Not Okey Laughing Record
What's The A.V. Club's view of laughter in songs? My view is that it sucks. Every time I hear it, it breaks the spell of a song, and makes me wonder what the hell the artist was thinking. Granted, it's not a common problem, but it has ruined a few songs that could have been great. Do you have any examples where it does work?
Smilin' Steven Hyden responds:
Come on, Rob! Don't be a joyless S.O.B. True, laughing in songs can be pretty cheesy if it's done poorly. For instance, on his 2002 album Justified, Justin Timberlake commits a criminally unconvincing laugh at the end of not one, but two songs, "Senorita" and "Last Night." However, I wouldn't say the songs were ruined by the flagrant acts of fake mirth. Marred slightly, maybe, but they're still pretty great.
The biggest hurdle for successfully using laughter in a song is reconciling the spontaneity of chuckling with the careful planning of the recording process. If you can clear this obstacle, a little giggle or tee-hee can make a recording sound more natural or "real." In "Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35," Bob Dylan famously trips over a stoned-sounding laugh as he starts to sing, a loopy "mistake" that sells the song better than the actual lyrics. (Dylan similarly used laughter in a previous song, "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream.") The Rolling Stones subtly insert some guffaws into "Brown Sugar"; if you listen closely, you can hear somebody—possibly Keith Richards—laugh a little after the song ends. The Police do the same thing at the beginning of "Roxanne," though that chuckle has a touch of menace. All these laughs seem like they shouldn't be there, and they're like in-jokes shared between the artist and listener—you aren't just listening to a record, you're in the studio screwing around with your favorite band.
Of course, the opposite is true—laughter can work if it absolutely does belong in the story the song is telling. After John Lennon sings about the joker laughing at you in "I Am The Walrus," it makes perfect sense for a choir of studio-processed Beatles to respond in kind. In the live version of "Bring It On Home To Me" from Live At The Harlem Square Club, Sam Cooke lets out one of the most sarcastic laughs in pop-music history in the middle of the line "You know I laughed when you left," obliterating the studio version. Vincent Price lends the right amounts of menace and camp to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" with his evil cackling. And the Sufaris state their case in "Wipe Out" by merely repeating the title and laughing.
There are many other songs I could mention, Rob, but I'll leave that to my fellow A.V. Clubbers. When we threw this question out to the staff, they came up with so many examples of laughter in songs—good and bad—that we wound up creating a mixlist on the topic.
Who Do You Think?
Okay, so this probably doesn't technically count as an Ask The A.V. Club topic, but I can't be the only person wondering about this… Who are the people in the photos used for The Onion's American Voices section? These faces assigned new names, occupations, and opinions every day are so familiar, and yet anonymous. Who are these people? Were they pulled out of some AP/Reuters stock photos? Do they have any idea that thousands or maybe millions of people see their faces every week? Are they in on the joke? The Onion has been using the same pictures ever since I started reading several years ago. My curiosity has gotten the best of me. What's the story?
Last week, some wag in the comments section suggested that they're actually us, and that's why we don't post pictures of A.V. Club contributors. Not so, Weston. We could have gotten the skinny from The Onion's art production staff, but as it happens, Giant Magazine beat us to it years ago. So when people ask us about this, we mostly just point them at the Giant column on the subject.
Strip And Soap Up
Hey, do people actually read those serious funny-page comics like Rex Morgan, MD or Sally Forth? Do they have story arcs? What would possess someone to read these?
Larry M. Furst
Comics buff Noel Murray responds:
I'm going to assume you mean Mary Worth, not Sally Forth, since the latter is theoretically funny, not dramatic.
Yes, soap-opera strips have story arcs: long, slow-developing story arcs, often with multiple subplots. And yes, they have devotees. Just ask any newspaper editor who tries to unceremoniously axe a decrepit soap strip, and has to deal with the flood of letters from angry old-timers, who've been reading Apartment 3-G since the '60s. Maybe matters will change once those fans die off, since so few young readers bother with the soaps (or newspapers at all, frankly).
But personally, even though I never read them—except for Gil Thorp, of course—I hope the likes of Judge Parker endure, for two reasons. First off, they're a reminder of the days when the comics page offered a wide variety of strips for a wide readership, as opposed to quick, demographically targeted gags for cubicle dwellers on coffee breaks. Second, the soap strips provide fodder for The Comics Curmudgeon, possibly the funniest daily blog going. If you aren't reading the Curmudgeon's Mary Worth and For Better Or For Worse updates, you're a total foob.
Those Endearing Young Charms
Through one of my frequent Wikipedia nature walks, I came upon an animation question that I have NEVER been able to figure out: In a number of winter-themed Bugs Bunny cartoons, Bugs would pick up a bucket of water. He'd say "Eh, I saw this once in a toothpaste commercial," then toss the bucket, releasing the water. The water froze in a wave of ice, which the villain (usually Elmer Fudd) would crash into. What's this "toothpaste commercial" Bugs talks so much about?
Donna Bowman tells all:
The topical references in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies form layers of geological strata that the casual viewer is hard-pressed to excavate. But that's part of what keeps the material fresh long after we grow out of Saturday-morning television. Come to the cartoons as a kid for the slapstick; stay as an adult for the unintended history lesson. (And the peerless visual style and pacing of Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, et al.)
Bugs does the "freezing bucket of water" trick in at least one short, the lame late-period entry "The Iceman Ducketh" (1964). It was a dated gag even then, referencing a series of Colgate ads from the late '50s. The Colgate pitchman lauds the "invisible shield" provided by the miracle ingredient "Gardol," demonstrating its cavity-repelling powers with plexiglass, ice, or whatever transparent hard material is at hand. Here's a sample from a 1958 commercial.
It's only one example of the period catchphrases sprinkled throughout the golden-age Warner Brothers catalog. You might remember "Was this trip really necessary?" (World War II gas-rationing PSA), "does your tobacco taste different lately?" (the slogan for Sir Walter Raleigh pipe tobacco), and the foghorn tones of "B.O." (ad for Lifebuoy soap). Other era-specific references have been excised from broadcast copies of the cartoons because of modern sensitivities; for example, the Friz Freleng classic "I Taw A Puddy Tat" (1948) features Sylvester doing a Rochester impression after being blackfaced by a dynamite explosion, but that gag is missing when you see it on TV.
If you have a question about the provenance of a Looney Tunes gag, your first stop should be Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald's exhaustive, indispensable Looney Tunes And Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide To The Warner Brothers Cartoons. And if you can shed light in the comments below on a topical reference that befuddled you as a child, future generations of Googlers will thank you. And so will the staff of The A.V. Club, who wonder, on a weekly basis, why the Internet hasn't solved more of our questioners' problems.
Ask Our Video-Game Historian
You may remember a couple weeks back, when we introduced Rowan Kaiser, our intern who's interested in video-game history and is proving it by digging up obscure games based on your obscure memories. This week, he's back with more finds:
Back in grade school in the late 1980s, my class and I played computer games on Apple IIs from time to time. Of course we played things like Oregon Trail and the like, but there's one game that I have no idea what its name is. I remember it involved going on a quest to find a goose's (perhaps golden) egg or the goose itself, I'm not sure which. It was a 16-color game and you had to move from room to room to get to mini-games and puzzles. Solving the puzzles helped you find clues to finding the goose/goose's egg.
I'm fairly sure that either the goose or the game title itself had a long British-sounding woman's name—something like Charlotte or Guinevere. It may have been educational software, because I remember a boy in my class completed the game, and our teacher mailed something in to the software company to get a completion certificate or something like that. Any ideas? Thank you!
This game was fairly difficult to track down via my normal methods, but I eventually found an Apple II history website which listed some of the more famous and popular pieces of software. I ran a search for "goose," and voila! Gertrude's Secrets, an early-'80s game from The Learning Company, based around logic puzzles.
So it's the early 90's, and my cousin's father, trying to make up for the recent divorce, buys him the new hot 16-bit videogame system, Turbografx-16. We were busy playing Street Fighter II: Championship Edition on Sega, so we very rarely bothered with it, except for one game. It could have possibly been a launch title, or came packaged with the system. You start the game as a little elf guy, with strong overtones of the side-scrolling Zelda 2. After making your way through the village, the level ends and the next level begins, in which you turn into a radical flying space knight, zipping through the next level and blasting hordes of flying enemies. After you make it through this awesomeness, you are deposited back in the village as lame-elf-man, possibly with a different color-scheme. This was as far as our ADD ever let us get. I completely forgot about it until a recent dream after a night of binge drinking and substances, but my Wikipedia and Mobygames searches have turned up nil. Any ideas?
I tried to track this down using Mobygames' searching filters, narrowing my search from science fiction to action games to side-scrollers, then finally by year, to 1989, when I checked out a game called Keith Courage In Alpha Zones. The description included the paragraph "When he makes it to a certain point in each level, Keith Courage is given access to the Nova Suit, an armored suit with a powerful sword that is used to dispatch the end bosses of each level in the Underworld." Screenshots indicate that half of this game did take place in a fantasy-type world, while the knight-in-armor aspects (pictured) have a decidedly spacey look. If this isn't quite the game, well, check the 1990 and 1991 lists!
This was an arcade game, not console-based, using wire-frame graphics, similar to Star Wars. The setting was outer space, and there were two parts. In one part, you are an astronaut running through a maze complex, side- and down-scrolling. The controls consisted of just a dial for walking left or right, and a jump button. You could jump to any height by holding down the button, and fall any distance by walking off a ledge, with no damage. The goal was to start a "reactor" that would destroy the complex, then escape before the reactor countdown reached "0," or your air ran out.
One of the memorable parts was the animation of your astronaut. If you didn't move for a few seconds, he would turn to look at you, fold his arms, and tap his foot impatiently. If you ran out of air, he would desperately flap his arms, chicken-style (does NASA recommend this?), fall to his knees, then keel over. The other part involved flying your ship to the next planet/reactor. I don't remember as much about this part, except the POV was straight-ahead (the depth-perception effect was pretty neat, using just the wire-frame graphics). There was also a Breakout-like mini-game between levels, which also served as a hidden key to skip levels, though I may have dreamt that part, if not this entire game.
Endless viewing of '80s arcade screenshots have proved fruitless. Your efforts are much appreciated. Thanks!
This one drove me crazy for a while. Arcade History has a database of arcade games, but you pretty much have to search by title, unless, of course, you take the Google back door of searching by "site:arcade-history.com." The obvious search terms ("astronaut," "breath," "reactor") all failed. The only specific detail left, "breakout," was my last attempt before I consigned your question to the dustbin of unanswerables. But shockingly, it succeeded in finding a game called Major Havoc, where Breakout could be played between levels to gain an extra life. A quick glimpse of the screenshots reveals a wire-frame game which switches between spaceships and side-scrolling astronauts.
Hi. I remember spending a lot of time as a kid in the 80s playing a game for the Commodore 64 that must have been an educational program for learning about electricity and circuits. I think you controlled an orange block with the joystick, similar to Adventure on Atari 2600, that could pick up wires, switches, current sources, and-gates, or-gates, nor-gates, etc. and connect them to design circuits that allowed you to move to the next room. I remember that the game was mostly graphical and puzzle-based, and the appropriate circuit needed to be built to solve each puzzle. As you worked, the flow of electricity was indicated by the segments of your project turning from white to yellows in an ordered sequence like light bulbs on old marquees. This has been driving me crazy, and I've searched for the title off and on for a couple years now, to no avail. Do you know which game this is? Thanks!
Hi Dylan. Roughly 20,000 Commodore 64 games are known to have existed, and happily, there's an extensive database for them out there. Searching that site for game titles containing the word "circuit" turns up at least three games which may match your memory. It's hard to narrow it down from there from your description, but maybe the screenshots on the site will help?
Next week: We placate the "ID my memory" crowd with more obscure films and stories from their childhoods. Also: thoughts on other people's reviews. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.