I AM BIG BIRD: The Caroll Spinney Story

Even though I post on Facebook nearly every day, it’s been a while since I’ve blogged “formally,” but I felt this topic was important enough for me to shake the cobwebs and reactive the blog.

This inspiring project is about a man name Caroll Spinney, who is known to most of us through his characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

I had the honor, privilege, and pleasure of meeting Caroll last October at the Chiller Theatre convention in New Jersey. There were dozens of celebrities there, but he was one of the only people I was really interested in seeing. As I made my way towards him, I felt myself becoming nervous, but he was so genuinely sweet, calm, and friendly that my jitters quickly subsided and I found myself engaged in a fifteen or twenty minute long conversation with him and his wife.

We spoke about Big Bird, my all-time favorite Sesame Street character, of course. I told him how much I loved the film Follow That Bird and he shared my sentiments (not in a cocky way, but I got the sense that he was sincerely proud of his work on the film and how it turned out overall). We talked about his family and he asked me about mine. We also spoke about writing and the joys of creating, after which he purchased a copy of my book, Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

“I love Pee-wee Herman,” Caroll told me. “He has done so much great work for children. I think he’s brilliant.”

Once again, he and I were in agreement.

Before our conversation ended, Caroll told me about a film project called I AM BIG BIRD that was documenting his life and long career. I reached out to Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker, the film’s producers and directors, and spoke with them about this project, which they are currently fundraising for right now on KickStarter until August 16.

CASEEN: How did the idea for I AM BIG BIRD come about?

DAVE: One of my first jobs in the entertainment industry was as an intern at Sesame Workshop. I’ve always been in love with what Sesame and the Henson people do. They’re amazing. I wanted to be a part of that. Later that year, I was raving about the internship to a friend whose fiancé is good family friends with the Spinneys. She was telling us all these great stories about Caroll–who I knew had been Big Bird and Oscar forever, but I never realized what an amazing person he was. I was fascinated and thought it would make an interesting film, so I told Chad about it.

CHAD: Once Dave told me about Caroll, and how it was one person who has played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since 1969, I couldn’t believe it! It was so interesting. I mean, he’s 78 years old and he’s still doing it. The Bird’s head weighs 5 pounds–can you imagine holding that up, take after take, day after day, for 43 years? Unbelievable.

CASEEN: Did you know Caroll before working on the project? Assuming you reached out to him about your idea, what was his reaction to the request and how easy was it for you to gain his participation?

DAVE: We didn’t know Caroll beforehand, but because we shared a common friend, the introduction was relatively easy. Sesame Workshop has been great too. We thought it would be months before we heard back from them, but within days of us sending the initial email, we received a phone call from the Workshop, saying that they thought it was a great idea. We asked what the next step would be and they said it was meeting with Caroll. We had the meeting scheduled with Caroll and his wife Deb soon thereafter. They were remarkably receptive to the idea.

CHAD: Actually, when we were in the pitch meeting with Caroll and we were pitching the idea of a documentary to him, Caroll leaned down and took Oscar out of a bag from under the table. Now, Caroll is talking to Dave but Oscar is staring me down. Oscar is totally alive. Blinking. Moving his head. It was surreal. Then, out of nowhere, Oscar yells out “boring!” It was so funny! So crazy.

CASEEN: Reaction to this project already seems to be high. Have you gained any surprising or seemingly-unlikely allies or high-profile supporters so far?

DAVE: The reaction has been unreal. We’ve been thrilled with it. One surprising ally–well, surprising to outsiders anyway–is Constance Marks, who directed BEING ELMO. People always assume that we decided to make this movie after the success of BEING ELMO. What actually happened was that, when we reached out to Sesame Workshop in the summer of 2009, they told us an Elmo doc was also being made, which didn’t phase us because Caroll and Kevin Clash are both such remarkable performers with amazing stories. We decided early on that since Ms. Marks was a few years ahead of us in her process, she’d be a great resource–and she has been. We’re thankful to have her on our side!

CHAD: It was really great to get to work with OK GO. They are such huge Muppet fans and it was great to sit down with them. We also got to shoot a scene in which Caroll rehearses with Michael Bublé. That was really fun.

CASEEN: When I was growing up, Big Bird seemed to be the most popular character on Sesame Street. Now, it’s undeniably Elmo. What do you think is similar about these two characters that makes children relate to them so strongly?

CHAD: Great question. I think that both characters represent the age demographic that Sesame Street was/is aiming for at the time. When Big Bird was so popular, it seemed Sesame was writing for kids around 6 years old, and that is how old Big Bird is. Now it seems Sesame is writing for a slightly younger audience and Elmo is right in that same age range. So, this made/makes the characters extremely relatable for kids. The kids see them as an extension of themselves. They are experiencing the same things/emotions that Big Bird and now Elmo are experiencing on the show.

DAVE: Chad pretty much nailed it, but I’d add to this that people of our generation sort of write off Elmo because they are of the Big Bird generation, which I don’t think is fair. We’ve watched a lot of Sesame lately and Elmo is frickin’ adorable. He’s hilarious. Kevin Clash and Caroll are brilliant performers, but I think the reason that kids relate so strongly to them is that both Caroll and Kevin infuse themselves into the characters. They are honest portrayals of people, not just characters written for kids. So, it doesn’t matter if you prefer Big Bird to Elmo or vice versa, you’re reacting to Caroll and Kevin baring their souls, which I think is rare in programs created for children.

CASEEN: What are your personal favorite aspects of Big Bird’s character?

DAVE: I think this has actually changed for me since we’ve met Caroll, but I would say my favorite aspect of Big Bird is how compassionate he is because I think there is a direct correlation to how compassionate Caroll is. I can’t tell you how many emails we’ve received from people who have a story about how Caroll has impacted them directly. Be it a fan who Caroll calls every birthday or a coworker who Caroll lifted up in a dark time, his compassion is unmatched, and I think that shines through in the way Big Bird lives his life.

CHAD: I love how pure and innocent he is. He never tries to deceive or trick people. He is 100% genuine. I’ve always loved that about Big Bird. When he talks, you know that is exactly how he is feeling. That, for me, is why when he is sad it is so powerful. It is heart-breaking really.

CASEEN: What are your thoughts on Follow That Bird, and if they were to have made a sequel of that film, what would you like to have seen happen?

CHAD: I LOVE FOLLOW THAT BIRD!!! That’s a perfect example of how when Big Bird is sad, you totally feel bad for him. Heart-breaking! I personally would love to see Big Bird really find his family in a sequel.

DAVE: Yeah, I know there’s been a lot of rumors about a Sesame movie in development and I think it’d be awesome if it were a sequel to FOLLOW THAT BIRD. I think the Sesame specials are amazing–personally, my favorites were BIG BIRD IN CHINA and DON’T EAT THE PICTURES. I know that a lot of the market now is for home video, but I think there’s something awesome about a Sesame special or movie. Even a few years ago, before we started this film, ABC aired Elmo’s Christmas Countdown when I was home with my family. Not one of us was under the age of 25, but we all watched it. There’s something awesome about seeing these characters break out of the daily routine of the show and I’d welcome more chances to see that!

CASEEN: Do you see your film as more of a biography of Spinney as an actor or Big Bird as a character?

CHAD: For me, it is definitely about Caroll Spinney. He’s done so much as Big Bird but he has also affected so many lives out of the suit.

DAVE: Absolutely, it’s about Caroll and how Big Bird, as an extension of who Caroll is, has had such a remarkable impact on generations of people.

CASEEN: Was Oscar the Grouch jealous when he was informed that the film would be titled I Am Big Bird? Did this inhibit your ability to get Oscar’s involvement?

CHAD: He was mad about it, but being mad made him happy, and being happy of course made him mad… it was pretty crazy day for him.

If you’d like to help I AM BIG BIRD get made, contribute to their KickStarter campaign. The campaign ends on Thursday, August 16, so please don’t delay. If you’re like Dave, Chad, and myself, you’ve been effected by Caroll’s work. I’m so excited that Dave and Chad have taken up the charge of documenting his career in this way for all of us to see the man beneath the mask.

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Inside the Book – Chapter Three

Someone much smarter than me once said that writing is rewriting.  Even though I had heard that expression many years ago, and I had even said it to some of my high students, I didn’t realize the magnitude of those words until I sat down at my computer to begin writing Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse.  The book went through more rewrites than I’d care to admit to, but I can offer a small glimpse into the self-editing process.

Globey and Miss Yvonne (Lynne Stewart)

Globey and Miss Yvonne (Lynne Stewart)

Before handing the manuscript in to my editor, I wanted to make sure the book was as tight as possible.  I wrote the book out of order, which worked better than you might imagine.  If I felt stuck on writing the chapter on Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special, I’d work on one of the pre-Playhouse chapters.  If I hit a roadblock there, I’d love on to the chapter about Pee-wee Herman’s comeback, and so on.  It enabled me to keep working when I had a bout with writer’s block or boredom.  However, while this strategy was beneficial for me, it took me a little bit before I figured out the rhythm and pacing of the book.

While some chapters barely changed once I wrote them, others changed dramatically over the year-long process of writing the book before I handed in my first draft.  The biggest changes came at the beginning and the end.  I thought it might be clever and creative to start the book in an unconventional way, so on March 6, 2010, I wrote the first five pages of the first chapter.  It began with Stephen Oakes and Peter Rosenthal, two producers for an animation studio called Broadcast Arts, in pitch-session with an executive from CBS in 1985.  The duo, who had achieved success in using stop-motion animation in television advertisements, were trying to break in to the television industry.  Through a series of lucky breaks, they ended up collaborating with Paul Reubens on the first season of Playhouse.

By starting the book this way, I tried to keep the reading audience waiting for Pee-wee’s arrival into the narrative, hoping they’d keep reading until they finally saw the famous character turn up in the book.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  First of all, the original opening I wrote was dreadfully boring.  In fact, it’s so boring that I was going to copy-and-paste the first few paragraphs into this post, but I thought it’d make you stop reading.  One of my friends said it best when I told him of how I started the book: “You’re planning on starting a book about one of the most fun shows in television history in a business meeting where the star isn’t even present?”  He was right and I started over.  The new opening began in 1981, on the evening of the first performance of The Pee-wee Herman Show at The Groundlings Theatre.  It’s much more effective.

A screenshot of the first version of the first chapter

A screenshot of the first version of the first chapter

And it went this way for a year.  For a while the book was going to include chapter-length biographies about all of the Playhouse characters and the actors who played them, but I edited this information down and worked them into other chapters instead.  Another unexpected hurdle came in how to end the book.  When I first went under contract with ECW Press, the publisher distributing the book, Paul Reubens had yet to start his live run at Club Nokia from January through February, 2010.  How do you write the ending to a story that hasn’t ended yet?  This proved to be the most challenging aspect of the book long after I handed in the first draft, with substantial changes being made to the ending until about a month or so ago.  I’m quite happy with the ending now and think it’s the best portion of the book.

Above all, what was most important to me was staying true to the book’s narrative structure.  I wanted the book to not just be a collection of trivia – one can go to Wikipedia for that – but instead, I wanted it to tell a story that, when read to start to finish, actually took you through a journey like a novel might.  Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse has a ton of photos throughout, but it is a text-heavy journey through the Pee-wee Herman phenomenon.  In order to keep the book moving at a brisk pace, there are some interesting stories I chose not to include because they were too much of a diversion.

Another deleted version of the first chapter

Another deleted version of the first chapter

One story that I kept thinking I’d include in the book, but ultimately didn’t, was told to me by one of the series directors.  He joined the show after filming for the season had already started as a replacement for another director and, during his first week on the set, had a small altercation with a crew member who was wearing a shirt with vulgarity on it.  The director took the crew member aside, told the crew member he thought the shirt was inappropriate for the set of a children’s show, and the crew member walked away without saying anything.  The director saw the crew member a few minutes later wearing a different shirt and appreciated that his concerns were listened to.  Weeks later, when Paul Reubens thought it would be interesting to see Chairry walk in the “Why Wasn’t I Invited?” episode, the offered the crew member an opportunity to shine.  He asked the crew member to figure out a way to get Chairry to walk and, in front of Reubens and the rest of the crew, the crew member made Chairry move by crouching down behind the puppet and moving it in a way that would give the illusion of walking.  Ultimately, the director rewarded the crew member’s professionalism and respectability by turning him into a hero on the set for the day.

Was the story interesting?  I think it is.  Did the story “matter” at the end of the day?  Not really.  In order for me to tell the best story I could, I had to appraise what mattered and what didn’t, which is why this story remained untold in the manuscript.  I keep thinking I’ll put some of these stories online as “bonus material” for the book once it is released, so at least they can be read by Pee-wee fans who want more behind-the-scenes stories from the set.

One version of my summer writing schedule

One version of my summer writing schedule

Ultimately, the writing process was fun, but demanding.  Every word was questioned for its importance and I think the book is better for it.  I can’t wait until you read the whole thing for yourself and can tell me what you think of it!

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Here’s the Story of Brady, Brady, Brady

I just finished reading Brady, Brady, Brady, a behind-the-scenes look at The Brady Bunch and all of its various incarnations written by Sherwood and Lloyd Schwartz, the father and son team that created, produced, and wrote the series.  I’ve read a few different books about the Brady family — most recently having read Love to Love You Bradys: The Bizarre Story of The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, which was released by ECW Press and co-written by Cindy Brady herself, Susan Olsen — but I found this book difficult to put down.  Without further adieu, and at the risk of overusing an already overused expression, here’s the story…

Brady, Brady, Brady: The Complete Story of The Brady Bunch

Brady, Brady, Brady: The Complete Story of The Brady Bunch

As I mentioned, I really enjoyed the content of this book.  I have an affinity for finding out the story outside of the camera’s view on my favorite TV shows and movies.  It’s for that reason that I purchase DVDs (I have a pretty decent home collection of movies I saw in theaters and bought on DVD only for the special features).  Truth be told, when I was in middle school I attempted to write a behind-the-scenes book on The Brady Bunch.  As you would imagine, my book was a 30-something page plagiarized mess, mostly culled from information I’ve read in other books.  Don’t worry; my upcoming book Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse is based on all my own research.

This book stands out — and will likely stand the test of time — because it’s actually written by the people who were there.  The book is separated into three parts: Sherwood, who created the series and co-wrote the series, takes the first and Lloyd, his son who started on the show as a dialogue coach and then became associate producer, takes the latter two.  The result is a book that feels very conversational, yet occasionally redundant.  Father and son sometimes recount the same anecdotes, with slightly different perspectives, of course, but there isn’t enough variance between the two tellings to warrant the duplication.  Simply put, if you’re going to say something twice (or, in some cases, three or four times), at least be different each time you say it.

Brady patriarch Robert Reed

Brady patriarch Robert Reed

A lot of the repetition comes when the authors talk about Robert Reed, the book’s antagonist who often stalled production with long written diatribes to the network executives about how the show was not real enough for an actor of his caliber.  I’m paraphrasing here, but that seemed to be his general argument.  Reed was a formally trained Shakespearean actor who was more-or-less forced onto The Brady Bunch and never enjoyed a day working on the set.  He would often fact-check the scripts for errors (for example, he refused to say the line “It smells like strawberry heaven!” in one episode where Carol and Alice are stewing berries into jam because he read in the encyclopedia that strawberries, when being cooked, are odorless) and would make his distain for the Schwartzs known on set to anyone who would listen.

While these stories are interesting, they are harped upon and the book suffers a bit for it.  Lloyd in particular seems to have remained stung by Reed’s on-set antics and never passes up an opportunity to take a hit at one of America’s favorite TV dads.  Perhaps I have a warped moral compass, but it seemed particularly insensitive for the book to hit so hardly at the one deceased Brady Bunch cast member.  Truth is one thing, bullying is another.

A shot from A Very (Unsuccessful) Brady Sequel

A shot from A Very (Unsuccessful) Brady Sequel

What I found most interesting in the book was the last section, which discussed the Brady legacy and the various projects after the show wrapped in 1974.  Even though I grew up on The Brady Bunch in syndication, I loved The Brady Bunch Movie.  I thought the concept was inspired and the new Brady cast were perfect ’90s versions of their original counterparts.  It was great to hear, really for the first time, about how that movie was produced and all the challenges that plagued pre-production on it.  As an aside, I begged one of my aunts to take me to see A Very Brady Sequel in theaters and she reluctantly agreed.  I didn’t even realize we were in the right movie for the first ten minutes (she actually left the theater to double-check they weren’t playing the wrong move by mistake because the opening of the film is so tonally non-Brady) and, when it was over, I didn’t have the heart to tell her she just wasted her money on two tickets to a movie I didn’t even like.

Sherwood and Lloyd Schwartz

Sherwood and Lloyd Schwartz

With that being said, Brady, Brady, Brady was a pretty entertaining book.  Casual fans of the series might find it too “insidery” at points, but die-hards should find it thoroughly entertaining.  The book is an easy read that is very informative.  If you’ve read it, or pick it up, let me know what you think of it!

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Inside the Book – Chapter Two

From the moment a book contract is signed, if not earlier, every writer imagines walking into their local bookstore and spotting their book on a shelf. The problem with that fantasy is that no author knows what their book will look like. Unless you’re J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, or someone with a similar level of name-recognition, most authors don’t have final say on what their books look like. In fact, from what I’ve read and heard, some authors don’t even have a vote in the process.

Why? Let me explain. In book publishing, authors are responsible for the content and the publisher is responsible for the packaging of that content. The text on the back of the book, the book’s size, and even the title are considered packaging, much like you would imagine different teams at Kellogg’s being responsible for the taste of breakfast cereal and the box it comes in.

In case you can’t see where I’m going with this, packaging also extends to the book’s cover. As much as I looked forward to holding my book in my hands, I was secretly afraid since day one that I would end up with a cover I was unhappy with.

Luckily, this wasn’t the case. Before work began on my cover, my editor asked if I had any design ideas. I had always liked the DVD art for the original staging of The Pee-wee Herman Show and thought that a comparable visual might be appropriate. While looking for a similar photo, I realized the exact same shot was available to us, so I opened up Photoshop and cooked this up.

The Pee-wee Herman Show DVD and first mock-up for Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse

The Pee-wee Herman Show DVD and first mock-up for Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse

The mock-up I made was fairly well received, but there were some concerns on my publisher’s end: the text wasn’t large enough; the cover didn’t convey that this was a “behind-the-scenes” book; and, most importantly, the cover was too dark. The book went to a designer, the incredibly patient and talented Scott Barrie of Cyanotype, based in Nova Scotia, and came up with three mock-ups that addressed the concerns of the team at ECW Press.

Scott Barrie's first Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse mock-ups

Scott Barrie's first Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse mock-ups

There were things I liked about all three, but I had some reservations about all of them.  The first cover, I thought, looked a little sensational and “tabolidy” with the caution-tape.  More importantly, I was concerned about Magic Screen being on the cover without the “magic” inside, and Globey being turned around.  The second cover was fun, although I would have preferred some of the pictures changed.  I didn’t really get where the spiderweb/broken-glass concept came from, but I thought it was original-looking.  I liked the style and sophistication of the third mock-up, but thought it was a little bit dark for a book about Pee-wee Herman.

The team at ECW Press favored Scott’s first mock-up, as did I, and they suggested some really awesome revisions that resulted in a pretty eye-catching cover.

Scott's cover based on his first mock-up

Scott's cover based on his first mock-up

So, this cover was pretty cool, right?  I only really had two concerns with it: Clocky’s face was covered and I didn’t like my name being on the top of the book.  I thought it drew too much attention and, with all those colors and Pee-wee’s face predominately displayed, it would be best to keep the focus on him as much as possible.  My editor had some further suggestions for Scott and this is what he came up with.

Scott's further revised cover

Scott's further revised cover

I loved the addition of the blue arrows and the blue in “pop phenomenon” (if you’re hip, you’ll notice the subtitle changed a few times throughout this process!).  My only issue remained that my name was on the top.  After some careful design work, and the input from the ECW sales team, Scott delivered the cover that, for several weeks, was our final version.

The former final Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse book cover

The former final Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse book cover

Ta-da!  Everyone loved it!  I loved it, my editor loved it, I’m pretty sure Scott loved it, and the rest of the crew at ECW Press loved it.  However, there were some technical glitches with this cover.  The background image, which you’ve probably seen before, was too small from the photo licensing agency we were using and it would have had to have been stretched for the book cover.  While it probably looks fine in the size it appears above, blowing it up and stretching it would have meant pixelation, grain, and other no-nos for a picture on the cover of the book.  After exploring several different options, and several frenetic emails back and forth between my me and my editor (and her and everyone she knew who might be able to help), this cover got placed ever so lovingly into the garbage.  Once again, I was asked if I had any ideas and I shot off this email:

I have two ideas.  The first would be something like this: http://www.amazon.com/Pee-wees-Playhouse-2-Seasons-3-5/dp/B0002IQB3U/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1296589022&sr=8-3, which is the cover of one of his DVD boxed sets.  We could extend that green background to fill the entire cover, choose a big, wacky photo of Pee-wee, and make the title and subtitle a little bit larger.  The only thing is, it’s a bit of a boring visual, perhaps?  The second idea (and I actually like this one a lot, I almost suggested it once-upon-a-time ago, but I thought it might be too minimalist for everyone’s taste) is to “dress” the book in a Pee-wee suit.  Frame it in that glen-plaid pattern, give it a little handkerchief in its pocket, and put the title and such over a white shirt.  Over the white shirt it would read Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse, perhaps followed by a red bowtie, the book’s subtitle, followed maybe by a clear white button, then my name.  Or my name can be along the bottom bottom of the book, whichever.  Even though his face wouldn’t be on the front cover, I think the suit and bowtie are iconic enough.  Have you seen his Foursquare badge? http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_NDJxUN-93Rg/TK6aj_TIwxI/AAAAAAAAACY/By05Ku4T8bs/s1600/Screen+shot+2010-10-08+at+12.13.38+AM.png –> even though that concept is simplistic, I think implied works better sometimes.  I’m reminded of the book cover for Laura Zigman’s Dating Big Bird (http://www.amazon.com/Dating-Big-Bird-Laura-Zigman/dp/0385333412/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1296589504&sr=8-1), which I always thought was so cool, and was probably just a designer’s way of avoiding having to pay for licensing a shot of the bird.

After bouncing ideas back and forth a bit more with my editor, Scott (you already saw why he earned his title of “talented,” now you see why he earned his title of “patient!”) went back to work on three brand-new designs, about two months before the book was slated to go to print.

Scott's new mock-ups

Scott's new mock-ups

I wasn’t a huge fan of the first cover.  I thought there was a lot going on, the green was a little bit off to me, and the foreground image was a pretty crummy shot of Pee-wee.  The second image was pretty cool, but I thought it was a bit strange to have Jambi on the cover turned around.  I loved the colors of the second one, but the third image was pretty striking to me.  First off, my editor loved it and, the more I thought about it, the more I liked it too.  It was different from anything else I had seen regarding my book cover mock-ups or, frankly, anything Pee-wee related.  Also, it solved a central problem:  Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse has a ton of photos, but it isn’t solely about the children’s show.  The book starts in 1978 and moves all the way through 2011.  Pee-wee’s Playhouse is a big part of the book, but as the subtitle suggests, the book really is a look at the entire Pee-wee Herman phenomenon; its inception, it’ s decline, and its resurrection — and the people, including the fans, that were there through all of it.  This cover wouldn’t mislead anyone into thinking it was just about the CBS show.

My only concern with the third cover was that I thought it didn’t communicate to readers that the book was photo-heavy.  I tinkered around in Photoshop again and made a very poor man’s version of something I thought Scott might be able to try to get some more photos on the front cover.

Scott's latest Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse with my photo additions

Scott's latest Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse with my photo additions

To her amazing credit, my editor was willing to make the suggestion to Scott, but it never got that far.  She thought these additions made the cover a bit too busy, took away from the concept of Pee-wee against the white background, and that all the black-and-white photos looked more appropriate for a black-and-white TV show, not Pee-wee’s Playhouse.  I agreed with her.  After a few minor tweaks that I’ll leave you to spot, we arrived at the final cover.

Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse by Caseen Gaines

Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse by Caseen Gaines

I’m so incredibly proud of this cover, which I think gives a bit of mystery about what’s inside (you’ll have to wait a bit longer before you can get a sneak peek at a page or two!) and looks silly, yet serious — just the right tone for the book I’ve written.  I’m happy ECW Press allowed me to be such a voice in the process and, most importantly, I’m thankful to Scott for his creativity and sense of style.

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The Pee-wee Herman Show – Opening Night

The Pee-wee Herman Show marquee

The Pee-wee Herman Show marquee

Last night I attended the first preview performance of The Pee-wee Herman Show, the psuedo-revival of the 1981 stage show that ran at The Groundlings Theatre and The Roxy in Los Angeles.  The show had a limited run earlier this year at Club Nokia in Los Angeles.  I saw the closing night performance of the recent staging, so I was excited to see that Pee-wee would be coming to Broadway with his colorfully creative cast of characters.  What follows is an account of my night.  Please be advised that I may give some things away about the show, so if you are opposed to spoilers, you may not want to read further.  Likewise, I’m relying heavily on my memory, so if I make inaccuracies, please comment below and I’ll make corrections.

The window outside the Stephen Sondheim Theatre

The window outside the Stephen Sondheim Theatre

When I arrived at the venue, one of the first things that struck me was that it was a relatively controlled crowd.  When I saw the show in L.A., the crowd seemed enthusiastic about the show from the moment you stepped onto the venue’s property.  Instead, this crowd seemed more like theater-goers than rabid Pee-wee fans.  There were people dressed in Pee-wee t-shirts, but for the most part, everyone seemed  relaxed.  Also, I was appreciative that the temperature wasn’t as freezing as it was at Club Nokia.  The show started a few minutes late, but it was forgivable.

The real excitement came as soon as the lights went down.  The crowd went completely wild.  Then the crowd went even crazier when a lone spotlight hit the curtain.  Then the room went absolutely bananas when Pee-wee emerged from off-stage.  We stood for what must have been a few minutes and Paul seemed genuinely appreciative of the reception.  We didn’t allow him to audibly deliver his first few lines because we cheered, clapped, and some even chanted, “Pee-wee!  Pee-wee!”  The indifference I sensed among the crowd was quickly erased in the show’s first few minutes.

Without giving away every little detail, those who saw the show at Club Nokia will be glad to know that this version is actually much better.  The plot has been fleshed out more and there is certainly much more adult humor.  For example, the puppets consider staging a revolt when Pee-wee wants to hook up a computer in the playhouse and get new cyberbuddies.  One of the puppets says, “But we’re your friends, Pee-wee!” and he replies, “Yeah, but you’re old!  You’re not modern!”  This leads to some kid-friendly tension with the puppets considering different ways to pay Pee-wee back for his impending neglect.  There’s another really amazing new sequence that pays homage to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.  The power goes out in the playhouse and there are a few minutes where all you can see are the characters’ eyes.  There’s a great deal of naughtiness that will go over the tops of of your kids’ heads (Pee-wee says, “I think I found my flashlight!” and Conky replies, “That-that-that’s not a flashlight, Pee-wee.”)  There’s a number of really amazing visual surprises when the lights come back on, but I won’t ruin them for you!

All together, the show was pretty well done.  There were a number of technical glitches (a prop got stuck under Chairry,  a number of sound and light cues were off, Miss Yvonne had a wardrobe malfunction more tame than Janet Jackson’s), but the show kept the audience engaged and laughing.  For those familiar with the 1981 production, which was aired as an HBO special and released on DVD a few years ago, you’ll be happy to know that a lot of the dialogue has been carried over to this show — even more than what was on stage at Club Nokia.  As someone who’s seen that original special more times than I’d like to admit, there are still things I missed.  Captain Carl’s absence was noticeable, especially with large portions of his dialogue given to Phil LaMarr, who fills in for Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis.  I missed Brian Seff and Monica Ganas as Mr. and Mrs. Jelly Donut, the singing next door neighbors that perform the Sly Stone medley.  I also missed the Balloon Land cartoon, which was replaced with two or three Penny cartoons (that were edited together to appear to be one long clip).

Pee-wee's magnets

Pee-wee's magnets

After the show, I spotted Alex Timbers, the director, sitting in the back row taking notes with two assistants.  I asked him for an autograph and he politely and enthusiastically signed my Playbill.  I proceeded to the merchandise stand and found myself to be disappointed.  There wasn’t much there.  There were glow-in-the-dark Silly Bands, magnets, several t-shirts (the coolest one had a picture of Pee-wee next to a giant mountain of tin foil and it said, “World’s Largest Foil Ball” or something like that), a baseball hat, and not too much else.  Perhaps they’ll get more merchandise as the show goes on.  The pricing for the items wasn’t inexpensive, but was fair by Broadway standards.  I spent $20 on my magnet set and it came with 12 inside.

Pee-wee Herman

Pee-wee Herman

After I left the theater, my friends and I headed to the stage door.  There were several hundred people crowded around.  The security team instructed us that Paul would be coming soon, had his own Sharpie, and would be signing things.  This ended up not being the case.  He came out, and to his credit, stayed outside for several minutes and made small-talk with some people, but left without signing anything or posing for pictures.  Ordinarily, I don’t think this would have been a problem, considering the number of people, but I do think it’s unfortunate that we were told he would be signing things and then he didn’t.  Fans that choose to swing by the back door should measure their expectations of a meet-and-greet with Paul after the show.

Jesse Garcia

Jesse Garcia

After Paul left, I think it’s fair to say that several people were in the crowd were a little disappointed.  However, as I was walking away, I spotted Lance Roberts, who plays the King of Cartoons.  He posed for a picture and signed my Playbill.  Then I saw Jesse Garcia, who plays Sergio, a new character, who did the same.  I also saw Lexy Fridell, who replaced Lori Alan as the voice of all the female puppets, who signed my Playbill, as did Caesar Samayoa, an understudy for a handful of characters.  They were all in great spirits and I appreciate them taking their time to not only meet with me, but other fans that were lingering around the theater.

John Paragon, Lynne Stewart, and Allie

John Paragon, Lynne Stewart, and Allie

As we were walking back to my car, my friend Allie spotted Lynne Stewart, who has played Miss Yvonne for nearly 30 years, coming out the main entrance.  I recognized John Paragon, who has portrayed Jambi for the same length of time, and we spoke to them briefly, asked for autographs, and took pictures.  It was very cool to meet two actors that have made such sizable contributions to the Pee-wee brand, not only in terms of acting, but also behind the scenes.  John Paragon co-wrote and co-directed dozens of Playhouse episodes and Lynne Stewart co-wrote what I consider to be one of the series’ best episodes, “Rebarella.”  Meeting them was an absolute pleasure and an excellent end to a night that was really FUN (which, by the way, was the secret word of the day!)

My signed Playbill

My signed Playbill

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Appraising Batman

This summer, between endless bouts of writing and self-editing, I treated myself to (and, in some cases, tortured myself by) watching all of the appearances of Batman on film.  This didn’t come out of any deeply rooted interest in doing something substantial with the project, but instead, was motivated out of curiosity.  I had seen the Burton’s two Batman films when I was a kid, but had yet to revisit them since growing up.  Although I really wanted to see Batman Forever in theaters, I never did, and deliberately stayed away from Batman and Robin.  The only real Batman films I had strong memories of was the original 1966 film with Adam West and the two Christopher Nolan films.  What follows is my take on the films and an open-invitation for criticism.

Batman: The Movie (1966)

Batman: The Movie (1966)

Even though it was before my time, I watched a lot of Batman on TV when I was growing up.  Although the campy approach to the caped crusader often draws criticism, I remember liking watching reruns after school.  The costumes and props were cheesy, but to me, it felt like a washed-out old comic book.  Having little knowledge of what Batman was supposed to be (ie: his origin or his relationships with the other characters and villains), I accepted that I was watching an authentic version of his adventures.

Despite my interest in the small-screen version of Adam West’s droll and deadpan Batman, I pretty much hated the movie.  The business with the submarine is largely boring and, despite having four villains, the movie feels flat.  Although Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger both run circles around him, Caesar Romero’s Joker is kind of fun to watch.  He seems like he legitimacy has a screw loose, which is really all you need.  However, the rest of the baddies bring little to the table.  Also, there’s only so much camp you can take in one sitting and a feature-length Batman adventure of this kind pushes the limits.  However, despite my complaints, I do love the sequence where we learn that “sometimes you just can’t get rid of a bomb.”

Batman (1989)

Batman (1989)

Tim Burton deserves all the credit in the world for his amazing reboot of the Batman franchise.  The film takes the character out of the muted kaleidoscopic world of the 1960s and transforms Gotham into a dark and dingy place.  Michael Keaton is…eh…  He basically does a good job by simply not messing the role of Batman up, and by that standard, he succeeds.  Very little about him seems authentically Bruce Wayne-like, but people seemed to like him at the time, so maybe there’s something I’m missing.

Jack Nicholson’s Joker is really excellent.  Maybe it was just because it was Nicholson, but I loved watching him during his moments of craziness, especially when they were contrast with the really dark moments.  However, speaking of darkness, I sort of felt bad for Burton when watching this movie.  By 1989’s standards, this movie was considered fairly dark and heavy material for the viewing audiences; however, after Nolan’s films, it occasionally felt cheesy and contrived.  I suppose this is the circle of life.  While on the topic, those Prince songs thrown into the movie don’t help.

Batman Returns (1992)

Batman Returns (1992)

As if his first Batman film wasn’t good enough, Burton completely outdid himself with his second installment in the series.  Batman Returns is an amazing spectacle to watch.  It’s dark, sexy, and captivating.  However, it’s not without it’s flaws.  The business with Christopher Walken is largely annoying, but the movie completely makes up for his presence with the casting of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman.  First and foremost, let me say that I will proudly watch any movie that she’s in, including the amazingly boring and pointless What Lies Beneath.  The woman can do no wrong and looks amazing in everything she’s put in.  She plays off of Danny DeVito’s Penguin wonderfully and, frankly, I think he more than holds his own in the role.

Perhaps what I like best about this film is its story.  It seems relatively believable, if you accept the “Oswald Cobblepot living in a sewer taking care of himself for decades” premise, and the character’s decisions all seem authentic.  When Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle (Catwoman sans leather suit) realize each other’s true identities, I held my breath.  Burton plays the moment wonderfully and, even better yet, moves on to the next beat without a second thought.  This film is a real testament to his mastery of his craft.

Batman Forever (1995)

Batman Forever (1995)

With Burton relinquishing the directorial duties to Joel Schumacher, Batman Forever ends up being a mixed bag that is occasionally good, often confusing, and usually visually appealing.  I know this is one of the Batman movies that I’m supposed to hate, but I didn’t really have that reaction.  More often than not, I was sort of confused by the goings-on in Gotham during the two-plus hours of the film’s run time.  First and foremost, I loved watching Jim Carrey while I was growing up, and it was fun to see him play the Riddler.  However, I hated him as Edward Nigma, his nebbish and awkward real-life identity.  Carrey should always be allowed to hide inside of larger-than-life characters and Nigma is not one of them.

And while on the topic of bizarre casting, the person who decided that a) Tommy Lee Jones should be Harvey “Two-Face” Dent and b) that he should be portrayed in that fashion, should be banned from ever working in Hollywood again.  The performance is so bad that it’s, literally, almost painful to watch.  The best thing about Batman Forever, besides the amazing sets and art direction, is Val Kilmer’s performance.  He is the best Batman that has ever been on screen and I loved his acting not only as Batman, but also Bruce Wayne.  Also, I thought Chris O’Donnell was good as Robin and his origin story with the Flying Graysons was pretty well-played.

Batman and Robin (1997)

Batman and Robin (1997)

Batman and Robin is as bad as everyone says it is.  Actually, if you haven’t seen it, it’s worse than everyone says it is.  Because people have a natural inclination to beat up on successful people and properties, I always thought that the criticism leveled against Shumacher’s second Batman film was likely to have been a bunch of fanboys getting up in arms about nothing.  I was gravely mistaken.  Gov. Arnold does an amazingly bad performance as the one-line spewing Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman brings nothing to the table as Poison Ivy.  I kept thinking her character’s origin story was too similar to The Riddler’s and, given the choice between the two, I’d choose watching Jim Carrey over the future Bill killer.

The subplot that involves Alfred dying is pretty annoying, as is George Clooney’s “what am I doing in a Batman movie” performance.  He is the worst Batman ever to have been on screen, which is pretty sad considering his appearance is following Kilmer’s.  All of the stuff with bat suit nipples and close-ups of crotches and butts is completely confusing, as is Alicia Silverstone’s forced presence in this movie.  All in all, it’s a hot mess.

Batman Begins (2005)

Batman Begins (2005)

God bless Christopher Nolan.  No, really, God bless him.  Not only did take a franchise that was left for dead and reboot it, but he did an amazing job.  Bruce Wayne’s ascent from orphaned child to butt-kicking winged shadow-creature feels organic and natural.  Although I wasn’t familiar with Scarecrow or Ra’s al Ghul, it was cool to see that Warner Brothers was daring enough to allow Nolan to work these two lesser-known-characters (to non fanboys) into this movie.  The darker tone was much appreciated and, as I mentioned before, makes Burton’s films look like cotton candy.  I loved the realistic take on Gotham and, for me, this is the definitive start of the Batman saga on screen.

In terms of casting, Christian Bale is pretty alright as Batman.  His Bruce Wayne bears a striking resemblance to his American Psycho performance, but I’ll forgive him for that.  Say what you will, but I thought Katie Holmes’ Rachel Dawes was pretty good.  The casting for this movie was pretty much spot-on throughout and, more importantly, everyone takes their role in a living comic book very seriously and it shows.

The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight (2008)

There are almost no words for The Dark Knight.  I left Batman Begins eagerly awaiting the appearance of The Joker (it was teased at the end of the 2005 film that Joker was coming), but by no means was I prepared for what I saw when I went to the midnight screening of The Dark Knight.  First off, the opening sequence, much like The Jokers’ trick involving Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes, is so suspenseful and captivating to watch that it’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen.  Again, Nolan creates an amazingly dark and menacing world that needs Batman, but also can’t sustain with him present.

For Heath Ledger’s portrayal, there are few words.  I hate to jump on the bandwagon of singing his praises, but his performance alone is worth the price of admission.  The Joker is unpredictable, funny, frightening, and charming, all things that you would want him to be, but had yet to be fully achieved on screen prior to Ledger’s performance.  Amazingly, the rest of the cast does not allow themselves to be overshadowed by his presence.  There are plenty of excellent scenes involving Batman, Bruce Wayne, and the remainder of the “good guys.”  I liked the Harvey Dent material much better before he became Two-Face, then it felt sort of liked forced terror.  I understand why he’s included in the movie, and think it’s a smart decision, but it always feels like the character is underused in this film.  Who knows, maybe he’ll make a triumphant return in the next one…

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Inside the Book – Chapter One

Caseen Gaines at Club Nokia

On August 20, 2009, I heard that Paul Reubens was bringing Pee-wee Herman back for a limited run in Los Angeles.  I purchased tickets immediately, even though I live on the East Coast, and began searching the Internet for clues as to which cast members might be returning.  To my surprise, I found there was very little on the web about the original staging of The Pee-wee Herman Show and even Pee-wee’s Playhouse, despite the critical and commercial success the show had.  Sure, they both had Wikipedia pages, but even as a casual fan I recognized that a lot of the information on the site was inaccurate.  Through sheer accident, I found contact information for some original cast members and, without thinking, asked them for interviews.  I told them I wanted to write a book about how Pee-wee’s Playhouse was made, how the show affected our popular culture, and why it’s stood the test of time.  Frankly, I was shocked to find the people I reached out to very receptive and, on that day, Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse, my upcoming book about the making of the hit children’s television series, was born.

My ticket to The Pee-wee Herman Show at Club Nokia

To be honest, at the time I didn’t really know what “writing a book” fully entailed.  Even though I hadn’t written or published a book before, I was cautiously optimistic that I’d be able to interest a literary agent or publisher.  With the show’s 25th anniversary approaching, the timing seemed right for a retrospective look at a program TV Guide recently cited as one of the top 25 cult shows of all time.  Despite my optimism, I was largely unfamiliar with how to go about doing that.  I consulted with some friends familiar with publishing and purchased two books from Barnes and Noble (How to Sell, Then Write Your Nonfiction Book by Blythe Camenson and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published by Sheree Bykofsky and Jennifer Basye Sander), reading them from cover to cover in a weekend.  After conducting ten interviews, I wrote a 20-something page proposal and sent it off to a dozen or so publishers and literary agents.  My first response came back from Jen Hale, an editor at ECW Press whose response included the following sentences: “Thank you for your query letter.  I was actually a fan of Pee-wee’s Playhouse as a kid (and sadly, can still sing the entire theme song in the Betty Boop voice if pushed…) ;)

I first learned of ECW Press when I went to picked up the aforementioned books.  I went over to the pop culture section of the store and pulled out all the ones I liked.  There were five that interested me and as I looked at their spines, I realized that four were published by ECW.  They immediately shot to the top of my list.  Jen’s response only reaffirmed my interest and desire to see the book at ECW.  I received serious interest from a fairly well-known literary agency, but decided to hold out hope that I’d receive an offer from ECW.  My faith paid off and, by January of this year, I had signed a contract and officially landed a book deal to publish Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

A post from Robert Lyons' Facebook

The next few months were complete and utter insanity.  I conducted dozens of interviews and attempted dozens more.  Ultimately, over 75 people were spoken to for the book, ranging from those who worked on the original live show in 1981, the children’s show from 1986-1991, both Pee-wee films, and the new live show that ran in Los Angeles and hits Broadway next month.  I often pulled 15-hour research days, sifting through newspaper and magazine articles from since Paul Reubens was making appearances on The Gong Show, and making trips to Manhattan and Los Angeles to sift through archival footage and meet with those who were involved with the show’s creation.  Although not all people who were interviewed have quotes in the book, I can’t tell you how appreciative I am of everyone who made time to speak to me.  All of their memories, whether they’ve been directly quoted or not, not only informed the book, but provided me with a real perspective of how it was to work on a show I grew up watching and that means so much to me and hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.  This book wouldn’t have been possible if these folks hadn’t made themselves available, allowed me to visit their place of work and take them out for coffee, and open their phone books and email lists for me to raid and contact more Pee-wee alum.

Cowboy Curtis (Phil LaMarr) and Caseen Gaines

Of course, there were hurdles.  As anyone who’s written a research-intensive book will tell you, it’s hard to figure out what to do with all your data once you’ve gathered it.  There are anecdotes I love that won’t make the book, either because of space limitations or because they don’t work in the narrative I’ve constructed.  Figuring out what’s important is a skill that took me months to learn and even longer to feel like I’ve come somewhat-close to mastering.  While on the topic of time, the turnaround on my manuscript was relatively short, simply because of the number of sources that went into this book.  From conception to completion, it took just about a year to write the book, which was really quite demanding on me as a first-time author.  This was further complicated by the “necessary distractions” that often threw off my writing schedule — the quest for a foreward writer, my exhaustive quest for rare and never-before-published pictures, and the solicitation of people to read advance copies and write a short blurb for the back of the book.

Editing Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse

By far, the most fun and draining process was the writing itself.  I received great pleasure in turning what were seemingly rudimentary facts on sloppily-handwritten notes and audiotape into prose.  Pee-wee’s fantasy world is visually rich, which really required me to bear-down and come up with ways to use words to describe an experience that must truly be seen to be believed.  My goal was to write the book for Pee-wee enthusiasts, but in a way that was accessible to casual fans and, yes, even “Pee-wee non-believers.”  The behind-the-scenes story of the Pee-wee phenomenon is a truly unbelievable one that can be appreciated by even those who haven’t seen the show.  The naysayers can turn up their noses about the character and his fans if they want, but the show undeniably changed children’s television and our popular culture.  There wouldn’t have been The Ren and Stimpy Show, Blue’s Clues, or, dare I say, arguably even The Simpsons, if it hadn’t been for Playhouse breaking all the rules and causing network executives to come up with new and creative ways to captivate the viewing audience.  My goal was to communicate that point in an effective way, while also showing how an unknown comedian became one of the most recognizable figures on the planet in just a short period of time.

Ben Zurawski and Summer Violett get engagement help from Pee-wee Herman

One of the unexpected pleasures of writing the book was sparking genuine long-distance friendships with several of the people I interviewed and hundreds of fellow Pee-wee fans.  It’ s been great to connect with people via Facebook and Twitter and talk about our favorite Pee-wee memories, hopes for future projects, and things that they were most interested in hearing about inside the pages of my book.  As I wrote in the book’s introduction, this project was written primarily for people who, like myself, kept their enthusiasm for Pee-wee Herman alive despite Paul Reubens’ scandals, silence, and sabbaticals.

On September 13, 24 years to the day after Pee-wee’s Playhouse first aired on CBS, I submitted my manuscript to ECW.  It was a bittersweet moment.  On one hand, I was so used to working on the book that it feels odd to no longer work on it.  However, I do feel a great sense of relief that it’s now in the hands of my editor, who will undoubtedly help me craft the book into an excellent work.  Of course, once that draft comes back, the work continues.  When I finished my manuscript I said to my friend Chris Ryan that it felt like I had just given birth.  He reminded me that it was merely a first contraction.

I look forward to keeping you updated on the rest of this process and hope you’re as excited as I was to take look Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse - Coming Soon
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Pee-wee’s Big Adventure Turns 25

92 minutes.  While it’s far from unusual for movies to clock-in at insane lengths, even the average Judd Apatow film is over 2 hours long, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure put an irremovable imprint on our popular culture in a mere 92 minutes.  The film, produced on a shoe-string budget of $6 million, not only converted Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman character from a quirky cult figure to a household name, it also jump-started the cinematic careers of both Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, the powerhouse duo that have since gone on to collaborate on more than a dozen films.   The film was among the 20 highest grossing films of 1985, along with Back to the Future, The Color Purple, The Breakfast Club, and The Goonies, despite having never played in more than 900 theaters at a given time.  How is it possible that a film about a man-child trying to find his bike, a tricked-out vintage Schwinn, could have achieved such a degree of success?

It’s hard to say, exactly.  Like most things in life, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure seems to have benefited by being placed at the right place and right time.  The film was green-lit by Warner Brothers, primarily on the success of Pee-wee’s national tour, which included a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall, and his regular appearances on Late Night with David Letterman.  The film’s plot was nearly based on a different adventure all together, Pee-wee playing Pollyanna, influencing a town of old-grumpies to turn their collective frowns upside-down.  Think Big Top Pee-wee, Big Adventure’s less successful 1988 follow-up, without the circus and the hot-dog tree.  Instead, Reubens found himself captivated by the near-obsession people had with bicycles on the Warner Brothers lot.  He typed “Pee-wee loves his bicycle more than life itself” into the typewriter and movie history was soon to be made.  The script was turned out fairly quickly, co-written with Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol, and shot almost entirely based on its first draft.  Barring some changes made in the editing room, what was in the script is virtually identical to what appears on the screen.

However, as detailed as the script was, it was Tim Burton who ultimately gave the film it’s unique sense of style.  Under his watch, the breakfast machine sequence went from a one-line description in the script to a nearly three-minute extravaganza that has made for numerous YouTube parodies.  The animated dream sequences were included largely because of Burton’s own familiarity with stop-motion, harkening all the way back to his days at Disney working on short films like “Vincent.”  The movie’s infamous Large Marge, a phantom truck driver who gives Pee-wee a ride, induced nightmares for a generation of children, including Disney celebrities Dylan and Cole Sprouse from The Suite Life of Zack & Cody.  The amazing effect, created with assistance from The Chiodo Brothers of California, was recently featured in the Tim Burton exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.  Not bad for 92 minute movie with a $6 million budget.

Although many still choose to view Pee-wee’s Big Adventure as Burton’s “film before he got famous,” that’s simply an unfair claim.  Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is the movie that made Burton famous.  By the director’s own admission, the success of the film was the catalyst for Warner Brothers giving the green-light not only to Beetlejuice, but also Batman.  The collaboration between Burton and Elfman, that began on Big Adventure, has lasted twenty-five years and will certainly continue for many more, creating memorable themes for films like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands.  Of course, the biggest achievement of the film’s may be that it sparked the interest of an executive at CBS, who saw an advance screening and perused Reubens for months to take his unique fantasy-world and bring it to Saturday morning children’s television.  While a lot of convincing was required to get Reubens to put his movie-star aspirations on hold for Saturday morning, when he realized the freedom he would have to essentially do whatever he wanted, the actor jumped at the chance.  Of course, Pee-wee’s Playhouse went on to an unprecedented amount of commercial and critical success, winning more than a handful worth of Emmy Awards over its short 45-episode run.  For a period of time in the 1980s, Pee-wee Herman, with his tight gray suit, red bowtie, and schoolyard taunts, captivated the nation.  He taught us how to remain young at heart and win over a crowd of angry bikers by dancing along with “Tequila,” all in 92 minutes.  So, happy birthday to a truly amazing film that despite it’s cult status, is still under-appreciated by the mainstream.  I know you’re cool, but what am I?

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The YouTube Offensive: How High Schoolers Make Me Feel Old

Let me start by saying I’m not very old. Really. I mean it. However, not a day has passed in the last three years when I haven’t felt like I was someone ancient, you know, like people over fifty.

Let me explain. I teach high school students and, often against my better judgment, I find myself sounding more and more like those tragically uncool educators of my youth. My first year teaching, when a student told me he couldn’t live without listening to his iPod in the hallway, I quickly retorted, “Sure you can! When I was your age, we didn’t even HAVE iPods!” I cringed, apologized to the student for sounding like a grumpy old man, asked him to put away the device, and walked away, hanging my head in shame.

My students frequently ask me things, probably with the best intentions, that make me feel like I belong in a museum. In the last few days alone, I’ve been asked if I watch South Park (a relatively understandable question, I suppose. By the way, the answer is yes), knew what YouTube was (which puzzled me a bit), and why I had a Facebook if I’m old (which annoyed me considering I had a Facebook account since before my students were even out of elementary school).

All of this has made me start to reflect on my high school years and the experience my students are having.

Between classes, students passed notes to one another. Sometimes a teacher would intercept a note, perhaps read it in front of the class, everyone would find out that so-and-so had a secret crush on so-and-so, and you’d move on. Now, text messaging has become the primary means of communication for high school aged students. Don’t get me wrong, I love text messaging. I would tell you how many text messages I sent last month, but I’m mildly embarrassed at the number. However, there is a fundamental problem that students face when they stop communicating with each other in words and sentences and instead uz quik msgs lke diz 2 tlk 2 ech othr. I won’t go off on a rant about grammar and sentence structure and so on, but I think students should go back to sneaking a pen and paper in class to write a good four-page note. Those were glory days!

As an aside, I didn’t have my first fully-functioning cell phone until I was in college. There is absolutely no reason why a student in my school has and/or “needs” an iPhone. You can call your mom, girlfriend, barber, and text JOKE to 67022 all with an old school flip phone.

When I was in high school it took me a minimum of ten minutes to sign online. If it was raining it took a half hour. If it was between the hours of 3pm and 8pm on a weekday, when most people were rushing home from school and/or work, it would sometimes take close to an hour. If it was a snow day, and everyone was home trying to get in a chat room at the same time, forget about it. Today, my students have access to the Internet virtually everywhere they go, although by the number of computer and phone issues they allegedly have whenever a research assignment is due, you’d never know it.

If you wanted to express your love for a band, television show, or funny idea, you made a website for it. Often it was a juvenile site with a bunch of photos on it that violated nearly every copyright law known to man, but what did you care? Let them sue! You were in high school! Now, Facebook fan pages for every silly and insignificant thing litter the Internet. An example of a group I saw just today: “The first time I had a McFlurry I though the spoon was a straw.” Horribly insignificant (although I think I had the same experience with the McFlurry)…

Lastly, when I was in school, listening to a certain style of music didn’t define who you were. I was fortunate enough to grow up at a time with Napster, before Metallica started (rightfully) complaining about their property being stolen. I would try and download ten songs a day (which was a feat, considering I was using dial-up and the average song took about 45 minutes to reach my hard drive) and was pretty non-discriminatory about what I listened to. I experienced a number of songs from artists that were amazingly popular, never were popular, that I thought would be popular one day, and that had been popular decades before I was born. When I shared music with friends, it wasn’t judgmental, but instead, people were willing to listen to new things and listen to artists that weren’t always played on the radio. While some of this still applies to today’s youth, so many of try so hard to conform to an image that they shut themselves off from experiencing new things. Not to be a grump about it, but I think one should try and expose themselves to as many experiences as possible, especially musical ones, because something can almost always be gained from listening to a song — even a bad one. For example, I heard that new Justin Beiber song for the first time last weekend and I learned that I hate him.

So kids, stop making me feel old, or I’ll tell your moms and dads on you.  How would you like that?  I used to be in high school once, and I suppose, like you, I thought all of my teachers were lame and headed toward the retirement home.  I know the old teachers and, believe me, I’m not one of them.  Our lives may be different, but just know I’m still cool, like your older brother, not lame like your grandpa.

Now, will one of you cool kids please explain to me what YouTube is?

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Why Glee Won’t Last

Not since American Idol has a show impacted the music industry like Glee, Fox’s hit  series now in it’s second season. The recent Madonna special shattered the ratings of last season (nearly 13.5 million Gleeks watched) and spawned a successful companion album. There are talks of a Britney Spears getting the Madonna treatment next season, and maybe even homages to Billy Joel and Courtney Love. Yes, that Courtney Love.

Glee fans have a lot to be, well, gleeful about, but they should enjoy the show while they can.  Within two years, Glee albums will be found in bargain bins across the nation.

Here’s why:

1-Shows that take place in high school rarely last long. For every 90210 there are countless other shows that have come and gone without much fanfare. Even Saved By The Bell only really lasted four seasons (which isn’t counting the “first season” with Miss Bliss, the college years, and the new class, but I digress…) By their very nature, high school shows are destined to last only four seasons, as is the way it usually works with high school, or they have to replace their casts. Glee is a character-driven show that may not survive a complete overhaul of it’s core cast members.

2-Glee, Incorporated is going to get very old very quickly. Look, I understand that America is a capitalistic society and that one should strike while the iron is hot when it comes to making money, but must we really have a new Glee album every six months? The show is only a few episodes into it’s second season and has already produced more soundtracks, DVDs, tours, album signings, and unofficial books than is deserved. I understand that Glee fans can’t get enough, but very soon they will be able to. Overexposure only lasts so long. Don’t believe me? Ask the Spice Girls how their quest for world-domination worked for them in the long run.

3-The Glee cast members will eventually “grow up.” Such is the way of the world. Although the majority of the cast were virtual unknowns when the show debuted, they have now become extremely recognizable figures. They’ll start making films and possibly even releasing their own albums. I don’t know how long the appeal of an ensemble television show will last when executives and managers start saying that you can be the next big thing. And speaking of the next big thing, they had better offer Jane Lynch a lot of money for season three or Sue might be headed for early retirement!

Don’t fret Glee fans! Your show will still be around for quite some time, but make sure you DVR all your favorite episodes. This program isn’t going to be around forever.

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