Top Ten Favorite TV Characters Meme

I caught this from retrospace, my favorite nostalgia blog. I don’t watch a lot of television except food shows to hunt down fodder for the Greasy Spoons column, and a few cable series. And Lost, of course. I’m not made of stone! So most of these characters are ancient, but I remember them all well and would like to honor their contribution to my formative years.

John Amos

Yup, Dad on Good Times. I’ve written about him a few times. The man has presence. He’s a bit scary and intense, so much that in Coming to America (full review) they gave him a Cosby sweater and glasses so James Earl Jones would be the imperious one! He was funny, but you never knew if he was gonna whup your ass if you stepped out of line. The perfect father figure for the ’70s, when that was still allowed.

Uncle Floyd

You can’t be from New Jersey and not like Uncle Floyd! The man’s an institution. Floyd Vivino’s corny, cheesy show on local access was an ’80s staple, with crazy musical numbers and guests- including the Ramones, among countless others- and characters such as Eddie Meatball, and Oogie the hand puppet. He inspired me to be wacky, because he didn’t care what people thought, and he made it to TV! He still performs at lounges, and this reminds me I need to drag Firecracker to one.

The Incredible Hulk
I wanted to be the Hulk’s sidekick, Scrappy Hulk.

I liked him best the way Lou Ferrigno played him. The smoldering hulk from the comics? Bah. Lou’s Hulk was more of a giant baby, gentle to the weak and unmerciful to the cruel. I still want to grow up to be the incredible hulk someday, I’m just waiting for technology to pelt me with gamma rays and allow it.

Shirley Hemphill

Shirl from What’s Happening?! was the best. Sure Raj, Duwayne and Re-Run were funny, but mean ol’ Shirl could cut them off at the knees with a single outburst. I had the luck to see her perform at a comedy club at the Mall of America before she died, and she was still funny as hell.
Archie Bunker

My grandfather, who I called “Abby” because he used to say “Yabba Dabba Do” to me as a little kid, looked a lot like ol’ Arch. And he was just as grumpy. All in the Family was one of the most groundbreaking TV shows, and by making this grumpy old bigot the lovable misguided Falstaff of blue collar America, they helped make the world a better place.
Dorothy from the Golden Girls

Bea Arthur recently passed away, but she was part of the popular culture thanks to her acerbic wit and tough attitude which began as “Maude,” one of many spinoffs of “All in the Family,” but was solidified in “The Golden Girls.” Who’da thunk a sit-com about a bunch of retirees would be so funny? All four of these gals were hilarious, but Dorothy was the best. She made the show. And she reminded me of my grandmother, who wasn’t as tall, but had the same attitude.


The Carol Burnett Show was one of the great skit shows of the ’70s and ’80s, and one of the best characters to come out of it was “Mama,” another nasty old woman. Mama’s Place was a great spinoff, with Harvey Korman and Carol Burnett showing up as her hapless children.


Who wouldn’t want a car this cool? Though I never watched St. Elsewhere, where the voice of KITT was revealed, I’d still love to have my car or GPS talk in his calming voice. His aloof attitude and subtle humor made Hoff’s cluelessness tolerable. My Dad had a Firebird, so my ’80s fantasies of being Knight Rider were fulfilled every time we drove to Chuck E. Cheese.
John Peter McAllister, aka The Master

Lee Van Cleef as a ninja master? Damn right. Angel Eyes and Colonel Hawk combined to be one grey-haired bad-ass mofo. I think my Dad was happy that a balding gray-haired old dude could still kick ass, so we watched this a lot. Ninjas were big in the ’80s, with the awful Enter the Ninja movies. Sho Kosugi was everywhere. We got in trouble for bringing throwing stars to school, which our Junior High Principal (who looked a lot like Milhouse’s Dad) called “Weapons of Death.”

Soupy Sales
Old Soupy was a weird children’s show host. On Little Steven’s Underground Garage on satellite, they often play one of many novelty hits he sang, “Do the Mouse (yeah),” an infectious little tune that makes as much sense as his show did. He got in trouble for joking that kids should go into their parents room and mail him all the green pieces of paper they found, but his show attracted all sorts of guests, including Alice Cooper:

So if you read this, consider yourself tagged. Who are your favorites, and why? Put ’em on your blog or do it on facebook.

80’s Trash of the Week: The Beastmaster

I have my eyes…
I have my cunning…
and I have my strength.

The Beastmaster was a huge success on cable, and I must have watched it a few dozen times. I one day hoped to swing a sword around in a loincloth, commanding the beasts to do my will. Now I have a disobedient cat, a pair of cargo shorts and some swords hanging on the wall. I think that’s close enough.

Marc Singer, the ’80s star of If You Could See What I Hear and the V miniseries, had his first big role in this bronze age sword & sorcery flick that’s essentially Conan meets “Manimal,” or “Conaminal” as you could call it. With Rip Torn as the evil priest Mayax, John Amos as a big black Friar Tuck and Tanya Roberts as sacrificial eye candy this was second only to Highlander in the annals of awesome things to find on cable in the ’80s. It had dyed black tigers, a pair of sneaky ferrets, and killer bat-people who could digest your flesh in seconds. In a sea of shitty fantasy movies, this one rose above and is what all B movies should aspire to.

Mayax welcomes you with impaled victims

The evil priest Mayax gets a prophecy from his trio of ugly witch-bitches telling him thatt he unborn son of the king will be his undoing. Despite being told that nothing he does will change his fate, he makes the creepy sorceresses- who have model-worthy bods and faces requiring triple or quadruple bagging- go to do his evil bidding. They steal the king’s unborn son by transferring him to the womb of a cow, kill his wife, blind him, and slaughter his villagers. Only his right-hand man Seth survives the onslaught.

Rip Torn with awesome skull dreads

The witches take the cow to the woods, cut it open, and prepare to sacrifice the baby, but are interrupted by a man who happens upon them. Unlucky for them, he is a fearsome if unlikely warrior wielding a bizarre throwing blade called a Kada. He takes the child and raises him, naming him Dar. A short montage later and Dar has grown into Marc Singer, and shown an affinity for speaking to animals. A bear comes upon his adoptive father’s camp, and he saves their lives. He has the mark, and can master the beasts. He is the Beastmaster!

These pet ferrets do more than chew stuff and stink

Silly as it is, this is really only a half-notch below Conan the Barbarian, lacking some budget and the established mythos, and a huge star such as Arnold. Marc Singer is ripped for his role, and while no muscle man, he is perfectly believable as the destined warrior who defeats Mayax and the Jun horde. One day he comes home to find his father and village slaughtered by the Jun- a horde of leather-clad, masked warriors in the tradition of the Humongous from The Road Warrior, who look like they strutted off a Molly Hatchet album cover and live only for genocide. He survives only because his trusty dog drags him from the flames of the razed village. Dar takes his father’s scimitar and throwing blade, and sets out on his own- for revenge.

The Jun horde does not mess around

On his journey, he comes upon a hawk, two mischevious ferrets, and a black tiger that he saves from Mayax’s warriors. These become his allies- his eyes, his cunning, and his strength. Dar was taught to do right, and when he finds a man in a cage in the forest he releases him. Too bad he was meant for bat food! The forest is host to a group of silent bat-people, who catch their prey in a winged hug and devour them a lot like Seth Brundle in The Fly. Dar only escapes because his hawk alights on his shoulder, and they respect his kinship with their feathered brother. They have a hawk totem in camp and must worship them. What luck!

Bat people got… no reason to smiiiile

The first thing Dar uses his animal trio to do is get in a slave girl’s loincloth. Kiri is bathing in the river, and he spies her from above. He sends the ferrets to steal a piece of her clothes, and when she chases them into the forest, they lead her to the tiger! But he “scares off” the tiger. Kind of creepy, Dar! But he gets her digits- she’s a slave girl for Mayax and must return to the Temple of Ar, lest her family be killed. So Dar didst get blue balls that night.

Is that a ferret in your pocket or are you just happy to see me

His next meeting is with Seth- John Amos- and the young boy Tal. They help kick some Mayax minion ass. Seth uses a fighting staff that Amos really seems to know how to use! I remember seeing an interview where he claimed he auditioned for Indiana Jones, and I wish he got more adventure roles. He has a natural charisma, and was bad-ass enough to be a hero, but he never got the chance. Here he says they are “pilgrims,” and Dar might not believe them but he trusts their motives. Dar finally meets Mayax when he foils a child sacrifice at his temple, by having his hawk fly away with the kid. Mayax’s save is priceless- when the hawk saves the child, everyone falls to the dirt in honor of the miracle. He just stammers, “See! He wants your children!” and has a staredown with the only man not groveling- Dar. He knows a showdown is inevitable.

I wish I had this stick the last time I saw J.J.

Seth and Tal join Dar in his mission to rescue Kiri, for they have no love of Mayax. And yes, his character his spelled “Maax” in the credits, but screw that. They say Mayax. This is the first daring battle against the priest and his sacrificial cult. His fanatical followers hang themselves on command and fight to the death; his warriors have fluorescent green slugs put in their ears that drive them mad, so they kill everything in sight with spiked fighting gloves or cestus. They always reminded me of the guy on the cover to Quiet Riot’s Metal Health album. With his tiger and ferrets to steal keys and chomp on baddies, they manage to rescue Kiri, by the skin of their teeth.

It’s 18 karat! So what if it’s got an eye in it!

But Mayax is not so easily defeated. Tal took a ring off one of his acolytes, and it opens to reveal an eye with whiche he can spy on his enemies. When Seth takes Dar back to his encampment, we find the blinded king from the beginning, who doesn’t know that Dar is his son. I dunno why they don’t just tell him, but the king is a bit of a pompous jackass for a deposed, blinded ruler dependent on his followers. He wants to attack Mayax, even though he is aware of their plans. So of course, Dar has to save the day. They have an exciting battle atop of the ziggurat temple of Ar, with Mayax trying to sacrifice Kiri as Dar races up the temple steps, sword flashing through red-robed Hare Krishnas left and right.

John Amos is great as usual, but I wish his loincloth was a bit less revealing.

But even when Mayax is foiled, the battle is not over; the Jun horde is returning to protect their leader, and a ragtag band of rebels cannot stop them in their numbers. What will Dar and his friends do? Can he summon the beasts of the forest? Can John Amos take them all on himself? Are there enough ferrets in the world to nibble their ankles off? The final battle is quite exciting, with a trapped moat of burning oil that makes the battlefield look like the rim of a volcano. It may not be as epic as Conan, but Beastmaster is a surprisingly original and enjoyable story that could only have sprung from the ’80s, when all you needed for a B movie was a sword, a desert, and a girl in a ragged bikini.

Jun Leader insists that the metal health will drive you mad.

Beastmaster succeeds because despite its epic scope and nearly two-hour length, it is well-paced and the fight scenes are quite good for the time. The actors aren’t great, but certainly are more talented than most B movie casts. Director Don Coscarelli was offered the chance to direct Conan the Destroyer (full review) by Dino De Laurentiis, and he turned it down because he thought the story sucked. And while this movie is very silly and has a mishmash of all sorts of things- the psychotic Jun horde, flying bat people who digest you in their wings, animal telepathy, a crazy throwing blade, ugly oracle women, eye rings and a bronze age setting- it all seems to work. It has a sense of humor, but takes itself just seriously enough; which nudges it more toward Clash of the Titans than that Conan sequel that nearly killed sword & sorcery movies for good.

Hmm… smells like barbecue! Let’s go check it out.

Beers Required to Enjoy: none, but why not?
Could it be remade today? Please no!
Quotability Rating: Low
Cheese Factor: Beastmaster is vegan
High Points: Attack ferrets, John Amos kicking ass
Low Point: If I wanted to hear a whiny blind king, I’d read Oedipus Rex
Gratuitous Boobies: Tanya Roberts, yum! And more on the DVD extras



Coming to America

This is one of my favorite Eddie Murphy movies, and one of both his and John Landis’s last good ones. Trading Places is better, but this simple story of an African prince looking for his queen- in Queens of all places- is a rightful late 80s classic. It showcases outer borough New York like The Blues Brothers did Chicago, is delightfully quotable, and shows Eddie and Arsenio Hall back when they were both very funny and knew that dressing up as multiple characters is better as a quick gag than an entire movie. It also has bit parts with then-unknown Cuba Gooding Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson, John Amos in one of his best roles, James Earl Jones fresh from retirement as Vader playing another king with a stentorian voice, and a cute rom-com story that never gets too sappy. What’s not to like?

Yes, I am angry and curse in this film.

We begin in Zamunda, where Prince Akeem (Murphy) wakes on his 21st birthday. He is pampered beyond belief, and we get to see the absurd reality of being so rich that you don’t have to wipe your own backside, and have three gorgeous women bathe you every morning. But like anything, too much is too much- and Akeem wants to experience life- real life- something he has been denied for far too long. When he meets the bride who’s been picked for him and raised her entire life to serve him, he asks his father- King Jaffe Joffer, played with bombastic relish by James Earl Jones- for a respite. How can he choose a wife when he has never even tied his own shoes?

Is that real velvet?

Before he can protest, the King assumes he wants to “sow his royal oats,” and postpones the wedding for 40 days, so he can travel the world and sate his every erotic desire. His servant Semmi (Arsenio Hall) is delighted, and soon they are off to search for a bride worthy of Zamunda’s only prince. And when looking at a map of New York, they find the perfect place- Queens. It’s to John Landis’s credit that he actually films in Queens instead of Toronto, or Jersey, or even Manhattan. ’80s New York wasn’t the Disneyfied place it is today, and we see it warts and all. But we get a portrait of the city at the time, and like the late ’70s Chicago that served as the perfect backdrop for The Blues Brothers, the setting is as important a character as the stars.


Cuba gets a cut

Once Akeem and Semmi get settled in “the most common part” of Queens, they find a shitty apartment run by a gruff landlord above a barbershop, and jobs at “McDowell’s” restaurant, run by Mr. McDowell (John Amos), at odds with the more famous and similar-sounding fast food joint we all know. From here on, the plot is classic screwball rom-com, with a rich but sleazy suitor, the father who knows best, and the prince masquerading as a pauper, or at least, an African student. We know Akeem will end up with Lisa- McDowell’s beautiful and independent daughter- but the story uses subtle distractions to keep the tension up.

Tell that Juno girl I want my phone back.

Landis gives us plenty of “cute cuts” like reaction shots of a poodle, bums, and little children; Eddie breaking the fourth wall; and corny one-off background gags on New York City to keep the comic energy lively. It’s probably the last time Eddie was really funny for a long while. Part of the reason is that he has no muzzle on- the cursing is loud and wide. From the moment Akeem stands on his balcony and declares, “Good morning my neighbors!” and they reply “Hey, fuck you!” we know that Landis is capitalizing on the raw reputation Murphy’s stand-up act. They spend their cussin’ coin wisely and don’t overdo it, except perhaps in the barbershop scenes, where Murphy and Arsenio play cranky old men telling tall tales.

This is some of Murphy’s best multiple-role work, and Arsenio almost tops him. Here Murphy plays the cranky old barber and a cranky old Jewish patron, and even argues with himself. And it’s funny even when we don’t recognize he’s talking to himself. The final joke he tells at the end credits is so good that it works even on its own. Another scene where Semmi & Akeem go to a club and listen to crazy women talk about what they want is even better. When Arsenio is in drag, Murphy can barely keep a straight face, that’s how funny it is.

“I wanna tear you apart.”

It’s one of those rare comedies that relies on character, and rolls toward a pre-ordained and satisfying ending without insulting our intellect. There are no long scenes where someone gets offended, because the other person doesn’t say one thing. Akeem keeps up his ruse as a poor student a bit too long, but there’s not one scene where he could just admit it, and everything would be okay. Landis knows better than that. And everything is solved perfectly when Akeem’s mom, Queen Aoleon (Madge Sinclair), shows how wives of powerful men get their way by making the kings think they’re getting their way.

The bathers- it’s good to be the king

The movie was originally conceived by columnist Art Buchwald, whose idea got stolen by the studio. Because if you believe something this good was written by the guys who did Police Academy 2, you’re crazy. It’s got Landis all over it. I’m glad Buchwald finally got a settlement from the studio, meager as it might be. And it doesn’t tarnish this great comedy. Even better, Landis manages to give us another look at what happened to the Dukes from Trading Places before it’s over. And I haven’t even mentioned Louie Anderson, the family who sells Soul-Glo hair tonic, Arsenio’s hilarious preacher character, or Eddie as the lead singer of Sexual Chocolate. Put it all together and you have an unforgettable comedy you can go back to again and again.

Beers Required to Enjoy: none!
Could it be remade today? don’t even think about it
Quotability Rating: ludicrously high
Cheese Factor: Zamunda cheese
High Points: too many to count
Low Point: it’s over?
Gratuitous Boobies: 3 naked girls in a hot tub. Yay.

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.