Felix Unger: What do you dream about? Oscar Madison: Living alone.
When M*A*S*H* premiered in September of 1972, it was already in danger of cancellation due to low ratings and a weak first season time slot. The show, in it’s early days, boasted of a quasi-documentary format, with no laugh track and a cinematic visual style. The series, as originally developed, closely mirrored Robert Altman’s freewheeling adaptation of Richard Hooker’s cult novel. The second season’s improved time slot and introduction of a controversial laugh-track and more zany comedy contributed to the show’s enduring appeal. The show’s series finale is still television’s highest rated, most watched episode in history.
When M*A*S*H* gave up the pretense of trying to imitate it’s innovative motion picture source material and embrace a traditional television narrative, ratings went up. The show remained on the air for twelve years. The same can be said of a show like Happy Days, which began in 1974 as a single camera comedy with a laugh track. After the first season, the show was then shot in front of studio audience and achieved it’s greatest success. Producer Garry Marshall adopted this policy after changing the production format of The Odd Couple, a series based on the stage play written by Neil Simon. He would continue this practice for his later shows, Laverne and Shirley and Mork & Mindy.
Never a ratings smash, The Odd Couple was cancelled at the end of every season of it’s five-year run; a common television network tactic to keep costs down. Tony Randall (as Felix Unger) and Jack Klugman (as Oscar Madison) were established television and movie stars and accordingly, drew higher (than usual for the time) salaries. Ratings would go up in the summer when reruns were broadcast. Klugman and Randall were nominated for Emmy Awards every year of the show’s run. Klugman won two Emmy Awards, and Randall earned one. Although, the show was arguably a greater success than that of the stage play that inspired it, The Odd Couple was finally cancelled in 1975.
Six years later, a writer’s strike to attain compensation from the burgeoning pay TV and home video markets threatened to cripple television and movie production. The ABC network dusted off old scripts from the original show and quickly packaged an updated version of The Odd Couple starring Barney Miller’s Ron Glass as Felix, and Demond Wilson (from Sanford & Son). Episodes were quickly shot, but the strike was tentatively settled in July, 1981. Half a season’s worth of episodes were already in the can, and the show aired over a year later.
1982’s The NEW Odd Couple is a lethargic and lumbering re-write of the original series and while Glass and Wilson try to serve the material, they simply lack the chemistry of Randall and Klugman, and Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon from the movie. Being that the series cribbed entire episodes from original scripts, it lacked the spontaneity, wit, and energy of the performers and the production team from the 70’s show. The show was cancelled after 18 episodes had aired.
ABC was still the most popular network, far and away from it’s competition. NBC had just launched Family Ties, Cheers, Buffalo Bill, and Silver Spoons. CBS premiered Gloria and Square Pegs, but had old, dependable horses like Dallas, Magnum P.I., Simon & Simon, and The Jeffersons. ABC premiered Matt Houston, Tales of the Gold Monkey, and The Quest, but still owned broadcasting rights for Monday Night Football, as well as Fantasy Island, Dynasty, The Love Boat, Three’s Company, 20/20, and T.J. Hooker. In a few short years, all of these shows would be cancelled. NBC would come to dominate television from the end of the decade on, and CBS would cultivate a reputation for programming with an older audience in mind.
Forty years on, The Odd Couple remains a staple of syndicated programming. It was one of the first “edgy, quirky” situation comedies set in New York City and justifiably boasts of influences to later shows like Seinfeld and Friends.
VHS Rewind! discussed another controversial reboot from the 1980’s! Starring Ron Glass and Demon Wilson is the forgettable The NEW Odd Couple. Taking a seemingly random episode from the 1970’s classic and redoing it shot for shot and word for word may have seemed like a good idea to someone, but he was alone – oh yeah – they made the main characters African American. Even for 30+ years ago this was a stale idea. Lasting for an impressive 18 episode season it never made it to Season 2.
“I’d say “unfocused” sums it up nicely. The basic concept (I guess) seemed to be taking a look at underground music with The Shy Guys being the central, unifying element. I mean, that’s weird enough as it is, but that could, at the very least, be charming. My best guess as to what actually ended up happening was Dave Moviemaker started out making this just about the Shy Guys and then stumbled across these other bands (DBA, Unlovables, Ergs). And he obviously liked them enough to want to include them. Problem is, it’s all kinda stuffed in the middle with little to no context.”
“I have a secret. We were never all that enthusiastic about it. It’s just that, some dude was making a god damn movie about our lives, for no reason except that he was crazy. The very least we could do was pretend we thought it was an awesome and good idea.”
“We were of course flattered that some dude was working hard to make a movie about our bands, and excited at the possibility, however small, that it might promote our music. But you weren’t there to watch it unfold every step of the way, dude. It was pretty obvious almost immediately how disastrous this shit was.”
“Well, basically, Dave (the film maker) ruined this movie by not understanding the scene or the relative importance of the bands, and the relevant unimportance of other bands featured in the movie. Chadd ruins his own scenes by being boring and uncomfortable and comes off as extraordinarily boring. Jon and I make this movie by being ourselves.”
“Basically, Dave dropped the ball from the beginning, even though we repeatedly told him who the important bands were and that we were ultimately unimportant. He didn’t listen.”
From the years 2002 to 2005, I was indisposed, directing a documentary on the pop-punk scene in New York City called “American Punk NYPP”. I remember adding the “NYPP” (New York Pop-Punk) to the end of the title to distinguish the source material and separate it from any other documentaries on the subject, should they occur, and also because in the “honeymoon” period after shooting, I was seriously considering sequels; traveling to different places around the world to capture the punk and pop-punk theme on a global level.
The film was finished in 2005, but life got in the way. I had basically a hand-shake deal with Film Threat DVD to release the movie. Mitchell Bard, then head of acquisitions for Film Threat, saw the movie and wanted it. He even stepped in and defended my editorial choices when I got into rows with my co-producers, wrote a letter strongly endorsing my final cut, and making preparations for DVD release (and even screenings). Film Threat DVD went under, I quit my day job, and Bronwyn and I had a baby.
I always had the movie in the back of my head, but distribution was next to impossible without some support, and as we got farther and farther away from any projected release date, the chances were that “American Punk NYPP” would simply become a relic. The idea of making money at that point seemed laughable. You couldn’t just get a movie out there to be seen unless it was advertised, given some DVD pressing, and getting the stuffy indie press to care. I made this movie for no money, not a dime. Nowadays, it’s a whole different matter. It’s a lot easier to get word-of-mouth going and we have the ease of YouTube and Vimeo, not to mention torrent sites (but we won’t talk about that).
I was looking at the Knock Knock “Boreds” (whimsically misspelled) to get some thoughts on my movie, “American Punk NYPP”, and it moved me (for a minute) that people were still talking about the film, from 2004 to 2010, but as we go along, the comments go from hopeful (“… when the hell is the movie coming out?”) to bitter and downright nasty (“This was a terrible idea for a project. it has always sounded amazingly unfocused and pointless.”) Incidentally, this was not terrible idea for a project. Ever seen “Left Behind”? That was a terrible idea. How about the latest Superman and Spiderman reboots? I find it hard to believe I committed a mortal sin in the world of filmmaking.
Basically a lot of rhetoric and, let’s face it – acidic bullshit, had been going back and forth between the principal people involved. Some collaborators heaped shame on themselves, and some heaped it on me. I had known the guys in the bands for a few years. They had tenacity and ambition and that’s the kind of story I wanted to tell, but as we shot the interviews (two years, if I remember correctly), the subject grew, got bigger and bigger and it became more about the cultural phenomenon, the pop-punk scene in New York City.
I would say that the people commenting (especially the nasty comments) are too close to the material and the experience to truly understand either the narrative, or the points we were trying to make. They do not know of the world they had collectively built. The message was simple: there’s a whole other world out there you don’t know anything about, bands toil in obscurity and anonymity but they have devoted followers. These are kids. Kids in bands! They were intellegent, rational, thoughtful teenagers who picked up guitars and drumsticks and tried to change the world with their music. That’s actually all that matters to me. I don’t care what anybody else thinks.
Despite Chris Grivet’s claims, I was wildly open to their ideas. Jon Vafiadis was the person who supplied me with all the information on other bands, arranged interviews and shows to record, and essentially hooked me up in the pop-punk world and we plunged into that world with nothing but vigor and enthusiasm. We profiled bands who had achieved various levels of success and we interviewed interesting people. I remember telling Jon we needed more “cheesecake” in the movie and he hooked me up with Galaxy Rodeo and The Unlovables. The final cut of the movie is 70% other bands, with Triple Bypass and The Shy Guys as a “framing” story, an exemplar band; the standard by which my movie measures all of the other bands. At the end of the day, I have many witnesses to that fact.
Chadd Derkins surprises me most of all. Of all the people I interviewed and had the privilege of spending time with, he was one of the most enthusiastic and vocal supporters of not only the film proper, but the shooting process. All you have to do is look at the film to see his beaming countenance. He was like a kid in a candy store whenever we shot. He invited us to his rehearsal space. He invited us into his home, gave us a tour of his house and his extensive music collection, and performed an impromptu song for my assistant, Neena. Now, he claims he was either forced or coerced to do the song. I don’t remember holding a gun to his head. He even calls the movie “disastrous”. I don’t know to what standard he elevates his film-viewing experience, but I don’t think my movie qualifies as disastrous. More likely, “monumental”. Yeah, I like that word.
Granted as opinion, people outside of this scene seemed to enjoy the movie immensely. They enjoyed Grivet and boring, uncomfortable Derkins and just about everybody we talked to while shooting. People outside of the business were tickled and fascinated by these talented young men and women. These are the people this movie was made for, not insecure musicians but real people.
So how could I see these comments, these feelings about what these kids were a part of, and not feel in the slightest sense betrayed? I mean, seriously, the shift is subtle but goes from being completely jazzed about seeing the movie, about the enthusiasm generated among the hardcore fans and friends of these bands – to apathy, to lambast, to outright dissing. I went ten years without providing the much-needed counterpoint, or lending my voice to the discussion, and I got bit on the ass for it. I never treated those people with anything less than the utmost respect, courtesy, and good humor, and this is what happens. I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the back, and I was made to look incompetent as a result of these comments.
As to why there was never a proper release for the movie, I believe I’ve already covered that. Things happen. I had a deal with Film Threat DVD but I went broke and Film Threat went out of business. Bronwyn and I had a baby in 2006, and believe me, when that happens, your priorities change. Now that my daughter is somewhat capable of keeping herself busy, I’ve decided to go back to the final cut, dust off my old gear and give the movie a decent transfer.
So last night I find that I’ve been immortalized in a song by The Jerkingtons called “Hello I’m Dave Lawler, I’m a Filmmaker”. An amusing piece, it takes shots at me making the movie and then “putting it on the shelf” and that after I’m done with the movie, I’ll “go back to my job at Blockbuster Video” (I lost that job in 1998 or 1999, years before I started shooting). Also that I stopped going to shows after I finished shooting. Yes, that’s true. It’s called a year-and-a-half of editing from 70 tapes worth of footage. Dicks. Again, try having a kid and going broke while somebody is tapping on your shoulder asking when you’re going to release a fucking movie.
I went to bed last night cursing their names in my sleep. My wife tells me, “It’s easier to write a song than make a movie. They don’t understand.” She happens to be right. Especially if you’ve heard The Jerkingtons. Dicks.
We had a talk with Ben Minnotte on a recent episode of the VHS Rewind! podcast. Ben is a guy who collects (even hoards) ancient electronic and mechanical gear, most of it in the audio-visual spectrum. Ben runs a very successful internet program called The Oddity Archive. If you go to the site right now (or after you read this bit), you’ll see a respectable episode list highlighting adventures in foreign video formats, on-the-air sabotage and video piracy tactics, a tribute to the Emergency Broadcast System, an investigation into subliminal messages and backwards masking, or (in a recent episode), audio cassette-based board games like “Clue” and “Girl Talk Date Line”.
Nostalgia appears to be at an all-time high in popularity. There are hundreds of Facebook groups devoted to specific niches, namely VHS, Laserdisc (of course), Betamax, vinyl, cassettes and cartridges, 8-Tracks, 4-Tracks, Reel-to-Reel – it goes on and on. I continue to be impressed at the collections devoted followers of specific formats amass. Some people like to possess these items, store them in their closets or basements. One guy I know has turned his entire home into a video store of sorts. They go to flea markets and thrift stores, tag sales and storage rooms all for the chance to own something like the first Japanese laser pressing of “Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers” signed by Fred Olen Ray himself!
Ben comes in at the right time with The Oddity Archive. Every episode is an incredible education. For instance, I was always curious how 8-Track tapes worked. Lo and behold, he has an episode which gives us the history and the mechanics of this amazing contraption. To me, it seems it’s a lot more fun to watch Ben talk about an 8-Track tape than it is to actually own one. The Internet does not hit you over the head with ideas (like television or movies). Instead, it invites you to seek out what interests you and it is really up to the user to decide whether or not they are interested, so it seems obvious that nostalgia, that love for old technology would eventually find a home on the web.
Ben’s adventures are not without frustration. As bizarre as it sounds, he has been blocked and/or banned from posting information because of craven copyright laws, idiots seeking to make a buck because of a freely-available video or audio clip, or even a picture of a trademarked item. If these corporate entities and greedy collaboratives had any sense, they would realize people like Ben are reviving interest in such products as we see in his episodes!
A couple years back, I started assembling a collection of Warner Brothers VHS clamshell tapes. I could get a whole lot, up to 10 in a box shipped for pocket change. The climate has changed. Prices are going up for these comparatively rare tapes, as are all dead formats. The collectors are out in full-force, as are the sellers, and I’m beginning to sense those interested in obtaining these items are being taken advantage of because they are willing to pay any price to get that rare Criterion “Halloween” laserdisc or “Se7en” with additional documentaries and commentary tracks. Sellers will seek out particular groups on Facebook to sell their wares at ridiculous prices – let’s not forget laserdiscs, however wonderful, are a dead format.
Another subject we touched on in the interview was the inevitable death of physical media. I speculated that with the presence of streaming entertainment, Netflix and the like, it wouldn’t be long before we returned to the good old days of rental; ownership would be a thing of the past, and this is another reason for why we are seeing a boon in sales of discs and tapes. Why rent when you can buy? Streaming 4K will put Blu-Ray to bed for good. Remember the Videotape War (helpfully indexed by Ben in an episode of The Oddity Archive)? Studios and networks fought to keep video recorders out of homes. Remember Macrovision and Copy-Guard (another interesting Oddity segment)? They don’t want anybody owning anything.
Of course, the Internet and various resources will always stay one (or two) steps ahead. Like a Pandora’s Box of Delights, the Internet has opened up an incredible world of possibilities, and people like Ben Minnotte exist to remind us of our technological failings, as well as our successes by showing how much we’ve gained and lost in this brave new future.