great story into the manure pile.
Here’s what I have to say. Also includes my pitch for Lawrence Block’s next Bernie Rhodenbarr novel.

I’m also over at Richard Godwin‘s Chin Wag at the Slaughterhouse shooting the shit.
Richard writes excellent dark fiction, and his novel Apostle Rising is no exception.

© 2011 Thomas Pluck

God gave rock ‘n roll to everyone

Many years ago, a friend argued that Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was better than the first movie. Now, other than The Godfather, it’s generally accepted that sequels are never better, but we’ve seen that rule broken many times since. And Bill & Ted did it in 1991, which is especially surprising for an early ’90s movie to beat an ’80s one. Having watched the two movies again, I must concede that the sequel is better than Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
The original film was huge; it affected teen slang, it inspired Wayne’s World, and it catapulted Keanu Reeves’s career- which began memorably with River’s Edge– into super-stardom. If you watch closely, you can see him act in this one; it’s long before he became the great stone face with the great gravelly voice. The first movie is a blast, with the amusing premise that these two Spicoli-esque dolts who can’t play guitar will create a rock band that will spread harmony throughout the world. It all starts when we learn they have to pass History or be expelled, and a trench-coated time traveler played by none other than George Carlin shows up in a phone booth- a cute nod to “Doctor Who”- to tell them he has to help them, so they can save the world. Sure, the time travel is as convoluted as the Terminator (full review) and not as well-planned as Back to the Future, but boy do they have fun with it. By the end of the movie, they’ll be saying “hey, if we go back in time and put the key to the jail in this flowerpot…” and it will magically appear. They end up kidnapping everyone from So-crates to Napoleon to Dr. Sigmund Frood.
It’s all very cartoonish, with their air guitar gestures making music on the soundtrack, but it’s infectious because they are good-hearted doofuses who seriously believe that all we need to do is “Be Excellent to One Another, and Party On.” They aren’t cocky smart-asses like Ferris, too cool for their own good, so we want them to stumble into greatness. And they do. But the sequel manages this same mood and ups the ante with a ridiculous time travel plot where George Carlin’s old gym teacher- Galactic Sit-Up Champion and all-around pismire De Nomolos- creates Evil Robot Bill & Ted’s to kill the originals, ruin the band Wyld Stallyns, and rob Earth of its peaceful, most excellent future.
The robots trick the boys by pretending to be their future selves- which worked in the first picture- and drag them to the desert crag where the “Star Trek” episode where Kirk fights some lizard dude was filmed. I know this because they watch it on TV before it happens, and it’s hilarious when you recognize the same location. Amazingly, the infectious joy and idiocy of Bill & Ted, so perfectly played by Keanu and Alex Winters, doesn’t just hold up for a second film, but even works better. Because they are in fact, dead. And they goof around as ghosts, find out that Hell is exactly like their heavy metal album covers despite their denials, and best of all, the beat Death in a marathon game of Battleship, Clue, and Twister. Because like, they don’t know how to play chess, dude.
William Sadler- one of our best character actors- plays Death and steals every damn scene, even when he’s in the background. Along with Joss Ackland as De Nomolos- he was the bad guy from Lethal Weapon 2 claiming “diplomatic immunity!” after he shoots Riggs- and George Carlin as the restrained Rufus, the small roles really support these goofballs. That, and the writing is just plain clever; hell is truly hellish, and damn funny. You spend eternity trapped in your least favorite moment, which for Ted is having to kiss his warty grandmother, while Bill is pursued by a damn creepy Easter bunny. And Death is even funnier if you’ve seen The Seventh Seal, because here he cheats at Clue! If you went in expecting merely lowbrow humor, air guitar with musical effects, and cries of “bogus!” you get many surprises.

There are so many little touches, like Ben Franklin and Alfred Einstein playing charades in heaven; the boys falling down so deep a hole to hell that they play 20 questions (are you a tank!?) and once again, having strange things be afoot at the Circle K again. Another thing- any time they turn their heads, there’s a little “whip” noise, which gets funnier as the movie goes on. I think what I like most is that like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the movie remembers that people we consider “cool” now, like Spicoli, were not popular in high school, but outcasts. As much as I like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the more I watch it, the more I side with his sister, and want him to fail. But I’m always on Bill & Ted’s side, no matter how stupid they are, because they hate gym and aren’t cruel to anybody, except maybe the Grim Reaper. They melvin him, after all.
They were wise to never dip into the well a third time, but Mike Myers and Dana Carvey sort of ruined any chances of that with their “Wayne’s World” skits on Saturday Night Live, which were never anything but shallow ripoffs, with Wayne making snide asides. I laughed too, but it always felt like Myer’s reliving high school with wish fulfillment. Bill & Ted don’t believe that they’re great, but Wayne secretly wishes he could save humanity with the power of rock ‘n roll, doesn’t he? Not to slam on them too much, they were amusing enough, and they show how much influence these movies really had. And amazingly enough, if you go back to rewatch them, you’ll find that Bogus Journey has staying power, and the first movie is still fun, but in the end, it was just a launching pad for the great sequel. How often does that happen?

George Carlin and the 7 words you can’t say in the afterlife

Sadly, one of the greatest comedians who ever lived has passed into the great beyond. George Carlin died last night at the age of 71, of heart failure.

George Carlin, the Grammy-Award winning standup comedian and actor who was hailed for his irreverent social commentary, poignant observations of the absurdities of everyday life and language, and groundbreaking routines like “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” died in Santa Monica, Calif., on Sunday, according to his publicist, Jeff Abraham. He was 71.

if (acm.rc) acm.rc.write();

The cause of death was heart failure. Mr. Carlin, who had a history of heart problems, went into the hospital on Sunday afternoon after complaining of heart trouble. The comedian had worked last weekend at The Orleans in Las Vegas.

from this New York Times article.

Carlin’s manic curmudgeon persona and his misanthropic observations on life were that unique kind of comedy that made you laugh and think. Nowadays most comedians just make you think about poop or some bizarre sexual practice they’re talking about, but Carlin had a unique way of looking at things. Hi HBO specials were some of the best comedy out there, and I imagine they’ll be in re-runs soon.

He started with wordplay- if you look him up on youtube, his Ed Sullivan show skits are still clever and funny, without any of the “7 words” he was famous for. After Lenny Bruce died, he sort of carried the torch. Is there anyone like him out there? We’ve got plenty of profane comedians who say things that even George didn’t, but he had a bleak and hilarious perspective on things that will be sorely missed.
R.I.P., George.

Who am I kidding? He wouldn’t want that shit. Here’s a send-off from one of his 80’s specials.

Rat shit, bat shit, dirty old twat.
Sixty nine assholes tied in a knot!
Hooray, lizard shit, FUCK!

My Black Family

1. The Lord loves a workin’ man.
2. Don’t trust whitey.
3. If you get it, see a doctor and get rid of it.

I’ll say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud. My friend Peter once said that we white children of the 70’s were raised in a black family. Our cousins were Raj and Re-Run; we had uncles and aunts such as John Amos and Shirley Hemphill; we had a well-off cousin named George Jefferson who left the neighborhood; and the dirty old grand-uncle of Redd Foxx, all put to the music of Quincy Jones. In the 80’s this became the Cosbys and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but they felt more sanitized, and while I could watch the shows, I didn’t feel like part of the family.
Some of the kids I grew up with.

“What’s Happening!!” was a spin-off of the 70’s high-school flick Cooley High, which is pretty good and worth seeing for a slice of 70’s nostalgia. Some call it the “Black American Graffiti” which is sort of condescending and inaccurate, since the California film never sets foot in a high school. I like to think of it as a precursor to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Anyway, here’s a poster for the movie, and you can see I would fit right in because we wear the same hats.
Everyone remembers Re-Run from the show, but the gals were where it was at. Shirl was so cruel and so funny. Shirley Hemphill was a comedian, and I saw her in the late 90’s shortly before her death. She performed at the Mall of America, not the most exclusive of venues, but she was very funny and I’m glad I got to see her. She had told us emotionally of Mabel “Mama” King’s tragic fight with diabetes, and they both passed away the same year. Re-Run held on a decade longer, but all the funny fat folks from the show have passed on. So I’ll stop grumbling about the NutriSystem oatmeal that Firecracker made for me this morning, even though it is causing gaseous emissions that could be mistaken for the warning eruptions of a volcano.

R.I.P, Shirl.

Dee was also pretty funny and caustic, and my little sister’s name also started with D, so we often thought of ourselves as Raj and Dee, despite me resembling Re-Run in my earlier years. And us both being whiter than a Land O’Lakes White American cheese sandwich with mayo on Wonder Bread.

Sanford & Son was another favorite. It’s often looked back upon with embarrassment by us white folk because he ran a junkyard and that’s somehow demeaning, but Redd Foxx built his career on poking fun at character types, and we all knew someone like him, black or white. Like Archie Bunker.

Note the hat.

If you’ve never heard Redd Foxx’s comedy act, he was famously filthy and hilarious. He would hardly be considered dirty today compared to Jim Norton and the like, and many of his double entendres could pass on primetime TV today, so he was certainly ahead of his time. His clever plays on words and euphemisms are refreshing and witty now. I just watched two George Carlin shows, his latest HBO special (It’s Bad for Ya) and one from 1978, Carlin Again!, (which seems to be completely uploaded to youtube) and it’s amazing how different comedy is today. Carlin evolved but still injects his famous wordplay into his act; it’s almost a lost art. I like a lot of modern comedy, but most of it is shock now; the 7 words you still can’t say on television have become an integral part of everyone’s act.

Good Times came a few years later, and despite having J.J. and his “Dyn-o-mite!” shenanigans was a good family show. John Amos is still one of my favorite actors, and I recall during one interview that he said he auditioned for Indiana Jones back in the day. Now that would have been something. This was the first black sitcom and was a spinoff once removed of “All in the Family,” through “Maude.” They lived in Cabrini Green, and James Sr. (John Amos) was a strong father figure at the time. The producers liked Jimmie Walker’s embarrassing act and promoted that aspect of the show, which lead John Amos to leave. So they killed him off.
Even though John Amos didn’t play many badasses in his career, the man himself certainly is one, for standing up for his principles. Esther Rolle soon followed, since she also didn’t like the J.J. crap and wanted the show to portray a strong family. As a kid, this drama was all unknown to me, but Good Times wasn’t the same without John Amos. I only saw reruns but we sure noticed how the show went downhill after he left. The whole story is of curse chronicled on the show’s wikipedia page. John Amos is yet another criminally underutilized black actor, and his unforgettable role in Coming to America proves that he should get more screen time.
The Jeffersons were yet another spinoff of “All in the Family,” another character-based comedy about a skinflint and his long-suffering wife. Weezy and George were a lot of fun but I couldn’t relate. They lived in a de-luxe apartment in the sky-y-y, while we were growing up at my grandmother’s place in a “mixed use” zone, as they call them now, which means we were surrounded by a truck depot, an Alcoa chemical plant, and other delightful things. No wonder I liked Sanford & Son, we used to play near a junkyard of sorts where a landlord and asphalt company owner dumped his old appliances and parked his trucks. Not far from there was the town mulch pile, what seemed like mountains of composting leaves that we’d jump in up to our armpits. And down the railroad tracks (of which we were definitely on the wrong side) was the oil baron’s place where the train dumped coal. We’d jump from the train trestle into the coal and ruin our pants, and pick coal chunks out of our socks.

I like to mix champagne and Ripple… I call it Champipple.

I could go for a Champipple about now. Our neighborhood was “mixed” in other ways as well. I distinctly remember helping at least two Vietnamese kids named “John” learn English, and having to take my sneakers off before entering their apartments. Their moms probably regretted all those bags of shrimp flavored chips I ate. I remember nearly inciting a racial incident by inviting the black kids in my 3rd grade class to my birthday party, and breaking up a fight between Billy Erdeshon and a kid named Fred.

My childhood as portrayed by Steve Martin.

Many of my mother’s coworkers were black at ITT, too. The company used to hold picnics every year and I worked at them from an early age, crushing boxes. Not really work, it kept me from eating too many free hamburgers and poundcake, and I remember Eddie the Cook introducing me to good barbecue ribs at an early age. And meeting my mother’s boss Harold, and telling him he looked like George Jefferson. Oops. I was 9 and didn’t know any better. And he knew he resembled him, he even jokingly called a woman at work “Weezy” to riff off it. Actually it was Reezy, since she was Teresa. That’s my racist confession for the day.

Interesting that two of the shows have Archie Bunker to thank for their existence. It goes once more to show the value of a good bad example.